Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Diminishing Returns

When Mazda came out out with the MX-5 Miata, back in 1990, I lusted after one. At the time, it was being touted as an MG that would, you know, actually run, starting right up when you turned the key and all. (We had an MG Midget for a time, and it mostly ran on prayer and capriciousness, when it felt like running at all.)

The Miata at the time was so hot that to even test-drive one, you had to put up a $500 deposit (refundable) and wait in line. List price, and don't even bother to try and dicker, because there is a line behind you waiting if you don't want to pay full freight.

I ponied up the five hundred and went to have a ride.

Driving it did not decrease my lust a whit. I wanted it, I really wanted it. 

But the times were wrong, money was tight, it was not a practical automobile, no back seat, the luggage space sufficient for a handkerchief, so I couldn't get it. I was sad, but that's how life goes sometimes. 

Fast forward five years. Times had changed, and my dear spouse gifted me with the first year's lease payment for my little red sports car. Eventually, I paid the balloon at the end, and it was mine.

I loved that car. It wasn't raining or freezing, the top was always down, and that was accomplished by unlocking a pair of latches and lowering the lid, which could be done one-handed while sitting in the driver's seat in about four seconds. 

I drove it for twelve years with nary a mechanical problem, and only had to replace tires, batteries, like that. It never once broke down, it was the most dependable car I have ever owned.

One fine summer day early on, I was out and about and chanced to pull up next to a guy in a drop-top two-seater Mercedes. I smiled at him. He returned my smile with what I thought was a condescending sneer. After all, his car cost five times as much as mine did.

In that moment, I had a thought: No way is this guy having five times as much fun as I am.

Which brings us to the Point of Diminishing Returns. Yes, a Rolls is ever-so-much-nicer a ride than a Ford Focus on a lot of levels, but past a certain point, you are paying for something other than transportation. In the case of the two-seater sports car, I was, I thought, getting as much of an experience as the guy in the Mercedes, save for maybe the envy of those who knew how much his car cost. My Miata took curves like it was on rails, it looked good, felt good, and it always got me there grinning. 

Where one draws the line vis a vis what you get for what you pay will vary; what is important to one person will be less so to another. Twenty grand for the Miata versus a hundred for the Mercedes? It weren't me, babe.

Which brings us to 'ukulele porn ...

Yes, yes, I know, I have blathered on about the little jumping flea a lot of late. That's because it's my new enthusiasm, and one is wont to blather on about such things. There is a general point to be made, trust me.

So, I was online looking at 'ukulele porn. Which is not nekkid folks with musical instruments, at least not generally, but photos of the ukes put up by folks who own them.
I started digging and came up with some threads on uke sites about what you get for what you pay, and realized these are like most other things, in that, past a certain point, you aren't paying for improved function but for eye candy. 

There is a crossover point somewhere at the high-end factory-made instruments that are then set up by working luthiers, and the low-end handmade ones that are sans frippery. The handmade instruments are, by almost every account, apt to be better, simply because of the care that goes into the making. Not always, but usually. 

Past that, you wind up paying for bling, because the mother-of-pearl rosette and the abalone inlay and purfling don't make the tone nor the playability better. 

The consensus among the serious uke folks–if that's not an oxymoron–is that there is a huge difference between a hundred dollar uke and a thousand dollar one; less so between a thousand dollar and a two thousand dollar one; and even less than that twixt the two grand and four grand axes.

It is true that the various woods and the intonation set-ups matter. But if you go for the hand-selected flamed koa and pay extra for it over the less-striking koa, you won't hear it in the tone. Not to say that eye-candy isn't fun, and that people who look at it won't ooh and ahh over it, but that the point of diminishing returns insofar as the way the thing sounds and plays will be reached, and after that you are buying something else.

Which is not to say this isn't a factor. Bling isn't necessarily bad; it's part of the cool factor, and a consideration. This? Oh, yeah, the body is made from a rosewood door taken off a two-hundred-year-old church in Brazil they tore down a while back. Can't get that grade of Braz any more, it's endangered, you know. Gorgeous, isn't it?

It's just that if you are looking to stretch your money as far as you can, form follows function is generally a better road than "Oooh, pretty! Shiny!"


Dojo Rat said...

Check out my buddy Jim's Uke shop up here;

He makes some really nice acoustic and electric models. I think there are links to his instruments being played on YouTube.

Steve Perry said...

Like his stuff. Hmmm. Might have to drop him a line.

Steve Perry said...

So I did drop him a note, we'll see what he says. Put in a good word for me, John ...?

Dojo Rat said...

Will do, sending him an e-mail now,

Steve Perry said...

Thanks, I appreciate it.