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What Is A Boutique Guitar Amp?

Most guitarists instantly create an image in their minds when they think of 'boutique' guitar amps. But, what does the term really mean?
Perform a Google search on the term "What is a boutique amp" and you will find many threads from many gear related forums where members debate the meaning of the term and the criteria by which a boutique amp is defined.
In this article we'll sort through the debate and see if there is an underlying theme that describes what makes an amp worthy of being called 'boutique'.

The Meaning of Boutique

Boutique is a French word whose literal translation is "shop".  It appears to have come to prominence worldwide in reference to the fashion industry: boutique fashion designers and boutique clothing stores that sold pieces made by boutique designers.

Two dictionary definitions of the word boutique reads: "a small business, department, etc., specializing in one aspect of a larger industry" and "a small, exclusive producer or business".

These are somewhat vague explanations and if we were to get really philosophical we would examine the terms "specializing" and "exclusive" in an attempt to achieve a precise definition.  You'll be please to learn that we won't go there in this article!

It appears that there is a common theme developing regarding the concept of business size: to be considered boutique a business must be small.

However, is there more required of an amp company to be considered boutique?

The Boutique Debate

If you spend any time at all browsing online forum threads that address this topic you will see a number of different criteria discussed relative to defining a boutique amp and/or amp company.
Following is my assessment of the most commonly mentioned characteristics.  And, I'll give you my 2¢ worth on each one!
Size.  Yes, as the tired joke goes "size does matter", but in this case small is better (if only my wife would agree...).  Virtually every participant in the online boutique debate agrees that to be considered a boutique amp company small or limited production capacity is a requirement.  A common example is Mesa Boogie.  Often considered the first boutique amp company, Mesa seems to have outgrown the genre.  I agree that mass production is not a characteristic of a boutique builder.  There are some fine amps that are mass produced - many by Mesa - but, that is not the essence of a boutique builder as will be discussed below. 

Philosophy.  There's that word again.  Don't worry!  A few thoughtful forum dwellers brought up the idea that boutique amp companies have a different mission than non-boutique companies.  They believe that a boutique amp builder's primary focus is on the integrity of their product concept: "built to a standard not to a price" was how one put it.
 
I think this is a critical characteristic of boutique amp companies.  Whether a builder focuses on replicating vintage designs or developing unique creations, each one follows their own recipe to make a 'better than mass produced' amp.  
 
Evidence of this is seen in any boutique builder's product line.  There is almost always a direction or common theme to which their products adhere.  You don't see boutique builders going after widely divergent market segments as some 'big' companies do: $200 entry level amps all the way to multi-thousand dollar, hand wired reissues!

Hand wired vs. printed circuit boards.  There is much lively debate concerning the authenticity of boutique amps that use printed circuit boards (PCBs).  Is this an oxymoron?  Many guitarists think so.  The hand wired camp believe that only an amp whose every component and wire has been hand soldered can be considered boutique.  However, there are many amp companies that are generally considered to be boutique, such as Soldano, Rivera, Fuchs and THD to name a few (Mack uses a PCB in the Gem) that use PCBs.  Note that while these amps use PCBs, they are hand assembled and, in at least the case of the Gem, the components are mounted to the PCB by hand and hand soldered.  

Does an amp have to be hand wired to be considered boutique?  Not in my opinion.  The manner in which components are attached and soldered to a circuit board simply does not affect tone.  A poorly laid out eyelet board will sound just as bad as a poorly designed PCB.  A well designed PCB amp will sound indistinguishable from a hand wired example.  

Reliability is often cited as a problem with PCB amps.  While a poorly designed, mass produced amp is a recipe for problems, a well designed PCB amp will be at least as reliable as a hand wired amp.  After all, PCBs are used in spacecraft and military electronics - two of the most inhospitable environments on or around the planet - and, since in both of those applications cost is insignificant compared to reliability, hand wired electronics would be the norm if PCBs were unreliable.

Price.  Many guitarists believe that boutique amps are very expensive - and many are.  As we all know boutique amp prices can easily run from $2,000 up to tens of thousands for Dumbles and the like.  However, there is a growing segment of boutique builders who offer amps at prices in the $1,000 range and sometimes less.  While $1,000 is not inexpensive, it is much less than many guitarists believe possible for a boutique amp.  Plus, there are many mass produced amps from big companies that are in this price range - and higher!
 
Nonetheless, relative to a small builder (there's that size thing again) price is indicative of what goes into their products.  Building amps completely by hand or hand assembling them simply requires more labor than if the same product is mass produced.  That means a higher price.  When you add in the additional cost of high-end and sometimes custom components that some boutique builders use, the price quickly escalates.  BTW, my explanation of high priced, mass produced amps is that their price reflects what the company thinks they can get for them.

Location.  Most if not all participants in the boutique debate seem to agree that to be considered a boutique amp builder, production must take place locally - not in Asia or other areas of the world where labor rates are low.  To my knowledge there is no small amp building company from these areas that claims boutique status (although there is a Malaysian maker of reportedly high quality amp kits that many consider be in the boutique category).  

I tend to agree with the assessment that an amp builder should not be considered 'boutique' if it has their product manufactured by a third party company in, say, China.  I believe that the ability to maintain product integrity relative to component quality, build quality and functional consistency is compromised if production is not close at hand.  
 
There appears to be a growing body of evidence supporting this belief based on a North American amp company that would have previously been considered boutique, but who has, it appears, elected to manufacture at least some of their product overseas.  While their amps have proven to be popular and are now sold at GC (the boutique builder kiss of death?), anecdotal reports suggest that the tone and build quality of the amps are not on par with their past, domestically produced, products.
 
Tone.  It's interesting to note that in all of the online forum threads that I studied, VERY few participants mentioned tone as a defining factor of a boutique amp!  A few commented that not all boutique amps sound good to them.  Most did not mention relative tone quality at all!

I think this reflects the reality that while many boutique amps produce exceptional tone, there are mass produced amps that sound good too - or at least 'good enough'.  This is where price enters the thought process of guitarists.  Is the improvement in tone worth the extra money for a boutique amp?  Or, is there even an improvement in tone at all?  Since tone is such a subjective assessment there are many answers to the above questions.  That said, I think there are many guitarists who don't equate significantly better tone with a boutique amp simply because they would never consider buying one. 
 
Nonetheless, I believe that if an amp claims to be boutique, that it should produce very good tone indeed.  This leads to another personal belief: once in the boutique price range every increment in price should produce a noticeable improvement in tone - otherwise the value of the higher price amp is degraded.

What Is A Boutique Amp?

I believe that a boutique amp is made by a small manufacturer who follows their own philosophy of how to build amps that are better than mass produced products.  
Yes, there are lots of ways to interpret that... and that's why there are lots of boutique amp companies!
Send me an email and let me know what you think!
Don Mackrill
Don@MackAmps.com