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Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

counterfeit Oktava microphones at Guitar Center?

Oktava MK-012The Oktava MK-012 is a well-known and well-respected condenser microphone. At a price point of about $100, (Update: With popularity comes demand, and with demand comes higher pricing. As of March, 2008, single Oktava MK-012s retail for $275.) it’s reported to deliver performance comparable to mics costing significantly more.

I’m currently upgrading my microphone collection in preparation for some recording projects later this summer. I found lots of MK-012s on Ebay, where “matched pairs” (suitable for drum overhead miking) sell for $250-$500, used.

Buying from Ebay is no picnic, especially when the prices on used items approach the prices of brand-new stock. I called Guitar Center in San Francisco for current pricing information and learned that GC just received a new shipment of Oktava mics, including “factory matched pairs” for $250. This seemed like a great deal.

-10dB pad attachmentUpon examination, though, the mics sold by Guitar Center are deficient in two significant respects:

I researched the matter and found claims of fraud: I came away believing that Guitar Center is (unknowingly) selling counterfeit microphones. Specifically, the “Oktava MC-012” currently sold by Guitar Center appears to be a knock-off produced in China.

The evidence is compelling. I’ll start with the best: a page on the Russian company’s website claiming that the “MC-012” is a knock-off produced in China.

I first heard this story from Ken Heaton, who claims he is the only factory-authorized Oktava reseller in the US. (See his certification letter.) The homepage of his website claims,

Don’t be fooled by the Chinese Manufactured Nock-Offs being passed off as “real” Oktava Microphones by a large national music store chain!!!

Ken told me that Guitar Center used to buy its stock of Oktava mics from Fergus McKay, whose reseller license was revoked by Oktava last Fall. The revocation was announced at (I’m assuming McKay is “Oktava Ltd.”)

Because of numerous violations of contract terms by the “Oktava Ltd” company (Great Britain), and unlawful usage of our trade-mark of microphones manufacturer, JSC “Oktava” declares that by official notice dated October 13, 2004, “Oktava Ltd” company is deprived of rights of exclusive distributor all over the world.

Ken told me that McKay owns the rights to the transliterated name “Oktava” — note that the actual Russian company name looks more like “Okraßa” — and appears to have had these look-alike mics manufactured in China. Guitar Center very likely does not know that they didn’t buy genuine Russian Oktava mics, or they wouldn’t be selling them as such.

The New York Times ran a story on Oktava in 2000; see Stalinesque Lines, But a Silky Sound; Man, That’s One Ugly Microphone (Sabrina Tavernise, September 9, 2000). It recounts how Fergus McKay helped bring Oktava mics to the world. It’s an interesting history, and it tends to corroborate Ken Heaton’s story… not that that you should really need any more evidence than the series of photographs of counterfeit Oktava microphones.

I learned all of this too late — a day after purchasing a pair of the mics-of-questionable-heritage from Guitar Center. Due to the missing 10dB pads, I’d inquired from the surly GC staffperson whether I’d be able to return these. Guitar Center has a 30-day return policy, but not for microphones, said the clerk, “because you could spit into them.” In a couple days I will provide an exception to this rule.

Update 2005-05-05: I spoke with someone in the purchasing department at Guitar Center. I told him the entire story. He listened patiently, checked out the “fake microphones” photos on the Oktava website, and assured me that Guitar Center would not knowingly sell fake or counterfeit gear. I imagine we’ll see a public response soon. The interesting thing is that he was under the impression that Guitar Center is a, if not the only, authorized Oktava reseller in the US, which we already know is not true as far as the manufacturer is concerned.

It appears there may be some legal confusion as to who actually owns the marketing or reselling rights for Oktava products. This issue may be settled in court. From my perspective as a consumer, though, I’m interested only in who designed and built the gear. I’m not interested in who might have a legal claim over a name or logo design. And it seems to me, from my research, that the only sure way to get the Russian-sourced microphone that audio engineers have been raving about for 10 years is to get them from Oktava USA. Disclaimer: Long after publishing this statement, I became an Oktava USA customer; I purchased a hand-matched pair of MK-012 cardioid mics from Oktava USA and have been very happy with them; see my overhead mic shootout.)

Update 2005-05-06: I received an email from one of the McKay brothers. He said I had some facts wrong and offered to set me straight. I responded immediately with a list of questions, but have not yet received a response.

Note: this article has been revised several times, to clarify points and add updates. I also removed most of the traditionally sarcastic commentary, once it became apparent that corporate attorneys — the sorts of folks paid not to have a sense of humor — were reading the article. Apologies to those of you who only come here for the sarcastic commentary. To the corporate attorneys: welcome! Please take off your ties. Thank you.

Update 2005-05-12: see pt. II, response from Andy McKay / Oktava LTD, and multiple updates thereafter (4 parts in all)

Tags: oktava, guitarcenter
posted to channel: Music
updated: 2009-04-21 17:12:02

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