What You Pay For

By: Jackson Hogen

Published: September 19, 2017

A great new ski is going to set you back $600 – $700, and you haven’t yet paid for bindings, mounting and testing, base and edge prep, plus tax.

That’s a lot of simoleans for two long and slender sleds. Of course it’s possible to buy a pair of mounted skis for a lot less; is the cheaper ski really that much worse? When you buy a better ski, just what is it you’re paying for?

There are five essential elements that influence a ski’s quality and associated costs:

  • Materials
  • Design
  • Consistency
  • Finish
  • Philosophy

Materials

Every ski maker can acquire the same basic ingredients used to build the vast majority of all models. It’s not materials themselves that differentiate one manufacturer from another, but material choices do heavily influence the price hierarchy within each brand. Several critical components, including edges, sintered base material and metal laminates, come from a very small community of suppliers. The differences in how those materials are used are what create the diversity of design in the marketplace.

 

Rich constructions, like those used in Head’s Supershape series skis, deliver the highest level of performance.

The principal driver of the price difference between $700 skis and those priced, say, $200 less, is what goes inside. Metal laminates are usually the most expensive component, so skis with two full sheets of Titanal will cost more than skis with no metal in them but their edges.

The most expensive materials and technologies focus on improving snow contact and edge control, particularly at eye-watering speeds. If it’s not in your plans to ski faster than 35mph, you don’t need to invest in designs you’ll never ski fast enough to activate.

Design

All ski makers have access to the same ingredients, but they don’t all read the same cookbooks nor do they all work in similarly equipped kitchens. Product designs and the machinery required to execute them are inevitably interrelated. When manufacturers embark on a particular design, it can be the start of a long voyage, linking the brand’s identity with a particular industrial expertise.

Design drawing for a shock damping system the author proposed when creating Scott’s first line of skis in the late ’90s.

The battle for the $700 ski buyer is fierce, so manufacturers put a lot of resources into differentiating their core products. The principal goals of any top-end embellishment are usually vibration control and high-speed management; it’s how each manufacturer goes about this mission that makes each brand distinctive.

Everything that goes into a ski affects its performance, but not everything is equally marketable, so suppliers focus their messaging on exclusive design features. A brand story can focus on baseline (Blizzard Flip Core, K2 Rocker), sidecut (Head Supershape, Fischer Curv), body style (Völkl 3D.Ridge, K2 iKonic), tip design (Rossignol Air Tip, Kästle Hollowtech, Nordica Blunt Nose) or shock damping technology (Atomic Servotec, Head KERS, Dynastar Powerdrive, Salomon Powerline and many, many more).

In a nutshell, however they go about it, more expensive skis handle vibration and manage speed better than their less costly brethren.

Consistency

It isn’t a particularly evident attribute, but the ability to produce a consistent product is a critical component in consumer satisfaction. The history of the first 75 years of modern ski traces a quest to make the 1,000th pair of skis in a production run identical to the first pair. People buy new skis because they promise a better experience. When quality control is all over the map, who can predict what the experience will be like? Consistency is the ability to deliver the product as marketed.

The more artisanal the process, the less likely it is to create perfect replicates by the 100’s. Like a lot of consumer products, skis are easier to make in large quantities than they are in small batches. (Ask yourself, would you be interested in a hand-crafted blender or microwave oven?) The only way to make great skis in small quantities is to invest even more time in quality control inspections and corrections, which some garage brands don’t have the resources to do.

Don’t misunderstand: some of the best skis in the world are made in relatively small lots. But these exceptions are scrupulously made, exquisitely finished and priced well above the norm.

Finish

Once upon a time, one of the biggest differentiators among brands was the quality of the ex-factory finish. This still isn’t a level playing field, particularly at mid-market and entry-level price points, but the supplier community has a well-equipped backstop now that automated stone grinders and edge finishers are the norm at top specialty shops.

The best insurance against indifferent factory base prep is a specialty shop that understands both your needs and your skis.

Philosophy

Pardon my waxing philosophical, but every new ski begins as an unrealized idea. Bringing this idea to life requires a passion bordering on obsession. This is what drove the founding families of this century’s iconic brands to industrialize ski making nearly 100 years ago, and continues to animate the best of the today’s boutique brands.

First comes the idea, then the machinery. Brands are originally defined by how the founders think about skis, reflected in the industrialization required to make them. Once production is set up, the machinery owns them as much as they own it. What they want to make and how they make it become interdependent. Their skis become known for a certain feel, almost as if they embodied a lifestyle.

Because a brand puts its imprint on all that it makes, Realskiers.com has consistently counseled its members and visitors to understand the brand behind any model they may find alluring. This is why Realskiers provides brand profiles for each of the 15 brands we cover.

I invite you to take a look at all our 2018 Brand Profiles for a deeper understanding of what’s new this season.

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