The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXV: The Chinese Are Coming!
"Hey, Marc... I'm thinking about checking out some of this Chinese audio gear. What are your opinions?"
I've received quite a few emails over the last few months regarding the influx of audio equipment made in China, and whether or not it's a good investment. I have to admit that the price/performance ratio on some of these products are more than tempting, and I can see why American and European consumers are starting to buy this gear in high quantities. But in this age of deadly pet food and poisoned toothpaste, I can understand why some audiophiles are a bit skittish about taking the Shanghai plunge.
A couple of years ago, my answer would have been a flat 'no.' One of the first major Chinese companies to sell audio gear in America started off strong by offering a wide variety of established tube amplifier designs for amazingly low prices. Audiophiles who normally were into vintage tube amps or DIY projects flocked to this company and were pleased at the performance of this equipment. While the build and parts quality didn't quite rival that of the finest products from North America, Europe and Japan, a bargain was a bargain, and this gear started flying off of dealer's shelves.
After a couple of years, however, the bloom came off the rose. Reports of catastrophic failure were commonplace. Unfortunately, when it comes to tube amplification, catastrophic failure means exploding glass and large columns of flames and sparks coming out of the IKEA entertainment center in the middle of your living room. In a few short weeks, the majority of dealers for this brand instantly dropped the line. Soon, all Chinese equipment was branded as dangerous, and it took a few months for that industry to recover from all the negative buzz (I won't mention that name of the original company, since I think they're still trying to back away from the edge of the abyss and reinvent themselves).
In 2008, my answer isn't so cut-and-dried. As a professional equipment reviewer, I've actually had some of this gear in my home, and for the most part it is still a bargain. The problem is, I can't quite speak for long-term reliability since I only get to play with these toys for a month or two at a time. The stories of catastrophic failure have faded, but not completely so.
Before you discuss Chinese audio equipment, you have to know the difference between the types of manufacturing partnerships. The first group is the companies that are based entirely in China, with both the design and manufacturing processes taking place in that country. The second group is comprised of established audio companies that design the gear in the original country of origin, such as the UK or the US, but have the gear assembled in China to reduce costs. The venerable British company Quad is a good example of this latter group. While these companies aren't necessarily producing more reliable gear than the former group, customer service networks and warranties are generally handled in a more efficient and traditional manner, and dealer networks are more heavily structured to respond to owners' concerns.
Other manufacturers dwell in sort of a gray area, and don't quite fit either group. The other day, I heard of a manufacturer that actually goes against the grain by designing the gear in China and building the products in the UK. Other have parts manufactured in China, and have them assembled in the original country to ensure quality control. I know, it gets quite confusing, but before you consider one of these brands, you should find out a little more about the manufacturing process. In most cases, you can achieve a little piece of mind by knowing there is a genuinely talented design engineer on the Chinese side, as opposed to a bunch of nameless, faceless worker bees.
For instance, I'm a big fan of Melody Valve Hi-Fi, maker of fine tube amplification. When I first heard this gear, I was told it was an Australian brand, but after further investigation I found that while the company was based in Australia, the chief designer was Chinese, and the gear was indeed built in China. Still, this gear is well-built and beautifully-designed and I would be proud to place any of it in a prominent place on my equipment rack. Another notable Chinese company is Usher, which includes some very advanced technology, such as beryllium tweeters, in their line of speakers. Their stand-mounted Be-718, also known as the "Tiny Dancer," is one of the most satisfying small speakers I've ever heard.
Are you now more confused than ever about whether to buy Chinese audio gear? Like I said, it's not that simple. But now that I've been reviewing gear for a few years, I'm really starting to appreciate some of the older and more established companies such as conrad-johnson, Audio Research, Rega, Magnepan and McIntosh. These are companies that have been around for decades and continue to service every component they ever made. When you buy an expensive component from a relatively new company, what happens when they go out of business? Who's going to fix your tube amplifier when it 'splodes? I'm not even going to mention resale value when it comes to selling one of these orphans on eBay or Audiogon. In other words, those old and established companies represent the safer option, and most of them make pretty spectacular equipment as well. Why mess around?
What I find most interesting about the Chinese audio industry is that for the most part, they've stayed away from analog. Sure, there are a few Chinese-made phono preamplifiers out there, but making a decent phono stage is pretty much the same thing as making an amplifier or preamp. You have a case, you have a circuit board, and you grab your capacitors and resistors from the same bins as the other manufacturers around the world.
But turntables, tonearms and cartridges are different. There's a certain artistry to making these components that transcends the usual assembly-line philosophies. For instance, a big portion of the world's finest cartridges are made by Zen Masters in Japan, or Swiss craftsmen that have been doing the same thing for decades. Two of the finest tonearms in the world, the Breuer and the Schroder, are made by companies consisting of a single man (the former in Switzerland, the latter in Berlin). SME, which makes some of the world's finest turntable and tonearms, got its start with the precision engineering of aircraft instruments. That's one of the many reasons why analog reproduction continues to survive in the digital world... it's made by people who really know what they're doing.
So should you buy Chinese gear or not? If my credit card was on the line, I'd simply do my homework before making any purchase. Ask the dealer or manufacturer for testimonies from satisfied customers. Demand a comprehensive warranty that makes the dealer responsible for servicing the gear, not some hastily-formed local collective. As with any type of audio equipment, your motto should be caveat emptor. With Chinese equipment, you really need to be on your toes. But then again, you just might find a bargain, the best you ever had.
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