Color commentary

Jaded jaundice jammed up? Take a look. [Most images in this article use the mouse-over loupe enlarger; or right-click to open in new window at full size. I originally wrote this article for darko.audio and syndicate a very slightly expanded version here to spread things around.]

This screenshot breaks down how a watch from a brand based in Switzerland combines parts and processes from three different countries. It's the same formula which in the hifi sector accompanied NAD's MO from the very beginning and since has become virtually ubiquitous. Designed here made there is the gist; 'there' being mostly China. With product like clothes, it's just as likely to be Malaysia, Vietnam or India. From the very start, reasons for outsourcing were cost and availability. Cheap(er) labour to reduce production costs looms largest perhaps yet availability of certain processes or parts also factors. Too often not all components or treatments required to complete a build are domestically available. It's not just about cost savings though cheap labour is arguably the biggie. It explains why Tesla positioned its giga factory in Shanghai. In operation since 2019, it's their biggest car manufacturing plant outside the US and employs about 20'000. More than half the 1.31 million vehicles Tesla sold in 2022 were built in Shanghai. Does that make Tesla a Chinese brand like Volvo which sold to Ford in 1999 then to Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. Ltd of Hangzhou in 2010? My 5-cylinder Volvo was made after the Chinese took over but built neither in the original motherland of Sweden nor China but the Ghent plant of Belgium. Patriotic allegiances tangle up quickly.

In hifi, consider the four big British speaker brands B&W, KEF, Monitor Audio and Tannoy. Today DEI Holdings own Bowers & Wilkins and themselves are owned by private US equity firm Charlesbank Capital Partners who also shepherd Definitive Technology, Polk Audio, Denon, Marantz and Boston Acoustics. GP Acoustics International Ltd, a subsidiary of Gold Peak Technology Group Ltd of Hong Kong, own KEF. Music Tribe of the Philippines own Tannoy. Only 50-year-old Monitor Audio remain a British company; and privately owned. That's despite Chinese manufacture. While Monitor don't own their own PRC factory, they have an arguably even better setup: a production line including driver manufacture dedicated to them exclusively. Their current R&D team is 42 strong. It splits quite evenly between acoustic/electrical projects and the UK and China. Michael Hedges who oversees the UK's acoustical team personally interfaces with 5 engineers stationed in their Sino facility. His QC engineering counterpart in the UK works with seven more China-based engineers. It's a finely tuned vertically integrated infrastructure. Were Monitor to manufacture in the UK, sell prices would have to nearly double I learnt during a Zoom chat. They can only justify that for the new flagship Hyphn model. Support the local economy is often the self-righteous slogan behind jaundice. That's my term for the musical malaise of ChiFi bashing. In this instance, despite being built in China, it's actually the UK punter buying Monitor Audio not KEF or B&W or Tannoy whose discretionary funds flow right back into the local economy rather than end up offshore. What if a slogan spouter owns an Apple smartphone or Sony TV made in China? How about texting on a Samsung phone from inside a Kia or Hyundai SUV; browning bread in a Malaysia-made toaster; wearing clothes laundered in a Chinese-made washing machine? How about buying a Danish Børresen speaker whose HDF cabinet comes from the PRC? Or an Ancient Audio Lektor CD transport whose mechanism is Austrian, whose metal plinth from Taiwan because the Polish owner couldn't source those bits locally?

An admittedly unsightly symptom of jaded jaundice is poor QC so iffy reliability. At one point our industry was awash in a steady flow of ChiFi valve kit. It was undeniably cheap but arguably not that cheerful over the long run. Service was virtually non-existent. Enter another annoying symptom called support; or rather, lack thereof. Into this breach jumped Vinshine Audio of Singapore many years ago when Alvin Chee took on global distribution for Denafrips. Today he also handles Jay's Audio/LHY, Kinki Studio/CHoco Sound and Soundaware. With a strong focus on customer service and fluent English communications, Vinshine became the poster child for how to successfully direct-sell Chinese hifi to the West. Being fluent in 1st-world expectations on fit, finish and features is another intrinsic part of their recipe.

Another really bad jaundice symptom is cloning. That's when Chinese factories duplicate popular import goods down to the logo. It's why in Switzerland, buying a fake Rolex can lead to a fine. It's how the country tries to protect its famed watch-making industry. Yet as the earlier screenshot showed, one can be a Swiss watch brand and still use 38% of Chinese-sourced parts. Only loosely related to outright rip-off branding but inspiring its own heated reactions is the OEM/ODM angle. This goes beyond a Western brand outsourcing design or full assembly to a Sino factory like Cayin. This is about one Chinese factory running multiple brands on closely shared tech platforms. Whilst seemingly distinct and different, buyers learning that their 'X' is really a 'Z' behind a slightly different facade can feel betrayed even if they loved their gear until that discovery. Such reactions are based on a hurt presumption of originality. So very often it's a lack of transparency which truly riles up buyers, not any actual shortcoming with their purchase. Apple are perfectly candid about Foxconn production which could mean China, Czechia, Malaysia, Thailand, India or South Korea. That clearly hasn't hurt them being the world's largest tech company. But if Bryston were to suddenly assemble in the Far East rather than in their Canadian Colquhoun Audio Laboratories Limited facilities which also make Axiom speakers and now Magnum Dynalab electronics, many buyers would feel betrayed. 'Made in Canada' is far too deeply baked into Bryston's DNA. Meanwhile SB Acoustics drivers aren't hurt at all by coming from Indonesia; and are used by truly elite speaker brands.

Main system with Kinki Studio EX-B7 monos. The midrange and woofer of Qualio's IQ speakers are Indonesian SB Acoustics fare.

Another side effect of jaundice is presumed lack of engineering chops. It's based on the perception that Chinese factories can only build the circuits Western designers submit; and should they do their own, can only do them to textbook basics. It's what gives 'made in China' its biased subtext. That needs revision. Today we have very many quality products which aren't just assembled in China but wholly designed there. The Chinese high-end hifi sector is obviously far newer than equivalent industries in Europe, Japan and the US. It's why it initially had to catch up. How close those early efforts came to blatant circuit copies or inspired-by designs I don't know. But today hifi brands like Auralic, Cen.Grand, Denafrips, FiiO, HifiMan, Holo, iBasso, Jay's, KingSound, Kinki, Lotoo, Sendy, Shanling, Singxer, Sivga, smsl, Soundaware, Topping and more all do their own engineering.

That fact goes beyond the usual made-in-China meaning which limits itself to the exploitation of cheap labour based on serious global currency imbalances. The new-and-improved meaning is conceptualized, designed, engineered, styled and produced in China all to a highly competitive standard. This change of reality and perception looks back on my 2008 visit with Melody Valve Hifi. Then a clearly PRC-based factory campus with employee dormitories one hour outside Shenzhen still felt the need to plump up their founder's early Melbourne connection for a logo byline of 'Designed by Melody Valve Hifi Pty. Ltd. Australia'. What a step change to Kinki Studio's declaration 'we come from China' which adorns their back panels. Their latest subsidiary brand CHoco Sound steps out even more. CH celebrates China, the logo looks like a Shaolin symbol, the first model's name Emei points straight at the tallest of the four Sacred Buddhist mountains in Sichuan Province. Finally a contemporary ChiFi component which takes complete proud ownership of its origins. Perhaps it's no coincidence that also in 2023, Michelle Yeoh became the first woman of Asian descent to win an Oscar for best actress? On design originality, Emei combines unique optics, a 600-watt audio-grade SMPS, 9K crystal display, two pairs of class A/B British Exicon lateral power Mosfets and 138wpc into 8Ω of direct-coupled power sans signal-path capacitors from a half-size chassis. A 6-pin power umbilical can still add a forthcoming Bluetooth or wired DAC module. Wallet pain? $1'699 delivered.

For our hifi space, China now even aims at unapologetically upscale placement like this Kinki Studio $45'000 combo of 790 preamp and 791 monos. The 2023 Guanzhou show premiered the new £22K/pr 9i-958 class A/B Cen.Grand monos of 1'000 watts each. See below. There are also AM Hifi's A1000 transistor monos at £30K/pr. and 900 watts. Chinese ÜberFi awaits in the wings hoping to splash big. It means joining the League of Leviathans. That includes the always Relentless Dan d'Agostino with 1.5kW/8Ω and Boulder's 3050 monos. It includes kilowatt Goldmund Telos 5500 NextGen monos, kilowatt Bryston 28B³ monos, kilowatt Michi M8 monos, the 900-watt Accustic Arts Mono V. A bit lower on this power perch sit 800W Electrocompaniet Nemo 2, 600W 701 monos by Soulution, 600W X600.8 monos by Pass, 530W Heisenberg monos by Audionet. Now China wants to mix it up there. Welcome to the jungle.

But even back when Melody's Mr Wang still saw the need to obscure the connection with a melody.com.au URL and bouncy kangoroos in his logo—today the URL is (cough) melodyhifi.eu—Gary Koh, CEO of Genesis Advanced Technologies, approached him to build his Genesis M70 and I60 amplifiers. He could have gone anywhere else but picked this privately owned mainland China enterprise. Mr Wang also built Mystère, a sister brand of PrimaLuna. PrimaLuna meanwhile combine engineering talent from ex Goldmund's Marcel Croese, Dominique Chenet formerly at Jadis and input from tube expert Kevin Deal with "the highest-quality manufacturing in the Far East under European control and Dutch after-sales service". This PDF details some early Chinese PrimaLuna labor pains way back in 2008. Here is another article from a US brand, about certain challenges of outsourcing offshore. Western sales & marketing distinguish such products from other Chinese makes which sell direct through online portals like Ayoshida or Audiophonics. It's that essential customer support element of any buying decision which Vinshine Audio 'cloned' from brands like PrimaLuna. The one product category which hasn't yet really broken out of the made-in-China shell as branded Sino products are loudspeakers. Usher of Taiwan were one early exception. Today container load after container load of speakers get either partially or entirely made in the PRC but remain Western brands. Denafrips have added the compact Poseidon monitor to their portfolio to swim against that stream. Sister brand Musician Audio have the Knight monitor. But overall it still seems very early days for loudspeakers that wear their Sino origins with full pride and openly on the tin.

When I look at my own systems, China dominates. Think 27" iMac, Singxer SU-6 USB bridge, LHY Audio SW-8 network switch, Cen.Grand Silver Fox head amp, Kinki EX-B7 monos just in the main room. My upstairs system sports a Shanling M3 Ultra SD card server/streamer, Soundaware D300Ref USB bridge and Cen.Grand DSDAC 1.0 Deluxe. The Enleum AMP-23R and MonAcoustic SuperMon Mini speakers are from South Korea. Another mini system upstairs runs an smsl USB bridge and LHY Audio linear power supply. My wife's system centers on a Korean Aura Note Premier. My work desk hosts a Singxer SU-2 USB bridge and iFi Audio iDSD Pro Signature DAC made in China. On a reviewer's salary we can't afford to go all swish Swiss and enjoy sonics at this level.

Headfi in the main system with iMac, LHY Audio switch, Singxer USB bridge, Cen.Grand headphone amp and HifiMan ear speakers. The only thing not Chinese is the Dutch DAC.

About that performance, let's peruse Stereophile's 2023 Recommended Components for just a few Chinese-made sightings. In class A+ I spotted a HoloAudio May KTE Level 3 [$5'598];  in class A an Audio-GD R7HE M2 [$4'990], HoloAudio Spring 3 [$3'098] & Serene KTE [$3'098], iFi Audio Zen DAC Signature V2 [$599 with Zen CAN], NAD C298 [$2'399] & Masters Series M33 [$5'999], PrimaLuna EVO 400 [$5'295], Rotel Diamond Series DT-6000 CD transport/DAC [$2'300] & RA-600 [$4'499], Topping Pre90 [$599]; in class B a Denafrips Enyo [$850], Line Magnetic LM-845IA [$4'950], NAD C3050 LE [$1'972 & M10 V2 [$2'999], PrimaLuna EVO 400 Integrated [$5'595], Topping DM7 [$599] and Vincent SV-737 [$3'499]. When you look at Western brands in the same categories, be prepared to spend a lot more.

Alas, 'made in China' even carries political undertones particularly when people from capitalist democracies look at Communist countries. Now it's all too convenient to forget Western history. We had Spanish conquistadors wipe out central and Southern American indigenous cultures, settlers eradicate Indian tribes and buffalo on US soil. British convicts displaced Australia's First Nations people and usurped their lands, the British Empire divided India and Pakistan. We had Christian crusaders across the Middle East, zealous missionaries in the Far East. We have ongoing warfare into the present. We created brutal and unsanitary living conditions during our early industrial revolution. We still suffer the ongoing impact on our environment. And among the symptoms of capitalist consumerism are fast food chains and widespread obesity, the opioid epidemic, rampant drug use and related crime in general, large-scale gambling and sports betting, cruel living conditions of animals bred for slaughter, overpopulation, huge ugly cities, gridlock traffic pollution, senseless consumption, environmental devastation… the list goes on. If we remember history, it's hard to point fingers. While regimes may get blamed for all manner of things, at the end of the day they rule over ordinary human beings trying to get along whilst making a living.

In conclusion, it's how I break down some of the stickum which surrounds Made in China. The associated reality is far more intertwined than clear cut, far harder to parse than taking things at face value. Whatever our response and subsequent decisions on the subject, being fully informed ought to be a prerequisite. Yet even our very best intentions on that score can't help but run into non-disclosure agreements and general unavailability of detailed origin declarations. How much of our Ford automobile was really made in the US? Does it matter? Only you can be the judge. It's simply nice when that doesn't equal being jury and executioner, too. For more opinions on the matter, John Darko & Michael Lavorgna discussed it on this podcast.