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The wonderful world of Chinese hi-fi

When most people need a new pair of earplugs, they choose from a fairly small number of brands, usually chosen from Amazon or, worse, the Apple Store. Then there are the outliers, the ones that haunt around forums such as Head-Fi, who are aware of balanced fixture versus dynamic drivers, who test their equipment and produce frequency cards. Increasingly, those outliers – a subset of the audiophile culture – are obsessed with a wide variety of unnamed Chinese brands selling earplugs that often cost less than $ 25. The outlier obsessive people buy these per dozen on the back pages of AliExpress, write or conduct extensively researched reviews on blogs and YouTube and endlessly debate the pros and cons of headphones that cost about the same as a large pizza.

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Online the phenomenon is known as & # 39; Chi-fi & # 39; – a mashup of & # 39; Chinese & # 39; and & # 39; high fidelity & # 39 ;. It is usually used to refer to portable audio equipment – they are almost always earplugs, which are outside the AirPods ear canal, or in-ear monitors (IEMs), which have squishy tips and actually go into the ear canal – that come from essentially anonymous Chinese companies. It's a twist on the strange shadow marketplace that you enter when you're looking for something basic on Amazon (& # 39; iPhone case & # 39 ;, & # 39; boxer shorts & # 39;) and ends with pages & # 39; s on pages from Chinese brands you've never heard of. The names of the companies are liquid, the prices are incredibly cheap and the lists are bare or confusing. As a reasonable consumer you assume that nothing with a price of six dollars might be good. But Chinese hifi offers the best possible version of that world. What if the brands were unknown and the prices bizarre low – but the product was actually good?

"I first heard Chi-Fi as a term about two to three years ago, it's kind of like a meme," says Lachlan Tsang, an YouTuber audio who also works in a high-end audio shop in Sydney, Australia.

"Around 2010 they were only on Taobao, which is a kind of Amazon or eBay for China," says Alfred Lee, a Hong Konger who manages a site that is accessible to audio with a few friends and is accessible to China.

The term appears on Reddit for the first time at the end of 2015, but the concept had already been around for a few years. These brands have names such as Tin Audio, Yinyoo, Revonext and various collections of letters (KZ, BQEYZ, QDC). The prices vary, but much of the obsession revolves around the very cheap things ranging from $ 10 to $ 50. The build quality is sometimes sloppy or inconsistent; accessories are limited; service does not exist.

Most name brand audio companies actually make their products in China, so it makes sense that homegrown companies have a price advantage. The concentration of equipment, expertise and raw materials has led to many hotspots of semi-do-it-yourself electronics production, best known in Shenzhen. This is one of the few places on earth, and certainly the largest, where you can purchase a shipping box with plastic earplugs, cables, drivers & all other parts needed to make earplugs. Shenzhen and other Chinese cities such as it are the perfect birthplace for these companies. That said, the story of the origin for each individual brand is a bit different. Some start out as original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, meaning they actually make that brand name material for Beats or Shure or anyone else. "Some of them are only trading companies, some are engineers who have left another factory, it's every possible variation," says Mike Klasco, an audio engineering consultant who has been scouting factories in Asia for 35 years.

This kind of quality is possible because the relevant components – the cables, the casing, the drivers, the wiring – are all relatively cheap, even at the highest quality. The diaphragm of the small speaker in an earbud might cost just five cents, or even four dollars for a diamond-coated version. And for earplugs and IEM & # 39; s the quality of the components translates directly into the quality of the product. If you have top class drivers and circuits, your product will sound very good, even if the build quality differs slightly. (This is different from, for example, a pair of shoes, where top quality leather and foam are not necessarily translated into a comfortable fit.)

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People also care about audio devices in a way that they don't mind so much about so many other electronics that are manufactured in those Chinese technical hubs. No one will spend a week researching the best portable battery charger, USB cables or smartphone holder for their car. These are binary utilitarian objects: they work or not. Audio is different. There is a much greater range between good and bad; there are fashion and design issues, different use cases, different brand reconciliations. A Bose person differs from a Grado person. And because most customers don't have the time or money to test each brand, most of us rely on well-known brands that you can count on a pretty good experience.

Premium branding naturally also means premium profit. "Best Buy might get 50 percent more," says Klasco. For audio companies of name brands, the costs are associated with extensive testing, design, marketing, personnel costs, packaging, shipping and multiple parts of the cake from manufacturer to wholesaler to retail.

Chinese brands cut out all that stuff. Only the largest and most ambitious of these companies even have difficulty with a website; most of them have little more than a supplier page on aliexpress. Some of these companies purchase their drivers – the actual speakers – from the same factories that Sennheiser and Beats provide them with. Tin Audio uses Knowles balanced fixture drivers for his T3 model; that is the most important thing in this product. The same drivers, or at least very similar ones, can also be found in Ultimate IEM & # 39; s it costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The factories that ensure that the drivers do not care to whom they sell; they maintain a certain quality level because their customers depend on it. And once you've found the parts, putting them together isn't expensive at all. "If you have a canister and a bottle of glue," Klasco says, "you can be in the business."

What you sometimes end up with is headphones with shocking high-end internals, which means excellent sound quality from a company that essentially has no overhead. Those companies can still make a solid profit – if someone can find their stuff.

It is hard to say how much the intellectual property theft is in the mix. There is unbridled counterfeiting in the same Chinese technical hub cities, and you can often find native Chinese brands alongside counterfeit Western products at markets and congresses in China (and by the way on AliExpress and Amazon). Klasco told me that he often asks suppliers at these conferences for a tour of their facilities. If they apologize for why he can't come to visit, the company may be doing something they want to keep quiet – reselling or copying, or worse.

But Klasco says that most companies like to give him a tour, and he often notices that they do the same thing as big companies: buy components from the factories that make components, assemble them and sell the result. There are certainly some questionable design inspirations out there – lately there has been a trend of cyberpunk-looking metal enclosures, probably inspired by Campfire Audio – but that also happens with large companies and is not really theft.

Sometimes what starts as an anonymous manufacturer can build up enough followers to switch to conventional retail channels: hiring staff, website designers, quality control staff and all the other things that more established companies have. The most striking example is Anker, who started making replacement laptop batteries before switching to portable battery chargers. Within a few years they had become a globally recognized brand.

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Some Chinese hi-fi companies have this potential. Both Lee and Tsang mentioned Fiio and HiFiMan, both of which have real websites for their products. Klasco even did it to include HiFiMan in this list of no-name brands, although it is actually just a larger, slightly older and more successful version of the demolition companies. HiFiMan started as a very small Chinese manufacturer, found unexpected success with a few products and grew up quickly. "HiFiMan is not a nameless brand at all," says Klasco. "They do some very expensive and sophisticated things." Fiio has also received a lot of praise main current sources (including The edge).

But for most lovers of Chinese hifi, the excitement in the hunt is not the possibility of crossover success. They love to browse through the trash – and there's a fair amount of trash – hoping to find that jewel: a pair of angular red metal IEM & # 39; s of $ 25 with a design that is liberally inspired by a larger one company, but that sounds incredible like a few $ 500 IEM's. "They are products that come from these anonymous factories," says Tsang. "The brand story is being replaced by this general story about Chinese production and the feeling that you are getting something secret."

The release of a new pair of home-made hi-fi earbuds can cause a significant (albeit localized) hype cycle on forums. The companies seem largely unprepared to hold a hit product. It's not that they think they're releasing a worthless product, it's just that there is so much competition, and they have so few resources, that it seems incredibly unlikely that their sales will suddenly increase in the Netherlands, the US or Germany.

There are in-depth review sites that focus exclusively on Chinese hi-fi brands, such as AudioBudget. The longest thread on the Head-Fi audio forum is about Chinese hifi, with more than 48,000 messages. That is of course not really a fair statistic, because there are also separate threads about the same brands that add around 100,000 answers. The community is lively and obsessive, with various factions discussing things such as V-shaped versus U-shaped response curves, how the small vents can be stopped in certain IEMs for reinforced bass, or which silicone tips are best . Audiophiles love a fight; there is an inherent battle there between subjective and objective data, and trying to cram one into the other, and it is just an unsolvable infinite mess. That is not a criticism; that mess is fun for audiophiles.

And with an endless supply of fresh, affordable product, Chinese hi-fi brands have brought up something totally new for discussion. For many of these forum users, the classic audiophile equipment is hopelessly out of reach. CNETThe top-ranked audiophile headphones costs $ 2,400, that's not that bad, relatively. High-end speakers often cost much more than $ 10,000. That kind of equipment is totally unreachable for most people, even for those who are obsessive about their audio quality. The Chinese hi-fi boom has given them a way to actually shop, purchase, compare and analyze audio equipment that meets their standards, which has never happened before.

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Even the equipment that produces these frequency cards has become more affordable. MiniDSP makes a product for around $ 200 – it's actually a pair of artificial ears with microphones – that is perfectly suitable. That kind of equipment cost tens of thousands of dollars. It still does, and it's still better, but like the stream of cheap high-end earbuds, the MiniDSP is capable, a little weird and affordable for everyone.

Given all those cheap new toys, a small obsession is understandable. An owner of a Chinese hi-fi website refused an interview and said he was "actually out of the hobby of spending time with my family."

"It's just that easy to get in and you just want to try more and more," says Lee. "For Chi-Fi, it's like that, oh, it's only $ 20, so why not?"

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