December 11 - It's no secret that an increasing amount of hi-fi consumed around the world is made in China. But what are these factories like? Who are their founders? How do they approach high-end design and manufacturing?
To answer these questions, I embarked on a four-city tour (GuangZhou, Zhu Hai, Shanghai, and Beijing) for a firsthand look inside the Chinese audio industry. I visited four companiesâa metal fabrication plant, and three equipment-design-and-manufacturing facilities.
The first stop was ETKG in GuangZhou, the country's leading supplier of metal parts to the Chinese audio industry. The company started ten years ago with a single CNC machine for fabricating metal parts and has since grown to 170 CNC machines. The factory takes in raw aluminum stock and produces faceplates, chassis, heatsinks, knobs, and other metalwork found in audio gear.
In one group of buildings workers were making polished knobs for a well-known luxury Japanese brand. In another they were machining, sanding, and polishing amplifier heatsinks.
If you own a piece of Chinese-made hi-fi, there's a good chance the metalwork was done by ETKG.
The company also makes complete turntables and boasts of being the world's largest turntable manufacturer. I saw many familiar high-end brands being manufactured here but cannot publish the brand names.
In one building huge "logs" of aluminum stock were being cut into thin slices and then machined into turntable platters.
The machining operation is divided into two areas, a relatively clean area for high-precision parts such as turntable spindle bearings, and another for parts requiring less precision, such as heatsinks.
ETKG has just launched its own turntable brand called Amati. The six models in the line range from the LP-90 (about $2500 with a Rega 250 arm, Ortofon cartridge, and phonostage) to the $6800 LP-600. Some come with a Rega arm, some with no arm, and some with a Japanese-sourced arm. The line has just become available in Europe, with North American distribution scheduled for early in 2008.
Original CD-Player Factory
The next stop was the Original CD-player factory in Zhu Hai. Original primarily makes CD players, with about half of its production slated for overseas markets. The company's founder, Mr. Du York, had previously been involved in firm that made VCD players for the Chinese market, and had produced more than ten million units in a four-year period. After the heavily industrial appearance of the ETKG metal-fabrication shop, the Original factory seemed like a precision craft-shop. Original designs all its products in house, and has circuit boards "stuffed" by contractor. Original assembles the transports and electronics into the chassis, and hand-solders in tube sockets (in the tubed units). The finished products are tested and burned in before packing.
The circuit design and execution appeared to be of high quality; this is a company with the engineering skill and drive to create good-sounding components. I saw a prototype of a two-box CD player that exemplified this view. The outboard power supply is hugeâthree transformers with multiple secondary windings feed large banks of filter caps and regulation stages.
The audio circuit employs dual-differential DACs and fully balanced analog-output stages with Wima and Nichicon capacitors. A new clocking system was developed (fed from its own power supply) to reduce jitter. (Incidentally, there's a growing trend among all designers of digital gear toward paying closer attention to clock precision.).
Original's listening room for product evaluation was well treated with polycylindrical diffusers built into the walls. Loudspeakers were Usher 718s driven by Mark Levinson No.29 monoblocks. I came away from the Original factory with a good impression of the company's desire to produce good-sounding, well-built gear.
The Dussun Factory, and One Serious Amplifier Designer The next stop on the tour was the Dussun factory in Shanghai. Dussun makes a line of ten preamps, power amplifiers, and integrated amplifiersâall of them solid-state. Some of you might know that Dussun designed and built the amplifiers for Mark Levinson's (the man) company Red Rose Music. Wayne Garcia favorably reviewed Dussun's $600 DS99 integrated in Issue 176, which was once sold under the Red Rose name.
But the DS99 is the entry-level product; Dussun makes some higher-end products that are highly regarded throughout China. One of these is the V8i, a 250Wpc integrated with dual-mono construction, massive toroidal transformers, a copper chassis, microprocessor control and protection, large heatsinks, and a variable bias technique that keeps the amplifier in Class A operation ("Hyper Class A") while running cool.
The FETs are all hand-matched; I saw a worker measuring the FETs on a curve tracer and sorting a big batch into smaller groups that will work together in the same amplifier.
This level of build-quality would cost $6000 in the U.S. The price in China? The equivalent of $1600. If you're looking for a product that vividly illustrates the economic disparity between U.S. or European gear and Chinese audio products, the V8i is it. Incidentally, don't be tempted by Chinese-made gear that gets to the U.S. through the gray-market; in most cases the product's power transformer has been replaced with one of unknown quality (to operate on 110V) which could affect the performance. In addition, gray-market products don't carry the factory warranty.
Like most Chinese manufacturers, Dussun creates its designs in-house and assembles chassis and circuit boards supplied by contractors. The company was founded by Mr. YuanYuan Zou, a man who has a degree is in electrical engineering and who is very serious and passionate about amplifier design. (He developed the variable-bias technique mentioned earlier.)
Mr. Zou wasn't interested in talking about the industry or product marketing; he wanted to share his views with me about fundamental principles of what amplifiers do and how to make them better. In his view, the amplifier designer's concern doesn't end at the amplifier's binding posts; he sees an audio system holistically and wants to create amplifiers that better interact with loudspeakers. To that end, he's recently embarked on a research project that attempts to measure differences in amplifier performance by looking at the acoustic output from loudspeakers.
During our long discussion of amplifiers, Mr. Zou asked me (through my guide in China, Ping Gong of AAA-Audio) which amplifier designers I most admired. The first name that came to mind was Nelson Pass, and he enthusiastically agreed. Mr. Zou had studied the work of all the great designers, and expressed his admiration for the innovation and elegance of Pass' circuits. Mr. Zou himself is regarded as one of the country's best amplifier designers.
Dussun is working on an interesting preamp, power amp, and integrated amplifier that we'll see in the U.S. in 2008. The power amp and integrated amp will each produce 150Wpc, sport dual-mono construction, and come with the "Hyper Class-A" variable-bias circuit. The preamp and integrated will employ a newly developed digital volume control (that is, digital control of an analog signal) employing a switched-resistor network. All the products will be fully balanced from input to output, with true differential circuitry throughout.
The company has just started production of an innovative new AC power conditioner (Dussun's first) that completely regenerates AC using a 60Hz sinewave oscillator and a power-amplifier stage. Three models are produced, with power ratings of 500W, 800W, and 1200W, respectively.
Again, I came away impressed; Dussun was founded by an audiophile with some serious technical credentials who is obviously committed to producing high-quality products.
It's Not Called Opera Audio for Nothing
My final stop on the tour was at The Opera Audio Company in Beijing. Opera is the oldest and largest of the audio manufacturers I visited, with a 13-year history and 55 employees. Under the Consonance name, Opera designs and manufactures products which enjoy wide distribution in more than 30 countries (the brand is particularly strong in Europe) and good press (including a Product of the Year award from out sister publication, Hi-Fi+). Opera also makes products for other companies, but not merely for re-branding. Rather, Opera enters into technology partnerships with a few select outside companies for their mutual benefit.
A perfect example is the new Well Tempered Turntable, which is just going into production. The Well Tempered's creator, Bill Firebaugh, was looking for a company to manufacturer his new design. The association gave Opera access to Well Tempered's technology, as well as another turntable model to sell in China. Well Tempered is proud of the association; where other manufacturers asked me not to disclose the brands they manufacture, each Well Tempered Turntable bears a nameplate that says "Manufactured by Opera Audio under license from Well Tempered Laboratories."
I ran into Bill Firebaugh at the GuangZhou show, and over a lavish lunch (for seven of us that cost the equivalent of $16) I learned much about the new turntable as well as his perspective as a designer having his products made in a Chinese factory. He couldn't have been happier with the experience, or more complimentary about Opera Audio.
Opera was founded in 1994 by Mr. Shi Hui Liu, an optical-mechanical engineer whose real passion was for music (particularly European opera) and audio.
His story is the classic "kitchen-table" start-up; he made a tubed amplifier for his own use, was asked to make another for sale, and decided to go into business. Significantly, Opera was the first turntable manufacturer in China and has demonstrated with analog at every show since the company's founding. Even with more than 100 products (including technical and cosmetic variations of products), Mr. Liu still creates all the designs himself.
The product range includes both solid-state and tubed integrated amplifiers, preamps, power amps, CD players, and turntables.
Opera even makes its own tonearms. The company is noted for its innovative industrial design, including the Droplet CD player.
Opera offers its products in a range of colors and finishes. The industrial design is provided by a nearby shop I visited that's run by a well-known professor of industrial design and his wife. They began working with Opera as one of their clients, but Opera has grown so much that they now dedicate themselves full-time to Opera. It doesn't hurt that the professor is a life-long audiophile and analog enthusiastâhe designed Opera's top-of-the-line tonearm. I visited his design studio-listening room and saw in glass cases an array of the world's great tonearms. An adjacent room houses the tonearm manufacturing operation.
I heard a number of Consonance products in a variety of venues. Most notable of these products was a 300B-based power amplifier, which I heard in three different systems. (Opera offers three versions of the 300B monoblockâsingle-ended, parallel single-ended, and push-pull). One of these systems was in the elegant Beijing apartment of a serious audiophile and LP collector. He didn't live in the apartment; it was converted into an acoustical space purely for music listening. The treated room housed a pair of massive Tannoy loudspeakers driven by a Consonance CD player, Consonance preamp, top-of-the-line Consonance turntable, and the 300B-based amplifier I just mentioned. The sound was exquisite; smooth, effortless, with immediacy and directness.
Opera employs a marketing approach that is unique, both in China and in the West. They regular hold a "music night" in which their best customers, customers' friends, and top executives from local firms are invited to an Italian restaurant for dinner, live classical music performed by well-known musicians, and discussion of music and musical culture. The guests are invited to spend the night in the adjacent hotel, each room of which houses a different configuration of Opera Audio's equipment. What a great way to expose more people to high-quality music reproduction.
Everything about Opera Audio was impressive, from the fundamental design ethic to the build-quality to the sound (at least during my brief auditions).
The Ultimate 300B Tube: a 50-Year Quest My visit to the Opera Audio factory in Beijing happened to coincide with a visit by Mr. Zhe Sheng Liu, a tube designer who owns and operates a tube factory in nearby Tianjin.
He was there to have Opera listen to a new 300B he'd been working on, a design intended to push forward the state-of-the-art. While it's not noteworthy that a supplier visits his customer for feedback on new designs, what is of interest is that Mr. Liu has been designing and building vacuum tubes since 1955 (that was the year he was graduated with a degree in vacuum-tube design). Even after more than 50 years of tube designâincluding the 300Bâhe still has great enthusiasm for his work.
His factory produces the 300B for other Chinese tube companies (who re-label them as their own). He was scheduled to be at Opera for just a few hours, but we ended up having lunch together and spending part of the afternoon listening to his new creations. He was interested in my comments regarding the sound of the new tube.
We first listened to the Consonance 300B-based monoblock power amplifiers with the stock tube and then to the amplifier with the first of his experimental designs, which featured a different plate material. There was no difference between the two tubes' technical performances. Sonically, however, the new tube was instantly recognizable as significantly superior in saturation of tone color, soundstaging, bass extension, and detail resolution. In fact, it wasn't a close call. The difference between this new tube and his second new model, however, wasn't so clear cut.
The one we just listened to (I'll call it Tube A) had more warmth and a more intimate sound, while Tube B was more vivid, sharply defined, and detailed. Tube B also had greater soundstage depth and a more solid bottom-end. Nonetheless, it was an interesting comparison, and remarkable that this man is still pushing the envelope in 300B design more than 50 years after designing his first 300B. The new tubes will be sold by Mr. Liu's company under the name Full Music.
Chinese Audio: More than Budget Integrated Amplifiers
I gained several insights from visiting these companies and spending time with their founders and designers. First, all are audiophiles interested in making the best-sounding products possible. They are not marketing-driven companies who see audio as just another branch of electronics manufacturing. Second, we in the U.S. tend to think, erroneously, of Chinese-made equipment purely in terms of entry-level products, or those offering high value, rather than as being technically and sonically competitive with the best products the rest of the world has to offer.
At TAS we've reviewed many entry-level Chinese-made products, but only one top-of-the-line model, the Audio Space Reference Two preamplifier. Significantly, the Reference Two is competitive with the world's best preamps, and won our Product of the Year Award in 2007. Could other Chinese-made products be similarly great? Needless to say, The Absolute Sound will take a closer look in the coming year at some of the upper-end products coming out of China's top factories.
Check out the first and second installment of Robert Harley's blog on his trip to China