December 3 - China's booming economy and rise as an exporting giantare having an increasingly important effect on the audio industry. The influence is two-fold. First, Chinese audio factories are turning out high-quality products in every category at prices that U.S. and European manufacturers can't match.
Second, China's growing middle and upper classes now have the means to buy quality hi-fi, not just from domestic manufacturers, but from those same U.S. and European companies with which the local factories compete. The bottom line is that China is producingâand consumingâan increasingly large share of the world's hi-fi.
These trends were on vivid display at the GuangZhou AV Fair. I'm on a ten-day trip through China, starting with three days at the GuangZhou show followed by visits to hi-fi factories in GuangZhou, Shanghai, and Beijing.
In this first installment of my trip blog, I'll give you a tour of the show's highlights. After attending the opening ceremonies I got my first look at the hi-fi scene in China.
The country holds a number of hi-fi exhibitions, but the GuangZhou show is the largest, most prominent, and most prestigious. Consequently, virtually every manufacturer in China and every distributor of foreign-made gear converge on the magnificent Whit Swan hotel, home of the show since the event's inception 14 years ago.
This year's show hosted 150 exhibitors in 160 rooms, and was expected to attract more than 25,000 attendees, each of whom paid 50 RMB (about $7.75) to see and hear the latest gear.
The strategy for covering a show like this is simple; Start early, take a mid-day break, and go back in the afternoon. From about 1pm to 4pm the hallways and rooms are simply too dense with people to see or hear anything.
Twenty-five thousand people spread over six floors (plus an outlying area for CD and LP sales) makes for tight quarters. For comparison, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest garners roughly the same number of exhibitors spread out over a larger area, and attracts about 4000 attendees.
The most striking thing about the GuangZhou show and, by extension, the hi-fi scene in China, is the sheer number of companiesâmost of which I'd never heard ofâmaking tubed amplifiers. Room after room was filled with tubed gear of varying build-quality, from simple and inexpensive units like an 18Wpc unit with a USB drive that sells for 1450 RMB (about $200), to lavish monoblocks with stunning cosmetics, beautiful build-quality, and point-to-point hand-wiring.
China must be dotted with small factories turning out tubed amplifiers, most of them for domestic consumption.
There's a reason tubes are so popular in everything from entry-level gear to esoteric models: There's a huge disparity between the costs of labor and raw materials in China. Labor is cheap, but parts cost about the same as they would anywhere in the world. But if you make your own tubes with hand-assembly, tubed amplifiers suddenly become less expensive to manufacture than transistor amps.
In addition, tube amplifiers are simpler to design and buildâthe circuit designs are often taken right out of a textbook. It all adds up to about a 10:1 ratio between tubed and solid-state gear from Chinese manufacturers.
Some Chinese brands are well known to U.S. audiophiles for their entry-level, high-value products. But the companies making these budget components also produce a much larger range of products for their domestic market.
Many of these items are quite ambitious and esoteric, and sold under a different name. For example, the company that builds the excellent Cayin products distributed in the U.S. by Acoustic Sounds is called Spark in China. You wouldn't know it from the entry-level Cayin gear, but Spark makes a panoply of elaborate preamps, monoblock power amplifiers, and CD players.
Similarly, the brand called Vincent in the U.S. (winner of our 2007 Power Amplifier of the Year Award, available through Audio Advisor) is made by a company called Sheng Ya. In its exhibit, Sheng Ya showed some stunning-looking monoblocks that produced a wonderful sound driving B&W 800D loudspeakers.
Another example is Shanling, whose budget and mid-priced CD players are imported by Music Hall. Shanling makes a staggering number of models of CD players (in particular), preamps, power amplifiers, and integrated amps. Apparently, the importers believe that the U.S. market wants only budget Chinese-made gear.
Going around the show, talking with manufacturers (through the capable interpretation of my guide, Ping Gong of U.S. distributor aaa-audio), and hearing the sounds produced, it was apparent that the Chinese manufacturers are divided into two groups.
The first, which is by far the larger, is composed of electronics manufacturers who build hi-fi gear because there's a market for it. The second group is made up of musically sensitive listeners who tweak their designs until they are happy with the sound.
It's easy to tell the two groups apart by when walking into an exhibit room. The audiophile-oriented companies know how to set up a system and put on a compelling demoâand the others don't. Consequently, the range of sound quality, from poor to great, is exceptionally wide at this show.
In this environment, the good products really stand out. I heard a number of systems that were remarkably musical, and when I was told the price, was bowled over. For example, one of the show's better sounds was produced by a good-sized floorstanding speaker from a brand called Elite that I thought would cost about $5000 based on the sound and finish quality.
The speaker with Kevlar-sandwich drivers is a dual-cabinet design, finished in gorgeous piano-black lacquer.
The price in China: $1600. I encountered several other companies that produce truly outstanding products that would sell well in the U.S. if they had distribution. For instance, a company called Dugood makes a line of innovative digital products. (Think Oppo with a higher-end implementation and more forward-looking designs.)
Dugood showed a component that can be an audio or video server, and contains a disc drive (it will accept CD, DVD, Blu-ray, or HD DVD drive), hard-disk, Faroudja DCDi 1080p upconverter and scaler, and integral software for managing a music or video library. The unit is completely modular, allowing you to configure it for your specific needs.
With so many "me-too" tubed amplifiers at the show, Dugood stood out for its technical innovation. The designer was very focused on sound quality, and told me something interesting: The most important part of a digital-to-analog converter stage is the timing precision of the clock, something that I've experienced recently with the Esoteric G-0Rb rubidium clock. He's a very smart guy with an interesting product that has much potential.
Many of these manufacturers want very much to gain a foothold in the U.S. but have no idea how to go about it. The U.S. and European markets are the pots of gold at the end of the rainbow for small factories looking to grow their businesses. I was the guest at a special meeting held to elicit my view of how Chinese products are received in the U.S., and what Chinese manufacturers can do to increase their presence in the U.S. market.
The meeting was held by the show organizer, and included representatives from a number of leading manufacturers and the editors of the major hi-fi magazines. Incidentally, the magazine business in China is very different from that of the U.S.; in GuangZhou alone five audio magazines compete with each other.
Back on the show floor, I saw a number of intriguing products that are destined for the U.S. Among them is an entirely new line of turntables called Amari, designed by a Canadian company and built right in GuangZhou, about 15 minutes from the White Swan hotel. There are five models in the line, starting with a unit that will sell for roughly $2000 with a Rega arm, and going up to a dual-motor model with a double-plinth.
I'm visiting the factory after the show and will have a full report.
The Beijing-based manufacturer of Bill Firebaugh's new Well-Tempered Turntable, Opera Audio, showed a prototype of the new turntable. The design builds on Firebaugh's radical ideas about turntable construction. The table and arm are unmistakably Well-Tempered, but this unit uses some cost-saving techniques that reportedly improve the performance.
The most interesting of these is a golf ball to which the tonearm is mounted. The golf ball rests in a cup containing silicone damping fluid. I also attended a presentation on the turntable by Bill Firebaugh, who took a group of audiophiles through the design decisions. The new 'table is expected in the U.S. in March at a projected price of $2500. I'll be visiting the Opera Audio factor in Bejing later this week and will have more details then.
In addition to lots of Chinese-made gear, just about every major American and European brand was also on display at the show. It's easier to list the few companies who weren't represented than those who were.
A vendor area for CDs and LPs was chock full of attendees, enduring music blasting from adjacent booths as each vendor tried to show off his wares. Multiply by about 50 and you have a recipe for a 100-decible cacophony.
Analog is quite popular in China as evidenced by the number of exhibits featuring turntables. One entire floor focused on turntables, and several flagship models were on display. These included the big Clearaudio Statement,
the equally big Transrotor
the Kuzma, and the mighty Work of Art from Basis Audio.
There's a new kid in town in the mega-turntable arena. The turntable is the Pure-Vox PV-Flagship, and it has an interesting story behind it. Its creator, Mr. Tingguang Tan, is a mechanical engineer who founded a very successful business building kitchen appliances.
A dedicated music lover, Mr. Tan was unhappy with the sound of CD and decided to build his own turntable for personal use. His first 'table was more like a pilot project from which he worked out ideas for the ultimate turntable he'd been thinking about for two years. After reducing his responsibilities in his appliance business, Mr. Tan turned his attention to building this absolutely no-compromise 'table for his own use.
Using his factory's manufacturing resources, he built the' table. Word soon spread about it, and he was asked to build another one for sale. He built two more, and then decided to go into the turntable business with five models. The PV-Flagship is stunning visually, and features a magnetically driven sub-platter that has no contact with the main platter.
The top third of the turntable is isolated from the lower section, and is self-balancing via three massive weights (170 pounds total) that hang nearly to the floor. A high-speed microprocessor controls the motor. The entire structure weighs in at more than 750 pounds. The price is 890,000 RMB, or about $135,000.
No hi-fi show would be complete without Lars Kristensen from Nordost putting on his cable show. If you've seen Lars in action at a show, you know what I mean. He demonstrates to large crowds the sonic differences between different models of Nordost interconnectâinvariably with great flair and engaging banter. The exhibit room was jam-packed--easily the best-attended room of the show.
The system on display featured VTL's Siegfried monoblock power amplifiers driving the excellent Scandinavian Raidho loudspeakers. VTL's Luke Manley was also on hand for the festivities.
I had an opportunity to hear the KEF Muon loudspeaker, which is more of concept than a mass-produced product. The all-aluminum enclosure is stunningly styled, and the sound was quite good, although I never got to hear the Muon while sitting between the speakers; showgoers who waited for a turn in the sweet spot were loathe to give it up. Everyone was taking photos of the Muon, although for some reason the left loudspeaker got more attention from the cameras than the right.
Some of the products on display clearly took their styling cues from established brands. There was a marked similarity between some Chinese brands and iconic American or European products, although no outright copies, as I've seen in the past at some Asian shows. Similarly, I saw several marques that have become defunct the U.S. resurrected by Chinese companies. The new manufacturer either bought the name, or the name's trademark expired and the Chinese company simply took its name and logo as its own. Remember Counterpoint? Vimak?
Next, check out the World's Number One Audiophile?