Hexbyte  News  Computers The wonderful world of Chinese hi-fi

Hexbyte News Computers The wonderful world of Chinese hi-fi

Hexbyte News Computers


Hexbyte  News  Computers Two bright blue earbuds stand out against a background of darker, unidentifiable earbuds

Alex Castro / The Verge

The best pair of $20 earbuds you’ll ever buy

When most people need a new pair of earbuds, they’re picking from a pretty small set of brands, usually chosen from Amazon or, worse, the Apple Store. Then there are the outliers, the ones who haunt forums like Head-Fi, who speak knowledgeably about balanced armature versus dynamic drivers, who test their equipment and produce frequency charts. Increasingly, those outliers — a subset of audiophile culture — are obsessed with a wide variety of no-name Chinese brands selling earbuds that often cost less than $25. The outlier obsessives buy these by the dozen from the back pages of AliExpress, write or perform exhaustively researched reviews on blogs and YouTube, and debate endlessly the pros and cons of headphones that cost about as much as a large pizza.

Online, the phenomenon is known as “Chi-fi” — a mashup of “Chinese” and “high-fidelity.” It’s usually used to refer to portable audio gear — they’re almost always earbuds, which sit outside the ear canal like AirPods, or in-ear monitors (IEMs), which have squishy tips and actually go inside the ear canal — that come from essentially anonymous Chinese companies. It’s a twist on the strange shadow marketplace you enter when you search for something basic on Amazon (“iPhone case,” “boxer briefs”) and end up with pages upon pages of Chinese brands you’ve never heard of. The names of the companies are fluid, the prices are incredibly cheap, and the listings are bare bones or confusing. As a reasonable consumer, you assume that nothing priced at six dollars can possibly be good. But Chinese hi-fi offers the best possible version of that world. What if the brands were unknown and the prices bizarrely low — but the product was actually good?

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

“Around 2010, they were only on Taobao, which is kind of an Amazon or eBay for China,” says Alfred Lee, a Hong Konger who runs a China-focused site called Accessible Audio with some friends.

The term first shows up on Reddit in late 2015, but the concept had been around for a few years before that. These brands have names like Tin Audio, Yinyoo, Revonext, and various collections of letters (KZ, BQEYZ, QDC). The prices vary, but much of the obsession centers around the very cheap stuff, ranging from $10 to $50. Build quality is sometimes shoddy or inconsistent; accessories are limited; service is nonexistent.

Most name-brand audio companies actually make their products in China, so it makes sense that homegrown companies would have an advantage on price. The concentration of equipment, expertise, and raw material has made for many hotspots of semi-DIY electronics manufacturing, most famously in Shenzhen. This is one of the few places on Earth, and certainly the biggest, where you can buy a shipping container full of plastic earbud bodies, cables, drivers, and all the other parts needed to make earbuds. Shenzhen and other Chinese cities like it are the perfect birthplace for these companies. That said, the origin story for each individual brand is a little bit different. Some start as original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, meaning they actually make that name-brand stuff for Beats or Shure or whomever. “Some of them are just trading companies, some are engineers that left another factory, it’s every possible variation,” says Mike Klasco, an audio engineering consultant who has been scouting factories throughout 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 tiny speaker inside an earbud may cost as little as five cents, or as much as four dollars for a diamond-coated version. And for earbuds and IEMs, the quality of the components translates directly to the quality of the product. If you have top-tier drivers and circuitry, your product will sound very good, even if the build quality is a little off. (This is different from, say, a pair of shoes, where the best-quality leather and foam won’t necessarily translate to a comfortable fit.)

People also care about audio gear in a way they don’t care about so many of the other electronics manufactured in those Chinese tech hubs. Nobody will spend a week researching the best portable battery charger, USB cables, or smartphone mount for their car. Those are binary utilitarian objects: they either work or they don’t. Audio is different. There’s a much wider range between good and bad; there are fashion and design concerns, different use cases, different brand alignments. A Bose person is different from a Grado person. And since most customers don’t have the time or money to test out each brand, most of us end up relying on well-known brands that you can count on delivering a pretty good experience.

Of course, premium branding means premium profits, too. “Best Buy might get a 50 percent markup,” says Klasco. For name-brand audio companies, the cost comes with extensive testing, design, marketing, staff overhead, packaging, shipping, and multiple cuts of the pie from manufacturer to wholesaler to retailer.

Chinese brands cut out all of that stuff. Only the biggest and most ambitious of these companies even bother with a website; most of them have little more than a vendor page on AliExpress. Some of these companies buy their drivers — the actual speakers — from the same factories that provide Sennheiser and Beats with theirs. Tin Audio uses Knowles balanced armature drivers for its T3 model; those are the most important thing inside this product. Those same drivers, or at least very similar ones, can also be found in Ultimate Ears IEMs that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The factories that make the drivers don’t care who they sell to; they maintain a certain level of quality because their clients depend on that. And once you’ve sourced the parts, it’s not expensive at all to put them together. “If you have a van and a bottle of glue,” Klasco says, “you can be in the business.”

What you sometimes end up with is a headphone with shockingly high-end internals, meaning excellent sound quality, from a company that has essentially no overhead. Those companies can still make a solid profit — if anyone can find their stuff.

It’s difficult to say how much intellectual property theft is in the mix. There’s rampant counterfeiting going on in these same Chinese tech hub cities, and you can often find homegrown Chinese brands sitting alongside counterfeit Western products at the markets and conventions around China (and on AliExpress and Amazon, for that matter). Klasco told me that he’ll often just ask vendors at these conventions for a tour of their facilities. If they make excuses for why he can’t come visit, the company might be doing something they want to keep quiet — reselling, or counterfeiting, or worse.

But Klasco says most companies will happily give him a tour, and he often finds they’re doing the same thing big companies do: buying components from the factories that make components, assembling them, and selling the result. There are certainly some semi-questionable design inspirations out there — lately there’s been a trend of cyberpunk-looking metal cases, likely inspired by Campfire Audio — but that happens with big companies, too, and isn’t really theft.

Sometimes, what starts out as an anonymous manufacturer can build up enough of a following to cross over into conventional retail channels: hiring customer service personnel, website designers, quality control staff, and all the other stuff that more established companies have. The most notable example is Anker, which started off making replacement laptop batteries before shifting into portable battery chargers. Within a few years, they had become a globally recognized brand.

A few Chinese hi-fi companies have this potential. Both Lee and Tsang mentioned Fiio and HiFiMan, both of which have actual websites for their products. Klasco actually bristled at the inclusion of HiFiMan on this list of no-name brands, although really it’s just a larger, slightly older, and more successful version of the scrappier companies. HiFiMan started as a very small Chinese manufacturer, unexpectedly found success with a few products, and ramped up quickly. “HiFiMan’s not a no-name brand at all,” says Klasco. “They do some very expensive and sophisticated stuff.” Fiio, too, has garnered acclaim from mainstream sources (including The Verge).

But for most aficionados of Chinese hi-fi, the thrill is in the hunt, not the possibility of crossover success. They love to sift through the garbage — and there’s a fair amount of garbage — with the hopes of finding that gem: a $25 pair of angular red metal IEMs with a design liberally inspired by some bigger company, but that sounds, incredibly, like a pair of $500 IEMs. “It’s products coming out of these anonymous factories,” says Tsang. “The brand story gets replaced with this general story about Chinese manufacturing and your feeling that you’re getting something sort of secret.”

The release of a new pair of homegrown hi-fi earbuds can spark a fierce (albeit localized) hype cycle on forums. The companies, for the most part, seem totally unprepared to have a hit product on their hands. It’s not that they think they’re releasing a crap product, it’s just that there’s so much competition, and they have so few resources, that it seems incredibly unlikely that their sales will suddenly spike in the Netherlands, the US, or Germany.

There are in-depth review sites that focus exclusively on Chinese hi-fi brands, like AudioBudget. The longest thread on the audio forum Head-Fi is about Chinese hi-fi, with over 48,000 posts. Of course, that’s not really a fair metric, because there are also separate threads about the same brands that add another 100,000 or so replies. The community is vibrant and obsessive, with varying factions debating things like V-shaped versus U-shaped response curves, how best to plug the little vents in certain IEMs for boosted bass, or which aftermarket silicone tips are best. Audiophiles love to argue; there’s an inherent battle there between subjective and objective data, and trying to cram one of them into the other, and it ends up just being an insoluble infinite mess. That’s not a criticism; that mess is fun for audiophiles.

And with an endless supply of fresh, affordable product, Chinese hi-fi brands have provided something totally new to debate. For many of these forum users, the classic audiophile gear is hopelessly out of their reach. CNET’s top-ranked audiophile headphones cost $2,400, which isn’t even that bad, comparatively. High-end speakers often cost well over $10,000. That kind of gear is totally unattainable for most people, even 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 gear that’s up to their standards, which has never really happened before.

Even the equipment that produces those frequency charts has gotten more affordable. MiniDSP makes a product for about $200 — it’s a pair of artificial ears with microphones, basically — that does a totally adequate job. That kind of equipment used to cost tens of thousands of dollars. It still does, and it’s still better, but just like the flood of cheap high-end earbuds, the MiniDSP is capable, a little weird, and affordable to all.

Given all of those cheap new toys, a little obsession is understandable. One proprietor of a Chinese hi-fi website declined an interview, saying he was “actually on hiatus from the hobby to spend time with my family.”

“It’s just so easy to get into it, and you just want to try more and more and more,” says Lee. “For Chi-Fi, it’s like, oh, it’s only another 20 bucks, so why not?”

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