The Same Language

I'm currently attending GuangZhou Hi-Fi 2006 in GuangZhou, China (you can read my China Hi-Fi Tour 2006 blog). The show is a fantastic audio event and everywhere I look, I see products I want—some very similar to mainstream US brands and some exceedingly strange and different. But the audiophiles are familiar: Show me a guy who lights up in the glow of a 300B and I'll show you one of my chosen people.

On the first day of the show, I participated in a working lunch and free-wheeling Q&A with show founder Matthew Zhou, several high-end mainland manufacturers, and members of the Chinese high-end audio press.

As in the Home Entertainment Shows, we started with an industry leader, in this case, Yi Min Zhaor, director of Guang Dong Music Radio, who stressed the need for cooperation among all aspects of the industry. In this case, his speech seemed terser and more to-the-point than most I've heard, but perhaps that's because I only got the condensed, translated version.

The next item on the agenda was me—surprise, surprise, surprise. "I think we'll just have an informal Q&A with our guest, Wes Phillips of Stereophile," Ping Gong of AAA-Audio said. He then asked me about American perceptions of Chinese audio.

"We think there are three, possibly competing, possibly simultaneous perceptions of Chinese manufacturing in America," Ping said. "Some people think we make cheap crap with slave labor; some people think we are stealing jobs with products that are priced under what American companies can deliver, but are more or less copies of American products; and some people actually want our products when they are better built and more affordable than competing American brands. How do we change people's minds about the first two?"

I'm glad they started with an easy one.

I suspect that Ping is correct and all three opinions are more or less held simultaneously. Many Americans do think first about commoditized, price-first products when they think of Chinese goods. Why shouldn't they? That's what you'll find at WalMart, K-mart, et al. Most people can't even conceive of repairing a DVD player, VCR (remember them), or even a small-screen CRT TV any more. You just replace 'em—and what you replace them with is cheap'n'cheesy mass-market crap, a lot of which does come from China.

Increasingly, however, we're seeing the next stage of Chinese manufacture. Chinese manufacturers see that producing lowest-common-denominator products is not enough to sustain growth and development. Many of them thus have now improved their facilities, bringing them up to ISO quality standards, and are beginning to produce products built as well as any in the world. We audiophiles began to suspect this when we saw how well-manufactured components from Jolida, Shanling, and other Chinese brands could be.

Yet, I think most audiophiles still add "for the price" to that statement. Chinese hi-fi, good as it can be, is still growing primarily by convincing consumers that they are getting more for their money.

"So how do we reach that next step?" show organizer Matthew Zhou asked me.

That's the same question American and European manufacturers are asking, I said. Like many Americans of a certain age, I remember when Japanese products had to overcome the same prejudice. It didn't happen quickly, but eventually, especially in the automotive market, Japanese quality became the benchmark—but that takes years of producing products that don't break.

"It takes a long time" was not an answer that fired up the round-table.

"Do Chinese products command respect in the US?" asked Wang Jie, managing editor of Home Theater Tech, a Chinese magazine that measures its products as well as reviews them. "For example, has Stereophile ever reviewed any?"

An easy one! Yes, we have reviewed Jolida, Shanling, and PrimaLuna components. I saw smiles at the mention of these Chinese brands, but then the subject of measurements led to a discussion of Stereophile's recent Zanden review. My interpreter was spending an awfully long time over the Zanden part of the discussion. I heard the words "John Atkinson" and quite a bit about, I thought, "measurements."

Wang Jie asked, "When you got such strange measurements for the Zanden, why didn't you think it was defective?" I explained that the reviewer had liked the way it sounded and it seemed to operate properly, so there was no reason to assume it had not been designed to work the way it did.

"Do you think the reviewer was wrong?"

No, I said. I have spent time listening with Michael Fremer and I usually hear what he hears—more than that, when he explains what he hears, it always tracks with what I have heard. I have listened with some reviewers (none on staff at Stereophile, I hastened to add) who I believe heard what I heard but described it quite differently.

Wang Jie was fascinated by this, so he asked the big question: "Who do readers believe, the reviewer or the measurements?"

Hoo-boy! I wish I knew, but given the high level of competition at the cutting edge, products with mixed results probably never do all that well. I turned the question around: What would Chinese magazines do with a result where the measurements were at such a variance with the review?

"We'd think something was wrong." But would you hold the review or publish it?

This raised a new question. Wilson (no translation of surname), web editor of hifi168.com, asked, "Who do American magazines work for—the audio industry or the readers?"

I said I couldn't speak for other magazines, but Stereophile feels its primary loyalty belongs to the readers. Advertisers buy pages, but they only buy them because our readers look at them—abandon the readers and, once they're gone, you have no advertisers, so given a choice, we'd rather lose an advertiser than a reader.

This prompted a discussion that was not translated for me, but it obviously was an interesting viewpoint—and one that split the group between manufacturers and journalists.

"We are ready to take the step from specialty market to mainstream," said Liu Shi Hui of The Opera Audio Co. Ltd. "What is it the American consumer wants?"

Isn't that the question every audio manufacturer is asking? I said that if I knew that answer, I could have come to China as a consultant, not a guest. However, I suspect that the next big thing is not a variation on an existing product. What has excited me most in the last year has been the growth in quality of digital music servers, which were a joke just a few years ago. This has been an area where the real growth has come not from manufacturing expertise, but from intellectual breakthroughs and creative thinking. It's the next level beyond industrial competence—and, based on what I've already seen at GuangZhou Hi-Fi 2006, it's the next big step for the Chinese audio industry.

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