Chi-Fi: The Harbinger of Doom, or Bringing High-End Sound to the Masses?

Chi-Fi: The Harbinger of Doom, or Bringing High-End Sound to the Masses?


PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amplifier

All photos by Tom Gibbs.
Prices listed in US$.

I’ve been participating in a social media discussion that’s been going on for a while. It originally focused on affordable, but well-designed audio gear, and how such gear can often integrate nicely with much more expensive equipment. Over a period of days, the gist of the discussion devolved from well-mannered enthusiasm for a variety of cost-conscious products to near xenophobic hatred of everything in audio that’s manufactured anywhere but in the USA, especially low-cost gear made in China. And the haters poured on the hate; one American manufacturer shared a near-apocalyptic prophecy of doom for the high-end audio industry should the Chinese manufacturers prevail. And all this because guys like me were telling the world about the joys of listening to a $299 pair of Chinese-made loudspeakers. Sheesh!

Some Necessary Background…

As an American, from the moment I first really began to identify as an audiophile, I always aspired to have a hi-fi setup that was built around gear that was all Made in America, which I considered, at that point, to be the crème de la crème of the high-end. In my defense, I didn’t really have much of an informed worldview back then. That is, until I bought a pair of Canadian-made Classé amps with matching preamp, followed by a British-made Rega turntable and a British-made REL subwoofer. I mean, an American/Canadian/British-based system was entirely more legit than any mid-fi setup from Japan or Malaysia, right?

But hold on a minute—when the REL sub developed a serious rattle and I had to remove the amplifier plate to take a look inside the cabinet, the first thing I discovered was a tiny, discreet little sticker on the inside of the panel that read Made In China. Made in China? Wait…what? What a massive betrayal this was—how could a company like REL surreptitiously manufacture their subs in China while portraying themselves as a British high-fidelity company—and totally get away with it? I was stunned by this revelation, but after firmly tightening several screws on the massive toroidal transformer inside the sub’s case that had loosened during transit, I soon developed a total love affair for the REL, which lasted twelve years. It died a few months ago, and I decided I needed to move in a different direction rather than spend $500 to repair a piece of kit that was approaching geriatric status in audiophile terms. But the bottom line was this: I was surprised beyond belief that a British-designed sub that was manufactured in China could deliver deep bass that was this tuneful and musical, and always dynamic and powerful.

My appreciation for Chinese-manufactured gear (or Chi-Fi, as it’s more commonly known) was slowly changing, and the needle tilted in an even more positive direction when I purchased several pieces of Emotiva gear following a lightning strike at my home a decade ago that killed many elements in my audio rig. Once again, I found myself feeling slightly hoodwinked following the purchase; the gear was initially advertised by Emotiva as “Made in the USA”, but that verbiage was soon changed to read “Assembled in the USA”. Bottom line, the Emotiva gear was assembled at a US factory from all Chinese-made components, but as with my REL experience, I found the Emotiva amps to be superbly musical performers. They served my system well for years before I moved forward with several iterations of new gear starting around 2018.

KLH Model Five

It was at about this time when I totally cast aside any qualms or reservations I might have continued to harbor concerning the Chinese origins of gear that ended up in my system. With equipment whose design originates in the US, UK, Europe, or North America, but ends up getting manufactured in China, the odds are fairly spot-on that the Chinese gear will perform at levels that exceed my expectations. My two audio systems currently feature Chinese-made gear, including a pair of new production KLH Model Five loudspeakers, a PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amplifier, a Gustard X26 Pro DAC and C18 master clock, a Topping E70 Velvet DAC, and a pair of Vera-Fi Audio Vanguard Scout compact monitor loudspeakers along with two of the company’s Caldera 10 subwoofers. And I feel compelled to include the AudioQuest Niagara 1200 and 3000 power conditioners, which are both made in Taiwan (which once was and may again be part of China). Gustard and Topping are standalone Chinese companies that manufacture their own designs, and PrimaLuna is designed in the Netherlands; otherwise, everything else is designed in the US.

High-End For the Masses

All the Chi-Fi gear in my systems perform at levels that would never imply that any of it was manufactured in China, a country that has always commonly been considered to be the point of origin for mostly mass-market garbage. And there’s Chi-Fi gear available that spans all price points. The $2500 KLH Model Five loudspeakers are mid-century modern classics that significantly improve upon Henry Kloss’s original design from fifty years ago. The $5000 PrimaLuna EVO 300, when fitted with the correct complement of vintage NOS tubes, will outperform models costing more than double its price point. And the AudioQuest Niagara 3000 and 1200 units ($3500 and $1100, respectively) have been essential in ridding my AC power of joy-killing noise. Each of those products falls into the price range expected for high-end audio gear, with each unequivocally delivering superior-quality audio. The DACs from Topping and Gustard ($400 and $1500, respectively) and loudspeakers from Vera-Fi Audio, including the $299 Vanguard Scout loudspeakers and $199 Caldera 10 subwoofer, are comparably (and significantly) more affordable. Nonetheless, these products also deliver a generous helping of audiophile goodness. And all these low-priced brands play well when either powered by, or connected to, much more expensive audio gear, which is a hallmark of any great audio design. System synergy is the key here, and all this budget-minded equipment plays very synergistically with gear of a much higher pedigree.

DACs from Topping (top) and Gustard deliver sound with a level of musicality that matches that of equipment with a much higher pedigree.

Topping’s E70 Velvet DAC is a $400 wonder that uses a trick of technology from its dual compliment of new production AKM chips that creates what is essentially a 1-Bit DSD DAC that doesn’t blend the DSD playback stream with PCM at any point along the path to the analogue outputs. At the Velvet’s price point, there’s very little out there that can match the clarity and refinement of its DSD playback. It’s definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re focused on hearing totally ungimmicked DSD sound. The Gustard X26 Pro/C18 master clock combo at $3100 presents sound that rivals that of digital rigs costing many multiples of its relatively paltry price point. Both Topping and Gustard use a host of American-made components and chipsets in their DACs and clocks, and their sound quality approaches that of the best-in-class delta-sigma DAC designs.

The Vanguard Scouts and Caldera sub offer astonishingly good sound at crazy low prices.

Concerning the Vanguard loudspeakers and subs from Vera-Fi Audio, the Scout and Caldera lines are built by craftsmen in Chinese factories that the principals at Vera-Fi have spent decades cultivating relationships with. Vera-Fi’s Mark Schifter spent 10 years living in China, working with the factories and craftsmen there to achieve the levels of precision needed to build his loudspeakers, which come in real wood-veneered cabinets that gleam with the look of pricy perfectionism, when, in fact, the speakers sell for only a few hundred dollars. The quality of the cabinet work Vera-Fi puts into the Vanguard Scouts is beyond reproach; the fit and finish is the match of anything I’ve seen from almost any US manufacturer at any price point, with the main difference being that most US-made loudspeakers generally retail at many times the price of those from Vera-Fi.

Sourced from China: the Vera-Fi Vanguard Scout/Caldera loudspeakers, Vera-Fi speaker stands, PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amp, AudioQuest 1200 conditioner, and all Buddha statuary.

The $299 Vanguard Scouts are designed by Mark Schifter’s partner Viet Nguyen. They’re based on classic British LS3/5A designs and will outperform many similarly-sized compact monitor loudspeakers. They’ve actually displaced the KLH Model Fives in my all-analogue room, and the Scouts looove being powered by vintage tubes. But they’re also capable of handling mega-watt solid state amps, like my $12k Naiu Labs Ella hybrid stereo power amp, which outputs 250Wpc into 8 ohms, 500Wpc into 4 ohms, and 1000Wpc into 2 ohms. I’ve never pushed the Scouts to a point where they’ve sounded overmatched or stressed, and they’ll fill a nicely-sized room with impressively musical sound. Of course, having a pair of Caldera 10 subs is essential, and even one sub ($199 MSRP) is capable of filling the bass spectrum left empty by the absence of the recently departed REL. The performance of the Calderas is astonishing, and at a cost that’s about 1/8th of the current retail of an equivalent replacement REL. Vera-Fi’s business model is to produce sanely-priced products that perform at insane levels, which is exactly the kind of kick-in-the-pants that high-end audio needs to get greater involvement from any demographic other than OWGs (Old White Guys).

The Harbinger of Doom

The participants in the social media discussion I mentioned at the outset included the aforementioned manufacturer who expressed his opinion that the proliferation of Chinese-made gear will be responsible for the eventual implosion of high-end audio as we know it. He sells a variety of fairly pricey audio gear, with both amps and preamps that, with options, can top the $18k price point, each. In what alternate reality does a manufacturer like this exist where he considers Chinese-made gear that sells at the sub-$500 price point—like a $150 class-D amplifier or a pair of $299 loudspeakers—to pose a significant threat to his business model, when, in fact, the ready availability of lower-priced but overperforming gear might help bring a new generation of audiophiles into the high-end? That’s how it worked for me, and probably countless others in this obsession; you buy what you can afford, and then eventually realize it’s what you didn’t think you could afford that really gets you closer to the music.

This manufacturer even went on to say: “What happens when all competing American brands are out of business and all that remains to choose from is Chinese products? China is not our friend. If they own the market I think it is obvious that would not be good for us that love audio.” His anti-Chi-Fi diatribe continued to the point where he started speculating on the possibility of China invading Taiwan, and how that would impact the policies of the US government towards imports of Chinese-made electronics, including those made for US audio companies. He projected that it would be the end of such relationships, and the import of Chi-Fi products would immediately cease, possibly forever. His wording was so vehement on the subject that I’m fairly certain he might actually be cheering for that possible outcome, as it would surely eliminate any foreign competition to his stable of products.

Is Chi-Fi a Real Threat?

I’ve dealt a lot with Chinese manufacturers in recent years, and I have a reasonable grasp of the business models of companies like Gustard, Topping, and FIIO. Most of them are fairly small-scale operations. FIIO, for example, operates out of a smallish steel-construction building in Guangdong Province. I’ve reviewed quite a few of their products over the years, and through my personal contact with them, I’ve grown to appreciate not only how they function as a company, but also how they manage to produce such remarkably beautiful and functional products that are all essentially hand-built. In their “About FIIO” information on their website, under a subhead titled FIIO’s Aspiration, the company’s goal is stated as “To raise the reputation of ‘Made in China’.” In dealing with my contacts at FIIO, I totally get the impression of a small company that has immense pride in their product offerings, and nothing that would lead me to believe that they’re seeking the ultimate destruction of the American high-end audio industry as we know it.

And through my dozen or so years of dealing with Chinese-made gear, and, eventually, Chinese manufacturers, I’ve also come to the realization that communication with many of them on a meaningful level is almost impossible from halfway across the globe. When I first started reaching out to FIIO, the company completely ignored me for months before its marketing manager, Sunny Wong, sent an email with a link to web traffic numbers of online publications to inform me that the exclusive publication I worked for at the time, Positive Feedback, didn’t generate the kind of traffic that Stereophile or The Absolute Sound did.

Undeterred, I continued to ply Sunny with my rationale for getting increased exposure for FIIO’s products, and she eventually relented. But it took an almost Herculean effort on my part to convince her of the logic of my arguments. The same is true of Gustard, who is a small subsidiary of an LED lighting company, also in Guangdong Province. But getting anyone at Gustard to answer an email is almost a complete and total impossibility—you can expect weeks to pass before getting an answer to even the most simple question about its products or technology. All of which gives me great respect for a guy like Mark Schifter of Vera-Fi Audio, who spends a great deal of time onsite with the small Chinese companies who manufacture his products to ensure they follow every aspect of his design and instructions to the letter.

DACs from Gustard and Topping feed the sound to my digital system. An AudioQuest 3000 conditioner sits on the shelf below them.

The social media discussion I’ve been talking about started going south when the manufacturer in question accused the many pro-Chi-Fi responses in the lengthy thread of “glorifying Chinese-made products.” The phrases “Chinese-made” or “Chi-Fi” never once surfaced—until he used them in his complaints. That’s when others began to pile on with more xenophobic rants about the obvious inferiority of Chi-Fi when compared to higher-end, American-made electronics, and I’d easily wager many of those involved have never listened to any of the Chinese-made gear in question. Especially not in their own systems, where they could easily make a more rational and informed evaluation of the equipment’s performance.

I’m no hermit; I pay attention to current world events, and I’m fully aware of the Chinese government’s involvement in the country’s companies, both small and large, and of the looming possibility China may invade Taiwan. And I know that it would be a total tragedy for everyone involved, across the globe. But more than everything else, I worry that the vast majority of people who just might have an interest in the high-end will lose an important conduit to affordable, high-performance equipment, one that could eventually lead to an interest in audio products made on our shores, like those by the anti-Chi-Fi manufacturer.

2024 PMA Magazine. All rights reserved.

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