Made in China: What it Means for AV Gear

I don’t know if you’ve noticed (though how could you not) that a lot of the stuff we buy these days is made in China. It ranges from the remarkably cheap (like the lightweight, pleated jacket I bought last year in Walmart (for less than the price of a CD or Blu-ray) to the very expensive (such as Buick’s new Envision SUV—yes, that’s made in the PRC as well, the first U.S. car made there, by GM Shanghai). It’s difficult to buy anything today without encountering a product made in China as the only viable alternative. And even if it’s manufactured in the U.S., many of its individual pieces were likely sourced in China.

The Chinese have long been an industrious people. But while they live under an authoritative, totalitarian wannabe regime (if you don’t think so, Google “China Social Grading System” and “Google in China”) they’ve managed to develop into a trading powerhouse. They’ve done so while retaining ultimate government control of industry (a fundamental tenet of the Communist party that runs the country) under the veneer of a free market economy.

I recently went through a list of exhibitors at this coming January’s 2019 CES. Once you get to “S” you have to weed through pages and pages of “Shenzhen This” or Shenzhen That.” Last year’s CES directory had over 30 pages filled with Shenzhen companies, a total of roughly 350. Most of these firms have tiny booths, but the companies themselves might be bigger than they appear. Shenzhen is a technology hub, a port city dwarfing New York with a population between 12 and 20 million depending on how it’s counted.

But with a population of 1.2 billion, China as a whole has other manufacturing centers as well, many of them busy turning out audio/video products. Not only are there wholly Chinese television companies such as TCL and Hisense, but many of the video products sold under familiar, non-Chinese brand names are either made in China or have their parts (from capacitors, resistors, and inductors to entire circuit boards and LCD panels) made in China.

Some Japanese and Korean video companies have been reluctant to have certain key components made in China for fear that these components, using proprietary engineering developed at great expense, would be copied by the Chinese, or used by the Chinese for products they make under contract to other companies competing with the Japanese or Koreans. Those fears are not unfounded, as China has long had, shall we say, a very flexible understanding of intellectual property rights.

A significant percentage of the products coveted by audio and video fans is now made in China. The video side is obvious, but audio is affected as well. If you’re looking for speakers that are even remotely affordable, (even as high as $5,000/pair, or more) China dominates your choices. Some of the better-known speaker makers in the U.S. and Europe even keep staffs from the home country in China, or visit there often, to be certain that their standards are maintained. Many of these speakers are beautifully made and finished, possibly aided by environmental standards that are, shall we say, a bit looser than at home. I was told (admittedly some years ago and unconfirmed) that some Japanese literature and Japanese audio magazines, which had gorgeous color, were printed in China not only because it was cheaper but because the inks available in China were not allowed in Japan.

Have Chinese industries so dominated the markets, both here and elsewhere, that local industry has suffered? Yes, but this has all happened before—with Japan. Just twenty or so years ago Marty McFly commented to an incredulous Doc Brown that “all the good stuff is made in Japan now.” This wasn’t always the case. My father once told me that After WWII many poorly made products were labeled “Made in USA.” As it happened, a town in Japan had been renamed USA! It took decades, but Japan eventually got everything together and killed off much of the U.S. domestic television and audio industry. After that, Korea seriously impacted the Japanese TV industry. And now the Chinese are challenging both of them.

Proposed and already imposed U.S. tariffs on China have a lot of companies that import from China, or make products using Chinese parts, very jittery. Some have already raised their prices, even though as I write this the full impact of such tariffs has yet to be fully felt (it doesn’t affect products still stocked in warehouses and in stores waiting to be sold). But it’s a complicated subject that has long troubled experts, and I’m certainly in no position to offer a solution. China has been taking advantage of the situation for decades, first as a minor player, now as a juggernaut. And Americans, by and large, simply want prices to stay low. While average U.S. wages have stagnated, those lower wages now go further as we enjoy home theaters, flat-panel TVs, home computers, personal assistants, home automation, and cellphones that cost far less than they otherwise might.

pw's picture

Kinki -Remember that name..
Their new Monoblocks look to be a Giant Killer..

StifflerClause's picture

I used to be quite ready to try Kinki things, but I’ve become apprehensive as I’ve aged.

Accessories4less's picture

You can easily find high quality speakers made outside of PRC for far less than $5k! Canton builds spks in Germany/Czech Republic starting @$200/pr for over 45 years. Focal speakers are made in France and start @$400/pr.

The assumption of only expensive speakers are made outside of China is incorrect. European manufactured speakers can be found online at very affordable prices! Support companies that haven't moved production to China. They exist and are more affordable than most people think.

hk2000's picture

I completely agree. I have 7 pairs of speakers, none of which is made in China.I only buy made in China if there are absolutely no alternatives.

hk2000's picture

Just to be clear, that is not motivated by anything other than the desire for better manufacturing quality, which I am still to see it equal what it used to be just a decade ago..

prerich45's picture

Thomas - I got both of these from China and modded them. Got rid of the Chinese tubes and replaced them with nice Soviet era tubes. The DAC is an ES9038 based model and replaced the opamps and replaced them with Burson Vivid v6 opamps.......This combo is producing some of the most beautiful music I've heard!!!!

After my house gets back to normal - you're invited to come on up and hear how the poor people do it :) !!!!

Billy's picture

I agree, wages need to be dramatically bumped up, then we bring back American made greatness. Our illustrious leader gave 1.5 trillion to gazillionaires yet while wages are slightly up, they still do not come anywhere near keeping up with the real world inflation in things such as healthcare and taxes, and childcare, etc. Maybe that corporate tax cut should have been directly linked to creating actual GOOD jobs, ones that pay a family supporting wage and a decent benefit package...or maybe we just enforce union rules again in this country so us Average Joes can get a small piece of the pie again. The uber wealthy through pure smug greed have turned China into an economic bully and worse yet, a military threat. After the great American economic collapse, I hope blame and punishment is properly dished out where it is due. OKAY, rant over. Do I appreciate cheap electronics? Yep, but what I want more is the America I grew up in, one that didn't have nearly the economic and social problems we now have.