China: the new hub of high-quality hi-fi

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FiiO, HiFiMAN, Shanling, Cayin, Aune Audio, iBasso, Xiaomi… You may not be familiar with all of these names, however, these brands have taken the audio and video industry by storm.
What do they have in common? They are all Chinese.
Their goal: to win over the hearts of audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts across the world.

iBasso, Aune Audio, FiiO, Cayin and HiFiMAN are a few of the Chinese brands that have won over audiophiles from around the world with very high-quality devices.

China has long been the factory of the West, mostly due to the very low cost of labour. Many European and American companies relocated production to China so they could provide consumers with attractively priced TVs, speakers, hi-fi devices and all sorts of electronic devices.

But the reputation of goods with the “Made in China” label has suffered for many years from the plethora of cheap merchandise of questionable quality that has flooded the market. As a result, it isn’t rare to see a wry smile when someone is told that a product is made in China. The implication being: “it must be of poor quality”.

The Mi Electric Scooter Pro (Xiaomi M365 Pro) is one of the Chinese brand’s iconic products. Its level of finish and value have made it one of the most popular models among electromobility enthusiasts.

However, China is bursting with brands specializing in sound and image, often young technological start-ups but also older brands that excel in a variety of fields: portable audio DACs, DAPs, hi-fi headphones, in-ear headphones, hi-fi tube amplifiers, 4K Ultra HD TVs, AV network streamers and projectors.

FiiO

Founded in 2007, the Chinese company FiiO rapidly gained an excellent reputation thanks to its first portable audio DAC, the FiiO Alpen E17. Today, the manufacturer offers a wide range of portable hi-fi devices with remarkable audio qualities, including headphone amplifiers, portable headphone amplifiers, DAPs, earphones and Bluetooth receivers.

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The FiiO Q1 MKII portable headphone amplifier is certified Hi-Res Audio (24/96) and Made for iPhone. In USB DAC mode it handles PCM 32/384 and DSD audio files. It has an output power of 190mW. The finish quality is remarkable.

Among FiiO’s iconic products are the FiiO M11, FiiO M11 Pro and FiiO M15 DAPs, the FiiO F9 Pro, FiiO FH5, FiiO FA7 and, our personal favorite, FiiO FH7 in-ear monitors, but also the FiiO Q1 MKII and FiiO Q5S portable headphone amplifiers/DACs.

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The FiiO M11 Pro DAP can be used as a USB DAC with a computer (here to power the FiiO FH7 earphones). Its build quality and finish are on a par with models from prestigious audiophile brands, but with a quality/price/functionality ratio that is almost unbeatable.

HiFiMAN

The HiFiMAN company was founded in late 2005 by Dr Fang Bian while he was still living in New York. First named Head-Direct, it officially began using the name HiFiMAN in 2007. Two small production units emerged in China in 2010 before the headquarters were moved to Tianjin in 2011.

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The Sundara hi-fi headphones are the entry-level model in HiFiMAN’s Planar Magnetic headphone range. Its musical qualities match those of much more expensive models and it boasts a flawless finish.

HiFiMAN mainly produces hi-fi headphones featuring Planar Magnetic technology, such as the HiFiMAN HE-500, which was acclaimed by the specialized press and eventually replaced by the HiFiMAN HE-560. As these headphones have a low sensitivity rating, a headphone amplifier is a must. Because few models on the market were able to fully explore the potential of HiFiMAN headphones, the Chinese manufacturer decided to produce specially adapted headphone amplifiers.

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The HiFiMAN Shangri-La Jr headphones and their dedicated tube amplifier are one of the best systems in the world for listening to music with headphones. Their design is quite simply stunning.

Among the products in HiFiMAN’s catalog, the HiFiMAN Sundara, HiFiMAN HE560 and HiFiMAN Shangri-La Jr headphones rank high on audiophile wish-lists, alongside the HiFiMAN EF100 headphone amplifier, which features a tube preamplifier and a USB DAC.

Shanling

Founded in 1988, Shanling is a high tech company that designs, develops and produces DAPs, portable headphone amplifiers, hi-fi earphones, CD/SA-CD players, hi-fi amplifiers and many other hi-fi devices.

Notably, the brand produced the high-end Shanling M5 DAP (Asahi Kasei AK4490 DAC, 32-bit/384kHz compatible, USB DAC mode) and the ultra-compact Shanling M1. They were both released in 2016 and were a big success.

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The Shanling M0 DAP is equipped with an ESS Sabre ES9218P DAC (32-bit/384kHz) and a 1.5” color screen, and also features a USB DAC and aptX and LDAC Bluetooth modes. Very compact and lightweight, it can hold a 512GB microSD card.

The Chinese manufacturer’s expertise is currently illustrated through the successors of these two best-sellers: the entry-level Shanling M0 and the flagship Shanling M5S. The intermediate models are the Shanling M2S and the Shanling M2X.

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The crown jewel in the Chinese manufacturer’s DAP range, the Shanling M5S uses two Asahi Kasei AK4493EQ DACs. Compatible with 32-bit/768kHz and DSD256 files, it incorporates a WiFi controller, supports DLNA (DMR) and AirPlay protocols and features an aptX and LDAC Bluetooth chip. Its attractive esthetics match its performance.

The brand’s catalog also includes the Shanling Up 2 and Shanling H3A portable headphone amplifiers.

Cayin

Cayin is one of the first Chinese high fidelity brands to have conquered the West, especially with its tube hi-fi amplifiers that are regularly lauded by the specialized press for their natural and lively sound.

Cayin was founded in 1993 with the goal of producing the best audio devices possible at competitive prices. Since then, the manufacturer has developed several hundred devices, including headphone amplifiers, tube hi-fi amplifiers, preamplifiers, stereo hi-fi amplifiers and CD players. More recently, Cayin has expanded its catalog with DAPs, USB DACs, audio network players and portable headphone amplifiers.

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The Cayin CS-55A EL34 tube amplifier features two RCA line inputs, an MM phono input and a USB-B digital input. Its power output of 2×40 watts means it can power all types of speakers, including large floorstanding models.

Among the Chinese manufacturer’s most popular stereo hi-fi amplifiers are the Cayin CS-55A EL34, which also has a vacuum tube version using KT88 tubes (Cayin CS-55A KT88). We were very impressed by the latter during our review (discover our review of the Cayin CS-55 KT88).

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The Cayin HA-300 headphone amplifier is an audiophile model that uses the iconic 300B tube, which is paired with 6SN7 tubes for the preamplification, alongside a Class A amplification section. The Cayin HA-300 provides an exceptionally warm and refined sound. Its design is particularly attractive with its two VU meters that are incorporated into its elegant brushed aluminum front panel.

Equipped with a pair of iconic 300B tubes and a dedicated external power supply, the Cayin HA-300 headphone amplifier is also a reference in its field. As for the Cayin N8 DAP, it remains one of the best models available on the market today and is the only one with a tube preamplification section. Chinese manufacturers know how to innovate…

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The Cayin N8 is the Chinese manufacturer’s flagship model. It is equipped with a double Asahi Kasei AK4497 DAC and has a dual-channel Korg preamplification section. This beautiful balanced output DAP can even be used as a 32/384 USB DAC or a preamplifier.

Aune Audio

Aune Audio is one of China’s leading companies specializing in high quality digital audio. It is famous for its headphone amplifiers (the Aune Audio X7S, for example) and its USB audio DACs (including the Aune T1 SE model with its tube preamplifier). Aune Audio products combine an attractive design with solid technical specs to deliver great audio quality at a reasonable price.

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The Aune Audio T1 SE USB DAC and headphone amplifier is equipped with a 24-bit/192kHz and DSD compatible DAC, as well a preamplification tube to deliver a warm and smooth sound.

iBasso

The iBasso brand is very popular with traveling audiophiles, who have enjoyed its high-quality DAPs for over a decade. Founded in 2006, iBasso Audio also specializes in designing and manufacturing amplified portable audio DACs and in-ear headphones

The very innovative iBasso DX100 DAP is the first ever audiophile model to run on Android.

In 2011, iBasso successfully bypassed the ALSA Android driver and developed the world’s first Android-powered DAP with 24-bit/192kHz compatibility: the iBasso DX100.

iBasso’s range of DAPs includes many models that are true references in their price range, such as the iBasso DX120, the iBasso DX150, the iBasso DX160 and the excellent iBasso DX220.

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Successor to the DX100, the iBasso DX150 DAP runs on Android and includes a double Asahi Kasei AK4490 DAC.

Among the in-ear headphones sold by the Chinese manufacturer, the iBasso IT01s with their 10mm drivers offer a very musical sound despite their very reasonable price.

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The iBasso IT01 earphones are equipped with 10mm dynamic drivers with a graphene membrane. They are among the best in-ear monitors in their price range.

Xiaomi

Xiaomi was founded in April 2010 as a software company to create a new custom ROM based on Android. The goal was to provide an operating system for smartphones with additional features that Android did not yet offer with an intuitive interface. MIUI, the ROM created by the team, has become a huge success and has been implemented on many smartphones.

In 2011, Xiaomi released the Mi One smartphone. The company demonstrated that it could not only create its own software, but also produce its own devices. With the Mi One, Xiaomi offered a high-end smartphone at a very competitive price. Making the best technology accessible to everyone has been the company’s philosophy since its creation.

Over the years, Xiaomi made a name for itself in the mobile telephone market before branching out. Today, the Chinese manufacturer’s catalog is extremely diverse: smartphones, smart objects (light bulbs, lamps, detectors, cameras, smart bracelets), small household appliances, electric scooters, headphones, video projectors, network media players… You can even find luggage! Their electric scooter is possibly one of the most popular models in the world. You’ve probably already come across one, if you don’t own one yourself!

Among the brand’s best sellers, the Mi Electric Scooter (Xiaomi M365) and Mi Electric Scooter Pro (M365 Pro) have largely contributed to the development of this means of transport and to the reputation of the Chinese manufacturer.

The design and finish of its products, which are always highly sophisticated, as well as their intuitive functionality, have even earned Xiaomi the nickname of Chinese Apple.

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The Xiaomi Mi Laser Projector is an ultra-short focal length DLP laser projector with a lifespan of up to 25,000 hours, which is the equivalent of thousands of movies.
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The Xiaomi Mi Laser Projector features Android TV and can display a very large image (up to 3.8m across) when placed close to the wall or projection screen.

In the audiovisual domain, Xiaomi has notably excelled with its ultra-short focal length projector, the Mi Laser Projector, as well as with its Xiaomi Mi TV Box S 4K Android network player.

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The Xiaomi Mi TV Box S 4K is a UHD 4K HDR compatible Android network multimedia player. It provides access to many applications from the Google Play Store such as Netflix, Prime Video, Spotify and Youtube.

In conclusion

It goes without saying that not all audio and video devices made in China are created equal. You can often find poor-quality devices in supermarket high-tech aisles that perpetuate the negative reputation of “Made in China” products.

But you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! There are many Chinese hi-fi and high-tech manufacturers who are passionate about their trade and who strive to produce sophisticated, elegant and high-performance devices.

Don’t hesitate to try these devices in one of the many Son-Video.com stores. They are proof of how the Chinese market has truly reinvented itself.


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