China - High-Performance Audio as a Status Symbol

Here in the United States, if a guy spends three hundred grand to buy a Lamborghini, most people will think he's crazy, but most will also wish that they were him, and that they could buy one, too. If, on the other hand, that same guy were to spend only a third of that amount - ONE hundred thousand dollars - on a hi-fi system (the complete system, mind you, not just, as is entirely possible, a single element of it) the great majority of other people would still think he was crazy, but they'd likely have no envy at all.

AR-china3a.jpgIn this country, for whatever reason, having a spectacularly good and wondrously expensive hi-fi system isn't part of our popular image of the "rich and famous" lifestyle, and as a way of showing-off or scoring social points, it generally falls flat. The audiophile community might think you great and mighty and lust after your system, but most other people will see it only as a waste of money that could have been spent on something else, either more useful or more truly impressive.

In China, though, it's completely different. I was recently at that country's Guangzhou Hi-Fi Show, and perhaps the most obvious thing that I saw, other than the large size of the definitely enthusiastic crowds and the great number of exhibitors, was the "wealth orientation" of the products shown. Almost everything I saw there was either very expensive or, if not, had been designed to try to LOOK expensive, even when, as was the case with some amplifiers, speakers, and, particularly, turntables and tonearms, the often-verging-on-either-baroque-Steam Punk-or-Buck Rogers styling added only to the product's cost and visual appeal and did nothing at all for its real performance.

One important key to understanding this may lie in the fact that most of the attendees of the Guangzhou Show were considerably younger than the 50+ age group typically seen at US shows. Most were at an age where they were still aspiring to or building their career and economic achievement, and it was clear that they saw hi-fi, much as Americans tend to regard their homes and automobiles: as both a reward for, and a way of displaying their success.

For many people in China, an impressive High End audio system IS what a Lamborghini is elsewhere - a demonstration of wealth and social position that others will envy. Also, like a Lamborghini, most of the people who will buy one, will never either understand or use its full level of performance.

AR-china2a.jpgTalking with Chinese dealers (most of whom, incidentally, spoke surprisingly good English), I found that it was not at all uncommon for them to have customers come into their stores and buy complete systems without carefully listening to and judiciously assembling their components; simply on the basis of either expense, reputation, or appearance.

Perhaps that was why, when I visited several of the Show's largest exhibit rooms, major distributing companies were displaying as many products as they could possibly jam in and, depending on the moment, as many as four systems were being demonstrated at the same time -- all at volumes that sounded like 100dB or more!

In one of those rooms, Tim de Paravicini (the great designer of the E.A.R. ['Esoteric Audio Research"] High End gear and vast amounts of professional and recording equipment used in studios and concert venues around the world) was demonstrating one of his own heavily-modified master tape recorders, using E.A.R. electronics played through some "Antique Metallic Gold"-finished speakers that looked like, Avalons but weren't. The program material used was a Bernie Grundman master tape copy of the latest Lyn Stanley album and, although one could get occasional flashes of the great sound of both the system and the album, the ambient noise level from all of the competing exhibits was generally so high that most of the time, although we were sitting next to each other, "front row center", neither Tim nor I could hear either the demonstration (that he was doing) or our own attempts to talk about it.

What was most significant about all that was that the equipment in all of the displays in those rooms, including Tim's, that was being treated by its exhibitors like the cheapest "Best Buy" or department store "mid-fi", was all - especially considering the annual income of the average Chinese worker -- anywhere from expensive to VERY expensive (even the Lyn Stanley master tape that he was playing, Tim told me, was a staggering US$750 for the two-reel set), and EVEN THOUGH PEOPLE WERE UNABLE TO HEAR THE EQUIPMENT, THEY WERE STILL BUYING IT!

AR-china4a.jpgWhether for esthetic reasons or simply "bragging rights", much of what I noticed at the show was conspicuously exotic-looking and much of it, like the "Line Magnetic LM-1 212 Single Ended mono amplifiers with tungar filament supplies", used tubes. Solid-state was certainly not absent though, and things like the electronics from Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems (demonstrated with a huge multi-layer, wondrously expensive turntable rig with gold inserts to flash and catch the eye as the platter turned) easily held up that camp's claim to being fully as impressive and as fit to be lusted after and bragged about as anything else that I saw.

While I did hear some good sound at the Show - from D'Agostino; from Focal; and, happily, from XLO's new Chinese distributor, Cinemaster Shanghai Ltd, just to cite a few examples - the overall impression that I got was that the sound wasn't the major selling point, and that the people setting up the exhibits either didn't know or didn't much care about getting them "dialed-in" to sound their very best. Instead, I got the feeling that they, like the people they were selling to, were mightily impressed by the products, by their appearance, and by their often great cost and, just as a dealer of Lamborghini cars might do, set them up for maximum visual appeal and let the actual performance be something that the buyer would take for granted.

Even despite stories that China's economy might not be as strong as it once was, the people of that country see their lives and fortunes as on the rise, and Chinese billionaires, regardless of the fact that China claims to be a communist country, are becoming more common every day. The Chinese people are expressing their new status and new economic strength with an ever-increasing demand for luxury goods, and among the things they see as fitting that description is High End audio.

AR-china1a.jpgThe Chinese - long accredited with The Wisdom of the Orient -- are just as happy to show off their High End system as they are any other item of Conspicuous Consumption and, to them, it's no more crazy to lust after megabuck audio than megabuck cars or anything else.

Maybe if we had that same feeling here in the United States our native High End Hi-Fi industry - still recognized everywhere as leading the world in performance - would be seeing the same growth within our own borders as it does abroad, and more Americans, whether affluent or just aspiring, would join the world in realizing that High End audio can be fully as prestigious as a Lamborghini and, for not necessarily as much money, possibly even more fun.

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