At the end of November, I attended this year's AV Fair in Guangzhou, China and found myself mightily impressed by it. It was held on five floors of the huge Dong Fang Hotel (where just the walk from my room to the elevators to the exhibit floors seemed to be something like a quarter mile!) and was impressively well-attended by both exhibitors and attendees. Yes, "attendees", but, at least as it appeared to me, not necessarily audiophiles.
Oh, of course there were audiophiles there, and certainly in great number, but to me, it seemed that at least an equal number of people were there neither for the love of music nor because they were fans of high-quality sound reproduction, but instead because high-end audio in China is one more socially-acceptable way for people to show others either how wealthy they are or would like to seem. Things have changed drastically in China since that ancient country was re-formed as The People's Republic of China in October of 1949. Then intended to be the bastion of Marxist Communism in the Far East, it has since become (while still claiming its Communist politics) one of the world's great capitalistic countries, with a huge portion of the world's total manufacturing capacity and an overall economy that has recently surpassed even that of the United States. The below video is from October 2014, when China's GDP overtook the United States of America.
In the process of doing that, even though its average GDP per capita is still far behind that of the United States of America and the great majority of Chinese people are still far from affluent, things have become vastly better than they were even in the not-too-distant past (China's average GDP per capita in 2014 was nearly 4.5 times its average from 1960 to 2014) and the term "Chinese Billionaire" is no longer anything like an oxymoron. The result is that the wealth of the very richest Chinese is already legendary and even the average educated Chinese now has a standard of living far higher than it was just a few decades ago and sees him(or her)self as having a future of assured prosperity.
It shouldn't be surprising, therefore, to learn that the Chinese people – or at least those of the educated, technical, managerial, or entrepreneurial classes – are doing what newly wealthy (even if only just in their own perception) people everywhere have always done: Buying everything in sight – the more expensive (or at least the more expensive-looking), the better.
The Guangzhou Show (for example, see Enjoy the Music.com's Guangzhou AV Fair 2009 show report) was a fine example of this, with tremendous amounts of goods on display that – whatever their real level of performance – had clearly been styled to impress those that saw them. Huge and elaborately-shaped speakers abounded, as did products of all sorts, from electronics to cables to record-playing equipment that was bigger and heavier than it needed to be; was made of materials (gold and carbon fiber, to name just two) that added cost and visual appeal but contributed nothing at all to their sonic performance; and – especially in the case of LP turntables and tonearms – were reminiscent of the Mission Impossible movies and TV series in their obvious insistence of doing even simple things in the most baroquely convoluted and difficult way possible.
Overall, the displays and exhibits were visually impressive – even more so than I'm accustomed to seeing at CES or any of the other United States of America shows I've attended including RMAF, T.H.E. Show Newport and AXPONA, and seemed very definitely to have been planned and art-directed, rather than just – as with so many other exhibits at so many other shows – simply assembled on the spot from whatever goods and materials happened to be at hand. Their sound quality, though, was not up to the same standard. A great many of the exhibits seemed like more attention had been paid to making them look good than to getting them fully "dialed in" and sounding good, and a number of the exhibits presented by the larger distributors had multiple displays of, seemingly, as much equipment as they could artfully jam into a very large room, and had as many as four demonstrations all going on at the same time at volume levels high enough (I'm guessing 100dB or more!) to make even casual evaluation of any one of them impossible because of the colossal din coming from all of the others.
Not all of the sound was disappointing, of course, and some, coming from exhibits by the distributors of Focal, Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems, KEF, and several others, including XLO's new Chinese distributor, Cinemaster Shanghai, Ltd., was quite outstanding – as good, in fact, as any I've ever heard at any Show, ever. Even so, in most of the rooms, I got the impression that the dealers or distributors of the products on display were, themselves, fully as proud of and impressed by, what they were showing as they expected their customers to be, and that, to them, it was sufficient to simply have a good-looking exhibit and let the products' reputation and price tag do the selling.
Apparently that worked, because, to judge from conversations I had with a number of exhibitors (who, incidentally, usually spoke excellent English), there was plenty of selling going on, even despite the sonic limitations of many of the displays: If people saw something they liked – even up to a whole system – that looked exotic and expensive, and that they thought their friends or others would be impressed by and think them wealthy, sophisticated, knowledgeable, or just plain "cool", they would very often simply buy it, even without any of the careful comparative listening and system-building that audiophiles elsewhere do as a matter of course.
This kind of buying for prestige or as a display of "conspicuous consumption" was confirmed for us by print magazine Hi-Fi+ at what has been called "The best audio store in the world", Elegant Music Garden ("EMG"), in Guangzhou's "audio mall" which we visited one day as a break from walking the Show. EMG is six stories of just about any High End audio brand you can think of; has a massive number of full-time audio consultants; and does a truly tremendous volume of business. According to its owner (who treated us to a wonderful Dim Sum lunch at the Pearl Pavilion Restaurant, on the banks of the Pearl River, just a few blocks from the store), a significant portion of that business comes from people who just come in, ask for "the very best" or "the very most expensive", and buy it without listening and regardless of cost.
In addition to high-end audio systems and components, incidentally, EMG also has, lining its stairways and on the walls of its many demonstration rooms, "genuine oil painting"-quality reproductions of paintings by the Old Masters which it sells, perhaps to these same people.
Some of what I've written thus far may seem to indicate that much of China's booming audio business may not be "real", but may, instead, just be a way for newly affluent people to show off to each other and to the world. Well, if that's true, so what? The people that I saw in Guangzhou were young – very much younger than the typical American audiophile – and they were excited and eager for more. If some of them are getting into our hobby for the wrong reason, again, so what? Having good audio equipment, they're not going to let it just lie idle; they're going to listen to it. And when they do, I have no doubt at all that some of them – perhaps even a good many, considering the quality of the equipment they're starting with – will become real, live Hi-Fi Crazies and genuinely join us in our hobby, to the mutual benefit of all. And even those who don't; who never "get the bug" will continue to show off their systems to others who may eventually also want to join us. No matter how it comes to be or what it eventually comes to produce, a great system – even one picked and bought for some other reason entirely – will always allow everyone who hears it to...
Enjoy the music.
Related: Enjoy the Music.com's Creative Director, Steven R. Rochlin, did a grand tour of China during 2009. His report features: