For fun, here are a few pictures and comments from the places I visited that might be interesting from the perspective of a consumer technophile... A "streetside" spectator's view if you will. Not intending to be extensive of course, but a sampling of thoughts over the month overseas.
As luck would have it, while visiting Taipei 101, I ran into the Taipei Computer Application Show 2016 just next door to the tower:
What's inside... Well, a bunch of computer stuff :-). Remember that back in the late 90's and early 2000's, Taiwan was the leader in all the new motherboards and huge chunks of OEM computer accessories. I haven't really kept up with the numbers these days comparing Taiwan with mainland China but I assume there have been major adjustments over the years. In any event big names like ASUS, Gigabyte, ASRock, MSI, Acer and the like must be doing reasonably well. At least within the enthusiast market.
What can I say... It's busy, loud, tons of people wanting to sell you stuff and make a buck. A few cosplay characters thrown into the mix to make the atmosphere a little more festive. I should have taken a few more pictures, but most of what I saw were the latest Skylake motherboards, graphics cards based on the new nVidia GTX 1080 chips, and VR was a big thing with a few HTC Vive demo booths set up.
Apart from this, the big malls of Taipei were saturated with expensive European and American clothing stores. Apple was all over the place of course. I saw a few CD's for sale, mainly local artists for around US$13 and tons of cell phone booths with headphones on display:
Alas, I didn't see anything speaker-hi-fi related in the shops downtown during my stay but there was an audiophile magazine in the shops - "AudioArt" (~US$6.50):
Didn't get a chance to flip through this. Most magazines in Asia are wrapped up so you don't get to have a look inside. It's glossy, good quality printing, thick (about twice the thickness of a typical issue of Stereophile), and based on the front cover, it looks like cables/cable companies play a significant role in the contents :-).
Beijing:I've been here many times over the years and spent 2 weeks here since I have some extended family in this city. The Chinese capital is massive with a metro population of >25M mouths to feed, is hot and humid in August, smoggy at times, but since I wanted to bring the kids to visit, it had to be done within the school holidays.
In the northwest corner of the city nestled within a number of universities and post-secondary institutions is Zhongguancun (中关村), the "Silicon Valley" of China. A number of start-up companies are located here along with investment from major international IT firms. For the technophile shopper, there are a number of gargantuan malls here to check out:
The last time I was here in 2013, the malls were bustling places with tons of folks hocking their wares. Indeed, there are still a number of places doing this:
Typically in these malls, the lower levels are devoted to larger players like Lenovo, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Apple, cell-phone companies like Samsung, or local ones such as Huawei and XiaoMi. The upper levels would be where the small companies like the ones in the images above are located. Ever wonder where some of your inexpensive computer accessories and cables "Shipped from China" eBay purchases come from?
Interestingly, just like how internet shopping has decimated many box stores in North America, the same seems to be happening in China as well with these tech malls. Huge buildings now appear to be empty except for what looks like office space in the higher levels. For example this one:
The massive "e-Plaza" appears completely gutted on the lower floors with the only tenant being a fast-food restaurant. There appeared to be a large Sony Store on the main floor that is no more. Shocking amount of commercial real estate space available!
I asked some locals about what was going on. Time and again, the answer was clear. E-commerce in the form of Alibaba and Taobao is the place to get your electronics goods. Much more convenient, no crowds, and for consumer electronics, you pretty well know what you're getting; no need to lay hands on the device when so many tech reviews are out there with essentially everything one needs to know about the device. So long as there's a decent return policy, electronics shopping was destined to be a virtual transaction.
A suggestion to foreign visitors... Unless you don't mind the constant hustling of salesmen trying to get you into their stores (they saw I had a camera so kept wanting me to visit the camera places), and want to visit these places of commerce as a "cultural experience", these are not "fun" places to visit. English speakers were extremely limited, you've got to have a fair price in mind, and you better get ready to bargain!
Over the years, China has cracked down on piracy. Of course it's impossible to fully eliminate it. I did see a few stalls further out from the center of Beijing with tables of pirated DVD/Blu-Rays. But like most places in this world, piracy has also been "outsourced" to cyberspace where most of the "trading" happens through peer-to-peer networks. Physical music is hard to find. That's a far cry from about 10 years back when CD stores selling both genuine and fakes could be found every few blocks. In fact, there were only 2 places I saw with actual CD's - a small mainly-DVD store near Sanlitun (三里屯), the bar and shopping district which has been otherwise over-run by multinational stores like UNIQLO, Nike, Pandora, Starbucks, etc.:
|Notice the local China-made branded speaker in the front. It's a brand called "A-Deo", no idea how it sounds :-).|
There's still a decent selection of Chinese pop, some western pop, and classical here:
|A number of CDs labeled as "K2HD". Not sure if this is true JVC K2HD process of course! But then again, I've always considered this as hype anyways...|
Labeled as "The Ultimate Sound of Master Source", these are going for around ¥250 (US$38!). AQCD stands for "Analogue Quality CD" and the description I heard was similar to the idea of SHM-CD, that is the material used is supposedly better with a purplish tinged silver alloy. They're pressed at the AQCD Japan Memory-Tech Corporation factory in Shanghai. Don't know what the mastering is like. In any event, the Chinese audiophile forums have people testifying that this "format" sounds better... Of course this is all meaningless for computer audiophiles; so long as the CD rips error-free, the CD material itself makes no difference.
Gone are the SACDs I saw in the past at the Bookstore. And in their place are a few LP's!
All I can say is this stuff is expensive! You have a selection of newly remastered (probably from digital) 180gm vinyl in fancy, thick, heavy packaging. Asking price starts around ¥500 (US$75+!!!). You seriously need to be a well-to-do local here to afford vinyl at these kinds of prices. I suspect it must be much cheaper online, but seriously, this speaks to the luxury nature of these goods.
Well, I did walk out of the bookstore with a memoir at least for ¥25 (US$3.75):
The China edition of "High Fidelity" magazine. This looked like the only magazine dedicated to audiophile goods I could find. It comes with a 6-track demo CD with some "audiophile approved" Chinese instrumentals and Beijing opera music (very natural recordings with good "air" and DR13 dynamic range measurement) which makes the total price reasonable by N. American standards. The feel of the paper reminds me more of the almost purely "advertising" audiophile magazines like Hi-Fi+ or The Absolute Sound. Lots of pictorial spreads of expensive gear inside. Obviously lots of cable company input and adverts, there's even this multi-page article written by an anonymous writer on the "dark art" of audiophilia and cables...
Well, looks like "evidence" based on subjective testimony is alive and well in Asia among the audiophiles. Not a hint of objective measurements anywhere. And the reviewers will grade equipment based on their subjective grading system and give a star rating. Here's one for the Audeze LCD-4:
It's a US$4000 headphone. Of course it deserves 5 stars and at least 9/10 on all the subscales! :-)
Finally, here's one of the Sony Store Hi-Res Audio displays at one of the prominent high-end shopping centers - busy store but I didn't see many interested customers playing with these Walkmen:
Asking price on that Walkman NWZ-ZX1 in front of the Hi-Res Audio sign is ¥4,099 (US$615)... Not exactly a deal for a machine that came out in 2014. I saw a number of these CEA/JAS "Hi-Res Audio" logos in stores and packaging material such as this:
The Audio-Technica ATH-CKR70, part of a new line of Audio-Technica headphones. Hmmm, anyone know what parameters are used to certify these headphones in order to deserve this most desirable logo? :-)
Clearly, the upcoming Playstation VR was more interesting to most visitors at the Sony Store - freaking frightening when that shark comes for you :-)! Line up for 30+ minutes to get a turn...
Other than that weathered looking floorstanding speaker above in the picture of the DVD store, I saw no evidence of the locals wanting fancy sound systems. In fact, the local big box stores showed off floors of 4K, OLED displays, phones, laptops, headphones but no high quality speakers (even decent bookshelves), and even receivers were noticeably absent. The lack of audio gear was rather striking in that in previous years, there would at least be some decent-looking large box speakers set up for a home theatre demo. No more... In fact, with a little over 2 weeks in Beijing, in and out of massive shopping centers and "high end" stores in the city, the only actual audiophile grade equipment I found was here:
|Raffles City Mall, Beijing. Presumably owned and operated out of Raffles City Singapore.|
Good job Sennheiser for having a presence in China :-). The Sennheiser store is well stocked and you can perhaps make out the display for the HD-800 and I also saw some HD-800S headphones in there as well. That's of course among the full range of other models they have in stock - there's also a headphone bar to try out. Yes, Beats headphones are available in China, many of them appear to be fakes though... And few young folks seem to be walking around with them. (Let's just say that Dre isn't exactly a household name around this part of the world.)
Like the Sony Store above, price for high-end goods are very high! The Sennheiser HD-800 is listed as around ¥11,800 (US$1,775) in China and slightly higher for the HD-800S (just over US$1,800).
One last thing I saw in Beijing worth showing was at the local Suning store (like a Chinese version of BestBuy):
Sharp's 80" 8K / 7680x4320 TV (¥70,500 or US$10.5k). That "red woman" image was simply a static shot to show off the 33Mpixels! It looks great of course with good contrast and color saturation (image quality evaluation in a store is relatively meaningless like evaluating speakers at the dealer rather than at home). If you enter the data into Is This Retina?, you realize that in order to benefit from the spatial resolution 8K provides, you'd have to be sitting less than 3' from the 80" screen before pixels become evident!
As I have said before, I think 4K resolution will be the high-resolution standard for the foreseeable future as a practical standard for the vast majority of home theaters - I see it as the "CD of video" beyond which benefits in terms of spatial resolution becomes debatable assuming reasonable viewing distances. This of course will not stop manufacturers from pushing the limits. After all, consumers need to consume to create profit, right? Apparently some Japanese companies think that taking over 8K will help them "reclaim that country’s dominance in consumer electronics" as per this article on the 8K Consortium. Yeah, right... We'll see about that. If video follows the audio trajectory, the plateau is ahead if not already here as 4K gradually seeps into homes. I can imagine 8K as a great archive format and for IMAX-sized screens though!
Guangzhou:In Southern China, the port city of Guangzhou is the place to be for technology and electrical products. Historically known as Canton, this city is the 3rd largest in China (after Shanghai and Beijing) and sits as an important gateway to trade routes along the Pearl River as it opens to the South China Sea. As such, some of the largest factories are located in these parts, including of course Foxconn in Shenzhen, about 150km from here which makes many of the iPhones, PlayStations, Kindles, computer motherboards, and all kinds of other tech from Sony to Nintendo.
As a hub for the high tech trade, it shows! Below is an image of the Tianhe Gangding Computer Markets (天河岗顶电脑批发市场) from a street-side overpass.
This is a massive 3-block+ area consisting of various complexes like "Galaxy Computer Plaza", or "President Computer Mall", housing countless stalls and stores selling everything from laptops, to phones, to game machines, to motherboards, RAM chips, and CPUs. Again, the kind of places that would be shipping stuff overseas from an eBay storefront. As usual, the main floor usually is inhabited by more fancy stalls and slick displays:
By the way, notice the woman's picture on the right, just under the obstructed Huawei sign? That's Scarlett Johansson, who along with Henry Cavill are part of the campaign for the new Huawei P9 cell phone. A 3GB octacore (dual quad Cortex processors) dual-camera Android phone being promoted over there. Feels nice in the hand and very speedy.
Upper levels in the building reside the true bazaar :-). At least they weren't as pushy as the sales folks in Beijing. Here's a look:
Within all those stalls, like in Beijing, there's very little audio. A few computer audio stalls like this:
As you can see, there's a Sony dealer in the back, and like in Beijing, here's Sennheiser:
The Electrical Appliance Market just off the Donghu station along Line 6, exit B2. I had some time one afternoon to hop on the subway to check out this sprawling "complex" of loosely connected "markets" filled with various "ad hoc" businesses selling everything you can imagine that's electrical. From "white appliances" like dish washers to dryers to microwaves. To cellphones (lots of African and Middle Eastern folks getting phones from these stores!) and of course audio equipment. Minimal computer stuff like motherboards, storage, etc... I did see a couple of VR stores selling head gear like the Samsung Gear VR.
Here are examples of what one could find here:
|Nice looking Cambridge Audio Azur 851C CD player and Azur 851A integrated amp setup.|
Monitor Audio these days have their gear produced in China and there's a good sized store showing a few of these. There's also some Denon gear on display along with the Cambridge Audio. In the lower image is the JBL LS 80 tower speakers with horn-loaded compression drivers. I assume these must be made in China as well. I figure I'd show you these first because much of the other audio gear were "Chi-Fi" brands I had never seen or heard of before. Brands like Oiroad, Daco, "Sansui Digital Technology (Zhongshan)", Nobsound.
|Check out the B&W Nautilus-like tweeter modules. Over the years, I have seen many Chi-Fi speakers "borrowing" this kind of design.|
Notice the set of speakers + vacuum tube amplifier + CD player for ¥3880 (US$585). I didn't get a chance to listen to it plus the small store wasn't exactly set up for listening with people chatting and bargaining nearby. The equipment looks OK but speakers a bit "hollow" sounding when tapped on the side. I do believe speaker box workmanship has improved over the years at least. Metal enclosure workmanship on the amps and CD players seem also OK though still a bit rougher than top-end gear sold to the West (even if produced in China). However, I did get a chance to listen to this set-up - tube amp, CD player, bookshelf monitors:
They had a Chinese vocalist playing (not someone I was familiar with), vacuum tube amps, "Nobsound" (awkward name!) brand bookshelf speakers. Obviously this is nowhere near optimized room setup. They had a little couch in front of the set-up and from the central spot there, it didn't sound bad. Decent bass for small speakers, vocal definition seemed good, reasonable soundstage with voice front-and-center and "air" around the instruments. A little harsh up top but this could just be the recording - Chinese recordings like Western ones have over the years succumbed to overprocessed dynamic range compression and accentuation of the "presence" upper mid-range, including the highly prized audiophile female vocal recordings. (BTW, I do not recommend buying Chinese SACDs including recent releases over the last few years - for the most part they're just repackaged 16/44 "Redbook" upsamples, like these over the years.)
I enjoyed chatting with the salespeople (in Chinese, very few could speak English), asking about sales in China and how business was going. You know what? They all sound like they're as concerned as North American retailers. Online shopping is where the majority of sales are going (I got a few business cards consisting of QR codes for their on-line stores). One of the larger stores is liquidating and planning to close up the physical shop. And finally, there's a general sentiment that the headphone and mobile markets are where money for audio gear is going. Indeed, other than this Market in Guangzhou, among the many fancy shopping malls I visited with my wife, even within large electronic appliance stores selling everything from laptops to robots to 4K TV's, I did not see any with speakers appearing to be capable of full-range sound (just like in Beijing). I found this odd because I have visited China over the last 15 years regularly (yearly over the last 4 years, and maybe every 3 years before that), and every time I have had no difficulty running into decent looking speakers for sale in the large department stores by the TVs and home theater gear. No more. The home theater gear consists of tiny speakers with inadequate center channels these days. Instead, this is what you see:
Sign of the times - worldwide from the look of it... The other interesting sign of the times - I didn't see a single store that sold physical music at all in this city. No LP, CD store anywhere in my wanderings though there were a few DVD and Blu-Rays available. Again, maybe I wasn't at the right places but when it's this sparse, it says something about where the software source is (ie. virtual).
There you go :-). Technology in Vietnam from Hanoi to Da Nang to Hoi An to Hue. Of course I didn't investigate everywhere and I did pass by some nicer looking shopping centers catering to Chinese, Korean, and Japanese travellers (apparently 50% of visitors to Vietnam these days are from China). Most of the electronics (especially in the nicer shops) were mobile oriented - cell phones mainly.
This is what one expects in the developing world of course. In a country where since 2003, the Vietnamese Dong dropped from about 15,000/USD, to currently above 22,000/USD, the average monthly income sits around US$250/month currently, is "communist" by name only (essentially we're looking at some kind of "totalitarian free enterprise" much like China), expensive electronics are considered luxuries except of course for the smartphone - a necessity.
I find it fascinating the power of brand recognition. Time and again, Apple products are what the locals prize after. Business people want an iPhone to portray their affluence. Young men consider it an item of desire as the iPhone 6+ looks flashy for the ladies! Despite the fact that Samsung has 2 factories down near Saigon hiring by the thousands (aka Ho Chi Minh City, but the locals still love the name Saigon), it's the iPhone they really want :-).
This reminds us of the fact about business and money. They move and flow to find the lowest and cheapest in a relentless search for growth... As Chinese inflation continues to increase by ridiculous amounts yearly including wage inflation, not-fully-tapped S.E. Asian countries like Vietnam appear to be the next in line to potentially gain as international corporations seek out every ounce of profit from inexpensive labour (assuming the world economy does not derail). It will be interesting to see how this all plays out for this beautiful country with some very nice people, clearly facing many challenges ahead.
|Clearly a high-end Vietnamese currency exchange and SIM card outfit :-).|
Conclusions:1. If you like tech, especially brand name electronics, don't assume the goods are going to be cheaper in Asia. In fact, most likely they're not. Gone are the days in the 80's and early 90's where you could still get a great deal on good stuff especially in Hong Kong and Singapore. In China, you might find some deals for domestic gear like say an unlocked Huawei or Oppo phone, just make sure the frequency bands back home are supported. Forget getting a deal on iPhones or iPads. And as seen above with the Sennheiser HD800, expensive luxury goods tend to be even more expensive.
2. Regarding audio. Mobile is clearly where it's at for the local population. I visited some extended family in China and only the Baby Boomer generation guys still have component systems and reasonable (made in China) speakers. Gen X and Millennials I met were into wireless Bluetooth, headphones and computer speakers. Looks the same as North America - societal trends as discussed last time seems to be consistent based on what I saw in Asia, even in the "communist" countries.
3. Regarding physical media. It's almost all gone in this part of the world. I'm sure I must have missed some good stuff, but what is interesting is the lack of the typical small music stores with real and pirated stuff I used to find at almost every shopping center up to about 5 years ago. Like in North America with the decline of the music retailers, obviously much of the music software has been shifted online - both legal for download and illegal. There is in fact no end to the number of peer-to-peer file sharing options for the Chinese. The government has made it a point to crack down on physical piracy, not sure if they're doing much about this in cyberspace.
4. The power of the Internet can be seen in Chinese commerce in a massive way. Alibaba, the company, has a massive presence throughout China from day-to-day financial transactions with Alipay to on-line ordered meal deliveries (Waimai) and its on-line superstore Taobao (淘宝网). Amazon has a presence here as well but smaller. WeChat (Weixin / 微信) has an excellent platform for social media, real-time communication, as well as WeChat Pay, a competitor to Apple Pay which itself is making a strong move in China. It's amazing to see order stations in McDonald's that don't take Visa or Mastercard, but will accept AliPay and ApplePay for example.
[As an aside, I find this rapid acceptance of all-in-one platforms for storage of personal information including financial data rather disturbing. Seems the young folks didn't seem to mind... Odd especially in the context of such a closed country where electronic communications like the Internet is closely regulated and repercussions for those who speak out against the government is generally rumored if not well accepted. I had to update my blog through a private VPN for example in order to get past that "Great Firewall of China".]
Like in the Western World, the online world is where I suspect the LP and other physical media buyers hang out. Not surprising I suppose in Asia due to the traffic and hassles of transportation.
5. Little interest in LP's in China? I thought I'd bring this up because when I attended the Vancouver Audio Show recently, almost every room set-up had a turntable. When I visited the Guangzhou electronics market, I did not see a single turntable for sale among the speakers, tube amps, CD players, and audio receivers. In fact, I saw more multichannel gear like a "Sansui" home theater package. Even the audio magazine I bought in China contained relatively few glossy pictures of fancy turntables for the hardware audiophile to lust over (quick count, grand total of 9 pictures with turntables out of what must be at least 200 photos in there). I actually am not surprised since LPs do take up space and given the conditions of Communist China before the arrival of CD, perhaps few had the wealth, opportunity and living conditions suitable for an LP collection. An elderly couple I met still had about 10 LPs from the 60's and 70's, but that was about it. Apartments and condos are small and extremely expensive in cities like Beijing. Of course LP's are not as convenient as digital and I bet keeping them clean in dusty urban areas can be a chore. Turntables on Taobao seem to be equivalent to US prices, a Pioneer PLX-1000 costs around US$800.
One cousin in his 30's working with a tech start-up and aware of the renewed interest in LP's in the West from his travels to Europe thought it was a bad idea - "wasteful and environmentally unfriendly"... He thought that many young people felt this way as well. Interesting perspective.
Finally, traveller's tips: Gentlemen, if you're visiting Vietnam in the Da Nang / Hoi An area, consider visiting a local tailor (many in Hoi An). For less than US$300, excellent quality cashmere suit and pants can be made. I don't think there are many safe places in this world that can do this at such quality - easily beats the workmanship in Thailand. Hoi An is an old southeastern trading post along the ancient Silk Road and the ladies might be interested in the silk tops, scarves, etc. they make in these parts as well. Very nice people as well who typically aren't out to gouge tourists with crazy markups and exhausting haggling on price. Not techy, but hey, this is Vietnam!
Also, if you're in the Hue city area, and feel a little adventurous, give the bún bò Huế a try at the roadside with the locals or in the local markets (don't bother in the restaurants because it'll be sanitized for Westerners unless known to be good). Lovely aroma of spices, thick rice noodles, unique combination of chicken, beef, pork feet, and blood cubes :-). I've had this in Vancouver, but when in Huế, go for the real deal and eat like a local!
Of course, if you were truly adventurous, you'd be going for the bugs and scorpions in Beijing:
Not recommended for hygienic reasons of course... And too shrimpy tasting without adequate seasoning :-).
There ya go... My entry for "What did you do this summer?" :-)
Have a great return to school / work everyone as we head into the fall in the Northern Hemisphere.
Glad to be back in Canada. I was experiencing a bit of high-fidelity withdrawal! But at least I had a good collection of high bitrate MP3's on my iPad Air 2 (measurements here) with convenient, reasonable sounding (in planes, trains, and automobiles) and inexpensive JVC HA-FXC51 in-ear 'phones.
Hope you're all enjoying the music...