Little did the tube-driven side of me know what was in store when I visited Guangzhou (Canton) in the People’s Republic of China to attend the Guangdong International Radio Music Festival ‘94. This was China’s first mainstream hi-fi show, virtually all of its predecessors over the past few years having been sponsored by distributors or retailers and they were by definition small affairs featuring only a few brands.
In addition to the “normal” hi-fi which filled four-and-a-bit floors, nearly the whole of the 15th floor of the Landmark Hotel was filled with valve amplifier manufacturers – filled. And you thought that the Chinese only made the actual tubes themselves. So what 1990s valve fanatic, aware of China’s rôle as one of two major sources for tubes, wouldn’t be curious about the actual amplifiers they’re producing?
Although it would have made a amazing feature article in and of itself, finding and reporting on the actual raw tube manufacturers themselves wasn’t part of my agenda; you don’t “flit” around mainland China at random and every journey seems to require military precision in its planning stages. But I did ask on your behalf and I was told that the tube producers prefer not to sell raw tubes to the public, that the hobbyist scene is small and a bit disorganised, and that most of the valves sold on the home market were wholesaled directly to the tube amp makers; the rest go to the foreign distributors. But I gave up on the idea of stuffing my suitcase full of budget glassware, however tempting the idea.
It’s probably safe to say that the potential of the Chinese tube amp builders probably won’t even start to be realized for two or three years. In most cases, the products are clever and truly cost-effective; in one or two cases they’re even sonically stunning. But long-term China-watchers advised me to temper my enthusiasm, and for good reason. Although the dozens of units I saw were priced cheaply in China, quick calculations deterred any visitors with thoughts of distribution in the West. For starters, the Chinese don’t quite understand that 20% off the local retail price is not what a distributor expects to pay, e.g. $500 for an amplifier retailing at $625; communism has certainly redefined the concept of ‘wholesales margins’ for the Chinese. Add to that the duty, tax and the requisite margins for the distributor and the retailers at the end of the line, and suddenly the Chinese hardware costs as much as the more-affordable tube products in their home markets. What look like absolute bargains in Canton suddenly wear Sonic Frontiers or Cary or Audio Innovations or Audion price tags, thus eliminating their main advantage: low cost.
Build quality is another problem. It was explained to me by a couple of Hong Kong distributors — surely the natural choices to act as world distributors for Chinese wares — that the tube amp community is able to produce a handful of prototypes or initial items built to standards acceptable in the West, but that first order for 20 or 50 or 100 units scares ‘em silly and suddenly you’re looking at amplifiers with crooked front panels, unevenly drilled holes, faulty wiring and other ills.
Without wishing to discourage China’s pioneering audiophile companies, I have to acknowledge that the Chinese tube amp makers still have a bit to learn about construction to American and European standards. But when they do figure out how to drill and mill and assemble to levels appealing to American, Japanese and European hi-fi consumers, there’ll be no stopp