AT ONE of the popular discount stores, you can find a 101-centimetre, high-definition, smart LED television for $496. Of course, it comes from China, where all dirt-cheap electronics come from. But how about this: Krell, one of the truly esoteric brands in hi-fi, makes its $3500 S-300i integrated amplifier in the same place.
Indeed, speakers wearing badges as exotic as B&W, Focal and even Cabasse are being made in China. If you've just bought true-blue Aussie speakers, it's a very good bet the cabinets, at the very least, were made there, too.
There are many reasons for China to be making just about everything today, and not all are cost-related. The question is whether this is a bad thing or a good thing.
Importer Nigel Macara, a veteran of the hi-fi industry, doesn't have a problem with it. ''It's just like Chinese restaurants,'' he says.
''There are some really crook ones and there are places like the Flower Drum.''
Other importers are also comfortable with Chinese goods, even when it involves extremely expensive products. But it seems to be a different matter on the retail floor, where a ''Made in China'' label can be challenging to sell to fussy buyers. ''We're not hung up about Chinese manufacture, and when customers raise it, we sell the benefits,'' Tivoli Hi-Fi's Geoff Haynes says. ''But people are reassured when they hear that a product is made in the country in which the brand is located. For example, look at Loewe televisions; people pay four times the price to get a TV that's made in Germany.''
Haynes believes the swing to Chinese manufacturing came from a desire to hit rock-bottom pricing. This, he says, was driven more by the big retailers than consumers.
''Our experience is that consumers are still happy to pay for quality,'' Haynes says.
''I prefer stocking products that are made in the country of their origin because I have more confidence in selling them. B&W makes some of its speakers in China and, while they look good, sound good and have excellent reliability, the products coming out of England still show more craftsmanship. But there is very good quality coming out of China and a lot of well-known and respected brands are sourcing from there.''
In some cases, the companies have little choice.
For US-based audio specialist Krell, some of its products are made in China because people with the skills to fabricate metal the way the company wants are dying out in its home country.
''There's infrastructure supporting manufacturing in China that simply does not exist in many other countries,'' importer Michael Thornton-Smith says.
''The quality of the end product all depends on who is controlling the process. Look at Rotel; it has its own factory [in China]. It built the factory, owns it and staffs it, and has total control over the manufacturing process. Oppo [maker of high-end disc players] has its products made there, and I have never seen a company that is more focused on quality control … the reliability rate is extraordinarily high. Polk manufacturers there, too. We're only going to see more of this.''
Plenty of brands - very big names, in some cases - source products from independent manufacturers in China. And although these places frequently turn out first-class quality for some
clients, they can also make cheap-and-nasty goods.
''It all depends on what they're being paid and how they're being monitored,'' an industry executive says. ''You need your own people there to make sure they're not skimping and maybe substituting cheap components for good ones.''
The executive, who asked not to be named, says his main concern with Chinese production is not quality; it's that when a product is sourced out of China, its development seems to cease, with no process of continuous improvement. But Macara believes as long as the product designers and planners follow through the manufacturing process and ensure everything is up to scratch, it all works beautifully.
''And the interesting thing is that at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we're beginning to see little bespoke Chinese manufacturers who are putting out highly original and very well made products that are the equal of anything,'' he says.
''The only problem with a 'Made in China' label is the perception some customers have, yet Australians don't seem to mind that Holdens are built in Korea and Thailand.
''The fact that home-entertainment equipment comes out of China is just something they have to get over.
''When overseas people hear about this, they say, 'Are you still having a problem with that? We got over that four years ago.' ''
Brand is usually the best guide
THERE are multiple levels of Chinese manufacturing. At one end are factories that develop and build products they then offer to importers, attaching a brand the importer specifies. It's common among bargain-basement brands in Australia.
The next level is the assembly of components sent into China by international brands. After that are processes such as that used by French speaker maker Cabasse, in which some assembly is done in China and then items are shipped back to France, where the job is checked and manufacture is finished.
Ultimately, a brand builds a factory in China to get total control.
So, how to tell the good from the bad?
''It's a hard thing for a consumer to judge,'' importer Michael Thornton-Smith says. ''It's even hard to judge when you're in the industry, and it's difficult to know which questions to ask, such as, 'Does this brand own the factory?' But brand is a guide. If it's a big brand with a good reputation, you have to assume the quality levels are in keeping with its standards.''
Tivoli Hi-Fi's Geoff Haynes is also a stickler for brand. ''Stick with brands that have pedigree and history,'' he says.
''If you don't know the brand, keep away.''