The Audiophile Realities of Owning Chi-Fi Gear

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Sometimes, in life, things seem too good to be true. In the audiophile world, nowhere is this more prevalent than when talking about Chi-Fi (Chinese-made and often sold direct) gearIf you still not hip to Chi-Fi check out my article on the topic from about a year ago, which explains the concept in some detail. The quick version is that OEMs (that’s industry jargon for a company that makes products for other brands more often than not in China, Vietnam or Taiwan) from Asia (China, more specifically) have started making their own house-branded audiophile gear. They sell it direct or through resellers like Amazon.com, AposAudio.com, MoonAudio.com, or any number of other online venues. And consumers are quickly falling in love with many of the Chi-Fi components, because they offer bleeding-edge feature sets, (often) highly respectable performance and are priced at levels that even Crazy Eddie would think are insane … as he used to say/scream. 

Crazy Eddie’s prices are in fact INSANE…!!!

How To Buy Chi-Fi Audiophile Components?

Amazon.com is likely the biggest reseller of Chi-Fi gear, but there are many other places that you can buy this category of low-cost, high-value gear. Our first review ever was an under-$200 S.M.S.L. integrated amp that looks absolutely fantastic and punches way above its weight class. We’ve reviewed versions of the BBC’s LS3/5a speakers that a Chi-Fi company called Sound Artist that are a tiny fraction of the cost of other, more well-known and better-distributed brands at many, many times the price. There are DACs like the Topping D90 III that, at $899, offer mastering lab-level (we actually know mastering labs that use this unit that win actual Grammys) performance. Products like the Eversolo DMP-6A deliver a world-class streamer into a component with a very capable internal DAC and packing a large-format LED screen at well under $1,000, which has caught the attention of many value-obsessed audiophiles, specifically on the forums. Headphones are another world where younger audio fans are having a blast actually collecting Chi-Fi headphones, because they are affordable enough to do just that. 

In a perfect world, you wouldn’t really need any meaningful support for your audiophile products but, friends, we don’t live in a perfect world. In fact, some of these components are anything but simple in terms of both set-up and user experience. In a world where pretty much everybody uses some product of some sorts from Apple, it is easy to get used to their staggeringly good customer service. Chi-Fi companies, more often than not, can’t come anywhere close to Apple or Lexus levels of customer service or support – if they offer support at all. Realistically, you couldn’t dream of the levels of support that you get from Denon or Marantz when comparing them with Chi-Fi companies, as the latter don’t build in profit margin to their products that would allow for United States-based support, public relations or beyond. 

Think of what Chi-Fi offers as an IKEA product. You get that somewhat awkward but affordable bookcase, because they flat-packed it and saved on shipping. You get that bookcase at super-low cost, because it doesn’t have any words in the instructions. Unlike IKEA, you don’t get the customer service window at the store or an IKEA installation expert on call from an App like Thumbtack.com. You have to set your expectations lower for what you get from Chi-Fi, but that’s not hard to do, especially when you consider the value proposition at hand. Recently, my beloved travel agent questioned if I would be happy in a DoubleTree by Marriott stay for an upcoming new audiophile show. At $129 per night and with a “free breakfast,” unless they have a bedbug infestation (I can’t believe I just put THAT bad mojo out there), then I can live with an entry-level-priced hotel room for one night. Who cares, if the value is there and the hotel is clean and safe, right? Chi-Fi often ends up producing a value proposition like that.

The lure of Chi-Fi gear for audiophiles was like Trader Joe's Two Buck Chuck wine. Very compelling...
The lure of Chi-Fi gear for audiophiles was like Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck wine. Very compelling…

Can Chi-Fi Gear Really Compete with Traditional Audiophile Components?

Make no mistake, there are some simply stellar Chi-Fi products out there that are fantastic performers. We do our best to creatively hunt down these types of products and review them for you, but procuring them, much like buying them, isn’t always super-easy. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth the effort, as often they are. 

Can Chi-Fi components compete with very high-end audio components? Sometimes, they can, but audiophiles need to come to the table with realistic expectations when it comes to overall performance. The excitement of what a $399 Chi-Fi DAC, with all of the features of much more expensive digital audio converters, can bring to the table is fun to dream about, but setting realistic expectations for performance is likely a good emotional hedge. Anybody that has cracked open a bottle of “Two Buck Chuck” chardonnay from Trader Joes (for $5 per bottle, thus a misnomer of sorts, but you get the idea) knows that it tastes incrementally better than, say, mainstream “wine in a box.” Then again, what you get in the $20 per bottle range is often far more refined, from better producers, and often use more unique or well-established wine making techniques. Some people simply can’t invest $20 per bottle, thus the value of Trader Joe’s wine is their sweet spot, and that is totally cool. Other people have a budget for Peter Michael Chardonnay that is $500 a bottle in a restaurant (if you can find it on a wine list, as it is pretty rare and very popular), which is just like audio. Are there diminishing returns on a bottle of Peter Michael? There absolutely are, just as there are unquestionably diminishing returns on a $30,000 ultra-premium audiophile component. The trick is knowing your budget and setting your expectations accordingly for performance, service, support and long-term value. That goes for audio, and clearly elsewhere, too.

Eversolo's DMP-A6 streaming DAC is one the more popular Chi-Fi audiophile performers in the market today.
Eversolo’s DMP-A6 streaming DAC is one the more popular Chi-Fi audiophile performers in the market today.

What Type of Value Should I Expect from My Chi-Fi Gear Over Time?

Chi-Fi gear has introduced one of the most important concepts to the audiophile hobby with its younger users, which is collecting. New audiophiles are actually building collections of audiophile gear, ranging from Chi-Fi to vintage audio and far beyond. The low cost of Chi-Fi allows an aspiring audiophile to have, say, both a tube and solid-state headphone amp for use, depending on one’s mood at the time, not the limitations of their equipment. They can have multiple pairs of headphones. They can have different types of electronics with different design philosophies to play with. This was unthinkable a decade ago, as the hobby was much more of an “or hobby,” versus this, which is an “and hobby,” and that is a meaningful change that we can credit to the rise of Chi-Fi. 

Collecting audiophile gear has helped the hobby immensely, but don’t expect Chi-Fi gear to retain lots of long-term value. As a point of reference, less expensive, mainstream electronics see the same effect, where a $199 Blu-ray player just doesn’t have that much value to retain over time. It is a wear and tear item that, after years of service, has likely provided more than a fair share of value. Chi-Fi gear is sometimes the same, in that a $139 Schiit DAC is likely not going to drop much below $50 in value, but at $50 in long-term value, the shipping might cost 25 percent of the value of the small component just to give the DAC to someone. Now, we do encourage you to gift your old audio gear whenever possible, but it is also important to know that higher-end gear tends to hold its value better over time for many reasons, including superior build quality, better distribution, greater brand awareness, and more.  

Monoprice M2100 amp reviewed
Monoprice M2100 amp is a low-cost but non-Chi-Fi alternative for audiophiles

What Are the Alternatives to Chi-Fi for the Value-Minded Audiophile?

Some people have political reasons to not want to own Chi-Fi, and I get that, but the idea of Made In America is a bit of a false flag, in that even if a product is made in the United States, are the internal parts made here, too? Unlikely, as most top-of-the-line semiconductors come from Taiwan. Other parts, especially lower-cost metalwork, come from China. Connectors or binding posts might come from Europe. The reality is that it is pretty damn hard to be a homer when it comes to Made in America, as the parts needed for your best audiophile gear aren’t likely made here. The chances are that many of them are made in China. That’s just how it is. 

When I think about alternatives to Chi-Fi gear, I think of value brands that don’t have the support and distribution problems that you get with many of the Chi-Fi players. Schiit gear (mentioned above) is made and designed in either California or Texas. Monoprice products are super-high-value, like Schiit, and are often designed by the best designers in the business, but can be made in China. However, they are sold on Amazon and come with excellent support. There are many others that fall into the value-based market category, but don’t leave you alone to your own audiophile devices as much as some of the Chi-Fi guys do. The alternative to Chi-Fi is not found with audiophile gear made in Switzerland, but rest assured that you can find value products made elsewhere. 

Embrace the concept of returns or catalog store support with Chi-Fi but they also will take returns and have mainstream credit card processing which can be a little more comfortable for consumers.
Embrace the concept of returns or catalog store support with Chi-Fi but they also will take returns and have mainstream credit card processing which can be a little more comfortable for consumers.

Should You Invest in Chi-Fi Gear? 

What could it hurt? I wasn’t a $5 per bottle wine drinker when I first lugged home a full case of the aforementioned Two Buck Chuck. I just had to know what the hype was all about (now, I don’t even drink …), but after a few bottles, I started gifting the Trader Joe’s special blend away to others who might be curious. The bargain wine wasn’t for me, but it also didn’t cost me very much money to find out if it was. Chi-Fi audiophile gear is often the same way. You can be a Chi-Fi audiophile magnate without a very big budget, and that can be fun. I mentioned headphones before, and if you are into the category – that might be a fun place to dabble first, perhaps? One might take a listen to a Chi-Fi DAC, as I am about to buy a Topping D90 (one of the most hyped Chi-Fi products in the market today), so that I can do a volume-matched, A-B test with a similarly-priced Eversolo. I can do that through Amazon, and if I don’t like the Topping DAC, I can send it back. Amazon is pretty good with returns, unless you are really abusive with them and return a lot of gear without buying much. Buying a lot of stuff from Amazon is not a problem in this house, and likely not in yours either. 

Here’s a thought if you want to protect your credit card from doing business with lesser-known Chi-Fi companies and are fearful of problems with returns. If you were going to create your own Chi-Fi and/or value-based audiophile experiment, why not buy the items from more than one place? Audio Advisor is an option. Crutchfield is another. Best Buy has options, too. Alibaba.com is a dicier one, but an option for the more adventurous audiophile nonetheless. And of course, there is always Amazon.com, which likely won’t give you any grief if you send a few items back during the course of the year. I don’t push it with them, but I have returned electronics to them (in mint condition, with all of the packing, as well as the RA number/slip), and they’ve been good to me in return. Why not? I buy plenty of AV gear from them that never ever gets returned, and they don’t have a store to try anything out, thus it is part of the Amazon consumer experience.

SMSL DA-8S Integrated Amp Reviewed
This S.M.S.L. integrated amp is well below $200 in retail price and pretty damn nice for the money.

Some Final Thoughts on Chi-Fi Audiophile Gear…

I can’t hear it when people suggest that Chi-Fi is somehow an anti-Asian put-down. Take it from this MSNBC-watching coastal liberal media SOB – Chi-Fi stands for Chinese Hi-Fi. That’s all. There’s no insult meant or implied and anyone trying to make it into one needs to slow their roll. 

The audiophile business isn’t good with change and it has never has been. The idea of technology being “disruptive” couldn’t be more positive in Silicon Valley, just as the word “exploit” is a positive (used in conjunction with the word opportunity) here in Hollywood. Concepts that change the audiophile hobby represent change, and there are many establishment audiophiles who just can’t cope with change. They need to get over themselves, and fast. Chi-Fi is here, and it is often good stuff. Walk through any number of U.S.-based audiophile shows and point to the room that a young audiophile can aspire to own. SVS? Orchard Audio? How many more are there? Not that many, as most components that you see at an audiophile show are thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars per component. That’s unattainable for so many people in North America, when Chi-Fi allows one to dream big and own a lot of different styles and configurations of gear for a very small investment. Power to the audiophile people. 

There are a lot of factors that make me optimistic about the audiophile hobby going forward, regardless of the hobby’s aging demographic problems. Chi-Fi is one of the true bright spots. The key to getting the most out of an audiophile foray into the world of Chi-Fi is to have your expectations set on “guarded but optimistic,” because the upside of that $99 integrated amp is strong when the asking price isn’t, but if you ever need support or service, you might not get the hand-holding that you want, need and desire. At these prices, who cares? And if you get burned a few times, the cost of doing business is so low that the pain isn’t that awful. Could a Chi-Fi component make it into a more advanced audiophile system? You bet it could. More importantly, could the low cost of Chi-Fi bring more of the hobby to more people because of its high-value proposition? Folks, it already is doing that, and there’s thankfully no stopping this train. 

Have you tried any Chi-Fi gear in your system? Have you been tempted by its high value proposition? Tell us about your experiences here in our moderated comments below. We love to hear from you as you add to the story. 

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David Downs

Great story … I think many people could benefit from a simple second system (bedroom, basement, garage?). I might gift a Wiim amp/streamer to my daughter for her college apartment so she can rock out with the best of ’em!

Ed Brumbaugh

Thanks Jerry, good read. Couldn’t agree with you more. I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment of setting your expectations on “guarded but optimistic”. I’ve very much enjoyed the Chi-Fi gear that I’ve gotten and used from brands like Denafrips, Topping, and Eversolo. Mixing them with MID-FI components from PrimaLuna and Rotel … you can put a very nice system together. For me, I’m not going to argue with the value proposition of the CHI-FI components that measure better than, or equal to, components costing tens of thousands of dollars. I’ve not had any reason to need customer service on those components, I’ve found them to be very reliable, but should the need arise, their almost inexpensive enough to be throw away and buy new again … just say’n. Thanks again, enjoy you website.

Walter V Cartier

I have used some Chi-Fi electronics from Digital audio Players, wireless headphones and wireless guitar systems. They are good products and reasonably priced. If I have had problem, I contact the company through an email link. I have found that the customer service is as good as it gets. I had a pair of skull headsets and when the first one crapped out, they replaced it. Unfortunately, the second one failed too and they replaced that one too. All for free. I keep my DAPs on all the time and the batteries blow up. For $40 plus shipping to China it is repaired no questions asked. I have yet to venture into the audiophile arena using Chi-Fi components. I have looked, but I would be trading down replacing my Ayre components. If I could find a decent priced Home Theatre Receiver that could drive music through my Vandersteen’s I might try it.

Mike Gimlett

Another point on buying some of the “well reviewed” Chi-Fi gear is that you can actually resell it fairly easily and quickly if it doesn’t work for you. I sold a DAC that measured really well on ASR but didn’t match with my system and only took a 25% hit because someone else read the same review that I did and wanted to jump on board.

Bryan

I saw no mention of Emotiva, who seems to be a more affordable U.S. based company who does offer customer service. The gear used to be built in China but not sure how much of it is now.

I found the article did a good job of explaining the place of Chi Fi and the analogy of the wine helpful.

Michael

ChiFi components absolutely can find their way into a nice system

When I needed a couple of DACs to take advantage of the +4 channels available on my Trinnov Altitude processor a couple of Topping D70s fit the bill nicely.

Let’s be real. Some of these “audiophile” components are grossly overpriced for what you get.

Michael

Trinnov equipment has good DACs, although some of them are getting a little old.

I am not sure if you are aware, so a little background. When you buy a Trinnov Altitude – let’s say the Altitude 16 – it has 16 analog output channels. BUT, Trinnov does a little trick with their S/PDIF digital inputs. They have a feature called +4 which changes the S/PDIF inputs to outputs, which adds another 4 output channels. 2 channels on coax and 2 on toslink. So you end up with a total of 20 output channels on the Altitude 16. The Altitude 32 can also do this.

The trick here is that unless you are feeding an amp that has digital inputs, you must convert these digital signals to analog. Since I am using these 4 channels for subwoofer duty the Topping E70s I chose work perfectly, and they have no trouble reproducing audio signals down into the single digit range as verified with REW. And yes, I misspoke in my previous post when I said D70s. That was incorrect. I used E70s.

IMHO, the rise of affordable ChiFi gear that performs as well as it does at the price it sells for is big trouble for the current “traditional” manufacturers and retailers of audiophile gear. The ChiFi gear performs at a level that is good enough and probably better than what 99% of the people out there really need.

The ultimate irony is that as we get older and can afford some of these high priced audiophile items age has started taking it’s toll and affected our hearing. So the likelihood of actually hearing the difference between a $1000 DAC and a $10,000 DAC is greatly reduced. Measurements? Sure, you’re likely to see improvement. But the vast majority of people listening to these systems being capable of actually hearing the difference in A/B blind testing?

I doubt it.

Last edited 14 days ago by Michael
Maurice Lantier

I’ll be 68 in July. I was a audio enthusiast at 13 years of age, then a professional in the Consumer Electronics Industry until 1998. Just last year, I became audiophile again for the first time since the mid 1980s. I have YouTube and AliExpress to thank.

Maurice Lantier

spent around $1500.

Please consider this as simply my thank you to you. I think your personal research and reasoning about Chi-Fi is so precise. I agree completely with your deductions.

Thanks for what you do!

OCD HiFi Guy

Thx Jerry for opening the convo. I’ve been addressing this for years.
Direct OEM sales from China factories not only eviscerates our USA audio market, it makes us dependent on China for Audio. A hugely risky proposition at best. Once we are fully dependent, the price triples or quadruples. They call this “free market enterprise”. So while the end user gets a cheap audio widget made with production in mind over the audio arts, in the end this practice supports Chinese control over our Audio market if we play the scenario out.
I think users ought to consider this.
Thanks and happy listening!

R M

Nice article! I was introduced to the class-D concept in college (1992). I had my very own copy of Motorola application note AN1042 which is a pretty nice synopsis of the technical wall that had to be climbed before class-D could go mainstream. I think a couple of the crazies on diyaudio actually built AN1042’s sample circuit. I never screwed up the courage to try it. Fortunately I no longer have to, with the highly capable TPA3255 going into so many sub-$120 ChiFi products.

R M

Apparently people were toying with switchmode audio amps as far back as the early 60s. It remained trapped in the realm of curious lab experiments until production transistors could catch up.

Alan

Couldn’t be happier with my Eversolo DMP-A8! Value proposition is off the charts.

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