2021 was a weird year on social media in the audiophile kingdom. We saw a lot of positive movement on Instagram where the community embraced a new generation of curious music listeners; and some less than friendly behavior on some audio forums where “objectivists” and “subjectivists” battled it out.
Some other house cleaning as we begin the new year.
An ugly trend has developed on social media and in some audio forums regarding “Chi-fi” and we think there needs to be a wider community discussion about its use.
Whether we want to acknowledge or not, the use of the phrase “Chi-fi” has derogatory connotations. It was originally coined to reference the start-up Chinese audio industry and even then, it came with the understanding that the products being labeled as such were inferior to their more developed counterparts coming from the United States, Canada, U.K, France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Japan.
It parallels the early days of Japanese car sales in North America when it was not uncommon to hear them referred to as “Jap Junk” which was more blatantly racist and derogatory but also carried roughly the same sentiment.
For those who would argue that the term is merely a reference to where the products are being made, I ask the question, then why do we not have Kor-fi, Ger-fi, US-fi, and Jap-fi? We don’t identify other products by country of origin which goes to negate part of that argument.
The remainder of the argument can be quickly called out by the fact that people are quick to exclude certain Chinese-made products (HiFiMan as one example) as not qualifying as Chi-fi. If some products are excluded, what are the grounds for inclusion in the class? Obviously, it isn’t just the country of origin that is being used to make the distinction.
The term isn’t applied to Western brands whose products are produced in China. Many American, Canadian, and British brands have production facilities in China including KEF, NAD, Wharfedale, Quad, PSB, Cambridge Audio, Polk, and many others. Consumers seem perfectly fine buying those products manufactured in China because that reality saves them money.
What about companies that source parts from China but then assemble them elsewhere?
Campfire Audio faced a backlash for having some parts fabricated in China because their ad copy stated the product was American-made, while many other companies have been given a pass for moving production to China and using the term “Designed in” instead of “Made in” in their advertising.
How is a product designed in Germany and made on a Chinese production line, using Chinese parts and Chinese labor inherently better than a product designed in China? This seems to suggest that Chinese audio engineers are not as competent as those in the rest of the world.
There is a word for that right?
What percentage of the parts used in a product have to be made in China? Many Chinese brands are now using Sonion and Knowles drivers so essentially the shell is made in China, but the internals may all be made elsewhere.
Some of the boutique “Made in America” IEMs may have more Chinese-made parts than many that are labeled as “Chi-fi”.
Many will cite Chinese labor practices and intellectual property laws (or lack thereof) as reasons for disliking and avoiding Chinese-made products. There is no question that the situation in Xinjiang and the treatment of the Uyghurs is a major human rights issue and that some companies have chosen profit over people. Anger on social media in the West regarding the topic ranges from outright hostility towards the CCP to a weird level of indifference.
China’s suppression of free speech in Hong Kong should raise red flags throughout the West, but many only care about how cheaply they can get their new iPhone.
Meanwhile a lot of those same people continue to support Western companies that are benefitting from that same labor. If we are going to claim the moral high ground, don’t we have to be consistent about it and not support companies that are profiting from those practices?
The answer to what qualifies for the Chi-fi moniker unfortunately is perceived quality. The insinuation is that Chi-fi only encompasses low-quality Chinese-made products. If it was designed elsewhere it doesn’t qualify, and if it has a high enough price point, it doesn’t qualify. If that doesn’t smack of bigotry, I don’t know what does.
Honda very quickly proved that its “Jap Junk” could outlast Western offerings and is now known as one of the most reliable automobile brands in the world. Much the same, many of the budget Chinese IEMs offer construction quality that rivals anything on the market, and some have the sound quality to match, yet they still have this albatross of a moniker to overcome.
I think the time has come to retire the name, it may have started out as a somewhat catchy play on Chinese and Hi-Fi, but it has taken on a meaning that is insulting and counterproductive as the products being released today are quite competitive and don’t deserve to be branded with a term that has negative implications.
So, if we drop the term from our lexicon, what do we replace it with? I propose we don’t replace it. Like what we are seeing in so many places today, the fact that we feel the need to distinguish one from another is divisive and not helpful. Why can’t headphones just be headphones?
Related reading: Does the Audiophile Community Have a Problem?