Chinese electronic gear – hit or miss!

Steering clear of Chinese manufacturers – with or without merit

It’s a well known fact that most musos and audiophiles steer clear from the cheaper Asian imports like the plague. There is a huge amount of misconception about this, most probably stemming from the forums and ignorance.

Chinese electronic gear hit or miss
Spares Box

I am a huge believer of home brewed or “tuis gebakte” consumer goods and if it wasn’t for our rather feisty unions, inefficiency and poor education I do believe South Africa could be a manufacturing giant. We are in the motor industry but why not in the electronics sector? Many years back there was boastful talk about Stellenbosch being the second Silicon Valley. So what happened?  Price, efficiency, education.

Education is key for design – work ethic for manufacture

China has a mammoth manufacturing industry. They have a very high score rating in maths and science (here I should point out that Taiwan is or was the world leader). The people are bright, industrious and competitive. Anyone working in the electronics sector and specifically mixing with Asian engineers, marketers and the general sales force will understand the dynamics at play. Especially the enthusiasm. Mail a Chinese (or South Korean or Japanese) company today and you’ll have a reply within a few hours, not matter what time zone you are in. This kind of attitude makes China an attractive place to manufacture.

jack socket - stereo 6.3mm
Jack Socket – stereo (the nut is for illustration purposes only)

The argument is that as soon as a product goes to China for production the resulting products are always of poor construction.   To be clear, this was a problem with many brand names. We had the golden product which for some strange reason never shared the same quality of the resulting mass production. Shortcuts, poor quality materials and components and often rather unfinished goods were the order of the day. Quality workmanship did appear only once there was proper QC in place and there was rock solid supervision. I work in the sector so ethically I cannot mention the brand names (many) which succumbed to poor control and components. But at some stage the QC changed, control was tighter, things got more expensive and the complaints stopped. Ditto the professional audio market.

Our DIY sector 

Here is a standard dilemma for anyone building their own projects in South Africa:  Purchase a mono or stereo jack socket. They vary in price from about R10.00 to R75.00 ex VAT.  The cheaper variety is almost always of Asian build and the nut/threads are of exceptionally poor quality.  Why do we even bother? As soon as we start going up in price the quality improves until we get what we really want – a lifetime laster. At between R40.00 and R75.00 a pop. And they are also made in Asia i.e. China. (maybe I exaggerate a little but if a nut cannot be tightened beyond finger torque there may be a problem. How good are the contacts then?).

Doing the maths

The well known Dixon mixer PM121USB is a conundrum.  It features 12  audio channels and a stereo bus plus 200W per channel amplifier. This used to go for R 2 999.00 and now with ROE sits at R 4 299.00. This is very cheap for what you get. And the sockets are of very good quality (in my mind). So in mass production the manufacturers do get better quality products for less.  A rough estimation puts the total price on all the mono sockets at between R600.00 and R700.00 at current pricing.  No manufacturer would be buying in these products at that pricing (I give RRP not cost) even with 33% to 40% markup.  So in fact we are being ripped off – and not by the suppliers in Asia.

I mention the PM121USB mixer as an example purely because there has to be a break-even point – to self build a unit at RRP (recommended retail prices, if there is such a thing) it would cost double or more. The transformer alone sits at about R 1 200.00 to R 1 500.00 RRP in the RSA. But in mass production the pricing becomes attractive and I dare say, the quality is pretty damned good. Remember it gets used by DJs of all types and it does get bashed around, gauging by the images on Gumtree.

Focusing on the hardware

So where does this leave us?  Better quality mono and stereo jacks, fuseholders, switches and potentiometers?  This all falls within the spectrum of the DIYer.  We just cannot afford to pay 4 times the price to get a quality product, especially if we need this to last a lifetime.  (I purchased some sockets from a well known supplier where not one of the nuts could be tightened properly, the switches all had huge lateral movement, the fuse-holders had thin tin lugs, and the list goes on). Resellers should offer alternatives and not just online because often there is a stock shortage.

Margins are tight

Running an electronics store is not easy, especially those that survive on selling electronic components. Much of this is driven by a passion, margins can be tight as each store needs to be highly competitive.  But why the poor quality (of some components) in South Africa? I am not singling out any particular store, I do believe that in huge quantities components from companies like Farnell pricing to the consumer would be drastically cut and we’d end paying R20.00 for a good product as compared to R10.00 for a dud. And yes, most probably Farnell source from Asia as well. Just a point to note.

To close off, manufacturers in China have to be carefully selected, QC is vital throughout the manufacturing cycle, not just the Golden Product. This is a gap in our market – quality hardware at reasonable pricing.

The same applies to the chassis components (which includes rack mount)  and mains transformers. Compare the price of a computer rack mount chassis to that purchased through an electronics store.

Editor’s Note:  When it comes to to 200~240V a.c. plugs and sockets the mind boggles at the various qualities of build one has come to expect in South Africa.  Do they get checked by the SABS? Plugtops which can easily be pulled off the base leaving children access to the live terminal are frighteningly popular.  Multiplug sockets with a maximum of 5A wire rating.  And the ever popular mains two pin plug, with or without the earth strap. SABS/SANS is strict on this but we still see them.

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