This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Reviewer: Joël Chevassus
Financial Interests: click here
Source: Audio Analogue Grand Maestro CD, Asus Eee-PC, Apple iMac, 3D-LAB DVD Drive, Yamamoto YDA-01, Audio GD Ref 5 [for review], Trends UD-10.1
Amp/Preamp: Emillé Labs Cha'am [on loan], Wyred4Sound STP-SE, SPL Volume2, Orpheus Lab Three Monos, Trends TA-10.2
Speakers: Triangle Magellan Duetto
Cables: Legato digital cable, Naturelle Audio digital cable, Naturelle Audio interconnects Live 8 MK2, Audio Art SC-5 SE speaker cables, Legato Precision speaker cables
Power Cords: Audio Art Power 1 SE
Stands: DIY stuff, Triangle TS400 stands
Review Component Retail: ca. $1.090 plus shipping and customs duties

China is a land of surprises and its growing high-end audio business knocking on our doors. In fact, the Chinese contingent of European audio retail no longer consists exclusively of a few direct-selling operators. During the last two years I had opportunity to observe new distributors establishing themselves in my sweet wine and cheese country importing affordable or quite affordable gear made and designed in China. Xindak for example had its own international distribution network for a few years already and so now does Audio-GD with new French distributor Audiophonics who nevertheless remains an online trading company [speaker houses Swans and Usher are two further examples of Asian companies with highly developed Western infrastructures – Ed].

That’s why I would identify "a second step" in the Chinese development of the audio business. We no longer deal with a kind of Chinese black market that's based on blatant copies of the most famous Western brands sold directly from China through questionable websites but with mostly genuine designs (even if mainly derived from past copies) and emerging formal distribution networks. The next step will obviously have to take into account other important key factors to long-term success such as customer support and advertising, which today aren’t yet amongst the best arguments in favor of certain newer ‘exotic’ brands. But this move out from behind the curtain is undoubtedly a positive development for the audiophile middle class and a first we're-here-to-stay warning for traditional Western brands.

It is now quite difficult for audio reviewers to pretend these brands only exist in a parallel Fringes universe when they are knocking so loudly on our doors. Can we really keep these doors closed? I say we cannot. Audio journalism is in the news business whether we find the news convenient or not. That’s why I had a personal interest in reviewing one of Mr. He Qinghua’s products. His company Audio-GD is highly praised domestically and abroad. While certain previous models clearly demonstrated that He Qinghua was trying to build reproductions of audio legends by Krell, Mark Levinson and other prestigious makes, Audio-GD now seems to have acquired sufficient technical background and experience to design its own circuits and fly on its own steam. That said, it’s unusual to see a Chinese device with CAST outputs but certainly not the first to take advantage of a competitor’s technology. This is not an isolated event. Qinghua himself was never afraid* of intellectual property issues, going as far as naming his most ambitious integrated amplifier FBI 500. That’s in fact Audio-GD’s creed - to offer the most sophisticated technology for significantly less than established Western companies.


* A perhaps better turn of phrase would involve "respectful" or "cognizant". Defying established intellectual property rights after all isn't a matter of courage as though to be applauded but rather, a lack of creativity and common courtesy, never mind legal infraction though in many of these audio cases, the financial burden of prosecution especially across international borders and firm proof are often preventive and elusive - Ed.

This leads to another feature of the Chinese audio industry: profusion. Qinghua’s is highly relevant. His product catalogue today includes ten D/A converters alone. That’s the Chinese trading mentality for you. When in a Chinese shop, you will always find something to match your needs. The only open question remaining is, are you buying a Mogwai or gremlin? What will you end up inserting into your hifi, a crazy willy-nilly patchwork of components or a marvelous music box that simply happens to be designed and made in China?

The D/A converter under review is somewhat of a dinosaur among the new generations of high-resolution chip sets and Audio-GD recently announced that its stock of PCM1704 chips was nearing depletion. Yet don’t view this review as a posthumous tribute to a discontinued machine. Audio-GD was thinking hard about a replacement for the PCM1704U-K in its Reference line of products and has identified during the last few days a stock of chips which will continue the production of the Reference 5 under consideration for almost another two years.

Audio GD—or more precisely He Qinghua—engages in a direct relationship with his customers and tries to adapt new products to emerging trends. This is a new way to market audio products based on Internet communities. NuForce and Trends Audio have done this for a long time already. Qinghua mostly known as Kingwa in Western forums has become famous on certain websites like HeadFi by now. The benefits of such forum interactions are various. It creates advance buzz for new releases. It includes customer suggestions in the finalization of a design. It’s completely free promotion. It creates an image of transparency to improve buyer trust. The Reference 5 DAC is a perfect example of this alchemy between manufacturer and Internet communities and emerged following the suggestion of an audio forum member to have a specific device paired with his balanced headphone amp/preamp.