There’s no question that China as a country has come into its own as a superpower in recent years. Its economy is vibrant, its people are making money, and it is surreptitiously “catching up” to the West in many sectors of technology — it’s no surprise that the custom in-ear industry is booming there as well.
Already, China is the headphone and earphone capital of the world, with more ODM and OEM plants per capita than any other place. Not only do Shenzhen and its immediate surroundings make cheap $5 earbuds, they’re also primed to model the custom in-ear industry the same way: coalescing technologies, unifying designs, and diversifying branding opportunities. With so much flowing around town — ideas, parts, money — it’s hard to know what’s what!
Still, there are many curious audiophiles that would like to venture into the world of Chinese customs. So, here is a primer on all the Chinese and HK-based CIEM companies (in no particular order):
By far the best known (to the Western world) Chinese custom in-ear brand to come out of China, Unique Melody burst onto the international scene by way of head-fi, offering great-sounding products at a lower price compared to the then powerhouses of custom in-ear monitors, UE, JHA, Westone, etc. and at a build quality previously untenable by the big companies.
Unique Melody‘s main manufacturing facility is in Zhuhai, a city bordering Macau and Hong Kong. It’s come a long way since its modest beginnings, with its own unique entity and a fully fleshed-out product line that features the likes of the Mage, Miracle, and Merlin — all well-respected products in the hi-fi world.
Despite being one of the larger and more established CIEM companies in China, UM has not been without growing pains. In the beginning, they were ridiculed in China for making “shanzai” (山寨) CIEMs, and even now do not have a popular presence within the mainland, despite widespread popularity in the west.
They’ve also had some missteps with the Platform Pure 6, their own competitor to the JH Audio JH3A. While first touted as an ideal version of the JH3A, the PP6 has also had its own significant issues, leading to a lukewarm response amongst audiophiles and an undesirable price point. UM‘s marketing has also been somewhat inconsistent, with several distributors all jockeying for customers, leading to some botched orders and inconsistent customer service.
However, UM seems ready to come back strong in 2013, putting much in-house research and development into a triple dynamic driver model in the 3DD, with plans to use those drivers in other future models as well.
Website (UM Global, Australia): http://www.uniquemelody.co
Website (UM International, Stephen Guo): http://www.custom-iem.com
UM’s lesser-known sister brand shares the same roof as Unique Melody and the two share parts sourcing and assist each other with labor (when one or the other is in high demand), but mostly maintain their own independent staff.
What makes the two stand apart is in the marketing. Whilst UM has long catered toward a worldwide audience and has multiple distributors around the globe, Rooth has kept its reach in East Asia, servicing clients in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. Its main distributor for global markets is Japan-based HFI International, but has a local distributor for Singapore (Null Audio Studio).
The Null Audio Elpis, one of the most affordable custom in-ear monitors around, is a single BA, single dynamic hybrid model designed and built by Rooth, but voiced by Null Audio.
Rooth also stands apart in its product lineup, featuring a larger model lineup that ranges from low to high priced, and even a limited edition 10-driver model, the LS10-1, which tops the driver count in today’s numbers oriented CIEM market. The full Rooth lineup has been previewed on CYMBACAVUM (click here to read the article).
While it currently limits its online presence to local retailers and listening booths, Rooth is said to be re-hauling its brand image and launching with a global website soon, shedding its image as merely UM’s lesser known sister brand.
Thousand Sound (千音)
Popular with enthusiasts in China and Hong Kong, Thousand Sound is headed by Master Guohua Xu.
According to fans, Master Xu is a perfectionist and takes his time with his creations, building them to exacting standards, and his attention to detail is the reason why he’s so popular in China.
His most recent flagship, the TS853, is a triple bore, three-way, five-driver hybrid design that utilizes a dynamic low end. Such a type of complex design is matched only by Rooth’s LS-X5. While there are few online impressions this side of the great firewall, an avid Japanese customer did post his thoughts (here).
ERJI.net Page: http://www.erji.net/read.php?tid=520827
Taobao Store: http://shop35979424.taobao.com/
Guiling (桂聆) (a.k.a. G-Customs)
Located in Guangxi Province, next to Guangdong Province (the electronics manufacturing capital of the world), Guiling is the brainchild of one Master Fuwen Xiao, a former engineer for Rooth. In typical Confucian Chinese custom, Master Xiao left the city to return to his family home in Guangxi, perhaps to take care of his parents.
While Xiao has his own line of ‘CX’ monitors, they’re believed to be derived from his previous designs at Rooth, and now freelances for companies looking for in-roads into the CIEM market. For example, G-Customs in Singapore is the English-speaking retailer for Master Xiao, while Stage93‘s self-branded custom products seem to be designed and built by Guiling as well. Oridio in Hong Kong is responsible for the Cantonese market.