Folk are often heard to proclaim that, with huge increases in international travel and telecommunications, it’s a ‘small world’ – and getting smaller. But if there’s one thing that can convince you of the hugeness and human diversity of life on this little planet of ours, it’s a visit to China.
My purpose in travelling to the world’s most populous nation – along with my colleagues First Tests Editor Andy Madden and Technical Editor Ketan Bharadia – was simple: to visit the global base of IAG, (International Audio Group), a very important and successful player in the world of modern specialist consumer tech.
If you haven’t heard of IAG, fret not: you’ll certainly have heard of the classic hi-fi brands that are owned, designed and controlled by the technical wizards at IAG’s Shenzhen complex. Mission, Quad, Wharfedale, Audiolab and Castle Acoustics are all IAG brands, with a few more (mostly pro audio or high-end) besides.
Founded and owned by brothers Michael and Bernard Chang, the key element in IAG’s philosophy is to combine British design talent with Chinese manufacturing, and to do so in an integrated way – in one place – so that no aspect of product creation gets watered down or lost in translation.
Legendary hi-fi designer Peter Comeau spends most of his time out in Shenzhen, along with an impressive stable of design wizards like John Westlake and Jason Greenslade. The company has invested heavily in a state-of-the-art factory, where meticulous care is taken to create the products for every brand – each according to slightly different brand values and design philosophies.
IAG's large factory complex in Shenzhen, China
The factory itself, over 1.5 million square feet of it, is overseen by Mubashar Ali, IAG’s head of production engineering. What Ali doesn’t know about the manufacture of hi-fi products, it seems, could be written on the back of a soft-dome tweeter with room to spare. As Ali showed us round the many product assembly lines, expertly holding forth on every aspect of design and execution – from carpentry to high-tech software development – it was impossible not to be very impressed.
Mubashar Ali, head of production engineering, shows us around
Much of the work creating circuit boards for Audiolab is done by hand
One of the immediately notable things about IAG’s operation is the extent of what they make themselves: from new parts, to the tools to make those parts, through to all their own speaker drivers: the vast bulk of what goes into IAG products is made right there in the Shenzhen factory. They even manufacture their own wire.
Not just making components: making the tools to make those components
Freshly machined buttons for fitting on an Audiolab 8200 CD player
Drivers for Wharfedale, Quad and Castle speakers are made here in Shenzhen
IAG even manufactures its own wire...
...Which is then spooled and made ready for the various assembly lines
While we were enjoying our visit, the guys at IAG provided us with some hot product news: first up is a new affordable 5.1 home cinema speaker package from Wharfedale. Called the DX1 – and expected to retail for the hugely competitive price of £350 when it becomes available in the early autumn – it’s based on a mini version of the Diamond 10.1, as you can see in this picture (N.B. our technical editor’s hand is provided for scale, and no, he doesn’t have giant hands…)
The Wharfedale DX-1 package: a 'mini' Diamond design – and 5.1 for just £350
They also told us about a raft of exciting new Audiolab products coming hot on the heels of last year’s stunning success with the 8200 CD player. Here’s the range in a nutshell:
• The CDQ is essentially the 8200 CD player/DAC we know and love, but with a preamp added.
• The DQ is a DAC/preamp – i.e. it’s the CDQ minus the CD transport
Then there are two all-new DACs, using a different (smaller) chassis, in a new-for-Audiolab ‘compact form factor’.
• The entry level M-DAC, aimed at the iTunes/PC audio upgrade market, retailing for around £400. We watched this being manufactured as we toured the factory (see pic, below)
•The Q-DAC will add extra functionality including a preamp section
A freshly maunfactured motherboard for Audiolab's upcoming M-DAC
There’s also exciting news regarding another of IAG’s big brands – Quad. The new Elite Series is expanding, to include the Elite Series CD-P, which replaces the 99 Series CD-P CD player.
Perhaps even more exciting is the confirmation that there will be a replacement for the 909 power amp. Name details are yet to emerge – and it won’t be called ‘909’ – but it will have an ‘Elite Series’ moniker, will come in both stereo and monobloc forms, and will use Quad’s unique and highly-rated ‘current dumping’ technology.
The Quad Elite Series, including the replacement for the 909 power amp...
...Here seen up close and personal
Also coming from Quad is the new 12L ‘Classic’ speakers. Expected to retail for the same price (around £500) as the current 12L2, this larger bookshelf speaker will be available from ‘late Summer/early Autumn’.
Back to affordable home cinema, you can expect big news imminently on a replacement for Mission’s M-Cube surround speakers, while Wharefdale is also launching the 'Powercube' range of subwoofers, designed to fit with any of the brand’s full range speakers in a surround speaker package.
All in all, the factory tour was fascinating: seeing products as diverse as Audiolab electronics and Wharfedale speakers being manufactured in the same location, and with the same meticulous levels of individually brand-centric attention to detail, was very impressive.
Wharfedale Jade speaker cabinets in the process of being made
Piano woodwork polishing on the jade speakers
Polishing a small standmounter
Final checking before a speaker is boxed and readied for shipping
A trip like this can never be complete without the joy of witnessing some really high-end kit. So, off to Guangzhuo we went, to visit something that could only make us Brits seethe with a kind of envy – a slick, large and popular high street full of stores selling mid- and high-end hi-fi.
Guangzhuo: where the streets are packed with high-end hi-fi shops
The highlight, though, was surely these: while IAG's Peter Comeau and Steve Un thanked us for attending, we got to gawp at the new flagship Wharfedale ‘Airdale Heritage’ speakers.
Wharfedale's flagship Airdale Heritage speaker. It's a statement.
Looking as much like pieces of antique furniture as spanking new high-end hi-fi – and sounding really quite extraordinary – listening to the Airdales made for a fitting conclusion to our trip. All done, it was then just a matter of taking the bullet train for a great evening in Hong Kong with members of the Chang family, and our Chinese adventure was at an end.
The Hong Kong skyline, our final view of China