How to get a cheap 'iPhone': The Chinese dupes giving Apple a run for its money

Low-quality products are still emerging from China, but there are now many good ones, too

SANTIAGO, CHILE - DECEMBER 05: A visitor holds the Redmi S2 smartphone during the official launch of the Chinese brand Xiaomi on December 05, 2018 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Sebastian Vivallo Oñate/Agencia Makro/Getty Images)
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My interest was piqued by a fellow musician who's very choosy about his purchases. We'd been discussing the confusing and highly subjective world of headphones: which ones have the most clarity, the fullest sound, the most authentic reproduction. "I use these when I'm playing onstage," he said, dangling a pair of earphones from a fistful of cable. "I can't find anything better." The Chinese brand, KZ, was one I'd never heard of. And the price was ridiculous. "They're about £10 (Dh50)," he said.

I bought a pair, and after trying them out, it became clear that he was right. They were as good as any others I'd owned, for a price that completely upended the notion that cheap equals bad.

Anker SoundBuds Slim+. Courtesy Anker

A "made in China" stamp has long had an unfavourable association with products that are low on quality and durability. But in recent years, this reputation has been slowly dissolving. The headphone market is saturated with dozens of Chinese brands – KZ, Linsoul, Revonext – successfully competing against (and massively undercutting) established names such as Sennheiser and Bose. And it's happening across every kind of consumer technology. The Indian smartphone market is dominated by low-price Chinese handsets, with pole position taken by brands such as Oppo and Vivo. Smartwatches by Xiaomi, Ticwatch and ZeBlaze sell for a fraction of the cost of Apple's. Scan down the listings at online retailer and you'll find odd-sounding brands such as Royal Kludge, Ajazz and M-Way making keyboards, webcams and Bluetooth speakers for prices that are, frankly, absurd.

Moreover, the reviews on YouTube tell us that many of them perform very well and represent great value. How is this possible? And what impact is it having on consumer electronics?

It's a well-established fact that making things in China is cheap. Low-price labour and efficient production costs have prompted many multinational companies to manufacture products there. But the online success of these Chinese brands has revealed how small the proportion of a gadget's price is represented by its manufacturing cost. Many Chinese electronics come without the substantial overheads of a global firm, such as marketing, branding, legal, research and development. "The nature of Chinese industrial competitiveness has evolved into more knowledge-intensive forms – reverse engineering, product repurposing, and local adaptation," concluded US academics Jonas Nahm and Edward Steinfeld in a 2013 study. "Chinese firms have made impressive strides, commercialising new products better, faster and cheaper."

The use of Chinese factories to make the world's electronic goods has placed the nation in a unique position. It has amassed a huge quantity of equipment and components, and valuable knowledge of how to use them. Flaws and inefficiencies in western products are spottedoverhauled. The resulting products have been described as "80 per cent of the value at 50 per cent of the cost", but some of them are more like 90 at 30. Headphones such as the Xiaomi Pisto and the VE Monk sell for under Dh20, and they've been lauded by people who recognise something good when they hear it.

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A Mobvoi Ticwatch C2 Smartwatch
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In this way, whole product lines have been analysed, refined, repackaged and sold in huge numbers. Redmi, a Xiaomi smartphone, looks indistinguishable from an iPhone at a distance, costs much less, and has proved hugely popular in India. The premium prices paid for Apple products are like catnip for Chinese companies; decent copies of AirPod earbuds were quick to appear. And it's that flexibility which poses such a threat to technology companies outside China. A product that's available one week might be discontinued the next in favour of something better.

According to Davide Nicolucci, a digital marketer from Hong Kong, this has to do with the efficiency and speed of Chinese working culture, as opposed to the "plan, strategy, analysis, research, approval" approach of western brands. "By the time a western company has researched the market, worked on a sales strategy and made a marketing plan, a Chinese company will be launching the follow-up product," he writes. "This means they can constantly flood the market with new products in a way that its western counterparts cannot."

But making them is one thing, selling them is another. The packaging of these products isn't flashy, and many of the brands are unknown, so how to market them? That's where Amazon's third-party marketplace has played a huge part, by allowing Chinese companies to sell directly to the public. It's estimated that one-third of Amazon sellers are from China, and they dominate search listings for all kinds of products – electronic and otherwise. With Amazon keen to become the world's go-to store, and Chinese companies keen to sell to the world without middlemen taking a cut, it has been a perfect match.

And what's become apparent is that branding doesn't matter much if it's sold through Amazon; if it comes with Amazon's supposed seal of approval, people are happy to buy. Even if fake reviews have manifestly pushed many of these products up the rankings, sales are still rapid. The bang for the buck is irresistible, and the risk to the consumer seems negligible. Sure, after-sales support may be non-­existent, but for a Dh20 pair of headphones, who cares?

Online shoppers who care predominantly about price have built Chinese brands such as Aukey and Anker into internationally recognised names. Others, such as KZ, will surely follow. Their success poses big questions to those who have a fondness for expensive goods, and undermines the assumption that expensive items are better. "Why buy a $40 [Dh147] bikini made in America, when you can buy a $4 bikini directly from China?" asked Alana Samuels in an article for The Atlantic. Similarly, when you spend Dh15,000 on a pair of headphones, what are you buying, exactly? The quality of the product, which may be indistinguishable from a Chinese version costing 2 per cent of that sum? Or are you buying for the feeling of having bought something expensive? Yes, low-quality products are still emerging from China. But there are many good ones, too. And those products are stripping meaning away from the maxim "you get what you pay for".