Originally Posted by ClieOS
I'll attempt to offer some explanation based on what I have observed over the last few years, and also from talking to a few hardware manufacturer.
On a more national level:
The easily understanding part is that the Chinese, having replaced the Japanese of the 70s~80s and the Taiwanese of the 80s~90s, is now the largest electronic hardware manufacturer in the world. Well, it isn't so much that they actually out do the Japanese and Taiwanese but more to the fact that the Japanese and Taiwanese have moved their factory to China. So after a decade or two of very strong electronics manufacturing development, one thing that the market isn't short of are over-qualified electronics engineers. In fact, the Chinese universities have been pumping out a huge number of hardware engineers over the last two decades because of the demand in the market.
So why are the firmware is still so bad? Well, because there isn't enough software engineers around to write the code. But it isn't as simple as not having enough graduate from universities. If anything, there are more software engineers in China now than any time before. The problem is, as the Chinese internal market has grown stronger and stronger, foreign and domestic companies are now in strong demand of software engineer. The pure manufacturing industry is slowly giving way to the R&D, where companies are now hiring the brilliant local for product R&D instead of just workers on assembly line - and big companies are paying top dollars for experienced software engineer. For an example - I talked to a company representative awhile ago, and he told me they have difficulty hiring good, well experience software engineer to write the software for their product. Whomever is qualified for the job doesn't want to work for them because Foxxcom's (or any big company for that matter) headhunter will offer the same job with much higher payroll. How much higher? Well, much higher than the highest paid person of the company, as I was told. So in a sense, they can't afford to hire well experienced software engineers. They can of course hire lesser experienced, or freshly graduated software engineer, but it take a toll on quality and time - and there is no guarantee that the freshly graduated software engineer won't get offered by the same headhunter for much higher pay once (s)he has enough experience. In short, it is not easy for a small company to hire good people when some of the largest companies in the world is your competition.
Now to a more local level:
All DAP in the market, audiophiles or not, runs on a SoC - a chip that combines CPU, RAM, and all kind of controllers into one unit. A decent Samsung SoC that can run a DAP requires a minimum of 10K units per order. That's far exceeding any local Chinese DAP maker's capability on expected manufacturing quantity, given most of them only make a few hundreds or a few thousands units of the same model at most. Also, the price tag of that 10K order will likely bankrupt most of these DAP maker. Beyond that, there is the question of whether Samsung will actually entertain such a small order - that's because ordering SoC is not just about chip, but also about getting access to the bootloader and basic firmware, which are trade secret. It is a common practice that when you buy an SoC, you are buying a solution, both hardware and software included, and paying for the physical chip is actually a lot easier than asking Samsung to release the code, especially if you are a small company with a tiny order. In most cases, SoC supplier will actually NOT give you the code, but develop the firmware for you (as a package deal for your SoC order). That means you have close to no control on the code but your faith to the SoC supplier that they will commit enough resource to get the job done, or at least iron out the majority of the bugs. Whatever code you have accessed to is also highly likely get locked down by some contract you signed for the SoC order, preventing you to release it to the general public (which is why you don't see every DAP maker running to the RockBox team, as they just legally can't).
So if you can't order your SoC from Samsung or any big SoC supplier because you are a small DAP maker, what do you do? Well, you turn to the local small SoC companies like RockChip, which specializes in the order of a few thousands units. What is the bad? Well, they have been known to have poor support and very limited hardware capability, and in most case you still won't get the code because they are also handling the firmware development for you. Basically it is a bad situation makes worst, but you have to live with it because you have no other option. That's why many of the Chinese electronic manufacturer (not just the DAP makers) employs a fast-in-fast-out tactic - they start making a new hardware based on whatever SoC RockChips (or any other small SoC maker of such) has developed this year, and only offer (if at all) firmware update and support as long as that particular SoC model is still on the market (which means it is about a year or two). That means you won't likely to see all the bugs getting fixed because RockChips has moved to something newer and won't bother to proactively fixing bugs for the manufacturer - If you are an electronics manufacturer, that's your cue to move onto a new model as well. 'Keep it cheap and keep it new' is how most of them survive, because 'latest and greatest' makes money; software maintenance doesn't. Unfortunately that situation applies to the audiophile DAP maker just as much to any small electronics manufacturer in China. You don't have the software engineering team of your own to do the job and the SoC supplier is more happy to sell you a new chip than to answer your phone call for more bugfix.
That being said, a more recent trend is for the the DAP to find SoC supplier that are willing to commit to a longer relationship or at least partially release the code. There is a reason why HiFiman and FiiO both went to the same SoC supplier and able to have their own firmware written in house. Another trend is to adapt Android as it is open-sourced. iBasso does that, though they still stuck in the hole I called RockChips and Andorid isn't really optimized for pure audio purpose. However, the biggest obstacle, as far my opinion goes, is still the lack of a good in-house software team for most of them - and that's harder to fix than choosing a new SoC supplier. It is getting better, but there is still a long way to go before any Chinese DAP maker is able to stand up to the Korean / American in firmware maturity.
Well, I hope these explanation at least partially addresses the OP's question.