My journey into the Vietnamese earphone scene

  1. WilliamLeonhart
    Disclaimer: Some photos in this post is watermarked. They come from my reviews of the earphones mentioned for vnreview.vn, a Vietnamese tech site.

    Vietnam. That country where Bubba's dream of being a shrimper came to an end. That S:-shaped piece of land that your little boy thinks is an island cos geography is not mandatory anymore. That regime that is still communist but now with a capitalist market, so you can import $700 DACs from China and sell it at $1200 in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

    The Vietnamese earphone scene

    Yes, we do have a head-fi scene here. People do spend a lot. Chord Hugo is nothing special in my over crowded hometown. China-made AKGs and Sonys (the genuine ones) can be more easily found than Koss. If you'd ever bought any Chinese-brand stuffs here, you'd know Americans, despite their numerous outlets and all-year sale, can still be overcharged.

    Whereas there is demand, there will be suppliers that rise to meet it. We love our music, and as frequently shown on facebook we do love our country a lot. So, naturally, Vietnamese earphones happen.

    We do love our music

    Let me be honest - we are not there yet. Don't expect Grado's finesse, Chord's technical prowess or Sennheiser's comfort. I don't think any Vietnamese brand has even been able to produce their own drivers yet. In fact, the whole Vietnamese earphones scene can be said to besomewhere in between an individual DIY project and a startup putting more money into marketing than into their actual product.

    Still, we all have to start somewhere.

    Joinhandmade Jelly Galaxy
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    Aptly named.
    This is arguably the most well-known earphones to ever come out of Vietnam. Joinhandmade is a startup that made waves around the end of 2014 thanks to the "first ever Vietnamese earphones" called Jelly Ear that went quite successfully on Indiegogo or some other crowfunding site. The Jelly Ear got an extremely negative reaction in my country and next come the Jelly Galaxy with (supposedly) better sound and an easier-to-accept price tag. It sold for around $50.

    Now how were the Galaxy received? Well here in Vietnam we have a toxic Internet community and the reaction to the Jelly Galaxy was... toxic. I read people's opinions on the net and it was almost like Joinhandmade wronged them. I felt so bad for this company that I put out one or two writings defending them. It was obviously for nought, but at least I got my feelings out.

    Then I got the Jelly Galaxy myself. The product was almost perfectly made, a real work or arts in terms of build quality. This was not your normal plastic or aluminum earphones, it sticked out like a jelly in my hands. It looked real good, and Joiha's videos showed that whoever build this earphones put a lot of work into it.
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    Beautiful they are. Sound good they do not.

    But the sound was perhaps in line with the toxic reply that it got. Jelly Galaxy sounded horrible. I don't think it's an overstatement to state that I prefer the no-name Samsung earbuds or the over-popular Apple Earpods to this $50 pair. The bass bleeds too much into the mids, the mids was surprisingly only so-so and the trebles was non-existent. In all honesty, the Jelly Galaxy was an over-polished, over-priced, over-hyped pair of earphones to me.

    To make matters worse, Joiha's reaction to the buyer's reactions play no small part in the Galaxy's unpopularity. I know the netizens here in Vietnam, just like everywhere else (except for the most part of head-fi, like my beloved Grado club) are not nice, but during the time I got to friend Joiha's founder on facebook, it seemed like he thinks he got wronged by every bad reviews. Joiha released another earphone model called Jelly Doux, it was also well made albeit not as beautiful as the Galaxy. The sound didn't improve. It seems Joiha has moved onto mechanical key caps and general design works.
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    My patriotic bombastic communistic earphone journey got to a bad start.

    Notes Audio NT.100 mk2

    The Jelly Galaxy left me with utter disappointments. It became very clear to me that even in the entry-level price range, the Chinese OEMs still leapfrogged us by miles and miles. SoundMagic E50s and Xiaomi Pistons still come to my mind as the much better low-end IEMs choices.

    I got left with a question. "Is this all that we can do?". And up on the map popped the Notes Audio NT.100 mk2.

    Actually there was a mk1. I heard of it yet never got around to hear it in person. Then the Jelly Galaxy got more splash and became the first-ever Vietnamese earphones that I have owned. Now I need to actually try the Notes Audio products, they've already gotten to mk2.
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    Nicely packaged cheap IEMs are the norm.

    There was 2 versions of the mk2, the full version with a tad more bass and a fuller set of phone buttons; and the simple version with drier sound and just one single smartphone button that are used to pause/play/switch songs (the same purpose as that middle buttons on the Earpods). The price difference was around $5. The full version went for around $30, the simple version $25.

    The sound in both was more inline with my expectations. In comparison to the Jelly, the Notes is more flat. There's still a spike in the high-mids but it didn't strike me as "colored". The bass did not extend everything and the treble was, well, present.

    Of course we're still talking about $30 earbuds so there's still a lot of room for improvement. Namely the mid-range. The mids was the furthest thing from smooth or forwards or anything that a Grado fan like me would have killed for. But then, we're talking about $30 earbuds. I think I got my money's worth with the Notes Audio NT.100. Plus, I don't intend to spend big on IEMs. I've got a lineup of solid full-sized cans and a power speakers system. The NT.100 was going to be my end-game IEMs.
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    Some moments they shined. Others they did not.
    Unfortunately, it was not the endgame IEMs for many people. Around half a year after I got my first NT.100, there're reports on their facebook pages saying the NT.100 does have build problem and die. There were also rumors that the NT.100 was actually imported from China instead of being designed and assembled in Vietnam. Now, those were rumors and I won't consider them concrete facts before I see concrete proofs. What I know for sure is a lot of NT.100 have broken down and Notes Audio seemed to cease their operation at the time.

    (My NT.100 is still ok till this date)

    Thankfully they've been back and have addressed some defective NT.100. Sadly these IEMs seem to have been discontinued. Notes have moved on with a custom tips project called "Itsfit". Which doesn't sound quite grammatically correct to me but already got really positive response from the IEMs community. They're also going to release a mobile DAC/amp in the near future.

    I'm just glad that things seem to be going well for them.

    My friend's amps and DACs

    We're moving into deeply DIY territory with tremendous results.
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    ASEAN's cheapest O2, as marketed by Thai Tao 2 years ago.
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    After I've given up on finding the perfect (entry-level) Vietnamese IEMs, I met a nice young man named "Thai Tao", often known on the local community as "chetprophet". I learned of him when he made a copy of the O2 - my first true "audiophile" amplifier. What made him different was that he printed his own boards and practically everything except for the opamps and the power adaptors were made in Vietnam. I loved the O2, so I contacted him for a review (in Vietnamese). Since then we've talked a lot and he has helped me with repairs and modding and stuffs. Sometimes when I'm away for a business trip abroad he'd go a few miles to pick up my stuffs and sell it for me. If you had for once experienced Vietnam's urban traffics, you'd see that's one of the nicest acts that friend can do for each other. I'm serious.

    Thai is a friendly person. He is kind and understanding to everyone, standing in stark contrast with what I'd consider an extremely aggressive and biased online audiophile community in VN. I'd promote the hell outta him but here's the catch: the most prominent thing he does is occasionally selling copies of famous designs, like the O2, Bottlehead, Lehmann, etc. In fact he builds those for himself (at times for friends), listens to the amps he's built, grows tired of them and in the end sells them on the net. He only mods headphones accordingly to his liking. He's a software tester and he hasn't been actively looking for a stable source of incomes from audio.

    The only time I've seen him trying to actively earn money from audio-related stuffs was his O2 run. 1 or 2 months if my memory serves.
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    Thai had made plenty other interesting stuffs like this.

    Which I consider to be a waste because in my extremely humble opinion, DIYers like Thai are proof that we Vietnamese people do have the curiosity to take apart things, the intelligence to learn things and the courage to build things. He has made designs of its own, he has tuned/improved many things that I consider impossible to improve. And yet the potential seems to go nowhere, his own mobile DAC/amp design never came to materialize (told me he wasn't happy and grew tired of spending too much time on it). And lastly but most importantly, the demand from what I've seen on our local forums/facebook groups has never been high enough to sustain a "real" business from it.

    Think what would have happened if we had more people like Thai, united in a sustainable company. Wouldn't take that long to catch up to a Chinese audiophile company.

    AYA the bullet IEMs

    Let's going back to typical branded IEMs. When I say "IEMs", think of "V-shaped IEMs" that seem to be the norm here in Vietnam.

    Thankfully here is one that stands out: AYA, IEMs that actually sound ok, are durable and did not cause any controversy regarding their "made/designed/assembled/whatever in Vietnam" status. Now I don't know what "AYA" actually means but these IEMs are made from actual Makarov 9mm bullet case which is the last thing I can imagine when I first read the name. Anyway these are all solid, shiny pieces of metal. To add into that beautiful casing, they do sell their earphones with a wooden box that seems nice enough to serve as Valentine gifts.

    Never gifted an AYA though. It's bullet-shaped.
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    Now what did I say about the norm?
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    I'm sorry about my iPhone and the fact that the bullets are not in the center of the pic.

    The sound: classically V-shaped. More bass presence than the Notes and less than the Jelly. There's actually space to be felt here - this is one of them very few manufacturers that get soundstage right. The mid-range is good enough for a V-shaped pair, at least it doesn't spoil George Michael. (RIP. F*ck 2016.)

    It's not my top notch favourite sound, but who can pack the RS1i or the ATH-AD2000 into a pair of IEMs? I know Grado and Audio Technica haven't, so I don't expect a Vietnamese company to. After a few months, durability does not seem to be a problem - unlike those normal cheap IEMs that you're willing to let go any moment. The metallic finish outside stays quite nice instead of getting coarse and rough and irritating. Thanks to this, the AYA's always been in my bag, stowed away in a small nice pouch kept in place by a Cocoon.

    Just like the case with the Notes, this is my "endgame" moment. Which is why I only use IEMs when I HAVE TO and right now there's no use cases that I can think of. I even got myself the Bose QC15 for planes and trains and stuffs. IEMs are no longer a necessity.

    ...and there's this company called Soranik

    Despite this, I will watch AYA's career with great interest. They have just released a new product developed in collaboration with Soranik, the first and at the moment, only CIEM maker in Vietnam. Soranik's products range from $450 to $1400 and they seem to be held in high regards by many people, but I'd much rather spend my few hundreds bucks on some Fostex or Grado than some IEMs.

    The MC family ("family" as in "a bunch of earphones")

    Finally, we're now moving into questionable DIY territory.
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    My most favourite of the bunch.

    "MC" is a brand created by an Internet café owner living in the suburbs of Hanoi after his name "Manh Chu". He's also known as "Bo Cai Bong", which translate into "Father of Bong", his baby daughter's name. I've met MC a few times and he's a also a nice person, but unfortunately he got known thanks to what you can call "counterfeit" versions of Yuin, Shure or other brands. To be fair, MC never advertises those as genuine, never refutes the fact that all of his components are imported or never said to me stuffs like "This sound exactly like Shure". But let's be frank, that is not the best way to win over people.

    Anyway, MC does have his own lines of earphones under the line "MC". The components are still 100% Chinese so the only thing he doees is put them together, experiment and finalize the products to his will. Since 3 years ago have put out quite a steady number of earbuds and in-ears. The earphones that carry the name "MC" doesn't copy any brand that I known in terms of design, so I'd still consider them somewhat Vietnamese.

    THAT SAID, just like DAC/amps under $200, don't expect any drastic differences for earphones under $50. Most of the MC models that I've tried can be lumped together with VSonic, Notes Audio, Xiaomi, SoundMagic... Most of them sound good, none of them sound magic. What actually sounds bad in this time and age anyway? Finding a bad audiophile product is much harder than finding a good one. Talk about putting some objectiveness into "phile", putting some standards into "audio".
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    A pair of MC Titan, one of the few actually distinct earphones by Mr Manh Chu.
    Nevertheless (and pardon my rambling), one of the MC does actually stands out. The MC Honey.

    Think about the creativity behind the naming. The earbuds are mids-centric, so ithey're called "Honey!". Good thing though, cos thanks to the mids the MC Honey doesn't really have a competitor among the dirt-cheap IEMs crowd. It costs around $30 a pair and it's a good choice for people who like vocals-centric and Metal. Don't get angry at me just yet: the MC Honey's trebles is actually ok and the mids blends well with the bass to create good guitar riffs.

    If you're more on the V-shaped side of things, there's the MC Smooth (which is not THAT smooth) and the MC Titan (which does have a Metal, not Titan, enclosure). However I much prefer the AYA than these.

    The baby steps

    You can see, the Vietnamese earphone scene is far from perfect. It's far from being normal. We're not there yet. There's even no headphone to speak of. Hence, "Vietnamese earphone scene".

    But I hope we'll get there someday. As a software developer, I know those baby steps are a must if you want to actually build something meaningful. First, you have to learn to take apart a machine and put together a much crappier one to learn the ABCs. Now put that crappier one into the hands of people that do have everything from Chord, Grado, you-name-it, a negative response is to be expected. Once again, we do have the Internet, and that level of toxicity you expect from Facebook or 4chan can also be expected in forum threads about Vietnamese-made earphones.

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    We'll get there.
    I do feel like the I'm the single most patient "patriotic earphone" fan in the world. I've bought Vietnamese-branded shoes that are no less pricy than Nike and ADIDAS, and still I'm more happy with the shoes that I have collectively been with our (somewhat) Vietnamese audio products.

    But we'll get there some days. We've got the potential, and we've got stories to tell.
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2017
    toji, tomscy2000 and Mozu like this.
  2. Asspirin
    Super interesting read! Thank you!
     
  3. Mozu
    I'd love to see more articles like this around the site. Great stuff.
     
  4. Intensecure
    Well, my comments got lost in the SNAFU that is this new site layout. :frowning2:
    Can't write it all again, just thanks for an interesting read. :)
     
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2017
  5. WilliamLeonhart
    Thanks for your kind words!
     
  6. B9Scrambler
    Great thread. A very well-written,organized, and enjoyable article. Looking forward to reading more!
     
  7. WilliamLeonhart
    Will definitely update it when there's more products to review. In the near future we're looking at this DAC/amp in a bamboo chasis. It's gonna be $800 which is fine by me for a quality DAC/amp, but we're gonna see about that
    [​IMG]
     
  8. iFi audio
    That's one fancy piece of art right there!
     

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