A Milestone in Consumer Electronics Fakery

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 2/16/2010 12:46:00 AM
It may be of no surprise to regular readers that I am something of an audiophile or someone who enjoys high-fidelity stereo equipment. I've even made references before. F'rinstance, I've alluded to WTO head honcho Pascal Lamy playing lead the role in Handel's Messiah via Christopher Hogwood's groundbreaking recording featuring a young Emma Kirkby which kick-started the entire historically-informed performance (HIP) movement. Even my current title image is of a symphony hall--send a note if you can guess what it is. So yes, I'm one of those people who use a dedicated headphone amplifier instead of plugging headphones directly into a laptop or iPod and cringe at listening to MP3s or other lossless formats that reduce the size of CD-quality music files by throwing away musical information.

At any rate, I recently bought a pair of in-ear headphones on eBay UK, the Sennheiser IE8s. Although a bit plain looking, these are among the finest in-ear monitors (IEMs) money can buy. While there are even fancier models from manufacturers like Ultimate Ears and Westone, those are even pricier custom-built models with ear molds specifically cast to fit the user's ears. Still, my IE8s aren't exactly being given away for free: on Amazon.com, their list price is $449.95. I was thus rather surprised to find this model on sale for so much less here in the UK and successfully bid for them at a price closer to $164 after conversion.

"What a deal!" I thought. However, a visit to the popular BBS site Head-Fi brought alarmed me to no end as there's a very long thread about, er, nearly indistinguishable Sennheiser IE8 fakeries being sold on auction sites. Had I just succumbed to the worst possible form of the winner's curse? Although the specific details are now lost to me, I once encountered a chap whose opinion of trafficked Chinese goods was that it's not "copyright" but "copy-it-right." Heaven knows, the US has long cited and pursued cases against China. Given the relaxed nature of intellectual property protection in the PRC, Western firms like Sennheiser have also been hot on China's trail. Like most every consumer product nowadays, the IE8s are proudly Made in China. I suspect that figures into why the fakes that have been spotted of the IE8s look so much like them since product specifications are more readily exchanged. Let's begin with the packaging:

You can click to enlarge the image and the ones that follow but this much is certain: a casual glance won't give the fakery away. And then there's the product itself:

As with the box, the details are almost indistinguishable. I had to look really hard to identify mine as...thankfully, real [huge sigh of relief]. Physical details aside, the real proof was in the listening: my new IE8s sounded even better than the hand-me-down Etymotic ER-4S my uncle gave me (I'm a cheap guy): the former had a more expansive soundstage that allowed individual performers to be heard more clearly; more extended but not bloated bass; and a warmer, more lifelike tonal balance. Nevertheless, I am astounded by the lengths to which the fakers have gone to create such a similar-looking "product." Even the brushed metal case of the knock-off resembles the finely-made original:

As with all purchases, then, caveat emptor. I am 100% certain that constructing knock-offs this good cost some serious money. All the same, selling such fakeries at prices approaching even a quarter that of the original would net the counterfeiters a tidy profit. Unsurprisingly, the firm takes no responsibility for Sennheiser-branded equipment sold on eBay or Amazon Marketplace:
You wouldn't think anyone would bother to make fake headphones because the originals are so (relatively) cheap to begin with. But as you know, some people will do anything to make a quick buck. You may also be surprised at the number of fake microphones that are turning up.

Fake microphones and headphones have now proliferated throughout the marketplace; we therefore want to inform you of steps that can help prevent purchasing a counterfeit product.

Why should you care?

* Inferior quality – you're not getting what you thought you had paid for. Sennheiser has always been proud of the quality and workmanship that goes into its products. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’ll get Sennheiser performance just because it has a fake Sennheiser logo on it.
* No warranty – It may not be immediately apparent when you first plug it in, but the fake will undoubtedly be of inferior quality. And you can be sure that its life expectancy will be a fraction of the real thing. When the product fails and it is returned to Sennheiser under warranty, we will spot it immediately. We will not be able to service the product, and unfortunately you will be out of pocket.
* Damage to other equipment – The technology used in counterfeit products will differ from that used in genuine Sennheiser products. There is therefore a danger that counterfeit products can damage other products that they are plugged into. If your equipment is damaged by the use of counterfeit products, their warranty may well be invalidated.
* Personal Safety – In the case of products that require a battery, there is a risk to your personal safety if it does not comply to current standards (overheating and fire).
At least in my experience, it's a milestone in consumer electronics fakery. While online auction sites feature some great deals, I guess buyer vigilance is always required. If you do buy something, inspect it carefully--especially costlier goods like the IE8s. Those knock-offs are getting better and better by the day as to almost escape casual visual inspection.