Imitation Goods: Earbuds, Toilets, And Carbon Bikes

Sony headphones, fake:real 01

Sony MDR-EX71. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best in-ear headphone for active use of an iPod Shuffle. It has a short cord, so when I clip the Shuffle to my collar, there’s no excess cord. It has an offset yoke that goes behind your neck, so that it doesn’t get in the way when I’m leaned over the bike. Then there’s the sound. Glorious, full bass, and very fine detail. Yes, I ride with headphones. And no, I’m not interested in the safety debate as it’s not the point of this entry. Bear with me a moment.

I use headphones so much, in so many walks of life that I eventually kill those Sony earbuds and have to buy new ones. They’re not as common as they once were, but that’s what eBay is for. So I noticed that there was a Hong Kong seller who had those Sony earbuds in black, which would be nice since they wouldn’t show the grime as much. But even better was the price: $20 vs $40. So I bought a couple pair just to stock up for the future. After the right speaker of my most recent Sony suddenly cut out, I pulled out one of those black earbuds for service. Much to my chagrin, they totally sucked. The soft rubber around the speaker housing didn’t conform as it should have, the in-ear cushion felt different, and the speakers sounded so tin-like that I immediately went into despair. Where was all the lovely bass? What was wrong? I looked at all the packaging and warrantee literature that came with the headphones, wondering if they had changed the design somehow. Then I looked up MDR-EX71 online, and it turns out that I had purchased a counterfeit product.

What is amazing to me is the extent that the counterfeiters went to create a copy. You have to have a sharp eye to spot the detail differences. The shapes are very, very close to being identical, and that means that they had to manufacture multiple moulds for polymer-injection fabrication. They even made fake directions and warrantee cards for the headphones. It’s more than just adding a label to a preexisting product; it’s premeditated industrial rip-off. But make no mistake, there is a definite downgrade in performance. Music is crucial in my life, and I fucking care what it sounds like. Those headphones are intolerable. I would even say that poor quality headphones are dangerous: you tend to run them louder to hear details in the music which prevents you from hearing your environment and in the long run might have damaging effects to your hearing.

So the point of this discussion is this: if cheap headphone forgeries can have the shape of quality products but be subpar in materials and performance, what about all those no name and counterfeit carbon bikes that people are buying off of eBay or other places on the web?

Oh, you tell yourself that the frame you bought is one that some wily worker snuck out the back door of a reputable factory, along with 300 other frame in 4 sizes. Um, you do know that you can’t fit a bike frame in your pocket or lunchbox, right? I’ve been to a high quality factory in Taiwan, and it’s not so easy to get in or out of the carbon production area.

Maybe you’re one of those people who thinks that all carbon bikes are the same and that other, more foolish consumers are just paying for the name. Contrary to this belief, there are demonstrable differences physical properties and cost in carbon and resins, as well as the techniques used in laying them up in a mould. I’m not saying that laying the carbon in the mould requires master craftsmen, but there are money-saving shortcuts that can be made that will affect quality even if the exterior remains unchanged. Beyond that, reputable bike manufactures will have put the R&D and QC into product design; there’s no telling if the no name bikes have any idea if there product is safe to ride. I’m also not saying some carbon bikes from name brands are never over-priced, or that a $16,000 Specialized MacLaren Venge is worth it. I mean, I could commission Tiffany’s to create a toilet made of $1M of gold and diamonds, but it’ll still be just a bowl I sit on to take a dump. Yet there are toilet designs that use less water and clog less because of thoughtful design and development.

So if you ever find yourself tempted to buy a cheap, no name carbon frameset that ships directly from Hong Kong, think about the kind of businessmen who are catering to that demand. Do you think that they have the scruples and integrity to thoroughly test and evaluate their product? Do you think they would destroy a unit that showed a flaw in the construction rather than sell it? Do you think they’d even look for a flaw? Are you so confident in your knowledge of fibre composite construction that you’d be able to instantly spot an impending failure?

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