With the audio world now returning from Newport Beach, Munich High End 2015 seems but a distant memory. But, in a way, taking time out to reflect on the wider implications of the Munich High End show is useful, because in so many ways it effectively shapes the international audio world. In CES at the start of the year, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but it seems increasingly what happens in Munich is the shot heard round the world of high-end audio.
And it is very much a high-end audio event, now more than ever. Taking up all four halls, two atria and two floors of exhibition listening rooms, the show covers all aspects of audio, but increasingly the focus is shifting ever upward in price. In fairness, the show did cover the lower to middle ends of the audio world, but there was more of an air of tokenism to this than ever before. While Hi-Fi+ is a magazine with a distinct high-end focus, speaking personally I would prefer to see an industry with a wider ‘bandwidth’, encompassing more new and exciting products at the lower and middle ends of the market. While lower cost equipment was not entirely absent from Munich High End, many of the products on show were in the thousands to tens of thousands bracket.
With few low-end control rods in place, the audio price points achieved at least partial criticality. Nordost’s demonstration comparing the new Odin 2 to the original Odin showed there was significant improvement to be had in power cord, interconnect, and loudspeaker cable, but improvement comes at a price, and that price was up to $30,000 per stereo metre for the loudspeaker cables. This didn’t seem to matter to the listeners at the show however; many thought the improvement in detail and focus was marked.
Perhaps one of the cheapest, and certainly the wildest, exhibit at the show was a Bose Wave Radio, which Ted Denney of Synergistic Research was happily using to pushing the ‘what the…’ envelope. Adding HFT (High Frequency Transducer) dots around the room, sitting the unit on MiG (Mechanical Interface Grounding) footers and then on Tranquility Base active platforms, with the company’s new Atmosphere radio-frequency controlling, er, things, grounding boxes, black boxes, and more, this was deep “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” territory. This type of demonstration causes me some fairly deep dichotomies: every axon, every neuron of that ‘sensible’ part of my mind screams “Run! Run from the crazy people!”, but I can’t deny that the Synergistic demonstration was successful – the Wave Radio sounded more like a (albeit not very stereo) audiophile system with the Synergistic components in place, and lacking a lot of midband with them turned off or taken out.
Of the ‘wonderful’ products, my vote goes to the combination of IsoTek and sister company Blue Horizons, the first for its soon-to-be launched slimline ‘single cell’ power regenerator and the latter for its upgradable ‘Professional Rack System’ made out of material du jour – bamboo! OK, so compared to tall and wild horn speakers, maybe ‘wonderful’ isn’t the best term, but these are products that look good and help fill gaps in the market with high performance devices, hopefully without a price that reads like someone has a sticky ‘0’ key.
Now, here’s the ‘rant’ part. It seems the higher the cost of audio, the more limited the choice of music on offer. With a few notable exceptions, you could have placed the music heard from room to room on a single compilation CD, and still have room for a few decent tracks. Worse, in many cases, these were the same dozen or so tracks that were being played 10 years ago, and one or two that had been in circulation for 30 or more years: ‘No Sanctuary Here’, ‘Keith Don’t Go’, ‘These Bones’, ‘Stimela’, ‘Just a Little Lovin’’, ‘Come Away With Me’, ‘Hotel California’, ‘Private Investigations’, and, ‘O Holy Night’ from Cantate Domino [Proprius] being uppermost in the list.
OK, these are all audiophile standards, and their use as demonstration music is perhaps understandable because they could make a broken clock radio sound great, but there needs to be more range to the music played. I literally walked past three adjacent rooms playing ‘No Sanctuary Here’ at the same time, having heard the same piece of music in the room I had just visited, and the one before that. The operative words here: I walked past them. They may have contained the audio world’s Second Coming and I admit it’s an abandonment of duty not to investigate those rooms, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to listen to Chris Jones played five times in ten minutes (in fairness, I went back the next day and one of them was playing ‘No Sanctuary Here’, while one of the others was playing ‘These Bones’).
I’m struggling to make this sound anything other than music snobbery, but I fear this extremely limited repertoire of music only serves to drive away anyone under the age of about 50 (and these rooms were largely populated by that demographic). Where was the classical music? Where was any music made in the last 10 years? Even jazz, which still has a strong following across Europe with exciting new acts dominating the scene, was limited to recordings made before the Cuban missile crisis. There is a whole new contingent of music lovers buying up turntables and listening on headphones who don’t just want to party like it’s 1979, and value these fine audio components as music playing devices.
From a manufacturer’s viewpoint, they are damned either way. If they don’t play these audiophile staples, the room stays empty. If they do, the room is filled, but not necessarily with people who might form the next generation of buyers. I felt particular sorry for the astonishingly tall guy from Tidal (the electronics and speakers brand, not the online music provider) who limited himself to one track he wanted to play per hour, before switching back to the crowd-pleasing same dozen tracks on a playlist. For my mark, Tidal was one of the best sounding rooms at the show, but I could only really tell this because I walked in during his Royksopp wind-down track.
If there was hope in the traditional audio sector, it comes in the shape of AudioQuest. Alongside its packed timed lectures, the company was running rolling demonstrations of its Dragonfly, Jitterbug, and prototype Beetle digital devices on a relatively sanely priced Sonos/Primare/DALI system. This wasn’t under controlled conditions, and it wasn’t played with prissy audiophile music, because it wasn’t typically being played to audiophiles. Just real people, who happened to be a generation younger than many of those in other rooms, talking about music and generally liking what they heard. This wasn’t the best sound in the show, but it was the best demonstration in the show. Why? Because it didn’t presume or assume, it didn’t suggest the way to audio nirvana is through a million Euros’ worth of DAC or even a thousand Euros’ worth of cable: it just played people the kind of music they wanted to hear. Even if that was ‘No Sanctuary Here’.
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