Munich 2019 High End Audio Show report
Ah. Here we are again. Yet another show report…. [party time!]
This was an unbelievable experience. We are still fresh from the shock of the size and intensity of Munich. Hopefully I will be able to convey some of this here and describe what it was like so that those of you haven’t gone can understand what it is like – because it is not at all what we expected from all the show reports and videos we have watched over the years.
And because we were so overwhelmed, this is the first show report in over a decade where I did not get to something like 98% of the rooms for the show report. In that sense I was totally unprepared for the scale of this thing. 2600 photos taken [more to be posted over on Ultimist Munich High-end 2019 show report in photos] and I still feel like it is a slap-dash, minimal overview of the darn thing.
I did get to record video for about 70 rooms, of which about 30 were also recorded in high resolution audio. The playlists are here:
Our first time in Germany: it was very green [they had an extra long cold rainy Spring like we did here], insects and birds are disappearing there like they are here, people still smoke there!, all the taxis are Mercedes, things seemed very clean and organized [a stereotype maybe, but we are such slobs here in the U.S.!], and they don’t freak when people put up high-quality graffiti so our 6 hour train ride from Munich to Duisburg was very artistic as well as bucolic .
First, there are two shows: one is about 26 rooms in a Marriott hotel: the HiFi Deluxe show. This last is a pretty standard hotel-based show. The prices for the exhibitors are not much better here than the quite expensive rooms at the main conference. Exhibitors show here because they hope for better sound and less hubbub. It is about a 12 minute taxi ride or a one hour walk from the MOC [using Google Maps to help navigate a long walk through Munich along intersecting and forked bike paths, through business parks and around the back of office buildings and cutting though the rear exit of a hotel with the GPS-driven navigation working like a “you’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder” sibling who doesn’t like you very much].
The other is in the big conference center – universally called The M.O.C. This show is about 3 to 4 times bigger than what the high-performance audio portion of CES ever was during its glory days. A rough guess would put it at about 500-600 rooms and exhibits [CES got close to 200 rooms plus Richard Beers’ simultaneous THE Show, which had about 20-40 if I remember correctly]. And it was Packed with people. Even on Industry/Press day, it was crowded [presumably some enthusiasts also manage to get an extra day to do their shopping]. And when I say ‘crowded’ this is not like Las Vegas Venetian Hotel crowded where the narrow hallways used to be difficult to navigate at full speed because people were standing around chatting and hotel rooms were crowded because they only had seating for 6, leaving people standing. Nope. These are wide hallways at 10 to 20 feet wide and rooms that seat 20 or more.
You would think that the high-end audio business is actually doing quite well if you used this show to judge it by. [And maybe it is… just not in the U.S. yet.]
The MOC is divided up into two main areas: 1) exhibits and manufactured enclosed rooms in four Giant [as in very, very large] Halls, that are more or less are side-by-side (as an example from our videos: Aries Cerat was a room constructed in the middle of one of the halls on the main floor, Mag-Lev was an exhibit on the main floor). 2) Plus 1.5 two story atriums with a double ring of rooms around the periphery (most of the higher-price rooms were here) [plus some extra large rooms tacked on nearby, like the Silbatone + Western Electric horn and Kawero + Kondo rooms].
Atriums 4.1 and 4.2 were where most of the action was. 4.1 is above.
Atrium 4.2. Please note that the labels here on these graphics reflect only a small portion of the rooms that were willing to pay for such labels.
Although the rooms at the Marriott are no doubt constructed better than the makeshift rooms at the MOC, for my purposes the rooms at the MOC worked fine. Although there was sometimes [rarely] bleed through of sound from a nearby room [most notably in the TechDAS Zero/Vivid/CH room] there are usually so many people coming and going and talking that there is always going to be a high noise floor anyway [except in the TechDAS Zero room as people tried to listen carefully to ascertain the ultimate quality of the table]. And as for the compliant artificial walls and their propensity at absorbing bass and other frequencies: I didn’t find it a problem. And, again, all the people in the smaller rooms at the Marriott had some human bodies absorbing sound anyway [and Audio Note had fixed curtains in just one corner, which also didn’t help matters, for example].
Comparing the overall sound quality here to CES in its glory days… even though we are getting pickier about what we consider high-quality these days, Munich clearly had better overall sound quality. And fewer rooms played overly simple ‘audiophile music’.
However, although the bar was raised on the general quality of sound for most rooms when comparing them to a U.S. show, there were few actual ‘standout’ OMG rooms. But the fact that there were just so darn many rooms, and hidden rooms in the back of exhibits all over the giant main halls, that it is easy for a treasure-hunt mentality to kick in, making this one hell of a blast of a show to attend.
Kharma… Audio Note, Acapella, MBL, TidaL, Burmester, Avantgarde, Naim, Linn, FM Acoustics, Einstein so many other companies build speakers AND electronics AND often even cables. They show 100% name-brand system setups at shows. Let me tell you, some can pull it off and some… not. I just saw an ad in the latest Stereophile about yet another speaker company now starting to also build electronics… [who was it? Darn. Forgot already]. Some brands can make this work much better than others.
But, people, this is harder than it looks. And, you manufacturers, just because you can build one thing doesn’t mean you will be any good at manufacturing the entire rest of the system as well. Yeah, it looks impressive to have one brand stamped on everything, typically along with an impressive price-tag, but… “there is such a thing as too much of a good thing”. The family sound of a brand, taken to the nth degree like this, can be so far way from sounding like music that is really is an ‘acquired taste’ as they say.
OK. The rooms.
Top 3 Large Rooms
TuneAudio was very enjoyable. Edgy and enjoyable music played on a system with speakers that had most of the advantages of horns [few horns get this right. It starts with the creation of the notes with ALL the information required for the note – its complete DNA, which then blossoms into being, and then the notes floating in the air and being given the gift of a long, full life, as intended by the source material…] with only a hint of the disadvantages to do with that particular style of horn [it is subtle and if you can’t hear it, and it is really subtle so who cares, right? then I am not going to ruin it for you (it is easily ignored like so many other imperfections we deal with in most system setups, anyway. This is an awesome kind of sound]. The bass towers were well integrated, I thought. Setup in some rooms is the main issue, what with 8(?) foot deep horns the room will have to be fairly large. This was my favorite of my three favorite large rooms at the show.
Another favorite was Askja at HiFi Deluxe. I thought the midrange and above was very well done. Smooth [almost plasma tweeter-ish]and great imaging and engaging and this was while running off the music server. Neli likes the looks. Definitely bold and innovative.
My final large room favorite was the PeakConsult, Ypsilon, Dohmann room. Like I said elsewhere, this was extremely loud and extremely awesome. The Ypsilon has a basic, driving, dense sound associated with it and that worked here. I haven’t ever heard the PeakConsult speakers anywhere near the size of these before so do not know what they are capable of, what their conic signature is, and whether they are comfortable with a more sophisticated sound, but the two songs I heard here [in the video, too] favor this kind of dense, driving sonic treatment. The tight, powerful, controlled sound [at this volume, one has to give a lot of thanks to the Dohmann turntable’s vibration control apparatus for this control] is what I think many people are looking for out there and it was certainly very enjoyable for me while I was there. This was a well-designed system.
Top Small Room
I think it is very hard to compare sound between smaller [ordinary sized, typical livingroom sizes in small Bay Area homes, for instance] rooms to the sound in large rooms [ordinary sized in more expensive homes and larger rooms like living rooms and basement / recreation rooms in less densely populated parts of the country. Audio Note U.K. was clearly the best sound among the smaller rooms, specially the digital playback in this room. The AN TT3 turntable was on a vibration-seeking metal shelf table and not setup in a way that was optimized it for best sound, other things dominating the schedule in that room [we will have a TT3 here soon to put it through its paces, it is a much more focused and rigorous fleshing out of this particular turntable design that AN uses].
Their new prototype DAC is something that has a new kind of sound, letting us hear much, much farther into the music. It is able to separate out the sounds of different instruments during very complex music passages, for example, which is great for things like classical music and Dream Theater, but also even simpler tracks like Steppenwolf’s Aqualung benefit from a sense of ‘fog lifting’ clarity. Please understand, this is on top of their level 5 digital which already clearly beats the crap out of everything else if one uses their ears and not marketing spend to judge quality of playback and musical engagement.
As someone who finds audio system design at this stage to be [after ejecting muddying and or poorly designed gear and cables] largely a matter of getting the most natural dynamics possible from each note [press a key on a real piano sometime!] and infinite separation between the notes of different instruments [a piano note and a violin do not in real life affect each other’s sound before their sound becomes airborne – where the frequencies can indeed interact – but in a hifi system, they share the same source, amplification,cables and speaker, so we have to work extra hard to keep them from interacting with each other before their time]. It is this separation where analog heretofore has dominated – but I think perhaps no longer. I do know I can no longer hear digital without thinking of how it would sound on TO-BE-NAMED DAC – we are now all listening to defacto antique digital-to-analog converters, people.
And if you know Audio Note, you know this is not some complex artificial smoke and mirrors Rube Goldberg technobable “let’s add 100 filters to make finding the real sound be some kind of Easter Egg hunt”, engineering-degree-required for setup and configuration B.S. This is a new simpler purer design for DACs. And it works with Red Book digital. Production dates unknown but current and new Fifth Element DAC owners will be able to cost-effectively upgrade their DACs when this becomes available.
We had read so much about the Living Voice/Kondo room over the last few shows, but, although it was very, very nice, they used the Grand Prix turntable – which to our ears has a lean, incisive sound much of the time, and the sound of this room was perhaps not as ‘mind melting’ as it could have perhaps been – it wasn’t that seductive Living Voice + Kondo engagement that I expected to hear. Big, open, room filling, high-quality reproduction – and they played very interesting classical and opera while we were here.
Some rooms are going for sound that is just not to our taste. For example Magico/Solution: Music as a rapid sequence of cold, analytical somewhat brutish sounds [JV apparently prefers this and every show report seems to include a little tirade against music that sounds like music. To each their own, I guess]. In this perspective, I think this system did quite well at its intended goal. Seriously. Listen to the video. Some people prefer their music to be all Mind, no Heart. If this wasn’t true then a large part of our industry would go bankrupt tomorrow. By ‘doing quite well’ I mean the harmonics weren’t twisted, the frequencies all seemed to be part of one whole, particular frequencies weren’t emphasized at the expense of other frequencies in any kind of egregious manner, etc. etc. A well setup system.
Similarly: the Silbatone/Western Electric horn room – really love the big, dynamic open sound, but for me the lack of resolution means that the subtleties, like how the emotion of the musicians is communicated, is just a wee bit lacking. I think this could be fixed / ameliorated with careful system setup. But I think some people prefer this kind of raw vintage sound, so ‘fixed’ may be the wrong word.
The Aries Cerat speakers were interesting – after allowing for some leeway given that the seating was all kind of very ‘nearfield’, their dynamics and ease was very appealing. The overall Aries Cerat sound was extremely neutral, surprisingly ,with all those tubes, and with the analog much better sounding than the digital. They were the loudest room, or maybe just tied with the Peak Consult / Ypsilon / Dohmann room, but not so loud that I did not enjoy them. Neli thought they were too loud, and she was in the back of the room, so perhaps my nearfield sweet spot seat was a blessing.
Acapella Audio Arts brought their big Apollon speakers [a pair of which is soon to arrive here at Audio Federation] driven by their new $60K/pair monoblocks and OEM’d preamp. They had the speakers setup in a non-symmetrical layout to prevent any room node frequencies from being overly excited – usually the bass in these situations. But the room was so large, they could have positioned the system to work WITH the room instead of against it, perhaps pressurizing the room a bit more. The room did not sound bad – it just didn’t have the jump factor that I know it could have had [I am so picky when it comes to setup of systems that I am very familiar with: Audio Note, Acapella, Emm Labs… *big sigh*, Kharma….].
Kharma on Engstrom amps was interesting. These speakers weren’t as spectacular as their speakers in their Kharma + Kharma + DCS system, and so my expectations were a bit lower here, but some of that Kharma-magic was happening and it was an enjoyable sound [unlike the sound in the room with the larger Kharma speakers, in my opinion, which had an artificial quality to it. Listening carefully, I could hear the speakers were able to reproduce complex passages quite well – authoritatively and with adroitness – so it wasn’t them…]. We heard the Engstrom at CES around 2010 and thought they sounded quite good then as well. [ And love the design 🙂 ]
Goebel on Engstrom was better, I thought, than Kharma on Engstrom and much better than the sound I heard on Goebel’s big aluminium speakers driven by CH Precision which they showed at Axpona last year. The speakers are kick-ass looking but approachable sonically [and at some point they were playing The Wall, so that was nice :-). Yes, Floyd is often very easy to make sound good on most systems, but at least it is real music that most people are familiar with, and many love].
Kondo + Kawero was disappointing. Went here twice and spent so much time here, and with Florian and Neli as well. Very nice setup and the vibe…. it felt like something important was happening… but…. to Neli and my ears it sounded compressed and kind of dull sounding. A little bit of a cognitive disconnect. The bass especially seemed the tiniest bit ‘tired’. Awesome gear and well-respected speakers… perhaps not a good combination or poor vibration control or something…
Alsyvox, at HiFi Deluxe, spent a lot of the show playing music to demonstrate that their 2 large panels per channel did bass. For example, Mickey Hart’s Dafos, which I haven’t heard in way too long. It was a big room and they convinced me. A different kind of bass than cone driver bass, but satisfying nonetheless. I spent a good deal of time here. For some reason the music just didn’t draw me in. Wasn’t able to figure out why though I spent a good deal of time here. OK. Hard to not notice the innovative design of the CD playback. Give this room an A+ for audacity, innovation and just the scale of the presentation.
TechDAS Air Force ZERO, CH Precision, Vivid. I was able to hear the system quite a bit with both the CH Precision digital (and electronics of course) and with the ZERO turntable. The speakers seemed a little small for the room, the bass compressed, and the mids a wee bit bright. But with the ZERO playing, it didn’t matter. There was so much information coming through the speakers, that the problems seemed to recede into the background, just overwhelmed with the quantity and quality of the music. As others have stated, this prevented the ultimate absolute quality of the table from being revealed, but that it is a great table was evident, regardless.
Estelon and CH Precision. Neli liked this room a lot. A very sophisticated detailed sound. Big open staging with good imaging. We used to LOVE this kind of sound, often best reproduced with ceramic driver-based speakers like these. This was an extremely good system with that sound, but I am just unsure for myself… I would characterize this as 75% mind, 25% heart. It is on that edge of needing some kind of something to add the tiniest bit of harmonic color and a little less abrupt decay, but at the same time being quite wonderful just the way it is.
OK. Truly a candy store for big people.
Got a boatload of photos to still process and the California Audio Show 2019 CAS9 is coming right up…(!)