Published: 4. June 2013, No. 109
The 32nd HIGH END show in a row, also the 10th show held at MOC in Munich, once again proved to be the most important event for the entire audio world, gathering 363 exhibitors from 35 countries. Between the 9th and 12th of May the space of the main halls of the convention center, as well as the atriums on the floors above, was fully occupied, which corresponded with the crowds of visitors present.
- 363 companies from 35 countries
- More visitors this year – a whopping 16,159
- 5211 audio professionals (“trade visitors”) from 71 countries (18% more this year)
- Large international media coverage
- A tangibly jubilant atmosphere amongst the exhibitors
Renate Paxe (PR & publicity dla HIGH END SOCIETY)
10 years in Munich
The High End convention, which was first held in Düsseldorf in 1982 had its little jubilee this year – it was held in Munich for the 10th time, in the massive halls of Munich Order Center, just a stone’s throw away from the BMW factory. Before, annually for twenty-two years it took place elsewhere, in hotels, and notably the Kempinski Hotel in Frankfurt which seems to have imprinted in everyone’s memory. I vividly remember the pleasant, slightly sleepy atmosphere of those editions of the show, especially with the good memories in the park-like Gravenbruch district of Frankfurt where the hotel stands. It was a great exhibition... An exhibition that couldn’t remain in that format, which is clearly visible now.
Audio exhibitions can be divided into the ones held in hotels and the ones in halls. The former, such as the Polish Audio Show, have the organizer rent part of a hotel, and the exhibitors prepare their systems for display in separate hotel rooms. Some get larger spaces, usually on the ground floor, but the vast majority has to make do with tiny, classic hotel rooms.
There are many advantages of such exhibitions. Primarily, they’re held in rooms which resemble the environment we listen to our music in, especially in terms of size and equipment – tables, sofas, carpets, wallpaper, and lamps. Narrow hallways, the short proximity between all the exhibitors and an intimate atmosphere are characteristic of this type of location. Events like this create their own little “community”, created forcefully by the conditions, on one hand, and on the other practically made impossible. Although there’s music playing in every room, and the neighbors are usually complaining about the room next door being too loud, often forgetting that they too are making an equal amount of noise, the “vibe” of these events is based on the close contact between exhibitors, visitors and the press. Like I said, I really like this particular type of shows and I nostalgically recall the Frankfurt days of HIGH END.
And nostalgia may very well be the brake in our audio trade. It’s a great feeling, so long as it doesn’t cloud our broader point of view. When I went to Munich instead of Frankfurt for the first time in 2008, I didn’t know what to expect. The city immediately captured my heart with its atmosphere – very similar to Krakow’s, my city’s – its food, and great beer of every kind. The show itself left me with mixed feelings, however. Instead of being shown in friendly, intimate hotel rooms, exclusive lobbies and quiet corridors, devices costing thousands upon thousands of Euros were displayed in huge halls, usually atop some sort of “counter”, or inside temporary cubicles built right in the middle of the halls. Those lucky enough to afford it (and the exhibition is very expensive, they’re a huge expense for audio companies, let’s not forget that!) and be on time to reserve a place had their devices displayed in the cold rooms of the atrium – usually large, but with walls of glass and plaster-cardboard. I don’t know myself what’s worse...
In the first two, three years the nostalgia for Kempinski was tangible in nearly all media coverage. But only in the audio media. People from outside of the audio world saw what only became obvious to all after several years: an event like this has to evolve at some point; if it wants to develop, it must someday leave the cozy atmosphere of a hotel for the sake of space and freedom. Because although it isn’t directly visible, freedom in any trade is connected with popularity and money. And Munich provided both of these prerequisites.
What is High End A.D. 2013, really? It’s the biggest, most important event of its kind in the world. This year’s visitors from the USA, previously very self-centered – back then still convinced that the world revolves around them – said in unison that although the CES in Las Vegas is still the most important event regarding electric house appliances in general, when it comes to audio, and high-end audio in particular, it lost its lead to High End. I mainly heard this from exhibitors, but also from the representatives of American press (although those were more reluctant to admit to it). I’m convinced that Steven Rochlin, the editor-in-chief of “EnjoyTheMusic.com”, whom I’ve talked with a few times, would also say this if he wasn’t preoccupied with his new, young wife and what she’ll do with him upon coming home… Either way – Munich is currently the very center of the high-end audio world.
The time to analyze this will come one day, however it must be said that the success of the convention wouldn’t be possible without breaking the hotel-room’s shackles. Events organized in hotels and small centers are incredibly important as that’s when premieres of small companies and micro-companies are held, which give audio its special character. As Kurt W. Hecker, the director of High End Society e. V. and organizer of High End says, the convention in Munich isn’t dangerous as there are lots of such exhibitions in Germany, and not only (see: Kurt W. Hecker, 10 Years of High End in Munich, Messekatalog 2013, Munich 2013).
The only thing is that hotel exhibitions have isolation encoded in their DNA, they focus only on the trade and its users. Whileas what we really need is a new, grand opening. It’s time to make use of newest technological advancements, especially music connected with computers, files and their playback (it’s the inner objective, “internal”). But it’s also time to show to millions of new audio users (and I mean smartphones, iPhones, iPads, and headphones) who have never dealt with high-quality sound, that the music they listen to – and currently more people listen to music than ever before – can sound immensely better (and this is the “external” objective). Even a few years back it seemed that audio is dying, that it’s all 40+ year-old people, and that young people who will soon be the ones spending money have been sucked up by video games and home cinema. But please look at what’s happened: home cinema systems have been pushed into the background, the market’s got enough of them, and it turns out there are very few people who would treat it as a hobby or way of life; the vast majority of users – it would seem to me – of home cinema users treat it utilitarianly, like a washing machine, blender or iron. Video games are a different story – it’s a growing industry and nothing is going to change about that in the near future. But if my son and his peers can be used as an example, you could point out some internal change – aside from games, social interactions have become very important, with discussions and exchanges of music being a leading topic. Games aren’t just interactive movies, but also a source of music, often inspiring one’s own, personal pursuits. And this means that you won’t just find money for a new graphics card, but also for a better music card and – who knows? – for speakers bigger than a nickel. Because good headphones are a must nowadays.
Three Days in Munich
Kurt Hecker, the aforementioned director of HIGH END SOCIETY wrote in the materials sent to the press after the convention was over: “Far from confrontation between options of signal playback, High End is a place of perfect coexistence of the past and the future. It is the diversity offered by this event which allows visitors a full view and a direct meeting with the entire spectrum of what our trade has to offer.”
I think he was right. This year, you could see almost everything that audio’s had to offer for the past one hundred years: from massive horn speakers, once used in theatres; NOS tubes; turntables and reel-to-reel tape recorders; through CD players, solid state amplifiers, SACD players and class D amps; all the way to file players and – most of all – computers as sound sources.
If I was to point to the most prominent trends, it would be the evolution of computer audio systems and the relevant abundance of headphone amplifiers, DACs and headphones. This year you could hear the magical “DoP”, telling you about the possibility of sending DSD signal over USB, in every corner. Everybody was excited about this possibility and who knows whether this doesn’t mean a renaissance of DSD recordings, and the return – in some sense – of SACDs? You could see much less SACD players, and if you did, they mostly played the part of D/A converters receiving DSD signal. There were still plenty of CD players, but barely anyone was using them. A deep rift separating computer audio and analogue audio is starting to dig itself much more prominently than before. It’s just that these two elements appear on the same system – a computer (or file player) and turntable. This still isn’t the end of the CD, but its end is unambiguous.
It seems that the quality of master files, now available to anybody, is so tempting that companies are standing on their heads to be able to use this one-of-a-kind situation. From the very beginning of audio we’ve been dependent on formats, the distribution of a physical product and record companies. Now we have the chance to receive the very same material which the sound engineers heard in the studio. We’re still far from an ideal situation, and a large percentage of companies manipulate files, but there’s a big chance of working out a mutual model of a “new world” of music sales.
The growing career of computer files also had input in fortifying the return of the analogue medium of the vinyl record. Although we owe most of this to DJs who got young people interested in the black disc, in the audio world the return to the analogue is connected with the feeling that it’s the only tested format: safe, good, and immune to the passing of time. The requirements in computer audio are – and will be – constantly changing; the numbers will be growing and what is good today, e.g. 24 bits, will be outdated tomorrow, because you’ll have to process 32 bits and 2 x DSD.
I wouldn’t, however, consider the CD a lost cause yet. A large part of the journalists I’ve talked with are convinced that it’s still one of the best media formats, and we are unaware of its full potential. Record companies follow this up – SHM-CD, Blu-Spec (now in the “2” version), and other improvements are all meant to extract even more information from the CD. Personally, I think that the best CD players sound no worse, if not better, than the best file players and DACs with computers as a source. The road of improvement before computer audio is still a long path, and the CD has been on it for thirty years, which is audible. Little is happening, on the other hand, in the field of speakers – for years now all we’ve seen is improving old solutions, refining what we already know. A certain change has been brought by planar speaker drivers, mostly ribbon that replaced classic tweeters in many designs. Although a trend for returning to broadband drivers, horn speakers, open baffles, speakers with electromagnets is visible, this is, however, a fraction of the market. It doesn’t look like anything’s going to change here anytime soon.
When it comes to amps, the trend is clear: D-class amps are entering the game, including high-end. Many of the best systems at the convention used this type of amplifier – e.g. SPEC, Mola-Mola. Although there’s still much work to be done, there are already devices of this type which sound just as good as classic A or AB class amps. I think that more and more devices that work in the D class will be found their way to our homes. The tube market is taking advantage of this. Just like the career of computer files reinforced the vinyl market, the changes in the amp market will strengthen the tube amplifier niche. It will by a style of life, a personal declaration on the same level as the sound quality.
Where are we, then? In my opinion, there’s a large chance for audio being reborn as an important sector. What’s the indicator of this? Young people’s interest in music and products used for its playback. In Munich there were whole families walking from exhibit to exhibit, like on the IFA exhibition in Berlin. This carries another paradigm change: young people aren’t only interested in the sound, but also in the ease-of-use and the external appearance. A “black box” won’t interest anybody any more, regardless of how it sounds. Maybe it’ll be a change for the better – the audio branch always pretended that it’s only the “sound that matters”, which let it “ignore” the design. It will be different now. And better, in my opinion. Although hard-core audiophiles will stand their ground, the vast majority of them needs a new opening, something fresh. Products that won’t break, that won’t be capricious but will be pretty and user-friendly. And if they fulfill these requirements, they’ll be able to fight for an increasingly better sound. And the fact that you can have both has been proven by high-end companies like Devialet, Wadia, Gato Audio and others. It’s a good time for us all.
Below you’ll find a list of systems which, in our opinion, deserve special recognition. There were a lot fewer of them than in previous years and the overall level of sound quality was low. But that didn’t hurt me at all. And that’s because Munich’s High End was a place for doing business, visiting exhibitions, talking, discussing, asking questions, fulfilling wishes. It wasn’t an audiophile ghetto – it was an agora of information exchange.
- Amphion - Two15 | Antelope Audio
- Avantgarde Acoustic - Zero1
- Avid HiFi – Ingenium | EgglestonWorks | Hegel | Isotek
- Devialet - model 170
- Dynaudio – Excite (new) | NAD – D7050
- Finitus – Puralio, Poambo
- Goebel High End – Epoque Reference | Ultimate Sound Machines | Stahk~Tek
- Illusonic | Soulution | Focal | Vovox | mbakustik | TAOC | Dr. Feickert Analogue
- Kaiser Kawero | Thrax | JPlay
- Kondo - Ginga II, Kagura, Biyuras | Esoteric
- Lansche Audio | Mola-Mola | emm Labs
- Living Voice - Vox Olympian | Kondo | CEC
- ManuFaktur | Balanced Music Concept
- Raidho - D-1 | Jeff Rowland | dCS
- Siltech - SAGA | Crystal Cable – Arabesque, Absolute Dream
- SoundKaos - Wave 40 | Bakoon Products International - AMP-12R
- SPEC Corporation | Acoustic Revive | Kiso Acoustics - HB1
- Stein Music | Artesania Audio | Pyon Sound – Ultima | Kronos
- Straussmann - MC-Phono 2010, CC, E-50 | Tone Tools
- Tannoy - Canterbury Gold Reference | Pathos
|Year|| 2011 || 2012 || 2013 ||+/- in comparison to 2012|
|Exhibitors|| 337 || 366 || 363 || -1%|
| 437 || 483 || 481 || +/- 0%|
| 4398 || 4427 || 5211 || 18%|
| 9681 || 10 244 || 10 948 || 7%|
|Total number |
| 14 079 || 14 671 || 16 159 || 10%|