There is a real skill to covering a big audio show for the purposes of writing a show report. The real pros seem to see everything, be everywhere, and meet everyone, all the while taking beautiful photos and videos. I am not a Real Pro™. So consider this a personal trip report, punctuated by crap pictures and bad puns. You have been warned. Enjoy!
Having been to multiple RMAFs, AXPONAs, and assorted CanJams, my interest in US audio shows has been flagging of late. Several friends and audio acquaintances have urged me to go to Munich High-End, talking up the scale, the energy, and the diversity of the show. So when I found 3 of my audio buds were going too, the die was cast.
Since the Audiophile Style Gulfstream was undergoing some luxury upgrades, we all had to slum it in commercial. Oh, the humanity! Luckily for me, Lufthansa just launched a nonstop from Austin to Frankfurt, which made for a relatively stress-free journey to Munich, via nonstop flight and ICE train.
It would be a shame to go all the way to Munich without spending some time to enjoy this wonderful city and Bavaria in general. As I have been to this area multiple times, I have already experienced some of the wonderful sights and experiences of this region, but if you’re a first-timer coming here - say next year - build in some extra days in your itinerary before or after the show.
On this trip, I spent a delightful day exploring the Pinakothek museums, especially the Pinakothek der Moderne.
Also, being a sucker for classical concerts, my friends and I went to two of them during the week of the High-End show:
- Julia Fischer and Augustin Hadelich performing with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, playing works by Bach, Dvořák, and Schnittke, and
- Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and the Berg violin concerto, performed by Leonidas Kavakos, both with Daniel Harding conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Nothing like live music to calibrate one’s ears for listening to the high-dollar rooms at the show!
No report about Germany is complete without paying homage to the beer. While the beer landscape in the US is rich now with the craft beer revolution, Germany on the other hand, has been brewing fine beers for centuries, with its famous Reinheitsegebot tradition. Which would explain this odd (to an American) sign outside a bar.
This trip, I could not get enough of the dunkel hefeweissbier (dark wheat beer).
High-End Munich: People
One of the reasons I’m hopeless at “covering” a show is that I spend a lot of time at these shows with people. A LOT. Which is an odd thing for a raging introvert like me to say. Meeting people who share our passion for music and audio can pull even me out of my shell.
My listening companions for some of the show were @romaz and @limniscate, and having people whose ears you trust with you while listening to rooms together made for a much richer and illuminating experience.
As has become a tradition at the shows, we had an AS happy hour at the biergarten, aided by a fortunate spell of sunshine during an otherwise rainy forecast. Apologies in advance for not knowing everyone’s handles, but it was good to chat with @The Computer Audiophile, @DuckToller, @joelha, @Miska, and others at the event. Other than Chris, this was the first time I was meeting these gentlemen in person. It’s amazing how easy it is for AS’ers to engage in conversation within a minute of meeting!
Since my particular interests are in head-fi, digital audio and streaming, I had great discussions with several manufacturers in person. I’ll cover these in no particular order.
Innuos as usual had a very compelling demo cabin setup, comparing the ZENith Mk III and the ZENith Statement, playing on Bowers & Wilkins 802D3 speakers. I’ve heard this demo now at various shows, and it never gets less compelling. If you want to hear the benefits superior clocking and power supplies make in the digital transport chain, seek out one of these demos. Nuno Vittorino, Innuos’ technical leader, discussed what they have in the pipeline this year. First up is their USB Reclocker, a standalone box that goes downstream of say, a ZEN or ZENith server, and upgrades the quality of the USB to a level close to the Statement. This unit will have its own Sean Jacobs PSU, so offers a nice upgrade path to current owners. Price is expected to be around US $3000. He also mentioned they are working on a from-the-ground-up Ethernet switch (!) with similar care to clocking and power supplies. The audiophile switch space is going to be an interesting space in a few months, when this unit joins the already-released SOtM sNH-10G, and the upcoming Uptone EtherRegen. I can’t wait to put these units through their paces.
SOtM teamed up with Danish Audio Design for their cabin. The stack they were demoing was unchanged from past shows, showcasing their sNH-10G switch (2 in series!), the sCLK-OCX10 reference clock, the sDP-1000EX DAC, and the tX-USBultra SE. I chatted with May Park and Lee Il-won about what was in their pipeline. At Munich they announced the sNHI-1G ethernet card, which will, like their popular USB card, be sCLK-EX ready and have ultra low-noise regulators. This card will feature an M.2 interface. Also on the horizon is a custom-designed audiophile motherboard that will have features like sCLK-EX readiness, and fully linear regulators. SOtM intends to sell this motherboard to system builders and hobbyists, as well as make it the engine for a future music server.
Pink Faun partnered with Aries Cerat to demo a system that was one of the best sounding in the show. The digital front end was the Kassandra II DAC and streamer 2.16x in dual configuration. Pink Faun’s streamers are a great showcase of how good digital can sound when no compromises are made with clocking and power supplies. You can read up more about this product and its design. It’s not cheap, but Jord Groen of Pink Faun gave us a fascinating view into how meticulously they pursued every optimization. The end result is certainly impressive.
I have used JCAT products for years, but this was the first time I met the dapper Marcin Ostapowicz in person at his booth. Marcin was a delight to talk to, and we got right into the topic we love - the intricacies of clocking and power supplies in computer audio and their effect on noise! Marcin had a display of his upcoming server, which features his Net Card Femto, USB Card Femto, and a dedicated outboard linear power supply. He couldn’t give me a firm time frame, but it is really exciting to see all this movement in the audiophile music server space.
I am a big fan of Mutec GmbH’s Ref-10 reference clock. It is one of the most beneficial components in my system. That said, it was also my first time meeting chief engineer Christian Peters. He was extremely interested to learn how we were using the Ref-10 in our systems. Mutec is developing a DAC that is designed from the ground up to benefit from their reference clock. I am always intrigued by DACs in this category, so will be looking forward to hearing this when it is ready.
Speaking of nattily-clad, dapper gentlemen, this was also my first time meeting John Quick, the GM of dCS in the Americas. John was very excited to demo their new Mosaic control app, which does look very slick. In addition, we discussed the Bartok, their new DAC which has an option to include dCS’s own no-compromises headphone amp. I demoed the unit on a couple of headphones with which I was familiar - the Empyrean and Abyss Phi TC - and it was sounding fantastic. I expect to get one of these bad boys in for review very soon.
I ran into Mircea Fanatan, managing director of Meze at their cabin. He told me they are developing a third earpad for the Empyrean headphones I reviewed recently, that falls between the Alcantara and leather earpads that came with my review sample. I’m looking forward to trying them out!
And last, but not least, it was good to meet up with Rob Watts, digital design consultant for Chord Electronics. Rob was flying a bit under the radar at this show, as Chord’s announcements in Munich were on the analog side, with the Ultima 2 and 3 monoblock amps and the Huei phono amp. Which was nice, as we could speak a bit more peacefully. While I cannot give any spoilers, Rob clearly does not consider 1 million taps to be his last word on M-scaling. Yeah I know - that’s a Captain Obvious comment. Watch this space.
My Favorite Rooms
Even with 4 days in hand, I could not accomplish my desired plan to walk the the entire show in an orderly way, popping into every listening room. Since that didn’t happen, here is a list of my favorite rooms, based solely on what I did hear. I am certain there were other excellent rooms I just did not have the good fortune to hear.
A quick caveat before I jump in. Most of the rooms in the list below feature systems that cost well into the 6 digits Euros. Some people dismiss such systems as irrelevant, as they are unaffordable to but a small handful of people. I tend to approach these more as a showcase of capability by the exhibitors. In many cases, I was also able to hear more affordable variants of the loudspeakers, with interesting results.
The MBL room, in my estimation, was by far the best of the show. This room had 2 setups - one featuring the flagship Radialstrahler mbl 101 X-treme speakers, and the other their Noble line.
I listened on two different days, and both times it was standing room only. One of the most compelling demos was on Sunday, when they had a cellist come in and play a Bach Suite for Cello live on his baroque cello, followed by a recording of the same piece on the 101 X-treme. Now that’s confidence, but this setup sounded that good!
While these systems were stratospherically expensive, I also got a chance to hear the “affordable” mbl 126 stand mount speakers at the Rohm Electronics room over at the spillover HifiDeluxe show at the Marriott. These $11,800/pair MSRP speakers, while still not cheap, were sounding exceptional, and clearly had the same DNA as the X-treme 101 flagship. And so it goes.
I have liked Nagra’s rooms in every show I’ve gone to. Whether it’s with Wilson Alexia 2 (RMAF 2017) or Rockport Cygnus (RMAF 2018), they find a way to create beautiful sonics. Munich 2019 was no different. This time their HD electronics were paired with the YG Acoustics Sonja XV with InVincible subwoofer, and sounded wonderful. The demo I attended had a recording engineer playing live recordings, with his own observations, which was fascinating in its own right.
There were at least a couple of rooms featuring the Wilson Sasha DAW speakers, and they both drew me in. One was with a dCS Rossini stack with D’Agostino amplification, while the other featured Spectral electronics. Like the Alexia 2’s, I found these to have exceptional imaging and focus.
Another speaker brand that always draws me in is Wilson Benesch. At Munich, they were showing their upper end Eminence, powered by CH Precision electronics. While this setup didn’t impress me quite as much as the one at RMAF last year, I still find the precise, 3-dimensional imaging of Wilson Benesch speakers astonishing. I really want to listen to their more reasonably priced offerings to see how far down their product line these traits carry.
One refreshing departure from the stratospheric systems was the Gershman Electronics cabin, featuring the $13k Grand Avant Garde floor-standing loudspeakers, through VTL electronics. Even in the cozy space, these speakers were putting out a big, wide, and deep image, with plenty of dynamics. Very impressive indeed.
Finally, I’ll mention another room at the companion HifiDeluxe show. Alsyvox, who caught my eye at RMAF last year, again had a wonderful sounding room, with their Caravaggio “ four panels five ways ribbon speakers with massive external passive crossovers,” powered by Omega electronics. I have a soft spot for line source speakers, and this was certainly the best sounding room at the HifiDeluxe show.
If you haven’t been to an audio show, and want to experience one, I highly recommend you pick the Munich High-End show to do so. It has an energy and frankly, diversity, that you don’t see at the US shows, all of this in a city and region with lots of attractions of its own. A trip to Munich High-End is the perfect audiophile vacation.