Stereo Times' High End 2014 Munich Report
Overwhelmed would be considered an understatement!
No matter how many times I've attended the High End Show in Munich, Germany, its sheer size never ceases to amaze. Held every second week in May, this was easily the largest and most anticipated show I have ever visited thus far - eclipsing the remarkably huge Singapore High End Audio event I attended back in 2000. Held once again in the humongous Munich Order Center (MOC), which is about a 30 minute drive from the Munich Airport.
The statistics from the High End press committee sent via email boasted 452 exhibitors (+25% growth from 2013), from over 40 countries and nearly 18,000 visitors at this year's event. This, the committee statement read, "the significant increase of exhibitors and exhibition space made this year's High End 2014, the biggest show of its kind." Now in its 33rd year, the High End is has become the event to show off one's wares. So much in fact, there are now two other local high-end shows held in Munich at the same time but in smaller venues (hotels).
Munich, located on the southern slope of Bavaria, it also serves as the state's capital (and is also home to my favorite automobile, the BMW). Munich is also a great tourist town so if you're planning to come to any future High End shows, plan an extra couple of days extra because you'll want to see this gorgeous city. It certainly has become among my favorites places. Unfortunately, the weather is almost always rainy around the month of May, so be sure to bring an umbrella and a raincoat.
The MOC is a wonderful location for fun loving music lovers like myself because it's very well lit and has tons of open space that features three levels, a huge atruim, a seating area, a restaurant, multiple cafes (both in and outdoor), and designated smoke areas for nicotine fiends.
Advertising was everywhere to be found. Even in the bathrooms.
And once again, Key and I hit the ground running. Here's only a glimpse as to what we thought of as worth a photo. There was so much to see and so little time. Oh, what to do!
Although the High End show's official start date (Thursday, May 14th), was only open to the press, perusing along Miles Davis Avenue, it looked as though there were lots of press indeed.
And of course, there was plenty eye candy to see.....
DMA Multimedia specifically designed the DMA-06 ($4500) high-end server for high-end audio and entertainment enthusiasts who also enjoy watching the latest movies/games through their audio system. As a movie buff, I've kept and eye on DMA Multimedia since it debuted at Munich High End back in 2010. The unit is slim, lightweight, operates wirelessly via any smart device and can be easily hid behind a flatscreen television. The company is owned and operated out of Baden Switzerland, by electronic and software designer Daniel Mayerthaler (above photo), who also provided an impressive demo featuring DMA Multimedia technology filmed at High End 2014. That video is avaiable via Youtube right here. Intrigued, I asked for a review sample after this insightful presentation and am expecting delivery on the DMA-06 in the not too distant future.
Anatosio Vardaxoglou of Audio4Soul of Bulgaria, designer of reference caliber high end digital amplifiers, was one of those featured in the High End Newcomer section.
With all the buzz and popularity with regard to head-fi, it was really great to see King Sound getting a hearty thumbs up for their KS series Electrostatic Headphones and M20 amplifier. Our own Frank Alles has reviewed this very model and came away thoroughly impressed (read that review here). A full arsenal of King Sound electronics and electrostats were on display in an adjacent room. Unfortunately, these super small (10' by 12') makeshift rooms are nothing short of lousy. In these setups, one might experiment at finding out how bad a system can sound rather than how good.
Audes America once again demoed their sleek and elegant sounding Excellenec W5 loudspeakers ($20k) being driven by G9 Audio Nero electronics. I grew to become quite fond of the G9 Audio for their sound and incredible flexibility by way of their Hi and Lo knobs (read my review here). Sounds corny? Okay, check this out. Once again, this setup is located in another small shoebox-styled makeshift room no larger than this photo shows - with walls made of plain 1" sheetrock. Not good. As a result the bass is boomy and resonates beyond belief. Worse, the Audes Excellence W5's boast side firing woofers and Naum Dorkham, its USA importer, was smart enough to have the woofers firing into the room as opposed to firing into the walls. This still did little stop the woody, synthetic sound these walls do to the sound. However, the G9 Nero preamp Lo knob was adjusted about 15% below flat and that made the room sound far more tame. I told Dorkham, that if nothing else, he should show off how effective that preamp is, especially in a makeshift room as terrible sounding as these are.
Naum Dorkham was quite excited to also have the new VIVO loudspeakers from South Africa here at High End 2014 (the word out is they're being assembled in the Audes facility located in Estonia) Using a single coax driver, this floor stander (model shown on the left above) has a projected US retail price of $2995.00. I think that makes the VIVO among the most affordable loudspeakers I've seen at this show. I should have a review pair in the not too distant future and I look forward to sharing my findings.
Guess who I bumped into right off of Edvard Grieg Blvd? Robert Lee of Acoustic Zen showing off his Crescendo loudspeakers with Triode Corp's beautiful sounding electronics. Of course, it was a delight to know Acoustic Zen has finally made it over to the biggest two-channel event on the planet, but I also noticed that he too had to suffer from the new-comer blues by being placed in a shoebox sized, 1" sheetrock walled makeshift room. Ouch!
So, instead of trying to wow you with their sound, which proved utterly difficult due to the size of the Crescendo loudspeakers in this space, they showed off the newly released Triode Corp's Reference One preamplifier and Kronos Audio of Canada showed a new more affordable counter-rotating turntable that will retail for about $15k. What a beauty.
Burmester Automotive Group had a nice demo that featured Burmester Systems in some great German automobiles.
Finally got a chance to hear PS Audio DSD DirectStream DAC and have to confess the differences I heard, in a small makeshift room were pretty impressive. Keep in mind, the music I heard was first played back in standard Redbook (16/44.1) then upsampled to what Paul McGowan, president of PS Audio, claims is 10-times greater than that of DSD resolution (2.8MHz). I do know the immediate differences were: greater ambiance, definition in bass - especially imaging - and just an overall more natural feel to the overall recording. With the DirectStream DAC capability of upsampling anything can you throw its way via its seven digital inputs, I find its $5995.00 retail price rather impressive.
Okay, enough of the Halle space. Time to go upstairs where the big rooms and really good setups reside....
I sure got a huge surprise when walking in the Stein Music Room this year. Wiener Lautsprecher Manufaktur, of course from Germany, had an arsenal of active loudspeakers stretching across this rather large room. What's more amazing was I'd never heard of them. Dressed in a beautiful white satin finish, I noticed the big and multi-drivered Franz model (90,000 €), the most auspicous as it hails at this company's reference. I believe its own internal amplification drives its multi-array of woofers (4) only, however, the Stein Music components drove the midrange and tweeter section with amazingly positive results. So much so, I came back to room at least a half-dozen times hoping to catch another glimpse of the Franz model in rotation, since it seemed to be on demostration every other hour or thereabouts. Yes, it's a lot of speaker and just by looking at it, I would have a hunch that its perhaps a little too complicated lacking that "single voice' sound we all thrive for. Not true. Whatever they've got going on - in its obviously complex crossover - it's doing something that caught my attention in short notice. Especially with regard to its top end openness compliments of that open baffle, elongated bipolar ribbon super tweeter. Yeah, I think the sound was often played too loud, and too often. But when I could get Holger Stein to convince the designer to turn the music down, that was when I finally got a chance to hear how absolutely delightful and well balanced this speaker system performed. A standout performer!
Backes & Müller, a German loudspeaker manufacturer that claim to have built the first active loudspeaker back in the mid-seventies, was hugely popular at High End 2014. Showcasing their latest active Line Series (above photos), the company appears to be the biggest and most successful loudspeaker manufacturer I've never heard. And for good reason. Here in the States, audiophiles abhor active loudspeakers despite the huge technical disadvantages their passive counterparts attempt to side-step but never fully avoid. For example: poor power sensitivity/efficiency compromises normally go hand in hand alongside sluggish impulse response measurements and crossover phase problems. In fact, these problems are so common, we've come to accept and live with them as is. However, Backes & Müller has smartly designed each loudspeaker using their DSP-based FIR Time Filter Technology (FIRTEC) that avoids the usual pitfalls passive speaker designers encounter. Outside of Meridian or ATC, the only other active-built loudspeaker I am aware of - and quite fond of as well - is Precision Transducer Engineering's Phoenix stand monitor which I reviewed back in 2011 (here). Well heeled audiophiles do not want to part with their favorite amplifier or just flat out fear having one located inside their loudspeaker. My hunch is music lovers do not seem to mind nearly as much, hence the remarkable amount of interest Backes & Müller recieves at these events. Need I mention, their loudspeakers are quite impressive sounding as well?
The Backes & Müller Series 100 Coaxial Horn Cylinder Wave Emitter active loudspeaker is among the elite of reference caliber loudspeakers available today. On a recent trip to their facility (located in Saarbrücken), I had the pleasure of hearing the Series 100 for an extended period of time. On certain levels, for example: clarity and dynamics, the Series 100 proved to be the best I've experienced. With a near $1,000,000 sticker price, they ought to be. On the other hand, the company debuted their smaller Series 200 (above, listed at somewhere around $500k), Although I did not have the chance to hear them in Munich, I do know they are merely a cost-friendlier version of their outstanding flagship model housed in a better looking cabinet.
Karem Kucukasian, president of Absolare, should get some kind of award for matching the visual look of Absolare Passion components with their sound: GORGEOUS. I've seen the maturation of the Absolare brand up close and personal having visited Kucukasian's home and facility in Istanbul, Turkey back in '09 (see that article here). One thing's certain, Absolare is not for the feint of heart audiophile looking for some bang for the buck. It's a (wealthy) music lovers dream system that's attractive enough to be placed right in one's dining room. No, I did not say you can place a pair of Rockport Altair loudspeakers in your dining room. Unless, of course, you can get away with it!
Apertura of France, has a long standing presence at the High End show where I first got a glimpse of them back in 2003. Petite in size, the Armonia (shown here in a Cherry Matte finish), have a remarkable sense of presence, are about as articulate as they come and yet musical as one could wish for in their price category. The Playback Design gear didn't do anything to change my sonic impressions either. A loudspeaker to keep a sharp eye out on.
The new Berning 211/845 auto bias, zero-feedback, OTL mono amplifier ($73k) launched at this year's High End 2014. Rated at about 60 watts per, they were unfortunately on static display so I never got a chance to hear them. Just reading the name bought back some fond memories of this OTL design.
When just starting out in the hobby, I was quite fortunate to have an opportunity to own a David Berning amplifier (can't remember the model number or name but I know it was light years before the famous ZH270). I do remember the tubes felt warm to the touch and David Berning stating that those very tubes would last for about twenty years! Imagine that? Anxious to find out the tube-life on this newest design, I was not surprised by the answer: 18,000 hours! Without having to try hard to figure that out, playing on the average of two-hours a day, that would give me close to ten years of service. A blessing considering the price of those 211/845's.
After staring at all this beauty for about five minutes, I was asked if I wanted to finally sit down and get a listen. Everything looks esquisite even from the photos don't you think. Here is NYC's Audio Arts importer Gideon Schwartz's all out assault on High End 2014 that featured one of the most beautiful looking Sperling turntables I've ever seen, the Zellaton Reference ($100k), driven by the new two-box Analogue Domain Isis integrated, which by the way, is much heavier and more solidly built than you can imagine. Trust me, I tried just lifting it slightly off its feet. The sound Gideon Schwartz is after is one of purity and emotion. Never loud or intrusive. I knew that walking into the room. As a result, the sound was elegant, lower than I would have wanted due to the all the noises and other disturbances. Yes, this system is among those that warrants a hefty price tag because even beyond their looks, and technical claims there's something even more impressive: a performance that really is unlike others. It's far more musical if not a tad too laid back. But yes, I get it. More importantly, I like it very much too!
Thought the Mola Mola amplifiers ($17k a pair) resting on double-stack Artesania iso-rack had the Lansche Audio loudspeakers singing. Unfortunately, and again, I didn't get the chance to listen for anything close to critical due to the noise and constant distractions. However, I've had personal experiences with regard to how impressive the Mola Mola's are. In fact, I reported how close a pair of little Mola Mola's sounded directly against a far bigger and expensive pair of Soulution amplifiers while visiting Bill Parrish of GTT Audio (here). Our own Leon Rivken wrote quite fondly in his review on his experience with the Artesenia racks (here).
Eggleston Works, along with Avid Hifi turntables and Luxman electronics really put on a great show demo that featured something of a surprise: affordable loudspeakers. When I asked Jim Thompson, president of Eggleston Works about the price of the lengendary Eggleston Works Andra loudspeaker, he whispered "$25k." Keep in mind, back in the mid 90's, the Andra's were the industry darlings and came with reference-grade performance for only $14,000. I also recall them receiving Speaker of the Year in some major publications. They were certainly among the brand I placed on my got to have list. Today, their asking price is about a 75% less expensive than comparably sized loudspeakers I saw at this show. It instantly reminded me of how crazy and out of hand prices have become nowadays. Most rewarding was how good the Andra's sounded here via an Avid Hifi vinyl rig and Luxman separates. Talk about bass authority, punch and control, the sound was every bit as reminiscent as what I've always admired in these loudspeakers. But now, there's an easy, musical feel to the performance as well. I came away not just impressed but reminded of how good and much more affordable things used to be.
Was delighted to see Ascendo of Germany once again here at High End 2014. This time, however they were showing off the newest series to their family of loudspeakers in the $9500.00 D9 (photo above). The heart and soul of the D9 is its coax point-source driver which handles the highs and midrange. As with essentially all Ascendo loudspeakers, their bass drivers are hidden inside the speaker's enclousure and pointed upward. I cannot state with certainty the size of these drivers but I think they're dual 8" bass drivers. The team that make up Ascendo is Jürgen Scheuring, Norbert Heinz and Stefan Köpf, and they love that open air sound that dipole ribbons create, hence the dual tweeters located on the backs of each loudspeaker. I was surprised by how good these loudspeakers sounded, given the room, the noise and all the distractions. They simply have that "house" sound which is very open, natural and easy on the ears. Overall, they were quite reminiscent of their big brother in the System M, but at a quarter the price. It's easy to find good sounding loudspeakers at $100k at these events. It's damn near impossible to find a floorstander capable of this quality sound at $10k or less. Ascendo has achieved that performance criteria and anyone looking for a great sounding loudspeaker need to give the Ascendo D9 a serious audition! Standout performer.