Munich 2011 - The late report

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Munich 2011 - The late report

I never have much luck at the Munich High End show. It has nothing to do with the show itself, or even Munich. It is just that fate conspires against me. One year it was being held up at customs while I explained that a microphone wasn’t an explosive device, and spent 12 hours trying to edit a three minute interview. The next it was a volcano. This year I just about escaped another volcano, had only the briefest hold-up in customs (‘what is an Audioquest and why does your USB cable have a battery attached to it?’), but heard my trusty-but-rusty MacBook making sounds like a distressed Boeing whenever it was turned on. With all my photos loaded.

The moral of the story: never trust technology. Or volcanos.

Still, a week to reflect on the event is a good thing in many respects. This year’s Munich High End Show was perhaps more subdued than usual, but these things are relative; it was still nigh on 20,000m2 of exhibition space and had more than 14,000 visitors attending, but some of the German distributors were upset that while the number of foreign trade visitors were up, the number of real Germans who might buy things had dropped to under 10,000 this year. And, at first when you saw that half the world’s audio press turned up to view the new 20 year guarantee for PMC loudspeakers, you might be mistaken for thinking this wasn’t going to be a show of thousands of new launches. In fact, there were many key players showing exciting new products.

Perhaps the most anticipated product launch was the KEF Blade. First shown two years previously in the same show, the Concept Blade – as it was known at that time – was considered one of the best sounding products that would never, ever be commercially available. The cost of a carbon-fibre over balsawood enclosure or the array of hand-made drive units, pushed the Concept’s price way over the edge for KEF, the $200,000 Muon notwithstanding. However, in the intervening two years, KEF refined the ideas, made the product production-possible and ran nearly a whole Pixar’s worth of computer modelling to realise the Blade out of the Concept. Built to order, the 24,000€ floorstander features what the company calls a Single Apparent Source, which places the four bass drivers and the Tangerine-waveguided Uni-Q mid-bass and treble speaker all equidistant and effectively acting as one. The two pairs of bass drivers use force-cancelling bars and the new body is GRP. The result is one of the most dynamic, fluid and right sounding loudspeakers around.

Another long-awaited floorstander was not at the show, but off-piste. The new Ktêma Proscenium from Franco Serblin. Serblin, the man originally behind Sonus Faber has designed a loudspeaker that relies on ancient concepts of the focal point of the theatre, creating a loudspeaker with a slim front baffle, expanding back to a wider rear, where the bass loudspeakers fire backwards and the sound emanates outwards through side ports. Naturally, the cabinet is made from solid wood and the finish was exemplary. The net result is a loudspeaker with a breadth that belies its size and all the warmth and passion you might expect from a classic Serblin speaker in a slim, distinctive box, and - as it was being driven by a 25W Sugden integrated – not a beast to drive. This isn’t the only loudspeaker in the range; a standmount is planned too. I saw an early prototype – “no photographs, please!” – on static display and the words ‘achingly beautiful’ immediately sprang to mind. After 30 years in the business, Franco Serblin’s passion shows no sign of abating. Price on both sets of speakers are to be confirmed, but a price of roughly 24,000€ was mentioned for the Proscenium.

Meanwhile, back in the show, Sonus Faber itself announced a Guarneri Evolution c15,000€ standmount that has the same rich chrome and piano finish of the Amati Futura in the traditional Guarneri footprint. This left many an audiophile drooling.

The Amati Futura itself was part of the coolest system in the show, comprising EAT turntable, the new Audio Research PH8 hybrid phono stage and the excellent new Reference 150 stereo power amplifier. Building on the strengths of the Reference 110, but with more power, the balanced-only KT120-based tube power amp has excellent power reserves, a super-quiet fan cooling system. But that wasn’t the only reason it was cool; super-smooth sound aside, it was the only room in the whole damn show to feature air conditioning!

Top end, two-way standmounts were all the rage in Munich. Crystal Cables showed its new Arabesque Mini, a delicious 12,000€ anodized-finished loudspeaker that builds on the success and design of the glass Arabesque flagship, but this time features a dome tweeter and a very refined Perspex-like three bar speaker stand. The company also showed a 36,000€ Arabesque III floorstander in a rich black anodized finish, while sister brand Siltech launched its new Explorer series of interconnects and speaker cables. Why is this last so significant? For a company where the name bespeaks of its use of silver (or silver-gold) conductors in its designs, the new Explorer range is made from pure copper.

Meanwhile audio enfant terrible Magico added two more products to its Q series, the Q3 and Q1. Most people will wax lyrical over the Q3 – for good reason, it’s pretty damn good – but the Q1 was for me the star of the show. As a replacement to the popular Mini, the new sealed-box two-way speaker is smaller, cheaper (that’s a relative term, it’s still 28,000€ per pair) and sounds like the biggest small speaker you’ve ever heard. This is the Manhattan Apartment loudspeaker par excellence. Yes, it needs a great set of electronics in front of it (it was powered, as is often the case at these events, by Soulution, which had its new 540 Media Player and matching - if huge - 530 integrated amplifier, the first from the brand). But also, yes, it lives up to the reputation Magico has created for itself in so short a time. It sounds like a grand audio cliché, but everyone sitting listening to these small speakers assumed they were the Q3, even when playing deep bass notes. Then they saw the speaker cables led to the Q1, and did a perfect double take at least twice. I stood outside the room to speak to one of the team, and learned how to swear in about 14 languages as other people walked out of the room, heads shaking in disbelief at how Magico gets that much sound out of that little speaker without fracturing the laws of physics.

At less breathless heights of audiophile extremism, the improved Vienna Acoustics Mozart Grand loudspeakers are an elegant two-and-a-half-way floorstander at the very reasonable price of around 3,000€ per pair. The Mozart has been uprated to take the new 6” X3P bass units and features a heavily revised crossover network. Sadly, Vienna wasn't running a demonstration room, but the speakers show great promise.

Streaming and computer audio solutions were gaining ground, and there were countless new launches of computer-side products than new CD players in this show. Among the highlights, Plinius was showing its new 4950€ Toko streamer, complete with vestigial CD drive, Hegel was showing off its two newest DACs (one of which is USB only), Cambridge Audio finally launched the 598€ Sonata NP30 streamer originally shown a year ago, NAD announced the 800€ C446 does everything receiver and Burmester was showing its 111 Music Server from its Reference Line. The price of this player is still to be confirmed, but it won’t be cheap! It includes an integrated CD slot for ripping, can connect to the world through WiFi and/or LAN. It has an excellent front panel display, that is easily readable across a room, and there is the obligatory iPad application to drive it.

Meanwhile, burgeoning Chinese brand QAT demonstrated its MS5 host server (and was showing the forthcoming MS1 high-end server), but what was particularly impressive was the RP1 remote pad (with an Android app already to market and a very sassy looking iPad app in the wings). Expect much from this go-getting Beijing-based brand. Moving south to Shenzhen, IAG had a slew of new products, including new speakers from Mission and Quad and lots of two channel and multi-channel Audiolab equipment. Perhaps the most exciting of the lot for the audiophile was the upcoming Audiolab M-DAC, a half-sized DAC/headphone amp that is expected to take on the big boys.

The transition to file-based music is not quite complete, though. Both Vitus Audio and Burmester showed new CD players in new ‘entry-level’ lines, while Gryphon Audio and Densen showcased a whole new everything. Vitus Audio was showcasing its new ‘100’ series, currently standing at a CD player, preamp and integrated amp, all of which are expected to retail below 10,000€ per unit. All built to typical Vitus standards. With widespread distribution by Focal, expect to see more from this Nordic brand.

NuForce is every bit the state-of-the-art brand, and it was showing products at both ends of the spectrum to great effect along with its new-found best friend in the audio industry, Amphion loudspeakers. The iDo will be an iProduct-chummy DAC that can output either a digital datastream or analogue/headphone output. It is sized like NuForce’s other desktop computing products. At the other end of the scale was the 5,000€ P-18 preamplifier, with it’s shaved off edges and running the length of the front panel display, it will be an exciting addition to match the company’s Reference 18 mono power amps. Headphone DAC/amps are fast becoming the next big thing. Along with NuForce, ADL and Furutech launched the elegant, wing-shaped 500€ Cruise… and then there was Funk. Not the post-Pink Triangle maker of decks and arms, but Funk Tonstudiotechnik to be precise. This is a pro-audio manufacturer of stereo and surround preamps, phono stages and the remarkable 700€ Headmaster II headphone amp. Remarkable because it allows impedance switching, balanced and single-ended connection, will drive anything with a large headphone jack and do it properly and even allows the sort of left/right switching and cancellation that studio engineers need and headphone fans love.

Everyone (rightly) associates Germany with big, shiny chrome turntables. Everyone that is, except Kuzma. Kuzma’s new work-in-progress 14,000€ Stabi-M turntable was the antithesis of shiny, with most people asking ‘is that your new record cleaner’. The deck is a large ‘wife and pet-proof’ deck with a lid big enough to accommodate 12” arms and a lid plus detachable side glass cheeks. As someone who has one wife and two cats, I can see the appeal, even if the aesthetics of the deck are, er, challenging. TW Acustic also went the ‘none more black’ route, in a far more decorative manner with its 16,000€ Raven LTD, which really is limited to just 50 turntables. Get your orders in quick.

Elsewhere though, the chrome shininess of German turntablism shone through, in brands like Transrotor, Acoustic Solid and Clearaudio. This last was showing its Statement Turntable and TT1 arm, a masterpiece of magnetic levitation and non-contact drive trains, all on a built-in pendulum stand that could just about continue to play records on a rough sea crossing. The new Statement Phono, a more restrained looking two-box phono/line preamplifier with a remotely controllable input loading and a full spread of equalization curves, also joined the Clearaudio family. We didn’t get a chance to hear these beauties properly and the price is in the ‘if you have to ask, you can’t afford it’ region. And just when you thought turntables were immune to the power of the iPad, along comes resident vinyl crazy guy (in all the right ways) Dr Feickert, with his free PlatterSpeed app, which measures a 3.15kHz test tone played on a 15€ vinyl disc.

Any visit to a German hi-fi show wouldn’t be complete without the wild and wacky end. They are into their big horn loudspeakers in an even bigger way in Munich. Cesaro, Avantgarde, Musique Concrete (guess what they are made from) and more are installed with manful amounts of blood, sweat and tears. And many of them made a remarkably good sound in the process. But my vote for crazed loudspeaker of the show was not even making a noise, and it wasn’t finished in anything like a commercial finish, or even any kind of finish whatsoever. It was just the one horn loudspeaker on the Blumenhofer Acoustics stand and when I visited it was just about to swallow an unsuspecting audiophile. Whole.

There’s a lot more. It only scratches the surface. To take in all that’s new in Munich is beyond the scope of one, weissbier-fuelled hack with a camera and a broken laptop. I was notionally tasked with covering the sub-$25,000 market, with my colleague Jonathan Valin discussing the market above and beyond that figure. Trouble is, last time we saw him, he was heading to Switzerland…

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