Munich, Germany: The first day of the High End Show is a trade day. Manufacturers trawl for new distributors, distributors look for new dealers, dealers hunt for new products and journos swoop for scoops. It's also not the best day for listening, as most systems were only unboxed a few hours earlier. A day or so of constant music playing will transform many mediocre-sounding systems, and this means in fairness to the potential sound quality of many systems, we'll limit the discussion to those systems that had already passed the good sound threshold. In discussing with the few manufacturers who hit their sweet-spot early, a common theme emerged - "We set up two days ago and spent the Wednesday fine-tuning".
Of that early first round of listening, three systems sounded outstanding. The first was from Emillé, and comprised a Cary CD player, a Dr Feikert Woodpecker turntable (vinyl is still king in Germany, and Dr F's turntables are a very popular choice among the cognoscenti) with an Ortofon E90 cartridge, Emillé Alure phono stage, Quintessence preamp and two sets of the new Rapture mono power amps into a pair of striking MSD speakers from South Korea. This system was the first to feature the new Zendo cables from Mundorf (the capacitor people). It sounded wonderfully smooth and insightful, especially when playing a slice of Nat King Cole.
French speaker experts Triangle were also making a very fine sound with their Magellan SW2 loudspeakers, all driven from a Luxman CD/SACD player, the excellent Octave tube line preamp and a Symphonic Line power amplifier. Eric Dubouays, Triangle's Export Manager, has arguably the best pair of ears in the business right now and is passionate about getting things right... well, he got things right here, as the sound was detailed and beguiling and a half hour spent listening to this system was a half hour too little.
At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the best of the best was the Magico Q5 loudspeaker system, this time driven by Spectral electronics, MIT's top cables and either an EMM Labs player or the company's own custom-built music server. It was good enough to make everything else on that first day sound like a series of footnotes to the Magico room, the Emillé and Triangle rooms notwithstanding. And yes, my camera's lens needs some work and doesn't like black backdrops!
The first day is not simply about presentations, as there's new toys everywhere. Some of these are still in the late stages of design, like the Arcam rDAC. This low cost (expected price around £300 for the basic model) digital converter comes as standard with dejittered S/PDIF and asynchronous USB inputs, and sports a top-of-the-range Wolfson WM8741 DAC, according to Arcam's founder, John Dawson. Everyone's got a DAC these days, but the rDAC's unique take on the digital converter is the optional wireless digital connection, using the new designed-for-audio Kleer standard. Requiring a dongle at the product end and a stubby aerial at the rDAC, this can connect to a system up to 50m away without signal degradation or dropout, and the whole package is intended to be a £100 option. As you can tell by the Pound signs, we don't have Dollar or Euro prices yet, but the product is expected to start shipping mid-year.
Another big launch at the show was the new Audio Research 40th Anniversary Reference preamplifier. This two box statement line preamplifier (one preamp, one power supply) is fully dual-mono, designed to push the boundaries of even the Reference series preamps and is only available for one year. I'll add some more detail on this exciting new product when I can extract more from the Audio Research team, all of whom were talking to an orderly line of people wanting to discuss the new limited-edition masterwork.
Other launches were more incremental, such as Naim Audio's upgraded HDX player, with new software and SSD drives in place of the conventional spinning hard disks. Although solid-state storage costs considerably more than normal HDD, the commonly-held opinion is that it sounds better, as well as being more reliable and silent. Naim also showed more products in its increasingly successful Uniti range of streaming products.
More to follow...