Munich High End 2017 – Introduction and trends

Munich High End 2017 – Introduction and trends

With the changes in dynamic at CES, Munich High End has become the main event on the audio calendar. The show – running this year from the 18th to the 21st of May at the M.O.C. exhibition centre on the outskirts of Munich – continually goes from strength to strength, occupying all four halls of the centre, as well as two large atria and all the side rooms available on two floors of the fourth atrium. With 21,412 visitors and 8,002 trade visitors seeing 538 exhibitors from 44 countries, Munich High End is proving such a resounding success that there is almost no more space left, and manufacturers are often left taking on side-car shows at nearby hotels.

Calling it ‘High End’ is perhaps wrong. Munich High End is more than just high-end audio. Granted the high-end brands still hold dominion over the demonstration rooms surrounding that fourth atrium, and many of the atrium regulars (such as Audio Research, Avantgarde, Burmester, D’Agostino, Gryphon, and Meridian) are firmly embedded in audio’s upper echelon. However, the point of Munich High End is to encompass all things audio, whether it is a Canton-equipped Skoda or a 24-carat gold loudspeaker from Gauder Akustik, and all points in between, the show has really become a broad-based audio show.

In fact, if anything this was a show dominated by the more affordable end. Not only in relative terms (a €10,000 amplifier seems more affordable in the company of amplifiers costing €80,000 or more), but also in absolute terms. This was the show of the latest Wharfedale Diamond range and Primare’s new Prisma electronics, or the new replacement to Hegel’s evergreen H80 integrated amp that brings more to the party, except a bigger asking price. But we’ll address more of these things later.

This was a show of concepts finally coming together. In digital audio, for example, there was a sense of common goals, with so many companies focussing on MQA, Roon integration, and even RAVENNA for their upcoming devices. A few years ago, companies might turn their attention to one; now it’s more like all or nothing. This does tend to differentiate companies between those that have enough of an infrastructure to cope with parallel design concepts, and those that cannot.

There also seems to have been something of an MQA tipping point at Munich, where even many of those not presently supporting MQA are working in the back room to include the format, and I confess that my own stance on the matter has become less ambivalent, too. In an ideal world, we’d all gain access to the original master file or master tape, but failing that, the closest most of us can get are DSD, high-resolution PCM, or first-generation copies of master tapes. These are usually unwieldy (either in handling, or storage and download) and often leave a very limited music choice. By having an increasing number of mainstream music companies sign up to MQA, and provide files through services like TIDAL, MQA not only raises the game for all, but provides more of an impetus for others like Apple and Spotify to upgrade their own services. Even the proprietary aspect of how MQA folds and unfolds its data no longer concerns me as a result; it’s ultimately as important to the end user as knowing what makes up ‘Merchandise 7X’ is to a guy swigging from a bottle of Coca-Cola. If it sounds good, is freely available enough to bring more people to the sounds good table, and is backwards compatible with FLAC, I am OK with that.  

The strange thing about this year’s Munich High End, however, was that so few were able to make a good sound. Even those who have historically had a very high success rate were wide of the mark this year. Whether it was the overall heat in those glass rooms, atmospheric conditions (it was hot and humid, and there was a thunderstorm at least once during the event), or just that there were too many brands competing for the juice, but any attempt to extract a ‘best sound at the show’ were – with very few exceptions – closer to ‘less awful sound at the show’.

We are also aware that this show comes hot on the heels of AXPONA and CanJam SoCal, and that the LA Audio Show follows soon after. Not only does this make for a lot of similar show reports with repeats of the same products, but makes for a lot of reader fatigue in reading yet another travelogue with price tags and specifications. So, going forward, we have adopted a more editorial tone, finding the most significant new products or newcomer brands in a given category, alongside some of the best or best-presented existing products, and a short ‘mentioned in dispatches’ list of those deserving of note. Know that for every product mentioned there are dozens of products that are similarly note-worthy, but an eye-watering 20,000 word round-up of hundreds of products supplemented by thousands of images does no-one any favours.

Finally, an apology. We concentrated on the main show at the MOC, but did intend to visit the Hi-Fi Deluxe show on the Saturday afternoon at the Munich Marriott Hotel in Schwabing. That idea was sadly made impossible by the sheer number of extremely drunk FC Bayern Munich fans whose league-winning team beat SC Freiburg 4:1 in the final match of the soccer season at the Allianz Arena on the outskirts of Munich. Buses, taxis, Uber, and the S-Bahn all ground to a halt as hundreds of thousands of red-shirted revellers turned the city into a giant biergarten for most of the evening and even a four kilometre trip between the two halls turned into a potential nine kilometre detour. The Hi-Fi Deluxe show has become an important overspill for demonstrating audio companies, because the MOC has reached capacity, and we will check soccer fixtures more accurately next year!

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