The Munich High-End Show highlights in microcosm one of the biggest problems audio faces today – visibility vs. audibility. When people get to hear what good audio can do – and it doesn’t need to be expensive audio, a little NAD system and a pair of PSB loudspeakers can sound truly remarkable without breaking the bank – they understand why it’s so infinitely enjoyable and potentially endlessly fascinating. The trouble is, if they don’t get to see such things exist, they never know how good they sound.
Why does this relate to Munich specifically? Because the M.O.C. in Munich is an exhibition hall. It is designed to maximise visibility for exhibitors. This means glass walls and movable open plan spaces all designed to make exhibitor’s spaces more approachable to passing trade. That doesn’t sound good. What sounds good is a room similar to one in which the equipment should be used; a domestic living space. That doesn’t look good. There isn’t an easy way out of this paradox; even room equalization software struggles to compensate for walls of glass and reinforced tissue paper.
Traditionally audio demonstrations in shows fall into one of two broad categories. The first is the standard hotel room demo. This can be likened to going to church. Listeners sit in hushed rows and face front where all the equipment is on display and the demonstrator stands in front of them to give a little talk before playing music. When you have an electronics company with an equipment table in almost exactly the same place as you might find an altar in church, it’s hard to miss the parallels once you recognize them. Sure, the nature of that ‘little talk’ is very different and you don’t tend to here Chris Jones’ ‘No Sanctuary Here’ in church, but we are talking about audio components after all.
The other category is like a museum. Products are on display, occasionally on plinths and sometimes even behind a glass case, with little description cards highlighting the rarity of the audio piece on show. Often this replaces the music being played in regular demos, but the same whispered speech patterns emerge, just like you get when viewing art and antiquities in a museum. The difference here is it’s a museum that you can own with a swipe of the credit card. In most cases, the demonstration falls somewhere between these two polar opposites, with half the room given over to display and the other part has music playing in demonstration.
There is nothing wrong with either of these models. They work, but there’s a new game in town that deserves looking at. And at Munich a couple of brands were doing just that. Like it or loathe it, Apple has changed the way people buy technology, and its Apple Stores are a demonstrably successful way of introducing the public to its products (Apple’s store in Regent Street, London UK is the most profitable shop in the whole city, making a reputed £60m - $98.5m – per year, or roughly £2,000– almost $3,300 – for each square foot of store space). Naturally, given such success, forward thinking audio brands want a piece of Apple pie.
Naim Audio’s German distributors, Music Line, effectively made an Apple Store for the brand; given the UK brand’s distinctive color scheme, it should be called the Green Apple Store. As you walked into the glass-fronted room, you were met with a series of Naim and NaimNet products, usually with iPad or AMX controllers, so that the prospective owner could go through the whole ‘touchy feely’ process that Apple Stores do so well. It also means the individual product ‘stations’ often have at least one person operating the device and another looking over their shoulder. Meanwhile Music Line staff drift from device to device, proffering help and advice and gently leading people into opening their wallets. At the back of the room was a small demonstration facility, but this was used as much like the Genius Bar in an Apple Store as it was a demonstration facility.
It wasn’t alone. Devialet had a similar arrangement, with embedded iPad stations designed to show people how the one amp can be used as an integrated, a pre-amp, power amps, as an LP recording device and how wi-fi will change their music lives.
The clever thing about these units was that they worked with the exhibition hall’s advantages, instead of against them. Whether it’s the right model for audio demos of the future… who can say? But at least it’s good to try something new.