High End 2015: End of Line and Best In Show


The thing about Peat and Scotch

There was a moment I thought I might be in serious trouble. One moment, in particular. One wrong step, and I’d be in it for sure. But I couldn’t see. Not then. I was blind to the immanent threat until it was almost too late. Looking back, I can clearly see it was my fault. That I should have known better. And that my sense of humor was about to lead me right off a cliff.

Never joke with an Englishman about “peat” flavors or aromas in Scotch. Not in a bar. Not at the tail-end of a long ass day, with piles of food and enormous steins of beer capping it all off. And most certainly do not crack wise about “paint thinner” or “chemical fracking liquid”. Not about Scotch. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

There I was, sitting across the table from Brian Cox. In some local touristy bar, right off the Marienplatz in Munich. We’d been having a fine time up till then, chatting about Bavarian beer, the absurd amount (and variety) of pork products we’d consumed that week during the High End Show, relaxing. And I had to go on and on with my whole “ruining of good whiskey” comments.

Brian, gentleman that he is, gave me a second to make sure he was hearing correctly, but that flat stare really ought to have given me pause. Dunkleweiss bier, poured freely through the course of the evening, is my only excuse for how slow to pick up on that I was. By the time I knew something was amiss, my entire corner of the bar was silent. Brian and two friends of his, also Brits, weren’t smiling. In fact, Brian was oh-so-carefully taking off his jacket, never taking his eyes off of me.

It was a tense moment. I carefully took a sip of my beer, and said: “And what is the deal with IPA? Who drinks that nonsense? Flowers? It’s not beer.”

The sudden turn must have been a complete surprise. I saw Brian pause and shake himself as he was rolling up his first shirt-sleeve. “Nothing’s wrong with IPA!” someone else burst out with. Another American, obviously. One of the other two Brits snorted, loudly: “It’ll do, but it’s complete crap. It’s beer, but it’s not good.” Outrage from the American, a smirk from Brian, followed by a lengthy diatribe about “proper drinks” (one that included a lot of pointed looks in my direction) and we all had a right full laugh at how silly Americans are.

I left shortly thereafter.

Fine, he wasn’t really Brian Cox (he merely bore a striking resemblance to the actor) and he and his mates probably wouldn’t have pummeled me, leaving me broken and wheezing in the middle of Bavaria, but …. “Brian Cox” (whose real name is Paul) and his British pal were customers of Jack Durant, the third Brit and proprietor of BD Audio, a UK importer of Greece’s Tune Audio. Manolis Proestakis and his lovely wife Masa, the proprietors of Tune Audio, rounded out our little set — Knut Skogrand of Skogrand Cables had just retreated after pints — and pounds of delicious pork products. Fellow Traveler, Dr Panagiotis Karavitis, had talked me into meeting them all downtown, so I blame him for my near-bludgeoning. And, for the record, I’m sure I’m exaggerating. No Brit would ever bloody the nose of an American over peat in Scotch.

Ha! Brits will cheerfully bloody your nose just because it’s Thursday. And then buy the next round. Lovely people. Lovely country.

And for the record, peat-in-Scotch is just fine. [Insert nervous chuckle, here.]

Thoughts on Bavaria

I love traveling. I don’t do it particularly well, however — I’ll admit that freely. I don’t really do much research in advance; I don’t buy the travel guide, I don’t map out my dinner events, I don’t take real advantage of actually “being” somewhere else. An audio is fun, but it’s work.

This year, I got a bit of an assist. My wife, who was horrified that I was heading to Bavaria without her (long story, little kids, lots of money, blah blah blah), said that if I have to go, I really ought to take at least one extra day to explore and “see stuff”. So, I did. I booked an extra day. Well … sort of.

I took a week off from work — all I could spare from the day job. The first day was all-travel. The last day was all-travel. The intervening days? High End was four days long, so that meant I got one extra. Look at me, being all loosey-goosey. Wild man!

I arrived on Wednesday. I knew I was going to be horribly jet-lagged, so I drugged myself and stole 7 hours of crappy sleep on the plane. Guess what? I was still jet-lagged. Which is probably why it seemed like a good idea to walk the 3 miles from the hotel to the BMW Museum. On the plus side, I managed to get my daily Fitbit-mandated 10,000 steps pretty much all at once, so I caught a cab back to the hotel completely guilt-free.

Being driven into and around and then out of Munich, I spent a lot of time just looking around at stuff. Especially cars. Germans drive a lot of nice cars. Audi, BMW, VW, Mercedes, Porsche … about 4 out of 5 fell into one of the Big Five. If I got to drive a car like that every day (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I do), I’m not sure I’d be frowning quite so much, but then, maybe it’s genetic. Or maybe it’s just Driving Face. Dunno. I need more data.

One of my favorite moments came at the end of a long day crushing out 12,000 steps on the High End show floor, which was followed by John Darko marching Michael Lavorgna and I off to a biergarten. The waitress was spectacularly rude. Darko found ordering a round of beer to be absolutely hilarious. While we there, we were joined by audio PR guru Bryan Stanton and Xuanqian Wang of AURALiC and some of their audio dealers from Berlin. One of the latter, an awesome guy and a real-life German, ordered dinner for us non-German-speakers. He seemed troubled after the waitress took the order, so I asked him what he’d gotten for us. He shrugged, “I think I ordered us …” To which I responded, “You think? Don’t you speak German?” To which he responded, “I do, but this is Bavaria.”

Hmm. Happily, the food was spectacular. The weissbier? Beyond expectation. All the walking? Pretty much beyond all credibility. Even with all of the pork and steins, I think I lost weight on this trip. A first!

High-End is bananas

Despite all allusions to the contrary, High-End isn’t that big. I mean, it’s big, but anyone heading to CES will cheerfully tell you that the Vegas show is exponentially bigger. Of course, CES isn’t just audio-related, much less high-end audio related, but it is stunningly enormous. All of High-End would fit into one of the four halls at the Vegas Convention Center!

But that said, I can’t think of another show that comes as close to CES as the Munich show. And it’s all about audio. That’s kind of breathtaking. Anyone saying that the “high-end is dying” needs to take a trip to Germany in May.

Dying? Yeah …. Not so much. But it could be that the high-end is just not an American thing anymore.

To all that have the means to go and “do” this show, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s just bananas. 20,000+ attendees, many of them young, with at least 1/4 of the total female, was baffling. Doing the math, there were more women at High End than there were total attendees at the average “major” US-based audio show. That’s wacky.

I have a whole lot more over at Part-Time Audiophile.

Wrapping up High End

A lot of demos, displays, and rooms didn’t make the list. Not for lack of love, or anything other than a sense of space. Dr K and I rolled up about 60 rooms for this show, and quite frankly, we only dented the surface.

Some of the things I saw that were noteworthy:

Colored PM-3 closed-back headphones from Oppo Digital. That was pretty nifty.

A full system from Pro-Ject, including speakers, a turntable and an integrated amplifier. Didn’t get a price, but it’s Pro-Ject, so I’m not expecting any sticker shock.

Joseph Audio Prism — small stature, but a surprising amount of the award-winning Pulsar is now in a half-priced package. That’s something to crow about.

Avantgarde horn systems. Just because they may well be the prettiest horns currently being made.

Estelon Extreme — I’ve seen these a couple of times now, and I’m as impressed now as I was the first time I ever saw them.

Kharma — a brand long-vanished from the US-based audio scene, and the loss has been felt. This is an extraordinary line of speakers — and electronics.

FM Acoustics — spectacularly priced electronics and speakers, made up to the n-th degree of fit-and-finish. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to wring awesome sound out of them, but I had to lay nearly all of that on the room.

Sonic Studies is coming out with Amarra-for-Tidal. I can’t tell you how psyched I am — this is a marriage between what have become two friends near-and-dear to my home-based audio system. Love the idea that Amarra can soup-up the already-excellent Tidal sound. Looking forward to this one.

Meeting (even if fleetingly) Wojciech Pacuła of High Fidelity Poland. This is the reviewer that I seek out — the guy has heard everything and with that kind of context, I’m all-in for where his judgment falls. Some of the finest audio critique out there today and I am completely envious of his catalog of reviews.

Once Custom Sound — what is the deal with the Victrola-like horns? Love it — and the dangling globes are pretty nifty, too. One of the best displays on the Halls.

Best In Show

BestInShow2015v1And now, for the coveted (ha!) Best In Show Awards.

TAD Labs: for Best Overall Sound for their CE-1 loudspeaker-based system. These speakers are the absolute berries. Fast, deep, articulate and musical, as well as deeply attractive. For a loudspeaker that costs as much as a car, this one has not only the looks but the sound to back up that price tag. Very impressive.

Runners’ Up

TIDAL had an incredible setup, and one that catered directly to some of my personal biases. The sound by day-three was astonishing and the improvement over day-one was stark. Another three days, and this might be a different stack-ranking.

Tune Audio + ModWright + VPI + Skogrand: another impressive room, but one that “shouldn’t work”, according to Audiophile Received Wisdom. Horns with solid-state? Yes! And it did work. Great sound in there and a lot of gear I plan/hope to explore soon!

Vitus Audio: Another surprise for me, in that I knew nothing of the speakers or the ancillary electronics, but I was familiar with Hans-Ole Vitus. And he was wringing some incredible sonics from that room in Munich.

Living Voice and Kondo: I’ve never heard the massive (and massively expensive) Vox Olympians before, but I was impressed. Driven by Kondo electronics, the room was one of the most enduring draws at the show, pulling big crowds all day, every day.

The Awards

AURALiC: for Most Innovative Product for their Aries Mini. This is a product that can be sold in box stores, and comes from a company with extraordinary digital chops. Very impressive — and at this low price, completely disruptive.

Totem Acoustic: for Best Value for their Kin Mini system. Like the Aries Mini, this little speaker isn’t going to turn many heads — until you turn on the stereo they’re attached to. That’s when eyebrows will craw up into hairlines.

Frank SchröderTIE for Most-Wanted for his sweet little idler turntable and CB tonearm. For the turntable, we get minimalist design matching a minimalist footprint, a giant motor, and an idler mechanism. Score! The CB ‘arm is a Schröder — which means “awesome” in German. Sitting next to the $30k SAT tonearm, both on a very expensive turntable at High-End, played back-to-back, was eye-opening. I’ll leave it at that.

Viva Audio: TIE for Most-Wanted for their new Egoista 2A3 headphone amplifier. It looks stunning; compared to its stable mate, the new amp has more than enough power, a lot more finesse, runs cooler and carries a lower price-tag. Winner winner, chicken-dinner.

Audio Consulting: for Best Aesthetic/Design for their analog products. Dr K was blown away by the digital-sourced sound coming from this room, but I was completely taken in by the look of idled analog setup. The whimsical curves just stayed with me throughout the show. They put the Led back in the Zeppelin — I love the swoops!

Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015