High End 2017: The Munich Experience, and Rafe’s best of the Show

So long, and thanks for all the memories.

I could see his lips moving but I couldn’t hear a word the guy next to me was saying. We were in the Silbatone room at the MOC for High End in Munich, and I had gone the aural equivalent of snow blind while taking in the massive vintage Western Electric horn system that was playing. Prior to attending High End I had read, and heard firsthand from friends, and associates that the big WE horns that Silbatone rock there were a must see for me when I went. They were right, and hearing them, even in such un-ideal settings, was an emotionally moving experience for me. The sheer scale of musical involvement that they level at the attentive listener is a timbral broadside of textures, tone, tempo, and harmony.

Brother, can you spare a horn?

Horns of this style, age, and sheer size are not – in my estimation – for those audiophiles who are not committed (perhaps literally, as well as metaphorically). They can be cost-prohibitive, and require real knowledge, and understanding of how transducers, and amplifiers interact, as well as very careful attention to source as horns tend to be unforgiving of less than stellar recordings. But if you are able to conjure the right alchemy of source, amplification, cabling, speakers, and room integration, a large WE-based system will undoubtedly touch you musically in a way that few other sound systems are capable of.

Western Electric impressions of life.
Coverage of High End in Munich was brought to you by VPI Industries.

With all this in mind, I’m giving my Best Sound/Best Room award for Munich to Silbatone, and their WE-based system. The sound was truly something to savour, and the vibe in the room was incredibly positive, respectful, and always engaging as everyone wanted to talk about the system, or vintage horns in general. It was a room where you wanted to kick back with new friends, a glass of Japanese whiskey, listen to music, and talk all day, and into the night. A must hear/see for anyone who considers themselves an open-minded audiophile.

Best in Show.

The Tidal Audio room that I wrote about previously was another sonic knockout of a calibre that is difficult to quantify even in the realm of the super high end of which there was no lack of at Munich. This room featured the top-of-the-line La Assoluta loudspeaker, and the brand new Camira DAC, and Ferios monobloc which was designed/based on Tidal’s Impulse Stereo Amplifier.

Tidal Audio’s top-of-the-line.

Again, this was a room of scale that is not easy to accurately describe unless you’ve had the chance to experience it in person. Making a recorded-playback system that realistically conveys the weight, physical presence, and human touch of a real performance is an incredibly difficult feat. While the approach to this end is practically diametrically-opposed to the WE horn system I just described to you, the outcome has a similar effect on the listener: emotional connection to the recorded event. For this system’s ability to connect me to the music, and it’s stunning visual presence I’m awarding it Best In Show for Munich.

17 years in the making: totaldac d150 loudspeaker system.

Another room that greatly impressed me was the totaldac room, which featured Vincent Brient’s new d150, three-way, horn-loaded loudspeaker system. Now, while the d150 comes in at  $40,000 USD ($52,800 CAN, €38,000), and is obviously not for everyone, I’m going to award it my Best New Product at High End. I know there were many, many other new products premiering at Munich that will hold far more appeal to the general audiophile, and music-loving public, and that sell for considerably less money, but I didn’t spend any time with budget products while in the MOC. I was focused on the esoteric, and the equipment/manufacturers that I personally wanted to see, and hear, or that I luckily stumbled across, and which made a lasting impression on me. I know my choices are sometimes unpopular with those readers looking for advice/opinion/information on entry-level gear, but I can tell you in no uncertain terms that I did not travel 8,338 kilometres to listen to a $500 wireless all-in-one system (no offence to $500 wireless systems).

The Wilson Alexx.

Another standout for me at Munich was the Wilson Alexx loudspeaker. Wilson continues to have a very strong presence at hifi shows around the world. Many, many manufacturers of amplification, analog, and digital sources, cables, software – you name it – are choosing to highlight their own sonic accomplishments through Dave Wilson’s transducers – be they the Alexx, the the Alexia, the Sasha, or the Sabrina. I find Wilson speakers to be vexing in some ways because they are the antithesis in design, and execution of the loudspeakers I most favour personally. Does that mean I cannot possibly like them because I prefer speaker cabinets that work with resonance rather than reject it? Not at all. I like what I like, and I can tell you I like what I hear through the Alexx very much indeed. So much in fact that I’m awarding the Wilson Alexx an Honourable Mention for Best Sound at Munich because regardless of what gear it was paired with, there was no “Wilson” sound. What you hear is what is being fed to the speaker, they completely get out of the way, and impose no acoustic signature of their own upon the music.

Walk this way.

Overall the High End Show at Munich was an incredible experience, and I cannot recommend attending it highly enough, especially if you’ve only attended North American shows. I say this because it is a fundamentally European show, and the cultural, social, ethnic, and familial structures of Europe are apparent in those in attendance. There are so many families, couples, teenagers, fathers, and sons, mothers, and daughters – mix up a family any way you want – taking in high fidelity at The Show that you can’t help but be impressed at how equally dispersed the love of listening to music is among both sexes, every age group, and every ethnicity of those who paid to get in for a chance to share that passion.

From left: Myself, Panagiotis, Antonis, Mohammed.

A huge shout out to my dear friends, and journalistic cohorts Dr. Panagiotis Karavitis, Mohammed Samji, and Antonis Birmpas who helped me stay sane every single day I was in Munich. Thanks gents!

Until next year…

I’ve included a large photo gallery with this, my final post on Munich, because while I did get into a huge number of rooms while taking in the show, it was impossible to do serious listening in all of them, so many I ducked into for just a few minutes, but at least you can get a final taste of everything I was able to see, and hear.

–Rafe Arnott

One of several bistros at the MOC.
Mat Weisfeld of VPI Industries goes Disney.
Requisite Pug photograph.
Kronos Pro turntable.
Oh, to have the scratch…
Towers of power.
Thales turntable with Simplicity tonearm.