Compared with last year’s High End in Munich, where I was in a perpetual state of solving huge problems in order to continue with my coverage and ultimately get back home in one piece, this year’s Munich show was an absolute dream. Last year might have been bumpy due to the remnants of the pandemic, which sabotaged my mission to cover the debut of Tidal for Bugatti for the show, and the unseasonably hot weather as well. This year, the Tidal for Bugatti event went as planned, the weather was cool and cloudy and pleasant, and the Best Sound at Munich was everywhere.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
There’s a reason why I kept mentioning AXPONA 2023 in relation to Munich 2023–both shows were huge and busy and successful, which suggests that our industry is alive and well. But coming up with ten rooms that qualified as the Best Sound at Munich was just as difficult as picking the Best Sound in AXPONA. There were so many exquisite rooms, and I had to deal with the reality of covering the biggest high-end audio show in the world all by myself, the second year in a row.
That means I missed some things. For instance, I didn’t visit Team Joseph Audio, which felt weird. I talked to Nick Doshi briefly at the show and told him I’d visit his two rooms–and that make it all about Team Doshi. But I went in once and the room was packed and I vowed to return. But Munich was the same as AXPONA–I couldn’t get back to rooms a second time, which is something I love to do when I hear something spectacular. So I’m sorry, Team Doshi Audio.
So here are the ten rooms I’ve chosen for Best Sound at Munich.
Here the reason why I’ve been such a fan of the Innuos rooms at the last few high-end audio shows. First, they take the time to build systems that can show off their own creations, which means this Portuguese company usually has outstanding rooms in term of sound quality. Second, they always offer a conclusive A/B comparison to highlight recent developments and innovations. This room also qualifies as one of the Best Sound at Munich rooms because the Estelon and Pilium combo was extraordinary. I’m not well-versed in either brand, so count this as a valuable experience moving forward.
Most people venture into a Soundsmith room at a high-end show to meet the legendary Peter Ledermann. I go because I’ll be able to experience his almost-all-Soundsmith system. Peter makes more than just phono cartridges and phono preamps. He makes a full line of hand-built electronics, and two sets of bookshelf monitors that are simply astounding. That’s why Soundsmith offered some of the Best Sound at Munich.
Okay, I’m not saying I don’t want to talk to Peter. I don’t think Munich would be the same without one of his classic jokes at the end of the visit to his room. I’m just saying, if you see Peter’s system at a show and you don’t sit down and listen for at least a few minutes, you’re denying yourself of one of the greatest surprises in this hobby.
If there’s an award for the deepest soundstage in Munich, this room is it. If there’s an award for the most realistic recording of a live audience, one where you close your eyes and you are there, this room is it. If you want to hear “Chocolate Chip Trip” in its full glory, stop by VSA and VAC and get schooled.
The world of ultra high-end speakers and amplifiers is a tough, stressful place to live, but several times per year Damon Von Schweikert, Leif Swanson and Kevin Hayes show up for battle and they take no prisoners. No one has qualified for more Best Sound awards in my experience as a PTA reviewer, and it should be no surprise that VSA and VAC offered one of the “Best Sound at Munich” rooms.
Over the last couple of shows I’ve discovered a new amplifier company that keep showing up in the best systems–Vacuum Tube Logic. This room was surely a contender for Best Sound at Munich. Have you heard of them?
It isn’t that Luke Manley’s VTL is suddenly taking it up a notch. These amps have always been this good. One of the finest audio systems I’ve ever heard belonged to my buddy Arnie Sanders back in Austin. He had VTL Siegfrieds, too. He traded his Magicos for Rockports, but he told me the VTLs weren’t going anywhere. So I can’t explain why I’m suddenly realizing VTL is my cup of tea. As I keep telling everyone this year, I’m only one person. It takes me a while to make my way through the crowd. But VTL has become the old friend you find at a party, the one where you keep thinking “Why haven’t we kept in touch? You’re awesome!”
Sometimes I split up my favorite rooms at high-end audio shows into two camps–the finest sound I’ve heard, and the gear I’d most likely pick for myself. These four brands qualify for Best Sound at Munich because they belong to the latter group, the underdogs, the brands that offer incredible sound for the money.
Sonner, Moonriver, OePhi and Pachanko came together in Munich and delivered an amazing system, one that forged emotional connections in a quick and direct way. I expect that from Gunny Surya of Sonner, but he found three other kindred spirits and I think they should do every high-end audio show from now on.
After Panagiotis Karavitas’ review of the ultra high-end amplification from TLA, I didn’t think I would ever hear them–these amps sounded too exclusive and rare. But here we are, Munich 2023, and I’m suddenly invited by TLA’s Aristomenis Georgiadis to come have a listen to his new integrated. I head to the room and find Ofra Gershman inside–two birds with one stone, so to speak.
I really loved the Gershman room in Florida. But True Life Audio and Gershman? I could have stayed in that room all day, but I would have some serious explainin’ to do afterward. But here’s a sign that this room qualified for Best Sound in Munich: I’m getting both TLA and Gershman in for review ASAP.
I traveled off-site, a quick cab ride over to the satellite HiFiDeluxe show, just to hear the full JMF Audio system. It was worth it. This French manufacturer might be new to my radar screen, but they’ve been around for decades, quietly making some of the most glorious amplification, speakers and cables I’ve encountered.
That CD transport, however, might be extraordinary. Plays CD, SACD and Blu-ray audio, which means I can listen to all my 2L Recordings in that last format. It’s gorgeous. It might be the last disc player any of us ever need.
My friends from Denmark won the Best Sound in AXPONA award in April with their flagship system revolving around the Borresen M3 loudspeakers ($280,000/pr). Once I started talking about TIDAL Audio, I started getting emails and messages from people asking me to compare the Royale system to the $550,000/pr Borresen M6. Which one is better?
I don’t know. First of all, I hate comparing two products and declaring a loser and a winner–especially since it’s clear that both are winners. Second, the M6 wasn’t playing. I’m sure I’ll hear it at the next show. Meanwhile, I could still hear the same three Aavik, Ansuz, Borresen and Axxess rooms in Munich that I heard in Chicago. The M3s are still magnificent. Unfortunately, their rooms at Munich were packed with noisy crowds and I didn’t quite have the same access that I had in Chicago. I’m not penalizing them for a noisy room. I’m just saying that if I’m going to carefully decide between two remarkable products for Best Sound at Munich, the playing field needs to be level.
Audio Group Denmark is still knocking it out of the park. Bring on the M6.
As I mentioned in my show report, the smaller TIDAL Audio system would have one Best Sound at Munich if there had been no TIDAL for Bugatti unveiled just a few feet away. TIDAL has always been among my Top Five for speaker manufacturing. The most critical thing I can say about these designs is that they’re perfect. That’s a tricky phrase in high-end audio, I know, but as long as I still cling to euphonic sound as my deep dark secret, I might choose something else.
Until now, of course. The new TIDAL Audio Contriva G3 and Piano G3 don’t tamper with the perfection–they just challenge me to clean up my act and to accept what they do. What they do, of course, is present a stunningly precise and unfettered reproduction of the original recording. Maybe I’ve resisted reviewing TIDAL because there’s so little to say other than “this might be the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” This is desert island gear, the hi-fi you purchase when you just want to be happy forever.
As Maxwell Smart once said, “This is the second best system I’ve heard at a high-end audio show.”
And here’s the best. The TIDAL for Bugatti Royale loudspeakers and the MC-1 controller is a simple system, and it’s all I could want. Yes, I used the B-word here, and there’s sort of an unwritten rule among reviewers not to call something the best because it makes you look like a yokel. I’m not calling the TIDAL for Bugatti the “best” hi-fi out there because I haven’t heard everything out there. Jorn Janczak could come out with something better next year, and I’d look like J. Gordon Holt declaring the SOTA Star Sapphire turntable with an SME V arm as the pinnacle of analog playback–back in 1985. (That’s still an excellent combo, though.)
But this is the best I’ve heard in my 45 years as an audiophile. We used to talk about “lifting veils” in high-end audio, of getting closer to live music than ever before, even though we told ourselves that perfection could never be reached. Spending an hour with the TIDAL for Bugatti system makes you think, “Who cares about all that?” Lock the doors, cancel my appointments, tell everyone it was nice knowing them. I’m going underground with TIDAL for Bugatti, and a lot of snacks. I won’t be back.
TIDAL for Bugatti was the Best Sound in Munich. Congratulations!
If you would like to hear even more coverage from Munich 2023, check out our recap report and highlights from our audiophile-oriented show The Occasional Podcast. You can stream the episode direct from the embed below, or from your favorite podcast platform including iTunes, Android, Google, Deezer, Spotify, iHeartRadio and more.
Also don’t forget to check out our latest collaboration – a solid bronze record weight available only for a limited run. This 800g of solid bronze features the PTA roundel on the top which also acts as a 45 adapter. You can purchase direct from the PTA Approved Store here on the site.