A visit to the High End 2016 show in Munich

[Italian version here]

Visitor: Carlo Iaccarino
The show took place from May, 5th, through May, 8th, 2016, at the M.O.C., Fair Center in Munich, Germany
Written: May, 2016
Website with plenty of informations: High End Society


It's my third time at this fair. Unfortunately, this year I could afford only a two-day stay, so you are going to be spared lots of my chattering :-)
Let me start by making one thing clear: the High End 2016 confirmed itself as a top level fair.
It was perfectly managed, extremely comprehensive and very well attended. The attending public came from all around the world. Today, Munich's High End show it's probably THE Hi-Fi show. I'v been told by some exhibitors, even those from the USA, that they prefer it to the acclaimed CES. Maybe, the Las Vegas show can beat the German show by offering larger and more attractive rooms. Actually, the spartan aesthetics of MOC's rooms and booths is very far from the brilliant decor of the Venetian's rooms and suites in Vegas; and I guess that the latter also sport better acoustic insulation and may better resemble a domestic environment.
Another point to make immediately clear is the future of MOC's premises.
Some rumors were heard about BMW expanding its facilties to include MOC's area, thus causing the show's death. The High End Society, who organizes the show, told us that those rumors had no foundation. According to H.E.S., what really happened is that BMW acquired a nearby area, leaving intact the one on which the MOC resides. Moreover, we were told that MOC's owner signed a deal with H.E.S. for an (undisclosed...) number of years to come. So, High End is here to stay: next year the show will take place from Thursday, May, 18th (the show's first day is usally not open to the general public) through Sunday, May, 21, 2017, always at Munich's MOC... Now, don't tell me I didn't warn you...

Next year H.E.S. will have a new Board of Directors. This means that the show won't anymore be the result of the efforts of Managing Director Branko Glisovic, who was its undisputed boss during the last years and shaped it according to his ideas. Yet, considering the clear success of its organisation recipe and the famous German practical attitude, I doubt there will be great changes in how next shows will be carried on. Anyway, the new board will have three years to eventually conceive and perform its innovations.

In the opening official press conference, H.E.S. stated that, from their point of view, High Fidelity is a market in good shape.
They came to this conclusion considering several factors. First, they have expanded the show to all the exhibition spaces that M.O.C. could allow them to use, and those areas went all sold-out (H.E.S. was even forced to unfunfill all received requests). Second, they recorded an increase in attendance from press members and professional visitors, i.e. those who came at the fair to make deals, to do business. So, for H.E.S., this fair is part of a professional sector that appears alive and kicking. This was a little contrasting with the figures provided, that saw a sharp decrease (-12%) in this year's general public attendance. Yet, I'd take this data with a relativistic approach, since they express the difference with last year's unusual exploit in attendance. Instead, in absolute terms, the number of 2016 general visitors (12.436) is substantially identical to the same data from two years ago (12.468).

H.E.S. also told us that they aim their promotional efforts at the whole family, because they want to get rid of the usual stereotype of a hobby only for middle-aged (and older) males.
Actually, there were ad boards placed in the whole city, and they said they have produced also ads to be published via newspapers and TVs. I also personally saw some cameras from the BR (Bavarian radio and TV), clearly collecting images and news report to be broadcasted later.
In addition, they endorsed the old saying for which "it's the Lady who has the last word" about what enters the living room (audiophiles shorten this to "WAF"...). As a matter of fact, this year I saw, among the attendees, also some families, albeit not many; but for sure I saw lots of young people and also several women, some of them - even - attending the show for a personal interest and not as an accompanying person :-)

H.E.S. commissioned also a macroeconomic analysis that, whilst limited to the German market, provided some interesting data.
The analyst said that, due to the extremely variable socioeconomics and demographics, they decided not to indagate years earlier than 2001. Yet, observing this recent past, they noticed an increase in music-reproduction devices sold, and those purchases are motivated by several factor, but among them QUALITY IS NOT THE TOP PRIORITY.
The analysis ended (re)defining Audiophiles as music lovers willing to spend even a relevant amount of money for its reproduction, but without quality as their first goal.
I think it's a rather revolutionary statement, especially considering it was said in an official occasion.
Of course, those conclusions are not absolute, and surely arguable. For instance, some of the data upon which they are based are the decrease in the amount of separate components sold and the corresponding increase in the amount of docking stations, wireless audio multiroom devices, etc. sold; or the increase of the online purchases, instead of traditional sell performed into the brick-and-mortar shops, after a personal contact with the device (and the seller).
More interesting conclusions came from the analysis of headphone selling data, that showed strongly increasing numbers, and confirming what we already knew: the purchase is driven not much by performance, rather by fashion and the erratical interest of young people. Less predictable was the rising recorded for the purchases of headphones at a price level well beyond the smartphone earbuds: the sell of headphones costing more than Eur 200 increased by 22%!
In addition, the analysis confirmed the increase (good as a percentage, but we are always dealing with very low absolute numbers in respect to the whole market) in turntable purchases, albeit at the lowest price range. And, above all, the rising of vinyl records purchases.
Of course, other than via vinyl, music is provided via streaming services, whose subscriptions account for the 12% of the total music expenditure in Germany. We're talking about people who pay for listening to the music taken from the internet; I guess this analysis' results would have been very different here in Italy... Anyway, they think this is an expanding market, considerning the increase either of the streamers, either of the streaming-abled devices. Among those devices, a primary role seems to be granted to the devices that allow for a bluetooth connection, which the interviewed panel unanimously declared to appreciate because it is a simple and familiar way of use (almost every smartphone performs a bluetooth connection).


As I wrote in my earliest ramblings, at this show you can see future market's trends. I can't perform an economical analysis, but I can tell if I stumble into features now ubiquitarious, but less common only few years ago.
The first of this features is condensed into a single word: streamer. You couldn't find an exhibitor that didn't show a device dedicated to streaming music (from your LAN or from your NAS - in which case they call it also network player - or from the internet). More usually, they put this abilty inside their gear, typically amplifiers, but also DACs and more traditional sources. It's very likely that, as soon as this summer, we'll find on the shelves gear that can act also as a streamer, and by its way, we will have access to music that doesn't reside inside it, but, rather, that passes through it, so to say. Other than pure streamers, I could (finally, I'd say) see also streamers sporting a DAC, thus ready to play, with no need for further "boxes".

Such examples can be found browsing the catalogue of AURALiC that, in additon to its - for me, aenigmatic - Aries, offers the ARIES MINI, a little device that, in a small box, puts a streamer, also wireless, and a DSD-capable, H.D.-equippable DAC, all for Eur 500; it can be remote-controlled by an i-Pad and, simply hooked to a pair of active monitors, forms a cute and very up-to-date little system (in my picture, the Mini is placed above the left speaker).

[Auralic Aries

Of course, if you want, you can reach an upper level, arriving to the ALTAIR, for about Eur 2.000. This machine can become the center of your system, since it sports a refined volume control; it is also a single device that can stream also high density music formats (4x DSD). In other words, a completed Aries. Actually, it was the center of the "big rig".


Moreover, this year I found lots of servers, either only-audio, either (much more than last year) dedicated to manage audiovisual files. All those devices often rely, for their archives (all this files must stay somewhere, after all...), upon SSD Disks, whose prices are decreasing.
Among the audio-only servers, I'd like to point you to FIDATA, who exhibited the HFAS1, an audio file server, with archive capacity up to 1 Tb on SSD Disks. It sports a well crafted power supply; it can send data stream either on a LAN (toward a network player) or via USB (connecting directly to a DAC). Everything for only about 3.000 US Dollars.

At a sensibly lesser price we find the N15 by the always appreciated Cocktail Audio

[Coktail Audio

that, for only Eur 600 (VAT 19% included) offers a devices that can accept data stream from its LAN or USB ports, sports digital outputs (optical and electrical RCA), can save data on its internal 2.5' Disk (that can be even an SSD type), ad is also a DAC (based upon a SABRE ES9018K2M chip) that drives its volume-controlled analog outputs. It provides also a Wi-Fi dongle; it decodes every file format and processes also DXD and DSD256 files; it's also already enabled to receive the streaming from Tidal, Qobuz, and Deezer.

INNUOS is a young anglo-portuguese company that showed its server declined into several options. It starts with the ZENmini, substantially a NAS up to 2 Tb and price up to Eur 900; and it arrives to the ZENith, sporting SSD Disks, a well crafted PSU and circuits for LAN ports isolation, all for a price that varies, according to its configuration, from Eur 2.600 to Eur 3.300.
Those are interesting features, but put the ZENith in direct competition with other high-grade music servers, like the ones from Melco (this year, also, used in many rooms). To them, you must add the useful optical disc reader, for immediate ripping. This leads us to a further aspect of this gear, for me the most interesting: their software. The firm's personnel was very patient, spending a lot of time with me, explaining their gear. They told me that a great effort was put toward PSU optimization: a huge toroidal transformer and three separate supply lines, one for the optical drive, one for the PC board and one for the outputs, if I didn't misunderstand. The same effort went into the development of a software specifically aimed to music server functionality. So, the machine is optimized for efficient and intelligent ripping, since it acquires metadata by confronting dbases on the web, and can delay metadata acquisition after the ripping, when the device is online. Moreover, it can perform easy metadata editing and file organization, it can be remote-controlled via tablet, can perform multi-zone streaming, easy LAN resources identification, intelligent backups, etc.
Lastly, InnuOS offers also the ZENPLUS, that can manage either audio and video files; of course its archive capacity is bigger (up to 6 Tb); its price is kept to Euro 3.000 (they saved on the PSU, going for a single-line type). Unfortunately, the pictures I shot were worst than usual, so I'm forced to redirect you to the producer's website.

Another company worth of mention is Entotem. They exhibited several systems, all built around their Plato, a device containig under its single hood: 1) an audio and video file server; 2) three analog line inputs and one phono input, to play also vinyl; 3) an ADC, to digitalize (PCM 24/96) that analog music; 4) a DAC, with digital input and output, either coaxial and optical; 5) a power amplifier, operating in some dynamic Class-A (they say that dealing with a - native or converted - digital signal makes easier to follow its level and adapt the transistors' polarization).
All is commanded either via its big front touchscreen display, or, rather, via the unmissable app to install on our smartphone/tablet. Moreover, using its Ethernet port, it can stream audio and video toward smart TVs and other devices connected to our LAN.


This product line is smart, being formed by three models, of decreasing complexity and price. It starts with the full-monty version depicted above, that costs about Eur 5.000; then we find the PlatoPRE model, without power amplifier; and finally we come to the choice that may be the most interesting, the PlatoLITE model, that omits also the phono input (presuming that, if we have a good turntable, we already have also a good pre-phono), whose price goes down to a less intimidating Eur 3.500. Also its aesthetics are interesting: it basically is the usual black box, albeit with unusual proportions and with rounded edges; then, adding Eur 500, you can have gloss sides, red, white or silver.

Moreover, I'd like to point you to an interesting line of devices by Lindemann, called musicbookDSD.
I listened to a system built around the musicbook:25, a device that, in a little and tiny cabinet, offers a CD transport, a DAC with USB input, able to deal with signals sampled up to 384 kHz, a streamer ready to have access to web radios and Tidal, a class-A headphone amp, a preamplifier with two analog inputs and four digital inputs, sportig an analog volume control. It accepts also wireless signal via bluetooth (Apt-x). It can deal with native DSD digital signals up to DSD 256, format to which it reconverts every input signal before passing it to its DAC. It's also commanded by the unmissable app (Android and iOS) or by a traditional IR remote command. All this, unfortunately, has a rather high price: Eur 4.780 (but in its "plain DAC" version we sink to Eur 3.280). In the same line, Lindemann produces also two UcD-module based power amplifiers (also used in the demo system): the first is a a stereo model of 80 W/ch (Eur 1.980), the second is a model that can be configured in mono (450 W) or stereo (240 W/ch), for Eur 2.980.

The second common feature I think I noticed, although not so frequently, is the companies' attempt to trickle-down top line technolgy toward less expensive models, while retaining as much quality as possible; goal often reached by simplifying the crafting process or the aesthetics. And this, I think, is surely to be saluted and praised.

One example comes from a big name like TAD.
This company exhibited a system voiced via their sumptuos Compact Reference loudspeakers, costing just Eur 45.000/pair. Yet, its offering involved also the Compact Evolution One loudspeakers, a model of lesser dimensions and price, but good-sounding, nonetheless; they already showed it last year.
This year, TAD amazed us once again with a simple system, made with the D-1000 MkII CD-DAC-PRE (Eur 18.000) and the M-2500 MkII power amplifier (25.000 Euro), connected to a new loudspeaker, very similar to the C.E. One, but in a slightly reduced scale.


It still is a prototype, and it still has no name. It should not be for sale before the beginning of 2017, for a price t.b.d., but hopefully under Eur 20.000/pair. Ok, ok, we're still talking big money, here, but I think it is good news, anyway, because it shows the effort of this company to reach price levels WAY under its habits, while keeping steady the quality of its product, that is its distinctive feature. I never kept secret my personal appreciation of this brand; yet, I was not the only one, at the show, to find extremely pleasant and involving the demo of this "toddlers" by TAD. Of course, after switching to the Compact Reference, anyone could tell the sensible difference. Yet, that little-with-no-name didn't make a bad figure at all: it could easily be the arrival point for many of us.
So, we only have to congratulate with TAD for their choice not to direct their productive resources to another top-of-the-line. They have one, already, and it's hardly improvable; maybe they thought more useful to direct their effort, in budget and design (that shows to proceed, even after head designer Andrew Jones left for ELAC), toward an "uncovered" area, where they see bigger margins for the return of their work.

Another example of this trend comes from LAKE PEOPLE. This company produces, under the Violectric brand, very good machines: mainly headphones amplifiers, but also DACs, preamplifiers, pre-phono and devices that combine one or more of those functions. They are objects of high level, engineer- and craft- wise speaking, and with prices high, but not exaggerated, either referring to their competitors, either considering their technologic content. They pointed me to their new DAC V850, a DAC that can handle signals up to PCM 24/192, sporting every type of digital input, featuring their own resampling circuit (they resample everything at 32 bit, to have more margin for filters and volume control with no loss in resolution); it's a dual-mono and balanced design and, compared to its earlier version, it sports better oscillators and two converters for each channel. All for Eur 1.400.
This year, in addition to the Violectric products, they were showing, under the Lake People brand, a Reference Series, that introduces, into a line of more accessibly priced machines, some models derived directly from the Violectric ones, but with a slightly simpler circuit and a spartan look. One of this new gear is the ADC RS 04, an A/D converter with balanced analog inputs and input for an external clock. Another one is the DAC RS 06, expressly defined as Violectric V 850's little brother. Both those new models are priced at Eur 670 each. The line will be completed with two can amps, the HPA RS 02 for traditional headphones, and the HPA RS 08 for balanced headphones. Here are my horrible attempt to immortalize them - from bottom to top: the ADC, the DAC and the unbalanced can amp.

[Lake People Reference

Also a company usually flying high into the High End skies, like PLAYBACK DESIGNS, the brainchild of Andreas Koch, one of the fathers of DSD, this year brought to the fair a line of devices of more approachable price.
One of Koch's first designs for the DSD universe was the Sonoma workstation for SACD editing. Sonoma is (not casually) the name of one of the most famous California's wine growing areas. The new devices form P.D. are the Merlot DAC, the Syrah Music Server and the Pinot A/D converter; each one comes into a wooden crate that contains also a big bottle of wine by Carhartt Vineyard, a winemaker that, like P.D., performs small-number production and puts lots of work into obtaining quality wines - yet, it's placed far away from Sonoma Valley... ;-)
Of course, leaving the wine analogies, this is well crafted gear. The DAC translates every digital signal at its inputs into DSD 4x and then it converts it into analog; it sports also a volume control and a headphones amplifier; it also can generate - by way of this translation pre-conversion - a .dsf file that can be sent through a digital output to a computer for saving it. The Pinot converts any analog input signal in digital, either PCM, either DSD, also creating the .waw or .dsf/dff files, again for archiving on a PC. The Syrah is a LAN connected media server that supports streaming (DLNA protocol).
Those devices make a system open also to third party gear, but it is provided also a proprietary conenction that allows to manage in a "native" way every digital signal, DSD included: thus, P.D. offers also the OpBox, a little board to install inside the famous Oppo multistandard players, to extract the digital signal, even DSD, right after the disc is read, so that the Oppo player becomes just a transport to connect to the Merlot using the aforementioned proprietary conenction; this way, we can send to the DAC the digital signal exactly as it is recorded on the disc. The price of the devices in this new line should be a little more than USD 5.000 each: always a big amount, but well distant from the peaks reached by the other P.D. machines...

Some suggestions caught while browsing the show

It's a company from Ragusa, Sicily (they were betrayed by their symbol, a stylized TRINacry, and by the TRINaudio name...), headed by Marco Martorana, here pictured near his creatures.

[Trinaudio - Marco Martorana]

Trinaudio showed a very complete line of tubed and hybrid electronics. Mainly preamplifiers and power amplifiers, realized starting from original - or, at least, uncommon - schemes and circuits, featuring some audio delicatessen, like an inductive power supply or a double preamplification stage, or the amplification functionally divided between the preamplifier (voltage amplification) and the power amp (current amplification).
The cabinet sides are diversified; the internal ones are made of aluminum for screening purposes, the external ones, stylish, are made of wood. The commands are placed behind the front panel, that is made of a synthetic material: their light can be seen through it, but when the device is turned off, they simply disappear, leaving a very clean faceplate. This make this machines very decor-friendly.



There are also some pre-phonos; anong them, one only for MC cartridges, featuring a very silent circuit and the possibility to change cartridge load "on the fly". The pre-phonos are the ideal copanions for the Gyros 33-9 turntable, a machine that Martorana, a mechanical engineer, openly said he did for his personal fun.

Gyros 33-9]

The whole line prices range from Eur 3.000 for the turntable to Eur 18.000 for the powerful 200 W monoblocks; nothing cheap, but either nothing exaggerated, considering also this is a quasi-artisanal production.

This company, instead, is from Naples; it's the brainchild of Giuseppe Pinto, who wanted to realize something tha mixes the Old and the New. So, he made a machine that, in a single chassis, sports a belt-driven turntable with Corian base and platter and a Pro-ject carbon arm, a valve preamplifier, a digital power amplifier (modules for 100, 250 and 500 W/ch) and a DAC with optical, coaxial, USB and bluetooth (Apt-x) inputs.

[ON front]

[ON rear]

For me, this is captivating aesthetics; for sure, it's sort of strange to see the pro-nephew of an early '70s stereo console, but this could be its strenght, its ability to attract even young people's interest, due to the presence of the now-so-hip vinyl and the ability to easily reproduce the files they have in their smart devices. Prices, though, are not popular, but they are kept reasonable (also considering how much stuff you bring home), and vary according to the power amp: Eur 3.000 for the 100 W/ch module, Eur 4.000 for the 250 W/ch one, and Eur 5.000 Euro for the 500 W/ch module; the two bigger model accept either MM and MC cartridges; the 100-watter only MM ones, but can accomodate an optional MC board, for only Eur 100.

Let's remain in Italy.
This is an artisan who deserved a slice in the Newcomer Stand, the exhibition space that H.E.S. gives, free of charge, to the start-ups that they think are interesting and deserve an initial promotional help.
It's a company headed by Moreno Poggi, who builds valve amplifications. He admits he likes to work as an artisan, with reduced quantity of pieces released and with direct contact with most of his suppliers, whom he can more directly control.
For now, he proposes a power amplifier and a preamplifier, completely tubbed, designed starting from classical schemes and realized using selected or customized components. There's lot of order in Moreno's craftmanship, the devices are completely hardwired, point-to-point: he decided to get rid of circuit boards for sonic reasons. I hope my photo of the - here, topless - Ductor pre explains it all.

del Suono - Ductor]

I wondered: "Again? Another little italian tube gear builder?".
The answer came after my chat with Mr.Poggi. He transmitted not only his passion (a kind word to define the foolishness that pushes him toward its obviously irrational choice), but also a sane awareness of his gear's quality. He judges his devices better sounding than the ones he listened to at the shows, in shops, etc.
Here comes back that idea that I tried to pass on you last year: behind those devices you often find the person, people like you and me. Poggi, like us, attended shows, listened to various components, even admiring some of them or desiring to insert them into his own system. But, unlike many of us, he has competence and ability, he questioned himself and, instead of being stuck with the destructive and critic forum whinings, rolled up his sleeves, handed the solder and said: "Now, I'll show you!" I'd say that he deserves our attention just only for this - decidedly anachronistic - enterprise spirit, and for his hard intention, considering the personal and bureaucratic difficulties he decided to front.

One of the season's great expectations: the "new twelvehundred" (Eur 3.500 circa).


They were well aware of this: the guys running the demos brought lots of vinyl records. Let's start with the obvious: it's gorgeous, much better refined than the original and seems to have the "family sound", a great sense of rythm, sharp attacks and decays, silent; the usual unstoppable tank.


But our listening experience was affected by a capital sin... The turntable was connected to their new SU-G30 integrated amplfier (Eur 3.000), that performs several tasks, but, mainly, it features a digital amplification module, so the analog signal is first converted into digital and then processed (amplified). Who knows how it would have sounded in a totally analogue chain....
One more thing. We know that for this turntable Technics provides a first, limited batch (in Germany, they said, is already sold out), with some refinements for a better sound, and a "regular" batch, that omits those refinements. Among the limited editon "bonuses" is a magnesium armtube, instead of the regular aluminum armtube. But Technics personnel, at the fair, told us that the company performed in Japan several listening tests, after which they decided that the aluminum armtube wouldn't be adequate, so the magnesium armtube will be mounted on all models. I think it's something worth noting and praising..


Back to the new integrated amp: it's mainly the new center of a music system that Technics sees as digital and already present in our home. Those who, like me, don't have a musical file library connected to the domestic LAN, can "update" by buying Technics' ST-G30 (Eur 4.000), a music server with internal storage with SSD Disks, that can rip the optical discs we already have, can tune to internet radios, can read files form a NAS, etc. Another interesting new device is the all-in-one OTTAVA Mod.SU C550, that, for only Eur 1.300, can read optical discs and every type of file, connects to our domestic LAN, can stream files from our NAS or from web radios, or from services like Spotify; in addition, it sports an internal amplifier. It comes in two versions. The one described above can be connected with a wide group of loudspeakers, thanks to its impedance sensing and matching circuit (a technology trickled-down from the bigger amplifiers presented last year). The other version comes in bundle with a pair of dedicated loudspeakers, that it drives in active bi-amplification mode; its name becomes SC-C500 and its price rises (not too much) to Eur 1.800.
Let me avoid posting my horrible photos; you'd better check the company's website....

Another example of the effort for price constraint while keeping quality intact comes from a company bound to one of Hi-Fi's founding fathers: Quad, originally the brainchild of Peter Walker's genius and now owned by IAG (International Audio Group), the chinese colossus that acquired this and other famous brands, like Audiolab, Castle Acoustics, Luxman, Mission and Wharfedale.
I had the pleasure to talk with Peter Comeau, famous designer and IAG's Director of Acoustic Design, who, kind and gentle as that perfect British gentleman that he is, explained me Quad's Altera project. If I didn't misunderstand, this series rotates around a device that can manage, in addition to the traditional analogue signals, every digital data at its imputs (bar LAN resources), in every format, up to PCM 384/32 and DSD 256. The conversion into analog is performed by an ESS Sabre 9018 chip (very popular with other brands, but a premiere for Quad), with accuracy (buffer for jitter reduction, choice among the digital filtering allowed by the chip, etc.). This, in turn, drives an adequate power amplification section, sporting a circuit inspired to a classic Quad design, known as current dumping (my technical ignorance commands me to point you to the company's website for every further detail). This power amplification section can reside inside the device, that becomes an all-in-one and is sold for about UKP 1.300; or can configure a real autonomous power amplifier, in which case these devices are named Artera Play (the "pre") and Stereo (the power amp), for a total price of UKP 3.000.
Aesthetically, these machines are pleasant and well crafted and the performance was interesting: the demo system sounded very good. If this series will be successful, it might receive further improvements, like the - seemingly, very sought after - bloetooth connectivity; I would add to it also some LAN connectivity, like the ability to stream from a NAS (anyway, you can already connect an hard disk to its USB port).

Well, I think that this can be a good first part. For now, I'll stop here. A second part will follow, but I don't know well how long it will take... :-)


© Copyright 2016 Carlo Iaccarino - www.tnt-audio.com