A reportage from the Milan Hi-Fidelity Show 2023

[Italian version here]
[The Sound of the Valve]
The Sound of the Valve system of the Show organizer Stefano Zaini

Author: Lucio Cadeddu
Published: October, 2023
Show website: Milano/Roma High End Show

Let me give it to you straight: I am no lover of HiFi fairs. Even had I not written as much several times, my habitual absence from these events would be clear proof. Every now and then, however, I do attend one, as if submitting to an Easter precept, in the forlorn hope that something has changed since last time. And so it was I found myself at the Milan show on 7-8 October.

To begin, please note that I stayed in Milan for two whole days, and these were completely dedicated to visiting the rooms and listening to music, so I speak with some clear knowledge of the facts. It wasn't a quick hit-and-run visit on a Saturday afternoon, as so many audiophiles do. I'll start with the positive aspects.

Visitors. The show was notably well-attended; sometimes crowding made it difficult to get through the Hotel Melià's admittedly somewhat narrow corridors. The exhibition was spread over three levels, but most of the audio rooms were located on the +1 floor (yes, there was a 0 floor and a -1 floor). The big crowd means there is still a good interest in this admittedly bizarre field, even if perhaps many were there only out of pure curiosity. Actually, as the exhibition is called “Milan High End”, in theory it should have been an exhibition of the top of the world's production and, as with exhibitions of supercars or precious and rare vintage cars, it should have drawn mainly curiosity seekers, certainly not potential buyers.

The prices of the components, very often in the 5-figure range, obviously out of reach of the general public and attract them only out of pure curiosity. But then, how many of those who go to the Genoa high end boat show or to an exhibition of vintage sports cars actually have the means to purchase those objects? A very small percentage. And that's fine, of course; it's absolutely natural. Anyone who complains because a High End exhibition lacks low-cost systems is misguided, because the target audience is manifest in the name of the exhibition. Indeed, I would say that the very few low-cost systems (low...relative to the €300,000 monsters) were quite out of context, although welcome.

Variety of solutions. The different rooms offered a fairly broad overview of what is available on the market: solid state at its best; more or less expensive tube solutions; digital media both physical (read: CDs, actually something of a rarity) or not (i.e. streaming or files playback); and a few good analogue displays, with nice turntables and even reel-to-reel tape decks. Similarly, the speakers offered a wide choice of different types: dynamic, planar, high efficiency full-range, and so on. In short, if a neophyte wanted to get an idea off how varied the approach to HiFi can be, this exhibition certainly offered many different perspectives.

Sound quality. Let's immediately dispel any excessive expectations: most of the systems sounded bad, sometimes very bad, but, since I'm talking about the positive aspects here, let me point out that some rooms offered very good sound: in my opinion the rooms of Italian high-end distributor Audio Natali with the Wilson Audio Sasha V (and with our excellent colleague Marco Cicogna acting as a highly trained guide) and of LP Audio one (another distributor) showcasing German Physiks were clearly above the rest. Other rooms with huge and outrageously expensive systems were simply embarrassing, as the quality/price ratio tended to zero. Good performance was also on display in some more down-to-earth rooms, from that of Albedo through to those with Pylon Audio speakers, the Maggies, and the Estelons (ok, this one wasn't exactly earthly, given the costs). In other words, a neophyte with the patience to wait for an ideally situated seat in a half-empty room could have some idea of what a top system sounds like. Those with less patience are better off refraining from judging the systems.

[Audio Natali with Wilson Audio Sasha V]
The Audio Natali system with the Wilson Audio Sasha V

[LP Audio room]
The LP Audio system with the €150,000 German Physiks monsters

[Sala Albedo Audio room]
The Albedo Audio system in a live vs recorded performance

Captains Courageous. I'd like to say a few words about some exhibitors who had the courage to dare something different. I can't help but mention the guys from Albedo for the live vs recorded demonstration: a guitar and mandolin duo played between the speakers and, immediately afterwards, the same song, recorded on their album, was reproduced from the speakers. Admittedly, I didn't know in which environment the recording had taken place, so it wasn't a real “live vs recorded” comparison, but the result was excellent: a system that has the courage to compete with real acoustic instruments and doesn't come out defeated is a great thing. It's a shame, however, that the managers of the venue, when they played the record, didn't bother to check the levels, because the speakers' volume was - sound level meter in hand - about +8 dB (!!!) higher than that produced by the live instruments, making the comparison a bit misleading. Let's put it this way: a louder sound is often perceived as better. In any case, something unusual and courageous, and that's good. Also noteworthy for the very varied musical selection, even some hip-hop stuff, also excellently recorded (Travis Scott).

Mike Borghese Audio's demonstration was equally courageous and unconventional, with the room made available exclusively by reservation. You could listen to and switch different pairs of speakers hidden by a curtain like Pythagoras when he spoke to his “followers”, insert or deactivate a DSP, evaluate the quality and influence of the environmental acoustic treatment (simple and economical) and, finally, undergo a bizarre double-blind test to evaluate the influence of passive components in two identical crossovers, one with standard components and the other with audiophile capacitors and inductors. The message conveyed was that the environment weighs more than the components, precisely the mantra that we have been repeating for almost 30 years here on TNT-Audio. Light-hearted presentation, but young, friendly and skilled guys. I wish them well, because they deserve it, but knowing this market intimately I don't think they'll have a huge success.

Also out of the ordinary were the two, so to speak, entry-level rooms, namely the Indiana Line and the Technics rooms. In the first, Serblin&Son and Exposure electronics gave voice to Tesi 661 speakers (±€800); the second offered two full Technics systems, with both floor and bookshelf speakers. Paradoxically, these systems sounded more credible and balanced than many others with one or two more zeros. Now, that's a brave operation but dangerous for those who (badly) expose very expensive systems.
Applause also goes to the organiser's room, which sounded fun as usual, with the added courage to dare to manage high SPLs. And rock must first of all sound loud, amen.

As for the rest of the rooms, if I didn't mention them it's because there wasn't much (good) to say. Some were average, some other bad, and the rest was horrible.

[Indiana Line Tesi 661 at the Milano High End]
The Indiana Line system with the Tesi 661 and Serblin + Exposure siblings

[Technics loudspeakers]
A close look at the complex structure of the Technics bookshelf speakers

[Mike Borghese Audio]
Mike Borghese Audio's unusual demo


Let me again give it to you straight: quite often the notes (musical and not) were painful. Most of the systems sounded terrible, perhaps owing to an installation that was not optimized and the infamous “hifi show abysmal room acoustics”. However, as rooms with identically abysmal acoustics sounded different - some good, some unlistenable - evidently the rooms were not entirely to blame. You can't demonstrate a 100-200,000 euro system without providing a few thousand euros of absorbing panels and acoustic treatments, as it's commercial suicide.

Rudeness and lack of attitude. The other sore point comes from rudeness among the visitors combined with a lack of professionalism of some people managing the rooms: many people, vistors and vendors alike, chatted very loudly (perhaps due to galloping deafness, given their age) while others patiently tried to listen, and I must say that sometimes vendors/exhibitors themselves were the worst offenders. Inconceivable. I said to an exhibitor of a good system: “Too much noise, talk less and play more”. I understand the boredom of spending hours listening to music, but I don't think any medical prescription requires working in a listening room. If you don't like it, just quit. If you have to chat, you either do it in a low voice, or go outside the room. Otherwise you might as well expose the systems when they're turned off, since there will be those who appreciate them just for their aesthetics.
Moreover, why not put up some sheets that explain which speaker is playing; which components are playing; and, even better, their cost? You would avoid many questions, for example. It's not difficult to achieve...unless you're a little ashamed to display ridiculously high prices. That I can understand, and you have all my sympathy, it can be embarassing ;-)

Music? Which music? Sometimes I asked to listen to songs of my choice. That wasn't always possible. There can be many reasons. One for sure is the fear that the visitor will use bad recordings, which will make your system sound poor. In fact, it happened several times, someone asked (successfully!) to listen to a song by Vasco Rossi (an Italian rocker, let's say so), poorly recorded, and a song by an indeterminate 70s pop-rock band, a recording dynamically compressed and devoid of low and high frequencies. Guys...do you really judge HiFi components this way??? It would be like judging a Ferrari powered by agricultural fuel. I never cease to be amazed by the characters who hang out in HiFi shows.

In one room I asked to listen to a specific piece for organ and choir (from Cantate Domino on Proprius), and I was offered a piece for organ only, from the Interstellar soundtrack instead. Now, if I go to a steak house, I don't expect that instead of the meaty Florentine steak I asked for they will bring me a pizza with pineapple on top. Why do I say this? Because that organ piece from the Interstellar soundtrack is a real...pizza. Even with pineapple on top: musically non-existent, annoying without the support of images and uselessly spectacular. In any case, I find it out of place - and even a little rude - that the guy of the room justifies his choice saying, “So you'll listen to something new!” Dude, I already know that I don't like pizza with pineapple. I know that by heart. I prefer to be answered, “Sorry, in this steak house there's no meat, just pizzas with pineapple”. Moreover, leave soundtracks to movies!

The Sausage & Saxophone Festival. It's sadly true. HFi shows are more and more transforming into festivals of sausage and saxophone. Sausages because of the masculine gender of the visitors, 99% of the cases (masculine singular, I would say), the second because there is no room where they haven't annoyed me with pieces for solo saxophone. Alternatively, jazzy female singer on a bed of piano and double bass. Oh my God, I would be delighted to see some female jazz singer lying on a bed, but not on a piano or a double bass serving as one. Yes, I know that this kind of easy music doesn't harm HiFi systems, but there is a limit to everything. Please get a life. As for the singular elderly male gender, now, don't tell me, "Well, but there were some women and some young people". Really? Have you looked them in the eye? If they'd had teleportation, they would have dematerialized instantly.

No, not Pink Floyd again and again! I understand it is the 50th anniversary of The Dark Side of the Moon, but... we really can't stand it anymore: Pink Floyd everywhere, in every room and in different versions, and not just TDSOTM, but also Animals and other older albums. The world of music, from the '70s onwards, has moved on, you know? Isn't it time for you to take a step beyond? I understand that those notes bring you back memories of when you were young and sexually active, but music is not a valid alternative to Viagra, you have to accept that as a fact of life. And for those who play these things to the bitter end: how do you plan to attract a less mature audience? There is a lot of modern rock, or even pop and even hip hop, recorded in high quality, that would make your systems sound better than the compressed dynamics of Pink Floyd's recordings of the '70s. Damn, it seems that rock music stopped, like the erections of many listeners, in the '70s, then nothing.

Cui bono (see [1]). In other words, to whom is it a benefit? Who benefits from this muscular (and even slightly testicular) display of top components? Does it help young people to dream of top systems? I doubt it, because the young people weren't there attending and, in any case, with those price figures in mind they would buy something else, if they could. Listen to the lyrics of the music young people listen to. You will never find a phrase such “Bro, I dream of a Goldmund” but rather “give me a Lambo and a Rolex”.
Is it useful for audiophiles with medium-level systems to plan an upgrade? Maybe, but in most cases the visitors' systems sounded better than 90% of those on display there. Now tell me I'm wrong, if you dare.
Is it useful to sell €300,000 systems? No, because those with such financial means contact a shop directly or even the company itself and have a demo done at their home. If I spend €300,000 on a system I want the designer or the CEO of the company to come to my house, cook for me, do the cleaning for a week and wash my feet like His Holiness Pope Francesco on Holy Thursday, as well as tidy up the room and set up the system.

So, frankly, I don't have an answer. I am left with the bitter feeling that it's always the sad old story: same faces, same complaints, same bellies and sausages...and there is no way out of this nightmare. What would you think of a new kind of HiFi show where the systems are reasonably priced? This would at least have a chance of attracting youngsters and motivating seasoned audiophiles with financial constraints to plan some upgrade. Think about it.

[Pics courtesy of Stefano Zaini and Jacopo Brandani].

Fast forward to [Part II] and to [Part III]

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Copyright 2023 Lucio Cadeddu - direttore@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com