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Visitor: Carlo Iaccarino
The show took place from May 15th through May 18th, 2014 at the M.O.C. fair center in Munich, Germany
Written: May 2014
Reference website, with plenty of infos: High End Society.de
My interest in this show began some years ago, so I recently decided to attend it. Moreover, the mainstream magazines wrote about its progressive growth, which made it evolve into a major international audio show, probably even better than the high performance audio section of the Las Vegas CES.
So, this year I planned my agenda well in advance and keep open those 2 days, but, one month before the show, I received the announcement that I had to stay elsewhere in those very 2 days (Murphy's Law strikes again.)
Yes, I could still count on Thursday and Friday, but but the first of these days is reserved for professionals and the press... The press? Well, I have been one of the writers of this magazine for a long time, now... so … To make a long story short, I got Lucio's permission to enroll as a reporter for TNT-Audio and so I didn't loose my chance to attend the show; and now you must suffer my musings :-)
I'm stating this to make perfectly clear that, at this show, I felt like a crasher at a strangers' party.
I do not belong to the professional press; I personally know some of the pros, and I have seen many others there, all in full pursuit of their institutional duties. So, out of respect for their, at least physically, hard work, I don't even think to (try and) write a "conventional" show coverage. Other than the one by our own Hartmut, you can read good ones in all the magazines, paper and online: even in real time, we all can count on the Stereophile report and on the tireless Leo Yeh's documentaristic work; and, as for Italian magazines, there are also the excellent reports by Angelo Jasparro and Roberto Rocchi, plus the illustrated sections that will surely appear in the next issues of Suono and AR (the latter both fully present at the show). And this only if I stuck on the official sources that I am aware of.
I am sorry if I disappoint the avid photo voyeurs (which I am unashamedly part of), but, light hearted approaching compared to Hartmut's work, here I'm going to limit this piece to my personal comments as a normal visitor; I'll try to communicate the sensations and reflections of this boy in a toy store :-)
Firt of all, it's a HUGE event.
The quantity of exhibited stuff is practically unlimited; the numbers given by the organization talk about 449 exhibitors from 40 countries, of which 180 are German, 182 are from the rest of Europe, 44 from North America and 39 from Asia, all numbers reflecting a constantly growing trend since 2010 (when the show moved to the present location). As usual, there are both traditional exhibitions, in closed and (more or less) insulated rooms, spread over 3 groups at the upper floors of the buildings, as well as booths open along the aisles of the 3 very big halls at the ground level. It's just that the number of the exhibitors and of the items exhibited, and their diversity, overwhelms the visitor of traditional regional shows, whose dimension are certainly more limited, but also more human. Almost never were the objects only just on show: even in the big Halls at ground level, in all the booths were plenty of gear up and actually running, and the visitor was invited to touch them and to use them, by very kind and very well informed personnel.
It's an event made with a PROJECT in mind.
I had the clear impression that this is a show organized not just to fill all the available spaces, but to demonstrate to the public that, even in the field of music reproduction, there is a production sector which is both serious and reliable. As the promoters thoroughly explained during the press conference, High End Society provides specific criteria that the exhibitors must meet or they won't be allowed into this shopwindow. Those are fundamentally commercial criteria (to have a network of distributors/dealers/repair facilities, to be able to produce objects in series, even small series, but not as single pieces made to order, etc.) that, in my opinion, aim to give to this sector an external appearance of seriousness, so that potential buyers are confident in a good, plain deal - it's evident that the final goal is to attract buyers and make them confident that the objects that come out from this sector are worth their salt. So, the operators that cannot meet those criteria simply cannot exhibit at the show. There's an amendment to this cold and teutonic division between who's in and who stays out: the Newcomer stand, where a - little - booth is given to those producers that cannot meet all the criteria, but are judged interesting, so, anticipating their maturing, and also to help them develop, they are given a chance, free of charge. Those allowed to exhibit can profit from a visibility that is provided with great effort and resources on the part of the promoters: the organizers underlined that they were proud to provide a wide media coverage (actually, during show days, I saw lots of posters, ads in the newspapers, and so on; I can't tell if they were also present in the days before the event, but I suspect it), that works well thanks to the partners' fees. One sentence struck me: "We OWE it to our exhibitors", and I think it tells a lot about how seriously they take their duty of organizing this show and, in more general terms, of being a commercial association...
A further confirmation of this perspective comes from the creation, among the High End Society members, of the Smart Audio Alliance, an association between producers, market analysts and specialized media that seeks to educate German point-of-sale personnel, to avoid that classic situation in which a customer in the market for one of the new products deals with a seller less informed than him about it, and to educate the sellers to be able to illustrate not only their products' technical features, but also the functional ones, in terms of improvement to the buyers' life, to better motivate their purchase. It's not a matter of patronizing to educate Apple stores' clerks, it's rather a matter of educating audio-video sellers that are NOT High End specialists to deal with products - even not of utterly top level - in the function of music quality (and innovative features) that those products can provide. In other words, it's a kind of mark of distinction for the shop that usually sells audio, even consumer level products, but always with attention to quality (among the partners we find Pioneer, Harman, Yamaha, Dynaudio, Sennheiser, Samsung, Sonos....).
I know I'm touching a painful teeth, here, but I couldn't help sending a sad thought to our shrinked APAF (the Italian audio and video producers/distributors association)...
It is an event organized with thorough PROFESSIONALITY.
All the show's organization is clearly directed at the aforementioned promotional target, so, although it's a huge show, it's solely dedicated to audio, with very little video that, when present, was almost always used to show multichannel contents or to provide a big display for musical servers. I recall as relevant exceptions only the Sonus Faber/McIntosh cinematographic amphitheater, the Panasonic room, and a big cinema/4K booth put up in one of the big ground floor halls. The - very controlled, to stop unfair intrusions - access to the rooms was always characterized by warm greetings by their hosts, all eager to show their products features. I have always dealt with internal personnel of the various firms involved - in other words, fewer hostesses and more CEOs and international sales managers. It may be just my impression, but it seemed to me that the visitors also had a more professional behavior, less casual, if you will: it seemed to me a very competent attending public.
It is a really REPRESENTATIVE show.
Forgive me for being rude, but let me say it: forget about TAV (Top Audio and Video Show, the main Italian audio event), here you can find EVERYONE. Back to the politically correct prose, if in the last (but not final) TAV shows you could perceive an international breath, here we have a strong wind... Think of a brand you know, and you can find it in Munich, along with many more brands, that you may have missed or have only heard about; and they are all homogeneously distributed between various categories: producers of electronics, of loudspeakers, of sources, analog and digital, etc. Yet, I noticed something weird: the absence of the two big guys Sony and Pioneer (but TAD was present...), although they also are back with product that righteously deserve the high end label.
A corollary to the show's representativeness is that here inevitably the TRENDS in quality audio industry are defined. They, as far as I could see, were mainly three.
First, I saw evidence of what magazines and press conferences are keeping on telling us: musical content is increasingly available in non-physical forms. Where once music came on platters or disks, these days it comes in bit-streams that you download, store and read with informatic devices. So, substantially ALL manufacturers sported their combination of server/network player/streamer, and took their music from external RAM (such as external hard disks, NAS or USB pendrives, and such), more or less hidden. There were few systems where I could have listened to one record of mine, although the width of musical archives of every exhibitor was such to satisfy every desire. A consequence of this kind of arrangement was the criticality of the stuff to store the big mass of information that musical archives are made of, so you could also find exhibitions of brands more known in the IT market, showing their NAS and external disks (and someone also tried to take advantage of this, to show NAS expressly labeled as audiophile, built into cabinets sporting dimension more usual for us, more refined, with more appropriate power supplies, speciality connectors, SSD memories, etc.).
Then, there was plenty of personal audio gear, with lots of boxes performing multiple functions. Things that are simultaneously DACs and headphone amplifiers, but also preamplifiers, more or less complex, featuring functions even less common and not exactly ready for users who are not experts; gear that sometimes had a diminutive look, but is still conceived to be perceived as important, sporting a care in design and realization traditionally reserved to the gear we are going to insert in our big systems.
Lastly, the acronym that could not be missed in any digital gear, from the more expensive and complex to the cheapest and simplest - DSD. The ability to deal, even via USB, with a monobit stream of data with very high sampling frequency was essentially ubiquitous; performed either with traditional techniques, mainly the so-called DoP (as far as I understood, DSD data packed in PCM blocks with very high sampling frequency) converted into analog using off-the-shelf chips, or performed with original approaches, mainly programming an FPGA chip with specific software. In every case, the shared goal is not to remain behind in respect to to DSD/highest resolution signals. It is specifically regarding this argument that I thought strange the absence of the traditional big names, mainly Sony, that, besides having invented the DSD (and benefitting from its royalties), recently officially declared itself to be seriously intending to promote quality reproduction at very high resolution, while producing machines that immediately earned the praise and the covers of almost every reviewer and magazine.
It is a show where you can widen your ACQUAINTANCES.
As a consequence of the show's representativity, exhibited products are often shown by people directly involved with them, since they all converge to Munich. In a single place you can find - back to back - designers, technician and managers that literally make Audio's recent history: I saw, or directly spoke with, Charlie Randall, Lawrence Dickie, Paul McGowan, David Chesky, Vince Bruzzese, Dan D'Agostino, John Frank, etc. Alas, the show attracts the world's specialized press: just to limit to the press members I recognized, I saw Stereophile's Art Dudley and Michael Fremer, the complete editorial board of Italy's Audio Review, Italy's Suono Editor Paolo Corciulo, Roberto Rocchi and Silvia De Monte from ReMusic... and, letting my eye fall on the badges hanging from attendees' necks, I saw press members from all Europe, from Russia, from the Far East, etc. Obviously, German press was on the front line, with their own rooms and booths, where very popular seminars were held (all in German, so unfortunately I can't tell anything more about...).
As I wrote, I immediately felt overwhelmed by this immense show. Let me try to elaborate its picture based upon the episodes that struck me most.
It was kind of fun to see serious professionals all tense ahead of their presentations. And they had a good reason to be: for instance, during the big NAIM-FOCAL group presentation "for press only" (a little privilege I harmlessly took advantage of) during an orchestral peak strongly pushed form the huge Statement power amp, music suddenly ceased because... a fuse blew. This thing, normal for us mere mortals, saw old foxes like Chrétien and Stephenson quite irked. It's a sign that even such experienced people placed great importance to their presentations - once again the "professionality" comes back - although then, luckily, the atmosphere relaxed a bit and all of us took it with some humour, knowing that, at least, shit happens :-)
In the Nagra room an undoubtably notable show took place of the two Marcos from Audio Review. Marco Cicogna played his usual (for us Italians) musical bits selection of (less or more known) classical pieces from commercial recordings (not only records for audiophiles...), explaining what to hear in the music and, thus, what tracks to choose for testing a system's different qualities (I saved his playlist, you never know...). Marco Benedetti showed us the - even not so subtle - differences among various versions of the same recording available in different resolutions, presumably sourced from the same original master; the public responded well to the differences and understood that we'd better be conscious consumers of what the net offers for us to download as high resolution files, to avoid buying only a high resolution envelope.
Also the PS Audio demo was very interesting. If I didn't misunderstand, they thought to DSDize everything, oversampling at very high frequency and quantizing using a sufficient number of bits to secure signal dynamics and volume adjustability and then diving down in frequency until reaching a 2x frequency respect to DSD, but quantizing with a single bit (the more technical among our readers will forgive this moron's horrible errors). This way, in their opinion, you can obtain a high resolution signal which is also easy to convert into analog, getting rid, in one shot, of the annoying output circuitry and of the brickwall filter and its negative effects, instead as is necessary with a high resoluton PCM signal: you would only need a mere bass-pass filter for the reconstruction of a signal that is inherently already very close to analog. Here everything works until over- and down- sampling operations are perfectly executed: in this case they are performed by a DSP chip programmed in house by one of the engineers who practically invented DSD. Needless to say, even listening to a signal originally coming from - dare I say? - vinyl and subjected to the treatment I described above, in my opinion was a very pleasant experience. But It must also be said that all the demo and the explanation offered took advantage of their big and moving enthusiasm in communicating their products; it really made me recall that, after all is said and done, listening to the music is supposed to be FUN.
Another particular that caught my attention during the listening at the PS Audio demo was the very high quality of normal CDs output if read with this processing; they took good advantage of this informatic rollercoaster, while a minor upgrade was obtained when listening to material that was originally made at superior resolution. Interestingly, this result seemed to me completely coherent with the public's response during Marco Benedetti's show described above: in that occasion, too, people present were always happier with the SACD version, even when the original master was the one - sometimes a little aged - from which the original CD (or even the LP) was obtained; and also in that occasion the improvement of an augmented resolution was minor if the original recording was already in a better format than the 44.1/16 PCM. Substantially, then, PS Audio's idea seemed to me to make sense, also because the significant investment required to buy their new DAC rewards with high quality reproduction of high resolution native material and, above all, offers a remarkable upgrade in the playback of CDs that, I presume, are the biggest part of the music library of all of us who are a little more grown-up :-)
Speaking in general terms, I came to think that the presence of so many producers of very high level MUST mean that somewhere there's an at least significant demand of the same level. Sure, it's always possible that they are all suicide enterprises, although I don't think so. Moreover, lots of producers aimed also to the base either with products designed to connect to the i-somethings, either with "small" gear, and this implies a real interest in those potential buyers, the i-something owners, who, simply because of their numbers and their buying power, are an obvious market. Completely out of sight - but this was not real news - the middle class, although with praised exceptions from the usual suspects: NAD, PSB, Indiana Line, some oriental producers.
Last, let me talk about something strange, from my Italian point of view. Here Italians certainly were a "team", especially in organizing collective and close exhibitions in the big Halls at ground level; but even then there were individualities, so I don't think they were also able to be a "system", missing the synergistic advantage of cooperation. This way, in my opinion, we loose the made in Italy, a quality instead still very appreciated and of which all our brands could benefit; and we end showing the public some unevenness: I'm thinking, for instance, of the two - even big - exhibitions of our very good Manunta and Rampino, in areas close, but totally separated (I mean, physically: one of the visitors' aisle run between them). Of course, nothing more can righteously be asked of an organization that takes place thanks to the volunteer actions of singular producers, and, instead, this effort and the obtained results must be praised. Maybe just demanding the management of the various exhibitors within a category association could allow that quality leap from "team" to "system", even performing a mediation with the unavoidable individualities: maybe it could be a further occasion to revamp APAF, that could easily occupy some spaces that now are clearly free...
As I wrote, I was totally overwhelmed by the show dimensions. Yet, in the mare magnum of my memories of the various exhibitors, some things hit me more than others. Let me immediately state clearly that I am NOT going to put up one of the usual list of best in show, both because I don't think I am sufficiently qualified to give such an award, as well as because, above all, to this show rookie the overall quality of the exhibition seemed really uniformly great.
PS Audio did really presented very few things at the show, but they were really good. I already wrote about their new DAC, called DirectStream DAC that, being the top of their line, sports an important price tag, about USD 6.000 (it is always good to mention that this is the approximative price in the USA, minus taxes, import duties, etc...). Yet recalling a general impression that I also wrote about, this company gave me the sense of having a very feet-on-the-ground attitude; in fact, besides proposing products priced between USD 1.000 and 2.000 (net), it is about to make available a 50 w/ch integrated stereo amplifier, sporting a separate can amplifier, line and phono (passive RIAA) inputs, plus optical and asynchronous USB digital inputs; in addition, it has bluetooth (apt-x) connectivity and reduced desktop dimensions: everything that can be useful and nothing more than what can be useful…. All this stuff is packed into a tiny box called SPROUT, which will have a price of about net USD 800 and is scheduled to arrive in the (USA) shops about September/October. I remember this dwarf not only for its very good impression, in terms either of flexibility, and, mainly, of perceived quality, but also for the enthusiastic way in which it was presented to me, by Scott McGowan, the son of the boss (Paul, the P in PS...) and head of this project. Moreover, I thought its exhibition was smart: placed upon a coffee table, there it was one amplifier not connected to anything, ready to be handled and examined, and another one connected to a source and a good quality headphone; nearby, on another coffee table, there were three of them, each one connected only to its headphone, and people were invited to connect wirelessly their smartphones or i-devices, so they could immediately perceive how much better the music we carry with us everyday might sound. For all these reasons, in my opinion, we should look at the Sprout and its demo as an example to follow.
Remaining in the DAC field, I want to write about Chord with its little Hugo, a very well executed little box containing a refined and customizable can amp, a line output, a DAC sporting optical and coaxial S/PDIF digital inputs, plus 2 USB inputs, one limited to 16/48 and the other ready for high resolution formats; also, bluetooth (apt-x) capability. The conversion, even in this case, is proprietary, performed by programming an FPGA chip. The interface is original, to say the least: no display, it's based on the coded color assumed by the rubber wheel for adjusting volume and the internal LEDs that can be seen via a round little window on its top. It was exhibited in several pieces, all up and working, all connected to different headphones (to show its driveabilty), but one connected to a smartphone, another one to an i-Pad, another one to a laptop computer, and the room personnel showed also its bluetooth connectivity with their smartphones. Nothing to say: another piece of equipment that, even just handling it, features a high perceived quality. It should be commercialized for about Euro 1.850: a price certainly not low, but also very far from the high level usually common in the high end, Chord included..
Another producer that I found very interesting is the French Trinnov, that offers professional products for digital acoustic room correction, but has also a domestic audio line, both 2- and multi-channel. It is complex and powerful gear, but designed so that the domestic user can use it by himself, taking advantage of each of its features. I found interesting their DAC/room optimizer ST2-HiFi, substantially a good DAC and a PC put into a single chassis, with a power supply and an output stage performing the usual audiophile treatments. All for the friendly amount of Euro 5.000 plus taxes, that can rise to 8.000 plus taxes if you opt for the Amethyst, that adds all the functions of a refined preamplifier, naturally all remotely commanded and networkable, even via DNA protocol, etc. They were still without a distributor for Italy, but they told me they set meetings with not one, but two interested people... we'll see. Sure, I'm not saying those are mandatory objects to build a good sounding system, but I felt anyway that they were pieces of equipment thought with the efficiency typically found in the professional sector from where they, substantially, are from: to find a simple and plug-and-play way to improve the acoustics of the combination system/room; it's not a case where they talk about acoustic optimization, not correction. All presenting a realization, in my opinion, very well executed, thought; it didn't seem to me a series of machines just assembled, but designed with criteria in mind, studied.
Of course, I couldn't escape the fascination of the ultra expensive gear, although I hope to have resisted their enchantments. Sure I liked very, very much the sound I heard in the Kharma room, played by their Elegance DB11-S loudspeakers (just Euro 45.000 the pair) driven by the Exquisite P1000 preamplifier (only Euro 40.000) plus two Exquisite MP1000 monoblocks (just a mere Euro 40.000, each...). Ok, we are at the world high end fair: where else could we find an exhibition with such exaggerations? After all, it's good to know that there is someone who knows how to make such things that are even very well sounding. We're not talking about life-saving medications, bread or milk; if there really is someone intentioned to spend so much, at least he brings home equipment capable of a real good sound. A sound that is now firmly placed in my mind, like the memories left by those meals tasted in the restaurants driven by great chefs, the really good ones...
Yet, as I already wrote, at H.E.2014 you could find also lots of human-level machines.
Among these, I'd like to write about a really nice little loudspeaker combo from Canada's Totem: the compact bookshelf loudspeakers KIN Mini with their partnering subwoofer KIN Sub, a combination that should be commercialized about the end of the year for less than Euro 1.500. Totem's boss and designer, Vince Bruzzese, is a handsome guy, whose family originated from Calabria, Italy, and he still speaks a very good Italian: he told me that he conceived this tiny system also aiming at those among us, who wanted to introduce some newby to this hobby or were struggling with metropolitan narrow domestic spaces and, embarassed in spending consistent amount of money, could be tempted by soundbars. In his words, one of the project target was to make a little loudpseaker sporting good imaging even when not positioned according to the sacred rules, but on a bookself or upon a desktop, and even barely in axis with his companion speaker. There's certainly serious study behind it, and also in this case the perceived quality is very far from the usual cheesy models that sometimes brands with a range of products wide as the one by Totem place at the bottom of their catalogues. You can notice particulars that come from the designer's (not the simulation software's...) attention, like the mechanical cutoff for the lower frequencies, the tweeter waveguide made with the mask that connect it to the front baffle, and the subwoofer phase continuous adjustment between 0 ad 180 degrees. Sure, this combo was hooked to the minor system in the Totem room, but Bruzzese didn't treat it in a lesser way; instead I had the sensation the he was particularly proud of it. His ad material says, in a self-celebration not demising subtle irony: "Doesn't the world need an extreme high end product that is both affordable and incredibly remarkable at the same time?". I don't know if this little combo's performances are incredible; they surely are more than good; certainly another product inspiring the buying desire...
Then, also, I recall the very good impression I had listening to the system put up by KEF to launch their new Reference 5 loudspeaker, which I also found aesthetically pleasant; it's available in different veneers that, in this case, too, give a sense of high perceived quality; it should be sold for about Euro 7.000. Remaining this side of the Channel, I also have good memories of my listening to PMC Twenty.26 loudspeakers, that made me recall those serious reviews, where the product is defined as musical: blame it on the playlist, or blame it on the tranquillity of the room, or even blame it on the analog source used, but my toe started tapping, and this is always good sign. More good memories from the room where Vienna Acoustics' loudspeakers were very well amplified by Yamaha, who is showing a real return to quality audio, two or more channels, offering products made with all the audiophile criteria regarding power supply, chassis, electronic parts, layout, etc. I have pleasant memories also of the room where Nola loudspeakers (these, too, designed by an Italian-American: Carl Marchisotto, that I also think I could spot among people present), properly driven by Plinius amplifiers and a BAT source. Beautiful also was the sound coming from a pair of Vivid (Giya, I think, but this silly man didn't take note of anything, except the room number: F 225 in Atrium 4.2). Very good sound was also coming from the TAD room, and this was for me just a pleasant confirmation. While I confess that only on this occasion I had the chance to listen to the Constellation electronics that, with Wilson loudspeaker, provided a very clean and powerful sound. Moreover, I happily remember the room where I heard Lansche's teutonic loudspeakers, and the room shared between Spain's Mizik composable electronics and Wilson Benesch loudspeakers. W.B. exhibited their own sources as well, in particular their new turntable... and it was not the only one in the fair; there were also turntables from Pro-Ject, JR Transrotor, Thorens, Acoustic Solid, etc., followed also by brands less accustomed to producing analog sources, like, for instance, Electrocompaniet, who exhibited their new belt-driven turntable. I must also mention the Devialet's exhibit: they showed their compact piece of equipment (upgradable starting from its basic version, priced at Euro 5.000) that can read the signal from a domestic network, or internet, or any source hooked via a traditional input (even analog), amplifies it and, if you will, corrects it applying in the digital domain a filter that this producer developed to compensate for the non-linearities that afflict every loudspeaker's response (electric response, phase and argument, not frequency response...). It works this way: you tell the big Devialet box the model of the loudspeaker that it is going to drive, and it connects via internet to Devialet's Dbase, from which it downloads the filter and loads into its ROM, implementing a kind of reverse transfer function of that particular loudspeaker model. Currently, it's possible to choose among a limited number of loudspeakers, but the Dbase is going to expand, depending to the requests coming to Devialet from their clients. Finally, I'd like to write about two new machines. One is the new Naim Muso, that looks like a fat soundbar, but is an all-in-one that can read almost everything, connect almost to everything, even wirelessly, amplifies it and sounds with its drivers etc.; in this case, too, we are in front of gear made with building techniques that give a high sensation of perceived quality, and all for just Euro 1.200. The other one, coming from the same group, is the new Dimension soundbar by Focal, that, in a reduced space, is able nonetheless to improve the audio performance of the flat TV under which it will likely be put, even in conjunction with its partnering subwoofer, this also made with very reduced depth, to ease its placement and reduce its visibility: it's a product that the French colossus dedicates to the Audio/Video range, but it was showed at H.E.2014 hooked to a system reproducing musical concert on BDs, in an environment that well resembled a typical domestic living room, and I can assure you that, sitting on the couch, I could easily concentrate on the concert and enjoy the musical experience, notwithstanding the unavoidable basic chatter from the big room devoted to both brands.
I think I already wrote too much. There would be much more gear to mention, and you will surely find it in the real and complete show coverages that I pointed to at the beginning of this babble. I hope I could effectively pass the sensation I had during this visit, that I hope I can repeat next year, because I liked it very much. Maybe, next time, I can even try and shoot some pictures :-)
© 2014 Carlo Iaccarino - www.tnt-audio.com
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