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The days that follow a major audio show visit are a very telling indicator as to how well you actually feel a show has gone. At the show itself, you busy yourself with getting around the thing, studiously making notes on new product, arranging possible reviews and generally acting in a way that at least partially resembles industry professionals being gathered together, albeit with the less regularly encountered phenomena like those professionals taking time out to play Kraftwerk at the sort of levels that makes your vision wobble.
Once the dust settles though, and you find yourself matching poorly written notes to photos, you can take a more reflective view on whether the show itself had any merit beyond spitting out a few more expensive trinkets for our consideration. Earlier this year, I returned from CES 2017 and by the time I wrote about it, I was disenchanted and concerned that the audio industry- my industry- the one that should be working fist in glove with content providers, still wasn’t sure what to do with the influx of people caring about physical media and wanting more from their music than background noise.
Well, five and a half months down the line, I am the same period of time after my trip to the Munich High End show. I have sifted through brochures and press packs and written three show reports for various publications. Thanks to Munich only being an hour ahead of the time I normally live on rather than eight behind as is the case with Las Vegas, I naturally feel a little better in myself but I also feel somewhat better about the industry as a whole.
Munich has been the home of the High End Show for thirteen years. The MOC exhibition centre is an unusual space as it combines vast open plan halls with Atriums that resemble a high end mall above that and spacious sealed rooms behind and above those. Rather than jamming an improbably expensive audio system into a hotel room and hoping for the best, the MOC accommodates everything from the single static display unit to a twenty seat cinema without breaking sweat. It also finds itself in one of Europe’s great cities. Munich is in Bavaria and as Bavarians will point out without much invitation that makes it not completely German. The trains run on time but there’s the faintest whiff of laissez faire that simply doesn’t exist further north.
Crucially, exhibitors respond to the flexibility of the exhibition space by bringing a staggeringly wide selection of equipment and because it is one place, you get a far more useful sense of their efforts as a whole. And those efforts are beginning to look a little like an industry that has some idea of how to proceed with the raw materials it has as its disposal. Most importantly, it means that it brought equipment that can be purchased without recourse to selling a kidney (and plenty that still requires you to but we’ll cover that in a bit).
It also shows some positive signs of becoming less reactionary and insular. A few years ago, the industry would have responded to something like Amazon Alexa by ignoring it and hoping it went away. Now, it seems to have learned that this is not an approach that’s going to get it terribly far. Instead, Alexa integration is popping up in a variety of products- a feature added to make them better rather than believing that a puritanical feature count is somehow good for the soul. There’s still some way to go- selecting a set of standards and then applying them universally would be excellent but we’ll keep taking baby steps toward goals like that.
With specific regard to vinyl, the news is good and arguably getting better. The process of bridging the gap between affordable starter players and dedicated separate units is slowly but surely progressing and once your budget reaches the $300 point for a standalone unit, you now have a greater choice of models than at any stage in the last 20 years. Not all of these turntables are great- that’s the nature of any group of items at any price- but the good news is that a lot of the more sensibly priced offerings will deliver excellent performance for their owners.
What’s more, this will be something that would be owners are going to be more aware of because Munich is open to the public. After the opening day which is restricted to trade and press, you can pay your entry fee- roughly $20- and come and see for yourself. For me, this changes the whole dynamic of the show and entirely for the better. There are no abstract conversations between manufacturer reps and dealers wondering how customers are going to react to something because you can watch in real time how they respond to it. What’s more, the people that come through the doors are not simply increasingly elderly men. I won’t insult your intelligence by saying it’s anything like an equal split but it’s getting there.
These factors combine to ensure that the high end equipment that is at the show doesn’t feel like a grand narcissistic gesture but the improbably shiny end of a wider device. This actually allows Munich to show product that is even more ludicrous than Las Vegas and feel more convincing at the same time. By my rough estimation, at least three systems at the show broke the million dollar mark but at least they did so in the same place to where you could assemble a system for $600 or so. An oft stated defence of high end anything is that it leads to technology trickling down to more affordable points. I’m not completely convinced it’s always the case but at the very least here you can see where it’s supposed to be trickling down to.
This means that- for me at least- it’s easier to take in and sample the sheer joyous insanity of what this industry can do when it feels like it. I’ve long held that this is one of the few sectors outside of military and medical equipment that will allow you to go way beyond ‘good enough’ and when it’s done with enough self-awareness to know you aren’t going to change the world doing it, the results are great. I’m pretty sure the German company that has equipped their record cleaning machine with full app control know that it’s a little ridiculous but it doesn’t stop it being fantastic. One newly launched speaker at the show- a not inconsequentially enormous device that weighs 135kg each and costs €65,000 the pair- wears the name ‘WM-4.’ This isn’t the designer’s initials or anything so normal but instead because the lower section housing the bass driver looks like a washing machine. I listened to equipment worth many times more than my house and I loved it for what it is without getting overly concerned about the whys and wherefores.
Munich as a show is one that feels like it reaches out to existing and would-be customers in a way that far too many other events around the world do not. It at least tries to show the process by which you might begin with trying to get better sound from a smartphone and finish by spending a small fortune on something that weighs as much as the offensive line of an NFL team. If there was one event that I’d urge you visit to get a handle on this crazy but fundamentally magnificent industry, this is the one.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.