Munich High End Show 2019 Show Report from Hifi Pig’s Janine Elliot.

I love hi-fi shows, and none more than Munich. This is a massive show with three large halls and a total of three floors of 6 long corridors of rooms to listen to the well-known and also the lesser known.  What particularly spoke to me this year was the improvement in design and sound of products from Eastern countries. As always, there were some names I hadn’t heard of, and also some rather unusual names for impact including Schick “happens”, Drabbe Acoustics, Neat, Concrete Audio and Rough Trade, to name but a few.

My intention was to report on new and fun ideas that caught my eye, starting with Modal Akustik creating a dipole design of two bass speakers face to face in a novel cabinet design that looks far more adventurous than so many boring box shapes out there from bigger companies. Bass goes down to 18Hz at -6dB.  The housing design absorbs less energy and therefore is less susceptible to resonance.

Any living room would look great with the massive Estelon Forza full range speaker costing €110,000. Made in Estonia and using bass/mid Accuton drivers from Germany and a diamond tweeter this is an infinite baffle design. The company believe a sealed box can give a more precise performance of the music. Available as standard in Black or White it can be available in other colours to order, the cabinet made from marble dust.

That leads me appropriately to Jern, who I mentioned at the 2018 Copenhagen show. This Danish company, run by the characterful Ole Lund Chrstensen, has now produced the Sandit speaker whose cabinet is made totally of sand. This rectangular speaker, which can be placed up against the wall, is made from the left over sand that is used in casting their €4000 iron speakers shaped like the cartoon character BabaPapa. As well as preventing landfill he is also supporting the ozone by using internal insulation produced just from seaweed, which apparently even smells like the seaside! The rectangular shaped Sandit sounded surprisingly good for the price of €1000. Ole has now added a bigger speaker to match his BabaPapa shaped Jern 14EH baby, plus added two spherical subwoofers into the family.

Other unusual shaped speakers included the Once ‘Nar’ from Turkey which is available in many colours, and the amazing quality ESD horn speakers from China.

More conventional in style were the new Gold series of speakers from Monitor Audio, a choice of six models, these are much more than just a facelift. A lot of the technology has come down from the top Platinum series, including advances in design of the drivers and bracing them from the rear and the ribbon tweeter.

Turning to DAPs, the established companies were present, including Astell and Kern. Their designs are unique to look at and always use top components. Their new “Kann Cube” is much more military in appearance than their other products including the “Kann” and considerably larger. This is necessary to fit in the large power supply (7400mAh) as well as all the sockets. This including a five-pin Mini-XLR for connecting into your home system, if you can’t quite fit it into your pocket! Internally it has dual SS ES9038PRO SABRE eight-Channel DACs in dual-mono configuration, a quad-core CPU, and 128GB of internal memory (plus up to 2TB of additional storage space via microSD slot). It plays 32-bit/384 PCM and native DSD256 playback and aptX HD Bluetooth support. This mammoth has12v RMS output power via balanced and 6v RMS via Unbalanced and has a 5.0″ 720×1280 HD Touchscreen.

What really got my heart pounding though was the valve N8 DAP from Chinese company Cayin. Available in black (made from brass) or silver (stainless steel) with a 24k gold triangular logo on the front, this offers a choice of three options of play including a first of triode vacuum tube from the 3.5mm socket, or balanced solid state from 4.4mm jack or unbalanced SS from the 3.5mm socket. Yes, I said it has a vacuum tube. Now, a conventional tube would be far too big and use up power too easily, plus suffer much microphony. The Korg Nutube 6P1 doesn’t look like a normal tube, being very thin and using about 2% of the power a conventional triode would. The N8 can offer up to 0.75Watts of power at 32Ω. The N8 can even function as a wireless DAC allowing streaming services such as Tidal and Spotify from your mobile phone. With internal 128G storage it can allow up to 512GB microSD card.

Fiio also showed their latest offerings as did Shanling. Stax brought an exciting new product to the show, the world’s first compact DAC / electrostatic amp unit so that you could wear your Lambda, SR007 or SR009 Earspeakers on the way to work. It also can be connected to your computer via USB. It supports DSD 5.6MHz signal playback and PCM up to 32bit/384KHz. 

There were numerous companies displaying their headphones and IEMs. Of note to me was company Near with a set of well-constructed and good quality IEMs. What made them of interest to me was the excellent fitting in my ears, a “push” and “twist” and they were in! Having taken hundreds of ear impressions they have come up with what they say is a universal fit designed to fit all ears, including mine. Their top model Profile 8 (at €1499) has 8 matched drivers per ear and two minute switches so that you can select bass or treble boost if you think everything’s too flat. It even comes with a unique filter system should your ears be (yuk) rather waxy, and 16 spare filters per ear.

As well as an increasing attention to DAPs, headphones and portable DACs, what amazed me at this show was the increase and originality in all other aspects of hi-fi, with a gigantean amount being produced in countries that are newer to the hi-fi scene. Look back at the 1960’s “hi-fi” shows and the list of manufacturers and products could be written on your hand. This year there were 551 exhibitors. The Highend Show illustrates just how big the market for decent audio is, if we can be tempted to part with our dosh. At Munich the rooms for listening were also ideal for playing music, compared with “bedrooms” at some lesser shows. Indeed, there were only a few rooms that I thought the sound or the choice of music didn’t help their case. I had a conversation with another reviewer who agreed that standards have so improved over the years. That makes it not only harder to review but also for the consumer to decide what product to actually purchase. Most of the exhibits, particularly from lesser known countries or those from countries with a poor standard in the past, were indeed astonishingly good.

Whilst the show had many amps, turntables and speakers, there was a notably large renewed interest in reel to reel, with many exhibitors bringing in their valued Revox, Denon, Nagra or Philips to use or just to drool over. On the machine front not only was the lovely new Ballfinger (who also make watches) M 063 H present but Thorens was in force with their cute new €11999 machine which is being manufactured as a small batch of 100 machines available from 2020. The small TM1600 is the size of their turntables, achievable by redesigning the tape path geometry including the sensors being kept between the reels, above the heads rather than below them.  The machine plays 10½” tapes at 19 and 38cm/s, and is a playback only machine. This, of course, will mean bringing down your prized tapes from the loft or purchasing new pre-recorded recordings. Luckily several tape manufacturers were present, including STS, Hemiolia and Zavalinska records.

Hemiolia were in force with a stand full of machines playing the latest, second, remaster of a Luciano Pavarotti concert, beautifully restored from the original tapes. Mastering on a Studer A80 VU and an Otari MTR15 the duplication line consists of 13 Telefunken M15A’s. Pavarotti liked to record every concert he performed at and Hemiolia have managed to get hold of some original recordings and using his great knowledge of tape and mastering engineer Pietra Benini has repaired the tapes and produced as-perfect copies. I know well that old reel to reel tapes can get mouldy very easily, so much work is needed to prevent the tapes literally falling apart. Incidentally, the company also record other artists with equal verve. Also appearing at the show were Zavalinka Records from Moscow, Russia. This is a one-year-old company concentrating on classics particularly from Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. They similarly take masters from broadcasters, in their case from Melodia, and re-master them on to tape using Studer A807s and Nagra 4’s.

Swiss tape manufacturer Nagra were at the show with some impressive audio, including YG Acoustics speakers at the front end. They also brought with them memorabilia including their iconic SN spy tape recorder and 4S tape machines, and also presented a series of “Meet the expert” sessions, where a large number of major experts in the field of music and recording discussed their job or passion. This included Mr. Fritz de With from STS talking about real ambience and dynamics with the use of proper microphone placing.

Back to vinyl there were a number of highly significant machines at the show worthy of review, not only from the regulars but also some newcomers to the show. Tri-Art Audio brought their turntables and arms made from bamboo. They use bamboo as it is a sustainable and also an aesthetically pleasing material. There is no plastic here. Not only is the design novel but in practical terms it is clever. Bamboo is very stiff and rigid, and also absorbs much of the resonances that are the bane of any turntable designer.  To change the tracking weight simply adjust the number of ball bearings in the trough!  [PHOTOS]

Another significant turntable manufacturer at the show was Reed Audio from Lithuania, with their 5T being their first conventional arm trying to solve the age-old problem of tracking angle. Unless you have a parallel tracking arm or designs such as Harman Kardon  ST7, Revox B795 or the gorgeous B&O Beogram 4000 you will always get lateral tracking error, and hence some distortion. but Reed have a novel solution with a laser based arm that changes the position of the pivot point arm to maintain a 90 degree angle between stylus and centre of record. A processor checks the position of the laser at the back of the arm and adjusts the arm to ensure it is perpendicular to the record. The arm can be retrofitted to other turntables or fitted to their own.  The principle is based on Thales’ theorem (if the centre of a triangle’s circumcircle lies on the triangle then the triangle is right, and the centre of its circumcircle lies on its hypotenuse – so you know).

Pre-Audio from Poland have been producing parallel trackers for a few years now, and I reviewed them a few years back. There is usually a separate box for the air compressor with tubing to the turntable, but they have now produced turntables on show with the compressor built on to the platter and which do not resonate, which was my concern.

Wilson Benesch are well known for their speakers, turntables and arms, and of course carbon fibre. Now they have produced a new prototype turntable, the GMT ONE System, that marks the company’s 30th anniversary and the result of more than 20 year’s collaborative development. Rather than being belt or direct drive, the GMT ONE System – named after the reference GMT time zone – uses an electromagnetic-based system called ‘Omega Drive’ which includes  two separate diameters of coils; 21 on the outer rotor and then a separate internal rotor. Therefore there are two bearings. It becomes the world’s first axially orientated magnetically geared drive and with virtually no noise. External vibrations are isolated using a remotely adjustable VTA that adjusts vertically to within 2.5microns called the ‘Alpha Isolation System’ and which has been designed in collaboration with an optical measurement system isolation company. This constantly monitors and isolates the turntable from vibrations right down to 1.7Hz. I look forward to the release of the GMT ONE System in 2020.

The sci-fi looking Graviton, their new reference tonearm, is equally state of the art. Typical of WB to is made from carbon fibre, in this case a single piece of carbon fibre tube with an added sandwich construction to give it greater rigidity.

Back to speakers again, a number of manufacturers had their take on BBC loudspeakers, such as LS3/5a’s.  Interestingly Graham Audio went a step further with a take on the very aged LS5/5, a speaker I regularly listened to at BBC World service 35 years ago. They also had on show a powered mini speaker based on the LS3/5 and a floor standing version of the LS5/9. Even the BBC didn’t do that.

Cube Audio from Poland presented their novel Model 15 full range loudspeaker up to 18kHz. This box holds a 15 inch paper cone driver with 3 whizzer cones separated by rubber to dampen the frequencies they don’t want to hear. The company produce a series of models and also the separate full-range drivers are available for purchase if you are brave enough to build your own enclosure. The Model 15 comes in at €24,000.

Some of the best known had special reasons to be at the show this year. Linn were there to show off their Selekt DSM network music player.  Available in several options with or without built in amps, and Selekt or Katalist DAC, this was an exciting model for the company. With Space Optimization it creates the best sound for your room. Space Optimisation uses clever acoustic modelling to build up a complete picture of how your speakers, their placement, and the unique characteristics of the room interact to affect the sound you hear. It takes in information such as how big the room is, the size of the walls and ceiling and what speakers you are using to create a perfect soundstage and give as tighter bass-end and more detail. The Linn specialist will take measurements and create the best sound for your room, a lot more sophisticated than the ADC SS3 sound shaper EQ unit I used in the 1970’s! Also there was the iconic LP12 turntable in its latest guise, which sounded the better source than digits.

Finally, making an important appearance at the show was the Vervent Audio Group, better known as Naim and Focal celebrating their 46th and 40th birthdays respectively. Both companies want to be the leading hifi group by 2025, and what they had on show illustrated their determination to get there. Naim showed off their Mu-so 2 wireless system, which replaces the “1” after its five years of production. With more features and better quality this is a total rethink of their successful earlier model, being 95% new technology. Focal are known for their speakers and headphones, and didn’t let us down with new and established products at Munich. As well as new speakers to mark 40 years including a special edition Scala Utopia Evo speaker they, other exhibits comprised the Full Active kit for your car, and an unusual wooden box named ‘Symphonie 40th’ containing both the Utopia and Stellia phones, Arche DAC and the Questyle QPM player. Very novel and you’d need to be very dedicated to personal audio to buy this €15,000 combo.

The Munich Show this year might not have been as lucky with the weather as last year, but that didn’t squelch any of the enjoyment. This was a show to be at, illustrated by all the smiling faces and concentration on things hi-fi by attendees. In its 38th year, the High End Show had products from 551 exhibitors and 42 countries, a 3.8% increase on the previous year, and visitor numbers were also up 6.5% at 21,180, including me.

You can read more coverage both before and after the show by hitting this link.

Janine Elliot

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