Impressions on Munich High End 2016

After last year’s Munich High End, Mark Coles, the owner of Sablon Audio cables, also a good friend sent me an SMS saying, “Wasn’t Munich a blast?” Well, certainly it was. After many years of break up with high end audio (I keep the story for another article), it was like falling in love again with your ex-lover, whom you realize in fact you never forgot. It was exciting and great fun, though very exhausting. Impressed with the aura of the show and well-oiled with the Bavarian Weiss beer, I initiated to write down a show report as soon as I came back home, but I couldn’t finish it as a result of an unfortunate accident –tripped over the power cord of the hair dryer, I fell down on the stone floor and broke my knee and my wrist. As I was disabled even to take shower by myself, my enthusiasm died away very shortly after the show.  

Was Munich a blast this year? Well, it was. It was a blast in its true meaning, a high frequency blast to be precise. Either as a result of demonstrating not yet burnt in components or adding more detail to the sound by pushing the high frequencies or for whatever reason, most rooms were a high frequency hell. I couldn’t help asking if the listening habits of people were changing or the ears of homo-sapiens mutating less sensitive to high frequencies. Whatever the answer is, to me Munich was dominated by an insane emphasis on the high frequency band; as a result it lost its contact with the true sound of music. 

Munich was a blast in its metaphorical meaning as well; a blast in using extravagant materials in design, a blast in luxurious cosmetics and finally a blast in high price tags. It seems like high end audio industry has decided to break the steering into the world of luxury. And if it is the case, it has to be prepared for some disappointment in the near future as this world is getting overcrowded by spoilt and ingrate newcomers with no music culture at all. I acquit the ones who make huge investments or use very high quality and expensive parts and labour for better sound and unavoidably reflect the cost to the price tags. But as the number of true audiophiles and music lovers diminish, the percentage of cost reflected to the prices will increase, so will the prices: An embarrassing course for the true audiophiles and the music lovers.  

Ok, enough of criticism, so let’s get back to our main topic. This year, exciting was to meet with colleagues at Mono and Stereo, Matej Isak, Ron Resnick and Dato’ Danon Han, sharing views and chatting on our favourites. Then together with Matej we visited a few rooms to shape up our final impressions. Now if I follow the tradition, I should be talking about the best sound of the show, but I’m quite cautious about it as it is not easy to be fair as we all have sympathy for certain brands and this sympathy is for a reason. We have deep experience on them and know their performances out of the show conditions. It is also impossible to be objective when commending on the sound as all commentary is subjective by nature. And lastly, I’m not sure if I didn’t miss some good sounding rooms (I know I did) from concentrating on the ones that impressed me at first auditioning. But I guess there is still a way to make some objective evaluation –at least to construct some evidence to my personal likes or dislikes– and that is by watching the reactions of people while listening to the demonstrations. 

There are a few very typical reactions that may indicate how a system sounds and if you visit the same rooms for several times, you can easily witness that these certain reaction are consistent. That said, I can categorize these reactions as: people coming in and going out in 30 seconds (not impressed at all); people continually making audible commends to each other on what they have been hearing (audiophile masturbation); people not being able to hide their astonishment and admiration (amazed by the unexpected performance); people occasionally whispering to each other’s ears as they are fully concentrated to listen to (respect to the sound reproduced by the system). 

But apart from these, there is one unique reaction that you can rarely witness: people listening in full silence as if they are listening to a prayer in a temple, very much like a mystical experience. If you meet up such a demonstration, you will also notice that most listeners will not leave the room unless the track that is being played is completely finished. That is, fully respecting the music and nothing else, neither the sound nor the components. And this is exactly what I witnessed in Ypsilon Electronics’ room in partnership with Finite Element. To assure my testimony I visited the room for several times and that temple like atmosphere never changed. 

Regarding the reactions of the listeners in order from respecting the music to respecting the reproduced sound, Ypsilon Electronic’s room was followed by Nagra Audio’s room in partnership with Kronos Audio only by a small margin and Kaiser Audio’s suite in company with Kondo Electronics. I can also count Absolare (demonstrating with Kronos Pro and Rockport Altair), Soulution Audio (demonstrating with Magico M-Project) and Cessaro Horn Acoustics rooms among the most respected due to my observation.

Did the listeners’ reactions support my likes and dislikes? Up to a certain point yes. I too found Ypsilon and Nagra rooms as musically most impressive and satisfying (still keeping my concern about the high frequency band in reserve). As both set−ups were driving Wilson Alexias, this also gave me the opportunity to make a fair comparison between the two. The only fact that bothers me while making such an evaluation is my lack of knowledge if both were properly burnt in. In fact I knew Ypsilon Hyperion monoblocks –it was the world premiere– were fresh from the factory, not burnt in more than 50 hours and Wilson Alexias were out of their boxes for the first time in Munich as Demetris Backlavas explained during a chat with Matej and me. I have no idea if Nagra electronics and their Alexias were conditioned properly since I didn’t have a chance to ask.

Despite being raw, in the Ypsilon room all the components in the system were playing in such harmony and in such a musical way that one could easily ignore any weaknesses related to their lack of condition. This was also by far the best performance of Alexias in Munich and I’m saying this in confidence since I had the chance to listen to 4 more performing in other systems within a few hours time. In fact Matej shared my opinion, even going further to say that these were the best sounding Alexias he had heard anywhere else. To my ears Hyperions –even in their not burnt in condition– were simply fascinating. They just got out of the way and let the music flow. The way they create soundstage and space was exemplary.

Nagra set-up sounded very impressive and musically very satisfying though it didn’t quite match the level of inner detail and finesse of the Ypsilon set-up, only by a small margin though. Does that matter? Well, yes and no. One would not be able to make any sound criticism on the performance of the Nagra system as it played authoritative and complete without any flows. But once you witness the hidden potential of the Alexias revealed when driven by Ypsilon Hyperion monoblocks, then you realize what was missing and this is what high end audio is all about. If I’m allowed to make a metaphorical comparison, I will say while Nagra unveiled the music, Ypsilon stripped it to the bone. While discussing the sound in the Nagra room, I should say a few words about the Kronos turntable. Kronos appeared with 3 models – namely Sparta, Pro and SCPS-1– in different configurations in the show. My overall impression is that it played with impressive dynamism, transmitting all the energy stored in the grooves. Those who identify analogue with relaxed and lush sound, beware! Kronos presents music in an immediate way. And this immediacy has a charm of its own.

Kaiser Kawero Classic speakers driven by Kondo electronics sounded just right resembling the accuracy of studio monitors, with no misleading artifacts and audiophile tricks. They created an impressively wide and deep soundstage which infused into the music ingeniously. Though, in the first day of the demonstration there was nothing overwhelming about the sound as they were not positioned as they were supposed to be I guess and their tweeter cabinets were adjusted for narrow dispersion, so they seemed to play for the sweet spot only. From second day on, as Herr Weber’s fingers touched for a little revision on the positioning of the speakers, the sound became tonally consistent in almost all the regions of the large L shaped suite. These speakers’ tonal balance and coherency throughout the whole audio band is exemplary and vocals sound frighteningly real. And when they are tuned for wide dispersion, they create a spooky soundstage. Fully satisfied with what I heard? No. The question of whether Kawero and Kondo have perfect synergy remained in my mind while leaving the suite.

For the rest of the participants I listed above, I will only say a few words since I doubt if the listeners’ respect were for the brand name rather than the sound. Soulution’s room (with Magico M Project speakers) sounded somewhat rough with no grace at all. Nevertheless, it had the low end response that most rooms were lacking. In comparison, Magico’s room demonstrating S5’s driven by Constellation electronics sounded much more civilized and musical. Notwithstanding I clearly remember S3s made music with more refinement and finesse when I last heard them in Oxford Audio Consultant’s listening room, driven by Devialet electronics. 

In Absolare’s room, Passion integrated amplifier was driving Rockport Altairs. Kerem Küçükaslan used Kronos Pro turntable as the source in most of the times. There was energy, there was detail, there was a huge soundstage but no authority in the low end (actually there was no low end) as one would expect from Altairs. Music sounded somewhat deficient. 

Cessaro’s room was as usual, calm and noble, people silently listening to those giants. Despite their scaring sizes they sounded immediate but still civilized and very musical. Ok, let’s face it, size matters. No need to criticize those who are oppressed by the figures of inches. It is all about physics, isn’t it? Bigger the cabinets or horns get, larger is the scale of the sound. And scale helps the believability of the reproduction. This year was the same as last year when respect to size is concerned. I witnessed the same reaction of respect to Living Voice Vox Olympians driven by Kondo electronics (they didn’t sound as good as they sounded last year) and Western Electric horns brought from the museum in Korea and driven by Silbatone amplifiers. All sounded impressive in scale with impactful reality. But are these giants real world speakers? The jury is still out on this. 

Now a few highlights of my personal liking regardless of the listeners’ reactions. Raidho’s new D4.1 (world premiere) was impressive by all means. Marketing wise it filled the long term gap between D3.1 and D5.1. Sound wise, it reached the level of magic that is attributed to D1.1, but with real low end authority and more expansive and addictive sound stage. Surprisingly, as addictive as D1.1 and D4.1 was a member of Raidho’s entry level line, namely XT-2. I couldn’t leave the room for a long time while they were being demonstrated, though I had just stopped by to say good bye to the team before leaving. 

The music in Zen Sati’s room (with Stenheim Reference Statement speakers driven by Viola electronics) seemed to play in concert reality and I could not hide my appreciation during my first visit. I thought if high end audio’s mission could be summarized as the ultimate reproduction of music, then Zen Sati’s room should have been the closest to accomplish this mission. 

However, during my second visit, listening to the set-up with a more judgmental ear, I realized the individual timbers were not as perfectly infused into the whole as they would be in live experience. Also the music was not presented in a wide scale as it should be. Well, for many, this may not be a major criticism (can even be considered a very personal one), but we are talking about a seven digit price tag here –the complete set-up should be costing more than EURO 2.000.000 I guess– so I do not feel uncomfortable as I make this criticism. I’m also aware of the fact that the intention of the whole demonstration was to exhibit the capability of Zen Sati’s Silenzio line of cables. But how can you evaluate cables disregarding the rest, unless you are familiar with the individual performance of each component in the system? Isn’t audio experience a whole? I will not talk about my third day experience as it was a big disappointment.

I guess I’ve talked enough about the usual suspects for the best sound of the show. I should admit that all are real gems, strongly positioned on the higher echelon of the high end audio, unfortunately with dissuasive price tags. But there were three rooms that cheered me up and made me smile either with their performances or with their acceptable price tags. 

One was Lyravox, a brand I would never be interested and give a serious listening unless a friend had pulled my arm and dragged me into their demo room. I listened to their flagship wireless sound bar –again a concept completely out of my interest– and it sounded far better than many systems demonstrating on the first and second floors where big brothers are usually located. The sound was well balanced, detailed and it created a sound stage with acceptable width and depth. I wanted to push it a bit further and asked if I could listen to some orchestral classical music, something that most brands avoided doing this year. Rachmaninov’s piano concerto No2 (Vladimir Ashkenazy performing I guess) played in such an honest and musical way that I was surprised. The amount of detail was something that one wouldn’t expect from a wireless sound bar. Alright, it surely did not play in real scale as it is a one piece unit and substantial bass notes were not there as its low end is somewhat restricted, but the musical satisfaction it provided was very remarkable. Wish I could have spent more time with it and listened to it in a larger room to see how far it can go. Should it be considered as a high end contender? Why not if you are not prejudiced for wireless streaming or the sound bar concept. If you already have a high end system that you consistently tweak with, hang it on the wall of your bedroom or your study room, purify your mind from all ill diseased audiophile worries and listen to music. 

Another suite that many über high-end freaks would turn up their noses at was Totem Acoustics’. After being exposed to too many high frequency assaults in many swanky rooms, listening to music from unpretentious Totems was a cure for my ears. They were driven by VTL electronics, YBA CD player as the digital front end and PE turntable as analogue front end (first time I see). They sounded very balanced, energetic and above all very honest.

And finally, a room that won my heart, my soul and provoked all my emotions: Swissonor in partnership with Leedh Acoustic. Well, the room looked a bit sloppy and too authentic compared to those big brothers’. It was decorated with a few ethnic accessories. On the top of a so called Soundboard Hi-fi Konsole (a wooden framed rack in fact) stood an in house modified Thorens TD-124 turntable of my age, equipped with Swissonor TA10 tone arm (for mono play back) next to Swissonor step-up transformer and a phono pre (I guess); and just below, another but younger Thorens for the stereo (these guys are experts on modifying aged Thorens turntables). Then below stood a complete tube design Swissonor A.M. Modular Amplifier System. On the floor was a Stellamaster belt drive open reel tape, randomly placed on an aluminium framed transportation bag. There were two sets of speakers, again randomly being demonstrated: Swissonor B.A.C.H. 12 bass adjustable coaxial horns and unconventional, even weird looking Leedh E2s with glass cone drivers and dedicated subwoofers.

And God, what a hypnotising, what an addictive musical experience from both speakers! It was one of the most natural and most life like high frequency performances, challenging all those much respected ribbons and diamonds and berylliums (Ok, I confess, Munich made me obsessed with high frequencies this year). The tonality and trueness of B.A.C.H. 12s and the sound stage created by E2s were just awe dropping. The system played a wide range of music from old mono jazz recordings to orchestral classics and ethnic music with both speakers in full confidence. And it made this happen, challenging systems costing ten times or more. I tried to express my appreciation and ask a few questions to Urs Frei (I learned his name later and still don’t know his title) about the components, but he started talking in detail about the track that was being played. Man, these guys are truly obsessed with music. Swissonor room was exciting, engaging, fun and it was a lecture on how to sincerely make music to those who lost their paths in the high end game for the sake of dollars blinking in the luxury market. Talking over enthusiastic? Yes, maybe. And so?     

So, my highest honour goes to Swissonor room in partnership with Leedh speakers. To my humble ears, and to my sincere heart, those guys were the true stars of Munich High End 2016.

As I said in the beginning, I may have missed –and I did miss– some truly good sounding rooms (a friend whose ears and audio culture I trust told me that EMT-Thales room was one of the best sounding and I regret that I didn’t have the chance to visit), so I beg apologies for not mentioning about their names. 

Overall, Munich High End 2016 was disappointing for me in terms of musical satisfaction. Amongst hundreds of contenders, it is a shame for an audio writer to come up with only a handful of truly great sounding rooms to mention about (and still with some reservation on the high frequency presentation). 

My disappointment is not only about the sound actually. Poorer than the sound was the range of music (I acquit Raidho, Swissonor and maybe a few others) playing around. Tracks played during the demonstrations were so boring that one friend told me he fell asleep soon after a demonstration began and woke up to his own snoring while listening to a system whose sound appealed him to go in for a serious listening. Where the hell were the rocks, metals, funks? Where was the exuberance of Carmina Burana? Wasn’t it the most appropriate time for joyful rites as spring was outside? Or was it because the contenders didn’t have the guts to play such variety of music that would challenge their systems? It was a shame that music lovers were convicted to boring audiophile stuff while the ordinary citizens of Munich were cheering up in the gardens and parks enjoying beautiful spring weather.  

But wait! There is always a heavenly salvation for the let down music lover. In ten minutes drive way, there was the Hi-fi Deluxe Munich 2016 show (I hate its name) at the Mariott Hotel and the last day before my leave, I found what I was desperately looking for. This I will mention about later in a dedicated article.   

Text: Ahmet Kip - Senior Contributing Reviewer