We’re off to the world’s largest hi-fi show – Munich High-End. However, Dean, our loquacious leader, owner of Soundstage, and North London’s answer to Tony Wilson can’t find his passport. Lost in a house move six months ago, never to be seen again. It’s decided that Dean will stay in England and look after the shop, whilst Alex and I will report back home with our highlights of two days listening to the best-sounding hi-fi on the planet.
Searching for the perfect sound
We’re constantly on the hunt for those elusive listening experiences that get us closer to the music we love. We travel to the High-End Show 2022, where over 800 brands are exhibiting, hoping for those magic moments where the turntables, amps and loudspeakers melt away, leaving us helplessly immersed in the music.
” Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts — it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure — and the most sensual. ” The philosopher & author Susan Sontag writes. ” I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music.”
Hi-Fi manufacturers use High-End Munich to showcase the very pinnacle of their engineering, design, and craftsmanship. High-performance audio products use the most advanced technologies; the highest-quality components and the best available materials to achieve the ultimate goal – pure sound.
We arrive in Marienplatz, Munich and it’s exactly how you’d imagine it. Imposing neo-gothic architecture, wooden stalls selling giant pretzels, and feathery-hatted gentlemen with curly moustaches wearing lederhosen.
We head to the Glockenbach district and Optimal Records, an independent record shop packed with vinyl from every conceivable genre of music: from Ethiopian Afrobeat to experimental drone.
Day 1 of Munich High-End 2022
We catch the underground (U-Bahn) to the High-End Show, which is fifteen minutes north of Marienplatz. The show is spread over four vast air-conditioned halls downstairs and three atriums / greenhouses upstairs. Alex and I sit in the sunshine and create a detailed itinerary.
Feed your head
This year, a significant proportion of the show is devoted to head-fi systems. This includes high-performance, audiophile-quality headphones with a dedicated amp to drive them. These mini-systems often include a streamer, DAC and external power supply.
Earmen – Mini System
First up is Earmen (US) who preview their tiny desktop system: The CH-Amp & PSU 3, a fully balanced headphone amplifier & power supply; the Tradutto hi-res DAC; and the Staccato streamer. Really impressive sound, with lots of detail for such a compact size. Although, the app that controls the streamer is not very intuitive.
dCS – Bartók Room
We have a silver dCS Bartók on demo at the shop, and it’s proving to be a favourite with us and our customers. The High-End show gives us the ideal opportunity to find out which reference headphones are best suited to its unique sound.
I select the Focal Utopia headphones, and Beastie Boys’ “Jimmy James” from the Check your head LP. There is a lovely openness to the music, helped by these open-backed headphones. Mike D’s drums sound crisp & powerful.
Standing beside one of the Bartóks is Ross Bowman, Head of Design at dCS:
” We don’t rely on microchips from abroad.” Ross explains to us, ” As the Bartók is designed and hand-assembled in Cambridgeshire, UK. This means we aren’t suffering the same supply problems as other manufacturers. ”
Lack of components and delays to launch new products does seem to be a common problem for hi-fi brands in 2022.
Meze Audio Headphones
Ross points us towards the black Bartók with the Meze Elite Hybrid Array Isodynamic headphones. We’ve heard good things about these over-ear headphones. “The Avenues” by Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad has a beautiful clarity & the timing is impeccable. It’s apparent why these headphones are so revered. Dean – These would make an excellent addition to the new head-fi section of the shop!
Astell & Kern / Final Headphones
We listen to a few of the A&K ( South Korea ) hi-res portable music players. The highlight is the A&ultima SP2000 – its machined, chunky copper-finished body passes the official Soundstage Heft Test ™️. You feel the squelch of the Rhodes piano when listening to “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. Paired with the closed-backed Stealth DC Audio reference headphones you can make out individual notes of the guitar picking. Very comfortable headphones, with zero ear fatigue.
We are soon ushered into a room to audition the silver Final D8000 Pro Edition Planar Magnetic Headphones, made in Japan. My pair are attached with a transparent “supercomputer cable” to a Copland DAC215 a hi-res DAC/tube-amplifier from Denmark. The resulting sound is sensational! The detail & clarity is pin-sharp – qualities also found in our pair of Audeze LCD-X planar magnetic headphones.
ROON – IDM classics
Aphex Twin’s ” MiniPops 67 (Source Field Mix)” & Autechre’s “Clipper” are queued up on ROON – It’s a joy to use this user-friendly interface. I’m able to find decent music almost instantly. The above headphone system lends itself perfectly to electronic music – with bass extension that goes deeper into the low-end, combined with detailed clean and crisp sound and a wide dynamic range. The warming electro of Brainwaltzera ” (g) Raveyard Tools ” precedes Vangelis’s ” Rachel’s Song “ where the vocals sound very lifelike. That night, we hear news of Vangelis’s untimely passing.
Keeping it Reel-2-Reel
On our way out of the headphone section, we listen to a Reel-2-Reel which features on the Hi-End Japan, as well as the Zavlinko stand ( Russia). The deck produces a beautiful warm, soulful, analogue sound.
We sweep around the lower halls that contain static displays. Some notable mentions are:
Hegel ( Norway ) – They are reluctant to demo the new Hegel P30A pre-amp & the H30A reference power amplifier. Maybe they are prototypes? The amplifiers have the new Hegel bevelled front and look very powerful. Both are available this Autumn 2022.
At the Japanese Record stand, Alex purchases a mint copy of John Lennon’s – Plastic Ono Band LP with a Japanese obi strip.
Quadspire ( UK ) display their X Reference rack – constructed from sustainable bamboo for better sound quality.
Clearaudio ( Germany ) has brought a VW T1 Campervan with a custom-built turntable containing a weighted central gimbal for a smooth anti-skip experience. Rock the van and the needle doesn’t jump!
Clearaudio also showcases their self-standing Reference Statement turntables which are mightly impressive, but at £145,000 you’d expect it to be.
Neat Acoustics (UK) don’t have a listening room but has a colourful array of Limited Edition Petite Classic bookshelf speakers.
We head upstairs to where most of the listening sessions are taking place.
Bowers & Wilkins ( UK ) has the 801 D4 Loudspeakers on demonstration with a Classé system. We sit in the sweet spot and let that unique 800 sound wash over us – treated to a huge soundstage, and impeccable stereo imaging. It has a vivid sound, that is perfect for the jazz they are playing – The Oscar Peterson Trio “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado)”. Absorbed in the music, the speakers vanish.
Audioquest ( US ) are the surprise of the show so far. The room contains the dCS Vivaldi Apex system with Wilson Audio Alexx V speakers. It’s hard to quantify what the Audioquest Mythical Creatures cables’ contributions are, but the sound quality is amazing! A more laidback sound than the Bowers room, but equally impressive.
Naim ( UK ) celebrates their 10th Anniversary collaboration with Focal. There appears to be more focus on the candle display than the systems. Naim’s NAP300 DR / NDX2 / NAC 252 / & SUPERCAP are on display. It’s disappointing not to see the Naim Statement here, considering it’s the high-end show.
That evening, Alex and I meet up with the team from Linn ( UK ). We discuss the Linn Room set-up with their brand manager, Joe Rodger. He explains that the system wasn’t sounding perfect the night before, even after switching on Space Optimisation:
” It was too muddy in the bass, ” Joe explains, ” and the speakers appeared to be out of phase with themselves, and each other!”
The Linn team deduced that the difference in electric current in Germany may be affecting the sound, so, they simply turned the plugs around in their sockets and…Eureka! The Klimax system now sounded perfect.
We have a chat with Gilad Tiefenbru, MD of Linn, who asks after Dean and sends his regards (as do most of the people we bump into at High-End! )
Next up are our highlights from Day 2 of the Munich High-End show…