How High is High? Aspiration audio in an age of high technology. What is the high end?
These are practical questions the astute audiophile needs to define because the marketing machines cloud the issue (as they are handsomely paid to do).
Munich has deservedly become THE annual showcase of all that is good, bad and ugly in high-end audio, and the trends are there for all to see. I hope this is a useful and insightful overview based on our 40 years of experience of trends!
We will save for later our High End system consisting of a turntable under £1500, amplifier under £2500, loudspeakers under £5000, so allowing for cartridges, cables Etc, a ten thousand pound system that is a Giant Killer.
Anyone who argues vinyl is a passing fad has not been to Munich 2019. LP’s for sale, new titles released, new (and retro) turntables, arms and cartridges, and widespread use to demonstrate amplifiers and loudspeakers.
Needless to say, the media and corporate conspiracy to replace CD with digital files is also backfiring. As with vinyl, many new CD players and transports, used widely as sources, and massive choice of CD stalls with the goodies being snapped up fast!!
Define the High End
Is it measured by size, price, performance, or value? Can a system at £200,000 be value? Can a system at £10,000 be high end??
What did Munich say?
The manufacturers have been punished for pretentious pricing and are responding in many ways.
Technology is both progressing and regressing. It is vital to know why, because the trap is to see bargains on the used market for what they are. Pups!! Because the market appraises an old Krell at £16,000 as worth £1,600.
Disappointment with modern trends to create 3-D as digital, data and detail has come full circle but you need to understand the new traps!
Retro, Brands, The Corporates and The Innovators
Disappointment with High Street, high-tech, audio has sparked the joyous rediscovery of vinyl; even open reel tape was in evidence. And hopefully FM radio will never be retired.
Reject the shiny brands in the shop windows and the latest sale offers.
But the trend to retro and the corporates needs to be exposed as potentially the next misleading marketing. Mark Levinson launches 5000 series amplifiers, but now in second generation “vertical integration” as the Hedge Funds would say: having been acquired by Harman and in turn Harman by Samsung. It is a far cry from Mark Levinson holding the whip over designers like Tom Colangelo and Paul Jayson (now Viola Audio Laboratories). Same with so many venerable brands which the advertisers know have a feel good image despite being no more than a masked bandit!!
The retro trend is represented by the welcome return of Garrard this year and the revival of McIntosh, Audio Research, etc. The new owners of SME are honorably staying true to the heritage, rather than badge engineering.
So should you buy vintage or reproductions??
In my opinion, both these product categories – can confer pride or ownership and eye candy. But do they perform? The neglected truth is as follows. Do not mix technologies.
Consider for example the revived west coast sound, the reborn JBL, Klipsch, etc and I thin k they sound terrible for two reasons. The designers are mixing technologies and the consumers are mis-matching components.
One of the most successful vintage loudspeaker designs is the MAX-1 and MAX-2 by Unison Research: classic paper woofer, compression drivers, live cabinets, horn waveguides. Beautifully built in Italy. Expertly designed by Mario Bono. But the Hi-Fi Dealers connect them to modern systems. It just don’t work. To achieve the wonderful west coast sound, try period components (vinyl, valves, wires, and yes, even vintage recordings). You can even roll tubes to NOS and specific voicing. It may sound extreme but the sonic reward is breath-taking in its impact.
Leading edge or Vintage?
As we are in a hobby business, it may or may not be a waste of time by trial and error, but would you be your own doctor or lawyer? Sadly, almost all dealers claim to be passionate about music although their shifting and expanding product portfolios combine opportunistic eastern newcomers and brands, brands, brands that identify the said passionate dealer as more of a broker.
Music Room and Jack Lawson (that is me) have never run a commercial model of dealership. Hopefully we will always represent proudly the designers and manufacturers who are motivated by pride rather than profit.
High End: Price–1
It is possible that systems costing 200,000 Euros and more can be high value as well as high price. Possible, but rare. If you are a successful industrialist, a dot com founder or a Member of a Parliament, my key question is a useful starting point. Are you seeking Hi-Fi impact or musical neutrality?
To differentiate themselves, leading edge designers by nature go to extremes. So, compare LIVING VOICE with YAR AUDIO. In my opinion, hugely impressive: the Brits using traditional vinyl, valves and classic horns and the Italians employing very innovative and clearly 21st century materials, components and designs. Recently reviewed (March 2019, HiFi+, UK) at 200,000 Euros plus VAT, can it be seriously called value? I think so, based on the wow factor and the quality of sound to match. Basically, you are paying for a few years of innovative research and development by a highly inspired design team headed by Giancarlo Sopegno.
With an attention span of ten seconds the design and also the sound will grab you. I think it is a market once dominated by Wilson Audio, but it is like Ferrari and Ford. The Italians have It. The YAR is worth the price of the car.
High End: Price–2
Esoteric’s Room showed their latest Super-Audio Transport and DAC in their stratospheric Grandioso flagship range. That exposes the exhibitor to ticking off the list: seen it, heard it. But it was absolutely stunning. Using Sonus Faber loudspeakers this year, I almost got to like them, just as last year I almost got to like their choice of B&W. Guests were honored by the presence of the company’s president this year. He has much to be proud of his team’s work. This equipment at all price points is reliable and robust …. And it could be the Best Sound at the Show …
High End: Price–3
Or could be the Best Sound of the Show and of all times was one where the “impact” was musical neutrality. This European manufacturer achieved the elusive goal of reproducing the master tape via CD or LP. So much so that, miraculously, no signature of either format … no clicks from black discs and no compression from purist 16-bit techniques that reject up-sampling and other progressive advances as marketing.
In a system of neutrality your attention span is longer because the power is in avoiding the demo discs, but turning back the clock to revisit classic recording events. The exhibitor is Ypsilon Electronics from Peania, Greece. This year they used loudspeakers by Peak Consult in Denmark. I see them in the fine tradition of the original Audio Note and Zanden (both from Japan). However, there is something robust, remarkable, and understated in the minimalist design.
The High End: Notes
Notable by absence this year was Burmester, but buyers should respect products which achieved perfection years ago. After the passing of Dieter, I hope the company just maintains his high standards and does not go down the corporate decline route of almost all of its competitors. So far, so good!! The old models just have very few and very nice revisions that make the name on the panel your true guarantee of excellence.
From UK, our very own ProAc showed the K6-Signature loudspeaker, an all-new design, loosely based on their best-selling K-6. Of similar dimensions but a whole new ball-game. On their stand we could see the astounding new wood veneers: just the best at the show, no competition. Gorgeous. See my iphone photo!
In the amazing room of Aesthetix, founder and designer Jim White demonstrated his distinguished electronics using K-6 Signature and proved that you don’t really have to spend six figure sums to achieve Hi-Fi Heaven. His Romulus “DAC with transport” (the new, in vogue terminology, folks) and MIMAS line integrated amplifier (£8,750 + DAC + phono stage) are very distinguished yet affordable high end.
For five figure sums “for a few dollars more”
So, you have this bonus coming / sold some shares / tax free pension / or can rob a bank. You’re my friend, so I will take you to the Brinkmann room. A den of design delights. Black is boring? I don’t think so. Alongside the acclaimed Oasis, Bardot, Spyder and Balance models, we have a few gorgeous limited editions and a new model: is it a big brother to the Bardot or a small brother to the Balance? Well, it uses the chassis of a Balance and yet it is direct (or rather “magnetic”) drive with a platter weighing in at 10kg. Price to be announced.
Brinkmann’s full range of electronics including the sensational Nyquist DAC was on static and performing display into Vandersteen loudspeakers and achieved state of the art, impressive, awesome sound. Huge excitement greeted the advance prototype of the Brinkmann Audio Voltaire. To call it an integrated amplifier is a bit like calling the Jaguar F-Type SVO a car. I want the car in white and the amp in black, please. At 20,000 Euros (my guess) the amplifier will cost around one sixth of the car. Not sure which is more elegant. But with apologies to Meridian, the Brinkmann will definitely sound better.
Affordable excellence: The Collection
Just when you thought eBay was your only hope, think again. Austerity is over.
“The Collection” is a concept and a brochure first published at Munich 2019.
The Music Room has launched a nationwide franchise, so at a dealer near you or a webstore on your device, excellence is at reach thanks to our instincts.
Sorry, but we have to laugh at Scottish dealers who are proudly resuscitating our cast offs, proudly announcing our exclusive appointment of massive black amplifiers that cost four times the price that they once were.
The world has changed. The original genius designers have gone. The black boxes are passé and empty!
Greeks know about austerity and invented democracy so the first Giant Killers in The Music Room Collection – at a Dealership Near You – are amplifiers by Tsakiridis Devices. Don’t just believe us; believe your ears and the reviewers. For £2,500 you can buy the 70 watts per channel Aeolos Ultra, second top of the Aelos amplifiers.
Now tell me if any amplifiers get better built and better sounding… at any price point.
To grasp the whole idea of Music Room, The Collection, click here for a brochure for potential resellers and aspiring audiophiles who want to start with a clean sheet…
Thinking outside the box…
…you want to hear it all but you can’t afford 100k on loudspeakers? That is why the Abyss is extreme value. No other headphone or loudspeaker will reach into unexplored impact and fine detail of sound.
Think Abyss. The logo “total consciousness” is engraved in miniature on the new AB-1266TC. And you can hear why. At a dealer near you.