With Munich High-End 2016 coverage now in the bag, let’s turn our attention to trends. What themes shot through this year’s event? Here’s my Top 5:
1. Turntables, turntables and more turntables. Big black disc spinners were more prevalent at Munich High-End 2016 than any other show I’ve attended in the last five years. Especially, the big, high mass, expensive kind. If Godzilla owned a turntable it might look something like this:
However, this site, despite turntable coverage running directly in the face of its now outdated domain name, remains squarely focussed on those making a more modest visual statement. One’s ability to relate to a design doesn’t just revolve around a turntable’s street price, it’s also a matter of aesthetics and ergonomics. Hence articles on new wax wonders from MoFi Electronics, Technics, Pro-Ject and ELAC. The latter’s hot pink and lime green takes on their 90th anniversary ‘table leads us into to our next trend.
2. Colours. Loudspeakers should be wood veneered or piano black/white and electronics silver, champagne or black, right? RIGHT? Not always. Especially evident at this year’s Munich show were manufacturers, mostly loudspeaker manufacturers, who thumb their noses at the conventions of yesteryear. Their new direction favours of a splash of colour. Shout outs go to Crystal Cable, Meridian, Micromega, Focal, NEAT Acoustics, Pro-Ject, Progressive Audio, APS Audio and, of course, ELAC. Taste the rainbow! (With apologies to the numerous other rainbow-influenced designers that I missed).
3. Convergence Part 1 – streaming DACs. For listeners wanting to add Roon Readiness or Squeezebox emulation (or even HQPlayer capabilities) to their existing DAC, either SOtM and Sonore want to talk to you. I’m hearing GREAT things about the latter’s microRendu box. Computer Audiophile’s Chris Connaker enthused about it over coffee on the show’s final day.
Vinnie Rossi has reportedly admitted defeat on building a LIO module based on the microRendu’s circuitry – the board is apparently too big – but he’s still found a way to power the original external version directly from the LIO’s ultracap power supply. More details on that soon.
However, what struck me at Munich High-End this year is that the standalone external streamer is already under threat from networked DACs; manufacturers are now putting streamers right inside their decoders and so bypass the USB and S/PDIF connections of external devices. PS Audio, Ayre Acoustics and Merging Technologies already have network DACs on (or about to hit) the market.
Not far behind are Mytek Digital and Australia’s DEQX. According to the latter company’s Alan Langford, the Roon Ready compatibility soon to be announced for their PreMate+’s Ethernet input bests the SQ of a MacMini feeding the same unit over USB. Heck, even one of the most talked about streaming manufacturers of the past year, Beijing’s AURALiC, have included a Lightning DS streamer inside their latest ALTAIR DAC. That has me wondering why Xuanqian Wang does’t offer OEM boards to other DAC manufacturers for them to do likewise.
4. Convergence Part 2 – Super-integrateds. The traditional perception of an integrated amplifier is one that included bonus DAC or phono stage connectivity but rarely both. Those times are a changin’. Spearheaded by French company Devialet, the super-integrated (my term) can now be seen spilling from all corners. The super-integrated is a one box hifi system – just add Internet connection or turntable and loudspeakers – because previously external boxes like streaming modules, headphone amplifiers, phono stages and D/A converters are all included. New entrants seen at Munich High-End were single slabs from Micromega, MOON by Simaudio, Bel Canto and NAD.
5. Music. The marketing spun by show organisers tries its darndest to convince us that their event will be different. That the show in question will not only be a celebration of audio hardware but also of music itself. On this, once again, and with continued frustration, I’m calling bullshit. The opera, classical and jazz lover was well looked after at Munich High-End 2016. Slim pickings for anyone else.
Don’t only trust my camera, check out Moiz Audio’s Vimeo channel.
Of course, exhibitors can play what they damn well please – it’s their gear – but the net result of such homogenous aural fodder, year in, year out, is the continued homogeneity of the attendee demographic: cashed up, middle-aged white dudes. What point playing to younger tastes when da yoof have precious little disposable income? But not all middle-aged white guys subsist on a diet of jazz and classical. Many of us like psychedelic rock and techno. Others like Beyoncé and PJ Harvey.
I’m white, middle-aged and my musical tastes were once again catered to in Munich by the usual suspects: Zu Audio and KEF, with a nod of appreciation to Chord Electronics and Dynaudio.
Elsewhere, at the remaining 99.9% of this audio show, exhibitors pulled cuts from the usual letterbox-narrow pool of music. These showponies seem content with the Groundhog Day of their own making: the same old faces sat in the same old chairs. A under-30s drop in might reasonably summarise an audio show as dads playing dad music to others dads. It might keep manufacturers in business for the next ten years but what of the long game? A change has to come or the audiophile market is destined for a sunset of its own creation.
I don’t listen to soul or funk at home, not ever, but shows could do with a heavy dose of Isaac Hayes, James Brown or Marvin Gaye. Black music for white folks it might be but at least it stirs the mind (and body!) more than another take pulled from the frankly tepid girl + guitar songbook.
Also – where’s the mettle for metal?
To show exhibitors I say it more boldly and with more courage than in previous years: wake up – you’re asleep at the wheel. Stop playing that Nils Lofgren track, that Boz Scaggs track, Diana Krall and Hotel fkn California. It says nothing to me about my life and if you’re a regular DAR reader, probably yours. Hang the DJ.
Coincidentally, my Facebook feed yesterday lit up with similar complaints following a comment about perfectly good songs rendered unlistenable by over-exposure at audio shows. And this was from one well-known manufacturer. Evident was the unrest on the other side of the fence.
If you absolutely must trot out those clichés one more time, how about interspersing them with Radiohead or James Blake or Rammstein? One track for the old folks, one for those with more contemporary (read: younger) tastes. BTW – spinning Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” at the top of every hour doesn’t count.
You aren’t programming music for the retirement home. Your present audience might nod in appreciation of more Norah Jones, beards might even get stroked, but no-one’s gonna think about buying your gear if you keep spinning the equivalent of aural anaesthesia.
Not every audiophile is trying to re-create a live event in their living room. Not every audiophile buys an album because it’s well recorded or nicely mastered. Not every audiophile takes a hi-res or die attitude.
Throw those old discs and USB drives into the fire and start anew. Sure, you’ll have to stand firm as you spin Joy Division or LCD Soundsystem (or whatever) and watch the old guard bolt for the door in horror. And sure, it might not be an optimal recording, but people that love this kind of music will look past any shortcomings because you’ve gone deeper; you’ve made an emotional connection. Ain’t nothing more powerful than that. People buy on their emotions.
With your new audience’s attention secured, follow up the JD or the LCD with something that DOES sound good, something that you like. Musical snobs are what’s keeping you and your sales chart down. Y’all have Tidal Hifi so excuses about accessibility no longer fly.
Take courage, be free and I’ll see you at the M.O.C. in 2017. Until then, for these reasons and more (and RMAF 2016 aside), I’m bowing out of the two-channel audio show scene.
Further information: High End Society