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The hi-fi show conundrum

  • “Would you like to listen?” asked the hi-fi show exhibitor after introducing his new amplifier at Mitteldeutsche Hifi-Tage 2019 (MDHT 2019). It was clear from the quizzical facial expression that my polite “Nein danke” had taken him by surprise. I quickly offered some clarification: “I don’t come to shows to listen. That’s what dealer- and (especially) home-based listening is for.”

    I attend hi-fi/audio shows to see what’s new, to stumble upon previously unseen gear, to meet with manufacturers/distributors, to ask questions and to take photos/video. MDHT 2019 ticked every single one of those boxes. It’s an excellent event from top to bottom. I’d made the last-minute decision to attend based purely on the thoughtful and frequent posts spilling from MDHT’s Facebook feed — a strong example that other show organisers (and their exhibitors) would do well to follow.

    My Australian audio friend Barry objects to my listening-free approach to hi-fi shows. When he goes to a show, he wants to hear to gear, not just see it and touch it. When I push him for a cogent reason as to why, he stutters and stumbles through a show’s strong sense of community and togetherness before coming to a halt at “I just want to audition gear! What’s so wrong with that?”.

    I should pause here to acknowledge my privileged position in the hi-fi industry: that my job as a full-time audiophile means I have ongoing access to review loaners that make home-based auditions easier to organise. Others might not enjoy the instant access to audio gear that I do. And I am grateful for that. However, the average audiophile’s lower frequency of audition opportunities, especially with the number of high street dealers in decline, doesn’t change a hi-fi show’s intrinsic proposition as a community-based show and tell.

    When a high street dealer shutters its doors for good, it extends the distance between the consumer and his next closest dealer. Nowadays, ‘next closest’ can mean a hundred miles or more. Victims of geography seeking the next best place to audition gear often turn to local hi-fi shows like Leipzig’s MDHT for a fix. But how much can we really learn about a product’s sound when we only hear it for thirty minutes and as a single part of a fixed playback chain?

    At our high street dealer, we control the action. We get to play our own music. We get to swap out gear. And we get to decide when to swap out that gear. At a hi-fi show, we are one of many listeners and the system is, in the majority of rooms, unchangeable and playing the exhibitor’s music choices.

    MDHT doesn’t run in the usual edge-of-town hotel but an old printworks turned events venue. Drawing over 3300 visitors across its weekend run, 2000 on Saturday, the Alte Handelsdruckerei’s rooms are noticeably more spacious than a hotel’s but with so many people doing the rounds, even the biggest rooms heat up quickly. Some rooms just let the music play but many – NAD/DALI, T+A, KEF/Hegel and Technics – ran visitors through a cycle of 1) formal product introduction followed by 2) music playback before 3) taking a break to answer questions, during which time the system fell silent and windows were opened to draw in some much-needed fresh air.

    During once such break in the Sound United Germany room, I caught a large dose of Frischer Luft and wondered how many MDHT attendees would unwittingly conflate this room’s show-n-tell with a dealer-based product audition.

    Barry’s more overt product audition intent was also on my mind. Staring at the elegant simplicity of a new floorstanding loudspeaker model from Definitive Technology (playing nothing at all), I mentally pictured Barry commenting on their sound. Would he have found the top-end a little too insistent or the bass a little light? If so, how could he have ruled out the contribution of the Marantz electronics as the root cause? Answer: he couldn’t have.

    Barry would have no doubt retorted that he is here to assess the sound of a complete system in a room. Barry knows that the room is the number one contributor to a loudspeaker’s sound so his assertion makes sense at first pass. I ruminated on this some during a very impressive demonstration of Bowers & WilkinsFormation Duo streaming loudspeaker. It’s a complete system in a room, yes, but how would Barry have separated the Formation Duo’s performance from the VERY large room in which they played? Answer: he wouldn’t have. Only wishful thinking says otherwise. This hi-fi showroom comfortably accommodated 30 or so seated guests. Barry’s Sydneyside lounge-cum-listening room is, like mine in Berlin, large enough for five, maybe six people.

    This is what makes the Kii Audio Three + BXT and Dutch & Dutch 8c such compelling propositions at shows. As complete systems with in-built room agnosticism and/or room correction, they can sound the same at home as they did at the show. Alas, neither were present in Leipzig last weekend.

    Where does this leave the hi-fi show attendee interested in a single component and not a complete room-corrected system?

    S/he might seek out A/B demos like that held by AudioQuest. At MDHT 2019, Dutchmen Richard Drees and Thijs Helwegen demonstrated the clearly audible differences between three different loudspeaker cables: Monster (€9/metre), AudioQuest Rocket 11 (€15/metre) and AudioQuest William Tell Zero (€750/metre).

    The result isn’t only relevant to would-be big-ticket loudspeaker cable customers. It matters to entry-levellers eyeing a pair of Rocket 11 as a step up from phone wire. Further, demos like this matter to every audio cable manufacturer suffering (online) armchair conspiracy theorists who wouldn’t be caught dead leaving the house for a demo like this.

    On static on the other side of the demo room door, AudioQuest showed off the Niagara 5000 power conditioner (€4495) but with its lid removed. Seeing this reminded me that, in 2019, my hi-fi show beat is built around two fundamentals: the what (with photos); and the asking price. Once we give up on listening, static displays become as useful as ‘active’. In cases like this, static is more useful than active because we get to see/photograph what’s inside. Were the Niagara 5000 deployed in the main room, its lid would be re/attached and close quarters inspection would be off the menu.

    Consider Rega‘s recently announced ‘no compromise’ Aethos integrated amplifier (€3999): a dual mono design pushing 125 wpc into 8 Ohms; a quad of 160W/16Amp output transistors per channel; Class A input stage; custom wound toroidal transformer; regulated power supplies for both amplification and driver stages; pre-amplifier outputs and a “high performance combined feedback and passive volume control”, originally developed by Rega for their Elex-R amplifier. The Aethos packs no internal DAC or phono stage – this is very much a purist’s integrated – but a quarter-inch headphone output also comes as part of the deal.

    With the Aethos placed off to one side on static display, I could do things that wouldn’t be possible if it were pressed into service as part of the multi-tiered system that played along another wall. With the Rega, I could get up close and personal. I could inspect the chassis from closer quarters. I could turn its volume pot before running my fingers across the heatsinks that form the amplifier’s sides.

    For those seeking separate pre-amplifier and power amplifier, Rotel has resurrected MICHI: a subbrand that last saw daylight in the 90s with a silver/wood designs. Over twenty years down the line, MICHI steps out again, this time as very large glossy black boxes.

    The MICHI P5 is a Class A pre-amplifier that augments its balanced and single-ended line-level inputs with MM and MC phono staging and an internal AKM DAC accessible via TOSLINK, coaxial and USB. MQA support is in the works. Inside, analogue and digital circuits are independently fed by 17 x independent voltage regulators which in turn suck on a pair of custom-wound toroidal transformers.

    Not on display at MDHT 2019, the MICHI S5 is a stereo power amplifier that pushes 500wpc into 8 Ohms, 800wpc into 4 Ohms.

    However, in Leipzig, we could aim our camera lens at the MICHI M8 monoblock, which takes the S5’s ‘high-current’ Class A/B design a step further with 1080 Watts into 8 Ohms, 1800 Watts into 4 Ohms. Euro pricing on all models remains TBC.

    Both (power) amplifiers feature an enormous 2200VA toroidal transformer, hand-wound in-house at their Zhuhai facility. On output transformers, Rotel specifies 32 devices (16 per channel), their performance underpinned by “patented bulk storage capacitors”.

    With the P5 and a single M8 sat on two knee-high risers, I could walk around and between each unit to shoot photos of the front and the rear and, moments later, marvel at how the press release photos don’t do justice to the 2019 MICHI range’s physical enormity.

    In the USA, Andrew Jones and ELAC often go hand in hand. In Germany, it’s a different story. The new forthcoming Debut Reference was nowhere to be seen at MDHT 2019. Instead, the German-designed models were afforded the limelight. On static display, a loudspeaker that I might have missed if not for its strikingly handsome finish. The Vela BS 403 (€1999/pair) is a two-way, rear-ported standmount with JET 5 tweeter and 15cm ‘AS-XR’ mid/bass driver, ordinarily offered in high gloss black, white or walnut. To MDHT 2019, it came dressed in a you-just-cant-miss-it high gloss blue. And I’m glad that didn’t.

    Upon returning to the Bowers & Wilkins room, my static display train of thought came to a grinding halt. What better place than a room filled with idle chatter to test the PX7 (€399), an over-ear headphone with in-built active noise cancellation?

    That B&W have dialled down the PX’s robust side-clamping force for the PX7 was instantly obvious. As was the efficacy of the PX7’s noise-cancelling circuitry whose intensity could be ramped up according to taste/needs by pressing a hardware button behind the left earcup. For reasons that my basic German didn’t quite let me understand, attendees were not allowed to Bluetooth pair their own smartphone with the display model. We were direct instead to choose from a dozen or so songs from a permanently-paired iPad where only Infected Mushroom dovetailed with my own tastes.

    If I told you that the PX7 offered more ‘air’ and delicacy than Sony’s class-leading WH-1000XM3, I’d be reaching for audible memory. In other words, I’d be guessing. If I told you that they paint a deeper headstage than the PX but without the PX present for a direct A/B standoff, I’d be bordering on BS. What I am sure of is that hearing a single song through the PX7 was the closest I came to a product audition at this German hi-fi show.

    I once suggested (somewhat confrontationally) to Barry that he indulged in the most cursory of hi-fi show ‘auditions’ in order to keep himself in the conversation about those products, irrespective of how instructive those ‘auditions’ proved to be. The same could be said of Barry’s thirst for measurements — beyond flagging safety concerns and false claims made by the manufacturer, they will always play second fiddle to a home audition.

    I further suggested to Barry that in the absence of home (or store) auditions, he had reframed hi-fi shows as a collection of audition spaces so that he could later venture an opinion on the gear under consideration, in-person and – especially – online. These show auditions, as he saw them, gave him licence to say, “Yeah, I heard that at blah blah show and it sounded good.” And yet, were his opinion to swing in other direction, toward the negative, Barry’s observation would be dismissed out of hand for being show-derived. The irony of this double standard should not be ignored.

    If we as attendees let go of hi-fi shows as places to audition gear, exhibitors might be less concerned with trying to woo us with sound quality from a fixed hardware configuration and turn their attention to meaningful A/B comparisons, about which consumer spending pivots. How about a €1K DAC vs. a €10K DAC? Or a €5000 digital front end vs. the same money spent on a vinyl front end? Or a €2K system vs. a €20K system? It could even be a simple as amplifier A. vs amplifier B.

    And if the hi-fi system is to remain unchanged throughout the show’s duration to offer listeners no real meaning beyond a dressed up show-n-tell, how about spinning a more diverse selection of music? Stronger doses of metal, funk, soul, neo-classical and hip-hop would make for a less uptight show environment in which many people still claim the pursuit of better sound as being “all about the music”.

    Support your local dealer. For s/he is the one offering reliable product auditions and, if you persist, home loaners.

    Further information: Mitteldeutsche Hi-fi Tage

    UPDATE: I discussed these issues with Soundstage!’s Doug Schneider in Warsaw. You can read his take here.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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