Hi-fi: a new high at Munich’s biggest tech show

Ken Kessler gets an audio epiphany at Munich’s High End Show, sampling one of the best systems he’s ever heard

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Two things have re-energised the desire for “proper” separates hi-fi systems, both of which have been covered here before: the massive growth in the sales of high-quality headphones and the so-called “vinyl revival.” The delicious irony is that the very devices which created the demand for headphones – mobile phones, tablets and computers for most people’s music players of choice – were totally responsible for killing the sales of “full size” hi-fi systems made up of those components in the first place.

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As for the return of the LP, it has been accompanied by the appearance of so many new record decks that the High End Show in Munich this month seemed like 1988 but with cell phones. I don’t know if hipsters, who have received undeserved credit for reviving the LP according to the thinking that it’s retro so they must have played a part, will be buying new record decks: logic also suggests they’ll buy second-hand. As far as the hi-fi industry is concerned, it’s all good news.

Munich’s event has long been not just Europe’s most important show for serious hi-fi, but also the world’s best and most innovative. Numbers over the four days totalled over 20,000 visitors – exceptional by today’s standards, recalling the hi-fi show heyday two decades back.

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Over 500 exhibitors showed off astounding new products, with the overwhelming sensation being one of maturity: high-end hi-fi has unashamedly embraced the new world of music lovers that eschew physical media, whether CD, LP or tape. The difference is, the hi-fi crowd is not prepared to stand by and watch sound quality fly out the window. Just as they did with Compact Disc, the high-end guys are doing whatever they can to improve the sound of servers and streamers.

As this is but a mere taste of Munich, I must – quite literally – write home about a venture that may be one of the most important of all the product launches, especially if one agrees that old-school audiophiles and the wearable-tech generation ought to coexist to each other’s benefit. And the honour belongs to Astell & Kern.

This company single-handedly taught the world that there is life beyond the iPod and iPhone for music on the go. The fussiest of audiophiles bought Astell & Kern players, even with their prohibitive pricing. And, yes, the star of their display was the AK380 costing over £3000. We’ll be covering it here in the autumn.

Yes, the AK380 handles digital material to 384/32-bit, has 256GB internal memory, and looks the business, but even those who can afford one might balk at travelling with so costly advice. Imagine the screams of agony if one left it on a plane…

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But Astell & Kern are not sadists, so they unveiled the AK Jr at the other end of the scale. It will be a smash hit because it’s going to sell for circa £399 yet it delivers that wonderful A&K 192/24-bit sound quality in a package smaller and lighter than an iPhone 5. It’s gorgeous, all-metal, wonderful to the touch, easy-to-use and supplied with 64GB internal memory. I’m happy road testing it now. So far? It’s the best-sounding, sub-£500 player I’ve ever heard. Hell, it was worth going to Munich just to collect it. Eating at Rüen Thai Restaurant, with one of the best wine lists I’ve ever seen? That was good. But this exceptional new audio experience wasbetter.

FIVE OF THE BEST FROM THE MUNICH HIGH END SHOW

ReQuest Audio “The Beast”

Though best exemplified by the profusion of LPs in particular, this show was neither server- nor streamer-shy. At the extreme top of the tree – think £30,000-plus – is ReQuest Audio’s aptly-named “The Beast”, a server aimed squarely at purists with huge CD libraries. It comes with two terabytes capacity, but you can add as many drives as you like to store all your digital music uncompressed. Easy to use, integrating with automated homes, this is the new server yardstick.

Chord Electronics DAVE DAC/pre-amplifier

Chord Electronics’ new £7795 DAVE DAC/pre-amplifier contains a full digital preamp and a headphone amplifier, so it can serve as a high-end system all on its own if you have no need for speakers. Flat dwellers, rejoice! This is state-of-the-art sound to exploit the best that headphones can offer. Later, should one decide that speakers are needed, just add them with a suitable power amplifier.

DAVE uses cost-no-object technology. It’s certainly future-proof, as processing goes up to 768kHz, at a time when most people are still impressed with 192kHz. Come the day if streaming reaches 768kHz – roll on, high speed internet here in the wilds of Kent where this writer is situated – this baby will greet it with aplomb. As for connectivity, DAVE will work with everything from a “normal” standalone hi-fi system to a full custom installation, thanks to an array of XLR and RCA outputs and digital inputs including USB Type-B, optical and coaxial.

TechDAS Air Force III

Back in the analogue kingdom, LP lovers were treated to astonishing new record decks from SME, E.A.T., Pro-Ject, Kronos, Thrax and too many others to list. This writer will be dreaming about TechDAS’ Air Force III, because it is able to support four tonearms – a boon for lunatic vinyl users who have a host of phono cartridges for different purposes. (Don’t ask…) TechDAS has priced this at half the cost of the Air Force Two, which was half the price of the Air Force One. At this rate, they’ll be making one for £150 in seven years!

Nagra Classic Amplifier

I saw Nagra’s Classic Amplifier in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, as a rough prototype. The finished version of this solid-state stereo power amp surpassed all expectations, sounding amazing through Wilson loudspeakers. It delivers 100 watts per channel in stereo mode, but you can “bridge” it for mono use for double the power. It looks minimalist – Nagra styles strictly for function, thanks to its pro/studio/movie soundtrack background – but, naturally, the front panel features the company’s signature Modulometer.

Wilson Audio Sabrina

Speaking of Wilson Audio, the Utah-based company showed what may be its best-value speaker ever. Sabrina is the company’s entry-level floorstanding model, in a one-piece enclosure instead of the modular construction of its larger siblings. Price will be in the £14,000-£15,000 region, but Wilson has a problem: the performance is so good that the only reason for spending more will be to fill massive rooms. One other thing: it’s also their prettiest speaker yet.

However, for now I’m happy road testing that aforementioned Astell & Kern AK Jnr. So far? It’s the best-sounding, sub-£500 player I’ve ever heard. Hell, it was worth going to Munich just to collect it. Eating at Rüen Thai Restaurant, with one of the best wine lists I’ve ever seen? That was good. But this exceptional new audio experience was better.

Via The Telegraph

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