In early May Trent Wolbe traveled to the High End trade show in Munich, Germany. This is part one of a two part series exploring the cutting edge of audiophile technology.
Every American should be required to tour the eight distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail before they are allowed to die. It’s got history (Buffalo Trace goes back to 1773!), free booze for mom and dad (don’t sleep on Woodford Reserve’s loaded truffles!), and kid stuff (Junior can seal his very own bottle of Maker’s in hot red wax!). The raw core of the USA is laid bare as tours unwind: Pioneering entrepreneurs exploited Kentucky’s limestone-filtered water reserves and brought prosperity to future generations, seeing the family businesses through the Civil War and prohibition to their current status as icons worth taking a three-hour tour of.
The most magical part of every tour is the sticky-sweet warehouse where burnt-oak barrels are stacked from floor to ceiling, busy turning a pungent and colorless fermented mash into amber nectar. Years become decades as the barrels approach the ceiling; $10 hooch becomes a $1,000 reserve and then, at the very, very top?
“Wellllll,” one tour guide, a fourth-generation Buffalo Trace employee, chuckled, “can’t buy that stuff in the gift shop. Book a flight to Tokyo.”
While bourbon is important to America and Americans, we lack a fascination with the stuff at the very high end of the spectrum — most of those barrels are labeled “export-only.” The richest, most otaku consumers of bourbon are probably sipping $1,000 thimbles of Kentucky bourbon, listening to Rachmaninov on a million-dollar hi-fi system in a dimly lit room somewhere in the Osakan suburbs. I think about this otaku a lot: Although I’d be happier with Evan Williams and a shitty Coby boombox in a Walmart parking lot, I can respect his taste.
I saw one of these otaku last week at the High End trade fair in Munich, Germany. Manho Oh of Silbatone Acoustics was sipping a Beck’s tallboy and standing in front of a quarter-million dollars’ worth of audio equipment he had built to “capture the excitement of the great Western Electric triode and horn theater systems of the 1930s and 1940s for modern listeners ... Some people say these old-style speakers can’t rock and roll,” he deadpanned as he lifted Autobahn from the platter, replacing it with Led Zeppelin II. “Well, I’ll show you how to rock and roll.”
As the needle dropped on “Whole Lotta Love” a roomful of audiophiles went into a very rare kind of trance. The massive GIP-594A loudspeakers flooded the showroom with a vintage tone defined not by clarity (it was, in fact, relatively muddy), but by one man’s hyper-specific sonic quest into “the golden era of theater sound.” The Western Electric “Mirrorphonic” systems were designed to address 5,000 people with only 10 watts of power juicing their honeycombed aluminum drivers. Most modern car-stereo enthusiasts would spit at any amp under 1,000 watts but today just two watts were enough to blow away a hundred pairs of hyper-critical ears.
The Silbatone setup was the piece d’ resistance of the High End show, a showpiece tucked away in the top atrium of the glass-walled Munich Order Center that I didn’t find until my last day in Munich. It was the tail end of the intense emotional arc that accompanies any attempt to impose “journalism” on a conference — this wasn’t my first rodeo, and by now I’ve come to appreciate each stage of the journey for exactly what it is.
Willkommen in Hifisdorf
To get acquainted with the dizzying taxonomy of the universe that exists between a recording and an eardrum, I spent six hours getting to know the “neighborhoods” of the ground floor, which were cutely divided by things like “Joe Cocker Street,” “Etta James Way,” and, mind-blowingly, “Lenny Kravitz Drive.” Turntables, the structural pillars of hi-fi, predictably dominated the visual landscape. Most of them were beautiful, and the best were ones that didn’t take themselves too seriously.
Turntables, the structural pillars of hi-fi, predictably dominated the visual landscape
An inviting home theater setup lured in High End attendees near the main entrance: a loveseat in front of a Blu-ray screening of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (maybe it was more popular in Europe?). Pretty standard trade-show fare. But what was the deal with the little Jetsons accessories on top of viewers’ headsets?
This was Beyerdynamic’s Headzone Surround Headphone System. Not the simulated 5.1 frequently found in gaming headsets, but a real-time head-tracking system: Corresponding sensors sit atop the display (think Wii sensor bar) and monitor the exact relationship between the viewer’s kopf and the screen. Turn to the right, and your left ear gets a little more center and right channel, while the right ear dips into the rear surround speakers. It feels very Oculus Rift-y: Like the processor is watching your every movement very, very closely and emulating with startling accuracy what you “should” be hearing. Although it feels a little gimmicky it’s certainly much more convincing than anything you’d buy at GameStop.
Wandering this Epcot-esque global mall, it was difficult to ignore the overbearing Italian offerings that stuck out like so many sore Mediterranean thumbs. Don’t get me wrong: I love those guys, especially the gentle and delicious Tuscan ones, but others (Sicilians?) need to chill-a the fuck out-a little bit sometimes, like this dude hawking the massively gaudy Bellagio Conquest, a 363-pound, €18,000 nightmare with “the longest spindle / bearing of the platter ever made.” Bizarrely, it wasn’t hooked up to anything. “Can I hear it sometime this weekend?” “Ehh, ha ha no way. A ha ha. What are you, American press, sì? Yes, you’re very welcome in the booth, a heh heh,” the rep sneered as he sidled up to someone with more dough to spend on this overgrown, untested pizza platter.
This unfortunate offering was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the overpriced, un-testable equipment that attendees were made to wade through. Individual components like carbon nanotube-based interconnects, aeronautic aluminum-treated USB cables, or “holographic” turntable preamps are nearly impossible to isolate and compare in most contexts, let alone a busy showroom floor. Are some better than others? For sure, but if you can’t accurately compare them at the High End show, then where can you do it? I don’t really think you can. As is the case with most high-end goods, like bourbon, the art of the sale lies not in the actual product experience but in telling an irresistible story. The bigger the numbers, the more obscure the acronyms, the better, and the more someone will probably pay for it on the showroom floor.
Exhibit A: Wild Blue Yonder, a €4,500 1-meter XLR cable (that’s $148.34 per inch for my new-world friends, a rate that sounds more appropriate for a porn star than an audio cable).
Even if it weren’t locked up in a glass case, how good could this thing possibly sound? More importantly, what kind of music would the person who does buy this play through it to make it worth his while? Judging from the demo stations throughout the show, Bach concertos would be at the edgier end of the spectrum — more than likely it’s gonna be Jeff Beck, Michael Bublé, or, tragically, Paul “Rhymin’” Simon, the number-one-most-demoed artist at the show, and the most extreme asshole that popular music ever knew.
The art of the sale lies not in the actual product experience but in telling an irresistible story
Although my snake-oil radar is always on high alert, that certainly doesn’t keep me from appreciating a slick sales job: In fact, I can appreciate a smooth talker much easier than I can appreciate a smooth bourbon, as long as I remember to keep my credit card sheathed at the end of the pitch. My radar eventually directed me to a spa-like gallery where I found myself talking to a representative from Phonosophie, a boutique manufacturer of components, cables, and new living energy crystals.
These crystals, available in a range of formats from 30mm nugget (€200) to 110mm sphere (€700, optional illuminating pedestal €280), are to be placed at strategic locations throughout a listening environment to cancel out harmful electromagnetic “whirls” that result from the interaction between speaker drivers and the earth’s own magnetic poles. Much like the TMA-1 obelisk from 2001, the crystals are electromechanically “programmed” with specific crystalline data for three whole months to counteract the “elektrosmog” that apparently poisons most listening atmospheres. The more you know, right?
In a disheveled booth that felt like a different universe from Phonosophie’s, I found what very well might be the bottom of the barrel of the highest end.
Existing somewhere on the triangular plane between 1981’s Octopus handheld, a SanDisk MP3 player you bought when you were drunk at CVS, and a Steampunk click-wheel iPod, the €599 Colorfly Hifi Player C4 is the ugliest portable media player I have ever seen. Like, so ugly that it’s an exact replica of something I would design if I could use CAD and wanted to do an awesome / terrible impression of what David Hasselhoff might’ve toted his Hall & Oates collection around on circa Knight Rider. Oh, hey, and did I tell you the music library was populated almost exclusively by Meat Loaf and the Eagles? Yeah, yeah, I think there was some Mark Knopfler on there too! It’s almost like Don Henley was in there screaming “Throw me in the garbage” in really high-resolution audio. It’s not that the Colorfly wasn’t in good company: Devices loaded with fancy preamps, massive flash storage, and the processing power to play back 24 bit / 192 kHz studio master files were everywhere, most of them thrown together with nary a design student on staff.
Astell & Kern (iRiver : Astell & Kern :: Nissan : Infiniti) did a nice job brushing the aluminium on its new AK120 PMP, but I could hardly discern a difference between listening to an 8Mbps MQS file (“mastering quality sound”) and a 320Kbps MP3 of “Thriller.” If that makes me stupid or insensitive, so be it: At least I will never be the guy who paid €1,300 for an MP3 player. Or MQS player. Sorry. Whatever. Depression. After this hi-fi nadir I needed a sonic shot in the arm or the biergarten would soon become my trade-show tolerance crutch.
Over the weekend I had been listening to music through a lot of different headphones — in-ears, on-ears, over-ears; monophonic, stereo, and simulated surround; through alien-looking 24 / 192 DACs, through $20,000 tube preamps; and, to everyone’s horror, jacked directly into my iPod touch (don’t ever get caught without a preamp if you want to be taken seriously by audiophiles). Everything sounded nice, very nice, for sure, but it was all SO expensive!! It’s frustrating to spend all day looking for cheap thrills and just getting a weak, Ferrari-priced scalp massage; nothing, as far as my lumpy ol’ eardrums could discern, beat my trusty Etymotic ER-6i in-ears or my (shockingly good) Skullcandy Hesh 2.0 over-ears, both prosumer models to the core. By the time I had circled back around to Beyerdynamic’s booth I was flopping around the floor like a spoiled, bored child; I slipped on their DT1350’s expecting more of the same.
As the opening beats of Toto’s “Africa” took shape a sense of belonging I hadn’t felt from any other pair of cans crept over me. It wasn’t that sort of distant, limp crispness I’d gotten all day long: It was a loud and super-present hyperactivity, not afraid to engage the kick drum; and when the melodramatic synth line kicked in, it really tugged at my ‘80s-baby heartstrings. Finally, some gear that spoke my language: The $199 “monitoring headphones” seemed to be aimed at actual humans, not these aliens from another time and place with millions of euros and hours to spare on fine-tuning gear to their otherworldly standards.
At the time Toto was coming through in 24 / 192 resolution through the A1 headphone amplifier, and then through the DT1350’s. Knowing I would never spring for the $920 amp, I whipped out my iPod touch and cued up a 320Kbps MP3 of the same song, plugging directly into the eighth-inch out like a real human would.
This ability to A / B test was an anomaly on the floor at High End. If manufacturers had been more willing to do this, I might have had these revelatory experiences more often: While the opening beats still sounded amazing, when the synths kicked in I could really notice a difference. There was a telltale muddling of mid- and low-end, betraying the signature compression of an MP3 file coupled with standard iPod amplification. Let’s be clear: “Africa” still came through crystal-clear, and I wouldn’t have detected the $1,000 / 20x resolution change if the two options weren’t sitting there back-to-back for me to compare. There it was: A real indication that my ear–brain link might be capable of appreciating some level above prosumer.
At the southwest corner of Joe Cocker and Keith Jarrett Streets stood what was by far the most stunning invention in all of High End’s creation: Andrea Pivetta’s Opera Only High End Audio Amplifier. When it’s not functioning, it also summons visions of TMA-1: an awe-inspiring 12-sided black monolith of nebulous origin. And then you turn it on.
The prism unfolds like an alien flower into four discrete sections from its massive core, exposing a vast network of amplification circuitry lit from within. Basically it looks like a CRAY supercomputer with a ground effects kit straight out of The Fast & The Furious 6, but more menacing: an 8-foot tall, 1.5-ton, 160,000-watt force to be humbled by.
How did it sound? I couldn’t really tell, because the puny loudspeakers attached to it were barely loud enough to hear over the showroom din. But something tells me I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it, and if I could, I don’t think that would be the point anyway.
There is something about blasting jams in an enclosed space just for yourself and your two to four closest buds that makes car audio sacred to me
Like Peter Jackson’s emotional fairytale The Lovely Bones, the Opera Only is the work of a monied visionary that’s not meant to enter the commercial marketplace in any monumental way — the blooming black tower isn’t really even for sale. This is something I came to appreciate more and more during my time in Munich: Many of the exhibitors can’t possibly expect to make much money off of their creations. Although it’s billed as a trade show, it might be more widely appreciated if it were marketed more like a custom car exhibition where a bunch of extraordinarily rich and talented enthusiasts express themselves to the highest and most extreme degree possible. Mr. Pivetti was an Italian whose intensity I could relate to.
On the lookout for more relatable high-end experiences, I made my way towards an enclosed mall where the only mobile audio exhibitions were. Since I was a teenager there has really only been one way to get the most out of music: listening in the car. I DGAF if it’s a shitty cassette player run through blown-out factory-installed paper cones: There is something about blasting jams in an enclosed space just for yourself and your two to four closest buds that makes car audio sacred to me.
So it wasn’t so surprising that one of my favorite experiences at High End was inside a car. But this wasn’t the JVC head unit wedged into the 1991 Honda Prelude I grew up on.
This was a 2013 Porsche Cayenne with a €4,700 manufacturer-calibrated premium 16-channel surround sound system by Burmester. If you throw in the car that means the most immersive aural experience of my Bavarian tour was a bargain at around €88,000, and as a bonus you could use it to haul your entire family to Disneyland and the Magic Valet would certainly park it right at the front of the lot. As you handed him the keys you could honestly say “Oh, this old thing? Just picked it up for the sick system, bro.”
And that’s the rarified atmosphere High End Audio exists in. It’s beyond fancy food, fancy cars, and fancy homes: really it’s somewhere near the universe of fancy bourbons.
Hi-fi guy problems
The luxury audio market, like many other markets, is still trying to figure out how to deal with the advent of the internet. This infographic from the program guide to the 2013 High End show sums it up nicely:
Stereophilia has its roots in ultra-high-fidelity recordings of symphonic works, and classical music still commands a huge presence in this niche market. Obsessions with “pure single-microphone acoustic recordings” and accurate soundstage reproduction (being able to discern exactly where in the room individual instruments sit) are hangovers from the early ‘60s when people were first getting used to the idea that they could bring an entire orchestra into their living rooms — the ability to close one’s eyes and be transported to a concert hall reigned supreme.
Forty years later popular music is more likely to be produced on a laptop than it is in a recording studio. The majority of sounds on the radio are completely synthetic (although the new Daft Punk album might signal a backlash against the sampling-and-synthesis formula they helped popularize in the ‘90s) and mastered to sound good on YouTube. Young ears are actually more attracted to compression, which is anathema to the old school; they obviously see themselves as a disappearing hard core fighting a losing battle from a dark corner loaded with six-figure hi-fi systems.
What would it be like, I wondered, to be one of these graying stereophiles, who have had their entire universe flipped on its head? To see your obsession democratized and diluted — fabled recording studios replaced by laptops, behemoth vinyl hi-fis unseated by a tiny white box and earbuds?
If I was going to step into those well-worn shoes I needed to let go of my millennial notions and let another age wash over me in full force. I didn’t have time to seek out the usual transformative reefer, radical politics, and Doors LPs I usually rely on for metaphysical time travel that night in Munich, but I had to find some way to appreciate this all-but-forgotten world before my plane headed back across the pond.
The next day, in the hallowed atrium of the Munich Order Center, a different kind of psychedelic trip finally brought me to audiophilia in earnest — even though it was cloaked in a glittery Swedish spandex cape.
Read about day two of Trent's journeys in Munich.