Hits (And Misses…) Munich High End – 2023

That isn’t necessarily a reflection on the equipment used. Any tool is only as good as the individual(s) wielding it. The argument that the rooms are terrible and good sound is impossible is just nonsense. If that was the case, nobody would produce good sound, yet year in, year out, the same companies do so with utter reliability. Those are invariably the companies that put in the effort and go the extra mile. In contrast, it’s also no great surprise to find room after room producing a dreadful racket, while the people responsible stand around apparently oblivious. If they can’t appreciate just how bad their mountain of expensive hardware sounds, you can’t really expect them to fix the problem…

But this year was remarkable, not just for the aural assault, but for the fact that products and companies that could and should do better so signally failed to do so. Over and over I was presented with products with big reputations that simply failed to deliver – in some cases, disastrously so. In some cases I know from prior experience what these products CAN deliver, yet they consistently failed to do so. Yet at the same time, the online chatter was about how great these rooms sounded. Is that a reflection of social media manipulation, the psychological power of buyer’s remorse or a reflection of visitor’s expectations? Who knows? But if we get real for a second, this situation (expensive systems that regularly and significantly underperform) is simply not sustainable.

Two product categories threw up a regular stream of offenders. At least nine rooms at the show were using Wilson speakers, yet with a single exception, the results failed to demonstrate what these loudspeakers can do. Sure, the Wilsons are not to everybody’s taste, but they are much, much better than the results here suggest. This experience followed on from last year, which was much the same for the brand and that begs the question whether lessons were learned. VTL were saddled with a pair of brand new Alexia Vs: so new that to start with you could hear them running in almost track by track, with significant changes day-by-day. The distributor attempted to run three different systems in a single space (which is never going to work), while elsewhere – most notably in the Nagra system, a set-up that redefined the term “one-note bass” – the sound was well below the expected standard. In the dCS room, Alexia Vs delivered a performance that was at best bland – although that’s a step up from the disjointed horror they generated from the Alexx V last year! Perhaps most disturbing of all was the Constellation room, where yet another pair of Alexx V were in use. Debussy famously commented that, “music is the space between the notes”. In this system there simply was no space, the sound being extruded in a continuous, uniform, toothpaste-like flow, one note simply running into another. The idea of human agency, of a musician shaping phrases or placing and spacing notes was as alien to this rig as a tuxedo in general population. Orange might be the new black, but in this case, everything smudged into a nondescript khaki. The best thing you could say about the sound was that (unlike some) it wasn’t actively offensive. But given the cost of the components involved, that’s shamefully inadequate.