Hits (And Misses…) Munich High End – 2023

This year’s High End Show took place in parallel with an escalating debate about the advantages and perils of Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). Of course, computer assisted design (“CAD”) is hardly new to high-end audio, and computers have long since changed how speakers and turntables are designed and how the parts can be fabricated with precision. But AI goes far beyond CAD. Having read so much about AI in advance of the show, I was anticipating a similar level of stimulation/anticipation from what was the first full, post-Covid Munich Show, after the limited numbers and Far Eastern no-show of 2022.

Yet, once inside the doors of the convention center, all thoughts of innovative ideas in high-end audio comparable to that AI buzz quickly receded. Indeed, one or two standout products aside, it was difficult to find anything impressively new and different. CH Precision showed the new 10 Series Phono Stage, which attracted plenty of traffic, as did the Wadax Reference Transport, not least for its enormous size and complexity. But it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that these ultra expensive pieces weren’t having to compete too hard for attention, with many rooms and systems seemingly almost indistinguishable from last year’s model.

Last year’s show had its own source of energy. After two years of Covid cancellation, the world’s biggest (and certainly its most important) audio show, the mere fact of survival and renewal gave the gathering a sense of meaning. Unlike last year, fears of Covid were low on the visitor agenda. Unlike last year, there were no restrictions on travel from the Far-East and the official attendance figures claimed higher than ever numbers. Yet still one searched for any special enthusiasm. The new decorations in the main café were certainly a plus, and the new Press Room seemed popular, if a bit short on new press releases. Yet I found myself wondering at some point “is this all there is?”

Audio Reference GmbH (“ARGH!?!”) seem intent on market domination. Their giant room had a new VPI turntable and a few other revised products, including updated D’Agostino models, but the speakers remained the same brand, and perhaps even the same serial numbers as last year. The dCS room was another that looked much the same, having already reached its APEX – although the shift to smaller speakers in the shape of the Alexia V was clearly a step in the right direction. It was also the first indication of an emerging trend – the sheer number of rooms featuring Wilson Audio speakers. I counted no fewer than 10 systems feeding everything from Sasha DAWs up to the Chronosonic XVX: That despite there being no real news on the Wilson front. V material continues to find its way into what are basically, existing models, with both dCS and VTL using the newish Alexia V, but there were no new product announcements for the huddled masses. Elsewhere, the Alexx V featured once again in the Nagra room, along with an updated DAC, but this was yet another system that sounded much like last year. The addition of the Loki subs contributed nothing good, unlike the WatchDogs that I heard demonstrated with the same speakers in the CH set up.