Show review 20/20: Munich 2018 High End show report
There I was, dreading the drive up to the M.O.C., Munich’s famed 90s themed industrial complex used for events, trade shows and other such gatherings. It was a click past 9AM, which meant that I would likely set foot on the show floor by 9:45 or even 10AM. Mind you, under typical conditions, that’s no more than a 10-15 min drive from Marriott’s Berliner Strasse hotel (also host to the offshoot HiFideluxe show taking place at the same time). The cause for this apparent time warp? Thousands upon thousands of HiFi fans descending on Munich, in balmy, 75 degrees weather May, to view the latest high-end audio wares, spectacles and hobnob with a worldwide industry seeking significance, nay, relevance in 2018. Surprisingly, the dreaded taxi drive turned out to be far less of nuisance, placing me at the entrance of the M.O.C. a scant 20-ish minutes later. Scratching my head somewhat, I recalled that just four years ago, the last time I visited the show, that very same drive took up quote a bit longer. Either taxis magically cut the estimated time of arrival by half, or, more likely, there simply was less traffic to contend with in first place.
The connection to today’s real-world man
It was the latter. Now, having seen all relevant Munich show reports over the past few months, I noticed colorful musings about this thing and that thing; I read about the continued strong vinyl presence; I read about the significant advances in digital decoding, speaker design, and how apparently healthy and robust the HiFi industry appeared. Sure, the big guns all had strong presence as always: Wilson Audio made a soft splash with their just announced, latest desktop model aptly named TuneTot (a pair of which was dispatched and received at chez K literally the day prior to my departure for Europe); Dan D’Agostino used Munich to announce his biggest to date effort, Relentless mono block amplifier; the team behind AURALiC introduced perhaps the most significant and technically advanced external clock upgrade to a DAC, Leo GX; Andreas Koch brought to light his highly anticipated and exquisite new reference line, the MPS-8 “Dream” series (review forthcoming); EINSTEIN showed off their stunning production model all new phono stage which at a price of EUR 2500, will surely set the world on fire, if not at least a turntable or three. From a product perspective, the world of HiFi certainly appeared healthy and well stocked. Further proof came in form of the close to thousand photograph strong camera roll, indisputably proving that the product offering fare was indeed great, perhaps even bigger, even better, even more effective than its ever been. What, however, appeared missing, perhaps even completely absent, was a real, meaningful connection to the end user. No, not the “converted” HiFi guy, nor even the decade+ club HiFi elite member; no, what was missing was today’s real-world man spending his cash on HiFi bling, much as he would on fancy cars, fancy watches, fancy suits, fancy wine, fancy anything.
In somewhat of a stark contrast to my aforementioned previous visit four years ago, not to mention in even starker contrast to most show reports who covered Munich 2018, the show as a whole appeared far less extolling of virtues past: Munich this and Munich that, Munich the show of all shows, as is heard repeatedly throughout club Med, nay, HiFi, didn’t strike me in the least as such. To cast an even wider net of discombobulation, Munich 2018 frankly appeared confused as to what it was or what it was hoping to be. Perhaps in a subconscious nod to my previous editorial efforts here at FIDELITY, I’ve come to view 2018, and thusly, it’s grandest of dames, Munich’s High End, as the year to assess the state of shows, HiFi stores and HiFi in general. Call it the state of the state of the state of the union. Let’s recall the story I’ve shared hundreds of times from years past, attending Munich up until my previous visit, 2013: HiFi is such a strong cultural bond in Europe that you’ll often see parents with kids prancing around room to room, reminding me of my own youth when, as a pre-teen lad, my brother (ten years my age), would take me to Vienna’s yearly HiFi spectacles. Now, clearly, the early 80s didn’t have distractions to HiFi like we do today: there was no internet, there was no multimedia, there was no smartphone, no giant screen video wall, no HomePod, no Bluetooth boombox nor much of any other sort of media consumption machinery. At best, you likely had a TV and some form of stereo. Munich then, in 2018, failed at that which it was best suited and geared for: reimagine HiFi for a new type of consumer, a new type of lifestyle.
High end, low end, dead end
Thursday’s press only day was filled with the usual international crowd of high end, low end and dead end aficionados. Therein lies the rub. We are too fractured, too divided, with far too many categories to all fit under one roof. There simply is no way to tell a story with a straight face when one manufacturer extolls the virtues of his aluminum and copper jeweled 250k mono block amp on one side of the floor, yet someone else entirely poetically attempts to sell you on a flea-watt, wood chassis single ended valve amplifier retailing for 35k driving royal Japanese paper cone crossoverless AM radio quality speakers that require a semester’s pay at Harvard. There’s just no way to make that concept gel. Further down the pike, some other bestseller rumbles with dubious duplicity that his Chinese sourced 2k tube amp with ten bulbs a channel will somehow magically out-sing a genuine engineering feat like EINSTEIN’s OTL Circlotron mono block amp at 65k, built by artisans in Germany, earning a real world Western living wage. See what I mean? Even as our esteemed, highly opinionated HiFi emissaries, otherwise known as the movers and shakers of the HiFi press, wax with apparently little to no regard for such concerns, your average baseline mainstream marketing professional worth his fancy degree or common sense would clearly tell you otherwise. You know who you are and you know I’m right.
What’s the story?
To sell, you have to create a story. To sell a lot, you preferably have a story that sticks like glue. Today’s consumers are no fools; market segmentation fueled by extremely targeted, cunningly clever professional marketers have done the rest. Why do you think BMW went from 3 models to well over 17 distinct vehicle models in a matter of 30 years? Yet, each one of their cars shares a common story. Each one tells that story to a prospective buyer or wraps the fresh owner inside it, day in, day out. Munich (ironic that BMW sits a mere stone’s throw away from the M.O.C.) then seems anything like that professional marketer: it simply adds more fuel to the already out of control fire. One size does not fit all. A giant umbrella tucking all and everything underneath, is a passé way of monetizing otherwise profitable ideas. Munich screams of missed opportunities that are waiting to be uncovered by someone else. A prospective buyer of a 200k system cares little about some rubbish, mass produced dreck turntable, even if said deck was made by a German company, decades in business. Reversing the equation holds true as well. To each his own.
Barilla noodles are no match for mama’s home-made freshly rolled pasta. Why then are we trying to sell them side by side? Same goes for HiFi. What needs to happen is quite simple: for this industry to shine, we need to start splitting it into precisely the factions it has already created for better or worse. Host smaller, more exclusive, more personable venues. Elevate the experience of listening to HiFi, be it Qobuz, Roon or vinyl. Think HomePod is all you need? Great! Here’s the best possible HomePod experience. No need to tack on a 10k “value add” DAC that the prospective owner would never care for, much less aspire to own. More Monets aren’t sold because people buy smaller Hallmark Valentine’s Day cards. Each can have their own. Build it and they will come. Over on the American side of the pond, we face the same problem. Here it’s called Axpona, THE Show, New York Audio Show or any other some such hold out from a business model decades past its prime. While I love attending any of these shows for the sake of kinship with fellow “believers”, I cringe at the missed opportunities each and every one of these shows bring to light. Retailers like Maier Shadi, The Audio Salon, Fabio Storelli, Alma Audio or Sunil Merchant, Sunny’s (all greater Los Angeles area based) are all working feverishly on reinventing the retail wheel. The Audio Salon in particular has demonstrated that hyper targeted, laser focused marketing does in fact produce a positive effect on revenue. HiFi shows ought not be any different. Forget the umbrella when a fedora is all that’s preferred and far more desirable. Think Rodeo Drive, not Roxanne Ave.
Beer, Bratwurst, Bauernbrot
Back at the M.O.C., as press only Thursday moved to public Friday, and Friday to Saturday, the halls simply missed the aura they once had, certainly compared to what I witnessed during my very first Munich outing in 2008. Sunday? Practically a wasteland. If wait times at the espresso bar were any indication, I’d say the glass was clearly less then half full. You know the time when you keep running into the same people minutes apart at opposite ends of the show’s venue. There’s that time warp thing again. One manufacturer jokingly (no, he didn’t) said “I have been at this show for years; today [Sunday] is the first time that I can remember that I’ll be able to visit some colleagues I rarely get to see”. That sentiment, expressed more than twice, seemed to indicate the hour clock moving way past bed time. Bratwurst, beer and Bauernbrot can only nourish those in attendance, no matter how good they are.
Fast forward a few weeks and I was back in action covering THE Show at Irvine’s Marriott Spectrum. Quarrels, quibbles and quandaries over their ongoing survival fight vis-à-vis now defunct one hit wonder the LAAS not withstanding, Maurice Jung’s THE Show, held June 1-3, came across in much the same way as Munich, though on a – thankfully – smaller scale. A scant 20-ish rooms, clad with a handful of classic automobiles, daft faux Cuban cigars and some third rate magical lotion parlor, couldn’t help bring to life this seemingly last minute setup of a show. Compounded by the fact that merely a few weeks prior rumors of the shows demise were in high circulation and you had yourself a setup for the perfect storm. Mind you, THE Show’s do or don’t moment wasn’t aided by the fact that last year this very same show was in fact a no-show just 2 weeks prior to inauguration. Clearly not the way to build a following, much less drive any meaningful story, willing supporters or not. Next, as to make matters worse, the hotel’s rooms, though recently renovated and providing an otherwise modern, chic décor, were for the most part entirely too small to host any meaningful HiFi exhibits, even less so the moment your room crossed the 3 person threshold, let alone ten or fifteen. In my book, a single room managed to elicit a vibe. Fabio Storelli’s very large (only one) demo room who’s partners included YG with their astounding Sonja XV Jr., D’Agostino with a quad pair of Momentum mono blocks and Technics, featuring their latest pup, the mighty (review forthcoming) Technics SL1000R in final production form all leashed together by Kubala-Sosna’s positively amazing reference cable line, Realization. Affable, friendly and otherwise superbly knowledgeable and outgoing representatives in toe, Fabio’s room was were I spent most of my time. Judging by the room’s generally packed status, so did many others and for good reason.
Do not add ‚lifestyle’
Sonically, this was the standout room, though I won’t pass any over the top judgement other than to say that it was check-mate by default since nothing else really added to the count. Other than scoring a couple of good record finds, the show seemed like yet another could have been. Did anyone with any serious intent to audition gear or better yet, make a decisive purchase, attend this vaguely organized street market fare? I doubt it. Will there be another one next year? Who knows. Maurice Jung and his team seem to think so. What this particular show, as explained by Jung himself on a podcast I randomly heard, had to do with luxury lifestyle, I haven’t got a clue. Neither did apparently the podcast’s host, at least judging from his lack of any sort of push back or otherwise even modest softball questioning of the showmaster’s claims. I suppose the old adage, you don’t know what you don’t know, still holds true. Frankly, the nonsensical aspirations by some to desperately tie in luxury lifestyle products to this fractured hobby of ours needs to stop, for I fear it is hurting us in the long run. No sane Bentley driver, Patek owner or Riva yacht jockey would ever consider the world of HiFi just because some show somewhere in Birmingham parks a Riva Perseo yacht in the backyard in the hopes of attracting that type of customer. Friends, smell the Kaffeebohnen, this just ain’t gonna happen. Stop pretending that it would and actually create a meaningful, scalable and attractive plan of action instead. It’s the same reason that wasting hard earned dollars on advertising in luxe magazines has exactly the same zero return effect: there simply isn’t any context provided for the lifestyle aficionados to connect the dots with. I know that YG’s Sonja XV Junior sounds positively insane. I know precisely why it commands the price of 180k. I know all that and then some, because I can provide the context to these lifestyle applications. I’ve read the story. I’ve connected the dots. Not through osmosis, rather decades of learnings, research and careful listening. Rupert Murdoch Jr. very likely can’t, won’t nor is he likely interested in doing so, and bling-bling ads in a fancy rags won’t magically make him change his mind. However gorgeously restored red Corvettes parked in some hallway of said Irvine hotel sadly won’t do so either.
Thus, we are back to square one. Like Munich – on a much smaller scale – THE Show was wasted opportunity. Could it have been something else? I’d wager so. For that to happen our collective group think needs to be exited stage left and a disruptor brought online. Looking ahead, I simply don’t see any major rethink happening, thus, Munich 2019 will very likely be similar to Munich of this year; so will THE Show, AXPONA and possibly all the rest and so on and so forth. Perhaps one day in the near future a brave enough disruptor will step up to the podium and revolutionize the helplessly aging HiFi show circus. Pivot from what was to what could be.
It’s desperately needed.