Munich High End 2022 Impressions
We recently went on a trip to Germany to check out the famous Munich High End audio show for 2022, and when I say 'we', I mean Andrew (the other Andrew), Taron, DMS and myself. This was the first time DMS, Taron and I had been to Munich High end, and actually the first time we had gone on a trip together as well. Of course, Andrew had been to one before, but nothing he told us about the event could have fully prepared us for just how huge it was, as this is one of the premiere audio events of the year.
But before getting to that, I first wanted to mention that we spent some time traveling around Germany, starting off in Berlin to connect with a manufacturer. It was also good to get acclimated to the time zone change, as it was about an 8-9 hour difference for those of us on the west coast of North America.
Berlin, by the way, is a really cool city, and we couldn't help but remark how they did such a good job of blending in modern city layouts with older traditional buildings in a seamless manner. In fact, everything about Germany felt very modern to me, and we could even see this as we drove from Berlin down to Munich on the Autobahn, as everywhere you looked you could see large wind turbines and solar panels dotting the countryside. We also made a quick stop in Nuremburg for dinner, just to check out the historical city.
The next day in Munich, our coverage of High End 2022 began.
The show was held at a large convention center on the outskirts of Munich, called MOC. When we first walked it, even before getting to the audio section, you could see all kinds of weird stuff outside of it, include... a DeLorean of all things. In any case, once we got past security and walked into the actual audio halls, the massive show floor sprawled out in front of us.
I should note, there were four days of the convention, with two days initially for trade insiders (us), and then two days open to the public. We went to all four of the days, because we wanted as much chance to try out gear and interview manufacturers, but then also get a sense of the general reaction from the public. It's always great to hear what fellow audiophiles found interesting, especially since this was a show so massive that you couldn't possibly check out everything.
There were three floors to the show, with the main floor with several 'halls' that contained the majority of the headphone equipment. Floors two and three were dedicated more to speaker and source equipment listening rooms where brands had all their equipment set up for people to check out - it makes sense especially when you consider the scale of the event.
Of course, while I was personally very interested in checking out the headphone area, I was also curious to hear the speaker setups as well.
While I got a chance to listen to a lot of equipment, mostly over the first two days, the following are the products I either hadn't heard before, or the ones that were most notable from the show. So basically just the stuff that stood out to me for one reason or another. Just keep in mind that there was a lot more there to the show and we got to check out a lot more stuff, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
Disclaimer: Keep in mind that all of this requires the all important asterisk of "show conditions", where you're only able to have a brief impression, and for anything open-back there are competing sounds around you that affect the ability to make assessments.
It's at this point where I generally have to don the 'less scrutiny' cap with the recognition that a short 10 to 15 minute listen in a public place at most just provides a snapshot, and things I've loved at shows have been less desirable in the long run, and things I wasn't as interested in at shows can end up being the most impressive after more time. So take all of these impressions with the knowledge that these opinions are subject to significant change over further evaluation.
Because of this, it's a good idea to be patient. I don't recommend making purchase decisions based on show impressions. Wait until these products have been given a thorough review.
Meze 109 Pro
This was one of the highlights of the show for me. If anyone knows my thoughts on the other Meze headphones, it's generally that while I find the build, aesthetics and ergonomics to be vastly superior to everything else out there, the sound simply hasn't been my kind of thing. Well that last part changes with the 109 Pro.
I think people might assume that this is just an open-back 99 Classic, but it's really not the case. The 109 Pro uses a new custom dynamic driver design, and sounds categorically better than the 99 Classic - and honestly it was more my kind of sound than the Empyrean even.
The tonality sounded like it has a gentle downslope, with a relaxed presentation, while retaining a decent amount of presence and clarity throughout the ear gain and upper midrange. Then there's a tasteful treble lift towards the air region, while not sounding sibilant or fatiguing. It's not necessarily the kind of thing that screams 'neutrality' or analytic, but it really was a joy to listen to, and it's the headphone I keep thinking about long after the show - something I will likely want to own in the future.
Lastly, while it also has a similar look to the 99 Classic, the 109 Pro is also more comfortable, with a slightly larger frame to it - at least that's what it felt like. So all of the comfort and ergonomic excellence Meze has come to be known for was there too. And, I just have to say that founder Antonio Meze is one of the most interesting people to talk to in all of audio as he's very tapped into the community and welcoming of feedback, which was so refreshing to see.
This was a strong disappointment for me, as this is a brand known for great sound quality in both speakers and microphones. It sounded very mid-forward, but not in a way that was lush or rich, but rather just sort of dull and bland. There was a considerably amount of blunting of trailing ends of tones, with a general lack of 'resolution' or any sense of technicalities.
Having also heard the closed back NDH-20, it left me with a similar feeling that there's maybe a bit much driver damping going on, although I'd need to take a closer look to be confident of that.
While I'm sure they hit their targets for sound quality, it felt like this was one of those where it may have achieved the desired goals on paper but lacked any sense of subjective excellence audiophiles like myself (or DMS, who also heard it) would be hoping for. So, while not outright bad sounding, it also just wasn't anything special.
Raal CA1a Prototype
This was another highlight of the show, and one that I don't think anyone really had expected, since it wasn't on my radar going into the event. Basically think of it as a circumaural (around the ear) version of the ribbon driver SR1a, which is great for me because I prefer that type of design to the ear-speaker style.
Now, I should note that I did hear the previous version of this at CanJam SoCal last year, and this newer version is much further along than it was at that point. So for anyone who heard that previous one at CanJam, this was a totally different and markedly better experience.
In any case, I was truly shocked at how remarkably solid the tuning was - dare I say better than the SR1a? Not only that, it's also highly detailed just like the SR1a is. I think if anything there's maybe still a hair too much treble for my taste, but he's also still working on it so I'm very excited to hear the final result once it's done. If this is what the final version sounds like, it's another one I'll need to consider adding to my collection.
I first heard this off of the Feliks Envy, and while it sounded good, I still preferred the Susvara off the Envy. But I also heard the Diana TC off the Zahl HM1 solid state amp, which was just nuts for detail and 'technicalities'. It straight up just sounds like an upgrade over the Phi in every way. While I think the tuning still could be evened out a bit throughout the midrange, it's clear they've made key improvements in that regard as well.
It also had that bass boost from the intentional air gap design due to the pads not sealing around the ear. For anyone unaware, this is a clever way of getting a bass boost into an open-back planar magnetic headphone. While a lot better than before, comfort could still be improved a bit, as the top part of the pads still dig into the side of my temples a bit strongly. Then again, better coupling would create a seal and you wouldn't get the bass lift, which I like.
In general though I was impressed by this one, maybe I'll need to sneak one from DMS at some point to do a full review, as it's certainly up there with the most detailed sounding planars available, and it's also one of the few that's lightweight.
Warwick Acoustics Aperio and Bravura
The best experience with headphones I had at the show came from the Warwick Acoustics Aperio, their crazy high end electrostatic system. But interestingly, the less expensive Bravura is the one that had the more versatile and balanced tonality. Let me explain.
If anyone remembers the Sonoma Model One electrostatic headphone system from some time ago, the Aperio and Bravura are the newer designs from the same folks who made that one. And while the Model One was well-regarded for both its tuning and its subjective qualities, Warwick acoustics have seemingly improved things on all fronts.
Both headphones had a general tonality that was balanced to some degree of 'neutral', which involves well-extended bass, a decent amount of 'ear gain' upper midrange presence as well as smooth, extended treble. So they're more on the normal rather than esoteric side of things for the tuning.
The Aperio was extremely well-suited to my favorite jazz and acoustic recordings, and that's what I kept listening to in their room. I think it's maybe just a tad much ear gain for a wider range of music, but I also found that I didn't care. This thing was so detailed, so separated and controlled, so well defined for the images coming through that I got that "wow" feeling I remember from first trying high end headphones - just... now that I'm normalized to high end headphones, apply the same idea to the crazy high end. It was the system that I kept telling everyone they had to listen to.
With that in mind, the more modestly priced Bravura (I say that... but this is a whole system that's still very high end) is the one that DMS liked more, as did a number of my other reviewer friends who heard both systems, and I think that's because it was dialed back just a touch on both the technical detail front, and slightly more relaxed for its tonal balance overall. This made it a bit more forgiving for a wider range of recordings, so I could see why everyone else was also talking about the Bravura.
These are headphones I now have to get into the lab to test and give a thorough review to - but if I had to give a "best of show" award to anything headphone related, it would be these two systems. I went back to the Warwick Acoustics booth at least three times over the course of the event due to how much these two systems stood out. Not only are they both well-tuned, they also have technical qualities that rival the very best available.
In a sea of high end and crazy expensive equipment, the Final Audio UX3000 stood out because of how excellent it was for the price. This is a closed-back wireless active noise cancelling headphone that's only $150 - but one that prioritized sound quality.
I would describe it as generally 'neutral with a bass boost', which is the kind of tuning that does well for a more portable application. Think similar to the well-regarded AKG N700NCM2, so I'll need to compare the UX3000 to that one. One interesting thing they mentioned was that they deliberately dialed back the ANC amount because they felt it would've otherwise entailed compromises to the sound quality.
So they're aiming more for the "sound quality first" portable headphone user - something that resonates with me, and likely a lot of other enthusiasts looking for a great sounding ANC headphone. Those are in short supply, so it's nice to see Final Audio taking a stab at it.
I'll be getting this one in and doing a video on it soon, as I think it's something that will have a wide range of appeal, and it should be on the radar as a competitive alternative to the AKG and other ANC headphones.
So I had to check out the headphone amplifier getting the most hype and interest at the show from everyone who heard it, and that was the Zähl HM1. In general I'm typically more interested in the headphone side of things, because that's really where you notice the biggest differences. But then you hear something like this...
I've made some comments on the sound of this amplifier here - thankfully it was being demoed with closed-back headphones like the DCA Aeon 2 Noire and Stealth, so we had an easier time getting a sense of it. In short, we've all been raving about how engaging the HM1 headphone amplifier made those headphones sound, and I think I would summarize it as just enhancing the sense of each headphone's 'technicalities', as they're subjectively perceived.
It was also a treat to get to spend some time chatting with designer Michael Zähl. We got to interview him, and you could really tell he's at the top of his field with a focus on well-considered and thoughtful engineering.
For me, personally, the HM1 represents a solid state amplifier that made a meaningful difference and improvement to the sound quality, and that's not something I find myself typically saying. So if you're like me, and are usually more focused on the improvements different headphones bring, this is the headphone amplifier that's likely to make you start caring a lot more about the rest of the chain.
The other amplifier that really captured my attention, and that of others who heard it, was the Feliks Envy. In particular, running the HiFiMAN Susvara off of the Envy was simply outstanding. The Feliks Audio guys were telling me they had specifically designed it with the intention of being able to run harder to drive planar magnetic headphones (it also had a balanced output, which is pretty cool for a tube amp) - so I'm now also curious how it might do with something like an original HE-6.
In any case, to describe the sound with the Susvara, it basically made it sound more lush and enveloping - to give some audiophile terms. I'd be curious to see how the measurements are affected by it, but even those who ordinarily aren't that into the kind of sound from the Susvara (you know who you are) were into it off the Envy.
Additionally, this was also a gorgeous looking device. I think that's also part of the joy of the Feliks designs, they're so elegant to behold, and the knob feel was on point (as DMS was quick to note).
I listened to the Bartok with the Utopia, and they were showing off some changes they had made to the 'DAC map', with user selectable modes with different internal calculations or "different math" as they said. This was my first time listening to the Bartok, and they had it hooked up with the Focal Utopia, so it was bound to sound great, and boy did it ever.
Now with that said, the different modes didn't sound that different from one another - it's not like changing some of the dials on the Zahl HM1 for example. And while I felt there was a difference going from Mode 1 to 3 for example, I think it's close enough that it would be tough to guess the mode correctly in a blind test, but perhaps more time with it would reveal a more recognizable change.
In any case, I don't have much else to say on it other than it simply sounded fantastic regardless of the mode being used. Gun to my head I'd say I preferred 'mode 3', for whatever that's worth, but we're talking subtle differences here. If anything, I really just want to check out this DAC/Amp in the lab and try it out with a wider variety of headphones.
So Ferrum had their Oor amplifier, Hypsos power supply, and also Erco DAC/amp combo set up on display. While I listened to the Oor with a pre-memory foam Audeze LCD-2, this is one where it was difficult to get a sense of it given the show conditions. I could say it sounded good, because it did, but there was too much ambient noise that really feel confident about the assessment. I'll need to spend some time with our unit back at the office and report back.
With that said, we got a chance to chat about a number of things, including the company origin and history of the name Ferrum - how it comes from their region have a longstanding tradition of craftspeople throughout the ages who worked with the rich iron deposits found in the area. Hence the name, and of course the aesthetic design language you see on their equipment.
These guys were also just awesome to hang out with in general, and I look forward to stealing the Oor + Hypsos off of Andrew's desk (the other Andrew) to do a proper evaluation in the near future. It was also interesting to learn that even the Erco - pronounced Ertso - DAC/amp unit based on the ES9028Pro has lots of power available, with 6.1W into 50 ohms from the balanced output.
The Focal room on the middle floor was almost always packed, as they had their Maestro Utopia speakers set up. We got a chance to do a bit of a playlist battle with GoldenSound and Skedra each providing a series of test tracks.
In general, I found these speakers had some of the most addictive midrange of any setup at the actual event, and I actually think there's a kind of similarity between this sound and what you get on their Utopia headphones - both in terms of that slight pleasant midrange swell, and the extreme bass punch and tactility you get down low.
Focal also had their crazy huge Grande Utopia speakers set up in the building across from the main venue that we got to check out. Now, I'd heard these before in France at Focal's private listening demonstration room, but we got to listen to a lot more material this time, including a wider range of tracks, all the way from my kind of instrumental jazz to Rage Against the Machine.
Out of all of the audio experiences at the show, this was far and away the most intense and engaging. Simply put, nothing I've ever heard compares to the bass presentation of this setup. DMS and I were glued to the seat just laughing at how crazy intense it was - and I'm not talking about bass level, but just the sheer physicality of the whole thing. This is the new high bar for "best bass in the world", if that were ever a thing to chase.
This was yet another truly wild experience, with some crazy unique imaging. Western Electric was demoing their 777 midrange air motion transformer driver implemented in a speaker concept. I'm not sure if this is commercially available at the moment, but we all marveled at how these two weird looking speakers created a sense of verticality with the imaging that I hadn't heard before.
Additionally, as much as they were demoing this as a midrange driver, the treble on these was also excellent. What's interesting about this is that DMS actually found it to be slightly on the sharp side, while I found it to be more smooth and just well extended, suggesting HRTF differences, as we've gone the opposite on a recent IEM we've both reviewed.
In any case, the Western Electric room was definitely one of the show highlights. If the Utopia setup was all about take your head off intensity, the Western Electric setup was a more about nuance and placement. Both were great, they just excelled at different things.
The HEDD Type 20 was of particular interest to me as I currently use their 07 MK2 powered speakers at the studio, which sound fantastic. I think what was most impressive about the Type 20 is how powerful it sounded given the small and compact footprint of the unit. I could see this being of particular use to anyone in a pro audio environment with certain space constraints.
The unit is also quite versatile as it has the ability to use their phase linearizer and has a unique front-port bass tuning system. For that, think of the difference between flat and extended bass, and a slightly stronger emphasis to the mid bass. Depending on what material you're working with, there's a use case for both.
I also find that in a sea of what amounts to crazy high end science experiments that, while amazing for certain environments, are a bit out of reach or impractical for someone like me. So it was cool to come across equipment that's more suited for my particular environment and I just wanted to note that here as well.
What sticks with me after going to Munich High End 2022, and getting to listen to all the new, wild, or esoteric equipment out there, is that while we spend a lot of time localized to a particular kind of scrutiny in the headphone space, there are all kinds of experiences out there to be had. Maybe only some of them are worth having at the end of the day. But, when you remove the critical lens, and just let yourself hear things and be open to new ideas, I think there's a lot to be gained.
I'd encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go to any of these audio shows - regardless of whether or not the equipment on display comes with exorbitant price tags attached, or is targeting an audience that might not appreciate it the way you would. It's worth gaining some perspective on the dragons other people are chasing, even if they're not your own, because this felt like a once in a lifetime kind of audio adventure. And, I think unsurprisingly, it was most about the friends we made along the way.