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Simply unbreakable: the High End 2023 broke all records – both in terms of visitor numbers and exhibitors. Our authors were in the halls of the Munich M.O.C. on all days of the fair and have recorded their impressions for you. Part One: all about analog.
How’s analog music playback doing? If you take the High End 2023 as a benchmark, you can only conclude: better than ever. 41 years after the introduction of the CD and 15 years after the launch of Spotify, record players could be seen as far as the eye could see. And they were used as reference signal sources to push the not infrequently six-figure-priced amplifiers and loudspeakers of the exhibitors who had come from all over the world to their performance limits. It felt like vinyl was rotating in every other room, and that much can be said: it was a good thing. Vinyl has come back to stay.
The Trends of High End 2023
After perusing four exhibition halls and two atriums, including adjacent aisles, trends emerge. The Stabi R turntable from the Slovenian manufacturer Kuzma, for example, can claim the title of “Work Device of the Year.” The key to its success is that the monolithic turntable is not only compact and robust, it also allows a wide variety of tonearms to be mounted without any problems.
Trend Number 2: Curves
One RIAA for all – those days are over. Anyone who builds a serious phono stage today offers a choice of several equalization curves. The topic is complex, historically exciting and by no means uncontroversial. With new equalizers such as the elaborate equipment miracle GM-Phono V.3 from the Italian manufacturer Faber’s Power or the Gold Note PH-5, which is very affordable despite touchscreen operating comfort, even laymen can make up their own minds whether their old discs sound better with equalization to Decca or Columbia.
Trend Number 3: The Digitization Of The Turntable
No longer a real novelty this year, the news is more that people have become accustomed to the Bluetooth antenna or RJ45 jack on a turntable. Every manufacturer whose product range starts in the low to mid three-digit price range has at least one such device on offer. In the interest of accessibility and connectivity, definitely a good decision.
Trend Number 4: Tonearms With Air-Bearings
Once an exotic technology, rare and expensive, this time I noticed two other suppliers besides the established Danish analog specialist Bergmann that are making this technology available to a wider audience: Pre-Audio from Poland and Holbo from Slovenia. Both manufacturers also have an air bearing for the turntable in their program, but at Pre-Audio it is only found in the top model GL-1102AN. Holbo has only one turntable in the program, but it is completely air-bearing and was introduced this year in a visually slightly updated version.
Also with air, but otherwise in every respect a league of its own: the new air-bearing rotary tonearm (!) Air Force 10 from TechDAS. The Japanese manufacturer presented the enormously elaborate design, in which an air bearing for the horizontal movement is combined with a ceramic ball bearing for the vertical, to the public for the first time in Munich. Sales are scheduled to start at the end of 2023.
Lots Of Premieres
In general, numerous new tonearms had their premiere at the HIGH END 2023. At Brinkmann, the new long version of the “small” 10.0 tonearm was on display, simply called the 12.0 in keeping with the manufacturer’s naming convention. Jürgen Reichmann proudly showed samples of the first tonearm for a brand new turntable from the British manufacturer Musical Fidelity, which had previously specialized in electronics. The sales director himself contributed his analog expertise to the design and raved about the sonic properties of the steel arm tube.
Zavfino from the U.S. got support from Germany: Helmut Thiele, who recently caused a sensation with a tangentially scanning rotary tonearm, designed an optically simple, classic gimbal tonearm exclusively for the Americans. A newcomer, on the other hand, is Supatrac from the United Kingdom. The Blackbird tonearm is (so far) the only product from the London-based manufacturer. It features a clever bearing design that explicitly uses the tensile force acting on the pickup to stabilize it and thus aims to achieve excellent pickup capability.
Luxman and Ortofon
And then two really big names had new tonearms ready: Luxman and Ortofon. The Danish cartridge specialist presented the successors of the proven TA-110 and TA-210 duo named AS-212R (9 inch) and AS-309R (12 inch). The new ones are built entirely in-house and are given the suffix “Reference” as a sign of the very highest sonic standards. Accordingly, they were also presented: mounted on a noble TechDAS drive, with the in-house top MC Diamond in the removable headshell. Luxman teamed up with Japanese specialist SAEC, and the result of the cooperation is a custom-made tonearm complement to the PD-191A turntable, which is also new, called LTA-710 – an elegant ten-incher with a steel blade bearing.
For those who want to get the most out of their records and can afford the pleasure, the HIGH END 2023 had some goodies in store. First and foremost, the ne plus ultra drive GMT One System from Wilson Benesch. I can still remember its first presentation four years ago. Now the turntable with the highly complex “Omega Drive” drive, for the development of which even state subsidies flowed and university professors were involved, and the matching tone arm are finally ready.
Clock Connection On A Turntable?
Monster drive, the second: The Esoteric Grandioso T1 is to my knowledge the first drive with clock input. Here, too, we are not content with common drive systems. The in-house development is called “MagneDrive System” and can best be described as a friction drive without friction wheel. The 19-kilogram platter is rotated by an inductive and thus contactless drive spindle.
Monster drive, the third: Thorens has a Reference again. The fact that a classic Reference from 1979 looks almost dainty next to the new one is due to development partner Seismion, a German company specializing in decoupling highly sensitive laboratory equipment. For Thorens’ top model, they designed a fully integrated decoupling solution, the efficiency of which was visually demonstrated at the trade show via an app display. A nice reference to the past, because even the Ur-Reference was designed as a measuring drive and hung weighted with lead shot on four large conical springs.
Oswald’s Mill Audio introduced the little brother K5 of the ingenious big K3, which was already teased last year. In the only slightly plainer aluminum housing from the workshop of New Zealander Richard Krebs, a scaled-down version of the direct drive from the big brother is at work here. The developer credibly assured that the synchronization values reach the limits of what can be measured. The matching tonearm is an exclusively custom-made design by Frank Schröder. The Berliner, known for his original technical solutions, had already designed the iconic Tragwerk arm for the K3.
There was no shortage of other analog high-end gems. Mat Weisfeld, the son of company founder Harry Weisfeld, personally presented the new large direct-drive turntable with the only appropriate name Titan. Nagra had the brand new HD Phono phono preamplifier on hand – with, of course, the option to choose between several equalization curves. Dartzeel CEO Hervé Delétraz enthusiastically described the fulfillment of a long-held dream: the development of a proprietary phono cartridge.
The award for the most casual presentation goes to analog veteran Arthur Khoubesserian. The Brit (Pink Triangle, Funk Firm) demonstrated about vintage Philips speakers, active boxes with motion feedback, an Ebay find, “900 euros including subwoofer,” he reported proudly. The subject of his demonstrations: isolating the playback process from unwanted external influences. The name of the project, which includes a plate mat, decoupling feet and a decoupling plate for the headshell: Isolation Bubble. The headshell plate is called Houdini, by the way.
At Rega, the focus was on the extremes. For analog beginners, the British full-range manufacturer has put together a small analog system called Rega System One, consisting of the Planar 1 turntable with Carbon cartridge, the io integrated amplifier and the Kyte compact speakers. The package price of 1299 euros even includes three Stereometer speaker cables. At the other end of the spectrum is the new Naia turntable top model. Feeling like it’s made of only the absolutely necessary amount of carbon, ceramic, and aluminum, the turntable is a direct variation on the non-series-production extreme-turner Naiad, which pushed Rega’s lightweight philosophy to the extreme limits a few years ago.
There is so much that is new from Pro-Ject that only the outstanding projects outside the vinyl mainstream will be touched upon here: a turntable full of funny ideas for the 50th anniversary of the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side Of The Moon, including a backlit rainbow and a light beam serving as a power switch; a homage to the Japanese cult brand Micro Seiki called RPM 12, a very faithful direct drive with three tonearm bases; an unusually luxurious by Pro-Ject standards, “Signature 12.2” named large turntable with a likewise new, elaborate tonearm. This turntable would have fit just as well into the portfolio of the noble sister brand EAT – although they have already moved on and entered a new market segment with an impressive range of individually available tonearms.
Hand Crafted at the High End 2023
There were also exciting analog innovations that flew under the radar. At the vintage-loving Koreans of Silbatone, as usual, no one talked about the electronics that made the massive, nearly 100-year-old Kino horns sound so stunning. But in fact they had a new version of the SQ-100R phono equalizer in use (RIAA only!), which is now equipped with silver transducers from Silvercore in Leipzig.
In the same room, the South Korean opera singer Dong-Bum Kim (“Analogtechnik”), who lives in Zwickau, exhibited his superbly crafted pickups in the style of Neumann’s legendary DST pickups. In several excellently-sounding rooms, for example at Living Voice, Oswalds Mill Audio or Silbatone, the MC transformers by Consolidated Audio from Berlin, which have in the meantime also received international attention, were to be found. Those who found the demonstration room of high-end veteran Heiner Basil Martion could even experience there the prototype of an extremely elaborate Consolidated Audio phono equalizer built with the finest tubes and hand-wound transformers.
The Smart Bellini
Keyword Germany: Clearaudio took time out again this year and presented itself at an in-house exhibition. Transrotor had the Bellini turntable at the start, a mid-range rotary with TMD bearing, which – yes, this is indeed a novelty, and an enormously practical one at that – is now also available with an acrylic cover. With hinges! And Munich’s only high-end turntable and tonearm manufacturer Willibald Bauer? The maker of the dps turntable welcomed visitors away from the hustle and bustle in the quiet of his store in the southwest of the city.
And then there were the analog accessories. There was a vinyl smoother from Taiwan by the manufacturer Tien Audio to discover, which, in addition to the obligatory heating, relies on vacuum instead of a lay-on weight – so that the record is smoothed more gently. And the turntable manufacturer AMG had new phono cables with them. How thoroughly this topic is taken care of there is shown by the remark at the end of my visit to the AMG booth: They are simply not satisfied with the tonearm plugs available on the market. They will soon be designing their own.