Even though I have been meaning to attend HIGH END, the Munich high-end audio show, for a number of years, this is the first year I have managed to make it there. The show was canceled for two years during the pandemic, and this was the first time things were completely back to normal. There were 550 exhibitors showcasing 800 brands, with 20,000 visitors over four days (May 9 – 12), making it the largest show of its kind in the world. Manufacturers often announce new products during the show, and resellers, distributors and manufacturers come together to talk business. The first two days were for trade only, with the last two days open to the public. My cousin and her husband run a high-end audio distribution business in Germany, and they were able to secure a trade ticket for me.
I passed by Paris on my way to Munich. I called up my friend, noted audio designer Jean Hiraga before my trip, and we arranged to meet up at his listening room in Lille, a one-hour ride on the TGV train from Paris. The last time I visited Jean in France was during his last year as the chief editor of La Nouvelle Revue du Son magazine. At the time, he had a pair of Altec A5 Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers at the magazine’s headquarters, enhanced with a crossover of his own design, to serve as his reference. After he retired, he visited my home in Hong Kong and gave me some very valuable advice on setting up my system.
For those who are not familiar with him, Jean Hiraga cut his teeth as a writer for L'Audiophile magazine starting in 1977. He belonged to a fringe group of audiophiles in France who discovered the virtues of old horn speakers and tube amplifiers, mainly Western Electric and Altec. L'Audiophile became the bible of this crowd, and as Jean also speaks fluent Japanese, he acted as a bridge between the communities in France and Japan. The craze eventually spread to the English-speaking world more than a decade later, with people such as Joe Roberts writing about it in the now sadly defunct Sound Practices magazine. Jean was doing experiments on how distortion and non-linearity in frequency, phase and dynamic response affect sound perception in the late 1970s, when English-language audio writers were still claiming that amplifiers with sufficiently low total harmonic distortion all sounded the same.
His article, Appréciation de la qualité subjective des bons amplificateurs, published in L'Audiophile Issue 15 in April 1980, is a must-read for all audiophiles. In the article, he explained the technical reasons for certain subjective qualities of sound that we hear from amplifiers, which remain highly relevant today. He also published a number of his own amplifier designs, both tube and transistor, over the years. Some of these were commercialized under the brand name Lectron, which is now manufactured in Switzerland by Jean Maurer. His most popular design for DIY enthusiasts remains the 8-watt class A transistor power amplifier called "Le Monstre." Kits are still available on eBay and elsewhere.
After his retirement, he remains as passionate as ever and receives visitors to his listening room frequently. During my visit, a group of audiophiles arrived from Paris and joined in the listening. His most recent development is a pair of speakers using Western Electric 15A horns with 555 compression drivers.
Part of Jean Hiraga's system.
The WE15A first appeared in 1928 in theatre systems. At the time, it was run full-range with the field coil (alnico magnets were not introduced until 1933) WE555. About 50,000 of these drivers were produced over the years. The WE597 tweeter was added to some systems a few years later, but this tweeter is much rarer because it was only in production for two years, and now fetches extremely high prices. These systems were rented to movie theaters, as WE did not sell their equipment. Jean uses a pair of 15-inch ElectroVoice drivers in an open baffle for the bass. The drivers are encased in a roll of lead sheet to damp resonance, and fixed to the floor with a scaffold. The driver is decoupled from the baffle with a compliant material to avoid transmitting unwanted vibrations. The back wave is absorbed by thick acoustic foam without creating back pressure on the drivers such as a closed enclosure would. For the tweeters, he designed a pair of compression tweeters, each with an aluminum diaphragm, solid brass “bullet” phase plug and field coil magnet, which he powers with batteries.
The tweeters in Hiraga's system.
For the crossover, he uses graphite resistors with silver terminations, and huge custom silver mica capacitors.
Jean still has his original Altec A5, but he has since built another pair using better materials. The "improved" A5 has thicker and denser material for the enclosure, a 15-cell midrange horn manufactured by Philips that is better-damped than the Altec version, a Westrex 2090B midrange driver, a bass driver from University, and a pair of JBL 075 bullet tweeters in a front and back cross-firing arrangement.
Here are the improved Altec A5 speakers.
The Westrex 2090B midrange driver.
The large Western Electric speakers were auditioned first. They were driven by his Le Monstre amplifier. The source was a CD transport connected to a DAC of his own design with a passive volume control. The sound of the speakers was huge, as expected. The dynamics were awesome, with highly realistic portrayal of voices and string instruments, a quality revered by Japanese vintage audio aficionados. There was a relaxed, natural flow of the music that I have only ever heard from large horns. The speakers could do with more space, and given the relatively short distance between the speakers and listeners, the sound was very up-close.
Hiraga's Le Monstre amplifier and other electronics.
We then moved on to the "improved A5," driven by a pair of VAC (Valve Amplification Company) 300B push-pull amps. Here, the presentation was different, with more precise imaging and a more realistic soundstage. The sound was also incredibly dynamic, and the bass was very tuneful and more extended than I expected. There is a lot of merit to horn-loading the bass in a loudspeaker design, but this is difficult to do right. Horns act like microscopes, magnifying the tiniest dynamic nuances, rendering the musical expression more intelligible. They are simply superior in transmitting the emotions of a performance. Once you get used to the sound of good horns, other types of speakers often sound flat and uninteresting. I always learn a lot from Jean whenever we meet, and I have taken with me a lot of valuable knowledge this time.
On the following Sunday, I attended a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic with the young conductor Jakub Hrůša. The venue was the Théâtre des Champs-Elyseés. This is an old venue (inaugurated in 1903) with a space that is small by modern standards (1900 seats), shoe box-shaped with plaster on the walls. In other words, the most propitious combination for good sound. And I was not disappointed. The program consisted of Janáček’s Zárlivost, Prokofiev’s Roméo et Juliette and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. The performances were out of this world. The conducting was energetic, precise and emotionally charged. The string tone was silky smooth, and other than a couple of slightly sour entries by a horn at the beginning, the performance was flawless. Some passages during Roméo et Juliette were played at breakneck, even reckless speeds with nary a hair out of place. I doubt many orchestras can pull off such a stunt, and it brings to mind a recording of Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic.
The sound was clear, present and well-balanced. The hall has a long reverberation time, but background noise was very low and I could not hear any echo. In my estimation, this hall ranks right up there with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein and Boston Symphony Hall. It is nearly impossible to score tickets to the Vienna Phil at the Musikverein, so this is a very good alternative.
During the performance, I paid close attention to the sound, trying to evaluate it in audiophile terms. Sometimes, when I audition an audio system, I am immediately struck by certain qualities, such as the deep and wide soundstage, the transient attacks, the extended high and low frequencies, the powerful bass, etc. Here, nothing grabbed my attention. The imaging was not particularly pinpoint in “hi-fi” terms, except for the instruments with a lot of high-frequency energy such as the triangles. Soundstage depth is not particularly outstanding; I could of course tell that the brass and woodwinds were behind the strings, but it did not have the cavernous depth perception displayed by some audio systems. The frequency extremes did not bring attention to themselves. What was most striking, however, was how the music commanded my attention from beginning to end.
There was a recent article in The New York Times about how a lady in the audience let out a loud "moan" that attracted everyone's attention during a performance of the Tchaikovsky 5th Symphony at the Lincoln Center in early April. Great music should elicit an emotional response from listeners, and the ultimate goal of an audio system is to enable listeners to "feel" the music. In order to do so, it must be able to accurately capture all the nuances present on the recording, such as the dynamic shadings, the tone colors, and the spatial cues, as well as re-creating the full dynamic range. A system that distracts the listeners' attention due to certain aspects of its sound will immediately fail this test.
I arrived in Munich on the day before HIGH END 2023 opened, armed with the recent memory of the sound of the concert to serve as a point of reference. The next morning, I arrived at the exhibition center promptly at 10 a.m. Going early on the first day has its pros and cons. The venue tends to be less-crowded; one of my pet peeves is how some people insist on conversing in the listening area. On the other hand, some exhibitors might not have optimized their systems, as they continue to tweak them right up to the end of the show. I went straight up to the Living Voice room to meet Kevin and Lynn Scott. Living Voice has been occupying the same room for many years, and Kevin pretty much had the acoustics optimized years ago. Since it has consistently been considered one of the best-sounding rooms of the show in years past, it is a great starting point.
At the opening of HIGH END 2023.
Even though they had exhibited their VOX horn systems in the past, this time they brought a production prototype of a new design for their Auditorium range, which will become their top horn-less speaker. Called the R80, the speakers keep the two-way, midrange-tweeter-midrange arrangement of the rest of the range, with improved cabinet, drivers and external crossover.
Above: the Living Voice R80 loudspeakers.
LPs were played on the Kuzma XL Air turntable, amplified by tube phono, pre- and 300B power amplifiers by SJS Electroacoustics. A wide range of music was played, which is important, since some exhibitors limit the range of music played to avoid exposing the shortcomings of their systems. The music sounded correct right away, as nothing stood out and everything was well-balanced and natural. String instruments and voices sounded gorgeous, and I found it very easy to concentrate on the music. I could easily hear the family resemblance with the VOX Olympian, one of the best horn systems on the market. The list price is £52,000 (US$64,000), a price point with stiff competition, but for people looking for that elusive emotional connection with music and not just sound effects, these speakers will give you more than a taste of their vastly more expensive horn offerings.
Kuzma's XL Air turntable.
Across the hallway from Living Voice was the largest room of the show. In fact, it served as a meeting hall in years past. This year, the hall was rented to ESD Acoustic, a Chinese company that specializes in horn speakers. This is the largest system I have ever come across, with two tweeters, two upper midranges, a midrange, a mid-bass and a lower-bass driver on each channel. All are front-horn loaded compression units with field coil magnets, beryllium diaphragms in the midrange and tweeters, and titanium diaphragms in the bass drivers. All the drivers have very high sensitivity; the midrange for example is rated at 116dB/1W/1m! These share a lot of similarities with the Classic Audio Loudspeakers drivers I use, having the combination of field coil and beryllium diaphragm. The system uses an active crossover with individual amplification for each driver. The low bass is augmented by a stack of subwoofers, three on each channel.
ESD Acoustic showed a no-holds-barred system.
Here's a close up of the horns in the ESD system.
I came back to the hall time and again throughout my visit, and must have spent about two hours in total listening to this system. A wide variety of music was heard, from Peking opera to Italian opera, large symphonic works, chamber music, country music, classic rock, jazz and folk. This is one of a few systems I have heard that can convey the full power of an orchestra. It has that elusive quality where nothing stands out and the music just flows naturally and unimpeded. Simple music such as a singer with a guitar might sound too upfront and with a comically large image, but large-scale orchestral works give the illusion of being in a concert hall. Dynamics are completely unrestricted, and there is no sense of strain whatsoever during the loudest tuttis. I had already heard this system during the Hong Kong High End Audio-Visual Show, but it did not impress at the time because the room was too small. Given the space to breathe and enough distance for the drivers to integrate, it was spectacular this time.
Another popular room in years past is the Silbatone Acoustics room. The owner is one of the top collectors of vintage audio, and he is planning to open his own museum in Seoul this December. This time, he brought the Western Electric 12B horn speakers. Also on display was a pair of Lansing Iconic, the first studio monitor, and which most current studio monitors are still modeled after. The WE12B is the original theater loudspeaker, commissioned by Warner Brothers for the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer. At the time, audiences were amazed by how real the sound was, and I can understand why. The large rectangular horn is driven by a pair of 555 field coil compression drivers. The aluminum diaphragm of these drivers weighs only 1 gram, which was a tour de force in manufacturing in 1927, and still is today. It cuts off at 80 Hz, and there is still no other compression driver with such a wide bandwidth. It crosses over at 3,000 Hz to the 597A "loudspeaking telephone," which extends to 30 kHz, even though recordings at that time probably did not extend beyond 10 kHz.
The Western Electric 12B speakers in the Silbatone Acoustics room.
More vintage vibe: the Lansing Iconic loudspeaker.
Here's one of the 555 field coil compression drivers of the Western Electric 12B."
More of Western Electric's handiwork: the 597A "loudspeaking telephone" driver.
Amplification was by Silbatone, with a single Western Electric VT2 directly-heated triode per channel, with an output of a mighty 2.5W. The owner was incredibly generous, since there must not be more than a handful of these tubes left in the world. This ancient horn speaker has no horn coloration, and the sound is eerily real. I was most impressed by its portrayal of voices and string instruments, but it can do equal justice to jazz and even rock music. Again, the emotional aspect of the music was present in spades, characterized by the natural flow and tone color, as well as the ease of presenting dynamic contrasts.
Also on display was a pair of modern speakers from G.I.P. Laboratories. This Japanese manufacturer specializes in the reproduction of classic Western Electric components, at astonishingly high prices. I did not hear these speakers, and would love to know how close they get to the original WE sound. Anyone interested in vintage sound should visit the museum in Seoul after December.
Part Two of this show report will appear in Issue 191.
Header image: the Kondo Audio Note system at HIGH END 2023. All images courtesy of the author.