August 6 – 8 was the weekend of the 2021 Hong Kong High-End Audio Visual Show, organized by Audiotechnique magazine. This show has been an annual pilgrimage for local audiophiles since 2003, except for last year when it was canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. It has become the largest show of its kind in Asia, and it normally has been attended by many audiophiles from Mainland China, who would make the trip specifically for the show, as well as by manufacturers and other audio dignitaries from all over the world.
Because of the stringent restrictions for inbound travelers (only Hong Kong residents are allowed in from some countries at the moment), we all missed our friends from abroad this year. Also, locals are staying home for the summer due to the onerous quarantine requirements required for re-entry, yet the show still seemed to be well-attended.
The show went from Friday to Sunday for three full days. I decided to sneak in during lunchtime on Friday, and found the line for tickets literally a mile long. In fact, they had to open up an exhibition hall just to accommodate the people waiting in line for tickets. I estimated that it would have taken me more than the one hour I had, having skipped lunch, just to get to the ticket booth. Fortunately, I had a letter from Frank Doris identifying me as a writer for Copper, and I managed to get a press pass in short order. (However, I didn't get the free SACD that they produce every year for the paying public.)
After getting through the entrance, there were more long lines just to get onto each exhibition floor, and still more lines to get into each room. Other than having to scan the LeaveHomeSafe app and to wear masks, there seemed not to be any social distancing measures. There were individual rooms of different sizes on two floors for the larger distributors, and a large hall space with rows of booths for the smaller guys and individual brands. In years past, there were live events in the theater with singers and bands, but not this year.
I managed to get into several rooms on Friday, but there were so many people that it was hard to hear anything at all. There are always guys (I saw perhaps a handful of ladies attending the show) who insist on giving their opinions on whatever is being demonstrated, and making sure everyone else can hear them. There were also people talking on the phone, which I could understand, since they would never be able to get back in if they had to leave the room to take a call. I have given up on assessing the sound quality of systems during these shows, and I just make a note of anything interesting and follow up at the dealers' showrooms afterwards.
I have trouble keeping track of all the new equipment coming onto the market. My general impression is that everything is getting larger, heavier, more glossy and more costly. The amps I saw during the show made the high-end amps of my youth (Krell KSA 200, Mark Levinson ML20 and so on.) look like midgets. There are amps that might be mistaken for small refrigerators. There seems to be more US$40,000-plus turntables nowadays than there were turntables available when the LP was still the mainstream music medium. The Infinity IRS V loudspeaker system was jaw-droppingly expensive when it was first introduced, but it now seems so ho hum. Pretty much every loudspeaker system in those big rooms in the show cost more, even after inflation has been taken into account.
My friend commented that hi-fi has become jewelry for men. I wonder how it is possible to sustain business, given the large number of brands and models on the market, especially since most young people prefer to use earbuds to listen to music via streaming. One answer is China, which is adding more millionaires (and billionaires) each year than anywhere else. This is the real reason why the Hong Kong show has become the largest in Asia. The cost of accommodating these gigantic amps and speakers in a typical Hong Kong apartment, the most expensive in the world by far, would dwarf the cost of the equipment itself. We are not the target customers for these distributors.
I decided to skip Saturday since it is usually the busiest day, and returned to the show first thing on Sunday morning, when everyone else is in church. Seriously, Hong Kongers tend to be late risers (at least on weekends), and most of the good stuff like the limited-edition LPs are long gone by Sunday morning anyway. On the other hand, the stuff nobody wants gets discounted on Sunday, which suits me fine, since I don't follow trends.
I actually managed to talk to a few people and listen to several systems in the relative calm. I estimate, as readers can see from the photos, that about half of the demonstrations used LPs, and the other half digital. Sadly, I did not hear any open reel tapes used in demonstrations this year. Someone had an Ampex ATR-102 with Aria electronics and a large Otari in one of the smaller booths, but they were not playing. In years past, Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds came with Chris Mara, who brought along his restored MCI tape machines (see J.I. Agnew’s interview with Mara in Issue 139). They held demonstrations playing Chad’s Analogue Productions master tapes, and that sounded great. Tim de Paravicini also brought along recording artist Lyn Stanley one year so that we could compare his tapes and tape machine with the real thing. This seems a world away now, and sadly we may never experience it again. I guess tapes are still too much on the fringe for the mainstream audiophiles here. LPs are again very popular, with many new audiophile titles of Chinese artists being released, but surprisingly, there are a lot of new CDs available too.
A long line to get to the ticketing booths on Friday.
Another long line to get onto the exhibition floors.
A recently-manufactured Western Electric 300B tube, available again.
The new Thorens TD 124 DD turntable has arrived. I will arrange an audition hopefully soon.
Earbuds as fashion statements.
Diptyque Audio magnetostatic loudspeakers. Only on static display, but if they are as good as Magneplanars, I would love to hear them.
McIntosh partnering up with Sonus Faber. The sound reminded me of the road trips in my uncle's old Cadillac during the 1970s. My cousins and I cruised along comfortably, nestled in the plush backseats, gently bouncing along the highway to Disneyland. Nothing exciting, but very calm and relaxing.
What is it with this green glow? The MC275 already looks gorgeous as it is.
There was plenty of vinyl for sale.
This was the first time I came across Franco Serblin speakers. This gentleman founded Sonus Faber, hence the family resemblance. After leaving Sonus Faber in 2006, he founded his namesake company and developed these speakers, called the Ktêma, in 2011. Sadly, he passed away in 2013, but his company lives on. These speakers are in fact four-way, with two 9-inch woofers hidden at the rear of the speakers vented sideways with a waveguide. I found them very impressive. The sound was refined, musical and with excellent imaging capabilities, thanks to the narrow profile at the front. They projected a large-scale soundstage for their size.
This was the first time I encountered a pair of Tannoy Westminster loudspeakers at a show (a friend used to have a pair at home), and the model here was the Royal GR. They were partnered here with Esoteric electronics from Japan. I find Esoteric electronics to be rather cold and soulless, and the Westminster tends to be on the warm, slow and fuzzy side. I had hoped they would match well, balancing out each other's shortcomings. Someone in the audience unwrapped a new SACD he just bought at the show and handed it over to be played. He kept crumpling the plastic wrap in his hand, making an annoying crackling noise throughout the demo. Worse still, the sound was way louder on the right channel and nobody noticed until I pointed it out about three minutes into the demo. They then proceeded to try and diagnose the problem, at which point I left the room. The little that I heard confirmed my view on Esoteric.
I found this room to be the most impressive at the show. The photo shows me with Edward (left) of Avantgarde Hong Kong, and Charles (right) of Kondo Japan. I heard the Kondo Ginga turntable with the IO-M cartridge, SFz silver step-up transformer, GE-10i phono stage, G-1000i preamplifier, Kagura 211 parallel single ended monaural power amplifiers and the Kaiser Acoustics Kawero Grande loudspeakers (the larger pair in wood finish). Although the speakers are not outrageously huge, they weigh 500 pounds each. Apparently, the enclosure is made with an extremely dense wood/rubber sandwich. They employ RAAL ribbon tweeters, which I had once contemplated using, and are loaded with horn waveguides. The internal cabling uses Kondo silver cables, and so I deduce they were developed to partner with Kondo electronics.
I hate to think how much all this cost, but the sound was exceptional. Edward put on an LP of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, an album I am very familiar with. The sound had the relaxed liquidity, effortlessness and naturalness of a truly great system, whereas many other ultra-expensive systems in the show sounded as if they were trying too hard. All of this was achieved not with monster 3,000-watt amps (examples of which were playing in the room next door), but 50 watts of Class A tube power.
3274: These Cessaro horn speakers looked very interesting, but I did not manage to get in (there was a long line of people ahead of me) while this system was being demonstrated. The focus of the discussion seen here was on the Arya Audio Labs AirBlade 180 supertweeters (on top of the white speakers). They apparently have 180 degrees of dispersion and significantly enhance the spatial cues in a recording.
Fyne Audio was started by several Tannoy ex-employees who developed their own version of the dual concentric driver. I have been curious to audition these, but I did not get in to hear them due to the long line. I was allowed to take a photo though.
Best deal of the show? This three-meter pair of gold loudspeaker cables can be yours for only US$80,000. I thought this could be a good investment in this era of QE infinity, until I realized they are only gold-plated, not solid gold.
These Jadis JA200 Mk II power amps sounded wonderful. A friend had a pair of the original JA200 until the day one of them decided to put on a fireworks display. Whenever I see a pair of these powered up, I try to stay as far away as possible.
All photos by Adrian Wu.