June 2009

Lessons from High End 2009

Covering an audio show is more art than science. Product "beats" flow together, as complete systems, not just individual components, command the spotlight for consumers and press alike. When you cover a show, you can approach it with a plan for the kinds of products you want to report on and how many of each, but ultimately the show gets its way, demanding how you must cover it.

With this in mind, it was interesting to note the mix of equipment for analog and digital playback in the SoundStage! Network's coverage of the recent High End 2009 show in Munich, Germany. If computer-based audio really is taking over high-end audio, you'd never know it from what was shown at High End, where turntables and phono stages edged out media servers and USB DACs, at least for space in the show report.

I noted new turntables from Clearaudio, Thorens and Brinkmann, and new phono stages from Octave, Esoteric, and Soulution, with Behold, T+A, Audio Aero and Arcus representing the computer-audio crowd. If you want to include the feature-packed NAD digital amplifier and B.M.C. Audio DAC among the computer-based products, analog can counter with two products from Furutech -- a set of very pricey cartridge-connection wires and an LP clamp -- a Brinkmann phono stage that uses NOS tubes, and the funky Horo WJE 168 turntable with its eye-popping two-foot-long wooden tonearm (pictured below).

Of course, the SoundStage! Network show report is not representative of every product on display in Munich -- no show report could be. There were surely more new turntables, phono stages and especially cartridges -- which are easy to overlook -- along with other USB DACs, media servers and storage devices. Ayre's new QB-9 DAC, which boasts asynchronous USB connection and a master clock to control the transfer rate and reduce jitter, was at the Munich M.O.C., but then Ayre also has its own turntable, and one was in use at High End as well.

I am not an analog snob -- you know, someone who believes that LP is the only musical medium acceptable to my precious ears and worthy of my time on Earth. I have reviewed lots of great digital gear, including the Esoteric X-10 D2, my review of which is live now. But I can't get the image of that Horo turntable out of my head. Like the KEF Concept Blade speaker, which seemed to steal the show in Munich, that turntable is the tangible manifestation of a philosophical ideal -- the answer to a question that begins "What if...?" Even if it never comes to market, the Horo turntable makes an obvious statement: Analog continues to capture imaginations and stretch its market legs in the 21st century.

And as Doug Schneider pointed out in his commentary from the first day of the show, so does high-end audio, even as the world economy takes a beating. Now more than ever, people need music, the tranquility and introspection it offers, whether it comes from an LP or an iPod. This is what High End 2009 revealed to me as I followed the coverage on my laptop. This is how it demanded to be covered.

And so it was.

...Marc Mickelson