Munich High End Show - it's mad, yes, but why can't we have something like this?
The annual show organised by Germany's High End Society is usually good for two major topics of conversation among us visiting Brits, writes Andrew Everard.
One is "Why don't we have a venue like this back home, and why can't the British industry get together to organise a show like this?". The other usually starts with the question "Did you see that mad...?"[/intro]
The 2008 show, now solidly settled into its venue of the past few years, the Munich Order Centre, was on target on both counts. It was bigger and better than any of the previous shows, with a wider range of exhibitors spreading out over even more floorspace. And as well as major product launches it had more than its fair share of the outlandish and just plain crazy to gawp at and listen to.
But before anyone thinks we go just to snigger, think again - the show increases in importance as a launch platform for new products every year, and has an air of enthusiasm among exhibitors and attendees alike that's unmatched at any other show I visit.
It's also interesting to see unexpected pairings of equipment, simply due to the fact that the rooms are booked by the German disrtributors.
Thus you could hear Cambridge Audio electronics running into high-end US electrostatic speakers, not the more usual Mordaunt-Shorts, and KEF's massive Muon speakers sitting alongside Arcam's dinky Solo Mini system (left).
In fact, I did wonder whether I was going to be hearing that last combination together when I peered into the 'shop window' of one particular room, but unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately - it was just a static display.
I mentioned this unlikely pairing to Arcam's John Dawson, who assured me with a straight face that the Solo Mini would drive the Muons - 'Just...'
There was plenty to see on the large stand taken by IAG's German subsidiary, not least of which was a new FM/AM tuner from Audiolab. However, I was disappointed to see that the excellent rotary control of the 8000T and later TAG McLaren Audio T20 has been consigned to history - the 8000TE has rather more prosaic up/down buttons.
Also on display was the new look for the upcoming upmarket Quad components (above), which somewhat divided opinions, while the show was also notable for the re-emergence of the Castle brand under its new ownership...
...even if some of the models do look rather like cosmetically revised Missions.
Talking of Quad as I was, not so far away there was a slick system on display from German Quad refurbishment specialist Quad Musikwiedergabe, alongside an immaculate ESL57 speaker and a Garrard turntable.
The company had rebuilt a pair of ESL63s in light wood casework, and housed a Pioneer 42in plasma screen in a matching housing, to create a truly fascinating combination of old and new (below).
But this is still a show known for its mad speakers, and the one we have here isn't a Yamaha product, despite the very obvious triumvirate of tuning forks on the badge at the bottom.
Rather it's a tribute to bike racer Valentino Rossi, made by Hungarian custom speaker company Art & Voice.
The company also had similarly sphere-based floorstanding speakers decked out in harlequin black and white, which were certainly striking.
There was also a further model elaborately painted up with old Japanese scenes, complete with waves crashing round the base plinth, while images on the stand showed another emblazoned with pictures of old naval battles, with galleons in full sail.
Also on the Japanese kick was turntable company Wirth Tonmachinenbau, with the outlandish Bambus model seen below. Yes, that is a bamboo tonearm, with matching plinth supports.
Slightly more sensible was this leather-clad turntable from Transrotor, whose room is always a symphony of polished metal and acrylic, and which has given us models such as the Gravitas, with its massive integral stand and dumb-bell weights, and the Fat Bob.
The company doesn't exactly subscribe to the 'light and nimble' school of turntable engineering, going instead for battleship build and serious amount of glitz - the leather-plinthed model is one of its more understated designs.
On the subject of leather, this is a rather neat solution to that old problem of what to do with the subwoofer.
Revox has upholstered its sub, available in a range of colours, and put a matching squab on the top to allow it to double as a footstool.
And if that wasn't dotty enough for you, it also had a slimline floorstanding speaker design clad in fake black and white ponyskin effect.
The invisible hi-fi theme was maintained by Pro-ject, which was showing this tiny FM tuner, seen here below the input-expanding Switch Box.
It's part of the company's rapidly growing Box Line range, which has developed from tiny phono preamps and headphone amplifiers into a complete hi-fi line-up.
At the show, Pro-ject also displayed a range of sleeves, designed to hold four or six of the little units, and available either in wood effects or bright gloss colours.
We also indulged in another High End Show tradition - the Ken Ishiwata Marantz demonstration. There was no sign of last year's stacked pairs of Mordaunt-Short Performance 6 speakers - this year Ken was making do with just the one pair of the speakers.
These were fed from the Marants SA-11S2 SACD/CD player and TT-15 turntable, and driven by the SC-11S1 preamp and a pair of SM-11S2 dual-mono power amps running in biamp configuration. And true to form the Ishiwata muscal selection proved eclectic, to say the least, running from dramatic classical music to a 17-year-old Japanese female vocalist, and from Craig David to the We Are The World charity project from years back.
Oh, and some old-school funk on vinyl, with the news that at least one of the big US electrical chains is now starting to stock LPs again, as consumer interest increases.
Finally, it's good to see how much effort many manufacturers had put into creating eye-catching displays of its products - it's all a long way from the semi-dark hotel rooms of most British hi-fi shows. Seen below, for example, is one of two window displays built by horn loudspeaker specialists Avantgarde Acoustic.
Attention-grabbing, and with a sense of humour, it was hard not to read and smile...