I usually don't use this column to discuss my vacations, leaving that to others to do taking up valuable digital space on their web pages, but I just got back from 2 weeks in Bavaria and Austria, traveling around, listening to several concerts, and finishing off with attending the German High End Audio Society Audio show at the M.O.C. Center in Munich. What a great vacation, but boy am I tired.
We arrived in Munich on the 8th, and left for three days exploring Southern Bavaria, staying in Oberammergau, with King Ludwig's castles, traveling through Garmisch and Mittelwald, where I visited their school for violin makers and two practitioners of the art. This small village up in the mountains on the Austrian border used to be on the main road between Italy and Germany, and one of Stradivarius' students landed here and set up shop, and finally a school for violin making. While not a violin expert, at each shop when I pulled out my audio press credentials, they graciously demonstrated their best products available, and demonstrated their production skills. It's amazing how minute variations in wood quality, thickness, shape, etc., can determine which instrument will be superb, and which should be used by a 12 year old. Their ears must be superb, as I could hear no difference to the sound of their tapping on the individual wooden pieces to determine whether they were correct or not. These guys would make great audiophile tweakers.
Unhappily, a visit to Dieter Ennemoser's business to learn the secret of how he makes his C-37 varnish failed, so we went on to Berchtesgaden where a visit to a beer hall gave us an almost free night of Oompah Band playing by a local group that was great, at least after a couple of steins of the local beer. From there, travel brought us through Austria to the Melk Abbey on the brown "Blue Danube", where Bruckner once served, where we attended a service complete with great organ and choir music, much of which had been composed there.
Arriving in Vienna a day before our hotel reservations, we ended up driving to Baden bei Wien, a thermal bath area, founded by the Romans, where the Austrian aristocracy went to get out of Vienna's filth in the summer, where Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony in a house next to the hotel we stayed at. That night we attended a very good concert by the Sinfonietta Baden doing the Egmont Overture and Seventh Symphony. While just a local pickup group, playing in the casino's ballroom, they played with gusto, with the evening being well worth the €20 Euro charge (about $24 at the present rates of exchange).
Our first night in Vienna was spent at the Schonbrunn Palace, the Emperor's 1300 room summer cottage, where all of the major Viennese composers played at one time or another, where we took in the tourist show of a small orchestra with soprano and tenor and several dancers, doing Mozart and Strauss (Johann, not Richard). While kitschy and relatively expensive, the playing again was first rate, and a lovely evening. The next morning, while walking the back alleys of Vienna, we sat for an hour in a small coffee shop listening to Viennese street singers and a gypsy group.
The first high point of our trip was attending the Vienna Symphony Orchestra's Saturday night concert in the Musik Verein, probably the best mid sized concert hall in the world for acoustics. Vienna is one of the few cities that can support two first class orchestras, the Philharmonic being the other one. While most Americans are familiar with that one, it is actually the Symphony that gives the greatest number of orchestral performances, the Philharmonic being the house orchestra for the Vienna Opera.
I had written them beforehand in beautiful Americanized German asking for good seats, as this was a subscription concert with limited availability. They must have appreciated an American writing in their own language, as our tickets were dead center on the floor, 16 rows back, in the hall's sweet spot.
This night was the high point of a special Bruckner festival they were having, with George Pretre conducting the Ninth Symphony and Te Deum. This was the best concert I have ever been to, with the orchestra playing their hearts out for Pretre. After intermission, I found out why, as the head of the Musikverein gave Pretre, celebrating his 80th birthday, the Mozart Medal and honorary membership in the Musikverein, which is very seldom awarded. Even Von Karajan never received it.
The next several days were spent visiting friends in Austria, followed by the main reason for my visit to Europe (at least as far as the IRS is concerned), visiting the German High End Society Audio Show in Munich, Germany. This is the first year for the show in Munich, as it had previously been held in a hotel in Frankfurt. They had outgrown the facilities there, and found the M.O.C. Center in Munich to be an ideal place to be as it had both a large main hall for booths and silent demonstrations, and large rooms for live demos for those companies that could afford them.
Happily for me, but not for poor Steve Rochlin, our illustrious editor who normally attends, they scheduled the show for the same weekend as the New York Stereophile Show, and he couldn't be at both venues. So there we were in beautiful Munich, with my wife, enjoying the sites and the beer, while poor Steven was in the Big Apple in a hotel room with five other Enjoy the Music.com™ reporters.
First, I must thank Renate Paxa and her daughter Anne-Marie for their help throughout the show. They are both, as you can see by their picture, beautiful and lovely individuals and deserve a raise from whatever salary they are earning.
For a new venue, with its break-in problems, the show was very well organized and attended. There were three floors of exhibits, with the first containing the Zoo, with multiple small booths with corridors just wide enough for passage. The second and third floors had very nice sized listening rooms, in which several of the demos sounded excellent by show standards. None of them sounded as good as what I've heard in home setups, but that's to be expected as they only have a day to get ready before the press arrives. While not as large as the New York and San Francisco shows, I was surprised at the number of high end audio companies present, both from the US and Europe. Interestingly, there were almost as many American products as European. US Manufacturers included Magnepan, Rowland, Cardas, and CAT, among others.
The most impressive sounds were to be found in two rooms. The first was the B&W-Classe suite, with a 5.1 surround setup of five 801's with Classe amplification. They even had live music making by a pianist, whom I missed, and Allen Taylor, a folk singer-guitarist, ala Bob Dylan, using mikes fed into their system. It was very enjoyable.
The second was the Focal-Halcro room, where they used the Grand Utopias with the mega-bucks Halcro vertical amps. Sound was very good by show standards.
For our illustrious editor Steve, honorable mention should be given to the Avantgard-Esoteric suite, where I heard their room-sized bass horns combined with their trio horn speakers. They were very impressive to say the least. The only other horns I saw were by Odeon, but in a silent display. This was somewhat disappointing as Europe is supposed to be a horn mecca. The show has a rule that presenters have to be fairly large companies with proven production, so I guess the smaller horn companies were either barred or couldn't afford the display costs, which start at several thousand dollars.
Tubes were everywhere. Tube manufacturers are springing up like mushrooms. Of course KR (previously Vaic, then Kron) was present demonstrating their 1610 SET amplifier with tubes that John (The Wad) Holmes would be proud of if he were still alive. (By the way, Steve, Eunice sends her love.) Other tube amps were from Arcus, CAT, Octave, and Sophia, and there was at least one new Czech firm selling what looked like excellent tubes, Emission Labs.
The number of turntables both on display and being used was phenomenal. In both Germany and Austria there were actually record stores that still sell vinyl. Several, including those from Simon Yorke, Linn, Transrotor, and Elac, are familiar names in the US, but several other companies, most based in the Czech Republic, were new to me. Loricraft was also present with their record cleaning unit, which I reviewed and use at present.
Interestingly, most of the vinyl being sold at the show was of American origin, at significantly more dollars than it costs us over here, but was being bought fairly vigorously by the public and press. The price difference was partially related to the value-added tax of 18%, but with the low dollar value to the Euro this should have balanced out, so I couldn't quite figure out why they were so expensive. The price must have been right though, as a brisk business was being done.
On the other hand, everything is more expensive over there except for the beer. If you think stereo equipment is expensive in the states, go to Europe, where the taxes are higher, the wages lower, and gasoline sells for $5.50 a gallon. With the dollar being so low against the Euro, their high end manufacturers are being undercut by the Americans, and a couple of dealers at the show said they can actually sell our products for the equivalent price or less than theirs. Good news for our products, but bad news for my travel expenses.
The only new technology demonstrated at the show was from O'Heocha of Ireland, with a complete high-end system from CD player to preamp to active loudspeakers. What's so new about that you may say? It's all done without wires, using digital wireless transmission in the 2.1 GHz. frequency band, with the 24-bit/96kHz D/A converters built into the speakers. Again, you may ask, what's so new? They actually sounded very good, unlike the cheap products usually available with wireless technology. Just think, no tweaking of long runs of interconnect or loudspeaker wire underfoot or messing up the room. I couldn't tell how high end the sound could be but look forward to more of these systems especially with surround. Unhappily they couldn't answer how it will work with SACD or DVD-Audio, and analog has to be digitized.
The second new technology came up by chance. At the end of the first day when leaving the hall I was shanghaied by a an outlyer group: companies who don't want to pay the rates charged by the show, who rent hotel rooms, then lie in wait outside the venue. Since they were in the hotel next to mine, which would save me a cab fare, I went along for the ride. They were demonstrating what they called a new speaker technology, which consisted of a 6x9 (inch) rectangular sheet of a wood-something-else composite with some hidden driver. They sounded pretty good until I had them play a male voice at which time a fairly broad rise in the lower mid-range was evident. I don't know whether this was due to the speakers or their interaction with the subwoofer they needed, but the units needed work. Thus, in deference to the show, and in the hope that they'll get their act together, the product will remain anonymous.
Finally, I got to meet up with Allen Wright, the builder of my Product of the Year, his 300B-DPA differential amplifiers. He had just finished a second set for me based on 300B tubes, and they came back with me through customs without damage. But that story will be for another issue.