Jeff Fritz listeningI’ve just returned from Munich’s High End 2014. I had a great time. Doug Schneider and I have been saying for several years now that this annual show is the most important display of high-end audio products anywhere in the world -- it’s the best show, in the best venue, with the best organization of any event that has anything to do with promoting high-end audio. According to the High End Society -- the German organization that produces High End -- 18,000 visitors attended the 2014 show to see gear representing 900 brands. Part of the reason High End is so successful is its venue, the Munich Order Center (MOC). This 323,000-square-foot facility was designed and built to house conferences and trade shows. The building itself is bright and spacious, with 142 display rooms, large halls and conference rooms, and glass-paned atria. It’s accessible and logically oriented, and it’s surrounded by a great city -- everyone seems to love to come to Munich for its excellent restaurants, tourist attractions, and sheer walkability.

Which brings me to my first big problem with the high end in North America: Why do we use dingy hotel rooms to display audio systems that can cost in the seven figures? I know that some of the reasons are affordability, availability, and accessibility, but with the stark contrast of High End, you can begin to see that we, the North American high-end audio community, are doing ourselves no favors. We can’t expect to attract new blood to our hobby by inviting people to smelly little hotel rooms to hear a $20,000 amplifier sitting on stained carpet next to a headboard propped against a wall. And we wonder why normal people don’t find this attractive.

Then we tell them that the sound won’t be very good because the room is not so good. But of course it was we -- our little community -- who chose to display it there. Any normal person would think: “So you’ve got this stereo system with huge speakers that cost tens of thousands of dollars, and you, the guys who made it, can’t get it to sound good in a room that’s about the size of the one I have at home? Thanks, but I’ll pass.” It’s no wonder the average Joe doesn’t get it, and instead shrugs and thinks, “I’ll just get a decent set of headphones for my iPod.” Given our inadequate promotional acumen, that’s the most reasonable response.

MOC main hall

It makes you wonder if North America actually has no facilities that are the equivalent of the MOC. But even little ol’ Wilmington, North Carolina -- with a population just north of a 100,000 -- has a convention center with multiple meeting rooms, conference rooms, and a large ballroom, that could easily support a small audio show. I refuse to believe that hotels are the best venues we can find for audio shows. C’mon, guys.

Moving along . . .

. . . to the off-site, parasitic shows that invariably pop up around any large event. Held in Munich the same time as High End was Hifideluxe. Doug Schneider and I visited this “show” one afternoon after leaving High End, and as far as I’m concerned, it was a disaster. There were maybe 15 rooms spread around the Munich Marriott, perhaps a ten-minute cab ride from the MOC. There were only a few people scattered here and there, and on some floors we saw no people at all. Whatever the exhibitors had paid to show their wares there, they paid too much. Exhibiting at such a show makes no sense to me -- it tells your prospective customers that you can’t afford to be at High End, and/or that you really don’t want anyone to see your wares. Either way, it would make a terrible impression on anyone judging the viability of high-end audio. Hifideluxe was a strange little affair that would have been laughable had it not been so sad -- the 15 minutes we spent there depressed us. And the same can be said of T.H.E. Show, which each year accompanies the Consumer Electronics Show.

Lastly: Audio manufacturers, can you please quit making excuses for why your gear doesn’t do what you say it can do? If you can’t make good sound in the room you’re displaying in -- whether at the MOC or a hotel -- then present a silent display, because what you’re doing doesn’t work. Imagine the Williams-Sonoma lady saying, “Now, the new Vitamix isn’t actually going to blend all of this fruit, so please ignore the lumps in your smoothie. Hopefully, it will work better when you get it home.” I rest my case.

In 2003, the last year High End was held at the Kempinski Hotel, in Frankfurt, Germany, a number of exhibitors were resisting the show’s impending move to Munich and the MOC. Thank goodness the High End Society ignored their complaints. In the decade since, High End has become the most prominent and important and best-run exhibition of high-end audio gear in the world. Good for them -- and let’s hope the rest of our community can learn from their example. It would help everyone. We have to do a better job of presenting what we do to those who have no idea of the quality of sound they’re missing.

. . . Jeff Fritz