I can’t say for sure that the annual High End show in Munich, Germany, is the largest hi-fi show in the world, because I know that there are a couple of very big shows in Asia, but I’ve never been to them. I can confidently say High End is considered the most important hi-fi show in the world. What gives High End that status is that it attracts an enormous number of exhibitors and attendees from around the world.
The SoundStage! Network has been covering High End since the late 1990s, when it was held in Frankfurt. We’ve always endeavored to photograph and write about as many products as possible. But the show is so big that we couldn’t possibly cover everything unless we had a team of about 30 writers. Even then, I’m not sure we could publish content from a team that large during the actual show, which is our standard practice. We make sure the first article goes online soon after the show opens and that our coverage is complete by midnight on the final day. We want readers to see our reports online as the show happens.
High End 2023 was held May 18 to 21. I attended with Jason Thorpe, who’s now the senior editor of SoundStage! Ultra, and Edgar Kramer, editor in chief of SoundStage! Australia. Edgar focused on producing coverage for SoundStage! Australia, where he’s published an article listing his ten favorite exhibits at the show. It was up to Jason and me to provide on-the-spot coverage for SoundStage! Global.
This year, we changed things up. Knowing that we’d be able to cover only a fraction of the products being shown, we decided to cover fewer products but write about them in much more depth—and take more pictures. People seemed to like this less-is-more approach. In fact, some said this was our best show coverage ever. Jason and I reported on the best products we found at the show. This article takes things one step further by highlighting the best of the best. All prices are in US dollars.
DALI Epikore 11 loudspeaker
DALI stands for Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries, a company founded in 1983 by Danish entrepreneur Peter Lyngdorf. It’s now one of the largest hi-fi speaker makers in the world. But in some regions—such as North America—the quality and breadth of DALI’s offerings are underappreciated.
The DALI folks must have realized that because at last year’s High End, DALI launched the Kore loudspeaker: a flagship design, priced at $110,000 per pair. It’s by far the most expensive speaker DALI has ever produced and was offered up to the world as a statement of what the company could achieve. The positive response gave the brand a bit of a “lift” in the ultra-high-end speaker market.
Still, 110 grand is a lot of money for a pair of speakers, so this year the company came out with the Epikore 11 loudspeaker, priced at a somewhat more accessible $60,000 per pair. It’s a complex design with a 6.5″ midrange, a 1.4″ soft-dome tweeter, a magnetostatic supertweeter, and four 8″ woofers, two of them mounted low on the front baffle and two mounted higher up. The upper and lower woofers have different rolloff characteristics. All drivers are designed and manufactured in-house by DALI.
As Jason noted in his report on the speaker, several Kore technologies have trickled down to the Epikore 11. “The familial resemblance between the Kore and the Epikore 11 is obvious. The tall, elevated form, the same high-gloss walnut veneer (gloss black and maroon wood veneer are also available), the trickle-down woofers—it’s all pulled straight from the Kore.” He also wrote: “The sound was instantly recognizable as coming from the Kore family, with smooth, easeful highs that still managed to wring out tons of detail. And that bass! Unbelievably tight, deep, and tuneful.”
Without question, DALI’s Epikore 11 was one of the best speakers we saw and heard at High End 2023, so much so that Jason wants to get a pair in for review on SoundStage! Ultra. We want to learn more about what DALI has to offer in terms of statement speakers because this is a brand more people need to know about.
Naim Audio Nait 50 integrated amplifier
It’s typical for companies to show their biggest and most expensive products at High End. But the buzz around the diminutive Naim Audio Nait 50 might have some brands wondering if going big is such a good idea.
Priced at $3599, the Nait 50 is a limited-edition integrated amplifier created to celebrate Naim’s 50th anniversary. The company was founded in 1973 by Julian Vereker, so, fittingly, only 1973 Nait 50s will ever be available.
The Nait 50’s design is based on the Nait 1, which was released in 1983 and wound up being one of Naim’s most popular products ever. It’s rated to deliver 25Wpc into 8 ohms, 40Wpc into 4 ohms, or 60Wpc into 2 ohms. As I wrote while in Munich, “that’s not super-duper power, but truth be told, it’s enough for most listeners using most speakers in a small- or medium-sized room. It’s also all anyone expects out of a traditional class-AB amplifier as small as the Nait 50.’”
The Nait 1 did not have a headphone output, but the Nait 50 does. Naim says the headphone amplifier is a “discrete transistor” design that was created for the New Classic series. The Nait 50 also sports an onboard moving-magnet phono stage, so you can connect a turntable to a pair of RCA inputs on the rear panel. Around back it also has two line-level analog inputs, but these have a twist—connecting to either one requires a stereo interconnect terminated with a single five-pin DIN plug.
Many people I talked to thought that the Nait 50 was the best thing they’d seen at High End 2023. Personally, I can’t say that the Nait 50 was the best product there, because I didn’t see everything, but it was certainly up there. However, I did see some quibbling online that its price is too high. Someone also told me that during the show, to which I replied, “Get a life—it’s a limited-edition product from a company with a 50-year history, so those things count for something. Besides, it’s so damn cool, I think I’m going to get one. It’s not overpriced.”
YG Acoustics Ascent loudspeaker
Now it’s time to highlight what surprised us most at the show: YG Acoustics’ Ascent loudspeaker. We discovered it almost by accident because the people at YG were doing something that we normally don’t like: they were demonstrating each speaker model on a strict timetable. For consumers, that might be fine because they can plan the day around the demonstration schedule. But when you’re covering a show the way we do, you can only spend so much time at any exhibit, and then you have to move on. Sometimes moving on means never going back.
As a result, we decided to roll the dice and deal with whatever speakers they were playing when we showed up at the YG Acoustics room at 4:00 p.m. on the second day. Unfortunately, they weren’t demonstrating any of the speakers from the new Reference 3 line, which was what we were hoping to hear. Instead, they were playing the Ascent speakers from the company’s Peaks series. Jason was blown away by their sound. That was something neither of us expected, because YG Acoustics speakers had rarely impressed us much in the past. But things have changed at the company, apparently for the better. Founder and designer Yoav Geva is gone, replaced by CEO and designer Matthew Webster and what appears to be an all-new team.
There are five models in the Peaks series, with the Ascent ($19,800 per pair) being the second speaker from the top. The topmost model is called Summit, while the one below it is named Talus. They’re all floorstanders. Below those are the Cairn and Tor standmount designs. The Peaks models were released at the beginning of 2022, so they’re not exactly new. But they’re new enough to be relevant, because there’s no plan to replace them soon.
As Jason wrote while in Munich, the Ascent has “a 25mm (1″) ForgeCore tweeter, 18.5cm (7.25″) midrange, and 22cm (8.75″) woofer. The bass and midrange drivers, complete with machined-aluminum cones, are the same as those on the Vantage 3 from YG’s Reference 3 line. The big difference is the cabinet, which in the Ascent is made from HDF that’s heavily doped with resin, as opposed to the Vantage 3’s machined-aluminum enclosure.”
It wasn’t the technology or build that impressed Jason, though—it was the sound. I looked on as Jason listened to “Smaller and Smaller” from Faith No More’s Angel Dust, “Magic Bus” from The Who’s Live at Leeds, and “Awake on Foreign Shores” from Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. I could see that Jason was mesmerized by what he was hearing. After we left the room, I listened to him talk and talk and talk almost endlessly about how good the sound was from the Ascents. Later that night he wrote in his report: “The Ascent is a speaker that truly fascinates me. Hopefully one day soon I can meet a review pair.” If Jason gets his way, that’ll be two fabulous speakers from High End 2023 that spend time in his listening room.
Sonus Faber Stradivari G2 loudspeaker
I’m a stickler for rules, so if a rule needs to be broken, there better be a damn good reason. One of our show-coverage rules is not to cover products that are being displayed at offsite exhibits. One reason is that when we cover a show, we’re there to support the show itself and the exhibitors who have signed up for it, not a nearby event sponging off the main show or an exhibitor who has decided to set up a demo elsewhere. The other reason is simple time management. It can take well over an hour to leave a show, attend an offsite exhibit, and then come back. That’s enough time to visit a dozen exhibitors at the actual show.
In Munich, we broke this rule to take in the launch of the Sonus Faber Stradivari G2 loudspeaker for one simple reason: the venue that Sonus Faber had chosen—Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski München—was near our hotel, so we could stop there in the morning on the way to High End 2023 and not shortchange our show coverage.
The Stradivari G2 is a 2023 reboot of the company’s original Stradivari, which was released in 2003. It sells for $50,000 per pair, with the first 120 pairs bearing consecutively numbered plates. After that, the speakers will have standard serial numbers and no commemorative plates.
Despite my reluctance to break one of our cardinal rules, I’m glad I was able to take in this event. As I wrote while in Munich: “The new Stradivari might have supplanted what I’d previously considered the most beautiful speaker ever made: a now-discontinued version of Sonus Faber’s Lilium, with a creamy white front baffle and light-colored wood on the sides.” The Stradivari G2 is quite wide by modern standards (28.1″), but only moderately tall (54″) and not that deep (16.8″), which is close to the dimensions of the original Stradivari. Three striking finishes are available: Wenge (dark brown), Graphite (dark gray), and Red (warm cherry). If you ask me, the finish to get is Red, which is what I saw in Munich and is as sexy as Monica Bellucci in Malèna or, more recently, Simona Tabasco in the second season of The White Lotus. There’s just something right going on in Italy that the rest of the world can’t match.
On top of being beautiful, the Stradivari is technically advanced, sporting two 10.25″ woofers, one 5.9″ midrange, and one 1.1″ tweeter, melded together in a 3.5-way crossover configuration. As I wrote in my Munich report on the G2, the pair of speakers delivered “clear midrange, sparkly highs, and awesomely powerful, tight bass—nothing like the original, which, if you ask me, is a good thing.” I included that last observation because I always thought the sound of the 2003 Stradivari was awful: “Dark and muffled in the midrange, muted in the highs, and with lethargic, muddy bass.” The G2 is a different story.
I wondered if I would be breaking another rule by including the Stradivari G2 in our best-of-show feature, since it wasn’t actually displayed at High End 2023. But we did include it in our show reports, and it was one of the best products we saw while we were in Munich, so I felt that it was worthy of a mention here.
On my Facebook and LinkedIn pages, I’m vocal with my opinions about the hi-fi industry. Often my comments on social media are meant to stir up debate, but occasionally they’re statements about trends in the hi-fi industry and how we’re adapting to them at the SoundStage! Network.
One of my most recent posts was about our coverage of hi-fi shows. As things stand now, our plan is to cut back to just two shows for the second half of 2023. One will be the UK Hi-Fi Show Live at the end of September, while the other is Audio Video Show, which is in Poland in late October. It’s possible that we could cover more, but most likely we won’t.
By decreasing the number of shows we attend, we can spend more time traveling directly to manufacturers around the world. These visits give us much deeper insight into these companies and their products than we get at the shows. It also gives us an opportunity to produce far better content for our readers and viewers when the products are still brand new. While hi-fi shows might still be an effective place for manufacturers to demonstrate their products to the public, the best place for them to announce new products to the public is online, either through well-shot videos or well-written articles containing plenty of photos. We specialize in these things.
As a result, I won’t be writing any features highlighting the best products from any hi-fi show in the next few months. But I will be working with our video team to produce product-based videos for our YouTube channel. I will also be working with a core group of writers who will travel to manufacturers to produce company- and product-based articles for our websites. These visits are the best way we can inform you about what’s new in hi-fi—this year and beyond.
. . . Doug Schneider