I set my backpack under the table and sat down gingerly. Across from me was SoundStage! Ultra senior editor Jason Thorpe, his lips pursed. We’d ducked into a small café in the Maxvorstadt section of Munich, not far from our hotel, hoping a late breakfast of espresso and pastries might revive us. Outside a spring rain washed the streets. Jason raised an eyebrow at me and said, “You’re looking a bit peaked.”

TeamSoundStagers Jason Thorpe, Matt Bonaccio, and Edgar Kramer

He pronounced it like pee-kid. Jason spent his early years in the UK, and though you might otherwise be tricked into believing he’s a native Torontonian, sometimes his country of origin will reveal itself through his vocabulary or an odd turn of phrase. “Peaked” simply means “unwell,” and Jason had observed—correctly—that I wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders yet. The Bavarian beer had been flowing by the Maßkrug the night before, and I’d eagerly indulged. Bad choice? In hindsight, yeah. But how often do you get to travel to Munich to attend the biggest hi-fi trade show in Europe? Here’s a retrospective of my first time in the Bavarian capital.

Processing the overwhelm

Thankfully, as we sipped our coffee and discussed possible sightseeing plans, the show opening was still about 24 hours away. By the time we arrived at the show’s front gate the next morning, I was fully rested and recovered, and felt excited to begin tackling our coverage of High End 2024 for SoundStage! Global. It was just as well that I was back at 100%, or else I might’ve had a minor breakdown trying to process it all.

MOCMunich Order Center (MOC)

The claim that the annual High End show is the biggest in Europe—and perhaps the world, depending on how you measure it—is no joke. The Munich Order Center (MOC), where the show is held, boasts several hundred thousand square feet of event space, meaning it’s nearly the size of a shopping mall. At this year’s event, a total of 513 exhibitors displaying nearly a thousand different brands filled every booth, kiosk, and showroom. Over 22,000 people attended. After arriving, I just wandered for hours, not knowing where to begin.

I think it took me about three hours to build enough of a mental map of the facility to navigate around without becoming too lost, and by the time the show was wrapping up late Sunday afternoon, I had just about figured out the layout. But that’s to say nothing of all the high-fidelity goodies contained within: traipsing through the show floor and venturing into any of the atrium showrooms would have had anyone tripping over the latest stereo exotica, from aluminum-slab-faced amps, to gigantic speakers that look like a bizarre alien technology out of a sci-fi thriller, to palm-sized all-in-one devices capable of serving as a multi-point source, amplifier, and sometimes even speakers. Glowing glass bottles and veneer-appointed equipment aimed at traditionalists shared the space with tech-forward hi-fi wearables and several Burmester speakers with graffiti spray-paint finishes. Turntable manufacturer Technics even brought a bright-orange Lamborghini to announce their collaboration on a special-edition variant of their SL-1200 turntable with the esteemed Italian carmaker.

Vivid AudioThe Vivid Audio room

If you ever get the chance to attend High End, definitely do so, but know up front that there’s no way you’ll be able to see everything. You’d be really lucky to meaningfully interact with a fifth or a tenth of the exhibitors, actually. That realization solidified my opinion that the team-coverage method developed by Jason and SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider is the right way to do it. If you can’t possibly see everything, much less actually talk with exhibitors, designers, and company heads about their products, how could you possibly present your show coverage as being “definitive”?

Anyway, I was completely, utterly overwhelmed, and I loved every second of it. The scale and scope of the High End event is itself a part of the spectacle.

Material Girl

High-end audio is almost synonymous with the use of exotic materials, and there was no shortage of hi-fi jewelry on display at High End 2024. Turntables seem to be a natural outlet for manufacturers to indulge the material-science wonts of their engineering teams. As Doug, Jason, and I explored the halls of the MOC, we saw several made wholly or in part from professionally laid carbon fiber, usually polished to a high shine. Leather trim made an appearance on many occasions, whether as an acoustic treatment or more often simply as an aesthetic adornment.

EATEAT C-Dur Concrete turntable

Jason seemed particularly enamored with a turntable being displayed by European Audio Team, or EAT. This particular turntable was made out of a slab of concrete, left completely raw—it had the texture and finish of a section of sidewalk. Though Jason has let on to me that he generally prefers the look of a non-traditional plinth—he digs non-rectangular forms and a lot of negative space—he really liked the look of EAT’s urban-infrastructure-inspired disc spinner. Rapping one’s knuckles against the device would leave it totally unperturbed, though one’s skin might not share that sentiment.

Another sector of the hi-fi market ripe for leveraging space-age materials is cables. While high-end cable manufacturers are always a presence at shows like High End 2024, it can sometimes be hard for them to avoid being overshadowed—the nature of the beast means they typically have to stash their wares behind massive loudspeakers and formidable stacks of electronics. As Jason wrote in one of his reports from Munich, Dutch manufacturer Crystal Cable not only had its cables featured in several reference-grade systems throughout the show, but also had a dedicated display room to show off its latest and greatest. I was thoroughly impressed by the €18,000/meter Infinity power cable debuting in its showroom.

Crystal CableCrystal Cable Infinity power cord

The price seems ridiculous, but considering the amount of gold and silver that goes into making one, it’s pretty nearly priced at the fair market value of its precious-metal composition. Just holding it impressed me, not only through its insane attention to detail and bomb-proof build quality, but also in its flexibility, making it easy to route to plugs and thus, easy to use. My own system, though no slouch, is not quite so stratospheric that any cables with price tags in the tens of thousands will appear anytime soon. But this firsthand experience with Crystal Cable’s Infinity series made me understand the appeal.

We met up with SoundStage! Australia head Edgar Kramer, who was a lovely gentleman even after being on an airplane for what I assume was about 30 straight hours. His show report over on his site features some of the most impressive, over-the-top systems at High End 2024. In fact, I don’t think any of them weighs less than a dump truck. If you want to see loudspeakers, drivers, cables, and amplifiers with heavy-duty metal construction and exotic materials, Edgar brought the goods. It’s an indication of how far the hobby has come: when the High End Society first started putting this show on in the 1980s, the material of choice for loudspeakers would have been particle board.

Technology and the future of audio

Seeing hundreds of new products made of rare and exotic components is exciting, but the real purpose of events like High End 2024 is to chart the path of sound reproduction into the future. An elaboration of an existing technology using advanced materials, science, and production techniques can be breathtaking to witness in its own right, but Doug, Jason, and I agreed that the most powerful experience of the trip was being introduced to altogether new concepts in hi-fi.

Foremost among them was the application of new acoustic techniques. While several bigger manufacturers with the space to do so showed their lineups of products intended for professional studio use, none stood above British speaker company PMC. They’d chartered an exhibition hall to allow showgoers to experience their all-out Dolby Atmos system. Doug was succinct about it in an email with me and Jason: “It was the most profound moment of the show for us.”

PMCThe front part of the PMC Atmos system

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, more convenient, and more efficient. But it also has the power to open the door to new experiences, create new knowledge, and develop new relationships. Nothing we experienced at High End 2024 lived up to the promise of technology in quite the way the huge 21-speaker PMC system did. We heard the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” played over the system, meticulously remixed for an immersive Atmos sound experience. In his report, Jason said hearing that song was “a fist-pumping affirmation of the human spirit set forth by a system with the power to reverse the magnetic field of the earth.” I’m not the wordsmith Jason is, so I’d just call it damn good fun. It truly was “an experience” more than simply “listening.”

On the title track of his power trio’s mind-bending 1967 debut, Jimi Hendrix asks, “Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced?” He answers himself, “Well, I have.” I feel like, as far as hi-fi shows go, I can now say the same. High End 2024 was an experience, and I look forward to repeating it in 2025.

I have the beginnings of an odd collection going now: hanging on my closet doorknob are two press-pass lanyards, one from High End 2024 in Munich, and one from Audio Video Show 2023 in Warsaw. It’s a collection I hope to add to over the coming years, and I hope to share those experiences with you here at SoundStage! Hi-Fi and SoundStage! Global. Maybe next time I’ll go a bit easier on the Weissbier.

. . . Matt Bonaccio