Brilliant Corners #6: Munich from the Back of the Bus

Alex Halberstadt (front) listens to the BAACH-SP Adio system at High End Munich. (Photo: Jason Victor Serinus)

If you're going to Germany to immerse yourself in big-city excitement—churning dance clubs, matterful contemporary art, visitors and food from around the world, and street life that goes on all night—you'll probably find it in Berlin. Though rents have been climbing and there's no shortage of dirty sidewalks and petty crime, the German capital remains one of the most youthful and vibrant cities in Europe, an art and culture center with large expatriate communities and endless things to do. For urban thrills on a smaller scale, you can make a case for Cologne and even Leipzig.

Just maybe don't go to Munich. As soon as you leave the airport, you know you've reached the epicenter of German burgherdom—a place where manicured lawns, public safety, tidy storefronts, and respectful revelers in Tyrolean costumes are the norm. On a recent night at one of Munich's famous biergartens, I watched well-dressed couples politely enjoying delicacies like Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle), Jägerschnitzel (pork cutlet), and Krustenbraten (pork shoulder) with tankards of the city's fragrant, low-alcohol Helles lager. Most were gone by 8:45.

Which is not to say that Munich has always been boring. In fact, it was home to possibly the most fun head of state in history, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, an art and music lover with a penchant for over-the-top interior decor, strapping cavalrymen, and grandiose architectural projects. It was in Munich that Ludwig, at the tender age of 16, first heard a performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser; the opera excited him so much that it induced physical convulsions, making the young monarch's entourage fear that he was suffering an epileptic fit. Soon, Ludwig would become Wagner's chief patron and obsessive admirer—if he were on Reddit, he might justly be known as a Wagner stan.

Years later, above the alpine winter palace he named Linderhof, Ludwig oversaw the construction of the Venus Grotto, a manmade cave with artificial stalactites and a lake. Inside, he placed a stage backed with a massive painting of a scene from Tannhäuser, a waterfall, a mechanical wave machine, and colored lights powered by one of the first electrical generators in Europe. On many evenings, the increasingly eccentric king hosted performances in the grotto. While the musicians and singers performed—it was usually Wagner—Ludwig was rowed around in a gilt seashell gondola, surrounded by swans.

Since Emile Berliner's gramophone was still years away, I like to think of Ludwig as one of the world's first audiophiles. And talk about a sweet spot!

So I suppose it makes sense that today the city hosts the emperor of audio shows: High End Munich. Before going any further, I must admit that I arrived at this year's installment as an audio-show virgin, so I hope you will permit me a few general comments. All around me, audiophiles were hurrying off to see more than 550 exhibitors in the surprisingly light-filled and un-depressing Ordercenter München, or MOC, a building about the size of a big-city airport terminal. Everything about the show—from the genuinely helpful floor plan to the Paulaner beer stand parked in a sunny interior courtyard—felt thoughtful and smart. And being surrounded by thousands of audio nerds turned out to be, well, kind of exciting.

About those nerds: some weren't! Given my colleagues' descriptions of audio shows in our country, I found the attendees in Munich more diverse, in terms of age, attire, body shape, and ethnicity, than I expected. Not so much in terms of gender—I didn't see many women, most of whom probably consider gawking at cable looms that cost as much as a Land Rover Discovery while wearing a name tag around their necks to be a quixotic way to spend a sunny weekend in May. Of course, there were scads of the cool young people we middle-aged men so enjoy writing about. On my first pass through the show, I chatted with Douglas Stephens (above), a fellow American who produces video content for The Headphone Show, appears to have been born in the very last minutes of the 20th century, and has diagrams of a tube and a transistor tattooed on his forearms. And for the most part, the showgoers I met turned out to be considerate, soft-spoken, and disinclined to stampede.

I'm afraid the news isn't quite so upbeat when it came to the music I heard at High End Munich. I realize that recordings featuring the fewest possible elements are the easiest fare to reproduce cleanly, but a female Broadway singer cooing "Pennies from Heaven" over a walking bassline is, technically speaking, hardly music. I'm also sorry to report multiple run-ins with Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr., Eric Clapton, Norah Jones, and the simply unavoidable Saturday Night in San Francisco, which offers more guitar notes per dollar than any record known to humankind. (Speaking of which, despite his ubiquity at the MOC, I managed to avoid High End Munich Brand Ambassador Al Di Meola entirely.) And it goes without saying that I walked past enough renditions of "Hotel California," and that motion sickness–inducing arpeggio, to begin wishing Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and the late Glenn Frey all kinds of ill.

My mission at MOC, because of this column's purview and my temperament, was to cover the fringes: If High End Munich were a bus, I was heading for the people seated in the last few rows. The quarterbacks and prom queens of high-end audio will get plenty of coverage elsewhere; I wanted to meet the fanatics, weirdos, goths, loners, mystics, and those poor of attitude. As it turned out, I found plenty to write about.

The Silbatone room.

My first stop was one of the show's largest and weirdest rooms, belonging to Silbatone Acoustics of Seoul, Korea. Its most striking feature was the hulking Western Electric 12B speakers from 1927, which, back then, were used to imbue Hollywood's first talkie—The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson—with sound. The Westerns' enormous snail horns are made of more than 180 pieces of wood. According to Silbatone's head honcho, Michael Chung, the ones in Munich are among three surviving pairs. Happily, the room was entirely free of the kind of music you might find on a Starbucks sampler CD. Powered by Silbatone monoblocks using a single VT-2 globe triode from 1918, the 12Bs reproduced Maria Callas singing Verdi arias and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love"—from original vinyl—with gob-smacking dynamics and utterly natural sound.

The vibe in the Silbatone room was looser than in most, with much beer and a mysterious bag of pork rinds being passed around. Two renowned tonearm designers, Frank Schröder and Thomas Schick, were deejaying and manning the turntables. Tracks were announced by the soft-spoken Chung, who happens to be a member of the family behind the Hyundai Group, one of Korea's largest chaebols, or family-run conglomerates, a fact that partly explained how those priceless Western Electrics end up getting shipped to Munich every year. It also explained Chung's newest venture, an audio history museum set to open in Seoul in December. A photo of the vast postmodern building housing the museum occupied the space between the speakers.

Amid the room's floating entourage—Silbatone staff and a museum curator from Korea, journalists, amp builders, triode heads—I met two of my audio heroes. Bald, bespectacled J.C. Morrison, one of the two principal designers at Silbatone, is a former member of New York's Triode Mafia, alongside such underground luminaries as the late Don Garber of Fi, Noriyasu Komuro of the Komuro Amplifier Company, and Stereophile columnist Herb Reichert. All of them contributed to Sound Practices, a beloved DIY resource and the first magazine I was aware of that made audio seem genuinely cool. Though I couldn't read a schematic, I bought every issue that came out.

As it happens, Sound Practices founder and editor Joe Roberts is a Silbatone employee as well. Now gray, with an ample belly and what sounded to me like a broad Baltimore accent, Roberts walked around the room with a look of informed mischief. He told me he started Sound Practices after studying anthropology at Yale, and decided to approach the history and culture of audio the way a social scientist might approach the culture of a far-flung atoll in the Pacific. His current job seemed to include being a master of ceremonies, and after the Callas track he spoke to the visibly impressed visitors about the 100-year-old speakers. "How much has audio really improved over the last century?" he asked with a grin. It was a worthwhile question.


Herb Reichert's picture

"Roberts (the boss of all cool audio cats) walked around the room with a look of informed mischief."

Mischief is never a bad plan.


Wdw's picture

Just a great read, tremendous writing and observations. Wonderful.
....and this coming from a Magico, all transistor and digital dCS guy.

Anton's picture

Looking forward to the extra time you may be getting with the BACCH-SP.

I'm hoping a public university will create one in my price bracket.


Loved the question....

"How much has audio really improved over the last century?"

Really, it's the source material that's lead the way.

Glotz's picture

Source quality has come up in huge ways since (even) 2010. I've noticed it with the less-than-audiophile releases in electronic and rock music and even amplified-rock live LP's and streams.

Awesome time to be broke from buying too much new music! Yay! (lol..)

jimtavegia's picture

Great writing and I hope you get to go again.

noamgeller's picture

Congratulations on an excellent show cover, it was a joy to read!
After some years in Munich high-end I too look for the weird and beautiful audio product of the fringe.
I remember Cessaro audio and the Western Electric 97 year old fondly, both for me were a definitive best of show.

doug s.'s picture

re: the totaldac room - are you sure it wasn't the speakers you heard?

doug s.