Release the pressure. Channeling the spirit of host city Las Vegas, CES is where big noises are made. For 50 years, CES has been the high-end audio world's platform of choice for new product announcements and worldwide distributor meet-ups. From Wikipedia: "The first CES was held in June 1967 in New York City. It was a spinoff from the Chicago Music Show, which until then had served as the main event for exhibiting consumer electronics. The event had 17'500 attendees and over 100 exhibitors; the kickoff speaker was Motorola chairman Bob Galvin." The much younger Munich High-End offers a more understated platform from which to conduct product launches. Without the "what's new?" conversation diverting to other types of consumer electronics, Munich might now be more potent than CES. Most acutely in the last half decade, an increasing number of manufacturers have foregone CES and decamped to Munich to hold their annual run of distributor meetings and launch new products. CES' Venetian hotel-based high-end audio segment is in sharp decline both in terms of exhibitors and attendees. The rumour doing the rounds at Munich 2017 was that only a single floor at The Venetian had been sold for CES 2018 whereas as recently as 2016, up to five floors of audio hardware could be seen/heard. Furthermore, against a backdrop of drones, phones, TVs and gaming consoles, nowhere is the audiophile bubble more exposed as a niche interest that in Las Vegas. At CES, the hifi world appears lost, directionless and desperately out of touch. In Germany, standing alone, tall and proud, it looks to be in rude health. Context is everything. With its own exhibitor and attendee numbers on the rise, Munich High-End's reputation as the biggest and best audio show in the world is now beyond reproach.

For the press, Munich High-End isn't only a chance to catch up with manufacturers, to seek out new products, to see up review assignments, to join dots on the audio tech map and observe trends. It's a chance to catch up with each other. From an all-too-brief chat with former fellow countryman Edgar Kramer, I learnt that he will soon bid farewell to the predominantly print-published Australian Hifi / Audio Esoterica to start a web presence of his own but in tandem with Doug Schneider's Soundstage Network. Soundstage! Australia will launch in July and will see Kramer become possibly the only full-time web reviewer in Australia without a side gig as audio show organiser or hifi retail salesman.

AudioQuest's Skylar Gray & Michael Lavorgna

For this reviewer working in splendid isolation, Munich High-End means an opportunity to catch up with reviewer colleagues also working in splendid isolation elsewhere in the world. In 2017 that meant many hours talking to Stereophile/AudioStream's Michael Lavorgna, who lives in New Jersey. We chatted about the world of digital audio, specifically MQA and Roon. Neither are new but both are beginning to dominate digital audio conversations in which they were formerly bit part players. Seen from a slightly different angle, MQA and Roon are two audio-related technologies that have gained sufficient momentum through hardware partnerships and/or licensing deals that they are now a dominant force in their respective fields.

MQA. One might reasonably dismiss a new file format as DOA without official backing from the major record labels. In a world dominated by streaming, it'd be consigned to a sideshow if the only content coming to market were downloads. A wait-and-see policy is advised. At CES in January came a punchy one-two announcement: 1) that Tidal would begin streaming MQA-encapsulated titles, initially from Warner Music Group, effectively immediately and 2) the first hi-res unfold would be executed by Tidal's desktop app. Here at last was hi-res streaming for all Tidal Hifi subscribers at no additional cost. That same week, a third announcement: that AudioQuest's DragonFlys (Black $99, Red $199) would be made MQA-capable via a forthcoming firmware update and that Audirvana+ v3.0 would offer its very own 'first unfold' capabilities. The latter materialised within a matter of weeks but the former appeared to be a case of gun-jumping by MQA's marketing bods. Also in February, MQA announced Universal Music Group's official support for the format. Two down, one to go. Then just days before mid-May's Munich event, Sony were announced as MQA signees. So were Merlin, representatives of numerous independent labels. All labels, all aboard. From the floor of the MOC, AudioQuest announced the roll-out of their eagerly anticipated AudioQuest MQA firmware. An MQA-capable DAC could now be yours for as little as 99 buckaroos. A big tick for end user accessibility.

Soon after Munich High-End 2017 wrapped, news arrived that download retailer would begin selling live recordings of Metallica and Bruce Springsteen in MQA. A few weeks later, we learnt that HDtracks' forthcoming HDmusicStream will be powered by MQA. Whichever way you look and whatever you think of its licensing model, its inner technological workings or its potential for holding digital audio hardware manufacturers in a head lock, MQA is very much full steam ahead. The licensing deals are in place and MQA streaming is a reality. That spells additional pressure for hardware manufacturers to include MQA support in their DAC/streamer or risking losing a sale.

Roon. When it comes to a digital audio playback control and library management software, there's Roon and then there's everyone else. Presumably, Roon subscribers are like Lavorgna and I in that we see significant value in the software's supremely elegant UX, its extensively hyperlinked meta-data layer and its ability to unearth long-forgotten gems from the depths of our libraries. Talking at length over coffee'n'cake near Odeonsplatz the day before Munich High-End 2017 opened its doors, neither of us could locate a single quibble relating to Roon. None. For software, in any field, that's almost unheard of. It underscores precisely why Roon is worth paying for. Software is now a hifi system component (almost) like any other. This assertion led to our conversation taking a slight turn: that the digital audio game is now as much about software as hardware. Streaming manufacturers must ensure that their software layer competes with the best in the industry. As evidenced by PS Audio's DirectStream DAC, AURALiC's Aries streamers and Devialet's Expert amplifiers to name just three pieces of hardware with software-powered digital hearts, software updates not only squash bugs and add better functionality. In many cases, they actually improve sound quality. Bringing things full circle with a Möbius twist: streaming/server manufacturers sticking to their own control software must now work twice as hard on their devices' sound quality to make good on any UX shortfall.

Crazy money audio gear. Hifi systems that sell for $100K, $200K, $300K and higher are nothing new but such mega money setups appeared to be on the rise at Munich High-End. Who is buying at this level? We can say with reasonable confidence that these systems aren't being installed in your average semi-detached house or apartment. They go into larger houses with the requisite square footage. Larger homes too are mega expensive. We're talking millions of Euros, not hundreds of thousands. This is audio gear for multi millionaires where manufacturers need only sell a handful of pieces per year to turn a profit. High margin, low turnover. Summit-Fi like this applies pressure to price expectations and the language that we use to describe pricing. Against an increasingly large backdrop of five-figure systems, $50K begin to look reasonable. But is it really? $50K are close to the median annual earnings for the USA. Worse still is hearing that same amount of money pre-pended with "only". "It's only $50K" says the sales guy without a twitch. Back in the real world, the opportunity cost of $50K is enormous even for those who earn two or three times the national average. Losing sight of this, incrementally, year by year, room by room, only shores up hifi's über niche appeal and its ongoing disconnect from the mainstream consumer.

Those without the long green might see still these über-end setups as an expression of what's possible. Fair enough. To a point. However, would we buy on the back of a show audition? The odds are heavily stacked against us. The listening rooms are unfamiliar. So too is the music for anyone raised on a diet of the usual suspects. And at the MOC, there's almost always an audible conversation going on within a few feet of the listening position. The critical listening required to make the necessary judgments about the finer points of sound quality is fraught with risk. And the higher we go with our potential spend, the more our buying decision depends on being able to reliably call out those finer points.

iFi. With USB digital audio a lottery on Android devices (and despite the need to go with a 3rd-party app for hi-res playback), the iPhone is slowly cementing its reputation as the audiophile's smartphone of choice. In 2017 so far, we've seen a smattering of headphones arrive with Lightning cables. These aren't only for iPhone 7 users but to side-step the iPhone's internal audio circuits in favour of a potentially superior in-line DAC and amp. Audeze's Cipher cable can be optioned as one way to juice the EL-8, Sine and iSine 10/20 models without resorting to boxier smartphone strap-ons. 1more's Triple-Driver IEM is now available as an MFI-certified Lightning-terminated version in addition to the standard 3.5mm analogue version. Capri's crowd-funded Lightning cable with in-line DAC/amp connects to any MMCX/2Pin IEM. The way I see it, this relatively new product category is already putting the squeeze on entry-level DAP manufacturers particularly in light of iOS's superior UX and streaming service support. Spotify and Pandora (or similar) just aren't possible on your average FiiO or iBasso DAP. Furthermore, for those who don't require isolation from the outside world, Audeze's iSine 10/20 ($399/$549) are putting some serious pressure on competitors even above the $1'000 threshold. For those who do require isolation, 1More's $199 Quad-driver is bringing some serious heat to the entry-level IEM space.

Chord Electronics are no strangers to pressure application. Thanks largely to Rob Watts' WTA filter loaded onto FPGA, the Kent company's Hugo DAC/headphone amplifier redefined what was possible from a DAC well beyond its £1'400 ask. The Hugo was as much of a hit with two-channelers as it was with headphonistas. Similarly impactful was the arrival of the more affordable palm-sized Mojo (£399) also deploying Watts' digital sorcery via FPGA. For many listeners, this has become the DAC to beat below a grand. Brace yerselves because Hugo 2 (£1'800) is on the way. It promises a new WTA filter and improved output stage. Gone cheerio are the original's external wall-wart—recharging now comes via micro USB—and rounded corners. To be warmly welcomed by loudspeaker listeners will be the Hugo 2's addition of a remote control. Ahead of its June launch, I'm pegging this as the DAC to beat below £2000.

Soon to apply pressure to the high-end DAP space like those unit made by Sony and category leader Astell&Kern will be Chord Electronics' Poly (£599), a portable streamer to be used in conjunction with the Mojo. Poly acts as wireless bridge between smartphone and Mojo, effectively turning the former into a Bluetooth/wifi remote control and/or source, sidestepping the Apple device's comparatively inferior-sounding audio circuitry and the need for screen-obscuring rubber straps and an extraneous Lightning-to-USB adaptor. The Mojo/Poly package will have us ask questions of Sony and Astell&Kern: which of your high-end DAPs will better the sound per pound of the £1'000 Mojo/Poly pairing? At what price? With what functional compromises? Does your statement DAP offer support for Tidal with offlining? What about Spotify, Pandora etc.? Can I use it as network streamer at home? Is it powerful enough to drive high-impedance cans and with proper aural satisfaction? The pressure intensifies. Not only is the Poly/Mojo combo set to rock the headfi world. Poly will be Roon Ready out of the box when it begins shipping in late July. This means we'll likely seen many an end user drop this microUSB-rechargeable pocket-sized twofer into a full-sized two-channel rig whilst at home. Poly/Mojo also represents a gauntlet throw down to any manufacturer pitching an entry-level streamer.

Lastly, back to Audeze for their LCDi4 that takes the form factor of the iSine 10/20 IEM, replaces their plastic shell with magnesium (reportedly for lower resonance and bass response down to 5Hz!) to house a ½-micron thick planar magnetic driver borrowed from the LCD-4 over-ears and all aligned with the company's Fluxor magnet technology. Despite show conditions—an open-backed IEM giving free passage to the MOC Hall's background din made judgment calls wholly unreliable—a brief chat with Audeze's marketing main man Mark Cohen revealed the company's intent to further infiltrate the pro audio space where mixing and mastering engineers are using full-sized headphones. It's likely that regular consumers put off by the weight of Audeze own full-sized LCD series will find a whole lot to like about the LCDi4. Shipping in June via special order at $2'495/pair, the LCDi4 don't come cheap. There'll be no Cipher cable for iOS device rescue either. The cable here is a "premium, braided cable made of silver-plated OCC copper with Kevlar threads". That means you're on your own with source quality. For street lifers okay with a lack of isolation, the LCDi4 are high-end IEMs for the Chord Mojo/Poly or high-end DAPs from Astell&Kern and Sony. For homies, make sure your desktop DAC/amp setup is up to the task. And those were my cherries of the 2017 install of the Munich show. Over 'n' out - or tschüss as they say in my new home of Berlin