The opportunity to cover Warsaw’s Audio Video Show 2019 was pitched to me this way, by both the editor-in-chief of this magazine and the event’s organizers: “It’s the second biggest audio show in Europe!” Sort of brought to mind the longtime tagline for the Avis car rental company, “We Try Harder.” But once the three audio-packed days in Poland’s capital had run their course, I concluded that the analogy really wasn’t apt. The Warsaw show is not to High End München what Avis was to Hertz back in the 1960s. They are very different animals. Munich is first and foremost about commerce—manufacturers meeting dealers and distributors, new products being introduced to the audiophile world via the conduit of a charged-up audio press. The Polish show is aimed directly at consumers—hobbyists obsessed with good sound and its capacity to advance the cause of good music. TAS had never been to the event before and I traveled solo to Warsaw, more to gather impressions than to scribble down model numbers and prices. You can be sure that we will field a full team for more traditional show coverage in November 2020. Think of this report as “reconnaissance.”
Adam Mokrzycki, a senior contributing editor for AUDIO, Poland’s longest-established specialist hi-fi magazine, has been connected with the AV Show since its inception in 1997. (It seems very Eastern European that the nation’s leading audio magazine is called AUDIO and the audio/video show perennially drawing big crowds is simply “Audio Video Show,” with the appropriate year appended. No-frills promotion.) Speaking of crowds, Mokrzycki reported a few days after the event concluded that AV Show 2019 had attracted a record 14,238 unique visitors, and that the event’s 178 rooms, nearly 200 exhibitors, and over 660 brands were all new highs as well. “I don’t make a living running the Show,” Mokrzycki told me. “This is just a hobby for me, as I have another company in a different business, which has allowed me to organize it in a budget-friendly way. The Show has been growing organically for 23 years to become what it is now.”
Beyond the numbers, there are several other characteristics of the Warsaw show that make a longish flight—about eight hours from JFK to Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin Airport—well worth it. First of all, by the standards of those visiting from North America, Western Europe, and Asian countries with strong audiophile constituencies, Poland is a very inexpensive destination. The price of a three-day pass to the show, for example, is 60 Polish Zlotych (PLN), or about $15.50. I stayed at the elegant but comfortably modern Sobieski Hotel (now a Radisson) that’s the AV Show’s headquarters, and the price of my room most nights was around $70, including a phenomenal breakfast buffet to fortify you for the audiophile rigors of the day ahead. An Uber ride from the airport to the hotel is in the neighborhood of $5, and it’s hard to spend much more than $50 for a meal at even the top-rated restaurants in Poland’s most cosmopolitan city—$20 to dine out is more like it. Remember, too, that you’re not stuck in an office park far from the interesting part of the host city or a convention center chosen for its proximity to an airport. The Sobieski is located in Warsaw’s business district, only a mile-and-a-half from the historic Old City. There’s plenty to do and see, should you decide to extend your trip beyond the three days of the show.
It’s energizing, as well, that the demographics of those attending the Audio Visual Show are noticeably different from those attending an American one. According to Mokrzycki, the average age of attendees is about 20 years younger than at other shows, which was quite obvious from the groups of showgoers in their 20s and 30s I encountered in the hallways. I’d also estimate that 20% of the attendees were woman, and if that seems like a low number, I’d be surprised if that percentage ever gets into double digits in Denver or Chicago. Sure, most were wives and girlfriends of the index audiophiles, but they looked like they actually wanted to be there, for an afternoon of enjoying music. Kids under16 got in free and there were plenty of young families to be seen.
The three-day music and sound extravaganza is spread over three locations. The Sobieski Hotel accommodated exhibitors on eight levels, including some sizable spaces on the ground floor. Across the street from the Sobieski—and it’s a very large street— another up-scale hotel, The Golden Tulip, provided eight good-sized rooms for a number of well-established dealers with expensive products. The Warsaw dealer Grobel Audio, for example, was introducing both Franco Serblin’s newest loudspeaker, the Accordo Essence, and two gorgeous pieces of Jadis electronics, the JPL Mk II preamplifier and the JA 30 Mk II power amp.
Shuttle busses left the Sobieski every fifteen minutes for the nearby PGE National Stadium, which accommodated the largest number of exhibitors. If a gigantic sports arena doesn’t strike you as a promising environment in which to gain some familiarity with the latest and best audio components…well, prepare to be surprised. I’ll admit that I was apprehensive when, after stepping off the escalator into the maelstrom of one of the common spaces, the first thing to meet my eyes and ears was a display of DJ turntables. And, apparently, the National Stadium is a good place to shop for loudspeakers that will pulse in bright colors in time to the music.
But calm and connoisseurship prevailed behind the closed doors of the six-dozen or so Skyboxes that partially ring the stadium on several levels. Most had above-average acoustics and six were exceptional in this regard, having been outfitted for broadcasting purposes. One such space was home to an all-Gryphon system—the Ethos CD player/DAC, Pandora preamplifier, Mephisto Solo monoblocks, and the imposing, four-piece Kodo loudspeakers. The sound was so enthralling that when Gryphon’s sales director, Rune Skov, played four classical selections in succession, the room didn’t empty. Right next door, Brandon Lauer, the international sales manager for Shunyata, held forth with a high-achieving system comprised of Wilson Alexia 2’s, Dan D’Agostino amplification, dCS digital separates, and Shunyata cabling. A few feet away in another of these sonic oases were Rockport Lyras driven by top-of-the-line McIntosh electronics, a room hosted by Warsaw’s Hi-Fi Club. Clearly, the same standard-setting, high-dollar products that bring the audiophile multitudes to Munich, Tokyo, Chicago, and Denver—MBL, Raidho, Luxman, Zellaton, Unison Research, YG, Air Tight, Kii, Stax, Magico, and so on—were present in Warsaw. Arguably, you’ll have a better chance there to hear what they’re capable of. Brandon Lauer was sure of it: “Best-sounding show on the planet,” he confided.
It was also fascinating to encounter dozens of manufacturers from Poland and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, most of whom don’t have distribution in North America, at least not yet. More than one showgoer I chatted with—pretty much everyone speaks English—explained that the audiophile pursuit was something that helped sustain many during the Communist era, and as a result the industry is relatively mature with what Adam Mokrzycki referred to as “a healthy hi-fi market.” Here are a few of the many Polish companies (and a couple from other locales once behind the “iron curtain”) that made an especially good impression at AV Show 2019.
Pylon Audio, a company formed by two families with a production facility in the small town of Jarocin in central Poland, entered the loudspeaker market just six years ago but has been enjoying considerable success. Pylon’s first product was an inexpensive stand-mounted model that sold for 1000 PLN (about $250 at current exchange rates) that remains in the brand’s now-extensive speaker line today. At the Warsaw show, Pylon was introducing the Jasper 25, a two-and-a-half-way floorstander selling for 20000 PLN, about $5150. Driven by 20-year-old Musical Fidelity electronics, the Jasper 25 was gratifyingly non-fatiguing. Pylon plans to exhibit at AXPONA in 2020.
Another Polish loudspeaker that got my attention was the Avatar Audio Holophony No. 2, a three-way, two-module design that employs old-fashioned drivers with paper membranes and rigid suspensions—even the tweeter is a cone—in a gorgeous cabinet fabricated from multilayered bamboo panels. The perfectionist designer of these speakers reportedly tweaks each individual crossover to suit the specific drivers employed in the specific speaker—a lot of TLC for a $10k product. With hybrid Class A amplification provided by Audio Akustyka (another Polish manufacturer) and accessorized with Avatar’s Dreamlink cables and Receptor stands, the Avatar Holophony No. 2 sounded holographic.
The Poles make ultra-sophisticated turntables competitive with the most ambitious Swiss, French, American, German, and Japanese products, including two models from the Warsaw manufacturer Muarah, the larger MT-1 EVO (25,490 PLN) and the more modest MT-2 (10,900 PLN). Both were outfitted with Jelco tonearms. The Muarah ’tables were demonstrated with the manufacturer’s Precision Speed Controller and InteliClamp, a system that measures rotational speed and presents the information to the user online. Usable with some other manufacturers’ turntables, the PSC is claimed to eliminate wow caused by 50Hz fluctuation and provides the potential for platter speed error-correction. Power was courtesy of Muarah’s own tubed MU-4 integrated amplifier, and the speakers were from Cube Audio, a Polish company specializing in single-driver designs. The ubiquitous Brothers in Arms—some things don’t change no matter where the audio show is held—never sounded better.
Mega-Acoustic, based in Kępno (pop. 14,419, when last they counted), produces a wide variety of attractive acoustic treatment products for both studio and home applications. Featured in a modest-sized room on the first floor of the Sobieski Hotel was the company’s affordable wideband diffuser, Skyfuser 29, available in a range of raw and lacquered finishes. The promotional materials describe Skyfuser 29 as a “diffusive panel based on the quadratic residue of the prime number 29.” I have no idea what that means, but the diffusion coefficient vs. frequency plots that Mega-Acoustic provided showed the product to be quite effective up to 8kHz.
It appears that Leonard Cohen’s autumnal final albums have made it to the village of Kownaty, where Notte Sound Labs makes loudspeakers and electronics—the choice of demo music, in general, was quite refreshing in its room. Notte maintains that “nothing more can be done” when it comes to the design of power amplifiers, and it doesn’t make one. Instead, it was demonstrating two new products, the NLP-01 line preamplifier and NDAC-01 DAC, and the sound I experienced had exceptional top-to-bottom coherency.
One consequence of the low cost of exhibiting at Warsaw’s Audio Video Show 2019 is that some designers who haven’t quite entered the commercial space can still show what they’re up to. In the very first room I visited on Friday afternoon, I encountered a very large tube amplifier from a very small company called PWL, though the amp’s designer, Slawek Siedlecki, insisted “It’s just an idea, not a company!” His Kooba monoblocks, based on the 6FAG tube, are an idea priced at over $100,000 a pair and, driving B&W 802 speakers, their sound was very seductive, immediate, and completely lacking in coloration. It was only the knowledge that I had another 177 rooms to at least consider that got me out of that exhibit room.
Another labor of love was the Slovenian company Alto Audio, the project of a retired computer engineer with experience in recording-studio design, Sasha Burian. Burian prefers to build and install complete systems for his customers—he makes tube electronics (the new Anniversary 10 dual mono preamp) and cables, as well as loudspeakers. His two open-baffle speaker models, the active AA O105 and the smaller passive AA R101 FR, demonstrated stunning transparency and neutrality. Burian explained that Audio Alto is in the process of finding a partner in the U.S.
One Eastern European company that wasn’t new to me was AudioSolutions from Vilnius, Lithuania—I’d left a pair of Figaro L’s back in Philadelphia, in mid-review. I’ll let the cat out of the bag: At roughly $10,000 pair, the Figaro L’s represent an exceptional value, and the several other AudioSolutions speaker models seeing service at AV Show 2019 revealed an obvious family resemblance.
Beyond gear, AV Show 2019 offered the kind of supplemental experiences that seasoned audio-show attendees have come to expect. At the PGE National Stadium, there was a performance space where one could chose to enjoy (or not) the musical stylings of Polish bands such as Limbowski or Hash Cookie, and there were numerous workshops and seminars presented at PGE and at the Sobieski. Céline Dion’s newest album Courage was heard in a “pre-premiere presentation”—the official release was six days later. In several instances, an artist was on hand for the presentation of his or her new album or reissue. There was a large personal-audio section at the Stadium (the “Head-Fi Zone”), and the Show’s extensive software offerings were decentralized—one could find LPs and silver discs of various kinds at all three venues. For all I know, there may have been continuous showings of Black Panther and Frozen in 11.1 surround sound at the Stadium, but the prominence of video was really no greater than at North American “audio” shows. The show guide was exceptionally helpful, providing thorough introductions to the most noteworthy products.
A question comes to mind. Given the relatively young age of those attending AV Show 2019 and the shortage of disposable incomes in much of Poland, who is buying the expensive turntables, tube amps, and esoteric speakers? I really don’t think that any of the young families I observed were heading home at the end of the day with a Radialstrahler strapped to the roof of their Opel. Perhaps the greatest strength of the Warsaw show is its aspirational quality—these are audiophiles that are growing into the hobby. Their interest and enthusiasm was palpable, and I headed home infected by the generous spirit of both exhibitors and attendees. Attitudes this side of the Atlantic can sometimes seem a bit on the cynical side, rife with gloom and dark suspicions. The Poles have it right: A hobby is supposed to be fun. You might consider setting an alert on your phone to start looking at flights to Warsaw sometime over the summer. It’ll be November 2020 before you know it.