I've been an audio enthusiast since the age of...well, all my life actually.
From the days when I was listening to records with ESS headphones on my Dad's high end McIntosh sound system, many technologies have come and gone.
Whereas your typical consumer just wants every device they buy to be able to multi-task and to connect to your mobile phone, audio enthusiasts are a bit more discerning and looking more for quality than just convenience. This is why IFA has never been quite as important as high-end trade show in Munich, but still many big companies launch important products at Berlin's traditional fair held since 1924.
Nevertheless, let me take you on a tour to some of this year's most important featured products:
Sound Individualization from Beyerdynamic and Loewe
For many years now, the wireless speaker and headphones market has been huge and fast-growing, the main reason for this expansion due to the fact that nearly everybody uses their smartphone for music consumption. From about €50 and upwards you can already purchase Bluetooth headphones, from around €80 you can expect good quality sound. With this flood of products, where do companies still have potential for differentiation?
Beyerdynamic are a very established company known especially for their professional audio products such as studio headphones and microphones. For their consumer targeted headphones, the company that moved their HQ from Berlin to Heilbronn after WWII, decided to dig deep and team up with Berlin-based startup company Mimi Hearing Technologies. Besides a range of impressive looking mid-end products such as in-ear Bluetooth headphones they launched headphones that allow to adjust their sound to your "hearing age": while this might sound a bit confusing it is actually a very smart move. It is well known that the human ear loses its capacity to capture high frequencies over the years, so it's a logical conclusion that the hearing capacity of a 30 year old person is notably different than a 65 year old one's. With the aid of specially developed app, the listener can take a series of tests whose results will be used to create a customized sound profile.
Mimi's sound individualisation can also be found on Loewe's newest range of TVs, applied directly to the in-built speakers as well as working with an external sound system - this was proudly communicated as a world first. The difference to Beyerdynamic's 'Make It Yours'-app is that that you can directly enter your age into the TV menu and enable the enhancement button to make the hearing experience noticeable: a more clear, precise and present sound. "The whole process is happening without increasing the overall sound volume" says Dr. Roland Raithel, of Loewe.
Another brand that launched a series of very complex multi-room speakers with individualised sound adaption is Technics. Their newest model SC-C50 promises a unique listening experience which produces the same perceivable crisp sound, no matter where the listener is positioned relatively to the loudspeaker. To offer this kind of room optimized individual sound, the speaker features an intelligent sound measuring technology called SpaceTune by Technics.
The analogue comeback
OK, I admit that the vinyl comeback has been happening since a few years now, and actual sales numbers of LPs are still minute in comparison to the days when records were the common media for music in the 80s.
Nevertheless, the majority of music labels are now re-releasing the 'premier' bands album catalogues on vinyl, so audio manufacturers are following the trend and release the according devices.
Technics, made famous for being the brand used by DJs in the good old days of two turntables and a microphone, already launched their high end LP player last year. They didn't miss an opportunity to display their flagship products on with extensive outdoor advertising near the Messe conference centre in Berlin.
Yamaha's stand saw them install a living room in front of a huge LP collection with a record player connected to a series of multi-room speakers to give visitors the possibility to enjoy analogue technology through a very modern 'state of the art' digital multi-room sound system.
In yet another field, analogue found its way back to the consumer: Easily the most impressive audio device at the whole of IFA was Sony's 'portable' hi-res audio player DMP-Z1, backed up by an anlaogue amp and headphones Z1R that target the more discerning customer audience. And by discerning, I mean the kind of customer that will spend €11,500 on audio equipment! The music player is powered by battery, so that ground power doesn't 'disturb' any of the audiophile's listening pleasure. The build quality is superb and the device has received rave reviews from What Hi-Fi.
Other companies that presented novelties were Sennheiser with their first-ever soundbar to accompany TVs, and I saw a total of around 45,698 different Bluetooth boomboxes, which I will not go into detail, as they all seem to be very close to another and irrelevant for the audiophile's ear.
IFA bills itself as the 'Global Innovations Show', but in many ways the "innovations" on show were call-backs to legacy technology. Yes there was an absence of CD and Blu-ray players but the comeback of vinyl has shown that the customer sometimes longs for a step back to the good old analogue days, proving that some passions are less suited for being stored in the cloud.
If there was one product that stood out at IFA 2018, it was the Sony DMP-Z1. It's a portable digital music player unlike anything else. For one, it’s certainly not “portable” by any conventional means. It’s huge. It does have a 10-hour battery capacity when not plugged into the mains, but the DMP-Z1 looks more like a desktop-sized DAC or small amplifier than a Walkman-sized player you can put in your pocket. Secondly, it costs a staggering £8000.