High End 2015

High End 2015: End of Line and Best In Show

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The thing about Peat and Scotch
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There was a moment I thought I might be in serious trouble. One moment, in particular. One wrong step, and I’d be in it for sure. But I couldn’t see. Not then. I was blind to the immanent threat until it was almost too late. Looking back, I can clearly see it was my fault. That I should have known better. And that my sense of humor was about to lead me right off a cliff.

Never joke with an Englishman about “peat” flavors or aromas in Scotch. Not in a bar. Not at the tail-end of a long ass day, with piles of food and enormous steins of beer capping it all off. And most certainly do not crack wise about “paint thinner” or “chemical fracking liquid”. Not about Scotch. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

There I was, sitting across the table from Brian Cox. In some local touristy bar, right off the Marienplatz in Munich. We’d been having a fine time up till then, chatting about Bavarian beer, the absurd amount (and variety) of pork products we’d consumed that week during the High End Show, relaxing. And I had to go on and on with my whole “ruining of good whiskey” comments.

Brian, gentleman that he is, gave me a second to make sure he was hearing correctly, but that flat stare really ought to have given me pause. Dunkleweiss bier, poured freely through the course of the evening, is my only excuse for how slow to pick up on that I was. By the time I knew something was amiss, my entire corner of the bar was silent. Brian and two friends of his, also Brits, weren’t smiling. In fact, Brian was oh-so-carefully taking off his jacket, never taking his eyes off of me.

It was a tense moment. I carefully took a sip of my beer, and said: “And what is the deal with IPA? Who drinks that nonsense? Flowers? It’s not beer.”

The sudden turn must have been a complete surprise. I saw Brian pause and shake himself as he was rolling up his first shirt-sleeve. “Nothing’s wrong with IPA!” someone else burst out with. Another American, obviously. One of the other two Brits snorted, loudly: “It’ll do, but it’s complete crap. It’s beer, but it’s not good.” Outrage from the American, a smirk from Brian, followed by a lengthy diatribe about “proper drinks” (one that included a lot of pointed looks in my direction) and we all had a right full laugh at how silly Americans are.

I left shortly thereafter.

Fine, he wasn’t really Brian Cox (he merely bore a striking resemblance to the actor) and he and his mates probably wouldn’t have pummeled me, leaving me broken and wheezing in the middle of Bavaria, but …. “Brian Cox” (whose real name is Paul) and his British pal were customers of Jack Durant, the third Brit and proprietor of BD Audio, a UK importer of Greece’s Tune Audio. Manolis Proestakis and his lovely wife Masa, the proprietors of Tune Audio, rounded out our little set — Knut Skogrand of Skogrand Cables had just retreated after pints — and pounds of delicious pork products. Fellow Traveler, Dr Panagiotis Karavitis, had talked me into meeting them all downtown, so I blame him for my near-bludgeoning. And, for the record, I’m sure I’m exaggerating. No Brit would ever bloody the nose of an American over peat in Scotch.

Ha! Brits will cheerfully bloody your nose just because it’s Thursday. And then buy the next round. Lovely people. Lovely country.

And for the record, peat-in-Scotch is just fine. [Insert nervous chuckle, here.]

Thoughts on Bavaria

I love traveling. I don’t do it particularly well, however — I’ll admit that freely. I don’t really do much research in advance; I don’t buy the travel guide, I don’t map out my dinner events, I don’t take real advantage of actually “being” somewhere else. An audio is fun, but it’s work.

This year, I got a bit of an assist. My wife, who was horrified that I was heading to Bavaria without her (long story, little kids, lots of money, blah blah blah), said that if I have to go, I really ought to take at least one extra day to explore and “see stuff”. So, I did. I booked an extra day. Well … sort of.

I took a week off from work — all I could spare from the day job. The first day was all-travel. The last day was all-travel. The intervening days? High End was four days long, so that meant I got one extra. Look at me, being all loosey-goosey. Wild man!

I arrived on Wednesday. I knew I was going to be horribly jet-lagged, so I drugged myself and stole 7 hours of crappy sleep on the plane. Guess what? I was still jet-lagged. Which is probably why it seemed like a good idea to walk the 3 miles from the hotel to the BMW Museum. On the plus side, I managed to get my daily Fitbit-mandated 10,000 steps pretty much all at once, so I caught a cab back to the hotel completely guilt-free.

Being driven into and around and then out of Munich, I spent a lot of time just looking around at stuff. Especially cars. Germans drive a lot of nice cars. Audi, BMW, VW, Mercedes, Porsche … about 4 out of 5 fell into one of the Big Five. If I got to drive a car like that every day (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I do), I’m not sure I’d be frowning quite so much, but then, maybe it’s genetic. Or maybe it’s just Driving Face. Dunno. I need more data.

One of my favorite moments came at the end of a long day crushing out 12,000 steps on the High End show floor, which was followed by John Darko marching Michael Lavorgna and I off to a biergarten. The waitress was spectacularly rude. Darko found ordering a round of beer to be absolutely hilarious. While we there, we were joined by audio PR guru Bryan Stanton and Xuanqian Wang of AURALiC and some of their audio dealers from Berlin. One of the latter, an awesome guy and a real-life German, ordered dinner for us non-German-speakers. He seemed troubled after the waitress took the order, so I asked him what he’d gotten for us. He shrugged, “I think I ordered us …” To which I responded, “You think? Don’t you speak German?” To which he responded, “I do, but this is Bavaria.”

Hmm. Happily, the food was spectacular. The weissbier? Beyond expectation. All the walking? Pretty much beyond all credibility. Even with all of the pork and steins, I think I lost weight on this trip. A first!

High-End is bananas

Despite all allusions to the contrary, High-End isn’t that big. I mean, it’s big, but anyone heading to CES will cheerfully tell you that the Vegas show is exponentially bigger. Of course, CES isn’t just audio-related, much less high-end audio related, but it is stunningly enormous. All of High-End would fit into one of the four halls at the Vegas Convention Center!

But that said, I can’t think of another show that comes as close to CES as the Munich show. And it’s all about audio. That’s kind of breathtaking. Anyone saying that the “high-end is dying” needs to take a trip to Germany in May.

Dying? Yeah …. Not so much. But it could be that the high-end is just not an American thing anymore.

To all that have the means to go and “do” this show, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s just bananas. 20,000+ attendees, many of them young, with at least 1/4 of the total female, was baffling. Doing the math, there were more women at High End than there were total attendees at the average “major” US-based audio show. That’s wacky.

I have a whole lot more over at Part-Time Audiophile.

Wrapping up High End

A lot of demos, displays, and rooms didn’t make the list. Not for lack of love, or anything other than a sense of space. Dr K and I rolled up about 60 rooms for this show, and quite frankly, we only dented the surface.

Some of the things I saw that were noteworthy:

Colored PM-3 closed-back headphones from Oppo Digital. That was pretty nifty.

A full system from Pro-Ject, including speakers, a turntable and an integrated amplifier. Didn’t get a price, but it’s Pro-Ject, so I’m not expecting any sticker shock.

Joseph Audio Prism — small stature, but a surprising amount of the award-winning Pulsar is now in a half-priced package. That’s something to crow about.

Avantgarde horn systems. Just because they may well be the prettiest horns currently being made.

Estelon Extreme — I’ve seen these a couple of times now, and I’m as impressed now as I was the first time I ever saw them.

Kharma — a brand long-vanished from the US-based audio scene, and the loss has been felt. This is an extraordinary line of speakers — and electronics.

FM Acoustics — spectacularly priced electronics and speakers, made up to the n-th degree of fit-and-finish. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to wring awesome sound out of them, but I had to lay nearly all of that on the room.

Sonic Studies is coming out with Amarra-for-Tidal. I can’t tell you how psyched I am — this is a marriage between what have become two friends near-and-dear to my home-based audio system. Love the idea that Amarra can soup-up the already-excellent Tidal sound. Looking forward to this one.

Meeting (even if fleetingly) Wojciech Pacuła of High Fidelity Poland. This is the reviewer that I seek out — the guy has heard everything and with that kind of context, I’m all-in for where his judgment falls. Some of the finest audio critique out there today and I am completely envious of his catalog of reviews.

Once Custom Sound — what is the deal with the Victrola-like horns? Love it — and the dangling globes are pretty nifty, too. One of the best displays on the Halls.

Best In Show

BestInShow2015v1And now, for the coveted (ha!) Best In Show Awards.

TAD Labs: for Best Overall Sound for their CE-1 loudspeaker-based system. These speakers are the absolute berries. Fast, deep, articulate and musical, as well as deeply attractive. For a loudspeaker that costs as much as a car, this one has not only the looks but the sound to back up that price tag. Very impressive.

Runners’ Up

TIDAL had an incredible setup, and one that catered directly to some of my personal biases. The sound by day-three was astonishing and the improvement over day-one was stark. Another three days, and this might be a different stack-ranking.

Tune Audio + ModWright + VPI + Skogrand: another impressive room, but one that “shouldn’t work”, according to Audiophile Received Wisdom. Horns with solid-state? Yes! And it did work. Great sound in there and a lot of gear I plan/hope to explore soon!

Vitus Audio: Another surprise for me, in that I knew nothing of the speakers or the ancillary electronics, but I was familiar with Hans-Ole Vitus. And he was wringing some incredible sonics from that room in Munich.

Living Voice and Kondo: I’ve never heard the massive (and massively expensive) Vox Olympians before, but I was impressed. Driven by Kondo electronics, the room was one of the most enduring draws at the show, pulling big crowds all day, every day.

The Awards

AURALiC: for Most Innovative Product for their Aries Mini. This is a product that can be sold in box stores, and comes from a company with extraordinary digital chops. Very impressive — and at this low price, completely disruptive.

Totem Acoustic: for Best Value for their Kin Mini system. Like the Aries Mini, this little speaker isn’t going to turn many heads — until you turn on the stereo they’re attached to. That’s when eyebrows will craw up into hairlines.

Frank SchröderTIE for Most-Wanted for his sweet little idler turntable and CB tonearm. For the turntable, we get minimalist design matching a minimalist footprint, a giant motor, and an idler mechanism. Score! The CB ‘arm is a Schröder — which means “awesome” in German. Sitting next to the $30k SAT tonearm, both on a very expensive turntable at High-End, played back-to-back, was eye-opening. I’ll leave it at that.

Viva Audio: TIE for Most-Wanted for their new Egoista 2A3 headphone amplifier. It looks stunning; compared to its stable mate, the new amp has more than enough power, a lot more finesse, runs cooler and carries a lower price-tag. Winner winner, chicken-dinner.

Audio Consulting: for Best Aesthetic/Design for their analog products. Dr K was blown away by the digital-sourced sound coming from this room, but I was completely taken in by the look of idled analog setup. The whimsical curves just stayed with me throughout the show. They put the Led back in the Zeppelin — I love the swoops!

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High End 2015

High End 2015: Questyle

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Current Mode Amplification” is a magical phrase that brings out the inner meerkat from the headphone enthusiast crowd, and will cause spontaneous synchronized head-swiveling. Only a couple of companies are pursuing this interesting approach to amplification — Questyle Audio is one of those brands.

Questyle is also a brand that’s received quite a bit of attention — and no little admiration — from the Part-Time crowd. Audio-Head‘s Brian Hunter reviewed the CMA-800R, and you can check out returning Part-Timer John Grandberg’s profile on Head-Fi for a list of Questyle products he’s investigated.

While I haven’t had the pleasure of exploring anything from the product line myself, I believe I might be able rectify that shortly with the upcoming QP1 and QP1R release. The QP1 is a portable digital audio player — I saw a mock-up at CES this year, and talked at length with Bruce Ball about the player and the specs. Key feature — we can expect more of the signature current-mode goodness in the DAP.

Also on display was the company’s 5GHz Wireless System — amps without input interconnects? Yes! That should clean up the floor more than a little, no? Unfortunately, there was absolutely no way that this system could have been played — much less heard — on the Halls of the Munich show, it’s one of those too-good-to-be-true technologies. Love to see that explored in the future.

Last but not least was the collaboration with Stax. This product, the CMA-800P ($TBD, but I was told to expect ~$3000), is a current-mode pre amplifier, and designed to work with Stax’ flagship STAX 727MKII/SR-009 combo. Paired with the matching CAS192D digital converter, what I heard out of the legendary SR009 headphones, in addition to the freaky-spooky clarity, was stunning bass performance. Definitely not a cheap adventure (the combo reaches quite uncomfortably close to $10k), but this may be one of the most insane headphone experiences you can get your ears into. Me likey.

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High End 2015: AudioQuest

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Though there are quite a few pretenders, there are few true giants in high-end audio today. AudioQuest is one of those giants.

There are, I think, two knee-jerk reactions that the “typical audiophile” will have to the name. One will be about cables. The other will be about (asynchronous) USB DACs. Neither will be the whole story, but who ever really gets the whole story? We are the sum of our biases and misinformation.

For cables, I will note that AudioQuest is probably the number one audiophile cable vendor in the world right now, and yes, I’m not including Monster on purpose. AudioQuest have sold enormous quantities of built-to-spec digital cables (which is far more unusual than you’re probably assuming) like USB cables, HDMI cables and even Ethernet cables. Yes, they still sell analog cables, too, and all of their cable lines feature a variety of build-levels, many which leverage unusual cable geometries, dialectic approaches, and rare metallurgies. In short, AudioQuest has the most complete audio cable catalogs I’ve ever even heard about, much less paged through.

Talking with the AudioQuest team will, in almost every instance, be a remarkable grounding for the run-of-the-mill audiophile — these guys sell crazy stuff, and they’re unabashed about how close to the fringe some of their products will go. But it’s their core stuff, and in many cases, their most inexpensive stuff, that they want to talk about.

You see, much of the crap you can buy off of Amazon — take network cables, for instance — are just that. Total crap. They say they’re built to a spec, say Cat 6e. All things being equal, you say, a Cat 6e cable is a Cat 6e cable. It’s just bits, am-I-right?

Except it’s not.

The cable isn’t to spec. First, the connectors are trash. No, they don’t need to be carved from billets of unobtainium. But it would be great if they actually worked. The cables don’t need to be solid silver. But they do need to be twisted just-so. Shielding doesn’t need to be dialectrically biased, but it’d be nice if it was actually appropriately attached. Or grounded. Or even present. But when you’re buying your wire on price, you get what you pay for. And yes, it matters. My review will be coming shortly.

But the Big Wall of Wire aside, what caught my eye and ear at High End was the coming flight of the Nighthawk.

I first saw and heard these at CES this year, and I’ll say it — they’re quite good. They’re also rather different from the current slate of planar headphones that seem to be ruling the roost over at Head-Fi these days, and I quite like that. The “liquid wood” earcups are still interesting, and I’ll say it again, these may well be the lightest reference-class headphones you can buy. They’re unreal.

Paired where with a Dragonfly USB DAC, right off you’re run-of-the-mill laptop (running Amarra, perhaps), and you’ve a reference-caliber system for your desk, whether that desk is at work, your fold-down seat-back table, or your restaurant tabletop.

Another thing falling into the “new” category is another affordable two-fer. The first is the Jitterbug, a $49 USB-filter, with conditioning of both the voltage and data bus. Darko likes it.

The other is the Beetle, a $149 system DAC with Toslink, USB and Bluetooth inputs. The Beetle will be again featuring the 24bit/96kHz decoding and feature-set familiar from the Dragonfly — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, says I. Again, Darko has more.

As for me, I’m hoping to have a set of bugs in-house shortly.

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High End 2015: Thöress and Sperling

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Some would say that Reinhard Thöress of Thöress Audio makes high-end audio like it’s supposed to be made. Simple. Pure. Direct. Tubed.

I’ve been a fan for years — I’ve owned his phono preamp for several years, and if I didn’t already have a set of limited-output amplifiers, his would be on my list. I just completely dig his retro vibe, where “retro” = something built before WWII.

New-to-me was the 2CD12 MKII Loudspeaker ($19,450 US/pair), said to be of very high sensitivity, featuring a “transmission-line” (sort of) architecture, an 8″ woofer and paired with a constant-directivity horn design featuring a 2″ under-hung voice coil Morel compression tweeter jammed down it’s throat.

Paired here with the familiar Phono Equalizer ($12,475) and what looks like a new preamplifier ($11,975 US), along with the familiar and absolutely delicious 300b monos. Tucked back in the back of the bottom rack were a pair of 845 monos ($14,475 US). Not sure if there was some creative bi-amping going on in there or not.

A Sperling L-3 turntable and Sperling tonearm (roughly $30K US together) spun the tunes into the room. All the racks were from Paralyse

New, off to the side, was a forthcoming Thöress integrated. An SE input stage featuring  EC86 input tube will be matched up with a SE Mosfet output stage for about 15wpc. The integrated, which is targeting the €8k price-point, will also feature a first for Thöress: a remote control.

I will say this for the sound: given that Reinhard was working in, essentially, a cardboard iso-box on the floor of the Halls in Munich, the sound was shockingly good. Textures were spot-on, and timbre was goose-bump-real. This was some of the very best sound on the Halls in Munich, a gem in a field of rubble.

Did I mention I’m a fan? I’m a fan. Love this stuff. Serve me up a double-helping, if you please.

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High End 2015: Esoteric Audio Research

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Winding up Tim de Paravicini isn’t difficult — just tell him he’s wrong. Doesn’t matter about what, the Engineer of Fine Audio is pretty much ready to go toe-to-toe with anyone over anything.

I’m having a bit of fun at Tim’s expense because it’s fun, but also because spending time with Tim is fun. He’s absolutely hilarious. He’s pretty much seen it all in high-end, and he’s not afraid to tell it like he sees it. The problem is, he’s not wrong. At least, not about audio. Well, probably not.

In the front of the room, Tim was showing off some flagship-level solid-state gear, including the be-winged 312 preamplifier ($12k) and the massive (75kg/channel) and Stereophile Class A-rated M100a monoblocks ($30k/pair). The latter Tim describes as a “simple circuit that measures like a tube amp” but puts out 350wpc.

We don’t really see too much of E.A.R. solid-state electronics here States-side, but in the back of the room, more traditional EAR tube gear Graham Audio LS5/8 loudspeakers. I didn’t get to hear the E.A.R. turntable or the reel-to-reel, but the sound coming from the latest DAC from the new-old speakers was smooth and fulsome.

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High End 2015: TAD Labs

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HE15_Logo_GB_01TAD Labs brought a show-stopper room, featuring their new Compact Evolution One (CE-1) loudspeakers. This system was, in a word, dominating.

The speakers, shown here in an olive finish, are elegant and quite robust — but somehow, like the name suggests, do not appear to be as big as they are. Part of their “not just toys for boys” aesthetic, I think TAD is really on to something with their newest designs. They’re not just “good-looking”, they’re bespoke furniture. Take the hand-made “urushi” finishes , each are unique, and to my eye, the two on display here were just stunning. There was a display that was roped off; I was outraged as I just wanted to rub my hands all over them. Honestly, I can’t think of any other major brand with this level of artistic presence. Just wow.

The CE-1 ($24k/pair) are stand-mounts, where the stands ($2k extra) are about as integral as you could ever want, but don’t let the “bookshelf” form-factor fool you. A 3-way design, good for a 32Hz reach, these speakers are more than enough to make you sh*t yourself in terror if driven appropriately. I was stunned — the sound coming out of them was devastatingly percussive, and fronted by the all-TAD electronics, the speed and accuracy left me hot and spinning.

Unfortunately, I believe that this speaker is the last of the Andrew Jones designs that will be coming from TAD, and if so, the CE-1 will cap a remarkable set of offerings. Given how amazing it sounded here, this strikes me as the equivalent of a mic-drop.

Very well done.

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High End 2015: Chord Electronics Introduces Dave

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Munich saw the introduction of our Hallowed and Illustrious Computer Overlords. All hail. Oh, and his name is Dave. Hi, Dave!

I’ll admit to a moment of inappropriate laughter (yes, that was me) when the name was announced. I honestly thought we, the assembled media, were being punked. I mean, it was as if someone were channeling something out of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I started looking for my towel.

Dont PanicThe overt reference to A Space Odyssey, the monocular window into Dave’s computerized, four-part FPGA-based soul, and I was sure something space-ish was about to happen at the Chord Electronics release announcement/party. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox popping out of a cake. Or someone playing “Daisy” over the loudspeakers. Something.

But nope. [Sigh] … the humiliation continues.

Digital Audio Veritas in Extremis (aka, DAVE) will replace the outgoing models DAC64 and QBD76, and follow in the footsteps of the Hugo, Hugo TT and 2Qute by offering the latest thinking along the line of that field-programmable gate array decoding stuff that’s been very popular over at PS Audio and Playback Designs, and, yes, Chord Electronics. Support for file resolutions up to and including 768kHz PCM and Quad DSD will be supported over USB. Price is going to be £7995.

From Chord:

DAVE is a highly advanced reference-grade DAC, digital preamp and headphone amplifier. Hand-made in Kent, DAVE is based around a proprietary FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) offering more than ten times the program capacity of its predecessor.

At its heart lies a new (and in electronics terms, huge) LX75 version of the Spartan 6 Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). The FPGA’s extraordinary capability enables a number of key sonic benefits including significantly improved timing and the best noise-shaper performance of any known DAC. DAVE’s technology delivers music with unmatched reality and musicality, with an unrivalled timing response.

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High End 2015: Silbatone, Schröder, Schick and Western Electric

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HE15_Logo_GB_01I am still unsure what to make of the Silbatone room. I’m pretty sure there’s a company in there, attempting to sell things, but you kind of don’t get the feeling that this is one of those vintage-as-new audio vendors. In fact, you don’t really get the sense that anything at all is here in order to sell anything at all. I mean, sure, there are nifty little bits that might do your aspirational rig something amazing, but when the system is fronted by a small-theater Western Electric horn system, featuring a 12″ Field Coil TA-4165 in a massive TA7395 baffle (that big, distressed-looking box sitting on the outside).

The sound in here was almost a side-show to the glorious bits themselves, many of which were scattered along the side wall.

For sources, there was a new turntable and arm from Thomas Schick (Analog Planet has a video), sitting next to the cutest idler turntable you’ve ever seen. That latter is a Frank Schröder special, and also carried his CB tonearm with a Soundsmith cartridge. With luck, we’ll be seeing more of that idler, and by “we” I mean “I” because I want one. Prices are still TBD as this is a project not necessarily a product, but expect it to fall in the €5k range for the table and another €5k for the tonearm.

Further along that wall, I saw the 800mW amplifier running the 110dB sensitive WE horns, boxes and boxes of WE tubes, including all manner of unobtanium tubes. JC Morrison commented something along the lines of “just in case 300b tubes aren’t rare enough, we have some 300A tubes!”

It was all enough to make my head hurt. Absolutely glorious, but if anyone ever tells me that high-end audio is “only for a select few crazies”, this is the room that will pop into my head.

I am not worthy.

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High End 2015: Vitus Audio

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HE15_Logo_GB_01I’ve been using some Vitus Audio Reference electronics in my reference system for some time now, mainly on the recommendation of a friend and long-time dealer, Doug White at The Voice That Is.

I’ve been very impressed with Hans-Ole Vitus, who cuts an altogether impressive figure in “real life” as he does with his product offerings. He’s very approachable, very much a pragmatic fellow, and an entirely no-BS kind of audiophile. That said, his electronics are the very epitome of “high-end”, and the prices of his “Master Level” electronics — the very pinnacle of his thinking and designs — are nothing short of eye-popping.

But for me, it’s that middle segment that I’ve always identified as the best blend of extreme performance and value.

No one is ever going to think of a €21k integrated as “affordable”, and that’s just as it should be. But what if I told you that that very same product, the SIA-025, is actually being offered at a lower price today than when it was introduced? And by a considerable margin — when I first investigated the SIA-025 in 2012, the list price was (about) €24k! A 1/8 reduction in price, without a “Clearance” sticker attached to it, is unheard of. No, I mean that. I can’t think of another current-rev product seeing a published price reduction, much less one at this level. Viva la difference!

New on the floor was the SCD-025 II (€19k), which features a brand-new USB input and a new DAC section, both of which now support DSD over USB. That fed an SIA-025 integrated (here used as a pre), into the new 100wpc SS-025 (€21k) stereo amplifier, and drove the big diamond-tweeter Berlina RC7 Mk II from Gauder Akoustic. Furutech cabling and a Stillpoints rack rounded out the set. A little Marshall amp, tucked into the corner, was actually a fridge.

I was listening to music from the $26k ReQuest music server into the SCD-025, but a monster Transrotor Tourbillon FDM, with a $15k Swedish Analog Technology tonearm carrying the new Ortofon A95 cartridge, was also in the room (total of about $60k), connected to the main rig by way of the Vitus Audio SP-102 (€32k) phono pre.

Deep bass, soaring highs, completely wrap-around-you music. The sound was absolutely sublime.

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High End 2015

High End 2015: RHA

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HE15_Logo_GB_01RHA Audio makes earbuds in the same way that Jaguar makes cars. That is, they’re terrifically solid, are awesome on the road, and are sure to make your friends make all manner of silly noises of appreciation. That’s not nothing.

If you wander over to the Apple Store, you can find all manner of over-built RHA ear-bud replacements and upgrades, including the lovely and kick-ass T-10i. Yes, the Apple Store. Because RHA is every bit that cool. Were you thrown by the whole “it’s the Jaguar of ear-buds” thing? Sorry, wasn’t kidding there.

What’s new and cool from RHA is T20, an upgrade on their wildly successful T10 and Apple-ized (it has a microphone) T10i ($199). The T10, and now the T20 ($239), both are sonically customizable in that they both have some detachable filters to help you tilt the treble response either up, down, or right down the middle, depending on your particular sonic preferences. Me? I like it “natural”.

Based on my limited intelligence, the main upgrade that I was able to parse out of the launch is that the T20 features an all-new driver with an all-new voice coil:

The new driver technology features two independently powered voice coils situated in concentric formation around an annular magnet. The voice coils collaborate to manipulate a specially engineered diaphragm, with the outer coil responsible for generating upper midtone and treble frequencies, while the inner coil creates lower mids and bass tones. The result is an ultra-efficient performance driver capable of delivering refined, high-resolution audio.

I’m looking forward to getting a pair asap. Availability is “this summer”.

Also new in the booth — the new RHA headphone amplifier! The literature was a little thin, but from a display I learned that the upcoming unit is a portable (duh) featuring dual ESS 9018K2M DAC chips. The look and feel is quite robust, with well-protected knobs and dials that looks extremely friendly to pockets. Assuming they keep the price reasonable (and as this is RHA, I think that’s a given), this looks like a fabulous addition to the segment.

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High End 2015

High End 2015: Viva Audio Egoista 2A3

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HE15_Logo_GB_01It’s old news by now that the Viva Audio Egoista may be the motherlode when it comes to headphone amps. It’s big, it’s hot, it cranks out a ton of power. To be fair, it may well be the best-sounding amplifier on the market.

Bar one.

Say hello to the Viva Audio Egoista 2A3.

This amp is supposed to a bit more affordable than the “regular” Egoista Dr K reviewed last year, but don’t be fooled by the promise of a lower price tag ($7500 vs $10000). This new amp, which you could view as a traditional stereo amplifier that just happens to have two SE headphone jacks, puts out a very healthy 3 watts per channel. Perhaps more importantly, it also runs vastly cooler than it’s bigger brother.

And boy-howdy, does it deliver.

Shown here in Lamborghini orange, the Egoista 2A3 was rich, tonally dense, effortlessly powerful, and completely intoxicating during the brief listen via the supplied Audeze LCD-3 headphones. And yes, I think the 2A3 output tube may be more delicious than the powerful 845 found in the “full” Egoista. Sure, you want Hulk-like grip and power, the bigger Egoista will serve, but that’s up to you. Me? I want the 2A3, and I’m ready to throw a tantrum. Now! Now! Now!

I didn’t get an ETA on availability, but while “show conditions” never lend themselves to making a final judgment on sound quality (and that goes double for High End’s bottom-floor expo Halls), I will have to say that this is the only product that had me reaching for my wallet.

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High End 2015: Mytek Digital goes Analog

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HE15_Logo_GB_01For those of you not keeping score, Mytek Digital is one of the first manufacturers to support DSD file-based playback with their little Stereo 192 DAC ($1500 US). That little DAC is a fine example of affordable pro-audio gear that made big waves in audiophiledom and firmly set the computer-audio-based trend on footing of relative affordability.

That is, we were all psyched that it sounded so damn good and didn’t cost an arm and a leg.

The Manhattan is a different story. At $5k, not only is it more expensive, but it’s also quite good, and not in the “good for the money” kind of way. Their implementation is interesting and sonically solid.

What I saw here, though, was way niftier than all that. Yes, John Darko, feel free to make fun of me for finally noticing as this nifty feature has been teased for a while, but for those of us not in the loop, there’s an analog phono input board on the way for the Manhattan! The box already sports an analog attenuator (the user can opt to bypass it in favor of the digital attenuator, but that would be dumb), so this means — an all analog path through to the headphone amp! Ta da! As far as I know, this combo is unique — a fully discrete, full-function, reference-class DAC … with an integrated headphone amplifier … that can take a turntable as an input. I’ll say it again: ta freakin’ da. Availability is planned for the end of June. The new board should run about $1k.

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High End 2015: Tune Audio, ModWright, VPI, Skogrand

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Panagiotis covered a fascinating room featuring some wild speakers from Tune Audio at Munich last year and at some point along that trajectory, become pals with Manolis Proestakis. That’s probably why he took a bow and left the room to me this year. I kinda wish he didn’t — he’s vastly more familiar with the speakers than I — but I’m also kinda glad he did. Because at €32,000, these speakers may well have been the best-value on offer in Munich.

I know. €32,000 is an enormous pile of money for anything, much less loudspeakers that so thoroughly violate the traditional notion of “shared space”. I get that. But. And yet … And … yeah. I’m sticking with my assessment.

Why?

Because! For whatever reason — and there are many — horns are not cheap. Sure, you can get something horn-like. Something with a single driver and a back-loaded horn, or a big two/three-way with a horn-loaded tweeter, or a big bass-reflex cabinet with a trumpet attached, or any of the near-limitless variations on that particular theme. But a real, horny-horn-hornerstein? Something with real honest-to-goodness horns for each driver? Yeah. That’s tough. Interestingly, you can find any number of horn loudspeakers just like this here at High End where the design approach really (and small-output tubes to match). Apparently, they seem to have way more fans today here in Europe than they ever have in the USA. Which is sad.

Because! For whatever reason — and there are many — “real” (full?) horns “do something” that is apparently absurdly difficult to do. Something that I find … enthralling. Something I’m finding it very difficult to live without. That thing? Dynamics. It’s really … fun.

Hee hee! (Sorry, did I just say that out loud?)

At 109dB sensitivity, the Anima is a 3-way triple-horn array. That is, each of the “ways” in the 3-way design is handled by a separate, discrete horn. As I mentioned, that’s unusual. There’s a little bitty “proprietary epoxy” horn sitting a near the top of the array featuring a 1″ compression tweeter. The monster Baltic-birch middle-horn hides a 5″ mid range driver. The “cabinet” of the speaker is actually the bass horn (also Baltic birch), hoisting a 15″ woofer some 5+ feet into the air and firing it directly at the floor. Taken as a whole, this is a very clever package seemingly optimizing space, and given how flipping massive the horns have to be to be effective, it’s actually quite compact. No, really. Google “basshorn” if you’re curious as to how big horns-for-bass-reproduction routinely get.

A horn speaker — any horn speaker — that can do 40Hz without a cheat (like a powered subwoofer) is also unusual. The Anima, the top of the line offering from Tune Audio, can. Tune Audio also offers a big granite plinth to set the down-firing speaker on — something I’d recommend if you plan to set them up on carpet, as I suspect that this will firm up the bottom-end, too.

There is a separate sub available (physics can only do so much), for those inclined to take the performance down to 23Hz ( … and that would be me). The rooms here at High End were absolutely catastrophic when it came to bass frequencies, so it wasn’t a surprise to see a pair of Tune’s new slender-column subs, the €6k (each) Kion subwoofer, flanking the big Animas. I called it “insurance”, but the listeners just seemed to think of it as “awesome”. We were all correct.

The Anima is a big speaker. That’s undeniable. It’s also undeniably a speaker and one that makes little apologies for it in its looks, much less its overall size. Me? I think it is absolute striking, imposing, in a way that just screams holy-cow. I love it. Damn shame it’s not available here in the States (at least, not yet).

With a speaker that size, much less a horn array, you should expect them to need some room in order to really strut their stuff. Tune Audio recommends a least 2m between them, and at least 3m between them and you, for the sound to fully bloom. The room here at Munich was very big, which I’m sure was great, but I know my listening room is nowhere near this big. For me, or folks like me, I was told that the tweeter and mid-range horns can be tilted in order to improve frequency response at a less-than-ideal seating position. Yes, I can tell when I’m being targeted. Temptress!

I should also mention that the  Anima is a time-aligned and time-coherent speaker that can blow your doors off with less than a watt of amplification. Which brings me to the next most impressive thing in this room. What was driving the 109dB speakers was not some weird or new or vintage or experimental ModWright flea-powered tube amp. Nope. Rather, this was Dan’s “regular” over-achieving KWA150SE ($8995 US), a solid state power amp. Tubes didn’t come into the chain until the preamplifier, with Dan’s matching LS 36.5 DM preamp ($9995 US).

Which makes it worth taking a second to give a slow, appreciative, wolf-whistle. That is one sexy bitch, that amp. I’m betting that at no point during any of my 5 different stops through this room were the speakers sucking down more than a single watt, but with that much on tap, I kept thinking that we were completely able to do some horribly traumatic things to individuals 1/4 of a mile away. Power! Bwahahaha ….

But seriously, the sound coming out of these speakers was fulsome and ballsy, big swings in play, but the word I wrote and circled in my notebook was ‘eloquent’, with the music slipping in and out of the blackest backgrounds … I just could not believe how good the pairing was here. Horns … with a high-output Class A/B amplifier. And I was digging it. Huh! Not what I would have expected … and yes, I was expecting tubes or at the very least small-output, über-niche, blessed-by-Himalayan-virgins Class-A electronics.

That whooshing sound? My “audiophile expectations” evaporating.

I have to credit more than a little of the sound to the newest ModWright components, specifically the new phono preamp, the PH150 ($7900 US), here paired with the also-new, also-delicious, oh-so-very-black VPI Prime turntable ($4k, with 3-D printed tonearm). That phono pre is, if I’m recalling correctly, the newest out of Dan Wright’s growing stable of gear. Up to 72dB of gain, the pre features pairs of tubes — two 6C45, two 6922 — along with Lundahl step-up transformers. Variable impedance loading, with on-the-fly adjustments for resistance, capacitance and gain, the phono pre includes a mono switch, as well as RCA and XLR outputs. There’s an outboard PSU (solid-state), and big chunky knobs on the front for all the customization, as well as the laser-cut top and soft-blue LED spillage for those late night sexy-time playback. I really want one of these guys to play with, can you tell?

All cabling came from Knut Skogrand. Skogrand Cables offer high-performance power and signal cabling, and all come wrapped up in sheaths every bit as sexy-looking as their price points would dictate. Stitched silk? Yeah. This is the good stuff — who needs boring black-cased wire? Bah!

Last but not least — that VPI turntable is a new-ish offering. I “discovered” the Prime late last year, and in the intervening time, the table has been gaining serious momentum ( … you see what I did there?). The design falls neatly between the big HRX table and the smaller Aries/Scout line, representing a big deviation from the “Classic” turntable designs of recent years. For my taste, I think the new ultra-dense plinth/thick aluminum platter/massive outboard motor design is just electrifying in its immediacy and musicality, and with that 3-D printed tonearm included for the price, I’m throwing the flag and saying that Prime is the “steal” in the current VPI lineup.

All-in-all, a very satisfying room. Preconceptions = blown.

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High End 2015: Astell&Kern

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HE15_Logo_GB_01I blame Astell&Kern for my “portable audio” problem. I had, wrongly, assumed that the iPhone was as good as it gets and that anything above and beyond that was pretty much just daydreaming. I mean, who would actually bother to make a superior iDevice? As Samsung has learned, rather painfully, it can’t be done. Apple rulz.

And that’s probably still true. For an all-in-one, Swiss Army knife style of mobile computing platform, the iPhone (and maybe someday, the Apple Watch as an extension) is killer.

But for audio playback … well, the iPhone is something less than killer. Enter the “digital audio player” (DAP) makers and queue the Rocky theme music.

I’ve written about the AK120 and AK240 players, and I’ve found them both to be “very good” and “excellent”, accordingly. The Ak240, at $2500, is my current reference for all-in-one audio players, and with reasonably careful headphone matching, it completely eliminates the need for “bricking” (banding together multiple battery-powered devices in a comical violation of the term ‘portability’). It is, to my ears, the best that’s currently available in the DAP segment. That was my professional judgment. Moving on!

At High End, I was forced to reassess that view — their newest offering, the AK380 (at an eyebrow-raising $3500), is better.

John Darko has some more details over at Digital Audio Review, so I’ll refer you there for the new “eco-system” of components that the AK380 will be able to leverage in its quest to conquer that bit just past your pocket: the rack. They look interesting, especially the new cradle. For folks looking to consolidate — one source, whether on the go or no, the idea of a dedicated docking station with “real” analog outputs worthy of your hi-fi is interesting. Not sure how often that would happen, however, but it’s still interesting. Anyway, check out DAR for details. FWIW — I didn’t really pay any attention to that stuff on my trip through.

I didn’t see the additional outboard amplifier, either. Wish I had. In a move very reminiscent of what CEntrance is doing with both The Glove and the HiFi Skÿn, Astell&Kern are offering a “bolt-on” amplifier for the AK380. Seriously — it clamps right on to the back and screws down, and heavily boosting the output for those cranky and clanky headphones. Look ma, no wires!

No word yet on pricing or availability for the cradle, CD-transport/ripper, or outboard amp.

So, if I were to play it safe, I’d probably end there after making some comments about the new, symmetrical but still remarkably creative styling of the casework (shiny!). But unlike John, I actually did arrange to spend some “quality time” with the new player, leveraging a pair of Astell&Kern-branded Angie IEMs and a pair of HiFiMAN headphones.

Steven Rochlin has a more in-depth dive, but my notes lead me to believe that the AK380 is a clear step up from the AK240 in terms of overall sound quality, with better drive and a more natural flow, mated to an out-of-the-head soundstage. Very impressive — and like the AK240, no external amp was required. Which is good. And bad. Because now I want one. Some more notes from the press release:

The AK380 has built-in DLNA 1.0 support, allowing users to wirelessly stream music from any DLNA compatible NAS or device on your network.  With the AK Connect app for iOS and Android-based smartphones and tablets (coming soon), you can control playback on the device and stream music located on your device directly to the AK380.

Other features include a 4-inch high-resolution TFT-LCD screen, 256GB of internal memory with one microSD card slot supporting up to 128GB microSD card for a total of 384GB of storage and Bluetooth 4.0 support.  The AK380 offers finer EQ settings over previous Astell&Kern models using a Parametric EQ capable of 0.1dB increments over 20 bands.  Previous models offered EQ settings of 0.5dB increments over 10 bands.

Like the Astell&Kern AK240, the new AK380 features a duralumin, aircraft grade aluminum body, unbalanced and balanced analog outputs that allows the user to use virtually any headphone or earbud on the market; Wi-Fi connectivity to download music wirelessly to the player from a computer or network storage device and provides the ability to wirelessly stream music to the player without downloading music to the player first and the ability to use the AK380 as a USB DAC, allowing the owner to connect the player to their computer to bypass their internal sound card and get high-resolution sound from their PC or Mac desktop or laptop.

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High End 2015: Devialet

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HE15_Logo_GB_01The best thing about high-end audio, at least in my book, is that it’s rarely boring. There’s always something new, something “out there”, something off-the-wall that really just leaves you grinning with outright admiration.

This year’s Grin of Admiration goes to Devialet. Their Phantom is just plain cool.

I got to hear it for the first time at this year’s High End show, but while the setup was odd and the room acoustics were rubbish, the speaker was absolutely mesmerizing. I’ve never seen anything like it, this side of a Rube Goldberg device. It’s clearly out of Star Wars. Think: R2D2’s far more eloquent cousin.

The setup here had about 5000 of them, all arranged in some semblance of surround-sound, with extremely hard-surfaced tiered seating and way too many bodies in an artful arrangement of disarray. Around us were shelves hosting these pulsating droids. And it was fascinating.

There are two iterations available currently, the “standard” Phantom ($1,999 each) and the significantly upgraded Silver Phantom ($2,390 each), the latter improving on the former by upgrading the internal, integrated amplifier from 750 watts to a whopping 3000 as well as adding a silvery side-panel to separate the two models, visually.

John Darko, who spent quite a bit of this show cheerfully marching me about the Munich environs, is quite enamored of the form-factor. That is, the fact that it’s all-inclusive. It’s a speaker, a DAC, an amp … all you need is a source to stream your tunes from. Oh, and if you want stereo (or multi-channel) sound, you’re going to need a clever little $350 “bridge” they call the Dialog to divide up and route the audio channels appropriately. Me, I’ve always been more of one-tool-for-every-job/one-job-for-every-tool kind of audiophile, but I have to admit that “lifestyle” solutions like the Phantom are not only compelling, they’re downright impressive. I can only imagine that the gnomes at Bose are looking nervously at Devialet right about now. And they should be.

Given Devialet’s success in impressing the heck out of even hardcore doubters of anything even remotely resembling Class D amplification (and some reviewers of notable repute), I cannot help but be intrigued. I’m really hoping to get a pair of Silver Phantoms to play with at some point, but US distribution is still an evolving beast. We’ll see.

Some new bits from the show (or new to me) include the Speaker Active Matching (SAM), a rather clever tool that lets their flagship platforms alter their output to best map to the performance characteristics of your chosen speakers. SAM is, apparently, backed by a rather large database of measured speakers — audiophiles exploring the Devialet solution would be well-served to peruse the (lengthy!) list of speakers that are SAM-ready.

Also new is v8.0 of the Devialet firmware, which includes improvements to the phono processing, DSD64 support, SAM and more.

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High End 2015: Lyravox

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HE15_Logo_GB_01I’m not sure how “soundbars” have impacted the evolution of high-end audio, but I’ve gotten (several) ear-fulls from audiophiles with rather … strong … opinions on the matter. Were it up to me, a full 5.1 or 11.2 home theater system would be far more compelling, but I fully understand that this isn’t always an option. In fact, it’s not even “usually” an option — it’s an argument, and that’s not a veiled jab at WAF conventions. Fitting eleven speakers into a room whose primary purpose isn’t dedicated listening is a struggle. A vain one, in most cases. Which is why we settle. And why there are soundbars in the first place.

So, given that they’re here, why do they have to look ugly?

I can imagine that this is the thought-process that went through heads of the designers over at Lyravox when they came up with the Stereomaster.

Lyravox is a German company that makes soundbars. And when I say that, I have to acknowledge that saying that is very similar to saying something like “Rolls Royce makes cars”, or that “Monet was a painter” or that “Mozart liked music”. True as they may be, each bald statement lacks a bit of the impact required to really express something rather important.

Anyway, the Stereomaster is to soundbars what Rolls is to cars. It’s way more than a soundbar. It’s not practical. It most ways, it doesn’t make sense. But … It’s art. It’s goregous. And by ‘gorgeous’, I mean, “Holy sh!tb*lls, are you insane? You cannot leave that on the wall! Someone might walk into the same room and breathe at it! Ahh! Ahhh!”

Yeah, gorgeous.

It’s also not cheap. The SM2-200, which features a pair of integrated, powered, subwoofers. Think: 12-cylinder engine on your Rolls. Yeah. That’s how they’re gonna roll.

Scanspeak Revelator drivers, Illuminator tweeters, an integrated CD-transport and DAC, and up to ten integrated amplifiers. Prices can reach up to €24k and beyond. I say “can reach” because this offering is more bespoke than it is standard — and yes, Michael Trei, I mean “bespoke” in the sense that just about every element of the final configuration and finish can be (and typically is) custom.

Unfortunately, I heard this in one of those amazingly terrible iso-box isolation “booth” rooms down on the Hall at Munich, so I can’t say with any degree of anything that the Stereomaster lives up to its fit and finish, but I can say that the fit and finish may well be the best I saw at High End this year, barring one or two €500k speakers. To say that it’s extraordinary doesn’t come close.

Honestly, I’m not the target market for this. Not sure too many audiophiles are either. But if you are into high-end audio, are absurdly well-heeled, and are forced to massively compromise on your plans for world domination a multi-speaker multi-channel home theater system, or are perhaps looking for something for that display in your corporate/law-firm conference room or lobby or whatever, Lyravox is a laughably obvious choice.

Wow. Soooo pretty.

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High End 2015: Harbeth 40.2

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Harbeth UK is one of those brands. If you’re an audiophile, you already know them. If you like speakers, you’ve already heard them. If you’re a collector, you probably own (or have sold) at least one pair. They’re iconic.

They’re also hilariously good — which is probably the main reason for the above statements being reasonably accurate or true. They’re famous for their transparency and rich sound. Just thinking about it makes me wonder why I don’t currently have a pair in-house. That thought makes me sad.

The speakers that caught my eye most recently were the “little” Monitor 30.1, a relatively modest-sized (and not exorbitantly priced) monitor capable of some astonishing tonal colors — I’ve heard them with Vinnie Rossi’s gear several times and each time, resolved to steal them acquire a pair.

Which brings me to the 40.2.

Yes, they’re new. They’re priced at just under $20k US. And I want a pair.

What’s new? Sensitivity has been increased to 86dB (from 85dB on the 40.1), the bass response has been extended to 35Hz from 38Hz (and is still 20kHz, on the top end, with the standard ±3dB hedge), the impedance made a bit easier to manage, but the cabinet is a touch deeper (almost an inch) than the same size as (thanks to Harbeth for the correction) the outgoing model.

Successor to the BBC’s old LS5/8 monitor loudspeaker, Harbeth’s new incarnation launched at the Munich High End has improvements on all fronts over the 1970s’ two-way. Boasting engineering excellence for the digital era, it is a significant upgrade to the award-winning Monitor 40.1 model.

Such has been the runaway success of Harbeth’s Super HL5plus worldwide, that designer Alan Shaw took a close look at his M40.1, the BBC LS5/8 replacement. First made for the broadcaster in 1998, the Monitor 40 was a major leap forward in monitor loudspeaker design.

“The three-way Monitor 40 solved the inadequacies of that old BBC model, which attempted to force a 12-inch polypropylene bass unit to behave as a midrange as well.” says Harbeth’s Alan Shaw, “An idea doomed from the start; no wonder BBC engineers struggled with the LS5/8’s weird sonic balance.”

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High End 2015: TIDAL Loudspeakers

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Somewhere near 5,000 steps (according to my FitBit), I stumbled into the TIDAL Audio room. Fans of the site may know that I have a thing for designer Jörn Janczak’s big glossy megaliths as I also happen to be an owner. Here was my chance to meet him!

Doug White of Philly dealer The Voice That Is had warned me that Jörn was tall, but a warning doesn’t quite help when the man himself has to stoop to talk to you. No, seriously, Jörn is tall. Like “NBA Pro” tall. This is apropos of absolutely nothing other than to say that with this bit of helpful info, the sense of scale in TIDAL speakers may be a bit easier to understand.

Take the Assoluta, for example. This loudspeaker is (currently) the pinnacle of his art, and it looks it. It’s also priced like it, but while €500k is nowhere near the most expensive loudspeaker available at High End, it was one of two where the attention to detail that caught my eye reached a level that made my brain start sweating. Oh, my, that TIDAL finish is simply out-of-this-world. I really have never seen anything like it. “TIDAL piano black” is to “piano black” as a black hole is to empty space. I could feel it sucking at my soul as soon as I stepped into the room.

Next to the finish, the most arresting feature on the Assoluta is the center cabinet (bracketed above and below by bass driver cabinets) – it carries two custom 5” drivers designed by Jörn and Accuton, the driver company that “just happens” to be “right down the street” from TIDAL. These new 5” drivers are diamond. According to Jörn, diamond offers perfect heat-sinking for the voice coils, is also ripple free, and has absolutely no resonance. The tweeter? Another diamond, this one a 1”, also from Accuton. According to Jörn, pairs of these three drivers (enough for a pair of Assoluta) cost about the same — by themselves — as a complete pair of his middle-of-the-range Agoria loudspeakers. And those are $100k/pair. Gulp. Oh – did I mention they’re 7’ 6” tall and weigh 485kg each (that is, they come up to Jörn’s shoulders)? I should note that the Assoluta is also fully customizable — at that price level, you can dictate and specify just about every little flourish — so don’t expect these to hit the general price book. You want? Just ask your dealer.

Now, as entertaining as these’d be to bathe in, they weren’t on audible display. What we heard, instead, were his newest loudspeaker, the Akira. The Akira, at €160k/pair, slots in above the Agoria and below (sort of) the Sunray, and features a single 5” diamond midrange and a matching 1” diamond tweeter, along with three active front-firing woofers and five (five!) rear-firing passives, all featuring Accuton’s latest concave drivers and all in TIDAL’s exclusive black. The arrangement is time/phase aligned and everything over 100Hz is rendered entirely via the diamond drivers. These speakers are designed, apparently, in such a way to bring Sunray-level performance to a “normal” listening spaces (that is, merely “large”, instead of “cavernous”). It’s an interesting thought. These Akiras are not much larger than the Contriva Diacera SE speakers I happen to have (ha ha!).

I visited and revisited this room several times throughout the weekend, watching and listening as the great Akira broke in. And yes, I mean that – the magnificent 5” driver had all of 10 hours on it before the show opened to the press on Thursday! Not auspicious, but despite that, the incredible transparency TIDAL is known for was very much on display. And then some. Holy guacamole, this is a monster speaker.

I should note that TIDAL has never been one for bloated bass, so it’s probably not surprising that the bass was coherent and remarkably textured — that is, it didn’t necessarily get swallowed by the room, nor did it appear to flex the walls. A standing double-bass was just that — made of rare woods, professionally lacquered, lovingly polished Wednesday past with “the good stuff”, and yes, that G-string could probably use a replacement. Did I mention the sound was transparent? Hmm.

Heh heh. The kids don’t have to go to college, do they? Nah ….

Also new – the Piano G2 loudspeaker. Completely rebuilt, and using the same inert Tiradur cabinet material found in the Akira and Absoluta, the Piano G2 has all new drivers and crossover.

Also new – the Assoluta mono amplifiers ($140k/pair). These feature three pure silver transformers with an actively regulated power supply for both current and voltage. 350watts into 8Ω, and 700 into 4Ω, the massive monos share the same family good looks as the lesser amplifier I enjoyed not so long ago.

Also new – the Camira DAC ($34k). The DAC uses the eminently sensible but still not widely adopted approach of local storage of playback streams, with local high-precision re-clocking into the DAC stage. A ladder-DAC design, the Camira does not support USB, but instead, is S/PDIF only.

Panagiotis adds: So yes, Tidal had another great show with the new Akira speakers and the complete line of built-in-house electronics.

Do not take for granted that expensive guarantees great sound, Munich has been merciless to several high-end manufacturers this year too.

Another thing you should not take for granted is SPLs. I take it for granted but you should not. This is one of my obsessions; I believe that high-end systems should sound exceptionally good and be able to withstand concert hall like sound pressure levels. If they are good for up to 85-90dB at my listening position, and then deflate or distort, then they are not true high fidelity systems; if you ever listened to a symphonic orchestra from the 8th sit row, then you know what I am talking about.

Which brings us to Tidal Akira and Royksopp.

Sunday morning on my closing tour of the best sounding rooms in Munich, I spoke with Jörn, and asked him to play something he enjoys listening to with his creations. I know that Royksopp is not Mahler but the concept remains the same. He pushed the speakers to something more than enough for a show; he showed me that these new Accuton black diamond drivers can deliver not only in terms of transparency — but also in sheer volume.

For the record, the track was Skulls:

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High End 2015

High End 2015: Feickert Turntables

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I’ve been a fan of the full-featured/full-function line of turntables from Dr Feickert for years; the clean design is mesmerizing, the integrated speed-controls are intuitive, and the motor’s native “noise dissipation” digital processing translates into exceptional speed control even on the single motor Woodpecker (and much more so on the triple-motor Firebird).

Here at High End, I got a chance to see his new Wren phono stage (€9k).

Wren is a multi-input phono with particular attention paid to phase. As Dr Feickert explains, most phonos pay attention only to levels and do not track phase during playback – a mistake as it may change. Wren includes a “discharge circuit” (my phrasing) that allows the phono stage to completely “clean” the circuit after input switching.

The entire unit is handmade, using resistors and caps that happen to all be “Made in the USA” — in order to guarantee quality control requirements. Ahem.

Also introduced was the new Silent isolation platform for use under his turntables. Also new was a Clean battery-powered power supply to drive the motors on the turntables.

On particularly obvious display were a set of custom turntables, hand-painted by an artist whose name I failed to catch (help!). The result, however, was spectacular. The prices are too — if curious, inquiries are encouraged.

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High End 2015

High End 2015: dCS

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Ran into John Quick (US importer for dCS) while ogling the new dCS Rossini DAC, and he gave me the scoop on this new beauty. This DAC will be bumping out the Scarlatti, if I recall correctly, and will be expanded into a full line forthwith.

The Rossini can be ordered two ways, itself an interesting nod to the times – the first is as a straight-up DAC ($22.5K), the second as a DAC with an integral CD-transport ($27k). That’s right. No separate transport for this new line. Also note that the Esoteric-sourced transports are no longer available, so this vestigial tail is CD-only – SACD is no longer supported (but DSD itself most certainly is).

In whatever configuration, the Rossini is also a streamer in addition to a DAC, with a renderer built-in for pulling files from your NAS. Tidal, Spotify, Deezer are all in play. The converter boards are derived from the flagship Vivaldi, but there is a brand-new control board developed post-Vivaldi that promises significant performance upgrades far belying it’s relatively non-flagship status.

Vivaldi owners never fear – updates and upgrades are on the way.

General availability for Rossini is planned for late summer.

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