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: Wrapping the Un-Wrappable

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HE15_Logo_GB_01An entire month passed since we got back from Munich and our combined efforts produced more than 50 extended show reports, many of which are closer to mini-reviews than a mere system and price tags list with a few pictures. Munich offers so much material that we could probably go on for another month still without covering everything. A show with close to 1000 brands is absolutely insane and impossible to cover so we did our best in providing the best sounding, most extravagant, innovative or down right curious exhibits with our own personal perspective.

Going straight to the point, my Best in Show goes to Lyn Stanley who performed in the Classic Audio Loudspeakers room with Atma-Sphere amplifiers and Purist Audio Design cables. This was the most engaging room of the entire event, attendees simply could not get away once they entered and found Lyn performing live songs from her latest album, Potions, right there in front of them. Fatal attraction. For the record, this room featured the amazing T3.4 speakers from Classic Audio and MP-1/ M60mk3 amplifier combo from Atma-Sphere, and a remarkable analog front-end, with a Feickert-Triplanar-Lyra-Dynavector analog set up, as well as a Weiss MAN 301 DAC/ server.

BestInShow2015v1“Best in show” and “best sound” are distinct categories for this year’s High End Munich; if you followed my adventures then you already know what the almost designated best should have been. The single most impressive set up was the Stenheim One with the four tower Reference Statement speaker system amplified by CH Precision, with analog front end by Audio Consulting and cabling from ZenSati. What was the most expensive and specs wise the most impressive system of the show gave a new meaning in words like authority, extension and visual impact. Part of the system’s performance was left in the imaginative plain as it was fitted inside a small prefabricated room down the ground floor halls which is, acoustically speaking, as inadequate as it gets. Placed in a proper room and with the channels not inverted this extraordinary system would have swiped other contenders from the MOC in a blink. Hopefully next year they will propose something similar in a room of at least 100m² and then I will be able to award them my best sound of the show. For this year my Audio Traveler award remains vacant, other systems performed very well but knowing what sort of potential this particular one could deliver makes comparisons almost futile.

Excellent runner ups were, in no particular order, the Tidal room which added some mid-warmth in the already detailed and dynamic range of speakers with the new Akira model fitted with the exotic 5” diamond mid-range driver; The Zellaton room with BFA amplifiers which offered a convincing dynamic dipole speaker presentation and the perennially great sounding all TAD room which for this year proved thanks to the CE-1 loudspeakers that size does not matter, not always anyway.

Among the various new products the “audiophile on a budget” one I would have brought home was the Auralic Aries mini streamer, a complete solution capable of DSD and DXD streaming with an incorporated ESS SABRE DAC for an astonishingly low price of $399 that will sell like hot bread, as long as they manage to iron out the glitches which affected the first generation Aries.

The other product, a not-so-budget but still far from being unreasonably priced product, and one I would love to review, is Wilson Audio‘s Sabrina speakers. Not sure if it was the wine, the company or the speakers, but that press-only event was huge fun and left me with the idea of a very well-engineered product that will find the way into many audiophile’s listening rooms.

As for the rest, the night action and the Weiss beer, Schweinshaxe and Weißwürste with friends flying in from all around the globe, it is always the best part of an audio show and one I would rather not comment upon as you never know who’s going to read this (for example, my wife). Instead, let me extend an invitation for next year, make sure you come for the crazy four-day Munich show and let us know, we will be showing you the best (or worst depending on the points of view) brauhaus in town!

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High End 2015

High End 2015: Magico

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Magico did not bring the highly expected M-Project in Munich’s High End 2015 show but maybe it was too much to ask, after all they did brought the Ultimate III last year, so instead, we had to listen to “normal” productions models. Oh, the humanity!

They turned up with two rooms, the first one with the metallic blue S7 speakers ($58.000, launch expected for this summer) paired with Constellation electronics and MIT cables; the second with the new top-of-the-line Q7 Mk2 model ($230.000) driven by Soulution electronics, with Vovox cables of Switzerland taking care of the connections.

Constellation brought the new Centaur II power amplifiers ($80.000 for the pair of monos) and Peter Madnick, VP of engineering, explained me how the power supply got beefier with 10x the MkI’s filtering capacitance, bigger toroidal transformer and generally speaking, even more “trickled down” technology coming from top-of-the-line Hercules model. Along with, Peter also brought the Virgo III preamplifier and the new Cygnus Digital File Player / DAC with an external power supply ($35.000).

On paper, this should be a great system, but left me perplexed, wondering what was wrong during “Heart is a Drum” from Beck’s 2014 album Morning Phase. Bottom extension was all there but at the same time, the mids were simply wrong. I like Beck’s musical style, but to be honest my ”thing” is classical; Irv Gross from Constellation’s marketing team agreed to play the allegro from Mozart’s violin concerto in D major with Marianne Thorsen (2L records), but still, I made no emotional connection with the system.

The other room, the one with the Q7 MkII, was better, with slightly fuller mid-range frequencies and excellent top-end extension during Paganini’s Capricci with Mayuko Kamio (RCA). The sensation of a stronger presence coming from the improved graphene-carbon mid-range driver was confirmed by Bonnie Raitt singing “Back Around”, where her voice was definitely warmer than usual (with “usual” being the typical previous generation almost “dry” Magico sound). Soulution was helping drive the Q7s with a full stack of their latest electronics, including the 725 preamplifier, a pair of 701 mono power amps and the new 760 DAC ($59.000). Interestingly, they also had on display (though not playing during my two visits in the room) a (very well made for being a prototype) turntable fitted with EMT cartridge on a Thales tonearm, and connected to the all-new 755 phono stage ($59.000). A special mention must be made for the gorgeous Critical Mass Systems Maxxum Racks, among the best out there.

For being a half a million dollar room, the sound, while not bad per se, was just not what I expected for this category of equipment. It is not a matter of “playing right”; systems of this caliber have to do everything by the book and even more so. It actually comes down to sensations, and while I think the Q7 Mk2 are a clear step forward for Magico, there’s still some room to grow.

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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: Rosso Fiorentino, Thrax, North Star and Bergmann

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HE15_Logo_GB_01When you think of Rosso Fiorentino speakers concepts like pricey, great sound and Italian artisanry come in mind. Now take the pricey part out of the equation but keep the artisan finish and melodic sound. Engineer Francesco Rubenni, founder of the Florence based speaker company, revealed a new model for the affordable line of speakers, the Classic series which now consists of three models; the moderate sized standmount named Giglio, the 2 and a ½ way, 88.5db sensitivity floorstander we had the chance of listening to in Munich that goes by the name of Elba and last but not least a central speaker for home theater passionate, the Pianosa.

The thing about high-end companies introducing affordable models is that usually they first introduce them in China. That is in order to keep prices low the design takes place in the headquarters but production is shifted where labor is cheap and one too many times quality and finish suffer. This was not the case with the Elba which was superbly finished in leather and wood and when factoring in the 2400 euro MSRP the package screams VFM.

The Munich set up consisted of Thrax Dionysos pre-amplifier, Orpheus phono stage and Teres hybrid power amplifier, North Star Design Supremo 32-384 DAC and Sapphire transport and the classic Bergmann Magne System turntable. Cabling was provided by Kubala-Sosna with their second from top Emotion series.

It appears as the rest of the system was a bit of an overkill for a pair of speakers costing less than $3K but listening to Muddy Waters singing Good Morning Little School Girl while playing his guitar convinced me otherwise. These are engaging little speakers that will make many audiophiles on a budget more than happy. Who said that High End Munich is only über expensive rooms?

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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: Lyra

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Weeks before the show I found myself chatting with Jonathan Carr, designer among other things of Lyra, a range of bespoke moving coil cartridges and we promised to discuss things when finally face to face in Munich. “Discussing” is a slight exaggeration; the reality is closer to Jonathan “giving me a lesson” on design principles, and providing pieces for the analog playback puzzle that I never had in-hand.

He did mention something about a cartridge that may eventually make it to the market sometime in the future, one that he is still trying to design as an affordable model without having to sacrifice production capacity currently used for the Lyra flagship models . For this he is seeking production techniques that can be automated to a certain extent thus lowering the final price while keeping certain crucial to him aspects intact, namely the “house sound” of Lyra.

Where he focused mostly was the design of a new step-up transformer with the goal being to create a sound close to the one produced by an electronic circuit (aka active stage, meaning dynamic and extended playback) without the electric part, therefore with no noise or electronic distortions added to the fragile signal coming from the cartridge. He is studying ways of presenting minimal capacitance back to the cartridge itself, which combined with the inductance of the generator would create an electrical resonance that is far easier to control than with conventional step up transformers. . Are you still with me?

I will cut to the chase here and tell you what matters. Several great rooms in Munich had an Etna or an Atlas MC cartridge playing gorgeous music. The amazing SAT tonearm mounted on the new Thrax-Dohmann Xelix-1 turntable had an Etna, while the Schroeder CB tonearm on the same table had the top-of-the-line Atlas. The Primary Control tonearm on the Vinyl Savior/Wolf von Langa room had another Atlas. Another Atlas was in the Audio Tekne room on the Garrard 601 table connected to the exotic TEA 9501 PCS €225.000 phono stage. Yet another Atlas was spinning in the Absolare room. You get the picture? Considering what Jonathan has accomplished so far, that forthcoming step-up might be quite something.

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High End 2015: Zellaton

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HE15_Logo_GB_01There is something about historic brands, they have a special charm which I find irresistible. We have witnessed the re-birth of famous 19th century maisons in watchmaking and something similar happened with a few legends of the audio industry that woke from their long hibernation.

One of these brands that I have been following closely is Zellaton. Originally founded by Dr. Emil Podszus, Zellaton focused in producing speaker drivers and eventually filed for a patent for his foam sandwich diaphragm.

In recent years the company launched a new reference line of speakers designed around the in-house produced drivers with a rather intriguing cabinet which on first sight seems like a classic box but after closer investigation one realizes it is a semi-open baffle with the back of the speaker being open through well finished windows, thus creating a dipole dispersion pattern.

Zelaton makes all drivers with a painstakingly long process that leads to a sandwich of various materials with the end result being light but stiff cones for low inertia and razor-sharp transients. Reference speakers demand reference parts throughout and Zellaton uses some of the most expensive capacitors available in the market for their cross-overs, the silly expensive Duelund Coherent Audio along with Mundorf ones, Van den Hul cabling, Mundorf binding posts for speakers that are true cost no object designs.

Unfortunately last year they did not perform anywhere close to their capabilities (an obvious mis-match with the driving electronics which ended up in ruining a mid-range driver) but this year it was a completely different story for the Zellaton Reference MkII. Beyond Frontiers Audio provided some remarkably transparent amplifiers from their Tulip line (tube pre-amp and a pair of hybrid monos along with their DAC) and Schnerzinger completed the set up with their active shielding cables and Giga protectors (high frequency field generators that allegedly overcome the shortcomings of musical signals; don’t ask me what it means as I have no clue). CD player came from Loit, the exotic Passeri MkII, while the analog front end included a classic La Platine Verdier turntable, Acoustical Systems Axiom tonearm and Aiwon cartridge, with two phono stages sitting in the fabulous and highly sophisticated Tandem Audio racks, one from LKV, and the second from Mal Valve of Germany; the later was the one with which I did my auditioning.

This was a room where they clearly love acoustic guitars; they had records of Eric Bibb singing Good Stuff (Opus 3 LP) and Ry Cooder playing his bottleneck style guitar with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt in A Meeting by the River (Water Lily Acoustics Records) both of which sounded very open and rich in harmonic content. Attack and resolution where place under exam with Boris Blank’s Electrified tracks for a system that was easily among the top of the 2015 show.

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High End 2015: Kyron Audio

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Despite having read several glowing reviews about Kyron’s dipole speaker systems this was the first time I had the chance to spend some time listening to them. The Australian firm brought in Munich their smaller model, named Kronos, which consists of 3-way dipole speakers (2×1” tweeters, 7” neodymium mid and 2×12” long throw woofers) along with a massive amplifier that incorporates a DEQX preamplifier responsible for signal processing, frequency response, phase and room correction along with 6 Encore class D power amplifiers for a total of 1200Watts. So “smaller” is not exactly small when it comes to the Kronos system.

Aesthetically the dipoles are stunning; at least for my personal taste they look closer to a modern sculpture than any given typical speaker. No sign of boxy looks, no veneers, no nothing. The skeleton that keeps the speaker in place is very robust and meticulously finished, the amplifier box is massive and includes a USB DAC too; for 99.000 euros what you get is a complete system with DSP function needing only a computer or streamer in order to play music.

Normally dipole systems like the Kyron necessitate of careful and symmetric placement away from walls but in Munich the sound was more than good, even in the acoustically dreadful sounding isobox room on the ground floor. There was a sense of air combined with a wide and involving soundstage during Chris Thile and Edgar Meyers “Tarnation”, part of all this should probably be attributed to the DEQX digital signal processor. Coming from a relatively new company the Kronos is a refined and mature product.

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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: Pendulumic

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HE15_Logo_GB_01It happens periodically, where there will be this groundswell of resentment over pricing in high-end audio. As if the wallet of any individual were what was driving the price of any particular product. Instead of looking at it and saying “That’s not for me”, there are those that take it personally, as if “it really was for me, if it weren’t for all those greedy bastards!”

For those folks especially, the headphone-based high-end is a really nifty place to explore.

Take Pendulumic, for example.

Their top-of-the-range Stance S1+ is $199. That’s not pocket change, but it’s pretty damn affordable. It’s also wireless, featuring the latest aptX “wideband” Bluetooth protocol (and Bluetooth 4.0 and A2DP), and a 30 hour playtime. They’re built well, sound great, and look ma, no wires! Wait — just ran out of juice? Aww, too bad — just add a wire, and you’re back in business. The design folds flat, and has an option for AAA batteries to back up the on-board rechargeable. Pretty nifty.

Sonically, the Stance S1+ appears to carry more of a pro-audio voicing, which is fine, but they aren’t going to be knocking out any of the $1,000+ headphones anytime soon. That’s also beside the point. They’re not $1,000. And for their wireless competitors, I think these are definitely in the game.

Looking forward to seeing more from Pendulumic.

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High End 2015: CH Precision, Vivid Audio, TechDAS

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Some companies do not simply “show up” at Munich High End, they try to dominate the show. Some, like CH Precision, present more than one amazing room — they presented their line of electronics with Stenheim, Wilson Benesch and Vivid Audio, an “en plein” of sophisticated speaker designs among the best out there. Normally I would choose the best sounding room and report just that one, only there was no best; it came down to personal taste, room size and even musical selections.

The Stenheim room was stunning, the size and impact of the reference speakers (not to mention the price, frequency extension, and just about everything else) was simply impressive. The Wilson Benesch speakers on the other hand were pulling a perfect disappearing act and if ones lives in a normal sized house (and not Buckingham Palace), this is where he should be looking.

The Vivid Audio Giya is somewhere in between, at least size wise. Impact is there, soundstage is wide and imaging is precise; paired with the CH amplifiers, the G2 managed to create perfect contours of instruments on stage. Still this would have not been enough for me to cover a third CH room if it was not for the P1 phono stage taking care of the titanium-bodied TechDAS TDC01 Ti cartridge mounted on Graham Phantom tonearm and (perhaps obviously) with the Air Force One taking care of the spinning.

What is so special about this phono stage? Everything. Three balanced inputs two of each are current mode thus perfect for low impedance moving coil cartridges (the TDC01 has a Z of only 1.4 Ohms); the third input is a “classic” voltage design so it can handle moving magnet designs as well. For 24.000 Swiss Francs (close to $24K with today’s exchange rate) you obviously get a fully balanced topology with all discrete parts, ultra wide bandwidth and a noise floor buried 6 ft. underground. If all this is not enough you can add an external power supply for an even lower S/N and an even higher price tag.

In the end there is a reason why CH got so much coverage, all three rooms delivered musical pleasure in spades; with the Giya G2s and that awesome TechDAS analog front end we heard Ray singing and Basie swinging right there with us.

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High End 2015: Albedo, Audia Flight

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HE15_Logo_GB_01This was one of the most interesting rooms of this year’s Munich show and had a strong Italian flavor with speakers from Albedo, electronics from Audia Flight and Music Tools racks.

Albedo is not the typical Italian speaker, it is not mellow warm and overly smooth in its presentation. In fact it is a much more modern concept and on the elaborate scale of 0 to 100 it comes pretty close to that 100 being among the most sophisticated ones. The Acxentia now in the Mk II version is a transmission line design with an incorporated Helmholtz resonator, a concept named by Eng. Costa Helmholine. The use of a resonator inside the cabinet eliminates secondary peaks inherent in transmission line speakers thus lowering colorations and by using Accuton ceramic drivers the end result is even more pronounced, fast and detailed is how I would describe it. The looks are definitely Italian though, with the wood and metal cabinet finished in exquisite manner.

Transmission line designs have their weak spots and sometimes end up in long decays in the bottom octave. This was not the case with the Audia Flight huge Strumento No. 8, a 500W/8Ohm, 3000VA power transformer and 48 output devices per channel monoaural amplifier capable of controlling perfectly the Axcentia speakers while offering a bit of their own character with the overall sound coming from the Strumento No. 1 preamplifier-24/192 DAC being on the warm side of neutral.

The whole was put together thanks to the impressive black pythons Golden Sequence cables by Signal Projects which vaunt industry low capacitance and resistance for a level of transparency that very few can match. I gave the system a run with music standing in the antipodes, the Thunder and Lightning polka by Strauss and Oh Yeah by Yello. Deep bass without the use of sub-woofers and credible string passages made up for a very convincing presentation.

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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: ENIGMAcoustics

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ENIGMAcoustics is a relatively new company and one clearly here to stay; you can tell because they chose to propose new things and not follow the easy “me too” way. Last year in Munich, I stumbled upon their speakers and was so impressed that I had to ask for a review sample. Something very similar also happened this year, only with headphones this time.

From Wikipedia: In Hinduism, dharma signifies behaviors that are considered to be in accord with rta, the order that makes life and universe possible, and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and ‘‘right way of living”

Interesting name for a headphone, no doubt about it. Especially if one considers that it is a hybrid design. Dharma declares a frequency response of 15-50KHz and achieves that by combining a 50mm Wagami paper dynamic driver along with the patented SBESL (self-biased electrostatic) membrane, the same technology behind their impressive Sopranino super-tweeter.

Now, hybrid headphones have had a rough ride for many years — it’s unlikely that two drivers, placed a few centimeters from your ears, will ever integrate. Yet, ENIGMAcoustics seems to have made it happen. The $1200 headphone conveyed great tunes; at least this was my impression when I was listening to Janos Starker playing the exquisite Saint Saens cello concerto. There was no audible crossover issues when going from the dynamic driver to the electrostatic one, at least not in show conditions so I had to ask in what frequency this occurs. Turns out the dynamic driver goes all the way up to 10KHz and the super-tweeter takes it from there adding a familiar for me sense of air just like the Sopranino did when connected with “ordinary” speakers. Seems like the “right way”!

Worth of mention is the 380gr weight, a very interesting spec as one too many flagship headphones gravitate around the half a kilo or more (which is heavy for long listening hours).

ENIGMAcoustics will also provide a fabulous matching amplifier, the Athena 1, with an expected price tag of $1500. A hybrid design as well (is everything they do hybrid in a certain way?) with a ECC82/12AU7 triode tube driving a MOS/BJT output stage with a very low output impedance making it a perfect match for headphones from 16 to 600 Ohms. Add a robust 9V RMS output voltage and a housing made from the same Swarovski like casing found on the Sopranino tweeter, and you have yourself one of the best offerings in this year’s Munich show.

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High End 2015: Blumenhofer, Einstein, TechDAS

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Pairing a huge 16” woofer with a compression tweeter usually leaves a gap in the crucial mid frequencies but Blumenhofer Acoustics managed to get things right. The Genuin FS1 mk2 pairs the woofer with a rather wide 1,4” horn loaded titanium tweeter for a very easy to drive 96dB bass reflex speaker with the port firing to the floor.

Electronics were provided by Einstein, a company who has little imagination when it comes to naming their equipment; on display: The Preamp, The Phonoamp and a pair of Silver Bullet OTL monos capable of 65W/8Ohm, I’ll let you figure out what each does.

The phono stage was a brand new design, first public appearance and performed in a most musical fashion, conveying tunes with rhythm and pace in perfect synergy with the in-house produced The Pick Up Cartridge (bingo! it is an MC cartridge) mounted on an Ikeda tonearm and TechDAS Airforce One turntable. Cabling was provided by Cammino along with a Power Harmonizer that served as passive filter and surge protector.

A record to die for, and old school reviewer’s favorite for “PRaT”, is Mancini’s “Pink Panther”; the visitors were tapping their feet on the ground, always a sign for good sound.

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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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