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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Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Classic Audio, Atma-Sphere, Purist Audio Design

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Scot Hull likes to accuse me of being too negative. I keep trying to tell him that I’m not negative, it’s just that people keep shoving half-empty glasses at me. He tells me that I should try to concentrate on what I like. I tell him that I really like complaining. That’s usually about when he hangs up the phone in disgust. You have to admit, though, that complaining can be a lot of fun. That’s one of the hidden joys of audio. Since everything is a compromise, you can always, by definition, find something to complain about. Sure, complaining isn’t much of a hobby, but, sometimes, it’s just about the only fun I get in a day.

Which is why I have it in for these guys. They make it almost impossible to complain.

Let’s ignore the Classic Audio T-1.5 speaker. We’ve all seen show reports with it, and, frankly, those of us who write show reports have all heard it. It’s lovable, it’s excellent, and it’s $73,000. Yes, I want a pair. Yes, so do you. We’re going to skip it.

Let’s move on to a much rarer treat, the Classic Audio Hartsfield Reproduction ($72,000). For starters, I think we can all agree that nothing should be allowed to look that good. Certainly nothing that looks that good should be loaded with enough field-coil drivers to peg the audiophile lustometer. Never, under any circumstances, should something that cool and lust-worthy ever — EVER! — be played for a guy who likes to complain.

If you’re going to break those rules, you most definitely shouldn’t power those speakers with a custom pair of Atma-Sphere Novacrons ($19,200) featuring a quad of 7241 tubes each and kicking out 100 watts per channel. “I’m not selling you the tubes, and I’m not going to warranty the tubes,” says Ralph Karsten. “If you want ’em, you’re on your own.” Definitely don’t front the system with a discontinued Stahl-Tek DAC and a loaded Atma-Sphere MP-1 (just over $20k with options). You probably don’t want to wire the whole thing together with close to $40k of Purist Audio Design cables, come to think of it. Whatever you do, don’t hand your tablet over to some complaining jackass who’s going to dig Basie’s “The Daly Jump” right out from under the seat cushions of your playlist, because the first thing that jackass is going to say is “these aren’t audiophile speakers.”

Because they’re not. They are in no way audiophile speakers. Are you looking for a razor-sharp soundstage? Go look somewhere else. Are you looking for a heightened sense of detail? Go look somewhere else. Look fast, though, because a couple of minutes listening to this system is enough to tell you that audiophile speakers are just plain wrong.

Soundstage? Who cares about that crap when a big band is, as far as you can tell, jumping up and down on your lungs from right over there? Heightened detail? Who cares about that when actual detail is so obviously sufficient. Dynamics? Take your puny, little, drivers and go play with your other toys. This kind of stuff will rewire you. You’ll need to have entirely new standards.

In fact, systems like this are exactly what complaining is meant for. You have to dig to find complaints. You’re not looking to talk about the system’s strengths, because that’s just going to take too long. You’re looking to put your finger on weaknesses just so you can figure out if it falls short. Not even “how.” If.

I think I’d enjoy listening to this system long enough to be able to really complain about it. That seems like a pretty good goal. I know for sure that I haven’t listened long enough to be anywhere close to reaching it.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Essential Audio with AudioKinesis, Atma-Sphere, Exogal, Aurender, Kuzma

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by Josh Emmons

I’m sitting in the Essential Audio room, notepad open, pen in hand. Eyes unfocused, listening intently. But writing nothing.

And I should be writing something. It’s my job to write something. But I’m not hearing anything. Well, okay, that’s obviously untrue. I’m hearing some fantastic music. But it’s not my job to talk about music. I’m supposed to talk about how the music sounds. And I just can’t figure it out. So I’m going to talk about The Matrix.

Do you remember that moment when Agent Smith reveals to a drugged Morpheus how the first version of the Matrix failed horribly? It was designed to be a perfect paradise, but our human brains rejected it as obviously unreal. Without little imperfections to hang on to, our consciousness had no way to relate to what we were experiencing.

As I’ve made much hay from already, this is my first hi-fi show. And as such, I rarely know going into a room what I’m supposed to be listening for. So I sit in the sweet spot, close my eyes, and listen for imperfection.

Once my ears catch it, I can tease it out. Does it reoccur? What is that, a frequency thing? Or something with the timber of the treble, maybe something resonating? Is it too bright? Is it the amp? The cables?

So I sit in the Essential Audio room, and I’m hearing nothing. And I’m writing nothing. And my overall impression is, “This sounds okay.”

This is how we end up with Beats headphones, loudness wars, saturated TVs, and Pepsi ever winning the Pepsi Challenge. If we aren’t given imperfections we have no way to differentiate our experiences from “normal”. If it’s not deeper, louder, brighter, or sweeter, it’s “okay”.

Consider that, by definition, the more natural something is, the less remarkable we find it. And so it is with the Essential Audio room. It is not okay. It is exceptionally okay. Surpassingly normal. It is incredibly, unbelievably natural.

And why? At least part of credit lies at the feet of the AudioKinesis Zephrin 46. I mean literally at its feet. If you haven’t seen a 46 before its rear drivers are mounted in its feet pointing up to provide what AudioKinesis calls Late Ceiling Splash.

After learning about LCS, I expected to hear a slight echo or even subtle chorus-like sound from the Zephrin. But that’s not at all how it works. I would say the effect is completely transparent, but for how life-like the system sounds. Its front-facing beryllium compression driver probably doesn’t hurt in this respect, either.

Still, if you’re building your sound up with late reflections and reverberant fields, you want your source saturated with as much depth and space as possible. That’s the job of the twin Atma-Sphere M-60 monoblocks. They’re huge, have VUs, and are full of tubes. Hand wired, fully point-to-point, and continuously refined for over three decades, these amps are the undisputed heavyweight champs of OTL.

These are fed with signal decoded by Exogal‘s Comet Plus DAC. Here’s the thing to know about Exogal, these guys know their DSP. They cut their teeth in other industries like wireless broadband, GPS, image processing and more before bringing it all back to the PCM decoding scene. This DAC does magical D to A in ways never before seen in the hi-fi community.

All this resting on a very handsome rack from Teo Audio that, at first, looks like it’s molded out of some sort of injected insulation material, but upon closer inspection is actually metallic. I have no idea what they did to aerate metal and cast it into shelves, but the look is striking.

So when it comes down to it the Essential Audio recipe for a shockingly natural sounding system is pretty unnatural sounding. Whip some metal up into foam. Take signal processing technology from cell phones, use it to decode bits that get piped through an amp that’s completely omitted the transformer from its output stage to drive a pair of “Z” shaped speakers that have two-thirds of their cones pointing at the ceiling.

The result is remarkably unremarkable. Unnaturally natural. Indescribable only in as much as there’s nothing to describe that’s not the thing being described. If you’re ever in the Illinois area, you simply have to stop by Essential Audio for a personal audition.

It’s then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

Prices

  • Aurender N100 Music Player: $2,499
  • Aurender X100L Music Player: $3,499
  • Exogal Comet Plus DAC: $3,000
  • Atma-Sphere UV-1 pre with low ourput MC photo section: $2,900
  • Atma-Sphere M-60 MkIII.2 amp with copper foil V-Cap options: $7,700/pr.
  • AudioKinesis Zephrin 46 loudspeakers: $4,900/pr., beryllium compression drivers: $1,000/pr., Automotive paint finish: $1,000/pr.
  • Kuzma Stabi SD Turntable: $2,550, Stogi S CS tonearm: $1,425, Stogi S 12 VTA tonetarm: $3,150, CAR-40 cartridge: $1,195
  • Clarity Cable Vortex power cords: $750/ea. Power Distributors: $1,200/ea., Organic USB, 1.5m: $1,000, Organic Speaker Cables, 8ft.: $3,750/pr.
  • Teo Audio Equipment Rack: $7,500
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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Audiokinesis splashes ceiling, room, with colorful sound

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Logo - Blue VectorThe PTA team, such as it is, tends to bend each others ears as we nurse our morning hangovers. What’s good? What’s bad? Does anyone have any spare antacids? Is there more coffee? Please, God, let someone find more coffee. There’s never enough coffee.

Sunday morning’s kibitzing was a prelude to our day of fun. We’d taken pictures, we’d taken notes, and now it was time for all of us to leave our assigned territories and go have fun as simple attendees. The first question out of my mouth was, “How were Duke’s speakers?”

… [crickets] ….

Nobody had heard them. Nobody. They’d been completely forgotten, off in their (apparently hard to find) well-marked room in the most trafficked area of the show. Where everyone passed their door at least twice. Because reasons.

I did mention that there’s never enough coffee, right?

This lapse is utterly comical. Duke LeJeune and James Romeyn are two of the nicest guys you could meet. I developed a sincere interest in their speakers at this year’s Newport show, and I was eager to hear them again. Now, thanks to the embarrassing side effects of a critical caffeine deficiency, I was in the lucky position of getting paid to hear them again. That’s what we like to call a win.

The Audiokinesis Zepherin 46 speakers ($4500) again anchored the room. The rest of the system was quite different. A Parasound CD1 spun discs while a Modwright Elyse dac ($7000) crunched bits. Duke’s longtime crush, the Atma-Sphere S30, was paired with Ralph Karsten’s new toy, the anti-bling, baby-blue, single ended only, Ultra Violet preamp ($1900 line only up to $2400 a phono pre that can handle low output MC). The LCS (late ceiling splash) bits were left on during our visit, and both bass ports on the main speaker were well bunged for room tuning. The sound was again dynamic, full, and well lit. The tweeter may have been a little spitty, but the balance remained natural. Image stability was simply off the charts, with the entire room presenting a very solid sense of space. These have to be the most intriguing little speakers in the price range. They’re just so lovably weird.

Excitingly, Lori LeJeune, was hanging out in the foyer to tell us that Duke and James have been working to make the LCS arrangement available independently of AK’s speakers. I have my doubts about how that will meld with any random speaker box, but I’m starting to learn that Audiokinesis is at it’s best when the guys are out working their deep magic on the fringes. I can’t wait to hear it.

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Classic Audio remains classy, classic

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Filed Under: Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix.

Classic Audio has been bringing the big Hartsfield homage speakers, like the T3.4 ($45k) shown here, in one iteration or another for longer than I’ve been “into” high-end audio. And for good reason — this is a crazy-good transducer. Did I mention it uses a field coil system to “energize” the drivers? No? Well, it does. There’s a beryllium compression driver deep inside that Tractrix horn, and another beryllium driver, here used as a super-tweeter to carry the response up to 45kHz. For the other end of the spectrum, there are two 15″ drivers, one front-facing and one down-facing. All told, this is a full-range, dynamic and high-sensitivity design that is about the size of a refrigerator.  Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Surreal Speakers gets a field coil and 24 subwoofers, The Hulk is impressed

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At CAF this year, Surreal Speakers was demonstrating that there’s really no such thing as too much bass. Generally, this is a message I can get behind.

Doug Small was showing off the FC 2-12+12 loudspeakers, an update of the Fifth Row speaker that’s earned a reputation for having bone-crushing bass performance courtesy of the six 10″ drivers per cabinet. This new iteration adds a separate pair of cabinets, bringing the total to 24 subwoofers. Meep.

The bass cabinets are a push-pull dipole, which means a whole lot less room interaction, some impressive speed, and very low distortion. Included in the package is a Crown 4002 XTI subwoofer stereo amplifier to drive each pair of subwoofer cabinets. Continue reading

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