High End 2015

High End 2015: Harman, Mark Levinson, JBL

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Harman International, a $6B audio company, has a lot of high-end audio brands. Lots and lots. It’s a little intimidating, actually.

Here at High End, Harman was showing off a few not-quite new products.

Introduced at CES, the No 536 mono amplifiers ($15k/channel) from Mark Levinson are designed and engineered in the USA. Each amp is good for 400watts into 8Ω and doubles down into 4Ω, and features a low-feedback Class A/B bias. Availability is scheduled for Fall.

Also new-ish were the JBL DD67000 Everest loudspeakers, now available in a variety of automotive finishes. This availability will be limited, however, as it’s being offered as some kind of exclusive thing.

Some updates to the Concerta Series from Revel were also discussed, including a high-gloss finish, curved sides, magnetic front-fasteners, and an acoustic lens for the tweeter. Towers get a third woofer, bringing the overall sensitivity to 90 or 91dB (depending on the model). Prices for the new line start at $900/pair for the bookshelves, which also includes a shallow-depth version for on-wall mounting.

The JBL-fronted system, played with the new Mark Levinson monos, was surprisingly good. Horns sounded breathy, and there was a good sense of space. The sweet spot was exactingly precise, but once attained, imaging was spooky good. Bass, regardless of the seat, was percussive and persuasive.

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Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: JBL, Mark Levinson Define Legendary

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By John Stancavage

If you look at all the automobiles in production today, it’s hard to find many models that are very close to what they were 20 or even 30 years ago. Volkswagen’s Beetle is one classic that has been updated internally but is little changed on the outside, while Ford’s Mustang and Chevy’s Camaro also hark strongly back to yesteryear.

The audio world has a few more timeless classics. Variations on the old Marantz 7C preamp and 8B tube amp can be bought today, for example, while McIntosh’s MC275 amp has needed only a few engineering upgrades.

In the speaker market, every boomer who as a near-penniless kid lusted over the sound of some huge JBL speakers now can fulfill that old dream. The company is tapping this nostalgia by showing more at audio shows in recent years, typically paired from electronics with another name that may not be quite as old, but is no less legendary, Mark Levinson. Both now are owned by the same parent, Harman International.

It’s been a tough few decades for speaker makers, especially those that were known best for their sizable statement models. The home theater craze threatened to vanquish two-channel sound in favor of speakers selected more for their ability to be sunk smoothly into walls and ceilings than for their sound quality. Big speaker cabinets used to be a prestige thing for audio fans, then suddenly small was in.

Today, JBL makes in-wall speakers. But it bravely has decided to damn the torpedoes and get back to its roots with some good, old-fashioned monster transducers. At AXPONA 2015, the brand was displaying two of its top offerings, the Everest DD67000 (now in V2 form, $74,000 a pair). The 300-pound behemoths each feature dual 15-inch woofers, a 4-inch beryllium midrange (up from 3 inches in the previous DD66000 model) and a 1-inch beryllium tweeter. While the beryllium material and some of the innards are relatively new, the exterior cabinet and horn system dates back to the company’s glory days.

Also following in the family tradition was a pair of K2 speakers ($44,000), which could be described as a baby brother to the Everest — it’s just a baby that weighs 180 pounds. It shares its bigger sibling’s horn-loaded midrange and tweeter, but gets by on only one 15-inch woofer.

Powering these two monster loudspeakers were equally formidable amps from Mark Levinson, the No. 53 monoblocks ($49,000 a pair), controlled by Mark Levinson’s newest preamp, the two-chassis No. 52 ($30,000). The company has been introducing increasingly stratospheric-priced equipment in recent years, but at AXPONA it also debuted its new integrated 200-watt amp/preamp/DAC, which was priced at $12,000.

When I visited, JBL reps were playing the big Everest speakers on the big Levinson monoblocks. Whether blasting the feedback-heavy roar of Stevie Ray Vaughan or the more subtle bent notes of Mark Knopfler, the system bright a live PA sound to the material — a little brash, with plenty of bass and powerful transients. This isn’t surprising, considering the company’s frequent use in the pro world.

Such massive speakers may not be everyone’s cup of tea these days, but for those who prefer their whisky straight and rock and roll unpolished, JBL certainly would be happy to bring the party to your house.

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NYIAS

NYIAS 2015: Harman International and everyone else

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NYIAS_LogoThere were a lot of tremendously awesome things to see and touch (or not) at the NYIAS this year. Alfa Romeo’s vintage roundup was an extremely distracting highlight, and it was only one of many.

From a purely automotive side, there was quite a bit that was drool-worthy. Some highlights:

  • Ford GT “Supercar”. At $400k, this thing looks like it actually costs every penny.
  • McLaren 570S. It’s just a bit less than half the price of the Ford, and looks as exotic. Also, it’s not a Ford, so it’s probably actually worth it. The specs on this thing are insane, but the look of it says “bite me, Lambo”. The deck was so mobbed, I never really got a good shot of it, but it’s big track-only brothers (the P1 GTR in yellow-with-green and 675LT in grey) were absolute monsters.
  • Toyota’s FT-1. This thing looks just plain dangerous. I mean that literally — the doors are pointy. The whole thing looks like an anime illustrator’s wet dream, but the look actually works.

As for “The Project”, Alex and I learned some very interesting things about the intersection of high-end auto and high-end audio.

  1. Harman International is into just about everything. With the possible exception of Meridian and Burmester, Harman is the only serious player — especially so, with B&O now under new management. That is, it isn’t a terribly competitive space. Given Harman’s incredible investment, collecting all of the various brands, you have to assume that this is where they feel the money is in high-end audio. In cars. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to see that they’ve probably nailed it.
  2. No one in the auto industry knows anything about audio. There may be a couple of unicorns out there, but statistically, they’re irrelevant. The only audio stat these folks know is measured in watts.
  3. Audio-in-auto has not yet reached it’s Golden Age. The world of the aftermarket is probably “where it’s at” in terms of the purists’ pursuit of sonic excellence, but even in cars costing more than a NYC apartment, the audio system is almost never more than window dressing.
  4. Even with all that said, high-quality sound in an automobile is hardly the oxymoron that The Audiophile seems to innately believe. In point of fact, some of these systems are not only “very good”, they’re downright excellent, and at prices (added to the base, that is) that are embarrassingly cheap. That’s true even the “over the moon” audio systems in cars mostly likely to only show up driven by a Saudi prince. It’s refreshing, actually.

Over the next few months, I’m going to reach out to a few PR contacts I made to see if we can wrangle a few longer-term tests out of them. Mainly because I want a McLaren in my driveway. Or a Rolls. That would be superb. I’ll keep you all posted, to be sure.

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Alfa Romeo had the best-looking cars on the show-floor, and the models to prove it.

 

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High-end bourbon bar. Whistle Pig, anyone?

 

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Old friends John DeVore and Alex Roy, between interviews around “The Hoax”

 

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McLaren 675

 

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McLaren P1 GTR

 

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Elio Motors — 84mpg! More at: http://www.eliomotors.com/

 

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A “naked” Corvette

 

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Alex Roy, Police Impersonator, wondering if the cops will recognize him

 

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I have nothing.

 

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Yes, that’s a unicorn on a Nissan. ‘Nuff said.

 

 

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And people say I carry a big camera rig.

 

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John DeVore in an Aston Rapide

 

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Aston Martin DB9

 

 

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B&O system, with Bluetooth pairing off my iPhone, in a Rapide

 

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Vulcan Concept from Aston

 

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Toyota FT-1

 

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Random sighting: Michael Trei, John DeVore and Steve Guttenberg

 

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Toyota iRoad. It’s a one-seat electric 3-wheeler than … leans.

 

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Toyta FV2 Concept … thing. I think you stand on/in it. It also glows.

 

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Animated Cadillac drive train

 

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Ford GT

 

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NYIAS

NYIAS 2015: Audi with Bang and Olufsen

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NYIAS_LogoThe new Audi R8, here shown in a space-gray, is a rocket and there’s no mistaking it for anything else. The price tag starts at $116k, so I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps more car?

This is one of those times when the parallels to high-end audio are useful — you don’t have to spend a lot, but if there’s a particular thing you do happen to be looking for, you’re likely to have to pay through the nose to get it. True “full range” in a loudspeaker, for example. Or, the ability to go from zero-60mph in less than 4 seconds. You know. Just as a random example. Yeah. Well, if you want that, that’s gonna be expensive.

So, the question then is, who’s really going to be adding a “serious” stereo to a car that’s clearly appealing to an entirely different demographic?

I have no idea. Me? I’d have thought that lux cars and sport-lux were a bit different here, but clearly the stats guys know better. And that’s why B&O has systems for a whole suite of Audi sport-lux cars. And not just them — I found very similar systems from B&O in the Aston Martin cars, too.

At the risk of over-simplifying, let me start by saying that the B&O-equipped cars were perhaps the finest-sounding of the lot. There was just something pure and relaxed about the sound that put it directly at odds with much of the crap auto makers slap into their lux boats.

The most distinctive thing is that up-firing tweeter popping up from the dash that they call the Acoustic Lens. Drawn from their BeoLab home loudspeakers, the design looks like a diffusor/reflector array, and one positioned to minimize beaming.

Traditional loudspeaker design dictates that the listener needs to be positioned within an acoustic ‘sweet spot’ in order to get the most from the listening experience. Our acoustic lens technology creates an improved sense of space and realism while maximizing the area in front of the loudspeaker where the sweet spot exists. Sound is dispersed over a 180° angle, so whether you are at the wheel or a passenger watching the countryside slide by, it will feel like you have a front row seat in one of the world’s best auditoria.

Class D ICE-power amps drive the speaker arrays, which can number up to 19, depending on the configuration and level of fitment.

Last but most definitely not least is the extensive use of DSP technology to address all the pernicious and unavoidable aspects of space. Interestingly (and appealingly), there’s significant use of noise-cancellation (think, road and wind noise) to increase clarity without having to turn up the volume.

Very impressive.

In the R8, the B&O system is 13 speakers with 13 channels of amplification (550 watts) and 10 channels of DSP signal control. The S8 takes you to the flagship 19 speakers with 19 channels of amplification and over 1.4kW of power, and will set you back an additional $6,800 on your $115k land-yacht.

Gotta say, for $7k, that’s quite a system. And one delivered with the room “issues” already sorted? Ha. No brainer. Hello, “value”!

The only question: where the hell am I gonna get $120k for a car?

Happily, the B&O systems are available in most Audi models — and not just the crazy-expensive ones.

Aston Martin, BMW, Mercedes also carry B&O systems. More at Bang & Olufsen.

Interestingly, the car audio business was bought last week (during my visit to NYIAS, actually) by Harman International. This move brings Bang & Olufsen together with Bowers & Wilkins, Harman Kardon, Infinity, JBL, Lexicon, Mark Levinson and Revel Speakers.

Interesting to note is that Harman paid $156M for the lux business unit. What’s interesting? Well, the fact that the entire home-stereo market was recently valued at somewhere around $200M.

Car audio is big business.

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