2015 Munich High End: Electronics

Show report
Categories:
Floorstanding,
Stand-mount,
Subwoofers,
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Phonostages,
Integrated amplifiers
2015 Munich High End: Electronics

Most Significant Rooms

Magico Q7 Mk. II loudspeakers with Soulution electronics and Vovox cables
The bar was set high, and set early. Simply put, this room started off my Munich show experience with unmatched slam. The first tune on the ’table was Leonard Cohen’s “Slow,” but the presentation was anything but: perfectly lifelike, gravelly vocals, open and spacious sound, big yet well-defined bass. The winning combination of the l Magico Q7 Mk IIs driven by the Soulution 701 amp impressed JV and me so much we went back for seconds the following morning. Jaco Pastorius this time: The system tore through the wild dynamics and multi-instrumental, rapid-fire cacophony on his “Crisis” tune with ease, conveying its explosive energy and drama sans smear. Such grip and attack! Chills-inducing. Soulution also introduced a brand-new 755 phonostage here, mated to a new prototype turntable. Word has it Soulution is planning to manufacture and market this ’table under its own brand.

Stenheim Reference Statement with Audio Consulting
Swiss chocolates might have lured me in, but Swiss precision engineering and killer sound kept me around this room (for a while anyway!). Huge and heavy Stenheim Reference Statement D’Appolito tower loudspeakers—a relatively new Swiss manufacturer, founded in 2010—were driven by Swiss-made CH Precision M1 monoblocks and L1 preamp, and paired with Audio Consulting’s (also of Switzerland) rather unusual, capsule-shaped Meteor phonostage and its R-evolution Minima, an entirely round, beautifully designed turntable. The phonostage, which is made of lava rock and features a step-up transformer, resembles a miniature yet weighty zeppelin and, like the turntable, is battery-powered. The ’table will retail in the U.S. for approximately $42k–$45k and the phonostage for a price TBA. The rounded form factors of both components are designed to circumvent the standing-wave issues right angles can cause. The massive 4-wayspeakers with PHL drivers, weighing in at 240kg, pumped out big doublebass from their sub-towers on movements from The Planets, for one. They delivered exciting, even larger-than-life sound you could feel across dynamic extremes. What they might have lacked in cohesion at times, they more than made up for in pure emotion.

Audiodata Master One and Symphonic Line electronics
When it’s hard to tear yourself away from a listening room, that’s always a good sign (though unfortunately this can impede your progress of taking in as much of a show as you possibly can!). I dropped into the Audiodata room with JV by chance. I poked my head in and liked what I heard. Loved it, actually. A Revolution Double turntable was pumping out Pink Floyd’s The Wall via Audiodata’s Master One loudspeakers driven by Symphonic Line Reference HD electronics, RG3 preamp, and Kraft 250 amp. The snap, punch, and transient attack—with no warmth or atmosphere lost—on “Another Brick in the Wall” Parts 1 and 2 (plus tracks in between) were spine-tinglingly full of emotion and life. Leonard Cohen’s “Slow” poured forth with incredible expansiveness and resolution and solid bass articulation. His exhale after the “a lifetime in your eyes” lyric was breathtakingly real. Audiodata has only been around for about a year, but I expect a bright future. The Salzburg-based company is of German stock—specifically, the Laufwerk marque. A couple of Austrians purchased it about a year ago. They do not yet have U.S. distribution, but they ought to (as JV noted)—and soon!

Vandersteen M7-HPA Monoblock Amplifier
Vandersteen has created amps that complement their quality loudspeakers not only sonically, but also visually. Richard Vandersteen introduced his brand-new, high-pass M7-HPA monoblock amplifier that boasts the same form factor as his Model 7 MkII speakers, with which it was paired. This brand-new hybrid tube amp (with tube front-end) delivers 600Wpc into 4 ohms and features a revolutionary liquid-cooling system to control the temperature of the copper block where the output devices are mounted, and thereby eliminate negative feedback. (A pump varies the signal speed to maintain a 130-degree temp.) This precise amplification is tailored to drive Vandersteen’s flagship Model 7 MkIIs as well as Vandy’s forthcoming Model 9. This innovative technology must be doing something right; the crisp accuracy, realism, and overall balance proved outstanding on tracks such as Leonard Cohen’s “The Party’s Over.” Thanks to its streamlined circuit path, this stellar system also played that wonderful magic trick of making the speakers seem bigger than they are through its expansive sound.

Mark Levinson No. 536
Who doesn’t love a strong comeback? Remember Mark Levinson Audio Systems? The reemergence of the acclaimed pioneering high-end audio brand was one of the show’s top stories. Harman International, longtime owner of the brand, made a bold statement with the introduction of the first product under the Mark Levinson name’s design studio, the No. 536 amplifier. No run-of-the-mill amp is this: It boasts smart-looking industrial design from Todd Eichenbaum (of Krell fame), who is now the lead designer for the Mark Levinson marque. The 536’s elegant form strikes a stylistic balance between a nod to the iconic brand’s 70s–80s heyday and a contemporary elegance. As befits a proper resurgence, the amp is smart on the inside, too: The Class AB monoblock is all discrete and direct-coupled, with low feedback and a very high bias in the output stage. Featuring a glut of Class A power, it pushes a hefty 400Wpc into 8 ohms and 800 watts into 4 ohms. The 536 is due to hit the market in the fall of this year and will retail for $15k each. A welcome return, indeed!

Auspicious Debuts

Aelius from Ypsilon and Cessaro Horn Acoustics
Say hello to the new Aelius, a true, top-of-the-line reference hybrid tube amplifier resulting from a collaboration between Ypsilon and Cessaro Horn Acoustics. “We wanted to build something together which is the best we’re able to do on the technology side for a high-efficiency system,” says Ralph Krebs, CEO of Cessaro. However, he is quick to add that his desire is more to have a reference—and not to compete with electronics makers, as his main business is speakers. The Aelius is based on the Ypsilon Silver Edition design but with some material upgrades, and the output stage is not a conventional push-pull circuit; it’s a balanced, single-ended topology that’s biased very high into Class A—60 watts Class A with maximum output power of 200 watts into 8 ohms. Distribution details for the Aelius are still forthcoming. The cost is TBD, but will be in the €250k range.

Constellation Audio
The stellar (pun intended) and innovative manufacturer of high-performance electronics and digital playback systems debuted its next-generation Virgo III preamp ($30k) and Centaur II amplifier, available in stereo ($40k) or monos ($80k/pair). The former is an enhanced incarnation of the Virgo II, with such additions as new internal circuitry to allow quicker warm-up time for faster peak operation, improved remote control and front-panel knob function, plus a theater-bypass feature and a DB-9 port. The latter (Centaur II) is a new, more robust amplifier design with beefed-up grip (compared with the original Centaur) that, according to VP of Engineering Peter Madnick, delivers stronger bass and livelier dynamics. Its redesigned larger chassis offers bigger heat sinks and increased internal shielding to reduce noise.

Audio Alchemy
With the goal in mind of developing more cost-effective products, Audio Alchemy debuted the DDP1 digital decoding preamplifier ($2k), the DMP1 digital media player ($1600), and the DPA4 digital power amplifier—a monoblock with Class A input stage and a Class D output stage that delivers 400 watts into 4 ohms ($2k each). There’s also a switch-mode power-supply upgrade available for the preamp, the PS5 ($600). These handsome, fairly priced components retail for $8200 in sum and drove TAD Compact Evolution One CE-1 loudspeakers ($24k) in the demo setup. The overall sound offered openness, tempered by warm, dark timbres, good ambience retrieval, and long decays on piano in particular.

Aesthetix Metis Linestage Preamplifier
The Musical Surroundings room revealed the long-awaited, next-generation Aesthetix Metis linestage preamplifier, which had been in prototype stage for some time and is due to ship by the end of the summer at a price of $25k. Not just your garden-variety linestage, the Metis features proprietary coupling modules for a direct-coupled (as opposed to capacitive-coupled) tube output stage to deliver greater transient speed—not an easy feat for tubes, but Aesthetix founder Jim White figured out how to do it so there isn’t any DC-offset. The Metis is also customizable upon ordering: The open architecture allows for different cards to be used inside, so you can choose to add an on-board phonostage, DAC, or even an equalizer circuit. Call it a building block for creating a system to meet your needs. The demo room also featured Amadis S loudspeakers from Parsifal, and an AMG turntable with the DS Audio DS-W1 “Night Rider” optical cartridge.

Wadax
Madrid, Spain-based Wadax unveiled a new flagship digital preamplifier, the Pre1 Ultimate Mk2, released as part of the Pre1 Ultimate Trio, comprising a phonostage, DAC, and linestage. All you need is a power amplifier and you’re all set. It has its own app for mobile device remote control, and the server can also rip and act as a transporter. It’s configurable for gain and type of loading and offers a built-in external power supply. “The core technology behind this is our own chip,” says Wadax CEO and Chief technologist Javier Guadalajara. “We are the only company in our product space that has our own chip for the feed-forward process. For phono, we measure the system, so we know its weaknesses; it reads the signal and we apply a counteraction signal to make the necessary adjustments to achieve the best sound.” The Pre1 Mk2 will be available in the U.S. beginning at the T.H.E. Newport Show, retailing for $55k with phonostage, $42,500 without. The demo, which featured Avantgarde Uno horn loudspeakers, presented clean and precise sonic qualities with warm and inviting timbre on vinyl tracks from Ana Caram’s Renovacao LP.

Cambridge
England’s Cambridge released two new integrated stereo amplifiers in its CX Series, the CXA60 and the CXA80, both of Class AB design and equipped with a 24-bit/192kHz Wolfson WM8740 DAC chip. The CXA60 delivers 60Wpc and offers analog inputs as well as a host of digital ins, plus an optional BT100 Bluetooth dongle for aptX streaming from your mobile device. As its name suggests, the CXA80 is rated at 80Wpc and offers other upgrades vis-à-vis its sibling, such as balanced XLR input and asynchronous USB audio.

Arcam
In other English audio news, Arcam introduced its A29 integrated power amplifier at the show. It’s an 80W Class G affair featuring a toroidal power supply and a damped chassis, alongside revamped engineering designed to minimize crossover-notch distortion. It weighs in at a hefty10kg and offers a suite of outputs plus a phono input for line/mm. According to product manager Andy Moore, it’s easier to talk about what it doesn’t do. The A29 is due to hit the U.S. market later this year; pricing is still TBD, but in the U.K., it’s £995.

Esoteric
The esteemed Esoteric debuted its new Grandioso S1, which features a large 2180VA toroidal power transformer with separated right and left channel windings and is rated at 150 Wpc into 8 ohms, 300Wpc into 4 ohms, and 600Wpc into 2 ohms. Esoteric also debuted a powerful preamplifier that boasts a new drive mechanism and symmetrical design, in addition to an external power supply. It’s just come to market in Europe (after being released in Japan four weeks ago) and will be arriving in the U.S. in about another four weeks.

In Other News

In a show packed to the gills with exciting debuts and everything else, it’s hard to know where to begin, so these appear in no particular order. Longtime player Technics is making a return to the high-end scene with the release of its R1 Reference Class Series components. (See RH’s report for details.) Absolare’s recent introductions, the Passion 845 push-pull amplifier and Passion phonostage drove Rockport’s four-driver, three-way Avior floorstander. Absolare’s own branded turntable served as a top-notch source in this noteworthy demo system, full of rich, deep, full sound but with no sacrifice of detail.

It was fun seeing the Marantz new, 30-year-anniversary S1SE (as in special edition) integrated amplifier as well as its Special Edition SA-14S1 SACD player ($2499) featuring the company’s HDAM technology, a reference-class CS4398 DAC, and a high-current toroidal power transformer.

By way of upgrading its classic power amplifiers, Naim has introduced its Discrete Regulator technology designed to reduce distortion noise and offer a cleaner current feed. Other improvements reportedly include better-quality transistors and new circuit board design.

Ayon presented its new tube amp (€22k/pair), the Crossfire Evolution. It offers that gorgeous single-ended-triode sound that captured all of the loveliness of Norah Jones’ “Come Away with Me” and more. Very warm, golden—pure tube pleasure.

T&A unveiled its new R Series 2000 electronics, offering two integrated amplifiers: the smaller PA 2000 R and the beefier, ungraded PA 2500 R, with the former pushing 180Wpc and the latter, a mightier 260Wpc; however, they have otherwise similar DNA with circuit boards in common.

 In other categories (outside my electronics bailiwick for this show report), Crystal Cable debuted its Arabesque Minissimo Diamond monitor that now features a diamond tweeter and its brand-new Crystal Cable Deep Bass subwoofer, the latest additions to its charmingly yet functionally designed suite of diminutive components conceived by the inimitable Gabi Rijnveld and her other half Edwin. Their room was a true multi-sensory delight, from its all-around outstanding sound (among the best at the show)—enhanced by the upgraded speaker’s sweet-sounding treble and the sub’s deeper, fuller bass—to the living-room-styled backdrop and finally, the duo’s virtual-reality tour experience of the company’s home base. I didn’t want to leave.

Esteemed French loudspeaker (and driver) maker Focal debuted its mid-priced Sopra Series speakers, the No. 1 two-way and the No. 2 three-way, four-driver floorstander, featuring innovative, proprietary technologies for damping and elimination of eddy currents. The Sopra form factor takes after the company’s famous flagship Utopia models, complete with signature adjustable driver enclosures. Call it une cause célèbre.

In other noteworthy Gallic hi-fi developments, the new Devialet Phantom and higher-end Silver Phantom landed with a big splash. Dubbed “an implosive sound center,” this small, practically portable, all-in-one system containing a preamp, amp, DAC, streamer, and phonostage all in a single unit. Just add speakers, and voilà! Call it 88 patents put to powerful use.

Top-tier electronics stars Constellation supplied superior goods from its Inspiration line to drive the brand-new Magico S7 loudspeakers, in a cool-looking deep-teal blue. I stuck around the room long enough to enjoy the sharp percussion and trumpet articulation on a digital file of Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela.” Italian loudspeaker relative newcomers Rosso Fiorentino did it up at the show with their fairly priced, sleek Elba 2.5-way floorstanders (€2850) driven by Thrax electronics in a terrific-sounding setup.

Other great-sounding rooms—of which there were honestly far too many to mention—included Germany’s own Gauder Akustik RC-7 multiway floorstander with diamond tweeter driven by excellent Vitus electronics, while MOON by SimAudio electronics drove MartinLogan Montis petite, yet big-sounding hybrid electrostats. Tried-and-true Raidho Acoustics and Kharma both delivered the goods with reliably fabulous sonic showings. PS Audio electronics pushed Maggie 20.7s alongside an REL subwoofer to easy-on-the-ears realism (in spite of some “safe” music). The stately and spendy Estelon Extreme ($260k) four-way, five-driver transducers were elevated to even greater heights thanks in part to Soulution’s superb 7 Series electronics.

I also dug the new Lansche Cubus MkII loudspeaker and Mola Mola electronics room; I stuck around through a handful of tracks, some packing a hefty bass punch (on Yello and “These Bones” from The Fairfield Four), and found the system’s larger-than-life sound one of the more visceral listening experiences at the show. I also adored the Silent Trees acoustic room treatments on the walls. Last but certainly not least, as at previous shows, I was thoroughly delighted by the expansive über-drama of the MBL Radialstrahler 101 X-Treme, driven by four 9011 amps, a 6010D preamp, and an MBL DAC. Huge in both sound and physical presence (not to mention price)—though acoustically they put on a bit of a magical disappearing act—these €202k babies tickled my sonic senses once again. Bach’s Adagio Concerto for Harpsichord and Oboe was enveloping and captivating; its rich, smooth-as-caramel oboe filled the room. Simply gorgeous.

Best Sound (cost no object): The aforementioned Magico Q7 Mk. II loudspeakers driven by Soulution electronics delivered slam aplenty with a side of goosebumps. A thrilling showing.

Best Sound (for the money): The Tannoy Revolution XT 8F loudspeaker ($2600) driven by Rega electronics was a revelation, with warmth, openness, and detail ranging from inviting delicacy to big bloom. A winner in its class.

Most Significant Product Introduction: A tie between the brand revitalization of Mark Levinson with its inaugural No. 536 amp and the Devialet Phantom, a funky crossover product that could make a real splash in the lifestyle category and beyond.

Most Significant Trend: A number of products for which makers are seeking U.S. distribution (or deciding not to); also, unique designs not seen anywhere else abounded across all categories.

Most Coveted Product: A tie between Audio Consulting’s zeppelin-shaped Meteor phonostage made of lava rock and its R-evolution Minima turntable and the Devialet Phantom.

Featured Articles

Lists