An American in Munich: JV Goes to the MOC 2011 High-End Audio Show, Part Two

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An American in Munich: JV Goes to the MOC 2011 High-End Audio Show, Part Two

 The first thing I should note about the Munich High End Show was that there was too much bass—everywhere—and what wasn’t coming from the speakers in the “rooms” of the MOC (which are actually segments of very long galleries partitioned off into “rooms” by dividers) was coming from “next door” through the paper-thin “walls.” As a result, nothing bowled me over sonically. Which isn’t to say that certain items didn’t sound quite good, just that I didn’t have the kind of “conversion experience” I had at CES (with the Scaena 3.4s) or in previous year’s with certain Magico speakers.

The second thing I need to note is that this is a report on the rooms that made the strongest impressions. I listened to a good many more loudspeakers, electronics, digital sources, and turntables than the ones listed here. (See the photos at jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p949810798 for a better idea of how many other products I heard.)

I’ll begin with the 250,000 Euro (yes, that’s Euros, not dollars) Cessaro Gamma 1s with P8 basshorns—a beautifully made, five-way, wooden spherical-horn system with active woofer towers. The Germans, like the Japanese, certainly love their horn loudspeakers, as I saw far more of them at Munich than I’ve ever seen at an RMAF or CES, and this pair from Cessaro was particularly impressive. Essentially scaled-up versions of the smaller Cessaros I’ve auditioned and liked at previous trade shows, the Gammas made a very good first impression, in spite of the fact that I could hear the massive outboard woofers as separable elements of the presentation (but then, as noted, I could hear woofers in just about every room I went to). This said, the overall sound was as coherent as subwoofed horn systems get. On Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, the bass was solid but not as extended as it should have been. And on my Melody Gardot album, the mix seemed a little polite (surprising in a horn system), center imaging a bit ill-defined, and depth somewhat curtailed. Nonetheless, the Gamma 1s were very lifelike in timbre and texture. Indeed, this was perhaps the smoothest, most natural horn system I’ve heard at a show.

Although they’re a far cry from my usual beat, I was quite impressed with Focal’s new 799 Euro “Bird” array—a surprisingly good-sounding compact desktop/wall-mount two-way speaker system that comes complete with an ingenious compact amplifier/subwoofer (called the “Power Bird”) that, in combination with the iTransmitter and an Apple music player like an iPad or an iPod, can wirelessly receive and transmit CD-quality sources from anywhere in your house. For replaying music or soundtracks in a dorm rooms or small TV room, the Bird/Power Bird combo appears to be ideal.

Tune Audio of Greece was showing another giant horn speaker—the three-way, 109dB-sensitivity Anima with 15” woofer in a folded-horn enclosure, 5” spherical-horn midrange, and 1” compression-driven tweeter also spherically horn-loaded. The entire array was paired with Tune’s new “Pulse” active horn subwoofer, making for one very large loudspeaker system. Nonetheless, the sound of the Anima was surprisingly delicate—lovely, dark, and sweet. Not perhaps as neutral as the Cessaros, but very beautiful and listenable.

The Dutch company Kharma was showing a new three-way floorstander, the Elegance dB9, which, unlike all past Kharma speakers I’ve heard, did not use ceramic drivers. Apparently, Kharma’s Charles van Oosterum has been paying attention to the latest developments in cone technology, for the Exquisite is equipped with a van Oosterum-designed 7” carbon-composite midrange (called the KCD) and a beryllium tweeter, along with two 9” aluminum woofers, all housed in a refashioned cabinet. (The more expensive flagship Exquisite speakers now also use in-house-designed carbon-composite cones—for both woofers and midranges—and diamond tweeters.) The Elegance sounded quick and dynamic, a little dark and bass-heavy (just like virtually everything else at the MOC), but very present on voice and richer in timbre than any ceramic-driver Kharma I remember hearing. It’s been awhile since Kharma has been distributed in the United States, but van Oosterum assured me this would change by year’s end. If it does, I would certainly be interested in reviewing one of Kharma’s new models.

The French company AudioNec was showing its “Answer” loudspeaker, a digitally corrected three-way that uses a unique dipolar midband transducer, called a “Janus” driver, that squeezes air between two roller-like devices, rather like a Heil AMT with one long fold. In keeping with AudioNec’s view that boxes and passive crossovers are the chief culprits in bad sound, the Answer’s woofer is also a dipole—a flat, square panel that works like an open-baffle design. The tweeter is a ribbon. To solve the crossover problem, AudioNec uses an advanced DSP system that not only blends the drivers but can also do sophisticated room correction. Given the conditions at MOC I’m not at all sure how the Answer actually sounds (save for “promising”), but it was certainly unlike anything else I’d seen before and I’d like the chance to hear it again under more favorable circumstances.

Germany’s Tidal was showing its $178k Sunray T1 system with twin subwoofer towers. The tall, slender, strikingly handsome Sunrays use three separate “self-adjusting” modules for highs, mids, and bass comprising four 9** Accuton black-ceramic woofers, two 7” Accuton black-ceramic midrange drivers, and one 1.2” Accuton black-diamond tweeter per speaker side, all hooked up with “pure silver” crossovers. Each T1 subwoofer tower uses two separate bass modules, equipped with two 10” black aluminum drivers arrayed in what Tidal calls a “dual bass compression design,” in which the woofers are mounted face-to-face at a defined distance from each other to “compress the air between them and accelerate impulse response.” The subwoofer crossovers are active. The T1s and the subs were powered by Constellation’s new more affordable Performance range of electronics. The sound was very detailed, but rather dark and loose in the bass (once again, the room appeared to be an issue). This said, the Constellation gear clearly holds promise, for, in spite of the bass/room issues, this was the best I’ve heard the big Tidals sound—and I’ve heard them, now, on several occasions.

One of the hits of CES 2011, the aluminum-bodied Magico Q3s—three-and-a-half-way, four-driver (three 7” NanoTec woofers, one 6” NanoTec midrange, and one 1” beryllium dome tweeter) floorstanders—driven (as usual) by Soulution 700 monoblocks, a Soulution 720 linestage, and (to my astonishment) a Soulution 750 phonostage with Dr. Feickert Woodpecker turntable, Kuzma Stogi tonearm, and Lyra cartridge sounded, to my ear (and apparently to the ears of the hordes of other listeners constantly filling up the Magico room) a helluva lot more lifelike than they did at CES, where their sound was a mite too warm and romantic for my taste. It’s amazing what a difference analog can make! I played several records I’m intimately familiar with, and while I don’t think the Q3s are quite as high in fidelity as the (twice-as-expensive) Q5s, they came a lot closer to the Q5’s neutrality, resolution, and transparency here, in spite of a little added thickness in the low bass, than they did in Vegas. This was definitely Best of Show material—and a great showing for Magico. (I also heard the Q3s being driven, somewhat less impressively, in the Devaliet room.)

The 23,000 Euro Isophon Berlina RC7s are three-and-a-half-way floorstanders with three 7” ceramic woofers, one 7” ceramic midrange, and one 1” ceramic (or diamond) tweeter in a strikingly beautiful “ribbed” cabinet. Driven by Octave electronics, the Berlinas sounded neutral, dry, and a little aggressive with the very tight (almost overdamped) bass typical of many ceramic woofers. The low end had good reach, however, and at this show tight deep bass (as opposed to loose wooly bass) was a rarity. I’d call the Berlinas a mixed but interesting bag.

The $200k MBL X-Treme Radialstrahlers (with separate woofer towers), one of my all-time-favorites, didn’t show as well this year as they did a couple of years ago when I heard them in Munich—or as they did in my home when I reviewed them two years ago. The trouble here was that they were being played way too loud, which made them sound somewhere between overly aggressive and downright piercing on guitar and voice. This issue of excessive loudness levels was the very reason that I disliked the X-Tremes when I first heard them at CES three or four years ago. One understands that the volume gets turned up at trade shows (especially at this one, where the competition was clearly and constantly audible through the walls), but when the presentation starts to suffer it’s time to dial the amps back down from 11. This is a truly great loudspeaker system driven by truly great electronics, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the show.

YG Acoustics showed its aluminum-enclosure, four-way, five-driver flagship Anat III Signature with YG’s new in-house-milled aluminum drivers (BilletCore woofers and mid/woofs, ForgeCore tweeter, and powered subs), driven by STR battery-powered electronics. On my Melody Gardot cuts, the bass was turned up a bit too much giving the sound a slightly, albeit not unpleasantly darkish character, but this aside Gardot’s voice sounded very detailed and lively. Both instruments and vocalist were a little laidback in the soundfield but clearly defined and dynamic. A good, but not great showing for the Anat.

Avantgarde’s three-way, spherical-horn Trios with gigantic basshorn, driven by Avantgarde electronics, sounded lively enough, but the wavelaunch, as is often the case with horns, was so directional that sitting off-axis, as I was, I had no sense of a stereo stage. Nevertheless, this was a better show for Avantgarde than CES 2011, where the blend among the drivers wasn’t as smooth as it was here and the cupped hands coloration was considerably higher.

I heard the KEF Blade, described in some detail by Alan Sircom in his Munich blog, in a home-theater-like setup with flat-panel screen. While the sound was good and certainly exciting, it was hard to judge the speaker’s virtues as a stereo transducer on the basis of a DVD. I look forward to hearing them again at CES, with my own music.

Audio Physic was showing the 13,000 Euro Avantera, a demure, three-and-a-half-way, seven-driver floorstander with two side-firing woofers on both sides of its slender cabinet in a push-push array. Although the bass, while solid, was not particularly deep-reaching, it wasn’t at all boomy (unlike just about every other speaker). In fact, it was tight and well-defined. Driven by Aesthetix electronics, the Avantera sounded exceptionally clean and neutral, quick and lively—perhaps just the slightest bit bright on my Melody Gardot LP but quite persuasively realistic, nevertheless. Aside from the deep bass, these little numbers were also superb on the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. Definitely another contender for Best of Show.

Marten’s beautiful 75,000 Euro Coltrane 2 three-way, four driver (two 11” ceramic-sandwich woofers, one 7” ceramic midrange, one 1” diamond tweeter), bass-reflex floorstander—driven here by Marten’s own amplifiers—is a speaker I’ve liked in the past. On the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, it sounded a bit darker than usual, but quite beautiful in timbre with truly excellent transient response and superb stereo spread. Wonderful on the piano that plays such a prominent role in the Stravinsky piece, it got a little bright on fortes but not disturbingly so. Had the woofer integrated better in this room, this Swedish beauty would’ve been a Best of Show contender.

Farber Acoustic Arts was showing yet two more spherical-horn-loaded three and four-way loudspeakers (with excellent outboard woofers). The speakers used coaxial drivers with a very odd Karlson coupler tweeter (a kind of resonating pipe) and separate spherical mid/bass drivers. A little light in balance but fundamentally neutral and well-integrated, the Farbers had no “whizzer” sound in the treble, despite the flute-like Karlson device. These were very interesting (and interesting-looking) speakers; unfortunately, the bigger four-way boy (in black above) was also a very expensive speaker at 110,000 Euros.

Denmark’s Raidho was showing its 11,000 Euro C1.0 (with stand). A compact two-way with sealed ribbon and ceramic mid/bass in a vented box, it sounded absolutely tremendous on the Stravinsky recording, with a marvelous stereo stage, high resolution of detail, superb timbre, and quite respectable bass down to about 90Hz. An ear-opener, and a Best of Show contender, this is a speaker I’d like to review.

Adorably named Musique-concrete’s La Grande-Castine three-way horn system (one 1” compression-driver tweeter, one 2” compression-driver midrange, and a 15” horn-loaded cone that weighs all of one ounce) with powered subwoofer made quite a lovely and very neutral sound on Rebecca Pidgeon’s “Spanish Harlem,” with exceptional driver integration and very few horn artifacts. Driven by the Lars Two amps, it was limited in deep bass but what was there was very good (unlike the bass of most horn systems). I liked it—a lot.

The snail-like Vivid G2 Giya made a rich, lovely, rather thick sound, with a midbass that I found a bit too fulsome but that most people would probably love.

The Wilson Sashas driven by Spectral (Wilson? Spectral?) were a Best of Show contender from the first note I heard. Exceptionally neutral, they displayed the lightness of touch, the transparency I adore. Wonderful balanced top-to-bottom with very well-integrated low end, they were superb on a Chopin Polonaise, with just a bit of added sparkle and aggressiveness on top (which didn’t sound altogether unnatural because the piano was a Steinway). With the Spectral electronics, the Sashas were drier and more analytical than they’ve sounded with other tube and solid-state amps, and I can see where many listeners would prefer a warmer, richer presentation. Nonetheless, the Wilsons sounded quite realistic to my ear, albeit just a touch bright.

Silbatone was showing a mono L9 Western Electric horn made in 1948! And, by God, it sounded delightful on a relatively undemanding recording of voice and small ensemble. Who’d have thunk it? (Well, Silbatone, obviously.)

I’ve saved a surprise for last. YG showed its three-way, aluminum-enclosure Kipod II Signature (with BilletCore midrange, ForgeCore tweeter, and powered sub with BilletCore woofer) driven by Ypsilon monoblock amps, Ypsilon phonostage, and a Viola preamp, and the sound was phenomenally lively, transparent, neutral, and dynamic, without a hint of the darkness that I heard with the bigger YG speakers. This was a sensational showing for YG—the most lifelike, in fact, I’ve ever heard one of its speakers sound. A definite Best of Show contender—in fact, one of my Best of Show winners. (Judging by the less neutral and lively sound of the YG speakers in other rooms, some of the credit here has to go to the Ypsilon and Viola electronics and Bergmann linear-tracking turntable.)

Best of Show Winner (five-way tie, in the order in which I heard them): Magico Q3 with Soulution electronics, Audio Physic Avantera with Aesthetix electronics, Raidho C1.0 with (mostly) Burmester electronics, Wilson Sasha with Spectral electronics, YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature with Ypsilon/Viola electronics

Most important Introduction: Constellation’s Performance Series electronics, Magico Q1 (although I’m going on Alan Sircom’s experience, as I didn’t hear it), Soulution 530 integrated amp (ditto)

Most Interesting Technical Innovation: AudioNec’s “Janus” driver, Farber Acoustic Art’s Karlson tweeter, Musique-concrete’s one-ounce horn-loaded woofer

Best Bargain: Focal Bird system

Biggest Trend: Horns, horns, horns!

Biggest Surprise: Alon Wolf playing LPs, a Kharma speaker without any ceramic drivers