Hong Kong High-End Audio Visual Show Report

Show report
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Tubed power amplifiers,
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Turntables,
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Hong Kong High-End Audio Visual Show Report

Of all the years to get invited to visit Hong Kong to check out the show and audio scene there, this proved to be a more exciting one than most. No need to go into politics, but suffice to say that the local protesters didn’t put a damper on our small press trip’s activities. (Although the show wound down a couple of hours early on the last day as the demonstrations were scheduled to be moving into the area.) The show must go on, as they say. Indeed, enthusiasm and strong attendance numbers prevailed. 

Hong Kong is a hot market—and in August, a hot and steamy subtropical climate—within a vibrant cultural scene. With the Hong Kong High-End Audio Visual Show’s attendance at around 28,000 this year, it’s said to be Asia’s biggest and probably most important audio show. This is only down a few thousand from last year’s count (of around 35,000 we’re told); the show’s organizers noted that the difference seemed to arise primarily from fewer attendees from mainland China this year. Many European and American manufacturers exhibit here in addition to Asian counterparts.

You might think an audio show is an audio show, but the Hong Kong High-End Audio Visual Show sets itself apart in a few ways. First, rather than taking place in a more typical hotel, the enormous Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre serves as the venue. Located right on the city’s main harbor, it’s not only scenic as you ascend the many escalators but comparatively quite good-sounding—particularly the large rooms on the upstairs floors where a host of brands were represented in each. Based on the limited listening I was able to do, the rooms themselves sounded quite good compared to those found at many other show venues.

Frequently filled up with both gear and people, the rooms also hosted many lecture/demos that proved very popular but also made it more challenging to drop in just to listen and/or obtain information about the components if you didn’t time things right (or find someone to speak with). In general, the show was so populous in most areas that it was tricky to get good photos. Yet this well-organized show didn’t feel in any way as crowded as I might have anticipated, thanks in part to the venue’s large overall scale and the very open hallway areas off which the upstairs exhibit rooms were located.

Additionally, there’s a huge, more “market-style” open-plan room, filled with rows of displays and demos, known as Hall 5FG (similar to the Halles on the ground level of the MOC venue for the Munich show). In similar fashion it also contains some “temporary” pre-fab rooms within the main hall.

An opening ceremony kicked off the show the first morning, complete with a large drum ensemble, traditional Chinese flute players, and “Christmas” crackers (I believe they have these in England too—think indoor smokeless firecrackers). Guests were invited to gather onstage in a large pack after show organizers Rebecca Chin and Lincoln Cheng made some announcements and introductions. (Watch this space for more on those two as well as Audio Exotics, an important Hong Kong-based dealer/distributor with some unique approaches to high-end audio retail.)

A few live concert events rounded out the show. We attended one near-standing-room-only afternoon showcase in a ballroom—sponsored by our kind hosts from Audio Exotics—that featured a trio of popular female singers from the Pop Pop Factory label. I can’t say I ever would have expected to hear bossa nova tunes sung in Cantonese but it was charming—not to mention crowd-pleasing. 

Sure, the place was packed with plenty of "traditional" audiophiles but overall the Hong Kong show drew more young people (as in Millennials), women, and couples than I think I’d ever seen at an audio show before—all of which is encouraging. Another trend seemed a sense that, for some, “more is more” as there was plenty of ultra-high-end gear on display, including some flashier designs and/or more exotic colors and finishes.

Below I offer highlights and several photos from the high-energy Hong Kong High-End Audio Visual Show (where our small group spent the better part of a day and a half) perusing. As usual, apologies in advance for any factual errors and to those whose exhibits I missed or was unable to revisit as rooms were too crowded, etc. As noted, listening proved more challenging than at most other shows I’ve attended, between packed room conditions, presentations—and many quite talkative but friendly folks in the rooms.

Spirits seemed high, and it was good to see the locals—and internationals—living it up and enjoying the show despite some complex political situations. 

A Few Debuts and Other Highlights

Zellaton unveiled its brand-new Plural Evo speaker (stands for Evolution). Five years in the making, this three-way design with partially handmade sandwich drivers and an open-baffle midrange (with grille) will begin production in September. Designed in “modern materials” and with ported bass it’s intended for smaller living spaces and easier placement, e.g., closer to a wall. Retail cost is still TBD, but the Plural Evo will be priced considerably more affordably than its traditional models.

The Siltech Symphony loudspeaker that premiered at the show represents a truly no-holds-barred statement design. It has 26 drivers, is reportedly flat to 17Hz with measured distortion a mere .25%, and .05% in midrange, which is said to be a world record. In a special presentation Siltech’s Edwin Rijnveld explained his principles for creating the speaker: a grand piano’s lower octaves and divisions into five equal bands across the human hearing range. It contains six amps for “assisted power amplification” (think power steering) for extra control but there is no gain so separate amplification is still needed. Naturally, everything inside uses Siltech monocrystal wire.

The 93dB-efficient speaker has a switch on the back that allows you to choose between two tweeters, a diamond option or a ribbon one, to suit your sonic preferences or listening to different types of music. As an engineer, Edwin said couldn’t choose so he included both! He described how jewels and steel are used in a unique and effective approach to decouple each speaker’s separate cabinets. Pricing is to be determined but these won’t come cheap—though future trickle-down products were mentioned.

Gryphon Designs of Denmark debuted several new products at the show. Introduced as a prototype at AXPONA earlier this year, the Ethos CD player/DAChas three digital inputs and contains a StreamUnlimited CD Pro 8 transport from Austria. For the Ethos, designer Fleming Erik Rasmussen was inspired by turntable elements: the way the player opens and closes on top is a fully manual function, akin to lowering a tonearm to begin playing a record. Expected price is around $35k and shipping starts mid-to-late September. 

Also premiering were late-stage prototypes of the new Essence series of amplification: monoblock amps, a stereo amp, and a preamp. Though hardly petite, the monoblocks will be the smallest amplifiers the company makes and deliver will have a (conservative) 50W of pure Class A with 440,000 microfarads per side. Interestingly, the front panel’s triangle is meant to symbolize a stylus in a record’s groove.Representing the company’s entry-level point for Class A power amps, this monoblock and the rest of the series are expected in market by February of 2020.

Storied German turntable maker Thorens introduced a classic-looking new turntable, the TD 1600 with all-manual operation, alongside a 1601 version which has auto-lift capability; an optical element shuts off the synchronous motor. The TD 1600 and 1601 come with an outboard power supply and contain a completely redesigned sub-chassis construction that uses a discrete motor and a sub-chassis on springs that can be adjusted from the outside. A fixed metal post on the bottom aluminum plate runs through the sub-chassis and is connected by string so that it always stays tangential. First shown as a prototype in Munich, the turntable is entering production for November shipping, and the 1601 will retail for €3000 and the 1600 for €2500.

Another turntable (and tonearm) manufacturer from Germany introduced a new ’table, the Acoustic Signature Montana, which replaces the Novo model. The substantial yet not outsized new model follows the company’s, uh, signature use of its specially manufactured constrained layer damping with multiple layers. The mighty Montana has a three-motor drive and can handle two tonearms so long as they’re between 9- and 12-inches in length. Shipping in the U.S. has begun and pricing is estimated in the $23k range.

Red registers as an important color here; it’s said to be associated with good fortune. It so happens some crimson components turned up at the show: an Audio Research Ref 160S mono power amplifier premiering in a custom red color plus an Ref 6 tube preamp (also in red) paired with Wilson Audio Sasha 2 DAW speakers in a blue hue.

There were YG Acoustics Carmel 2 speakers in red, and a new Luxman tube CL-1000 control amplifier with a crimson wood-veneer type of finish on top. 

Speaking of striking colors, the new 2nd Generation version of the Naim Mu-so wireless music system was introduced at the show. It comes in three color options and contains the same streaming technology as the rest of its product family. Its compact scale and home décor aesthetics make it an attractive choice for multi-room environment usage. The company is finalizing software and EQ and the updated version will be available in early September and retail for $899.

UK’s Cambridge Audio presented its cool new Melomania 1 wireless in-ear monitors that use Bluetooth 5.0, are iOS and Android-friendly, weigh just 4.6 grams and boast a long (9-hour?) battery life. They come in a handy case wherein they can be plugged in and charged. Rubber outer covers for the case are available in several fun color options.

Marvel Music, one of Audio Exotics’ Hong Kong dealers, presented a room that featured Cessaro Firebird speakers driven by a 500W Synästec Audio stereo amplifier with a Wadax Arcadia DAC/CD and SACD player. A listen to my Ali Farka Touré Talking Timbuktu CD delivered a highly resolved and three-dimensional presentation that, though a bit bass-laden (presumably due to some room challenges), rendered the musicians and instrumental layers quite convincingly within the soundstage through excellent imaging and placement. Transient attacks were fast, and decays long, with good ambiance of the recording space and echoes therein.

VTL and VPI both had extensive exhibits of their product lines, as did Cardas Audio cables, as seen in an attractive display case. A number of Magnepan’s planar-magnetic speakers and lineups of Sonus faber and Elac loudspeakers were also on static display, among many others. Peter Mackay of Magico was on-hand to present the maker’s M2 speaker. 

Stenheim exhibited its most recent Alumine 3 loudspeakers in a room within the Hall 5FG, and upstairs the Swiss maker’s Reference Ultime speakers were paired with AVM and Acoustic Signature sources. Both systems were driven by Dartzeel electronics.

Piega of Switzerland presented its MLS3 aka Master Line Source speakers, and its new Premium Wireless Series of active speakers and Connect interface that will be shipping in the U.S. in September or October.

Another Swiss company, Soulution presented a full suite of its top-tier 500 and 700 series amplification plus a 541 SACD player and 560 DAC along with a DeBaer Saphir turntable, all supported by Critical Mass Systems equipment racks.

An impressive stack of Swiss manufacturer CH Precision’s components was displayed, including some in a “gold” finish in keeping with its recently released 10thAnniversary products seen in Munich.

Piega of Switzerland presented its MLS 3 (Master Line Source) loudspeakers, its new Premium Wireless 301 active speakers along with the PS 101 subwoofer.

AVM presented its first loudspeaker, the Ovation AM 6.3, a three-way active floorstander with proprietary DSP technology and 1750 watts in total amplification per channel. And for those who already own AVM’s all-in-one CS units and SD and PA preamps will appreciate their wireless connection capabilities to the AM 6.3.

MBL presented its Radialstrahler 101E Mk.II loudspeakers powered by the German company’s Noble line electronics and a United Home Audio tape deck. MBL’s Jürgen Reis was giving a presentation explaining the principles behind the speaker’s omnidirectional design—speaking a bit of Cantonese at the beginning, no less—was but what little listening I was able to do impressed, as per usual.

An array of Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems electronics was displayed passively while in an active system a pair of his statement Relentless monoblock amps drove Vivid Audio Giya Spirit G1 speakers to impressive effect. A listen to a 12-inch single of the Miami Vice hit “Axel F” by Jan Hammer packed punchy bass and sharp attacks with clean resolution.

A number of classic loudspeaker models seldom seen at shows but still being produced, including the Rogers HiFi LS3/5A loudspeakers and the Tannoy Prestige Grand Reference, for examples, were on display at the show.

Timothy Jung displayed many of his made-in-England MAD speakers, and paused to pose with jazz singer Lyn Stanley.

Isolating and cleaning up power apparently is taken seriously in this market based on displays seen and conversations with locals.

Physical media is still very popular in Hong Kong—as are QR codes, somewhat ironically—and from what I understand remains a trend throughout the Asian market generally as well.

I’m talking about albums of course, but CDs of all kinds are still prevalent, and in addition to SACDs, there are a couple of higher-grade CD formats that utilize new materials, as in the UHQCD, or Ultimate Hi-Quality CD, and even very limited-edition, very pricey Crystal or glass discs that are also labeled MQA-CDs. The UHQCDs are produced in Japan by the AQCD Technology Company. Along with some proprietary mastering techniques, the UHQCDs use materials in the stamping and reproduction process that are reputed to yield sonically superior results: a higher-quality polycarbonate base, a silver alloy in the reflective layer, and the application of a liquid photopolymer (instead of only polycarbonate) to better penetrate and “coat” the tiniest pits in the stamper to replicate the patterns more accurately for better sound.

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