Munich High End 2017: Loudspeakers

Show report
Munich High End 2017: Loudspeakers

Imagine a collision between CES and CEDIA when both were at their peak, and you’ll have an idea of how enormous and jam-packed with goodies Munich High End is. There’s simply nothing else like it in the audio world. Everything a music lover could want is on display—either actively in the “rooms” that line the second and third floors or passively in the gigantic halls on the ground level.

Obviously no single human being can take in every item at Munich High End, and yet, in its wisdom, TAS editorial asked me to cover loudspeakers. Not speakers above $20k as per usual. All loudspeakers, regardless of price. (Truth is that most of the speakers at the MOC were priced above $20k, as Munich High End is the black-tie event of the season for manufacturers worldwide, and no one wants to show up in less than his finest.) Thus, this report is going to be woefully incomplete.

It’s also going to tend to be negative (with exceptions). The trouble with the MOC (Munich’s convention center, where the show is held) is that it doesn’t really have rooms in the sense that hotels do. It has cubicles that are separated from each other by thin, flexible panels on either side, with glass walls front and back. This may be fine if you’re selling apparel or furniture, but if you’re showing stuff that makes sound it’s a disaster. The sonic bleed-through from next door is unusually loud and incessant, plus the cubicles themselves are catastrophes waiting to happen—simultaneously bright (glass backwalls) and boomy (thin flexible sidewalls and awkward dimensions). As a result, it is a rare speaker system that doesn’t suffer from room-induced nightmares. Of course, some exhibitors know how to surmount these hurdles better than others, and it doesn’t hurt if the speakers themselves are linear, low in enclosure/driver distortion (particularly in the bass), and neutral in balance.

Munich High End remains the greatest audio show on earth, and if you have the means you owe it to yourself to one day attend, if only to see the plethora of stuff you won’t see anywhere else and to enjoy the spargel, schnitzel, weissbier, and music that this beautiful German city is famous for. Just don’t come expecting a sonic paradise.

The Best

Having just mentioned stuff that you won’t see anywhere else, I might as well start with last year’s Best of Show winner, Kevin Scott’s £450k Living Voice Vox Palladian five-way horn loudspeaker system (15” Vitavox 151 bass unit, Vitavox S2 compression midrange, TAD TD-2002 beryllium tweeter, Vitavox T0 ultra-high-frequency driver, and Vox Palladian Basso powered, exponentially-horn-loaded subwoofer), driven by Scott’s usual collection of superb Japanese electronics (Kondo M77 preamplifier and a pair of Gakuoh 300B amplifiers) with ancillary equipment from CEC, Neodio, and Canary. What can I say about the Living Voice that I didn’t say last year? It’s a system that is impossible to beat in dynamic range and expression, especially on male and female vocals. One gets used to speakers that will handle fortissimos with high clarity and thunderous impact, but, folks, I’ve heard nothing else that handles pianissimos with the delicacy and sustain this one delivers. Add to that, remarkable image size and soundstage scale, beautiful (albeit slightly dark) 300B tone color, and you-are-there immediacy, and you get what is surely one of the greatest stereos in the world (as well you should for over a million bucks, all items included).

And as long as we're in that exotic and unaffordable land where there be dragons, MBL was showing its $263k, three-way, ten-driver X-Treme (two Radialstrahler tweeters and two Radialstrahler midranges in a D’Appolito configuration coupled to six, powered, push-push woofers in a separate tower, per side), driven and sourced by MBL’s Reference electronics (Reference 9011 monoblock amps, Reference 6010 D preamp). I’ve heard the X-Tremes sound great (in my own room, no less) and I’ve heard them sound…well, not so great at various shows. At this year’s Munich High End, they were great, pure and simple—phenomenally rich, beautiful, three-dimensional, hard-hitting, spacious, and lifelike on Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, on a Bach cello suite (which was first played live in the MBL room, and then played back on a previously recorded disc), on voice…on everything. I’ve always felt that omnis like the X-Tremes need walls nearby to perform at their finest (and as they are designed to perform). Though seemingly jammed into a smallish corner of a largish room, the gigantic (3600-pound) X-Tremes thrived in this closed-in space, producing what was unquestionably one of the very best sounds in Munich—and one of the best sounds I’ve heard these great loudspeakers make. Congratulation to Christian, Juergen, and Jeremy for a superb effort.

Andy Payor’s Rockport Technologies was showing two speakers at Munich High End. The first was a debut: the $170k Lyra, a five-driver, three-and-a-halfway floorstander (two 10” woofers, two 6” midranges, one 1” beryllium tweeter in a heroic two-piece aluminum enclosure), driven by Absolare electronics and sourced by a Kronos turntable. The sound was mostly superb on my Johnny Hartman LP without any of the excessive sibilance and chestiness I heard so often in other rooms on Hartman’s voice and with excellent reproduction of sax and standup bass (despite a little room boom). However, it was Rockport’s $60k Cygnus, a four-driver, three-way loudspeaker (two 10” woofers, one 6” midrange, one 1” beryllium tweeter in a composite aluminum enclosure) —driven (alternately and jointly) by Soulution 3, 5, and 7 Series electronics, sourced by a De Baer turntable, wired with Vovox cables, and mounted on Joe Lavrencik’s new Critical Mass Systems Olympus stands—that won my heart. The Cygnus/Soulution sound was fantastic right off the bat, with superb dynamics, color, transients, and three-dimensional body on “Mood Indigo” from my Ellington LP. On a second visit, my Taj Mahal disc proved to be just as terrific, with wonderful resolution of detail, no shoutiness on the Pointer Sisters’ backup vocals, and real ease on fortes. Johnny Hartman provided the hat trick, with superb body and color on the vocals and the best reproduction of standup bass (a Soulution specialty) I heard at the show.

On a roll lately, Wilson Benesch was also demo’ing in two rooms, only in this case it was debuting the same speaker in each: the $70k Resolution, a seven-driver three-way (four clamshell-mounted Tactic II woofers, two Tactic II midranges, and a single silk-dome/carbon-fiber tweeter in a monocoque carbon-fiber-composite cabinet). In the first room the Resolution was paired with CH Precision electronics and sources, and the sound was stat-like in its clarity and absence of enclosure coloration (despite severe bleed-through from a neighboring cubicle and a bit of room-induced bass boom). But it was in the second room, where the speaker was driven by Ypsilon electronics and sourced by a Dohmann Helix turntable, that the Resolution really shone. The sound was considerably fuller and more beautiful than in the CH room, with warmer, richer, more lifelike vocal timbre on my Johnny Hartman LP and well defined standup bass. The piano may not have been as crisp and ivory-like on top as it was in the CH room, but Hartmann sounded more like the silky baritone that he was. Indeed, the presentation was reminiscent of the Rockport Cygnus in the Soulution room—beautiful in color, with superior pace and definition in the low end. Wilson Benesch makes swell loudspeakers.

The folks from the German company Kaiser Acoustics—who design and build the €80k Kawero! Classic C3 three-way, three-driver floorstander (one RAAL ribbon tweeter one reflex-loaded midrange, and one reflex-loaded woofer in a computer-optimized, CNC-milled, beech-ply enclosure that looks demure but weighs 218 pounds)—have rightly complained about being given short shrift by me at past shows. This year, I made a special effort to pay them a visit—and liked what I heard so much I came back again. Driven by Kondo electronics and sourced by a Kondo ’table, the Kawero! Classic was a model of speed, color, delicacy, power, and realism on everything from full orchestra to a guitar duo—and just as exceptional on Louis and Co. playing “St. James Infirmary.” Without question this was one of the best sounds in Munich, particularly realistic in the midband.

Speaking of which, Holger Adler of Voxativ was showing his $40k Pi 9.87, a three-driver two-way floorstander (one AC-1.6, full-range wooden cone in a folded-horn enclosure coupled with two actively powered woofers in a separate dipole enclosure), driven (above the woofers’ limited range) by Voxativ’s own monoblocks and preamp and sourced by an SME turntable. To my surprise, the Pi had extremely deep, powerful, open, free-flowing, seamlessly matched bass! Indeed the entire presentation, which above 100Hz or so is handled solely by Adler’s unique wooden full-ranger, was quite remarkably of a piece with no loss of upper end extension or transient speed—and none of the usual “hot spots” that single-driver speakers are perennially afflicted with (and no power range suckout, either). This is a very special transducer—a BOS contender just for its stat-like coherence and neutrality. Indeed, I thought it reproduced Johnny Hartman’s voice more naturally than anything else at the show—just edging out the Rockport Cygnus, which sounded a wee bit darker and chestier (though more beautiful).

A past Best of Show winner (in Munich in 2014 his Statement set a bar for goosebump-raising realism that has yet to be equaled), Manuel Podszus of Zellaton was showing his $80k Stage—a smaller, three-driver, two-and-half-way driven by Japanese YS solid-state electronics (the monoblocks are said to deliver 2400W into 4 ohms), wired by Schnerzinger, and sourced by various analog and digital delicacies. In the past the only reservation I’ve had about Zellatons is dynamics, particularly in the bass, where they tended to crap out when pushed hard. Not this year. The Stages had superb bass—very rich in color and texture on drum, with wonderful soundstage spaciousness. On my Debussy sonata recording, they were absolutely gorgeous on fiddle; more surprisingly they also delivered the piano with superb color, weight, and solidity from the bottom octaves through the power range. Something has changed chez Zellaton. I’m not entirely sure what, but I am sure it is for the better. This is a superb speaker that sounds uncannily like a Quad 57 that’s gone on a Charles Atlas program

The Next Best

Cessaro showed its gigantic €400k Gamma 2 spherical horn system with F4-18 eighteen-inch field coil woofers driven by Cessaro electronics and sourced by TW Acoustic’s marvelous Black Knight record player. The system sounded absolutely superb on my Taj LP—completely neutral with no horn coloration, great transients, and sensational dynamic range. Quite realistic! The Cessaros lost a little image focus on Johnny Hartman’s voice, but retained the same immediacy and neutrality, sounding full and well-defined on standup bass, and rich and breathy on sax, with no excess brightness on piano and a superb top octave. Just a great room.

Holger Stein of Stein Music is best known (at least in the U.S.) for his remarkable room treatment systems, the Harmonizer and the Pi interface. But the fact is Stein also designs and fabricates entire stereo systems, from loudspeakers through electronics—several of which were on display at the MOC. Though all of the Stein loudspeakers I heard were exceptional (coupled with Stein subs the little S5s were simply superb on Louis and Ella), the giant €200k Topline XL, a partially horn-loaded (in the midrange and treble), twenty-driver (!) behemoth with a separate column of subwoofers (comprising eight 18 inchers per side), produced a huge (though well focused), dark, beautiful, extremely deep-reaching sound with superb bass control. My Debussy LP was reproduced as realistically as I heard it in Munich, with extremely fine bowing detail, sweet dense tone color, very fast transients, some slight power range suckout on piano (which was corrected via DSP by the time I revisited the room on Day Three), and superb dynamics! A beautiful, majestic, highly musical presentation.

Charles Van Oosterum of Kharma was showing his €200k Enigma Veyron EV-4D, a five-driver (one 1” diamond tweeter, one 2” diamond mid/tweet, one 7” carbon-fiber midrange, and two 11” carbon-fiber woofers in a massive CNC-milled “bullet wood” enclosure), driven by a Kharma electronics, cabled by silver-and-carbon-fiber Kharma wire, and sourced by a top-line Clearaudio Statement turntable with Goldfinger Statement cartridge. The system sounded marvy on Louis and Ella’s "Isn’t It A Lovely Day"—a big, unusually rich presentation with very fine reproduction of texture and presence on both voices. As usual at the MOC there was a bit of boom in the bass, but no excess brightness. This was quite a gorgeous sound without a trace of the analytical—naturally fuller in timbre, I think, than past Kharmas (perhaps due to the EV-4D’s newly sourced and greatly improved carbon-fiber drivers).

Raidho was showing its $225k D-5.1, a five-driver (one sealed ribbon tweeter, two 100mm diamond midranges, and four 160mm diamond woofers in a gorgeous ported enclosure) three-way (up until very recently the D-5.1 was one of my reference loudspeakers), driven by $96k Aavik Acoustic M300 monoblocks and $36k C300 preamplifier, sourced by a Nagra transport, and cabled with top-line Ansuz DTC wire. The D-5.1s displayed their incomparably gorgeous midrange and treble on several digital cuts, with great ambience retrieval, wonderful decay on voice, superb transient detail on guitar, and a slightly boomy but still fairly well defined Fender bass. (As a sideshow, Raidho’s Michael Borresen and Lars Kristensen did a shootout between their affordable Ansuz A2 and C2 cables and a $20k+ loom of Nordost Odin 2, which the Ansuz won quite handily.)

Crystal Cable demo’d its $22k two-way stand-mount Minissimo with $12k Subissimo woofer, driven by Crystal’s Cube amp and wired with Crystal’s new Ultimate Dream cable (which judging from what I heard is a must-review item). On a Johnny Cash number, the Minissimo/Subissimo offered up their usual superb presentation—rich in color, spacious in staging, high in resolution, and quite natural in presence, with superb bass even without the sub (the Ultimate Dream cable seemingly added an octave of low end to the Minissimo). A superior stereo system.

Von Schweikert Audio showed its $295k Ultra 11 thirteen-driver flagship (two 15” powered subwoofers, four 9” ceramic mid/bass drivers, two 7” ceramic midranges, two beryllium tweeters, two 5” aluminum-ribbon super-tweeters), augmented with VSA’s Shockwave V12 subwoofers, and driven by the same VAC Statement electronics and sourced by the same Kronos Pro turntable VSA used at the Ultra 11’s debut at AXPONA Chicago. Though VSA seemed to feel it was only getting 75% of what it got in Chicago, I thought the sound was improved—much more transparent than at AXPONA, with gorgeous color and none of the midbass thickness and texture that bothered me in Chi-town. Really an amazing transformation. Delicacy, color, focus, sweetness, and soundstaging were first-rate. Indeed, the only demerit was the typical-for-MOC boom in the bass—and that wasn’t the Ultra 11’s fault.

Switzerland’s Stenheim displayed its €184.5k Ultime, a four-way, eight-driver D’Appolito floorstander (four 32cm woofers, two 17cm midranges, one neodymium tweeter, and one ribbon supertweeter in a massive CNC-milled aluminum enclosure), powered by VTL electronics and sourced by Kuzma analog and Wadax Atlantis digital and wired with Fono Acustica cables. Despite a trace of the usual room boom (which darkened timbre some), the sound was beautiful—solid, spacious, and relaxed, with excellent imaging and staging, superb ambience retrieval, and no treble edge at all.

MartinLogan showed its ESL Expression 13A electrostatic/cone hybrid, driven by Pass Labs electronics. Though the 13A was not as full in color as the larger 15A that I liked so well in Chicago, from where I was sitting the blend of ’stat and cone was just as seamless, making the speaker sound very fast, deep-reaching—well controlled on Fender bass and kick drum, and very present and lifelike on voice. While the 13A didn’t have the greatest stage depth in the MOC room, I liked it. A lot.

Richard Vandersteen demo’d his $19k Quattro CT, a four-way, five-driver floorstander (one 1” carbon-dome tweeter, one 4.5” midrange, one 6.5” mid/woof, and two 8” subwoofers), driven by Marconi electronics, and sourced by Bardo analog and Nyquist digital. The system sounded a mite darker than I'm used to from Vandies but still very beautiful on digital sources, with that wonderful midrange presence that Vandies have always had. Good solid bass, too.

Vivid Audio showed its top-line $93k Giya G1 Spirit four-way, five-driver floorstander (one 26mm metal-dome tweeter, one 50mm metal-dome midrange, one 125mm alloy/carbon lower midrange, and two 225mm alloy woofers in the Giya’s distinctive exponentially tapered tube enclosure), driven by CH Precision electronics and sourced by a TechDAS turntable. On a Miles Davis LP from 1956, reproduction of trumpet was superb, with very good bass and an extremely spacious and airy soundstage, though the overall presentation was a bit analytical (a characteristic of CH Precision electronic).

Piega displayed its $18k 511, a six-driver three-way (one coax ribbon midrange/tweet, two 160mm active mid/woofs, and two 160mm passive mid/woofs in an aluminum enclosure), driven by Primare electronics. The sound on “Omphale’s Spinning Wheel” was just delightful—full, robust, of a piece, and very fast in the midrange and treble thanks to Piega’s remarkable coincident ribbon driver.

The Rest

To keep you from dozing off, I’m going to condense the remainder of my report.

Goebel showed its €115k Epoque Fine with Vitus electronics, VPI ’table, and Purist cables. The speakers generated a sibilant lisp on Johnny Hartman’s voice. I could hear a problem on trumpet too—a bit of edge in the upper mids.

The Wilson Alexx was being shown with Nagra electronics, sourced by a Kronos ’table, and wired with Transparent Opus. Johnny Hartmann sounded much better and more natural here than in the Goebel room, with less lisp and and more chest, though the bass was less prominent and not quite as well controlled. A good sound. Just a tad brighter than I'm used to.

Lansche showed its €33.5k 5.2 three-way with plasma tweeter, paper mid, and aluminum woofer, driven by EMM Labs electronics and source. The presentation was quite lively with what sounded like a much faster woofer that mated very well with the plasma tweeter.

Einstein showed the €45k The Pure three-way, three-driver floorstander (one active powered woofer, one midrange without crossover, one Alnico horn tweeter), driven by Einstein electronics, and sourced by a TecDas ’table. The sound was simultaneously a bit dark and bright and aggressive.

The new €100k Marten Coltrane III driven by Engstrom electronics was a bit on the thin light side, despite the tube amplification—very hard-hitting and fast, with superb definition, color, and speed on electric bass but a little too much tweet.

Gauder Akustik Berlina RC8 driven by AVM was fast, present, pacey, and exciting with superb resolution and speed top-to-bottom. The speaker had a planar-like presentation, but with exceptional grip, definition, and extension in the bass. Just a first-rate German sound, which is to say very neutral and controlled and of a piece, albeit a mite lean.

Vienna Acoustics’ €6.5k four-driver three-way Beethoven Baby Grand sounded natural, full, and lovely on digital driven by Vincent tube gear.

Paradigm’s €26.7k Persona 9H floorstander with beryllium drivers, driven by Anthem electronics, sounded very similar to what I heard at AXPONA—a lean, bright, clear, spacious sound with excellent imaging but slightly reduced power range weight and color. However, the addition of the €7.5k Persona subwoofers transformed the speaker, filling in the power range and reducing brightness without any apparent loss of speed or resolution. (IMO, this speaker should not be shown without its dedicated subwoofer.)

Wilson Alexx driven by Moon by Simaudio electronics and hooked up with MIT was a disappointment—too bright on piano and with a big boom on bass fiddle.

So, alas, was the ultra-expensive Tidal La Assoluta driven by Tidal’s own electronics. This huge, gorgeous-looking speaker was ill defined in the bass, slightly bright in the upper octaves, and lacking the liquidity that makes Tidal so special.

Estelon intro'd the €50k Lynx claimed to be the first high-end wireless loudspeaker. Unfortunately the Lynx was on passive display, so I can't confirm the claim. I also can’t report on the Magico S3 Mk II driven by Spectral, as the room was so crowded that I couldn’t get a seat (on three separate occasions). Given the crowds, I imagine the sound was excellent.

Elsewhere, Focal intro'd a new version of its flagship, the Utopia III, on passive display only.