Munich High End 2016: Loudspeakers and Electronics $20k and Under


Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers
Munich High End 2016: Loudspeakers and Electronics $20k and Under

As I was a first-timer to the Munich High End show, my veteran TAS colleagues assured me that it would be a real eye-popper. Indeed, the open, airy atrium venue known as the MOC was quite a welcome sight in comparison to the funereal darkness and dreary hallways of many hotel venues. But most of all, it was the multi-generational crowds—from strollers to seniors—smiling and ever-enthusiastic that inspired me with the feeling that the high end can weather any storm, and that its future is in good hands. While the show without question was a treat for the eyes—for the ears, not so much. While a lot of exhibits looked unreservedly fabulous, few really attained any approximation of sonic transcendence, even allowing for the normal show condition limitations. Since my assignment was loudspeakers and electronics in the sub-$20k segment, from my vantage point, the dominance of crowd-pleasing, mega-priced systems coupled with the limited number of dedicated listening rooms meant that most of the real-world gear I was hoping to sample was shunted off to one of the four noisy convention halls. Kind of a bummer but, nonetheless, I was undeterred, and there were still many treasures to be discovered at this terrific and inspirational show.

Most Significant Products

Estelon YB
Some loudspeakers just have stage presence. Such was the case with Estelon’s new YB. The willowy, three-driver (1” beryllium tweeter, 5.25” mid/bass, 8” woofer), sealed-enclosure design rises to a height of 51” and will be available in three finishes. Consistent with its much larger Estelon brethren is the huge, open soundstage, capable of a height and width and naturalism with chamber orchestra that was stirring to the emotions. Although it is not due in the States until late summer and the price is still TBA, figure on around $20,000. Yes, it was just on the cusp of my segment, but it was too gorgeous to pass up. I didn’t know whether to listen to it or ask it for a date.

T+A E Series PA1000E Integrated Amplifier $4500
The pivot point of T+A’s newly revamped three-model range, the PA1000E integrated outputs 140Wpc (250Wpc into 4 ohms) using switching output stages with discrete construction that have been developed entirely in-house by tech-heavy T+A engineers (rather than typical off-the-shelf designs). There’s a two-stage volume control based on a top-quality Alps potentiometer, balanced and unbalanced inputs, plus an oversized analog power supply with huge energy reserves. At the front end a pair of digital hubs, the R1000E music receiver ($7000) and MP1000E multi-source music player ($6500), rounds out the E Series.

Dynaudio Contour Series
Iconic loudspeaker and transducer specialist Dynaudio has been busy in the pro-audio segment of late and is well on its way to completing a new research facility. The Contour Series has always been the firm’s price and performance sweetspot, and the rebooted series includes three stereo models, the stand-mount Contour 20, plus the floorstanding Contour 30 and 40. All three feature softly rounded edges, a new midrange driver, all-new woofers with 70% greater excursion, new Vari-MSP diaphragms and formers, and Dynaudio’s best tweeter, the Esotar 2 soft dome with aluminum foil. In a brief listen to the Contour 20, I relished the lavish soundstage, stunning dynamic punch, and excellent treble bloom. Projected pricing is $5000, $7500, and $10,000.

Audio Research Foundation Series
In a world premiere Audio Research unveiled the three-model Foundation series, which clearly follows the design language of the GSi Series. ARC likens it to a mini-Reference line. The new models sticker for $7500 each and include the LS28 linestage preamp, equipped with four 6H30 tubes in the analog circuit and fitted out with four balanced and four single ended inputs and a 104-step rotary volume control. In a sign of the times there were also some nice conveniences for the user at the push of a button, including tube hours, input-naming, plus automatic shutdown. The series fleshes out with the PH9 phonostage and the DAC9 D/A converter. I particularly liked the flush-mounted buttons and the silver-with-black front-panel accents—an elegant and modern reinterpretation of classic ARC.

Elac UniFi UB5
Once again, drat, I missed hearing the new Andrew Jones-designed Elac UniFi UB5 compact ($500/pr.). I have no one but myself to blame since I skipped AXPONA Chicago, and they weren’t being demo’d in Munich. However, the wait should be over soon as a review pair is headed my way. Still, there was some other interesting Elac news. The indefatigable Jones showed me a white powdercoat “designer” version of the UniFi with a slightly modified cabinet that uses a narrower front baffle and has increased enclosure depth. Internal volume is the same, as are all the drivers and internals. It was particularly fetching. Initially earmarked for the European market, this premium edition (est. $700/pr.) will find its way to North America soon. Pictured above the UB5 is the internal power module for a soon to be released WiFi version.

Auspicious Debuts

Moon by Simaudio Neo ACE Integrated
All-in-one is the watchword for the Simaudio Moon Neo Ace integrated ($3500). It offers eight digital inputs, including USB, AptX Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet. There’s a sharp OLED screen (a first for Simaudio), plus a moving-magnet phono input. The amp integrates with the full graphic interface of the MiND App and includes its own on-board set-up software menu. Rounding out the package is a high-resolution DAC with DSD decoding up to DSD256 and 32-bit/384kHz PCM. Plus a headphone input. I’ll be giving this beauty a workout later this year.

ATC SCM19 Active Tower
I was hopeful that I would have a chance to listen the new ATC SCM19 Active Tower ($9995), but alas it was not to be as it was only on display in one of the cavernous convention halls. In size it closely mirrors the slender tower design of the SCM35 three-way, but is actually identical acoustically to ATC’s passive SCM19 two-way system and utilizes the same 19-liter internal volume. The braced, sealed, and curved multi-layer laminated cabinet houses ATC’s acclaimed SH25-76 soft-dome tweeter and 150mm Super-Linear mid/bass driver. The drive units are powered by an upgraded bi-amp pack, comprising ATC’s discrete-MOSFET Class AB modules, with 32W of continuous power to the HF section and 150W to the bass. The passive SCM19 is a personal favorite, so reviewing the active tower version is one of my more anticipated projects for 2016.

Hegel Röst Integrated Amplifier
Sleek and smooth is the new Hegel Röst integrated with Control4 IP-control for AirPlay and UPnp streaming. Why Röst? I’m told that Röst is both one of the most beautiful places in Norway, and also a Norwegian word meaning voice. Generating that voice is Hegel’s latest version of its Sound Engine technology, derived from the vaunted H360. The amp is bundled with three analog and five digital streaming and network inputs. Output is a bracing 75Wpc into 8 ohms. Look for it in the Oct./Nov. timeframe at an estimated $2900. Also on tap is a dedicated CD player that uses an upgraded version of the top-flight HD30 DAC and is fully optimized for CD playback-only with no digital inputs. Called the Mohican, as in “The last of…” I’m told it will be the last CD player Hegel produces. On the other hand, how many people have said that about open-reel tape players and turntables? Pricing estimates are around $5500.

Hafler-Dynaco ST-70 Series 3 Amplifier
The relaunch of Hafler and Dynaco should give budget valve revivalists and audiophiles of a certain age grounds to rejoice. With the firm backing of Vancouver-based parent firm Radial Engineering, which was founded in 1992 and has since acquired legendary transformer producer Jensen, the future looks bright. First up is the ST-70 Series 3 tube amp, which features major power-supply upgrades over the original, including precision metal-film resistors, poly-composition capacitors, and miniaturized high-capacity power-supply electrolytics (unavailable at the time of the traditional design). Newer parts are also more conservatively rated than some of the original parts. Look for a July debut followed by another retake of a classic, the Dynaco ST-1 tube preamp ($1800 est.) due in September. It’s to be equipped with defeatable tone controls, including a variable loudness control, plus an mm/mc phonostage.

PMC twenty5 Series
, long highly regarded for its pro efforts, is now regaining traction in the U.S. market. The new five-model twenty5 range could be pivotal to its plans. Impressive to my ears was its smallest offering the twenty5.21. Only thirteen inches tall, but true to PMC heritage, the twenty5.21 uses advanced transmission line (ATL) technology with Laminair venting. How they pack a transmission line into such a tiny cabinet is anyone’s guess. (Tiny hands?) Sonics were decidedly smooth (I especially appreciated the 27mm soft-dome tweeter) and surprisingly robust from the modest 5.5” mid/bass G-Weave cone driver. Price estimates are $3000/pr.

Other News

Still nearing production but looking good-to-go to these eyes was the Jadis Diapason integrated amp. Though it sheds some of the luxury visual touches and point-to-point wiring of top-line Jadis, it more than holds its own with 15Wpc of power derived from 6L6 output tubes with semi-auto biasing for easy tube replacement. Six inputs, typical Jadis handmade quality, and top transformers complete a tidy little package. Pricing is still in Euros but will be north of $2k. Amphion of Finland has been busy on the studio side of the business but the new Argon 3s appears to be one sweet two-way compact. Attractive in its cool arctic-white finish, it’s equipped with an 1” titanium tweeter, an 6.5” aluminum mid/bass, and a hefty passive radiator around back to further extend bass response. Pricing is a persuasive $2800/pr. Chord Electronics debuted TToby (no that’s not a typo), a Class AB design ($4395). The digital-only preamp is set to mate with the Hugo TT DAC. Featuring a power output of a hefty 130Wpc into 4 ohms, it’s due for release in August. Also, the Chord SPM 1050 receives a tweak to the power supply and a subtle facelift to give it a form factor consistent with the rest of the line. NAD has added the M32 integrated to its Masters Series at a very accessible $3499. Employing NAD’s redoubtable PowerDrive circuit it has 150Wpc on tap, and in true digital fashion the signal only converts to analog at the speaker terminals. Per current NAD practice, it’s an all-modular design with four MDC slots. Naturally, there’s an option for a BluOS card for network streaming. Also announced was the M50.2 Digital Music Player, an upgrade to the M50 introduced four years ago ($3999). In related news Bluesound is all about its MQA decoder—to be available as a free software download for all models, even older versions.

VTL TL2.5i preamp—its entry-level model—is now good-to-go for vinyl junkies, who’d like to opt for its new, flexible mm/mc phonostage, a $2k option above the standard $3k linestage version. Noteworthy too is the $15k TL 6.5 II preamp, which packs much of the internals and performance of the flagship 7.5 in a single chassis. Finishing touches are now in place for the Crystal Cable integrated amplifier. Pricing is settling around $15k for the 200Wpc unit, and there will be an optional phonostage and DAC available, as well. Crystal also introduced the Scala, a “spatial form” made from precision-machined aluminum that sits atop Minissimo compact loudspeakers to further optimize radiation pattern by reducing edge distortion. Smart and attractive.

Finally, there is still something unreservedly seductive about the near-point-source sound of the Manger line of loudspeakers, known for its unique bending-wave transducer recognizable by its star-shaped absorber and twin voice coils. At Munich I discovered that the lineup has been updated and has a more pleasing look. I was particularly impressed with its z1, a two-way stand-mount ($9600/pr.).

NG’s Best of Show

Best Sound (Cost No Object)
The MartinLogan Neolith driven by all-Constellation electronics truly sang big-time producing a huge stage image, massive curtains of air, and transient lightning. Fronted by the new Continuum Obsidian ’table with Viper tonearm and TechDas cartridge with Shunyata cabling, select tracks from the QRP’s newly remastered Dream with Dean LP were the embodiments of transparency and haunting realism.

Best Sound (For the Money)
Camped out at Hifi Deluxe was a superb display of musicality courtesy of the Zesto Audio Leto preamp ($7500) and Bia 120 stereo amp ($12,500) and Joseph Audio’s Profile ($7000) loudspeaker. The small Euro-scale system could lay back but shift gears on a dime and was an exemplar of natural tonal color and dynamic composure.

Most Signifiant Product Introduction
I haven’t had a hankering to get into the whole reel-to-reel renaissance sweeping the loftier levels of the high end. Until now. The playback-only Revox ($5000 est.) might just change my mind.

Most Significant Trend
The unprecedented selection breadth of source components vying for front-end hegemony. Servers, music players, stand-alone CD players, turntables, and open-reel machines offer audiophiles more choices to chew over than ever before.

Most Coveted Product
The Burmester Phase 3, an all-in-one system (161 receiver and B15 speakers). At $39,995, a perfect fit for that seven-figure SoHo loft I’ll never own.