Munich High End 2016: Electronics $15k and Up

Show report
Categories:
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Phonostages,
Integrated amplifiers,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Munich High End 2016: Electronics $15k and Up

Ah, to be in Munich in May—home to the fabulous High End Audio Show at the atrium-filled, convention-center-style building known as MOC. An international hi-fi show like no other, it’s the one everyone—dealers, manufacturers, press, and public—seems to look forward to the most. Although this year’s event reportedly showed slightly lower public attendance than last year, based on the crowds of people (especially on Friday), you’d never know it. The halls were alive with the sounds of analog—so many turntables!—and natürlich, plenty of digital, too.

No matter what your hi-fi desires (or budget) entail, at this show you’re bound to find something to covet, along with the chance to see and hear all kinds of rare and exotic gear you just won’t find anywhere else. (Not to mention the world’s best weissbier and weisswurst, if that’s your thing.)

For this, my second Munich High End outing, my primary assignment was Electronics $15k and Up—a category boasting a plethora of debuts—plus some add-on coverage of lifestyle and personal audio. As usual, apologies to those I missed and for any factual errors in naming, pricing, or other matters. Without further ado, let’s get to the good stuff!

Five Best-Sounding Rooms (Including Debuts)

Soulution Electronics Driving Magico M Project Speakers

Speaking frankly, based on my listening in this room on the first day of the show (Thursday’s press preview), I wouldn’t have imagined that this system would have made my top five picks. There were wholly unexpected issues top to bottom: bizarro brightness and aggression, downgraded bass control, and some strange suckout in the power range.

It also must take the honors for the most radically improved system over the course of the show. I’m not sure what all was awry that first day or so (though I’d heard something about the speakers having not been level?), but having heard the M Pros with Soulution at other shows (as well as chez JV), I knew full well what incredible sonic feats and thrills this setup was capable of. Indeed, on my next visit two days later, the old Soulution-Magico magic was back in full force: On the Stokowski Hungarian Rhapsody, the transient attacks, particularly on strings, were thrilling and the soundstage expanded to nearly full-orchestra size. Speed, grip, air, and bloom galore. On the “Return to the Moon” by El Vy on LP, this was one of only a couple of systems at the show that could reasonably reproduce the very deep bass on this heavy-hitting pop/rock track. There was no stopping the slam and yes, we turned it up. If you didn’t feel compelled to move, you might not have a pulse.

In another exciting development, the Munich show marked the world premiere of the Soulution 511 stereo amplifier ($35k each) rated at 560W into 8 ohms; a pair were used as monoblocks in this setup. (See Auspicious Debuts section below for more details.) This top-notch system also included the Soulution Series 7 preamps, The Bear turntable, Vovox cables, and Critical Mass QXK racks.

Vitus Audio with Gauder Akustik

The Vitus SS-103 Signature Series Extreme Stereo power amplifier ($34k) made a smashing debut driving Gauder Akustik RC 7 Mk II loudspeakers (€28k). This setup’s very musical yet highly detailed presentation lifted me out of my jetlag. The amp’s 150W of pure Class A made for compelling listening on JV’s excellent Dream with Dean LP [Analogue Productions] played back on a Transrotor turntable; it was among the most beautiful I’d heard those cuts sound at the show. On Peter, Paul & Mary’s “All My Trials,” the system conveyed all the stripped-down emotional power and intimacy of this outstanding recording reissue from ORG. Rich harmonies were extremely well-blended and perfectly balanced. This Vitus-Gauder Akustik combination exemplified the smooth, effortless beauty and pleasure of high-end musical reproduction.

CH Precision with Vivid Giya 1 Speakers

The pairing of CH Precision electronics with Vivid Giya 1 speakers offered some of the cleanest, purest, and most natural sound around. The speakers almost seemed to disappear on Dean Martin’s “If You Were the Only Girl” so coherent, resolved, and effortlessly lovely was the presentation and so wonderfully open the soundstaging. A TechDAS 3 ’table served as the front end and new CH Precision cables connected the components.

Absolare Passion Integrated Amplifier Driving Rockport Altair 2 Speakers

The brand-new Absolare Passion integrated amplifier ($24,750) is a hybrid design with a pure SET tube preamp section and a solid-state dual-mono amplifier section. It premiered in a gorgeous-sounding demo with the Absolare Passion phonostage ($33.5k), Rockport Altair V2 loudspeakers ($102.5k), and a Kronos Limited Edition Pro turntable. A pleasing balance seemed to be struck between rich realism and warm, engaging musicality. The presentation was clean, easygoing, unabashed pure aural delight. With such powerful immediacy it felt like nothing was standing between you and the music—the system succeeds in performing a wonderful disappearing act. I only wish I could have returned to listen longer.

Vandersteen 5A Carbon and M7-HPA, and Brinkmann

I had a good feeling when I went into this room and Leonard Cohen’s Live in London LP was playing on the Brinkmann Spyder turntable through Vandersteen 5A Carbon loudspeakers driven by a pair of his M7-HPA power amplifiers, which feature Richard Vandersteen’s special liquid-cooling technology. I stuck around and listened to Peter, Paul & Mary’s “All My Trials” and the sound was both warm and inviting as well as pleasingly detailed and present. Based on their size, the speakers throw a far bigger, more open soundstage than you’d expect. But what really sealed the deal for me was a listen to that aforementioned “Return to the Moon” from El Vy with its subterranean lower octaves. This bottom-up system really delivered the goods, handling the bass with good control and articulation. It was full, solid sound you could feel. Although the cymbals and tambourine were not the most entirely natural sounding I’d heard, everything else came together for highly engaging listening experience. This system also featured Brinkmann’s Edison phonostage and Marconi preamp, cabling from AudioQuest, and power distribution from Shunyata Research.

Auspicious Debuts

The first of many exciting high-end electronics debuts at the show was the Air Tight ATM-300L 30th Anniversary stereo amplifier (around €12k, U.S. price TBD). This limited edition amp—of which only 100 are slated to be produced for August 2016 shipping—was designed to commemorate the third decade of Miura-san’s celebrated company. Handcrafted in Japan and rated at 10Wpc, the ATM-300L features new step-up transformers and Takatsuki 300B tubes hand-blown by Kyoto craftsmen to precise specs that are hand-matched to plus or minus 1 percent. These tubes were chosen by Mr. Miura for their longevity, reliability, and consistency of sound quality (although for the tube-rollers among you, other 300B tubes may be used; the amp is designed to Western Electric specs). The amp was demo’d to delightful results with Air Tight’s tiny but mighty Bonsai one-way speakers and ATC-1 preamp with a KlangWellung Manufaktur turntable and tonearm and an Air Tight Opus 1 cartridge. The speakers’ full-range presence and immediacy and surprising spaciousness belies their petite size. The warmth and intimacy of harmonies on Peter, Paul & Mary’s “All My Trials” were delivered with detailed delicacy. Lightning Hopkins’ guitar resonated with clean, lively energy. The subtle squeaks and slides—all there.

By way of an exclusive sneak preview, JV and I got to have a look at some beautiful printed prototype renderings of a forthcoming Air Tight amplifier, a 50W push-pull design—as yet unnamed (it may be christened the ATM 211)—that’s expected to debut either at CES 2017 or possibly even at the Tokyo show later this year.

The new Vitus SS-103 Signature Stereo amplifier highlighted above features the company’s latest custom transformer combined with updated power-supply technology to deliver greater speed and solidity, along with better low-end control. The amp offers fine-tuning via soundmodes (“Classic mode” and “Rock mode”), and its modular design also promises longevity, as future updates will be accessible via online download.

The aforementioned brand-new Soulution 511 stereo amplifier leverages some elements, such as the output stage, from its 501 predecessor and the 530 (integrated), along with bits from the 520 preamp. The design goals for the 511 involved switching around the power system (the 701’s PSUs are also inside) to try to get the power source as close to the output stage as possible. The 511 features a switch-mode power supply (4 x 600VA) and a hefty power rating of 3000W in stereo/dual mode and 6000W in mono. The 511 is still considered a prototype, but will be in market later this year, probably in the fall. In celebration of its 10-year anniversary, the Swiss manufacturer also plans to release a 300 Series, starting with the 330 integrated amp, a prototype of which was previewed at a private function after show hours. It will deliver 100W into 8 ohms and will offer phono and streaming capabilities.

Another show debut in its final prototype stages is the NAGRA Classic Preamp, which is expected to be available from September of this year and retail for approximately $18k.

Completing the Swiss company’s Classic line, it represents chief designer Philippe Chambon’s first preamp. The Classic Preamp features a headphone output and its small footprint is of the same dimensions as the new DAC. This very-easy-on-the-ears demo setup also featured Classic Amps ($16k each) running in bridged mode powering Wilson Audio Alexia speakers. Sources included an IV-S reel-to-reel recorder, Seven digital recorder, and Kronos Sparta turntable with Helena tonearm and ZYX Omega mc cartridge. Cables were from Transparent, and racks were from Raidho Acoustics. Great sounds, great stuff!

I had the pleasure of visiting a wonderful-sounding room, a second one from Audioarts (that nearly made my top five) in Hall 1 with all-Swiss-made gear (along with some tasty chocolates) including a couple of exciting debuts: the Audio Consulting Meteor Mipa power amplifier and the Stenheim Alumine Five loudspeakers. The Meteor Mipa amp’s Zeppelin-like shape not only looks exotic, but it also reduces infernal standing waves. Other distinctive qualities of this high-efficiency amp are that it’s battery-powered with a chassis made of real wood (American maple) that can be painted in a variety of custom finishes. It’s slated to be in market by summer and to retail for around $45k. On Dean Martin’s breathy baritone and Peter, Paul & Mary’s smooth harmonies, this demo proved to be one of the more transparent I heard at the show—quite natural, realistic, and beautiful with striking resolution and finely filigreed detail.

Under Harman auspices the Mark Levinson marque presented a slew of debuts, including a couple in my bailiwick that ought to please analog lovers: The world premiers of the No. 523 preamplifier and the No. 534 amplifier. Both are dual-monaural. The 523 is closely related to the No. 526, and the 534 monoblock looks a lot like the No. 536—though the 534 contains a dual-monaural reconfiguration of the 536’s architecture for 250W in stereo. The 523 is equipped with a discrete, balanced circuit, an R2R ladder volume control, a Class A phonostage, a Class A headphone amp, and five line-level analog inputs. The 534 is a high-current, low-feedback design that delivers 250Wpc into 8 ohms. It features a direct-coupled signal path with Class A voltage gain and drive stages.

CH Precision introduced its new I1 universal integrated amplifier—the Swiss manufacturer’s first-ever integrated—the result of melding elements from its A1, C1, L1, and P1 components. Designed to be a flexible heart of a smaller-footprint system, the Class AB amp comes with a full array of inputs (digital, analog, phono, USB, and Ethernet) and offers eq curve and audio input cards as options. The base price is €26,800; U.S. price is TBD.

EMM Labs debuted its new MTRX2 monoblocks ($85/pr.)—rated at 600W into 8 ohms, 800W into 4 and expected for a fall release—driving Lansche Cubus Mk II speakers in a digital-only setup with a new DA2 DAC ($25k).

Demetris Backlavas introduced his brand-new Ypsilon Hyperion monoblocks ($85k/pr.; slated for summer release) that feature completely overhauled Class AB circuitry design that delivers 400 watts into 8 ohms, with the first 100 watts in Class A.

Audioarts presented a couple of electronics debuts, the Frans ​de Wit Signature Century amplifier with 100Wpc in a pure current design (approx. $65k), and the NEM Pra-5 tube preamp (€16,900) that drove ultra-luxe, made-in-Germany three-way Zellaton speakers (€300k).

I noted a few debuts on static display, the Esoteric F-03A Class A integrated amplifier (approx. $15.6k), for one. In the middle tier of the Japanese company’s lineup, it delivers 30Wpc into 8 ohms (60Wpc into 4) and is expected to ship in July.

Alongside the ginormous Burmester C500 speakers (in concept phase, though Burmester had its own semi-enclosed freestanding booth where you could watch a short video on them!) were heavy-duty, futuristic-industrial-looking monoblocks on static display. These cube-shaped 2000-watt Class AB powerhouses are currently in the product-certification-process stage and are expected in market by the end of the year, according to a Burmester rep.

You can count on Crystal Cable to deliver the unexpected and the innovative. Last year (and this) it was a virtual-reality tour of Gabi and Edwin’s hometown and factory via Oculus Rift goggles. This year the biggest surprise was a static-only room display. However, the company did introduce the Scala, a curvilinear accessory piece made of heavy-duty, elegantly machined aluminum for placement atop the petite Minissimo loudspeakers to enhance radiation patterns and minimize edge distortion. There’s also a 200Wpc integrated to come to be priced at around $15k. I’ll be reviewing the latest Minissimos down the line, so I look forward to giving the Scalas a try.

I came across a couple of notable European debuts of important products, the Aesthetix Metis tube linestage ($25k) and the Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems’ Progression monoblocks ($39k/pr.), both of which made their active system debuts at AXPONA in April (see my report for details). Musical Surroundings demo’d the Metis with the Aesthetix Rhea Eclipse phonostage ($10k) and Atlas Mono Eclipse amplifiers ($25k–$28k/pr.) driving Verity Parsifal Anniversary loudspeakers, sourced with AMG Viella V12 turntable and 12JT tonearm with the new DS Audio DS Master 1 optical cartridge ($22.5k) for a very ear-pleasing system overall. The D’Agostino Progression monoblocks were presented with the D’Agostino Momentum preamplifier, Sonus faber Lilium speakers, with an EAT E Flat turntable and Meridian 818V3 and MC 200 digital sources in another great-sounding setup.

From the AVM Ovation line came the debut of the MA 6.2 monoblocks (€14.9k–€16.6k) driving Gauder Akustik Berlina RC 8s in a large room that seemed pretty consistently packed. No wonder—the music sounded remarkably dimensional and rich (I almost couldn’t believe it was digital!). Elsewhere in my category’s debut-land, a few other notables included the Kondo Audio Note G-1000 stereo line preamp flagship (approx. $110k) in a rich, heavy-hitting setup with Kaiser Kawero speakers; and the introduction of monoblocks from Kagura ($160/pr.) offering 50W of SET power.

Other Contenders/Great-Sounding Gear

There are a number of other rooms that presented noteworthy products and demos. (Apologies if this resembles a roll-call, but there’s a word count limit.)

I was thrilled to come across Audiodata of Salzburg at last year’s show, and this year the loudspeaker maker’s room did not disappoint. Its Art One speakers were driven by new Tonart electronics: The prototype stereo amp and phono preamp are in the last stages of testing and due to market by the fall. Alas, these companies don’t currently have U.S. distribution, but hopefully that will change soon. Italian craft-loudspeaker company Rosso Fiorentino demo’d its fine-sounding wares with electronics from Thrax, which seemed to be a favorable match, offsetting the transducers’ tendency towards rich, slightly darkish coloration. Another interesting, even somewhat unexpected combination was the Kharma EV-2 loudspeakers driven by dCS electronics with a United Home Audio Phase 12 OPS tape deck source. Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” provided plenty of pulsating energy. Although things got a touch heavy in the bass regions, there was solid resolution, spaciousness, and overall musicality that made for enjoyable, exciting listening. This room also wins for the most creative sound damping décor: live moss accented with faux tropical butterflies covered the walls. JBL Everest with Mark Levinson No. 536 monoblocks, No. 526 preamp, with a No. 519 audio player source proved quite impressive for digital, particularly on some jazz cuts—plenty of snap and attack, quite dimensional and very present, highly detailed and musical. With the RP10 ’table, “If You Were the Only Girl” from Dream with Dean captured all the intimacy and breathiness of Martin’s silky-smooth baritone crooning. Timbre was rich, with lots of depth. Göbel Epoque Reference loudspeakers and CH Precision M1 monoblocks delivered quite pleasing sound with outstanding imaging and resolution, remaining very musical, yet remarkably realistic on Peter, Paul & Mary. However, on “Fools Rush In” Dean Martin’s vocals sounded a touch extra smoky and slightly darkish in timbre. Once in a while I detected some lack of cohesion in the bass but overall this was a great-sounding system. The room with MartinLogan Neolith hybrid electrostats (pictured) paired with Constellation Hercules monoblocks seemed to be plagued by its share of issues this show (broken cartridge, amp damaged in shipping, etc.), but given that this system took many a TAS Best of Show at CES, we know this can be a winning combo. (In fact, I believe the Constellation Inspiration amps wound up driving the Neoliths instead of the Hercules.) It’s not that it ever sounded bad; it’s just that it’s been uh, astronomically better.

In Other News: Lifestyle and Personal Audio

Astell&Kern unveiled a trio of new products to get excited about. First, the AK300 digital music and media player ($899), which features 64GB of internal memory, a single AK4490 DAC, and many of the high-res capabilities of the AK320. Next comes the A&K’s new graphene cable (price TBD), slated to be in market later this year. Graphene is a carbon allotrope that has a wealth of desirable hi-fi-friendly properties: Stretchable and flexible, it’s a million times thinner than human hair, 200 times stronger than steel, and is reportedly the world’s most conductive material. There are assorted vibrant colors in development. Sounds like these might be the next go-to cables for personal audio.

The Korean company’s third—and arguably most intriguing—debut is the AK Recorder ($795), which offers a great deal of flexibility for general recording and/or capturing and transferring vinyl to digital files via USB or microSD card. There are three input options, and you can choose 16-bit or double DSD at sample rates of 2.8MHz or 5.6MHz, in addition to different gain options). At present, metadata can be accessed online using Gracenote, but I was told metadata capabilities would be expanded in a future release. The recorder, which allows for up to four hours of recording time on a charge, was shown paired with a small-scale tripod and a range of mike setups, including wireless.

The late-stage prototype of the HiFiMan Supermini portable player ($399) plays all formats including DSD and comes with 256GB of internal memory and can accept an SD card for increased storage. It also offers a 300mW-per-channel headphone amplifier with balanced and unbalanced headphone outputs and a 22-hour battery life. It’s slightly wider, taller, and thicker than a credit card, but not by much. Supermini, indeed.

Lyravox, a Hamburg, Germany-based manufacturer of uniquely designed, handmade, all-in-one soundbars, debuted the Stereomaster SM3, a smaller incarnation of the flagship SM2-200 (from €23.7k). It has 12 built-in drivers, including four 7-inch ScanSpeak woofers, a pair of ScanSpeak beryllium tweeters, and a ScanSpeak Illuminator ring radiator. The system is an “octo-amped” digital/active design with eight internal channels powered by Pascal amplifiers. Source options include a TEAC CD-SN 240 CD player, Audivo HD streamer, USB, and AptX Bluetooth. There’s a remote control in addition to iPad and Android apps. These “unicabinet” systems’ streamlined, horizontal form factors are reminiscent of vintage car grilles, so their look might be polarizing, but a wall-mounted unit might be just the ticket for less-than-palatial city living spaces. Far from cheap, these are hand-built statement products available in five colors, four veneers, and three kinds of metal. More finishes are offered at additional cost, with virtually unlimited options via the Lyravox Custom Craft program. And should you require a special hi-fi installation solution for your yacht or private jet, the company does that, too.

Speaking of making a statement, perhaps the most surprising product I saw at the show were the speakers from Volya Audio Systems featuring black lacquer finishes covered in traditional Ukrainian Petrikovsky floral patterns painted by hand by Lyudmila Gorbulya.

Best Sound (Cost No Object)

A tie between the rooms with Vitus SS-103 Signature Series Extreme Stereo power amp driving Gauder Akustik RC 7 Mk II loudspeakers and Soulution Series 7 electronics and new 511 driving the Magico M-Pro speakers. 

Best Sound (For the Money)

The tiny but mighty Air Tight Bonsai one-ways ($2.5k). With full, expansive, and highly detailed sound, these compact speakers take to a higher level what a single driver (and no crossover) can do.

Most Significant Introduction

A tie between two Swiss makers: The Soulution 511 stereo amplifier and the upcoming 330 integrated, both of which (slightly) lower the cost of entry to the Swiss maker’s world-class solid-state sound, and CH Precision’s first-ever integrated, the I1. Also, the Astell&Kern AK Recorder ($795) could do wonders for those who want to digitize vinyl.

Most Significant Trend

Clearing countless rooms with my rockin’ and dynamically challenging Return to the Moon LP from El Vy. Most setups could hardly touch its deep reaches of bass.