Munich High End 2016: Loudspeakers $20k and Up

Show report
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Munich High End 2016: Loudspeakers $20k and Up

Though I expected nothing less, this year’s edition of the Greatest Audio Show on Earth proved to be great all over again. Not only were there more products on display—imagine a collision between CEDIA and CES in their prime—but the sound was, for the most part, better too. In spite of the usual sonic bleed-through from the side-by-side, glassed-in, dry-walled cubicles that the MOC calls “exhibition rooms,” transparency to sources was surprisingly high.

Since virtually every speaker at the MOC cost $20k or more, I had a lot of ground to cover, so, without further ado and with the usual apologies in advance to manufacturers for any mistakes in nomenclature or pricing, here is my virtual tour of loudspeakers costing $20k or more at Munich High End 2016.

Five Best-Sounding Rooms

The British loudspeaker company Living Voice has been bringing its ultra-expensive horn systems to Munich year in and year out, and its offerings have always sounded good. But this year the presentation was better than that. The £250k Vox Palladium—essentially a Vox Olympian with a less costly finish—mated with its £120k Vox Elysian powered subwoofers and driven by Kondo electronics produced the fullest-range, most neutral, seamless, and lifelike sound I’ve heard from a horn system at a trade show. I don't know how LV accomplishes it but the Palladium/Elysian cuts the Gordian knot that ties up almost every other horn speaker: It generates phenomenal low bass (and I mean really low) from exponential-horn-loaded 13” cones and yet somehow manages to mate those cones seamlessly with the Vitavox cone and Vitavox and TAD compression drivers used in the Palladium’s bass, mid/bass, midrange, and treble horns. The result is a system that has all the extension, color, smoothness, bloom, power, pace, speed, focus, and definition you could possibly ask for, without any of the coloration, roughness, or discontinuity of typical horn-loaded speakers. Obviously, a Best of Show contender, but…at a price.

Speaking of great hi-fi’s, Andy Payor’s $102k, four-driver, four-way Rockport Altair II driven by Absolare electronics and sourced by a Kronos turntable sounded abs fab on piano and standup bass. With dark, rich, dense tone color, superb resolution, extraordinarily realistic transient attack, and great definition in the low end, the Altair II produced the most meltingly beautiful piano sound I heard at the show—simply magical reproduction of the piano’s action and the pianist’s touch, thanks to what must be the sweetest beryllium tweeter extant. Another BOS contender, both for realism and musicality, despite the overall darkness of its balance when driven by Absolare’s electronics.

The €60k Vivid Giya G1 four-way, five-driver floorstanders with the curlicue chassis pulled off the best disappearing act of any of the speakers I heard at Munich. Driven by CH Precision electronics, sourced by a TechDAS 3 ’table, and wired with CH cables, they managed to make Dean Martin (from Dream with Dean) sound like a baritone rather than a bass—something that only a few other speakers could accomplish (the Göbel Epoque Reference being chief among them). A bit more dynamic and of a piece than the otherwise superb Göbel, the Giya G1’s had a neutrality, transient speed, and enclosure-free openness that were second to none at MOC. Oh, they may have been a little lean in balance and lacking in bloom (characteristics of CH Precision electronics), but they were so alive in the mids and treble and their bass was so solid and defined (without any of the “bottom-up” darkness of the Absolare-based system) I didn’t care.

Germany’s Gauder Akustik introduced its Berlina RC8 at Munich High End, but it was its €28k, five-driver (Accuton ceramic and diamond cones), three-way RC7 MkII floorstander that turned my head. Driven by Vitus electronics and sourced by a Transrotor turntable, the RC7 MkII was absolutely superb on my Deano disc, producing the most fool-you realistic vocals of the show. With incredible resolution and a perfectly natural tonal balance, the Gauders offered everything but the very deepest bass (for that you’ll need the bigger Berlinas).

For my fifth selection for Best Sounding room, I find myself in a bit of a quandary. I can think of five or ten contenders (from Göbel, Tidal, Audiodata, Vivid Audio, and Stenheim, among others) that would easily fit the bill. But I’m gonna pick the Magico M Pro driven by Soulution 511 stereo amplifiers (being used as monoblocks) and Soulution’s Series 7 preamps, sourced by The Bear turntable, cabled by VoVox, and supported by Critical Mass QXK stands, even though this exhibit was very much a tale of two days. On Day One of the show, the M Pros (which are my references) sounded nothing like what I’m used to at home. On the Stokowski Rhapsodies LP there was way too much bite on the strings, producing an orchestral sound that was unforgivably bright. However, when I returned on Day Three…what a difference! The speakers sounded far more like what I'm used to: rich solid power range, gorgeous treble, tremendous bass, world-class dynamics on Witches’ Brew, gorgeous timbre on PP&M’s “All My Trials” with exceptional reproduction of vibrato. Deano was also a treat, with greater presence, more bloom, and darker richer timbre (but slightly less resolution and immediacy) than the Göbel/CH Precision presentation, which is precisely the difference between Soulution and CH Precision electronics. For their near-magical turnaround (and the job that Cyrill Hammer and Joe Lavrencik did in turning them), the M Pros earn the last slot.  

Other Top Contenders

As fate would have it, my first stop at the show was the Air Tight room, where the $2.5k one-way Bonsai’s were being driven beautifully by Air Tight’s new Thirtieth Anniversary ATM 300B amplifiers. I stopped to pay my respects to Mr. Miura—the living symbol of Japanese high-end audio at its finest—but I stayed to listen, in spite of the fact that the $2k Bonsai’s weren’t anywhere near my bailiwick. On my PP&M disc, the trio’s voices sounded dark, dulcet, gorgeous. The little monitors did equally well with a jazz LP, producing lovely cymbals, superb sax, and well-defined standup bass. I walked away thinking, as I have in the past, that these are wonderful speakers—and that this year’s Munich High End was going to be better sounding than last year’s.

As you have already gathered, I really liked the €175k Göbel Epoque Reference, despite the fact that its bass, which was produced by mulitdriver subwoofers in separate enclosures a mile or so behind the main towers, was disconnected—literally and sonically. The Gauder RC7 MkII excepted, this fascinating speaker system—with its unique bending-wave driver that reproduces the gamut from 170Hz to 30kHz all by itself—came very close to being the most realistic of all contenders on my Dean Martin LP, with superb reproduction of inner detail on Deano’s voice. Mated with CH Precision electronics, it had the virtues and the flaws of CH Precision: incredible detail and presence at a slight cost in bloom and density of color. Since the Göbel itself is rather relaxed in the midrange, the combination took on less of CH’s characteristically crisp analytical tinge, though dynamic life was also slightly reduced. Still and all, this was a great system.

The gorgeous-to-behold €225k three-way Tidal Akiras (which use a 5” diamond midrange driver—the largest diaphragm made out of diamond that Accuton builds), driven by Tidal electronics and wired with Argento Audio cables, were also wonderful in (alas) a relatively rare all-digital room. Dark and rich in timbre with superb power range weight and color, sweet treble, and outstanding transient response, the Akiras sounded exceptionally beautiful, exciting, and high in resolution. They always do.

The €36k Audiodata Art One three-way, with aluminum tweeter and two mid/bass drivers, was, as noted, also a finalist on my short list of Best Sounds at the show. I liked Audiodata’s slightly larger speakers last year, and I loved its smaller one this year. Absolutely gorgeous on my Deano and PP&M LPs, with some of the best reproduction of string bass I heard in Munich, they may not have been the last word in detail but had I given an award for sheer gorgeousness of sound they would’ve won. This is a superb speaker from a company that richly deserves distribution in the U.S.

Driven by Trinnov electronics in a digital-only system, the €40k Vivid Audio Giya G2 four-way five-driver floorstander put on the same disappearing act as its bigger brother, the Giya G1. Extremely open and boxless, it sounded seamless and alive on jazz quartet, in spite of the fact that it was using a DSP crossover and room correction. This was a very very good sound. A BOS contender, in fact.

Gauder Akustik’s €64k Berlina RC8 three-way, made its debut at the show, driven by AVM electronics and wired by Nordost. An evolution of the RC7, which made my Top Five, the RC8 uses the same driver complement as the 7 but with a more elaborate crossover and enclosure. Though sources were digital, the new Gauder was quite neutral in balance with lifelike presence on voice and well-defined deep bass. Its lovely sound might have made the Top Five had I been able to listen to more familiar (analog) sources.

The €90k JBL Project Everest 67000 three-way horn/cone hybrid loudspeaker, driven by Levinson electronics, proved to be just as terrific as its bigger brother, the 97000, did in Vegas, with the added bonus of considerably better integrated bass. Full-bodied, powerful, present, and surprisingly of a piece from top to bottom (though not at the utterly seamless level of the Living Voice), it sounded wonderful to my ears. No, it didn’t have the tightest imaging on Aaron Neville’s “Everybody Plays the Fool.” On the other hand it displayed a superb blend of detail, color, and presence on Dream with Dean. There are good reasons why this speaker is so popular.

The $85k MartinLogan Neolith driven by Constellation’s Altair II preamp and Inspiration Mono amps and sourced by Constellation’s new Continuum turntable was, like the Magico M Pros, a story of two days. When I first auditioned the system on Thursday, it was nothing special—very detailed (as ’stats and Constellation electronics tend to be) but also dry and grainy. On my return several days later, the speaker was not dry or grainy at all. Extremely lifelike on voice on Ms. Mullins’ El Vy LP and on my PP&M disc, the Neolith rivaled the Living Voice, Vivid Giya, Gauder Akustik, and Göbel rooms for midrange realism, though it still lacked snap and coherence in the bottom octaves.

Voxativ showed its €88k Ampeggio Due single-driver speaker, which I've very much liked at previous shows, and very much liked again here. Driven by Voxativ electronics and Totaldac digital (no analog), the Due sounded exceedingly lovely on guitar, voice, drumkit, and bass. This really is the most remarkable single-driver speaker I’ve heard when it comes to full frequency response (with a particularly rich power range) and lifelike transient speed, and, like the tiny Bonsai, came very close to being a BOS simply because of the triumphant coherence of its single-driver sound.

Wilson Audio loudspeakers were being shown, with greater or lesser degrees of success, in many rooms at the MOC (Sasha Series 2s with ARC, Alexias with Ypsilon, etc.). To my ear the best Wilson presentation was the Alexia in the Nagra room with a Kronos ’table and analog mastertapes. Driven by Nagra electronics (including one of its great reel-to-reel tape player), the Alexias had superb balance, gorgeous tone color, very deep and well-defined bass, and an overall realism that brought them very close to a Best of Show award.

Stenheim showed its €50k Alumine Five four-driver three-way with Audio Consulting turntable, preamp, phono amp, and amp, Nagra digital, and Brandt cable from Geneva. This was quite a remarkable setup as I heard things through it that I hadn't heard as clearly on anything else, such as Paul's fingering of Sebastian (his twelve-string casket-style guitar) on my PP&M LP. A Best of Show contender, for sure.

Elsewhere at the Show

Cessaro displayed its €300k Gamma 2 spherical-horn loudspeaker with wall-to-wall horn-loaded subs. Powered by Cessaro’s own electronics and sourced by a TW Acustic turntable, the Gamma 2 system was gorgeous in timbre (particularly on strings) and superbly detailed. (When they’re right, horns are only rivaled by ’stats and ribbons on transient details such as pizzicatos.) The system was truly majestic except for the bottommost octave, which simply wasn’t there, and the power range, which was a little leaner than I prefer. Nonetheless, this was the best I've heard Cessaro sound.

MartinLogan’s $25k Renaissance 15A hybrid electrostat, driven by Pass amplification in a digital-only room, was another tale of two days. Though the 15A sounded quite nice on “Mathilda” on Day One, with less of a seam between the cone bass and the ’stat panel than I heard in Vegas, there was still a different quality to the woof and a bit of a veil in the mids.  However, on a second visit two days later, that veil was seemingly lifted on a Fairfield Four recording. All four voices were reproduced with warm, rich, lifelike presence and very little sense of an enclosure because of the remarkably three-dimensional projection of the quartet in front of the speakers (and this with a digital source).

On my first visit, Magico’s $38k S5 Mk II driven by Constellation  electronics, sourced by a Dr. Feickert ’table with Lyra Atlas, and wired with MIT cables sounded dry and grainy (shades of the Neoliths and Constellation) on my Penderecki Trio LP, though the deep bass was quite good. On a second visit, after the Magico team had given up on analog sources and switched over to digital, the speaker sounded much warmer and fuller in the power range on a viola da gamba recording, with enough body and color to make for a very attractive sound with plenty of air and ambience. As was the case with the Magico M Pro, this was a big improvement, though if I hadn’t heard LPs sound great through my Magico M Pros on a daily basis, I might have begun to wonder whether Alon and Yair’s speakers were designed for and with digital sources only.

The €80k Kaiser Kawero!—yes, folks, I finally made it to the Kaiser room—is a beautifully finished three-way floorstander with a RAAL ribbon tweeter and reflex-loaded cone-driver midrange and woofer. Driven by Kondo electronics and sourced by a Kondo Ginga turntable with Kondo IO-M cartridge, the Kawero! produced a rich solid sound on The Pink Panther soundtrack, with very good dynamic bite on brass and gorgeous tone. Had the bass not been quite so boomy in this room the Kawero! would certainly have been a top contender. The sound was beautiful.

One of my favorites, the $250k, twin-tower (D'Appolito Radialstrahler array and separate woofer column) MBL X-Treme, driven (of course) by MBL electronics, proved, alas, a letdown. I’ve heard this speaker sound great at shows (and in my listening room), but not this year in Munich. Dark, boomy, ill-defined in the bass (the system was crammed into a relatively small space), it didn’t come close to showing what it is capable of (which is a lot).

Zellaton was demo’ing its €300k Statement three-way with five of its super-lightweight foil/foam-diaphragm drivers arrayed in a D'Appolito configuration on a gorgeous enclosure made of a sandwich of wood, aluminum, stainless steel, and bronze, and finished with a “bombproof” top-coating for ultra-stiffness. Driven by a Franz de Wit amplifier, sourced by a Reed table, and wired with Schnerzinger cables, the Zells sounded dark, lovely, and relaxed on my Deano and PP&M LPs at moderate levels. However, when the volume went up, on Ms. Mullins’ El Vy disc, the Statement’s drivers began to audibly distort, plus the speaker had no real deep bass and seemingly dulled transient attacks when pushed hard. I’m willing to chalk much of this up to room, amplification, setup, and source, but I sure would like to hear the Zells sound the way they did two years ago, when they won my Best of Show award in Munich. On small-scale music, that was as realistic a presentation as I’ve ever heard at a trade show, and I’d like to have that sound back!

Kharma’s €350k EV-2 four-way D'Appolito floorstander, driven by Kharma electronics and sourced by United Home Audio Phase 12 OPS tape deck, sounded sort of laid-back on a mastertape dub of Hugh Maskela’s Hope, which is anything but a laid-back-sounding recording, and lacked a bit of weight and color in the power range on a tape of Michael Jackson’s extremely hard-hitting “Black and White.” The EV-2 was, however, extremely fast and clear on digital sources, with very solid, well defined, and deep bass (albeit also with what sounded like a slight resonance in the mids on female voice). A good showing for Kharma’s Charles van Oosterum’s babies, but not the great one I’ve heard Kharma speakers provide.

Lansche showed its €65k Cubus Mk II three-way driven and sourced by EMMLabs electronics. The sound was very dark, sweet, and civilized with less of the usual Lansche discontinuity and sluggishness in the bass, though the low end still lagged a bit on a gypsy music cut and was a bit one-note. Still, that plasma tweeter was terrific.

The €100k Peak Consult Dragon loudspeakers driven by Auris electronics, sourced by a Transrotor ’table with Triplanar arm, and wired with Purist Audio cables made a warm spacious sound on my vinyl with nice growl on bass guitar. This was a good room.

Odds and Ends

Blumenhofer showed its FS1 two-way horn-loaded loudspeaker with Air Tight electronics. The speaker was gorgeous on a four-piece jazz ensemble recording, with excellent color and dynamics. However, it fell down on a James Taylor vocal, where it sounded ill-focused and badly sucked out at crossover. The €52k Albedo Alecta three-way twin-transmission-line floorstander with ceramic drivers, driven by VTL, sourced by Blackstone turntable, and wired with Faber cables was light, airy, fast, and open, with just a touch of darkness in midrange timbre. Focus Audio’s €45k Master 2 BE D'Appolito floorstander with ScanSpeak beryllium tweeters and Eton midrange and woofer driven by Jadis electronics and sourced by a Metronome Technologie Kalista created a dark, rich, heavyish sound, with a soft, sweet treble. The Raidho D3.1 (pictured) driven by CAT sounded gorgeous on a cover of Billie Jean—dark, fast, detailed, and lively. But its soundstage was phasey, with a hole in the middle, due (as it was at CES) to too wide separation between the speakers. Still, this was quite a realistic presentation in spite of the weirdish imaging. (Raidho also showed its D4.1, which sounded superb in the mids and treble but thumpy in the bass.)

The €45k Diapason Dynamis three-way with ScanSpeak woofer and CS mid and tweeter driven by VDH (van den hull) electronics and sourced by a Basis turntable created a nice, light, transparent sound. The €45k Marten Mingus Quintet (pictured) driven by Analog Domain was a little too dark in balance but quick and detailed, as are all Martens—a good showing. 

The $25k Verity Audio Parsifal Anniversary (pictured), sourced by AMG with DS Audio cart, driven by Aesthetix electronics, and wired with Cardas cable sounded dark (once again), excitingly dynamic, and a bit reduced in soundstage and imaging size, with instruments seeming to congregate between the speakers rather than to the outside of them. Still, overall balance was sweet and warm with good resolution. The Verity Sarastro IIs driven by Audia Flight electronics, sourced by a beautiful L'Art du Son table with Lyra Aetna cart, and wired with Cardas cables sound very much like the Parsifals but more expansive and incisive. Backes&Muller €75k BM 35 active floorstander with nine amps per side had a very solid, albeit boxy presentation (at least where I was sitting). When the company switched to its €30k BM 20 the sound became quite beautiful, with exquisite reproduction of touch and timbre on a piano recording and considerable bottom octave power.

Burmester showed its C500 Concept—a huge aluminum-bodied loudspeaker with an MTM on the front panel and four side-mounted woofers. Judging from Chopin Impromptu No. 1 at low levels, the speaker was very clear, fast, and precise with tone color that was not overly warm but not bleached, either. Gryphon showed its two-column €220k Kodo with powered woofer towers (with 8 woofers per tower), and Mumford AMT and custom-made ScanSpeak mids and woofs in a 10-driver MTM configuration for the main column. I didn't get to hear this imposing number (with a shipping weight of over one ton), but Robert reported that it sounded wonderful.

Finally, one of my old favorites Avantgarde Acoustic showed its €21.9k Uno with DSP, which sounded excellent, with just a touch of room-induced heaviness in its otherwise remarkably solid and well defined bass. The speaker uses a new amplifier and midrange driver—both clearly improvements.

Best of Show (price no object)

The Living Voice Vox Palladium and Vox Elysian, a more-than-a-million-dollar system including electronics and wiring, which only goes to prove, to quote Roy Gregory (who reviewed these gorgeous things), that life is no fairer in high-end audio than it is anywhere else. If you got it, flaunt it. If you don't…well, I’m sure I’ll hear from you online, once I post this report.

Best of Show (for the money)

On the other hand, Richard Vandersteen’s 5A Carbons driven by Richard’s own M7-HPA amps and sourced by Brinkman Spyder turntable (with EMT-ti cart and Edison phonostage) don’t cost anywhere near a million dollars but they sounded like a million in München. A truly great system.

Most Significant Introduction

The Vox Palladium, I guess.

Most Significant Trend

Turntables, turntable, turntables.