Munich High End 2019: Loudspeakers

Show report
Categories:
Floorstanding,
Stand-mount,
Subwoofers
Munich High End 2019: Loudspeakers

The biggest and best audio show in the world was, I’m pleased to say, good-sounding on the whole, which has not always been the case in the past in Munich. Oh, there were the usual room nodes and specular reflections, but more often than not the speakers on display showed well in spite of any added boom or sibilance.

Please note that I had to cover everything in the way of loudspeakers this year—from Elac’s phenomenal $2400 Carina to Living Voice’s half-million dollar Vox Palladian. So I was…busy. I did my best, but I’m sure that I didn’t get to every room in the MOC, and I’m also sure that I’ve made a few hasty mistakes in pricing and nomenclature. (Try taking notes on an iPhone and see how accurate you are.) My apologies to the folks I missed and to those whose data I’ve screwed up. As I’ve said many times before, I’m just one guy with a briefcase full of blues, jazz, and classical, and this year the assignment was, well, daunting. 

The Best

The demure $21.5k Rockport Atria three-way (9" carbon-fiber-composite woofer, 6" carbon-fiber-composite midrange, 1" beryllium dome tweeter in a constrained-layer-damped enclosure) was being driven by Absolare’s $26.5k Passion integrated, sourced by ReQuest Audio’s $15k The Raptor Plus server/DAC, and wired with Echole Infinity cables. The system was digital only, but from the first notes of a recording of a vocalist/guitarist the sound was exceptional—dark or bottom-up in balance (as was just about everything else in the MOC) but with lots of bloom and air around and behind the singer, lots of rich harmonics on the guitar, and lots of low-level detail, including audible foot taps, within a very deep soundstage. Yello’s “Dark Side” was reproduced with the same cushion of air around vocalists and instrumentalists. It was this lifelike bloom, which I attribute to Absolare’s hybrid integrated (tube preamp/solid-state power amp), that made the system stand out. Like the Magico M2 (but smaller and cheaper), the Rockport Atria is a lot of speaker for the money.

On the solid-state side, a suite of top-line CH Precision electronics (found everywhere at this show) was driving the $93k, four-way, five-driver (in an exponentially tapered bass-reflex enclosure) Vivid Audio Giya G1 Spirit loudspeaker, sourced by TechDAS’s new flagship Zero turntable. Though I didn’t get to hear my own LPs on this system (the room was constantly jammed), what I did hear and was familiar with—Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, for example—had a genuine boxless openness, dead-center neutrality (in this overall darkish-sounding show), and a thrilling dynamic range (on the brasses in Belafonte’s orchestra, for one) that was as lifelike as anything in Munich. A Best of Show finalist, for sure.

Verity Audio’s $48k, three-way, three-driver (aluminum-foil ribbon tweeter, 6" midrange, 11" woofer in a woofer-in-the-rear-of-the-enclosure configuration) Sarastro IIS, driven by Engstrom’s €30k Arne fully balanced 300B integrated, sourced by a Computer Audio Design DAC, and wired with Bibacord cable from Sweden had much of the same open boxlessness of the Giya with none of the timbral darkness or cupped-hands hollowness of many other dynamic speakers in Munich. Instead the Sarastros had naturally brighter timbre top to bottom, lifelike bloom (from the Engstrom Arne, I assume), and expansive dynamics without any of the excess sibilance that was also commonplace at the MOC. This was also a very finely detailed system, making it another BOS contender. 

A perpetual challenger for (and past winner of) Best of Show, Zellaton displayed its €147,950 three-way, five-driver (2" cone tweeter, 6" cone midrange, three 9" cone woofers) Reference MkII driven by Japan’s very pricey YS monoblock amps and preamp, sourced by Reed Muse 3C and Muse 1C turntables with Top Wing Red Sparrow and DS Master One cartridges (respectively), and wired with Schnerzinger cables and conditioning. On my Leonard Cohen: Live In London album, through the Red Wing the Zells produced a very nice sense of ambience around Cohen’s voice on “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” truly gorgeous timbre on the accompanying instruments, and terrific separation on the backup singers’ vocals. Deep bass was also good, though maybe not the last word in definition and extension, and dynamics were respectable albeit a little soft. The thing that sets the Zells apart isn’t, strictly speaking, a matter of the usual audiophile-checklist virtues, but an overall seamlessness that is more single-driver-like and more natural than the more prismatic presentation of other multiway dynamics. The speaker excels at simple mixes like my Chet Baker LP, where it was superb on Chet’s voice and the bass, cymbal, and piano accompaniment. On more complex arrangements, such as “Street of Dreams” from Sinatra At The Sands, it generated the same exceptional sense of depth and spaciousness, a superb facsimile of Sinatra’s voice and the timbre of Basie’s big band, though that band was a bit more recessed than what I’m used to and, thus, not as thrillingly dynamic as it can be. On the other hand, the Zells did an excellent job on the drums, horns, organ, piano, and guitars of The Band’s very dynamic “The Shape I’m In,” making it, once again, a contender for BOS.

Last year’s BOS-winning, better-than-half-a-million-euro, horn-loaded Living Voice Vox Palladian, powered by Kondo electronics as usual, and supplemented by designer Kevin Scott’s massive Vox Basso subwoofer was rather a story of two days. (As with many of the exhibits, I visited the room on different afternoons.) On Day One, the Voxes seemed to blend very well with their woofers, which went quite deep and were well-defined on an electronica cut. The horn system also displayed remarkable delicacy of texture and color, for instance on ride cymbals. Despite a touch of upper-midrange brightness, the speakers had terrific presence and detail top to bottom. On Day Two, I was sitting in a more centered spot and the sound was just plain gorgeous, with wonderful body and touch on piano; unfortunately, the bottom octaves were a mite too plummy in a narrow mid-to-upper bass band on both piano and cello. It was undoubtedly a room node, but it didn’t keep this truly superb loudspeaker out of the running for best of show.

Magico’s three-way, four-driver M2s driven by Soulution electronics, sourced by a Kronos ’table/phonostage with Goldfinger cart, cabled by MIT and Kubala wire, and sitting on CMS stands sounded much as they did at AXPONA Chicago. Lennie’s “Ain’t No Cure” was reproduced with nice focus on voice but a touch of sibilance. Son House’s “Death Letter” had a little excess sting on voice and guitar but was otherwise quite natural and freed up, bespeaking the quality of Magico’s carbon-fiber/aluminum box. On a second visit, the system seemed quite devoid of sibilance on digital sources, producing a dark, detailed, gorgeous sound, particularly on Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms.” A strong BOS contender. (The Magico M2 with also being shown with Constellation Revelation electronics—PictorAndromeda, and Taurus—and Constellation’s Obsidian turntable with wiring by Nordost. It made for an interesting comparison with the Soulution room. Though the two systems were more similar than different, the Constellation setup had a bit more snap on Son House’s hard-plucked guitar and a little leaner—or arguably more neutral—timbre on his voice. Overall the Constellation was a bit tauter, livelier, and more detailed than the Soulution but not as rich in color or as liquid and dimensional.)

MartinLogan showed its $80k, three-way, electrostatic-hybrid Neolith (large curvilinear electrostatic panel, 12" front-firing carbon-fiber mid/woofer crossed over at 400Hz, and rear-firing, ported 15" subwoofer), driven by Pass Labs electronics, sourced by an EMMLabs DA2 and a VPI HW-40 turntable, and wired with and conditioned by MIT. Combining a supremely lively and lifelike boxless ’stat sound in the midrange and treble with the best blend of a dynamic woofer/subwoofer of any ML hybrid I’ve heard, the Neolith was superb on a digital cut of Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert lieder—and on everything else played. So fast and clean and open, these speakers just don’t sound like dynamics; it is as if they aren’t dragging that cone-and-box chain behind them. Of course, they didn’t have all the midbass weight and power of cones either, but with the most finely detailed and realistic midrange I heard in Munich, they simply stood ahead of the competition. 

Speaking of speakers that didn’t sound like cones in a box, Avantgarde Acoustics showed its $60k, three-way (25mm tweeter, 170mm midrange, 300mm woofer), spherically horn-loaded Duo Mezzo XD, driven (of course) by Avantgarde electronics in a digital-only system, and it sounded great, just as it did in Chicago, with tremendous speed, weight, and impact on trombone, trumpet, guitar, and bass. While not as transparent and seemingly enclosure-less as ML’s see-through ’stats, it was so much more realistically dynamic than most other transducers and so naturally rich in tone color that it could not be considered anything but a BOS contender.

New to Munich, Michael Børresen’s $110k, two-and-a-halfway, seven-driver (with ribbon tweeter), Børresen 05 quasi-D’Appolito floorstander driven by an Aavik C-300 integrated preamp and M-300 monoblock amps, and cabled by top-line Ansuz wire in a CD-only digital system was the last exhibit I visited on the last day of the show—and the listening experience was well worth the wait. Very beautiful in timbre with truly remarkable delicacy of color and articulation on guitar and voice, it had the naturally crisp presence of Michael’s previous ribbon designs combined with a newfound sweetness of timbre that was ravishingly lovely and natural. Bottom-up in balance and a mite too heavy in the midbass (in the jerrybuilt Halle room it was sitting in) the 05 had a transient speed and fineness of detail like nothing else I’d heard from a cone loudspeaker, plus a wraparound soundstaging that was only rivaled by the big MBLs. With superb articulation and resolution, this was a uniquely great dynamic loudspeaker despite the touch of room boom—kind of like a Zellaton or an ML with balls. I can’t wait to review it.

My current references, the giant omnidirectional $260k MBL X-Tremes, driven and sourced (of course) by MBL’s own electronics, had a spectacularly successful show. As good as some of them were, no other speakers sounded like this—sensational dimensionality, detail, color, dynamics, and ambient retrieval and immersion in same. Listening to a portion of a Bach Cello Suite  played live, then hearing a recording played back through the X-Tremes was living proof of their accuracy and verisimilitude. The X-Tremes’ sheer solidity of imaging is different than that of other speakers because of their uncannily lifelike three-dimensionality. Playback of a CD of the Bavarian Radio Choir and various soloists on Bach’s St John’s Passion through the X-Treme came as near to creating the sensation of being in the large reverberant space in which the disc was recorded as loudspeakers can get. In spite of the stiff competition, this was the overall best of show. Period.

The Next Best

Though I haven’t been a fan of Harbeths in the past, the company’s new, 40thanniversary, $18k three-way, stand-mount Monitor 40.2, driven and sourced by Magnum and Dynalab, impressed me with its very neutral palette, good depth, and excellent focus. Though a bit dry and lean in the power range, it had excellent articulation in the low bass and realistic timbre in the mids, with lifelike attack, timing, and sheer physicality on piano. It was also very rich and natural on cello. This was the best I’ve heard these speakers sound at a show. 

A personal favorite from previous shows, Audiodata of Salzburg’s €70k, three-way, five-driver (with coax mid/tweeter) Master One, now in an all-passive version bi-amped by Soulution electronics and sourced by a Tonearts turntable, put on another great show this year. On LC’s “Ain’t No Cure” it was just as terrific as it’s been in the past—dark, smooth, detailed, beautiful. Though it didn’t develop quite the dynamic drive and soundstage breadth it should have had on The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” (the room was holding it back), it was still remarkably detailed and lovely sounding. I honestly don’t understand why this excellent loudspeaker isn’t being distributed in the U.S. 

Driven by top-line Engstrom electronics and sourced by a Wadax Atlantis DAC/server/transport and a Kronos Pro turntable with ZYX cart, the giant, $220k, three-way, five-driver (two 12" long-throw woofers, two 8" “bending-wave” midranges, and one AMT tweeter with massive aluminum waveguide, all housed in an acoustically optimized, constrained-layer-damped, 580-pound enclosure) Goebel Divin Noblesse was almost as impressive in Munich as it was in AXPONA three weeks ago, capturing Chet Baker’s voice with outstanding naturalness (and no excess sibilance) and doing an equally lifelike job with the accompanying piano, bass, and cymbal. It was also superb on Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucía’s Friday Night In SF album, reproducing the fiery guitar work with tremendous resolution, speed, and color.

Joseph Audio’s $15k Perspective2 Graphene two-and-a-halfway sourced by a Technics tape deck was, alongside the Elac Carina (see below), the best buy I came across in Munich—just wonderful on an Elvis tape of spirituals and a Wes Montgomery tape as well. The sound was outstandingly solid, edgeless, powerful, and well defined.

Andrew Jones’ $2400 Elac Carina two-and-a-halfway with AMT tweeter and dual 6" mid/bass drivers in a dual-ported box powered by Peter Madnick’s Elac Alchemy electronics and media player was an absolute steal—wonderful mids and treble with excellent bass extension, power, speed, detail, and color on drum kit and Fender! This was an amazing system that, for a mere $8k, contended for BOS!

Voxativ’s €140k top-line Ampeggio Due back-loaded horn speaker, powered by Voxativ 211 amplifiers, wired with Voxativ cable, and sourced by a Weiss DAC/streamer in a digital-only system was just terrific on a Lou Reed cut and on the Feldermaus overture. With a hybrid field-coil/neodymium driver, Japanese paper cone, goat leather surround, and a new battery power supply for extended bass response, the Ampeggio Due was one of the single-driver highlights of the show.

Kharma’s €350k, seven-driver, four-way, D’Appolito Enigma Veyron EV2D, driven by Kharma’s electronics housed in its €70k Elegance Visionar furniture-grade enclosure, driven by a dCS Vivaldi digital front end, and wired with Kharma cable came very close to being a BOS contender. Dark in overall balance with a just a little hallow of brightness around a piano’s upper  notes, offset by a very solid, finely detailed, beautiful, and dynamic midrange, power range, and bass, this gorgeous-looking, gorgeous-sounding system was the stereo for the man who has everything, including loads of cash.

The $172k, three-way, five-driver (1.1" diamond/beryllium tweeter, 6" nanographene cone midrange, and three 10.5" nanographene cone woofers in an aerodynamic carbon-fiber/aluminum box) Magico M6, sourced by MSB’s Select DAC and driven by MSB’s new M500 monoblock amps produced very deep and defined bass on digital, of course, cuts, with a more neutral palette (less dark) than most of the dynamic speakers in other rooms. While it didn’t have the depth of the Zellatons, it was more open and boxless. A little more aggressive and quicker than the Zells in the upper mids on guitar, it suffered from a small trace of brightness in the treble and a slight bit of boom in what was otherwise a superlative bottom octave, with exemplary power, extension, definition, and harmonics. 

The $200k seven-driver Von Schweikert Ultra 9 powered by VAC’s wonderful 450 IQ integrated and sourced by Acoustic Signature’s superb Invictus Jr. turntable (one of the highest-fidelity analog components I’ve ever heard) sounded considerably less dark than either the Zellatons or the Magicos—quite natural in overall balance, actually. However, its low end was not as well defined as that of the Magicos on standup bass and its mids were quite a bit more sibilant than that of the Zells on Chet Baker’s voice (the piano accompaniment was brighter, too). On my Lennie disc, the Ultra 9s had excellent focus, depth, and breadth on Cohen’s spoken intro, and sounded pretty natural on his husky gargle of a singing voice, though the Hammond organ wasn’t as prominent as it should have been. Minus a touch of sibilance and midbass boom, which rather masked low-end extension, this was a good presentation—just not quite contender quality. 

Crystal Cable showed its $20k Minissimo Diamond two-ways driven by its Cube amp and wired with Crystal Future Dream cable. Sonically delicate and lovely, and virtually invisible as a sound source, the Crystal is a supremely elegant mini with genuine musical chops and surprising range for a tiny stylish two-way—kind of a model for what a lifestyle speaker should be, at least for the well-heeled music lover. 

Alfred Vassilkov of Estelon debuted his €110k, four-way, five-driver Forza (ceramic midrange, 8" aluminum-sandwich mid/woof, twin side-mounted 11" woofers, and a diamond tweeter in a gorgeous, sealed, cast-stone enclosure), powered by CH Precision electronics, sourced by a Kronos turntable with ZYX cart, and wired with Kubala Sosna cable. On Heifetz’s Sibelius Concerto LP (RCA) the Forza was quite spacious and beautiful sounding. The Estelon’s sealed cast-stone enclosure also made for a superior disappearing act and super-tight, fast, and extended bass. Despite a touch of ceramic dryness on fiddle, brass, and massed strings, instruments were rich in timbre, well focused, and very finely detailed, with wonderfully lifelike pizzicatos on cellos and doublebasses. On my Chet Baker disc I detected a touch of hollowness and sibilance on Chet’s voice, and a glint of brightness on upper-octave piano, though the cymbal was good and the standup bass (once again) tight. Leonard Cohen’s voice had a neutrality that other darker speakers didn’t have, and the Forza was just plain marvelous on the backup vocalists and the Hammond organ, though there was still a bit of sibilance in the upper mids. Taut, neutral, detailed but a mite dry and airless in this MOC room, the Forza was still impressively good enough that I’d like to hear it again, maybe with different electronics.

On the first day I heard the three-way, five driver $172k Magico M6 driven by Soulution electronics with DeBaer turntable and EMT cart on CMS racks it sounded to my surprise rather bright, shelved forward in the upper mids and treble and shelved back in the power range and bass—not at all what I’m used to from Magico or Soulution. But something had changed and improved when I came back a day or two later. This was more like what I was used to, with terrific speed and dynamics and darker fuller timbre. Reproduction of the Chet Baker LP was among the best I heard, with natural timbre on vocals, piano, bass, and cymbal. Son House also sounded quite natural, though his hard-picked slide guitar playing was not as appropriately stinging as it ought to have been, the imaging a little outsized, and the treble a little bright and sibilant. 

The €250k Kharma Grand Exquisite multiway driven by Engstrom’s Lars 300B-XLS monoblocks, sourced by Wadax’s Atlantis Reference three-box digital player, and wired by fono Acustica cables sounded just plain gorgeous. A truly beautiful presentation, it may have been the loveliest sound at the show (as it was two years ago in Vegas). With tremendous recovery of space and ambience, superb focus and bloom, and ultra-rich color, it was really good on my Chet LP, though the volume was a bit too high, adding a hint of sibilance to voice and piano.

Raidho premiered its €89k TD3.8 five-driver, three-way floorstander with twin 8-inch woofers, a new chassis, a new underhung magnet system, tantalum/diamond-sandwich drivers, a new crossover that is phase aligned to improve timing, an improved ribbon tweeter, and higher sensitivity (90dB). Sourced by a Pear Audio turntable, driven by Chord electronics, wired with Gamut cable, the TD3.8 was a little boomy but fast and extended in the bottommost octave on plucked standup bass and a mite bright on top octave piano. Elsewhere it was dark but quite lovely in timbre, very detailed, fast, and powerful for such a demure speaker, with good depth and air on my Leonard Cohen disc and superior ambience recovery and focus. 

I heard Audio Solutions’ four-driver, three-way, $32k Virtuoso floorstander driven by Vitus Audio electronics in an all-digital system in one of those jerry-built cubicles in the MOC Halles. Despite the less-than-ideal setting, the Virtuoso was very smooth, pleasant, and solid on rock vocals, with good depth on backing instrumentalists. There was no edge or resonance whatsoever and surprising power-range/bass solidity and definition. This is a speaker (from Lithuania, no less) that deserves a longer listen. 

The three-way, three-driver €58k YG Hailey 2.2 driven by Nagra electronics and sourced by a Thales turntable/tonearm with EMT cartridge was quite excellent on my Chet LP—darkish in timbre but very smooth from top to bottom, with no edge or sibilance, no clang on piano, well defined standup bass, and nice cymbal. It made this mono LP from the early 50s sound exactly like it was recorded with ribbon mikes, which it was. A BOS candidate on this cut, it wasn’t quite as excellent on my Leonard Cohen LP, due to a bit of added sibilance on vocals.

Stein Music showed its giant, $290k, partially horn-loaded, multi-driver Bob XL with Stein electronics and cabling and a Tone Tool turntable. On Chet’s “Funny Valentine” it sounded extremely natural on voice and other instruments. This was an excellent demo, with lovely weight, color, and focus.

Rockport’s $38.5k four-driver three-way Avior II driven by Vitus electronics and sourced by a tape machine sounded quite majestic, with excellent dynamic range, powerful bass, and outstandingly solid imaging—superb on doublebasses and cellos and gorgeous on massed strings.

Kawero debuted a big, three-way, four-driver speaker called the Grande that uses two ribbon tweeters (one slightly time-delayed to ensure a more spherical wave launch). Driven by Kondo electronics, turntable, and cable, the Grande sounded quite good on a Melody Gardot LP, and on my Leonard Cohen disc fleshed the Hammond organ out beautifully (simply exceptional) in a huge soundstage! The Fender bass sounded a bit oversized but well defined, and the backups were superbly reproduced. On my Chet Baker disc, the playback level was a little too high, so Chet’s voice was too big and ill-defined. Piano was good but a mite bright, bass fairly well controlled, and cymbals excellent. 

The €185k, three-way, seven-driver (four 8" aluminum-sandwich woofers, 7" ceramic midrange, 2" diamond mid/tweeter, 0.75" diamond tweeter in a bass-reflex enclosure) Marten Mingus Orchestra were being driven by CH Precision electronics and sourced by the new SAT turntable. A touch bright and hard in the treble on a jazz recording (but dark in timbre elsewhere) the Minguses didn’t have the fullish low end I’m used to on my “Ain’t No Cure” cut, though they were very neutral on Cohen’s voice. 

Ypsilon Hyperion electronics sourced by the Dohmann LS1 Mk II turntable were driving Peak Consult’s €130k Phoenix three-ways. Bright in the mids to upper mids on piano, the Consults had good deep bass and power range response, though the speaker was a little too boomy on bass fiddle. On my Chet Baker LP, the Phoenix showed good timbre on voice, but piano and cymbal were not as lifelike as I heard elsewhere at the show. 

Wilson Audio’s Sasha DAW $37.9k four-driver three-way driven by D’Agostino electronics, sourced by dCS, and wired by Nordost had spacious outside the box imaging on Carmina Burana. Though the low bass was tight and lean as in Chicago, the upper bass was quite full and powerful on tuba and trombone. A little bright and congested on choral fortissimos at very loud levels, the DAW had a neutral to dry balance on other recordings with no excess warmth, good midrange power and impact, and superior focus. (The Sasha DAW was also being shown with Spectral electronics and sourced by a Spectral DAC. On Dave Wilson’s famous Enescu Sonata recording, the digital transfer sounded better—less dry—than the original LP. Excellent!)

The Vandersteen System 9 with Brinkmann turntable and electronics and HRS ancillaries made Chet Baker sound slightly phasey and ill-focused, though the timbre of his voice was quite natural.

The €250k Gauder DARC multiway with aluminum-rib construction driven by West End Audio with Western Electric EL-34 tubes and sourced by a CD player and X01 DAC made a big pleasant sound, despite some boom in the bass.

JBL’s $4k, three-way, ported, stand-mounted bookshelf L 100—a genuine blast from the past—was being driven and sourced by Mark Levinson electronics. In spite of a little bite on fortissimos and a touch of one-note bass, these oldies-but-goodies were fast, powerful, and fun in the mids on a digital jazz recording, with good depth and ambience.

Nagra was showing with the $189.6k, eight-driver, two-box (per side), four-way, quasi-D’Appolito YG Sonja XV Jr. floorstander (augmented by a separate YG InVincible subwoofer tower) driven by Nagra’s newest top-line HD electronics and sourced by a Nagra HD DAC X and IV-S tape deck and SME turntable with EMT cart. Although there was too much bass (the InVincible subwoofer was a bit too loud, though it was going very deep, and could be heard as a separate source), the speaker had good focus and, outside the bass, the usual YG iron control and grip and rich dark timbre and high resolution. 

The €37k, 93dB-sensitivity, five-driver, three-way Ayon Audio Black Eagle floorstander with an attractive wraparound wood enclosure and ceramic drivers was being driven by Ayon tube and hybrid solid-state electronics in an all-digital room. This was another very smooth, solid presentation with excellent deep bass resolution and only a bit of sibilance on a female vocal of “Eleanor Rigby.”

Sigma Acoustics’ giant, €150k MAAT Vector XAC, a 100dB-sensitivity multi-way, sounded quite lovely on the RCA LP Venice, driven by tube hybrid electronics and sourced by a Supreme Analog turntable/tonearm. 

JV’s Best of Show

Best Speaker (price-no-object): MBL X-Treme, with the MartinLogan Neolith and the Vivid Audio Giya G1 Spirit runners-up.

Best Speaker (for the money): Elac Carina with the Joseph Audio Perspective2 Graphene and Rockport Atria runners-up.

Best Introduction: Børresen 05.

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