Robert Harley Reports from the Munich Show

Show report
Digital-to-analog converters,
Robert Harley Reports from the Munich Show

I finally made the trip across the Atlantic to see the Munich high-end show for myself, and what a show it is. This annual event has gradually increased in importance over the years to the point that it is arguably the biggest and most important hi-fi show in the world. Although the Munich show is dwarfed by CES, the German event is 100% pure high-end audio—no gadgets, batteries, electronic toys, or other distractions. And with three of the show’s four days open to the public, the vibe was much more oriented toward music and audio. Nearly 15,000 visitors packed the M.O.C., Munich’s convention center, with about 4400 of those visitors in the trade. Here are some of the products that captured my attention.

Danish Loudspeaker Audiophile Industries, better known as DALI, introduced an entirely new upper-end line called Epicon. The three models are based on a new motor technology employed in the midrange drivers and woofers that radically reduces eddy currents. Adapting technology developed for motors in other fields, the drivers are made from iron that has been converted into a granular material and baked at high temperature into a ceramic-like material. The new drivers have vastly lower distortion; the midrange unit has a whopping 19dB less third-harmonic distortion than that of a conventional midrange. Moreover, the distortion is not frequency-dependent as it is with conventional drivers. DALI has created an in-house manufacturing capability to build these new drivers—a first for the company. DALI’s Lars Worre suggested to me that the common practice of introducing a slight midrange dip in loudspeakers to make them more listenenable was probably the result of the high third-harmonic distortion in midrange drivers. The Epicon line starts with the Epicon 2, a two-way stand-mounted model at $5000 euros per pair. The middle model (Epicon 3) is a floorstander featuring DALI’s venerable ribbon tweeter, and the top model (Epicon 8) uses larger woofers. I heard the Epicon 2 and the Epicon 8 (driven by Vitus amplification) and was taken aback by the purity of the midrange, particularly voices. The sound had a tremendous sense of ease and naturalness, and layered voices were superbly resolved. Watch for a review.

Hegel showed a prototype of an ambitious integrated amplifier positioned above the H200 that we reviewed in Issue 211. The new H300 incorporates the same circuits found in the company’s outstanding H30 power amplifier (see my review in Issue 223) and P30 preamp, along with the identical transistor-matching protocol of those flagship units. The $6000 H300 is a powerhouse, with 250Wpc on tap into 8 ohms. The unit also features an integral DAC with five digital inputs. Interestingly, a clock output allows the H300 to be the system’s master clock if you have a digital source with a clock input. Delivery is expected in September.

Siltech introduced a new concept in amplifier architecture: a three-chassis affair in which the preamp is contained in one chassis, the amplifier voltage gain in a second, and the amplifier current gain in the third. Siltech calls this concept SAGA, for Structural Amplifier Gain Architecture. It represents a rethinking of traditional audio-system gain, which is a hold-over from the days before high-output digital sources. Specifically, the preamp doesn’t attenuate input signals, thus preserving maximum dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio. A tenet of good recording practice is to avoid amplifying signals and then attenuating them later in the signal path. Siltech has extended this fundamental concept to a hi-fi system with SAGA. The preamp, which features four tubes in parallel, claims a signal-to-noise ratio of 115dB and a bandwidth of 3.5MHz. It can operate from AC power or an integral battery system. The V1 “interstage” amplifier (the voltage gain stage in its own chassis) is built around a specially selected Telefunken tube. The preamp and V1 interstage can run on AC power or be powered by the integral battery system, which provides up to 15 hours of play time per charge. The P1 power amplifier is solid-state, and can deliver 380Wpc into 8 ohms. A switch allows the system to be optimized for different loudspeaker sensitivities. The preamp is $40,000 as is the V1/P1 pair (which must be used together).

Nagra is refocusing its efforts on the hi-fi market with a company reorganization that puts the high-end audio division in the hands of a smaller and more passionate group within this huge company. Most audiophiles don’t know this, but Nagra makes not only professional audio gear but is the leading developer and manufacturer of high-tech recording devices for security systems and spy-craft. The new hi-fi division will be run like a separate company to bring Nagra’s technology to the home market. The first (of many) products to emerge is the Jazz preamplifier, which replaces the PLL. The unit is pure Nagra in look and feel, and reportedly sounds considerably better than the PLL. The tubed Jazz will be priced at about 11,000 euros when it makes its debut in July.

The coolest looking turntable in Munich had to be the JR Transrotor Rondino Gold Weiss. Decked out in white acrylic and gold-plated metal parts, the $28,000 Rondino Gold Weiss was a show-stopper.

In a less lofty price category, KEF showed an entirely new mini-monitor, the $1499 LS50. Because the LS50 is built around a Uni-Q concentric driver, the enclosure is almost square. The enclosure features constrained-layer damping construction, and the corners are strongly rounded to optimize dispersion and reduce diffraction. The LS50 sounded amazing from my vantage point at the back of the room—every seat was always filled during the entire show. The LS50 is available exclusively at as a special 50th Anniversary Product.

German high-end manufacturer AVM introduced two new digital products in the flagship Ovation line. The CD8 CD player is a slot-loaded machine with a completely shielded and spring-mounted transport mechanism. A circuit called Cache buffers and reclocks the signal to remove jitter just before the integral ULTRA DAC. (AVM was a pioneer in jitter-reduction technology.) Seven digital inputs are also provided, allowing the CD8 to decode just about any digital source. The second product from AVM is the Music Library ML8, a music server with integral ripping and streaming capability. Two versions are available, one with a 2TB drive and the other with 600MB of solid-state memory. The ML8 includes AVM’s ULTRA DAC. Rather than waste money and front-panel space on a small display, the ML8 is designed to be controlled from an iPad. The company also introduced a CD player, preamp, DAC, and phonostage in the tube-driven Evolution line. The look and feel of the AVM products are outstanding.

French manufacturer Micromega introduced a new line of small, highly affordable products under the My name. The products include a USB DAC, mm/mc phonostage, headphone amplifier, wireless streamer, and integrated amplifier. MyDAC features an asynchronous 192kHz/24-bit USB interface along with S/PDIF coax and optical jacks. The industrial design and cosmetics are extraordinary for the price; they look like esoteric products in miniature. MyDAC is expected to sell for $399.

NuForce teamed up with Amphion to showcase an amazing-sounding desktop system based on the DDA-100 Direct Digital Amplifier. This $499 unit delivers 50Wpc of Class-D output power and offers four digital inputs (USB, coax, and two optical). The DDA-100 directly converts incoming digital audio data into the pulse-width-modulated signal that turns on and off the output transistors. When partnered with the diminutive Amphion Ion+ on a desktop, the DDA-100 sounded like it should cost much more than $499. Although it shares the name and enclosure with the company's Ion, the Ion+ has been completely redesigned with a new woofer, crossover, and titanium tweeter. The Ion+ is essentially a reference-grade professional monitor in a decorator-friendly enclosure. In fact, the Ion+ is used by many famous professional recording and mastering engineers. From the brief audition, I could hear why; the Ion+ had an accurate tonal balance and high resolution of detail without sounding etched or clinical the way that many professional monitors can. Price: 999 euros per pair.

NuForce also showed the $1195 DAC-100. The unit offers four digital inputs, a 500mW pure Class-A single-ended headphone amplifier, a 32-bit volume control, and full remote control. The volume control allows the DAC-100 to drive a power amplifier directly. The digital input stage operates asynchronously for low jitter, and the preamp section is designed with minimalist techniques. The DAC-100 begins shipping in June.

Best Sound: MBL 101 X-tremes driven by MBL electronics; YG Acoustics Anat III Signature driven by ASR electronics; Focal Maestro Utopias driven by Vitus amplification, Stahl-Tek DAC, and Purist cables.