If there was any doubt that Munich is world’s most important audio event, the 2014 show held May 16-19 will put any uncertainty to rest. The MOC convention center was packed with 493 exhibitors (up 25% from last year) and nearly 18,000 attendees (up 10% from a year ago). Moreover, the show’s vibe was decidedly upbeat and positive. The Munich show has supplanted CES as the place to launch new products. While my colleague Jonathan Valin is reporting on how the exhibits sounded, I’ll focus on the most exciting new product introductions.
The 5 Most Significant Product Introductions
1. Constellation Audio Inspiration Series
This new line from Constellation Audio is trickle-down engineering at its best. Not only are the circuits in the Inspiration Series taken from Constellation’s upper-end Reference and Performance lines, but the products’ look, feel, and industrial design also give up little to their more expensive progenitors.
For example, the AMP 1.0 stereo power amplifier delivers 200Wpc into 8 ohms (400Wpc into 4 ohms) and features the same Balanced Bridged output-stage topology found in the Reference and Performance series. Moreover, the AMP 1.0 looks remarkably similar to the $22,500 Centaur from the Performance Series. The biggest difference seems to be the price: the AMP 1.0 is $10,000. A mono version (called the Mono 1.0) is also available with double the power and double the price. The matching preamplifier, the Preamp 1.0 ($9000), looks and feels much like the much more expensive Virgo, right down to the machined aluminum remote control. The two units share the same fully balanced Line Stage Gain Module topology.
Constellation put the Preamp 1.0 and Mono 1.0 front and center of their exhibit, driving Wilson Alexia loudspeakers. I have to say that this was perhaps the best I’ve heard the Alexia, and it made my list of one of the best sounds in Munich. The Inspiration Series just might upset the pecking order in electronics near this price range.
2. KEF Reference and KEF Blade 2
Speaking of trickle-down, KEF introduced the Reference line, a direct descendent of the terrific and popular Blade. Featuring KEF’s famous Uni-Q coincident driver, The Reference foregoes the Blade’s elaborate enclosure for that of a conventional-looking floorstander. The top model, called the Reference 5, features four woofers flanking the Uni-Q driver and sells for $19,000. The Reference 3 is a smaller floorstander, and the Reference 1 is a bookshelf. A subwoofer and center-channel speaker round out the Reference line. The Reference 5 sounded remarkably transparent and resolving driven by some mid-priced Arcam electronics. It was so good that I suspect it could give The Blade a run for its money under the right conditions.
KEF also provided an advance look at the Blade 2, a scaled-down Blade in a smaller (though identically shaped) enclosure and with dual 6.5" woofers rather than the Blade’s 8" drivers. The only sonic difference is in bass extension. Although the Blade Two isn’t that much smaller than the Blade, it will nonetheless be a better fit acoustically and visually in smaller rooms. The Blade 2 is priced at $24,000 and is scheduled to ship in September.
A new company from Spain called Mizik launched what can only be described as a radical rethinking of audio system architecture, features, and even industrial design. The three-component modular approach allows you to build a system tailored to your needs, and to expand as your requirements change. The three components can loosely be described as a DAC/preamplifier, phonostage and A/D converter, and a streamer.
The dPlay-DAPre is DAC with a built-in linestage. The dVin is a phonostage and A/D converter with some interesting features including selectable EQ curves. The third component is the dStream streamer/server that offers the option of a network port for storage as well as proprietary processes to improve the sound quality. The three components are priced at $2000 each and are available now. The styling is a radical departure from the norm. Incidentally, Mizik was founded by the same people who created the Wadax phonostage that offered the ability to provide correction, in DSP, of cartridge and turntable distortions.
4. Audio Research Corporation Galileo Series
Audio Research hasn’t changed its look much in the past, oh, thirty years, but has taken a radically styling departure with the new G Series. The three products in the G Series—GSPre preamp, GSi75 integrated amplifier, and GS150 amplifier—have a decidedly retro look that blends styling cues from vintage ARC with a modern new aesthetic. The GS150 power amplifier (155Wpc, $25,000) features KT-150 output tubes, which reportedly have double the life of the KT-120. The GSI integrated amplifier ($19,000) offers 75Wpc, again from KT-150s. It also offers an integral DAC. The GSPre preamplifier ($18,000) is a pure tubed design with an integral phonostage. Watch for the G Series later this year.
5. Auralic Aries
One of the more interesting product introductions was the Aries from Auralic. This new component category turns any DAC into a highly capable wireless streamer that can decode virtually any digital audio format. The Aries accepts digital inputs from a wide range of sources (including streaming services, outboard devices, Wi-Fi, Ethernet, NAS and USB drives) at any sampling rate including DSD, double-DSD, and DXD and then drives your DAC via the Aries’ output. Best of all, the Aries comes with what appears to be a very attractive app, called Lightning DS, for browsing and managing your music library. The iOS version of the app is available now, with an Android version expected in September.
The Aries is based on Auralic’s Telsa hardware platform with 25,000MIPs of processing power and 1GB of onboard memory. The output is built around Auralic’s patented “ActiveUSB” technology that reportedly delivers a low-jitter datastream to your DAC. Other outputs include AES/EBU, coaxial, and TosLink.
Two versions are available: the Aries LE ($999) features a crystal oscillator and standard external power supply. The Aries ($1599) includes dual “Femto Clocks” for lower jitter as well as a more sophisticated outboard power supply. Shipments of both begin in July.
New and Noteworthy
Crystal Cable Arabesque Minissimo Loudspeaker
Crystal Cable debuted the fully mature Arabesque Minissimo loudspeaker ($10,000/pr.) that was previewed at CES. This small speaker is unusual in many ways, from its curved enclosure to the exotic cabinet materials. Driven by Crystal’s The Cube amplifier (derived from the Siltech SAGA system) the Minissimo sounded wonderfully musical and somehow managed to fill with sound one of the MOC’s larger exhibit rooms. The industrial design, complemented by a range of colors, is stunning.
Dan D’Agostino Momentum Integrated Amplifier
Dan D’Agostino of Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems was on-hand to showcase the latest in the Momentum line, the long-awaited integrated amplifier. Based on the technology developed for the highly acclaimed Momentum amplifier and preamplifier (not to mention the same stunning chassis work) the integrated delivers 200Wpc into 8 ohms. Remarkably, it can double its output power into 4 ohms and quadruple it into 2 ohms. The main chassis and its separate power supply are machined from solid aluminum billet, and the heatsinks are pure copper for greater thermal conductivity. This is one of the most gorgeous-looking audio products ever designed—in black or silver.
DALI Rubicon Series Loudspeakers
Danish loudspeaker manufacturer DALI followed up last year’s launch of the Epicon series with its radical new low-distortion SMC driver technology with a trickle-down series based on the same concept. The new series, called Rubicon, brings much of the performance of the more expensive Epicon line to a lower price. The three floorstanding models, one stand-mount, and an on-wall occupy the same slot as the company’s current Mentor range, which, while still current, will likely be phased out. All but the on-wall model feature DALI’s hybrid tweeter module that combines a dome tweeter with a ribbon supertweeter. The Rubicon series will be offered in four finishes when it ships in late June. U.S. retail prices are expected to top out at $6000 for the Rubicon 8.
Devialet Speaker Active Matching (SAM)
The French amplifier firm Devialet introduced a radical new concept in amplification: the ability to correct loudspeaker shortcomings by using DSP within its amplifiers. Here’s how it works. After buying a Devialet amplifier, you download a correction file for your particular loudspeaker into your amplifier. This correction results in perfect phase alignment from the speaker, extends the speaker’s low-frequency cutoff point (to as low as 25Hz depending on your loudspeaker’s capabilities), and invokes a protection circuit that prevents the amplifier from ever overdriving the loudspeaker. Devialet calls this technology SAM, for Speaker Active Matching. Devialet is in the process of acquiring and measuring the more popular loudspeakers and creating the correction files, so it may take some time for them to create a library of files. I’ll have more on this in my upcoming review of Devialet’s 170 amplifier.
Alpha Design Labs Stratos
ADL, a division of Furutech, introduced the Stratos, an innovative component that offers a high-resolution DAC, headphone amplifier, phonostage, and analog-to-digital converter all in one small chassis. The phonostage and A/D converter allow you to digitize analog sources (including phono signals) for external storage. The Stratos will be priced in the U.S. at $719. We already have a review in the works.
Nagra HD DAC
Nagra of Switzerland released the ambitious HD DAC whose digital section was designed in concert with DSD guru Andreas Koch. The analog stage is unlike any other design I’m aware of, with isolation transformers on either side of a single tube. The transformers provide the voltage gain, not the tube. The transformers were designed by Nagra and wound in-house. No feedback is used. Many of the components were designed from scratch for the HD DAC, including new capacitors, some of which use beeswax as the dielectric. The unit boasts 25 independent power supplies, most of which are housed in two separate chassis. This is Nagra’s assault on the state of the art in digital playback. If you’ve never had your hands on a Nagra product and turned a switch or knob, the feel is unlike that of any other brand.
Aesthetix Metis Linestage
The California company known for its high-value tubed electronics introduced a new top-of-the-line linestage preamplifier. The Metis is an all-tubed design that, unusually, is direct-coupled from input to output. Aesthetix founder Jim White developed a circuit called the Aesthetix Coupling Modules (ACMs) to replace the caps normally found between amplifier stages and at the amplifier output. The chassis sports a new styling direction while also incorporating a power supply that is suspended in an inner core. When placed on a rack’s shelf, there’s no physical connection between the power supply and the main chassis, Moreover, the separate power supply is completely invisible. The $20,000 Metis will be available in late 2014.
Krell Vanguard Integrated Amplifier
Krell introduced the Vanguard, a $3500 integrated amplifier that offers quite a bit of technology and performance at the price. The 200Wpc unit features a Class A preamplifier stage and a chassis and circuitry borrowed from the company’s upscale lines. Output power doubles to whopping 400Wpc into 4 ohms—remarkable for an integrated amp. The Vanguard can ordered with an optional digital module with a USB input, Ethernet streaming audio, and apt-X Bluetooth. This module can be retrofitted in the field. A front-panel display and menu system allows inputs to be named, along with a host of other features. Shipments begin in July.
Germany’s T+A has a range of extremely sophisticated products and is hugely popular in Europe, but has a low profile in the U.S. That may change with our upcoming review of its flagship gear and behind-the-scenes factory tour. In the meantime, the company showed in Munich its P 3000 HV preamplifier, A 3000 HV power amplifier, and MP 3000 HV multi-source player that includes a CD drive, FM tuner, streaming client, and a DAC. The build-quality of these products is very high. The custom-made disc-transport mechanism must be seen to be believed. The HV in the model name signifies the very high voltages of the power supply rails supplying the audio circuits. We’ll have a lot more to say on these products in Alan Taffel’s upcoming review.
The David Berning Company 211/845 OTL Amplifier
David Berning’s patented ZOTL circuit that allows an output-transformerless (OTL) amplifier to maintain a constant output impedance and to drive real-world loads has been applied to an ambitious new monoblock amplifier called the 211/845 OTL. The model number says much about this amplifier; it can operate with either 211 or 845 output tubes—without any user adjustment. The self-biasing output stage automatically adjusts for the tube type. The 60W amplifier operates in pure Class A triode mode, is differentially balanced, and features zero global feedback. The power supply is power-factor corrected. Price: $73,500 per pair. The amplifier is represented by Rick Brown of Hi-Fi One.
PS Audio Sprout
On the cab ride to Munich’s MOC convention center, the taxi driver asked for our advice on upgrading his system. We didn’t know it at the time, but the product he precisely described was PS Audio’s new $799 Sprout integrated amplifier previewed at the show (delivery later this year). This Sprout is the creation of Scott McGowan, son of PS Audio founder Paul McGowan. It’s his idea of how to get young people into high-quality music reproduction by offering a simple-to-use, inexpensive, great-sounding amplifier. Everything about the Sprout, down to the names on the input selector, is designed toward making high-quality music accessible. The unit is a 50Wpc integrated amp with an integral DAC, phono input, Bluetooth connectivity, and a headphone output.
AVM CS2.2 All-in-One
German manufacturer AVM launched several new products including the CS2.2 all-in-one player with CD playback, streaming, a phonostage, and a whopping 165Wpc of output power. The svelte CS2.2 is joined by the 330Wpc CS5.2 which features the same capabilities but with more output power. Prices are TBA.
In Other News
Hegel launched its HD12 DAC, a direct replacement for the popular HD11. The new model accommodates DSD, adds a headphone output, and reportedly improves upon its predecessor’s sound quality. Four digital inputs are standard, and the output level is variable for those systems that don’t need a preamplifier. Balanced and unbalanced outputs are provided. The HD12 will be available in September for $1200.
Naim debuted what must be the coolest-looking product in Munich—the all-in-one Muso. Just bring a wireless source and this tabletop amplified loudspeaker system does the rest. The slab-like industrial design follows the visual cues of the $200k Naim Statement. The U.S. retail price will be $899 when it becomes available in September.
JansZen demonstrated a new stand-mounted two-way loudspeaker with a 7" woofer front-firing woofer and a 7" rear-firing low-bass-reinforcement woofer mated to JansZen’s electrostatic midrange/tweeter. Unusually, the Model zA1.1 isn’t a dipole like most electrostats, but instead is designed to be used near a rear wall. Available in three finishes, the zA1.1 sells for $4495.
Simaudio debuted an upper-end headphone amplifier, the Moon Neo 430HA. No ordinary headphone amp, the Neo 430HA is fully balanced and includes an output stage that uses a discrete variable-transconductance circuit, selectable gain, and a massive power supply. Price: $3500.
Best Sound (cost no object)
I’m thought three systems were extraordinary: the Zellaton Reference loudspeaker, Rockport Altair loudspeakers driven by Absolare electronics, and the Raidho D-5 (see Jonathan Valin’s report for the system details).
Best Sound (for the money)
Although far from budget priced, the KEF Reference 5 loudspeaker overcame a challenging listening environment to produce a sound that hinted at greatness throughout the line.
Most Significant Product Introductions
Constellation Inspiration Series, Auralic Aries
Most Significant Trend
Entirely new product categories that merge functions of existing products with cutting-edge new features to make file-based music systems friendlier. The Auralic Aries and Mizik are good examples.
Most Coveted Product
For sheer beauty of sound, nothing in the MOC equaled the Zellaton Reference loudspeaker.