At The McIntosh Group (TMG) event held on the Italian island of Sardinia, corporate officers and key group managers reported an upbeat outlook for the group’s "four diamonds" collection, i.e. McIntosh Labs, Audio Research Corporation, Sonus faber, and Wadia. Attendees, which included global distributors and select members of the audio press received a rousing overview of some impressive growth numbers for each division.
However the common mantra that was echoed throughout the four-day extravaganza was, “the world is changing,” an expression that underscores the challenges common to businesses trying to navigate the connected global marketplace, where technology, lifestyle, and social media converge. To that end, the McIntosh Group has already put in place initiatives like the World Of McIntosh (WOM) event townhouse in NYC with proposed plans for further expansion of flagship townhouses and less costly experience centers in cities such as Hong Kong, Milan, Paris, and beyond. They reported that its websites have also been refreshed, and importantly, its social media is up 25 percent. CEO Mauro Grange also emphasized that "we will never forget who we are," meaning that the DNA and traditions that drive each of these bespoke companies will continue to be honored—words meant to reassure the crowd that the stability and stewardship of these brands is in good hands.
Directly addressing this changing world, TMG introduced its new VP of Global Marketing, Natascha Klein, an industry veteran who has worked with such powerhouse marques as Oakley and Beats by Dre. One of the first of its major initiatives is furthering the cross-promotion of its Pryma brand of couture headphones. Although branded separately from Sonus faber, Pryma is still handmade in Italy by Sf and clearly skews in the direction of the fashion end of lifestyle. Available in ritzy stores such as Barney’s, Neiman Marcus, and others, 6000 units have been sold since December 2015. The popular video of Beyoncé performing while wearing the Pryma ’phones that was shown is clearly intended to position the product as a must-have accessory for fashionistas and not just a portable set of cans for audio nerds. And a wireless version is coming, plus in-ear, and over-the-ear.
Three of the four brands weighed in with important product announcements. The fourth pillar, Wadia, was absent in terms of product specifics but assurances were made that the brand, one of the high end’s digital pioneers, will be making news again soon.
Audio Research News
Audio Research Corporation filled in some details about its competitively priced Foundation Series. ARC described the line as a blend between modern technologies and an homage to classics such as the SP3a pre and the iconic D-150 amp. It uses significant elements from the Galileo Series, though these have been simplified to hold the line on the $7500 price-points per component. The “value” lineup is currently comprised of three components, including the LS28 linestage preamplifier, the PH9 phonostage, and the DAC9 digital-to-analog converter. A new stereo amp, the VT80, will join the Foundation Series later this year. It has a unique auto-bias system that rebiases at the same levels every time the amp is powered on. Standard equipment includes KT120 output tubes with an option for KT150s. In 2017, an integrated amp will be added. Like ARC’s Reference products, every circuit board is still hand-soldered and many key parts are proprietary and often designed for just the one model. Available either in black or in a natural anodized aluminum finish, each component comes with its own custom metal remote control.
The LS28 linestage includes four balanced and four single-ended inputs, and two sets of both balanced and single-ended outputs, to allow maximum connectivity. The menu enables control of numerous parameters, including input naming, tube hours, auto shutdown, and home theater pass-through. Phase invert and mono are also standard functions. The heart of the LS28 uses four 6H30 vacuum tubes in the analog circuit.
The DAC9 digital-to-analog converter decodes most current formats and uses an analog circuit driven by a pair of 6H30 tubes. Its proprietary DAC chip is exclusive to this unit. There are five digital connections—USB, RCA, BNC, AES/EBU, and TosLink—and both balanced and single-ended connectors are provided for output connectivity. Native-rate upsampling and selectable digital filters allow digital signal customization.
The PH9 phono preamplifier uses a trio of 6H30 vacuum tubes that are at the core of a simple and clear signal path to provide the most transparent preamplification possible. Five different impedance settings allow for cartridge loading, and they can be changed on the fly with the included metal remote. Cartridge impedance, tube hours, auto shutdown, and other features are also included in the menu system.
Sonus faber News
Turning to Sonus faber, those of us expecting the premiere of a major statement product came up empty-handed but instead were teased that something extraordinary was definitely in the works—perhaps as part of a rebooted Homage Series or something entirely new. But that would be for another day. However that’s not to say Sf didn’t have a small dolce to satisfy attendees’ collective sweet tooth. Introduced by Paolo Tezzon, head of Sf’s R&D, was the Sf16, the brand’s first “all-in-one” integrated audio system. Limited to 200 units a year, this bespoke component will retail in the heady vicinity of $8500 (est.). Inspired in part by Franco Serblin’s famous Snail all-in-one-design of early Sonus faber, today's version is less shelled mollusk and more UFO in its walnut-sheathed main body and motorized antennae-like aluminum/carbon fiber appendages.
Constructed of sumptuous walnut over brushed aluminum cladding and accenting, it’s circa 1970s cool. The challenge, says Tezzon, was to produce a good table-top hi-fi system—to make sure it’s a strong table, this gizmo tips the scales at fifty-plus pounds—but also to create an up-to-date device that is “plug and play” and capable of a multi-room wireless streaming technology. In terms of speakers, it’s a bipole system with forward- and rear-facing drivers for a total of ten transducers. It’s powered by up to 1400 peak watts of Class D amplification. Bass performance is courtesy of a pair of five-inch, opposable long-throw, aluminum/magnesium alloy cones. The mids are handled by four, two-inch ceramic drivers while the treble is comprised of four of the smallest high-end tweeters ever devised: the micro 0.5” silk dome tweeter by Peter Larsen (sourced from the Aida).
Rather than turn to lossy wireless software such as Apple’s AirPlay, it uses the DTS Play-fi Technology to wirelessly play the music on mobile devices over an existing Wi-Fi network and supports resolution up 24-bit/96kHz. Internet music streaming services supported include Deezer, Rhapsody, Tidal, Spotify, Pandora, and others. There’s even an analog source input for a turntable. Every Sf16 sold is personally tested by Paolo Tezzon and arrives with the customer’s name engraved on a special plaque. Shipping is slated for September 2016. Attendees were later shuttled over to one of the outlying villas for a listen to the Sf16 and to experience a demo of Play-fi by DTS' Dannie Lau over the recently introduced McIntosh LS-1000 wireless active speakers ($1100 each). Both were sonically impressive especially in light of their modest size specs. The LS-1000 gains kudos for its in-home expandability and midrange forthrightness but it’s the Sf16 that offers the most expansive and richest performance, coupled with its ability to use the rearwall for maximum dispersion and low-end reinforcement. Lifestyle never had it so good!
I was surprised to learn that the MP100 is the first dedicated phono preamplifier from McIntosh—it’s actually a phono/ADAC in a neat compact chassis. Features include mc and mm inputs; adjustable loading (6 settings each); balanced and unbalanced analog outputs; optical, coax, and USB digital outputs; and a Mono switch to decrease noise and play the signal back correctly on mono recordings. The MP100 can also rip vinyl to a computer via USB to produce high-quality digital files. The digital outputs are fixed at 24-bit/96kHz to capture the full dynamic range of a record while optimizing digital file size. If an album has a very loud section, the digital output clipping protection prevents harsh-sounding and speaker-damaging distortion from being recorded to the file. At just 3” tall, it’s also compact in size. Price: $2000
The C2600 preamp builds upon two of the most successful McIntosh vacuum-tube preamplifiers—the C2300 and the C2500—and it adds a digital audio section and upgraded tube circuitry design. The C2600 is hugely versatile with 16 inputs to connect virtually all analog or digital music sources. Analog inputs include three balanced, four unbalanced, plus one each dedicated mm and mc phono inputs. Digital inputs consist of three optical, two coax, one USB, and one McIntosh exclusive MCT connection. Three sets of balanced and unbalanced analog outputs connect the C2600 to the rest of the system. The C2600 features a 32-bit/384kHz, DSD digital-to-analog-converter (DAC) and is capable of decoding and playing DSD64, DSD128, and DSD256, plus DXD352.8kHz and DXD384kHz. For headphone listening, the addition of the proprietary Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD) brings an added dimension to the music. Price: $7000
While 4K players remain proprietary (for now) to only a couple of companies, the McIntosh MVP901 AV player is a Blu-ray combi player with the ability to upsample 1080P and lower resolutions to 4K Ultra HD, making it a good companion to the 4K-compatible McIntosh MX122 or MX160 home theater processor. It also sports built-in decoding of Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio but is not just limited to movies—CDs, SACDs, and DVD-Audio discs can also be enjoyed via an 8-channel, 32-bit/192kHz DAC that’s used in stereo quad balanced mode to produce high-fidelity audio. The HDMI output can be used for multi-channel music playback. A triple-laser optical pickup uses one objective lens for the different wavelengths and is optimized for various disc types. Three USB ports allow playback of audio and video files from flash drives. Network streaming and BD-Live is available through the Ethernet connection. Price: $5500