The Tokyo International Audio Show

JV and JM Travel to Japan

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers,
Disc players,
Multi-format disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio,
The Tokyo International Audio Show

Most audio trade shows are held in nondescript hotels—Munich’s MOC being the exception—so any venue that doesn’t smack of immovable headboards, dusty wall-mount 21-inch panel TVs, and carpeting that looks like something out of The Shining would probably impress. But the Tokyo International Forum, where the Tokyo International Audio Show (TIAS) is held annually, goes well beyond making a good first impression. A Gehry-like wonder of sculpted metal, glass, and silken sail-like drapery, it takes the (seven-layer wedding) cake when it comes to show venues. The building is simply breathtaking, and a wholly appropriate introduction to the elegant, stylish, formal way that the Japanese do business, even audio business.

Sponsored by the International Audio Society of Japan (IASJ), the Tokyo Show is a by-invitation-only event. You have to be asked to show at TIAS, which is designed to “promote the distribution and innovation of fine, world-class audio products and related devices.” This year, from September 25 through September 27, thirty corporate invitees, representing 180 brands from all over the world, gathered in spacious rooms on five of the eleven gracefully curved floors of the Forum to showcase their latest and greatest.

Though the show is small and highly select by CES or Munich standards, TIAS still manages to attract a large number of visitors—attendance was over 10,000—and to accommodate a surprisingly large number of debuts. Though Julie and I saw a lot of familiar faces—Magico’s Alon Wolf, Constellation and Audio Alchemy’s Peter Madnick, Raidho and Scansonic’s Michael Børresen, YG Acoustics’ Dick Diamond, Vivid’s Laurence Dickie, among other luminaries—we also saw and heard a lot of new products. Given the size of the showrooms, which were generally lined along their walls with static displays and crammed in their centers with rows of chairs for listening, you’d have thought that sonics would be less than ideal. Yet, in room after room—often so crowded with showgoers that we literally couldn’t get through the doors—the sound was for the most part surprisingly good and, on occasion, outright excellent. I personally think this was due, in part, to the largish number of analog rigs in play, but to be fair digital gear also showed quite well, too. Here are a few of the highlights (and lowlights) of what Ms. M. and I heard.

As our host for the trip was Mr. Atsushi Miura, the founder and chief designer of Air Tight, and his U.S. and European distributor Arturo Manzano, we started (naturally) in the Air Tight room, where Mr. Miura was showing his ATM-211 single-ended-triode, 28W monoblock amplifiers ($20k) with his ATE-2001 Reference full-function preamplifier ($28k), and ATH-2a Reference step-up transformer ($5k), fed by a Transrotor Orfeo turntable ($17k) equipped with Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge. The speakers were Miura-san’s Bonsai AL005 one-way mini-monitors ($2.5k), each of which uses a single handmade paper-cone driver, devised by a former JBL engineer, in a small, ported, glossy rosewood enclosure.

The Bonsai’s sounded much better in Tokyo (and later at Air Tight headquarters in Osaka—report forthcoming) than they did when they were introduced in Vegas at CES 2015. Indeed, where one-ways are typically outstanding in narrow sectors of the gamut (sounding uncannily realistic, for instance, on flutes or clarinets, and downright thin and washed out on cellos), the Bonsai’s were surprisingly rich and natural in color from near the top (they are soft but livable in the highest treble) to near the bottom (they don’t have much output below about 80Hz), with a particularly strong and gorgeous upper bass and lower midrange. For instance, on an LP of Barenboim, Zuckerman, and Du Pre playing Beethoven trios, all three instruments—piano, violin, and cello—were reproduced with robust, full-bodied timbre. Ditto on a Ray Brown and Herb Ellis LP, where bass and guitar were exceedingly lifelike, with just a little pluminess in the upper octaves on Brown’s fiddle (though not enough to disguise articulation or pitch). On a different note, our Ms. Mullins found the slam of the Fender bass on Toto’s “Rosanna” surprising coming from such a wee box, and the soundstage quite impressively spacious.

The Bonsai’s are more than a little laid-back in the presence and brilliance ranges, but, like Raidho D-1s, very attractively so. Transient response, particularly in the piano’s and cello’s lower registers, was excellent, and fortes were delivered with genuine power. All told, this was as improved a speaker as JV has heard at a trade show, and perhaps the least strained, fullest-bodied one-way mini-monitor extant. By increasing the size of the Bonsai’s ported enclosure by several millimeters and changing the port design, Mr. Miura was apparently able to make the driver work far better and also improve sensitivity.

Our next stop was the Accuphase room (another of Art Manzano’s brands), where the flagship 800Wpc P-7300 Class AB stereo amp was being introduced (it launches in December and was on static display). At TIAS, Accuphase also debuted its C-3850 linestage preamplifier ($43.5k), which uses an ingenious laser volume control and can be paired (for analog lovers) with the brand’s C-37 phonostage ($12k). Also new was the 100Wpc E-370 integrated amp ($10.5k), which was said to use technology from Accuphase’s reference line products for much lower noise than the model it replaces.

Playing in the Accuphase room were the company’s gorgeous new $17.5k A-47 stereo power amplifier (switchable between 45W Class A and 102W Class AB, doubling both figures all the way down to 1 ohm) and DP-720 CD/SACD player ($27k), and TAD’s Evolution One loudspeakers ($29.8k). We listened to an SACD of Bach through the system and the sound was dark and full in color and (minus a touch of room boom) well defined in pitch, with beautiful articulation of performance detail. The Evo One may not be quite as high in resolution as TAD’s remarkable CR-1 three-way stand-mount, but it struck JV as being fuller in timbre than that classic. In fact, it was gorgeous sounding, with superb bass and bass drum on the Thieving Magpie Overture, and strong, beautiful wind tone. In JM’s words, the system had an “unreconstructed naturalness” that made for highly enjoyable listening.

At this year’s TIAS Alon Wolf of Magico personally introduced his “finalized” $58k S7 three-way floorstander (1-inch diamond-coated beryllium tweeter, 6-inch graphene midrange, and three 10-inch woofers), driven by a Pass Labs XA160.8 amplifier ($29k) and Metronome Technologie Kalista Ultimate Signature digital ($50k). As was the case with the Air Tight Bonsai, the improvement in sound over the “work-in-progress” S7’s debut performance in Munich wasn’t subtle. Whether it was the S7’s new Graphene dust caps, the fresh application of a special damping compound to its aluminum enclosure, or the unique copper O-rings used to seat and seal the drivers, something had been done to turn what had been a bright, muddy, unpleasant sound at the MOC into a presentation that approached the transparency and neutrality of a mini-M Pro. Both JV and JM only heard the diamond-coated beryllium tweeter “stand out” on massed violins—and not much at that—where in Munich it had virtually screamed at us on any instruments with energy in the upper-mid or treble range. Overall, the sound was wide open and non-analytical, yet highly articulate. Indeed, JM said she’d never heard digital sound more musical.

One of Magico’s many rivals, YG Acoustics, also had a wonderful showing with its Carmel 2 ($24.3k) two-way floorstanders, driven by Krell’s 575W Solo monoblock amplifiers ($22.5k) and Illusion preamplifier ($15k), and a three-box Orpheus Audio digital player. The Carmel 2 uses the same drivers as YG’s highly regarded Hailey, but without the woofer. The system was dark, sweet, present, and extremely natural on voice, with superb articulation of performance detail. Even though it is a two-way, the Carmel 2 was very full range, with excellent reproduction of standup bass. How did it compare to the S7? It was a little more detailed but not quite as rich in color, perhaps, with a bit more audible tweet. That said, both JM and JV thought the Carmel system was one of the best sounding presentations at the show.

On the top floor of the International Forum, we heard Denon electronics, including the PMA-50 digital integrated amplifier ($599) and DCD-50 CD player ($500), with Dali Epicon 6 speakers. Alas, there was a terrible room boom in the bass on the jazz cut being played, turning everything below about 100Hz into a thump. 

The Avantgarde Trio three-way spherical horn loudspeaker ($78k), paired with a single set of Avantgarde’s Basshorns (mounted, rather unconventionally, vertically and independently), was being driven by Esoteric’s gorgeous new 150Wpc Grandioso S1 stereo amplifier and other equally gorgeous Grandioso line products. We heard the “Toréador” aria from Carmen played back through this system, and the sound was terrific—outstandingly lifelike on voice with that incomparable dynamic range that only horns can deliver. Outside of a touch of heaviness in the bass, the demo was superb—and, speaking for himself, rather spoiled JV for other exhibits. Once you’ve heard the lifelike ease and power with which a really wonderful horn speaker can handle something as dynamic as a tenor voice (backed by a chorus), everything else sounds compressed. No wonder the room was packed to the (proverbial) rafters.

Linn was showing its Series 5 530 loudspeaker ($15.4k) driven by its own electronics, and a bit to JV’s surprise the sound was quite remarkable. Though pacey and exciting, to JV Linn speakers have always seemed a little threadbare in timbre. Not the Series 5. Timbre was gorgeous, and the low end rock-solid. Yeah, the 530 was a little hooded in the treble compared to Magico and YG, and it didn’t not have the dynamic ease of the Avantgarde Trio/Basshorn on vocals. (Nothing did.) Still, this was a rich, dark, majestic presentation with great low bass, good dimensionality, and nice resolution.

Piega (whom Robert Harley and JV visited in Switzerland a couple of years ago) was showing its three-way Classic 80.2 floorstanding loudspeakers (with coaxial ribbon tweeter and ribbon midrange and two 10-inch bass drivers), driven by Octave electronics and Michael Børresen’s Aavik integrated amp with Linn Sondek LP12 ’table. With digital sources, the sound was nothing special—very clean and fast and clear but not much like music. With an LP of Mendelssohn violin concerto, however, the entire presentation was transformed—suddenly turning gorgeous and full-bodied. What a difference! Oh, the Piegas might have been a little polite when it came to large-scale dynamics (then again, everything sounded polite after the Avantgardes), but the analog presentation was so beautiful and robust that JM said she didn’t want to leave the room! Here, in Julie’s words, was a presentation that was fast and detailed without any sacrifice in warmth and musicality.

DCS Vivaldi digital, Rowland electronics (the gorgeous 430W Model 925 monoblock amplifiers and Corus preamplifier with PSU), and T+A electronics (the A 3000 HV power amplifier and P 3000 HV preamplifier) were being paired with Adam Column Mk3 loudspeakers from Germany, which sounded (to JV and JM) like the not-quite-fully-blended ribbon/cone hybrids they were. Though neither JV nor JM was crazy about the speakers, the Rowland electronics had simply superb bass and power range.

Elsewhere in the Forum we heard TAD CR1s driven by the Accuphase A-47 and sourced by a Solid Royal turntable equipped with an Ortofon MC A95 cartridge. This was a very clearly defined presentation. The system was good on Wayne Shorter’s sax, despite a bit of tubbiness on plucked bass that could have been the recording or the listening room. The system then transformed itself on a very differently miked string quartet LP, suggesting considerable transparency to sources. The Accuphase A-47 didn’t sound overly warm and dark and liquid, as so much Class A solid-state does. Instead, it was biting and incisive. While this was not the warm, full sound JV remembers from the CR1s (which he had in his system for several months), it was astonishingly high in resolution.

The Lansche 5.1 three-way floorstander (two 8.7-inch glass-fiber/fabric woofers, one 4-inch polypropylene midrange, and Lansche’s incomparable 0.3-inch Corona plasma tweeter) was being driven by Mola Mola electronics, producing a rich, lively sound without a hint of brightness, thanks to that fabulous plasma tweeter. The system was very realistic (and top-to-bottom coherent) on Cyrus Chestnut’s piano, much more so than JV remembers some earlier Lansches being. (JM had also heard and enjoyed the engaging, energetic combo of the Lansche Cubus MkII loudspeakers driven by Mola Mola electronics at the 2015 Munich Show.) This was one of the more realistic sounds at the show, and these are speakers and electronics that TAS ought to review.

We’re gonna end this brief tour of TIAS with the Vivid Giya B1 Decade ($28k) speakers—Laurence Dickie’s limited edition tenth-anniversary project—driven by Einstein electronics and sourced by the gorgeous new TechDas Air Force III turntable. Although the oval B1d is a mid-sized 3½ -way with integral stand, it managed to generate incredibly deep, well-defined low end on bowed doublebass—and this with a tube amplifier. Superbly open, like a planar or ’stat, the B1d also had ’stat-like resolution, transient speed, and a very, very neutral tonal palette. This was really quite a bit more impressive than JV has ever heard Vivid’s OVAL Range speakers sound before. (Indeed, products sounding a good deal better than they have in the past seems to have been the theme at TIAS.) According to Laurence Dickie, this sonic leap forward is owed to considerable changes in the driver-mounting mechanisms, the drivers themselves, the magnetic motors of the drivers, and the enclosure (which is now made from a lightweight balsa-core polymer-composite with a much higher resonance frequency than that of the B1’s plastic cement cabinet).

JV and JM’s Best of Show

Best Sound of Show (price no object): A tie between the Avantgarde Trio/Basshorn driven and sourced by Esoteric electronics, and the Vivid Giya B1 Decade driven by Einstein electronics and sourced by TechDas.

Best Sound of Show (for the money): The $2500 Air Tight Bonsai one-way mini-monitor, which has the crossover-less coherence of a one-way without the usual peaks and dips in frequency response.

Most Significant Product Introductions: Magico S7, Vivid Giya B1 Decade, Air Tight Bonsai, TechDas Air Force III.

Most Significant Trend: Time and again, the way products that had underperformed in the past greatly improved with significant tweaking by the manufacturer and better setup in the Forum rooms.

Most Coveted Products: Air Tight Bonsai mini-monitor, Vivid Giya B1 Decade loudspeaker, Lansche 5.1 loudspeaker, TechDas Air Force III turntable, Rowland Model 925 monoblock power amp, Esoteric Grandioso M1 monoblock power amp.