Tokyo International Audio Show: Julie Mullins’ Highlights

Show report
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Tokyo International Audio Show: Julie Mullins’ Highlights

When it comes to high-end audio events, the Tokyo International Audio Show, like many aspects of Japanese culture, is in a class all its own. It starts with its magnificent venue, the Tokyo International Forum’s main building, which sets the tone for the relative tranquility of the show (aside from some jam-packed rooms, but even then the attendees remained quite courteous). It’s an architectural marvel of glass and steel with a vertiginous atrium—and seven floors of remarkably well-soundproofed demo rooms, with none of that sonic bleed-through characteristic of so many hotels and other show spaces.

A wide view of the Tokyo International Forum's vertiginous main atrium.                                                                                    

One unusual feature of this show is that exhibitors from all over the world appear there only by invitation from the Show’s operating board of directors. Another difference is that (in part) because there aren’t as many exhibition rooms available overall, the rooms are chock-full of gear on both active and passive display. Also, activity in the demo rooms tends to adhere to rigorous scheduling, whether it’s talks or presentations from manufacturers and other experts at the top of every hour, and/or alternating between demoing each of the various systems within a given room every hour or so in rotation. So one has to be fairly strategic about where she turns up and when.

So we three intrepid TAS staffers (JV, RH, and I) made our way through the demo rooms on our own voyage of discovery. Rooms were often packed to the rafters with hi-fi fans who must be among the world’s most ardent, passionate, and reverent devotees to fine musical reproduction—something that makes this show (and hobby) worthwhile in itself. However, despite my best efforts at attempting return visits, many remained beyond standing-room-only, making any significant critical listening difficult to nigh well impossible. Therefore I decided to focus my reporting and comments on the show’s many debuts.

Most Significant Debuts and Rooms

A pair of the new Air Tight ATM X monoblock tube amplifiers.

Air Tight ATM X amplifier

Where would the Japanese high end be without Air Tight? The esteemed manufacturer introduced the gorgeous-sounding (and gorgeous-looking) ATM X 211 monoblocks, rated at 100W and powered by 211’s in a push-pull configuration. Embodying classic tube esthetics and elegant lines, these beauts were demo’d with the maker’s ATC 1 preamp, shining in a special-edition gold finish, with a new high-quality potentiometer inside. U.S. prices are TBD for these electronics. The room also featured an array of speakers, including the (rather unexpected) Tannoy Kensington GR floorstanders, the fantastic Magico S3 speakers, and the tiny but mighty Bonsai (aka AL-05) one-ways sounded terrific, as they have at so many shows (and in my own listening room!). Source was a Transrotor Rondino ’table ($14k) with a Matsudaira Signature Platinum cartridge and supports from Critical Mass Systems. (Watch for my Air Tight factory tour report coming in our January issue, alongside some Air Tight equipment reviews.)

The new Magico M3 speaker with Pass Labs monoblock amplifers in the background.

Magico M3 loudspeaker

There were at least a handful of hardcore guys exhibiting at the Tokyo Show who also managed to attend and exhibit at RMAF in Denver less than a week later. YG Acoustics’ Dick Diamond was one, and Magico’s Alon Wolf another such trooper. And boy, did Wolf have an impressive showing in Tokyo! His brand-new M3, the one JV has listened to at length and written about on our website, was a serious crowd-pleaser, and with sound reason: With playback so open, fast, and highly resolved and realistic, particularly on vocals (Aaron Neville’s “Everybody Plays the Fool” and Jennifer Warnes’ “The Well”, for instance), these heavy-hitting transducers performed that wonderful “disappearing act”—a feat made even more impressive given their hefty carbon-fiber-and-aluminum enclosures, the same materials used in the Magico’s flagship M Pros. A classical guitar recording showcased their dimensionality and transparency. I detected zero bass smearing; indeed the lower octaves were quite well controlled and detailed, perhaps owed in part to smart driver-cabinet coupling. The speakers were driven by a pair of Pass Labs X160.8 monoblocks (160W each). Although the setup had digital sources that elevated the medium, I look forward to hearing these speakers with a well-suited analog front end. I returned to the room the following day and, not surprisingly, it was even more packed. Wish I could have stuck around to listen longer to this knockout new model.

The brand-new Yamaha NS-5000 speaker.

Yamaha NS-5000 loudspeaker

Yamaha, one of the most well known (one might even say “household”) names in Japanese electronics, hi-fi equipment, musical instruments, and more, has been getting back into the home-audio/high-end scene in a big way. At this show, the company’s new NS-5000 speaker made its impressive debut driven by a selection of Yamaha and Accuphase electronics. There was an easy naturalism and an effortless musicality to these speakers; my hunch is they’d be infinitely listenable and non-fatiguing. The transducers simply seemed to get out of the way of the music. The presentation was highly resolved, crystal-clear, but not clinical. In short, this digital-source demo (MacBook Air) sounded far better than most digital I’d heard.

Yamaha’s Susumu Kumazawa with the new NS-5000 speaker.

As Yamaha’s Susumu Kumazawa explained (pictured above), some tech advances and special approaches are at work here: All the drivers feature diaphragms made of Zylon, a patented woven material reported to be the strongest, most heat-resistant, and most durable material extant. (It’s used to make space gear fireproof.)

As befits the maker’s “powered by music” slogan, the basis for the enclosure’s design and voicing was leveraged by Yamaha from the analysis of soundwave measurements of actual acoustic instruments (of Yamaha’s own manufacture!) and how those sinewaves resonate. The Japanese birch plywood enclosure has no internal damping and has precisely 90-degree corners to cancel standing waves and other undesirable resonances. Availability in the U.S. is slated for early 2017 at a price of $14,999/pr.; SPS-5000 stands will be included. All told, this is one to write home about, and one to watch.

Close-up of the new Accuphase E-270 integrated amplifier in a rose-golden chassis.

Accuphase E-270 integrated amplifier (and other new components)

The celebrated Japanese manufacturer introduced its new E-270 integrated that delivers 120Wpc into 4 ohms, 90W into 8. Slated to retail in the U.S. for just $4500 via L.A.-area importer Axiss Audio, its lower price-point should generate interest in the brand among newcomers and longtime audiophiles alike.

Accuphase also debuted numerous other assorted offerings; among these were the DP-560 CD/SACD player (superseding the DP-550) with new CD/SACD drive, the DC-950 digital processor, the DP-950 precision SACD transport, and two 120V-type power conditioners, the PS-560 and PS-1230. (See RH’s show highlights for more technical details about these components.) We editors from The Absolute Sound were also tickled to learn that Accuphase still manufactures a tuner for the Japanese market, the T-1100 (approx. $9k) with both a coaxial digital and a balanced analog output.

Close-up of a final production model of the new Constellation Revelation Series.

Constellation Revelation electronics

Constellation introduced on static display its new Revelation series of electronics. The lineup represents a bridge between the company’s Inspiration and Performance series, and features Inspiration casework and circuitry. Components include a preamp that will retail for $18k (with a DC filter option for an additional $5k), monoblock amplifiers delivering 500W ($39k/pr.), and a stereo amp rated at 250Wpc into 8 ohms. Revelation series components are expected to ship sometime before the end of 2016.

Close-up of the new TAD Micro Evolution One compact stand-mounted loudspeaker.

TAD Micro Evolution One (TAD-ME1-K) loudspeaker

Technical Audio Devices, aka TAD, debuted its powerful-sounding Micro Evolution One (TAD-ME1-K) compact stand-mount at the show. These three-way speakers of bass-reflex design feature new coincident drivers. With their remarkable dispersion they filled the room with palpable and exciting energy with hefty lower midrange and bass that reportedly dips to 36Hz. The enclosure features a bi-directional ADS slit-shaped port on each side to offset vibrational forces to produce deeper, more powerful, and more articulate bass. Indeed, the TAD-ME1-Ks have the drama, presence, and bigger bass of a floorstander. With a Spiral Groove turntable and ’arm and a Benz Michael L2 cartridge as the analog front end, the ME1-K proved to be an interesting demo. Timbral quality, which leaned towards the bottom-up side, seemed to vary widely (even wildly) depending upon source material. Acoustic music—particularly jazz selections and my Joni Mitchell Blue LP, which sounded darkish—seemed to fare better than most harder-hitting rock ‘n’ roll cuts where the bass could get a touch heavy. On the plus side, transient attacks were rapid-fire and solid; percussion had lively snap. This was highly engaging, high-impact listening even if it wasn’t the last word in razor-sharp clarity or realism. And I certainly appreciate a speaker of this size that can deliver this kind of slam you can both hear and feel. The speaker will be available in Japan in November and in other markets in February 2017. It will be distributed in the U.S. by MoFi Distribution; price is TBD. TAD-ST3-K speaker stands will also be available.

The new Elac Concentro speaker with a rounded form-factor and a black-and-white finish.

Elac Concentro loudspeaker

Speaking of speakers (of far larger dimensions) that delivered astonishing dispersion, the brand-new Concentro floorstanders from Elac were an unexpected find. The cone acts as a waveguide to expand dispersion area. Indeed, it sounded as effortlessly beautiful and musical off-axis as on as I listened to a Donald Fagan LP played back on a Thales turntable. Driven by Orpheus electronics the speaker seemed to offer a good deal of transparency, an ear-pleasing sense of ease—and it was cool-looking too. Designed in Germany, this model will make its Stateside debut at CES in Vegas where it will be paired with Audio Alchemy electronics. (This is no coincidence as Elac recently acquired Audio Alchemy.)

The new TechDAS Air Force One Premium turntable system.

TechDAS Air Force One Premium

Just when you think a flagship turntable can’t raise the bar on its top-tier performance any higher, TechDAS does it again with its new ne plus ultra flagship Air Force One Premium, an upgraded ’table comprising a main turntable body, an air pump/power supply unit, and an air condenser (three units in two separate chassis) to deliver its three fundamental design elements: air bearing, disc suction, and air suspension. Purchasers can choose from a trio of platter material options: aerospace-grade super-duralumin, titanium, or non-magnetic forged stainless steel. Yes, folks, these are heavy-duty parts for a heavy-hitter of a reference turntable.

Esoteric Limited Edition Black Series

In celebration of the Japanese maker’s 30th anniversary (in 2017) Esoteric is launching its Limited Edition Black Series of electronics in a very limited production run of just 30 units each of the three hand-built components in black with special artisanal finishes: K-01X and K-03X CD/SACD players and the F-03A Class A integrated amplifier. Those who are lucky enough to acquire these can choose between either the “Bordeaux” or the “Oxidized Silver” finishes of fine Urushi lacquer (applied in an ancient Japanese layering method) with the Esoteric logo applied in a traditional Japanese “Maki-e” gold gilding technique.

Also introduced were a trio of integrated amplifiers: the F-03A (regular finish), F-05, and F-07—each full-featured and with built-in phonostages. Speaking of Esoteric, its electronics also drove Wharfdale and Avantgarde Acoustics horn speakers to thrilling effect to a rapt SRO audience.

The curvaceous Vivid Audio Giya G1 Spirit speaker in an eye-catching new yellow color.

Vivid Audio lived up to its name, presenting an updated version of its Giya G1 Spirit loudspeaker in a bright banana yellow (as opposed to say, emergency yellow). The Vivid speaker engineer/designer Laurence Dickey was on-hand and mentioned that though he gave carte blanche to the marketing/creative team, he wasn’t quite expecting this color, but the bold hue has grown on him—and has gotten plenty of orders. It also features updated bass units and grilles in addition to new low-mid drivers. This five-way flagship certainly captures one’s visual attention, yet sonically it performs a wonderful disappearing act. Driven by Constellation’s stellar electronics (with Einstein gear also on deck), resolution was high, full of crisp detail across the spectrum, from flutes and triangle to lower-register piano and bass; subtle cymbal brushes were also captivating. Playback of “S’Wonderful” also got my ears’ attention, as the speakers seemed to vanish, so natural, resolved, detailed did they sound. S’lovely.

Other Surprises

In a visit to the Linn room, I was amused by another creative visual treatment: a brochure showing four fabric options from the Harris Tweed Collection that can custom-cover your Linn Series 5 Exakt speakers (the 520 or 530 models)! (These might have to become my perfect winter accessory.) This all-Linn room delivered a great-sounding demo to boot with Linn Klimax 350A speakers (driven by the company’s electronics), a classic Linn Sondek LP12 turntable served as the analog front end and a Klimax DS network music player as digital source. The built-in DSP allows you to upload room measurements to a cloud to have Linn’s algorithms calculate the coefficients you need and send them back to you to dial into your space. An LP—on the Linn Recut label—of the Ravel piano concerto in G major was reproduced with lively energy, with a quick and quite clean playback (though bass went a touch boomy once or twice). The frenetic piano playing and rapid-fire trombones made for exciting listening.

A clear, vertical display case showing all the parts of a Technics SL-1200MK5G turntable disassembled.

Another surprise was in the Technics room, where there were large vertical showcase displays of a couple of the company’s classic turntable models, such as the SL-1200MK5G, completely disassembled. This certainly is something you wouldn’t see most manufacturers doing. Call it a new level of literal and figurative transparency.

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