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JV Reports on the Munich High-End Show 2012 (UPDATED with Addendum)

JV Reports on the Munich High-End Show 2012 (UPDATED with Addendum)

Munich High End is not only the biggest high-end-audio show in the world; it is also the oddest. Where else in the world would you be greeted at the door by three guys in lederhosen, hunter’s vests, ruffled shirts, and plumed hats, playing alpenhorns? Or see an oompah band wandering the ground floor? For that matter, where else would you see so many couples—men and women (and a few children, too)—crowding the atria and exhibit rooms? In Bavaria, high-end audio isn’t the traditional men’s club; it is a family outing.

Such charming unconventionality deserves praise, and I’m pleased to say that this year’s Munich High End did, indeed, sound good. Not great, mind you. Great would be the Sunday morning mass at St. Peters Church in Marienplatz, where not only a chorus and a majestic pipe organ but an entire orchestra made gorgeous music from the choir loft, or the Sunday evening performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Bavarian State Opera. Nonetheless, the sounds coming from all those cones, horns, and membranes was quite a bit better than average—and a whole lot better than last year’s Munich show.

Here are some highlights.

Alongside the Magico Q1, arguably the world’s best mini-monitor, Michael Borresen’s $18k Raidho C 1.1 two-way, ribbon/cone standmount, developed a superb soundstage in its M.O.C digs, but (at least on Day One of the show) sounded just a tad less crisp, clear, incredibly natural, and finely detailed than it does in my home with Walker/Da Vinci/Acoustic Signature turntables and Constellation electronics. The presentation was very good, nonetheless. I don’t think these wonderful speakers are capable of sounding less than excellent.

France’s AudioNec’s was  back, this time with its $35k Response Signature V2s, a scaled-down version of the Answer speaker I heard last year. Like the Answer, it also uses a DSP crossover and AudioNec’s unique, dipole, AMT-like wideband driver—the item that looks a bit like two giant rolls of paper towels standing on end—from 200Hz up to 20kHz (with a ribbon supertweeter on top). As was the case in 2011, the AudioNecs produced very delicate sound with terrific transients and very good tone color on sax, drum, percussion, and trumpet.

Focal’s $40k three-and-a-halfway Maestro Utopias, hooked up with Purist Design cables, and Vitus SM 101 amplifier and SM102 preamp, sounded absolutely gorgeous. Oh, the bass may have been just a little thick on certain cuts, although it was superb on my Joan Armatrading disc. This is the first room where I wrote: “A Best Of Show contender?”

Wadax’s $106.5k La Pasiòn—dsp’d, three-ways with internal amplification—sounded, very smooth, detailed, and just the slightest bit polite on “Closing Time” from my Leonard Cohen LP Songs From The Road. (Lest you think this was an analog coloration, the Wadaxes evinced exactly the same sonic profile on digital sources.) I thought the Pasiòns were good but a little like the overly tenderized meat in some Chinese restaurants—they had a slightly pre-chewed texture and flavor.

“Obviously a BOS,” I wrote after hearing MBL’s $263k X-Tremes sound fantastic, yet again, in Munich. Driven by MBL Reference electronics, these Radialstrahler wonders are among the small handful of truly great transducers, with the best bass I’d heard thus far at the M.O.C., super dynamics, and the kind of vast, untethered-to-drivers staging that only omnis and a handful of planars and two-ways seem capable of delivering. As usual, the X-Tremes were a little dark in overall balance with just a little glimmer of extra brightness on female voices on fortissimos and in the top treble, but I could easily live with these shortcomings for everything else they do right. Simply and magically and authentically majestic.

YG Acoustics’ $119k, three-way, four-driver (with powered sub) Anat III Signature—driven by ASR Emitter II battery-powered amps and sourced by a Scheu turntable—made the best showing I’ve heard from a YG speaker. On my digital Blue Tofu cut as well as my analog Leonard Cohen disc, I found nothing major to critique. Oh, perhaps the Anats had just a slightly dark palette and maybe they didn’t pull off as much of a disappearing act as Audio Physic Virgo 25s, but dynamics, bass, midrange, treble, and overall sweetness were outstanding, as was pace. Another BOS contender.

 Isophon’s gorgeous 150,000€ Berlina RC 11 four-ways sounded a bit chesty but very coherent. This was a lively presentation with a beguiling touch of natural brightness—kind of like a two-way with genuine bass.

We come now to two rooms featuring Audio Physic’s $17k Virgo 25 Plus. In the first, the Virgos were a little “top-down” sounding, to borrow Michael Borresen’s phrase (i.e., they were a little weighted toward the treble and midrange), which gave them a very lively and pacey balance, albeit at the cost of some occasional timbral leanness (although it may be that the Virgos were just very honest speakers, because their tonal balance seemed to change with source). In any event, they came closer to realistic than many speakers I heard in Munich (indeed, this was first speaker about which I could honestly use the “r” word), thanks to their speed, focus, and boxlesness.

In the second room, the Virgo 25 Plusses were driven by Aesthetic electronics and sourced by an AMG turntable, and their balance was consistently fuller. Indeed, they sounded superb on Vilnius Noir (a great avant-jazz recording from the Lithuanian label NoBusiness), with tremendous dynamics and very natural tone color. In this room I would have to say that the AP Virgo 25s were best of show contenders.

German speaker-maker Cessaro showed its gigantic, as yet unpriced (I’m guessing the $500-600 range, apiece of course) Beethoven spherical horn system (with horn-loaded bass), driven by Tron electronics and a TW Acoustics ’table. Like all Cessaros the Beethovens surprise you with their lack of horn coloration, their delicacy of detail and texture, and their coherence. This said, they were a little shy in the low end and slightly grainy in the upper mids and treble.

Sonus faber showed its 80,000€ Aida multiway driven by D’Agostino Momentum amps and sourced by an EAT turntable. On my Leonard Cohen LP, the Aidas sounded quite a bit better than they did at CES, albeit (like the Cessaros, although for different reasons) a bit grainy.

Marten’s $15k, three-way Django, driven by a Nagra preamp and CD player and Marten’s own amps sounded downright beautiful in timbre on my Blue Tofu cut with nice detail and very good bass, although the system was not the very last word in low-end definition. The bass on my Bartok Concerto for Orchestra LP was clearly a little too thick (this may have been a room issue); however, string tone was gorgeous. This was a very attractive sound.

I again heard the Voxativ Ampeggio one-ways driven by Voxativ amps, and they again sounded very transparent and of a piece, though still light (albeit tightly defined) in the bass. The Voxativs are very natural on voice, though the speaker “cabinet” (i.e., the baffle on which the driver is mounted) never truly disappears, compressing depth somewhat and making the entire presentation sound a little like it were being projected on a wall.

The $50k three-way Rockport Aquila, driven by Absolare electronics on digital recordings, were hamstrung on analog by the setup (which required a switch to another, much-lower-powered amp). As a result the Aquillas had an SPL issue with the wonderful Decca recording of Satie’s Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear; they simply couldn’t play much above a whisper, which, obviously, adversely affected dynamics and tonal balance. This was not a good sound (although the speakers were not to blame). Happily, the Aquillas were much better with CD, where power issues weren’t tying them down.

Ocean Way’s $80k monitors, with horn-loaded compression tweeter physically aligned with woofers and triamplified with Viola electronics, were very dynamic and surprisingly coherent and balanced for a horn/dynamic speaker. Designed by celebrated recording engineer Alan Sides primarily for studio use, they sounded lovely on my Blue Tofu disc and thrilling on the “The Calvini Hit” cut from The International, though they were not the very last word in resolution.

Focal’s $90k Stella Utopia EMs, driven wonderfully by Soulution’s outstanding new 500 Series electronic, were extremely neutral and finely detailed, with superb bass extension, definition, and impact. They had lovely treble, too, and great staging. This was perhaps the most realistic sound I’d heard thus far at the show (only the second time I found occasion to use the “r” word). A definite BOS contender, with truly breathy, lifelike vocals. Marvelous!

YG Kipod Signature 2, driven by Ypsilon electronics and sourced by a Bergman turntable, had gorgeous tone color on Leonard Cohen’s “Lover, Lover, Lover”—sweet as sugar on the backups and very finely detailed on Cohen’s voice. Like their bigger YG brothers, the Kipods were a little dark in balance, but not excessively so, with very good depth and nice tight bass (though not quite as deep as the Soulution/Focal system). Though, the Kipods showed a bit of dynamic compression at louder SPLs, at moderate volume levels they were phenomenal on my Blue Tofu cut, which sounded better here than in any other room at the show. Another BOS contender, in spite of a little dynamic constraint.

Like the Rockport Aquila, the Vandersteen Model 7 was hampered somewhat by an “iffy” analog setup, which caused a skipping noise on my Vilnius Noir LP (the designer of the ’table said it was static). Even on a return visit after the analog setup had been “tweaked,” I thought the bass was too heavy, though sounstaging was excellent. This was a darker sound than I’m used to from the Vandys, still very natural in the midrange but with a tinge of brightness in the treble. I’m afraid that I didn’t like the amplification as much as I do the Vandy/ARC combo I’m used to.

Driven by DDO electronics the Lansche Model 7s with their plasma tweeter, sounded very finely detailed, with gorgeous timbre. But they were also a bit dark and, for lack of a better word, hollow-sounding, as if the presence/brilliance range were a little sucked out. On Blue Tofu the bass was overblown and ill-defined—not a realistic sound.

Germany’s Audio Exklusiv showed its $8000€ P 3.1 full-range electrostats. Someone needs to hop on these quick in the U.S. because the sound was very delicate and lovely with very nice bass—rather like a cross between a CLX and a Soundlab. Despite some large-scale dynamic limitations, this was still a surprisingly full, rich presentation.

The greatly improved Avantgarde three-way spherical-horn-loaded Duo Grosso showed much better this year than it did last: suave, lively, and balanced with next to zip horn coloration. On “Long Black Train,” there was a hint of forwardness on voice and aggressiveness on harp, but the overall presentation was pretty darn natural and very dynamic, with a superior blend in timbre and speed of horn mid and tweet and powered cone woofer.

Kharma’s four-way Exquisite Midis with Nomex-Kevlar woofer and midwoofer, carbon-fiber-cone midrange, and diamond tweeter were augmented by two, outboard, powered Midi subwoofers. Unfortunately, the subs were quite audible and boomy on standup bass, plus the overall sound was a little dead dynamically on another jazz cut. Not the best I’ve heard Kharmas sound.

We come now—well, actually “go” is the right word, since my final two systems were located off-site at a hi-fi store nearby the M.O.C.—to the $165k Magico Q7, which so vexed me at CES, and, in its sonic debut, the new $28k (coincidence–you be the judge) Magico S5.

Here’s the thing about the Q7. It is obviously a great loudspeaker—and may perhaps be the great speaker. In Munich, as at this year’s CES, it would have earned an A+ in every single audiophile category—unbelievable power and definition in the bass, superb blending of drivers, exceptional resolution of detail, etc. And yet, and yet…in spite of the checklist of superlatives, the Q7s never sounded like real music to me in Munich; they sounded, well, like hi-fi.

As was the case at CES, a lot of the problem had to do with what was feeding the Q7s. In Munich, it was Spectral electronics, which have never been famous for their engaging warmth.  Then there was the musical program being played—a non-stop series of hi-fi spectaculars designed to show off the speakers’ bass, treble, dynamics, soundstaging—everything, in fact, but their naturalness and musicality. And finally there was the room, which occasionally added a bump in the midbass and a bit of brightness in the mid-treble.

Don’t misunderstand: I think the Q7 may be Magico’s greatest achievement. Save for a few moments at the end of the CES (when it was powered in the mids and treble by a Soulution 500 monoblock) I simply haven’t heard it sound that way.

Actively displayed for the first time, Magico’s most affordable aluminum-bodied multiways, the $28k S5s, on the other hand, were everything that the Q7s were not: tremendously engaging, utterly delightful, very lifelike on lifelike recordings, and joys to listen to. Driven by Devaliet electronics, the S5s were clearly not the Q7s’ (or the Q5s’) match in bass extension and definition or low-level resolution or transparency to sources, and yet that didn’t seem to matter because, no matter what the recording, they always sounded like music. Magico is going to have what I think will be its hottest seller yet in this wonderful transducer, which, for the first time for Magico, can be had in any color paintjob your little heart desires.

Best Sound of Show: Three-way tie: Focal Stella Utopia EMs, Magico S5s, and MBL X-Tremes.

For more photos of the Munich High-End Show go to jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p569475135.

Addendum to JV’s Munich High End Report

In my haste to post this Munich report on-line, I forgot to mention a couple of important items. First, Munich marked the debut of Constellation Audio’s Performance Series Centaur monoblock amplifiers (price tentatively pegged at $48k/pr.). The Centaur monoblocks (accompanied by other Constellation Performance Series electronics, including the debut of its Cygnus Digital file player/DAC) were shown with Tidal’s new Piano Diacera loudspeaker with Piano X-Tender (what appeared to be a freestanding woofer column). Since I’m not familiar with these Tidal speakers, it was harder to suss out just what was doing what. But I can say this much with confidence: This was, IMO, the best showing Tidal has thus far made at a trade show I’ve attended, which either means that I like these speakers better than Tidal’s larger ones or that the Constellation Performance Series electronics were doing their usual magic. I’m betting that it was a combination of both. As you will know if you read TAS, the Constellation Performers are my current reference electronics. I simply love the way they sound with Magico Q5s, Raidho C 1.1s, and Magneplanar 20.7s. But, especially in the latter case, more power would be welcome (as it always is with Maggies). Thus, the Constellation Audio Centaur monoblocks, with 500Wpc into 8 ohms and something approaching 1000W into the Maggie’s 4-ohm load, are very welcome additions to an already stellar line. I hope to get the chance to review these amps (unless Robert steals them away from me), and I’m also very much looking forward to reviewing the new Soulution 500 Series electronics, which can only be described as having a fabulous show.

In the Focal suite (shown above) and in the German Physik room, the Soulution 500 electronics turned speakers that I’ve sometimes had problems with into Best of Show contenders–and, in the case of the Focal Stella Utopia EMs, into my Best of Show winner. These are extremely promising components, which, like the Constellation Performance Series, are priced squarely in the wheelhouse of traditional upper-end players like ARC, Rowland, Spectral, Boulder, McIntosh, etc. As noted, I expect to review the Soulution 500s in the near future.

 I also neglected to mention the debut of Carl Marchisotta’s Nola Grand Reference VI loudspeaker. This pricey two-enclosure statement transducer–with Carl’s ribbon/cone tweeter/midrange dipole array in one cabinet and his woofer array in a second ported one–will undoubtedly be of greatest interest to high-enders. As Nola wasn’t showing with its traditional partner, ARC, and with a triode amp I wasn’t familiar with (or particularly wild about)  it was tough for me to assess the Grand References’ sound. What I can say is that Marchisotta’s statement speakers have long been references for golden-ear listeners (including our very own HP), and I have no reason to doubt that this latest iteration will prove any less than fantastic when ideally set-up and driven.


By Jonathan Valin

I’ve been a creative writer for most of life. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I wrote eleven novels and many stories—some of which were nominated for (and won) prizes, one of which was made into a not-very-good movie by Paramount, and all of which are still available hardbound and via download on Amazon. At the same time I taught creative writing at a couple of universities and worked brief stints in Hollywood. It looked as if teaching and writing more novels, stories, reviews, and scripts was going to be my life. Then HP called me up out of the blue, and everything changed. I’ve told this story several times, but it’s worth repeating because the second half of my life hinged on it. I’d been an audiophile since I was in my mid-teens, and did all the things a young audiophile did back then, buying what I could afford (mainly on the used market), hanging with audiophile friends almost exclusively, and poring over J. Gordon Holt’s Stereophile and Harry Pearson’s Absolute Sound. Come the early 90s, I took a year and a half off from writing my next novel and, music lover that I was, researched and wrote a book (now out of print) about my favorite classical records on the RCA label. Somehow Harry found out about that book (The RCA Bible), got my phone number (which was unlisted, so to this day I don’t know how he unearthed it), and called. Since I’d been reading him since I was a kid, I was shocked. “I feel like I’m talking to God,” I told him. “No,” said he, in that deep rumbling voice of his, “God is talking to you.” I laughed, of course. But in a way it worked out to be true, since from almost that moment forward I’ve devoted my life to writing about audio and music—first for Harry at TAS, then for Fi (the magazine I founded alongside Wayne Garcia), and in the new millennium at TAS again, when HP hired me back after Fi folded. It’s been an odd and, for the most part, serendipitous career, in which things have simply come my way, like Harry’s phone call, without me planning for them. For better and worse I’ve just gone with them on instinct and my talent to spin words, which is as close to being musical as I come.

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