Forget Rocky Mountain, AXPONA Chicago, New York, and Newport Beach, Montréal, Hong Kong, Tokyo, CES. With over 450 exhibitors displaying 900 different brands—all of them as high-end as hi-fi gets (and many not to be seen anywhere else)—there is simply no other show like Munich High End. Were it in my power, come next May I would send all of you reading this blog to the MOC (the Munich convention center, where the festivities take place), not simply to enjoy the fabulous sights and sounds but to see for yourselves that—despite the regular-as-clockwork predictions of impending doom—ultra-high-end audio is not going to die off with the boomer generation. Nearly 18,000 Münchners and Münchnerins—many with kids in strollers—showed up at this year’s extravaganza, along with exhibitors and visitors literally from the world over. As I said in last year’s Munich blog, you cannot help but feel your spirits rise to see this hobby, to which we’ve all devoted so much of our leisure time and spare cash (and in my case working hours), embraced by this many fresh-faced youngsters. Munich puts the fun back in the high end—and a sense of adventure I haven’t felt since I was a kid. And—oh, yes—this year the show sounded great, to boot.
JV’s Top Five Systems
Zellaton Reference Loudspeaker
I’ve been impressed by Zellaton loudspeakers at previous trade shows, but in Munich in 2014 the sound of the company’s flagship—the three-way, five-driver (three cone woofers, one cone tweeter, and one cone midrange that covers the entire critical band between 100Hz and 8kHz), $99,750 Reference, driven by an Analog Domain Audio Isis integrated amplifier and an Allnic H-3000 phonostage, wired with Schnerzinger cabling, and sourced by a Sperling L-1 turntable—came very close to being the most lifelike I’ve ever heard at a trade show. Indeed, with one big proviso, it came very close to being the most lifelike I’ve heard period.
Here is what the Zellaton Reference does better than any other cone speaker I’ve auditioned: Reproduce LPs and digital media with simply unparalleled speed, openness, and resolution. Everything from entire vocal and instrumental lines in large ensembles to the tiny timbral and textural details that characterize (and humanize) the performances of soloists is reproduced with such newfound clarity and realism (and with such a complete absence of the usual metal, plastic, paper, ceramic, diamond, or carbon-fiber cone/membrane sonic signature) it is as if the recordings themselves have been remade—remixed and remastered by the world’s greatest mastering engineer. And the Zellaton References do this utterly astonishing trick without ever sounding “analytical.” Indeed, on this day in this venue their tone color was well nigh perfectly natural from top to bottom, and their “disappearing act” nearly complete. Not without reason does their U.S. importer, Gideon Schwartz of Audio Arts, call them “Quad 57s with meat on their bones.”
The secret to the Zellatons’ lifelike sound is their incredibly rigid and lightweight drivers, which are hand-made (in a process that takes up to six weeks for each driver) by Manuel Podszus, the grandson of Dr. Emil Podszus, the man who invented the sandwich driver in 1931. Although tools and materials have improved greatly over the years, the basic idea remains the same: Each cone comprises an ultra-thin layer of aluminum foil (six one-thousandth of a millimeter thick in the tweeter), a layer of hard foam, and a tissue-like backing of paper. As the foam is 85% air, the entire “sandwich” is featherweight (0.18 grams in the case of the tweeter), giving the driver the superior transient speed and resolution of a membrane and the superior damping and linearity of a cone.
So where’s that “big proviso” I mentioned earlier? Well, take the famous Turnabout LP of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, newly reissued (to superb effect) in a 45-rpm, 180-gram, two-disc set by Analogue Productions. Although this recording has always been a bit dry and forward (due, I think, to the narrow, shallow stage that the Dallas Symphony, under conductor Donald Johanos, was recorded on), and the performance itself overly brisk and aggressive, the LP is still a wonder of inner detail and floor-and-wall-shaking power. The Zellaton References reproduced it with more detail (and I mean loads more detail) and greater realism than I’ve ever before experienced—and I’ve been listening to this LP for four decades or more, and my current reference speakers are the highest-resolution transducers I’ve ever had in my home. However, in spite of the Zellaton’s superb speed, color, and resolution (and these qualities extended all the way from the treble to the bass), the Rachmaninoff didn’t have quite the “punch” on big orchestral tuttis I know it should’ve had.
This limitation in large-scale dynamics—which is linked to the very-wide-bandwidth Zellaton midrange driver’s relative skittishness when it comes to power-handling (the References lost one driver to a troublesome amp at the show—and the Ensemble loudspeakers I so adored many years ago, which used a Zellaton midrange, famously had issues when driven overly hard) has always been the knock against Zellatons.
Be this as it may, if you listen to small-scale music (folk, rock, jazz, or classical—vocal or instrumental or both) it may be that you can’t do better than these extraordinary transducers. Even if you favor large-scale music (provided it’s classical or jazz), you may be able to live contentedly with the Zellatons, provided that you don’t regularly push them into the 90-to-100dB SPL range (save on occasional peaks). I’ll find out for sure in the future, as I intend to review the References if and when they are made available to me.
Raidho D-5/D-3 Loudspeakers
So you want the speed and resolution that the Zellaton References deliver, but you also want the dynamic range, through-the-floor extension, and thump-in-the-chest impact they can’t quite summon up. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce my current reference speaker, the Raidho D-5 and its smaller, much-less-pricey brother the D-3, which, to quote our publisher Jim Hannon, seems to combine the slam of a big Wilson, the resolution of a Magico, and the speed and timbral beauty of a Quad in a single (drop-dead-gorgeous) package. While the larger of the pair—Raidho’s tall, slender, seven-driver (two diamond midranges and four diamond woofers in a quasi-D’Appolito array, flanking a single ribbon tweeter), three-way, $240k flagship—is still a bitch to place properly in a room (which is to say that, like its superb ceramic-driver cousin, the C-4.1, the D-5 still has too much mid-to-upper bass for my taste), the slight discontinuity between the ribbon and the ceramic cones in the C-4.1 has been almost completely erased (thanks to the much-higher-in-frequency, much-lower-in-amplitude breakup modes of the diamond midrange drivers), while resolution, speed, and color have all been improved (and the C-4.1 was and is no slouch in any of these areas).
At Munich, the D-5s were being driven by Constellation Audio Centaur monoblock amplifiers and (alternately) by a Rowland and a Constellation Virgo II linestage preamplifier, both sourced via a dCS Puccini (no analog in this room) and wired with Raidho’s new Ansuz cable, interconnect, and power products. The Constellation gear proved to be a serendipitous choice; indeed, between the Raidho room and its own room, where it introduced its new, more affordable Inspiration line of electronics with Wilson Audio Alexias, Constellation had a great show. The Centaur mono amps provided just the right amount of grip and definition in the bottom octaves that the somewhat bass-heavy D-5s sorely need. Even at that, there was a good bit of boom-and-rattle on one cut (Holly Cole’s rendition of “Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night” from the Analogue Productions SACD of Temptation), which was owed in equal parts to the room, the recording, and the speakers. (To be fair, I’ve yet to hear this particular cut without some small amount of resonance—the recording is inherently strong in the midbass.)
No, the D-5/D-3s are not quite as magically revealing as the Zellaton References, though the gap between the two marques is quite small. Indeed, before I heard the Zells, I would’ve bet the farm that the D-5s were the highest-resolution full-range cone loudspeakers on earth. In other words, you’re still going hear an abundance of things on every record that you’ve never heard before through these big (and littler) Raidhos—and you’re going to hear them on all music with no limits on SPLs or dynamics.
So…you pays your money and you takes your chances: the unparalleled resolution, color, and realism of the Zellaton Reference on the right music at the right levels; or the next-best-thing in all three areas—and maybe the best thing at concert-hall/rock-club levels—without any restrictions on music or loudness.
Rockport Technologies Altair Loudspeaker
Driven by Absolare’s Passion electronics and sourced by an Absolare-outfitted Kodo “The Beat” turntable, Rockport’s $97,500, four-way, four-driver (one side-firing 15″ woofer, one 9″ mid/bass driver, one 5-1/4″ midrange cone, one 1″ beryllium dome tweeter) Altair floorstander in its aerodynamically-sculpted, molded-monocoque enclosure proved just why it is so beloved by my best bud Robert Harley. On the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances LP, the Altair had ravishingly beautiful and lifelike timbre on strings, winds, and brass, with big, powerful midbass and a rock-solid power range that gave virtually all instruments realistic color, solidity, and dimensionality. In Munich all the Altair lacked was a floor-shaking bottom-most octave; the Rockport just didn’t have the extension and impact on tuttis that I’ve heard from this LP in my home (with the Raidho D-5s) or at the show with the Marten Coltrane Supreme 2s (powered by DartZeel) among others. This very slight bottom-end reticence could have been a room or amplification or source issue (or a mix of all three), although my memory, distant though it may be, of the Rockport Hyperions was that they, too, lacked true floor-shaking bottom end. But then hi-fi fireworks are the last things that Rockport’s designer, Andy Payor, is out for. He engineers his speakers to sound like music, and so they do—gorgeously.
Kharma Exquisite Classique Loudspeaker
Speaking of gorgeous, driven by Orpheus electronics Kharma’s three-way, three-driver (1″ diamond tweeter, 7″ Omega 7 carbon-fiber-sandwich midrange, 12″ Nomex-Kevlar woofer housed in Kharma’s patented, intricately-layered-and-damped enclosure) Exquisite Classique floorstander is just plain beautiful-sounding from top to bottom. Dark, rich, and sweet, its presentation is highly reminiscent of that of the most voluptuous tube electronics (e.g., Absolare, Kondo), and yet the Kharma Exquisite Classique still manage to generate enough speed, resolution power, and definition to make vocalists and instrumentalists sound persuasively “there,” turning (for instance) Holly Cole’s rendition of “Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night,” which gave some of these other great speakers fits in the midbass, into what it actually is at its best—a superbly lifelike recording of a small jazz/pop trio. Like the Raidhos and the Zellatons, these Kharmas did not evince a hint of the added sibilance that one sometimes hears with diamond and beryllium tweeters (Andy Payor’s implementation of what I think is a Scan-Speak beryllium unit is an exception).
Avantgarde Acoustics Zero 1 Active Horn Loudspeaker
In a show this loaded with horn-loaded loudspeakers, which appear to be as popular in Germany as they are in Japan, I could scarcely avoid including one of the breed in my top five systems, though I confess to being torn between these marvels from Avantgarde Acoustics and Estelon’s incredibly ingenious new Extreme floorstander, Marten’s thunderously powerful, supremely hard-hitting Coltrane Supreme 2, Crystal Cable’s tiny, surprisingly full-bodied Minissimo stand-mount, and Wolf von Langa’s strikingly beautiful, $350k, all-field-coil-driver Salon dipole (for all of which, see Other Notables below).
But, as you will soon read in TAS, Avantgarde’s small, beautifully styled-and-engineered, active, three-way (cone woofer and horn-loaded tweeter and midrange, with the horns actually molded into its slender, surprisingly non-resonant, beautifully designed, hard-foam enclosures) Zero 1 floorstander is in many ways the most remarkable transducer of any kind I’ve ever had in my home—and it sounded just as remarkable in Munich.
Here’s the thing: Because it has been DSP’d (by Thomas Holm, no less) to sound maximally phase-and-time coherent within a listening “bubble” of approximately two-to-four meters (with three meters being ideal), you can set these things down virtually anywhere, feed them a digital source (or an analog one with Avantgarde’s optional analog-to-digital conversion board) and, at the proper listening distances, the Zero 1s will sound…fantastic.
Anyone who’s had experience trying to mate horns with conventional cone drivers will be amazed at just how seamlessly the Zero 1’s cone bass blends with its horn tweet and midrange—and just as amazed at how few “horn colorations” the entire system evinces. All of the things that turned the Munich debut of Magico’s half-million-dollar Ultimate III/Q Sub, which was parked in a terrible room, into a poster child for bad behavior in horn-loaded systems (cupped-hands coloration, aggressively projected midband, zero image focus, slightly discontinuous bass, and an overall P.A.-like presentation that made many acoustic instruments sound as if they’d been electronically reprocessed) just aren’t there with the Avantgarde Zero 1. Of course, you’re not going to get all the stage size, electrifying transient speed, and limitless bottom-end extension, definition, and power of something like the Ultimate III/Q Sub (though—trust me—you will be as amazed as I was at just how many of these things the Zero 1s preserve in such a small, elegant package). What you will get is the easiest-to-set-up, most top-to-bottom coherent, downright beautiful-and-lifelike-sounding small horn loudspeaker I’ve ever come across, with much of the speed, resolution, and dynamic range that horns are famous for and (from what I can tell) none of the artifacts they are also famous for.
The plug ’n’ play Zero 1 is a genuine breakthrough in compact horn design, and at $17k a real bargain in ultra-high-end transducer (especially when you remember that it comes with its own amplifiers and DAC—all you have to supply is a digital source and a USB or AES-EBU or optical or SPDIF cable). What a treat, and what a deal!
As I noted above, in a show filled with premieres (Munich has definitely become the spot to introduce new products) the most ingenious by far was Estelon’s four-way, five-driver (1.5″ inverted-dome diamond tweeter, 7″ inverted-dome ceramic midrange, 10″ aluminum-dome mid/woofer, and two 10″ aluminum-dome woofers) Extreme flagship floorstander (see photo at the beginning of the blog). Not only is the thing gorgeous to behold—Estelon, as you already know, is famous for its award-winning industrial design—but it seeks to address a problem that we all face with any loudspeaker: that intractable vale of tears, the listening room. In what is one of the most ingenious designs I’ve ever seen, Estelon’s Alfred Vassilkov has made the Extreme in two interlocking parts. The intricately damped base unit, in which the twin subwoofers are housed, remains stationary, while the large V-shaped head unit, where the tweeter, midrange, and mid/woofer reside, is motorized so that the entire head assembly can be moved up and down via a remote control. What this truly ingenious device gives you is the capability of altering the way the Extreme reacts from midbass to top treble to your floor, sidewalls, and ceiling, by changing the physical location of the drivers vis-à-vis room boundaries. In addition to this motorized mount, the Extreme also allows you to move the tweeter forward and back in the horizontal plane (rather like Wilson’s aspherical-propagation-delay system) to further address room interactions. Though it will take home listening tests to see how well Alfred’s brilliant-in-theory idea works in practice, the Extreme certainly sounded promising in Munich—neither bright nor dark, but just right (when the placement of the head unit was right) in the midrange and treble, albeit a little reticent in the bottom octaves.
Marten’s ultra-expensive multi-way, sixteen-driver (ten on front, six on the back) Coltrane Supreme 2 was the hardest-hitting non-horn-loaded speaker at the show, with thrilling transient response and the best bottom-octave in Munich. On the Rach LP, it literally rocked the room with all the thunderous, floor-shaking power this recording is capable of. Though I thought the speaker’s overall balance was tilted to the bright side, making strings a little drier and grainier than they sounded in, oh, the ultra-liquid Zellaton, Raidho, Rockport, or Kharma systems, the resolution and transient speed of these Swedish giants were only exceeded by the Zellatons and Raidhos.
Crystal Cable showed its tiny, L-shaped, two-way stand-mount Minissimo, introduced at CES, and, as in Vegas, this little transducer sounded far more robust than it would seem to have any right to sound—beautiful in the mids and treble and shockingly full and powerful in the mid-to-upper bass. (At Munich, only the even smaller Raidho X-1 showed similar virtues in so compact a package.)
Finally, Wolf von Langa’s ultra-expensive, breathtakingly beautiful (and odd) Salon dipole, with curvaceous plastic waveguides billowing out in front of its open-backed field-coil drivers, sounded both lovely and impressively realistic on my Leonard Cohen Live in London LP and the Rach Symphonic Dances. While the Salon is too rara an avis for me ever to review, it was certainly a strong contender for Top 5 Systems in München.
Best Sound of Show (cost-no-object): Zellaton Reference loudspeaker driven by an Analog Domain Audio Isis integrated amplifier and an Allnic H-3000 phonostage, wired with Schnerzinger cabling, and sourced by a Sperling L-1 turntable (with the Raidho D5s coming in a close second).
Best Sound of Show (for-the-money): Avantgarde Acoustics Zero 1 active, digitally optimized horn loudspeaker.
Most Significant Product Introductions: Estelon Extreme loudspeaker, Magico Ultimate III loudspeaker, MartinLogan Neolith loudspeaker, Constellation Inspiration Series electronics, Audio Research Corporation’s retro-looking GS Series electronics.
Most Significant Trends: As at CES, the plethora of analog playback equipment, which was found in virtually every room (Magico, as usual, being a notable exception). In Munich, I’d also have to say that the plethora of cutting-edge designs, both horn and dynamic-driver, was striking, though planars and electrostats were relatively scarce on the ground.
Most Coveted Product: Zellaton Reference loudspeaker.
To see photos of all the products I listened to in Munich, go to http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p388174302.