The romantic Pestana Palace Hotel, former town house of the Marquis de Valle-Flor, has been the venue of choice for Lisbon Audioshow organiser Audio magazine since 2012. It’s a small, growing event with 25 hotel rooms and also large public areas, both in the Palace itself and the nearby horse stables (the stables are a small palace in itself, and yes, even the horses were treated like royalty by the Marquis; the stables are now Lisbon’s Congress Centre). This year saw the Audioshow extending to one of the new modern wings, which connects to the main building by a long glass corridor across the beautiful gardens.
Built in the early 19th century, the Pestana Palace was designed by the Venetian architect Nicola Bigaglia in a mix of Romanticism and Revivalism. It has strong 18th century French influence with some decorated ceilings, stained glass, exotic wood floors and opulent furniture. The paintings in the lobby lounge ceiling are by the naturalist painter Domingos Costa.
In and of itself, the venue attracts a large number of visitors, especially when the unexpected cold and rainy weather precludes a walk in the park or a stroll by the beach with the children. Entire families showed up, with Grandma pushing the pushchair while the young couples listened to music in some of the tiny rooms on the third floor. Regrettably, although the hotel might be the venue of choice of the rich and famous, room acoustics were generally poor, no matter how much treatment was applied.
Nevertheless, in Portugal high-end audio gets the royal treatment!
Portugal is not known for its audio industry, mostly comprising a few tube geeks and horn loaded or open baffle loudspeaker cottage brands. However, three home-grown products stood out, one analogue and two digital, all aiming to better control time in music reproduction, and an attempt at the simple-is-best hybrid solid state/tube phono preamplifier.
The analogue side was Rui Borges ‘Pendulum’ turntable (€30,000), fitted with Kuzma 4Point tonearm and Ikeda Kai cartridge, shown here in the context of a system comprising CH Precision electronics, which drove a massive pair of Stenheim Reference Ultime loudspeakers in one of the two large rooms occupied by Ultimate Audio. An Aurender W20 streamer and MSB Select DAC fulfilled the digital duties in this system.
Every single piece – each of different materials to further eliminate resonances – is precision machined to zero tolerance. As the name implies it uses a heavy pendulum at the back to keep the belt tension at bay and avoid slippage and the consequent wow and flutter due to speed variation.
V-Acoustics Ultra Precision Master Clock VA-MLCK-01, designed by Vasco Soares, uses an ultra high precision 10MHz reference signal to synchronize D-A converters and transporters with perfect timing accuracy. Mounted in the loop of an Esoteric K01-X player, it increased the spatial location perception, improved the sonic clarity and texture characteristics, dynamic range, tone quality, and soundstage transparency.
In case you didn’t know, the promising Audolici AVP-01 audio phono preamplifier tube drive technology (€5,300) actively demonstrated at the show (with a Music Hall MMF 9.1 turntable by Absolut Sound & Vision), is also designed and built in Portugal. It’s a simple but highly capable hybrid phono/line preamplifier with just three inputs: MC-LINE-MM.
The MC section is based on low-noise high-linearity design with just one active bipolar unit. The MM section is hybrid and consists of one pair of low-noise discrete semiconductors and one tube. The output buffer section offers ‘hi’ and ‘low’ modes, either directly from a tube or through the buffer stages.
The new Sennheiser Orpheus is a true work of art, and was shown accordingly. It is priced accordingly, too: €50,000! This makes it the world’s most expensive headphone ever. That kind of money gives you a hybrid transistor/tube class A-A/B amplifier with eight quartz glass vacuum tubes mounted in a marble case that also houses a compartment for the head set, a USB DAC at a top resolution of 32bit/384kHz and DSD 5.6MHz capable, and a pair of electrostatic headphones with a built-in second stage amplification. At switch on, it puts on a motorised choreography as the lid opens and the tubes pop up from the marble base. Catchy and kitschy.
Pauca Sed Bona, latin for ‘few, but good’ showed the first ever full Avid system. Alongside the turntables for which Avid is famous, the company has a new two box Reference preamplifier, monoblock amplifiers and the Reference Three loudspeakers with embroidered aluminium side panel cabinets and dedicated stands.
As far as I can recall, this was the first appearance of Diesis at the audioshow, brought by Ars Antiqua Audio, a Spanish distributor, along with Jeff Rowland electronics that have no official distributor in Portugal nowadays, and were driving a pair of Diesis Caput Mundi open-baffle dipole/horn loudspeakers lost in a huge room at the horse stables. The source was a Diesis Neptune streamer, with files being played from a buffer memory.
Devialet is not new to the Portuguese market but Phantom is. Demonstrated ‘with a blast’ by the distributor Imacustica, that deals exclusively with extreme highend products, it literally made quite a ‘stir’ among youngsters, and not so young visitors, including the female gender. It played Marcus Miller with such ‘gusto’ and aplomb it sounded almost live. And you don’t even need a ‘pair’ to stand your ground. I foresee a great success for Phantom…
And now for something utterly new. The Ubiq Audio Model One loudspeakers from Slovenia, imported by JLM Group. The Ubiqs – driven by gutsy Arcam C49/P49 amplification and sourced either by a Music Hall MMF 9.1/Audolici phono preamp or Atoll DR200/Chord Hugo TT combos – feature a horn loaded tweeter and sounded fresh, lively, dynamic and involving, with a tight and articulate bass.
MBL is a newcomer to the Portuguese market; by the hand of distributor Ajasom, although we’ve had a sporadic taste of the radialstrahler over the years, distributor Ajasom is now officially the importer. The company’s Corona line of electronics and loudspeakers were demonstrated to everybody’s delight with a Kronos Pro turntable by Louis Desjardins himself.
In an adjacent room, the cute little Vivid Giya 4 delighted both ladies and audiophile males with their alien ‘Fifth Element’ Pavlalaguna looks and earthly natural sound with the aid of the remarkable Hegel electronics.
The debut of the amazing Monitor Audio PL500II tower loudspeakers by distributor Delaudio was perhaps the most impactful – literally – of all the British breed. Driven by a Pass X350.5 amplifier and a custom designed passive preamp, with an Esoteric K01-X player as source, they took full advantage of the V-Acoustics Ultra Precision Master Clock VA-MLCK-01, designed by Vasco Soares. The sound was powerful and dynamic, with excellent balance and timing, all leading to an uncanny sense of pace and rhythm.
Naim is now part of the same group as Focal and accordingly shares the same distributor in Portugal. Esoterico did not cut on the expense and rented the gorgeous and aptly named Foyer Beau-Séjour with a magnificent view over the river Tagus. A full set of Naim electronics comprising the NDX streamer, NAC 252+Supercap preamp, and NAP300 amps played magic with a pair of Focal Sopra Nº2, the best effort of this French maker this side of ‘Utopia’. Outside the room, in a busy corridor, Esoterico showed the new Mu-So Qb to such good effect they sold the only one still available on site. Hélas, I’ll have to wait to test it…
Tannoy has managed to turn a small footprint loudspeaker like the DC8i into a full-range one. All in all the pairing with Unison Research tube amplification resulted in a musical and enjoyable sound concurrent with the romanticism of the venue. It even allowed me to travel in time while listening to a pristine LP copy of Supertramp’s Crime of the Century in a Project Audio xTension 10 Evolution, all being distributed by Support View (who also represent Cambridge Audio).
Linn perseveres in its one-brand only setups and the results obtained by the distributor Mind The Music were more than satisfactory with just a DS Player with Space Optimization and a pair of Linn Exakt 530 in their colourful hosery.
The new B&W 802 D3 was demonstrated through a complete Classé system. This is an obvious choice as the two companies are in the same group, but in my opinion the potential of the loudspeakers might be best realised with different electronics. While Linn and McIntosh spring to mind, I think they need something in the category of Gryphon Diablo 300 or, even better, a D’Agostino Integrated to come to terms with the music. They are that good!
American audio gear populates the dreams of Portuguese audiophile connoisseurs and music lovers alike. Imacustica, as the leader of American audio imports in association with Absolute Sounds of London, set up a fantastic system comprising Audio Research CD9/GS Integrated and Wilson Audio Sabrina loudspeakers, cabled throughout with Nordost, that sounded absolutely (no pun intended) marvellous: a full, meaty, propulsive, and dynamic musical sound. For me Princess Sabrina is, in relative terms of size and price, the best speaker ever to come from David and Daryl Wilson’s ingenuity and skill. And the ARC GS Integrated is also my amplifier of choice to drive them. In the same room, Audio Research and Krell teamed up with a pair of Sonus Faber Venere S(ignature) loudspeakers to demonstrate to good effect the Nordost upgrade programme.
There are a few audio distributors that concentrate on the ‘affordable and attainable’ in Portugal. Zen Audio is a fine representative, with its unassuming, low profile attitude, excellent musical taste, and capacity to make the most out of brands like Xavian, Goldnote, and Lyngdorf. Also noteworthy is Exaudio for its unwavering faith in old school brands like Audio Note.
The law of diminishing returns does not always apply in audio. At the Lisbon Audioshow 2016, Imacustica and Ultimate Audio, the distributors who invested the most, got the best results and concomitantly the best sound.
Provided you got the sweet spot, the Martin Logan Neolith was by far the best sound ever to grace the ears of all those who managed to attend the Imacustica show at the Campolino room, situated in the horse stable area, since the Audioshow came to Pestana Palace in 2012. The Metronome Calypso, the TechDAS Air Force 3, and the fabulous Constellation Audio Virgo III/Centaur II monoblocks did the rest with style and aplomb. The visual and acoustic transparency of the electrostatic panel and the sheer power of the Neolith passive bass section was awe inspiring for all those who lined up outside in the cold weather waiting for a chance to reach the warmth of audio Nirvana.
Imacustica set up a second Neolith-based system in a another dedicated listening room, this time with DartZeel amplification, and, boy, did that one sound glorious, too!
If, like Ultimate Audio, you can afford to invest half a million Euros in equipment and rent the largest room at the Pestana Palace Congress Centre, you are expected to deliver the best sound at the show. And so they did, with a system of similarly no compromise: Rui Barros Pendulum turntable, Aurender W20 streamer, MBL Select DAC, CH Precision L1, P1, X1, 2 x M1, and a pair of massive Stenheim Reference Ultime speakers. The result was a system that created a sound that could breathe and develop a huge soundstage populated with solid, vibrant, and colourful images, which in all formed a high-quality audiophile sound.
The space around, behind and in front of the loudspeakers allowed the sound to breathe and develop a huge soundstage populated with solid, vibrant and colourful images that formed a high quality audiophile sound.
Ultimate Audio also attracted crowds of enthusiastic audiophiles to their second largest room in a modern wing of the hotel, where the company set up a full Gryphon system: Mikado, Kalliope, Diablo 300 and Trident II loudspeakers, which created a big 3D IMAX wall of sound of amazing proportions.