Good old-fashioned American chauvinism notwithstanding, Munich is by consensus the world’s most important high-end audio show, replacing CES as the place to do business—that is, if doing business in Europe and the Far East are on your agenda. However, it isn’t commerce or the large number of exhibitors that you don’t find at other shows that makes Munich so special (and so endearing) to me.
We in the press are always talking about how important it is to find a means of sharing our hobby with younger people—to pass the high-end torch to music lovers who aren’t graying Boomers like us. Munich is the only audio trade show I’ve attended where you can actually see this happening. In München entire families turn out to look and listen. Droves of them. Oh, of course, there are the usual seamed faces and sagging bellies, as well. But in my life I’ve never seen so many dads, moms, and kids at a hi-fi show. It’s enough to raise an old man’s spirits.
I’m sure this changing of the guard is in no small part due to cultural differences—to the way music (particularly classical music) is valued in Germany and throughout much of Europe and Asia. It is also due to the way the show is promoted. I was thunderstruck to see professional advertisements for Munich High End posted in subway cars (and everywhere else throughout the city). In this town, a high-end stereo system apparently isn’t the sole property of some old geezer (like me) sitting alone in his room, listening to the same cuts over and over again while he moves his speakers half-an-inch at a time to optimize imaging. In this town, listening to music is a family affair. You add this greening of the high end to the great food, the wonderful live music played daily and nightly in the city itself and in nearby towns (like Salzburg or Vienna), and the many beautiful cultural sites, and you have, I think, a recipe for turning our industry into something young and hopeful again.
Having said this, I have to quickly add that on Day One (the press day before the show opens to the public on the weekend) the sound in München was anything but gemütlich. Of course, exhibitors were still fiddling with their setups, trying to find the last-minute magic formula for making their systems sing in those awful MOC “rooms” (which aren’t really rooms but long glass-walled corridors that have been sub-sectioned, via thin dividers, into individual exhibition spaces). The MOC Convention Center may be vast and rather beautiful in an Bauhaus/industrial sense, but it is not and never will be the best place for listening—especially, as was so often the case, if the guy “next-door” to you is blasting the U-571 soundtrack through a home-theater system or otherwise intent on showing off his brace of eighteen-inch subwoofers.
Unhappily for Yoav Geva, Dick Diamond, and YG Acoustics, it was their room that I happened upon first. I really liked YG’s new $100k+ flagship Sonja speakers at CES, where they were driven by D’Agostino Momentum electronics. Here, driven by Qualia electronics and a Kronos ’table, not so much (at least on hour one of Day One). Keb Mo’s voice sounded a little hoarser and more opaque than it usually does, although the timbre of his guitars was attractively rich. Part of the problem was that the top end was a little rolled off, making transients somewhat sluggish and robbing the system of sparkle and life. On Chad Kassem’s new reissue of The Reiner Sound, the Ravel Rapsodie espagnole was dark and lovely, though there was some clipping on tuttis and the bass, while quite respectably good, was not particularly deep (and this is a recording with deep bass). I think the Qualia electronics needed some settling in, because the system sounded quite a bit better (as did everything I heard on Day One) later in the show. By Day Two, for instance, the bass had tightened up with much better definition and impact and tremendous weight and body on big band. Quite an improvement!
In the Audio Physic room, I heard the latest version of AP’s Avantera multiway floorstander driven by Aesthetix electronics and an AMG ’table. Here Mr. Mo’ sounded considerably more like himself, with good sock and presence on guitar transients, though I was bothered by some low-pitched thumping (which wasn’t coming from another room). Alas…on my (much larger-scale) Ravel cut, the system suddenly turned grainy and piercing, with audible breakup on crescendos. Something wasn’t right because I’ve heard these same speakers, electronics, and source sound fabulous at other shows.
Germany’s Tidal was showing its gorgeous €100k+ Agoria SE mulitway floorstander with black ceramic drivers and diamond tweeter, as well as debuting its own Tidal electronics alongside a Hartvig table. Though strings and winds were sugar-sweet at moderate levels on Tacet’s great recording of Ravel’s La valse, when the SPLs went up (and they do go up on this LP), the sound became a bit piercing. Also, bass was not as deep as it should have been on this spectacular disc. Seeing that I just heard a much more demure Tidal speaker sound fabulous in Chicago, I concluded that something was wrong and decided to return later in the show. I’m glad I did, because some days later I found the speakers sounding very lithe and lively on vinyl—superb on Keb Mo’s voice with phenomenal guitar transients and color. The Agoria also now managed perhaps the best reproduction I heard of Rapsodie espagnole from The Reiner Sound, reproducing all its sweetness as well as its power and phenomenal inner detail. So…late in the day a loser became a winner—and a Best of Show contender.
On Day One I heard many of the same problems with Kharma’s multiway $375k D’Appolito-array Grand Exquisites—now equipped with carbon-fiber (rather than ceramic) drivers and diamond tweeters—that I heard with the Tidals. Driven by Kharma’s own Class D electronics, the system sounded dull and dynamically strained on La valse, plus the bass (supplied by a pair of Kharma subs) lacked definition. This said, as initially was the case with the Tidals, at moderate levels the presentation was very beautiful in the mids and treble.
The €60k Leonardo Model 8 planar-ribbon driven by Grandinote electronics produced a dark, liquid, mellifluous sound on Shelby Lynne’s Dusty tribute album. The presentation may not have been realistic (and despite the reverb this disc can sound realistic on certain cuts), but it was quite beautiful.
Constellation was using the TAD Reference One multiway, coincident-beryllium-driver floorstander with its fabulous Centaur mono amps and new Cygnus server. This should have been a BOS room, but for whatever reason on Day One the presentation seemed (at once) a little dark and bright on a Leonard Cohen cut. Oh, the system was quite powerful and robust, but it was not as lifelike as I know both these speakers and these reference-quality electronics are capable of sounding. On Day Two I returned to the Constellation room and found that everything had greatly improved. The system was now far more delicate, with much less of the beryllium bite that bothered me on the Cohen cut and no loss of power in the bass. Simply superb on percussion and strings, the Constellation/TAD room had a considerably more neutral palette than TAD’s own darker, hotter room (for which, see below).
Ayon Audio, the Austrian electronics manufacturer, introduced its €50k Black Arrow three-way with AMT tweeter, cone midrange, and two 13-inch woofers in what Ayon calls an “airflow damping” cabinet. Naturally, the Black Arrows were driven by Ayon electronics. The sound was very dynamic, fast, and just a bit dark in balance on a recording of the Carmen suite for percussion instruments. To my ear, the Arrows sounded a little like a hard-hitting Wilson speaker, right down to the somewhat brightish tweet.
Crystal Cable showed its mono-crystal-wired $100k Absolute Arabesque glass-enclosed loudspeaker, driven by Siltech’s marvelous SAGA System electronics with a dCS digital source. At that point on Day One, this was, by far, the most neutral and realistic system I heard—an impressive demo in a show that had been anything but impressive up till then. Although the Absolute Arabesque was a little light in the bass (despite being coupled, on and off, to an experimental subwoofer), it was so much more natural than anything else it immediately became my first Day One Best of Show contender. Nor did it disappoint later in the show. When I returned on Saturday, the Arabesque/SAGA remained a superb combo with a three-dimensionality that was missing from many other rooms—a sense of air around and behind instrumentalists combined with a shot-silk delicacy of texture.
On my first of several visits to its room, Danish speaker manufacturer Raidho was showing it $48k D2 two-and-a-halfway floorstander with two diamond mid/woofs and Raidho’s fabulous ribbon tweeter. The system was driven by Rowland and dCS. The D2s had terrific soundstaging and low end with fabulous transient speed and near-seamless driver blending. This was another Day One BOS contender, for sure—smooth, silken, expansive, gorgeous. However, later in the day Raidho showed its C4.1 mulitway, D’Appolito floorstander (my current references), and I don’t know what went wrong but the sound was simply dreadful, with way too much bass in the right channel (and disconnected and boomy bass, to boot)—a huge disappointment from a speaker that I know is world-class. The two-way, ribbon-diamond-cone, stand-mounted $28k D1s, however, which I heard on Saturday, were anything but disappointing. Though their bass was a little too big and ill-defined (I blamed the room and I wasn’t crazy about the amplification either, plus the turntable was generating wow and flutter to an extent that I haven’t heard in years, undoubtedly contributing to the shocking demise of the C 4.1s), the D1s were simply remarkable on smaller-scale music, reproducing voice, guitar, and strings with a realism that was only rivaled by a handful of other BOS contenders.
After the Crystals and the Raidho D2s, I visited the Nola room where Carl Marchisotta was showing his new $72k Baby Grand Gold ribbon/cone floorstanders. The Grand Golds were very open and expansive sounding (as all Nolas are) but with better integrated bass than previous Babies. This was a very lively sound, albeit a bit dark in balance.
Next I visited Estelon where Alfred Vassilkov’s extraordinary, $60k, hour-glass-shaped, ceramic/diamond-coned X Diamonds were being driven by Vitus electronics. This should have been another BOS room, and while the presentation was very fast and clean on Keb Mo’s guitars, it did not have quite the resolution I’m used to (and that this combo should have had) on voice, plus on larger-scaled cuts the system lacked dynamic range and low-end impact. I don’t know what the problem was, but the Estelon X’s were a bit of a disappointment given how good I know they are.
Marten showed its €59.9k Coltrane Tenor ceramic-and-diamond-driver three-ways, driven by Nagra electronics. The soundfield on Keb Mo’ and other cuts was huge, very dimensional, boxlessly open, and very fast on transients. The system may have lacked a little image focus but overall it was quite good.
The extraordinary Swiss electronics company Soulution, whose more affordable 500 Series electronics have so impressed me, introduced its new 700 Series €110k 701 monoblock amp and €32.5k 720 preamp paired with Focal’s giant $100k multiway floorstanding Stella Utopia, a personal favorite with what I consider to be the best implementation of a beryllium tweeter. The 700 Series electronics now incorporate an even larger version of the switching power supply that makes the 500 Series so killer-good. The result? Everything from Keb Mo’ to Ravel sounded fabulous. Incredible neutrality, transparency, speed, resolution, and (above all else) realism. A slam-dunk BOS contender at this (or any other show I’ve attended), and some of the most realistic (and powerful) electronics on the market.
Rockport showed its $100k Altair II driven by the Absolare electronics that Robert recently reviewed. The sound was very dynamic, fast, and hard-hitting (surprisingly hard-hitting given that these Absolare amps are SETs). But it was also bright in the mid-treble, dark in the mids and bsss, and borderline ferocious overall. For example, on my Keb Mo’ LP Keb’s voice was way too dark and chesty and poorly imaged. Alas, I didn’t get back to this room later in the show, which was unfortunate as I’m told reliably that the sound improved to BOS levels. Nonetheless, on the day I heard it it wasn’t very good.
We come now to the $30k Magico S5 three-way, with aluminum cabinet and carbon-fiber-and-beryllium drivers. In Munich the S5s were being driven by Spectral electronics, including Spectral’s new DMA-400 monoblock amplifiers, and the sound was…fabulous. Superb dynamics, inner detail, staging, and bass. Timbres may have been a little dark and the treble a touch bright on certain cuts, but alongside the Raidho D2s (and later the D1s) and the Focal Stella Utopias driven by Soulution’s new 700 Series electronics, this was a Best of Show contender of the highest caliber.I’ve liked the S5 since it was introduced (at last year’s Munich show). This year I loved it.
Wilson Audio showed its new multiway Alexia floorstander driven by Pass and EMM Labs. The sound was a touch more relaxed than that of the incredibly dynamic Magico/Spectral room, with a very natural midrange. There was just a touch of strain on fortes and the bass was not as tight, defined, powerful, and deep-reaching as the Magico. Nonetheless, this was a very good showing for Wilson, just missing out on the top tier.
Horn-speaker specialist Cessaro showed its €100k Liszt with a new dual-layer, damped carbon-fiber spherical horn. The Liszts were driven by Tron electronics and a TW Acustic ’table. The sound was surprisingly civilized for a horn system, with a good blend of drivers, though the bass was a little recessed and soft in comparison to the mids and treble. Speaking of which, the midrange and top end of the Cessaro were superb—just wonderful on sax and very natural on Keb Mo’s voice. A very fine showing for a superb horn speaker.
Sony showed its multiway, wooden-boxed floorstander, the AR2, driven by newly designed CAT electronics with Audience conditioner and cables. The system produced a lovely, neutral sound—not dark like virtually everything else at Munich, but perhaps a little lightweight, more like a Haydn/Mozart orchestra than a Brahms one. The system was unusually beautiful on voice. Overall, the best I’ve heard these speakers sound.
Andrew Jones of TAD showed his own $100k+ Reference Ones driven by TAD’s electronics. On the great Basie recording 88 Basie St. the sound was extraordinarily authoritative, with tremendous weight on brass. This system had terrific dynamic sock everywhere, and though not quite Magico-S5-like in the bass, it came very close. Like the Magico S5, the Reference One was a little dark overall and a touch beryllium-bright in the treble, although that brightness certainly added realistic bite to trumpets and top-octave piano. A very good showing.
Voxativ showed its Pi and Ampeggio single-driver speakers, both in redesigned cabinets and the latter with a newly designed wooden cone and phase plug. Driven by Voxativ’s own electronics, their sound was extraordinarily present, a little lightweight in balance, but exceptionally open, boxless, and detailed. In the midrange single-driver speakers are nearly impossible to beat for sheer liveliness and life, especially on voice. Oh, the treble may have been a little hot and whizzy depending on cut, though the Ampeggio was surprisingly good on piano, and the bass could’ve been a little fuller. But for their midband realism alone, the Pi and especially the new Ampeggio were BOS contenders.
MBL showed its top-line $275k D’Appolito Radialstrahler X-Tremes with its own MBL electronics, and they were their usual fantastic selves. The X-Tremes manage a superb blend of their outboard woofer columns and omni drivers. The combo delivers tremendous midrange dynamics, rich tone color, powerful bass, and unbelievable soundstage width and depth, even when the speakers are closely spaced (as they were in Munich) because of room limitations. All told, the X-Tremes did as well as I’ve heard them do at a trade show, though (perhaps because of their close placement) they did have a bit too much chestiness on vocals.
Richard Vandersteen was showing his Model 7 with Brinkmann electronics and ’table, and they were something. On the BS&T cut “Spinning Wheel” the system sounded phenomenally alive, with superb openness, freestanding vocals, a huge stage, great dynamics, and bass that was very deep and defined. On my Ravel La valse, the Sevens were again very neutral and open, just a tad bright and white on strings, but exceptionally powerful and coherent on tuttis. Though string tone was a little too “solid-state” for me (because of the Brinkmann electronics being used, I guess), the system was still undoubtedly a Best of Show contender for its realism.
Rosso Fiorentino introduced its massive five-way Florentia driven by Ypsilon electronics and a Bergmann Sleipner turntable. Although I’ve liked RF speakers in the past (and love Ypsilon and Bergmann), here voices and instruments were a little chesty and the speaker itself a little boxy.
Relatively new to me were the €32k Tune Audio Anima horn-loaded loudspeakers driven by the Lars II amp. The Animas were coupled to a huge €15k downward-firing, horn-loaded Anima subwoofer that blended very well with the main speakers. The system sounded fantastic on concert grand—very natural with superb timbre and scale. It was also sensational on trumpet, choir, and organ. Indeed, the new Avantgardes aside (I couldn’t get in to hear them—the room was that crowded!), these may be the best horn speaker I’ve ever heard! They were certainly BOS contenders.
Lansche, famous for its plasma tweeter, launched its new $280k Model 8.2 plasma/cone floorstander, now with dual 18-inch powered (1000W per driver) subwoofers, crossing over at 40Hz, mounted on the rear of its cabinet. Like all Lansches, the 8.2 has incredible treble, but it now has much improved bass that is far better integrated with the other drivers. I thought it sounded excellent.
The otherwise quite beautiful presentation of Joseph Audio’s multiway WATT/Puppy-like Black Pearl 3, driven (as usual) by Bel Canto, was spoiled by a terrible room resonance. Nonetheless, on cuts without a lot of bass, such as a Julie London vocal, the system was truly excellent. The Pearls are really good speakers, and the room issue was not their fault.
Grimm Audio showed its three-way LS-1 very successfully. The odd-looking speaker has a nice coherent sound—warm but quick with surprising deep bass and excellent ambience retrieval.
Finally, Alfred Vassilkov was also showing his smaller Estelon XB with Ole Vitus’ son’s electronics called Alluxity, and though it may not be politically correct to say so the kid’s room was much better than his dad’s. I‘ve not heard the XB’s sound better than this. A minor triumph of delicacy and power.
To see photographs of all the products I listened to at Munich, go to http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p387020149.
Best of Show: This choice turned out to be harder to make than I would’ve guessed on Day One, in fact, I’m still pondering it, Here are the contenders, in the order in which I heard them: the Crystal Cable Absolute Dream/Siltech SAGA System; the Raidho D2/Rowland/dCS system (and the Raidho D1, as well, on Saturday); the Focal Stella Utopia/Soulution 700 Series system; the Magico S5/Spectral system; the Voxativ Ampeggio/Voxativ electronics system; the MBL X-Treme/MBL electronics system; the Vandersteen Model 7/Brinkmann system; the horn-loaded, subwoofed Tune Audio Anima/Lars II system; and the Tidal Agoria SE/Tidal electronics system (on Day Three).
If push came to pull, I guess I’d have to name the Focal Stella Utopia/Soulution 700 Series first among near equals, simply because those new Soulution electronics are so extraordinary. Then again, the Spectral DMA-400 with the Magico S5s sounded pretty damn extraordinary, too. So did the hybrid tube/transistor Siltech SAGA System. Just in terms of sheer midrange presence, the Voxativ Ampeggio was almost in a class by itself; and that Greek horn system from Tune Audio was amazingly lifelike on piano, while the Raidho D2s and D1s are so damn realistic on voice and guitar (even when driven by amps I don’t love and a platter-of-pancakes turntable)…well, you see the problems.