Munich High End 2016: Robert Harley on Analog and Digital Sources
This Munich show was particularly rich in analog and digital sources. Virtually every room at the show featured a high-end turntable, many from manufacturers I’ve never heard of. On the digital front, it was announced during the show that Warner Music has decided to support the MQA format. I suspect that this will be the first of several announcements by major labels to join the MQA bandwagon. I’ll get to the new digital gear, but first let’s survey the most significant analog product introductions.
Most Significant Analog Products
Mobile Fidelity Turntables, Cartridges, and Phonostages
Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) showed the final production versions of its two turntables, three cartridges, and two phonostages. This marks the first time the fabled reissue company has entered the hardware business, and is doing so in a product category in which it has extensive expertise. The turntables range from the $999 StudioDeck to the $1799 UltraDeck, both designed in consultation with Alan Perkins of Spiral Groove. The turntables’ isolation was designed by Michael Latvis, maker of the ultra-high-end Harmonic Resolution Systems equipment racks. The three moving-magnet cartridges span the entry-level StudioTracker ($199), the $499 UltraTracker, and the top $699 MasterTracker. MoFi will offer package deals on turntable/cartridge combinations. The two phonostages ($299 and $499) were designed by Tim de Paravicini, and reportedly have a signal-to-noise ratio of 100dB. The cartridges are sourced from Japan, and the ’tables and phonostages are manufactured in the United States. Rather than buy off-the-shelf tonearms from Jelco or Rega, MoFi commissioned entirely new designs of these 10” arms. Based on the design details, MoFi’s history, and the designers’ pedigrees, I expect these eminently affordable analog front ends to offer terrific sound and amazing value.
Revox Open-Reel Tape Machine
In a turn of events that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, Revox is about to introduce an entirely new open-reel tape machine for the audiophile market. The machine will be Revox-branded, but is being built by the company Horch House, which also offers an expanding catalog of reissues on tape. The machine’s industrial designer is Manfred Meinzer, the 80+-year-old designer of the vintage Revox and Studer tape machine (as well as of many Leica cameras). Based on the professional Studer B-67, the machine will be modular, allowing the user to configure the deck with integral line amplifiers, upgraded outboard line amplifiers, and the option of adding recording electronics. The target price for the playback-only version is $4500, with delivery scheduled for Q1 of 2017. Horch House is packaging the tapes in deluxe boxes with booklets containing the album’s original artwork and liner notes. Prices are $350 for a two-tape release, and $250 for single-tape titles. Horch House’s Volker Lange (pictured above) told me that as of the Munich show, 60 titles are offered, with a goal of more than 100 by the end of 2016. A big question hanging over the whole endeavor is the provenance of the mastertapes used to make the copies that are offered for sale. The company plans on demonstrating the machine at the Rocky Mountain show in October. Stay tuned.
Continuum Audio Labs Obsidian and Viper
Although shown at CES in pre-production form, the Obsidian turntable and Viper tonearm from Continuum Audio Labs made their official debut in München. The Australian company Continuum, as you may remember, made waves about ten years ago with its six-figure Caliburn turntable. The new Obsidian ’table and Viper ’arm are extensions of that development effort, with many reported improvements. Unlike the über-expensive Caliburn, the Obsidian is priced at $35,000, with an additional $10,000 for the Viper tonearm. Although not cheap, the ’table and ’arm could deliver world-class performance for less than six figures. Delivery is scheduled to begin in Q3. As with Continuum’s CES exhibit, the Obsidian/Viper sounded exceptional at the front end of Constellation electronics and MartinLogan Neolith loudspeakers, all wired with Shunyata cables. It was one of the show’s best-sounding rooms.
TechDAS AirForce One Premium
If the $100,000 TechDAS AirForce One turntable had any shortcomings, they were addressed in the just-announced AirForce One Premium. The new ’table carries a $40,000 price, er, premium. Many of the upgrades are convenience features related to the turntable’s air suspension, faster start-up time, and automatic power-off after one hour. But this mega-’table also offers features that reportedly improve sonics, including lower vibration resulting from a larger power supply, a redesigned upper platter, and additional air chambers to regulate the air flow to the suspension. TechDAS also is now offering three platter options, including a titanium platter that adds an additional $12,500 to the price, bringing a fully loaded AirForce One Premium to a breathtaking price of $152,500.
Bergmann Universal Turntable
Bergmann of Denmark showed the new Universal turntable that will accept pivoted ’arms as well as Bergmann’s own linear-tracking air-bearing ’arm that is usually integral to its other turntable models. The Universal can accept four ’arms of any length up to 12”, features a floating platter, vacuum hold-down, and an outboard power supply. This new model benefits from a wide range of convenience features that reduce the user interaction with the pump and vacuum system. Price: €15,000 without ’arm; vacuum hold-down adds another €3200.
Most Significant Digital Products
Brinkmannn Nyquist MQA-Compatible DAC
Turning to digital sources, the press conference announcing the MQA-compatible Nyquist DAC from Brinkmann was preceded, by a matter of minutes, by the announcement by Warner Music that the label would be supporting the MQA format. The timing added a dramatic twist to the Brinkmann event. Warner is the first major label to announce support for MQA. Although Brinkmann is known today primarily for its turntables, the company introduced its first DAC in 1986 and has been making digital sources since. In addition to decoding MQA, the Nyquist DAC is compatible with PCM up to 384kHz/32-bit and DSD128. The modular design includes user-replaceable cards and provides for firmware updates to accommodate future formats. The output stage is a hybrid design that combines tubes and transistors fed from very high voltage supply rails. The two-box unit offers balanced and unbalanced outputs, a headphone amplifier, and Roon-ready network playback. The Nyquist will be available in Q4 at €12,000. The system in which the Nyquist was demonstrated sounded fabulous—Vandersteen Model 5A Carbons driven by Vandertsteen’s own liquid-cooled power amplifiers.
T+A MP 1000 E Multi-Source Digital Player
I was greatly impressed by the build-quality, feature set, and apparent value of the T+A MP 1000 E multi-source digital player. The product combines a CD transport with all the connectivity and capabilities of a network-enabled DAC. Part of T+A’s new “E” series, the MP 1000 E support network streaming (wired or wireless), USB, a digital tuner for Internet Radio, a wide array of digital inputs including five SPDIF jacks, aptX Bluetooth, Tidal streaming, and Roon-ready. I can’t think of any source that this UPnP-compliant product can’t play back. Plus, there’s the convenience of a CD player built right in. The audio circuitry is also impressive, with dual-mono differential DACs, sophisticated reclocking circuitry, and wideband analog output stages. An optional volume control allows the MP 1000 E to drive active loudspeakers directly. The transport mechanism isn’t a flimsy off-the-shelf device, but rather a custom drive with stainless-steel push-rods, an aluminum and ABS tray, floating laser-unit bearing, and heavy-duty motors. T+A makes some very sophisticated transport mechanisms—something I’ve seen for myself in its top-of-the-line PDP3000, which I recently received for review. The MP 1000 R Music Receiver offers the same functions and sound quality but without the CD drive.
The French company Micromega is swinging for the fences with its new M-One, a do-it-all integrated amplifier that’s loaded with every conceivable digital connectivity option. The M-One’s ultra-thin profile and dual displays (one on the top, one on the front) allow the product to be mounted vertically on a wall as well as conventionally on a shelf. Two versions are available, one with 100Wpc and another with 150Wpc. Both are packed with inputs, including network streaming, Bluetooth, and I2S. It’s easier to list the features and inputs the M-One lacks—none. A room-correction system, called Micromega Acoustic Room System (MARS), will be offered. The M-One can be ordered in a wide range of paint colors, or even clad in leather or carbon-fiber skins.
Mark Levinson No.519 Digital Audio Player
As a key component of its expanding line of products, the recently revitalized Mark Levinson introduced the No.519, an extremely capable digital source that can accommodate virtually any digital format from virtually any source. In addition to nine digital inputs, the No.519 has embedded streaming services (Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, and others), connects to networked storage devices, can accept wireless streams, and even offers a slot-loading CD drive. The ESS Sabre Reference DAC feeds a fully discrete, direct-coupled, balanced, dual-mono signal path, with fixed or variable output levels. An integral headphone amplifier rounds out this promising and ambitious product. No pricing was announced.
Esoteric N-05 Network Audio Player
Esoteric introduced the N-05, the company’s first foray into the exploding networked-player market. In addition to the usual functions such as playing files from a network-attached storage device, Tidal integration, and the company’s own music-management app, Esoteric brings to the category its extensive experience in very high-end digital conversion. The N-05 appears to be quite sophisticated, with dual-mono DACs from AKM in a four-parallel configuration (eight outputs) for greater linearity and lower noise (plus inherently balanced operation). Many of the technologies developed for Esoteric’s ultra-high-end Grandioso line have trickled down into the N-05, including the elements of the power supply (specifically Esoteric’s EDLC “Super Caps”), the analog buffer, and some of the clocking circuitry. The N-05 can be driven by an external clock. In an unusual twist, the N-05 can function as a digital-to-digital converter—upsampling PCM or converting between PCM and DSD. As with all Esoteric products, the N-05 is clad in stunning metalwork of beautiful industrial design. Considering the technology and build-quality, the $6500 price seems reasonable.
Mytek Manhattan II MQA-Compatible DAC
Hot on the heels of the release of the software upgrade that makes Mytek’s Brooklyn DAC ($1995) MQA-compatible, the company showed in Munich the more upscale Manhattan II MQA DAC. As with the Brooklyn, the Manhattan II offers analog preamplifier functions, a headphone amplifier, and an optional phonostage (mm or mc). Available in three finishes (black, silver, gold-silver), the Manhattan II will sell for $5995.
NuPrime’s Jason Lim gave me a sneak peek at the possible future of digital devices with the company’s Omnia. As its name suggests, the Omnia does it all. This handheld device looks like a portable music player but is much more. Via the 5” touchscreen, the user can stream WiFi audio to up to ten different zones. The Omnia can connect to a computer or directly to a hard drive for server storage. An internal micro SD card expands the on-board memory. Many of these features are accessed when the Omnia fits into its dock, turning the portable player (with headphone output) into a single product that could conceivably function as a wireless DAC, server, portable music player, headphone amplifier, and renderer. Because Omnia is built on an Android platform, it’s compatible with any online music streaming service. In addition, you can stream between two Omnias at up to DSD256 or PCM 384/32. Retail price is expected to be about $1500 when the Omnia launches later this year.
Nagra Classic DAC
The venerable Swiss company Nagra demonstrated its Classic DAC, an all-out effort at digital-to-analog conversion. It employs DSD circuits developed by Andreas Koch, the “guru” of the SACD format. The PCM side can handle up to 384/24, and the DSD up to DSD128. In typical Nagra fashion, the transformers are hand-wound, and the Classic features a tube output stage. The power supply is remarkable, with 25 separate regulation stages for complete isolation of the Classic’s sub-sections. Optional dual outboard supplies further increase performance. Price: $14,000
dCS Vivaldi Series 2
dCS demonstrated an upgraded version of its flagship Vivaldi digital playback system. One of the key improvements is a new mapping algorithm that converts DSD or PCM into the four-bit code that drives the company’s exclusive “Ring DAC.” In addition, the filters have been enhanced. Consequently, these changes can be realized with a software update. dCS has also added networking capability, revised the USB input, and added DSD upsampling to the Vivaldi Transport. The sound in the dCS room with the Vivaldi at the front end of Wilson Alexia speakers was outstanding.
One of the pioneering companies in the current digital-audio revolution, Auralic, introduced a new wireless streaming DAC that integrates music streaming services through its iPad app. The Altair is designed as a single-box source for a networked audio system, with 15 input channels, the ability to handle any PCM or DSD format (including quad-rate DSD), AirPlay, and Bluetooth; it is also Roon-ready. The Altair will sell for $1900 when it becomes available in Q2.
The Gryphon Kodo Loudpeaker
Jonathan didn’t get to hear one of the show’s major speaker introductions, so I’ll fill in. (Closed-door demos were conducted every thirty minutes, meaning you had to arrive at the room at a particular time to get a seat.) That speaker is the massive four-column Kodo from The Gryphon of Denmark. One tall and thin enclosure houses the bass drivers—eight 8” ScanSpeak woofers in a sealed enclosure driven by an integral 1000W amplifier. This woofer tower is crossed over at 250Hz to the similarly sized midrange/tweeter column that houses a D’Appolito array of six lower-midrange drivers, four upper-midrange drivers, and an AMT tweeter in the middle. Driven by all-Gryphon sources and electronics, the Kodo sounded stunning, with effortless dynamics and the ability to reproduce even the most challenging music with a sense of scale and size rarely heard from any pair of loudspeakers. The Kodo’s bass reportedly extends to 6Hz. Price is €220,000. During a second visit to The Gryphon room I heard the company’s new stand-mount speaker (€20k—I didn’t catch the name) and was surprised by the smaller speaker’s natural tonal balance and ability to play loudly without strain in the large room.
Best Sound (Cost no Object)
Alas, I didn’t hear the Living Voice Vox Palladium that Jonathan swooned over. The best sounds I heard in Munich were Rockport Altair II speakers driven by Absolare’s new Passion integrated amplifier (!) and sourced by a Kronos turntable in the Absolare room, the Gryphon Kodo loudspeaker with all-Gryphon amplification and sources, MartinLogan Neoliths driven by Constellation electronics, and the Magico M-Pro with Soulution electronics supported by Critical Mass Systems racks.
Best Sound (For the Money)
The HiFiMan Supermini portable player ($399) driving HiFiMan Edition S headphones ($249) delivered amazing sound for the price—a true high-end experience for not much money.
In freestanding systems, two relatively affordable products stood out among the seemingly never-ending parade of mega-priced speakers. Those were the Vandersteen 5A Carbon driven by Vandersteen’s own amplifiers, and the magnificent new YB from Estelon (probably about $20k). The YB not only sounded beautiful, but its gorgeous shape made it look like a piece of sculpture. The combination of Zesto Audio, Joseph Audio Profile speakers, and Cardas cabling at Hifi Deluxe at the nearby Marriott outperformed many systems at the MOC costing many times the price.
Most Significant Introduction
The announcement by Warner Music that the label plans to support the MQA format.
Most Significant Trend
Digital players compatible with every format known to man—and then some. We are in the age in which music from a wide range of sources converge on a single device, with the line between actual sources (your library of files stored on a hard drive) and virtual sources (from the Internet) becoming meaningless.
By Robert Harley
My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.More articles from this editor