Munich High End 2013
John Atkinson and Stephen Mejias were unable to attend the Munich High End Show this year, so the call went out to the editors of Stereophile's sibling sites, AudioStream.com, AnalogPlanet.com, and InnerFidelity.com requesting a trip to Germany to provide a bit of coverage for the show.
Wait! What!? You want me to go to Munich? Oh baby, I'm totally IN!
What follows are my impressions of a handful of exhibitors that tickled my ears.
I'm a headphone guy (see InnerFidelity.com), so when JA asked me to provide a report on four or five of my favorite listening experiences at the Munich High End Show I did so with no small amount of trepidation. While I've got a great deal of confidence in my ability to pick out a superior headphone, to be truthful I'm not nearly so experienced with speaker and high-end system evaluation. A few deep breaths later I remembered the wise words of Duke Ellington, "If it sounds good, it is good." It's pretty simple really: walk into a room, sit down, and listen. If I forget about the hustle-bustle of the show and can think of nothing but the music and what the next track might be, well, I'll write about it. So, this report is about my pleasurable listening experiences at the High End Show, but I've thrown in a puzzler as well just for fun.
On with the show...
Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold
Pulling off both expansive and punchy is quite the trick, but the Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold did so with aplomb. Standing about five feet tall with two 220mm magnesium-coned, alnico ring-magnet bass drivers within the lower cabinet, and above, four low-mass tri-laminate pulp-based cone midrange drivers open to rear aside four Raal 70-10D ribbon tweeters, the Nolas strike an imposing presence. But not nearly so imposing as their sound, which was a rich, powerful, and room-filling experience. 'Course they were lit up by an all Audio Research front end, including a CD9 CD Player, Reference 5E Preamp, and Reference 75 power amp, all strung together by a glorious tangle of Nordost cables. A real treat.
Carl Marchisotto tells me the ribbon drivers are extraordinarily wide bandwidth extending out to 100kHz, which, he promised, provides a sweet, smooth sound. I'd have to agree. I'm strongly averse to a strident top, and these baby's tickle my ears in a very good way.
The Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold is available fairly broadly at about 30 dealers in the US at $72,000/pair. The Baby Grands are in the middle of Nola's range with two models both above and below. Geez, it's so easy to have expensive taste.
Link to the NOLA website.
I wasn't really aware of what room I was walking into when I was confronted with an astonishingly simple, pure, articulate sound that really perked up my ears. Aha! Amphion, a Finnish company run by Anssi Hyvonenwhy am I not surprised? Many years ago while searching for near-field monitors that would satisfy, I settled on two speakers that did it for me: the venerable Harbeth HL-P3ES-2, and the Amphion Iona dandy little two-way mini-monitor with a more modest approximately $1300/pair price tag.
But the sound that so startled me walking into the room was something quite special. It's not often you get to hear the playing of an original master tape, which in this case was Inga Rumpf's "White Horses"an all analog production recorded by Dirk Sommer of Sommelier du Son, released on the Edel Germany label. Wow! Words fail me...quite extraordinary.
The system that sat between me and the recordingand managing to remain effortlessly invisiblestarted with the master tape being drawn through a Nagra IV-S at 15ips, followed by an Antelope Audio Zodiac Gold performing the preamp duties, then on to a Lindell Audio Amp-X, and finally arriving at the Amphion Two15 (1500), a D'Appolito configured, relatively compact speaker. Here's the salient tid-bit: these are the same speakers Dirk used to record, mix, and master the album. Quite the treat to literally hear a recording exactly as the recordist did in the making. The result was what I can only describe as an immaculately pure sound.
Should you be in the market for some near-field speakers, you simply can't proceed without auditioning some Harbethsmy long-time favorite near-field monitor makerbut I'll add without hesitation, a session with some Amphions will likely provide an ear opening and somewhat faster-sounding alternative.
You'll find Amphion's website here, the Two15 is so new it's not on their website yet.
Clued in by a long time friend, I made a special point to get some listening time in front of Vivid Audio's GIYA speakers. This unusual design is the brain child of Laurence Dickie, previously the chief designer of the B&W Nautilus speakers.
The GIYA speakers were available for audition in two rooms here, and I spent quite a bit of time in both. Unfortunately neither really did it for me. One room was painfully strident, the other somewhat lackluster. However, in both cases two characteristics stood out: imaging and midrange dynamics. In one case during a solo piano recording the sense of the instrument playing behind the speakers was eerily convincing, and the percussive attack of hammers hitting strings would cause reflexive eye blinks. On a later Latin ensemble track, the wood block hits nearly popped an eye out.
I ventured downstairs to the Vivid display in the booth area, and spent quite a bit of time with designer Laurence Dickie learning about many of the technical details of these unusual speakers. While the speaker may appear to be an avantgarde exercise in artistic design appealing to the lady of the house, that's far from the case. A great deal of effort has gone into releasing the sound from the speakers to propagate into the room without cabinet diffraction effects. But even more impressive is the work done to control and eliminate resonant and acoustic impedance issues behind the driver. It's these design criteria that demanded unusual forms, but Vivid has done a remarkable job sculpting those forms into a unique and pleasing whole.
The engineering details are far too complex to go into in this short report, so if you're interested, I highly recommend a look at the technical information available at Vivid's website. And if you can manage a visit to their display at one of the shows, Vivid's brochure "Tech Talk" is quite an interesting read.
While my listening at this show was a bit disappointing, you can bet I'll be searching them out at future shows as I remain convinced that, with proper care, they'll deliver a unique and pleasing listening experience.
I'm under assault! I sat down just in time to experience the helicopter landing in Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" on Atohm's GT2 (3950) floor standing speakers. Holy Crap! It's more soundtrack than music, but boy was it compellingI practically had to cover my eyes for the dust flying under the blades. It was played way to loud for my liking, but it remained clean and articulate.
The next track was from Dave Grusin's album Homage to Dukea disc I'm quite familiar withand I found myself having a hard time hitting the keys on my MacBook while my foot began reflexively tapping. Yessiree, these are speakers that firmly connect with my inner audio geek wiring.
That track over, we switched to the smallest speaker in the line, the two-way GT1 (1250) playing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition on a massive church organ. Suuuuure, riiiight, organ pipes on a little two-way. Well, it managed, and managed well. Track after track I remained stunned at the dynamic punch of these little gems.
The speakers in this line play to my personal likes: tight, articulate, punchy, and without haze, zazz, or tizz in the highs. Though the imaging of this brands offerings weren't quite up to the caliber of some other speakers I heard at the show, the image did have good depth, spread slightly outside the speakers, I never heard the sound localized at the speakers. Despite my propensity to reach for my test disc, I remained perfectly content to just sit back and listen to tracks tasteful selected by Thierry CompteAtohm's General Manager.
Discs were spun on an Atoll Electronique CD200 feeding an IN400 200Wpc integrated amp all strung together with Atohm cable. Very nice, I likey.
You'll find Atohm here.
Joseph Audio, Bel Canto, Cardas
Jeff so regularly gets "Best in Show" honors that I made a point of stopping in at his booth right off the bat. I didn't necessarily expect that it would rank among my favorites over the weekend, but I thought it would be a good benchmark experience for the start of my listening. The thing is, I found myself returning to his room four or five times during weekend for a palate cleansing experience.
Many times over the course of the show I would be wowed by one aspect or another while listening to the various systems. One room would have amazing imaging, another would have eye-blinking impact, the next would have Adam's-apple-wobbling bass response, but in almost all cases I could identify both strengths and weaknesses in the sound. Not so with Jeff Joseph's Pearl 3 ($28,500/pair) floor-standing speakers, they simply laid out the music with a remarkably unassuming, relaxing ease. It's something one can take for granted when confronted continuously by the blare and bling of a show environment. But the still, small voice inside me knew, and that voice reminded me repeatedly to return to the Joseph Audio room.
The front end for the Pearl 3 speakers started at Jeff's MacBookPro USB output feeding a Bel Canto Black C1 Controller, which decoded and re-clocked the digital audio sending it out via ATT ST fiber to a pair of Bel Canto Black Power Mono DAC (PMD1) power amps. Cardas Clear cables shuttled the juice between the digital amps and speakers. (The Bel Canto Black gear was introduced at this show, pricing is not yet available.)
Here's the thing: Jeff's big rig is way out of my league. Fortunately he had a smaller system to spin some tunes on, which featured the Joseph Audio Pulsar two-way ($7000/pair) driven through Cardas Clear Light speaker cables by the Bel Canto C7R receiver.
Receiver!? Yupper, this little gem features an FM tuner, two S/PDIF coax inputs, two Toslink ins, one line in, one MM phono in, a volume controlled line out for sub duties, and pair of WBT NextGen binding posts. The system was fed by a lowly Windows laptop, but its USB out was gracefully reconditioned by Bel Canto's ULink DDC (digital to digital converter) before being sent off to the receiver.
This tidy rig would run me just over $11,000. I'd probably add a sub for the very lowest octave (I likes me some MOAR BASS sometimes) but the Pulsars did reach surprisingly low for a stand speaker, nailing all but the lowest octave or so. The sound, yet again, wasn't just sound, it was music pure and simple.
Sounds somewhat silly to say it, but the Joseph Audio/Bel Canto/Cardas room was yet again "Best in Show"for me anyway.
Astell & Kern AK120
For my last company highlight and with one foot out the Stereophile door on the way back to my Innerfidelity postingsI'm going to let my personal audio freak flag fly. Astell & Kerna premium sub-brand of the Korean portable medai player maker iriverhas recently been pummeling the PR world with news of their newest high-end portable audio player, the AK120. Boasting the ability to store up to 192GB of music in a wide variety of formats, and supporting playback up to 24bit/192kHz, this little gem promises to let you make use of all your hi-rez files on-the-go.
The previous AK100 version of this player had a fatal flaw: it's output impedance was 50 ohms [our review sample measured 22 ohmsJA], making it a poor match for the wild impedance swings of multi-balanced armature-drivered high-end custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs). The pile-on of Internet headphone geeks was epic. Fortunately the firm responded quickly with a revised version sporting a 3 ohm output impedance much better suited to the task of getting the most out of your precious and expensive high resolution files and CIEMs.
I spent some time in the Astell & Kern booth with this sexy little black aluminum and glass gadget and walked away substantially impressed. The touch screen interface was quick and intuitive, and the music was clean and nicely presented. At $1300 this portable player is far from affordable for most, but for those with big rigs at home and a substantial investment in a library of high-resolution files it may be well worth the price of entry.
I've got a big gripe with portable players as they currently exist however: If I'm walking down the street playing music into my custom in-ear monitors I'm simply not going to be able to hear my phone ring. With most smartphones so competently able to store and playback music, why in the world would I want a separate device for listening that separates me from my phone. The answer is: give the player a Bluetooth interface. Wahooo! Astell & Kern has included Bluetooth in the AK120! Now, I wasn't able to ascertain exactly the functionality of the implementation and whether or not you could hold a conversation through the AK120 with a headset enabled headphone, but for sure you'll be able to hear the phone ring.
Astell & Kern kindly gave me a review sample, so keep your eye out on InnerFidelity.com in future for a full report.
That's it, I'm out!
Well, a big thanks from me to JA for the chance to come to Munich for High End 2013, and a big thanks to the show organizers for the coffee and cookies graciously provided in the press room. Much appreciated!
I'm flying the big bird home tomorrow at 7AM...thank goodness for my Westone ES5 custom in-ears and V-Moda Vamp Verza, which acts as a USB DAC for my Samsung Galaxy SIII. Sorta like a little time machine is that little rig. Montana here I come!
If you'd like to follow my High End 2013 postings on personal audio at InnerFidelity just click here.