Movin' on Up at Munich

I never cover shows with the intention of citing "Best Of." In fact, at Munich High End, any such designation needs qualification, because I missed far more rooms than I visited. But when any system inspires as much joy as this one—a Nagra/Kronos/Wilson combo that benefited from a helluva lot of strategically stacked RPG room treatment—I have no choice but to cheer: "My Best of Show."

First up on the platter: Dead Can Dance's "Yulunga," from 1993. The bass was solid, the top alive. The music sounded as spacious and as right as can be. Next, my CD transfer of soprano Beverly Sills singing Marietta's Lied from Korngold's opera Die tote Stadt, delivered the sweetest, most breathtakingly iridescent highs I have ever heard from this great artist. It also enabled me to get as close as I have ever gotten to her near-miraculous (if, at the time of the recording, occasionally vibrato-laden) instrument, and to the emotional heart of her artistry.

Next, an overdone rendition of Puccini's "E lucevan le stelle," from the final act of Tosca, with every intention fully conveyed. Then, a fabulous midrange on Chie Ayado's Live in Tokyo.

Finally, at the end of a long listening session that I did not want to end, the surprise arrival of Peter McGrath with the CD version of his hi-res recording of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio's Archduke Trio (Beethoven). The recording was made at the live performance that I witnessed and reported on this past February (see here). This was the most wondrous listening experience of all, in that I heard myriad shadings and nuances that the microphones faithfully captured, but that were smoothed over and hard to discern in the hall. The depth and overtones of the piano were so believable that it sounded as if I were seated right next to, or literally hovering over, the strings. Need I say that, while the system's tonal balance was unquestionably on the warm side of neutral, its musicality was supreme?

Doing the honors: The new Nagra discrete class-A ClassicDac ($13,995), which can deliver either DXD or DSD128, and which uses military-grade transistors to emulate the sound of tubes without need of feedback or op amps; Nagra ClassicPre (approx. $18,500), due in September, that uses SCR coupling capacitors, custom-made for Nagra, to bring out transparency and bass depth; Nagra CDT transport ($14,775); Nagra VPS phono ($7650); Nagra 200Wpc ClassicAmp in bridged mode ($16,000 x 2); Kronos Sparta turntable ($21,500) with Helena tonearm ($6500) and Zyx Omega cartridge ($7500); Wilson Audio Alexia loudspeakers ($52,000/pair); Raidho Acoustics rack; Transparent Power Isolator on the sources only (no other power conditioning/filtering/whatever was employed); and a giant helping of setup acumen and musical knowledge that not only tamed the two glass walls and infamously sloped ceiling of the MOC listening rooms, but also rendered them harmless.

Shown in static display were the new Tidal Audio (pronounced TEE-dahl, and not connected to the Tidal streaming service) Piano G2 speakers with new ceramic tweeter, and in new, less expensive Velvetech finish ($22,800/pair, shown in white and orange) and new Piano G2 Diacera speaker ($39,900/pair) with diamond tweeter and enhanced crossover. The G2 replaces the older Piano Diacera.

"We want to give everyone a chance to have their piece of Totem," said the High-End Company's Jasmine Weilenmann. She was referring to Totem Acoustics' system of Kin Mini Flex speakers (outer stereo pair), Kin Mini speakers (inner stereo pair), and Kin Sub and Kin Mini Sub subwoofers (floor, left to right), all designed for near-wall placement. (Think: college dormitory, or "perfect for the kids' room.") The Kin Mini Flex speakers descend to 140Hz, with the subwoofer taking over from there.

Mated with YBA electronics, the system sounded neat on a cut by Rhianna. Listening to Sarah Vaughan sing "Summertime" via Bluetooth was hardly the most transparent experience of Munich High End, but it did the job well for a compact, entry-level set-up.

Kalista by Metronome introduced their top-line DAC (€30,000 during the launch, €35,000 after). Due in September, the DAC joined an impressive system that included what I believe were Focus Audio loudspeakers and Jadis electronics. While I admired the huge depth on "Bye Bye Huey" from Eighth Blackbird's latest CD (see here), my trusted recording of pianist Murray Perahia playing Handel produced irritating highs and a presentation that was strong on delicacy, but topped off a gray depiction with ringing. This was not the magical sound I'm accustomed to hearing from Jadis.

Purist Audio Design, whose cables are handcrafted in the very red state of TX, has released its 30th Anniversary USB cable ($1500/1m). The cable has a tuned ferrite bead for passive filtering, and proprietary connectors. Also new is their 30th Anniversary AC cable ($15,000/meter), which uses Furutech Nanotechnology AC plugs, a 7-stage filter, and 8-gauge single-crystal silver. Finally, Purist's Analog System Enhancer, originally released on CD in 1992 ($150), is now available on vinyl ($175).

On a track by Amy Winehouse, the sound of this system was very liquid, despite bright highs and a gray midrange.

Raidho Acoustics' new D-4.1 loudspeaker ($110,000/pair in black finish) trickles down from their larger D-5. The "true 3-way Diamond Driver loudspeaker" uses four bass drivers, two 4" midranges, and the same Raidho tweeter as in all their models. The Danish company's wonderful Lars Christensen told me the speaker has upgraded drivers with a new magnet that makes them faster, with lower noise.

Raidho speakers—certainly this one—produce a rich, grounded lower midrange and bass that set them apart. At first, such an initially rich sound came as a relief after listening to one too many wiry, treble-awry, midrange-deficient systems, where gray was passed off as music. Auditioned with a Nagra CD drive, Aavik Acoustics C-300 preamp/DAC/phono, Aavik 150Wpc non-switching class-A/B power amp, and Ansuz cabling, Dave Brubeck's "Unsquare Dance" revealed absolutely solid bass, laudably fast clapping, and great snap.

Still curious as to what was going on with the D-4.1's pronounced lower midrange/upper bass, I asked to hear my CD transfer of the classic analog recording of the radiant soprano Elly Ameling singing Schubert's "Die Sterne" to piano accompaniment. While the Raidho tweeter sounded truly fabulous, every time Ameling descended lower in her range, her voice took on a hooty, cupped quality that darkened the acoustic envelope around the voice and failed to truthfully convey her sound. It was as though she was singing through cupped hands. Piano sound, too, was muffled. This leads me to speculate that as seductive as Raidhos may initially seem, this one in particular, at least in this setup, has the potential to mess with the tonal envelope in ways that are not true to the intentions of both artist and recording engineer. Clearly more listening is in order.

Has MSB set a record with the price of their new Select electrostatic headphone amp ($37,950)? This baby has two Stax-style outputs, balanced analog input and output, and an equalization module for optimization.

In order to listen to music through the Select electrostatic headphone amp, you also need an outboard DAC with enough power to drive it. In fact, the headphone amp was designed with the solid-state MSB Select DAC II (base price $89,950) in mind. "This is the first way to listen to a ladder DAC directly through headphones," said Larry Gullman, company CEO. The Select combo claims 173 dB dynamic range and the lowest jitter clock (33 femtoseconds) in the world. Its price, however, may give you the jitters.

There was no way to listen with another system blasting on the other side of the dividing wall. Instead, I chatted more with Gullman, and discovered that MSB is now shipping the new RCA (single-ended) and XLR (balanced) interconnects they first showed at CES: the Diamond RCA and XLR (balanced) interconnects ($3990/3' pair) and Select Diamond RCA and XLR (balanced) interconnects ($24,950/3' pair).

There was no way to listen with another system blasting on the other side of the dividing wall. Instead, I discovered that MSB is now shipping the two new XLR (balanced) interconnects they first showed at CES: the Diamond XLR balanced interconnects ($3990/3' pair) and Select XLR ($24,950/3' pair).

Absolutely shocking, isn't it? This picture provides proof of the lengths to which distributors will go to lure you into their rooms. Here, Doug White of The Voice That Is wanders the halls of the MOC toward closing time, liberally dispensing shots of whiskey to recalcitrant members of the press that, as of the end of the third day of the show, had yet to get past the static display in the Tidal room. Yours truly, who does not partake of alcohol during show hours (or operas, for that matter), and who rarely if ever touches hard liquor, stood by in mute horror as the Devil that is Doug literally ripped the SAF from my side and plied him with the Devil's Brew.

After one sip, the SAF declared, sight unseen, that the Tidal room was a 10+.

dalethorn's picture

Did I read that right, that the "Select XLR" interconnects are $24,950 per 3 ft. pair?

Archimago's picture

That's what it says on the MSB website also... Diamond SELECT $24,950 RCA or XLR (plus $1990/foot thereafter).

Why not?

Clearly a steal at any price... :-)

hb72's picture

if 1% of the population owns ca. 50% of what there is to own (and I suppose this is outdated info anyway) a cable for the price of a car might really be commercially successful.

I guess we shouldn't think this cable is the crazy thing here (or the company who sells it), its the distribution of wealth which is crazy.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you.

woodford's picture

what do texas politics have to do with purist audio cables?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

What do Texas politics have to do with reason?

woodford's picture

i thought you were commenting on the cables?

but, if you're really interested, perhaps you should reacquaint yourself with the state. try austin, the houston, perhaps the most ethnically diverse city in the country, which huge latino and vietnamese populations, and a two term out lesbian mayor.

they probably have some good cables too.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Actually, I lived for 42 years in Oakland, which has historically been in a dead heat with Long Beach as the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the U.S. I've never managed to get to Austin, whose reputation as a liberal outpost I'm well aware of, but I did get to Houston, the city that rejected its LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance.

I have no issue with Purist cables, and have no idea what Jim Aud's politics are. Let's let Texas rest and move on.

Peter K.'s picture

One of five best sounding rooms at the Show,in Munich this year, was Kii Audio room, with their fantastic Kii Three loudspeakers.Costing 10G ONLY, they left faaaar costlier systems in dust.
....Audio Magazines and Reviews must continue to live!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Jesus. Auto-correct changed their name three times.

I have no idea if Kii was presenting the speakers for the first time. As the sole representative of Stereophile, charged with covering a show with so many exhibitors, I made covering premieres my priority. What I do know is that Kii did not send me a press release. It was press releases and emailed requests to cover premieres that guided my coverage.

I hope to encounter these speakers at another show.

joc6820's picture

You frequently describe systems you don't like as sounding "gray." Could you articulate further what that means?
I too don't see the point of your red state remark. While you may or may not like it, roughly half the country is "red," including many music lovers and audiophiles.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Let's dispense with my red state remark first. Texas murders more incarcerated people than any number of other states combined. Between 1976 and Feb. 11, 2015, it murdered 521 human beings in the name of justice. Texas was second only to Oklahoma in its ratio of state-sponsored executions per capita. It's also a state rife with racial and sexual division - one of many filled with politicians who are quick to point the finger at the "other" rather than take responsibility for problems. I find its policies, and its black and white, good vs evil mindset reprehensible. The divide and conquer game is in full swing in the state.

My disgust has nothing to do with Purist cables, and it's not something I'm going to debate. Nor am I going to continue this discussion beyond this. It has nothing to do with high end audio, other than the fact that some readers (I'm not saying you), who prefer to think that music and audio exist in a vacuum unrelated to politics, get their feathers ruffled at the slightest mention of political realities.

Now, on to audio. Gray, in my vocabulary, signifies a high noise floor and absence of bright colors. It is sometimes but not always synonymous with an exaggerated midrange and recessed top end. It also bears some similarities to the sound of live music in exceedingly dry halls. While some people might call it smooth and non-fatiguing, I find it, at the least, non-engaging, and often non-musical.

Referring to the Iive experience, I recall hearing the Vienna Philharmonic perform in notoriously dry Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley, and then play some of the same repertoire in wet, acoustically superior Weill Hall at Sonoma State. Only in the second venue was I able to hear the differences that their older trumpets and fabled string technique make. The last thing I want is a system whose gray tonalities make the Vienna Philharmonic sound like any generic orchestra that can play in tune.

There are not many loudspeaker and electronics designers who are willing to let naturally bright and brightly illumined sounds shine as they would in a live, reverberant hall. Most seem afraid to let a trumpet sound too brassy, or a full operatic voice with a steely leading edge sound as it would close up, for fear that audiophiles who want everything to sound pleasant while music plays in the background during dinner will recoil in horror. Often those issues are addressed by recording and mastering engineers, who tone things down at the source. But if they are not, and the recording is true to the source, I prefer components that let the natural sound shine. Then again, I don't play music in the background.

jim davis's picture

Admit it, you're just upset that our Lt Gov doesn't want you using any gender's bathroom. Regardless, there are many audiophiles in Texas, and we'll now be working to make them all aware of Stereophile's official position regarding the state and our citizens (count on some subscription cancellations and comments to advertisers). Funny how Toyota/Lexus and so many other companies and individuals are fleeing CA for TX; hmmm, wonder what they know that you don't. The important thing is that Stereophile is clearly not intended for conservatives. So noted.

joc6820's picture

Thank you Jason, from the very blue state of California.... This is not the place for a political debate. I follow your writings for your insight into music and audio, which is considerable. Your political leanings are not of interest or relevant to me or, I suspect, most readers. Why we can't separate music and audio from "political realities" is also not clear to me.
Feathers do get ruffled very easily these days. You can easily avoid this by not dropping snarky "red state" type comments and holier than thou attitudes. Having lived in Texas for many years (not currently), I also find your characterization of the state ludicrous. But, again, this is not the place.

Anton's picture

I don't mind one, but dislike the other.

Anon2's picture

Whether a dealer demo or major show, Wilson Audio speakers have consistently been my "best in show." The Sasha W/Ps and Sophias have proven to be my personal favorites, if only the budget allowed such an expenditure.

I hope that one day Wilson Audio will put the Duette in a major show. dCS has always been a great pairing for Wilsons. Though not a mainstay at most shows, Wilsons are their utmost with Boulder amplification. I am sure that the Alexias were superb in Munich.

There is nothing like a Wilson presentation with Peter McGrath's treasure trove of superbly curated, if not personally made, recordings. Wilson is always for the record books in any setting.