Brilliant Corners #6: Munich from the Back of the Bus Page 2

In the hallway, I ran into composer, pianist, and HDtracks impresario David Chesky, who led me into the decidedly spare environs of the Theoretica Applied Physics room. Inside, a short, jovial man eagerly shook my hand. In case you ever feel like trash-talking Dr. Edgar Choueiri, you should know that he's the head of both the Electric Propulsion and Plasma Dynamics Laboratory and the 3D Audio and Applied Acoustics Lab at Princeton. He was in Munich to demonstrate a product called the BACCH-SP Adio. (For those playing along at home, "BACCH" stands for Band-Assembled Crosstalk Cancellation Hierarchy, "SP" for Stereo Purifier, and "Adio" for Analog and Digital Inputs and Outputs. Got that?) Costing $37,780, it's a moderately sized box that combines a 3D audio processor, a streamer, a DAC, an ADC (for digitizing analog sources), and a preamp. The only other items in the system, among the most minimal I encountered in Munich, were a pair of JansZen Valentina A8 active speakers and some cables from Esprit Audio.

After sitting me down in the sweet spot, the professor inserted microphones into my ears and asked me to wiggle my head side to side while a camera tracked my movements. According to Choueiri, the BACCH is "a digital audio processor that yields 3D imaging ... by allowing the listener to perceive the spatial cues that exist in virtually all stereo recordings." He proceeded to play a stream of an Oscar Peterson Trio track that suddenly surrounded me like a mob of tourists looking for a Cronut. Ray Brown's bass was coming from my left and slightly behind me, Ed Thigpen's drumkit was on my right, and Peterson's piano tinkled directly in front of me. It was my first run-in with Choueiri's magic box, and the presentation resembled nothing I'd heard. The track sounded natural, without phase or frequency response anomalies; in fact, I heard no downsides at all to this genuinely neat illusion. The only question I had is not whether the BACCH is effective—it undoubtedly is—but whether its way with my favorite recordings is something I might want to live with over the long term. I hope to find out soon.

The Totaldac room.

I make no secret of believing that good analog playback still has it all over digital, a technology that we have not yet perfected, but I was pretty bowled over by what I heard in the Totaldac room. Every component there except for analog cabling from Echole was made by Totaldac's Vincent Brient, but the star was definitely the four-box flagship D1-Sublime DAC (€50,000), consisting of a reclocker, power supply, and DAC monoblocks that use 600 high-precision Vishay foil resistors in their R2R networks. Augmented by Brient's solid state amplification and D100 speakers with optional super tweeters and subs, the D1-Sublime made a Qobuz stream of Leonard Cohen's "Show Me the Place" as natural as I've heard it, with thoroughly believable textures, ultrahigh resolution, and terrific portrayal of rhythm and pace. Brient, a compact, matter-of-fact Frenchman who makes compact, matter-of-fact components, allowed me to listen with minimal pressure and zero marketing chatter. I'm happy to say that Totaldac's new D1-Unity DAC, costing a rather more down-to-earth €12,500, has since arrived here in Brooklyn for a review.

One of the nicest things about being in Munich was getting to listen to components by German producers, some of which can be difficult to hear in the US. Probably the most enigmatic of these producers is Holger Stein of Stein Music, who makes every kind of audio device you can think of and some that you probably haven't yet imagined. In addition to speakers, electronics, phono cartridges, and cables, the company manufactures "harmonizers" that purport to transform the air in the listening room by running electrical current through crystals; "quantum organizers" that are placed under components; small stickers called E-Pads that are said to alter mechanical resonances and magnetic fields "at the level of molecular interaction"; even an LP conditioner!

Whatever you may think of these products, I'm here to tell you that the hi-fi in the Stein Music room—anchored by the new Topline Bob L Ultimate speaker ($247,500/ pair), a four-way horn/open-baffle design with an integrated active subwoofer—turned in one of the best performances in Munich. Streaming the same Leonard Cohen track, I was confronted with bracing dynamics, vivid color, a cavernous soundstage, and three-dimensionality that—while not exactly BACCH-enhanced—was utterly remarkable for a two-channel system.

Stein and I hit it off, and several days later, over lunch in Munich's serene Englischer Garten, I asked about his approach to controlling mechanical resonances. Stein speaks excellent but imperfect English, and it took me a while to understand that his products attempt to tune a system to the resonance of the human eardrum, which the brain conveniently cancels. It may have been the nice Riesling from the Saar River valley we were drinking, or the fine weather, but I gasped and laughed in amazement at his answer. If I seemed rude, Holger, I didn't mean it.

Heinrich Amand Basilius Martion of Martion Audio.

Not everyone who exhibited at Munich High End was at MOC. About 100 yards away and across the road from the complex, near an odd little building that looked like a motorcycle parts factory, I spotted a banner for Martion Audio. Upstairs, I met a gray-haired man wearing a beatific smile who introduced himself as Heinrich Amand Basilius Martion. His co-proprietor, Rikta Annette Schaden, appeared just as Buddha-like. I plunked myself down on one of the couches lined up in front of the strange-looking hi-fi and was treated to a classical piano recording of such purity and coherence that I stayed for another 30 minutes—which, in audio-show time, equals about two months.

The Martion Audio Einhorn loudspeaker.

Martion developed his first commercial horn speaker in 1977, and according to several folks I met in Munich, became a mentor and inspiration to a younger generation of audio designers. The moderately sized speaker in the room was the famous Einhorn, which consists of a spherical horn that covers frequencies above 200Hz, a powered bass horn that covers the rest, and an active digital DSP crossover that time-aligns the bass and midrange drivers. The cost is around €22,000 including custom-made solid state amplification. Martion told me that he still personally installs and tunes almost every Einhorn system he sells.

The Cessaro Horn Acoustics room.

My vote for the best music reproduction in Munich went to another local manufacturer: Cessaro Horn Acoustics of Hüttenberg, Germany. Designer Ralph Krebs was showing his Alpha III speakers ($135,000/pair), a four-way with an active bass section, fed by a Dohmann Helix One turntable and the very strange-looking Alieno 250 LTD amp from Italy's Acustica Applicata. The Alieno, which resembles a prop from the 1982 sci-fi classic Tron, is said to produce 250W from a single 300B tube (!). (The company insists that the 250 LTD is not a hybrid amp. After reading as much as I could find about it online, I remain decidedly foggy on how exactly it works.) The live Art Blakey recording Krebs was playing sounded electrifying, with lump-in-the-throat dynamic contrasts, the richest color saturation I heard at MOC, and crazy speed. And though I tend to dislike large speakers resembling AI sentinels from a dystopian future, I found the Alphas and their Orange Crush–colored horns visually enticing, too. While the Blakey track was playing, two showgoers sitting in front of me exchanged excited looks that meant "can you believe this?" I couldn't either. Well played, Ralph.

I'm not a fan of wrapping a story with the starchy bow of a feel-good conclusion, but I have to admit that my most indelible memory of Munich '23 was the pleasure of being surrounded by fellow audiophiles, an experience still new to me. Not because of any tribal feeling, but because so many of the encounters turned out to be surprising and fun. On MOC's ground floor, I got a pang of homesickness every time I passed my very tall Brooklyn friend John DeVore, sitting on the porch-like area of the DeVore Fidelity prefab audio hut like a small-town sheriff. A few yards away, I got to hear Soundsmith's bearlike Peter Ledermann expound on the virtues of his superb strain gauge phono cartridge in a plummy roar that reminded me of Orson Welles's commercials for Paul Masson California Chablis.

And on the afternoon of the show's second day, the city's transit workers went on strike, stranding most of us at MOC, located about a 25-minute U-Bahn ride from downtown Munich. There were no more taxis. So my colleague John Darko and I piled into an Uber with Mobile Fidelity's Peter Madnick and Andrew Jones, whom I was meeting for the first time in the back of that Toyota sedan. During the ride, Jones's account of the terror he experienced at a recent fine-dining feast in Germany—apparently the man likes little besides chicken and potatoes—had all of us nearly crying with laughter. Later that evening, Darko and I had dinner at a café in the Old City, where we shared a 1988 Sylvaner from Franconia, a wine that smelled and tasted the way a sunset looks from the white sand beaches on Catalina.

The following morning, I found myself in Mobile Fidelity's room, where I asked Jones to play an LP of Bitches Brew through his terrific sounding and looking Source-Point 10 speakers. Sitting beside me, he told me he thought Miles Davis's fusion ensemble sounded like a power tool, but he seemed to enjoy himself anyway. A note to Jim Austin: If you need anyone to cover High End Munich '24, I've already packed a bag, just in case.


Herb Reichert's picture

"Roberts (the boss of all cool audio cats) walked around the room with a look of informed mischief."

Mischief is never a bad plan.


Wdw's picture

Just a great read, tremendous writing and observations. Wonderful.
....and this coming from a Magico, all transistor and digital dCS guy.

Anton's picture

Looking forward to the extra time you may be getting with the BACCH-SP.

I'm hoping a public university will create one in my price bracket.


Loved the question....

"How much has audio really improved over the last century?"

Really, it's the source material that's lead the way.

Glotz's picture

Source quality has come up in huge ways since (even) 2010. I've noticed it with the less-than-audiophile releases in electronic and rock music and even amplified-rock live LP's and streams.

Awesome time to be broke from buying too much new music! Yay! (lol..)

jimtavegia's picture

Great writing and I hope you get to go again.

noamgeller's picture

Congratulations on an excellent show cover, it was a joy to read!
After some years in Munich high-end I too look for the weird and beautiful audio product of the fringe.
I remember Cessaro audio and the Western Electric 97 year old fondly, both for me were a definitive best of show.