More Munich from Herb Reichert

Look at this photo of Cessaro Horn Acoustics' beautiful-in-color 5-way "Zeta" lautsprecher. Can you imagine it sitting in your listening room? I could, and I'd be proud to own it—if only I didn't live in a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment and write reviews for a living. The Zetas are new, and cost between 320,00 and 460,000 Euros/pair, which—don't laugh—I think seems like a bargain for all the hardware and good sound a buyer would receive. Can you imagine all those Zeta crates arriving at your house?

In my view, most high-end loudspeakers sound worse than they look. (And usually, they look pretty bad.) Not the Cessaro Zetas. The primary joy of hornspeakers is their extreme effortlessness. Horns move air like a cat swishes its tail. Their second best joy: is their potential for rarefied sculptural charm. These Cessaro Zetas oozed sculptural charm.

And music just rolled out of them: lively, full, and bigger than a Kansas sky. But looking at the Zetas suggests they might have lumpy wavy frequency response (they have two tweeters because one was not strong enough to balance the rest of the 100+dB/W/m drivers but, instrumental tone was near perfect and soundstages were adequately scaled and well-described (for a hornspeaker).

In case I need to remind you, horns and triodes are a state of mind. When large horn speakers are reasonably coherent in the frequency domain and even marginally ok in the time domain—they can move a lot of room air and make music sound breathtakingly real! The Cessaro Zetas did exactly that.

Real horn bass is not a stick pushing a plastic plate with a car motor (like most subwoofers)—it is a Newtonian force of nature. But real bass horns need to be big and long and expensive. The Zetas I auditioned used four 18" drivers in a large, black ported enclosure.

The Zetas were powered by a Cessaro Air One preamp with silver transformers (49,000 Euros); and the 250,000 Euro, 50W, Cessaro Air Two power amplifier, each channel of which uses two paralleled-single-ended 211/VT4C tubes, a Western Electric 437a driver, and four, I repeat four (!) 5R4 rectifiers—per channel! These eight rectifiers form a series of bridge rectified power supplies—one for each of the Air Two's active stages. (In comparison: the solid-state IN4007-type rectifiers used in even the most expensive audiophile amps cost only a few dollars to employ. These eight 5R4 tubes use 16A of heater current—just to turn on—and cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to employ.)

There was no server, DAC, or streamer, only a TW-Acoustic Raven RS turntable (19,900 Euros) with a Raven 10.5" tonearm (4000 Euros), a Raven RPS 100 Phonostage (15,900 Euros), and a Transfiguration D cartridge (10,000 Euros). This was one truely exotic full-tilt triode-horn system.

Before I describe my experience with yet another super exotic expensive system, I need to take a moment and tell you what I was thinking as I walked into the mind-expanding demo in the Nagra room:

While I am pouring ink on these Automobili Lamborghini-type systems, I need to promise my readers I am not neglecting some starving startup in the room next door: especially a smart startup who makes even better-sounding products than Nagra, Wilson, Kronos, or Kubala-Sosna—and will sell them to us for peanuts. I must promise them I am not suppressing grass roots innovation for the sake of impressing advertisers. I must remind my readers I am simply being their surrogate eyes and ears. I must explain that excellence-for-pennies is a trick of the mind illusion. It cannot be found at Munich High End because it is hiding in their neighbor's basement.

I must explain to my readers that virtually everything currently fashionable in high-end audio began its life in the home-brew DIY world.

I wrote those words after listening to music sourced from high quality analog tape played from an indescribably-cool Nagra reel-to-reel and looking wide-eyed and appreciative at the world's first portable tape recorder—powered by a spring with a hand crank.

Next to the Nagra hand-cranked model was a James Bond 1970 Nagra portable tape machine that ran on batteries and looked like Contemporary Swiss Art.

When I sat down and gazed about, I became mesmerized by the shear industrial beauty of the whole Nagra-Wilson Audio setup. I thought, this system, with its Kronos turntable, Nagra HD DAC, and Nagra TA CDP R2R tape deck, is truly aspirational. I will personally never be able to afford any of what's here in front of me (and if you ask about prices—you can't afford it either), but people—I sure as hell can dream and share a few thoughts to inspire others to dream.

This was an extremely complex system with very simple highly descriptive sound. Which, to achieve, requires endless cabling (mostly by Kubala-Sosna) and to be fronted of course, by the Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 loudspeakers (49,200 Euros/pair). (If I remember correctly, Dave Wilson started as a DIY guy.)

I was surprised to hear ancient Brit-fi connoisseur Art Dudley had never met Harbeth's founder and chief designer, Alan Shaw. When he told me he just met him, I laughed and squealed, "I too just got to meet him! How cool is he? Did you see that catbird smile?"

Since I started at Stereophile I have been casting my lure seeking a quick-acting, true-of-tone, easy-to-drive loudspeaker I could trust and believe in—to use as a stable reference for all my product reports. I knew immediately I had found it when I reviewed the Harbeth 40th Anniversary 30.2 loudspeakers. My choice was reinforced when I entered the Harbeth room. Along one wall, was a row of Harbeths; one example each of Harbeth's full line was arranged from the smallest (P3ESR) to the largest (the 40.2); which was being demonstrated by Martina Schoener of L'Art du Son and Loricraft Audio Europe. As I studied this row of Harbeths, I realized, (now don't laugh), I could have picked the 30.2 as my reference just by looking its proportions. The shape and volume of its box reminded me of the elegant proportions of the Parthenon.

But it was Harbeth's larger 40.2 model that was making well-drawn music sound simple and beautiful in front of an L'Art du Son 501 Transcription Reference turntable which sported an OEM version of the Enterprise tonearm built especially for L' Art du Son by Origin Live. A Lyra Atlas moving-coil cartridge was bolted to its end and no one alive would criticize the way it was playing music.

In the past, I occasionally thought the Harbeth 40.2s sounded a little hesitant, but today, they were sounding the opposite of hesitant. (Maybe it was the presence of their master Alan Shaw?) Maybe it was the delightful spoken word track Martina was playing? Maybe the 225Wpc tube/transistor Magnum Dynalab MD-309 integrated amplifier was generating some extra giddyup? I am not sure. All I know is every day I become more impressed with Alan Shaw's ability to make two or three drivers sing in, what sounds like, uncolored harmony.

David Chesky is my runnin' buddy and ever since I returned to audio we been runnin' together room to room at audio shows. Because he is a musician, a composer, a record producer, and a crazy mad serious audiophile, Chesky has good ears and sophisticated taste in audio playback. Best of all for me, he knows everybody. When I asked him to show me some good-sounding rooms and some cool people, he introduced me to the amazing Daniela Manger and her beautifully wrought Manger loudspeakers; which are built around a unique planar drive-unit originally developed by her father, Josef W. Manger. Since Josef's passing, Daniela has continued to refine and improve Manger's creation: a wideband three-layer flat-diaphragm transducer.

I won't attempt to describe how its works, but you can examine the senior Manger's description here. Suffice it to say, the Manger membrane is perfectly flat and is activated by two voice-coils and damped by an outer membrane with a star-shaped cutout and four long wires. Herr Manger believed that phase coherence and transient response were of primary importance and that only a wide-range driver in sealed box could deliver these elusive traits. My audition of the Manger p2 loudspeakers (12,500 Euros/pair) suggests that Manger got a lot of things right.

Speaking generally, I would describe the Manger sound as early Quad ESL-57 with a splash of modern Magnepan. The p2s I auditioned—powered by Mola Mola Kaluga mono amplifiers (27,018 Euros/pair) and the Mola Mola Makua preamplifier (11,422 Euros)—presented music with a quiet sort of stoic demeanor that, when called upon, could deliver lightning transients and a quasi-thunderous roar.

Each of my Falcon LS3/5a loudspeakers has a total radiating area of about 20 square inches. Each of the TuneAudio "Avaton" horns has a total radiation area of 3280 square inches. The soundboard of a 9' concert grand piano might have as much 5000 square inches of radiating area. Do I need to tell you which loudspeaker does the best job recreating the sound of a piano soundboard?

On my first visit to the TuneAudio room, their 82" high, Avaton hornspeaker (220,000 Euros/pair) made a solo piano appear full-sized (or larger) and full-density between its towering, 82" deep rectangular horns. I was listening with David Chesky, to a recording made by David Chesky, of a piano played by David Chesky; and we were both looking at each other, shaking our heads. When it was over, we both agreed, this was closest any loudspeaker ever got to reproducing the density and presence of a real piano. I left the room in tears from the experience.

After I left, I texted several friends and told them to go there now and listen carefully. I said it was the best hornspeaker I had ever heard. Later, when I asked them what they thought: none of them were as impressed as David and me. Wondering if I had misjudged the quality of the Avatons, I went back and listened again at greater length. And yes, my friends were in some ways right. On highly compressed music there were probably some small ripples in the lower midrange, and maybe a narrow dropout in the upper midrange. But overall, this speaker still reproduced the physical essence of both musicians and instruments. To my taste, the TuneAudio Avatons rank among best hornspeakers I have encountered.

Anton's picture

I went over my credit card limit just reading about those purple beauties.

When I was younger (1970's), I used to see high end audio gear and think, "Man, if that were half the price, I'd could get it."

Now, even 90% off would be beyond me. I would honestly need a 99% discount to be able to buy the purple system, and even then it would be a huge hurt!

It's not just Hi Fi. When I was in high school, our school library, for absolutely unknown reason, had a subscription to a periodical called "Power and Motoryacht."

The rule then was about 1,000 dollars 'per foot,' and below 100 feet one could operate without a crew.

As a wee lad, I would think, "Man, if I work hard and get ahead, I could see buying a 98 foot yacht to drive around and live in instead of a house."

Now, the rule has inflated to 1 million dollars per meter. No yacht for me.

In 1971, Hugh Hefner bought the Playboy mansion for 1.1 million dollars (about the price of that purple system) and I remember thinking, "Man, if I work hard I could eventually buy a million dollar mansion like that."

Ha, in 2016, it sold for 100 million bucks.

It's not just the Universe that is expanding faster and faster!

Anyway, after I get my credit score up, I will buy a velvet jacket and a pipe and will finish reading the report.

Really amazing stuff, I am jealous you got to touch it and listen to it!!


Ortofan's picture

... akin to a "Newtonian force of nature", try the bass units from the old Levinson HQD system. The 24" Hartley woofers, mounted in transmission line cabinets the size of an armoire, would really get your trouser legs flapping.

dalethorn's picture

I played the Pasadena Sym./Mester audiophile recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra through those speakers in Cleveland. Like being in a moderate size earthquake.

Ortofan's picture

... "no one alive would criticize the way it was playing music" (in regard to the combination of L'Art du Son 501 Transcription Reference turntable, Origin Live Enterprise tonearm and Lyra Atlas cartridge), Alan Shaw must have been keeping a stiff upper lip in order to tolerate the use of analog disc as a source for demonstrating his speakers.

Herb Reichert's picture

why would Alan not approve of analogue sources?

Ortofan's picture

... in which he compares playback from analog vs. digital disc:

Then, read through his posts in this thread from the Harbeth User Group forum:

What would you conclude from them?

tonykaz's picture

No doubt about it in my mind.

Replicas can be built with LS3/5a Drivers, four TREK Bicycle Shipping Boxes and a $100 Glue Gun with a Box of Glue Sticks.

Big horns are both dirt cheap and stunning.

Tony in Michigan

ps. of course the Tune stuff will be pricy