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High End 2014: What a show! Wrap up and best sound

By Dr. Panagiotis Karavitis Just finished writing my last piece for the 2014 Munich Hi End show. By the time you read it my other half will have already seen her lawyer for the third time, fixing details for the soon to happen divorce.. (not really, she’s an angel) Yes, I had to spent a gazillion hours on the computer in order to get you some of the best sounding, most interesting, fancier, extreme rooms and systems from the show. But it was worth it. This is the Mecca for all audiophiles, where you get to “taste” new flavors, before they hit the candy stores. More importantly you get to know the people behind these marvels and even chat with them, a sensation of being part of this whole industry and not just the final buyer.

Among others I had the chance to speak with Mr. Vandersteen and learned about his flying hobby. Besides that, I appreciated the fact that he personally positioned and fine-tuned his speakers and their internal settings for the lower frequencies. When I took a seat in his room I could not but think how important correctly positioning the speakers in a system can be. Probably the single most important and less expensive upgrade one can do in his own set up. Despite being in a relatively big room, the Brinkmann/Vandersteen combo gave me one of the most satisfying performances at what went as quite affordable during the show.

Always from the States and always friendly, Joe Lavrencik and his wife, the creative energy behind Critical Mass Systems. They have set up a terrific rig in order to showcase their flagship MAXXUM racks, which consisted of nothing less than Soulutions 700 series of electronics paired with Magico Q5 speakers and Dr. Feickhert’s Firebird turntable fitted with a Lyra Kleos LOMC cartridge. It is always hard to say what kind of improvements a well-designed rack can produce in show conditions but the audiophile classic “Witches Brew” on RCA LP sounded amazingly “spooky”. What I can say is that the automotive paint finish matched with Soulutions burgundy-red displays to create a classy visual impact indeed.

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Kerem Kucukaslan of Absolare talked me about his favorite fish taverns of Athens while listening to his system and Mr. Wang of Auralic lend me his iPad in order to reply to some of your questions live from the show. Later on that same day I managed to talk with Livio Cucuzza (speaking Italian comes handy) of Sonus Faber who explained me some of the future plans of Fine Sounds Group. While management will move to New York the SF speakers design will remain in Italy. Good news!

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Most interesting room, in a culinary way, was the Chario speakers restaurant. A real, cooking pasta restaurant complete with Italian chefs. Delicious!

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Best system presentation goes hands down to Thomas Hintze of Gauder/AVM who, as an old reviewer for the German press that he is, explained what to look for in a system. The picture I took of him with the Oscar Peterson trio CD in hand is my favorite of the entire show, as it represents the essence of a life past in this amazing world of the audio industry.

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A special mention must go to all the people from Constellation audio. Irv Gross was there to reply in all possible questions and Peter Madnick never stopped running up n down inside the room. Then I met Murali Muragasu who besides being the CEO and president also happens to be a colleague. No, he is not a contributor for Part Time Audiophile, he studied as a doctor and we found ourselves remembering stories from our studying period and the systems we had back then (his was definitely better than mine..). No company name can be more describing than Constellation’s, this is simply a dream team of audio professionals whose personalities extend beyond mere technical aspects.

But in the end it all comes down to the sound. The venue, Munich Operation Center was designed by American architect Helmut Jang as exhibition area and acoustics are, politely speaking, not the best. In order to mitigate for the deleterious walls and ceilings many of the rooms were acoustically treated and generally speaking those were the ones that sounded best.

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Then there was the classic dilemma, to sound good for the few or to sound “comme ci-comme ça” for everyone. Because in a big show one must decide if he wants his room to be visitors or visitor friendly, by focusing on the best possible sound, meaning a narrower sweat spot. Some of the rooms had such a wide disposition of the speakers that we were actually listening to two mono systems rather than a stereo one.

Before moving to the best sounding rooms, a small mention to Diana Krall. Enough with Dianna Krall. I can see why people like her sensual voice and I understand why many exhibitors play her music (flatters the systems, few instruments will never create a problem on their set ups) but after a while it became a torture. There are many fantastic female voices out there; surely you can find a couple of records from Ella, Billie or Mina and if you want something contemporary how about Anna Ternheim, Susanne Sundfor or Angela Aki?

But let’s face it, when having in hand an iPad with the exhibitors music list loaded, one can guess how the system might be performing before listening to the first tune. One too many rooms had no full-scale orchestral pieces that might embarrass the electronics or the speakers. Want to see what a system is capable of? Play some Mahler, Dvorak or even some classic rock. Then we can speak best sound of the show.

If you have followed my coverage of the show during the last two weeks, you might have noticed that more than one room sounded from very good to almost excellently. Reasons behind this are mainly two, first many of the rooms cost more than $100K and for this kind of money they must (or at least they should) sound good. Second reason is that I decided to describe the best rooms with the ones sounding objectively bad or facing technical issues left out of the show report (and you would be impressed by certain names and products that failed to perform as expected).

Single most desired piece of equipment was the TotalDAC, at least by me. I admired this DAC for the intrinsic character of being the least digital or if you prefer the most analog sounding DAC. Yes, it does not come cheap and yes, I had no chance of A-B comparing it to the absolute reference of the Vivaldi system by dCS but my sensation was that it reproduced music in the closest way to vinyl.

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On the breakthrough product category two stand out of the pack, the Auralic ARIES streamer and the PS Audio Sprout. Both are affordable (below the $1000 mark) and both offer excellent value for money.

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The ARIES is a plug n play DSD streamer while the Sprout seems like the entry-level, swiss army knife component for the younger audiophiles as it features a headphone amp, phono stage, wifi dac and will drive speakers too. What more could you ask for?

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Best “just add music” room was theTAD with the compact reference speakers. Usually, when a company produces all of the components the resulting sound is somewhat crippled in say the speakers or the amplifiers or maybe the source. With TAD you simply cannot go wrong. High quality finish, technically impeccable components and the best sounding relatively small speaker of the show. Hearing is believing when it comes to the compact TAD, with unexpected bass extension for the size of the speaker.

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Second best sound of the show, the Raidho system with the big D5 speakers driven by Constellation electronics and dCS source. A breathtaking sound, extremely transparent, fast and balanced. One would ask what more from a system, the answer lays in the next few lines, meaning the best sound of the show.

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It was a love at first sight, or maybe first listen and I had to go back again a couple of times to take a second (and a third..) impression of the most precise, accurate and deep soundstage of the show. The Estelon Extreme speakers had no equals in Munich. On the first day, when I walked through the door and took center seat my jaw dropped in the floor for the best defined three-dimensional sound I have ever heard from a system. I would attribute these qualities to Alfred Vassilkov’s design with the highly adjustable configuration of the speaker itself. Adjustable in height (via remote control) this speaker will convey soundwaves and focus them exactly at the sweat spot. The diamond tweeter can also be adjusted in-depth, thus bringing the overall performance as close as it gets to the listeners preferences. Top quality drivers and avant-garde aesthetics with form over function design principles complete the package.

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A fellow Part Time Audiophile reader asked me if I judge the components on their own or as a whole, the spontneous answer is I always judge the systems including the placement, acoustic treatment and music choices. Meaning I put great value on the overall experience. The Estelon speakers were paired by some amazing electronics, worth of mention the new flagship MP-S201 amplifier by Vitus, a humongous stereo 700Watts/8Ohm that Hans told me “lift it and it’s yours”, and the uber-expensive phono stage with a claimed -80 S/N ratio @50Hz.

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So what about the million $ systems? First of all both the Magico and the Living Voice depended on a few 15” woofers to get down to 20Hz thus integration and placement was harder to achieve, not to say critical. Aesthetically these two were on the antipodes with the Magico being modern-futuristic and the LV being retro-classic. Amplification schools were also very distant with the magico implementing solid state solutions while the LV had single ended triodes. Sound wise the Magico had more impact and drama, it managed to impress with the sheer size and dynamic sound from the first second. The room was not adequate, I am pretty sure that the Extremes need more space in order to properly time align their units. The Vox Olympian speakers on the other side provided a more intimate sound, cohesive and sentimental that grows in you with time. Sound was more transparent and voices were closer to reality. Let me re-phrase that, voices sounded real.

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When I flew back in my home city, Athens, I felt like a child leaving Disneyland. What a show the Munich 2014 has been. Until next year, auf wiedersehen!

 

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About Panagiotis Karavitis (161 Articles)
Doctor and Editor @ Part-Time Audiophile Publisher @ Audiohub.gr

6 Comments on High End 2014: What a show! Wrap up and best sound

  1. Larry Phillips // June 2, 2014 at 6:15 PM //

    +1. Thanks Doc. Enjoyable read.

  2. Tom Haleas // June 2, 2014 at 10:48 AM //

    Really enjoyed all your Munich show reports. Thanks so much for bringing the experience of being there to your readers!

  3. Andrew Benjamin // June 1, 2014 at 9:17 PM //

    Re the Total DAC. It may indeed be analog-like, but here’s the problem:

    Analog sound is NOT the standard. As nice as it can be, the best tape technology can do 12 bits. LP provides about 10. S/N ratio for analog is about -70 dB. At best. The best digital is about -140 dB. Direct to Disc, popular in the 80’s (I have many) dramatically surpasses analog tape’s SN and distortion and the LP’s sound. See Robert Harley’s essay in a recent The Absolute Sound for confirmation.

    Analog took 100 years to reach the refined level it is capable of today, but only with hugely expensive products. Digital may be 30 some odd years old, but we’re speaking about optical replay, mostly through mass produced CD players using poor engineering and cheap parts, and not digital capability per se. In the last three or so years, CD-rips and hi rez downloads proved themselves to be, if not necessarily superior, equal to analog’s better products often enough to make itself the more intelligent choice. Yes, it is a choice and the advertising dollars consumer magazines make on pages of analog products have nothing to do with these facts.

    Today’s audio magazines have no choice but to promote analog products in order to survive.

    The fact is this: Digital replay of any kind has been hindered by inadequate DAC technology, for the best DACs today are still far too expensive for most people. Today a new generation of DACs are appearing, using not cheap off the shelf DAC chips, but novel programmable technology with more powerful DSP and regulation support. These are or will be available at relatively reasonable cost. These new gen products will finally prove themselves worthy and will for certain surpass the abilities of analog, no matter the last’s cost.

    As I said, analog is not the standard. The mic feed is. What the mic hears is what will be recorded. The recording standard, analog or digital, that matches most closely the mic feed happens to be most accurate and provides the most data, the most musical information. Any deviation from the mic feed is distortion.

    It so happens that digital well recoded significantly surpasses the analog standard.

    Anyone can test this fact on two recorders of the best quality, repeat the tests ad infinitum, and arrive at the very same conclusion. The qualitative differences are easily audible, one need not strain to hear which is closer to the mic feed.

    This fact is the main reason most studios worldwide had switched to digital recording technology. However we could not hear to what astounding degree digital has proved itself superior to analog until the latest and best DACs performed their number crunching magic.

    Incidentally, I was one of, if not the first to suggest “Digital Sucks.” That opinion has been revoked.

    • Andrew, totally agree with your comments. Well said.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // June 3, 2014 at 7:13 PM //

      There’s a lot to untangle here, so apologies if this comes through oddly: I kinda agree and I kinda disagree.

      The bit about the mic feed is non-tendentious.

      The bits about digital, though, not so much. Digital tech is getting better, sure. It’s been getting better all the time. Analog has not stood idly by, however, and arguably has advanced as much as digital has over the same time period. The question: “Which is better?” can, in my opinion, be firmly answered with a resounding, “Who cares?” and “Why do I have to choose?”

      Moving on, I’m not sure that the fact that a purely digital copying process is bit-perfect, and that a purely analog process is not, has much bearing on sound quality of either? That is, it can still sound like crap even if it’s quiet. Unless we’re talking about only listening to copy-of-a-copy where noise has become some kind of an overwhelming issue?

      The bit about media needing to promote analog “in order to survive” seems to arrive un-heralded. Not sure where that one flew in from, but if it’s even a little bit true that the media is driven by the market, it’s not hard to find evidence that the market is into vinyl. Not covering it, then, seems irresponsible. (FWIW, this applies pretty much equally to headphones and high-res audio).

      The bit about digital being massively handicapped due to the lack of the latest in digital design also seems a bit backwards. Don’t some of the best-sounding DACs in use today use “old” chips, or chips based on old designs?

      And, arguably, the problem with digital isn’t the conversion back to analog — that’s been pretty good for quite some time (especially re: the bit about “old chips”), rather it’s either retrieval/extraction from the stored media (the transport, for example, which is why Esoteric and dCS seem to have such a fine reputation for such products), or in the original transcription, that is, in the original analog-to-digital conversion, which is perhaps where using crappy codecs comes in. The part about the latest in DAC filters is a fine counterpoint, but I’m not sure it carries more weight than jitter, and that’s at best only partly a DAC thing.

      Lastly, I’d think it’d be worth recalling those anecdotes about great measuring gear that sounded like crap. Again, why choose? Both vinyl and digital can be quite excellent — and tape sounds pretty great, too. Personally, I don’t care what the source is — when I’m getting all fussy about sound quality, I’m really much more concerned about the quality of the source material as it seems to have far more impact than the quality of the typical playback chain.

      Still, I appreciate the comments. Keep ’em coming.

  4. Thanks for your show reports, Dr. They are always interesting and enjoyable to read. Personally, I wouldn’t mind get a peek at the “Worst of Show” list also. Anyway, great job.

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