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.

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!

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!