High End 2017: The horns of Azzolina Audio, Thomas Mayer amplification, Vinylista turntables


Horns, tubes, and turntables.



That was the closest colour match I could think of to describe the large, tasty Sphera horns that Azzoline Audio – the creation of Frenchman Chuck Michlin – was showing off with Thomas Mayer’s bespoke tube amplification at High End in Munich.

Gorgeous full-range drivers, bespoke circuit, and chassis designs.

The pairing seemed tailor-made for each other, as did Martin Brenner’s (Vinylista) gorgeous, modified Garrard 301, and 401 idler-drive turntables which were pressed into service as analog sources. A pair of server/DAC modules from Vincent Brient’s totaldac line had digital duties. I’ve been a fan of Mayer’s valve-amp designs from afar for quite a while, so I was chuffed to be able to hear them in person at last – even more so considering they were driving such unique horns of a make I’d not previously had exposure to.


The 300B-powered Differential Amplifiers from Mayer.

The set-up included various versions of Mayer’s custom, hand-built-to-order phono pre-amplifiers, line preamplifiers, differential power amplifiers, and valve-rectified power supplies. The Sphera is a full-range 104dB horn-loaded design that presented a truly effortless reproduction of recordings, with lightning-fast transient response noted on strings, exquisite decay, and bloom of notes from piano, high hat, and cymbals. The Garrard I heard was the modified 301, with a Lyra Atlas LOMC cartridge fitted on a Thomas Schick tonearm. The soundstage was quite broad, and had excellent off-axis imaging with no grain, tension or tightness to the upper registers of the cohesive sonic presentation.

Vinylista’s Garrard 301 goodness.

To my ears, this was a system built to extract maximum frequency response, and dynamics from the recorded medium to be played back with the impression of true tone with a real transparency to source – this was not the golden age sound of some horn set-ups that trade the finest shadings of accuracy for brassy timbral glow. No, this was more high-fidelity with a solid nod to to simpler musical times with all the presence, and speed that horns, and tubes are famous for.

–Rafe Arnott