Munich High-End 2010 – Final round-up (Hi-Fi+)

 Munich High-End 2010 – Final round-up (Hi-Fi+)

The show finished on Sunday, but the volcano’s still going on. A one-hour flight took nearer 36. But a chance to reflect on the overall show is worthwhile. And it reflects well – it’s without doubt become the most important show on the high-end calendar. And now, its importance reaches far beyond European borders; the halls were filled with people from America doing business with people from Singapore and Brits doing business with Hungarians, as well as Germans doing business with other Germans. According to those who show their wares here, it’s an expensive show to run, but the returns and rewards are here too.

There are also a few companies that decide to go off piste, and show in one of the hotels away from the show. Two of the big ones were Wilson Audio and Ensemble. Wilson had the first run of the new Sophia Series 3 on show. Despite costing exactly the same as its predecessor and retaining , the new $16,700/pair Sophia 3 features the same tweeter and midrange from the Sasha and the MAXX 3, a bass unit with twice as much magnet as before, and a redesigned loudspeaker cabinet (essentially the top-box from the Sasha, albeit with a less complex crossover) with a cabinet made from X-material (in the bass) and S-material (for the midrange and top). It is claimed to retain all the amp and room-friendliness of the outgoing model.

Wilson may not have been playing the new Sophia 3, but the Sasha – announced at last year’s event – was making some remarkable sounds in the main show, in the Thrax room. This Bulgarian brand produces a Dionysos tube preamplifier, Orpheus tube phono preamp and Spartacus mono tube power amp, each box priced at 15,000€. I only had the chance to spend a few short minutes in the Thrax room (the source at that time was a four-box dCS) but even at such short exposure, this was doing a lot right. A quick glimpse inside the Dionysos showed why; the preamp is built old-school, fully transformer coupled. Nice!

Ensemble was also showing its wares in a hotel room away from the MOC throng. The company was playing a complete system, comprising the revised Dirondo player, Fuoco integrated amplifier Isolink Duo power isolation unit (feeding the player alone) and Power Link distribution unit, all feeding into the company’s Natura loudspeakers, via its own power cords, interconnects and speaker cables. With all the electronics sitting on Zorbo (who names these things… the Marx brothers?) support platforms all resting on the company’s new fully isolating stand, this made one of the most natural and dynamic sounds I heard from electronics all week.

Given the enthusiasm for next-generation digital sources, it’s perhaps no surprise that the new products handling spinning digital discs were also just as keen to play streamed and downloaded music too. One of the most exciting of these new products was the Aesthetix Romulus/Pandora. It has two names because if you ‘spec’ the product as a CD player, it’s a Romulus, otherwise it’s a Pandora. Either way, it bristles with tech, featuring an asynchronous USB input, a PCM1792 DAC, separate power supplies for every single section you could break out, a pair of 12AX7 tubes in voltage gain mode and a pair of 6922 tubes in follower mode. The fully balanced circuit will set you back close to $6,000 for the Romulus player, $1,000 less for the Pandora. In theory, it’s possible to upgrade Pandora to become a disc player, but Jim White, Aesthetix’ founder, thinks few people are going to go down that route.

Audiolab is also keen to make its 8200CD player and new 8200CDQ digital front end very CD-chummy. Now under the IAG banner – alongside Quad, Wharfedale, Mission and new signing Luxman – Audiolab has hired sharpest-tool-in-the-digital-box John Westlake (Pink Triangle Da Capo, original Cambridge DACMagic, Peachtree Audio) to produce essentially a very high quality multifunction DAC with a clock-locked CD transport in the same box. The DAC side supports asynchronous USB to 96kHz, 24bit, 192kHz through coaxial and optical digital inputs. The DAC chip itself is the top ESS Sabre design. The new 8200CDQ adds an analogue preamp and headphone amplifier to the package. These on-paper specs look pretty ordinary, until you spot the 250,000µF of power supply decoupling inside the box, the 1,700 strong component count and the fact that the whole package is expected to cost less than £900 in the UK. Westlake is keen to point out that the 8200CD/CDQ comfortably out-performs the Da Capo, considered by this reviewer at least to be by far the best digital component made in the last century.

Staying on the (almost) inexpensive side of things, Chord Electronics announced a series of extensions to its popular Chordette Gem DAC. Still featuring Bluetooth connectivity, the company launched headphone amps, preamps, phono stages and power amps in similar bathsponge-sized aluminum chassis abound. Also on the last stages of coming off the drawing board is a dedicated audio/video computer in the same basic chassis. A computer not much bigger than its hard drive will doubtless prove very popular among the Chordette Set.

No German audio fest would be complete without a line-up of interesting and faintly crazy turntables. Most interesting and most faintly crazy (but in a good way) of these is Dr Feikert. His Woodpecker deck was being played in almost every room spinning vinyl (Clearaudio and SME were not far behind), but in the Lyra room, Dr Chris himself was spouting the advantages of the two-arm, 5,000€ Blackbird. The deck features two ‘dithered’ motors and has provision for built-in geometry adjustment, thanks to a clever protractor arrangement.

Transrotor is little known outside of German, but is one of the big names in German hi-fi. This year, the brand had two new models in its extensive line, the deliciously-named Fat Bob Plus (2,500€) and the three-motor Atlas (7,615€).

Phono stages are also a key element in German hi-fi, and no phono stage gets more German than the upcoming 100 model from Burmester’s Top Line range. Designed to be capable of working well with any cartridge loading, the 100 also has an auto adjust setting that will balance the left and right channels of a cartridge to within 0.2dB. You can use it with one or two cartridge inputs, and comes complete with an optional analog-to-digital converter which can output your digitized vinyl sounds to a PC in a range of standards. The price of the full-on 100 is $22,995.

Staying with Burmester, the company also had the best sound inside a car, inside the show. Last year, Dieter Burmester announced a tie-in with Porsche to provide the ICE for its new Panamera saloon (and subsequently the forthcoming revised Cayenne SUV). A Porsche Panamera kitted out with Burmester’s in-car system was wowing listeners – in part because the joy of clean 120dB volume levels in a controlled environment like the inside of a car works wonders, and partly because it is very, very good. Many felt this was one of the best and cheapest ways to get into Top Line Burmester sound, especially as you get a free Porsche as part of the deal!

Shiny chrome was everywhere, and many products proved virtually impossible to photograph because of all those highlights. One such product that looks a lot better in the flesh than I could photograph in the field was the Devialet D-Premier. This exciting new DAC-meets-integrated-amp was drawing the crowds, including a lot of very respectful manufacturers who went away deeply impressed. This is no normal amplifier, and it uses what Devialet calls Class ADH (this is – in rudimentary terms – a power DAC with a power amp stage that features a class A amplifier driving four class D amplifiers with no filtration, in a current dumping layout). Playing an iPod through a pair of tiny Kiso loudspeakers in one part of the room and from a MacBook into a pair of Magico V3s at the other end, the amp astounded and astonished in equal measure. It was hard to assess properly (the room was always packed with people talking business), but regardless, the Devialet D-Premier made a lot of good friends in Munich and it was the talk of the town.

The Munich show is also a good place to serve up products first discussed at the CES as working samples. Among those, the YG Acoustics Carmel floorstander, Dwarfed next to the big Anat references, the $18,000 aluminum enclosures sport the same tweeter and seven-inch woofer found in the company’s Kipod speaker. Driven by the excellent Bergmann air platter, air bearing armed turntable, through ASR Emitter amps and Argento audio cables, this system was making some excellent sounds, although there seemed to be a noticeable phase change as you walked across the front of the speaker image.

Finally, a wholly ‘new’ speaker design, with a basis in a wholly old world, the new Tannoy Kingdom Royal. Driven here by a complete set of top ‘03’ grade Esoteric electronics including two A-03 amps in bridged mode (as well as a SME Model 20/2a turntable), the new Kingdom horn uses a 12” dual concentric driver, with another 12” bass unit and a supertweeter. Running from 24Hz-54kHz and with a comfortable sensitivity of 96dB, this model bristles with Italian leather and high gloss wood veneer. Designed for the Asian market (Tannoy’s biggest customer base for its horn designs is Japan), the expected UK retail price of the Kingdom Royals is £35,000 per pair.

This only scratches the surface of the new products on show at Munich. Many were from new brands that are happy working within the confines of the German market alone. Others had good demonstrations, but not a lot of new product to show. Still more I just didn’t have time to visit, even after four days trawling the halls. And that’s the point of Munich High End 2010 – next to CES, it’s the largest expo you will visit with a pair of speakers in tow. Here’s to 2011!

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