Portugal is a small southern European country, but when it comes to audio, it has a disproportionately large high-end community. Even its recent buffeting from the economic storms has not dimmed Portugal’s love for good music, played properly, and nothing demonstrates that better than the AudioShow at the Hotel Palácio and Hotel Vila Galé in Estoril (a costal playground about half an hour’s drive from Portugal’s capital, Lisbon).
This is a small, popular show, intelligently hosted (Friday evening, plus all-day Saturday and Sunday), thanks to its organizer, Jorge Gonçales of Audio & Cinema em Casa magazine. The show features a heady blend of local heroes and international superstars and bristles with world firsts.
Perhaps the biggest was the first showing of the final, signed-off version of the Magico Q5 (the CES outing was a late prototype… there have been some small, but significant, changes since then) at one of importer Imacustica’s rooms. The chance to hear this remarkable loudspeaker partnered with the new DarTZeel NHB-458 mono power amps proved irresistible. The actual listening to the system (which also brought the EAT turntable, Metronome Technologie’s epic CD player, DarTZeel NHB-18NS preamp and Transparent’s top speaker cable to the party) proved even better than the anticipation. It’s often hard to tear yourself away from a system that costs in excess of a quarter of a million dollars, especially one that sounds just as wonderful at one watt as it was swinging nearly a kilowatt, but this one was truly special, quite simply the best sound I have ever heard from audio, not just in a show… but anywhere. Hotel security had to prize me away to listen to the rest of the show systems.
Not that the other rooms were afterthoughts. There was some extremely good audio on show, right around the hotel. Opposite this room, importer Delaudio was making Monitor Audio’s PL200 loudspeakers sound better than the British ever seem to make them sound. Perhaps partnering them with a top or the range Esoteric P-05 and D-05 disc player (with the G-0Rb rubidium clock), Pass XA60 amps and Black Audio cables is the answer. Over in the Vila Galé, the company was making the Monitor Audio Silver RX6 sing, albeit perhaps not with the same sweetness as the Esoteric/Pass system, thanks to a Primare CD21 and I21 combo. Both systems also sported Thorens turntables.
Ultimate Audio also ran rooms in both hotels. In the main hotel, the system comprised AMR CD player, Karan pre/power and Canton loudspeakers, but in the Vila Galé, the company went more upscale, with a Kuzma Stabi XL2 analog and Playback Designs and AMR digital sources, Vitus Audio amplification into TAD Reference floorstanders. Was this making a good sound? Hard to tell; the room always seemed to have 200 people in there, such is the interest in audio in Portugal.
The AudioShow 2010 was chosen for the first public listen to the new B&W 800 Diamond series, thanks to Viasónica. The company had two rooms; the bigger using Classé electronics to drive the new 800 Diamond, while the smaller room showcased the 805 Diamond, this time driven by a Jeff Rowland Continuum 500 integrated amp and either an Olive music server or a dCS Puccini.
An even bigger dCS showing was in the importer of Ajasom, which took several rooms to showcase its ranges. It was playing the big dCS Scarlatti system, feeding into a conrad-johnson CT5/ET250S into the production samples of the exciting Morel Fat Lady loudspeakers, flanked here by the distinctly svelte Marta and Russell Kaufman of Morel.
Elsewhere Ajasom was making some very tidy sounds from a Meridan Sooloos server fed into a Nagra digital processor and amplification (including the new MSA power amps), driving a pair of Avalon Aspect speakers. Firsts here include two exciting products from support experts Finite Elemente; the Hohrizontal 51, a 51mm thick shelf that doubles as an iPod dock, and the passive version of the new Emperor support system. This last was holding up a complete Ayre system, switching between the QB9 converter and the new multi-standard player, all playing through Finite Elemente Modul loudspeakers.
High-end cabling was everywhere and taken really, really seriously too. Nordost was proving exceptionally popular, although MIT and Chord Company also featured strongly. Many rooms sporting were also sporting Quantum power products, often in series. Although the seriously big money Odin cables were nowhere to be seen, there was enough Valhalla speaker cable running across floors to restart a couple of economies.
It wasn’t just big ticket items making a fine sound. One of the nicest affordable sounds was coming from the Supportview Pro-Ject room, with the CD Box SE and the 6 PerspeX turntable (with an Ortofon Rondo Red cartridge and a Lehmann Audio phono stage), feeding into the Pro-Ject Pre SE preamp and tiny Class D Power Amp SE monos, all driving a pair of Canton Kronos SL580 (In the nearby Vila Galé hotel Supportview were also making some surprisingly decent sounds from the very inexpensive Cambridge Audio Azur 650C CD player and 650A integrated amp, running a pair of Q Acoustics Q50 floorstanders). Just to prove how tiny those Power Amp SE's really are:
Naim Audio kept the cost deliberately under €10,000 (if you exclude a healthy amount of the company’s Fraim stands and Chord cable), while showing off its excellent new DAC. With a CD5 XS, 152 XS preamp and 155 XS power amp, all feeding into the tiny yet remarkable Neat Motive SE 2 floorstanders, the system sounded excellent and still cost less than some power cords.
The company with the widest selection on show in a single room was the distributor for Arcam, Audiolici, Audiovector, Bladelius, Chord, Focal and many more; Topaudio. Demonstrating a Chord/Focal system at one end of the huge Galé room, the other was showing off the new Bladelius Embla silent-running memory player. This was not playing when I visited, but shows great promise.
Perhaps the wildest demo seen in years, Cenestesia's room was made up of no new products – a Michell Gyrodec Silver 25 turntable with Techno arm and Sumiko BPS cartridge, an Audio Research CD8, driving an ARC LS26 pre and Reference 210 powers, a MartinLogan sub and a pair of Wilson Sophia II. So, what was so wild? It was outside in a tent with the interior looking like something approaching a Bedouin camp. Despite canvas walls and ceiling, the whole system worked incredibly well, and also holds something of a record for having the most eclectic mix of music at the show – anyone who plays Singin’ in the Rain back-to-back with Beethoven’s Appassionata Piano Sonata deserves praise.
There was more too, like the excellent sounding and locally made Rui Borges turntable, and the stunning sound of Micromega's CD30, PA20 preamp, PW400 power amp into ProAc D18 floorstanders, and were still only scratching the surface. Ultimately, for a small show in a small part of the planet, the level of professionalism and interest in audio puts us English speakers to shame. The rooms may have been quiet on the Friday, but were packed out on the Saturday, filled with people of all ages and interests, all passionate about music. We could learn a lot from one of the finest, most friendly shows on the planet!