Milan. Home of insane taxi drivers and style fascists, is also the site of one of the busiest audio shows around. Set over a long weekend in September in the Hotel ATA Quark, Top Audio is packed, both with attendees and manufacturers, across more than five floors, and regularly receives more than 20,000 visitors. Although dwarfed by the Munich High-End show (arguably the most important audio event in the West), Top Audio remains a major player on the Euro Show calendar and shows that – even in the depths of one of the worst economic crises to befall the country – Italy takes its music very seriously.
The pro rooms were still very, very professional. There is a whole floor given over to audio-video, which features consistently excellent demonstrations by Epson's projector experts, another featuring a wall of McIntosh and the likes of Denon, Onkyo and Focal sized companies put on presentations that explain why they are big hitters in our little game. But then there were the others. The ones that proved that not everything Italian is style-obsessed; not in a down-to-earth, looks bad,sounds good way--think 'room full of creepy uncles' instead.
As an editor of an audio magazine with a distinct focus on the international, there aren’t so many brands that are completely alien to me, so when you walk into a small room with eight people lining the walls like a prom night from Hell, each one a representative of a brand that even they had barely heard of, you know something’s a bit amiss. Couple this with at least two of them engaged in a loud and lengthy, animated discussion (often involving cellphone calls) while you are trying to listen to their products, the propensity for the largest of the group deciding that the doorway into the room is the best place to sit out the entire show and an inverse square law between room size and the number of products on display (lots of big, bare rooms and lots of tiny, full-to-bursting rooms and not a lot in between) and you can begin to see why Top Audio is not what it used to be even a couple of years ago.
Worse, the smaller rooms often shoe-horned in the largest possible system, making the sound often overblown and ill defined. Although Milan is the place where the Bossa Nova never died, there were still several cases of nine-foot-wide singers in front of a quadruple-double bass. There were a few exceptions though. One of the best sounds was from a Anglo-American system comprising SME Model 20/3 turtable into a Pass Labs XP30 and XA100.5 pre/power combo into ProAc Carbon Pro 8 using Kimber cable throughout.
In the room opposite, Naim Audio was showing off its new £1,925 ND5-XS streamer, bringing 21st Century music processing to Naim’s core XS-series line. Played into a Naim 152 preamp, FlatCap XS power supply and 155 XS power amp into Ovator S-400 speakers, the all-Naim system managed to sound both enthralling and entertaining, without the seemingly inherent ponderous sound that plagued many rooms. Naim also has a wealth of useful add-ons to its streaming products coming soon, including 24/192 USB playback, playlisting, Apple AirStream support, richer metadata control and 802.11n wi-fi. Some will be firmware fixes, others will involve open-case surgery.
AudioNatali is Italian high-end royalty, distributing brands such as Audio Research, Krell, Kuzma, Koetsu, VTL and Wilson, alongside newcomers like DarTZeel and Devialet. And it’s not hard to see why the Natalis command such an overarching command of the high-end, because their demonstrations are slicker than most. Case in point; the company’s excellent Wilson Audio demonstration with ARC amplification was one of the high-end high points. In terms of the best looking room in the show, even this was eclipsed by the Sonus Faber room, which used (naturally) Wadia and Audio Research electronics. The company had built a room within a room, making the whole place look like something from the pages of an interior décor magazine than an audio show. Soft, leather sofas, a wall of bookshelves… this was a model of slick chic, without spending a fortune. Other brands take note… it was in many respects the star of the show.
Although this is every inch the Italian show, with no real traction outside of the Italian market, there were a number of key launches set aside for Top Audio. This is because the Italian market (like Greece and Portugal, and less broke countries like Germany and the Netherlands) has become one of the most important regions for hi-fi sales across the continent. It also acts as one of the handy test-beds to gauge opinion in the West (being between Munich and Las Vegas), and comes right after key Far Eastern shows in Hong Kong and Singapore. So Top Audio was the first place in the West to see the exciting new Korean Aurender music player as well as a significant grouping of new equipment from Onix, including a XIA-160 integrated amplifier (180W, balanced and single ended and priced at around €3,600 excluding tax). But it was also the place where Italian audio gets its proper airing, and while some of this extends well into the Loony Tunes part of audio, other parts are extremely interesting and deserve more coverage outside of Italy. Products like the Capriccio Continuo AurAleA 309 loudspeakers, for example. These side-wall hugging, heavily toed in loudspeakers featured an air-motion tweeter, a proprietary midbass cone. With a high slope crossover and a 1.8kHz crossover point, an elegant burr gloss finish and a reasonable price sticker of about €3,500 per pair, these had the sort of smoothness of a good panel speaker, but with a BBC-like purpose and vocal clarity.
Then there was the Sicily based Ars Aures Audio Essential loudspeakers. A two way, with a one inch tweeter and two five-and-a-half inch mid woofers, made for company. This sounded very well played through the aforementioned Aurender music player, a SOtM digital converter (also from Korea) and Accuphase amps. Like the Capriccio, these came in at under €3,500 per pair. At the other end of the scale, NAD was showing its new wireless DAC 1. No price given at the show – not even a person in the room, but a UK price of £295 has been bandied about subsequently. Next to this was an unnamed, unheard of NAD variation on the theme of iPod dock speaker systems named after dirigibles. What it’s called, how much it costs, when it will be available and any other information was met with at best a shrug from the person in the other room.
There were new loudspeakers from more than just Italian sources. Neat Acoustics new Ultimatum XL10 flagship was unveiled at Top Audio. This tall, slim floorstander comes from a brand very popular with UK listeners but is new to the US (its first formal outing will be at next year’s CES). Replacing the twelve year old MF9, the Neat speaker features eight separate internal chambers, a pair of upward firing EMIT supertweeters, isobaric bass loading for the bass, making a total of nine drive units per side. Despite this, the loudspeakers sounded very tight and ordered when played on CD, even if the Sound of the Valve air-bearing turntable sounded as if everyone playing music had been given a sly dose of Thorazine. Naturally, the amps used in the system were pretty far from solid-state, but vinyl aside, the system sounded fine. Other turntables of note included the new E-Flat turntable from EAT and some good sounds from Avid decks and phono stages in the Bowers & Wilkins room.
Good sound was not impossible to find. Burmester made a very fine sound from its top line products in a surprisingly small room. The system – comprising 089 CD, 088 pre 911 power 948 conditioner and B50 speakers was topped off with a magnificent vinyl front end - a Scheu deck, Koetsu SD7000 mk7 arm and Koetsu Azure Platinum cartridge. In another room, another Burmester and Scheu combination, this time with the remarkable display of BMC electronics made a good sound too, this time with a price in the thousands, not in the tens of thousands.
Pearl loudspeakers, on display in this case with Norma electronics, perhaps best typified the overall trend. A distinctive, if slightly shouty system, it was perhaps overshadowed by the sound of a carpenter building the flagship speaker in the back room! The open baffle gave a very direct sound, but more a collection of frequencies than a real coherent sound, but still... Interesting when the glue dries. Prices start at €4000 for ballerina 308, three way and go up from there.
And then there was the truly Froot Loop Nutcase Odd-Ball maniac products, in all the right ways. All audio shows have at least one product so unutterably crazy that it flips over into greatness. And that product is the PNOE loudspeaker from Arcadian Audio. A vast damped fiberglass horn, fed by a AER MD3B drive unit. At 100dB efficient and costing around €28,000 it drove the room extremely well. I’m predisposed toward disliking horns on principle, but this one sounded promising.
A close second was the Audiosonica Dragonfly; an interesting €11,500 sub/sat system with a drop-down front baffle to mask and diffuse the bass drivers. Curiously, this worked much better than you might expect it might do.
I hope this doesn’t sound petulant. Yes, some of my difficulties in communicating at the show was due to language difficulties on my part. And if I was in a room where there was a prospective client, I’d expect to play second or even third fiddle to those buyers. But in too many places, I felt that anyone who wasn’t known to the distributor was effectively invisible, irrespective of whether they were wandering English editors or potential customers. This is no way to survive in a boom, but in the current economic crisis, it’s suicidal.
There were others products I’d like to have seen – like the new Audio Note products, which were held up because some of the equipment promised for the show turned up just as we left half way through the second day. Or the KEF Blades that were being played in a room that looked like a badly organized yard sale, complete with people haggling over products. Ultimately, what I remember as being one of the healthiest audio shows on the planet has taken a dramatic turn for the worse.