The romantic Pestana Palace Hotel, former town house of the Marquis de Valle-Flor, has been the venue of choice for Lisbon Audioshow organiser Audio magazine since 2012. It’s a small, growing event with 25 hotel rooms and also large public areas, both in the Palace itself and the nearby horse stables (the stables are a small palace in itself, and yes, even the horses were treated like royalty by the Marquis; the stables are now Lisbon’s Congress Centre). This year saw the Audioshow extending to one of the new modern wings, which connects to the main building by a long glass corridor across the beautiful gardens.
Built in the early 19th century, the Pestana Palace was designed by the Venetian architect Nicola Bigaglia in a mix of Romanticism and Revivalism. It has strong 18th century French influence with some decorated ceilings, stained glass, exotic wood floors and opulent furniture. The paintings in the lobby lounge ceiling are by the naturalist painter Domingos Costa.
In and of itself, the venue attracts a large number of visitors, especially when the unexpected cold and rainy weather precludes a walk in the park or a stroll by the beach with the children. Entire families showed up, with Grandma pushing the pushchair while the young couples listened to music in some of the tiny rooms on the third floor. Regrettably, although the hotel might be the venue of choice of the rich and famous, room acoustics were generally poor, no matter how much treatment was applied.
Nevertheless, in Portugal high-end audio gets the royal treatment!
Made in Portugal
Portugal is not known for its audio industry, mostly comprising a few tube geeks and horn loaded or open baffle loudspeaker cottage brands. However, three home-grown products stood out, one analogue and two digital, all aiming to better control time in music reproduction, and an attempt at the simple-is-best hybrid solid state/tube phono preamplifier.
The analogue side was Rui Borges ‘Pendulum’ turntable (€30,000), fitted with Kuzma 4Point tonearm and Ikeda Kai cartridge, shown here in the context of a system comprising CH Precision electronics, which drove a massive pair of Stenheim Reference Ultime loudspeakers in one of the two large rooms occupied by Ultimate Audio. An Aurender W20 streamer and MSB Select DAC fulfilled the digital duties in this system.
Every single piece – each of different materials to further eliminate resonances – is precision machined to zero tolerance. As the name implies it uses a heavy pendulum at the back to keep the belt tension at bay and avoid slippage and the consequent wow and flutter due to speed variation.
V-Acoustics Ultra Precision Master Clock VA-MLCK-01, designed by Vasco Soares, uses an ultra high precision 10MHz reference signal to synchronize D-A converters and transporters with perfect timing accuracy. Mounted in the digital loop of an Esoteric K01-X player it increased the spatial location perception, and improved the sonic clarity and texture characteristics, dynamic range, tone quality and soundstage transparency in the room where distributor Delaudio was presenting the new Monitor Audio Platinum 500II.
Once removed from the loop it was like watching a 3D movie without glasses, the soundstage collapses and everything sounds vague and blurred by comparison. A stunning achievement in digital engineering giving Esoteric’s own clock a run for its money. Price is expected to be around €5,500.
In case you didn’t know the promising Audolici AVP-01 audio phono preamplifier tube drive technology (€5300) actively demonstrated at the show with a Music Hall MMF 9.1 turntable by Absolut Sound&SV is also designed and built in Portugal. It’s a simple but highly capable hybrid phono/line preamplifier with just three inputs: MC-LINE-MM.
The MC section is based on a low noise hi-linear design with just one active bipolar unit. The MM section is hybrid and consists of one pair of low-noise discrete semiconductors and one tube.
The output buffer section offers ‘hi’ and ‘low’ modes, either directly from a tube or through the buffer stages.
At least two products expected to be first shown in Munich were previously presented at the Lisbon audioshow.
The new Sennheiser Orpheus, here pictured in oil painting style, for it still remains as a mystery to me, is a true work of art and priced accordingly: €50,000! Which makes it the world’s most expensive headphone ever.
That kind of money gives you a hybrid transistor/tube class A-A/B amplifier with eight quartz glass vacuum tubes mounted in a marble chassis that also houses a compartment for the head set, a USB DAC at a top resolution of 32bit/384kHx and DSD 5.6Mhz capable, and a pair of electrostatic headphones with a built-in second stage amplification.
At switch on the Orpheus puts on a motorized choreography as the lid opens and the tubes pop up from the marble base. Catchy and kitschy.
I listened briefly to Adele and she sounded positively anorexic, which she most certainly is not (no pun intended). I’ll give it a try again in Munich. For this kind of money one expects to hear the voice of God Himself (no heresy intended). In the meantime, I’ll stick to my pair of Hifiman HE-1000.
Pauca Sed Bona, latin for ‘few, but good’ showed the first ever full Avid system. Alongside the turntables for which Avid is famous, the company has a new two box Reference preamplifier, monoblock amplifiers and the Reference Three loudspeakers with embroidered aluminium side panel cabinets and dedicated stands.
There were new brands and products aplenty and fresh arrivals in the Portuguese audio market.
As far as I can recall, this was the first appearance of Diesis at the audioshow, brought in by Ars Antiqua Audio, a Spanish distributor, along with Jeff Rowland electronics, that have no official distributor in Portugal nowadays, and were driving a pair of Diesis Caput Mundi open-baffle dipole/horn loudspeakers lost in a huge room at the horse stables. Source was by a Diesis Neptune streamer, with files being played from a buffer memory.
Devialet is not new to the Portuguese market but Phantom is. Demonstrated ‘with a blast’ by the distributor Imacustica, that deals exclusively with extreme highend products, it literally made quite a ‘stir’ among youngsters, and not so young visitors, including the female gender. It played Marcus Miller with such ‘gusto’ and aplomb it sounded almost live. And you don’t even need a ‘pair’ to stand your ground. I foresee a great success for Phantom…
And now for something utterly new. The Ubiq Audio Model One loudspeakers from Slovenia, imported by JLM Group, and shown by Absolut&SV driven by a gutsy Arcam C49/P49 amplification system, with music sourced either from a Music Hall MMF 9.1/Audolici phono preamp or Atoll DR200/Chord Hugo TT combos. Robert Watts has been one of my favourite digital designers and I use both the Hugo and the Mojo on a daily basis. The Ubiqs feature a horn loaded tweeter and sounded fresh, lively, dynamic and involving, with a tight and articulate bass.
TechDAS Air Force III, another first from Imacustica, was used as a privileged analogue source, along with an Audio Research Reference 10 phono preamp, in one of the best sounding rooms at the show featuring a pair of Martin Logan Neolith driven by Constellation electronics (more on that later). The Air Force III shares many of the Air Force One features like the air bearing and vacuum pump and accommodation for as many as four arms!
MBL is a newcomer to the Portuguese market by the hand of distributor Ajasom, although we’ve had a sporadic taste of the radialstrahler over the years this is now official. The Corona line of electronics and loudspeakers were demonstrated to everybody’s delight with a Kronos Pro turntable by Louis Desjardins himself.
In an adjacent room the cute little Vivid Giya 4 delighted both ladies and audiophile males with their alien ‘Fifth Element’ Pavlalaguna looks and earthly natural sound with the aid of the remarkable Hegel electronics.
UK audio industry was well represented by many famous brands, the Portuguese market being strongly influenced by British magazines.
The debut of the amazing Monitor Audio PL500II tower loudspeakers by distributor Delaudio was perhaps the most impactful – literally – of all the British breed. Driven by a Pass X350.5 amplifier and a custom designed passive preamp, with an Esoteric K01-X player as source, they took full advantage of the V-Acoustics Ultra Precision Master Clock VA-MLCK-01, designed by Vitor Soares (see above). Sound was powerful, dynamic, with excellent balance and timing all leading to an uncanny sense of pace and rhythm.
Naim is now part of the same group as Focal and accordingly share the same distributor in Portugal. Esoterico did not cut on the expenses and rented the gorgeous and aptly named Foyer Beau-Séjour with a magnificent view over the river Tagus. A full set of Naim electronics comprising the NDX streamer, NAC 252+Supercap pramp and NAP300 amps played magic with a pair of Focal Sopra Nº2, the best effort of this French maker this side of ‘utopia’.
Outside the room, in a busy corridor, Esoterico showed the new Mu-So Qb to such good effect they sold the only one yet available on site. Hélas, I’ll have to wait to test it…
Tannoy has managed to turn a small foot print loudspeaker like the DC8i into a full range one, so much so the room was sometimes overexcited by low bass frequencies. All in all the pairing with Unison Research tube amplification resulted in a musical and enjoyable sound concurrent with the romanticism of the venue. It even allowed me to travel in time while listening to a pristine LP copy of Supertramp ‘Crime Of the Century’ in a Project Audio xTension 10 Evolution, all being distributed by Support View who also represent Cambridge Audio.
Linn perseveres in their one-brand only setups and although I doubt of its effectiveness, audiophiles being experimentalists and collectors, the issuing results obtained by the distributor Mind The Music were quite satisfactory with just a DS Player with Space Optimization and a pair of Linn Exakt 530 in their colour hosery.
The new B&W 802 D3 failed to impress me again as it did at festival du Son in Paris with Classe amplification. I can see (hear) their obvious potential lurking underneath but they could do better with different partners. Naim and McIntosh come to mind. I think they need something in the category of Gryphon Diablo 300 or, even better, a D’Agostino Integrated to come to terms with the music. They are that good!...
Yankees play to win
American audio gear populates the dreams of Portuguese audiophile connoisseurs and music lovers alike. Imacustica as the leader of American audio imports in association with Absolut Sounds of London set up a fantastic system comprising Audio Research CD9/GS Integrated and Wilson Audio Sabrina loudspeakers, cabled throughout with Nordost that sounded absolutely (no pun intended) marvellous: a full, meaty, propulsive and dynamic musical sound. For me Princess Sabrina is, in relative terms of size and price, the best speaker ever to come from David Wilson ingenuity and skill. And the ARC GS Integrated is also my amplifier of choice to drive them. All in all I left feeling I had attended a happy wedding ceremony.
In the same room, Audio Research and Krell teamed up with a pair of Sonus Faber Venere S(ignature) to demonstrate to good effect the Nordost upgrade programme.
There are a few low budget audio distributors in Portugal of which I selected Zen Audio as representative for their unassuming and low profile exemplary attitude and excellent musical taste and capacity to make the most out of brands like Xavian, Goldnote and Lyngdorf.
And also Exaudio for their unquivering faith in old school brands like Audio Note.
The big guns
The law of diminishing returns does not always apply in audio. At the Lisbon Audioshow 2016, Imacustica and Ultimate Audio, the distributors who invested the most, got the best results and concomitantly the best sound.
Provided you got the best seat in the sweet spot like the romantic couple in the photo, due to the directionality characteristics of the Martin Logan Neolith, this was by far the best sound ever to grace the ears of all those we managed to attend the Imacustica show at the Campolino room situated in the horse stable area since the audioshow came to Pestana Palace in 2012.
The Metronome Calypso, the TechDAS Air Force 3 (see above) and the fabulous Constellation Audio Virgo III/Centaur II monoblocks did the rest with style and aplomb. The visual and acoustic transparency of the electrostatic panel and the sheer power of the Neolith passive bass section was awe inspiring for all those who lined up outside in the cold weather waiting for a chance to reach the warmth of audio Nirvana.
The Neolith are a bit fussy about acoustics and positioning. So Imacustica set up an alternatively system in one of their dedicated listening rooms, this time with DartZeel amplification, and, boy, did they sound glorious!
If like Ultimate Audio you can afford to invest half a million in equipment and rent the largest room at the Pestana Palace Congress Centre you are expected to deliver the best sound at the show. And so they did with a system comprising: Rui Barros Pendulum turntable (see above), Aurender W20 streamer, mbl Select DAC, CH Precision L1, P1, X1, 2 x M1 and a pair of massive (270 kilos each!) Stenheim Reference Ultime, although some may argue this would be almost impossible in a domestic environment.
The space around, behind and in front of the loudspeakers allowed the sound to breathe and develop a huge soundstage populated with solid, vibrant and colourful images which in all formed a high quality audiophile sound.
Ultimate Audio also attracted crowds of enthusiastic audiophiles to their second largest room in a modern wing of the hotel, where they set up a full Gryphon system: Mikado, Kalliope, Diablo 300 and Trident II loudspeakers, all cabled with Audiofidem (also made in Portugal) which created a big 3D IMAX wall of sound of amazing proportions.
To watch preferably at max. resolution (2K or 1080p) in full screen, and listen with a good headamp/DAC or connected to your hifi system.