The Best Sounds at the High End 2016
As I said before in the 'Overture':
Under the show stressful conditions it is a personal and ‘political’ choice rather than a technical one. And I say ‘political’ because this is an editorial game we all engage in to win over more readers who strive on conflicting opinions and polemizing views.
‘Better’ must necessarily mean one has compared them all, right? Well, that is not possible, sorry. ‘Best’ ought to mean I judgingly picked one and singled it out from the pack. No way, Jose.
So, please take all of this with a pinch of salt. What it really means is: ‘The Best of My Show’, and even that is debatable as my mood changes with listening (and walking) fatigue and the time of day and the music being played or where I stand or sit to listen.
No commercial records or audio files of any kind or used. What you hear is what was being played by the exhibitor at the time I was there. Only short samples are used and the ambience noise, people talking and doors opening or slamming prove all the takes were done live and make them commercially unviable. The videos are used here as educational tools for comparative purposes, since you cannot compare hifi components just by looking at them, you need sound. There was no post processing other than volume level and editing cuts. Of course, all the video sound tracks were processed by Vimeo digital converters.
The sound is merely illustrative and not at all representative of the ture performance of these systems.
Enjoy and make your own conclusions based on what you hear (and see).
Absolare/Rockport Altair V2/Kronos
The hybrid Absolare Passion Integrated is not in the same league as the Passion Pre/Amps of previous years. Too little amplifier (some mild distortion) for too much loudspeaker and room. The huge side woofer drivers overdrove the room and revealed some ugly room modes. On Sunday however I managed to record this wonderful piece of music. Just enough for an A. As always much depends on the record, the occasion and listener’s mood…
Audio Tech Horns
When you come in, your first thought is: they must be joking, this could never play well. As a matter of fact it does, quite well. But I don’t think I could sit for hours looking at those, er, horns…B+ anyway.
My colleague Martin Colloms wrote a long feature article about the Beolab 90 for Hificritic. Still I wasn’t ready for what I heard. An immersive holographic sound even when I was sitting no more than 5 feet from the loudspeakers. Excellent focus, amazing localization of musicians and singers in the huge and deep soundstage. Maybe a hint of upper mid emphasis. To say that I am amazed is an understatement. It gets an A verging on the A+…
Probably the best horn loaded system I heard at the show. Tone Audio came close but not quite matched it. Interestingly, the recording reveals a slight ‘midrange glare’ I did not notice live. A ‘horn-loaded’ A for Cessaro.
It sounded consistently marvelous every single day with any kind of music. Perfect balance, timing, tone and timbral accuracy. Well, maybe a little smooth for some tastes. I just loved it and my wife did too. Most probably the most musical and natural sound at the show, if not the best tout court: A+
Nice people, nice design. All very elegant and classy. But I am sorry to say the sound was below par by Estelon standards. Could it be the unknown source or amplification? It sounded like hifi, when it’s supposed to be music, right? YB has good bass foundation for the size and acceptable focus. Yet it lacks in midrange substance. And yes, I listened to several tracks including a so so rendition of Adele’s ‘Hello’. The YB gets a…B+.
Kodo drum power, bass extension and control (listen to the opening drums), voice projection, focus, 3D soundstage and presence is absolutely devastating. For the competition, that is. Yet the power is so clean even Greenpeace would approve of it. Some might find its transient edges a little too sharp. An A+ performance for the Vikings!
JBL Everest/Mark Levinson
Cinema sound. Bright, clean, fast, very informative, with good timing and projection. But you cannot help the feeling you are listening to a mechanical device. B+
A luminous and sophisticated sound in a luminous room. Musically enjoyable and harmonically rich. And oh!, so sweet it tasted of Port wine. It lacks power and punch though. A luminous A for Kondo.
What can I say? This is highend sound of the best kind. Just listen. Now imagine how it sounded in the room. A/A+
Living Voice – Vox Palladian
If you just listened to a soprano singing like the one in the video, you would have no doubt this is one of the best horn loudspeakers in the world. And maybe it is. Hélas, the day before I went into the room and it was playing heavily distorted rock. It seems they can have a bad temper too…An A for the soprano and a B- for the rock concert…
Note: the Vox Palladian is a 'more affordable' version of the Vox Olympian.
Magico S5 MkII/Constellation
Prior to coming to Munich I had just listened to a similar system sounding so much better at Imacustica, Magico distributor in Portugal. It goes to prove that it is very difficult to setup any system in just one or two days and make it sound good at a show. In my heart (and memory) I know it deserves an A. Hélas, I cannot go beyond an A-.
Magico M Project/Soulution
Easily one of the best sounds at the show. It has everything in spades: body, natural tone, timbre accuracy, resolution, dynamics, wide, stable and precise soundstage. Some might contend it may sound mechanical at times. Well, blame it on the recording engineer…
A magical A+ for the M-Pro driven with soul by Soulution.
Marten Mingus Quintet
Driven by Analog Domain amplifiers and sourced by an Aurender Player/MSB Select II DAC, Mingus sounded absolutely lovely. Spacious yet focused, transparent yet with body and substance, informative yet smooth. And very, very musical. An A indeed.
Martin Logan Neolith/Constellation Altair II – Hercules II
Something was afoot with the huge Neolith during the weekend, the one bass note was not the least of the problems. It improved with a few changes on Sunday, and they found out the cartridge was defective. I recorded this two samples on Sunday. Still not what I would call a straight A sound. Clear, transparent, but the bass still seems to plod behind the panel that lacks body and substance. A B+ is in order.
Martin Logan Renaissance/Pass Labs
The ‘Renaissance’ are not so imposing as the Neolith, nor does the bass imposes itself on the room acoustics. The sound was acoustically (and visually) transparent but the midrange sounded a bit thin and lacking in body. At least the bass was singing along in time with the panel…B+
As it happens every year it is almost impossible to get a seat at the MBL room. For many it was easily the best sound at the show. However, they have tuned them up better in previous years. The XTreme could sound heavy at times with the bass overwhelming the room. But they did pull out a neat trick just when I was recording this video. Listen: it’s a musical piece for saxophone and organ, recorded in a church. And you can hear the reverberation around the instrument with uncanny realism. Had it not been for the room conflict with bass I would have given it an A+. I’ll stick with A/A+ though.
Monitor Audio Platinum 500 II /Soulution
This is the best ever loudspeaker from MA. It sounds big, powerful, full bodied and it has decent rhythm and pace. It never turns hard or harsh and does not sound like hifi which is a good thing, right?. For the price this is an unbeatable full range highend loudspeaker system. It needs good amplification to get the best out of it. An A it is!
Driven by Aavik Acoustics they played Dire Straits with ‘gusto’, aplomb and an excellent sense of rhythm. The sound was good, clean, fast with good transient behavior. Maybe a little hard at times but that comes with the type of music. Money for nothing? Well, they cost around 100 grand…I'll give it an A-
Tone Audio Anima/Elysium
One cannot make up one’s mind whether to look or listen. Does it sound good because it all looks so exotic and warm? Musical, relaxed, easy on the ear and eye-catching, indeed. Unless I was hypnotized by the tube glow, my notes read A.
Unlike Robert Harley I don’t think Bob Stuart invented the ‘wheel’. And yet, there is no doubt he is moving into something great with MQA. The sound of the piano and Dylan’s voice sounded so natural, so present, so right that MQA cannot be, er, wrong…
It sounds fluid, liquid, clear, time coherent, with a full bodied midrange like good analog. This video does not do MQA justice. It sounded so much better in the room. Could it be that by (re)recording it I upset the delicate MQA time ‘alignment’?... A for the video sound, A+ for the sound in the room.
Vivid Audio/CH Precision
What the hell was wrong with this room? CH Precision and Vivid Audio are both beyond reproach components. I have often listened to both together or separately sound absolutely gorgeous. At the High End 2016 I heard distracting distortion (was it the metalic ceiling resonating?). Or could there be something wrong with one of the drivers? For this performance alone it merits no more than B-
Supertramp sounded ‘super’ and not the least like ‘tramp’ much less ‘Trump’, God forbid. The smaller Giya 2 were driven by Mola-Mola Class D amps by Bruno Putzeys. Presence, rhythm and good attack. Could it be the Trinnov Speaker Room Optimization? An A- because I’d have liked a little more meat to the bone.
Wilson Audio Alexia/dCS/d’Agostino
Never have I heard dCS put a foot wrong. With the new Vivaldi 2.0 and the 2.0 software for the Upsampler, Shirley Horn sounded positively spooky. It was not just the sound of her voice that impressed it was the performance which came through unhindered. The room induced boomy bass at times does not preclude a straight A.
Wilson Audio Alexia – MSB
Wilson Audio (and Vivid Audio) were everywhere. It is an interesting exercise to walk into several rooms exhibiting the same loudspeakers with different electronics and find out how different they can sound. The Alexias were doing better with MSB than with Ypsilon, much better in fact, but not so well as with dCS/d’Agostino. Still an A.
Wilson Audio Alexia – Nagra/Kronos
Unfortunately I did not attend the press conference. I passed by the Nagra room several times. However, this video was only recorded on Sunday, when everybody was letting off steam and the Alexias were playing some kind of background music at low level. Everyboy wrote how lovely the system sounded with my good friend Peter McGrath’s tapes, but all I got was this. And it’s not enough for a straight A. Let's give it an A-
Wilson Audio Alexia – Ypsilon
It wasn’t Alexias’ fault. They did great with dCS and d’Agostino. It’s just that Ypsilon electronics sound, er, electronic to my ears, thus harsh, hard. I convey this is a difficult piece of music to reproduce. Even so, a B+ is my best offer. Take it or leave it…
Wilson Audio Sasha II/McIntosh
The best Wilson Audio performance at the show. An all American dream team playing with excellent timing and aplomb. An A/A+ and kudos for ol’ blue eyes and Lady Sasha.
Western Electric Sound System
Amazing stuff, indeed! Does it sound as bad and battered as it looks? Well, not quite. It will give you the most uncanny sense of presence you’ve ever heard in your life. It is the definition of ‘there, there’. But the ‘honkyness’ and midrange glare that gave ‘horns’ a bad name in the past is there nevertheless. Still I’ll give it an A out of respect for its age and honorability.