High End 2018 pt.1

The Munich High End show is a veritable tsunami of hi-fi in all its many shapes and colours, the more unusual the shapes and colours the better. This year saw a new wave of brands from the near and far east arrive in the halls and atria of the MOC exhibition centre but on the whole it was the established companies that managed to deliver the best results, experience is a useful thing in the difficult rooms of a building designed for fashion tradeshows. The sheer quantity of loudspeakers in particular was nearly overwhelming but with our bullshit detectors on high alert we were able to filter out the good from the distracting and find the worthwhile models. This was the first High End show where growing tape mania manifested in the form of new reel to reel tape recorders with two distinctly different examples on show and a few new tape vendors to match. Vinyl continues to be a popular source and one Japanese company has decided that now is a good time to make an optical record player again, who knows perhaps they will have more luck than their forebears in this challenging endeavour. But enough ramble here’s the shizzle.

The factfenestria show with designer Oliver Thomas above is by far the most ambitious domestic loudspeaker that PMC has created, and the tallest for that matter. Combining two transmission line loaded bass system atop one another with vents at top and bottom this 1.7m tall monolith incorporates some radical features. The central aluminium section (below) for instance isolates the tweeter and midrange dome from energy coming off the bass cabinets. The side panels are designed to kill energy coming off the cabinet by vibrating in anti-phase and a massive fourth order crossover is in the plinth and itself isolated by damped fixings. Priced at £45,000 the factfenestria will be on sale in September. It sounded better than most of the systems at the show, regardless of price.

Chord Electronics showed Hugo TT2 (£3,996, above), a DAC and headphone amp that’s so powerful it will drive a pair of loudspeakers. It has five times the processing power of its predecessor and more advanced noise shaping, it also produces 18 watts from its balanced outputs. This because it’s based on Chord’s new Power Pulse Array tech that generates plenty of grunt. The Etude (below) is a 150w power amp in a compact case that has been designed from the ground up to produce much lower distortion than the Mezzo 75 that it replaces, price is £3,900.

Living Voice managed to install two of its extraordinary horn systems at the High End this year, Vox Olympian and Vox Elysian was demonstrated with Kondo amplifiers, a Grand Prix Monaco turntable and Canary LV CD300 (£7,500). The latter is heavily modified by Living Voice and produced a superb result considering it was on the end of speakers costing 100x as much, especially when playing orchestral and jazz, where it the system was way ahead of anything at the High End. The new product in the system is the G2 equipment tables (£28,800 for the one on the left) which is a lot more complex than it appears with specific torque ratings for the columns and carefully tuned isolation.

Paul Beckett had his Onkk Cue DD direct drive turntable (€25,000) in the emerging tech zone, we first saw this incredibly ambitious design a couple of years ago and were amazed by the lengths Paul has gone to, now he claims that it will be ready in the coming months with a new Scribe 306.5 arm (€5,000, not shown). The latest features include adjustable torque and open or closed loop operation, the former being better for voices while the tighter timing of the latter suits rhythmically precise material. We are getting quite excited about hearing it.

Innuos demonstrated the successor to the extraordinary Zenith SE music server in the two box Zenith Statement, this is not just a case of putting a bigger power supply on an SE but an “extreme SE” with 8 rather than 3 linear power supplies. The lower case houses the transformer and PSU caps but sends raw DC to the server so that regulation at that stage can minimise noise as close as possible to the working parts. It has a reclocking system for both USB and ethernet outputs, the latter being particularly beneficial for streaming services such as Tidal. A comparison between Zenith SE and Statement via Kii3 active speakers was jaw dropping, the SE is amazing but this, it’s something else and a bargain even at €11,000

Ifi is ready to go with its super shiny, ultra cool x-Can compact balanced headphone amplifier. This prodces a 1,000mW (1 Watt) output and offers ifi’s 3D+ Matrix and XBassiQ features in a battery powered beauty that costs a mere £199 or £249 with Bluetooth aptX/AAC (available June). Also shown was the matching x-DSD, a wired or wireless DAC with half the output of the x-Can but a DSD512 and MQA capable DAC with the same features as the headphone amp at £399.

One of the most entertaining systems at High End was fronted by Fink Team’s new Borg loudspeaker (€24,000). This floorstander combines a 10inch paper cone mid/bass that Karl-Heinz Fink (below) and his team have managed to get working up to a 1,600 Hz crossover point with the AMT tweeter. Borg has a lot of adjustments for a passive speaker including: variable damping for amps with different damping factors, ‘mid’ allows you to place the stereo image at a depth that appeals while ‘presence’ can be tweaked to match amp and source character. Borg sounded very good with Audionet power amps, a Phonosophie streamer and Marantz SA-10 used as a DAC.

The world of tape no longer has to track down vintage hardware thanks to the work of Roland Schneider who has created the Ballfinger M063 quarter inch reel to reel machine (€24,000). Based on classic technology and Deiter Rams’ grid design philosophy the M063 incorporates a new tape tensioning system that allows the spools to be wound back and forth by hand. The name comes from Schneider’s 2003 Ballfinger desk lamp.

Atlas upped the cable ante by showing the first leather wrapped speaker and interconnect cables. Asimi Luxe uses pure silver OCC conductors in a cotton wrap with foam damping and PTFE plus metal foil shielding. They come in four hand stitched nappa leather finishes but custom options are available, prices start at £3,850 for interconnect and £6,600 for a one metre pair of speaker cables.

Focal took the opportunity to unveil the latest models to benefit from its Utopia III Evo upgrades, the Stella and range topping Grande get TMD driver surrounds that reduce movement at this critical juncture and increase pistonic linearity which lowers phase distortion. They get the NIC magnetic circuit which creates a Faraday ring effect and gives more even impedance and inductance characteristics for reduced distortion. The mid and bass drivers are now clamped in with cast metal locking rings that sit on the inside of the cabinet to help spread the fixing area. Changes which required a revision to the crossovers and the use of absorbing damping in the bass cabinets. All of which has pushed up both performance and price, the Grande Utopia is now £160,000 and the Stella £89,999.

Anthem is usually associated with home cinema but has taken the opportunity to join the stereo fray with the STR Preamplifier and Power, the former has an onboard DAC, phono stage with both MM and MC plus room correction tech for €4,000 while the power amp has LCD VU meters and a 400 Watt per channel rating at €6,000.

Sforzato doesn’t sound Japanese but that’s where it builds a range of serious looking network streaming products including the three box DSP-010EX streamer with onboard DAC (up to 32/384 and DSD11.2) and external clock. Its latest creation is the DSP-050EX ($4,000) a one box streamer with the same spec as the bigger model and the top ESS ES9038 Pro DAC chip plus a low phase noise onboard clock.

Aequo makes serious slimline speakers with cabinets made of thermoformed synthetic stone. The latest is the Stella which has active bass control in the analogue domain and an N-Core Class D amplifier for the built in sub. It has adjustment for roll-off and placement and enhanced horizontal dispersion from its double ring radiator tweeter. This Dutch speaker use two seven inch bass drivers, a five inch mid and costs €18,000. 

At the more domestically challenging end of the spectrum we have ESD’s five channel horn system with its ten channels of class A solid state amplification and active crossovers. The horns are made of carbon fibre and the drive units are a new design of field coil compression driver made in house by the Chinese company. Having ten amps in the room meant the was reminiscent of a sauna and the unusual music made it difficult to assess but this was easily the largest speaker system in a show where large is almost the norm. Oh and it costs £860,000, but you can buy individual speaker and amp channels and work up to the full monty.

Audio Research discretely showed a new generation of power amplifiers that kicks of with the M160 monoblocks. These feature tube protection, auto bias and are delivered with KT150 output tubes but can be used with compatible alternatives. Not obvious when powered down is an illuminated power meter in the dual layer front window. There will be a stereo version in future but for now the 160W monos are priced at £28,998 per pair.

If you love vinyl and want to tweak everything all the time Dr. Feickert’s new Vantaggio phono stage will be right up your alley. It has independent MC and MM inputs, two of each, plus two line inputs. More important is the fact that you can adjust every parameter of load impedance, capacitance and gain on the fly by remote control in very fine steps. That’s a first to our knowledge, what’s more each input remembers its settings so that you can compare cartridges with utmost ease, even the gain for each is independent. Not bad for €6,000.

We can’t wrap this first part of High End coverage without mentioning a stunning new speaker from Falcon Acoustics. Not content with building an active version of their BBC licenced LS3/5A (below) designer Graham Bridge has created the highly contemporary GC6500R, which looks like a Sonus faber but graphene cones, a 50mm mid dome and ribbon tweeter mean it sounds rather different. The baffle is clad in Alcantara leather and the top has a glass cover, on the end of a Sugden system it left us keen to hear more even at the £18,000 price point.

Jason Kennedy