High End 2019 pt.2

Aqua Acoustic from Italy have created the first block in a new modular system for digital audio. The LinQ is a modular network interface with Roon and UPnP modules available at launch with more to follow, it two low noise transformers, a fully floating hybrid two stage network and FPGA module and connects to Aqua’s DACs via an I2S interface. It should be available by the end of the year. More imminent is the Formula xHD analogue module for their DACs with improved analogue outputs on XLR and RCA as well as upgraded parts.

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Aries Cerat must be the only audio electronics brand to have ever set up shop in Cyprus and they have done it with style. The emphasis is on tube electronics and horn loudspeakers with no apparent restraint when it comes to quantities of chassis, the Achilleas Legend Series SET amplifier consists of six cases with 813 tubes driving an 813 output stage, the 300kg per channel weight is nearly as hefty as the €250,000 price. The brand launched the Helene DAC with eight R2R ladder converters and a single ended output at €12,800.

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Audiobyte is a sister company to Rockna from Romania, we really liked their Wavedream  streamer and DAC a few years back so this entry level brand is interesting. The range consists of Hydrahub (€1,500) which is essentially a streamer with digital inputs but no DAC, the Hydravox DAC (€1,500) connects via a proprietary I2S link and also has analogue inputs, and the Hydrazap power supply upgrade (€500). Each box has a touchscreen but can also be controlled with a dedicated app and the Hydrahub in particular is unusually flexible with Roon, Airplay and UPnP functions. 

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Wharfedale and Mission designer Peter Comeau has been very busy with three new ranges to finish for this show. Wharfedale has two new flagship models in the Elysian 2 and 4, these have AMT planar tweeters designed in the US and the mid and bass drivers were designed in collaboration with Scanspeak. Both models have slot ports and wide baffles for “free and easy energy flow and good dynamics”. The Elysian 2 (£5,000) stand mount was making some nice noises on the end of Audiolab electronics and a Lumin streamer, the Elysian 4 (£7,500) was happy just to hear its 93dB sensitivity and 22Hz bass extension discussed.
Evo4 (below) is a step up from the Diamond range and combines an AMT tweeter with dome midrange in the bigger models. It was nice to see the revived Linton on dem, this classic has apparently proved very popular and it’s not hard to see why.

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Wilson Benesch founder Craig Milnes was having a great time telling visitors about his latest and most ambitious turntable project the GMT One. We had a teaser from the company before the event but this didn’t begin to describe the scale of the design, both physically and technically. The GMT One uses a field coil drive system with a large ring of transformers surrounding a subplatter that’s wider than the main acrylic with graphene and polymer platter (three platters will be provided). The whole thing is pneumatically suspended with isolation down to a claimed 1.7Hz and the tonearm is a unipivot design that can be changed for alternative arms of varying mass to suit different cartridges (below), the idea being that three arms are stored in the stand and swapped to suit different records. As yet no price has been set but it will definitely be of the ‘if you have to ask’ variety, Wilson Benesch plans a full launch in December.

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Rather more affordable is Vertere’s latest ‘plug and play’ record player the DG-1. For this model designer Touraj Moghaddam has come up with a cunning arm bearing based on nylon threads for both vertical and horizontal movement. The idea is to avoid stiction, the resistance that sliding bearings have to changing direction, and given that a stylus has to do this all the time that would seem sensible. The arm itself is pretty radical, a one piece sandwich construction for rigidity with damping it has two counterweights to suit a wide range of cartridges as well as thej one that will be optionally supplied. The motor, the most important bit in Vertere’s opinion, is matched to its drive system during construction in the usual way unlike bigger Vertere designs that can be tweaked in the field. Price will be £2,750 or £2,850 including MM cartridge.

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Audio Solutions showed the most ambitious speaker it has built to date. The Virtuoso has a cabinet within a cabinet for maximum vibration control, three alternative crossover settings to suit different rooms and tastes and a midrange driver that covers a far wider range than usual. It starts at 500Hz above a pair of 190mm paper bass drivers and doesn’t hand over to the large 30mm tweeter until 7kHz. Which means that all the important detail is covered by one driver, but whether a 165mm unit can go that high without obvious problems remains to be confirmed. It sounded good in the booth though, as you might hope for €23,000.

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Keith Monks is looking to expand its market by offering an entry level record cleaner to third parties. The Prodigy runs off a 12V supply and is made largely out of bamboo, even the vacuum arm is wooden. It takes 3 minutes per side to clean a slab of vinyl and is expected to retail for £795 when an as yet unspecified brands make it available.

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Focal is celebrating its 40thanniversary in typically French style with among other things a large case containing two pairs of headphones (Stellia and Utopia), a headphone DAC/amp (Focal Arche) and a portable player (Questyle QPM). This limited edition creation is pricey at €15,000 but does cover all your headphone needs. Those after speakers can choose from the retro style Spectral 40thwith beryllium tweeter at €8,000 and a version of the Scala Utopia with special black silver finish that’s limited to four pairs at €70,000. The company has also introduced light and dark veneer finishes to the Sopra and Utopia ranges that look to be in more plentiful supply.

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Karl-Heinz Fink hasn’t changed his Borg loudspeaker but it’s now available in new finishes and sounded excellent alongside tube electronics from Canor. K-H was particularly enthusiastic about the Slovakian brand’s PH 1.10 phono stage.

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Classé has returned from the wilderness with the Delta PRE, STEREO and MONO amplifiers. These have the familiar curved casework associated with the brand but come in a darker finish and eschew the class D operation of the last amps they built when in the Bowers & Wilkins fold. The new power amps are class A for the first 35W mono or 12.5W stereo and offer 300W and 250W respectively in total. They sounded pretty decent driving Fink Team WM-4 loudspeakers with a rather nice Studer A807 tape recorder, a good choice of source.

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Classé was in the room formally occupied by Ken Ishiwata whose unexpected retirement from over 40 years at Marantz was leaked during High End, it would seem that once you get to 70 legendary status is not enough to keep a job! It’s sad to lose one of the most influential and entertaining designers in the business, he will be greatly missed.

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Falcon makes more than ‘letter of the licence’ BBC LS3/5a  speakers it also goes in for rather more advanced designs such as the HP80 from the new V series. This understated floorstander has a very high tech graphene impregnated Twaron aramid fibre cone in a 165mm chassis, allied to a 28mm soft dome tweeter. I like the grab handles on the rear and the fact that it sounded so good with a wall of BAT electronics, which goes some way to accounting for the £12,500 price.

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Chord Electronics have been scaling tech developed for their range topping Ultima power amplifier into two new Ultima monoblocks which a have dual feed forward error correction topology and ultra high speed switching power supplies. Ultima 3 is a 480W design with various options on side panels for £11,000 per channel, Ultima 2 ups the power to 750W, weighs a hefty 86kg (190lbs) and comes in at £18,360.
Chord have also produced a new phono stage called Huei, this is microprocessor controlled and comes in a compact Qutest style case. It offers variable loading, has a rumble filter and colourful coding switches for £990.

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Rotel have revived Michi, an aspirational sub brand from back in the day. They have launched some rather good looking amplifiers with OLED displays including power output on the mono and stereo power amps. The P5 preamplifier has digital and analogue inputs plus Bluetooth and will sell for between $3,500 and $4,000. The S5 stereo power amp delivers 500W per channel for $6,500 and the M8 offers 800W for $6,500 per channel.

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Dolby Atmos could be a new force in high end if PMC’s demonstration at the show is anything to go by. They set up a room with 19.2 channels including Wafers for the height channels and three Fenestria at the front and played hot off the presses Atmos mixes of Kind of Blueand Sketches of Spainthat sounded extraordinary to say the least. It was so impressive that we plan to write more about this in a future feature, but should you get the chance to hear it cancel everything and go. 

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Melco’s Alan Ainslie talked to us about SongKong a couple of years back, he’s a classical music lover and has a bee in his bonnet about the metadata problems that music which doesn’t follow the standard artist/album/tracks protocol comes up  against in digital libraries. SongKong software is designed to answer this challenge and sort out your library such that you can find any piece of music by a given composer or performer or by virtually any other tag that you ask it to assign. Melco will be incorporating SongKong software into its next firmware update so that you can get your metadata sorted at the press of a few buttons on the front panel. They are also changing the server software to MinimServer which aids and abets the process of finding and playing back music. We will be investigating both of these when the update appears in August.

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Kondo (Audio Note Japan) previewed a more conventional looking tube power amplifier called Melius, this has a solid state power supply with an EL34 push-pull output stage and delivers 32W channel using a new generation of capacitors said to be very close to the best they make. Price will be in the region of $38,000. They also showed the M7 Heritage which is a variation on one of their best loved preamplifier but with a bigger power supply and onboard phono stage, it has two phono inputs and balanced and SE inputs, no price has been confirmed.

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I managed to drag Todd Eichenbaum away from demonstration duties for long enough to tell me about the Mark Levinson No.5101 SACD player/streamer launched at High End. An entry level digital source for ML the 5101 retails for $5,500 and does most things that you could ask; wired/wireless streaming using the Arcam Music Live app (they’re in the same group), digital inputs and a slot loading drive with suspension. There are also two new integrated amplifiers in the line, the 5802 ($7,000) has only digital inputs but is a class AB design with 125W of power with an XMOS USB input and MQA capability. The 5805 ($8,500) is the same amplifier with the addition of analogue inputs.

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Volumio is a young Italian company with a community based ethos. It started out making web based streaming software but has started building hardware, the Primo streamer with Asus core and ESS 9038 Sabre DAC is available in community (€479) and hi-fi (€589) editions, that latter includes a lifetime software subscription. They showed a prototype Lineo power supply and Motivo network player with built in display, this is a compact device with analogue and USB outputs that runs a 32/768 capable DAC and has an eight inch touch screen, price is expected to be around €1,550.

Part 3 of our High End coverage