XFi 2018 pt.2

I bumped into a well-known face in the Harmony Audio room as Scott Berry, founder of CAD, was revealing just what his Ground Control devices (favoured by the Ear) can do using a Bob Dylan track through some impressive Zanden electronics comprising: model 120 phono preamplifier, model 3100 line preamplifier, model 8120 stereo amplifier from the Modern Collection. Visitors could hear how the CAD box reduced HF noise on the signal-ground, and works from 1MHz upwards to convert the unwanted signal to heat. Spanish loudspeakers here were the Kroma Carmen with a €55,000 price tag. Of special interest was the €7,250 Model 120 phono EQ stage which has five pre-set settings to cater for the differences in recordings by Teldec, Columbia, RIA, EMI and Decca.

One day, all new buildings might be constructed with audio in mind – in which case the in-wall and in-ceiling units from Germany’s Ceratec will fit the bill. Meanwhile they are retro-fit and create the ‘invisible speaker’, being able to accommodate 3mm of plaster and decoration to blend seamlessly into the surface. Demonstrated by the company’s Constantin Ranke using Preußens Gloria they certainly sounded impressive while not being noticeable. 

Some rooms remained so busy that it was hard to find a seat, let alone one in any reasonable stereo position. Despite several attempts, Metrum Acoustic’s popularity meant I caught only a glimpse of the popular brand’s offering. They concentrated on female vocalists and the packed room clearly enjoyed the refined, delicate presentation. Among the DAC goodies on display was the Roon-ready Ambre, with a Raspberry Pi at its core; the Flint baby DAC along with two new siblings; plus the Baby Ambre (still Roon-capable but minus the AES and I2S connectors). There was news too of a new shop, in India no less, as an official subsidiary is launched there. Clearly this brand is going places – literally. Metrum Inc in the USA is also reported as ‘gearing up’. Old favourites here which sounded as good as ever included the Onyx and Jade DACs, the latter incorporating a preamp; along with the Forte power amp. 

Dutch speakers from Gustavson also attracted a lot of attention. The €3,750 a pair LS-One was used with the company’s €3,500 wooden-cased W800 amplifier producing 2x400W (8ohms). The two-way bass reflex design combines a 30cm bass/mid driver and a separate horn cabinet with a compression driver and a radial horn for reproducing the middle and higher frequencies. The crossover is at 1kHz so that both drivers are used optimally in the crucial presence region. The crossover has just four components, without resistors in the signal path. The result was a richness of sound and huge dynamics without, I was assured, listener fatigue.

A complete line-up from Sead Lejlić of Sarajevo-based Konus Audio created a memorable sound. Wow, this was involving and highly musical with incredible attack and amazingly well-defined transients. No wonder he is a consultant for some Japanese brands. The handmade Kuzma R turntable with Fuuga cartridge fed a Konus Audio system comprising Vinyle 3000MC phono preamp and Integrale 1000 integrated, with digital sources via the Digitale 1000 USB/SPDIF DAC into Essence 2000 speakers. The €4,500 (+VAT) speakers are Swedish, metal cone full-range drivers with extremely high sensitivity. So popular that the demonstration pair was sold within hours of the show opening. “Less to ship back to Bosnia”, said Sead with a smile on his face. 

Sometimes it is worth visiting a show to discover just one product. If that were the case with XFi then it is Shan Audio’s Czech speakers that qualify. Established in 1991 they are well-known on home soil but not in the rest of Europe. Not yet, at least. Now Rudd Moerman has formed Omera to distribute them in Benelux and is creating an ingenious sales network. Instead of high street stores, he will have regional consultants giving home demonstrations. This was their first showing in Holland and I was very much entertained by the Shan Icebox I at €6,999 inc stands; the €1,149 Lyra S, and €1,899 Lyra L. Particularly the Lyra L: such accomplished midrange, taut bass, great timing, incredible soundstage which stretched way beyond the cabinets, and a look to kill for. All were driven by an Electrocompaniet 6DX. The whole Shan production is by hand in Tranovice; they design and manufacture the cabinets, and paint the speakers, as well as design the crossovers. There are matching stands and virtually any colour is possible. 

One loudspeaker range which constantly sounds amazing, and often sublime, is YG Acoustics and their brand new Sonja 2.2 lived up to expectation, and more. Here my attention was drawn to a Wadax DAC and preamp with matching power supply unit. The Pre-1 Ultimate is a €50,000 combo which comes from Madrid with design input from Switzerland. This latest remote-controlled digital preamp has a DIVIN phono stage, Zepto TM super clock, and Hermes TM SSD server in a US$72,670 package. It accepts inputs from a computer via its USB HD hub, SPDIF, Toslink, BNC, stereo line inputs and all phono cartridges. It can be connected to any amplifier through its single-ended or differentially balanced outputs. Additionally, digital outputs are provided to connect with digital-input speakers for a lossless connection. The proprietary Wadax musIC signal processor operates in the digital domain, without loss. Both A/D and D/A converters process under ideal conditions. There is also an optional phono stage in a real high-end offering. 

Sounding far bigger than their diminutive size, Totem’s new Signature One speakers are a tribute to the legendary Model 1 mini monitor dating from 1987. At the time, the little two-way set a new standard for the size and price with its agility and transparency. In 2007 we saw The One as Totem’s 20th anniversary replacement, and now we have the Signature One to commemorate the brand’s 30th. birthday in a slightly larger package combining a 1-inch SEAS aluminium tweeter with the 6.5-inch mid/bass found in the more expensive Forest speaker. This created a rich bass and full midrange even though the balance was slightly forward, if not excessively so. 

Clean and crisp were the main elements I noted from the Etalon range, handmade in Hungary and founded by László Sallay. The Italian speakers and electronics comprised the floor-standing Elixir, here launched in Mk II form at €12,499 with their four 2-inch tweeters and single 8-inch bass unit with composite metal-cone; while the €8,399 Entrée was also unveiled in MkII status, having a pair of 2-inch metal cone tweeters plus two 5-inch carbon-paper bass units. We were also introduced to the Class A push-pull, dual mono integrated current output amp, offering 15W/ch and provided with four line inputs. This was used alternatively with the €1,999 SuprA, a 70W/ch integrated with remote volume control and an attractive wooden front panel. 

Dipole Design Audio (or dAudio as they are known) delighted with a Beethoven piano sonata to show the refined detail their S1 three-way reference system (from €18,500) was capable of; helped, I am sure, by the coupling of the Merging-Nadac digital front-end in the shape of the world’s first 384kHz 24-bit DSD256 multi-channel DAC. These speakers sound much larger than they actually are, and their extremely open and natural sound is a delight. Again they proved a big hit with the XFi audience. 

Very Fine Solutions joined forces with Ludwig Audio to preview Tidal’s €28,500 Vimberg Tonda loudspeaker, the model used sans the optional ceramic tweeter. It was previewed in Munich and is now due for official launch in October. Sources were the MSB reference transport and Pink Faun 3.4 streamer. The €11,495 MSB Discrete DAC, with Renderer module and ISL input modules, had its Benelux launch at the show. Speakers were driven by the Thrax Teres €17,495 stereo amplifier. An impressive demonstration of fluidity and musicality. 

Just days before XFi, JK Acoustics finished the prototype of their new integrated amplifier which was proudly on display. JK stands for Johan Ketelaar: he founded the company in 1977 and last year his son took over, with development input still from his father. They had two systems in Eindhoven. When I arrived they were using open-baffle loudspeakers fed by the Reference Transport (based on Philips Pro2 Drive); the new JK Ultimate3 DAC (32bit/384kHz DSD); and new JK Ultimate3 preamp, with a pair of JK Prestige Air speakers driven by their Reference Mono Amps. The entire system was impressive and I stayed awhile to absorb the sound. The matching active sub-woofer has DSP with mid-high control. 

There was a friendly welcome from the team at Audio Ingang who were demonstrating the 40th Anniversary edition of Harbeth’s Super HL5-plus monitor, a super-tweeter complementing the SEAS main tweeter and Radial mid/bass driver. Electronics were by the very reliable Lindemann including the new Limetree Phono, a small and very affordable phono stage which amplified the signal from a Charisma Audio MC-2 MC element mounted in the Bergmann Audio Magne turntable. The results were very pleasing and it was easy to pass the time here enjoying good music and great company, proving that a modest set-up can create wonderful sounds.

With the rain coming down outside several exhibitors were not keen to pack up their rooms and transport equipment in the wet, so there was time to linger. My last visit was to the 432 EVO room to hear the Evo Master music server system with high-end USB 3.0 output clocked by a dedicated low-jitter super-clock and 4TB silent HDD mounted on spring suspension for plenty of storage. There’s a separate external linear power supply unit in the €12,000 package. Speakers were Conquistar making this a collaboration between two Belgium manufacturers. 

So it was time to leave the Koningshof conference centre at Veldhoven and think how fortunate the Dutch are to have such an amazing venue to house their annual event – not only many decent-sized rooms in one place, but also spaces which work, acoustically. If only we could find such a venue in the UK. 

As I left I was enamoured by the large collection of vintage jukeboxes on display, a reminiscence of my [misspent] youth which brought back many happy memories. They have been lovingly restored to full working order and form part of Fifties Store, an online retro repository based in The Hague. Only the Dutch, only the Dutch!  

Trevor Butler