Munich High End Hi Fi Show Report
Behind the shiny flagships, some interesting things are afoot
With hifi at CES in a state of decline and the other American shows still being overly predicated towards the ultra high end, Munich has gone into its fourteenth year as the pre-eminent hifi show for the year.
This is creating problems of its own though. Even with the superb MOC Exhibition venue at its disposal, the show is vast, extremely busy and finding the ‘signal’ of great product in the ‘noise’ of the show. In the crowded halls, it is possible to miss something genuinely interesting simply because someone is standing in the way at the time. Nevertheless, there was a huge amount of interesting equipment on show and picking some of this out for your edification has been a challenge. Nonetheless, here are some of the highlights.
Fresh from delivering us the outstanding Special Forty, Dynaudio announced the all new Confidence Range of speakers. This replaces the long-standing Confidence series that dates back over a decade. The new range extends on some key Dynaudio design themes including an ultra rigid baffle made from a material called Compex. This includes a special tweeter aperture called a DDC lens that is designed to improve the dispersion of the tweeter. This whole assembly is lighter, stiffer and a shape that would have been impossible with the previous version. Combined with new drivers and a revised crossover, even in the demanding space they were in, was hugely impressive. The downside? Such as there is one, the new range starts at £11,000 for the two way standmount Confidence 20, rising to a heady £35,000 for the flagship Confidence 60.
Back at CES, Chord Electronics promised us that 2018 would be a busy year and made good on this with two new products. The first is a revision of an existing design. The Hugo TT has now been revised to TT2 specification which takes technology that was seen in the Hugo2 (and thence the DAVE DAC) and additionally works some magic on the output section. This means that the TT2 might be the most powerful preamp I’ve ever seen- actually able to drive speakers on its own. Yours for an exactingly specific £3,996.
Of course, if you need an actual amp, the Etude power amp is an extremely interesting new arrival. Developed to partner the DAVE DAC, it uses a new amplifier topology that allows for exceptionally low distortion (all the better to deal with the no distortion signal from the DAC) and high power from a small chassis. The power output is 150 watts into two channels with 300 watts available in bridged mono. The price is £3,900 with this and the Hugo TT2 going on sale in the Autumn.
It might be an unusual claim to make for a flagship speaker but PMC announced their range topping fact fenestria with the strapline “The loudspeaker you’ll never hear.” Cynically, this might be attributed to most of us mortals not summoning up the required £45,000 to buy a pair but it mainly pertains to the design. The whole speaker has been designed to be as close as possible to the notional ideal of drivers in free space. To this end, the treble and midrange drivers have been placed in a unique metal assembly to reduce the effects of the cabinet on their sound and this is then placed in the centre of the driver array. The cabinet itself uses technology derived from damping the structure of skyscrapers to ensure that it too is extremely inert. Other technologies that we’ve seen before like the Laminair ports have effectively trickled up to this point. Munich is notoriously poor for telling us much about how these products sound but the early indications are that this is going to be quite something.
Not everything at the show was accompanied by a telephone number style pricetag. The International Audio Group had a large, open stand in one of the halls that was chock full of some very interesting new product. Nestling amongst them was the new 6000 Series from Audiolab that had turned up as mock ups last year but is now nearly ready to go. The two units are classically Audiolab in shape but not in functionality with the 6000A amplifier sporting both analogue and digital inputs which - like a number of amps we’ve seen of late - makes it more akin to an all in one style unit. If you want CD, the matching 6000CDT makes use of this and is simply a transport. The price is roughly £1,000 for the pair. The company has also partnered up with in ear monitor brand ACS to produce some very interesting looking earphones.
Elsewhere on the stand were some other items we hope to look at in the next few months including Quad headphones and a new headphone amp as well as fantastic looking range of Wharfedale speakers.
When I stopped working at Cambridge Audio a decade ago, the company was preparing to take the bold step of charging more than £1,000 for a single product. It is a measure of how far the company has come (possibly indirectly related to me no longer being there, I couldn’t possibly comment) that 2018 sees the launch of the Edge Series. This extremely ambitious range of new products takes the company to new price points but still holds good on the principles of offering a lot of bang for your buck. The range comprises a streaming preamp - something that the company has considerable experience with, power amp and integrated units. All of them have a spec that is comprehensive even judged at their new price points. The demo system running into a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 803D3s suggested that this will be some serious equipment.
Of course, if you don’t want an amp to contain everything short of the kitchen sink, something rather lovely broke cover from Sugden. The Yorkshire based company doesn’t release product very often and this makes the ANV-50 an exciting thing. Built to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, this new model sits between the A21 Series of products and the larger Masterclass products. While Sugden has eschewed digital inputs and other modern trends, they have worked hard to make the Class A topology that the company is renowned for more 2018 friendly. Careful use of energy monitoring technology and the audio equivalent of ‘stop start’ has resulted in a 50 watt class A amp that is more efficient than smaller, older Sugden designs. With a price in the region of £4,000, this has the hallmarks of an outstanding amplifier.
If you were looking for source equipment, Auralic has been one of the most active and interesting streaming companies over the last few years. At 2017, they announced the G2 Series of flagship components and this year it is the turn of the G1 Series. This streaming transport and DAC make use of simplified versions of the G2 casework whilst retaining the same design aesthetic and much of the same functionality. This means that the Aries G1 can stream any format that takes your fancy along with Qobuz, Tidal and Spotify and output via a selection of connections to the matching Vega G1 Streaming DAC. As a combination, these two units promise to be very competitive and individually, they offer considerable flexibility in a variety of systems.
The range topping Utopia range of speakers from Focal has been overhauled and Munich was the opportunity for the range topping Stellar and Grande Utopia models. The result is the most sophisticated iteration of Utopia yet with refinements to driver surrounds, mounts and cabinets that squeeze more performance out of the respective models. Something that is notable is that in the case of the Grande Utopia, the design is smaller than the outgoing model as Focal feels the new configuration offers better balance than the old one. The pricing, should you ask, is on the hefty side with the Stellar coming in at €100,000 a pair and the Grande €180,000. Still, it’s only money.
It was another busy year for Avid where items on static display in 2017 had made the transition to working units. Most interesting is the Ingenium II turntable. This takes elements of the prototype Ingenium SP from last year and productionises it. There are some useful additions from the original like the interchangeable arm boards rather than the pre-drilled arrangement and an external power supply with speed adjustment. A range of interesting finishes will also be available. The original Ingenium will remain but the range will be simplified and the price reduced. At the other end of the scale, the prototype of the new moving coil cartridge (somewhere in the region of £4,000) sounded exceptional.
Tucked away in one of the halls was one of the more extraordinary appearances of the show. You may recall from the review of the Spendor A1 that some of the design and philosophy of that speaker borrows from the BBC LS3/5a monitor. Now, thanks to sentimentality, bloody mindedness and some help from UK brand Talk Electronics who will provide the production facility, you can buy a pair of Rogers LS3/5a speakers in a specification that isn’t ‘derived from’ the LS3/5a but is instead an exact take on an LS3/5a, using the correct components and built in the UK. The attention to detail on the samples was deeply impressive and while there is no getting around that £2,700 is a lot of money for a teeny speaker with limited bass response, I’m not going to lie, I really want a pair.
Metaxis and Sins
Of course, there’s always something wonderfully and almost beautifully bonkers at Munich and this year that accolade went to Metaxis and Sins (yes, not ‘sons’, Sins). Reel to Reel has been steadily making a comeback with people for whom vinyl is simply too cheap and practical but until recently, getting your hands on a player meant having an old one restored and fettled. Now, you can buy a brand new Metaxis GQT instead. Derived from Stellavox designs, the GQT is entirely mechanical in operation (nothing is computer controlled) and, well, look at it. It is simply one of the most exquisite pieces of mechanical design that I have ever seen and while €35,000 for playback only and €40,000+ for a recording version is a lot, you do at least get something that is a piece of art at the same time.
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