Part One of this show report appeared in Issue 190.
Even though I had been meaning to attend HIGH END, the Munich high-end audio show for a number of years, this is the first year I managed to make it there. As noted in the last installment, There were 550 exhibitors showcasing 800 brands, with 20,000 visitors over four days (May 9 – 12), making it the largest show of its kind in the world.
To be honest, most of the rooms in the show that I stopped in on did not sound good. (I listed some of the outstanding exhibits in Issue 190.) Even with the enormous size of the venue, rooms are in short supply, and manufacturers are often forced into sharing space. This means components forced into a shotgun marriage might not work well together, and I can imagine the arguments concerning set up that can result from having too many cooks. Moreover, some rooms will not sound good acoustically no matter how hard one tries.
That said, what I find most interesting are the new ideas and approaches taken by some designers, some outrageous, some ingenious. For example, In the Nagra room, they were showing their new turntable. The design is belt-driven, but it is not a traditional belt drive. The belt is made of the same material as the one used in the Nagra IV-S tape machine, and drives the sub-platter in a manner that reminds me of the tape path of my dual-capstan Nagra T Audio recorder. Clearly, Nagra is applying their experience in tape transports to solve the challenges of driving a turntable platter. The phono cartridge was also new, the first from Nagra. Electronics were from their HD line, with tube preamplification and MOSFET power amplifiers.
Nagra's impressive display at Munich HIGH END.
Details of the new Nagra turntable.
The sound from the turntable was extremely stable, dynamic and solid, which reminded me of my tape machine. I brought up the question of the possibility of a new Nagra tape machine with the representative, who simply said that they have been receiving a lot of requests. What he did reveal was that they are preparing to remanufacture the QGB 10.5-inch reel adapter for the IV-S tape machine. There were tens of thousands of IV-S decks sold over the decades, this being the most popular portable tape recorder for the broadcast industry and they are almost indestructible, but far fewer QGBs were made. In fact, a second hand QGB now routinely fetches over US$6,000, which is higher than the cost of the IV-S itself. Providing new QGB adapters to transform the thousands of existing IV-S’s into full-function tape players makes perfect sense.
I then visited AM Belgium at their booth. This is the only remaining manufacturer of magnetic tape heads in the world, not counting the boutique one-man operations. They provide the heads for all the new tape machines that have come on the market in recent years. The representative told me to expect "six or seven" completely new tape machines in the next two years, and also confirmed that Nagra has approached them. Some people say that tape will never be more than a fringe phenomenon, just like what they said about LPs being dead 20 years ago.
Staying with analogue, another heavyweight Swiss firm, Thorens, has introduced a new reference turntable. This massive table integrates an active vibration isolation platform developed with Seismion, the type normally used for electron microscopes and other scientific equipment. It has a belt drive, managed by an ultra-precise quartz locked controller. Thorens also introduced two new tonearms, one of which is a tangential tracking pivoted arm developed by Thiele. The venerable company is also celebrating their 140th anniversary with a limited edition of their modern take on the classic TD 124 turntable. The original TD124, introduced in 1957, is an idler-drive turntable. But unlike other idler-drive turntables, the idler wheel here is driven by the motor via a belt. The new TD 124 DD has done away with idler drive altogether, and uses a direct- drive mechanism. The turntable is sold as a package including the plinth and the TP124 tonearm. This 140th anniversary limited edition has an upgraded platter with a copper top layer, pure silver wiring for the tonearm, and a special Ortofon SPU cartridge with silver coils.
Thorens' new reference turntable.
The Thorens/Thiele tonearm.
The reissue of the classic Thorens TD 124 turntable.
They demonstrated this reference turntable in a small room, and used their own dipole Soundwall HP600 loudspeakers. These are flat panels about the size and shape of Quad electrostatic loudspeakers, but with dynamic drivers radiating from the front and the back. There are two tweeters, two midrange drivers and 12 bass drivers on each side. The low frequencies reach deeper than I expected from their size.
The Soundwall HP600 loudspeakers.
Kondo Audio Note of Japan demonstrated their equipment with a pair of gorgeous early Jensen 610 loudspeakers with the famous triaxial drivers. I heard them with the Kagura 2 parallel single-ended amplifiers with 211 triodes, and a GE-10 phono preamplifier, G70 preamplifier and Ginga turntable. The sound can be described as warm, relaxed and highly seductive. Quite different from the modern high-end pursuit of clarity, pinpoint imaging, fast transients, and extended frequency response.
The Kondo Audio Note exhibit with the Jensen 610 loudspeakers.
Coming back to loudspeakers, one of the most interesting in this show is an innovative design from Aries Cerat. Each speaker is in the shape of a cube, with a midrange tractrix horn occupying the front surface, and the back surface being left open. The other four surfaces are occupied by four bass drivers. The tweeter mounted to one side at the back is a modified Raal ribbon unit, augmented by a waveguide to better match the midrange horn. The mouth of the horn ends in a swirl, which was designed using computer modeling to minimize diffraction. The opening at the back allows the speaker to act like an open baffle for the bass, but with some pressure loading, since the surface of the opening is smaller than the combined radiating surfaces of the four drivers. They claim this arrangement allows the midrange and bass frequencies to be aligned to a single point.
Above: the Aries Cerat louddpeakers.
I did not spend a lot of time in the room, as it was always packed, but I liked what I heard. I felt the tweeter did stand out a bit. There was a slight hard edge to it, something that I find in most ribbon tweeters, but I am used to hearing my plasma tweeters that have a very different character. Otherwise, the sound had good presence, with excellent portrayal of macro- and micro-dynamics. The mid and bass were well integrated.
I was quite surprised to find the large number of horn speakers on display, whereas 10 years ago one would be lucky to have found a handful, but not all of them are successful. I went into a room displaying a pair of expensive-looking horn speakers that I was unfamiliar with. A Dire Straits track was playing. When Mark Knopfler's voice came in, it sounded as if he was singing through one of these megaphones favored by sports coaches and drill sergeants. As I got up to leave, another four people got up in unison. I guess I was not the only one annoyed by the coloration. The Western Electric 12B speakers, designed at a time before computers or even calculators were invented, sound so natural, uncolored and open. And here we are in the age of supercomputers, and somehow, someone managed to design something that can only reinforce the negative stereotype in the minds of the anti-horn brigade.
Several panel speakers also drew my attention. Ever since hearing a pair of Apogee ribbon speakers many years ago, I have been intrigued by these dipole radiators. Since these transducers radiate sound from both the front and the back, they have a polar pattern similar to figure-8 microphones, and interact with the room in a manner different from the usual box speakers. They tend to act as a line source, making seating height less critical, and the stereo image differs from speakers with a cardioid pattern of polar response. The bass is generated over a large surface area, using a very light membrane with limited excursion, which means the transient response can be much faster than a typical cone speaker. As there is no box, colorations associated with sealed or ported enclosures are avoided.
The disadvantages of the original Apogee speakers included low sensitivity and very low impedance, which meant only a limited number of powerful and expensive solid-state amplifiers were useable. The original Apogee company closed in 1999, but the brand was revived in Australia and new production started in the mid-2000s. In recent years, several manufacturers have brought new refinements to the concept, with spectacular results. One company that pays direct tribute to Apogee is Clarisys Audio. Their products keep the same form factor as the original Apogee, but with much improved technology. The use of double bass panels and rare earth magnets result in a sensitivity of around 90dB/1W/1m and an average impedance of 6 ohms.
The Clarisys Audio loudspeakers.
Another recent entry into the market is the Spanish company Alsyvox. By using very powerful magnets, they managed to obtain a sensitivity of 98dB/1W/1m for their top model (as shown), and even their smaller offerings reach a sensitivity of 94dB/1W/1m. I was quite impressed by the sound. The bass was deep, powerful and punchy. The sound had excellent transparency and was very involving.
The high-efficiency Alsyvox loudspeakers.
Another brand that has been around for more than a decade, but which I have only learned about in recent years, is Diptyque. These speakers are manufactured in France, and they have developed a unique technology of using two sets of independent ribbons per panel, set at right angles to each other. This technology apparently reduces distortion and increases sensitivity. Unfortunately, the music they played when I was in the room did not really allow the speakers to shine. I am most interested in becoming better acquainted with these speakers, since they seem to offer tremendous value.
The Diptyque loudspeakers featuring a unique dipole driver arrangement.
As in years past, the Munich hifideluxe show ran concurrently with HIGHEND and was held at the Marriott hotel not far from the convention center. The rooms came in different shapes and sizes, and there was significant sound leakage in the rooms that were close to each other. The products on display this year were very interesting. I first visited the Bayz Audio room, with their distinctive-looking omnidirectional Counterpoint speakers. These speakers employ a cylindrical tweeter with a pulsating membrane that radiates uniformly in 360 degrees. This concept is similar to the one employed by the MBL speakers. The two bass drivers fire into each end of a folded tubular structure in a sort of transmission line arrangement. I have read rave reviews about these speakers, but while I was there, the sound did not quite come together. Most likely, the setup had not been optimized, and I suspect the omnidirectional pattern of radiation requires careful placement and room treatment.
Bayz Audio's unconventional, omnidirectional Counterpoint speakers.
This was followed by the Seawave Acoustic room. On display was their top AM45 speakers. The speaker sports an aluminum cabinet, horn-loaded compression tweeter and midrange drivers, a paper mid-bass driver, and 8-inch and 11-inch woofers. Unfortunately, the music was so painfully loud that I was not able to stay for longer than two minutes. My ears were still ringing five minutes later.
The Seawave Acoustic exhibit.
Things were quite different next door at the Acapella Audio Arts room. Acapella has been producing horn speakers for 45 years, being the first to develop the spherical horn and to integrate a plasma tweeter into their products. I am currently using their plasma tweeters, after having experimented with many different types of tweeters. I have had direct interactions with one of the founders, Hermann Winters, and find him a very congenial and helpful gentleman. On display was the new Hyperion, sporting a plasma tweeter, a 2.5-inch midrange driver front-loaded by a 780mm hyper spherical horn, and four 15-inch bass drivers. I loved the sound! Only LPs were played, and a rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, played by Herbert Collum on Eterna, was most impressive. The earthshaking power of the organ at Reinhardtsgrimma Church was on full display. With jazz music, male and female vocals took on flesh and bones, and drums and plucked strings showed fast transients and natural decay. One big advantage of these speakers is their relatively small footprints (17"W x 31"D). Hyper spherical horns have the least amount of rim diffraction of all horn profiles, and the sound is uncolored and pure. This was one of my top picks for the whole exhibition, and Acapella is in my mind at the very top level of loudspeaker designs.
The new Acapella Audio Arts Hyperion loudspeaker, featuring a plasma tweeter.
But the biggest surprise was still to come. Amongst all the rooms housing expensive-looking systems was a room that looked distinctively out of place. Any audiophile recognizing the name Linkwitz will immediately think of the Linkwitz-Riley crossover, and indeed, this company was founded by the late Dr. Siegfried Linkwitz.
Sitting on the floor was a pair of relatively small, black, strange looking speakers called LX521. Each speaker has an open baffle on top of a rectangular box. The baffle houses two opposite-facing tweeters, plus a midrange and a mid-bass driver. The box is open at the front and back, and houses front- and back-firing bass drivers, tilted to face upwards. Next to each speaker was a low-profile metal chassis. There were no fancy cables, no brand name ancillaries. Listening while sitting at the center, the sound could only be described as holographic. The speakers projected a soundstage that was so realistic that it was almost beyond belief. The speakers reach far lower than one could reasonably expect from their size, and the sound is transparent and very dynamic. These speakers are available as kits for the grand price of €3,390 ($3,640). However, the magic comes from the metal box, which houses an analog crossover/equalizer and six channels of Class D amplification, one for each driver. The cost is €1,990 each. The calculations for determining the crossover configuration and equalization are fully explained on their website (https://www.linkwitzlab.com/models.htm), but just looking at the formulas and graphs gives me a headache. This just goes to show that a highly scientific approach can achieve amazing results without a significant increase in cost.
The Linkwitz LX521 speakers delivered surprisingly expansive sound.
Header image: the ESD Acoustic exhibit. All images courtesy of the author.