Most-Read Opinion Articles (Last 365 Days)
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- 2015-02-01 - The Best of CES 2015
- 2015-01-01 - 2014 Products of the Year -- and My Favorite Album of the Year
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- 2015-08-01 - The Best of High End 2015 -- Systems
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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 December 2013 01 December 2013
Two weeks after CEDIA’s Expo 2013, in Denver, Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) was held in the same city. Three weeks after that, in Japan, came the Tokyo International Audio Show (TIAS). We attended all three events, publishing coverage of them on SoundStage! Global as they happened. Last month, “The Best of CEDIA Expo 2013” appeared in this space. This month, I highlight the two best systems at RMAF and the three best at TIAS, as well as the two best products I saw at each show.
But before I get to the good stuff at RMAF, I’ll touch on the bad. Jeff Fritz and I found RMAF 2013 a grim spectacle. Attendance seemed down compared to last year, which itself was down over previous years; few manufacturers seemed to be exhibiting, hardly any new products were introduced, and, worst of all, most of the exhibits were boring. After the first day, we regretted having scheduled ourselves for all three -- it was already clear that there wouldn’t be much to cover. It’s hard to see how RMAF 2014 will be any better, so we might not cover it; instead we’re looking at attending a different, better event elsewhere in the world. But despite that bleak assessment, I did see some things at RMAF worth writing about. (Unless otherwise noted, all prices are in USD.)
Best products at RMAF
The folks from Hegel Music Systems flew to Denver all the way from their home base in Norway to showcase their new H80 integrated amplifier-DAC ($2000). The H80, which incorporates the company’s patented SoundEngine amplifier technology, is said to deliver 75Wpc into 8 ohms -- enough power to drive even speakers of average sensitivity in rooms of small to medium size. Two sets of unbalanced (RCA) and one set of balanced (XLR) analog inputs are provided, which should be enough for most systems; the DAC section has five digital inputs (two coax, two optical, one USB), and is said to have circuitry derived from the company’s standalone DACs (the HD11, HD25, etc.), which are well known for offering high performance for reasonable prices.
Despite the H80’s modest price, Hegel makes heady claims for its sound. To prove it, they demoed the H80 with a pair of Magico S1 loudspeakers, which sell for more than six times as much. Connecting the electronics to the speakers were Nordost cables. Suffice it to say that, from what I heard at that demo, this integrated amp-DAC seems special -- but more about that below.
Bel Canto Design isn’t betting the farm on their new series of electronic components -- their roster of existing products remains intact -- but it’s fair to say that they’re staking their reputation on the Black models. According to company president Michael McCormick and chief designer John Stronczer, one of the goals for the Black series is to reaffirm Bel Canto’s market position as a creator of advanced-technology, state-of-the-art hi-fi components.
A full Black system comprises the Black ASC1 Asynchronous Stream Controller ($20,000), which can be thought of as an all-digital preamplifier, and a pair of Black MPS1 Mono PowerStream monaural amplifiers ($30,000/pair). The trick up the Black system’s sleeve is the fact that the ASC1 delivers a digital signal to the MPS1 Monos, which convert it to analog just before the amplification stage -- the MPS1 is, effectively, a powerDAC. (For more information about this system, see my SoundStage! Global article “Future Fi -- Bel Canto Paints It Black.”) According to Stronczer, the result is a system with distortion so low it’s below the threshold of Bel Canto’s measuring gear. Kudos to Bel Canto Design for daring to bring something new to the hi-fi market.
Best systems at RMAF
I hinted at one of my RMAF system picks above, when I discussed the Hegel H80 integrated amplifier-DAC. The H80, with an Apple MacBook Air as a digital source, driving Magico S1 speakers via Nordost speaker cables, wasn’t only the best sound I heard at RMAF 2013, it was the best I’ve ever heard the S1s sound -- including the times the speakers were used with the überpriced, ultra-high-powered electronics they’re usually driven with.
Obviously, the Hegel amp had a lot to do with the quality of sound I heard -- it controlled the speakers amazingly well, and sounded extremely refined -- as did the speakers. But the size of the room, too, had a lot to do with the sound -- it wasn’t necessarily small, but wasn’t all that large, either. It was, in fact, entirely appropriate for the speakers’ size and driver configuration, as well as the amp’s output of 75Wpc. The other times I’d heard the S1s had been in rooms much larger than the speakers are intended to be used in -- never a good thing, even when the amplifier(s) used is super-powerful. In Denver, the S1s sounded nothing short of superb. Given the success of this system at RMAF, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar setup in January, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. Nor would I be surprised if many people buy identical Hegel-Nordost-Magico systems for the homes.
The Ayre Acoustics exhibit, based on the theme of “Charlie’s Records” (Charles Hansen is Ayre’s founder), wasn’t necessarily one of the very best sounding at RMAF, despite the high quality of the equipment displayed: JBL K2 9800SE speakers, Cardas Clear cables, Bauer Audio dps turntable (with dps tonearm, Ayre power supply, and Benz-Micro LP cartridge), and Ayre’s DX-5 universal player, P-5xe phono preamp, KX-5 preamplifier, VX-5 stereo amplifier, and L-5xe line filters. But that wasn’t the point of this setup, particularly with the way the speakers were pushed back toward the wall, which isn’t optimal. Ayre’s purpose was to showcase the company’s wares on their home turf (Ayre is based in Boulder, Colorado) in a fun, innovative setting that people would talk about and visit again and again.
The strategy worked. In an otherwise humdrum show, Ayre’s room was a breath of fresh air each time we visited. It was also packed most of the time. If only more of the rooms at RMAF 2013 had been as good as Ayre’s or Hegel’s, our plans for 2014 might be different.
Best products at TIAS
The 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest might have been a drag, but a trip halfway around the world three weeks later provided a completely different experience. The 2013 Tokyo International Audio Show was held in an amazing venue, the Tokyo International Forum, and it was extremely well organized and chock-full of interesting products.
Topping my list of those products was Vivid Audio’s new Giya G4 speaker. The Giya models are some of the oddest-looking you’ll see anywhere; they’re also some of the most technically advanced and best sounding, and represent the state of the art of passive loudspeaker design. The Giya G4 continues the company’s trend toward the smaller and the cheaper, probably a result of the success they’ve had with the launch, almost two years ago, of the Giya G3, which is smaller than the G2, which in turn is smaller than the flagship G1. The G4’s price hasn’t yet been set, but is likely to be under $35,000/pair when it’s released in early 2014.
The Giya G4 looks similar to its bigger siblings, but is most like the G3 in the way the tweeter’s and the midrange’s tapered tubes cut through the topmost, curling part of the cabinet, which itself is the termination of the woofers’ tapered tube. In the G2 and G1, these tubes remain hidden inside those speakers’ much larger cabinets. The tubes dissipate rear-directed driver energy, and were invented by designer Laurence Dickie, who began developing them in the early 1990s while designing the Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus.
At TIAS, the G4 sounded a lot like the other Giya models I’ve heard -- neutral, detailed, visceral, and transparent as all get-out -- but with slightly less bass. The G4 looks more than promising for use in smaller rooms, and will probably turn out to be another great speaker design from this cutting-edge company.
With various companies making product debuts at TIAS -- particularly such stalwart Japanese firms as Accuphase, Luxman, and TAD -- it was hard to pick just one other product. I settled on the Aura Note V2 music center from April Music, the company behind the Stello and Eximus brands.
I picked the Aura Note V2 for its combination of modest price (¥320,000, or about $3200), superb styling, and, most important, excellent features. Described as an all-in-one music center, the Aura Note V2 is an integrated amplifier (125Wpc into 8 ohms), CD player, headphone amplifier, digital iPod dock, 24-bit/192kHz-capable DAC (either by digital hookup cable or via USB memory stick), and FM tuner. The Aura Note V2 was shown driving a pair of stand-mounted Elac speakers -- the system sounded as good as the AN V2 looks.
Best systems at TIAS
My first choice shouldn’t be surprising. The sound of Vivid Audio’s Giya speakers turns my crank, and the Giya G4s driven by a Devialet 240 integrated amp-DAC was literal music to my ears, even if the room was way too big for the G4s. Still, their prodigious output capabilities allowed the G4s to keep up with the big space and produce the clean sound that I’ve come to expect from Giya speakers.
I didn’t see the brand of speaker cables used in this system -- the speaker-connector ends were hidden under the blocks that lifted the Giyas high enough for the audience, the amp connectors were tucked under the Devialet’s lid, and I couldn’t see any markings anywhere else. But I did note the source component: an Apple iPhone, streaming music wirelessly to the 240. Devialet’s Manuel de la Fuente wanted to make a bold technical statement by using such an unexpected source with his prized amp. He succeeded.
Side by side on one of the show’s three main floors were two rooms featuring Sonus Faber. In one were their Venere 3.0 speakers ($3500/pair), in the other were the Olympica IIIs (about four times that). I know, from having heard it at the Sonus Faber factory last July, that the Olympica III is not only better looking and better built than the Venere 3.0, it sounds better when the two models are played side by side in the same room with the same equipment.
But at shows, nothing is ever the same, so all bets are off. The intriguing thing at TIAS was that while both Sonus Faber systems sounded very good, I preferred the sound of the Venere 3.0 rig, which points to the differences in the rooms and the equipment used. The Venere 3.0s were driven by a Wadia Intuition 01 all-in-one integrated amp-DAC (although Audio Research and Daniel Hertz amps are visible in the photo, they were idle during my visit), being fed bits by a Burmester 061 CD player used as a transport (I couldn’t tell which interconnects were used). Next door, the Olympica IIIs were being driven by a Burmester amp and . . . but I didn’t note the rest of the components in this system. I preferred the other system’s sound.
The clarities of the two systems’ sounds were comparable, as were their bass extensions; and to the Olympica IIIs’ credit, they sounded a bit more smooth and refined overall than the Venere 3.0s -- just as I’d heard at the factory. But the Venere-based system sounded livelier overall, with a midrange that really “popped” with presence, and had me wanting to listen to it more than the Olympica system, and more than to most of the systems displayed at TIAS 2013 -- which is why I include it as one of the three best systems I heard at the show. Given that the Wadia Intuition 01 costs $7500, and that you could (and should) use a computer to feed it music files instead of an overpriced CD player (the Burmester 061 CD player costs about $15,000 -- a ridiculous amount to pay, particularly if you’re going to use it only as a transport), its value is unmistakable: it greatly reduces the number of components you need.
So while speaker quality is obviously an important thing, so, too, are system synergy and the room itself, which these contrasting setups proved. I just wish I could’ve heard the Sonus Faber Olympica IIIs driven by the Wadia Intuition 01 in the same space. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, that will never happen at a show.
This final system really surprised me. I didn’t expect much when I walked into the room of High End Ltd., a Japan-based distributor. The system comprised an EMM Labs TSDX SACD/CD transport and DAC2X digital-to-analog converter, a Mola-Mola Makua preamp and Kaluga mono amps, Stealth cables (model names missed), and Lansche Audio’s No.5.1 speakers: a three-way design with a proprietary plasma tweeter, selling in Japan for ¥4,620,000/pair (about $46,000).
I was already pretty familiar with the other gear, and thought well of it, particularly the EMM Labs electronics -- I have a DAC2X DAC and PRE2 preamplifier at home. I’d seen and heard Lansche speakers before (e.g., at Munich’s High End event each year), and they’d always sounded ordinary. But at TIAS, they sounded startlingly extraordinary: effortless highs, spectacularly smooth mids, and strong bass, all integrated into a very involving, highly listenable sound.
During my three days at TIAS, I listened to most of the systems once or twice. I listened to High End’s five times -- it sounded that good. In fact, as much as I liked the Vivid Giya G4s’ sound when driven by the Devialet 240, and as impressed as I was with the sound and value exhibited in Sonus Faber’s Venere 3.0 system, to my ears, the best of the best-sounding system at TIAS 2013 was High End’s.
Next month: the year’s biggest awards
These final write-ups of RMAF 2013 and TIAS 2013 wrap up our event coverage for the year. But while there are no shows left to cover in 2013, our awards for this year have yet to be given. On January 1 we’ll announce the SoundStage! Network’s Products of the Year, which we’ll hand out in person at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, January 7-14. Next month in this space, I’ll write a little bit about each of those products. Be sure to check back to find out who’s won. And in February, you can read about my top picks from CES 2014.
. . . Doug Schneider