I had no idea what to expect when, in September, I decided to attend Audio Video Show 2016, held November 4-6 in Warsaw, Poland. (Read my coverage of AVS 2016 on SoundStage! Global.) I’d never visited the show, or even heard much about it. But as my departure date neared, I heard more and more positive things about AVS from audio-industry folks who’d attended past shows, and I began to get jazzed about what I might see and hear there. Still, nothing prepared me for the size, scope, and significance of this annual event. Other than the annual Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, AVS 2016 was far bigger than any hi-fi show currently running in North America.
This year marked AVS’s 20th anniversary. Throughout that time, as it’s grown from a tiny event to the world-class affair it is today, AVS has been single-handedly run by its founder, Adam Mokrzycki, who does an exceptional job of organizing and promoting it. How he manages it all by himself, I don’t know. What I do know is that he’s passionate about its success, and about doing everything right to ensure that it happens, year after year.
AVS 2016 was held in three venues, in a total of 164 exhibit rooms -- a 54% increase over the 2014 show, the AVS website claims. Two of these were hotels positioned diagonally across a busy street: the Golden Tulip and the Radisson Blu Sobieski. In them, the setup was typical of hi-fi shows in North America: sleeping rooms with beds removed so that systems can be set up, and conference rooms for larger systems. But hotels are always problematic for audio demonstrations -- there’s nothing “high end” about showing hi-fi gear in such makeshift listening spaces.
But AVS wasn’t all like that -- the show’s third venue was something else indeed. Warsaw’s National Stadium, aka PGE Narodowy, is a sports stadium with just over 58,000 seats for sporting events, or over 70,000 for concerts. It can’t hold nearly that many people for hi-fi events, because the display rooms are confined to just two interior floors. Of the 164 exhibits, 68 were at the National Stadium.
The stadium proved to be an incredible setting for a hi-fi show. The rooms are spacious and well constructed, and the sounds of the systems displayed tended to be really good overall; my two picks for Best System Sound were both located there. Furthermore, the hallways connecting the rooms are wide and easy to navigate, so even when the show got very busy -- and it did -- it never felt crowded, as can High End, in Munich. Between the hotels and the National Stadium, a shuttle bus ran every 30 minutes; when I didn’t want to wait, I took a cab, which cost the equivalent of $8 USD. Warsaw’s National Stadium is one of the best venues for a hi-fi show I’ve ever experienced, and it’s a big reason why I feel that AVS is poised to become one of the world’s most influential hi-fi events.
The only downside was the very success of this year’s show -- it was too big for one person to cover completely, and I didn’t see as many products as I’d have liked to. Had I known, I might have tried to bring along someone else. Next year, I will. But I was able to see most of the exhibits, and to hear a large number of systems.
For this first-ever Best of AVS, I chose two systems and four memorable products that caught my eye and, in one case, ear. Here they are:
Best Products at AVS 2016
Fezz Audio Mira Ceti integrated amplifier: Usually, I pay about as much attention to ultra-low-powered tube amplifiers (e.g., under 15Wpc) as I do to single-driver speakers: not much -- there are so few speakers you can use them with. (But see my comments on Cube Audio’s Bliss C, below.) So in most instances, I’d have given the Mira Ceti, from Poland’s Fezz Audio, just enough attention to get some details for a brief mention in a show report, and then moved on. But this amp and its manufacturer intrigued me.
The Mira Ceti integrated (€2350) uses a pair of 300B output tubes, said to provide up to 8Wpc. That’s hardly any power at all -- you’ll need very sensitive speakers, or be willing to listen at very low volume levels. Still, many people absolutely love the sounds of amplifiers based on the 300B, their power limitations notwithstanding. The Mira Ceti’s build quality looked exceptional, as did its styling -- something it shared with the other amplifier models Fezz displayed.
I also liked how professionally the products in Fezz’s room were presented overall, and how well put-together and attractive their full-color brochure was, something you don’t often see from high-end companies, particularly those that make niche products such as tube amps. Fezz Audio has been around only a couple of years, but they seem to have their act together. If you’re into tubes but the Mira Ceti’s output is too low, check out their other amplifier models, all of which put out more than 30Wpc. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more about Fezz.
Cube Audio Bliss C loudspeaker: Here’s an example of that other product type I usually give little more than a quick listen to and then go on my way: the single-driver speaker. Whatever positive qualities such speakers have are often negated by attributes that render them, for me, unlistenable. Usually, what little bass a single-driver speaker produces is muddy and indistinct, with highs that are ragged and unrefined. So I expected to give the same treatment to the Bliss C (€6000/pair), from Poland’s Cube Audio.
So I was surprised by the Bliss C’s fairly deep bass and well-extended highs. But what really took me aback was its natural-sounding midband, which was largely free of the gross colorations that plague most such designs. Had I not seen the Bliss C’s driver configuration before I heard it, I would probably have guessed it to be a small, multi-driver floorstander. The Cube Bliss C is one of the best single-driver speakers I’ve heard, and, with its claimed sensitivity of 92dB, might even work well with the Mira Ceti integrated. If the idea of a single-driver speaker attracts you, check out the Bliss C. According to one of the reps I spoke to, Cube makes everything in Poland -- including that single driver.
Audio Physic Codex loudspeaker: More conventional than the Bliss C, but not so conventional as to lack all originality, is the newest model from German brand Audio Physic, now 35 years old: the Codex (€10,000/pair; some finish options, including glass, cost more). I was intrigued by the Codex because of Roger Kanno’s very positive review on SoundStage! Ultra of the Avanti, the next speaker lower in price in the Audio Physic line. If the Avanti was that good, I thought, there was a good chance the Codex might be better.
The woofer of the four-way Codex is enclosed in its own subcabinet, under the main cabinet. This is to keep, as much as possible, resonances generated by the woofer away from the main cabinet, where they might interfere with the outputs of the three other drivers.
I talked with chief designer Manfred Diestertich about his use of ceramic foam. He told me that the foam’s considerable rigidity makes it an excellent material for internal bracing, which is one way it’s used in the Codex. He also said that because the foam is highly porous -- it’s about 90% air -- it doesn’t take up as much cabinet volume as would a solid block. The porosity allows air to pass through, so he uses foam in the port positions, to reduce turbulence and noise. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear the Codex, but Roger K.’s very positive experience of the Avanti makes me think that this is one speaker we need to get in for review very soon.
J.Sikora Initial turntable: The presence of many sellers of vinyl at AVS 2016 indicated that the LP is as alive and well in Poland as it is elsewhere in the world of audio. What surprised me even more were the many Polish turntable brands I saw, few of which get much exposure in North America (I don’t know about the rest of the world), yet probably should. One is J.Sikora, founded in 2007 by Janusz Sikora, who were showing their newest turntable, the Initial, whose “all-important main bearing, motor and its controller, providing excellent speed stability, are all sourced from [our] upper models,” the Signature and Reference.
The name Initial, of course, implies “first” or “entry” level, and sure enough, it’s J.Sikora’s lowest-priced turntable. But the Initial looks nothing like what most would consider the bottom of any company’s line of ’tables. Priced at what seems a very reasonable €2800, the Initial weighs a beefy 61.6 pounds (the Standard and Reference respectively weigh 176 and 238 pounds -- serious beef!), and its qualities of materials and craftsmanship looked first-rate. I also thought its styling was superb. Granted, you have to buy a tonearm and cartridge (J.Sikora recommends Kuzma arms, but their website states that they can modify the Initial to accommodate any arm); but even if someone had told me that the Initial costs twice its current price, I wouldn’t have blinked. Of the many turntables I saw in Warsaw, it was the Initial that grabbed my attention, mostly for its apparent quality and value. I’d like to see one of our analog gurus -- Jason Thorpe? -- get one in for review.
Audio System (distributor): I’ve often said that Vivid Audio’s Giya G2 ($50,000/pair) and Oval B1 Decade ($28,500/pair) are the two best loudspeakers I’ve reviewed. Though similar in certain ways, they’re different enough, particularly in terms of bass depth and output, that which will sound better will depend mostly on the size of the room.
In the big National Stadium room occupied by Polish audio distributor Audio System, the Vivid Giya G2 ruled. (They also had Oval K1s set up, but never played them while I was there.) Often driven to extremely high volumes by a pair of Ypsilon Aelius II monoblocks, the Giya G2s delivered sound of the highest quality -- exceptionally clean throughout the audioband, and with some of the tightest, cleanest, most impactful-sounding bass I’ve heard at any show. The midrange, too, was exceedingly natural with recordings of voices, and held together without strain even at extremely high volumes. All in all, regardless of the type of music played, Audio System’s setup sounded magnificent in its clarity and transparency.
But as good as the gear sounded, a lot of credit was due to the room. Again and again, I noticed that the rooms at the National Stadium were largely devoid of the boomy, resonant sound you hear in hotel rooms and other venues with thin, underdamped walls. At last, there’s a hi-fi venue in which exhibitors can get their systems to sound really good -- and have few excuses if they can’t.
Audio Klan (distributor): Last September, when I attended the Tokyo International Audio Show, I really wanted to hear Bowers & Wilkins’s new 800 D3 speaker. But the demos were held only at specified times, and were always crowded -- I could never get a good enough seat from which to properly hear the 800 D3s. At AVS 2016, the speakers were being demoed by Audio Klan, B&W’s Polish distributor -- their room, too, was often crowded, but I was able to slip in and out much more easily and often than in Tokyo, and a few times got a good enough seat to get a handle on these speakers’ sound, as driven by Pass Labs electronics connected with AudioQuest cables.
The first thing I noticed was that their bass was not too heavy, boomy, or overblown, which is what I’ve heard from B&W speakers I’ve owned in the past or have heard at shows. Instead, they were very well controlled down low, if not as taut as the Vivid Giya G2s. Their highest frequencies sounded exceptionally clean and refined -- B&W’s diamond tweeter is really something. What jumped out at me was the 800 D3’s midrange presentation: very full and extremely smooth overall, but also highly detailed. This was quite unlike B&Ws of yesteryear, which often sounded detailed but rarely smooth, and almost always had a raspy midband that could make voices sound coarse. I really liked what the 800 D3s were doing, in what was the best-sounding B&W demo I’ve ever heard.
A new show-season finisher
I went to Warsaw’s Audio Video Show 2016 to see what it was about, and came back more than impressed. I have no doubt that, from now on, covering AVS will be an annual event for us. However, because this year’s show was too much for me to handle alone, for AVS 2017 we’ll have a team -- the show, and our readers, deserve that. Nor am I complaining about all the work -- seeing growth in a show like this one is exciting, because it bodes well for the future of high-end hi-fi worldwide.
Next stop, the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, which will kick off next year’s show coverage. CES takes place January 5-8, in Las Vegas, Nevada -- you’ll be able to read our full coverage on SoundStage! Global, and my “Best of CES 2017” in this space February 1.
. . . Doug Schneider