Politics isn’t the only polarizing topic at audio shows these days. At the last few hi-fi shows I’ve attended, I’ve talked with fellow audio writers about how much value there is in seriously listening to the systems set up at these events. To say that their opinions vary is an understatement.
Some writers, in their show reports, go to great lengths to review the sounds of demonstration rooms at audio shows, and sometimes even of individual components. I see that most often on the website PartTimeAudiophile.com, and in the print magazine The Abso!ute Sound, and there are others. And I’ve heard manufacturers boast of receiving a Best Sound at Show award from some publications. Writers for other audio publications -- e.g., the UK’s Hi-Fi News & Record Review and Germany’s Darko Audio -- do what we do here at SoundStage!. We report mostly on products’ details -- prices, specs, appearance, etc. -- but pay little attention to the sound of those products in those demo rooms.
I spoke about this with John Darko, owner of Darko Audio, at Audio Video Show (AVS) 2019, held in Warsaw, Poland, November 8-10. John and I agree on why we believe audio writers shouldn’t get too serious about what they hear at shows, though we admitted to each other that each of us took years to come to these conclusions:
First, exhibitors, whether manufacturers or dealers or distributors, are often shoehorned into rooms not necessarily of their own choosing, but simply because they’re what’s available or what they can afford, regardless of whether or not they’re ideal for sound reproduction. Often they’ll partner with another exhibitor, not because their respective suites of gear work perfectly together, but to save money on expensive exhibit-room rentals. Finally, perhaps most important, there’s this: If a reviewer isn’t familiar with every component in a demo system -- or the room itself, and how it’s affecting the sound -- how can that reviewer come up with meaningful assessments of what’s contributing what to the sound he or she is hearing? There are too many variables in play.
This is why, in my and many others’ opinion, hi-fi shows are not ideal places to be making critical assessments about sound. In fact, Darko feels so strongly about this that he wondered aloud to me and my fellow AVS 2019 writers, Jason Thorpe and Gordon Brockhouse, if it wouldn’t be better if manufacturers stuck to silent displays of their gear. I don’t know if they have to go that far -- having music playing in these rooms is fun -- but I see his point. (See Darko’s recent article about this, “The Hi-Fi Show Conundrum.”)
So it should come as no surprise that our coverage of AVS 2019 on SoundStage! Global focused mainly on identifying and describing for our readers the products we thought they’d be most interested in exploring further on their own. And while we mostly looked for brand-new products, we also included products that had been around a while but that we hadn’t mentioned before.
So the last thing this list of “The Best of Warsaw’s Audio Video Show 2019” should be construed as is a list of the Best Sounds of the Show. Instead, what follows are our first impressions of the products that most interested us there; the ones that, given the opportunity, we’d most like to review in the very familiar environs of our own reference systems and listening rooms. Prices are in euros (€), USD ($), or UK pounds sterling (£).
Meze Audio Rai Solo earphones
Ever since Brent Butterworth awarded Meze Audio’s Empyrean headphones ($2999) 10 out of 10 for “Sound” on SoundStage! Solo, we’ve kept a close eye on this Romanian brand -- they seem to be making some of the best headphones and earphones out there, often using cutting-edge technologies.
Earlier this year, Meze introduced the Rai Penta earphones (€1099), which Gordon Brockhouse very much liked when he heard them at Munich’s High End 2019. In Warsaw, Gordon zeroed in on the new Rai Solo earphones (€249), which have what Meze calls a Unified Pistonic Motion (UPM) driver in each earpiece. Meze claims that this driver technology provides lower distortion, and better midrange clarity and bass, than comparably priced tech. A nice touch is the material used for the Solos’ earcups: stainless steel, which provides not only durability but a high-end look and feel. The jury is still out on the sound quality, of course, but we hope to read Brent’s review of the Solos on SoundStage! Solo very soon.
Vivid Audio Kaya S12 loudspeaker
I’m a fan of Vivid Audio -- their Giya G2 and B1 Decade are the two best passive loudspeakers I’ve ever heard -- but as I’ve written often before, I wasn’t always a fan. Vivid was founded in 2004, and for their first seven years I mostly passed their speakers by when I saw them at shows. It wasn’t their odd shapes that threw me; rather, from the outside, they didn’t look as if there could be that much to them. It was only when I heard the original B1 loudspeaker that I realized that I shouldn’t have judged a speaker by its appearance. I also learned that Vivid was and still is a company hell-bent on pushing the state of the art of passive speakers with ingenious technology, some of it visible, some not. Which is why I now never pass up an opportunity to check out whatever’s new from Vivid Audio.
Perched on a countertop in Vivid’s room at AVS 2019 was a prototype of their Kaya S12 stand-mounted speaker, to be launched in 2020 at a list price of about €5000/pair. In the Vivid tradition, the S12’s cabinet, which will be made of a proprietary composite (the prototype was 3D-printed), looks a little odd and simple, but it contains bespoke Vivid drivers and, inside, a new “omni absorber” -- a special chamber along the inner rear panel to absorb the midrange-woofer’s rear-directed energy, for the cleanest possible forward wavelaunch. Behind the tweeter is one of the tapered-tubed absorbers found in all Vivid models and in many speakers from Bowers & Wilkins -- technology that Vivid designer Laurence Dickie pioneered in B&W’s Nautilus speaker, when he worked there in the 1980s and ’90s.
The prototype Kaya S12s were silent when we visited, but I was told they played to great acclaim later that day. John Darko told me he’d heard the same pair in Berlin weeks before and had been impressed. I think he wants to get a review pair of Kaya S12s -- and so do we, the moment the model is launched.
Moonriver Audio Model 404 integrated amplifier
I took one look at Moonriver Audio’s Model 404 integrated amplifier and immediately liked its dark, mysterious, somewhat utilitarian aesthetic. I did a quick 180 and said, to founder George Polychronidis, “Where are you guys from?”
I was surprised. “That doesn’t look like a Swedish product.”
Polychronidis looked at me guardedly. “What do you mean?”
“Umm, it’s not simple and white.”
“And it doesn’t look like it’s from IKEA,” added Jason Thorpe.
We were relieved to hear Polychronidis laugh. He explained that he’d been born elsewhere, and later emigrated to Sweden. I don’t know how long he’s been there, but evidently not long enough for the Swedish design aesthetic to sink in.
The Model 404 (€3000) harks back to the early 1980s, when integrateds had a chunky, almost military look -- and wooden side panels. Its innards, too, reflect that time -- a solid-state, class-AB power-amp section that produces up to 50Wpc into 8 ohms, married to a discrete preamplifier section. Given its retro look, tone controls wouldn’t look out of place, but the 404 doesn’t have them -- or, as far as I could tell, a remote control. But it does have a Balance knob, a Stereo/Mono toggle, and a tape loop, though few these days will use it for a tape deck, as Moonriver acknowledges in their ad copy: “It . . . makes possible to insert to the chain -- at will -- a digital or analog room correction processor, a buffer, a noise reduction system or any other line device available to improve the sound of connected sources.”
That’s just the start. There are two phono-stage options -- moving-magnet only (€290) and moving-magnet/moving-coil (€480) -- as well as the provision for a fully up-to-date USB-connected DAC section (€580) that will support PCM resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHz. The 404 was playing when we visited, and we listened long enough to know that we want to review it.
Riviera Audio Labs APL-01 Special Edition preamplifier
In our SoundStage! Global coverage of AVS 2019, Jason Thorpe wrote: “Doug and I were both blown away by the Riviera Audio Labs APL-01 Special Edition preamplifier.” He was talking not about its sound but about how the APL-01 SE looked with its top panel removed, revealing exemplary construction inside and out. It’s pricey -- €32,000 -- but stunning to look at in person. Which was why this time, when we asked about Riviera’s country of origin, we weren’t surprised: Italy. When it comes to making beautiful products -- whether hi-fi or any of a multitude of luxury goods -- Italy is to luxury design as Venezuela is to Miss Universes. They’re hard to beat.
The APL-01 SE, too, seemed to be a throwback -- it sports a no-feedback, pure-class-A, all-tube circuit. It has five sets of unbalanced inputs (RCA) and two sets of transformer-coupled balanced inputs (XLR). And, like the Model 404, it has a tape loop.
As we left RAL’s room, tubehead Jason told me that he’d be very interested in reviewing the APL-01 SE -- especially as it looks so gorgeous. (Jason makes no apologies for his taste in turntables, which, for him, must look as good as they sound.) I hadn’t taken two more steps out the door when I felt a tap on the back.
“Would you like to review our product?”
“Actually, we were just talking about that . . .”
The rep told me that he’d see what he could do about getting us an APL-01 SE to review, and maybe one of RAL’s other products -- in addition to other preamp models, they make power amps and headphone amps. We shall see . . .
Fyne Audio F1-12 loudspeaker
I came away from AVS 2019 jazzed about the prospects of Fyne Audio, a relatively new company based in Scotland. From what I learned there, Fyne was started a few years ago by ex-Tannoy employees and other notables in the UK hi-fi industry, and is partially financially backed by the Scottish government. (Tannoy’s parent, TC Group, was purchased by Music Tribe in 2015, resulting in a sudden exodus of at least some of their talent.) As Jason pointed out in our SoundStage! Global coverage of AVS 2019, Fyne Audio has “exploded” in the last year or so, with many new speaker models, including the current flagship, the F1-12 (£19,000/pair).
With the F1-12, it looks as if Fyne is taking Tannoy technology to new levels. This two-way speaker has what Fyne says is their biggest IsoFlare to date -- a coincident drive-unit (long a Tannoy and now a Fyne hallmark) comprising a 12” multifiber bass-midrange cone, at its center a 2.95” titanium-dome compression driver for the highs, crossed over to each other at 750Hz. According to Fyne, this combo creates “a point source, time aligned transducer delivering pure isotropic radiation across the entire audio spectrum.” At the bottom of the cabinet is an advanced port called a BassTrax Tractrix diffuser, to increase the speaker’s bass output. On the front, toward the bottom, are two knobs: one varies the speaker’s output above 750Hz, the other the frequencies between 2.5 and 5kHz, each within a range of ±3dB. The latter they label Presence. The F1-12’s specifications include a frequency response of 26Hz-26kHz, a sky-high sensitivity of 96dB, and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms -- an easy load.
This was one speaker I really wanted to hear, even under less-than-ideal show conditions. I’ve had a lot of experience with Tannoys, and have always been pleased by how free and effortless they sounded, particularly with such difficult-to-reproduce instruments as acoustic pianos. Unfortunately, like Vivid’s Kaya S12s, the F1-12s weren’t set up to play when we visited, and we weren’t able to be there when they were. But if this new flagship can take the old Tannoys’ strengths to new heights, I’m all ears. As soon as we got home, we sent out inquiries about getting review samples.
Thrax Audio Yatrus turntable
The very last product covered here is the last we covered in Warsaw: the Yatrus turntable (€15,000) from Thrax Audio, of Sofia, Bulgaria. This direct-drive design comes with a tonearm from well-known tonearm designer Frank Schröder, who lives in Berlin, but no cartridge.
The Yatrus has a unique appearance. It looks almost flattened -- as if someone used a heavy weight to squash it down to half its original height. It doesn’t have the impressive look of big, bulky ’tables that sit atop a high plinth and suspension system. But I don’t believe the Yatrus’s low-rider look is strictly for appearance; I think it’s low to the ground for performance, because Thrax says that damping resonances was a major factor in its design. Both levels of the two-tiered plinth -- a base supporting a subchassis, which in turn supports the platter -- are made of anodized, constrained-layer-damped aluminum. The Yatrus is supported by a gel-based suspension system that resonates at a low 6Hz -- give the plinth a push and the whole assembly wobbles very slowly back and forth. Careful thought has also gone into the platter mat, which is made of stainless-steel mesh embedded in rubber. Thrax claims that this produces the best interface between record and platter.
Thrax Audio has long interested me -- we’ve covered their amps, preamps, and speakers at previous AVSes and at other shows. Like the Yatrus, those products have always looked substantially built and very well designed, and seemed chock-full of interesting technologies. I hope we can not only review the Yatrus and/or one of Thrax’s other products, but also visit their facility in Sofia next year, to see how they’re designed and built. I understand that they have extensive manufacturing capabilities, and make in-house almost everything that goes into their products -- something I’d like to see first-hand.
Tokyo on tap . . .
I wrapped up most of this feature on November 20, hours before boarding a plane to Japan for the 2019 Tokyo International Audio Show (TIAS), which took place November 22-24 at the Tokyo International Forum. I covered that show solo -- TIAS 2019 wasn’t big enough to warrant a full team of reporters. But there were plenty of new products for me to report on for SoundStage! Global -- and to fill a “The Best of TIAS 2019” in this space on January 1.
. . . Doug Schneider