In June, I highlighted my picks for the five best loudspeakers at High End 2015, held May 14-17 in Munich, Germany. In July, I turned my attention to the five best electronic components I saw at the show. This month, to complete the trilogy, I tell you about the five best systems.
Each subhead below represents the name of the company or companies responsible for that exhibition room, but not the name of every brand displayed in that room. Those are listed in full in the accompanying text. I omitted prices for most of the components mainly because, in each case, I wanted to focus on the sound of the entire system presented. In a few cases, some products were prototypes for which no price had yet been established, which made it impossible to cite an accurate price for the systems of which those prototypes were a part. Furthermore, the often significant differences in price for the same model as sold in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world made individual prices even less relevant for an article such as this. When I do mention a price (all in USD), it’s to make a specific point about that product. That said, if you want to know the price of something in your part of the world, the company and model names are accurate, so you can likely Google it and find what it lists for where you live.
This room, one of the standouts at High End 2015, contained a bevy of Soulution components -- the 755 phono preamplifier, 746+ SACD/CD player, 760 DAC, 725 preamplifier, and 701 monoblocks -- feeding a pair of Magico Q7 Mk II speakers. All components were linked with Vovox Textura Fortis interconnects and speaker cables, and sat on Critical Mass Systems racks. (There was also a prototype turntable, but it wasn’t being used during my visit.) Soulution is based in Switzerland, and their electronics are some of the most expensive on the planet; Magico’s Q7 Mk II retails for $229,000/pair; and I believe the CMS racks and Vovox wires are also super-expensive. The total cost of this system was about $750,000.
Yet despite the quality and cost of these components, I wasn’t impressed with the system’s sound on the show’s first day -- it was thin, bright, and light in the bass. But over the next few days, the sound markedly improved: still spirited in the top end, but no longer bright; now forceful in the low end, but not overblown or boomy; and extremely detailed throughout the audioband. In fact, it was the most incisive and detailed sound I heard at High End 2015. It’s quite possible that the Soulution system wasn’t fully warmed up that first day.
Lessons: 1) Don’t judge a system in the first hours of a show. 2) If possible, listen a few times over several days, and assess the sound with different types of music.
Constellation Audio and Magico
The US manufacturers Constellation Audio and Magico shared a room, as they have at other audio shows. The electronics were all from Constellation: Virgo DC power filter, Cygnus media server-DAC, Virgo III preamplifier, and Centaur II Mono power amps. The speakers were Magico’s S7, which is the top model of their S series, and, at $58,000/pair, about one-fourth the price of the Q7 Mk II. Interconnects and speaker cables were from MIT, Shunyata Research, and Vovox. This system was quite a bit less expensive than the Soulution system, in the low six figures instead of the high six figures.
But that price disparity didn’t stop our own Hans Wetzel from talking more favorably about this room than about any other at High End 2015, including Soulution’s -- it seems to have been his favorite of the systems he heard there. I could hear why. As in the Soulution room, the sound was lively and highly detailed. The bass was a little lighter than I like, but it was quick, immediate, and deliberate -- no overhang or boom. The sound was definitely cut from the same cloth as what I heard in Soulution’s room; those who want this sort of sound and don’t have $750,000 or so to spend on hi-fi, but do have a couple-hundred thousand, might be satisfied with this setup. It sure turned Hans’s crank, and was good enough to make this list.
I really liked CH Precision’s room, mostly because it was anchored by a pair of Vivid Audio Giya G2 speakers. The Giya G2 is currently my favorite loudspeaker. I consider it one of the great bargains in ultra-high-end hi-fi at its asking price of $50,000/pair -- you can spend way more on speakers and get something that doesn’t even approach its sound quality.
The electronics, interconnects, and cables were all from CH Precision, which, like Soulution, is based in Switzerland: P1 phono preamp (prototype), D1 SACD/CD drive, C1 D/A controller with Ethernet streaming board, L1 preamp, and M1 power amps. (Also in the room, but not playing during my visit, was a TechDAS Air Force One turntable with Graham Engineering Phantom III Elite tonearm and TechDAS TDC01 Ti cartridge.)
What I liked about the sound in this room was consistent with what I’ve heard from the Giya G2 elsewhere and with other electronics, including in my own listening room when I reviewed the speaker: a highly visceral and, um, vivid sound, with outstanding neutrality and transparency throughout the audioband and whomping impact in the bass. The Giya G2 doesn’t reach down to 20Hz, the very bottom of the audioband, but it does go down to 30Hz or so with tremendous tightness and control. The G2 is also able to play incredibly loud, and that’s where this system ran into trouble -- I could see the amps’ meters indicating clipping in some ultraloud passages, and when that happened, I heard some harshness. But when the CH Precision amps were used within their limits, the music was alive, exciting, and unbelievably clear and clean.
I’d like to say that Paradigm’s room contained the least-expensive of these five systems. The electronics, interconnects, speaker cables, and power conditioner all cost far less than those used in any of the other four setups: a Shunyata Research power conditioner, a Meitner Audio MA-2 CD player, a Pass Labs XP20 preamplifier, an Anthem Statement P2 amplifier, and AudioQuest interconnects and speaker cables -- but the Concept 4F speakers they were using were as their name implies: unfinished, unpriced prototypes. Paradigm has a history of releasing very affordably priced products, and I have a strong feeling that the final production version of the Concept 4F will cost less than any other speaker mentioned in this article -- but I don’t know for sure.
That said, the most important thing was that the sound was nothing short of spectacular, regardless of price. As I wrote in “The Best of High End 2015 -- Loudspeakers,” the moderate-size Concept 4F was “the star loudspeaker of High End 2015.” Its dome tweeter and midrange cone, both made of beryllium, rendered highs and mids that were ridiculously clear, while its powered, DSP-enhanced woofer section produced deeper, more authoritative bass than almost any other speaker on display in Munich, no matter the size or cost. Talk about an overachiever.
But as impressive as the Concept 4F’s bass reproduction was, it overpowered the mid and higher frequencies a bit, and at times overpowered the room. It could be that Paradigm had turned up the bass a little to impress, but I don’t know for sure. All I can say is that this system sounded astonishingly good, and that it was a promising hint of what the Concept 4F might ultimately become.
The system at High End 2015 that I thought had the best-balanced sound -- which, for me, made it most pleasing to listen to overall -- was in the room occupied by Absolare, a manufacturer of tubed electronics based in Nashua, New Hampshire. The phono stage, preamp, and monoblocks were all Absolare products, and each has the same name as the others: Passion. There are two versions of the power amp, though: single-ended (50W) and push-pull (85W). I heard the push-pull Passions.
At the speaker end of the chain were Rockport Technologies Aviors, which, at $33,000/pair, are far cheaper than either Magico model I heard in Munich, and cheaper than Vivid’s Giya G2. Rockport is based in Maine, which borders New Hampshire. Absolare Bullets, which are claimed to reduce distortion, were placed between the speaker-cable terminations and the speakers’ binding posts. A ReQuest The Beast music server and MSB Technology DAC IV made up the digital front end; on the analog side were a Kodo The Beat Signature turntable with Frank Schroeder tonearm and Lyra Atlas cartridge. Interconnects and cables were Omnias from Echole, and the stands were from Stabilian. From what I can tell, Echole and Stabilian are sister brands to Absolare -- all three share the same contact info. Power conditioning was courtesy Torus Power.
The first thing that blew me away was how lush, rich, and romantic this system sounded, no matter what music was played through it. Voices had dripping presence, highs were extended yet supersweet, bass was full and robust. In many ways, this system had the rich sound typical of tubes -- just gorgeous overall, but never so rich that it sounded syrupy or slow. The level of detail presented, while not up to the level of the Soulution-Magico system, was surprisingly high, and the speaker end of the room was filled with a blossoming, holographic soundstage.
I was also impressed by how well the Absolare amps drove the Aviors, which I’d always thought needed high-powered solid-state amplification to really bloom and fill a large room with sound. Obviously not -- this system sounded fan-friggin’-tastic, and was my favorite of these five.
Now that High End 2015 is at last entirely behind me, my editorials will see a change of subject. Next month I’ll describe my trip to the UK to visit two of that country’s most-respected speaker brands: Monitor Audio and KEF. I’m writing this just before I leave -- my flight to the UK has just started to board, so I’ll sign off right now.
. . . Doug Schneider