Most-Read Opinion Articles (Last 365 Days)
- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 June 2016 01 June 2016
High End 2016 was held May 5-8, in Munich, Germany. According to a post-show report issued May 12 by the High End Society, the group that organizes and runs the show, the number of exhibitors was up 2% over High End 2015 and trade visitors were up 7%, but the total number of attendees was down 6%. Is that last statistic a sign of weakness for HE2016?
In my opinion, no. I attended all four days of HE2016. Other than the last day, Sunday -- Mother’s Day in Germany, as in the US -- I saw a show bristling with excitement and packed with people who looked serious about hi-fi. HE2016 also saw more introductions of new products than I’d ever seen before -- so many that we increased our on-the-spot coverage of new products on SoundStage! Global by 25%.
I believe that the show’s total attendance figure was down from last year not only because of Mother’s Day -- most years, High End and Mother’s Day share a Sunday -- but because that particular Sunday was warm and sunny after a week of cool, rainy weather. I figure that many people decided to enjoy themselves outdoors with family. In fact, I felt the same, and left early on Sunday afternoon.
All told, High End 2016 was a fabulous event. In terms of the numbers of new products alone, it was one of the best hi-fi shows I’ve attended. For this column I’ve narrowed that long list down to a few favorites that really turned my crank: the Best of High End 2016. Here they are, with prices in euros and/or USD.
The most talked-about and worthwhile demo at High End 2016 involved the Band-Assembled Crosstalk Cancelation Hierarchy Sound Purifier (BACCH-SP), from Theoretica Applied Physics. The BACCH-SP is the brainchild of Edgar Choueiri, director of Princeton University’s Program in Engineering Physics and of Princeton’s Electric Propulsion and Plasma Dynamics Laboratory. Although an expert in space-related physics, it was Choueiri’s passion for perfecting the reproduction of recorded music that drove him to research and develop the BACCH-SP.
Choueiri’s goal was to eliminate the interaural crosstalk that occurs with every type of stereo setup. In a nutshell, interaural crosstalk occurs when sounds from the right speaker enter the left ear, and sounds from the left speaker enter the right ear. This corrupts stereo imaging. Set up optimally, the BACCH-SP system can be inserted in pretty much any stereo setup to allow your right ear to hear only sounds from the right speaker, and your left ear only sounds from the left speaker.
The BACCH-SP’s size makes it look more like a power amplifier than a processor, but in it is a computer dedicated to performing the advanced calculations that make the system work. It has built-in digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters, and can even take the place of a preamplifier. Also supplied are in-ear microphones, to map the head-related transfer function (HRTF) of each listener’s head -- essentially, how soundwaves travel across and around your head -- as well as an iPad to control the BACCH-SP, and a head-tracking camera like those used with video games. The total price is €47,500 ($54,000 USD) -- a lot of money, but the BACCH-SP is a unique device that’s the result of years of painstaking research.
At High End 2016, the BACCH-SP was used as part of a system with a total value of about €400,000, though it can be used with systems costing far less. (Why Chouieri chose such an expensive system, I don’t know.) Four Engström Lars mono amps -- two per channel -- drove a pair of Marten Coltrane 3 speakers. I also spotted an Audio Aero La Source SACD/CD player, an Engström Monica line stage and companion phono stage, and even a Transrotor turntable (the BACCH-SP can be used with analog sources). The cables were from Bibacord, the stands from Solid Tech, and the room treatments from SMT.
Choueiri told us that, to do a full job of mapping a listener’s HRTF to take advantage of some new 3D sound technologies he is working on, the listener needs to come to Princeton and sit in his anechoic chamber for a few hours while he does his work. However, for a single listener sitting in front of two loudspeakers, only a small subset of the full HRTF is needed. In such cases, with the touch of a button on the iPad, the BACCH-SP is programmed to measure a listener’s HRTF in about three minutes -- which Choueiri did for me and many other people who sat in the BACCH-SP’s sweet spot at HE2016. I listened to digital files of binaural recordings from Chesky Records and HDtracks. (In binaural recording, two microphones are placed in the ear canals of a dummy head, or Kunstkopf, to mimic the physics of human hearing.)
What I heard was astonishing. The soundstage wrapped around me about 180 degrees, and the images within it were shockingly precise. With one recording that contained plenty of hall ambience, the sense of spaciousness was such that I felt as if I’d been transported to the huge space in which the performance was evidently recorded. It was breathtaking. Standard two-channel recordings didn’t produce quite the same wraparound effect, but the stage was still extremely wide and the image specificity very precise. With both types of recordings, the speakers seemed to “disappear” better than in any stereo system I’ve heard -- if I hadn’t been able to see the speakers, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where in the room they were placed. Poof! -- as specific sources of sound, they were gone, leaving only the music behind.
Brent Butterworth was also there, and wrote about the demo as part of our SoundStage! Global reporting. After experiencing BACCH-SP processing, we came to the same conclusion: It was the best stereo demonstration either of us had ever heard.
Audio Research Foundation Series: LS28 line stage, PH9 phono stage, and DAC9 digital-to-analog converter
In building their brand, the people at Audio Research Corp. have their priorities straight. Two years ago, at High End 2014, they introduced the G Series, comprising the GSPre preamplifier (with phono preamplifier), GS150 stereo amplifier, and GSi75 integrated amplifier. Featuring all-new circuit designs and a striking new look that includes visual touches from ARC’s past, the GS line revitalized this classic American brand while indicating the direction future products might take, technically and visually. If there was a problem with the GS models, it was only that they weren’t cheap -- costing from $15,000 to $20,000, they appealed to a very affluent crowd.
ARC’s 2016 offerings address that issue. So far, the new Foundation Series comprises the LS28 line stage, the PH9 phono stage, and the DAC9 digital-to-analog converter. Each costs $7500 and is packed with features.
The LS28 line stage has four sets each of balanced and single-ended inputs, and two sets each of balanced and single-ended outputs -- enough connection options for most systems. Four 6H30 tubes are in the circuit path. The PH9 phono stage has three 6H30 tubes and can accommodate moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. Usefully, its remote control allows for changing the cartridge-loading impedance on the fly. The DAC9 has USB, RCA, BNC, AES/EBU, and TosLink digital inputs -- again, plenty of options. It supports PCM signals at sample rates up to 384kHz, as well as DSD. Not surprisingly, visual elements of the G Series appear in the Foundation models, to make them some of the best-looking Audio Research products yet.
First thing we asked after being shown the Foundations: Will there be an amplifier, and if so, for how much? ARC’s answers were: Yes, and we don’t know. Depending how the design turns out, the Foundation amp could cost more than $7500, but I hope it doesn’t -- $30,000 for the entire Foundation stack would appeal to audiophiles worldwide.
Hegel Music Systems Mohican CD player
Introducing a CD player with no digital inputs that might allow you to also use it as a DAC seems such a 1980s thing to do -- if not downright foolish. After all, CD playback is on its way out, and streaming is, well, streaming in. But the people at Hegel Music Systems have always marched to the beat of their own drum, which is why they’ve introduced the Mohican, a dedicated CD player (€4500 in Europe, $5000 in the US) that has no digital inputs -- only single-ended and balanced analog outputs and one digital output, should you wish to pipe the digital stream to an external DAC or processor. Foolish? Not so fast . . .
The first commercial Compact Discs were released in 1982, in Japan, and in Europe and the US the following year. The CD has remained the dominant physical distribution format since 1988, when its sales surpassed those of the LP. It was also the surprise winner of the format war between SACD and DVD-Audio in the late 1990s and early 2000s -- most audiophiles thought one of those two high-resolution formats would render the CD obsolete. I don’t know how many CDs have been sold as of today, but according to “Compact Disc Hits 25th Birthday,” a BBC News article published in 2007, over 200 billion CDs had been sold by then. There are lots of CDs still out there, and plenty are still being pressed and sold: 141 million in the US alone in 2014. Which is what Hegel wants to capitalize on with the Mohican.
Hegel has designed the Mohican to play CDs and do nothing else so that they can optimize it specifically for that purpose -- a decision that resulted in its having, they say, better sound quality when playing CDs than if they’d tried to make it a full-featured DAC that could support multiple PCM sampling frequencies. According to Bent Holter, Hegel’s founder and chief designer, the Mohican, playing CDs, sounds much better than does their own HD30 DAC ($4800) -- which has a plethora of digital inputs, and supports PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz and up to DSD128 -- when fed the same 16/44.1 files from, say, a computer. “After a few seconds, you’ll hear it,” he stated matter-of-factly. That surprised me -- I’d reviewed the HD30 and thought it sounded amazing with CD-resolution material. My curiosity is piqued -- like so many audiophiles, I own thousands of CDs that aren’t going to disappear from my life any time soon, and now I’m wondering: Can they really sound better?
Gryphon Audio Designs Mojo S loudspeaker
When it comes to the building of hi-fi equipment, I wouldn’t call Gryphon Audio Designs’ founder, Flemming Rasmussen, a practical man. Based in Denmark, his company’s products tend to be very large, very heavy, and very expensive. Their finishes are usually dark, which gives them a brooding look that looks right only in certain décors. Think of the thick, heavy clothing worn by movie Vikings -- that’s what I think of when I see a Gryphon component.
At High End 2016, Gryphon introduced the Mojo S, an update of their original Mojo loudspeaker, which cost only €12,500/pair without stands. The new version costs €20,000/pair but includes stands, as well as a few niceties the Mojo lacked. (Gryphon is not distributed in North America.)
The Mojo came in various colors. So does the Mojo S, but its curved side panels can be painted any color -- and they’re detachable. The curves are a new thing for Gryphon (the Mojo was flat-sided), and I think many will welcome it -- it softens the speaker’s entire look. Because you can get the Mojo S in any color, you can pick something that brightens your room, which Gryphon did at HE2016 by demoing an attractively orange-sided pair -- they looked slick. If you get bored of the color you’ve picked, buy side panels in a new color from Gryphon and stick them on. The angled top and bottom of the Mojo S, compared to the Mojo’s flat top and bottom, also greatly add to the new speaker’s attractiveness. In fact, the original Mojo now looks plain.
Like the Mojo, the Mojo S is a three-driver, two-way design that uses dynamic drivers for the mids and lows, mounted above and below an air-motion transformer (AMT) tweeter. As in all Gryphon speakers, the top priority was phase integrity, as one driver hands off to the next. I listened to a Mojo S pair for 30 minutes in a closed-door demo at HE2016, and they sounded really good -- this stand-mounted speaker sounded more like a floorstander, with great bass authority and doing a fine job of filling with sound Gryphon’s fairly large room. Finally, a Gryphon speaker I’m really jazzed about reviewing. Hopefully, it will happen.
Soulution 511 stereo/mono amplifier
Soulution, based in Switzerland, is known for making products so expensive that few people can hope to own them. Take the 711 power amplifier, which Jeff Fritz reviewed on SoundStage! Ultra: Specified to deliver 150Wpc into 8 ohms, it costs a whopping $65,000. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve a purpose -- we do have a site called SoundStage! Ultra, after all, for the wild and the esoteric -- it’s just that so few can afford it.
So Soulution has introduced the new 511 stereo power amplifier, for “only” €25,000 ($35,000 in the US, when it’s released there in August). The 511 is claimed to deliver 140Wpc into 8 ohms -- just 10Wpc less than the 711. What’s more, Soulution claims that the 511’s other specs -- frequency response, distortion, damping factor, etc. -- come scarily close to the 711’s, which many feel represent the state of the art of solid-state amplification. Almost the same amp for not much more than half the price? Sounds like a step in the right direction.
Estelon YB loudspeaker
Estelon, based in Estonia, is yet another company that has become known for making stratospherically priced products. At High End 2014, they introduced the Extreme loudspeaker -- at €170,000/pair, a fantasyland product. At this year’s show, Estelon unveiled the YB, by far their cheapest floorstanding speaker yet at $20,000/pair in Black Matte; add $1500 for White or Black Gloss (€15,900/pair in Black Matte, add €1000 for Gloss).
To bring the cost down so far, designer Alfred Vassilkov made the cabinet much smaller and of a different composite, and used SEAS and Scan-Speak drivers instead of his usual Accutons. Despite the differences, the YB still looks like an Estelon design, with its swooping sides and unique cabinet shape.
I wish I could say with authority that the YB sounds every bit like an Estelon speaker, but I can’t -- I’ve never reviewed one of their speakers, I don’t know if Estelon has a “house sound,” and the sky-high prices of their earlier models have made me shy away. But I’d sure like to review the YB.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems Classic turntable
I’ve just applauded Gryphon Audio Designs, Soulution, and Estelon for offering new products at prices more people can afford. But don’t think for a minute that I believe that anything costing more than 10,000 euros or even dollars can be considered affordable for audiophiles of average income, or those who want to get into hi-fi without breaking the bank. But €1000 or $1000? That is affordable.
Enter the Pro-Ject Audio Systems Classic turntable, for €999 with Ortofon 2M Silver cartridge factory installed, or €950 without cartridge. (As of High End 2016, the Classic’s US prices had yet to be established; it’s likely to be sold with a different cartridge in North America.)
The Classic’s appearance is, as its name implies, classic -- something of a 1970s look, with more than a passing resemblance to a Linn Sondek LP12, one of the most popular turntables of all time. The Classic’s construction is also noteworthy. Its platter is made of aluminum, and its tonearm of aluminum and carbon fiber. Lifting the platter and subchassis from the wooden base, which comes in numerous finishes, reveals spherical dampers of thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), to help isolate the platter, arm, and cartridge from the motor and its vibrations. The Classic doesn’t look or feel cheap -- when I first saw it, I thought it would cost twice as much.
With more and more people, audiophiles and music lovers alike, getting into playing LPs -- vinyl sales increased 51% in 2014 over 2013, according to Nielsen -- I bet that, at this price, Pro-Ject will sell bazillions of Classics. Got a grand to spend on a turntable? The retro-styled, well-built Classic could be what you’re looking for.
Next show, next month
I won’t be attending any more audio shows until I go to the 2016 Tokyo International Audio Show (TIAS), September 30 to October 2, where I’m sure I’ll see and hear many more new products to report on. Next month I return to Europe to attend a special event being put on by World of McIntosh, the parent company of Audio Research, McIntosh Laboratory, Pryma, Sonus Faber, Sumiko, and Wadia. New products will be unveiled, and I’ll write about them. Check back here beginning July 1.
. . . Doug Schneider