High End 2015

High End 2015: Wrapping the Un-Wrappable

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HE15_Logo_GB_01An entire month passed since we got back from Munich and our combined efforts produced more than 50 extended show reports, many of which are closer to mini-reviews than a mere system and price tags list with a few pictures. Munich offers so much material that we could probably go on for another month still without covering everything. A show with close to 1000 brands is absolutely insane and impossible to cover so we did our best in providing the best sounding, most extravagant, innovative or down right curious exhibits with our own personal perspective.

Going straight to the point, my Best in Show goes to Lyn Stanley who performed in the Classic Audio Loudspeakers room with Atma-Sphere amplifiers and Purist Audio Design cables. This was the most engaging room of the entire event, attendees simply could not get away once they entered and found Lyn performing live songs from her latest album, Potions, right there in front of them. Fatal attraction. For the record, this room featured the amazing T3.4 speakers from Classic Audio and MP-1/ M60mk3 amplifier combo from Atma-Sphere, and a remarkable analog front-end, with a Feickert-Triplanar-Lyra-Dynavector analog set up, as well as a Weiss MAN 301 DAC/ server.

BestInShow2015v1“Best in show” and “best sound” are distinct categories for this year’s High End Munich; if you followed my adventures then you already know what the almost designated best should have been. The single most impressive set up was the Stenheim One with the four tower Reference Statement speaker system amplified by CH Precision, with analog front end by Audio Consulting and cabling from ZenSati. What was the most expensive and specs wise the most impressive system of the show gave a new meaning in words like authority, extension and visual impact. Part of the system’s performance was left in the imaginative plain as it was fitted inside a small prefabricated room down the ground floor halls which is, acoustically speaking, as inadequate as it gets. Placed in a proper room and with the channels not inverted this extraordinary system would have swiped other contenders from the MOC in a blink. Hopefully next year they will propose something similar in a room of at least 100m² and then I will be able to award them my best sound of the show. For this year my Audio Traveler award remains vacant, other systems performed very well but knowing what sort of potential this particular one could deliver makes comparisons almost futile.

Excellent runner ups were, in no particular order, the Tidal room which added some mid-warmth in the already detailed and dynamic range of speakers with the new Akira model fitted with the exotic 5” diamond mid-range driver; The Zellaton room with BFA amplifiers which offered a convincing dynamic dipole speaker presentation and the perennially great sounding all TAD room which for this year proved thanks to the CE-1 loudspeakers that size does not matter, not always anyway.

Among the various new products the “audiophile on a budget” one I would have brought home was the Auralic Aries mini streamer, a complete solution capable of DSD and DXD streaming with an incorporated ESS SABRE DAC for an astonishingly low price of $399 that will sell like hot bread, as long as they manage to iron out the glitches which affected the first generation Aries.

The other product, a not-so-budget but still far from being unreasonably priced product, and one I would love to review, is Wilson Audio‘s Sabrina speakers. Not sure if it was the wine, the company or the speakers, but that press-only event was huge fun and left me with the idea of a very well-engineered product that will find the way into many audiophile’s listening rooms.

As for the rest, the night action and the Weiss beer, Schweinshaxe and Weißwürste with friends flying in from all around the globe, it is always the best part of an audio show and one I would rather not comment upon as you never know who’s going to read this (for example, my wife). Instead, let me extend an invitation for next year, make sure you come for the crazy four-day Munich show and let us know, we will be showing you the best (or worst depending on the points of view) brauhaus in town!

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Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015

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High End 2015

High End 2015: TIDAL Loudspeakers

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Somewhere near 5,000 steps (according to my FitBit), I stumbled into the TIDAL Audio room. Fans of the site may know that I have a thing for designer Jörn Janczak’s big glossy megaliths as I also happen to be an owner. Here was my chance to meet him!

Doug White of Philly dealer The Voice That Is had warned me that Jörn was tall, but a warning doesn’t quite help when the man himself has to stoop to talk to you. No, seriously, Jörn is tall. Like “NBA Pro” tall. This is apropos of absolutely nothing other than to say that with this bit of helpful info, the sense of scale in TIDAL speakers may be a bit easier to understand.

Take the Assoluta, for example. This loudspeaker is (currently) the pinnacle of his art, and it looks it. It’s also priced like it, but while €500k is nowhere near the most expensive loudspeaker available at High End, it was one of two where the attention to detail that caught my eye reached a level that made my brain start sweating. Oh, my, that TIDAL finish is simply out-of-this-world. I really have never seen anything like it. “TIDAL piano black” is to “piano black” as a black hole is to empty space. I could feel it sucking at my soul as soon as I stepped into the room.

Next to the finish, the most arresting feature on the Assoluta is the center cabinet (bracketed above and below by bass driver cabinets) – it carries two custom 5” drivers designed by Jörn and Accuton, the driver company that “just happens” to be “right down the street” from TIDAL. These new 5” drivers are diamond. According to Jörn, diamond offers perfect heat-sinking for the voice coils, is also ripple free, and has absolutely no resonance. The tweeter? Another diamond, this one a 1”, also from Accuton. According to Jörn, pairs of these three drivers (enough for a pair of Assoluta) cost about the same — by themselves — as a complete pair of his middle-of-the-range Agoria loudspeakers. And those are $100k/pair. Gulp. Oh – did I mention they’re 7’ 6” tall and weigh 485kg each (that is, they come up to Jörn’s shoulders)? I should note that the Assoluta is also fully customizable — at that price level, you can dictate and specify just about every little flourish — so don’t expect these to hit the general price book. You want? Just ask your dealer.

Now, as entertaining as these’d be to bathe in, they weren’t on audible display. What we heard, instead, were his newest loudspeaker, the Akira. The Akira, at €160k/pair, slots in above the Agoria and below (sort of) the Sunray, and features a single 5” diamond midrange and a matching 1” diamond tweeter, along with three active front-firing woofers and five (five!) rear-firing passives, all featuring Accuton’s latest concave drivers and all in TIDAL’s exclusive black. The arrangement is time/phase aligned and everything over 100Hz is rendered entirely via the diamond drivers. These speakers are designed, apparently, in such a way to bring Sunray-level performance to a “normal” listening spaces (that is, merely “large”, instead of “cavernous”). It’s an interesting thought. These Akiras are not much larger than the Contriva Diacera SE speakers I happen to have (ha ha!).

I visited and revisited this room several times throughout the weekend, watching and listening as the great Akira broke in. And yes, I mean that – the magnificent 5” driver had all of 10 hours on it before the show opened to the press on Thursday! Not auspicious, but despite that, the incredible transparency TIDAL is known for was very much on display. And then some. Holy guacamole, this is a monster speaker.

I should note that TIDAL has never been one for bloated bass, so it’s probably not surprising that the bass was coherent and remarkably textured — that is, it didn’t necessarily get swallowed by the room, nor did it appear to flex the walls. A standing double-bass was just that — made of rare woods, professionally lacquered, lovingly polished Wednesday past with “the good stuff”, and yes, that G-string could probably use a replacement. Did I mention the sound was transparent? Hmm.

Heh heh. The kids don’t have to go to college, do they? Nah ….

Also new – the Piano G2 loudspeaker. Completely rebuilt, and using the same inert Tiradur cabinet material found in the Akira and Absoluta, the Piano G2 has all new drivers and crossover.

Also new – the Assoluta mono amplifiers ($140k/pair). These feature three pure silver transformers with an actively regulated power supply for both current and voltage. 350watts into 8Ω, and 700 into 4Ω, the massive monos share the same family good looks as the lesser amplifier I enjoyed not so long ago.

Also new – the Camira DAC ($34k). The DAC uses the eminently sensible but still not widely adopted approach of local storage of playback streams, with local high-precision re-clocking into the DAC stage. A ladder-DAC design, the Camira does not support USB, but instead, is S/PDIF only.

Panagiotis adds: So yes, Tidal had another great show with the new Akira speakers and the complete line of built-in-house electronics.

Do not take for granted that expensive guarantees great sound, Munich has been merciless to several high-end manufacturers this year too.

Another thing you should not take for granted is SPLs. I take it for granted but you should not. This is one of my obsessions; I believe that high-end systems should sound exceptionally good and be able to withstand concert hall like sound pressure levels. If they are good for up to 85-90dB at my listening position, and then deflate or distort, then they are not true high fidelity systems; if you ever listened to a symphonic orchestra from the 8th sit row, then you know what I am talking about.

Which brings us to Tidal Akira and Royksopp.

Sunday morning on my closing tour of the best sounding rooms in Munich, I spoke with Jörn, and asked him to play something he enjoys listening to with his creations. I know that Royksopp is not Mahler but the concept remains the same. He pushed the speakers to something more than enough for a show; he showed me that these new Accuton black diamond drivers can deliver not only in terms of transparency — but also in sheer volume.

For the record, the track was Skulls:

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Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: The Voice That Is, with TIDAL, Bricasti, Aurender, Purist Audio Design, Silver Circle

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Doug White of The Voice That Is built a gorgeous system around the TIDAL Contriva GS speakers ($69,690 as shown), easily the best looking speakers at the show. Note that this speaker is also a complete reworking of the Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers. From TIDAL:

The all new successor of the worldwide praised TIDAL Contriva Diacera SE (2007-2014). We did not let things as they were, all is completely new with the Contriva G2. Like with iconic design classics improving does not mean changing. It means making dimensions and proportions better while strictly continuing and following the generic and unique design of it. So we made the Contriva G2 45mm less tall, 5mm less wide and we gave it 3° degree more slope to give it a more dynamic and elegant look while improving also the sonic dispersion of it.

The cabinet is made out of TIRADUR, TIDAL’s proprietary cabinet material for this 102 Kg beauty. Also we equipped it with all new BCC drivers, a complete new x-over design, an all new terminal with TIDAL’s completely new pure silver binding posts. The result is the very best midsize speaker we ever built.

The source was a Bricasti M1 ($8,995) fed by an Aurender W20 ($17,600).

Amplification also came from TIDAL, with the unbelievable, three chassis, Presencio Preamplifier ($77,990) feeding a pair of Impulse monoblocks ($64,990 per pair).

Everything was wired together with Purist Audio Design cables, and everything was sitting on Stillpoints. Power distribution came from the massive Silver Circle Tchaik 6.

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Athens 2014

Athens 2014: High-stakes poker with the Tidal-MSB system

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hes-2014While I was enjoying the Athens show, my editor Scot was publishing a mini review of a full TIDAL Audio system with Contriva Diacera SE speakers (SE stands for “Special Edition”) paired with the Preos preamplifier and Impulse dual mono power amplifier. Auralic’s Vega DAC acted like source and cables were from Purist Audio Designs.

I see his mini-review and raise with a custom version Contriva Diacera SE from TIDAL Audio and full stack of MSB electronics, including the Diamond DAC IV with Diamond Power Base and Signature Data CD IV which served as transport. Cables were Argento Flow and Transparent reference series.

With the Diamond DAC IV, the system performed exceptionally well. Over my long session at the room, I managed to hear some of the best male voices of this entire show, like Doug MacLeod singing “You Can’t Take My Blues”. Drums were precise, fast and detailed, while guitar was very life-like.

This would have me win the hand with Scot, but I wanted the game too, so a few hours before the show was over we went all in with the Select version, equipped with femto-clocks and just about every possible upgrade MSB can offer as we speak. Now you might think, how much of a difference can the Select offer when compared to the already fantastic Diamond DAC for more than double the price?

Well, the answer is a lot.

I would not expect it to be much of a difference, if any, but it was there. In Dick Hyman’s “You’re Driving Me Crazy / Moten Swing”, the piano grew in dimensions while the orchestra gained space among the various instruments. After adding a few of my sample tracks to the Audirvana playlist, I heard Mina and Cocciante sing “Amore” like never before, it gave me the goose bumps.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Bricasti Design and TIDAL Audio

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Logo - Blue VectorIf you follow The Audio Traveler, you’ll note that the Bricasti and TIDAL Audio system on display this year at RMAF mirrored the system that Scot had opportunity to hear at AXPONA earlier this year. So much the better, as far as I’m concerned; it’s not fair when Scot gets to have all the fun.

The speakers were the Piano Ceras from TIDAL Audio ($24,000); they feature ceramic drivers and the shiniest piano black cases you’re likely to see. They also have this nifty ability referred to as “Variogain” that lets them be tuned to suit the room: they can run in true 2-way mode, linear 2.5-way mode, or 2.5-way mode with Gain A. The amps were Bricasti’s newish M28 reference monoblocks ($30,000/pair), which have their own tweakability: pairing these amps with the Bricasti M1 DAC ($9,000) forms a balanced differential signal flow from source to speaker, and the M28 also offers 18 db of stepped attenuated gain adjustment. The amps and DAC were accompanied by a Silver Circle power conditioner ($10,000), an Oppo Digital CD player, and Luminst Revision cables by Purist Audio Design.

I was able to take the time for a nice long demo, for once, and sit through a couple of tracks. The first was a PCM recording of a selection from one of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works (my notes fail me as to which one; please forgive me). I found the percussion very realistic and impactful, and the treble was nice throughout. However, I thought there were some issues with the lower strings, which seemed a bit dull and smeary in comparison to the violins, and lacking in definition. Then, a second Tchaikovsky piece — a recording of the Romeo & Juliet Overture, this time in DSD — eliminated these perceived issues essentially entirely; the cruft was gone, and the sound was pure and precise.

I don’t know if the folks running the room intended to give me an impromptu listen to the benefits of hi rez, but it was instructive — if only because it reminded me to check the quality of the recording before I make assumptions about the capabilities of a system! I was left to conclude that system would be an excellent choice for a power junkie who’s looking for a great deal of detail and speed.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014 Roundup, Part 5: Small Rooms with Medium-Sized and Smaller Speakers

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By Darryl Lindberg
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The Voice that Is: Tidal, Bricasti, etc.

The ever-gracious Doug White set up an excellent system featuring Tidal Piano Cera floor standing speakers (at $23K Tidal’s “entry” offering) and Bricasti electronics, including their M28 amps. I quite enjoyed my time in this room: nothing strained or over the top, just fine sound, even though it was an analog-less set up. The Stravinsky and Chabrier cuts on my HDTT CD were reproduced beautifully: excellent string tone, immediacy, and surprising punch. All in all, it made me hanker for a listen to Tidal’s larger offerings.

Something new … Existence Speakers

Marko Reinikainen was showing his Existence Erotic ($6.8K) and Euphoric ($5K) single driver speakers driven by Triode electronics in room 1002. I happened to bop in while the larger Erotics were playing and really liked what I heard, which was a lot of what makes single driver speakers so seductive (marvelous midrange purity and dynamic directness) and not too much of what makes single driver speakers so frustrating (lack of extension and uneven—or no—response at the frequency extremes). I’ve never quite cottoned to single driver speakers, especially those with Lowther or Lowther-like drivers. To my ears, there’s always something missing at the low and high-end of the frequency spectrum. My own theory is that these drivers are both too small and too large to properly reproduce the ends of the spectrum: too small to effectively reproduce the low-end, even when housed in very large enclosures; too large to effectively reproduce to high frequencies, even when aided by the ubiquitous “whizzer cone.” But I have to say that Marko’s design made sounded good enough to make me reconsider my paradigms.

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Audio Note U.K.

Just as I was about to reluctantly make the trek out to my velocipede for the five-hour drive back to Santa Fe, I ran into Nelie Davis of Audio Federation and was gently persuaded to amble over to the Audio Note U.K. room. And I was sure glad I did. Nelie was graciously covering for the exhibitor, who was unfortunately called away due to a death in the family. The room featured a decidedly “real world priced” AN system (circa $25K all up); the source was a battery-powered Stellavox tape recorder (not included in the system price). We listened to a couple of Kodaly piano trios (private tapes, no recording info available), which were compellingly reproduced: musical is the word that comes to mind. Per AN standard procedure, the speakers were positioned in the room corners, which I found less problematic in this room than some of the other AN set ups I’ve heard over the years. It just goes to show you that it’s difficult, if not impossible to make absolute judgments when it comes to audio equipment—especially at shows.

Although I thought this year’s attendance was down versus last year, the various exhibitors I spoke with felt the traffic was as strong, if not stronger, than that in prior years. In any event, it was another wonderful show and kudus to all the exhibitors, attendees, and especially those folks behind the RMAF. If you attended, I Hope you enjoyed it, too; if you didn’t, it’s definitely worth your time. I’ll see you next at next year’s RMAF!

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: The Voice That Is reaches for stars with TIDAL Audio, Bricasti and Aurender

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I’m pretty sure it’s a sign of old age when you start referring to your stories by number. Or maybe it’s just superior indexing? Ah, well. Anyway, audio story #1,287 is about Doug White at The Voice That Is. Doug is an audio dealer, and brings in several upscale product lines to serve his Philadelphia-centered clientele, including TIDAL Audio, Bricasti, and several others. My story starts with me calling Doug, asking some impertinent question or other, and Doug refusing to quote me a price, much less sell me something.

Honestly, I can’t even remember what it was I was asking after. But the fact that he refused to do business with me is what really sticks out. A dealer, refusing to make money? Seriously? Seriously. Doug isn’t a slash-and-burn sales guy. He’s a consultant and takes that role seriously: “If I sell this to you, you’re not going to like it and you’re going to blame me and never call me again,” he explained. “I think I can help you get where you want to be, but we are going to have to spend some time figuring out what that is. When we have a goal, we can work on a solution. That’s the value I bring.” I’m paraphrasing, but this was perhaps the first time I’d ever encountered a commercial sales rep actually doing this kind of thing — sacrificing the quick sale for the chance at earning a customer long-term. I was, and still am, very impressed with Doug and his ethical standards and he remains one of the very few audio dealers I can unequivocally recommend doing business with.

Now that I’ve blown all this smoke up in his general direction, we can talk about what he did to all of us at CAF this year. Because it was amazing.

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