High End 2019 pt.1

Now that the dust has settled around the MOC exhibition centre in Munich it’s getting a little bit easier to see the trends from the homages to machined metalwork that dominate much of this fabulous event. The High End is probably the largest dedicated exhibition of hi-fi in the world today, certainly bigger than anything in the US and probably the far east too. It attracts exhibitors and visitors from around the audio globe with brands as diverse as LG, Garrard and Living Voice, spanning the availability and affordability spectrum to a surprisingly wide extent.

High End is therefore a challenge to get around in three days, it would be easier if one were incognito and could collect information and images without bumping into people. But then it wouldn’t be so interesting. This year I found myself visiting fewer brands but getting a better idea of what they are doing, it was a year when new turntables were not as abundant as they had been but also one that saw the re-introduction of a name long thought extinct. Digital sources are clearly in the ascendant and even MQA seems to be making inroads with two respected sources saying that it benefits even high quality digital recordings when everything is done right, so a reappraisal might be required. 

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Naim introduced Muso 2, a 95% new revision of the original that looks almost identical. Designer Simon Matthews describes Muso 2 as a “step change” in features and performance and points out a 13x increase in processor power, upgrades to power supply and six digital amps, heavily revised drivers and software controlled volume management for more consistency across the band. The case is 8mm deeper for increased air volume and is braced with an I beam baffle for greater stiffness. Voice activation is possible with third party devices that connect by Chromecast and room placement settings have been refined. The appearance change is largely down to a darker brushed aluminium and halo effect control wheel, price is now £1,299.

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Last year SME announced that it had bought the Garrard name and is now in the process of rebuilding original Garrard 301s and building them into a badged walnut plinth that’s equipped with an SME M2-12R tonearm. No price has been announced yet but the Garrard Model 301 will be available from July. A new model from the brand is slated for next year’s High End.

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Audio Technica has revived a classic cartridge in its moving coil range, the new AT-OC9X series starts at £220 with the AT-OC9XEB (bonded elliptical stylus) and rises through six models to the AT-OC9XSL (special line contact a la ART-1000) at £700.

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Power amplifiers from digital specialist MSB have always been interesting and the M500 certainly makes that grade. Available in mono or stereo form with modular internal build it offers a million microfarads (or one farad) of power filtering and 134dB dynamic range behind a 500 Watt output. Build is to the usual extremely high standard found with MSB and  prices are $58,500 for the stereo and $118,500 for a pair of mono M500s.

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Moon showed a more affordable but ambitious new power amp. The 860A V2 replaces three models in the range and sits below the mighty 888 despite being considerably less expensive. Its USP is a system that ensures even operating temperature for both high and low level output transistors regardless of output requirement. Fully balanced it’s delivers 225W in stereo form or 750W bridged to mono worked a treat with Dynaudio Confidence 50 speakers in the latter guise, price is £16,750. 

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Technics SL-G700 is a network streamer and SACD/CD player with a metal disc drive, multiroom capability with Chromecast, balanced and SE out with volume control and MQA. Never one to hold back on features Technics have also included a multi input DAC, wired or wireless networking and app control, Bluetooth aptX and headphone out for €2,499.

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Fellow Japanese engineers Tech Das showed what might just be the most expensive turntable in the world ever at $450,000. The Air Force Zero has an air bearing motor, a five part 100kg platter made of different alloys atop an air bearing, and three air pumps/power supplies. It was demonstrated by company CEO Hideaki Nishikawa with CH Precision electronics, Vivid Giya One Spirit loudspeakers and a CAD GC-1 ground control noise killer.

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PMC showed the first revision to its small but elegant Fact loudspeaker series which has now been cut down to two models and dubbed Signature. Both Fact.8 and Fact.12 have been upgraded with new crossovers. These benefit from tech developed for the big Fenestria model and upgraded components including Clarity capacitors and low inductance Mundorf resistors. The expected/hoped for addition of Laminair loading to this range requires a total ground up redesign so will not be happening in the foreseeable future. Prices for flat white or metallic grey only finishes are £6,995 for fact.8 and £14,995 for fact.12. Inconveniently there is no upgrade option being offered to owners of existing fact models.

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The latest addition to Auralic’s growing G2 range is the Sirius upsampler. This can be used to enhance the performance of any DAC by upsampliing to a sample rate that hits the ‘sweet spot’ of the particular converter being used. It can output signal at up to 384kHz and DSD512 and comes with a £5,499 price tag. Joining the G1 series is the Altair which is a preamplifier, DAC and streamer in a G1 chassis with colour display and £1,899 price point. It’s similar in function to the pricier Vega G1 but has Lightning Server and a lower spec DAC.

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Fred Davis has been making his Axhorn loudspeakers in Wales for quite some time but is no longer hiding his horn loaded light under a bushel, for a change he brought the Ax Superjet to the world. Employing a single full range AER driver in a GRP and concrete cabinet this is a seriously efficient loudspeaker with a claimed 122dB sensitivity. Davis uses his Afterburner in front of the driver to split the sound into mid and treble and takes rearward output via the bass horn below. Price is £75,000 plus tax but including flight cases. If you want to fill a big space with real dynamics these are a winner.

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Brinkmann showed two new products at High End, Voltaire is an integrated amplifier with a hybrid tube input stage and the option to add a phono stage module and/or the highly regarded Nyquist DAC module complete with MQA decoding. Power is specified as 300W into 2 Ohms and this amp has six analogue inputs, price has yet to be determined. The Taurus (below) is a direct drive turntable that represents the next step up from Brinkmann’s Bardot model, it derives its design from the Balance belt drive turntable and has remote control speed change. You can also add a second armbase should it appeal, price is €12,000.

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Living Voice managed to take a slightly smaller but still four box horn speaker system to Munich this year. The Vox Palladian (£295,000) in walnut and beech with deep patination bronze metalwork was accompanied by the new Vox Basso subwoofer (£48,000). This is a reflex design with a substantial 18inch paper cone driver that is supplied with a 500W class D amplifier and passive crossover. It worked a treat beefing up Leifur James’ excellentA Louder Silenceon the Grand Prix Audio turntable. They also played the LVCD, the first source product from the brand. This red book CD player is based on an OEM chassis from Canary Audio that Living Voice make significant upgrades to including an ECC88 tube on the output, a huge power supply for high and filament voltages and some “very posh parts”, price is £15,000.

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The High End is all about excess or so it can seem when you see the Playback Designs SPA-8, a very understated name for the biggest power amp I have set eyes on for some time. It weighs 130kg which gives you some idea but it’s the sheer volume of the elaborately machined case that’s surprising. It has a class A input stage and AB bipolar output stage with a specified output of 400W per side with each channel controlled by its own processor. The price has yet to be set up looks like being between $50,000 and $60,000. 

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At the rather more affordable end of the scale ifi unveiled the Aurora, a rather different take on the wireless sound system. Using a tube as a current amplifier for a “kick ass” sound it has flat bass drivers underneath and can stream from Spotify, Tidal, net radio and Airplay as well as your personal music library. The bamboo and aluminium case was designed by Julien Haziza (above left with founder/engineer Thorsten Loesch) who took inspiration from Japanese architects Shigero Ban and Tadao Ando for the sharp lines. It can be powered by wallwart or any high amperage 12V supply such as the one on your yacht (if you have a yacht that is). Price will be $1,300.

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CAD are making good progress with their Ground Control noise reduction devices, witness the Tech Das system. They have also been encouraged to go further which has resulted in the GC-R or the ‘big bugger’ as it has become known. This is an eight outlet Reference Ground Control with a mineral polymer case and a dry weight of 50kg, price is also quite hefty at £19,500.

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French speaker specialist Elipson was the first to put a drive unit in a ‘head’ atop a bass cabinet back in the sixties, new owner AV Industries has revived this approach with the Legacy 3230. This combines an AMT planar tweeter with a ceramic midrange in a ‘head’ made of glass fibre, resin and stone sitting on an 80 litre cabinet with a pair of paper, ceramic and aluminium bass drivers. The cabinet incorporates rear fixing of the bass units and three types of damping  in a walnut veneer finish. Elipson is also making the BS 50 Tribute (€3,990), a particularly stylish spherical design with an upward firing driver and a big reflective sound mirror on a 50cm ball with tripod legs.

 

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Jason Kennedy

High End 2019  pt.2