Milano Hi Fidelity 2017

The global capital of fashion and design is a most appropriate place for a high-end audio event and, not surprisingly, the Milan show was buzzing. Among the visitors was our Special Correspondent, Trevor Butler.

Organiser Stefano Zaini from Sound of the Valve is rightly proud of his Milan show staged at a five-star hotel in one of Milan’s up-and-coming districts over a warm weekend in late April. The event was widely publicised within Italy which has a burgeoning audiophile market of its own. With free entry, the annual event is a popular one and more than 4,000 visitors were expected during the two days. The Italian’s lack of carpeting produced some acoustic challenges which exhibitors had to address, some bringing enormous rugs, others diffusers and absorption panels. One trick was to simply play music that didn’t excite the room resonances.

Upstairs on the hotel’s first floor were a mixture of 25 standard bedrooms and a few larger syndicate rooms that could accommodate two setups. One such was Audio Reference who entertained the crowd with melodic jazz through Rockport Atria II speakers making their Italian debut, amply powered with EMM Labs Canadian electronics by Meitner Design including the MA-1 DAC. This system alternated with the one above running a Gryphon Diablo 120 integrated amp fed by a Bryston BCD-3 CD player into some rather lovely Avati floorstanders from Audio Physic who celebrated 30 years of German manufacturing with a reincarnation of this favoured design.

There was more jazz next door where Dynaudio Contour 30 floorstanders were bringing Ben Webster’s Old Betsy to life on an Elac turntable, ably assisted by a Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista amplifier and matching CD player for digital renditions. A huge rug under and between the speakers was doing its job here and I lingered awhile to absorb the melody from a speaker brand that doesn’t always excel under show-conditions.

With their turntable on good form next door, Elac’s stand-mount Debut B6 speakers with matching S10EQ subwoofer were singing away thanks to the wonderfully-named LP Audio who were using the brand’s Discovery DS-S101-G streamer to great effect through an Element EA-101EQG integrated. I have to say though that someone at Elac needs to come up with some catchy model names, the current nomenclature doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue!

With 25 years’ experience of putting together top-sounding systems, Marco Carminati was rightly proud of his setup. The man behind Dimensione Hi-Fi used a complement of German Physiks and Accuphase to produce a most involving sound that was highly rhythmical and engaging. Like many rooms here, was the electronics were placed to the side rather than between the speakers (always a good idea, Ed).

With ATC’s British engineering to the fore, Audeus had the stand-mount SCM19 (above) at the centre of one system (coupled with Cyrus and ATC electronics including the P2 power amp and CDA-2 CD/DAC and preamp) and the smaller ATC SCM7 ably fed with MacBook Air and the Cyrus One, to show just what can be achieved from a small-scale system when it’s set up well. Both sounds were enjoyably entertaining and the hospitality friendly.

 

A French loudspeaker that I had not heard before from JMR Abscisse, the Puccini Anniversary model, was driven with mighty AirTech’s Maestro Anniversary amps with lids removed to reveal the solid engineering inside these powerhouses. The 50th anniversary jubilee edition floorstanders may have benefited from some damping in a room with hard surfaces all around but showed their revealing characteristics nonetheless.

Stylish-looking floorstanders from Pearl Evolution, sitting on subwoofer plinths (with smaller models from the brand on static display alongside), produced a warm sound with a new tube CD player, the Lector CDP 707, as source feeding a pair of V200 stereo hybrid amps. They filled the room both literally and sonically and seemed popular with visitors.

With an orange hue to the room, Fletcher and Munson’s Italian floor-standing loudspeakers were being proudly demonstrated by designer Giorgio Macchi. A sweet, delicate treble and realistically natural mid-range produced a memorable sound from a brand I hadn’t experienced before but shall look out for again. It was in rooms such as this that I wished I had been accompanied by an interpreter to discover more about the products.

Domineering boxes with separate horn tweeters on top made for a memorable visit to the Thauma Note room where the Lyra Clavis cartridge equipped turntable was creating highly-musical sounds and revealing the Italian’s love of vinyl as well as vacuum tubes which both dominated the event. The tube amps here were avintage AGI 511 pre and Sun Audio 300B power. ‘Melodic’ and ‘detailed’ are the notes I made as the demonstration included a wide range of genre from Chet Baker and female vocalist Tiziana Ghiglioni. For my benefit, it embraced some Bach in the form of BWV 1011 and 1012 Cello Suites by cellist André Navarra, although I was slightly embarrassed that the change to classical for my benefit did empty the room.

Despite it being Cinema & Sound room, the importer was promoting stereo with a Studer A80 reel-to-reel recorder (a half-track with 15 and 30ips options), which brought back happy memories of using these machines at the BBC during the eighties. The room was always busy whenever I tried to visit, and on the third attempt I used my media credentials to press my way through the throng. The Audio Solutions Vantage floorstanders were not only imposing but produced seismic bass that caused my toes to vibrate. Electronics were by Helixir and a wonderfully large-scale sound was produced with the benefit of careful room damping. There was the most intimate midrange from Kim Carnes’s ‘Betty Davis Eyes’, for example; creating a sound I shall long remember alongside the representative’s clear enthusiasm for his system.

The man himself was in attendance at the Metaxas demonstration and had joined forces with Italian speaker creator NIME. Using his own purist recordings was a smart move as the system generated a very sweet sound with a full, rich and detailed vocal line. The display was dominated by three of the Metaxas ‘skull-shaped’ pre-amp/headphone amps. One was in use as a HP amp, another as a pre to drive the Icarus amplifier and the third just for display.

With something of a blast from the past, tape sources were the order of the day in the Clef and Note room created by Associazione Mob. With Chario stand-mount speakers sounding as good as ever, I was taken back in time by an Otari reel-to-reel recorder, Tascam 120 cassette deck and Technics SL1220 Mk2 turntable. It was surprising to see so many Italian audio enthusiasts showing an interest in these tape recorders.

ATC were pressed into service in another room, this time the magnificent SCM20s were coupled with high-end amps from Swiss brand Goldmund to create a gloriously natural sound. The array of solid and highly-competent electronics comprised a pair of Telos 360 power amps, Mimesis 11wireless hub and Eidos 17 universal AV player. This partnership was superb and, of course, to a superb engineering standard as we’ve come to expect from both these marques.

Every audio event throws up a few surprises and, for me, the main one was a speaker designer with a new take on things. Vincenzo Fratello, from Italian company Dolcevita Audio, was keen to explain and demonstrate the remarkably different Susi floorstander with separate bass section that stands alongside, and the compact, full-range Volare, which was playing to a packed room. Susi goes deep and plays loud, I was told; too much so for the small space available here, sadly. An open-baffle design with an additional, matching cabinet housing eight 10-inch woofers can move a lot of air.

In a rather sparse-looking space stood the prototype floor-standing Mach 4 speaker from Italian amplifier specialist Grandinote. Chief designer Massimiliano Magri demonstrated that this could create volumes of LF from its 50-litre cabinet and 95dB sensitivity. It revealed good articulation and should be making a formal appearance around the globe very soon. Needless to say that the brand’s electronics were up to their usual standard and evoking a keen response.

Jazz certainly appeared to be the music of the show as it was used to reveal how loud and deep the glossy red Italian floorstanders from Reitem would go. And this from eighties’ sources including Sony DAT, Pioneer, Marantz and Sony CD players of old. The system was powered by an output transformer-less (OTL) valve amplifier that I would know more about had Georgio Costa and I not faced a language barrier.

A delicate, smooth and precise sound came from an all-German line-up of Berlin’s Music Culture electronics and a Dr Feickert top-of-the-range Blackbird turntable with matching Reed 3P tonearm through a pair of Acapella Audio Arts Fidelio Mk III speakers, which are as attractive to look at as they are to listen to, immersing the audience in the music. Amplification was the MC 611 Reference pre and a pair of MC 812 power amps.

Nearing the end of my tour of the first floor, I was drawn to a highly-musical system featuring Pen Audio’s floor-standing Serenade Signature 3-way bass-reflex speakers from Finland. These were driven with the highly stylised Gato Audio Danish electronics including CDD1 CD player (or, as it’s described: DAC with a drive) and 150 Watt AMP-150 integrated. Others  also obviously enjoyed the experience and the room was busy.

In a room looking as good as it sounded, Italy’s well-travelled Viva electronics were doing the business. In the largest space the first floor could offer, Audio Graffiti had put together a great system that was clearly being enjoyed by many. The enormous handcrafted Italian Sigma Audio loudspeakers were like works of art and just exuded the country’s style and design capabilities. A Viva Numerico CD player fed the New Linea preamp and drove the New Aurora monoblocks to provide plenty of power.

Downstairs, things were a little surreal: larger spaces dominated by those who showed less passion and commitment for what they were doing. Yes, they could afford the biggest and best rooms but whether they made the most of them is a mute point.  For example, in one of the largest spaces at the whole event a pair of Falcon bookshelf LS3/5As were being demonstrated some six metres away from the first row of the audience; and these conceived to be a near-field speaker. To increase the absurdity, these inexpensive boxes were driven by enormously powerful Burmester amplifiers. Talk about OTT!

Passing an array of stalls selling everything from LPs, magazine subscriptions, books, spare valves, headphones and cables, I stumbled across what seemed to be a Studer museum of tape machines through the analogue age.

Professional monitor company Axiolab created glorious sounds in a basement room with huge dynamics from a stand-mount model that’s sold in kit-form. The firm is prominent in many areas of audio, and caters for everything from in-car, home automation and industrial install – supplying a huge range of drive units, cabinets, crossover components and cables. 

Perhaps the most visually attractive display involved inverted-triangle loudspeakers and Perspex-cased electronics, all artistically draped with what appeared to be a length of net curtaining. Producing an immensely detailed sound from vinyl sources, the Soundwaves υx2 has external crossovers for the five drive units in each cabinet that includes super tweeters. The source was an Audio Concepts Timeless Elements DNA CD player and converter.

Further large basement rooms housed big names such as Technics (under the Panasonic Italia banner), Sonus Faber, Luxman and Focal – but none seemed to have the magic of some of those first-floor spaces which, while hot and cramped, were staffed by people who wanted to be there, proudly showing off their wares and entertaining  visitors with the best sounds they could muster. And, with that, it was time to head back to Linate airport and my flight to London – leaving behind some wonderful people, great hospitality and immensely enjoyable hi-fi from a country that really does know about design and style.

Trevor Butler