XFi 2018 pt.1

Serving not just Holland but also attracting visitors from nearby Belgium, Eindhoven’s XFi is the premier audio event in Benelux. Organised by audiophiles Caspar Bunge and Ton van der Veeken it is well-known for product surprises, so we sent Trevor Butler across the Channel to investigate.

Billed as the biggest and best high-end event in the Low Countries, XFi is enormous with 350 brands to audition in 70 demonstration rooms. Inclement weather may have accounted for a slightly lower attendance than in previous years, but this just made for a more pleasant visit since there was less jostling and much more chance to find a seat in most of the rooms, not to mention at the bar.
My first stop was driven by some social media mentions of a new loudspeaker from redoubtable UK firm Linn. In the end, it seems this was inaccurate viral marketing and what was on show were new electronics. In fact, the public showing of a brand new product. 

Linn sells direct to dealers in The Netherlands, as they do in neighbouring Germany, so it was left to an eager young team from the brand’s Scottish HQ to present in English at XFi. They used the occasion to showcase the new Selekt DSMnetwork music player launched at the factory the previous week. Perhaps surprisingly, instead of their own loudspeakers, Linn chose to partner with Wilson Benesch and had installed a pair of Square 3 floor-standers, a two-and-a-half-way design. It was my first experience of a Linn demonstration in some 30 years, but nothing much has changed as listeners are still told of the differences they were supposed to be hearing as the system got progressively more expensive. The Rodrigo y Gabriela cover version of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ wasn’t to my musical preference either, although we had the chance to hear the first few bars repeatedly during the 20-minute presentation. That said, the room was constantly busy and great effort had clearly been given to both the acoustics and aesthetics. 

Along the corridor I was pleased by the sounds emanating from the ZMI Audio room. It was not a surprise to find that the Dutch Cephei 20.2 floorstanders, now launched in 5.05 MkII form, are designed by  a composer and made in nearby Breda. I had heard a prototype a couple of years ago and now the finished product was creating an incredibly clean, open sound with huge dynamics and a punchy bass. The €5,800 open-baffle design is set to be followed by a monitor version from a manufacturer worth watching. This three-way weighs in at 45kg and combines a 25mm tweeter, 6.5-inch midrange and 10-inch woofer. Standard finishes are glorious high-gloss in black or white. Highly entertaining.

Pure Audio Project’s Trio 15 loudspeakers were shown in the latest Horn1 configuration. The modular, open-baffle design allows for easy upgrades as well as interchangeability. They start from €5,000 per pair with the demonstration units including the horn driver costing from €9,000. The design encompasses the brand’s custom-made OB-A15Neo woofers with their classic wood-horn. Imaging was incredible across an impressive soundstage. Altogether toe-tapping stuff. In the same room was Opera Consonance’s electronics, a Beijing brand celebrating 25 years of audio innovation. A special version of the Air-1 turntable was being shown, the Air-1-Air with not only an air-suspension tangential arm but also an air-suspension platter in a €12,000 package. Impressive stuff. 

It was a treat to visit the Klipsch room to witness the launch of the €1,350 floor-standing RP-8000F, vaunted as something of an affordable bass-reflex powerhouse. It has new Tractrix horn technology and the dual 8-inch copper-spun Ceramatellic cone bass unit which ensures that the speaker is so efficient. Also on demo, under the banner ‘Loud and Proud since 1946’ were The One and The Three wireless, battery-powered bookshelf loudspeakers. 

Making its debut at last year’s XFi with the company’s first loudspeaker, this year Ilumia launched the Vocalis stand-mount monitor. It features the same high-tech LEMS driver found in the floor-stander, complete with electro magnetic suspension. Not surprisingly then, the sound had the same incredibly detailed resolution, glorious transparency and extremely-low distortion. The main difference between the €20,900 Magister and its €12,900 smaller brother is an extra 8Hz of bass extension. Both are handmade in Belgium and this young company has more up its sleeve I have no doubt.

Some sounds just draw visitors into the room from the corridor; such was the case with Audio Solutions’ floor-standers powered by Alluxity’s Danish electronics in a system composed by Connaisseur AV. For me this was the most successful of the three rooms the high-end distributor had at XFi. Those glorious black-gloss Figaro M speakers were creating a sound which belied their €4,900 price tag: so clean, so neutral; so believable. With a quoted response of 32Hz to 25kHz, they weigh 41kg each but just look and sound amazing. The 2.5cm silk-dome tweeter integrates so well with the 15.2cm paper midrange, while a pair of 18.3cm paper woofers do the business down the bottom end. For me it created one of the most enjoyable sounds of the show. The luxurious speakers also set-off the Ferrari red cases of the Alluxity Media One server, with onboard DAC, and Int One integrated amp which together comprise all you need to make great music. 

Some rooms were large enough for two or even more systems to be run along different walls. So it was with Savor Audio who had a wealth of highly-respected brands to showcase, among them McIntosh tubes and Sonus Faber speakers. The MT2 turntable, at €5,399, provided the source to a €4,999 MA252 integrated into a €1,500 pair of Sonette I speakers. At the other end of the space was a bigger system being enjoyed by many visitors eager to hear the €6,000 Sonetteo VIII floor-standers powered by a €10,500 MA8900 amplifier which made for a highly dynamic sound with plenty of low-end grunt. Not surprisingly, this space was constantly busy although one oddity was the pricing of speakers, not in pairs but individually. 

Another huge room was occupied by Gato Audio which chose Harry Belafonte tracks to demonstrate brands including Townshend, Piega from Switzerland and the French Elipson. At the time of my arrival, the Danish Gato FM50s were delighting the crowd, although dwarfed by the Piega MLS (Master Line Source) II. Gato can clearly deliver the goods, creating a really pacey sound with great rhythm, and timing that was spot-on. They filled the enormous space with sound in a highly musical way. Electronics in service were the Gato CCD1 CD player, PRO 35 preamp and a pair of mighty PWR 222s 250W monoblocks. Wow! They sounded good. 

An interesting pair of prototypes caught my eye in Hear Eveything Audio’s room, the distribution company of XFi’s co-organiser Ton who always has a smile on his face. Squat, white polycarbonate-looking floor-standing cabinets with a top shelf to time-align the tweeter, they looked unusual. From Swedish firm Guru, the Q60s (a reincarnation of the QM60 that we reviewed in 2014) sounded competent and I shall follow their progress with interest. Also here were American Merrill Audio (with the new Element 118 monoblocks), CEC Electronics and Bespoke Audio’s passive preamp (in a new pearlescent finish) to create a most enjoyable system.  

One of the venue’s vast open spaces, the Parkzaal, was devoted to headphones of every conceivable size, colour and type. One which I immediately hit upon was called Meters, and rightly so because a back-lit VU meter is incorporated into each side. My favourite was the OV1BT with 40mm dome drivers at £329 a pair, offering Bluetooth and wired connections from the family-run business based in Essex. The range comes from Ashdown Music, a globally-renowned manufacturer of guitar amps and with trademark illuminated VU meters. That concept has now been incorporated into these worldwide-patented cans which were launched at CES last year. Not only looking retro cool, they comprise the latest technology, using the Qualcomm CSR8675 Chip (premium-tier Bluetooth, audio flash platform, with support for QUALCOMM aptx HD and active noise cancellation). Plans are already in place, I am told, for home audio products. Watch this space. 

Previewed at Munich, and launched to the Audio Press in Amsterdam, it was the first Dutch outing for Marantz’s new, extra-special Ruby Series to celebrate the marque’s 40thanniversary. The man behind the Marantz company’s designs for so long, Ken Ishiwata came across the border from his Belgium home to be at XFi. After taking office in 1978, Ishiwata made a name for himself as creator of sonically superior designs, and now no component or product leaves the factory before it is approved by him. The Ruby Series consists of an amplifier (PM-KI Ruby) and an SACD player (SA-KI Ruby). The difference with regular Marantz products is that Ishiwata has personally selected and tested the components. 

A British electronics brand I have long admired had 50thAnniversary products at XFi with the Sugden Masterclass ANV-50 working well in the Audioscript room. Providing 2x50W a channel, the integrated costs 4,200€. It was being used alongside Luxman sources (a label now part of the massive Chinese conglomerate that is International Audio Group, but one allowed to operate with autonomy from Japan) driving speakers from ProAc and B&W. The room was a popular one, producing an enjoyable sound and some much-needed morning coffee and Dutch cakes. 

A Dutch company I had not encountered before, Pink Faun had what one either regards as pretty or, on the other hand, garish speakers. Their giant Euphrosyne (meaning clarity) speaker’s prominent horns were in a bright pink but do the business from 16Hz to 25kHz with a 115dB sensitivity to boot. The €40,000 a pair model is active and comes with a total of eight 3W Class-A single-ended amps with zero-feedback (housed in two cases) and all the connection cables needed. They are capable of high SPLs and incredible dynamic range thanks to the long-drive 12-inch bass units which supplement a two-way design of midrange and horn tweeter. Alongside were tube DAC and preamp units plus four power supplies – two for the DAC and another pair for the preamp. The range is made in the Dutch town of Rhenen and was proudly demonstrated by designer Jord Groen. 

It is interesting to see how designs develop, and such is the case with Rik Stoet’s turntable, seen in pre-production form last year. Called Takumi (Japanese for craftsman), the Dutch design was the source for a system driving Cube Audio’s Fc8 full-range drivers in a floorstanding cabinet (€7,900 a pair) and sounding open and transparent with both poise and agility. The turntable has undergone enhancements during the past twelve months (not least to the platter and bearing, plus creation of a bespoke arm with thin-wall titanium tube and three-piece counterweight), and is now poised to enter production and will be offered through highly selected European dealers at €895 with Ortofon Red cartridge as standard. Rik is delighted that the project is now complete even though it has taken “literally years to perfect”. The sound quality would seem to vindicate his efforts. 

It was lovely to meet the two founders of the exciting, young Japanese brand SPEC. Both Masaaki Nishimiya and his colleague left Pioneer to start their new venture. They were at XFi to support AudioTweaks for the launch of the RPA-MG1000, the new 300W monoblocks. At €70,000 a pair, they are come complete with power supplies in matching enclosures. They were being used to drive Tobian 15HC floor-standers which have just been introduced to the Benelux market. The mightly €29,500 back-loaded horn speakers have long impressed me and did not disappoint at XFi. With a Studer 807 Mk II reel-to-reel as the source, the sound was just sublime. I lingered longer than I should to soak up the music here and chat to AudioTweak’s knowledgeable and friendly proprietor Piet de Vries.

Handmade in Germany, the superb level of engineering was clear in the Silvercore electronics range which Christof Kraus was proudly displaying, lids off, so we could all admire the interiors. Here a €5,600 phono stage, €6,200 line stage preamp and €36,500 304TL Audimax power amps (with Eimac 304TL final-stage tube) were revealed and the design circuitry explained. In a beautifully authentic building in Leipzig, Silvercore has both a showroom (or his man’s caveas Christof calls it), and a test chamber where products are evaluated on various horn systems, including a large Silbatone / GIP Lab horn system. The large space lends itself perfectly to such front-loaded horns, he tells me. Speakers deployed at XFi were by Bastanis and Club-27, with a turntable from stst as the analogue source. An impressive line-up which did not disappoint. 

Trevor Butler

See part 2 of our XFi 2018 coverage here