As the temperature soared audiophiles queued in the unseasonable sunshine outside the Don Giovanni hotel in Prague for the start of a two-day hi-fi fest. Among the crowd was Ear special correspondent Trevor Butler.
There’s clearly no shortage of enthusiasm for high-end audio in the Czech Republic if attendance at the Audio-Video Show is anything to go by. Yes, there was also a smattering of computer games and home theatre systems, but this just enables a wider audience to witness the glories of top-notch hi-fi systems. The edge-of-city hotel provides a mix of typically small bedrooms, some conference rooms and a number of larger, syndicate areas that enabled some pretty decent setups.
Technet (above) is good example of how busy this show was, Czech brand Sroll speakers was drawing the crowds under its ‘sound no compromise’ banner. The room had been well damped and this benefited the large floor-standers that reproduced a range of musical genres with electronics from Casea.
After being personally welcomed by show organizer Daniel Březina it was time to enjoy the mix of home-grown Czech products, those from neighbouring countries and more from further afield. Alighting the lift I met Fredrik Johnsen who’d make the journey from Hegel’s Oslo headquarters.
He was keen to show me the new Mohican, so called because it’s intended to be the last name in CD players. With an improved version of the acclaimed DAC from the HD30, owner/designer Bent Holter has been able to optimize it for purely CD playback, just one sampling rate and one frequency to worry about. Hegel are proudly claiming that it’s their best source so far “without a doubt”. Certainly on an A/B comparison with the streamed version of Agnes Obel’s latest album (Citizen of Glass) it was delivering the goods through some Raidho speakers from Denmark. A popular choice in Japan, apparently, the larger C-21 floorstanders had decent timing, and cost €20,500.
An incredibly realistic timbre came from the adjacent room where Slovakian speakers from Neo looked elegant thanks to their inverted-wedge cabinet that is much wider at the top than at the floor. The Alpha model at €5,700 and stand-mount Crystal 1 at €6,900 use Accuton ceramic drivers, crossover components courtesy of Mundorf and internal cabling by Chord Co.
A highly-musical set-up of Michelle GyroDec (with SME M2-9 and Koetsu Red), Jadis DPMC and 150 amp fed beautifully-crafted Franco Serblin speakers from Italy. The Lignea model is the result of a three-year development program and one of the last projects conceived by the Sonus faber founder, while with the Accordo his wish was to create a sound capable of reaching the depths of the soul. I have to say that he achieved it with aplomb.
As the company name implies, Audio-Visual Technology was one of the several exhibitors who put as much effort into pictures as sound. Apart from its array of delicious local refreshments, the exhibitor created a highly-entertaining show including the largest centre-channel speaker in an involving 7.1 set-up featuring RIHA speakers and an enormous Panasonic screen to show the capabilities of ultra-HD Blu-ray. Audio-visual.cz
By contrast, Dali were playing in a rather lively environment where their towering Opticon floorstanders caused too many room-related issues. The decision had been taken not to damp the room for fear of “killing the bass”, so they resorted to playing the smaller Menuet, stand-mount 2-way from the range in high gloss white instead, coupled with Audio Research amplification.
German loudspeaker brand Canton told me that floor-standers are popular with Czech customers and so they demonstrated both the large Ref 7K, with their aluminium cones on ceramic diaphragms, and the equally impressive Chronos SL586DC (not the catchiest of model names, as I pointed out!) featuring titanium membrane drivers. Coupled with Audiolab electronics, including the 8300CD, the sound was entertaining and being lapped up by visitors.
From France came Focal but partnered not with Naim electronics but rather the new-look Quad. The Sopra speakers in black lacquer (a popular finish at the show which had fewer wood-look cabinets than we see displayed elsewhere) and the stand-mount Diablo Utopia gave a lively sound with a detailed and forward treble and good pace which had visitors’ toes tapping.
At what I dubbed headphone corner the corridor was lit with moving stars as if to add interest to what some regard as a mundane product. But having been at home in BBC studios for many years, headphones I find them fascinating. I spent time trying the myriad models in several ranges including Sennheiser, Beyer, JVC and others. Headsets come under this category as well now, with a variety of options on show. The rooms were busy, so I’m not the only HP nut on the planet, thankfully (you are legion! Ed).
For me the highlight of the show, at least visually, was in the Metaxas room where the man himself was present. With a welcome smile and time to chat about how his days as a recording engineer influence his industrial designs (in audio and beyond), Kostas reminds me how his vision is for sculpture to become electronics. This he has achieved in dramatic style with the Marquis headphone amplifier/preamp and the Ikarus integrated at €25,000.
These rather funky-looking speakers are by NIME Audio Design from Italy. Almost alien in appearance, they start at €12,500 a pair in white gloss or piano black and sounded just as glorious as they looked. The mix of metal outer and wooden inner cabinets ensure that aesthetics are on a par with sound quality.
Solid Mark Levinson electronics powered a range of floor-standers from Revel to produce a detailed and rhythmic sound which was being enjoyed by many at the show, even though it opened on a working Friday many found time to be there and enjoy the demonstrations.
With its bright-red waveguide, the Zingali Zero Evo Otto floorstanders were driven by Cyrus electronics including the Lyric streamer. Sheathed with Canadian poplar wood the cabinet slopes gently backwards to help eliminate standing waves. Central to all the company’s designs is its patented wooden horn called Omniray. They have apparently proved popular in a number of prestigious recording studios since first being introduced in 1996.
Among the German brands was Fischer & Fischer with the floorstanding SN-470 driven by Esoteric electronics and a TEAC turntable source. In a smaller, adjacent room were the stand-mount SN-70s and SN-170 floorstanders with a TEAC SACD source this time. And, wow, could they move some air in this confined space.
Value was to the fore in the Pansky Druv room, courtesy of Ayon’s single-ended triode Crossfire III (little brother of the much-acclaimed Vulcan Evo and powered with their proprietary AA20B tube) with a top-loading CD-35 demonstrating the capabilities of SACD. Dynamics and resolution were the watchwords here as the symmetrical FP10 speakers by hORNS filled the room.
Tomáš Jiráček Jnr is half of the local father-and-son team behind handmade turntables under the label 440 Audio. The Art Edition range combines stunning design with superb engineering and was certainly attracting attention. Available in a range of chassis colours to show-off the acrylic platter, my personal favourite was Deep Blue. “We sculpt our turntables not as a piece of equipment, but as art objects”, I was told. It’s easy to see why.
Lifestyle, active loudspeakers from German brand Kii provided some great pace and rhythm to ‘Hotel California’ when I visited the room. The Three model has DSP control and blends so easily into its surrounding and even has on-board wireless for an uncluttered room; best of all they even switch-off automatically when you’re through listening. Talk about labour-saving!
Making the short journey from the other side of Prague, the team from Symbio Design brought a range of unusual-looking speakers for a variety of applications including custom install. The two-way, bass-reflex Alpha (originally Alfa) is just as happy floorstanding, sideways on a shelf or installed in a wall or ceiling. Its SEAS drivers are used in an acoustic labyrinth with high engineering specifications. Also offered are the larger floor-standing Samurai and a specific on- or in-wall model.
One of the most musical setups comprised a VPI Prime turntable from New Jersey with Japanese TAD compact Evolution One speakers and Audionet VIP-G2 CD with PSU, capable of playing CD, DVD and SACD. All are imported by the affable Tom Kalina from KAS Audio who also represents a host of UK brands in the Czech Republic including Naim, Harbeth, Spendor and ATC. I am told on good authority that TAD products are made by robots at a Toyota plant to a very high standard. Given the acoustics of the hotel’s bedrooms, this made for a most enjoyable and yet relatively affordable system.
Handmade in Denmark the elegant, not to say beautiful, Audiovector floorstanders had a certain quality, both visually and audibly. The highly-tuned SR3 Avant Garde model is exquisite featuring as it does the air-motion transformer drive unit to produce an extended and sweet treble, negating the need for a super-tweeter. It is partnered with a midrange driver that has an unfiltered response up to 10kHz for maximum dynamics.
See part 2 here