Exploring the labyrinth of corridors that make up the biggest specialist audio show in The Netherlands, Trevor Butler discovers what’s hot at this year’s XFi near Eindhoven.
Each year, the XFi show seems to just get better and better. The atmosphere is relaxed, the sounds [mostly] sublime and, with Belgian beer on tap, an enjoyable weekend is assured for visiting audiophiles. Based in a former monastery now converted into a hotel and conference centre, the Konningshof venue is ideal for a busy hi-fi event. Its spacious corridors offer a variety of different sized syndicate rooms catering for manufacturers, distributors and dealers to display their wares. This year was no exception with new brands and new products to whet the appetite. An hour before the doors opened, visitors were queuing in the rain so great was their enthusiasm. By lunchtime on each of the show’s two days the venue was crowded and I noticed a tendency for visitors to linger in many of the rooms to absorb the atmosphere. An encouraging sign for the industry and in contrast to the fleeting visits we find at other European venues.
My first port of call was to Metrum Acoustics, formed in 1989 to develop electrostatic speakers but now known for its range of DACs, digital pre-amps and power amplifiers for both professional and hi-fi users. I was particularly interested in the floor-standing speakers with hybrid tweeters being used but, alas, they are not a production model, which is a shame because the sound here was refined, delicate and detailed with a careful choice of material to suit the room acoustics. DSP is a key facet of the brand’s designs along with their own Transient converter chips with non-oversampling techniques. The 50W/ch Forte power amp is €7,995, Adagio digital pre €6,950, with Level 3 Pavane DAC €6,250 offering a maximum 384kHz sampling.
Next door were much more melodic sounds as well as an interesting technical description of Dutch company Temporal Coherence’s philosophy by founder Dr Hans van Maanen. His Pyramide Active System, a floorstanding speaker with suspended tweeter, displayed pace and poise while being emotionally involving. This €30,000, 3-way design, with its four amplifiers, created an enormously wide and convincing soundstage. Sharing the room, and playing alternately, was the new Hepta speaker from a company that started in Amsterdam in 1955 as a furniture maker but quickly expanded into audio. This two-and-a-half-way €2,750 floorstander features an impedance correction system to enable it to be coupled to the widest range of amplifiers.
X-Fi is able to combine specialist niche products alongside mainstream brands including B&W and Rotel who shared a room to demonstrate the new 700 series of loudspeakers alongside the acclaimed 800 Series Diamond. The demonstrations of the latest product were popular and the large room appeared packed on several visits to try and secure a seat. Listening from the doorway the new 702 S2 was clearly doing the business and making music come alive.
Next door was the premier of a majestic floor-stander, the Triton Reference from USA’s Golden Ear at €9,995 a pair. With an active sub in each cabinet, the sounds were impressive from this multi-driver range-topper: detailed and with clout to fill a large room with apparent ease. Here also was the new Pass Labs €7,500 XP-12 pre-amp promising lower distortion and noise over the previous model, and their €5,500 XP17 phono stage using a new low-noise toroidal and input filter module. Then there was the latest 600i V2 integrated at €7,500 from Moon (by SIM Audio) along with their 240i integrated amp with 32-bit DSD DAC at €2,290 offering a plethora of digital and analogue inputs including phono, plus the new Spectral DMA-280 €23,900 stereo amp. The line-up was impressive and attracted constant crowds.
Marantz had chosen the highly capable Concept 500 floorstanders from Q-Acoustics to show off its award-winning SA-10 Super Audio CD Player and PM-10 integrated. As ever, this combination did not disappoint and produced one of the most glorious sounds of the show for me. The speakers had been cunningly angled so as to cross in front of the first row and give the widest possible dispersion, and thus give the majority of listeners a good sense of imaging.
Flying the flag for Britain, Cyrus’ European agent was on hand to demonstrate the quality of the Huntingdon-designed and made electronics alongside a British motoring icon in the shape of a classic Triumph motorcycle. With a choice of both Audio Physic Avanti and the new Monitor Audio Silver 200 floorstanders, the result with a variety of carefully-selected jazz tracks was of a punchy, detailed sound with lovely rhythmic textures. Featured were the €2,295 Stereo 200 power amp with €1,845 Stream X Signature DAC and CDxt Signature, the €2295 CD transport.
One of the largest spaces at the show was being shared by four demonstrations playing in turn. Along one wall was an all-British line-up of ProAc loudspeakers powered by Sugden amplification, down another an impressive array of elegant-looking Luxman electronics which, I was told, were hugely popular with the Dutch. While I was present it was the turn of Lyngdorf who managed to fill this huge space with their diminutive stand-mounts and dual subs.
Sharing the room, and keen to expound the science behind his technology, Leo de Klerk from Bloomline Acoustics, based near Rotterdam, admitted he was more accustomed to addressing professional audiences than hi-fi enthusiasts. His Omniwave system comprises vertical phantom sources from 360-degree radiators to create 3D soundstages without sweetspots. Unsurprisingly it is popular in theatres and other sound reinforcement installations. His demonstration was impressive and revealed the benefits of his coaxial dome drive units. Interestingly, his research revealed that the principle has its roots in work done at Liverpool University by a Professor Lodge in around 1898.
Proving that perhaps older equipment should be revived rather then discarded, a room by Axign Vintage Audio was dedicated to audio models from a previous era. A trio of loudspeakers used to good effect comprised the Suesskind Pulse Deluxe from Germany, the Castle Richmond Anniversary compact bookshelf made in China and a slim floorstanding System Audio Saxo 70, also Chinese in origin. Electronics from yesteryear included old Quad in the shape of the 22 and 303, and 34 with FM4, plus a Lenco L76/S turntable and classic Marantz Quartzlock 627OQ direct-drive alongside a Luxman 308 integrated stereo amp specified at 110W/ch. Sound quality was surprisingly good.
With a room filled by the powerful fragrance of fresh lilies, Devialet’s latest model was demonstrated with some interesting Danish speakers courtesy of Davone. With retro styling embracing modern technology, the range includes the stand-mount Studio model that revealed an ability to convey a vivid naturalness from the small-scale classical track selected. Sited on a bespoke stand, it features a special fibre-blend midrange and unique ring radiator tweeter to produce a wide soundstage from a diminutive hand-crafted box.
Grimm Audio’s LS1a proved an instant hit with visitors to Koningshof. Eelco Grimm was proud to demonstrate the new model in a floral surrounding which complements the existing LS1 active playback system and the active flagship LS1be (with beryllium tweeter) launched last year. With the LS1a, Grimm have created their least expensive model by selecting a non-magnesium woofer and eliminating some of the more labour-intensive elements to produce a two-way system needing just a digital or analogue source to create a complete music system. With bass specified down to 20 Hz, an LS1s-dmf (motional feedback) subwoofer will transform it into a wideband three-way system. Sounds were impressive, no wonder people lingered to listen.
From The Hague came HVP Audio using Jeff Rowland electronics to power a pair of serious-looking Coltrane 3speakers from Marten. This latest three-way uses newly-developed Cell drivers, with the tweeter cone made of pure diamond no less, and the midrange from pure ceramic. The rigid baffle features an aluminium sheet sandwiched between two wooden layers. Total time and phase coherence is promised. The room was busy and everyone appeared to be enjoying a clean, detailed sound that was most involving.
Next door I immediately felt at home as a pair of Sussex-made Harbeth monitors dominated the room. They had a pair of the new, Monitor 30.2 Anniversary Edition two-way stand-mounts in stunning silver eucalyptus, seen but not heard at the Munich show. Whether it was the stands selected or the room (but unlikely to be the partnering Croft electronics which I’ve consistently heard work so well with Harbeth models), but several visitors agreed with Wim Rodenburg that somehow they weren’t singing as well as they can. There was a feeling of the music being slightly restrained, trying to escape, of the sound being a little more clinical than the earlier Harbeth. One thought was that, with a long run-in period, things might improve.
All-new loudspeakers (below) were unveiled by van Medevoort alongside their CT360D CD player/transport, 8-input PCM/DSD DA470 DAC, the CA470 control amp and PA472 power amp rated at 250W/ch. The stand-mount DD5.2 is offered in black or red finish, while the floorstanding DD9.2 adds a white option. Both appear to be two-ways, but incorporate a driver within the sealed cabinet to create three-ways. The company’s own cable range is used within products and available for both interconnect and speaker connections.
From Sweden came Böhmer Audio with their ingenious Wavelet, a room-correcting DAC/preamp and crossover using an external 12V supply and with four outputs per channel to cater for bi-amping, subs or digital crossovers. It offers three digital and four analogue inputs that are adjustable, by DIP switches, to avoid clipping. When measuring the speakers in the room, the data is sent over the net to Böhmer’s computer in Sweden for analysis. There the filters are calculated and returned to the Wavelet to allow the alignment process to take place. The unit may be placed between conventional pre- and power amps for use as just a room correction module. Results were rewarding as the shortcomings of a convention centre conference room were masterfully overcome across the array of seats provided. One had to go to the rear of the room to discover just how effective Wavelet had been.
Swiss Piega loudspeakers always attract the crowds, and here was no exception. The silver-finish 711 floor-stander with its 1cm thick aluminium baffle features a coaxial ribbon tweeter plus four 220mm woofers (two as passive radiators) in each sealed cabinet. Cleverly playing across one corner of the space to reduce room interaction, the sound was sublime as we enjoyed Habanera Fantasia from Bizet’s Carmen (Northwest Sinfonietta under Harold Faberman). The intimate recording might have been performed right there in front of us, such was the realism generated from this sublime 24-bit super-analog [sic] recording.
Gustavson Audio creates exquisite speakers and amplifiers and made its first showing at the X-fi event. Peter van Doornum is an electro-technician with a background in ICT and a former art academy student. Since a youth he’s been building hi-fi, inspired by his father’s speaker concepts of the 1970s. Today he ‘crafts’ products, as he puts it; among them the Pear amplifier in its minimally-shaped wooden housing which he believes has a beneficial effect on the sound, allowing it to become more natural and balanced to reduce listening fatigue. Certainly I experienced no tiredness enjoying his system and could happily have sat there all day, but other exhibits beckoned.
Wow! That was my first impression as I enjoyed one of the best sounds of the event in the Hailey Audio suite. Here YG 1.2 speakers from Colorado (comprising bass module and top module) were excelling, but with a €56,000 price tag perhaps that’s as it ought to be. The thing to remember is that this is only the second model up in the range. They were partnered with PS Audio electronics including the Perfect Wave P10 Power Plant and, from ASI (Acoustic Systems International), the mighty 650W/ch Grand Stereo amp, running here at a potential 1.3kW into 4ohms. Incredible reserves of power made for an impressive sound.
More retro in the Dalvso room as I spied an EMT 948 broadcast turntable, one of the first I used in my early days at the BBC. It was playing Yves Montand most impressively through Encore ENC-5 stand-mount speakers from Japan’s Combak Corp, and creating a really involving sound – it proved that there’s nothing wrong with equipment just because it’s not brand new.
In the Ultisone room Michel Warlop demonstrated the €18,000 Aries Cerat Kassandra ladder DAC with triode output stage, and the Swiss Stenheim Alumine TWO monitor speakers at €12,500. Even in this large space, less intimate than one would choose at home for such a system, listeners experienced a fresh sound and one with poise and integrity. Pictured is the new €15,000 Aries Cerat Genus valve integrated, rated at 25W but punching above its weight with dynamics and control combined with the timbral accuracy so typical of a true SET, this a transformer-coupled two-stage design – or one small amplifier feeding another small amplifier.
Kommer Kleijn from Belgium was on hand to explain the newly developed John Watkinson Legends loudspeaker. As co-developer with John, he was happy to demonstrate the €37,800 (fully installed with power amp) ‘precision sound reproducer’. Based on a detailed study of human hearing it takes into account how the ear deals with reverberant environments. Built in Reading, England they need just a DAC or other source to create a complete system. Their neutrality was astounding and I sat and enjoyed the output for quite a while before making way for others who had waited patiently for a chance to listen to this star of the show.
Faced with open-baffle speakers and lots of glowing valves, the Club 27 room was an audiophile’s joy. At €24,000 a pair the Bastanis speakers playing were a frame, dipole design with horn tweeter which sacrifices a woofer crossover yet includes a powered sub. An efficiency of 102dB allows them to be partnered with amps producing just 2W, although here we were spoilt with 80W/ch from a pair of single-ended Silvercords. A highly transparent sound filled the room, with a width and depth to the soundstage which would be the envy of many.
It was a pleasure to step inside the Helios room to be confronted with a selection of British ATC monitors, they provided an oasis of civilisation amid a cacophony of brashness as rooms began to compete, in the closing hours of the event, to generate the highest SPL possible. Sitting back and enjoying the acoustic finesse of the ATC’s active SCM100 reminded me just what gems this firm creates, now of course with their own 25mm tweeter to complement the 75mm soft-dome midrange and that mighty 12inch bass unit.
The biggest news story for me was the re-emergence of a once hugely popular Dutch speaker brand. Driade is back and with a new range thanks to original founder Arnold Heres who sold the company to Denon in 1994 but re-formed it two years ago because it had become dormant. He is pictured with the €4,000 Model 2, launched at the show and part of an intended four-model line-up made in The Netherlands where he still winds his own coils.
In the room of Hear Everything Audio, it was clear that great sounds can emanate from small sources as they combined a CEC TL2N CD transport, CEC DA3N DAC, Bespoke Audio Company preamp and Merrill Audio Veritas monoblocks. An Akiko Corelli power conditioner filtered HF crud by just being next to the system, and the speakers were the latest incarnation of Guru’s monitor the Q10. The result was impressive, and so it should be from X-Fi co-organiser Ton van der Veeken’s own distribution company.
See the rest of our XFi coverage here