Most-Read Opinion Articles (Last 365 Days)
- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 June 2019 01 June 2019
High End 2019, held May 9-12 at the Munich Order Center (MOC), in Germany, was busier for me than previous High Ends. The show has grown -- a few days after it closed, the event’s organizer, the High End Society, released statistics that indicated that HE2019 had topped their previous biggest show, HE2018, with 551 exhibitors (up 3.8%), 8208 trade visitors (up 8.6%), and a grand total of 21,180 attendees (up 6.5%). The sheer size of High End has always made exhaustive coverage of it a challenge, and this year the challenge was even greater.
I flew into Munich late on May 11, made my way to the hotel, got a bit of sleep, and was up early the next morning to meet with the rest of our team -- Jeff Fritz, Gordon Brockhouse, Roger Kanno -- to begin producing the on-the-spot coverage we posted during HE2019, and which you can find on our SoundStage! Global site. From that coverage I picked the products I write about here.
And here they are, in the order in which we discovered them at High End 2019. (All prices in USD or euros.)
MSB Technology S500 stereo and M500 mono amplifiers
At High End 2019 MSB Technology introduced their S500 stereo ($58,500) and M500 mono ($118,500/pair) amplifiers. The two models look pretty much the same -- each is housed in essentially the same chassis-case, machined from aluminum and finished in silver or black. Each of these amps is pretty big, but with ideal proportions and rounded vertical edges, their almost-sleek looks aren’t too blocky. In fact, by a considerable degree, they’re some of the best-looking super-amps our team has seen.
At first glance, the S500 and M500 might seem equally powerful, as both are specified to deliver 500Wpc into 8 ohms. But into 4 ohms, the S500 is claimed to output 900Wpc, while each M500 is rated at 1000W. MSB trumpets the claim that the two models are equally quiet, with an extremely high signal/noise ratio of 134dB. Both amps also include a useful feature: adjustable gain of 14.8, 20.8, or 26.8dB, for ideal matching with a preamplifier. With these new amps, MSB Technology is making an all-out assault on the state of the art -- and we’d like to learn more.
Sonus Faber Minima Amator II loudspeaker
One of the speakers at HE2019 that most caught my eye and ear was one of the smallest I saw there: Sonus Faber’s new Minima Amator II minimonitor, which joins the Electa Amator III in the company’s Heritage Collection. In the Heritage line, Sonus Faber is celebrating their history years by acoustically and aesthetically updating older models -- in this case the original Minima, launched in 1992.
Priced at $4000/pair without stands -- the photos show it on the compatible stands designed for the Electa Amator III -- the Minima II has a 1.1” Damped Apex Dome tweeter and a 6” paper-coned midrange-woofer, crossed over to each other via Sonus Faber’s Paracross crossover topology. These drivers are housed in a beautiful cabinet of solid walnut, with leather adorning the front baffle and rear panel.
The Minima Amator II is gorgeous to look at, and a pair of these tiny speakers was surprising to hear -- their sound successfully filled a very large room. We really want to get a pair of these in for review.
AudioSolutions Virtuoso M loudspeaker
As I posted online from HE2019, at four consecutive High Ends now we’ve seen AudioSolutions, from Vilnius, Lithuania, debut a new speaker or speaker line. Evidently, the strategy has worked. AudioSolutions has gone from a small brand with few sales, easy to miss at such a big audio show, to a much bigger presence with worldwide distribution -- and, presumably, a lot more sales -- whose new products we really don’t want to miss.
This year in Munich, AudioSolutions debuted their Virtuoso M floorstanding loudspeaker (€25,000/pair), the first of several Virtuoso models. Like the speakers in AS’s Figaro line, the M is essentially what AS calls a box in a box, which, they say, makes the resultant cabinet ten times stiffer than a single-walled enclosure. What’s more, this double-boxed speaker can be prettied up with one of 13 high-gloss finishes: seven standard, six metallic.
The Virtuoso M is a three-way speaker with a 6.5” midrange driver, below it a 1.2” tweeter, and below that, two 7.5” woofers. The tweeter has a silk dome, the other drivers have paper cones. The midrange driver has a very wide bandwidth of 500Hz-7kHz, to keep the crossover out of the region in which human hearing is most sensitive. Another interesting thing is that the frequency response can be adjusted with a dial on the rear panel, for better integration with the room acoustic and to better suit the listener’s taste. The settings are Balanced, Softened, and Enhanced. I think the display pair were set to Softened when I visited, perhaps because AudioSolutions’ room (actually, a portable “room” on the main show floor; High End calls it a cabin) was small. The sound seemed as close to full-range -- 20Hz-20kHz -- as a speaker can get in such a small space, yet was very smooth and spacious, with a healthy dose of detail.
Soon to appear on this site will be a review of two lower-priced models from AudioSolutions: the Figaro B minimonitor and the Figaro M floorstander. Perhaps we can arrange to have the Virtuoso M in for review next . . .
Estelon Forza loudspeaker
Excellence is what I’ve come to expect from Estelon, a trademarked brand of Alfred & Partners OÜ, based in Tallinn, Estonia. In charge of design is cofounder Alfred Vassilkov, whom I got to know a bit when I visited Estelon two years ago to shoot some videos about the company for SoundStage! Insight. Vassilkov’s speakers are all tall and unusually shaped, and look almost like sculptures, their visual beauty mostly the result of design decisions based not on appearance but on sound quality. For one thing, the curved panels of all of his speaker models result in nonparallel internal walls, to help mitigate the production inside the speaker of standing waves. From what I heard, these speakers get out of their own way to produce an open, transparent sound.
At High End 2019 Estelon debuted their newest speaker, the Forza (the name is Italian for force). Priced at €110,000/pair, the Forza is a statuesque beast that stands 66” tall, weighs 330 pounds, and has five Accuton Cell drivers in a four-way configuration: a 1” diamond-diaphragm tweeter, a 6.6” ceramic-cone midrange, a 7.5” aluminum-sandwich midrange-woofer at the top, and two 9.8” aluminum-sandwich woofers at the bottom. The woofers are angled at almost 120° to each other, but fire mostly forward. The Forzas exhibited in Munich were finished in aquamarine, perhaps to stand out more -- odd, because the only finishes offered are Black Pearl Gloss, White Pearl Gloss, and Black Matte. The aquamarine looked so good that I bet Estelon will soon offer it as an option.
The Forza’s nominal impedance of 3 ohms, with 2-ohm minima at 42 and 110Hz, means that it needs to be driven by an amp with some forza of its own -- even with the speaker’s claimed sensitivity of 90dB (2.83V/m). At HE2019, Estelon drove them with CH Precision M1.1 monoblocks. The Forzas sounded as if the M1.1s were having no trouble at all -- the sound was spacious, wickedly transparent, and, when the music called for it, powerful, as you’d expect from such large speakers. The Forzas also sounded uncharacteristically balanced and even throughout the audioband -- I didn’t necessarily expect to hear this sort of sound at this year’s High End -- the MOC’s big rooms, such as the one Estelon occupied, are acoustically poor, and often produce an uneven frequency response even with neutrally balanced speakers. It’s rare to hear really good sound there. But the Forzas were well integrated with their surroundings, acoustic and visual.
Gryphon Audio Designs Ethos CD player
With the abundance of new network streaming products coming out these days, new CD players usually get the cold shoulder from us. The Compact Disc just isn’t hot any more, and it won’t be coming back, as vinyl has. But Gryphon Audio Designs’ new Ethos CD player stood out, and deserves to be highlighted. What also can’t be forgotten is that though CD sales continue to rapidly fall, billions of them have been sold and are still out there -- it’s still a relevant product.
The top-loading Ethos (€28,000) features superb build quality and dazzling industrial design, the latter courtesy the company’s founder, Flemming E. Rasmussen, who retired last year. According to a Facebook post he made just before High End 2019, Rasmussen left the company with designs for three new products, and the Ethos is the first of those.
Although the Ethos plays only CDs -- no SACDs, at least not directly (read on) -- it’s still rich in features, with many digital inputs on its backside: USB, S/PDIF BNC, and two AES/EBU XLR. It’s the USB input that supports the highest playback resolutions: up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD512. DSD is the encoding scheme for SACD; if you’ve ripped your SACDs to files, you can play them through the Ethos’s USB port. Ten user-selectable digital filters are available: seven for PCM, three for DSD. Balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) analog outputs are standard.
Looking at the Ethos’s distinctive appearance got me wondering -- it’s shaped like no Gryphon product before it. Will Rasmussen’s remaining two final designs look like this one? And what will they be? Time will tell . . .
Wilson Benesch GMT One System turntable
Wilson Benesch’s GMT One System turntable, which they showed in prototype form, isn’t something you look at and say, Hmmm, why didn’t I think of that? It’s more like, Whoa, shit -- I can’t believe they did all that!
The GMT One System (GMT stands for Greenwich Mean Time, a nod to the claimed accuracy of the platter’s speed of rotation) is, by no small measure, the most engineering horsepower I’ve ever seen thrown at a turntable -- so much that it’s hard to know where to begin a description of it. I’ll mention only the highlights.
At the heart of the GMT One System is the Omega Drive, which spins the platter. WB describes it as “the world’s first axially orientated, precision magnetically geared turntable drive. The Omega Drive delivers unprecedented accuracy and virtually zero noise. Licensed and patented design.” The inner workings of the Omega Drive are visible by peering through the window in the front of the GMT One’s plinth. What isolates the platter, record, tonearm, and cartridge from external vibrations is WB’s Alpha Isolation System, which they describe as “a microprocessor controlled pneumatic system that isolates the GMT One System from vibration. Fully autonomous, operating with microscopic precision, within millisecond timeframes, providing isolation to 1.7Hz.” A separate, outboard case encloses all of the Alpha Isolation System circuitry. The GMT One System also comes with three tonearms: the Moment (low mass), the CTi-30 (low to medium mass), and the Graviton (medium to high mass). WB doesn’t explain why you might need three arms, but I suspect they will when they deliver the GMT One System -- not to mention which arm should be used with which LPs.
Is it ostentatious of Wilson Benesch, currently best known for their high-tech loudspeakers, to dip their toes in the turntable waters with such a model? Hardly. The company was founded in 1989 through the development of an R&D project, the WB-One turntable. A year later, they released the Full Circle turntable. Loudspeakers just happen to be the company’s current focus. With this sort of history, and WB’s high level of engineering acumen -- their speakers are sophisticated in terms of design and materials -- the GMT One System is a natural fit.
The GMT One System is scheduled to be released later this year. No price has been announced, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it came to a half-million euros or dollars, or even more. In Munich, that prototype sure looked as if it commands that sort of price.
Western Electric 91E integrated amplifier
According to Wikipedia.org, “In 1856, George Shawk purchased an electrical engineering business in Cleveland, Ohio. On December 31, 1869, he became partners with Enos M. Barton and, later the same year, sold his share to inventor Elisha Gray. In 1872, Barton and Gray moved the business to Clinton Street, Chicago, Illinois, and incorporated it as the Western Electric Manufacturing Company.” Wikipedia.org says that the company went “defunct” in 1996; according to Western Electric’s website, here’s what happened: “More recently, entrepreneur Charles Whitener, in cooperation with AT&T, re-established Western Electric and the Westrex Corporation and in 1997 resumed manufacturing the first 300-B single-ended triode tubes in Kansas City.” WE goes on to explain that, in 2003, they moved to Huntsville, Alabama, and in 2019 relocated to Rossville, Georgia.
Not surprisingly, 300B tubes figure prominently in WE’s new 91E integrated amplifier ($12,500). To my and Jeff Fritz’s eyes, the 91E was the best-looking electronics component at High End 2019 -- if we gave out awards for visual design, the 91E would get one. It blends old-school tube design with hints of Steampunk and modern fashion, as well as interesting design elements. The two 300B tubes toward the rear of the amp’s top deck, claimed to help generate 22Wpc at the speaker binding posts, have a single piece of solid metal over the top. It looks as if you can push down on it to slide the tubes down into the case -- though you obviously can’t. Its features also combine old and new: four sets of single-ended inputs (RCA), a phono input for the onboard phono stage (moving-magnet, moving-coil), and -- wait for it -- Bluetooth compatibility.
Western Electric had shown a different-looking prototype of the 91E in 2018. This latest one is supposedly the keeper, and it should be -- it looks amazing. Production is slated for this October.
Naim Audio Mu-so 2nd Generation all-in-one speaker system
What can you say about an updated product that costs about 50% more than the original and looks the same? Not much good, surely. Or so fellow SoundStage! writer Gordon Brockhouse and I thought when we first saw Naim’s Mu-so 2nd Generation all-in-one speaker system (€1500). But when we learned about the changes within -- basically, everything -- our attitude changed.
The Mu-so 2nd Generation’s drivers have all been redesigned in conjunction with Naim’s sister brand, Focal (both are owned and managed by the Vervent Audio Group), and its electronics, too, have all been redesigned and/or improved, including the digital processor, which runs 13 times faster than the old one. This not only allows the 2nd Generation’s DSP engine to run faster, but lets the designer use that engine to tailor the sound better than before. Gordon listened and, in his show report, described the Mu-so 2nd Generation as “the real deal” in a credible all-in-one sound system. I heard it too, and can’t disagree.
According to Gordon’s report from High End 2019, the Mu-so 2nd Generation is also up to date in terms of connections, with “dual-band Wi-Fi with 802.11ac support, and Bluetooth 4.2. In addition to TosLink and 3.5mm analog inputs, the Mu-so 2nd Generation has an HDMI-ARC input for home-theater use. It supports a wide variety of streaming protocols, including AirPlay 2, Chromecast Built-in, and Spotify Connect, and can be operated by voice via Apple Siri or Google Assistant.”
That so much has changed inside the Mu-so 2nd Generation made me wonder why almost nothing outside is different. So, following HE2019, I asked one of Naim’s marketing reps. She told me that the resounding success of the original Mu-so, which debuted in 2014, had been due not only to its sound quality and features, but also to its visual design, which broke new ground for an all-in-one speaker -- nothing else looked like it, then or now. Naim didn’t want to mess with that kind of success, especially as, five years on, the look is anything but dated. But the model’s unchanged appearance is why they named the new version the Mu-so 2nd Generation, rather than simply the Mu-so 2. “Mu-so 2 doesn’t indicate much of a change,” she said.
EISA next . . .
Six days after my return from Munich I hopped aboard a plane headed for Antwerp, Belgium, for the 2019 Global Press Convention of the Expert Imaging and Sound Association (May 21-24). EISA is a group of print and online publications from around the world, selected for their expertise in six categories of consumer-electronics products: hi-fi, home-theater audio, video displays, mobile electronics, car audio, and photography. I’m especially proud that SoundStage! Hi-Fi, with Stereophile, is one of only two North American hi-fi publishers who are EISA members.
Over the four days of the EISA Global Press Convention, we of the hi-fi press were treated to 14 presentations by audio companies from around the world, each one or two hours long. Of them, four of the products demonstrated blew my mind. I’ll tell you about them next month in this space.
. . . Doug Schneider