Best of High End 2014Comments I’ve recently read in online forums and publications indicate that the audio world has come to realize what we at SoundStage! have known for a number of years -- that High End, held annually in Munich, Germany, is now the world’s top hi-fi show. We’ve been covering High End since 2001, when it was held in Frankfurt, at the Kempinski Hotel. Since then, we’ve watched it grow to the exalted status it enjoys today.

This year’s edition, held May 15-18, was the best yet -- the number of exhibitors was up, the attendance was high, and there seemed to be more product introductions than ever -- so many that we had to beef up by one-third our daily coverage for SoundStage! Global, our website for on-the-spot show reporting. Yet despite there being more audio gear to cover than ever before, in this column I highlight only those products and systems that stopped me in my tracks: five components and two systems that topped all the rest.

Best products

Sonus Faber Lilium loudspeaker

At an audio show, it’s next to impossible to critically assess the sound of any component, due to the unfamiliarity of the associated equipment, the room it’s being used in, and the multitudes of people milling around -- but you can sure get a good look at anything you want. The product whose appearance most impressed me at High End 2014 was Sonus Faber’s new Lilium loudspeaker (€48,000/pair plus VAT). After examining it many times during the four days of the show, I came to the conclusion that it might be the most beautiful-looking large loudspeaker ever created, the credit for that resting mainly with chief industrial designer Livio Cucuzza. The Lilium’s look is clearly inspired by Sonus Faber’s larger Aida model, which Cucuzza also helped create, but in person the Lilium looks even more elegant -- particularly in its Walnut finish, whose natural-colored wood side panels contrast wonderfully with the creamy-white color on the front and rear.

Sonus Faber Lilium

But the Lilium isn’t all looks -- it appears to be technically topnotch as well. Credit for that goes to the company’s head of R&D, Paolo Tezzon, who continually impresses me with how he incorporates new design wrinkles into almost every Sonus Faber speaker he creates. What caught my attention about the Lilium was its separate subwoofer cabinet, which houses a top-firing 10” (260mm) woofer and a downfiring passive radiator. This subwoofer section, which comprises the rear portion of the cabinet, is mechanically isolated from the front of the cabinet with a unique suspension system -- if you push the sub section hard enough, it moves slightly. The front baffle houses a 1” (28mm) tweeter, a 7” (180mm) midrange, and three 7” woofers. Hats off to Cucuzza and Tezzon for creating such a gorgeous, technically advanced design.

KEF Reference 1 loudspeaker

It was tough to pick just one loudspeaker from KEF’s new Reference line to focus on here, but the more I looked at the three Reference main-speaker models -- the 5 and 3 floorstanders and the stand-mounted 1 -- it was the Reference 1 that most appealed to me. Part of the reason is that it’s the lowest priced: £4500/pair vs. £7500 (Reference 3) and £10,500 (Reference 5). But it’s also because I’ve long had a soft spot for stand-mounted speakers, and this looks to be a really good one.

KEF Reference 1

What impressed me the most about the Reference 1 is that while most stand-mounts are two-ways, this one is a true three-way design -- a KEF Uni-Q driver comprising a 1” tweeter inside a 5” midrange cone, augmented by a 6.5” woofer -- that’s purportedly capable of reaching down to 30Hz, -6dB, in-room, per KEF’s website. This means that the Reference 1 is pretty damn close to being a full-range design while measuring only 17.3”H x 8.1”W x 16.9”D. Furthermore, the finish options for the 1 and the other Reference models look fantastic -- while at the show, I wrote about these finishes in an article for Global titled “Killer Colors: Sonus Faber, Crystal Cable, Vivid Audio, KEF.” Great stuff from this long-established, highly respected British brand.

Crystal Cable Minissimo loudspeaker

Speaking of gorgeous finishes, another speaker I wrote about in “Killer Colors” was the Arabesque Minissimo, from Crystal Cable, who got their start ten years ago as a maker of audio cables. Five years later they branched out into loudspeakers, beginning with the groundbreaking Arabesque, which featured an all-glass cabinet. After that came speakers with aluminum cabinets, but what all Crystal speakers had in common were prices that were pretty darn high. The original Arabesque cost $65,000 USD per pair, while their smallest aluminum model, the Arabesque Mini, went for $25,000/pair. Too rich for most, I suspect -- including me.

President Gabi Rjinveld always knew this, which is why, at High End 2014, Crystal introduced the Arabesque Minissimo. It’s a diminutive two-way with top-of-the-line Scan-Speak drivers: a 1” beryllium-dome tweeter and 5” (approximately) midrange-woofer. The Minissimo’s cabinet, which has its bigger speaker siblings’ trademark shape, is made of neither glass nor aluminum but a proprietary compound that felt extremely dense in my hands, and is said to be very durable -- Crystal claims that it can be dropped from about 8’ without breaking. The new material also gives the Minissimo a critical cosmetic advantage over Crystal’s other models: It can be painted, which allows the company to offer the speaker in a variety of tantalizing colors, including the demo units’ sharp Solar Orange.

Crystal Cable Minissimo

The Minissimo’s US price wasn’t given at High End, but in Europe it costs €10,000/pair, including stands. That means the Minissimo should cost well under $20,000 in North America -- not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but far more affordable than any other Arabesque model, which will no doubt please many.

T+A Elektroakustik PDP 3000 HV SACD/CD player

I stopped by T+A Elektroakustik’s room to look at the prototype of their PDP 3000 HV SACD/CD player not once but at least eight times, including a few times with people I’d dragged out of other rooms because I wanted them to see this thing. Without question, the PDP 3000 HV was the electronic component that most impressed me at High End 2014. Its casework not only looked substantial, the quality of its finishing was among the best I’ve seen -- ever. Absolutely flawless. Then, inside, there was the disc transport, which T+A designed and manufactures in-house -- not even Esoteric makes a mechanism so robust. One person I brought to the room to see it is involved with a competing audio firm, and even he was shocked at the quality of build that T+A has brought to the table with this product, particularly if the rumors of a $20,000 retail price turn out to be accurate. Price uncertainty aside, the PDP 3000 HV’s build quality alone made me say, “Wow!”

T+A PDP 3000 HV

Around back, I saw something unique to the PDP 3000 HV, and which I had to inquire about: separate analog outputs for PCM and DSD recordings. I was told that, inside, the PDP 3000 HV has individual analog reconstruction filters optimized for each format. Cool! At this time, disc-only players are on the way out, given the decline of physical media such as CDs and SACDs -- but with the PDP 3000 HV, T+A Elektroakustik has found a way to spark some enthusiasm for these formats -- at least in me.

Devialet 200 integrated amplifier-DAC

The first two words out of my mouth when I entered Devialet’s room were, “Oh shit!” And not in a good way. That’s because I could see that their entire lineup of amplifiers had changed -- and Hans Wetzel hadn’t yet finished his review of the 110, released last year. Seeing my concern (and likely hearing the words), a Devialet rep rushed up to find out what was wrong. When I told him, he smiled and said, “I’ll e-mail him with the update tonight.”

Turns out that none of the Devialet amps released last year are out of date; instead, all of them can be upgraded, via software, to the new models that replace them. So Hans’s 110, after he applied the update, became a 120. That little update increased the power output by 10Wpc (as the model names hint, the 110 put out 110Wpc into 6 ohms, while the 120 puts out 120Wpc) and added some new features, including Speaker Active Matching (SAM). In a nutshell, SAM digitally optimizes the signal to correct for phase anomalies induced by loudspeaker crossovers. As I write this article, there are only eight speakers in Devialet’s correction database, but the company is feverishly working to add more. If you look now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found lots more.

Devialet 200

Of the current Devialet models, Jeff Fritz and I agreed that the 200, formerly the 170, likely occupies the sweet spot in their line. We base this suspicion on its combination of power output (200Wpc into 6 ohms, which should be enough for most systems) and price (€6990, which is attainable by serious audiophiles with a decent job, as opposed to gear that only the superrich can afford). It also offers an outstanding expansion path: two 200s can each be configured to operate in mono, to become what Devialet calls their model 400, a stereo unit that generates 400Wpc into 6 ohms. Devialet’s amps are great products from a great company intent on advancing the state of the art while preserving the investments of customers who have already bought their components.

Best systems

As I said, critically listening to components at shows is next to impossible, and that’s particularly true at a show as big and crowded as High End. Plus, each display room has a different layout, so you’re never comparing apples with apples. So when it came time to pick the Best Systems, I narrowed it down to the two that most impressed me for the way they thrilled the crowds this year.

The Magico system, which included their Ultimate III speakers, deserved to be at the top of the list. The Ultimate III, which starts at a whopping $600,000/pair, is a massive, five-way horn speaker system with a DSP crossover. Power amps are at the user’s discretion, as are sources. In Munich, Magico used an Aurender W20 music server and a Pacific Microsonics Model Two DAC, and drove the Ultimates with a couple of stacks of First Watt amps via Shunyata Research cables and interconnects.

Magico room

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard the Ultimate IIIs -- the first time was at the Magico factory last March, when they were in the final stages of prototyping. The sounds of the two setups were more similar than different, and with a few characteristics that I believe define this speaker’s sound. First, the Ultimate III sounded surprisingly neutral, without the cupped-hands colorations that plague so many horn designs. Second, this is a big speaker that can sound really big when you need it to (orchestral works or speed metal), but small and light on its feet when the music is subtle, intimate, and detailed. Third was the Ultimate III’s sheer output capability -- a pair of them is capable of reproducing staggering dynamic contrasts, and has a complete effortlessness at high, high volume levels that makes almost all other speakers sound strained by comparison. No wonder the room had a line down the hall at most times -- the sound was something else. Hats off to the folks at Magico for lugging these behemoths overseas and letting audiophiles listen to them at hi-fi’s biggest, most important show.

The other system belonged to Fine Sounds Group, owners of Audio Research, McIntosh Labs, Sonus Faber, Sumiko, and Wadia Digital. Fine Sounds is fast becoming a hi-fi juggernaut, and is setting the highest standard in the industry for product promotion. In Munich, half of their room was decked out as a miniature replica of Italy’s Arena Verona, so that dozens of showgoers at a time could sit and listen to McIntosh Labs electronics driving a pair of Sonus Faber’s new Lilium speakers. Behind the speakers and amps, a huge screen displayed movie and music clips as well as Fine Sounds Group promotional videos.

Sonus Faber and McIntosh Labs

The most Jeff Fritz and I could tell about the Liliums in this setup was that they could play astonishingly loudly -- not as loudly as the Ultimate IIIs, but loud for a conventional-driver design. But what most impressed me about the entire FSG presentation was how captivating attendees found it: Every time I dropped by, the Arena seats were full -- the place was almost always packed. The Fine Sounds Group knows how to promote products and entertain a crowd in grand style. Competitors take note.

The next show we’ll cover is . . . up in the air. Right now we’re deciding on our fall show schedule, trying to determine which ones will best serve our readers by hosting the most introductions of new and exciting products. It could be the CEDIA Expo in Denver, or the Tokyo International Audio Show -- or something else altogether. When we’ve determined the schedule, we’ll let you know -- and then, on SoundStage! Global, you’ll see coverage of the events as they happen. And if I’m attending the show, I’ll follow it up with a “Best of” report in this space in the month or two after. Until then . . .

. . . Doug Schneider