High End 2016 • TABlog

by Dennis Davis | May 17, 2016

ne of the most frequently heard mantras from show attendees and audio reviewers alike is, "You rarely hear decent sound at a show." But then you hear this just as often from the exhibitors themselves. In Munich especially, the deck seems to be stacked against the odds of music ever emerging from the expensively assembled systems. Exhibits are usually in an Atrium room that includes at least one floor-to-ceiling glass wall, temporary partition side walls, noisy halls and an electrical supply shared with (and polluted by) the other rooms at the venue. Given these significant hurdles, the remarkable thing is how often and how well many exhibitors overcome these limitations. Admittedly, great sound is a rarity on the first day, given the time it takes for equipment to run in, settle down and warm up (not to mention allowing for the number of units that arrive later than planned or not at all), but by show’s end there are more than a few systems that are sounding impressive.

This year’s High-End show seemed to offer up a larger-than-usual number of successful rooms, more than can be attributed to the slight 2% increase in exhibitors -- although for the first time ever, there was excellent sound to be heard in a few of the prefabricated booths that occupied the main halls.

Sharing a room for the second High End show running were the Spanish armada of Wadax and Fono Acustica, with two systems set up in a single large Atrium room. The big system’s digital front-end consisted of the Wadax Ultimate Trio (DAC, phono stage, line stage and streamer) fitted with the Zepto clock option and the latest version of Wadax’s MusIC Chip feed-forward error correction algorithm ($68,000, a lot of money but an awful lot of functionality too). The system also had a Hermes server with built-in transport ($8130). The analog front-end was Brinkmann’s Spyder turntable ($12,000) fitted with a 12.1 'arm ($5890) and Pii cartridge ($2490). The whole system (other than the speakers) was supported by an HRS RXR rack ($4595) and matching amp stands, with an M3X shelf for the turntable and R Shelves ($495 each) for the electronics. HRS Nimbus and Vortex couplers and damping plates were used throughout.

The only “bargain” in the big system was the Wilson Audio Sasha W/P 2 speakers. While $31,950/pair speakers are not exactly affordable, the assembly of very expensive electronics, cables and supports could have easily been paired with something much more expensive. In an unusual but musically (if not particularly cost-) effective arrangement, each speaker was driven from a single channel of an Audio Research Reference 150 SE stereo amplifier ($15,000 each) allowing it the benefit of the entire power supply to support that one channel.

Naturally, both systems were wired with Fono Acustica’s cabling and Sinfo distribution blocks (€9500), with the large system using over €200,000 worth of the Virtuoso cables recently reviewed by Roy Gregory. In the smaller system, less breath-defying cables from the Armonico (phono and speaker) and Allegro ranges (interconnects and power cords) were used, keeping the cable price “down” to around €50,000.

Firing across the room, the more modest setup consisted of the Brinkmann Bardo turntable ($7000) with 10.0 tonearm ($3290) and Pii cartridge ($2490) or the Heed CD-T transport feeding the modular MiZik system (dPlay Plus, dVin Plus and dStream Plus; €2650 per unit and covering phono, DAC, preamplifier and streaming functions). Amplifiers were a pair of Jeff Rowland Model 125 stereo amps ($2950 each), operating in bridged mono mode and driving Wilson Audio Sabrinas ($15,900/pair). In keeping with the “downsizing” theme of this system, the support solution consisted of an inexpensive Quadraspire QAVM rack teamed with HRS couplers and damping plates.

Unfortunately, almost every time I visited the room, the big system was up and running, so I never got the opportunity to hear the smaller system at length -- which is a shame, because it encompassed the same core qualities as the big rig, which was impressive indeed. The larger system seemed to have everything working for it. It got better and better each day, and as good as the Wilson speakers sounded at the start of the show, they were way, way better by the end -- so much so that (as Roy remarks in his coverage of the Alexx) a number of observers remarked that they’d never heard Wilsons sound so good. Familiar CDs, like ORG’s version of Ben Webster & Sweets Edison’s Wanted To Do One Together [ORG 117-3] sounded big and sweet with a real sense of life and presence. But as great as CD sounded, it was LPs with which this “digital” system really excelled. I’m not sure how I feel about taking the output of a moving-coil cartridge and digitizing it, just to run it back through a DAC, but then the Pre One Ultimate isn’t just any DAC. Its corrective algorithm can encompass the turntable too, mapping non-linearities in the source. The results are spectacular, with natural tonality, unforced pace and explosive dynamics. The Wilsons may have sounded fantastic, but they were clearly getting plenty of help from the system and setup doing the driving.

Talking of setup, time to give a nod to Stirling Trayle of Audio Systems Optimized, who put this system together: proof that despite the unpromising appearance of the MOC rooms you can get a result out of even a complex, wideband system like this if you know what you are doing and work at it. Stirling certainly put in the hours, adjusting the (brand-new) speakers at the start of each day to compensate for running in. All that effort certainly paid off, with classical and jazz LPs allowing the system itself to fall away from the music, letting the musicians take the wide and deep stage, with each record and each performance sounding distinct and individual. The one time I did hear the smaller system, it too offered recordings the same sense of identity, scale and height, suggesting that the MiZiK components really are Wadax writ small -- in terms of price, you understand, rather than performance.

The Wadax/Fono Acustica rig was one of the more memorable listens at the show, reflecting both the quality of the exhibitors’ products and their smart decision to partner with recognized products from established companies. Throw in a top-shelf setup and it’s remarkable what you can achieve -- whether it’s a hi-fi show or not. This was one of the systems that got traded regularly in those “What should I hear?” conversations -- which helps explain why I returned to it so often.

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