Top Audio 2012

by Jason Kennedy | September 27, 2012

ilan’s Quark Hotel is not in the prettiest part of town, but over four days in September, 13-16 this year, it becomes a hive of high-end audio activity that suggests even in this era of economic decline Italians remain as passionate about good sound as ever. The Quark is not a large venue -- the MOC in Munich is much more capacious -- but there are four floors of demonstration rooms, record and CD sellers, in-car audio and even real-world A/V systems from the big brands. I naturally avoided the latter and headed out into the corridors to find out what sort of sound and gear they like in that part of the world.

What I got was a huge variety of equipment from companies all over the world and inevitably a good proportion of home-grown specialists. Many were completely new to me, but this didn’t stop the best of them from delivering beguiling sound. One particularly dark room run by Extreme Audio had a pair of substantial planar ribbon speakers from Leonardo. I thought that ribbons had become extinct some time ago, but it seems that the Apogee effect is still being felt. The Leonardo speaker ($65,000/pair) is virtually a full-ribbon design; only a piezo-polymer supertweeter detracts from its purity. But "detracts" is inappropriate, because when combined with an MSB Platinum Signature transport ($7995) and DAC/preamp ($13,995), a KR Audio P-130 preamp (€4500) and Kronzilla DM power amps (€26,995/pair) they produced one of the most impressive sounds of the show. Ribbons have a magic that few other driver technologies can beat, and these Italian examples made this rather more clear than my photograph does!

Another big but thankfully better-lit system that caught my ear was fronted by Triangle Magellan Quartuor floorstanders (€12,780), but sourced with the relatively affordable Heed Obelisk dt transport (1400) and da DAC (1400). I’ve reviewed these two Heed components in recent times and had a good result, but not quite this good, so I am inclined to think that the speakers and Italian Galactron MK3600 power conditioner (€12,090) and amplifier might have been a key factor. The Galactron MK2225 (€6745) is a substantial class-A integrated amplifier with full dual-mono construction that produces 25Wpc from a circuit that includes interstage transformers -- a technique taken from the world of tube amps. It delivered both good tone and fine timing in this system.

At the more affordable end of the scale, Naim launched the UnitiLite ($2995). This is a slimline version of the NaimUniti and incorporates a CD player, 50 watts of power and full streaming capabilities for Internet radio and music files up to 24 bits and 192kHz (from a wired or wireless server). There is also the option of adding an FM/DAB tuner module for an extra $400. Naim has had considerable success with its streaming devices in the UK, and this more affordable variant on the theme should increase the popularity of the approach all over the world. The UnitiLite sounded extremely musical driving a pair of Naim Ovator S-400 speakers.

As well as new products at Milan there were also quite a few Studer tape recorders; at least three rooms were using these substantial old machines and producing some rather appealing sounds. I met Alessandro Molinari (above) from Analog Planet. He rebuilds and maintains these machines for studios and hi-fi enthusiasts alike, and he says that the build quality is so high that they are a delight to work on. He has found that they are enjoying a resurgence in both the markets he caters to.

Alessandro was using a Studer B67 to drive tube amplification from Italian company QVS (Quality Valve Systems), which had a 2.5Wpc M3A 25 power amplifier (pricing unavailable) getting to grips with some John Howes Quarter Wave horn speakers ($6250/pair). This was a system that produced a delightfully open and effortless sound and proved that less can sometimes be more.

Down in the basement I found two familiar faces from the US: Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio and Dan D’Agostino of the company that bears his name, who was demonstrating his Momentum preamplifier ($28,000). I saw the preamp in prototype form at CES earlier in the year, so it was good to hear it in tandem with the Momentum monoblocks ($45,000/pair) driving the mighty Wilson Alexandria XLF ($195,000/pair). A pretty awesome system -- or at least that was the brief impression I got before Peter took me behind one of the speakers to explain just how much there is going on in that remarkable design. When I stepped back into the room, it was rammed with people and remained that way for the rest of the day.

The Italians love their high-end audio, and the Wilson/D'Agostino room represented one of the more desirable collections in the building. There was some good competition, however. I particularly enjoyed a system that was driven by a Pass Labs XP-30 preamp ($16,000) and Xs-300 monoblocks ($85,000/pair) connected to ProAc Carbon Pro 8 speakers ($43.000/pair) and sourced with an EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD player ($25,000). This particular player turned up in three rooms at the event, and each one was making a decent sound, surely not a coincidence.

One of the interesting things about foreign shows is the combinations of equipment you come across. Some of them would be practically unthinkable in the UK, but the vagaries of distribution channels prove that there are no hard-and-fast rules about which electronics work with which speakers. One such was Cambridge Audio’s 851C CD player ($1999) and 851A integrated amp ($1999) paired with Guru Pro Audio QM10.2 speakers (1795/pair). The latter is a boutique brand in the UK and thus rarely heard with the relatively mainstream Cambridge components, yet when the Guru guys put on some Nitin Sawhney the result was more than entertaining. This was partly because they played something that is relatively contemporary and has bass -- two qualities that were rather under-represented in many systems at the show. Guru had the first samples of their new Junior speaker on display (above, 800/pair). These combine the tweeter from the QM10.2 and the woofer from the original QM10 in a more conventional cabinet and at half the price of the bigger speaker.

Another engagingly coherent system combined British Neat Ultimatum XL10 floorstanders (15,245) with Lector source and amplification from Italy: Digidrive TL Mk2 (€2,499) transport, Digicode 2.24 DAC (€2,999), Zoe line stage (€1599) and a pair of VM-200 mono amps (€1849 each). The latter has a low profile in my part of the world, but the timeliness of the sound being produced by these hybrid tube/transistor components suggests that they deserve wider recognition.

One of the most inspiring things about Top Audio was the sheer amount of music that was on sale. I’ve not seen so much vinyl and polycarbonate at a show for a very long time, and had time permitted I would have spent several hours flicking through the vinyl. It was also good to see the full gamut of audio components under one roof. There are only a few shows that manage to bring high-end and real-world A/V products together, but this is a good way of getting the less fanatical to hear what serious two-channel systems can do.

It’s a good thing that the Italians are used to the food and shops in Milan. I found it very difficult to stay at my post when there were such visual and gastronomic delights just down the road!

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