While in Munich attending High End 2015, I made a point of taking one afternoon off show reporting to do something we SoundStage! folks struggle to do at any show: listen. We specialize in running around show venues covering new products, but it would be a shame to have so many great speakers introduced in one place and not get to hear them, back to back to back. So on Saturday I set out to listen. By the end of that day, it was these seven speakers that I found most appealing.
Jeff Fritz (left) with Oleg Bogdanov, Director, Paradigm Engineering
Paradigm’s Concept 4F has not yet been priced. I heard various numbers being thrown around, but then was told that it could be thousands more or less, depending on the final product’s specs and cost breakdown. What I can tell you is that this is one ambitious speaker. The beryllium midrange and tweeter sounded as clear as could be, and the bass was prodigious. What was especially nice about the low end was that it was adjustable (the woofers are powered), and corrected for the room with Anthem Room Correction. In the large M.O.C. suite that Paradigm occupied, the bass drum in Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man punched me in the chest and rattled the walls. I think it’s safe to say that the Concept 4F has bass that is great-subwoofer strong. And despite its not-gargantuan size, this is a very complete, full-range speaker -- which I guess was the whole, um, concept behind it. My takeaway: The Concept 4F is an impressive design statement from a great speaker company: it looks svelte yet substantial, and its lines are BMW clean. And because Paradigm is a performance-first company, the Concept 4F is going to give some far more expensive speakers some sleepless nights, no matter what its price turns out to be. Just watch -- and listen.
The Marten room
The Marten Coltrane 3 ($97,000 USD per pair) was a surprise. I’d never been bowled over by Marten speakers of years past, but I came away from the Coltrane 3 feeling that it’s a real step up in sound quality. Compared to the earlier Coltranes I’ve heard, the 3’s sound was much more authoritative -- bigger, and the improvement wasn’t all in the bass. The Coltrane 3 sounded as if it had been released from the shackles that weighed down Coltranes 1 and 2 -- in other words, it was more dynamically capable. I know that its industrial design is controversial among audiophiles -- one of our own writers found the two-tone baffle/body a jarring combo. But I thought the Coltrane 3 was classically proportioned, with a nice blend of high-tech and artisan touches. The last track I heard in the Marten room was of an acoustic piano, with heavy emphasis of the left-hand keys. The Coltrane 3s sounded large -- in terms of both dynamic range and the soundstage they created. My takeaway: a really nice upgrade from the folks at Marten.
With Michael Schwab, President, Zellaton GmbH
The Zellaton Reference Mk. II ($129,950/pair) sounded right-there immediate -- it put the music upfront, in bold relief, and I didn’t get the sense that Zellaton had voiced it to have an emphasis in the low bass. The Reference Mk. II’s tonal balance seemed to favor the midbass with some tracks, the top end with others, either of which can be a good thing, depending on your taste. Perhaps midrange-centric is the best way to describe what I heard, and boy, was that midrange just about perfect. The center image was downright palpable, with a depth of soundstage to die for. The midbass was punchy and impactful, with good concussive characteristics with synth midbass. The Reference Mk. II didn’t sound woolly, nor did it sound warm or boring. And while a pair of them might have difficulty filling a superlarge room with very low bass, they could certainly play loud in Zellaton’s room at High End 2015. And I loved the speaker’s looks. My takeaway: The Zellaton Reference Mk. II had a visual and a sonic timelessness. I can easily see why someone would want to own them.
With Jörn Janczak, President and Designer, Tidal Audio
The presentation of the Tidal Audio Akira loudspeaker was unique at High End 2015 in being fronted by an all-Tidal system: amps, DAC, preamp -- you name it, Tidal produces it. The advantage was that Tidal founder Jörn Janczak could get exactly the sound he wanted, because he controlled all the variables (well, he hadn’t built the room, but he had exhibited in it before, and knows its acoustics). The sound was Tidal’s best yet at a High End show: clear, open, ultraprecise, never harsh. The Akira lifted a veil from the Tidal sound, which at High End has always been at least very good. For instance, I felt that cymbal crashes were true to life, without the whitish splash that many speakers produce. Another hallmark of the design was the perfect blend of the five drivers’ outputs, with no hint that disparate drive-units were handling different parts of the audioband. Imaging? Superb: a Norah Jones and Willie Nelson track produced accurately formed images on a wall-to-wall soundstage. That track also made clear that the Akiras were tonally neutral, reproducing these singers’ distinctive voices without wavering. And their room-energizing bass showed that the Akiras had real dynamic punch when that was needed. My takeaway: Tidal’s best speaker yet, and by no small margin.
In the Wilson Benesch room
The Wilson Benesch Geometry Endeavour loudspeakers (£25,950/pair) were paired with the company’s Taurus subwoofers (£6000/pair) in a system fronted by CH Precision electronics. A Trinnov Audio processor performed room-correction, and acted as the crossover between the Endeavours and Tauruses. There are several stories here. One is of the quality of integration of the subwoofers’ and satellites’ outputs: as good as I’ve heard. The system sounded like a pair of full-range floorstanders expertly installed in a good listening room. Although I know that Trinnov’s processing had a lot to do with it, I must also credit these fine loudspeakers themselves. There was no hole in the audioband, as happens with poorly integrated subs and satellites. The Endeavours, for their parts, sounded dimensional and lithe, providing just the right amount of weight when that was part of the music. Their imaging was precise, and the entire system had an eminently listenable quality that many systems at High End didn’t -- not relaxed, just not fatiguing. The Endeavour’s visual design and build quality also deserves comment -- its tasteful mix of aluminum and carbon fiber is up there with the best. My takeaway: WB’s Geometry Endeavour is a speaker I want to hear more from. It was the most ambitious stand-mount at High End 2015.
With Alon Wolf, CEO, Magico
The Magico S7 loudspeaker ($58,000/pair) was surprising. First, it’s bigger than you think -- this is one substantial hunk of metal. Second, its sound was even better than I thought it’d be. The S7’s supersmooth midrange was perhaps the first characteristic that stood out, as the pair of them played Lyle Lovett’s “North Dakota,” from his Joshua Judges Ruth. But quickly it became apparent that the S7’s diamond-beryllium-dome tweeter was . . . better than what I’ve heard from Magico’s other S models, or even the Qs. Maybe the right word to describe what I heard is control -- the highs remained composed at all times. This was not only an absence of breakup and all that, but a character that never flinched -- ever. By comparison, the sound of Magico’s previous beryllium-dome tweeter now seems too busy, frenetic even. The bass, as you can imagine with three sealed-box tens, was full, tight, and deep, with no overhang. The S7s started and stopped on a dime, and could effortlessly deliver enough bass to fill a large room. In fact, the S7s could sound downright huge, as they did with Patricia Barber’s cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.” As the volume was turned up, the image of Barber grew, and the scale did as well, with no audible distortion. My takeaway: The S7 is not only the top of Magico’s S range, but it’s the heir apparent to their Q5. It’s a better speaker than that old warhorse, which makes it better than almost anything else out there without a 7 in its model name.
The Magico room
The Magico Q7 Mk. II ($229,000/pair) was being exhibited simultaneously with the S7, but in the room of Swiss electronics manufacturer Soulution, of whose products I grow fonder by the day. To get an idea of how the two Magico models compared, I listened to them back to back -- well, as quickly as I could move through the crowd to get from room to room! It was fascinating. I’ll start with the bass: Although the S7 produced the tightest, fastest (not technically but sonically faster), most articulate bass of all the speakers I listened to at High End 2015, the Q7 Mk. II was in another league altogether. Yes, it was frighteningly athletic -- even more so than the S7 -- but its bass just seemed to . . . happen with no apparent effort, or even any connection to the speaker itself. This wasn’t the kind of effortlessness you hear from a large, four-tower, line-array system -- which can be impressive -- but an ease of sound more qualitative than quantitative. For those who believe there’s little difference in bass below 150Hz outside of level, you won’t believe your ears when you hear the Q7 Mk. II. It could seemingly unravel every ounce of detail, in the bass and everywhere else. And that was the thing about the Q7 Mk. II: the music just . . . appeared. At any volume, it made other speakers, even the best ones, sound labored. As for the highs, the new tweeter might be all that Magico has been cracking it up to be. And when highs of that quality are combined with the Q7 Mk. II’s completely artifact-free midrange and electrostatic-like bass, the resulting sound is, well, calming. And therein lies the flummoxing juxtaposition: how can it sound so easygoing, so relaxed, so even, yet reveal more detail than anything else? That secret is what separates it from the other speakers on this list, including Magico’s own S7. My takeaway: Read my full upcoming review to find out.
If you have a shopping list of super-ambitious speakers and want to hear all of them in one place, come to Munich next year for High End 2016. In a single afternoon, I heard seven very special speakers. I’ll withhold comment on the many questionable speakers I heard at High End -- there was plenty of bad sound to go around. What’s important is that there was enough great sound to give me some fine, lasting memories -- and a fair idea of just how much quality is offered by the best speakers in the world as of May 2015.
. . . Jeff Fritz