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Munich High End 2017 – Analogue Sources

Munich High End 2017 – Analogue Sources

Most Promising Newcomers

Acoustic Signature Merlin turntable & tone arm

In the pantheon of fine turntable/tone arm rigs from the German firm Acoustic Signature, the entry-level models have traditionally been affordable, but not too many rungs up the performance ladder things start to get expensive in a hurry. What was needed, some felt, was an attractive, upscale step-up model that conveyed some of the look and feel of upper-tier Acoustic Signature models, but with a not-too-daunting step upward in price. At Munich, the firm rolled out a new turntable model called the Merlin (€2500) that exactly fills this bill. When fitted with an Acoustic Signature TA1000 tone arm the Merlin package will sell for €3700.

Avid Oxytone tone arm

Turntable manufacturer Avid showed prototype versions of its upcoming range of tone arms, the first ever from the firm, comprising the flagship Oxytone pickup arm, the middle-of-the-range Paroxytone pickup arm, and the entry level Barytone pickup arm.

Of these three, the Oxytone is by far the most striking design in a visual sense and is the one most likely to be paired with the flagship Acutus Reference SP turntable. According to Avid, the Oxtone arm follows much the same core design philosophy as the company’s turntables, where the objective is to control the flow of energy, “separating the good and bad vibrations at source, and giving the ‘bad vibrations’ a path-of-least-resistance to an ‘energy sink’ where it can be harmlessly converted into heat.”

With that objective in mind, the Oxytone arm uses an advanced 3D printing technique to create curved, almost sabre-like single-piece titanium arm tube with an internal bracing structure and an internal “energy-conducting beam that efficiently transfers bad vibrations to the sub-chassis.”

The arm, says Avid, incorporated “rigidly coupled bearings” and a unique preload system that keeps constant bearing pressure independent of temperature. The arm uses a so-called “bi-axis bearing configuration” said to position the counterweight “over the rotational axis, reducing damaging lateral inertia. Finally the arm provides a fixed-weight bias compensation mechanism, a magnetic mass compensator that “offsets bearing loading”, and an arm locking system said to allow VTA adjustment on the fly.

Avid says all three pickup arms will be in production but Q4, 2017, with prices TBC.

Bergmann Odin and Magne ST linear-tracking tone arms

The Danish firm Bergmann Audio is perhaps best known for its ‘entry-level’ (hey, it’s a relative term) Magne T.T. air-bearing turntable and radial-tracking tone arm system and for its flagship Galder T. T. air-bearing turntable, which is capable of carrying as mans as four tone arms. However, for Munich the firm chose to unveil two air-bearing/radial-tracking tone arms that are suitable for mounting on non-Bergmann turntables: the Magne ST arm (€3,450 – €5950) and the Odin arm (€5250 – €7950).  The Magne ST is essentially a lightly redesigned version of the same arm supplied with the Magne T.T. package, but repackaged so as to be suitable for mounting on non-Bergmann turntables.

The Odin tone arm, in turn, is a top-tier effort intended for use on flagship, high performance turntables such as the Galder T.T. or equally fine turntable from other third-party manufacturers. Bergmann says a similar design philosophy guided creation of both the Magne ST and Odin arms, with particular emphasis on strong but simple construction, low resonance, and a deliberately limited parts count.

Burmester 175 turntable/tone arm/phono stage

More than just a high-end turntable/tone arm package, Burmester’s model 175 turntable is more of an ultra-high quality, turnkey analogue system. We say this because the 175 is not only a strong turntable/tone arm package in its own right, but also incorporates a built-in version of Burmester’s famous (and quite expensive) model 100 phono preamplifier. Accordingly, the 175 comes with a noise isolated, external power supply for the phono stage embedded within the turntable.

The table proper features a distinctive 4-motor/quad-belt drive system that is said to ensure “no irregular tension” on the turntable’s main spindle bearing. What is more, the system uses AC synchronous motors that “are driven by digital motor electronics which perform their task with a high-precision oscillator and perfect sine and cosine voltages.” Burmester claims the system yields rapid spin-up times and that the drive electronics are “completely immune to fluctuations in the mains voltage frequency.”

In turn, the turntable features a massive platter featuring triple-layer aluminium-bras aluminium construction, with the platter supported by a bearing “designed to be maintenance free for life.” The tone arm offers a carbon fibre/aluminium arm tube supported by hybrid steel/ceramic bearings. The model 175 weighs a stout 60 kg. The Burmester 175 will become available in late autumn of 2017 and is expected to sell for about €30,000.

 

Clearaudio Concept Active vinyl playback all-in-one & Tracer tone arm

From the German analogue audio specialist Clearaudio came a new vinyl playback package called the Concept Active that gives new meaning to the term ‘all-in-one’. Basically, the ingenious package combines the ingenious and well-regarded Concept turntable and Satisfy tone arm, adds a Clearaudio Concept MC phono cartridge, and then incorporates both a built-in phonostage and a headphone amplifier. The upshot is a package where all you need to get started are some good vinyl records and either a hifi system or a good pair of headphones. Going from zero to vinyl has never been simpler (or executed in a more classy, eye-pleasing way).  The Concept Active is priced at €3,310.

Also new for Munich from Clearudio was the Tracer tone arm, which neatly takes its place in Clearaudio’s extensive ‘Tonarme’ family between the present Magnify and Unify tone arms. The Tracer is described as a minimalist design that places an emphasis on stable positioning of the phono cartridge above the record surface. The Tracer is offered with either silver or black carbon fibre arm tubes and sells for €1,900.

Dr Feickert Analogue Wren phono stage & Linear power supply

Many enthusiasts are familiar with the ingenious and extensive range of analogue set-up tools offered by Dr Feickert Analogue, as well as the firm’s beautifully made line of turntables, but for this year’s Munich event Feickert took its first-ever step into the world of analogue electronics as embodied in the new Wren phono stage (€7,000) and its companion Clean linear power supply (€749). The uncommonly versatile Wren can handle MM and MC cartridges and offers extensive programmable gain and loading options for multiple cartridges, which also can be adjusted on the fly. Once an ideal combination of settings is selected, users can store those settings in an internal database and label them, for example, with the name of the specific cartridge for which they are intended (e.g., “Lyra Atlas”).

Funk Firm AK1 tone arm

Funk Firm’s chief designer Arthur Khoubesserian unveiled his cost-no-object, shoot-for-the-stars AK1 tone arm, which will be priced at £24,000. The AK1 is a pivoting, tangential-tracking tone arm whose headshell is carried on a precision-made articulated mount and that—via a thread-driven cam-like mechanism—gradually adjusts its tracking angle to maintain tangency to the record groove as the arm traverses the record.

About now, audiophiles of a certain age might be thinking, “Isn’t this a little like the Garrard Zero-100 tone arm from days gone by?” The answer is that yes, both designs used articulated headshells to maintain groove tangency, but that no, the arms couldn’t be more different in execution.  (The Garrard Zero-100 is to the AK1 what the Wright Brothers’ first Flyer aeroplane is to a modern day Typhoon Eurofighter.)

In particular, Khoubesserian has laboured long and hard to eliminate all potential sources of bearing play in the connection between the headshell and the main arm tube, which is itself a resonance-free structure that leverages technology created for Funk Firm’s critically acclaimed FX-series tone arms.

In a conversation with Khoubesserian, the designer explained in some depth ways in which he thinks the design of the AK1 should enable it to outperform present day radial-tracking tone arms and also other articulated-headshell tangent-tracking tone arms presently on the market. At this stage, Khoubesserian plans to build just 50 of his exquisite and more-or-less hand-built AK1 arms, but our educated guess is that those might sell out surprisingly quickly. If this happens, it means Funk Firm might soon be faced with a decision as to whether to build more.
 

Kuzma 4Point 9-inch tone arm & CAR 60 moving coil phono cartridge


Kuzma’s 4Point tone arms in both 11-inch and 14-inch lengths have received critical acclaim from Hi-Fi+ and other publications, but with this said there are two potential problems with the arm(s). First, they are big and comparatively heavy, thanks in part to Kuzma’s beautiful but also massive VTA adjustment towers, which are a standard feature on the 4Point arms. Second, they are expensive (selling in the US for between $6,675 – $7,080, depending on the wiring options specified).

For Munich, though, Kuzma tackled both problems by introducing its new 4Point 9-inch arm, which is provided sans the aforementioned VTA tower, but is there for lighter, more compact (thus fitting on a wider range of turntables), and considerably less expensive. In fact, the new 9-inch 4Point will sell for €3,600. For those who have yearned for a cost-reduced and also more compact version of the desirable 4Point arm, your moment has arrived.

One other new development from Kuzma was the launch of what is by far the firm’s most exotic moving coil phono cartridge to date: namely, the CAR 60, which features (gulp!) a diamond cantilever and sells for €12,700. When Franc Kuzma took the CAR 60 from its case so I could snap a photo of it, he handled it with the sort of extreme care I imagine would be reserved for transferring vials of nitroglycerin to and from safety cases. Given its lofty price, the CAR 60 is one phono cartridge owners will want to keep far, far away from curious but potentially ham-fisted visitors.
 
Primary Control FCL (Field Coil Loaded) tone arm and Kinea turntable

Primary Control is an analogue audio specialist from the Netherlands that offers an unconventional and very well thought-out direct drive turntable called the Kinea (€12,000), which can be fitted with any of several Primary Control tone arms. What caught my eyes and ears, though, was the firm’s new field coil loaded FCL unipivot tone arm (€25,700) and the closely related Gravity tone arm (€13,900).

Under the FCL concept, one starts with a very high quality unipivot tone arm design, complete with a unipivot bearing positioned at the arm’s centre of mass, but then adds an externally powered and controlled constant current field coil torsional stabilisation system. Multiple benefits accrue, including a unipivot design that is free of bearing chatter, offers rock solid torsional stability (unlike other unipivots, the FCL doesn’t rock from side-to-side), offers very low friction, provides a non-friction magnetic anti-skating mechanism, and incorporates a low resonance arm wand. The net effect is of having a unipivot that does everything you would want a unipivot to do, but with no adverse side effects (in particular, no torsional rocking motions to contend with). The FCL isn’t cheap, but then cutting edge designs never are. Happily, the firm’s Gravity tone arm incorporates much of the thinking behind the FCL but at a (somewhat) lower price point.

The Kinea, though not new for 2017, is a big, beautiful variable-torque “coreless direct drive” turntable with an oversized 360mm platter. The motor is a relatively low-torque, brushless, air core design that is geared to minimise magnetic motor cogging effects. On start-up, however, the motor can temporarily go into a 5-second period of high-torque operation to bring the platter up to speed, but thereafter reverts back to a low-torque “standy” operating mode. An electronic regulation system enables variable torque operation. The platter is a five-layer composite, while the spacious plinth of the turntable allows room for arm boards supporting 9-inch to 13-inch tone arms.

Sonically, I was struck by the Primary Control analogue rig’s light, lithe, agile, and noise free presentation. Further listening is indicated.

Thorens TD907 turntable & tone arm

The German firm Thorens showed a family of three new 900-series turntables comprising the entry-level TD 903 (€6499), the mid-level TD 905 (€7999), and the flagship TD 907 (€11,500). All three turntables are thoroughly contemporary in internal design, but their external appearance features a deliberately retro look that is intended as an homage to classic Thorens turntables from the past (specifically the TD 160). All three turntables use a three-spring suspended sub-chassis design, plus high-rigidity plinth top and bottom plates fashioned from an internally dampened yet also stiff laminate of aluminium and polyethylene. The TD 903 and TD 905 come with glass platters and 9-inch TP 92 tonearms, while the TD 907 comes with a machined metal platter and a 10-inch TP92 arm.

The TD 907 ha certain distinctive features that its sibling do not, including provisions for levelling the turntable sub-chassis via top plate-accessible adjustment screws, plus and adjustable air-damping system for the sub-chassis suspension system. A further interesting touch is that the TD 907 tone cables provide the option of either single-ended (RAC jack-equipped) and balanced (XLR jack-equipped) output sockets as found on the turntable’s rear panel (user must choose to use either one option or the other, though, as the tonearm cables are soldered directly to one’s chosen set of outputs). The machined aluminium platter features an inset acrylic top disc that acts, says Thorens, as “a damping pad for the grooved surface of the record.” Finally, the feet of the TD 907 are adjustable and fitted with “triCom and viscose foam inserts.”

In many respects, the TD 905 is a “TD 907 Junior” and although the TD905 does not carry the full set of features that the TD 907 does, it can be upgraded at a later date to become a full-on TD 907 via a pre-planned Thorens upgrade path.

 

Best Analogue Sound of Show

AudioSilente Blackstone Reference turntable & BlackSilent tone arm

The Italian firm AudioSilente has long been a proponent of super high-quality idler-wheel drive turntables in the vein of certain classic designs from Lenco and Thorens) as evidenced first by AudioSilente’s original Blackstone turntable and now by the even more ambitious Blackstone Reference turntable (€39,000). Please understand that these are not ordinary idler-wheel designs, but rather turntables that execute the idler-wheel concept with aerospace-like precision and with attention to detail that makes the turntable drive mechanism seem more than a little like a fine mechanical Swiss watch writ large.

Accordingly, the thick triangular plinth of the Blackstone Reference is formed from “isostatic graphite HDG” (a very high density form of graphite that looks, well, like a slab of black stone, only better), wear components are made from precision ground and chrome plated casehardened steel, rotating parts are made of machined aluminium and then balanced, the 8kg platter is fashioned from brass and bronze with an isostatic graphite HDG sub-platter, the main spindle bearing is made of oil-pre-preg sintered bronze and milled to almost ridiculous tolerances (0.005mm!), both spindle and pulley bearings rest on grade 3 ceramic ball bearings (with ruby bearings as an option), and power is supplied by a very high-torque Pabst motor with speeds controlled by a Quartz-oscillator equipped electronic control system that promises speed accuracy of 99.9998% with a 50% reduction in motor speeds vis-à-vis competing designs. Capping things off is Audiosilente’s 13.5-inch Black Silent tone arm (also available in a 10-inch version with graphite arm tube.

The upshot is a turntable/tone arm combination that is extraordinarily quiet, offers authoritative pitch stability, and that supplies an unfailingly solid foundation against which the music can unfold. There is a subtle but pervasive sense of confidence and self-assuredness about the AudioSilente turntable, as if it is incapable of being flustered by anything short of a bomb blast and will never put a foot wrong. It’s a great turntable that bears further watching and listening.

SME 30/12 turnable and tone arm

After being away from the Munich show for roughly 27 years, the great British analogue audio company SME was back with a purpose. The SME stand featured a static display highlighting not only current SME turntable and tonearms models, but also including a glass “Wall of Fame” case featuring a display of SME’s greatest analogue products from the past.

But the best part of the stand featured an inner demo room where SME has set up a system featuring its flagship Model 30/12 turntable, Nagra electronics, and YG Acoustics Sonya 1.3 floorstanding loudspeakers. For those not familiar with the SME 30/12, it is in essence an uprated version of the firm’s Model 30/2 turntable, but one geared specifically for use with the flagship SME V-12 (12-inch) tonearm. The 30/12 is not a new turntable/tonearm system, but it is without a doubt one of the world’s finest—as was made very clear during the brief listening session I was able to enjoy. The SME/Nagra/YG Acoustics system sounded—in a word—“magnificent”, with levels of transparency, dynamic expression, and all-round quietude that rather forcefully reminded me of what a great record playing machine SME’s 30/12 really is. While the new and now has a certain fascination, the 30/12 reminds us, as the old saying goes, that “sometimes the old ways are best”.

 

Worthy of Note

Mag Lev Audio turntable & tone arm

Arguably the most eye-catching and wonderment-inducing turntable at Munich was the aptly name Mag-Lev Audio turntable and tonearm. I say this because the Mag Lev’s platter is held aloft, centred over a fixed point, and rotated by magnetic levitation/magnetic induction, meaning that in side-view the platter shows itself to be floating on air. Period. There is no main spindle bearing at all, nor is there any apparent mechanical platter-drive system such as a belt or idler wheel. Benefits are said to include elimination of all mechanical (that is, bearing-induced) plus looks that are assured to amaze and delight listeners/viewers. The Mag Lev turntable, complete with tonearm and cartridge, will sell for about €1,400.

Perpetuum-Ebner PE 1000 turntable & tone arm

German audiophiles will be well familiar with the name of analogue specialist Perpetuum-Ebner—a firm that had level the market for a time, but that was reborn in 2014 with the launch of the comparatively expensive flagship PE 4040 turntable. What was needed, some felt, was a more basic PE model that would embody the firm’s core values, both technically and sonically, yet would be more accessibly priced. The model that fits this design brief perfectly is the new PE 1000, priced at €1,490 with tonearm and cartridge.

The PE 1000 use Perpetuum Ebner’s signature solid split chassis (platter and motor support on one side, tonearm support on the other), offers an electronically controlled DC motor, features a minimalist 9-inch aluminium tonearm with “biaxial bearings” and a thread-and-weight anti-skating system, a satin-finished acrylic platter with felt mat, and that comes fitted with an Ortofon 2M moving magnet-type phono cartridge.

Stoic wall-mount turntable stand

Turntable stands and other types of specialist audio furniture are all well and good, but there are times when it would be desirable to decouple one’s turntable stand from the floor altogether. A wall-mount turntable stand would seem to be the obvious answer, but about today’s beefy and very heavy top-tier turntables? Does anyone make a wall-mount stand suitable for them? Stoic does.

The Stoic wall-mount stand is exceedingly strong, has a good isolation system for the top plate upon which the turntable will rest, and is built in such a way that it can be (and for now must be) bolted to a masonry wall—a type of wall that is relatively common in Europe and the UK. At present, three finished versions of the Stoic stand are offered: Birch ply (€1,100), Black (€1,170), and Slate (€1,700).

In conversations with the Stoic team, we discovered the firm had only recent become familiar with the stick-built construction methods commonly found in the US, complete with wall stud spacing that complies with a 16-inch centre-to-centre standard. In light of this, Stoic anticipates creating a US-spec wall-mount plate for its stand that will incorporate 16-inch spacing for the requisite wall-mounting bolts.

Tien Audio Ltd. Triple turntable & tone arm

The Tien Audio Triple turntable & Viroa tonearm (projected price $5,000) look very promising. The Tien Triple is so named for two reasons: first, because its drive mechanism features three, microchip-controlled DC motors sharing a common drive belt, and second because it can accommodate up to three tonearms. Moreover, the main spindle bearing is a floating magnet design with a ceramic main bearing shaft.

The Viroa tonearm is a unipivot design featuring a polished sapphire bearing, a carbon fibre arm wand tube fitted with an aluminium headshell, and a distinctive adjustable, magnetic azimuth and anti-skate system. All in all, this appears to be an awful lot of turntable and tonearm for the money.

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