Event - Twenty-First Century Electronics Come To Moscow
Sergei Taranov
11 May 2001

Moscow's Iris HotelThousands filled Moscowís Iris Hotel, with parked cars lining nearby streets. Running for its sixth consecutive year, Moscowís Hi-Fi Show & Home Theater is the only exhibition in Russia where virtually all distributors are able to show and demonstrate their wares. "Home Theater" added to the showís name a couple of years ago signifies the growing market for multichannel and video equipment, launched into orbit by an abundance of DVDs, dubbed and subtitled in Russian. Nevertheless, high-end audio remains a major attraction.

French Speakers from Waterfall

Thus Sprach ELACís Imago Flat Panels

Iíll skip the Dolby Digital and DTS sound and video and will also stay away from the ever-popular "lifestyle audio," with its slick good looks and often lifeless sound. We have things to investigate here that really do play music. By-arrangement-only high-end esoterica is now in the open for the public to admire, aspire to or criticize, depending of the mood of the moment.

A Cappella Audio Violon Uses an Ionic Plasma Tweeter

New brands keep appearing in the marketplace as an indication of healthy demand. This year we witnessed the return of Sonus Faber loudspeakers and Avantgarde Acoustics horns, the debut of Metronome digital and BC Acoustique speakers from France, tube amplification from Japan by WAVAC and Tri, GRAAF OTL amplifiers from Italy, Red Rose Music speakers and amps from Mark Levinson (the man), along with a large array of rarities.

Avatgarde Duo Hornspeakers (as the Germans have named them in English), and Unison Research Amplification

The Iris Hotel provides a unique atmosphere for this gathering. Its circular atrium, lighted by the spring sun, allows one to see the galleries on all floors and spot familiar faces from afar.

New Speakers

B&W introduced two new speaker lines, the CM, with its attractive finish and high tech drivers, priced below the CDM NT series, and the new DM300, a redesigned budget line. Both lines feature a metal dome tweeter, rear-loaded on a damping pipe, which first appeared in an expensive Nautilus 800 speakers.

Jacques Mahul, president of Focal-JM Lab, appeared in person to introduce to the world his JM Lab Cobalt 2001 speakers. Again we see expensive technologies trickling down from high-end heights. The Cobalts utilize Focalís multilayered, Sandwich-W woofer cones and inverted dome tweeters. Extensive research in crossover design result in new phase-optimized fourth-order networks. Obviously proud of this feature, the manufacturer provided a window in the rear of the cabinet revealing the nicely layered crossover boards.

Energy, a Canadian speaker company, exhibited its new Veritas line. These speakers offer an extremely inert cabinet braced by metal rods connecting the rear panel and driver magnets. The rods are ingeniously coupled to the cabinet by rubber rings. The drivers are unusual: metal-domed midranges and woofers are made of a multilayered metalized polymer cone, profiled both radially and axially. This is said to provide extremely low distortion in the critical voice region of 150-500 Hz.

Synthesis, an Italian company, Adds a Matching CD Player to Its Line of Brightly Colored Tube Amps

SACD and DVD-Audio

Meridianís Colin Aldridge offered a fully turbo-charged DVD-audio presentation. Seven active speakers with digital inputs, including all-new DSP-8000, coupled with Reference 800 modular DVD player, made for a dynamic, clear and transparent sound. According to Aldridge, there are more than 150 DVD-audio titles available, and the company strongly supports the format. Meridian, a notable exception among Japanese corporations, was able to join the DVD-audio Forum to introduce its lossless packing algorithm, MLP, as a carrier of the DVD-audio PCM bitstream on disk. While it is still unclear to me if the use of MLP is compulsory for DVD-audio, this relatively small British high-end company plays an important role in whatever decisions the industry giants are preparing for us end-users of music software. According to Meridian, a total of 22 chip companies have signed up to implement the MLP decoder, Including MEI, Motorola, Analog Devices, Zoran, Oak, Mediamatics, C-Cube, Thompson and Crystal (Cirrus Logic). This chips nest inside DVD-audio players, which, in my opinion, are still waiting for DVD-audio disks to come.

I remain skeptical about DVD-audio as a leap in sound quality from CD, and Meridianís demonstration proved nothing to the contrary. An ordinary CD track from the Tacet label, played at this demonstration, sounded as dynamic and focused as DVD-audio material from other labels. On the other hand, reliable sources tell me that new DVD-audio releases from Warner signify a giant step forward. There are also some indications that the new Philips SACD-1000, a universal-platform disk player, also at the show, might offer good quality for DVD-audio and SACD playback at a lower price than Sonyís flagship models. New Sony DVP-9000ES, a DVD-video/2-channel SACD player, also offers a nicely priced package. This player appeared in several show demos, even though Sony is not importing this model into Russia. (Their reluctance may be due to difficulties in preparing it for Region Code 5 for DVD-video.) Although itís uncovered by Sonyís warranty, independent dealers are importing this player.

Sonyís DVDP-900ES SACD player was nowhere in evidence. We see few new SACD titles here, which is really too bad. To keep the flame alight, the Accuphase distributor demonstrated SACD playback in its full glory, using transport/DAC combination DP-100/DC-101. The two units have to use an encrypted digital link between them, since, for the time being at least, no manufacturer is allowed to have a "pure" SACD digital stream out.

To confirm my previous experiences, SACD sound is completely different from what CD has to offer, thus making it attractive. The harshness, grain and fatigue CD playback imprints (although to varying degree, of course) is completely gone. What gremlins can SACD bring to our treasured music heritage remains to be seen, as there is not enough software. (I said that before, didnít I?)

What About Russian-Made Audio?

This year we saw quite a few local manufacturers, specializing, not surprisingly, in loudspeakers and tubed amps. The visitor had an opportunity to experience niche developments surfacing all over the globe. Two Comrades (Dva Tovarischa), a Moscow-based company, has a thing for expensive hardwoods, which it uses for speaker and amp cabinets. A big push-pull amp and a pair of open-baffle one-way speakers offered gorgeous dynamics and euphonic timbres, making it one of my most pleasant sonic experiences ever under show conditions.

A couple of companies have been experimenting with omnidirectional speakers. Errol Lab takes off on old Ohm and Walsh ideas. Resonance Acoustics has been working on tuned enclosures with drivers in tuned, circular-shaped wood panels. While certainly spacey, the sound from either had a soft and muffled quality.

Joining Natural Audio as a bona fide manufacturer of tube amps, i.e., under valid factory conditions and with quantity runs, is the South-Russia-based Oberton. With the assistance of Vladimir Starodubtsev, a designer famous for his tube-powered amp, Priboy, in the transistorized 80s, Oberton offers low-priced single-ended amps using Svetlana-made 300Bs and GM-70s (huge modulator DHTs, no longer in production, but widely available as NOS).

Victor and Vladimir

Each year our Russian-bred Americans, Vladimir Shushurin (LAMM) and Victor Khomenko (Balanced Audio), travel to the capital. As the Iris Hotel is pretty far from Moscowís high life, the brave duo has to suffer the noise of the Show and the abysmal food of the hotelís restaurants.

Mr. Shushurin has been very busy this year, helping to set up two systems for his distributor. One featured a tubed, single-ended ML2 in a regular hotel room, the other literally occupying center stage in a huge conference hall. This latter featured four M1.1 monoblocs powering JM Lab Grand Utopia speakers, new Lamm L2 Reference preamplifier and a stellar front end with MicroSeiki/Dynavector analog and Metronome digital. The LAMM/Grand Utopia sound had an unbelievable scale, both in terms of soundstage and effortless dynamics.

While demonstrating his relatively new VK-50 preamplifiers, Victor Khomenko was unable to show his latest VK-6200 amplifier. Russian customs as usual issued fresh regulations, keeping some new products from arriving in time. He told me that while the modular amp accommodates up to 6 channels, the VK-6200 does extremely well in two-channel applications, providing a nice, compact package for bi-amping.

Bits and Pieces Gathered from Exhibitors

Dieter Burmester has recently taken up his old habit: he rehearses with a band as a guitar player. He gave away a CD of his band to journalists at a press-conference, relating in an offhanded manner that Burmester initiated many things now fashionable in high end audio: balanced circuitry, chrome-plated finishes, belt-drive CD transports, active power conditioners, etc. Mr. Burmester said that he was one of the very few manufacturers to launch a new CD player in year 2000 (the 001) and was rewarded by good sales despite all the talk about new formats.

Vladimir Shushurin expressed strong views on the high endís current situation. The industry has been artificially swollen by entrepreneurs who make overpriced products which do not meet their advertised claims. The time for slogans is over! Only the strong will survive!

Jacques Mahul said that he was extremely lucky to have begun his business in 1980, since it is nearly suicidal to go into speaker manufacturing in Europe now. A company needs to have had a long-term marketplace presence in order to prove itself Ė something like 10-20 years. Monsieur Mahul is pleased with the technological side of his company, Focal, with its introduction of new materials and technologies, helping it to compete with low-priced Far Eastern competition. With so many high-end companies going belly up, Focal has ceased manufacturing custom OEM drivers. Focal drivers, all 30-40 models, are now available from its catalogue, enough, according to Mahul, to satisfy the needs of both DIYers and high-end speaker manufacturers.

Whodunnit?

Many prophesy the high endís demise. It may well die as we know it. CD now seems the culprit of dissatisfaction. Hopefully, some new format may rekindle the flame. High-end audio is very much alive in the black grooves of the analog disc, however. Pro-Ject, Kuzma, Nottingham Analogue, Clearudio and other manufacturers exhibited their vinyl-playing gear this year. While seeking to discover whoís killing the art of music reproduction Ė greedy inventors of digital or indifferent, computerized youngsters Ė Iíll stick to my treasured vinyl. Fashions come and go, and audiophiles are certainly losing out with regard to quantity, but quality should prevail in the end.

If high-end audio provides quality, it will survive outside the circle of a select few. Another place to check into the high endís future is the Frankfurt High End Show in Germany this June. We shall see.

Sergei Taranov is Editor of Audio Magazine in St. Petersburg, Russia www.audiomagazine.ru