High End 2004 Robert Jorgensen
It started and ended with music. An impression from High End 2004 in Munich
[A warm reception was insured at HE 2004]
When I inquired traveling instructions regarding the Lufthansa City bus another traveller asked me if I was going to the M.O.C. Well, I was, since the High End 2004 exhibition had left it’s home of 21 years in the Hotel Kempinski near Frankfurt and moved to Munich.
Upon finding out that he came from Holland I asked if he was a dealer since the first day of the High End is trade-only day and since it is a public holiday in most European countries quite a few make their way to the HE 2004. But no; he owned a small record company and he was coming down to demonstrate some of his multi-channel classical recordings for Sony. His name was Jared Sacks and his record company is Channel Classics and I’ll come back to him and his recordings later.
Some delectable bits of High Tech!
It’s already a couple of years ago that we first saw them and we then thought we were in the presence of R2D2’s wayward cousins. Not so! They were speakers from Irish company o’heocha. They were no less spaced out this year but as it turned out, their looks was not the only interesting about them by far. After having passed the room once we had noticed the funny thingie on top of some of the speakers. It only really came home to us when we passed (left) one of speakers standing in the middle of the corridor playing happily, WITH NO WIRES AT ALL! Hmmmm.
A conversation with a friendly gentleman, who turned out to be Aonghus O’heocha, owner and chief designer himself, clarified things quickly. The thingie on top of the speaker turned out to a wireless interface. This is running in 2.4Ghz band like a lot of other wireless devices like phones as well as many WiFi wireless LANs. It does use it’s own proprietary protocol which means that should not be bothered by other devices and it can actually handle a full multi channel system according to Aonghus O’heocha. Not having any power cable is explained by the battery driven Class-D amplifier sitting in the cabinet in the bottom of the speaker. In the near future this battery could even be charged by a solar panel.
Is it high technology. You bet! Is it HE 2004? To be quite honest we can’t tell you. Most audiophiles might be at least a bit suspicious of so many unknowns and technology which seems more at home with a PC than with serious hi-fi, but reality is that the circumstances simply did not allow serious evaluation. We do though feel that there is a lot of future in the kind of solutions Aonghus O’heocha has pioneered. As for whether the looks are your thing depends a bit on whether you’re a R2D2 or a C3P0 kind of person.
I also ran into Lars Kristensen (left), who out in the large world is known by many as Mr. Nordost (like in really expensive cables). Our friends from Finnish Amphion (whom we will cover a bit later), thinks he might have some Shaman blood in him and who knows, perhaps they are right. Even a skeptic could be tempted into turning believer after listening to the new Valhalla power cables and distribution box as well as the water based stuff Lars was spraying on the CDs. I must (sheepishly) admit to being somewhat impressed. Let’s see if Lars can really make a believer out of me.
What REALLY did impress me were the speakers that he introduced us to in the form of the Eben-X3 from a new Danish firm called Raidho. The whole series of speakers of which the X3 is the first and second largest is based around a new treble planar driver developed in-house and most of the models also sport bass/mids from Skåning’s Audio Technology. Obviously these speakers contain components of the very highest quality, but as is known by most audiophiles, this does not in it self guarantee a superior product. I was so impressed by the Eben-X3 though, that I came back several times and spent quite a bit of time listening to the system consisting of Exposure CD and amplification, Nordost cabling and the Eben-X3 speakers. This played to a very high standard with a very dynamic and decidedly unsmeared reproduction. It simply was what many probably would subjectively call a very fast speaker and we are looking very much forward to spending more time with the new speakers from Raidho.
The products that pressed most buttons for me, and I think I can safely include Clement Perry and Don Dixon here as well, came from a new contender in the HiFi market, although quite obviously not newcomers to electronics. We had never heard of “behold” before but must truly admit that their products were indeed something to “behold” and even more to listen to. From the brains and experience of Ralf Ballmann (left) and his cohorts comes a series of components that demand true respect and admiration [publisher's note: Both I and Don Dixon were smitten over the accuracy as well as musicality of the behold room using my very own reference loudspeaker in the Isophon Europa. So much in fact, I couldn't help but going back day after day to further confirm my initial thoughts.]
The products that are most visible are a pre-amp control unit and a power amplifier. They look quite stunning and when you take a look inside you are even more impressed. Wow does it look professional and this is meant in the very most positive sense of the word. The “behold” products just ooze professionalism and that is no wonder, since Ballmann and his colleagues come from a background in producing tools for network analysis and both their design choices and the way these have been implemented in practice demand respect.
Even before the control unit you found something quite unique sitting on top of the cartridge. Yes it was also a Vinyl playing system. What caught our attention was a small circuit board, which turned out to be a sophisticated analogue to digital converter. Having converted the signal to digital so close to the source the signal is then treated in the control unit where it is RIAA corrected in the digital domain (attempts at doing has not been to successful in the past), something that is made possible by the application of considerable computing power within the control unit. Now this actually goes a lot further that one might immediately expect. You see, the signal is not converted to 16bit/44.1kHz, but to 24bit/768kHz. Behold also chose (and rightly so) to use a more professional-type 50-Ohm connectionsusing connectors with an much higher quality than can ever be achieved by RCA plugs or BNC plugs. After treatment in the control unit the signal is sent onto the amp(s) while still in its digital form. This (together with the much less sensitive signal format) makes use of a very thin 50-Ohm wire, which can be very long and very unobtrusive.
The power amp's actually analogue (right), but they contain a D/A converter of quite heroic proportions. It consists of 8 cascaded D/A chips which enable it to handle the 768kHz input. Furthermore they do not use a conventional power supply, but computer controlled switching supply which enables an extremely stable power delivery into quite bizarre loads of low impedance of high reactance. This (in simple terms) means that they can drive the most difficult of loudspeaker loads. This was proved in practice since they were playing with Isophon speakers which although known for great neutrality also have a reputation for bring many amps to their proverbial knees. I have in the past heard powerful amps sounding a bit wobbly on Isophon speakers, but that was definitely not the case here.
It sounded good. VERY GOOD! I am convinced that these products could prove to be a new benchmark for others to follow. They go outside the normal frame and do so with panache. They are certainly worth a much closer look although not in the cheap end of the market. The system shown would set you back the better part 100K$, but as opposed to other systems the initial impression is that there is effort and quality behind it to more than justify the price.
Ohh and before I forget, the Remote Control! I liked that a lot. It was actually a Pocket-PC with Bluetooth communication and you could do all sorts of wonderful things with it. I suppose you gather that this means that all the products are also Bluetooth enabled. Of course the main reason I like it so is that I have been telling manufacturers that they should do something like this for years. “behold” obviously did not get the idea from me, but it an excellent one. If I may say so.
We are more than happy though to note that high tech clever products not necessarily have to cost an arm and a leg. A case in point would be the new “banana” plug from Australian Eichmann Technologies. After getting real attention all over the hifiworld with their exceedingly clever “bulletplug”, they are giving us a new take on the old banana speakerplug in the form of the “Bayonet Plug” which Rob Woodland showed off with justified pride we think. The Bayonet Plug shares a vision with the Bullet Plug in that it focuses on better contact. It is made in Tellurium Copper, which is a much superior conductor compared to brass, but instead of using the conducting elements to also provide contact pressure it uses an insert to provide the pressure and leaves just the conducting to the conductor. If you see what I mean. If not we will try to get back with a special report later.