“Poproszę jedem pączek. I cappuccino, proszę.” The woman behind the café counter dutifully set my plate on the glass countertop and set about steaming the milk for my drink. We’d ducked into the small, French-styled café to get out of the rain and refuel as we wandered around Warsaw’s Old Town. I brought my pączek (it’s like a jelly donut, but better) to the table and sat down across from SoundStage! Ultra senior editor Jason Thorpe and SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider. Doug gaped at my newly acquired ability to order a donut in Polish. “You know, you’re the most un-American American we’ve ever brought on one of these trips,” he said and laughed.
Prepare yourself to read that joke ad nauseam over the next three days. Doug, Jason, and I are on location here in Warsaw to report on Audio Video Show, the second-largest hi-fi trade show in Europe. This year marks the show’s 25th anniversary, but it’s my first time attending it, and I couldn’t be more excited. There are hundreds of hi-fi companies represented here, with everything from major global brands to the smallest boutique specialists. This means that we’ll have an abundance of cool gear, some of it being shown publicly for the first time, to share with you over the next three days. Doug’s focus will be covering the latest equipment being shown here, while I home in on the coolest hi-fi stuff I can find. Jason has his sights set on the ultra-high-end stuff, so he’ll be a kid in a candy store.
In case you aren’t familiar with Audio Video Show or SoundStage!’s coverage of it, the show runs three days, Friday through Sunday. It’s hosted across three locations: the Radisson Blu Sobieski hotel, which is where my comrades and I are staying, the Golden Tulip hotel, just across the street, and PGE Narodowy, the national stadium of Poland a couple miles down the road. Our modus operandi with shows like these is to see as much as we can and report on it in real time, or as near to that as possible. Expect regular updates through Sunday. But once the show ends, so does our coverage.
The most ludicrous DAC ever?
Today was the opening day of Audio Video Show 2023, so we started at the Golden Tulip hotel’s convention floor. The Golden Tulip is the smallest of the three locations and hosts only a handful of rooms, but my first experiences here left me thoroughly impressed. After Jason got my feet wet in a couple of the bigger, more heavily trafficked exhibits, we wandered into Polish distributor Galeria Audio’s room.
There, pounding out a convincing rendition of “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, was a pair of Kharma speakers powered by Goldmund electronics. The speakers were Exquisite, literally—the model name is Exquisite-Midi 3.0—and a pair goes for €90,000.
But the speakers and other electronics took a backseat to the room-dominating Aries Cerat Ithaka DAC and its matching power supply. “What is that? Is it a preamp?” Jason asked. Peering into the open top of the chassis, I recognized the Analog Devices chips, and my jaw dropped. “It’s a DAC, I think,” I replied. We learned that the Cypriot-made DAC uses a total of 24 new-old-stock Analog Devices R2R DACs in parallel along with oddball E810F small-signal pentodes. That’s in addition to enough iron and power-supply regulation to make your head spin. According to the Galeria rep, it’s priced at €80,000, an appropriately over-the-top price for a completely over-the-top bit of gear.
A firsthand account of why directivity matters
We headed over to the Radisson to get a first taste of the total of eight floors of exhibitors. A highlight for me was Silent Pound’s room. Doug wrote about the Lithuanian company’s Challenger speaker at last year’s Audio Video Show, so I’ll avoid rehashing his technical explanation. Rather, I’ll explain that I spoke with the founder, Audrius Balciunas, and he confirmed that the speaker was no longer in its prototype phase. It is now available for €15,000 per pair.
Further, he explained the importance of controlling a speaker’s horizontal directivity to its in-room sound. Balciunas showed me a plot of the Challenger’s horizontal directivity, and it’s pretty unusual compared to that of a typical dynamic driver monopole speaker. Thanks to its patent-pending midrange enclosure, the Challenger has nearly perfectly constant directivity through the audioband, with sound pressure falling off evenly for all frequencies as one moves off the speaker’s center axis. To illustrate this point, he walked me to the front of the room, between the speakers, to hear the effect.
Do this experiment next time you have the chance: play a song you know reasonably well through your home system, and listen to how the sound changes as you pass through the sweet spot and walk until you’re standing between the speakers. Spoiler alert: the tonal balance will change significantly. But when Balciunas and I walked to the front of the room, the Challenger speakers had basically the same timbre as they had when we were sitting at the back of the room. Sitting in the speakers’ sweet spot revealed a detailed but natural sound with excellent imaging, despite being in a relatively small room with no treatment. I know €15,000 sounds like a lot, but the Challenger may prove to be the first example of a disruptive technology in the audio scene. And not one Silent Pound is likely to let go of, either. A pair of Challengers don’t look like humongous sculptural things that are hard to integrate into a normal room. So I couldn’t help liking them. The Challengers do what Silent Pound says they do, without pretense, and they sound damn good, too.
We’ve only just begun
We walked past the considerable Fezz and Pylon Audio display and room as we started our tour of the Radisson Blu Sobieski, and we saw some cool stuff. But one thing was conspicuously kept under wraps, literally, and that was Fezz Audio’s new Equinox DAC, debuting tomorrow (Saturday). As is Fezz’s wont, it uses tubes, but Fezz went to lengths to make sure it was done right. The company has enlisted the Polish tube DAC masters at Lampizator, making the Equinox the world’s first Lampizator-licensed product. But the DAC remained under its cover to be debuted tomorrow. I’ve geeked out about the combination of tubes and digital audio ever since I got into this hobby, so you can be sure I’ll be returning to see the Equinox unsheathed and provide more details. Stay tuned.