Now that I have highlighted the systems that for me were the top of the show, I will now turn attention briefly to a few systems that were still affordable by us mere mortals, and not just showcases in excess. By "affordable" I mean a system that comes in at less than the price of your typical mid-sized BMW or Mercedes (around 50K). I figure that a dedicated audiophile with a decent job and no real desire for a nice car might invest this kind of money into their dream system. That being said, I realize fully that this is still probably 5 to 10X what most real audiophiles spend on their systems. However, I think that this price class can still be justified in terms of materials and labor, and is not simply "luxury" pricing.
The first system I would like to highlight is basically a referral back to system number 5 in my top picks of the show. The Acoustic Zen Crescendo + Triode system comes in probably somewhat over 50K euro and delivered a very strong overall performance (see PART 1 of my report for photos).
KR Audio + RD acoustics
Another standout system in the under 50K class was the KR Audio room on the ground floor, coupled with a new Czech speaker from a brand called RD acoustic. These speakers were quite interesting in that they were a single driver design that was loading a large folded back horn of about 2.7 meters in total length. This speaker was quite versatile in that different drivers could be implemented. The rest of the system consisted of the mighty KR Audio Kronzilla SXi and surprisingly an inexpensive Pioneer CD player. There was also a Czech-made turntable, but this was never played while I was in the room, so my comments only refer to the system with digital.
RDacoustic speakers (red w/Fostex and black w/Voxativ) + KR Audio SXi + Pioneer CD player + KR Audio VA300i + unidentified TT
The overall sound of this system was very transparent and direct…and VERY engaging with most kinds of music. There was a tiny bit of the single driver's tendency to shout, but unlike nearly every other single driver speaker I have heard, it was well balanced with real bass. And it was a true horn bass, which is tight and dry and very, very fast with no bass overhang.
Midrange was explicit and revealing with great resolution. The only questionable area was with the high frequencies, which were a bit splashier and prominent than I think is correct. I wouldn't have minded seeing a ribbon or horn tweeter coming in around 4-5kHz to take over and, if done right, significantly improve the perceived response.
Closer view of the Kronzilla SXi
As you can see in the photos, there were two versions of the speaker, one with a Fostex driver, and the other the least expensive Voxativ driver. The speakers with the Fostex driver listed for 10K euro and the Voxativ driver speakers were 15K euro.
On the third time I went to the room they were playing the red speakers with the Fostex driver. While they gave up a bit of immediacy and resolution in the midrange and upper frequencies, the Fostex driver simply killed the Voxativ driver in bass power and drive punch. After much going back and forth, I decided that the Fostex driver in the horn provided the best top-to-bottom balance. In addition, the speaker was 5K cheaper this way!
Closer view of the RDacoustic speakers (red speaker has optional "waveguide")
Now, you might have noticed a second KR audio amp in the room underneath the main rack. That "small" KR is the VA300i, which is the smallest SET that KR makes in terms of power (around 12 watts); however, it is still a solid 36Kg of no nonsense amplification. It is also priced far lower than the Kronzilla SXi. So, I asked them to give it a spin on these 98dB/watt speakers. How did it sound, you ask? Well, surprisingly close to the Kronzilla. Swapping out a 20K euro amplifier with a 7K euro amplifier brings the price of this system down to where it was clearly one of the best bargains at the show.
One last interesting piece of information is the unveiling of KR Audio's newest amplifier, the VA200, which is using 8 x 842VHD tubes (each of these is capable of 20 watts in a SET configuration) per monoblock! The difference here is that KR has designed this amp as a circlotron with output transformers (kind of like the BAT REX monos). The power output is 200 watts per mono and the power consumption is a staggering 1000 watts, all the time, as the things run Class A.
The new KR Audio VA200 circlotron monoblocks, which deliver 200 watts of Class A power with the KR Audio P130 preamplifier a KEF blade 2 speaker, unknown TT and Antelope Audio Zodiac + Voltikus DAC
Eunice told me that they were originally using them in the demo room, but it very quickly got too hot in there because of the massive heat dissipation. I am not at all surprised about this as I once had a pair of Silvaweld OTL tube reference monoblocks with similar heat dissipation. Still, they were a sight to behold, and if your speakers require this kind of power, then there might not be a better-sounding high-powered tube amp on the market. They had the VA200s outside strapped to a pair of KEF Blade 2s and driven by a KR Audio model P130 preamp (review sample on the way to me and at 5K euro, potentially a really good deal). They only played this at very low levels in a noisy environment, so I will not make any kind of judgment on the sound.
KR Audio P130 preamplifier: It is a hybrid design with a JFET input and KR05 tubes coupled to output transformers. This model also has a solid state phono stage built in.
Boenicke Audio + Computer Audio Design (CAD)
Last year Sven Boenicke surprised and delighted with superb sound coming from tiny and merely small speakers. This year Sven was back with a new model, the W11 SE+, that is still a modest floor-standing speaker, size-wise, but with a somewhat steeper price tag (around 12K euro). There was something else new this year for Sven, the E2 integrated amp, which not only combined ample power but also made some bold claims about error and distortion cancellation. Unfortunately, I was not able to sit and discuss this in detail with Sven or find out the price (could push this out of the "affordable" range, but I think not) but I will ask to follow up on this in the future. The source was from CAD.
Boenicke Audio + CAD room
The sound, as in past shows with Boenicke speakers, was huge for the size of the system, and with a wonderful tone through the mids and highs. I felt that only the bass was letting down the system, at least with the electronic music that was playing as I entered. With this music the sound of the bass was a bit muddy and slow compared to the rest of the range, and that led to an indistinct thud in the bass when busier sections hit. However, when some classical music was put on next, the sound was glorious, with some of the most realistic instrument tone I have heard at the show.
Close up view of Boenick W11 SE+
I hesitated a bit to put this system on this list because of the bass issue I heard, but with acoustic music it carried the day as one of the better-sounding and more affordable rooms at the show. I would like to point out that Boenicke has significantly less expensive and even more room-friendly speakers that drive the cost of this whole system down even further without, in my mind, compromising the overall sound quality very much.
Close up view of the new Boenicke E2 integrated amplifier
[Photographs by Brad Morrical; image processing by David W. Robinson.]