Last week the McIntosh Group hosted its first ever convention in Sardinia, Italy. The Group consists of six brands including McIntosh, Audio Research, Sonus Faber, Wadia, Pryma, and Sumiko. Thus, there was quite a bit of audio being discussed at the event, from analog to digital to all-in-one speaker systems to large flagship loudspeakers. It was a great opportunity to dig deep into the product lines, talk to product designers, and get a glimpse into the future of each brand. For some brands like Sonus Faber the future is now, with the introduction of the Sf16, while other brands like Wadia are undergoing a makeover for an upcoming transformation. Here are my highlights of the McIntosh Group convention 2016.
There's no way I can bury the lead on this one, the new Sonus Faber Sf16 stole the show. Period. The other brands certainly showed off some nice things, but the debut of the Sf16 was akin to an Apple event and product unveiling. First a little background. Sonus Faber was founded in 1980 with ethos of good sound quality and good design. One of the founders was Franco Serblin, who also has a passion for cabinet making. Franco's first design was called the Snail Project. It featured a base unit and two satellite speakers, one off to each side. With this in mind, and some different inspiration including American muscle cars, Sonus Faber designer Livio Cucuzza set out to create a 2016 version of the Snail Project. Thus, the Sf16 was born. The challenges in creating such an all-in-one product are many, but the largest was without a doubt, keeping the Sonus Faber level of sound quality while squeezing everything into a smallish package. In Sardinia I had an opportunity to listen to the Sf16 in two different settings. One setting was outside by a pool and the other was inside in a large open room. This was only enough to get a taste of the Sf16's sonic characteristics. I look forward to spending more time with one, if I can get my hands on a unit. This brings me to the exclusivity of the Sf16. Sonus Faber will only produce 200 units per year. Word on the street in Sardinia was that each of the 200 units for 2016 had been sold to dealers and distributors by the end of the convention. There is no firm price on the unit at this date, but I'm guessing it will be around $10,000.
What you get for $10,000 is a true luxury piece of audio that looks perfect next to a chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames. The Sf16 will certainly be a great replacement for the console stereos of yesterday, that enabled one's entire family and friends to listen to high quality music together, as opposed to the solitary confinement feel of some audio dungeons with traditional large stereo systems. The Sf16 isn't a replacement for large systems capable of serious dynamics, rather it's a device that will enable fine listening in all areas of one's house. Based on my touchy / feely examination of the Sf16, I can say the unit does exude quality and luxury and exclusivity.
Those interested in the details of the unit's drivers will be best served by this, directly from Sonus Faber:
"Sf16 is powered with the “Zero Vibration Transmission”, “Sound Field Shaping” and “Stealth Reflex System” knowledge derived from the Sonus faber experience; it has a very strong bass performance (thanks to the long throw, stiff Alu/magnesium alloy cone), an accurate mid-high section for providing a wide and deep sound space and probably the smallest hi-end tweeter ever designed: the micro 1⁄2’’ by Peter Larsen. Midranges and tweeters are doubled: half of them are front-firing, the others are placed on the back of the product, enhancing the sense of depth of the soundstage. Amplifiers are an ultra-compact version that is suitable for a four-channel configuration and can provide a life-like and vivid dynamic."
The Sf16 has four inputs, a single analog RCA, one coaxial S/PDIF, one TosLink S/PDIF, and what I believe will be the most used, an 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi input that supports DTS Play-Fi. Along with several other large companies, the McIntosh Group has standardized its network interfaces with the DTS Play-Fi ecosystem. Due to flexibility and interoperability, all units with DTS Play-Fi can seamlessly. Even components from McIntosh and Sonus Faber can accept the identical audio stream and play the same, or different, audio simultaneously. The number of content companies integrating with DTS Play-Fi is impressive, including Spotify (connect), Tidal, Pandora, SiriusXM, and Amazon Music. DTS Play-Fi also supports DLNA and Internet radio. I briefly used the DTS Play-Fi app while in Sardinia, but wasn't able to really give it a full spin. Currently only the Spotify integration streams content directly from the Internet, while the others, such as Tidal, require the audio be streamed through one's device (iOS, Android, PC, etc...). I was told by the DTS representative that more integrations like Spotify Connect will come in the future.
Since I returned home I did a little more digging into DTS Play-Fi with respect to high resolution audio support. DTS claims support for up through 24 bit / 192 kHz playback. While true, DTS Play-Fi can play 24/192 music, all music above 44.1 kHz is re-sampled to cd quality 16 bit / 44.1 kHz. DTS says this is so it can deliver a consistent experience across devices.
Needless to say, the Sonus Faber Sf16 took the event by storm. When the product was unveiled, much of the press in attendance couldn't help themselves from jumping out of their seats and hovering over the Sf16. I don't blame them, the presentation was very good and the product looks to be very good. Maybe high end audio finally had its "Apple" moment.
Earlier this year Audio research introduced its newest Foundation Series components in Munich at the High End show. Last week I finally had a great opportunity to listen to them with a variety of music and without the noise of a traditional HiFi show in the background. HiFi +'s Alan Sircom and I sat down with Audio Research's Dave Gordon for nearly thirty minutes, listening to the ARC / Sonus Faber / Sumiko system. I absolutely loved what I heard. The room had tall ceilings and acoustic treatments on the walls, enabling the components to really shine without the hinderance of bad acoustics (so often found at audio shows). From big band to acoustic Paul McCartney, I really enjoyed all the music to which we listened.
The system source was a MacBook running Fidelia from Audiofile Engineering. It's only fitting that the company known for the sound of Minneapolis uses software developed in Minneapolis. Although JRiver would fit the bill as well. The MacBook was connected via USB to the new DAC9. The DAC9 was connected to the new LS28 line stage preamp, which was driving the Ref 250 SE power amps. The beautiful sounding and looking speakers were the Sonus Faber Il Cremonese, with a Sumiko subwoofer somewhat hidden behind the left channel Il Cremonese.
More about the DAC9. It features five digital inputs, USB, RCA, BNC, AES/EBU, and TosLink. The USB input accepts audio up through 384 kHz and will play native DSD. Specifications for exact DSD sample rates has yet to be released. The analog circuit features two 6H30 vacuum tubes. One of the largest contributors to the great sound I heard was, I believe, the new native rate up-sampling and selectable digital filters in the DAC9. During an ARC presentation earlier in the day the company said its digital up-sampling chip was proprietary to ARC and that we would have a hard time finding it on the board or identifying the manufacturer. i don't blame them, the sound I heard was excellent and I'd want to keep that to myself as well. The DAC9 should ship in August. The LS28 should ship in June and the new foundation series PH9 phono preamp should ship in July.
Fun Fact: Audio Research trademarked the term High Definition in 1977.
McIntosh may be the most all-American brand this Italian company owns, and to this date hasn't been touched by the hands of the Group's fabulous designer Livio Cucuzza. I'd love to see what Livio comes up with when he eventually works closer with the McIntosh team, but for now we still have the tried and true McIntosh design that so many people love. I'm sure many readers will say, don't ever touch a thing with McIntosh! Anyway, McIntosh announced three new products in Sardinia, the C2600 Vacuum Tube Preamplifier, MP100 Phono Preamplifier, and MVP901 Audio Video Player. Readers may be surprised to hear that two of these products are right up our alley. Both he C2600 and MP100 have digital aspects that may fit nicely into many computer audiophile's system.
Before continuing I must say that I own a McIntosh MC275 tube amplifier and absolutely love it. I don't currently use it with my TAD loudspeakers because it's not the best match, but I will never get rid of the amp. Like most McIntosh pieces, its a classic that can be handed down from generation to generation.
The C2600 preamp will retail for $7,000. Digital based audiophiles will be happy to hear that this preamp features a host of digital inputs, in addition to the analog inputs, three optical TosLink, two coaxial RCA, one USB, and one MCT connection. The C2600 digital section supports up through 32 bit / 384 kHz PCM and DSD up through DSD256. The MCT input can be used for a digital connection to the McIntosh SACD player. Two other items that I think are frequently overlooked are featured in the C2600. A headphone crossfeed function (Headphone Crossfeed Director HXD®) and home theater bypass. If you use one of these you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.
Next up was the MP100 phono preamp, retailing for $2,000. I must say this is the first time I've ever written about a phono anything, but the MP100 is a bit different from other phono products. The MP100 features optical, coaxial, and USB digital outputs. I hate to say it this way, but the MP100 may be an idiot-proof way to digitize one's vinyl collection. Connect the MP100 to a computer via USB and use one of the many software applications created specifically for saving vinyl rips to digital files, and your done. The MP100 digital output is fixed at 24 bit / 96 kHz. Some readers may frown upon that because they want a higher sample rate, but McIntosh believes that 96 kHz is enough to capture all the frequencies on a vinyl album. In addition, storing the music at 24/96 saves space compared to 24/192 or higher. I think the fixed output is a smart decision in that it simplifies the process of ripping vinyl for the customer who is looking for a simplified process.
One other product that I spent a little time with in Sardinia is the McIntosh MB50 streaming audio player. It's really a DAC with fixed or variable output and a digital to digital converter for those who want to use a different DAC. McIntosh also affirmed that the MB50 contains an analog volume control, like all McIntosh products. The MB50 also features DTS Play-Fi. I know this product isn't new, but it's worth a look based on its feature set.
The first McIntosh Group convention was much more informative than I expected. I went in expecting the standard dog and pony show. Sure there was a little hype, but that's to be expected at a convention built around a company's brands. That's their job. However, I found the whole event much more informational than any HiFi show I've attended. All representatives from the brands were at our disposal at any time. For example, at dinner Doug Schneider from SoundStage! and Alan Sircom from HiFi +, and I, were talking about the automobile design influences of designer Livio Cucuzza, specifically with respect to the Sf16. Doug and Alan suggested a couple cars, but when no conclusion could be made, they simply hollered for Livio and he came over to out table to give us the inside scoop. He opened his iPhone and showed is a photo of an old school Chevrolet Camaro. At the event I was able to talk to many people in the organization one-on-one and without the distractions of a traditional audio show. I really hope more companies will put on events like this, where it's easy to focus one's interests and get real details from those involved. Plus, I'll go to Italy any day of the week over CES in Las Vegas.