Saturday, 20 April 2019

A Look (and Listen) to some audio gear in Taiwan and Singapore...

Image result for window shopping

Hey everyone, as discussed recently, I had an opportunity to visit Asia over the Spring Break. Since it is "audio show season" with AXPONA in Chicago last week and Munich High End coming up in May, perhaps it's a good time to post up some images and descriptions of what I found in Asia this time.

While it was a family vacation, I found time to do a little bit of "window shopping" myself and check out the audio gear and stores overseas.

Let's start in Taiwan. Unlike North America, places like Taiwan are still very much involved in production of goods for export. Over the years, it looks like the economy has taken a bit of a hit as manufacturing moved to Mainland China. One of the interesting things to find was an area in Taipei with a number of electronics parts stores like this:

Connectors, anyone!?
This is a nice medium-sized store around the North Gate (北門) area of the city. There's also a little market area in the neighborhood that sold many domestic speakers, amps and things like receivers:




If you zoom in, you'll see some well known brands like Polk, Onkyo, and JBL. Impossible to know the sound quality of these devices considering the environment (loud, many stores around, plus it's in a market with veggies and meats down the corner!). These stores at times might have a system hooked up to listen to. I've often wondered how genuine these machines are when sold by little establishments like this. There are domestic Asian brands going by names like "Max" or "Poise" and "A&F" I've never heard of alongside known brands typically of lower cost.

While I did not purposely seek out hi-fi stuff in Taiwan, look what I ran into while wandering the streets of Taipei!



Wow. It's our old friend the B&W Nautilus at Image Audio. It looks like they carry a line of McIntosh gear among other brands:


Unfortunately with wife and kids in tow, this was not the day I could go in and check out the listening rooms or enjoy some music. I see from the website that the store has some good looking showrooms inside. Will certainly have to check this out the next time I'm in Taipei with more time.

By the way, what speakers are these on display?


They looked cute... Anyone know if they sound any good?

As I posted previously here, I've been to Singapore before and have shown images and discussed the audio goods one can see and listen to there. Like in Taiwan, I wasn't specifically looking for an audio store when I ran into this establishment - Audio Line - at the Orchid Country Club in north Singapore, this was a rather pleasant surprise.

It's a spacious store with at least 3 systems set up for listening inside. I enjoyed chatting with Bobby Ng who has been in this business for almost 3 decades. He has a good amount of used and consignment products in a corner near the entrance:


But here's what I enjoyed listening to as their main set-up:


The Cary DMS-550 was streaming some Amadeus soundtrack and Alan Parsons' Eye In The Sky to Accuphase C-2420 preamp, A-75 amplifiers (60W into 8-ohms with enough current to handle 240W into 2-ohms). As usual, the Accuphase gear looks sturdy, with excellent build quality.

The Cary looks like an interesting option with headphone output, Bluetooth AptX HD playback, SD card input, USB-A input, ethernet, built on the AKM AK4493EQ DAC. However, it doesn't look like this can function as a USB DAC for computers which it rather unfortunate.

The speakers playing at the time were the larger Von Schweikert VR-44 Mk2 AKTIVE. The AKTIVE version of these speakers have a 300Wrms amplifier to drive the 8.8" woofers across the 16-100Hz frequency range so an external amp doesn't have to be as powerful. There is a passive version available as well which rates as 4-ohms impedance compared to the 8-ohm active.

While the Cary was playing the Amadeus DSD64, it looks like the signal was being upsampled to DSD128:


The system sounded very good. Excellent sense of neutrality playing the Mozart performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Great soundstage and sense of depth. When switched to the Alan Parsons' album, one can detect a distinct loss of spatial depth as instruments and vocals seemed to suddenly become more 2D while still of excellent fidelity demonstrating palpable bass extension. This album is a great studio production but compared to an actual recording of an orchestra in real "space", the sense of depth is clearly not the same. Remember that sonic evaluation must always be done in the context of one's room and the source material fed into it. Showrooms like this are generally better than audio show hotel rooms although not the same as the comforts and familiarity of home... And it speaks well of the system for the audiophile to hear a difference when switching to poorer quality recordings. That ability to discern good vs. poorer recordings would be consistent with "transparent", high fidelity reproduction.

Here's another very interesting set-up:


Wow. Check out that KR Audio Kronzilla VA680i integrated amp. Massive T1610 tubes on full display (each of these tubes goes for about US$1400). It's a 60W SET stereo amp (at 3% THD, into 8-ohms presumably).

And going one step further with those massive tubes, we have this system:


Dual monoblock Kronzilla VA680's each also 60W 2-channels (2% distortion, presumably into 8-ohms again). This time feeding the two Diapason Dynamis speakers on the sides (89dB/W/m, 4-ohms nominal, 3.4-ohm minimum at 200Hz) I believe in a biamped configuration (forgot to check). Accuphase preamp and Cary CD player. The tubes weren't warmed up and I didn't have much time to listen, but what I did hear of the Amadeus soundtracks again was very good with a nice timbral quality and especially good midrange and treble. Without a good rock track, it's hard to gauge how deep these speakers can reach.

A few other sights at Audio Line:
Supertweeter anyone?
JBL 4367 Studio Monitors
Tannoy Kensington GR's
All in all, a nice store and showroom. Happy coincidence that I came by this place.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to not visit The Adelphi again on a trip to Singapore!


I actually arrived rather late to the "lifestyle mall" which meant I did not have much time to actually enjoy going through the stores. On weekdays, the mall closes at 6:00 although I noticed that a number of stores remained open for visitors a bit later. There's a bit of construction currently as they're rebuilding the neighboring Funan "DigitaLife" Mall, one of the places one can check out and purchase all kinds of electronics in Singapore. Apparently renovations should be done in a few months so hopefully next time I visit, I can also wander next door and check out computers and other electronics.

While many products are available locally in my home town (Vancouver), based on previous experience, I needed to pay a visit to the MBL showroom run by the Ong family on the top level - Coherence Audio. I was told that the family also owns the McIntosh showroom a couple floors down which unfortunately I did not get the chance to visit.

I spent quite a bit of time in the "Reference" showroom:


We're looking at something like US$300k of MBL gear here. While the "look" of the gear is distinctively mbl, it's particularly the omnidirectional "Radialstrahler" drivers that stand out. Those are the mbl 101 E Mk II speakers in the picture above (~US$70k/pair). With a 82dB/2.83V/m sensitivity, these babies need amps with a good amount of power to reach reference dynamic levels without strain. Also, if we look at the measured impedance, the amp(s) will need to be comfortable with 4-ohm impedance for much of the bass and low midrange . The way this system is set up in the showroom, the speakers are biamped with dual 9008 A amps (440W mono into 8-ohms / 840W mono into 4-ohms, 130W stereo into 8-ohms / 210W stereo into 4-ohms). Preamp is the 6010 D (mid shelf), CD transport is the 1621 A (top shelf), and this is fed to the 1611 F DAC (bottom shelf).

Here are a few more shots for your viewing pleasure:






Notice the two huge boxes between the monoblocks and speakers. These are the massive (and heavy at 256lbs each!) Stromtank S 5000's (~US$30k each) made by a company started by MBL founder Wolfgang Meletzky. It's a massive battery consisting of LiFePO4 battery packs that provide clean power to the audio system. Clean AC is always regenerated even when charging. And of course, like a powerful uninterruptible power supply, will keep the devices running when the AC is disconnected. I didn't see a specification for how many kWh this device is able to store (for example compared with something like the Tesla Powerwall), it is supposed to be able to keep your music playing for hours unplugged from the wall.

Stromtank S 2500 - demo unit with open top.
You must be wondering how the sound was during the demo. With the properly set-up spacious room, low ambient noise, minimal reflective surfaces, no coffee table between me and the system, sitting comfortably "front and centre" in the showroom, nobody walking around or chatting, this sounded beautiful. Since I had just checked out the Wilson DAW demo recently before my trip, I decided to bring some of the music used in that demo including the Leonard Cohen, Malia, Tom Jones, and Yo-Yo Ma tracks. I supplemented my test CD of music with some Queen, Zubin Mehta, Yaz, Anne Sofie Von Otter and Yello.

With well recorded music, there's no question that this system reproduced nuances impeccably with an excellent soundstage. Sitting in the sweet-spot, the sound envelops the listener with wide lateral "placement" of instruments, great depth (eg. the Yo-Yo Ma track), and at times "surround effects" can be heard as if originating from behind one's head (eg. the Malia track or Yello's "Limbo"). Leonard Cohen's baritone was palpable. Being omnidirectional, the tonality of the sound was not as severely impacted even when walking around the room unlike when going further off axis with typical box speakers, of course one still needs to sit between the speakers for proper stereo imaging. "Classic" tracks like say Queen's "Love of My Life" (from an early pressing of A Night At The Opera) was rendered with Mercury's vocals, May's guitar and the layered harp glissandos beautifully. As an older analogue recording, one cannot escape from the audibly higher noise floor.

As usual, I will typically bring a poorer sounding recording to hear how the system deals with compressed modern music. I chose to use Mark Ronson / Miley Cyrus' Nothing Breaks Like A Heart, a version from the music video itself with some sound effects like faux news reporting, helicopters whirring, etc. in the background. Yup... It's good that the MBL system reproduced the track with high fidelity to the source. Wide channel separation, DSP soundfield effects, good bass extension, but limited perceived soundstage depth and the lack of dynamic range was very noticeable and ultimately "flattened" the potential emotional impact at reference volume levels. This is how this kind of music sounds like when rendered in hi-fi.

I appreciated the MBL's excellent mid-range tonality. It's smooth and a bit "warmer" than I'm normally used to. Having experienced this, I'm tempted to play with my room target curve to see if I can tweak things at home.

While this system was the highlight of the Adelphi visit for me, Coherence Audio does have a number of other demo rooms which I checked out but did not spend much time listening to:

German company Music Culture Reference line used for computer audio. MBL 116 F speaker. Smaller Stromtank S 2500. 
Shiny Jeff Rowland gear.
mbl Corona line.
Oh, here's something I found quite pretty (depends on taste and decor of course...):

mbl speaker in white/gold.
BTW, for those who have a need for even more amplifier power, here is the mbl 9011 sitting nearby (440W into 8-ohms / 840W into 4-ohms mono):


On my last visit to the store in 2013, each 101 E Mk II speaker was connected to a single one of these instead of dual 9008 A's. Each of these weighs 90kg!

Nearby, I think on the 2nd floor, I found the Audio Basic store where the salesperson (owner?) was listening to a beautiful Cai Qin (aka Tsai Chin, 蔡琴) track on this system:


We're looking at PMC MB2 se passive speakers (rated 91dB/W/m, ~US$30-40k for a pair I believe) fed by Aurender A10 with internal storage as digital source to the Trigon Audio TRV-100 preamp. Amplification duties serviced by the older Parasound Halo JC 1 (400W into 8-ohms monoblock). There are a few other pieces on the rack not used during playback.



This was certainly one of the best playbacks I've heard of Cai Qin's ballads (an example - "恰似你的温柔 - Just Like Your Tenderness"). The voice was emanating as if embodied right in front of me. Wonderful attack and decay on the piano accompaniment. The sense of "presence" was palpable. Since I did not see a CD player, I was unfortunately unable to play my own music.

Notice the unusual "treatment" devices used. There's the "Telos Quantum Resonation Conditioner" shown above on the rack - some kind of power conditioner. And there were a couple of these "Grounding Noise Reducers":


I'm a bit skeptical about anything "quantum" when it comes to audio devices. I'll talk more about grounding in the days ahead since there are certainly times when better grounding can reduce noise and hum. As to how well these Telos "Grounding Noise Reducers" work, it would be interesting to see measurements demonstrating their effect as "active" devices! Looking around the Telos website and the other products they sell, these guys look like a Taiwan-based cross between PWB Electronics and Synergistic Research. Much of this stuff likely Class A snake oil unless evidence demonstrate otherwise.

Okay guys & gals, I think you get the idea about The Adelphi - like an audio show all day, everyday, with some good quiet showrooms :-). I'll just show you a few other pictures of stores I saw during my visit including a few other systems I listened to but by this time I was getting a little tired and it was getting late:

The steam-punk inspired look of the Chord Blu Mk II CD transport (ready to upsample all the way to 768kHz if you input 48kHz based material - like through the rear USB input). Devialet is everywhere, but I wonder how many Phantoms have actually been sold over the years...
Dynaudio and Monitor Audio listening. Not the best room set-ups but the sound was quite good. The Monitor Audio store (there were a few in the building, but this specific AV One store) was catered more to home theater than typical audiophile brands.
Looking to try out some KEF, anyone?
Naim Uniti Atom and Core, and ND 555. The store was preparing the machines for CanJam Singapore 2019 that weekend... Too bad I had to fly back to Taiwan on Saturday.
Old Skool and New Skool products. I would have loved to check out the Kondo S.E. Asia store. Too bad it was closed at the time of my visit.
Anachronistic vs. Modern? The relative simplicity of a turntable (Soulines kubrick DCX) vs. potentially overwhelming complexity and options of the modern multichannel AV receiver/preamp (Denon X4500H top, Marantz AV8805 bottom)! 
As in the past, on the whole, storekeepers were welcoming and appeared to enjoy showing off their products even to a foreigner from North America. Seeing camera in hand, some of the stores preferred that I not take pictures which I respected of course. There is a B&W store with a good selection of speakers I would have liked to show a picture of. On occasion, I would ask how business was going in Singapore. While it sounds like things are "okay", I did hear on more than one occasion that there has been a slowdown over the last couple of years over there. I noticed a few empty stores "for rent" especially in some of the corners with lesser main traffic. I'd say the number of stores open may have been slightly reduced compared to back in 2013. Nonetheless, certainly much more audio gear selection at any one place than anything I've seen in the cities I've visited in North America over the years!

Check it out when in Singapore if you have some time to browse and listen... While it may not be practical buying big-ticket items, I'm sure the dealerships will direct you to a store locally or arrange some kind of shipping. One could of course pick up stuff like accessories or some music at stores like this (Simply Music):


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If you're a fan of nature documentaries and enjoyed 4K/HDR shows like Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, make sure to have a look at Netflix's Our Planet especially if you have the 4K stream with DolbyVision HDR and Atmos (although "just" E-AC3, will likely have to wait for UHD-BluRay for TrueHD-Atmos). Some simply breathtaking images!

Finally, don't forget to submit your blind test results if you have not done so. Closing off in 10 days!

Happy Easter weekend! Enjoy the music everyone.

7 comments:

  1. Those cute looking speakers look like Scandyna Pod Speakers :) (https://www.podspeakers.com/)
    Cheers,
    Jurgen

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jurgen,
      Yeah, they do look like the BigPod MKIII... Just painted up.

      Delete
  2. Hey Arch, awesome pics. Audio Line is quite the find! Based on the pics, one could easily spend a day listening to fine audiophile equipment. It would take a while to move those JBL Everest’s hiding behind the Dynamis to give a listen ;-)

    Speaking of the Dynamis, I had a look at their site and searched online, nowhere can I find a frequency response measurement. Reading their product brochure, with statements like, “The cross-over uses finest quality components and is built and wired entirely by hand in order to exclude any possibility of loss or phase rotation…” makes me wonder if there is a “lost in translation” aspect to this or if someone has found a way to rotate phase with their bare hands lol!

    Did you get a chance to listen to any of the Tannoy’s?

    Keep up the great writings!

    Mitch

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    Replies
    1. Hey Mitch,
      Yeah, I was thinking that you'd have a real field day out at Audio Line! I suspect the owner would have been nice enough to put up whatever you would want to hear among all the options they have for an audition.

      LOL regarding the Dynamis and crossovers... In that picture of the Dynamis system, they had the Tannoy Heritage Arden ready to plug and play and there's the Canterbury with the other Kronzilla setup. Alas, I did not get a chance to listen to the dual concentric Tannoys :-(. Next time :-).

      Delete
  3. Naim Atom, you say? Too funny. One happened to show up on Craigslist here this week. It does look good.

    PSA: In case anyone's curious, while it lasts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice catch Allan. That's pretty quick to go on the used market...

      Delete
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