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Reportage: Top Audio & Video 98 - Milan - Italy
Enter the Milan Top Audio & Video 98: the most important HiFi Show in Italy has definitely opened its doors to the world of the Home Theater, once it was called just Top Audio. The Top Audio has changed its name but not the location: it was hosted, as usual, into the elegant Quark hotel in Milan.
While the last year TNT-Audio had a booth (offered for free by the organizers, they know we are strictly non-profit) at the Top Audio, this year we've preferred to have much more time to roam through the rooms of the Italian Show.
The first days I visited some rooms together with Giorgio Pozzoli, our expert of thermoionic tubes, then I met Steven Rochlin (Enjoythemusic) and visited some other rooms together with this crazy American guy.
As you may know I prefer to not give *best sounding room* awards since the variables that are involved are way too many and you readers, not being there, may take for granted that a good sounding room contained also good sounding components. This is sometimes true but one never knows. So I prefer to tell you about the hot and cool news, about the weirdest things seen at the Show, about the rumours around this crazy HiFi world.
What's new at the TAV
The first thing that I can't avoid to mention is the Sonus Faber room, with the new gorgeous, expen$ive (20,000+ $), price-no-object floorstanders Amati Homage. These speakers follow the Guarneri Homage and are the second of a group of three projects dedicated to the famous Italian violin makers (Guarneri, Amati and...Stradivari, which wiil be, maybe, the most *absolute* design from Sonus Faber).
The Amati were connected to a Wadia/Krell combo and sometimes to the Sonus Faber Musica integrated amplifier. The room was always overcrowded, as it happens every year, the Sonus Faber guys were soooo kind and friendly, the listening level was reasonable (not too loud, as it sometimes happens at the Shows), the room was very elegant and acoustically treated and the musical selections (real Music) were quite good.
So it is not a surprise to me that Sonus Faber is the best known and the best selling Italian brand abroad: behind a worldwide commercial success there are always men who know how to do their job.
How did the Amati sound like? I will not tell you, you should better go and listen to and then judge them by yourself.
Another big news from the famous Italian brand was the Signum, a reference mini-loudspeaker that should virtually replace the Minima Amator, since the price tag is almost the same. Expect new listening tests of Sonus Faber products soon on TNT-Audio.
Showed in its final version here's the Paganini, the CD player from the Italian Audio Analogue (the makers of the Puccini integrated amp). Using a modified Sony transport the Paganini is another budget-oriented component from Audio Analogue: its price tag, in Italy (which means that it may easily become two times more expensive abroad) is around 1000$ and if its sound quality is similar to the Puccini it shouldn't be difficult to expect it will soon become a best-seller.
The guys at Audio Analogue have promised us one of the first Paganini's for a review, so stay tuned.
Italians do it better? Well, maybe, if you take a look at the impressive Atlantis turntable from V.Y.G.E.R, a new brand which specializes in no-compromise analogue stuff. The picture is a little bit ugly so that you can get just a pale idea of what this trntable looks like in real life. It is a HUGE and massive magnesium/light alloys machine, using a linear tracking air suspended arm. All the turntable is air suspended too. Price tag? What about 30,000 US $?
The Audiogamma room was showing the brand new B & W 801 Nautilus series, drived by two impressive Jeff Rowland power amps. I had the Prodigy CD with me so we (Steven and I) decided it was time to buzz the room and have some fun. The guy with the remote was quite astonished but he allowed us to listen to the whole track till the end. After the Prodigy I asked for a more common Sinfonia Fantastica from Berlioz (Reference Recordings edition).
Something new at the Praecisa Acustica room: apart from the fancy egg-shaped loudspeaker they were demonstrating a brand new 100 watts per channel integrated (with a very, very interesting price tag) and new more conventionally shaped loudspeakers. Expect some listening test of the Praecisa stuff here on TNT-Audio soon. This little Italian brand is earning very good rep in Europe and it is not a surprise: their stuff is nicely built and designed, affordable and the Company is run by friendly and clever guys, not with the usual I know it all approach that bores me.
As usual, the Zingali room was showing their HUGE Butterfly (see the picture), even if it was the smaller Ouverture 4 floorstander to be playing Music all the time (with some changes in between).
Some good news from Opera too, with a new Opera 1.5 bookshelf and brand new electronics, designed, or so it seems, by the guys at Audio Analogue.
Very, very interesting both for the original approach, for the looks and the price tag, the new hybrid loudspeakers from Hohner Audio, another Italian brand which is earning good reputation among Italian audiophiles.
I hope I've given you an idea of how lively is the Italian HiFi scene...you should come and visit the Top Audio Show, absolutely!
The taste of the Show
With respect to the last year's edition, the Top Audio 98 was a little bit, dare I say it, worse. Listening levels were louder, way too loud in certain rooms, so that Steven and I were forced to escape in few seconds. This is partially motivated by the presence of many HT rooms that with their noises (and extremely low frequencies) covered the listening level of the near HiFi-only rooms forcing the latter to play their systems outrageously loud.
Just one room was able to play extremely loud Music without sounding too aggressive or distorted and this was the MBL/Acapella room, with their expen$ive stuff and their strange watermelon shaped loudspeakers (see the picture on the left).
Hence my advice is: turn THAT volume down, please. Put all the HT rooms in a separate floor so that everyone can play Music or watch a movie without being distracted by an helicopter passing over his head or an electric guitar solo during a horror night scene :-)
Plus, I'd suggest to acoustically treat the rooms, you can do that even without dozens of Tube Traps, ya know? Carpets and home-made bass traps (expect a DIY project on TNT-Audio soon...just let me find the time to translate the TNT Stylos article, already published into the Italian version of this mag) can do wonders to the sound of any (hotel) room.
Also, carefully placing of the loudspeakers may help.
Still with respect to the last year's edition, there has been an increase in the number of nice girls into the rooms, which is positive for the male audience and bad, in my opinion, for the HiFi market. Let me explain why: if you need to distract the visitors' attention with some nice girl in your room, it means that you're trying to sell something that can't be interesting by the way it sounds.
In other words, any attempt to capture the visitors' attention, different from the good sound of your room, is a way to say: hey, our stuff may not sound all that good but take a look at the girls instead!.
Giorgio and I were actually planning to write down a Show report to tell you about the best looking girls of the Show, instead of the best sounding rooms of the Show :-) It would have been easier, the pictures of the report would have been more interesting and so on.
It is clear to me that the HiFi Companies are trying to find new ways to reach their customers, possibly even different customers, not the audiophile ones. This is quite natural but potentially dangerous for the HiFi market itself. It is the same thing that happens when a manufacturer puts tons of chrome and gold plating over its products: they look attractive from the outside, you pay the price (nice finishes come at a price, ya know?) and then you don't know nothing of the inside of the component.
And so the nice girls: the room looks good from the outside, you pay the price (nice girls are pretty expen$ive...) and then the quality/price ratio of the HiFi components goes down dramatically.
Not exactly a good perspective for the HiFi market. We need good sounding, reasonably priced HiFi components! Period.
Also, I'd prefer to see the girls listening to and enjoying the Music, not playing the sad role of being nice and elegant furniture items :-(
Now let me say a few words to some of the colleagues of the *official* press: I know pretty well that TNT-Audio, being completely independent (no advertising, no subscriptions, no external support) is a pain in the neck for many of you, to say the least. But this is YOUR problem, not ours, so relax, be friendly and enjoy the Music... ;-)
It is always pretty amusing to see how funny audiophiles can be, especially during the Shows. Some of them have been clearly infected by the Reviewer virus and hence they judge each room after 2 or 3 seconds they are into it. Normally it is always something of the kind thumbs up/thumbs down, they don't know there's always something that lies in the between.
Few of them had their CDs, which is a huge mistake, in my opinion: listening to well known recordings allows you to eliminate a variable (sorry, after all I'm a mathematician, in real life :-) ) from the system.
Funny as it can be, the worst sounding rooms, those with extremely loud listening levels, were always crowded...I didn't know that the 140 dB of some discoteques could do so much damage to the human brain ;-)
Then, apart from the nice girls standing at the rooms, few she-audiophiles were available. Most of them were just roaming together with their S.O., keeping the depliants and brochures and looking usually pretty bored. Few of them were seriously enjoying the Music of the rooms, what a shame. Maybe the HiFi world should try to capture the women's interest, no, not with nice guys standing at the rooms, but possibly offering a simpler, less technical approach to HiFi and Music listening at home.
Finally a few words about the Music at the Show: thanks God few test discs have been used and every kind of real Music was played instead. It is a shame that the younger audiophiles avoided to enter a room where classical Music was being played and older audiohiles avoided to enter a room where pop/rock Music was being played. Make an effort: try to listen to every kind of Music, I'm sure that sooner or later you'll love it all. There's no such a thing as Good (and respectable) Music and bad Music.
And what about the Home Theater?
There were many HT rooms, way too many helicopters, guns, monsters and the like. I enjoy the Dolby Surround experience, possibly at home, with my own system or at a cinema. It is very difficult to demonstrate a good HT system at a Show. Also, since the rooms at the Top Audio were dressed to kill, they were crowded with outrageously expen$ive HT systems, way too many-too large loudspeakers etc. Nothing that a common man would ever dream to have into his living room. It should be better to use small sized, budget-conscious HT systems so that the customers can have an idea of what can be achieved without spending an arm and a leg and trasforming their living room into a jungle of mega cables and larger than life speakers. Even smaller HT systems can impress, if properly installed.
For the future I hope to see a whole floor (or two, if necessary) dedicated to HT only and the rest of the Show dedicated to HiFi. Not because the two Worlds are too different (which is not always true), just to avoid, as remarked few lines above, the helicopters flying above our heads while listening to Glenn Gould's Bach variations... :-)
The Top Audio in Milan is always a must-see event and with reason. First of all you get a picture of the Italian HiFi market, even not every manufacturer was there. Then you have an idea of where the HiFi market is going to. Last but not least, you may enjoy a trip to Italy, a Country where you can find soooo many beautiful things to see that it is impossible to describe in few words, please refer to the Steven Rochlin's report to get an idea of the side effects Italy can cause to a newbie in this wonderful Country.
Yes, Steven is right, the Internet connections are pretty on the slow side here (and way expen$ive too), this is why the TNT-Audio server is located in the US :-)
Here you can see Steven while having breakfast together. Don't fret: he looks way uglier in real life :-) Just thanks to my wonderful (fully manual, not digital, right Steve?) Yashica he looks better that he actually is...
© Copyright 1998 Lucio Cadeddu
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