Visitor: Carlo Iaccarino
The show took place in Rome, from December 3rd through December 4th, 2016
Originally written in: December, 2016
Here is the official website
This year, too, Stefano Zaini accomplished his goal, his early Christmas present for audiophiles from Italy's central and southern regions, healing their loss of the September meeting at Milan's longtime discontinued Top Audio and Video, now just a memory.
Another piece of news for this year's show is the change of its usual location. It moved from the outbound city limits on the via Aurelia, where it took place for years, towards an even more outbound hotel near the via Pontina, trespassing the psychological limit that the G.R.A., Rome's ring road, is. The show's new place, in my opionion, is a big improvement, because it is much easier to reach by an efficient combination of subway and bus that take you really in front of the hotel's entrance: we are not forced anymore to the bucolic strolls we were used to until last year. Further improvements come from the look and decor of the areas in which the exhibitions are located, definitely more elegant than the former hotel, which only last year went through a light remodeling.
I am overly sorry for not having had time enough to visit all the exhibitors, but I'm confident I came up with a good idea of the show. As always, there were downsides. One for all, an insufficient acoustic insulation between adjacent rooms. It could be reduced only by agreeing – or imposing... – a strict schedule for demos, alternating between attached rooms. Unfortunately, and generally speaking, the rooms' acoustic response was less than optimal and, in my opinion, penalized the performance of what was exhibited. Let me state it clear: every room offered a pleasant response, for sure, but in my opinion far from the real potential of the gear that was in use. It is a situation perfectly known by expert audiophiles, but not so for the show's casual newcomer, who could end up with an unreal and incorrect idea of the exhibited systems.
Under a more strategical point of view, I must still lament the low visibility of a show hidden into a remote corner of the city, and its consequent lack of appeal. I visited the show on Sunday, when people usually have spare time; this year it was also election day, which was a further push for people to leave the comfort of their homes and dedicate themselves to activities with the rest of the family, instead of remaining home waiting for kick-offs. But... how can I tell to wife and sons to come with me to the farthest end of the city, to let me play even just for a couple of hours, with no alternatives outside for them?
Yet, I realize that – due to costs and logistics – it's impossible to think of placing the show in Rome's city center- If I remember well, only during the roaring ‘80s a show was organized in the fellinean Via Veneto... Moreover, the actual situation is not different from what we experienced during last years, even at Milan's TAV. Hence I formed my personal reading key of this show.
Once again, I had the feeling of being admitted to a secret society's meeting. A show evidently and decidedly conceived thinking to a well defined public: the "hard core" of longtime audiophiles, people who really practice this hobby with an almost obsessive attention, people who stick to music's physical supports, to vacuum tubes, to artisanal gear, to DIY, etc.
So, I saw touring the rooms the usual "audio show attendance": middle-aged men (or older), some group of boys, some big party of audiophiles – again, males – who joined forces to come to Rome from other cities, especially from the south. Women and youngsters m.i.a., albeit some very rare exceptions.
And it leaves me almost puzzled, because I had - elsewhere – the impression that music is becoming again of interest for a less sectorial public; and because at the show I anyway saw several gear made after a new point of view, conceived for the new consumption of dematerialized music that can be downloaded or streamed from personal or distributed (web-based) archives and played with objects that we can also carry with us. But I am surely wrong and the good Mr.Zaini is surely right, since he sold out all the exhibition spaces available and since exhibitors were anyway oriented towards a more traditional audience.
Moreover, it must be said that the – now, definitive – lack of a single, reference national show pushed distributors and resellers to organize local events. Those gatherings are surely of minor extension, but – due to the bigger degree of liberty in their management – are becoming the new channel of communication between producers and the interested public, who can today choose wich kind of "information" they can reach for the gear that – sooner or later – they'll buy.
OK, I'll stop my chattering. Let's move on to the exhibitions. Many exhibitors were in the big halls at basement level, where wide rooms were easily arranged for listening spaces and static exhibition areas.
Let's start with the Pixel Engineering's room.
They showed two interesting systems, matching NAD amplifiers and DALI loudspeakers. The first was an affordable system that, for Eur 3.000, consisted of a NAD integrated amplifier with switching power amplification stages and a pair of DALI Opti-Con floorstanding loudspeakers. Moving up the line, there was a system costing Eur 20.000, made of a NAD pre/power combo (here, too, with switching power amplification – Hypex n-core modules, if I didn't misunderstand). Unfortunately, I shot pictures worst than my already low standard, thus I'm forced to point you to the website of the distributor-exhibitor. Either the integrated amp, either the preamp, sport several analog inputs, among them a phono one, and several digital inputs. One particular digital input is dedicated to the connection with Bluesound gear that, actually, was exposed, functioning as music archive and streamer, remote-commanded via an i-Pad by the unmissable app.
I was particularly interested into the Eur 3K system, because it seemed a good-sounding one, although the bad acoustic of the room. It sported also very well crafted finishing and makes an accessible option, especially suited for people who are not die-for hobbyists, but, nonetheless, decided to dedicate a significant amount of money for their "personal" time choosing hifi among the many alternative expenditure option. The other demoed system surely aimed to people who already "contracted the illness" and don't think - like the rest of our acquaintances – it is absolutely crazy to pay the amount required for a car just to buy only a part of a system that, by itself, remains still silent :-)
Next, Tecnofuturo's room.
Here, I found two brilliantly assembled systems. The first one consisted of a Luxman integrated amplifier and apair of Focal Sopra n.3 floorstanding loudspeakers; the second one was made of a Luxman pre/power combo and a pair of Focal Sopra n.2 floorstanding loudspeakers. Common to both system was the source, a Luxman CD player.
Why brilliant? Because here we were presented with two systems partially different for the same price. It is surely a relevant price, slightly less than Eur 45.000, but it shows that, when you arrive to this level, you can create systems sporting a sound not only correct and pleasant (a must have, for this price...), but also very similar, albeit with a twist of customization. Let me take off the dust from that old analogy with tailored clothes: they also start from a predetermined scheme, but then are adapted in regard to the specific figure of the person who'll wear them.
The il Tempio Esoterico's room.
Here I found a system playing music streaming files from a network attached archive and connected to a Eur 2.500 Lumin player/DAC. The other source was the beautiful CD player by Oracle. Amplification was performed by Burmester
Longtime Roman reseller Hi-Fi D'Agostini exhibited lots of things, some of them only as a static display.
The playing rig was made of Synthesys sources and amplification and Tannoy GRF 90 floorstanding loudspeakers
They emphasized the new Metropolis 200 integrated amplifier by Synthesis. It's clearly the flagship of this Italian brand. It costs Eur 22.000; a price high and far from those usually tagged to the rest of this brand's range: the CD player and the DAC used in the same system cost between Eur 2.000 and Eur 2.500. Obviously, the Metropolis 200 is the statement product and that, considering also the effort involved with its building, is what justifies such a relevant price. Its designer was present, and showed its peculiarities. First, extreme cure in crafting the transformers, that is this brand's signature feature; then, their effort to produce everything with national suppliers, to show that it's still possible to propose something really made in Italy even in this market. He also told us some technical details, whose comprehension goes beyond my limited competence, among which I can report the adoption of 4 KT120 power tubes, parallel-mounted in an ultralinear circuit, and a 12BH7 double triode used as driver; power output is 230 w/ch, it's a dual mono design and sports only line-level inputs.
In the same room I saw also Bassocontinuo racks and tables; in particular, I was struck by one model expressely crafted to suit McIntosh aesthetics; another example of the highest artisanal product from Italy, with an excellent care in the details. I don't want to ruin their looks with my bad photos: just believe my words ;-)
Unfortunately, such an artisanal level makes cost fly high, increasing the distance from us "mere mortals", and directing towards people who have a different expenditure capability and a different idea of luxury; and it could also be not a bad marketing idea...
Another interesting room was the Audio Point one.
Here, I found a system as simple as expensive: a PC as source of music files, remote-commanded by the usual app running on an i-something, a circa Eur 14.000 Vitus RI-100 integrated amplifier with internal DAC board, and Kharma Elegance DB-11s floorstanding loudspeakers, for slightly more than Eur 45.000. There were also a turntable and a phono preamplifier: I couldn't listen to them, but I don't doubt they sounded as great.
I know we're talking about absurd prices, but it's not the first time I fall under the Kharma spell... :-)
LP Audio room
It's always a pleasure to meet Luca Parlato, who always exhibits very well assorted and balanced systems; I'd say that they are the perfect mirror of his handsome and elegant personality. His room was really little, so he demoed only little bookshelf loudspeakers – or minimonitors, as they are sometimes called – by the german ELAC. Two system were in alternative function, both sporting an YBA CD player as source: the first with a Primaluna valve integrated amplifier and Andrew Jones little creatures (I guess they were the Uni-Fi B5)
The other system, with a surprisingly fuller sound, sported an YBA integré integrated amplifier and a pair of little bookshelves whose moniker I admit I forgot to write down: they are part of ELAC's range featuring the woofer with a diamond-like multifaced membrane and the AMT-type tweeter. Here, too, prices were not low, albeit reachable: the "bigger rig" should be priced at about Eur 5.000.
Another really little room was the one occupied by Archésound, who is Italian distributor for the Swiss Goldmund.
The system demoed was made of... a single piece of gear: the Prologos wireless loudspeakers that, inside, have either the amplification modules, either the DAC (and DSP); you just need to connect a source, using their own WiFi protocol, and you're done (also traditional electronics were exhibited, for a traditional wired connection, but, during my time there, they were not used). The sound, even taking into account the reduced space, was complete and satisfying. The space occupied by the single loudspeaker isn't even huge, but its look is surely personal and could not match every taste. But the real downside of this solution is its price: just Eur 69.000. It's a pity, because it cuts off a huge part of audiophiles that could find their definitive solution to their infinite exchange in system components - but it could also end the game... ;-)
Yet, I must say that, in my opinion, this solution perfectly follows the actual trend among several brands: reduce the number of the boxes and put software (and DSPs) in charge of the problem of interfacing signal and transducers. Unfortunately, it's a path where, by now, we can find only high priced gear, probably due to the necessity to precede the production with a good effort in R&D. Maybe, with time, such a solution will reach also more "human" levels.
Capecci audio Room.
Here we have an artisanal producer of tubed amplification and loudspeakers. They can highly customize their gear and, according to their designer, circuits used are never ordinary. They use selected parts; for many of their gear, they provide several versions, according to the quality of the parts mounted inside. They showed a combination of a preamplifier, a DAC, two huge monoblock power amplifier and two floorstanding loudspeaker, also rather massive. This system succeeded in filling the little room with sound, without saturating the room itself. This brand approaches the production of gear in a peculiar way, that may even unfulfill everybody's tastes. But it allows for a consistent advantage: they can feature a very high degreee of customization of their gear. You just need to tell Mr. Capecci your particular requirements and meet him to agree on what are the best solutions for you. Here, again, comes back that analogy with the made to measure clothes: this is what high level artisans like Capecci can offer to the customer, and that other, more industrialized producers cannot, or can just into a limited range of possibilities.
Gruppo Garman's room
Here we have, at a show dedicated to the audio-uber-alles, a room purportedly obscured, dedicated - for its bigger part - to a home theater system, capable of reproducing 4K pictures with the maximum dynamic headroom now available (I think it goes under the HDR moniker)
and featuring multichannel audio according to the Dolby Atmos standard, that provides two further ambience channel to be placed above the listener.
To reassure visitors, another part of the room was anyway dedicated to a more traditional audio system, voiced via a pair of satellites and a subwoofer by the French Cabasse (in my photo you cannot see it well, but there was also another piece of gear - again, by Cabasse - capable of managing audio files from the LAN, the web, etc.).
There was also a very big hall dedicated to "not sounding" exhibitions: record sellers, magazines - all three Italian HiFi magazines were there - and parts resellers, etc.
Also Labtek, that is Oppo in Italy, was present, exhibiting, just as a static display, the new and anticipated audio/video 4K player UDP-203, the substitute for the BDP-103 model. They told me that also the BDP-105, a player that raised praise averywhere, also on this very pages, is going to be substituted by a new model capable of handling 4K signals. Yet, I can't uderstand why the BDP-105 is already out of stock, while its heralded substitute won't be available before the first months of 2017. Why kill a successful piece of gear right now, during Christmas shopping? I don't think that people who wanted to buy a BDP-105 now redirect their choices towards the UDP-103, either because its official specifications include less features than the discontinued model, either because it's still something no one knows anything about it. Plus, the availability of 4k stuff is not such that we won't have anymore buyers with archives made of - at their best - recorded media of greater resolution than SACD/Blu-Ray. Anyway, it's a decision directly taken by Oppo management, and the good Mr. Dell'Antonia, Labtek's owner, can do very little about it; on the contrary, from the breif chat I had with him - usually kind and helpful -, I got the impression that he almost reluctantly had to cope with it... But, I repeat, it's only my undocumented and personal impression, maybe he just suffered from an headache :-)
His sounding system consisted of an audio/video player by Labtek built around an Oppo base and of Auris amplification and loudspeakers.
Audio Reference's room
Here I found a system that was playing files sent from an Aria Music Server towards the new converter by Bryston, then amplification by Koda+Pass and loudspeakers by ProAc.
Here I found an entirely home brewed system. Tubed amplification consisting of PTS-03 preamplifier and Onda 50 monoblocks, plus CTR-2 dipolar loudspeakers. Everything preceeded by an AC conditioner, another type of gear Simetel is famous for. A very good sound, albeit within the room's limits, maybe too naked, and a musical selection really fun, although I think a little disturbing for the neighborhood... The source was a normal Sony CD player. The prices, as usual with little producers, were high, but not astronomical: for amplification and loudspeakers they ask little more than Eur 25.000.
A gorgeous open reel parade was exhibited in the The RecorderMan's room
I also want to point you to the room by Pearl Evolution, a very Italian brand - despite its name - exhibiting his loudspeakers, driven by Lector electronics, another Italian brand very famous also abroad.
The exhibition effort by Opera and Unison was important; they assembled several system to show the variety of their loudspeakers, sources and amplifiers.
In the Import audio room, besides a system made of A.S.A. amplifiers and King Sound electrostatic loudspeakers, there were also a good exhibition of electrostatic headphones with their dedicated amplifiers, with prices within the range of accessibility (for us - always way too far from what the majority of people would think normal to pay for a pair of cans...)
Let's end with the Landlord's room
Here, Stefano Zaini was playing an entirely home-made system, with tubed amplification and his new loudspeakers, sporting maybe less personal aesthetics than his previous rockets, but also less intrusive. Almost pushed back to the limits of a remote aisle, Mr.Zaini stayed there, with a calm grin, shooting with his cannons, almost seeming to say... go and see if the other exhibitors can do this as good as me... :-)
I can't blame him. In his rooms we always have an emotional listening experience; maybe a sound with character, but always full, punchy, fun: no "audiophile bells", but music really played, even dirty and sweated. What can you do: that's the way he likes it... ;-)
Absolutely positive conclusions.We can only praise Mr.Zaini and his constant managing efforts, that allows lots of enthusiasts to have a physical contact with gear that, otherwise, they could only see on a PC screen, maybe even only as a rendering...
The perfect show? Far from that. Problems and defects were present, and they weren't easy to solve. But I don't think Mr.Zaini aims to perfection, even admitting it can be obtained. For me, its main downside is that this remains a show dedicated to people who are already enthusiasts, and longtime ones, too. I retained this idea from the selection in the exhibitors and from the kind of objects exhibited; I retained this impression from the attendance I saw. Above all, I retained this idea from the price level of the exhibited systems, almost all with a two-digit thousands tag; and the "cheap" ones anyway still far from the limit - even psychological - of the one thousand Euros, that I still think lots of people see as the door to enter the Hi-Fi realm (or - which is the same, but from another point of view - the maximum expenditure sustainable for a first - and maybe last - purchase).
Under this profile, I have nothing to say: it's a choice made with a clear idea of what is the market which the operators that make a living from it must point at. And even just for this, it's a respectable choice; I'm sure it is a well-thought-after choice, based upon enterpreuner's abilty. Maybe in Italy that's the situation. Or, better, now in Italy it's not possible to follow a different path. So, Mr.Zaini and his following operators are doing well in organizing to satisfy that market sector. We - ok, I - who don't belong to that sector, am not included in their "market". But, in this case, I must be even more thankful to Mr.Zaini, because he puts up his show also for me, and allows me - a "stranger" for his economic interests - to play for a sunday, setting up for me a big toy store where I can stroll in.
Thank you, Stefano, and ad maiora.
© Copyright 2016 Carlo Iaccarino - www.tnt-audio.com