Sunday, 14 April 2013

Manchester Audio World Show - March 2013

www.chestergroup.org revived the higher end hifi show at the Radisson Blu hotel, Manchester Airport on 23/24 March 2013 - a welcome return for some of us, after having only the more mainstream / mid-range Audio T show for the past few years.  I say a welcome return for some as the majority of folks who went to the Audio T show in the city centre (which was very well attended), didn't bother with this show.  So it was easy to get a seat in the various rooms, but footfall might not have been enough to mean this show was commercially viable for the organisers.  Maybe it was down to the extremely unseasonal snow in the region - up to 2ft deep in some place surrounding Manchester, although access to the airport was not interrupted.  I hope it sees another year, as the variety of kit on show was good and the 24 or so rooms is probably just enough to fill in about 5 hours, giving enough time to listen to a few tracks in each room so you don't form a snap judgement.  The Chester Group website suggests there will be a Northern show again next year, so it looks promising at the moment.

As a customer I offered to help out in brianandtrevors room at the show, and they agreed it would be useful for me to discuss my customer experience (not the kit, not the pricing, just the service they offer) so I spent most of my time in there and didn't get time to get around all the other rooms.  So, after spending 3 hours with our neighbours digging the snow out on Saturday afternoon, here are my thoughts on those I managed to cover during the Sunday:

BRIAN AND TREVORS:

In here they were playing either the Linn Klimax DS/1 streamer or a full Klimax Linn Sondek fitted with the brand new Linn Kandid MC cartridge with the Uphorik phono stage into a Linn Klimax Kontrol pre-amp.  Then either Linn 350a or Adam Tensor Alpha loudspeakers - both of which are active and have built-in power amps.  The Focal 1038s were also played on Saturday, but I wasn't there to hear them.  Linn Solo power amps, Anthem power amps, Dynaudio Xeo and a couple of other speakers were also on static display.
I've heard the Tensor Alphas a couple of times at brianandtrevors shop / house, and I've found them to image superbly and be full of detail, but I've not really go on with them myself - there's something a little underwhelming about their presentation - I don't feel drawn into the music.  At the show they had a bigger room to breathe in (see picture below - you'll understand that they benefit from a bit of space).  I read on one of the www forums that someone had put their head in the door of the room when the Adams were playing and didn't bother going in, as it sounded like a "noise".  Well, I tested this and found that to be true - the entrance door was in one half of the room with the speakers in the other half and they didn't sound at all good - by walking into the room and sitting in front of the speakers you get a completely different experience. But the first 2 rows of seats were too close - you needed to be in row 3 or stood at the back to get a good sound - proof, I think, that these speakers need a truly huge amount of space to work in. Even in the 3rd row or back row, these speakers need a sympathetic track or source to make them work - fortunately the Linn KDS or Sondek / Kandid sorts out the source, but harsher tracks are exposed for what they are.  So I was still a bit confused about what they're about - but come 3.15 in the afternoon and on went a 20 minute track called "School Days" from the Stanley Clarke album "Live At The Greek", at a very high volume.  And everything came together.  The kick, power, dynamics and scale were stunning - kick drum thumped convincingly like a concert PA system but the subtleties remained.  It seems that if you have an enormous room and a liking for playing blues / rock / jazz concerts extremely loud then perhaps these speakers will work for you.  A legacy of Adam's roots in professional audio perhaps?
The Linn 350a speakers were at the other end of the room and backing onto the shorter wall.  I heard a pair of the passive version of these at a friend's house just under 2 weeks earlier and they were stunning - using slightly lower source components than were in use here and a Linn Klimax Twin power amp.  As a direct comparison to the Adam Tensor Alphas, the 350a were distinctly easier to listen to - more "friendly" if you like.  In this situation though, they weren't at their best - it seems as though the step in the ceiling was acting like an alcove causing the bottom end to be a bit over emphasised, slowing the music somewhat - reducing the dynamic impact.  At least I had heard them sounding great recently, so maybe the room really was the culprit this time - I know this is a favourite excuse for exhibitors - at least here there was a recent point of reference for comparison.

Interestingly, Brian and Trevor chose to focus on their service and they way they run a house rather than a shop and how they work on an appointment only basis - pretty much every other room was about the products.

Adam Tensor Alpha
Linn Sondek, Uphorik, KDS/1 and Klimax Kontrol



BRODMANN:

Here Brodmann were using Electrocompaniet electronics - a CD player and integrated amp - exact models not known (signs please exhibitors!!!).  Interesting to note these components were stacked on top of each other and on top of nothing more exotic than the hotel carpet.  When I was in the room they were playing the floorstander Vienna Classic 7.
Being a piano manufacturer of some repute is supposed to give Brodmann an advantage when it comes to speakers - and I can see some logic in that.  To me, it looks like the piano manufacturing has certainly paid off in terms of the veneers and the finish which is of a very high standard.  We heard some classical and some jazz.  These speakers are very refined, relaxing to listen to, but ultimately I found them very frustrating.  I couldn't really hear much of an image and vocals were OK when female, but oddly muted when male.  And when we moved away from classical music, they just didn't boogie along too well.  So another niche product aimed at a particular type of music perhaps?  Nice enough, but didn't stir me much at all.

Brodmann / Electrocompaniet
BURMESTER:

Seriously high end gear here, in a very small room - normally an excuse for a poor performance, particularly when they were using speakers that were around 5ft tall.
Listening to one of their CD players, a pre-amp (that may, or may not have included a DAC), what I think is the 956 power amplifier ($17k) and the B80 Mk 2 speakers ($60k) was a very enjoyable experience.  There's oodles of detail coming from this system, but its not grating, its not tiring (at least, not over 2 x 15 minute visits) it just flows.  There's deep confident bass that's very well controlled and which didn't cause a problem, even in a room that's very small for such large speakers.  I heard no familiar music in here but enjoyed all of it - toe-tapping along to the music.  They also played a few tracks on the Bergmann air bearing linear-tracking turntable which was delivering superb sounds.  Best of show?  Possibly - at a price of course - at least this time, in this room, the really expensive stuff wasn't a disappointment.  Just a small observation - the mirror finish front panels on the electronics really should never be combined with that hotel carpet ;-)

Burmester - if you need to ask, you can't afford it

SELECT AUDIO ROOM - LUXMAN / VERITY AUDIO:

 Verity Audio Parsifal Ovation loudspeakers, 70s VU meters on Luxman integrated amp.  Luxman CD player too - unfortunately I didn't get the model numbers on these.
This was a great sounding system.  The room looked too large for what are pretty diminutive floorstanders, but they weren't overwhelmed at all.  The larger room meant that even the front row of seats were a realistic listening distance from the kit - and having originally been in the third row, when the front row freed up I was keen enough to move forward to enjoy the system even more.  We didn't hear any driving rock music on this, but some upbeat jazz and some acoustic / vocals kept us engaged with the music.  One of the top rooms at the show (of the ones I managed to get to at least).
Interesting equipment rack too - the electronics are suspended on some kind of rubber belt (and that's a mains conditioner on the bottom shelf.  Need a better CD management system though ;-)

Luxman electronics, Verity Audio speakers
MUSIC FIRST AUDIO:

Something a bit different here - a really small, very focussed manufacturer - their website revealing nothing but passive pre-amps and a phono stage.  They brought along the Baby Reference Pre-Amp for visitors to listen to.  The guy running the demos (I think he might be the proprietor of MFA) was extremely enthusiastic about the passive pre-amp, suggesting that the quality of the system was entirely down to the pre-amp, pretty much to the exclusion of the rest of the components.  Have to dispute that - the pre-amp can certainly let the source components be shown at their best or impact on the sound produced by the source, but if the source is rubbish a pre-amp can't make a system sound good - it can't put the music right again.
Anyway, they were using a Macbook as a digital source, a Chord DAC (model not known to me), Bel Canto power amp (particularly well respected by Cyrus fans looking to move onwards and upwards - so they're probably pretty up-front in their presentation and will probably image well) and a pair of the classic Rogers LS3/5A speakers.
So what's special here?  Well a passive pre-amp has no power supply - just a way of stepping the volume up and down without any active / powered components inside.  Typically these will involve a potentiometer or multiple stepped fixed value resistors.  Here though, MFA feed the signal into one side of a transformer.  There are then multiple (24 actually) output windings on the transformer - one for each volume position available.  Each of those 24 windings have different numbers of coils wound within the transformer so that the ratio between the number of input windings : output windings changes at each volume control position, hence altering the volume output to the power amp.
For such a simple and unassuming system (containing a £4000 pre-amp - the transformers are wound by hand) this was a great and enjoyable listen.  Everything was even handed (within the limitations of the lack of bass available from the LS3/5A speakers of course), dynamic, no nasty edges, free-flowing, foot-tapping and very enjoyable.  We (brother and I) were impressed - enough to suggest that Brian and Trevor give this a try - but the room was being packed up when Trevor got the chance to take a look.  There was a sneaking suspicion about the use of such small speakers with limited bass.  Was this just a wise choice for the size of the room, or were they hiding problems with the bass output of the pre-amp.  Of course its not possible to tell, but subsequent research on the forums suggests that there are no generic problems, so we'll go with the benefit of the doubt here this time.

Macbook, Chord Dac, Music First Audio TVC pre-amp, Bel Canto Power Amp, Rogers LS3/5A speakers

ART / McINTOSH / SYSTEMDEK:

It's rather appropriate that my picture of this system has turned out to be blurred and a bit rubbish.  What we have here is possibly the worst demo I've had of an expensive hifi system.  A quick search tells me that this lot (without any cables) adds up to at least £60k (speakers alone are £42k).  Unbelieveable.  I visited the room twice because I could only think that they were using a very badly produced piece of vinyl on my first visit.  But both visits gave the same result - dull, flat, uninteresting, ill-defined (blurred anyone?), lacking dynamics, I really just couldn't hear anything to recommend or redeem this system.  Perhaps they can blame the pattern on the carpet for confusing the signals going along the speaker cables?  Other excuses are available of course.

Systemdek 3D TT, McIntosh pre and power amps, ART Alnico Reference - photo not blurred on purpose, but entirely appropriate given the sounds on offer

AUDIO T / REGA / PMC:

Having missed out on the opportunity to hear the new Rega RP8 turntable at the recent Chester Acoustica show (report here), this was fixed at Manchester in a system comprising the RP8, Rega electronics and the standmount PMC Fact.3 loudspeakers, which are a very narrow, suprisingly tall and very deep stand mount.  I'm not normally a fan of PMC loudspeakers, but all the ones I've heard have been floorstanders - I find the timing of the bass to be a bit odd - disjointed from the rest of the music somewhat.
Happy to report here that I didn't here any of this kind of artifact on this system. This was an enjoyable listen - lots of dynamics, lots of detail, no fatiguing sound (within the constraints of a 10 minute listen of course), good imaging and very little to no vinyl surface noise.  Didn't hear the CD player unfortunately.



dCS / ANTELOPE / ACCUPHASE:

Here we have a very digital system (unfortunately I can't remember the speakers in use here).  dCS CD player used as a transport, a Antelope Zodiac DAC, an Antelope Master clock and an Antelope atomic clock (!), an Accuphase integrated amp and some speakers that also slip my mind.
The atomic clock feeds the master clock from which the DAC and the CD transport derive their timing signal.  An interesting solution  - all I can remember is that this system bounced along very nicely - very musical but I can't remember much about the system tonally, nor emotionally.  It was good, but not outstanding.

There were a lot of very fancy looking cables in this system, to the point that they were into the teens of £1000s and pretty much contributing to 50% of the system cost.  Hmmmm.

dCS transport, Zephur DAC, Accuphase integrated amp and many clocks


HART AUDIO:

The show brochure says "a pair of loudspeakers that will literally blow you away".  Well, on looking at Hart's website, I note that they have a very eclectic approach to loudspeakers.  This could mean that they address particular needs with each speaker solution or it could indicate that they're struggling to find their way.  The speakers on offer at the Manchester show don't feature on the web site and I couldn't find any images of them on line either.  A rough description is a single large driver (around 12-15" in diameter and possibly a dual-concentric design with a tweeter in the centre) facing forward and mounted in the top of the cabinet and a similar looking driver underneath that is angled at about 45 degrees from the vertical - with the bottom edge of this driver pushed back into the cabinet - the driver kind of facing downwards towards the floor.
And the effect of this unusual looking design?  From what we heard here, they're chasing the Systemdek / McIntosh / ART sound - dull, lifeless and no emotion.  Let's move on.


VIVID AUDIO: 

You can see below what what playing in this room.  Clearly aimed at a particular taste from a design perspective.  Unfortunately we didn't enjoy these - they weren't that bad, there was a kind of "distance" to the sound and it lacked focus - blurring the edges of notes, and damping the dynamics.  Given they were running Devialet electronics, I was hoping for more.

Audio or Art? Both, but better to look at than to listen to





ALBARRY MUSIC:

A revived name from the past - I remember these unusual looking amps from way back when I bought my first components from Gilson Audio in Middlesborough / Darlington.  Fronted by deep red perspex front panels, you can see inside to the components - I still remember hearing these with a Linn LP12 front end and driving Heybrook HB3 speakers in the early 1980s and thinking they really were something to aspire to back then.
On this showing the re-launched range is capable of producing some good sounds.  Unfortunately (in my opinion) the system was compromised by the use of Focal Diablo speakers - a design I've heard 3 times now and I don't get on with them at all - they have a constant "fizz" in the treble which initially sounds like they are producing lots of detail, but which just becomes wearing and frankly inappropriate given that it doesn't seem to be a part of the music.  But the Albarry's were the most successful at driving these speakers that I've heard to date - being fast, dynamic, flowing but reducing the Focal's ability to irritate.  Would like to listen to them with some different speakers some time.

ICON AUDIO:

Demonstrating the new "for valve amplifier" loudspeakers and the "full range" speakers we heard some that looked like these, but with a pair of full range drivers - one above the other on the baffle. They were being driven by an Icon valve output CDX1 CD player and some of Icon's own valve pre and power amps (again, little detail as the exhibitors just don't put lists up on the wall to advise what they're demonstrating).
I've heard Icon amps previously at the Scalford Hifi show, and I find them some of the most enjoyable valve designs to listen too - they don't seem to suffer from the laid-back and languid sound that so many valve amp designers succumb to.  These new speakers were pretty enjoyable - suprisingly good at the frequency extremes which is where this type of driver sometimes suffer.  Enjoyable, but not enough to tempt me to buy!


Rooms I Didn't Get To:
  • Avid
  • Audio Counsel
  • Claro Audio
  • Fidelity Art
  • Inspire Hifi
  • MCRU
  • Pixll
  • Renaissance Amplification
  • Timestep


Overall observations:
  • Needs to be busier to make commercial sense (I would suspect, although I understand there will be another touring Northern UK show next year - no news on venue as far as I'm aware)
  • Good selection of vinyl on sale
  • £5 for parking was OK, but £13 entry is getting steep = £15 for both would be enough
  • Car parking was poor - not enough at the hotel and the rest is very expensive, given that its at an airport
  • No vegetarian sandwiches at the cafe bar!  Ridiculous!
  • Exhibitors - a kit list on the wall please!  Suggest that you don't play whole albums - if you're playing something the visitor doesn't like, they won't give your system a chance.
  • Good number of rooms - enough to bring variety, but not too many - gives a chance to listen to the kit for a good while to avoid snap judgements
  • Visitors- don't stick your head through a door and make a decision - you have to go in and listen as the doorway is never going to sound good!
  • Exhibitors - doors closed please.  Too much bleed through otherwise