Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Linn Lounge. Nile Rogers and Chic. In A Furniture Shop.

This post was a "live blog" with updates every 5 to 10 minutes, so it probably doesn't flow that well :-)

Kicking off with Daft Punk 'Get Lucky' sounding a bit boomy and lacking in sparkle.  Oh hang on, someone must've just tweaked something as its just changed to something more acceptable...

A brief descriltion of Rogers' early life through to his first professional musician's role touring with Sesame Street. Then the late night studio sessions working out of hours because they couldn't afford the studio fees. Now playing 'Everybody Dance' in Studio Master. Lots of foot tapping going on, lots of chatting too. Its a very informal atmosphere.

Apologies for the sloping floor. Its not a problem with the shop. Might be related to the refreshments on offer though.
We're regaled with the tale of how Rogers and friend were refused back stage entry to a Grace Jones gig, how that lead to the track 'Le Freak' and how the lyrics had to change from the words of the bouncer that inspired the track.

'We Are Family' by Sister Sledge, from the album entirely written by Rogers and Bernard Edwards. They played on all the tracks and produced the album too.
Now 'Good Times' which is sounding a bit forced. Perhaps the system is a bit too loud now. Its a very big space to fill. The room is the full length of the shop and is 2 floors high along half the length. Surfaces are all hard, including the furniture. There's probably around 90 people here.

Learning lots here. Diana Ross's 'Upside Down' now playing. One of my earliest music choices where I stepped out from following my brother's musical path. Wasn't aware of the Chic link, but I've not really been one for pouring through sleeve notes. Another difference between us!

Now we're in the mid eighties with disco popularity waning and alcohol / drugs taking a greater role in Rogers' life. Another collaboration, this time with David Bowie produced the 'Let's Dance' album - the biggest selling album of Bowie's career.

More surprises. Duran Duran's 'The Reflex' playing now.


21 million albums sold. Working with Madonna produced the album 'Like A Virgin'. 'Nuf said.

After 2 years in rehab for Rogers, he and Edwards played together for the last time in 1996 just prior to Edwards' death. Now we're hearing about the sampling legacy. As the basis of hip-hop 'Good Times' was sampled for many tracks. I remember at the time how some artists embraced this, but many treated it as theft and lawsuits were flying.

Rogers is still touring now, with more gigs in 2012 than any previous year in his career. With Daft Punk of course. 'Move Yourself To Dance' is unfortunately demoing the 350's meandering bass though.

System tonight is KEDSM and Exakt 350a

Meanwhile, in the Matt White corner...


This is a better sounding system regardless of digital or vinyl source. Probably due to this corner of the showroom being more like a domestic room.

Interesting evening. So much about the music and the artists. No hifi speak. No tech speak. Just the music, relaxed atmosphere and drinks. Apparently 75% of the customers were from the shop's mailing list.

Thanks to Linn and Vitra for a very enjoyable evening. Now, about that design classic chair over there...

Monday, 16 June 2014

CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - General Thoughts

Great way to spend father's day this year. We travelled for an hour by Sunbeam Lotus, spent 4 hours together at the audio show then had a very agreeable lunch at The Crown in Goostrey.  Another blast in the 'beam and we finished the day off back home with the original Pink Panther film and salt n black pepper popcorn.  Best part was the kids agreeing to go along, but then really enjoying themseves too.
I think this is the best commercial show I've been to. The venue has many virtues. Its a great hotel with decent sized rooms, solid floors and walls, polite staff, very sensible tea and biscuit prices, spacious corridors, easy access from the M6 and, selfishly, only an hour from home.

This was the first run for this show.  It was predominantly a dealer based show, with a few small manufacturers.  This meant a good mix of products - dealers are free to choose combinations of systems they think work well whereas manufacturer based rooms are forced to use a one make system where possible and that sometimes means compromise.  I think the lack of the major brands such as Cyrus, Marantz, Arcam, B&W etc., meant a more relaxed atmosphere too.  I don't have anything against those brands but they already have the Bristol Show.  Cranage would do well to court more dealers and the lesser visible brands, like it did today.  Talk around the rooms included the prospects of a re-run next year, maybe as a 2 day event.  Didn't manage to get to all the rooms today, but that was more down to it being Father's day and not wanting to take up the whole day but spend some time doing other stuff as a family too.

Best room for me was ELAC / Electrocompaniet - a combination of good sounds and almost realistic prices.  The rest of the top 4 in no particular order were Systemdek / McIntosh / ART, Brian and Trevor's, and Purite North.  In 5th place will be Audio Note.  Most fun room goes to Soundkaos.

Must mention how well behaved our kids were, and great to get some engagement with them, particularly in 3 of the rooms with HiFi Network (ELAC / Electrocompaniet) selecting the right kind of music to get them hooked, without being asked.

So a good day - lets hope this show is going to be a permanent fixture on the calendar.  Oh, and it was free entry too!

CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Linn at Brian and Trevor's

Showcasing the latest iteration of Linn's Exakt digital crossover / room optimisation system with the Akubarik Exact loudspeakers,  These accept an Exakt digital signal, digitally splits this into 5 different frequency bands, corrects for phase and timing distortions between and within each speaker drive unit, corrects for the actual measured manufacturing variances in each driver and then feeds each of the 5 bands to a dedicated power amplifier for each driver.  This is all housed in the aluminium extruded housing down the back of the cabinet.  Connections in the back are just a mains lead and an Exakt Cat 5 cable (its not ethernet, its proprietary). The speakers are reasonably compact and use a pair of isobaric loaded bass drivers facing downwards, helping to make the speakers less room boundary dependent.  They're good looking, but I prefer the darker satin colours to the glossy examples on display today.


The electronics feeding the speakers is the Klimax Exakt DSM - its a streamer and pre-amp with mostly digital inputs.  There is one analogue input which uses a very high quality 32 bit analogue to digital converter, so even the LP12 signal is digitised so the Exakt software can do its stuff with analogue too. By measuring the room dimensions the software can also reduce the appropriate low frequencies in the signal to help reduce boom.

Music was being played using the KEDSM as a streamer and from a top spec LP12 turntable.  All the components were being fed by mains from PS Audio Perfect Wave power regenerators.  These are not conditioners, they take the incoming distorted AC mains, turn it to DC, then regenerate a 240V 50Hz mains output without the distortion.

Left Top Down: LP12, KEDSM, Uphorik Phono Stage, but not sure what's on the lowest shelf.  On the right is a PS Audio Perfect Wave P10 sitting on a PS Audio Power Base
So how did all of this sound?  Very Linn.  Understated, controlled, detailed, musical and very tuneful.  It doesn't leap out at you, but you can listen to it for hours.  Occasionally it was a touch too loud and the LP12 was sounding suprisingly lightweight - very unusual.  When playing at a sensible volume you could hear the benefits of Exakt with excellent imaging and no obvious timing issues.  I did think that it would be a bigger improvement than it seems to deliver over the standard active Akubariks.  This is probably due to the limitations of Akurate level DACs and amps that are somewhere between Majik and Akurate level all built into the back of the speakers.  I'm thinking Klimax Exakt crossovers, external amps and passive Akubariks might bring a better (but even more expensive) result.

Decent sounds here, much better than the Linn sound at the Manchester airport show last year, and in the top 5 of rooms I heard at Cranage.

CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Soundkaos

This was a fun room.  Lots of unusual stuff in here.  I can imagine those who enjoy a laid back cool jazz tune or the more easy listening end of the spectrum putting their feet up with a glass of wine or perhaps a G n T to chill out at the end of the day. Perhaps Adele or Zero 7?

So a first encounger with the latest Apple Mac with its shiny cylindrical box (surpisingly compact) and the usual very high quality large glossy screen - its a quality looking bit of kit. Here it was running JRiver media player to an optical output which was fed to the very small DAC. This fed to Bakoon amp with separate power supply. A class A/B design, its well made in the style of the Mac Mini.  Looks like it should be a class D design based on its diminutive dimensions. From there the signal goes to the off-board crossovers shown below.




That's Not A Kettle

Then to the speakers themselves. Taking an unusual approach and using instrument grade woods (baffle in spruce in this case) the theory goes that the wood is going to resonate so, rather than try to eliminate this, use known resonances in the design. The drive units and crossovers allow for the resonance so it becomes part of the soind, as designed in. The standard of finish is very high. The baffle even has a 'stone in a pond' ripple effect across the surface, centred on the mid-bass driver.  The stands were not rigidly coupled to the floor. I suspect the boxes themselves are quite lightweight. Place your hand on the cabinet and you can feel it vibrating along with the drivers.

The room hosts really engaged with the kids, allowing them to choose some music. C went for Oh Yeah by Yello which was clearly a bit 'racy' for one of our hosts. It played reasonably well, being tuneful and engaging but I would characterise it as softish on dynamics and lacking the kick this track deserves.

Choosing the Tunes
K selected Ane Brun and settled into a seat centre stage.  She seemed to enjoy the music, later commenting on the lack of low bass and the relaxed nature of the sounds.

Whilst we were in there a gent arrived and assembled an enormous alpine horn.  It must've been about 5 metres long and is made from the same woods as the speakers, clearly drawing the link between each end of the audio chain.  Not sure its that relevant, but then that's not the point, its just part of the fun atmosphere in this room.


CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Aion

A mix of static displays in one end, including this see-through power amp and cable lifters (yes, really, but if they're any good why weren't they in use?) and a system playing at the other end.

A Trio turntable fed through the Abyssound electronics into the Aion speakers (referred to as "banana speakers" on the Wam).  The speakers are at least an interesting design.  There is just the one driver then a folded horn that goes down behind the front panel, curves around, flairs out and exits on the top panel.  Not sure what you do about getting the bass levels right if your ceiling is too high or too low...

The room host asked how much I thought they were worth.  Well they looked like they might have some silly price like £10k a pair, but sounded like they were worth somewhat less than £1k.  He didn't seem too bothered by this verdict, but was proud to announce that they cost £4.5k but could be bought for £4k on the day.  They were fine with simple music, but anything remotely complex and this system just got in a muddle.  Rather disappointing.



 



CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Graham Slee

Great range of headphone amps on display in here with 6 or so decent quality headsets, pretty much as you'd expect for a Graham Slee room.  Didn't get the time to try them out.

But in the other end of this fairly small room, there's system showcasing phono stages.  A Technics turntable is playing through some unnamed and unlabelled electronics into some tiny Stirling standmounts.  They look like LS3/5a type designs, but perhaps shallower than I remember.  Each of these was supplemented by what looked like a subwoofer.  Seems a bit strange to do this - why not just have a separate chamber inside a floorstander?  Would be a better result in terms of looks and floorspace - unless there's some theory around separating the mid/treble from the bass vibration.  If that's the case I don't think its worth the effort as there was no bass to notice, no warmth, to me it sounded harsh, grating and unsophisticated.  Could, of course, have been the turntable or amp, but it wasn't showing off the Graham Slee at all.

This was probably my most disappointing room in the show.




CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - AstinTrew and Tannoy

Had a chat with the guy who runs AstinTrew which turns out to be a British company.  We didn't discuss where the stuff is actually assembled but its certainly designed in the UK.  For such a small company they have a reasonable range and its very well put together.

Apparently the dealer selected the Tannoys in use.  The system produced good imaging but no real depth nor slam to the bass.  If you like the typical Naim sound you'd probably like this combination - its very up front and pushes the music at you.  Coming from the Linn room my 13 year old daughter really got the idea of up front versus more laid back presentations - before this I'd tried to describe the differences between a Linn and Naim system and here she spotted it herself straight away.  We agreed it would become wearing over time.  The guy from AstinTrew agreed and put it down to the Tannoys - he suggested a listen with different speakers would show the electronics in a better light.




CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Systemdek, Audio Origami, van den Hul, McIntosh, ART

A very high end system in this room with beautifully built and rather industrial looking Systemdek,  Audio Origami arm (does this have its roots in the land of Syrinx PU7 pehaps?), van den Hul Frog cart, Spa 2 phono stage, McIntosh integrated amp and ART speakers.

Steve Miller was playing as we entered and was sounding very crisp, good timing and deep solid bass guitar. Storm effects quite convincing.  We were offered a choice of music and the kids chose London Grammar. The room host engaged with them really well, asking for their favourite track and asking if they'd heard it on vinyl before. They chise Hey Now and Strong.  These both sounded excellent but even on such a new album,  there were the horrible cracks and pops. Very little sign of surface noise though.  A touch bright at times but I think this could be tamed just by turning it down a bit.

outside there was a front baffle on display. From the front it looks like pretty alu trim. However, from behind you can see the sheer solidity of this panel and the milling work that goes into it. Reminded me of  seeing the wing spar machining at Airbus. Very good to see some decent looking engineering. Last time I heard McIntosh and ART the thing was dire, but with a different turntable and in a different room of course.  This room put that right and was in the top 5 of the day.



CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Sonteer and Quadral

There were 2 systems set up in here - one at each end of a very large space.  The system below was playing at the time we were in there.  Unfortunately I really think that the size of the room was overwhelming these little standmounts.  The sound was very lightweight so we didn't hang around for long.  Probably deserves a more sensible space before making any assessments.


CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Lampizator, Van de Leur, Tektron Italia, hORNS.pl


OK, lets the get the first thing out of the way.  This is not a visually domestically acceptable system, at least not in our house.  I have a very understanding partner - she likes to hear good sounding music, but without a dedicated music listening room, this wouldn't be given house room by either of us.  The LampizatOr obsession with putting the power button / indicator into the "O" in every word is distinctive but just makes for messy looking equipment - they need to work harder on shaking off the home made origins of the products.

So that's out of the way.

Here we listened to the LampizatOr TranspOrt (which is essentially a tweaked Squeezebox - I'm sure the extent of tweaking is revealed on their www site), the LampizatOr Level 7 DAC, Van de Leur 002 stereo pre-amp and Sicillian made Tektron Italia Reference mono valve power amps and a KBL Sounds mains conditioner.  These played into the industrial strength hORNS.pl speakers you see in the picture, along with their battleship stands.  These were in a gloss black finish which was OK, but not as smooth as some others.  A range of glossy colours are available.

Lots of detail coming through on this system.  Deep well controlled bass.  Plenty of heft and control.  I did wonder what it would be like after several hours of listening though - could get wearing.




At the side of the room they also played some music via bluetooth from a phone into these funky looking little boxes.  There's a valve amp and a pair of single cone speakers.  Very well finished in a variety of bright colours they're a bit of fun for a bedroom, kitchen, study etc.  Sounded OK, but not really very fair to judge, given their tabletop position, speakers close together etc.  Might be worth further investigation if that's the sort of thing that you're considering for non-main system requirements.



CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Audio Note

Ah, the legend that is Audio Note (at least in some circles, and tents).  Being a bit better organised than previous rooms I've seen with AN, we at least knew what was playing in here, what it was called and how much it cost.  Thanks for dealing with the courtesy of housekeeping Audiocounsel.

So how did this digital / valve system sound?  Well, very reasonable, with some music.  With the right recording / production values it plays music well - its very coherent and flowing, instruments well separated and the bass very tuneful.  However, bass isn't particularly deep and that's OK with some recordings, but play something that's lightweight and it all gets a bit too thin across the board, and less than comfortable to listen to.  Generally I think its a good sound, but its not magical and for me its not to get over excited about.  It is often the case that systems that impress immediately become wearing over time.  Others that don't impress immediately can become your friend when listening to an hour or more of music.  Here, along with previous exposure to Audio Note, that lack of excitement and immediacy feels like it would be rather dull in the long term for me.  And really, at this price the look and finish of the kit should be somewhat more impressive.  A jumble of mis-matched boxes and what look like MDF kit build speakers doesn't cut it for me.




CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Magnepan and Exposure

Compulsory vigorous dealer foot-tapping in evidence  :-)

Great to get a chance to listen to magnaplanar speakers - a new experience for me.  These were being fed by a Primare disc spinner and some very large and substantial looking Exposure amps - stereo pre and 2 mono power amps.  Exposure is something I've heard many times before, but these boxes are much more substantial than the slimmer boxes I'm more used to from them.  They're a bit more professional looking and Exposure of old, but the red illuminated logo was patchy - like they hadn't put enough bulbs in there or something.

We heard 2 pieces of classical music in here - one rather baroque in nature, the other more traditional orchestral stuff.  Harpsichord sound crisp and lilted along nicely.  Large scale orchestra was rather lacking in the scale department - not much heft to it.  Imaging OK horizontally, but not very clear in the vertical.

I suppose what we heard here kind of fits into the planar / electrostatic expectations - from previous experience of Exposure, I don't think the gentle character would be down to the amps.  Would like to have heard somthing more rhythmic and dynamic - got the impression the music was carefully chosen.  Kids bored very quickly in this room, like me.  They were playing the music reasonably quietly, which is fine, but the door really needs to be closed at this kind of show, and particularly with this type of music.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - ELAC and Electrocompaniet

I liked what I heard in the ELAC room at the Bristol Sound and Vision show back in February.  There they were playing a very accomplished sounding standmount.

At Cranage they were playing their very slim, beautifully constructed floorstander, the AIR-X 407, finished in piano gloss black.  This is a fully active (active crossovers, 3 amps per speaker), wired or wireless version of the FS 407.  Today they were connected via balanced interconnects. In the simplest of systems, this was being fed by files stored  on HDD inside an Electrocompaniet ECM2 media player.  Capable of collating all media files found on a network into a single "virtual" library of files, including most audio and video formats, this will take music from an optional internal HDD, via UPnP compatible NAS / PC media library or from USB drives.  It contains a stereo DAC and can output multi-channel signals via HDMI for processing by an external multi-channel processor.  Nice interface too and apparently can be controlled by smartphone apps, but was on the standard remote control today.


Today, in stereo mode with the internal HDD this single box, connected by balanced cables to the pair of active speakers made for a very simple and domestically very acceptable combination.  At approximately Euro 9k it looked like quality and it sounded like quality too.

There's something about active systems when they're done right.  You can hear that the amps have real control over the drivers.  Drivers drive - they start and stop with conviction.  For such narrow cabinets and smallish drivers these things go deep and they do it in a very controlled manner with plenty of slam.  Voices are clear, have substance and nuance.  Treble is very clear, sparkly yet smooth - no nasty edges here.  This system also goes loud without sounding harsh or strained.  Very very musical and great to listen to.

Guess what?  No problems with playing any type of music in this room.  In fact, our host here was very astute with my 13 and 10 year old kids - selecting tracks by Lorde and a band that slips my mind but is very much in the charts at the moment - saying that he'd chosen these for the "future audiophiles" in the room.  What a refreshing change - recognising the needs of the attendees and playing to that.  This made them feel very welcome, a bit special and encouraged them to select some music, with K again choosing Ane Brun as this was her benchmark we'd listen to at home.  This system was giving my home system a run for its money - would be great to get them side by side in the same room!

Going on sound quality and VFM alone this was my top room for the day.  Add in the way that the kids were treated as welcome human beings was the icing on the cake.  Thanks HiFi Network





CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Purite North, Pure Sound, Project, Acoustic Energy

Yet another good sounding room here and one that makes it into my top 5 for the day.  A very reasonably priced Project turntable playing through Puresound amplification (pre centre middle shelf and valve power either side of the turntable) and into Acoustic Energy floorstanders.  Sensible looking cables and a nice looking rack.  I'm sure RJC Audio's HUSH... isolation platform was helping the turntable too.
The sound was detailed, musically flowing, not brash, not dull.
 
A feature that's always welcome at the Hifi Wigwam show is labels on the kit - this is what it is, this is what it costs.  Not exactly radical, but something that's bizarrely missing in most rooms at most commercial shows.  Purite North added "Now Playing" labels too.  So simple, so informative.

  make

CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Brodmann and Belles


I understand that the big Brodmann loudspeakers that were playing when we were in the room (in the picture above) retail at around £36k.  Gulp.  I don't know much about the Belles electronics as this is my first encounter, but there are favourable comments on other blogs and forums.  Last time I encountered these speakers was at the Manchester Show in 2013 where I found them to be a mixed bag.

So how did it sound?  Well, proving that musical choice can be very important to some systems, this was a perfect case in point.  In my Bristol Sound and Vision Show report back in February, I noted that the rooms with the best sounding systems tended to be those where they would allow you to select or play your own music - a real sign of confidence.  In this room, even the vendor selected music tripped up this system.  We went in and heard some very gentle female vocals and piano and it sounded inviting, reasonably detailed, expressive and very much inoffensive without being bland, if that makes sense.  Second track was more female vocals but more folk oriented.  Same effect from a sound point of view.

We were just about to leave the room when on came Blues Company's "Dark Day", a perennial system testing track of mine and others.  This track is very much based (no pun intended) on a tuneful and deep bass line which determines both the mood and the pace of the song.  Its very well recorded and with the right system has a massively spacious openness and excellent imaging.  Couple this with the blues vibe and brilliantly clear, sparkly but not harsh, complex cymbals and you have a great track as both a piece of emotional music and a system test.

Well we didn't get very far into this track, maybe 30 seconds or so, to discover just how badly this system was handling the bass.  Muffled in the extreme, notes blurred and slurred into each other, the tune was lost, there was no impact.  The cymbals were there but muted and soft, and when the deep reverberating electronic bass drum came in it was lacking in depth and somewhat apologetic about its presence.  This all in a very spacious room with the speakers well away from any boundaries.  Deeply disappointing I'm afraid.


CRANAGE HALL AUDIO SHOW JUNE 2014 - Roksan, Project, Acoustic Energy



Its easy to say that most audio shows don't feature more sensibly priced kit.  Compared to Curry's then this room didn't either, but it was much more modestly priced than most and thanks to Henley Designs for bringing along something more down to earth.

Unfortunately this system didn't sing when we were in the room.  It was a touch bright and light weight - "thin" according to my daughter.  I would add that it lacked depth and substance which I suppose amounts to the same thing.  Lots of detail though, just not very engaging for me.

Monday, 9 June 2014

CHESHIRE AUDIO SHOW THIS WEEKEND 15 JUNE 2014

Great to have an audio show in the North of England.  It's this weekend in Cheshire and just off the M6.

With Free Entry there's every reason to go along.

Exhibitor list and applications for tickets here:   http://www.audioshow.co.uk/