Why "Indulgence"? Well, I think this is an interesting evolution of how to attract new customers into music systems for the home, particularly at the high end of the price range. You may have noticed a few significant trends in the industry, such as polarising into low end and high end with the mid-range being significantly squeezed, higher priced products making much more effort to make a visual statement (Linn Klimax, KEF Blade speakers, Devialet amps, for example) and the move of former "purist" brands into more lifestyle / multifunctional products (Musical Fidelity's Encore, Naim's Mu-so and new Uniti range, Linn Exakt Series 5 etc.). What's all that got to do with "Indulgence"? Well there was a smattering of non-hifi products as part of the show, and there were a number of "static" displays of hifi products which tended to cover the some of the more aestetically striking brands. Non-hifi included Tesla, Beauty Sense, Maxburn Fitness, Sea-Doo for example. Maybe these brands and association with these brands will attract some new customers.
In the foyer:
The venue is a pretty modern Novotel with contemporary decor, lots of open and airy spaces and corridors, is well maintained and I found to be a pleasant place to make my way around. Arranged over 3 floors and a mezzanine, most of the non-hifi brands were clustered in a large open exhibition area on the ground floor. Perhaps there might have been more merit in mixing the hifi and non-hifi brands together? I'd be curious to know how many of the visitors attracted by the non-hifi brands made it further up the floors to listen to music. A nice touch to the show were the live musicians dotted about the venue in foyers and on landing areas - with a full gig lined up for Friday and Saturday nights. A number of presentations are scheduled through the day too - covering topics such as room acoustics, life as a music producer and the work of a rock and roll photographer.
I attended on the first day (Friday), turning up at the 10:00 opening time. Its fair to say that we (myself and 2 fellow visitors) spent the first hour catching up and chatting over a coffee. Not because we needed to catch up, but because the show wasn't ready for us just yet. But being open until 19:00 meant that there was plenty of time in the day to get around everything, but clearly exhibitors had been pushed for time to get set up. This would normally wind me up considerably, but somehow it didn't seem a big issue today - its a first time for the show so its fair to give some leeway on this kind of thing.
So, onto the systems. As usual, rooms at hifi shows are rarely the best to show off equipment, so please bear that in mind when reading through the notes. And yet, some exhibitors seem to do quite well with these challenging rooms. Click on the images (not the best camera phone around, so apologies for the less than perfect photography) to enlarge:
MSB Technology / Thrax Power Amps / Thrax Speakers
A decent sized room, if a little square to be ideal. In here the Select DAC II, Select Dual Power Base were delivering music from a MAC via USB into Thrax monoblock power amps and very distinctive Thrax speakers, notable for looking like a pair of large standmounts standing on top of large bass bins. I don't know the price of the amps, but at €80k for the DAC and €30k for the power supply, I'd expect a decent sound. And so it proved - the music material on offer wasn't very demanding but it was delivered with breathtaking clarity and start-stop speed. Tonally well balanced, no obvious nasties and a very fluid kind of sound. Curiously, and this might be down to the technically very precise music being played, rather than the equipment itsself, I didn't feel engaged and there was no foot-tapping.
Kudos / Devialet / Melco
Kudos had brought their flagship T-808 loudspeakers. After hearing them driven by Linn Exakt about a year ago, actively by Naim amps using a Behringer crossover, here they were being actively driven by 6x Devialet 220 DAC and DSP equipped integrated amplifiers. In this case, each Devialet is programmed to only pass-through and amplify a particular part of the frequency range and is connected directly to a driver in each of the T-808s. Hence the amps are not only amplifying the signal, but are playing a role as part of a "distributed" active crossover. We listened to some vinyl and then some digital from the Melco.
The T-808s were in gloss white - not normally a colour I'd go for, but it slims these speakers down very effectively compared to the wood finish and they look much more sculptural in this finish - less imposing in a room. As usually they were sounding dynamic and crisp playing a Disclosure/London Grammar track, with good heft and they managed not to over-excite the room here - firing diagonally in this fairly large room with a lowish ceiling. I think they were much more dynamic and musical than with the Naim system, but not in the same league of finess and subtlety when heard with an all Klimax Linn Exakt system.
Later I dropped into the room again and a mid-European electronic track called "I Like Your Speakers" was blasting out at party volume levels. Great dynamics again - hard hitting but not hard bass and the little Audioquest Dragonfly DAC, as usual, outperforming its modest price point.
Playing through KEF Blade 2s, listening to Daft Punk's "Georgio by Moroder" on the 440 DAC/DSP/amp was a reasonably good experience - data being fed to the amp by USB from a MAC (or it might've been a PC). Good imaging, tuneful, but at times rather "thick" sounding - the bass lines not as well defined and complex as I know they are. Nice vocals though. The Devialet was making a much better job of driving the Blades than the Chord Electronics system (see below).
Naim / Focal
Quite rightly, Naim were focussing on their newly announced revised Uniti systems - revised doesn't really describe it too well - this is a fundamentally different and therefore completely new product range. 4 different "all in one" solutions are on offer. First, they look superb. Taking modern styling cues from the Mu-so range, and that lovely large volume control, they manage to look sleek, modern and expensive. Yet again Naim (as with the Mu-so) seem to have hit the nail on the head. If Mu-so really is getting into the homes of many buyers new to the brand, then this is a great way to get those buyers to think about moving on up the range. Looks familiar, nice interface, looks good in the house, has no intimidating hifi-ness and delivers good sounds should, in theory, make a great first upgrading step. It looks like Naim has some good leadership in terms of direction to deliver both great new products and to generate buzz in the market (eg Statement) and a wider new customer base (eg Mu-So). Built in the UK too. Not sure if everything is created in the UK - inside the box there's a lot of surface mount componentry, something I don't think Naim have the capability to work with themselves. So they've either invested heavily in new production equipment and techniques or the boards are outsourced elsewhere in the UK or further afield. Just as a really trivial aside - nice to see a Naim product that has the right loudspeaker outputs nearest the RH speaker and the left outputs nearest the LH speaker.
|Uniti Atom. Note £ for Atom = £ for Fraimlite Stand :)|
|Inside the Nova|
|Core ripper and server|
When we were in the room, the smallest product in the range - the £1600 Atom - was playing into a pair of £6500 Focal Sopra No1 standmounts in white gloss. It made a really good showing for itsself. Its got a good bit of weight and dynamics and fed the Focals with a clean signal with no nasty edges and reasonable imaging. Unfortunately, despite drying 3 of the rows of seating, it was impossible to escape a bass hump in the room, which was rather over dominant. It wasn't too distracting on some tracks, but on others it was too dominant. I think this will be mainly a room issue, but I couldn't help thinking that something like the floor standing Aria 948 might've been a better match for the Unit Atom. In discussion with the Naim rep in the room, it seems that the Atom has been connected up to many more expensive speakers successfully - including the Grand Utopias. This doesn't mean very much - perhaps the Utopias sounded as unpleasant with the Uniti as they do with the Satement amp and that's seen as successful? Not sure really. Either way, I would really like to hear more from the Uniti in a smaller room and with somewhat more forgiving loudspeakers - it shows real promise. Did I mention it looks great? :)
Oh - and white logos? "that's the way it is now, they'll get used to it", a bit less than diplomatic really. Maybe there'll be the option to have green logos "upgraded" at some point.
Fun product, well made, seems to have real potential. I hope Naim do well with these.
PMC Active System
|PMC Active Crossover and Bryston Power Amps|
In a very large room lined with excellent black and white images of heavy rock legends, a very large pair of PMC professional looking active monitors played heavy metal tracks at moderate volume. Fed by a bunch of Bryston power amps and a PMC active crossover, the source wasn't visible. These speakers are definitely not in the "lifestyle" category - looking very industrial, unless your lifestyle home involves live rock bands / DJs or a Rolls Royce in the swimming pool that is. I imagine these would've been great playing at high volumes, but playing heavy rock at modest levels probably didn't do them much justice.
There's a very large open area on the 1st floor given over to a few accessories (racks, cables, Townsend speaker stands etc.), but mainly dedicated to all things headphones. A vast array of cans, earphones, DACs, headphone amps and associated paraphanailia are on offer here. Had a brief look around here, but not as I'm not in the market for headphones, didn't spend much time on this. If you are in the market for headphones, this would be a great place to hear many brands all in one place. Schiit amps and Mojo DACs were very popular with demonstrators.
|Reference AV System - front speakers|
|AV System - Arcam processor and power amps|
|Side and rear speakrs and a rack full of Arcam|
KEF focussed on 2 products at the show - in a single very large room separated by a curtain wall. Outside the room, a single Muon stood sadly silent, but looking very shiny. In the first section was the new active LS50, launched at the show. This is the well established and highly respected LS50, but with wireless and bluetooth connectivity, on-board streamer and DAC and amps - all in what looked like the same size cabinets as the originals. Listening is divided between these and the system in the 2nd half of the room - with only one or the other playing at one time. I know the LS50 has many admirers - I've heard them a few times before, finding them pleasant but not, for me, outstanding. Here, with all the new on-board equipment, they again seem pretty good, but lacking a little substance and lower end compared to the passive models (when driven by some good amplification). Probably worth another listen in a more suitably sized room I suspect. Nice to see a manufacturer bringing some more modestly priced equipment along to the event.
In the rear half of the room is an altogether different prospect. Fed by 4K blu-ray and a whole stack of ARCAM processing and power amplification (literally, in a 19 inch equipment rack) was a full-on KEF Reference 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos / DTS:X movie system with substantial projector and large screen. Reference 5 front L and R, Reference 4 front centre and Reference 3 sides and rears with 2x AV8 subs and 4x 8" coaxial overhead speakers completed the line up. We had some Dolby demos to show off the remarkable positioning skills of this system, then some movie clips. As might be expected, the quality of the sound and effects is film dependent - with the WW2 aircraft, ack-ack, bombs and machine gun fire of Unbroken sounding very immersive - great positioning, power, detail, dialogue clear over the mayhem and a great underpinning soundtrack. The Mission Impossible Rogue clip being much more bombastic, less subtle and, quite frankly and not unusually for a home cinema demo, just a bit too loud. Great system though. If I had the space and wherewithall to have a dedicated home cinema room, this system would be pretty high on the list of candidates - probably the best system of its type I've experienced.
|Inside a Blade 2|
A nice pair of standmounts playing in here - using a mix of Classe components. To be honest, I was rather distracted (in a good way) by the time-lapse film of the production of the 800 D3 range on the large screen - fascinating to see the quantity and quality of workmanship that goes into the process. The speakers must've been OK though (in that B&W way) as they didn't annoy :)
Full disclosure - I have PMC Twenty.26 speakers and was keen to hear their new replacements. PMC sensibly had a timetable outside their room advising when each of their new range of Twenty5 speakers would be demonstrated - easy to drop-in at the time when something of interest would be playing. The system was the new Bryston turntable (sounding very nice indeed) with Bryston streamer / DAC and the new(ish) Bryston Cubed power amplification. I didn't hear them myself, but fellow visitors reported good things about the little Twenty5.21 stand mounts in what was, for them, probably too big a room. I did hear the Twenty5.23 floorstanders and they gave a very good account of themselves - a reasonable amount of weight to them, filling the big room very nicely. Too far apart to give a stable central image though - apparently the room was quite tricky in terms of avoiding bass nodes - so the team had put some effort in and recognised the compromise they'd had to go with.
|Twenty5 range drivers|
Later the Twenty5.26 range toppers were playing and we stayed in the room for a good 20 minutes, hardly chatting to each other at all. A good sign. Too many variables (room, equipment, music) to draw any conclusions about improvements from Twenty.26 to Twenty5.26, but apparently, as the Twenty.26 came late to the range, this is the one in the new range with the least changes - a new dispertion grille on the tweeter, new bass driver and the revised ports on the Advanced Transmission Line (ATL) being the main changes. Its a great result - a well balanced, tuneful, detailed speaker with good deep but controlled bass and nicely delivered vocals. Another success here for PMC I feel.
Had a chat with Peter Thomas (PMC's MD) about using their Twenty.26 with Linn Exakt - sadly he hasn't heard this recently and therefore doesn't know its capabilities. Hopefully he'll find the time to hear them soon so he can find out just how fabulous his speakers really can sound :)
nunu distribution were fielding TAD again, including the disk player, amp and Compact Evolution One speaker. The shiny streamer at the top of the rack was playing when we were in there (apologies, I didn't make a note of the brand), at sensible modest volume for the room size. I've heard these speakers and TAD electronics at a good few shows how, and they just don't do anything for me at all. Whilst dynamic, they tend to the thin and don't engage me at all. Same again here.
Meridian and Dali
Its been a while since I've seen or heard Meridian gear, so I'm not really up to speed with it. Anyway, partnered here with some very nicely made Dali floorstanders, nothing to annoy, but nothing amazing to report either. Note Townsend seismic speaker stands in use here.
Chord were fielding the DAVE DAC/pre (fed from a PC or MAC via USB) into their Mezzo power amps in bridged mono and on to a pair of the striking Blade 2 speakers from KEF. The room was rather curiously laid out, with a single 2 seat sofa facing the speakers, with another at 90 degrees. There were static display products on tables around the room. As a result, the KEFs were squeezed rather closely together and had two floor standing lamps and a highish table containing the system directly inbetween the Blades. A curious approach, given the KEF's inward facing drivers. We listened to Yello's "Kiss In Blue" from the Touch album - a very familiar track. Having read great reviews of the DAVE, much was expected, but, on this occasion, not delivered. At all. Dull, muddled, lacking in detail, Heidi Happy's voice having no character or texture whatsoever. I think Chord tried to cram too much stuff into their modest sized room and hence compromised what was playing, a real shame. I really like my Chord Mojo - its a fantastic package so was hoping to enjoy Chord's higher range of equipment, but it wasn't to be today.
Origin Live / Zensati / Audiopax / Pnoe
Quite an arresting sight in this room - a real "dedicated room" style of hifi in here. As you can seen in the picture, the Pnoe horns really dominate a room - they look fabulous, but are clearly designed for a dedicated music room rather than the average UK lounge, which is fine of course. Here fed by the equally fabulous looking Origin Live top end turntable / arm and Audiopax amplification, with Zensati joining all the stuff together. On first visit there was some pleasantly inoffensive jazz piano and female vocals playing. Very smooth, good quality vocals and plenty of details. We went back later when there was the end of some more undemanding jazz playing, but clearly there was to be a change of track soon so we hung around a bit. Rather fortuitously, Yello's "The Race" from the album Flag went onto the TT. At first it was OK, but when the track gets going, the whole thing collapsed spectacularly. Its not too easy to describe, but pinch your nose and "sing" the words and you'll get an idea, plus the driving rhythm of the track was just a muddled mess of ill-timed tunelessness. Not for me in so many ways. Nice display of the various flavours of Origin Live turntables too.
Cyrus were going big on their new "One" entry level integrated amp (£100 off at the show). About 8 of them were playing streamed music into various makes and models of headphones in the front half of the room. Keen to point out that the amp contains a standalone dedicated built-in AB headphone amp, when cans are plugged in, the entire power supply of the amp is switched over to be dedicated to the headphone amp. Nice. I tried the Grado SR-1 headphones, but didn't get on with the sound - but this is usual as I've tried Grados many times and don't enjoy them at all. Moving onto the Audioquest Nighthawks (the model of headphone I use regularly) helped enormously and really did show off what a good headphone amp this is. The One itsself is a neat package, well finished and looks good - a kind of sleek, modernised and altogether more serious version of the original NAIT. Volume control doesn't feel as good as it looks though - not wobbly as such, but as it is turned the gap between it and the fascia doesn't stay constant, if that makes sense. Seems to be good value for money though.
In the back half of the room, a Cyrus streamer fed a One into a pair of Totem speakers. I don't know these speakers at all, so I'm not sure what was contributing most to the sound - the One or the Totems. I'm also not familiar with Totem's placement recommendation, but here they were far too far apart and pushed into the corners of the room. So we had a very much boom and tizz kind of presentation and no imaging at all (the speakers were probably twice as far apart as the row of chair was away from the speakers). It wasn't a terrible sounding system, but I have the feel that this system, like the Chord, has greater potential. A track from Ten Walls called "Walking with Elephants" played and I'll be adding it to my collection - will probably download from Juno. (later edit: not available on Juno but it is on one of the Now! collections)
Playing their new Contour using Naim electronics. They seem to be a good match with Naim - balancing out the sometimes over enthusiastic electronics with their tendancy towards a carefully smooth presentation. Just a bit too smooth and careful here though, cautious is probably an apt description.
I can't decide about this room. Normally I really enjoy the Quad electrostatics but there was something odd about them here. Fed by the new Artera all in one, they didn't have their usual fluid, airy, detailed but unaggressive sound - they even managed to make vocals sound a bit "boxy" which is very odd behaviour for these electrostatics. Maybe they were too close to the back wall - I know they prefer a good bit of space around them, or maybe the new kit just isn't the best source for them.
There wasn't any music playing when we went in here. Some nice looking diddy systems that they labelled as "lifestyle". A guess if your lifestyle only includes a kitchen or bedroom, they might work for you - you can even choose from a range of pastel colours. Would be good to hear something from them though.
CAAS / Aria / Audiophon
Not a brand I'm familiar with, but apparently built in Yorkshire, which is refreshing. Here the CAAS pre-amp and mono power amps were fed from an Aria networked streamer playing to the somewhat more familiar Audiophon speakers. A nice sounding system - no obvious problems, bass sounding a little thick in the extremely small bedroom which probably has more to do with the room than the system. We stayed a while here as the system was musical. But then we found out the price and value for money is not the phrase I would use.
dCS / Nordost / YG Acoustics
I don't have much to say about this system, except to say that there wasn't much to say about this system, in terms of what it did to the music. Exceptional clarity, no obvious signs of colouration, dynamic, sweet in the vocals, controlled (but not exceptionally deep) bass - in keeping with the size of the room - and lots of detail without that "look at me and all my detail" nonsense. Sound improved by using Sort Kones under the CD player - widening the soundstage and adding texture to the vocals - strange but true. Not my first time with dCS, but a first time with YG Acoustics. If this is what they can do at their "entry level", the stuff further up the range should be astonishing.
|YG Acoustics where "entry level" = £25k a pair|
Mark Levinson / JBL
The equipment in the pictures was playing. An unremarkable mix of bass and treble with little inbetween really.
Musical Fidelity / KEF
A tiny bedroom again, but here is a system that proves that a decent sound can be delivered. MF were showing off their all-in-one Encore system, sort of. Why sort of? Well there are 2 Encores - the 225 and the other one. The 225 has a built-in power amp, in addition to the streamer, disk player, DAC and pre-amp of the not quite all-in-one model. How does this sound? Well, as mentioned, it was a good sounding system. But I really have no idea how the Encore sounds at all, as it was used here purely as a streamer / transport. The digital output from this was being fed to the DAC inside the Nu Vista CD player (bottom shelf) and then on to the Nu Vista 600 integrated amplifier and onto the KEF Reference One speakers. So a good sound, but really, who is ever going to buy a system in this configuration?
Vinyl Passion / Ming Da / Audio Alacrity Audio
Another tiny bedroom making a good sound. Vinyl Passion's much modified LP 12 (I think its only the bearing and the basic geometry of the Linn player that remains here) was playing into Ming DA valve amps and the interestingly different Alacrity Audio Dundee-5 speakers. A lively but unfatiguing presentation with suprisingly deep bass from the modestly sized drivers and cabinets. Possibly not the most neutral sounding system, but good rhythm, nice vocals and a sense of fun.
And finally, something completely different. Here we have a system that's still in development and is essentially an attempt to deliver a Dolby Atmos style experience inside a pair of standard good quality headphones. If this works, it'll be quite some achievement.
To get this to work, it is apparently very important to configure the system using the user's own ears as the shape of the outer ear is crucial to understanding how to process a signal to recreate the Atmos experience. At the Indulgence Show you can get measured and give it a try. To calibrate the system, tiny microphones have to be inserted into the ear and the user sits on a carefully positioned seat in amongst a full array of Atmos speakers. The user then has to face front, then left, then right whilst sweep tones come from each of all the surrounding speakers at each head position. Sweep tones are then played through the headphones to better understand the user's ear shape. It takes less than 10 minutes. This configures the system to reproduce the speakers in the actual room measured and tailors it specifically to that user. The microphones are then removed and demo film clips played.
The system is remarkable and incredibly impressive. It does a very credible job of recreating the full surround and height effect of Atmos. Not only does it do this, but it allows the user to turn their head side to side and up and down and it doesn't do the usual headphone effect of all the speakers moving with the head, but rather recreates the effect of moving the head in a real room - ie the speakers stay where they are as the head turns.
There's a little more work and time before this comes to market, but its not far off. Very impressive and worth seeking out a demo.