Saturday, 11 March 2017

Chester Hifi Show 2017 - Naim, Kudos T-707, Dynaudio, Arcam and more

As usual, the (Acoustica) Chester Hifi Show ran in early March for 2017 - based at the DoubleTree hotel on the East side of Chester.  A small show with around 15 or so rooms, easily accessible, not too busy and, of course, free to enter.

A gave a little (but not too much) thought on how to present today's listening, but then just decided to go with the order in which I wandered around the rooms.  Which is not at all logical in terms of the layout of the hotel as I'd promised to wait for a couple of friends to join me before going in the Kudos room, as there was much anticipation about the new T-707s.  So here they are, as they were visited:

ARCAM and B&W Home Cinema Room

Here Arcam were running their FMJ multi-format disc spinner into their top-of-the-range £4,500 AV receiver.  Around the room are a variety of B&W Diamond D3 speakers (I think the fronts were 802 and the rears were the standmounts) with a couple of tiny Atmos overhead speakers rigged up on a frame - at least one sub sat behind the screen.  So this is a seriously priced AV system.


When I went in, Jon Bon Jovi was playing so I settled in to watch the concert for a bit.  It was, well, rather dull.  Bass was indistinct and there was no sparkle to the sound.  I didn't find myself tapping my foot along to the music, even though there were clearly many in the concert audience boogieing along to the music.  We then had a brief talk about the design of the receiver amps being a blend of Class A and Class AB dubbed by Arcam as Class G, and how this was to make sure that this AV receiver would be as good with music as it would be with movies.  The Bon Jovi track apparently had been playing only through the front left and right speakers to prove how good the system is at music.  I'm hoping it was a badly recorded track or something.
Then on to some movie stuff ("Hollywood") with a clip from a Mad Max film (I think it was Mad Max) which is full of action, car chase, crashes and explosions.  And this was good, seriously good.  The detail and the steering of that detail around and above is very convincing.  Of course, the crash bang wallop was great too - and, thankfully, not wacked up to a massive volume to try and impress.  This was controlled, impactful, detailed but not OTT like so many AV demos can be.  Very good.  Not quite up to the standard of the full-on Arcam separates and KEF Reference system at Indulgence 2016, but not far off given how much less expensive the electronics are in this system.


I called back in later to some Bruce Springsteen which was better than the Bon Jovi, but not enough to make me want to sit and listen.

ON THE LANDING

An attractive collection of  Rega decks, although, unless I missed it, there wasn't a Rega room this year - usually they make a very good sound with modestly priced gear.



Chord also have a dem room on the upper floor.  I generally like their cables, but the demo process takes about 45 minutes and I just didn't have the will power to sit through it today.
The Kudos room had to wait, so then on to the "main event" room for the first visit (although these notes cover both visits - I had to go back when R&P turned up just to check my thoughts).



NAIM NDS, 555, Statement S1, NAP500 and Focal Sopra No3



The main Naim event of the show was, as usual, in the largest of the dem rooms.  This year, as last year, the speakers were arranged either side of the bay window which is opposite the entrance door - this layout seems to make the best of what is a bit of an awkward room.  Over to the right was the impressively equipped Naim Fraim rack, containing an NDS streamer with a 555 power supply and, at the time we were in the room, the NAP500 power amp with its matching supply.  The rack also contained a 252 pre-amp and another 555 power supply, but these weren't in use at the time, as pre-amp duties were being handled by the Statement S1 pre-amp.

If you need to ask, you can't afford it...

This lot was feeding into my favourite of the current crop of Focal speakers, the Sopra No3 - this time in the more subdued black front and wood side panels.  More subtle than the gloss white and massively more conventional than the gloss orange.  I first heard these with the full Statement amplification and NDS / 555 in the dem room at the Naim factory, and really liked them - very tuneful and full of detail.  You can read about that visit (and the Bentley driving to get there) here.


So today, some of that magic was there - lots and lots of detail, impact, dynamics, good deep bass (plus a touch of boom from the room), clear and articulate vocals - much to admire and impress.  There was a touch too much treble which risks becoming irritating over time (the room here is much less damped than the dem room at the Naim factory), improved by moving away from the back wall of the room.  As noted last time I heard these speakers, things seem to be a bit "big" - vocals are central but not specific - its like listening to someone with a three foot wide mouth, and guitars seem to be about 6ft long.  I've noted that before with the Grand Utopias - it make for less realism for me.  So small things, but they can detract enough to mean not being engaged with the music.  So an impressive system, but not an engaging one today.

A sneaky look around the back:


As Kudos were also on the first floor, it should've been there next, but I'd promised to hold on until P&R turned up, so I went off down to the long ground floor corridor of smaller (bed)rooms:


SPENDOR



I've heard some great sounding Spendors in the past, but at Indulgence 2016 and again here today, it was uninspiring.  Flat, thin, lacking dynamics, the D7 was not showing much potential.  I never even got around to asking about the electronics in use.  I was hoping the Indulgence experience had been a one-off.

DYNAUDIO CONTOUR 30 and EMIT M20

I owned a small pair of Dynaudio standmounts for a while - they were never in a main system, but when it came to time to move on, I found it very difficult to part with them.  They hung around for about another two and a half years "just in case" but an opportunity to put them back into action never occured.  So they were reluctantly sold on and their new owners got a great sounding pair of speakers for a small outlay.
Since then a couple of Dynaudios have been enjoyed at shows, mentally filed in the "they're nice enough" category.  Heard the Contour 30 for the first time at Indulgence last year where I found them (paired with Naim electronics) a good foil for the sometimes over enthusiastic Naim gear, but perhaps a little too polite?

So here are the Contour 30s again.  This time in a much smaller dem room.  Looking very well finished in a gloss white, their cast alloy baffle fitting well into the look.


Lots of Super Lumina speaker cable

An example driver and the cast baffle
Today, in this room, in this system (and, I suppose, with the music that was being played), it was a more uplifting kind of sound and I sat for a while in this room, suitably engaged by "Keith Don't Go" from Nils Lofgren, amongst other tracks.  Plenty of attack in the guitar, a good spacious sense of the venue and that "bite" in Logfren's voice was clearly projected.  Foot tapping along with the track is a good sign and there was plenty of that here.  There was a touch of boominess which is understandable in a room that's really too small for these speakers - they had to be fairly close to the corners.  So I wonder what was different this time compared to Indulgence?  I can only make reasonable assumptions as I didn't make notes on the electronics in London, but here, these Contours were being driven from some £28k or so worth of streamer, power supplies amplification and cables - so the first assumption could be that the electronics were significantly better.  The second could be the room - although this small room was probably not ideal, I think it possibly suited the speakers better than the very large room at Indulgence.  So a good result here, I went back for a second listen later as it was one of the most musical rooms at the show.

Across the corridor, Dynaudio were playing the £500 Emit 20 floorstanders (plus £350 for the stands) - they're modestly proportioned, but well finished - they don't try to be anything they're not so the finish doesn't try to look more expensive than it is, which is good, as that approach often fails.


They were being driven by one of Naim's recently introduced Unit Atom all-in-one streamer / pre-amp / power amp systems.  It's a very small box, has an attractive colour screen on the front, the Mu-so style rotary control on top and is very well built, looking every bit of its £1600.


Another foot-tapping system here.  Yes, bass is restrained a little, but not so you couldn't live without it.  The Emit's with the Uniti seem to gel very well indeed - no sign of any aggression or brightness that can cause fatigue.  Imaging is not ultra-precise but its believeable.  Tunes flow along well, the meaning in the music is very well conveyed for such a modest system.  Limited budget? Liviing with space constraints? Need something discreet?  Definitely worth a listen.

I was just about to head into the Russell K room (I had to miss it out earlier as when I arrived at the room they were just in the process of swapping speakers over so I thought I'd go back later), when the phone rang and I went back up the stairs to join P&R - their first visit to the Naim / Focal room and my second.

Then we moved on to:

KUDOS T-707 WITH NAIM SNAXO ACTIVE SYSTEM

Kudos have been the best room at this show for the past 3 years (even when launching their most modest floorstanders they've made a great sound here) so, with the T-707 just launched at the Bristol show about 3 weeks ago, anticpation was high, opportunity to disappoint therefore equally high, I suppose.

A bit of background - Kudos are big fans of making their speakers capable of working with active options from manufacturers such as Linn and Devialet.  Their current range leading T-808 has been played with passive electronics from Naim, Exakt active from Linn and active with Devialet at shows I've been to, in addition to active with Naim electronics being fed by an active Behringer crossover (which was good but not in the same league as Linn and Devialet).  The best of these was Devialet at Indulgence, although I understand the Exakt crossovers have been heavily modified since I heard them at the National Audio Show back in 2015.
The T-808 range topper comes in at £23k and is quite a large two-box cabinet.  So out of the range of most.  Kudos are now happy with the concept they used in the T-808 (e.g. the cabinet shaping, isobaric bass loading, complex flared porting, ability to easily run passive or active etc.) to roll-out the same concepts down the range into more accessible (!) pricing and suited to smaller (let's say, more UK sized) rooms.  So the T-707 scales down the 8" drivers to 7", uses one less of them, uses a single box cabinet and takes up less room in the room.  The 7" is a mid-bass that has another identical driver hidden in the cabinet, configured in isobaric mode.  For active use, 2 pairs of terminals are presented on the back panel so only 2 amp channels are needed per speaker.
A little more background - Kudos have been hoping to persuade Naim to provide a SNAXO active crossover for some time.  The design is now done (by Kudos with help from Naim) so hopefully it will just be a matter of time before it becomes available.  Naim really should do this - as we'll see below.

Today the system was Melco, NDS / 555, 252 / Supercap, SNAXO active crossover with Hi-Cap PS and 2x 250DR power amps.  Cables were, in the main, standard Naim fare (not hi-line) with the exception of the streamer to pre connection which was courtesy of Chord Sarum-T.  Sarum-T also provided connection between power amps and speakers, with the length of cables in use today just exceeding the price of the speakers themselves - at around the £13.5k mark.  Gulp.  The T-707 at Chester were finished in Tineo wood veneered sides - black oak, Tineo red and satin white are also available as standard.  Other finishes are options.






Let's get the negatives out of the way first.  There are really only 2 for me - the price, and that the room was playing its part a little today.  Boom was not really tolerable in the back row of seats, but the middle and front seats removed most of this, but there was still a touch too much.  It wasn't enough to distract though - just a hint that there's more to be had by a different set up, and Linn SPACE of course :)

If I said that I spent over 2 hours in this room, it might give an impression of just how enjoyable this Naim / Kudos active system is.  Music, music, music was what was heard in this room.  Track after track (with the exception of one rather poorly recorded Elvis track requested by a visitor) just flowed rhymically from these speakers.  Occasionally there are some bass details that aren't as well resolved as my Exakt/PMC system, but the overall set of compromises here is a much better mix.  Focal could learn from a big powerful sound that doesn't have to be over-bright, nor does a big speaker mean that instruments have to be over-large in the image.  It was impossible to drag myself away from the room - even for music I don't traditionally like.  As usual, the Kudos team encourage visitors to select music and they shy away from nothing.  This system just got on with playing tunes - there's a sense of joy in these speakers - I think the T-808 goes deeper, but somehow, in comparison with these 707s, they feel a little restrained - holding something back in case they get too excited.  The 707s feel much more like they want to get on with entertaining and being part of the party - but they still manage to be in control.  There's a sense of detail in there too, but its not the sort of detail that says "hey look at me", its just there when you seek it out.

Kicking electronic dance tracks? Hugh Masakela? Folk Rock? Sophisticated pop (think London Grammar)? Dire Straits? Mexican guitar duos? Deep electronica?  Just play whatever you like and enjoy.  For me, even more than the T-808.  I really look forward to hearing these with Klimax Katalyst Exakt.  Perhaps the Linn front end, a couple of Naim 250DRs and the T-707s could be a match made in audio heaven.  Maybe - it would be good to find out.




Top Shelf Stuff: SNAXO for T-707 on the left and its Hi-Cap PS on the right

A superb system.

Thanks to Acoustica for staging the show.  Another enjoyable and relaxed show.


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