Bristol. A place of docks, colourful houses, churches boats, a famous bridge, round windows, cider, one of Britain's largest caravan manufacturers and quite a few concrete buildings. One of these concrete buildings is a Marriott Hotel and each year it plays host to the UK's largest / busiest hifi shows. That's a mixed blessing of course - at least for those attending the show. There's the benefit of many manufacturers and systems all in one place. Then there's the downside of all the punters wanting to listen to all that stuff, all being assembled in one place.
|A view from the Mud Dock cafe|
Normally the show is very well organised with signs, people who know what they're doing on the ticket desk, assistant dotted about the place etc. This year was no exception, but the usually inadequate lift system couldn't cope at all this time, with only one of three running on Friday afternoon. So the stairwells were even busier than usual. That's a fairly minor gripe, or at least it is if you're lucky enough to be able to make use of the stairs. For others, I imagine a lot of time will have been wasted waiting for the lift. Has the event outgrown the venue? Or is the venue just too old to cope with modern needs?
|At 15 minutes before opening, a substantial queue. I've only ever attended on the Friday and this year was the busiest I've experienced|
Butties, soup and a small range of hot dishes were available at not unreasonable prices (soup and roll just under £3) - the main bar area on the mezzanine floor being excessively crowded, but the restaurant area offered a haven from the bustle of the show. So let's get started.
Valves, horns, reel to reel. This is going to sound soft and "old skool" isn't it? Well, I can't comment on the effectiveness of valves in the Lampizator DAC because we were treated to the TEAC reel to reel in this room, playing through a passive pre amp and £9k a pair valve power amps into the attractively finished hORNS speakers. The unit on the floor is s mains power conditioner who's voltage output was reading around 225-226V so perhaps all that audio gear in the building was putting some strain on the supply.
Anyway, inevitably - the volume of material on this media is very limited and very expensive - the R2R played some jazz. Fortunately it was pretty complex material and therefore didn't give the system an easy time and it was very easy to listen to - dynamic, controlled, believable.
Harbeth Compact 7 ES-3 AE
|Helpful information. Or subliminal messaging? ;)|
Mr Shaw was explaining some stuff about edge diffraction when I entered the room. Once the music started (played from a DAP into an Hegel amp) it was safe old jazz stuff. The speakers sounded OK, but they weren't being pushed, other than for some level of detail. They have that characteristic safeness and a feeling of being a little over damped. Would liked to have heard more but it was nearly show closing time and I needed to get back to one of the other rooms just to check out what I thought was the best sound of the day.
Revel Speakers on Static Display
Chord were playing some combination of the above boxes. By Chord standards these are quite subtly designed bits of kit. There was an M-Scaler, Hugo and TToby in amongst that lot. The speakers were B&W 805D3 standmounts. There was no clue as to which boxes were playing (why is it so hard to tell the punters what's going on?), the music was too quiet and the room host was chatting away in the middle of the seating area with some friends or colleagues. I sat for a couple of minutes on the front row to try an listen to what was playing, but then gave up.
A selection of speakers on display in the corridor and then those below playing music in a room with Naim electronics. A decent enough sound - nothing outstanding, nothing particularly poor either. So a nicely balanced system.
Mark Levinson and JBL
The JBL K2 S9900 is a bit "legendary" in Japan. Linn even have Exakt filters for it. Its a £20k speaker (each) but didn't sound anything like that kind of price today. Poorly controlled bass and fizz and tizz from this system. Not for me.
PROAC K6 Signature
Focal and Naim
Another awkward room and usually filled with boomy bass, but this year Naim / Focal did the sensible thing for this room and brought some small standmounts - the Kanta 1. Fed by NDX2 / 282 / 200 this system did a reasonable job, the Focals being smoother in the treble than they normally are.
Audiolab and Wharfedale
Wharfedale are on a celebratory kick at the moment, using this as a good reason to update some classics such as the Denton but with more up to date technology in the old skool box. The larger pair were playing using the Audiolab gear - I believe a streamer into the DAC in the integrated amp. At just over £2k for the whole system this sounded decent. Nothing stunning, but decent enough, and managing to fill a quite large room.
PMC were listed in the show booklet as playing a Dolby Atmos movie system, which I was very much looking forward to. Unfortunately for us, that was in the morning, in the afternoon they were playing stereo music. I'm not sure if this was clearly advised anywhere, but so be it. A Bryston digital file player and DAC were playing into PMC's own Cor integrated amplifer, feeding a pair of Twenty5.24 speakers. This is a big room and the 24s weren't struggling at all. They were doing a good job and the room was busy with people listening to several tracks rather than moving on quickly - a good sign. Interesting to contrast the Audiolab / Wharfedale system over the corridor with this one at probably 3 or 4 times the price. VFM is, of course, a personal measure, but there is no doubt that this one was a few steps up in terms of quality. First time hearing the Cor and it was doing a good job.
Wilson Benesch / CH Electronics
|Just sat on the shelf, a very large CH amp|
|Banner should be banned - WB declaring the new Precision P3.0 at around 1.5m high a "standmount" speaker :)|
|WB go back to their roots|
Accessories and Stuff
As usual there was an accessories section with the likes of Townsend, MCRU, some of the magazines, vinyl sellers present.
Dali were playing their very realistically priced Oberon speakers (I think it was the model 5, see the pictures above). They did OK for their price and made a decent fist of the music.
Cyrus were running a couple of demos during the day - splitting their time between 2 combinations. A laptop fed both systems. First time out for the new QX-R DAC board inside the amp over on the right hand side of the table - it was playing through the white Dali floorstanders. It was a decent enough sound. Later in the day it was the turn of the entry level One HD amp (also with its own DAC) playing into the Cyrus Linear One standmounts. This was a fun system to listen to and, on show day, the combination could be had for £999. Very good VFM as the music bounced along without getting unruly nor harsh - good to listen too and much better than many more expensive systems at the show and significantly better than those in a similar price bracket.
ATC were playing their new amp into a passive pair of SCM40 speakers. I've heard these speakers a few times now, passive and active. I have to say that here, in passive form, they did a decent job. But I very much preferred how I heard them last time with a single box Auralic streamer into the active version - that was a great simple mid-priced system.
I didn't quite catch what was going on here from a source perspective but the combination of the ELAC amp and the little standmounts was very engaging. Being very substantial with their bass output was the main surprise here. I see that Andrew Jones is now bringing the concentric mid / tweeter into more and more of the ELAC range. Thinking back, I can't recall an AJ designed speaker that I didn't like...
A reasonable sounding system here. I was running short of time by this point, so didn't get the chance to give this system a real listen.
Reassuringly honest. That's what usually strikes me about Rega system at shows. They get on with the job, they're reasonably priced, well made and there's no marketing bling or extravagant claims. This one was no exception with a sound that draws you in and makes you feel comfortable, yet without being bland nor boring.
Amphion with Hegel
Normally I like both of these products, but here, today, it was a bit lacklustre.
Something a bit different from new speaker company Escape. These are designed for the garden / patio / poolside. Being a pretty substantial and heavy column its wrapped in grille mesh that's also used for outdoor garden furniture. The handle is aluminium. There's a bunch of controls on the top that are sealed so the whole thing is said to be weatherproof. Each side has a speaker then there's a downward firing woofer too. They can operate stand alone mono or can be paired for stereo. Input is by Bluetooth - combined with 3 hours charging time gives 8 hours of playing time so there's no need for cables at all. Sound quality is pretty good for the type of use it is intended. A fun thing that would be nice to have. £999 each.
I rather enjoyed what I heard in this room. The D2R is detailed, smooth, lacks aggression but doesn't lack in dynamics nor weight. Being fed with Naim's low end separates did them no harm at all. For me, this system proved that getting the mix right is more important than price alone.
Exposure / Kudos
Exposure were showcasing their new venture in collaboration with Kudos - an active crossover for the Titan range of speakers. Being a PSU and crossover in separate boxes and at £1800 combined they can be used with 2 or 3 way Titans. This is a prototype and the only one in existence. It will be possible to add Super 10 and Super 20 to the range if / when Kudos share the configuration data. But that's getting ahead of ourselves a bit.
|An attempt to try and show the connections for the active crossover|
Today a stack of 4 mono amps followed from the active crossover to feed a pair of Titan 606s. But something was amiss. We learned later that their had been a set up issue with the components in the crossover and they weren't properly matched to the 606's requirements. A shame, as I was hoping to hear what would seem to be a great collaboration at work. Maybe another day.
Kudos were playing the Titan 505 (£7750 with stands) using a Linn Selekt equipped with the Katalyst DAC and the integrated class D amplifier kartridge. An Innuos server provided the digital files.
Its been a whole year, but I think this combination was a little brighter but more detailed than the Naim Uniti Nova used at the last Bristol show. However, the Naim seemed to have a bit more heft and musical momentum.
I think these are the speakers we heard at the Chester show last spring, in prototype form. I didn't like them at all on that occasion. That was in combination with Naim electronics. Here, with a Melco source and the PMC Cor integrated amp, plus quite a bit of room treatment, they sounded far smoother and more engaging. Maybe it was the production version of the speaker, maybe it was better system synergy. £6.5k a pair though? Hmmmm.
Here Audioquest were demoing some mains distribution blocks and cables. Electronics hidden away (possibly Rega?), I thought the Kudos Titan 505s were sounding better than they were with the Linn Selekt. We didn't stay in here long as the demo was similar to last years cable changing offering.
Formed after the Tannoy factory closed, Scottish company Fyne seem to have built a good reputation very quickly indeed. Last year they played their top end speakers which underwhelmed. This year it was the turn of the F702 mid-price floorstander. It has a very fluid sound - mellifluous yet not dull. Lots of detail, fine female vocals, the tune is easy to follow with this combination of electronics fronted by a Rega CDP. But rather lacking in the low end again. Probably worth another listen in a different setting.
Astin Trew / Graham Audio
A lovely sounding system when fed by the reel to reel deck (not heard with the other sources). The Graham LS6F floorstanders were playing. Fantastic flow to the music, a sense of ease to the presentation, lovely clear vocals and tight tuneful bass lines. I enjoyed spending some time in this room - perhaps the lack of seating and hence bodies in the room gave it the space to breathe?
I'm not sure what electronics were in use at Bristol, but REL were partnering their sub with a pair of Dynaudio floorstanders. The choral music was good - the sub probably adding to the sense of scale of the venue. But AC/DC's Thunder was hard, harsh and unlistenable. We had to leave the room sharpish.
I have to say that I rather admire AVID turntables, I can't recall ever hearing a bad one. And perhaps, today, I still haven't heard a bad one, but there was something very odd about this system. I'm not sure if it was the electronics or the set up. Regarding the set up, I would question the way that the speakers were toed-in so severely that an imaginary line through the centre of each speaker would have crossed well in front of the first row of seats. Odd. So if this was a contributor or not I don't know, but we listened to 3 tracks here on 2 different LPs and the effect was always the same. It felt like there was a major issue with phase in the mid-range that was sucking the music away in the mid frequencies. There was tight bass and detailed treble but a curious hole in the middle, coupled with a sense that there was a phase issue in the room, which manifests as a slightly uncomfortable feeling.
Playing the new little white standmounts when we were in the room. A bit shouty and relentless.
The LS3/5a Club
Companies such as Harbeth, Rogers and Falcon were all playing variations on the theme of the tiny BBC LS3/5a monitors. I've never got on with them, nor the Linn Kan and, despite some eye watering prices for these little boxes, I didn't get on with them at all today either. Nice vocals, but they sound rigid to me, lacking in musical flow, and there's just too much of the frequency spectrum missing. I know some people love them. I quiet enjoy Marmite too.
Decent cinema sound in this room, loud, but not ridiculously loud like some demos.
Across 3 rooms Decent Audio presented Scansonic speakers, Dual turntables, Ayre electronics and a number of other products. All sounding OK.
I like the Totem Sky standmount and floorstanding speakers. Last time they were heard with a Rega turntable and were underwhelming, but came to life with a digital source. Here, the new KIN active speaker was being fed by a Rega turntable and sounded a little underwhelming, so perhaps not a fair outing for them, but no source comparison was available on our visit to this room.
Playing the little white active standmounts without sub-woofer, this system was pretty enjoyable, particularly as the price is £700 the pair. Lots of other small and tiny speaker options in this room, all very modestly priced.
LEEMA and Brigadier
This system was full of life and dynamics, driving a tune along very well. Lots of information coming through the £5k Australian speakers. Occasionally, when louder, there was a touch of hardness. So one worth a listen, but probably best over a longer term home dem to make sure that all the excitement doesn't get too much over time.
An interesting new speaker here, being fed by a TT, Tidsbury passive pre-amp and valve power amp. The FrontRo speaker is a 12" electrostatic with support from a 5.25" bass driver. Intended to be small and discreet in the home. This system was pretty much the opposite to the Leema system above - polite, easy going but no musical enthusiasm. Its a nice concept and will work for some.
Both rooms sounding fine in terms of detail, but not much get up and go.
I'm an admirer of Mission's earlier work - in the 80s and 90s they produced some great budget speakers that punched well above their price point. But now I'm not so sure. First heard at the Indugence Show in late 2017, the smallest QX sounded quite reaonable at the price. Here the £400 satndmount was playing. It was a disappointing flat sound lacking in any emotional content. I hope this wasn't representative.
When there's limited time to get around all the rooms at a show, sometimes choices have to be made. Sometimes that could be based on previous experiences but its always best to give everything a chance if possible (see comments above about LS3/5a for example), and sometimes that bears fruit. Canton is a case in point. I've heard them many times in different guises, always found them pleasant enough but not something I'd buy with my own cash. However, today was different. They were playing a new active standmount, the Smart Vento 3. Inputs go to one speaker and it feeds the other speaker wirelessly. The DACs are 24/96, as is the wireless connection and a pair of class D amplifiers drive each drive unit from an active crossover.
And these little boxes do a great job. They only need a source / pre-amp to partner them and Canton were using a £6k AVM all-in-one today, but using the digital output, so most of the sound processing and the DAC was coming from the speakers, not from the electronics. Punchy, tuneful, sweet, no harshness, nice vocals, deep bass for the enclosure size, there really was nothing to criticise here at the price. A simple, elegant, very good sounding system.
Linn returned to the show for the first time in 12 years - so a marketing change in direction. We bumped into MD Gilad Tiefenbrun later in the day, gave him some feedback on the loss of the forum but also discussed Linn's presence at the show. It was largely driven by the new Selekt product - Linn see this as more suitable to a show of this type, whereas dealer demos are seen as being better for the "enthusiast" customer wanting to choose from a range of separates products. Static Selekts were on display in the show area with their lids off to show how the kartridges fit into the box. At the moment all the options are stereo - Selekt can be a streamer / pre-amp only, you can upgrade the DAC to Katalyst, add a stereo power amp and later there will be surround options too (but not clear today if the surround modules will have the option of a standard or Katlyst DAC.
The unit is very well made, the look itself for me is OK, but everyone will have their own opinion on that front. In the dem room there were 3 Selekt units lined up, along with a pair of B&W 804D3 speakers - choosen by Linn to "prove" that an all-Linn system is not a given. The first dem was a very brief piece of music on a Selekt equipped with a standard DAC and the built-in stereo (Class D) power amps. Feeding the B&Ws this sounded pretty good, but then it should for well over £5k. We listened again to the same clip then moved over to the second Selekt which was equipped with the better Katalyst DAC. The difference was immediately noticable bring greater clarity, control, much more emotional vocals etc.
The 3rd Selekt was a streamer / pre-amp which fed a Linn Akurate 2200 amplifier. Here we listened to some Christine and the Queens without any SPACE room optimisation. Then we heard the same clip again with SPACE v2 optimisation. The improvement in the clarity and tunefulness of the bass was very obvious, as was the way in which the vocals cleaned up. So is Selekt a success? I would say that this dem was effective in demonstrating the differences of the unit here, but it was really far too short to get an appreciation of the unit's musical capabilities. Selekt was in use elsewhere, so I'll cover that in the notes on Kudos Titan 505.
Displaying a fair variety of products, and very proud of not using any fancy equipment racks, Audio Note's CD One CD Transport, DAC 2 (£2150 each) and Meishu Mk II integrated (8 watts per channel) amp (£6290) were playing into Type J speakers (£4600) set up in the usual-for-Audio-Note heavily toed-in and pushed into the corner arrangement. The CDP was playing whilst we were in there. There's a consistency to the way AN gear presents the music - if its simple and well recorded then it tends to sound fantastic - natural, flowing, very enjoyable. But once it gets complex it just get a bit hashy and difficult to listen to, and so it was today.
Using an mbl CD player, VG were exhibiting valve electronics throughout and a pair of large standmount speakers - trapeziodal in shape. A very good sound here, but is it worth the several 10s of thousands of £s involved? I notice that the veneer on the speakers from the top enclosure to the bottom enclosure doesn't match. It might just be me, but that would be annoying to notice every time you sit down to listen, and doesn't sit well at this price level.
Spendor and Auralic
Well, I'm not usually a fan of Spendor speakers - there have been one or 2 that have been enjoyable, but normally they're just too safe sounding and don't drive foot-tapping for me.
Today was not one of those days. Using a streamer, clock, DAC / pre and power amps from Auralic, they were showing off the new £8.5k Classic 100 speaker. I've enjoyed the Auralic electronics at other shows and they did a great job again here at Bristol. The big Spendors have a slightly unusual configuration with a 5" or so mid-range driver above what looks like their usual tweeter design which is itself above a large bass driver and a pair of smallish ports. They look "classic" in a kind of 70s / 80s kind of way and have a lovely veneer finish. But what they don't do is sound like a British 70s / 80s speaker - they are thoroughly up to date and sound fantastic. Fast, solid bass (choose your position in the room carefully because there was a little boom if sat in the wrong row), very well articulated vocals and a sweetly detailed treble with no sign of harshness or forcefulness.
Song after song displayed this system's dynamic and musical ability, across all genres, including very realistic piano tone and scale. This was one of those rooms where lots of variety of music was being played as the system did well with all genres. When the room host is playing a bit of everything, its usually because they're confident of the system's capability - and rightly so here. Its worth noting that Spendor had a decent sized room for these big speakers to breath in - probably twice the size of most of the bedroom dem rooms. So a very enjoyable listen here - I went back twice more during the day to make sure that the variety of music and the capability to deliver was consistent. And it was - consistently very enjoyable.
Neat were playing their new £3k floorstander. It looks good in a modern interiors kind of way and features downward firing isobaric bass drivers. Plenty of detail and dynamics, but a somewhat boxy sounding bass.
I didn't get around every room unfortuately, some by choice, others due to a lack of time. The show is big enough to need a couple of days really. A few thoughts: active standmounts are now proliferating and are no longer the preserve of PC desktop use cases; prices continue to go up in leaps and bounds, but not necessarily with performance improvements; there wasn't so much room treatment as I remember from last year; there's still plenty of choice of products available, offering different solutions; a worthwhile day out.