"What a refreshingly honest blog about listening to music through hi-fi. So happy to see views based upon the enjoyment of music rather than so-called sound 'quality'." - Peter Comeau, Director of Acoustic Design at Mission / Wharfedale

Saturday 6 April 2019

Acoustica Chester Hifi Show Report. 6/7 April 2019

It must be Springtime again as Acoustica's annual show was running this weekend at the DoubleTree hotel on the outskirts of Chester in the North West of the UK.

Being one of Naim's biggest dealers for Naim means that this show has a heavy bias towards that brand's electronics, but there's a good smattering of other brands too.  This year the format was very familiar from previous years with the larger rooms in the old part of the building and the remainder of the show in the groundfloor bedrooms and one system in the big "barn" function room.

A sample of previous show reports can be read here:


As you can see, its a show I try to get to as often as possible - the venue is pretty good, its conveniently about 25 minutes from where I live, there's usually something new to hear, and its free for anyone to attend.

So let's get into this year's show.

Naim ND555, Naim Statement, Focal

In the big "barn" room, we find the ND555 / 555PS combination top of the range streamer, partnered with the incredible Naim Statement pre-power amplification combination into a pair of Focal Utopia floorstanders. With cables and racks we roughly totted up around £400k of equipment.  It has to be said that the system in this room has been set up in numerous different positions in the room over the years, but it always seems to be difficult.  You can see below the size of the Focal speakers which were finished in an underwhelming gloss black with a less than perfect finish.  Many lower cost speakers have a better black lacquer finish than this.

So things started well, with some superbly rendered, highly detailed acoustic guitar music.  This simple recording was very good to listen to.  At last some promise in this room?  But then Shelby Lynne's "Just A Little Loving" came on - a great track. Normally.  Here, we wondered what was making her sound nasal, why the bass was bloated and sluggish and why Shelby should be portrayed around 5 feet wide.  Ho-hum, but the good news is that shouldn't be taken as a view on the electronics, as further rooms described below demonstrate.

Also in the room were 2 of the bright green sofas from the Naim dem room at the factory - currently up for grabs in a charity fundraising project.  I wonder if Naim are treating this as a move away from green and towards white, but maybe I'm over extrapolating.  Alongside were some of the old "chrome bumper" kit, emphasising Naim's longevity in the market, and, I suppose, their ability to continue to support and service the older kit.

Dynaudio Confidence / Naim Audio

In the second largest room of the show we found Dynaudio showing the "smallest" of the floorstanders in the new Confidence range - the model 30.  I say "smallest" because these boxes are, at a guess, approaching 5 feet tall.  Slim yes, descreet, not so much, but far better presented and finished than the Focals above, and a fraction of the price at £17k.  Still a big price tag of course.  On the Fraim were Uniti CoreND555 / 555PS, 252 with PSU pre and NAP 300 power.  Cabling looked to be all SuperLumina.

Now I know this is not an easy room - we've heard a good number of systems in here over the years, such as Focal Utopia (painful), Focal Sopra (not too bad), Dynaudio Special 40 (reasonably good but too small for the room) and ATC SCM50 (good) and its never really been brilliant.  But today Dynaudio proved a couple of useful things - first that it is possible (like ATC) to get a good sound in this room and second that the lacklustre sound from Focal speakers in this room has nothing to do with the Naim electronics.  Today we heard a system that was taut, detailed, produced a good sensible sized soundstage, timed well and played a decent tune.  For the first time since Naim's new streamer range demo evening (using the ATCs), we sat in this room for half a dozen or so tracks enjoying the experience.

Kudos Titan / Naim Audio

Just across the landing area (passing the headphone / Melco area) we arrived in the Kudos room for 2019.  Normally Kudos are in the smaller of the 2 "medium" sized rooms, but here they were in the slightly larger medium sized room.  On demonstration today was some big news for Naim, Kudos and active system lovers.  The SNAXO for Kudos is back!  The 3 channel SNAXO active crossover for Titan 808 is orderable now with delivery likely to be later this month and the 2 channel for Titans 505, 606 & 707 plus the Super 20A and Super 10A to follow a couple of months later.

Why is this such big news?  Because Kudos pursued this route with Naim for about 18 months but finally announced about 12 months ago that Naim had chosen to pull out of the project.  But there seems to be a change of heart that has come along with the change of leadership at Naim and the active crossovers are going into production.  Based on today's experience, this is great news from a sound quality point of view plus it will give Naim dealers the chance to sell more power amps to Kudos customers.

So today, Kudos were running with:

Innuos Statement server
ND 555 / 555PS streamer
NAC 552 / 555 PS pre-amp
SNAXO 362 / SuperCap active crossover
3x NAP 300 power amplifiers
Kudos Titan 808 speakers in walnut
Fraim racks
Surprisingly (except for one Audioquest interconnect), standard Naim interconnects and NACA5 speaker cables completed the system

Top shelf showcasing SNAXO active crossover and its Supercap PSU

First time hearing the new Innuos Statement server

Its pretty much impossible to say how much the newly released £10k Innuos Statement server was making to this system as we didn't have anything to compare it against.  Suffice to say that it wasn't holding this system back at all today.
Importantly, how were all those black boxes performing when driving the Titan 808s actively?  Well, it was certainly on par with the same speakers heard recently with Linn Klimax Exakt electronics, but not the same.  Here the typical Naim drive and speed was very obvious, but what we weren't getting was any of the brand's forcefulness that can result in a quickly tiring listen.  Our first visit to the room was for around 40 minutes followed up by over an hour again later in the day (with some liquid refreshments to hand), so I'm pretty certain that it was a reasonable amount of time to work out if this would be tiring.
The system was playing pretty loud too.  It's difficult to directly compare to the Linn system, being in a different room and without the REL 25 subs, but here I would say it was slightly less refined and naturally flowing compared to the Linn front end, but it had more bite and solid power to the bass lines.  Possibly attributable to the front end, or the subs or a combination of both.  In this room we listened to the music flow through this system - timing is superb, the tune is easy to follow.  Glad to see the SNAXO lives, as the Titans deserve a front end of this kind of quality.  This system was simply superbly musical.
A nice touch: Naim signature green lighting in the Kudos room

Hegel, Auralic, Dynaudio

A relative newcomer to the hifi scene in the UK, Hegel have very quickly forged a good reputation with their integrated amplifiers.  I've heard the all-in-one doing a great job with Amphion speakers in the past, but today was the first chance to properly listen to their main integrated amplifier products.  And it proved be something worth waiting for.
Here an Auralic streamer was being used purely as a streamer, passing a digital signal to the DAC onboard the £9.5k Hegel 590 integrated amplifier.  Chord Epic Twin cables fed a pair of Dynaudio Contour 20 standmounts.

We listened to a good few tracks in this room too.  At around £15k this is not pocket money kit, but compared to the £400k in the barn, its an absolute bargain.  I'd much rather spend my time enjoying this system which delivered musicality in spades. The medium sized standmounts made the best of the source they were being fed - flowing and smooth whilst delivering strong dynamics and a suprisingly deep sound.  Vocals were perhaps a little recessed in the mix, but this is a very minor point and I'd much rather this than the upfront and brash presentations that some systems have, masquerading as "exciting".  We would've gone back for more but there wasn't time today.  Great stuff and another case of Auralic appearing in an award winning system, but I suspect the Hegel to be the star turn here.

Mark Levinson and JBL

It was back to the 70s in the JBL room - as you can see in the picture below, the orange fronted JBL L100 Classic has a style reminiscent of that decade.  Even the psychadelic artwork in the room was joining in with the vibe.  Fed by a Mark Levinson streamer and integrated amp, these re-imagined JBLs were probably the easiest to listen to I've heard from the brand.  I noted that they don't feature horn drivers so that might be at least part of the reason.  Also unusually from my other JBL experiences, this was a softer, laid back kind of sound that I'm not familiar with from this brand.  Bass was OK but the Giorgio Moroder track from Daft Punk lacked a good deal of detail, so the tune was less distinct and kind of blurred.  A reasonable listen.

ATC Electronics & SCM 40 Speakers

The first in a quick succession of 3 systems from ATC today, so interesting to contrast them one after the other.  Here ATC were fielding the same system as they demonstrated at Bristol in February this year.  CD2 was providing content through to the SIA2 integrated amp an on to the SCM40 floorstanders, here operating in passive mode.  As at Bristol, this was a decent sounding system.  Nothing outstandingly good nor bad.  Having heard these speakers at this show last year with an Auralic source and on a few other occasions in their active mode, I get the feeling the ATC electronics are holding them back a little.


At the opposite end of the room from the SCM40s, the altogether more imposing SCM100 speakers were partnered with ATC's CDA2 Mk2 CD Pre DAC and a Melco server.

Well this is more like what I'd expect from ATC, particularly these classic range speakers in their active form.  Built in power amplifiers and active crossovers seem to bring out a punchy, clear, articulate and strong performance.  The percussion on Dire Straits' "Six Blade Knife" was palpable in the room and the guitar interplay much easier to follow in comparison to the much more cost effective SCM40.  Great fun to listen too, all that dynamic and detailed behaviour can get a little strident in louder passages.

ATC SCM50 & NAIM Electronics

So far we'd heard ATC passive with their own electronics, active with their own electronics and here was another combination - passive with a different vendor's electronics.
In this room the ATC SCM50 played tunes very well indeed, making good use of the music coming from a combination of Naim NDX2 streamer (using its internal power supply), a NAC282 pre with PSU and a NAP300 power amp.

I think this was possibly the best balanced of the ATC systems today.  The Naim electronics complemented the 50s very well.  Another room we could have revisted to enjoy again if time had permitted.  This system seemed to do all the great dynamics and details of the 100s, but they never got to the point of being strident, even though the volume was pretty high.  I do think, however, that perhaps the smaller 50s better suit these smaller rooms and perhaps we had to sit a little too close to the 100s.  Enjoyed this system today.

Hegel, Kudos, Innuos

A thank you to the Innuos room host here as we turned up a couple of minutes after official closing time but he happily powered the system up again to give us a 10 minute listen.  Very helpful. 

I understand earlier in the day that Zen Mk3 vs Zenith Mk3 server comparisons had been demoed.  We just listened to some tracks using the Zenith as the source.  Having just enjoyed the slam and scale of the Naim / ATC SCM50 system, I was a little afraid that the smallest of the Kudos Titans, the 505, might seem a little undernourished, especially driven by Hegel's more modest £3.2k integrated amp with DAC, the H190.  But there was no need to be concerned.  Perched forward on the edge of the sofa moved us out of the worst of the room mode and directly into the music.  Insightful, tuneful, detailed, driving, emotional vocals all present and correct.  But the weight behind these chunky standmounts were the surprise here, a more substantial sound then when last heard with the Linn Selekt at Bristol.  If only we'd got to this room a little sooner, we could've enjoyed a lot more music in here.

Show Summary

A very enjoyable show again this year.  Thank you to Acoustica for hosting and to all the manufacturers supporting the show.  Whilst I didn't get around all the rooms this year (we deliberately missed a few that weren't showing anything substantially new, and ran out of time for others), what struck me was the number of systems that were genuinely good or better.  When I think back over all the shows covered by audiophilemusings, this probably has been the show with the highest propotion of enjoyable systems.  Quite some achievement.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for taking to time to post your thoughts Neil, I’m glad you liked what we were doing.