At last! A UK Hifi show returns after a long wait due to Covid.
Congratulations have to go to Chester Group for making the UK Audio Show happen - right in the heart of the county, close to major roads and a decent venue too. They took the risk and it paid off - certainly in terms of the number of rooms occupied by exhibitors and a decent attendance by customers, at least judging by Saturday.
The de Vere Staverton Park Hotel was the venue on 9/10 October 2021. It was a beautiful day (a group of "Wammers" gathered on the bar's patio for lunch whilst basking in the sunshine. I expect this brought out a good number of golfers on the course attached to the hotel, so parking was a challenge. I managed to grab one of the last 10 or so spaces when arriving 10 minutes before opening time, but many were directed to the overspill space, about 1/2 a mile down the road. At least the weather will have made the walk there and back rather pleasant.
The building is modern with the usual mix of meeting rooms, syndicate rooms (many very similar in size to typical living rooms, and probably the pick of the crop for exhibitors) and bedrooms re-purposed for the day. As a general observation, and to bear in mind when reading below, quite a lot of the larger rooms were very lively with little to no soft furnishings, not ideal for listening to music systems. Some exhibitors, of course, brought along room treatment panels (GIK being the most prevalent) but many of the larger rooms were just too big for those panels to make too much difference.
Most shows have fixed dining style chairs but most of these rooms were equipped with swivel desk chairs. A mixed blessing - easy to get in and out of without bumping in to others, but it does make for rather messy looking rooms if they're left to their own devices. Tea and coffee was available all day at a reasonable £1 for a small cup and a number of refreshment areas were selling sandwiches, crisps etc. at OK prices. There's always the choice of the restaurant and bar meals of course.
On entry an A4 14 page map / guide was made available to all attendees - but a really crucial point here is that the show was free to attend. This, to me, is the right way to go about shows like this - attendees are, after all, there as potential customers visiting a showroom. The show's website could have shouted very loudly about this, but was curiously shy about the lack of entry fees. Also on entry visitors were greeted by a street mime artist posting as a statue, a nice touch. A number of events were organised through the day, a list being made available only on the day itsself.
Arranged across 2 floors, the listening got underway. I easily filled the 10:00 to 17:00 Saturday schedule - re-visiting some rooms to make sure they were as first encountered - particularly if they were at either end of my spectrum of enjoyment.
Let's get to the room tour...
We kick off with a brand that's completely new to 'Musings exerience - one based in the UK and using an unusual approach - Emilen Audio.
The Luxman turntable fed its signal to an Emilen phono stage then on to the Emilen Equinox Pre-amplifier then to the upper enclosures of the speaker cabinets. In the upper enclosure are DSP processors / crossovers and 3x Class D amps - one for treble, one for mid-range and one for the bass drivers. The bass enclosure is extremely solid, being a sandwich construction of solid wood, MDF, carbon fibre and 3x damping materials - something that should mean minimal contribution to the sound. The upper speaker cabinet is very slim with each driver having its own cavity - the unit being supported by the electronics cabinet at the rear.
In what was a very large room with lots of hard surfaces, this system was doing a good job of delivering a well balanced sound full of detail and quite a lot of texture. Whilst I was in there the music wasn't particularly dynamic and sitting halfway back in the room gave an impression of a slightly distant presentation. Moving forward a couple of rows didn't change this. I noted that the system was being played at a modest volume for the size of the room - which may have given this impression, but it was good to go into a room and not be blasted back out again.
Worth further investigation from a sound quality and technology perspective.
In a conservatory annex, Emilen also had the following system set up, featuring their D-Block Class-D mono amps into a pair of Dali speakers, but this wasn't playing on either of my visits
BAYZ AUDIO / CHORD
Another first here in the UK - Bayz Audio presenting their unique take on speaker design - both times I called into the room the imposing range topper, Counterpoint, was playing with the (only slightly) smaller Courante standing at the back of the room.
Feeding the speakers was a range of products from the top-end of the Chord range including the DAVE DAC, Ultima Pre 2 pre-amp and a pair of Ultima 3 mono power amps. The M-Scaler was also in the rack, but wasn't connected during my visit. An Innuos server provided the files for the DAVE.
This speaker has a number of interesting design features (not least of which is the design from a visual perspective) including a dual cylindrical tweeter (similar to, but not, an electrostatic) and the twin horizontally mounted bass drivers, each loaded by its own sealed enclosure, being half the carbon fibre tube structure. The idea is to have 360 degree dispersion of the full range of frequencies.
I own a Chord Mojo for portable use and like its combination of performance, size and price. But further up the Chord range usually leaves me a little cold - its very technically accomplished, but not the most natural of sounds - and this seems to be the case with a number of speakers I've heard it with, in many different locations. But here, with the Bayz speakers, they have a partner that allows them to sound far more natural than I've heard before. The upper ranges on this system were very natural - violins, guitar and piano sounding very realistic indeed. Vocals good too. I spent time moving around the room to check out the dispersion, and it doesn't matter where I sat the image illusion was impressive for an omni-directional design - still best when centred (and far far better than I expected it to be, imaging generally not being a strong point of omni-directional speakers). Whilst moving around the room I was hoping to escape some boominess and a sense of a lack of integration between the higher range cylinders and the more conventional lower range drivers. But neither could be escaped.
A promising first encounter.
HOLBO / PILIUM / SILBATONE / TAD
I'm very much a fan of the big TAD reference floorstanders (designed by Andrew Jones) which use the same concentric treble / mid driver as this standmount version (not design by Andrew Jones). I've heard these standmounts with TAD's own electronics and a number of other brands, but they've never come close to matching the performance of the big floorstanders.
Here they're paired with Jorma cables, and at the time I was in the room the very interesting Holbo linear tracking turntable and the Silbertone amps. The turntable features an air main bearing and an air bearing tonearm. - and although this system wasn't playing very loud, the pump was inaudible during my visit. An MSB Technology DAC was also in use for digital playback.
With the turntable playing, this was an OK system with nothing nasty, but nothing to get excited about either. On digital things were a bit thin sounding. I keep hoping to hear great things from these TADs given the performance of their bigger Reference 1 brothers, but I'll have to keep hoping.
MIDLAND AUDIO EXCHANGE
A first look at the pictures and you might be forgiven for thinking this was a very complex system with a myriad of boxes. But during my visit to room large Stafford room, it quickly became apparent that the Midland team were fielding 2 distinct systems - both feeding Orangutan O/93 speakers (looking very much like Snell / Audio Note tributes in terms of form factor, but using very different drive units).
The right hand system first - a Sparkler Audio CD transport feeding an array of Lebden electronics (as a general point, not just for Midland, it would be good if exhibitors would list the components in use - some rooms do this, most do not, and where there are multiple options, a little "now playing" label on what's in action would be extremely helpful). On this system, there was quite a bit of shrillness, especially when things get complex. Was good to hear some Ray Lamontagne where vocals were well resolved and expressive but things seem a little lethargic in the timing department.
Swapping over to the left hand Lavardin system (using the integrated amplifier) with turntable, and things improved markedly. Here is a system with real drive, solidity and dynamics without being shouty. Occasionally there was a little hardness on complex passages but vocals remained very good, clear, expressive and textured. The better of the two systems on this evidence.
As is fairly customary for Russell K at shows, they fed their latest speaker with a mid-range Naim system, rather than going for what is unrealistically priced gear for most potential customers - the price of the electronics reasonably aligned to the price of the speakers, being NDX2 and the lower end of the classic separate pre and power amps.
I've not been a fan of RK speakers in the past, and partnering them with Naim electonics tends to empahsise the elements of them that I've found difficult to enjoy. For sure they've always been fast to respond, tight on timing and full of detail, but also a little hard, a little harsh and not sounding like a long term prospect. Here though, with the new Red 120se there seems to be a little change in direction. Still fast, still on the button for timing but with smoother edges, a little more flow and the first signs of worth settling down in front of. I wonder how that will go down with existing fans, but for me its an encouraging direction.
|Many systems were playing in "buzz" rooms :)|
Audio Note had two rooms, both using their usual speakers-in-the-corners approach. The above system and the one below provided their house sound at two different levels of scale. So expect lots of musical detail on simple, well recorded music. On more complex music at higher volume levels, you might prefer to look elsewhere. As usual for AN, both rooms were playing a wide variety of musical styles, something other exhibitors still seem to shy away from. One other thing they do well and other exhibitors could consider is a list of the equipment they're showing - simple really.
LECTOR, DAYENS, ROSSOFIORENTINO
An interesting mix of brands from Willow Tree Audio. The Italian Lector hybrid valve CDP is joined by Serbian Dayens Ampino pre- and monoblock power amps feeding Rossofiorentio speakers, also from Italy.
A very gentle piece of piano music was playing on our visit - lots of detail with no hint of harshness or over emphasis. Strange lack of imaging and really needed to hear some more challenging music to hear what this system can do.
YBA / EAMLAB / OPHIDIAN
Within the limits of the "careful" music being played, this system demonstrated great clarity on female vocals and acoustic guitar with great imaging. The rhythm and timing was easy to follow and the musical message was easily understood. The Ophidians, at this price and size, showing some much more expensive and bigger speakers what's possible.
KERR ACOUSTIC / PS AUDIO / LDA
A classic vinyl front end on this system - a Michel Orbe with SME V5 arm and a Lyra Kleos cart sending the music along to LDA phono stage, an MFA Classic 2, Ming Da monoblock valve amps and, on our visit to the room, the RMB Model 4/40 - the latter a lot of speaker for the £3,300 price, but requiring the listener to compromise on the quality of the cabinet finish.
A little disappointing here - there was very little bass but the music did fill out the room nicely whilst still giving a reasonable image.
Hifonix High End Headphone Lounge
A large room dominated by an almost as large table offering many different headphone / amp combinations for auditioning. A fantastic display. In these still Covid heavy times, I didn't go in for a listen but look forward to doing so at a future show.
ACCUPHASE / FINK TEAM
A lovely but quiet sound in here from this combination of Accuphase electronics with Fink Team Borg speakers. I felt the room was possibly a little too big and the speakers too far apart to give a true impression. Bass was solid and articulate, vocals nice enough. Was surprised to see the meters on the power amp apparently peaking at 30W as it wasn't too loud - perhaps an indication of just how big the room was. Given the performance of the smaller Finks elsewhere at the show (see below) I was perhaps hoping for more. Nothing really wrong, as such, just a little underwhelming.
I often enjoy the Icon Audio rooms at shows - usually musical and not shoving the music down the throat with excessive volume. But here this weekend it was just a bit bland and uninvolving - unusual. I can't help thinking that 3 pairs of speakers in a line isn't really going to show them at their best. Good to see the product information and very helpful little "now playing" tags so its clear to the visit which kit is being demonstrated - other exhibitors please take note, its not rocket science!
AUDIO EXKLUSIV / DIAPSON
Often, at shows, manufacturers will try and cram their latest 60 litre floorstanders with 12" bass drivers into a bedroom. Predictably, this doesn't usually work too well. Here though, the tiny Diapason Karis Wave was playing in to a rather large space - probably far too big for them, which was an unusual about-turn. Perhaps the team were expecting a little bedroom and came along suitably equipped.
These Italian loudspeakers have an interesting handcrafted cabinet featuring layered wave effect cabinets - they look very distinctive and must require a long time to create. Apparently each one is individually carved and therefore are unique - not sure that this follows sound science, but I guess if the idea is to break up cabinet edge effects, then random might work?
Either way, fed by the German Audio Exklusiv components, the sound was very open, precise, enjoyable. No real heft to it of course - I can imagine this being a very good system in the right size of room.
TAYLOR ACOUSTIC / MERIDIAN
A look on Taylor Acoustic's website and there's no sign of the small standmounts that were playing at the time of our visit. Nor the electronics on the top shelf with a Taylor Acoustic badge on the front.
So whatever these products are called, fed by the imposing Meridian CDP, they did a good job in a room probably larger than they were designed for. Tuneful with deep bass beyond what their size would suggest and good imaging. It was a relief to enter a room and enjoy something musical - delicacy in the treble region with no nasty edges. Very enjoyable, but can we lose the rather old skool banner please?
NOLA / ELECTROCOMPANIET
I've heard Electrocompaniet a couple of times before with a different speaker brands, and rather enjoyed them. Not so much with the Nola Studio, at £20k, being demonstrated for the first time in the UK. The mid and ribbon tweeter seem to be on an open baffle arrangement - the cloth grille on the side panel covering an open space. I was in the room when Chris Rea's Auberge was playing. It was harsh, bright, thin and generally unpleasant. It did have great drive though - as witnessed by the vigorous foot-tapping of a couple of other people in the room at the time who seemed to be hearing the best thing they'd ever heard. Not for me.
An interesting and luxuriously finished relatively new speaker from Node. The cabinet is made using a technique that fuses glass nylon particles in 0.2mm layers into the very complex shape seen above - internally there is a spiral transmission line which takes the bass from the rear firing driver inside the cabinet to the circular slot around the baffle. Its rather like a 3D printing process. The cabinet is then machined and hand finished before paint. This is a 3 way design with tweeter, BMR mid and that rear firing internal bass driver.
Driven by the YBA amps, these speakers sounded rather good - lots of detail and enough (but not paradigm shifting) bass from their very compact cabinets. Imaging is very impressive. Exquisitly finished, musically OK, but worth £30k? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
MELCO / SONNET / PASS / FINK AUDIO / FRANC
Franc were supporting these speakers and electronics in this relatively compact and low box count system (its all relative!).
Heard Brothers in Arms and Gregory Porter playing in here and both were rendered in a very enjoyable way. The Fink speakers clearly were a good match for the room and the whole thing was musical, deep, had great vocals with no harshness and played a tune. Very good.
HEGEL / AMPHION / REGA
Well here we go again. Small room, small speakers, simple system, great sounds. This seems to be a pattern at hifi shows now: Hegel and Amphion team up and go for something that's realistic, straightforward, compact and just right for the size of the room (matching equipment to the room works - exhibitors please note!). The little £1200 Amphion Argon 1, fed by a Rega RP8 turntable through the Hegel V10 phono and integrated amp / streamer (not sure if 120 or the 190 version) connected via Audiomica cables was effortlessly musical - no harshness, no significant boominess in the room, great subtlety to vocals, nicely balanced imaging and bass depth that belie the size of the little white standmounts.
Compact, sensibly priced, domestically easy on the eye and very musical. Superb.
These compact, unassuming but beautifully finished speakers were making good sounds here, the Coppice X1 being fed by the Ming Da integrated valve amp. It was a relaxing sound without being lazy, if that makes sense. Great imaging, tuneful tight bass lines and sweet vocals. Nice
HEGEL / AMPHION
The second Hegel / Amphion was occupying one of the larger exhibiting rooms and had suitably large floorstanders for the job. The system was placed in one half of the room and firing across the width. Apart from chairs there was little to no furniture in this room, so it must have been a challenge to find the right location to get the best result. Given the sparseness of the room, it was good to hear the big Hegel Amp (I think it was 590) and very tall Krypton 7 speakers were doing OK, but there wasn't the sweet balance of capabilities heard in the other Hegel / Amphion room (see above).
VPI / AGD / BOENICKE
Listening to the stunning looking VPI Prime turntable through the AGD electronics into the largest of the distinctive Boenicke floorstanders, this was a sweet vice-free system with the speakers managing to do a good job of filling this large room with quite deep bass. The semi-active speakers (bass has a built-in amp) did a good job of imaging given the size of the space between them. What seemed to be a gentle rolling-off of the top end was the only criticism.
VINYL PASSION / VINCENT / ALCHRIS AUDIO
The main news here is the launch of the new Alchris Audio speaker range - an impressive new line up for a brand new range from Alan Clark, well known for the Kralk speaker brand. Good to see him back.
The tall multi-driver 130/4 speakers were fed here by the Vincent amps and a combination of products from Vinyl Passion that adorn what might still be a Linn Sondek in some sense - this one beautifully presented in a Solid Sounds Prism plinth. The sound was fast, punchy and good on timing. But the best thing here is the variety of music being played - anything goes with no fear. Great, and something other exhibitors should pay attention to.
BLUESOUND / PMC
Bluesound did something I've asked them a few times before to do - the played MQA (lossy "high resolution") and CD quality tracks from the same album. 3 tracks were used - about 90 seconds of each track was played, then the other version. The audience was not advised which was which. About half preferred version A, half preferred version B of each track. So it wasn't at all conclusive. I was in the group that preferred the musicality of the CD version, others talked about hearing more detail in the MQA versions.
Either way, the room host had a little trick up their sleeve - the music into the PMC Twenty5i series speakers was sounding pretty good - making the assumption that the PMC amp was in use then this system was sounding better than many more expensive systems at the show. But then the host revealed that the PMC amp was not in use, but that it was the built-in amplifier inside the Bluesound Node. So clearly this little streamer / amp box is extremely good value for money.