Sunday, 23 October 2011

Manchester HiFi Show October 2011



The Manchester show is a regular now and is "supported" by Sevenoaks, so the vendors there are those that are available through those dealers plus a couple of extras such as HiFi+ and What HiFi magazines - the latter publicly announcing their 2011 award winners at the show.  Whilst on that subject, they've actually got a category for streamers now, which is great news for the profile of these sources and they awarded the under £1000 and overall award to the Cambridge Audio NP30, the £1000 to £2500 award to the Cyrus Stream XP and the over £2500 award to the Naim NDX.  Nice spread of prices and manufacturers there, and you can see my thoughts on the Cyrus and the Naim earlier in the blog.  Nice to know that I've bought a streamer that sounds much better than the highest priced award winner.  Bit odd that, given that WHF have reviewed the new Linn Akurate DS/1, but they only did this in a complete Linn system.  They should have some consistency with their product reviews and put each through a number of system combinations to test them in identical conditions.  I guess that's a bit too obvious and probably messes with agreements between mags and manufacturers that are delicate and full of politics...

Anyway, back to the show.  First off, its £7 for an adult.  That might seem a bit strange to pay to go into what is effectively a big shop, but I did feel as though I'd had a good day's entertainment (maybe this says more about me than the show!) and I think it probably helps to ensure that the attendees are at least interested and not just going along for a freebie.  The show was well organised with plenty of signs and staff on hand to help out.  Only the food queue over lunchtime was a bit slow, but at least the food wasn't rip-off prices, given that it was in a large hotel.  I thought the Renaissance Hotel itsself feels a bit tired and ready for a good spruce up.  I wouldn't like to have had a hangover and had to deal with the geometric pattern on the carpet in the Kef room.  Speaking of which, I think many of the exhibitors had enjoyed themselves somewhat on Saturday night, stories of being up until 3am and 4am were quite common this morning!

There were some good bargains available if you were in the mood to buy and you were after what was discounted. Castle Knight speakers at half price, 30% off a Rotel RCX 1500 AV receiver, £60 off a Panasonic blu-ray and up to 15% off everything else.

In the main foyer, there was a stall and lots of boxes of bargains and a good spread of Naim's latest products - not playing music, but they did have 2 rooms elsewhere in the show that were playing something, but more of that later.  There were then a couple of large rooms with various manufacturers spread around the periphery - these included Cyrus who had a whole corner to themselves, but were only playing music quietly, the room being unsuitable for demos - what a disappointment, as they weren't playing music anywhere else in the show - I like Cyrus kit, but this was not good - we don't want to look at the kit (you can do that in a magazine), we want to hear it.  Sonos and Simple Audio were in these larger rooms too - pointless.  These rooms are suitable for accessorise such as HiFi Racks and Chord cables who were in there, but not for serious manufacturers - get somewhere to play your gear guys!

In a central lounge area you could get snacks and drinks and Pioneer were demoing a couple of iPod boom boxes.  Over lunchtime a cellist played for a while and very good she was too.  Off this room were 2 large dem rooms - Samsung and Pioneer, with Samsung operating a theatre style with timed "shows".  KEF were running a similar approach, as were What HiFi who had brought a portable room for their demos.  Above that were 3 floors of bedrooms of various sizes that had been stripped of most of their furniture with the en-suite rooms acting as store rooms.


So that's the set up.  After the initial disappointment of a quick look around the Cyrus stand (and looking at all their identical boxes - what's the point?  Let's hear them!  OK, I'll leave that one now, honest) I stepped into the first KEF demo of the afternoon.  They are celebrating their 50th anniversary so they had some of their "iconic" products of the past such as the K1 Slimline104 and the 105.4 dotted around the room.  Using a Denon CD spinner that I didn't get the details of, Electocompaniet Classic 4.9 pre and Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblock power amps, KEF demonstrated their new flagship £20k Blade speakers.  Simply put, this system sounded stunning.  The imaging width, accuracy and depth is the best I've heard anywhere (including Quad electrostatics), the music flows and everything seemed joined up - no harshness, no flabby bass, no swamping of voices, just very, very good.  Anyone got approx £45k to part with?  Getting a bit more back to reality KEF followed this up with a quick play of the new R series - starting with the £1500 R500 floorstanders and then the £1000 R300 standmounts.  These were powered by what looked to me like an Electrocompaniet ECC-1 CD player and an ECI 5MkII integrated.  The floorstanders were OK, but the standmounters were punching well above their weight playing some Maroon 5.

Electocompaniet In The KEF Room (hangover and this carpet do not make a good combo)

KEF Blade (R500 and R300 in the background)

After this I wandered around the dems going on in the 3 floors of bedrooms.  Here are some snapshots:

Neat were playing their new £650 micro speaker the Iota - it was very musical and, in traditional Neat style, produced more bass than you'd think from so small a box, but perhaps they've gone too far this time as despite this, they're still compomised.  You'd have to be very short on space to go with this one.  Shame the didn't have their XL10s to listen to.

Yamaha were playing their award winning soundbar and that's a pretty good special effect they've got going on there - could be one for the dining room tv as its sound is compomised but its position in the room doesn't lend itsself to positioning between a decent pair of speakers.

Naim had 2 rooms up and running, both of which I found particularly pointless.  Why is this?  Because they were using their own speakers - the Ovator S-400 in both cases.  One room had the SuperUniti, the other a high end combination of their lower-end range (if that makes any sense!) - the ND5 XS streamer, NAC 152 XS pre-amp, NAP 155 XS power amp and Flatcap XS power supply (not sure what it was powering).  The XS system was making better noises than the SuperUniti, but with those speakers, noises is all I can say they were making.  I really like Naim electronics (see Pro-Ac comments later), but with the Ovator speakers the sound is hard, lacking in depth or warmth, very two dimensional and completely uninvolving. Do they make the cabinets out of plastic and the drivers out of cardboard from cereal boxes? I know this is just a very personal opinion, but there weren't many punters staying more than a minute or two in either room.  Shame.

REL had 2 rooms too.  One with 4 subwoofers supporting an AV system of some sort (it was dark in there!).  One subwoofer was on the centre channel, two on the main speakers and one on the rears.  We watched clips from Bolt and for a cinema system this was particularly impressive - lots of very well controlled and steered explosions, rumbles and bangs.  Good stuff.  In their other room a ST reference sub was supporting Audio Research kit feeding Sonus Fabers.  For me the bass was a bit OTT, but I'm pretty sure it could be wound back a bit and make for a really good way to underpin stand mounts.  Having said that, with the huge stands under the Fabers, you might as well have floorstanders and do without the sub...

Audio Research, Sonus Fabers in the REL Room (ST Sub not shown!)
Focal were playing the £8k Diablo Utopia.  Vitus Audio products were powering the Diablos with the SIA-025 integrated amp (£14k) and the SCD 010 CD player (£18k with a top loading sliding door and a puck to put on top of the CD it takes nearly as long to change a disc on this as it does on a Mitchell Orbe turntable) and the unpriced Andromeda speaker cables - these getting my personal award for most interesting / extreme cables in the show.  Initially I found this system to be detailed and with excellent imaging and timing it was all good.  But this was with unfamiliar music.  After a couple more tracks (yes, up to 10 minutes in the same room at this point) I requested some Yello and they put on the Junior B track from the Eye album.  This is where it went a bit wrong.  What's happened to the bottom octave of the disc?  I know standmounters can play this track - I've heard it happen with Neats and Wilson Benesch examples.  Ho-hum.

Focals and Andromeda Cable

Pro-Ac seemed to be pleased with their offering, just playing the music and attracting folks who wanted to hang around in the room and listen. They had the approx £6k Response D40 speakers playing using nothing more exotic than a Naim CD5i and Nait XS.  Take note Naim - here we have a set of speakers that can show off your electronics.  This was the only room I went back to later in the day to listen to some more music, because, KEF top end system aside, this was the best sounding system there today. Well done Pro-Ac.
Pro-Ac Response D40 (spooky!)

More good sounds were coming from what I think was probably the lowest cost system on dem other than those Sonos one box systems and B&W Zeppelins etc.  Marantz had the CD6004 and the 6004 amp driving Castle Knight 1s (normally £300 but available at £150 at the show today).  So a £700 system and this was playing musically too.  They were busy, but I hope they sold some kit today as they proved that you don't have to spend a fortune to get it right you can make more music than some multi-£k systems.

Marantz 6004s with Castle Knight 3
B&W were playing their new £2k stand mount using some classy looking Classe electronics.  Meh.  Wilson Benesch Arcs any day.

Mitchell were playing the Orbe with an SME IV and a Benz L2 and very polite it sounded too.  Maybe the Sweet Baby James album isn't meant to have any dynamics.

Rega had the RP3 turntable spinning and, given it was only playing through the Rega Brio electronics and their curiously small foorstanders it was doing a decent job.  Very detailed and with great female vocals, only a rather strange mix of not very deep yet a bit boomy bass was letting the side down.  Not bad for the price though, and the best sounding vinyl I heard today, not that there was much about to listen too.  Rega launched their Apollo-R top loader CD player which looks pretty funky, but didn't hear it playing.

What HiFi were tracing 33 years of their existence.  They get a lot of grief from more "serious" hifi fans, but we need to recognise that they have decent circulation numbers and they know their readership - make is sharp and short.  At least they're managing to maintain an interest in the industry for the more people than any other mag.  They were running a scheduled 20 minute show which had a great premise but mixed results.  Talking about how hifi had evolved over the 33 years they played a genuine pre-recorded cassetted tape of REM.  It sounded bright, harsh, flat and lacking in bass.  This was followed up by a 24 bit 96kHz track streamed through the Pioneer award winning AV reciever and we got detailed bright, harsh and lacking in bass.  Yuk, I hope this isn't the sound they're looking for when reviewing!  Lets hope the audience don't take this as the way streamed music should sound.  The next demo was much more successful - comparing the grainy, indistinct looking and mushy sounding VHS of the original Star Wars with the latest re-mastered version of the same movie on blu-ray - the up to date disc being massively better, particularly on the 103" £85k Panasonic plasma they were showing it on.  Also good was an action clip using the 3D function on the Panasonic DMP-BDT210 player which was pretty amazing for such a low cost machine.  I'm still not convinced about 3D - there are a couple of things I don't enjoy - one being the stuttering in the picture (rather like earlier LCD displays, before they started refreshing them at 100Hz and higher), the other being that the 3D looks a lot like layers of 2D to me - rather like watching lots of cardboard cut-outs moving around each other.  At the moment a really good 2D display or projector works better for me.

PMC were making a reasonable fist of things with their twenty.24 speakers (£3k) but not really £3k worth of goodness - something about the bass sounded a bit behind the rest of the music.  Lots of very expensive Bryston kit as sources and pre-amp / power amplification.  The whole lot was probably up at £20k and you'd want a lot more wow factor for that kind of cash.

So top "prizes" to KEF and Pro-Ac, wooden spoons to Cyrus (for not playing any music - doh!) and Naim for their continuingly disappointing speakers, masking the excellence of their electronics.

As for the show, would I go again?  Possibly, in maybe 5 years or so when things have changed again.  I think this kind of show has its place, but there were so many rooms which did nothing for me and so few that sounded good, a lot of gear has come in for bad press here.  May be I'm being unfair, but lets be honest - although a hotel room is not the best room in which to show off your kit, they're probably reasonably close to the kind of compromises most of us have to live with in our own homes.  So these rooms are exactly the circumstances in which hifi should be working well if its to work well at home.

Next time I might try Whittlebury for the National show - from the pictures and write-ups it looks less busy and has a less mainstream range of kit to explore.  Maybe.