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It was after lunch when I made it to the Novotel Hammersmith for this year's Indulgence show - a mix of luxury goods, but mostly headphones and other audio. I headed to the PMC presentation to listen to the latter part of a talk by Tony Cousins, most famour for his work on Peter Gabriel's albums. Some interesting insights to the process and how to tell if a track is "right" - apparently that's when you stop wondering what could be better. There was the playing of "Don't Give Up" taken directly from the studio master with no further mastering or compression. Sounded good. System was a mix of Marantz electronics and PMC active Two Two 8 monitors which did that thing that monitors do - sounding a little "hard" when the music got complex / louder.
|Tony Cousins with Keith Tonge of PMC|
There's something fabulous about Vertere's turntables - particularly the less blingy ones from the lower parts of the range (lower is a relative term, you understand). Refeshingly, the room was completely untreated.
Electronics here were supplied by FM Acoustics of Switzerland, from their Resolution range - phono stage, pre-amp and 4 class A power amps feeding Inspiration System speakers, which are an unusual (almost pyramid) shape. All the equipment is beautifully built and looks made to last. When we entered the room the "Touch" album by Yello was playing. Very nicely. Lots of detail, great resolution, a flow to the music, decent bass playing a tune (the room was contributing, but only very very slightly) and an effortlessness to the presentation. We listened to, and enjoyed, a couple of tracks. Then a 12" US release of "Smooth Operator" spun up on the deck and whilst Sade's vocals were nice enough, the rest of the track was hard and uncomfortable to listen to. A few people around the show were saying good things about this system, so perhaps the Yello experience was the more representative.
|Resolution Series FM108 Class A amps|
Even at the top end of the Vertere range the blingy-ness seems more purposeful and engineered compared to some other OTT top end turntables. The LED illuminated rack shelves were definitely over the top for me though.
|FM Acoustics Electronics|
Kudos Audio with a Mac and Primare Amplification
|Interesting choice of source|
Regular readers (is there such a thing) will know that I rather like Kudos' Titan range of speakers - 606, 707 and 808 in ascending order of price and size. I think the 707 is the pick of the range - sure the 808 goes that bit deeper, but it doesn't have the get up and go of the 707, which sounds like its enjoying its job. Here the 707s were sounding a little polite and lacking some of the oomph that they get in a Naim system (particularly when active with Naim). Still a good sound, but not as good as they can be. I find the use of Tidal for source material to be something that tends to compromise results too - its great for choice, but not the best way to demo.
Metaxas and Sin
A very quiet track recorded by the manufacturer was playing in here. There was a good sense of the acoustic of the venue, but it really was too quiet to make much of what the system could do. £70k speakers and a bunch of alien looking amps. I will have to reserve judgement on the sound as the demo revealled nothing really, but I must say that some manufacturers do try too hard to be destinctive. It makes me think too much has gone into the looks and possibly not enough into the engineering.
|These £70k speakers reminded me of someone...|
KEF Q SERIES / ARCAM ATMOS
The picture above isn't so helpful really! But this was a full ATMOS home system in a darkened room, so photography with a phone wasn't very easy. You can see though (if you're up on your German electronic/techno stuff) that the disk playing was the Kraftwerk live blue-ray from a recent tour. The system here was based on the Arcam "G Series Amplification" AVR860 - a reasonably recent new product. I heard it at the Chester show in March and was underwhelmed. But that must've been down to the B&W 800 series speakers, system set up or a bit of both. Because here, with the recently introduced KEF Q Series it put in a superb performance. The Q's are not really very expensive by today's standards but here they were musical, taught, full of non-abrasive top end detail and great fun to listen to. But the biggest attribute of this system / the way it was set up was the completely integrated sound across all the speakers.
Front we had some large floorstanders (£1450) and the centre speaker (£650). Sides and rears were smaller floor standers (£1150), I can't remember if there was a centre rear speaker or not and 2 (£600) subwoofers sat along the side walls between the side and front speakers. £400 Atmos speakers firing upwards to bounce overhead effects off the ceiling. Steering across this lot was stunningly seamless, far better than that achieved by the expensive Reference system elsewhere in the show. We really thought we were going to find a whole rack of top end Arcam processing and separate power amps powering the system - but no, just a single receiver backed up by a small 4 channel power amp for the extra atmos channels.
Superb, resulting in a first for an AV system:
Naim, Focal Sopra No2 and IsoAcoutics
The usual sound from Naim and Focal - fast, dynamic, a bit "pushy". That wasn't the main interest in this room though. You will see there are 2x pairs of Sopra No2 speakers from Focal, the red pair looking slightly taller than the black fronted pair.
This is because the Red pair are standing on IsoAcoutics feet. These repace the spikes by screwing directly into the threads normally used by spikes. They have an isolation polymer between 2 metal bosses - this allows a certain amount of movement of the speakers. The brand name needs to be facing directly forwards (or directly away if you don't want to look at the branding) to ensure that the front to back movement of the speaker is different to the left to right movement. They seem to work in a similar way to the Townsend platforms, but the IsoAcoustic guy talked much more about stopping energy from the speaker going into the floor and reflecting back up and thus causing smearing.
So does it work? Well, the demo certainly seemed to suggest they do work. It would seem that the Naim Uniti Nova box was fed to a switching mechanism and the sound was just switched from one pair of speakers to the other. Certainly the red pair had greater clarity and the soundstage opened up significantly. The demo was interesting enough to want to try these at home on dem. Available in 3 sizes based on the mass of the speakers in use.
Interesting and a far more domestically acceptable than the Townsend products (which are said to reduce a different "problem").
|New Naim Uniti Nova|
|IsoAcoustic speaker feet|
This was a large area for the show again this year. Lots to try. Only had a listen to the Focal Utopias again with a pile of Qwest electronics - adding up to around £10k. Good for headphones, but still with an element of artificiality that I don't get on with, like many other headphones.
|Lots of headphone gear to try out|
|Massive headphone valve amp|
Devialet, Vertere and Wilson Audio Sasha
|A certain elegance in the simplicity of this system|
Devialet had 2 systems set up at opposite sides of a room with stools in between so that the systems could be swapped over without furniture re-arranging. On first visit the Phantom speakers were playing - having heard them a few times before we moved on as they're very impressive but not very musical. A later visit found the Vertere turntable playing through the Devialet Expert mono amps and on to the Wilson Sashas through some of the thinnest pair of speaker cables since I couldn't afford anything better than bell wire (not that the thickness of the cables is important, only how they sound is important) - it made for a very uncluttered system though (see above).
The disc being played (or record, or vinyl, but absolutely not one of a collection of vinyls!) was a fairly simple female vocal affair, if you could hear through the surface noise, clicks and pops. It carried a Devialet label and is supposed to be good for demos, but not in that condition - why play it at all? I wonder if people really are trying to sell this stuff or not. Anyway, the system is technically very competent in a clean and clinical kind of way. I didn't feel connected to the music or the message in the music. I think the Devialets tend to the clinical and the Sasha's were revealling that very well.
|Another lovely looking Vertere deck|
AVM and PMC
PMC were, as last year, playing various products to a timetable, published outside their room. A great idea to get through several products in the day. Unfortunately I was on a tight schedule this year, so only managed to make one visit, missing out on the opportunity to hear the new PMC cor integrated amp.
So when we hit this room the rather beautifully built (but £12k!) AVM all in one machine was playing into a set of FACT8 floorstanders - probably a good financial match for the source unit. Its a big room this, and I thought the FACTs might struggle a little. But no, they acquitted themselves very well indeed. This is not the first time I've heard the 8s, but it is the first time with the AVM electronics, and it was a good pairing, rather like the AVM and Twenty5.26 heard at Munich. The FACTs still tending towards a dry and reserved kind of performance, but no doubting their ability to play a tune and make the best of the details being provided by the electronics.
A nice match.
Yamaha Electronics and NS5000M Speakers
Here we have the top of the Yamaha's range of integrated amps and CD player from the 3000 range. About £7k of electronics playing into the new £15k NS-5000M speakers. For those with long memories (or who are members of the Wam forum), you may recall the "legendary" NS-1000M Yams from the 80s (and possibly the 70s?). They were a fairly large (very large as standmounts go) but shallow box with 3 metal drivers. They have a following who love them, but I've never got on with them - too hard and unfriendly for my taste.
Well now Yamaha have resurrected the concept with the 5000s, bringing the idea right up to date in terms of technology, finish and, of course price - pushing ever higher. The finish on the cabinet of these boxes is fabulous - it looks every inch the high quality finish that they apply to their piano products. Yet the drivers, whilst I'm pretty sure they'll be high quality products, give them the air of something from a "technology" shop from the 70s and 80s. If you remember Tandy you'll get where I'm coming from.
So how did the system sound? I say system because that is, of course, what is being heard - I've never heard any of these components before, nor with any other products in combination. I really don't know if it was the electronics, the speakers or the combination of all of these, but there was something just not right about this system. The room was quite large and largely unfurnished, save the carpetted floor - I'm sure all those hard surfaces and lack of damping wasn't a help. I gave it 3 tracks but didn't really enjoy any of them. Although there's more depth to the sound than with NS-1000Ms I've heard, its still lightweight and unwelcoming. Lots of details, sure, but somehow without real coherence as a joined up performance. I'd like to hear them again in a different room and possibly with different (or more familiar) electronics.
Although these speakers are almost banging their head on the ceiling, they weren't doing the "massive concert PA" sound that you might expect - in fact, they were probably playing a little too quietly. Sounded OK, but didn't hang around long as I'm sure the market for these in the domestic market must be tiny.
An OK system, nothing particularly wow, nothing offensive either.
Musical Fidelity and KEF Reference 1
I remember seeing a similar combination at a previous show - can't remember if it was Indulgence 2016 or possibly Cranage 2016 or 2017. Either way, MF were again combining their all in one product (which gets great reviews) with their Nu Vista integrated amp. The problem I have with this is that it seems a very unlikely combination of components. The all in one on its own would be good to hear, and those in the market for the large integrated are unlikely to combine it with an all in one source. Either way, as previously, this is a good musical system and the Ref 1s punch above their size, but in line with their price tag. I really like what this system does, but question why its demoed this way. Note cable lifters.
ProAc DT8 Speakers
I tend to like ProAc speakers, but these didn't do it for me - normally they manage to combine dynamics with smoothness. Today, this system sounded rather "boxy". I noted the Cyrus Phono stage which is the first time I've seen it in action.
Nordost, Esoteric and Dynaudio
Last year Nordost were demonstrating some equipment cones using a dCS and YG Acoustics system. That was a good system enhanced by their supports. This year, Nordost were demonstrating the difference that their earthing box brings to a system. It does that thing that's quite popular with accessory companies at the moment - "sinking" high frequency noise from the system into a box of unknown ingredients. I always approach these things with a sceptical but open mind - see the notes on the system in the ear magazine room below to see a balancing view.
Here the box gets connected to various points in the system such as the mains block and unused inputs or outputs on each of the components. A demo track was played with no suppression block and we were asked to listen out for a particular aspect of the track (e.g. clarity of cymbals or quality of the vocals). Then the same track was played with the box just connected to one system element, then played again with all the components hooked up. Each time, the chosen thing to listen for did improve in clarity or definition, but more importantly, the musicality gradually disappeared. I quite enjoyed the system without the box, the box took a lot away from the feel of the music. It wasn't huge, but I'd rather enjoy the feel and flow of the music over the absolute clarity of a cymbal. Not for me.
Innuos with Goldmund Amp and Speakers
Music First Audio, Longdog Audio, Technics turntable and Graham Audio LS5/9 with significant room treatment in a very small room. Nice vocals here, top end a bit harsh and less bass than I like to enjoy, but pretty musical with tunes easy to follow and tap your foot along to.
Accuphase Electronics and NSMT Speakers
As heard at Cranage - this is an OK system - it does a lot of things pretty well, such as vocals and top end details. But then you find out it costs around £55k. Lets move on...
ear Magazine Room
Here we have a mix of Rega TT, Townsend passive pre-amp, CAD DAC, Melco server and ATC power amplification into PMC Twenty5.22 standmounts. Plus some more of those "grounding" boxes. We happened into the room when CAD's top man Scott Berry was in the room. ear were running some seminar / demo sessions throughout the day, but we'd missed them all. As I'd heard Scott's CAD grounding boxes demonstrated before in a very different system, I thought is was worth asking about them and getting another demo, particularly for my friend who hadn't heard them before. Scott talked about the destructive effect of high frequency noise in a system and how it can be suppressed by connecting his little black box of compressed laminate material (the deep but narrow black box on the floor, just to the right of the rack) is designed to soak away as much of this noise as possible.
So an interesting comparison to the Nordost demo. The system sounded pretty good as it stood playing through the digital source. They Scott hooked up his little box to the mains distribution and there was an immediate improvement in the dynamics of the system and stuff was easier to pick out in the mix. This little box has 2 connections so Scott then added one of the components (I think it was the USB connection on the Melco, but can't quite remember) to the second connection and the system improved in a similar way again. A good improvement. However, and I thought this was particularly interesting, Scott was at pains to point out that its not a magic box - it doesn't work with every component nor in every system. He particularly pointed out that the electrical arrangement of the CAD DAC power supplies meant that it should never be connecting into the little box at the same time as other components - I'm sure he had a good explanation for this, but it went over my head. And that got me to thinking about the Nordost box - perhaps these things are system specific, component specific and / or mains wiring specific? Not always better? Sometimes a bad idea? I think Scott was open about the possibilities of his product not always being an improvement - that's very refreshing indeed, and backed up by a 30 day money back guarantee.
EMOTIVA and SVS
Not a very well known brand in the UK (in fact this may be the first time there's been an official distributor). Its designed in the US, built in China. As such its extremely good value for money when considering only the specification. Their very slim av processor is of interest as I only use a processor for a couple of components and only for the sound side - no video switching. So its a refreshing alternative to the massive pre-pros more typical of this market.
If you can get past all the blue lights (augmented unnecessarily by the stands for the power amps on this occasion), these systems punched well above their price bracket - the smaller boxes on the middle shelf powering the tiny standmounts and subwoofer (not visible above) - great value. The bigger boxes and the monoblocks were also rather good, but they're more impressive for their spec and size for the price. I'm not familiar with the SVS standmounts, but overall this was a decent system - would like to hear the electronics with more familiar speakers to understand their value (or not) more clearly.
Pearl Acoustics Speakers with Astin Trew Electronics
At Cranage these speakers reavealled themselves as the first single driver hifi speaker I've been able to enjoy. They were playing some fantastic sounding jazz from the reel to reel when we entered the room - superbly rendering the performance from the £275 (gulp) real time transfer from the studio master tape. Switching to the Astin Trew CD player and integrated amp (on the rack shelves underneath the Akai reel to reel) the Pearls continued to impress. No, the don't do really deep bass, but neither do they try and do it badly, they just roll off unobtrusively. I didn't feel there was anything lacking in at the top end and they do vocals beautifully.
|There's something addictive about a reel to reel in action|
Three Square Audio
It was getting late by the time we got to this room - as at Cranage the Three Squares were sounding pretty good, but there wasn't time for a more extended listen.
Audio Note were demonstrating their usual collection of disparate boxes and speakers tucked into the corners - here playing the lower end of their range such as the CD player and DAC at around £2100 each. Dynamic sound with a very believable presentation. Sounding good today, but still with the threat of harshness just around the next corner.
Mission QX Speakers
First public play for the new Mission QX range, not available in the UK until the end of the year, or perhaps into early 2018. The QX is one up from Mission's LX range and these standmounts will be around £380. They feature the usual "upside" down layout but are more square in plan view than the more usual narrow but deep Mission configuration.
They sounded OK in this setting, but I can't help thinking that they'd be better placed at the Bristol show rather than one named "Indulgence". Competent is probably the word, but nothing like the giant killers of Mission of old where they produced boxes that performed much better than their price and size would suggest. I've had a lot of Mission speakers over the years and have several around the house now - had a chat with the nice guy in the room, but I think many of my Mission speakers are older than he is :)
Rooms I missed due to lack of time, but would liked to have heard: Kii3 speakers; Moon; Trilogy Audio. Apparently Sony was doing a good job too, from what I've read elsewhere.