Out and about of an evening in Bristol in February - its cold, yet the city centre on a Friday night its lively, vibrant and friendly. After a day trawling the hifi show rooms on the first day of the Bristol Hifi Show it was cool to eat, drink and be slightly merry as a wind down. Lots of folks about, sitting at outdoor tables at 2 to 3 degC, traditional grub at Pieminster and an excellent rock and blues band in the depths of the special place that is the Thekla. Even after 7,500 steps in the Delta Marriott hotel, the 3,000 extra steps in the evening were worth it.
|Willie and the Bandits at the Thekla - recommended!|
|The Llandoger Trow in a cold King Street - named for a Welsh village that built flat-bottomed river boats|
And so, to the show. The traditional venue, traditional time of the year, traditionally the show opening up the calendar for the New Year. If Friday was anything to go by, confidence in visiting closely packed events has returned to the hifi fraternity. It was very busy indeed from about 11:30 through to 16:00 - some rooms took a couple of visits before it was possible to get in. I hear Saturday was similar although I haven't heard anything about Sunday attendance so far. A few familiar faces about in the corridors (and the bars!) from the hifi press and manufacturers. Whilst it makes sense for the first day to open at 10:00, it seems that opening at 09:00 on Saturday and Sunday would give the paying public a little better value for money (but might put some stress on exhibitor hangovers!).
Themes for the year? Streaming dominated, vinyl a close second - very very few CD players in evidence. Still no consensus on where / what a streamer should be. Should it be a pure streamer with a separate DAC? A pure streamer feeding a DAC in a pre-amp, or a DAC in an integrated amp? Should it be a streamer / DAC / pre-amp combined? Should it be a streamer inside an integrated amp that has a DAC and digital inputs? Should it be inside a multi-channel cinema processor, or a cinema receiver? Should it be part of a pair of active speakers that also have analogue inputs? All possible, all on show at Bristol. And speaking of active speakers - they're still present with a few more models launched, but not yet dominating in the way that something so convenient and compact might be expected to become given the ever shrinking size of the average UK home.
Oh, and a larger number of decent sounding rooms this year - for those who say "the rooms are terrible", there's plenty of evidence that its possible to get a decent sound if you select components suitable for the room and set them up with care.
So, to the rooms. Please bear in mind that I didn't get to see every room this year - possibly due to the sheer number of people meaning that getting about was slower than ideal, possibly because there were so many decent sounding rooms that meant it was worth spending more time in such rooms.
Arcam / JBL
The surprise of the show for me.
Here we have a 7.2.4 system from home cinema (with music in mind) experts Arcam partnered with JBL. Arcam generally do a good job, but JBL are a brand that typically leaves me cold. Of course, we had a bit of Top Gun Maverick for the typical dynamic sweeps, bangs etc. but also some bangs and dramatics from the Ready Player One King Kong race sequence that combined some delicate detail of the coins being scattered across the race track with excitement and drama.
But the surprise came in the first clip - Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga from "A Star Is Born" - singing "Shallow". The system really brought out the emotion in the track - Gaga's hesitancy, nerves and uncertainty gradually becoming comfortable then evolving into enjoying the song, the moment and the reaction of the audience. A great performance from the players and the system. The music video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bo_efYhYU2A
|A range of choices from Arcam|
AVM / PMC
PMC had a good approach to letting showgoers know what's going on - a timetable posted just outside the room. Essentially, this year, they demonstrated a gradual progression up their mainstay Twenty5i series speakers - changing from the smallest Twenty5.21i upto the largest Twenty5.26i in hourly increments, then ending the day with fact.12 Signature. All day these speakers were driven by the £18k all-in-one CS8.3 Black Edition from the German brand, distributed by PMC in the UK.
Having owned predecessor Twenty.26 and currently owning fact.12 Signature speakers, I chose to join the room at the time they were playing the Twenty5.26i and then transitioning to the fact.12s. And here's the thing - if PMC hadn't brought the facts, there's a good chance that Twenty5.26i would've been in with a chance of Sound of the Show. They're good, very good - well balanced, fantastic imaging, tuneful, easy to enjoy.
But fact.12 Signature is in a different league. Its the kind of speaker (when driven by the obviously excellent AVM and by other suitable high performance equipment) that just simply sounds right. Within a minute or two of the first track being played you could hear people in the room murmuring to each other about what they were hearing and how much they enjoyed the music. Pace, timing, musicality, stunningly stable images, clear nuanced vocals, no harshness, stunning clarity and, above all, believability. Superb.
The above system was playing in the room with the system below on display too.
A very average sounding system, nothing to really say anything about - nothing horrible, but nothing to generate musical engagement either.
Having heard some reasonable music from Lyngdorf components in the past, I think this is the first time I've heard a complete system from this brand. The electronics follow the usual Lyngdorf form - the TDAI-3400 is an integrated streamer / DAC / integrated amplifer in a smart, well constructed case. The Cue-100 speakers though, are a little different to the norm and therefore somewhat refreshing. The have a slightly curved front baffle and a deeply curved enclosure mounted on a wood pole tripod. The shape is pleasing in a slightly old skool kind of way and the finish is fantastic. A "sock" can be stretched over from the top down to hide the drivers. The tweeter is the increasing common AMT variety - Lyngdorf have paired this with the unusual 6.5" Purfi driver that has what looks like a creased / damaged surround. The rear of the enclosure has 2x passive bass radiators.
Well this system was great to listen to - very easy to listen to (but not in a slow, lazy way), everything was covered well and toe tapping was instinctive. Bass is deep for the size of the enclosures and the whole thing sounded effortless. £4k for the electronics and £10k for the speakers. I went back for 2 more listens just to make sure that it wasn't the music that was flattering this system, but no, all was well.
Even paired with speakers as musical as Kudos Titans, this very expensive Chord system still managed to leave me cold.
I often find AE speakers to be full of detail on quieter passages of music and somewhat edgy / aggressive on louder / more complex passages. But with this speaker they're doing a much more balanced and sophisticated job.
Mission / Audiolab
Mission's sister brand Wharfedale has been pursuing the retromod path for 3 or 4 years now with various 1970s re-boots. Now Mission has joined the fray and Peter Comeau has chosen a recreation of the original 1980s Mission 770 for the job. Visually very similar to the original, its structurally quite different - being based on a heavily constructed cabinet and a mineral filled polymer mid-bass rather than pure polymer. With the stands these are £3.5k speakers, so not longer in the modest cost / good VFM market that Mission has occupied for the past 20 years or so.
On the end of an all Audiolab 9000 system, this was a very enjoyable room - sitting for 3 or 4 tracks enjoying what it does. Clear mid-range and vocals were a strength of the originals and this is captured well again here, but is accompanied by far more sophisticated, controlled, rounded frequency extremes. The room was possibly too big and the speakers definitely too far apart which may have contributed to the feeling that a bit more bass drive / bite would be welcome.
So a great showing, and I'm in the "like" camp on the looks, but I can see why not everyone might agree.
Dynaudio were demonstrating their £8.5k active integrated Focus 50 floorstanders in their traditional "lounge" environment. Although the past couple of shows at Bristol had far more expensive systems using Naim electronics, this was the most musically enjoyable sound I've heard from Dynaudio at this show. If integrated "all in one" speakers are on your shopping list, give these a try.
|Solid Steel Racks and Stands|
|Melco's New Top End Music Storage / Server|
NAIM / FOCAL
Occupying their traditional "awkward" room at the Delta Marriott, Naim brought along their very recently launched new "Classic" products, starting with the 222 streamer / pre-amp, new version of the venerable 250 power amp and a new power supply. The most controversial part of this product is the styling - its a major change of direction after a long period of the traditional look with green lighting, to a box that has a central perspex "saddle" section and bright white illumination. Initial thoughts are that its different rather than better or worse, but the change from green to white will make it difficult to integrate with existing Naim systems for some customers.
Here all 3 products were being demonstrated with Naim's partner Focal Sopra loudspeakers.
|Inside the new iteration of the NAP 250 stereo power amplifier|
|The new power supply unit|
|Inside the 222 streamer / pre-amp|
|New look casework - white logo and large white rimmed control knob|
The new power amp is not just a re-box of the old stalwart, but a thorough re-engineering of the original concept.
I'm not known as a fan of Focal's speaker work, strangely finding the lower the cost, the more musical the result. Sopra is middle of the French company's range. This room has hosted a number of Naim / Focal systems over the years, right up to Statement and Utopia level. Its a tough room with a full length glass wall down one side and a raised sub-room on the opposite side. And so far, over (I think) 4 previous visits, nothing has worked well. So, it says quite a lot that, despite still sounding a little bright in this context, it was actually possible to listen to a few tracks this time around. I guess this suggests the new 200 kitis worth further investigation.
Cyrus / Spendor
Moody blues lighting in the black cloth lined room shared by Auralic, Cyrus and Spendor.
Alison Limerick's seminal "Where Love Lies" was playing during my visit. It bounced along infectiously with tight bass suitable for the genre. As the track progressed, it started to sound a bit bright and harden as if the system was starting to struggle with the volume in this largish room. But listening to it again at home and its a characteristic of the track, so this sytem was doing the recording some justice.
KOG / EPOS / SOULNOTE
At the UK Audio Show last year I really enjoyed the re-imagined EPOS ES14 on its UK debut in a smaller room and accompanied by less ambitious electronics. In this larger room with some serious kit feeding it I enjoyed again its clarity, punch, tightness and lack of glare or edginess so characteristic of the original. Defintely worth a listen if you're looking for a largish standmount.
ROTEL / B&W
Having owned Rotel kit in the past and hearing the modern stuff do a good job at quiet a few shows, I know that it was being severely let down by these B&W standmounts, sounding thin, flat, unineresting.
Kerr brought a very large Class A amp along to demo their standmounts resting on isolation platforms sitting alongside some substantial room treatment. As ever, sweet sounding with a balance tipped towards an upward tilting reponse but a nicely engaging system.
At the UK Audio Show I was not very complementary about these pretty expensive standmounts from ProAc, but I did say that the room was probably far too big to give them a fair chance. Turns out that was worth mentioning because here they did a very pleasant job - but maybe pleasant still isn't enough at £7.5k with electronics as highly respected as this.
Yamaha were playing their newly announced 3-way floorstander with dome mid-range which is usually an opportunity for a good result. They were fed with a combined streamer / DAC / integrated amplifier. I had high hopes, but everything was just so-so. Speakers are beautifully finished though.
HEGEL / AMPHION / REGA
Time after time the smallest systems from Auden Distribution deliver the goods in spades - so tuneful, so much to enjoy, so little to complain about. Here they do it again using a Rega P8 with the baby Hegel 120 and the cute little Amphion Argons unassumingly making some quite expensive systems musically inadequate. Nice.
Rega previewed their new Naia turntable, due late 2023. I uses an unusual approach to materials with ceramic featuring extensively, including the bearing and spindle. The deck was on a transparent table with a mirror underneath to give a good view of what's behind the structure. Could be interesting.
In Rega's demo room they were playing the remarkable System One. Remarkable in that it was announced about 3 years ago at £1000 and its still listed at £1000. For a turntable, integrated IO amp and dinky Kite speakers, it represents very good value for money and an easy one step purchase into sampling vinyl. It plays along with a bit of vim and vigour, makes a reasonable fist of things, but needed turning down a couple of times by the room host to keep things in check. I suspect, with an investment of a little more money in something like an AT95 cartridge, this would do a decent job in a small room. Making affordable hifi in the UK must be a challenge, but Rega have done remarkably well. They had a wall of vinyl to choose from and it was possible to win all the music on display, a nice touch.
Using the above diminutive amp from Quad, fed by who knows what, one of a pair of speakers plonked in the room in amongst a haphazard group of plonked speakers made some uninteresting sounds. Not a great way to present a product.
LEEMA AND ELAC
Welsh electronics wizards Leema put on a very dynamic attention grabbing performance with Elac's AMT equipped standmounts punching well above their weight. I listened to a good few tracks and went back for a revisit. The dynamics didn't seem to be at the expense of listener fatigue, but then again 20 minutes isn't a whole evening. Enjoyable and as they played "Blissed on Mushrooms" amongst other lesser heard and ecelectic track, they deserve the music award at Bristol 2023.
Harbeth took 3 rooms at Bristol and one of them included their new speaker the M40 D Concept which is a radical departure for the company - being digital, active and DSP processing its radical for them. But yet again all 3 rooms playing totally undemanding unengaging blandomusic. I keep trying, but don't get this brand at all.
Moor amps sprung a surprise at Bristol that might mean they have to reconsider their branding. The lovely looking Ascalon speakers in a very late prototype version. Respendent in their blue paintwork and being fed by Auralic and Moor's own Angel pre and power amps the Volt equipped speakers were flowing, musical, balanced, effortless and drew you in to the tunes. Very good indeed.
After only 6 years of producing a huge range of largely well received new speaker products, this year Fyne went unashamedly retro with lots of remakes of Tannoy speakers of the past. And, from this listener's perspective, have largely wasted their time on stuff that sounds rather dull. Even the £30k Vintage 15 with a Linn Klimax LP12 on the front end was mushy and lacking anything to tell me about the emotions the artist intended to convey. Disappointing after such a stellar start from this company.
Known for their destinctive, large and expensive Giya range of speakers, Vivid aim for a lower price point and easier to accomodate little standmount. Powered by the distinctive Rose streamer and integrated amplifier these speakers are fast but sadly just as bright as their purple colour scheme.
A fascinating speaker I've not seen nor heard before it features a substantial bass cabinet but the unusual part is combining this with a transparent top opent baffle arrangement for the mid and AMT tweeter. They were driven by the relatively modest Naim SuperNait integrated amp, a laptop and a Lampizator DAC (a secret ingredient of many of the fine sounding systems at the UK Audio Show in 2022). This was a fine sounding system and the £6k speakers delivered deep, taught bass and lots of foot tapping. A promising start.
Normally, the lower the cost of a Focal speaker, the less aggressive and more musical they've been, the Aria proving the point nicely. I believe the Vestia is a replacement for the Aria and here they sounded OK, but not spectacular.
The seminal crew from Glasgow were back at Bristol again and its good to see them getting their marketing act together and to be actually attending a few shows each year - somewhat reducing that "ivory tower" approach they're sometimes accused of. This year they were demonstrating their recently launched Selekt Edition DSM (a new version of the Selekt DSM - now confusingly renamed Selekt Classik DSM) that features the same base electronics as the original but in a new far more solidly constructed aluminium chassis. A further change is the Utopik power supply which replaces Dynamik and should be available as upgrades to other products over the next 18 to 24 months.
Selekt is very flexible as it is loaded with a choice of Kartridges for different cominations of DACs, pre-outs, power amps etc. Here equipped with stereo (top of the range) Organik Kartridges featuring class D power amps they fed music from a music server into Kudos Titan 505 speakers in Exakt active configuration. The system was musical, tuneful, but curiously had the Titans sounding somewhat lightweight - not normally something you can accuse them of. So a mixed story here for Linn.
SOME MORE STATIC EXHIBITS
No, don't ask me why static is thought to be a good idea (with the exception of furniture, I suppost), but here they are any way.
|At least Dynaudio were also demonstrating their products|
|Sensibly IAG split their day into morning and afternoon slots. I enjoyed the Mission 770 recreation in the afternoon, but missed out on the Wharedale reboot in the morning.|
|Helpful info from PMC - explaining their demo plans.|
|Big queues again on Friday morning - the show is popular|