"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

Monday 25 September 2023

Kudos Audio - Exclusive Factory Visit, August 2023

Now a very visible and significant player on the international high quality audio scene, Kudos Audio has taken a different approach to producing music for its enthusiastic customers and are actively pursuing new ideas, as I type.

Favourable reviews are now the norm for the company's Titan range, including a number on Audiophile Musings.  Step this way to get a flavour of what the reviewers are saying about the company's products and some of the numerous awards and accolades bestowed upon them:

HiFi Critic Titan 505 

The Ear Titan 606

HiFi+ Titan 707

HiFi+ Titan 808

Hifi Critic Super 20A

What Hifi? Super 10A 

Hifi Choice C10 

Audiophile Musings "Sound of the Show" (Titan 808) and "Highly Commended" (Titan 505) at Chester Show, 2019

Audiophile Musings "Sound of the Show" at Bristol 2020 with Titan 707

Audiophile Musings went to find out what makes the company tick, being invited for an exclusive factory tour in the North East of England, UK - it turned into a 5 hour history lesson, factory tour, Titan 808 listening session, and zero nonsense...

Most of you will be familiar with the old joke:

Tourist: "how do I get to Town X"

Local: "well, I wouldn't start from here if I was you..."

I came away with the impression that the Kudos story has a similar origin.  Derek Gilligan, founder and head honcho at Kudos has a solid background to work from with a family in the music and live music PA business, but the route from there to today took an interesting path. Today's Kudos is a testimony to thinking differently, building a team that incudes family & those you can trust, being obsessive about quality and ensuring the basics are right.

As a fellow Darlingtonian, it was easy to chat with Derek about the pros and cons of "Darlo" and the area in which we grew up.  Different schools though, so not totally parallel experiences. I very much remember my early forays into hifi in the 1980s and they were supported by some canny purchases from used audio specialists in High Northgate, Darlington "North East Audio Traders". Derek became part of the team there and may even have served me in the shop, but thankfully neither of us remember! North East Audio Traders was a novel idea in the region at the time and was reasonably successful. Going to hifi shows to demonstrate their equipment was part of the game, but speaker consistency proved a challenge. Hence the guys at N.E.A.T. put together a small standmount of their own to enable easy comparison between equipment that's just not possible when a stock of used speakers is constantly changing from day to day. Soon reviewers were asking to review the speaker in its very rudimentary form, but were very complementary about the way it performed. Derek was involved in the speaker using a renowed driver from earlier speaker products that needed to be sourced from wherever they were still available from stock. Eventually this driver had to be re-manufactured once the speaker took off in the market. It was partnered with a modern dome tweeter. The NEAT Petite is now a very well known speaker and continues in a revised form to this day, as the Petite Classic.

Original NEAT Petite Loudspeakers

The design process of Petite, based on listening for musicality and a try and re-try approach set the tone for the future. What Hifi? were impressed with the result "as tuneful as they come".  When demonstrating the speakers, N.E.A.T. used the exceptionally substantial Kudos speaker stands...

Derek parted ways with NEAT for a few years, pursuing other activities until he returned for a second stint with the company to work on speaker designs such as the Ultimatum, where we can see techniques such as isobaric bass loading being deployed, as it is in today's Titan range (also used elsewhere such as Linn's Akubarik). NEAT bought the Kudos brand as part of buying up the stock of speaker stands as Kudos' then owner moved on to different products and markets. During this time Derek had developed some design ideas he wanted to try but the opportunity wasn't presented to go in that direction.  Time for a new direction...

So we come to the inception of Kudos Audio as a speaker manufacturer in its own right - a "do or die", "all or nothing" decision for Derek and his wife.  With a good network of contacts in the industry and dealerships, understanding what was wanted in the market and what was possible from a design perspective, the initial Cardea products, although fairly conventional in construction, were very well received and the business was underway.  The basic tenets behind those early designs hold true today - listen, listen, listen, use high quality components, gentle slope crossovers to minimise component count and phase distortion, build in the UK using UK producers and components wherever possible. But the scale has moved on, as has the size and breadth of the product range.

Based in the North East of England (close to Derek's roots) isn't the UK hifi heartland, but everything is within easy reach and, of course, electronic communications mean distance isn't the blocker it used to be.  The company is split across 3 sites on the same compact business park - storage, manufacturing and design / demo buildings. This is the second location for the company and it has grown into the current arrangements organically - annexing a next door unit here, installing a mezzanine floor there, plus the major investment in the design / listening / demo suite. Its a compact, cleanly presented, logically laid out facility. This appears to work very well for the core workforce, consisting of Derek, production manager Mark with Derek's son Louis looking after quality control and his daughter Kay joining the team on the week of my visit to take on office management, accounting etc. after several years experience in similar roles in other companies. The extended team includes another 7 colleagues across sales, marketing and export colleagues based locally or where the dealer network needs them to be.

We talked through the design and manufacture of the higher, and very successful, Titan range of products to understand the Kudos approach.  Essentially Derek uses the experience of existing designs and applies new ideas to those products or completely new concepts to push the boundaries of what's possible and what's effective - sometimes it shows promise, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it takes very little refinement to be just what he's hoping for.  The exact percentage of those outcomes wasn't shared with me :)  An example is using isobaric loading for the mid-bass drivers in Titan 505, 606 and 707. Basically isobaric means 2x drivers - one internal, the other on the front baffle - linked by a sealed air chamber between those drivers, giving the impression of a much larger single drive unit in a larger cabinet. Its unusual in the industry to use isobaric so high in the frequency range, but Kudos found that allowing a minimal air gap around the voicecoil of the driver, coupled with "back to back" driver mounting reduced the effect of differences between drive units (even very expensive drive units are never identical) to give a better performance over a wider frequency range.

Another example of experienced based innovation is the cabinet construction of Titan.  Its core is a relatively thin MDF structure, the panels of which flex (the deflection is not visible to the eye) because the outer panels of the cabinet, in heavier gauge veneered MDF, are compliantly coupled to damp the flex of the inner cabinet wall. A mix of 2 existing, usually mutually exclusive, philosophies in the industry, but applied in a different way. The composition of the damping disks connecting inner cabinet to outer cabinet and the exact location of the mounting points were subject to the iterative try, listen, change, listen, change, listen approach until the best sounding materials and mounting locations were established. A further example of the design approach is that each panel in the internal cabinet has one of a number of thickness options - to vary the natural resonance of each panel rather than having all the panels contributing one resonance.

Titan 606 Inner Cabinets and Connector / Crossover Panels

Kudos work very closely with Norwegian driver manufacturer SEAS who have been found to be exceptionally co-operative and collaborative on driver design changes - be that cone materials, coil winding, cone shape, doping etc. etc. Only the basic driver basket remains unchanged for mid-bass drivers, everything else is available to change and Kudos exploits that opportunity with drivers going through several iterations before being custom manufactured to their final spec.  The Krescendo tweeter used in Titan is another example of the collaboration with SEAS, being based on a existing metal dome driver but with the magnet from a different SEAS model and the dome using a fabric and shape of Kudos' choice. As a component, compared to those in many other loudspeakers, the Titan tweeter is "reassuringly expensive".

SEAS Mid-Bass Drivers to Kudos Custom Spec

We step through the build process.  Cabinets are, of course, Kudos designs, but built by specialist suppliers.  A subject of intense discussion in the UK speaker manufacturing industry right now as one of the major suppliers of cabinets to the vast majority of UK loudspeaker brands has abruptly ceased supply.  For a small company this means a great deal of disruption to source a new supplier, but this looks to be resolved for Kudos and supply will continue to be delivered to customers as there are good stocks of parts in place right now. Every cabinet (internal and external damping panels, stand components etc) are inspected for any imperfections before being accepted and placed into stock. With Titan the internal cabinet remains consistent and the external damping panels bring the differences in colours and veneers. A number of veneers are available as are piano black and white gloss.

Drive units come in from SEAS in batches, passive crossovers are constructed on the production benches. Crossovers for Titan are hand built on the connector panel with components being direct wired (no circuit board) and use very gentle crossover slopes and the natural roll-offs of the drivers in the cabinets as Kudos believe this reduces "stuff getting in the way of the music".  Its a relatively expensive way of making crossovers, but demonstrates the passion for getting the right end result.  All the components for a complete speaker pair - drivers, internal cabinet, external damping panels, crossover, stands, packaging, connector panels, etc, - are gathered together onto a single pallet.  This pallet is then transferred to the build area for assembly by one member of the team. Seeing the details of the drivers, and the layered construction of what look like relatively simple stands opens my eyes to how much effort has gone into the design of Titans, something not at all obvious to the customer. Every pair is then put through listening tests before being packaged ready for despatch. 

Alongside the build area is a newly constructed office unit and the basics needed to keep the team fed and watered through the day.

Titan 808 Crossovers - Bass on the Left, Mid and Treble on the Right

We move over to the design / listening / demo suite where, in typical Kudos fashion, we enjoy a straightforward sandwich and cuppa whilst listening to the system currently set up.  At this point we also discuss the "active" option for Super 10A, Super 20A and the Titan range, and why Kudos chose to go in that direction, another distinctive differentiator in the market. It is, unsurprisingly, a fairly simple answer - to get a better musical result.  As an independent manufacturer, with no ties to existing electronics partners, Kudos can work with multiple different active electronics partners with ease.  Linn, Naim, Exposure and Devialet options have been made available and the speakers can be converted to active operation with a simple change to links on the connection panel.  

Listening Room with Titan 808

Kudos have long been a favoured brand of speaker amongst Naim electronics customers and that manufacturer's kit has featured extensively during the development of Kudos products and demonstrations at hifi shows (in passive and active form), along with Linn's Exakt active option. But today we have a system fronted by an Innuos server / streamer, Chord DAVE DAC, Chord Ultima Pre and Ultima Power amps. This was a surprise choice for me, given my past experience with Chord amplification hasn't been so enjoyable.  But this new Ultima range changes that completely, being musical, with coherent timing.  This system was feeding Titan 808s passively through, of course, Kudos KS-1 speaker cables. We range through some church choral recordings (great representation of the space), electronic dance music (great pace, controlled impactful bass lines) and Leonard Cohen (expressive grumbling vocals) and the time passes very quickly enjoying the music (note, the music, not the treble nor bass nor mids!).

Chord Stack on the Left In Use for Our Demo - alongside Naim including the active SNAXO crossover option. Another rack in the room contained other manufacturer electronics including Linn, currently being refreshed to Selekt spec.

What of the future?  Well Kudos have lots more ideas to take through their iterative, listening based process of product innovation and improvement. Some interesting ideas on drive units and active options could be on the way if they meet that essential criteria - is it musically more enjoyable than what went before? If today's products are anything to go by, the results will be interesting indeed.

Thanks very much to Derek and the Kudos team for your time, openess, straightforward discussion and hospitality.

Saturday 16 September 2023

A Tale of Three Amplifiers - Linn, Lejonklou and Naim(ish). GUEST REVIEW BY CLIVE G.

 Something a little different this time - a review of three power amplifier choices by occasional guest contributor Clive, one of the moderators of the popular Linn Hifi and Music Enthusiasts Facebook group.  Over to you Clive...

I'm fairly happy with my system, but, well, there's always room for improvements & I'd been
thinking maybe an amp or speakers upgrade.
My system at the time of writing comprises: -
Linn Klimax System Hub (Classic);
Linn Klimax Exaktbox with Organik DACs;
2 x Naim Olive 250s with Avondale HCR200 regulators & Witch Hat Phoenix amplifier boards;
Naim SL2s supplemented with a BK Electronics Double Gem sub;
English Electric 8 Switch & QNAP TS-251+ NAS drive;
Witch Hat Morgana interconnects & Spectre speaker cable;
Dedicated consumer unit with 5 x spurs in 6mm sq twin & earth & 6mm sq equipment leads

Maybe for those not in the know, I should explain the Linn System Hub & Exaktbox. The system hub
is a streamer only - it just controls the playlist from my NAS drive or streaming service (Qobuz or
Tidal) & other inputs (TV Box & Chromecast) and acts as a pre-amp with digital volume control. It has
no DAC and passes a digital stream of music and instructions to the Exaktbox. The Exaktbox is a digital crossover & 6 channel DAC (using the latest Linn Organik DACs). The advantage of having the crossover in the digital domain is that it can be far more accurate that an analogue crossover (I used to have a Naim SNAXO but this set up is far superior). The analogue outputs of the Exaktbox are fed to power amps - one for each speaker drive unit - so 2 x 250s in my case, SL2s being a 2 way speaker design.
In the past I've compared an Naim Olive 250 vs Naim Classic 250DR vs Linn Akurate 2200. I felt that the 250DR was more detailed but the Olive 250 more musical. Comparing Linn to Naim - Linn allowed all the separate elements of the music to be followed & analysed whereas Naim felt more like a band
performing. Both good - just a difference of presentation.
So I was interested a couple of months ago when I had the opportunity to compare, in passive
configuration, one of my modified 250s vs a new White Logo Naim 250 vs Linn Klimax Chakra Twin at a dealers showroom using a Linn Selekt Edition streamer with dual mono Organic DACs & Kudos 707s. When you consider the price differential Olive 250 with Avondale & Witch Hat boards ~ £1.7-2k vs New Naim 250 £5.7k vs Klimax Twin £9.4k you'd think it would be a fairly uneven contest... But was it?
First up was the New White Logo Naim 250 - bags of detail & pace but I found myself analysing the music rather than enjoying it. My feet stopped tapping! Switching to my modified Olive 250 & the foot tapping was immediately back. Sure it was a marginally less informative, but ultimately more enjoyable. Finally the Linn Klimax Twin. This was somewhere between the two. A bit more detailed than the Olive 250, more musical than the New White 250. But was it worth the £18.8k price tag for the upgrade (remember I need a pair of them)? I didn't think so - maybe a used pair but I would want to hear one in my home system.
So where did this leave me? Neil of Audiophile Musings & Speakerfilters has suggested to me a few
times that I should try Lejonklou Tundra 2.5 amps in place of my Naim 250s. For those of you who
haven't read Neil's previous posts about these amps - Fredrik Lejonklou used to work with Linn beforedeciding that he could build better amplifies for a much lower price. The Tundra Stereo was
first released in 2012 & is now in its ninth iteration in version 2.5 which sells for just under £3.25k.
Neil offered to lend me a spare Tundra he has to try in my system, which coincidently is for sale, so
no hidden agenda there (editor's note: it was a completely above board agenda, as it happens!). At the same time I've borrowed a Klimax Twin to try at home.
First thing was to put my system back to passive as I only had one Tundra & one Twin. It's a fairly
straight forward job with SL2s as they have external passive crossovers and put the Exaktbox into
pass through mode so the DACs are being used but not the digital crossover. I then played five of my
favourite test tracks to get a feel for how it sounded passive. The overall character remained
unchanged although a little of the precision of the timing & sound stage was missing but still very
Before putting the Tundra into my system, I'd been warned that:
a. They have less gain ~21dB compared to the Naim/Linn ~29dB so I would have to turn the
volume up +8
b. They take about 20 minutes to warm up - not after being switched on, but 20 minutes actually playing music to come fully on song, not that they are bad initially, they just get better with playing.
So when I first switched to the Tundra, I tuned the volume up & played the five tracks through
before going back to the beginning for a serious listen. The first thing that struck me was how similar
the sound was to that which I was used to. The Tundra has similar PRaT that Naim amps are famous
for. The Naim maybe had a smidge more authority on bass lines, the Tundra maybe a smidge more
transparency in the mid-range… But I would be hard pushed to choose one over the other - both are
very enjoyable.
Next up was the Klimax Twin. I was immediately taken by how much better it was than the Akurate
2200 I'd heard a few years ago. Previously I've found Linn amps great if you want to listen to all the
individual strands of the music, whereas Naim amps present the music as a whole performance.
While this is still true, the Twin is much more similar to the sound I am used to from my Naim amps
& more enjoyable for it. The Twin is a maybe smidge more detailed & informative but the Naim has
more swing & induces more foot tapping. Apart from the wallet bending price of a pair, I could
probably live with the Klimax Twin… if I hadn't heard my 250s or the Tundra.
I was able to have both the Tundra & the 250 in my system rack at the same time so it was only a
minute or so to swap from one to the other to do a tune dem. So having warmed the Tundra up again, in an effort to differentiate between it & the Naim, I played some tracks that I don't know on
one then the other. Now the differences became a bit more apparent. While the 250 still had a little
more weight & authority in the bass lines, where the Tundra really excels is in conveying the
emotion in the music. It's difficult to explain in words but I feel that I can really hear the musicians
putting their heart & soul into the performance, whether they are vocalists, guitarists or a
saxophonist you just get the feeling that they are giving it that bit extra. The listening experience is
just that bit more… well musical, more fluid although it still wasn't night & day differences.
A few days later I had a friend round who has no interest in hifi but enjoys music, particularly to
dance to rather than sitting down listening at home. First I played a couple of tracks she wouldn't
have heard previously using the 250 before switching over to the Tundra. Her initial reaction was
that the presentation of the two was quite different. The 250 was laid back & enjoyable whereas the
Tundra was more up front & in your face. She didn't like the way that the Tundra demanded her
attention, demanded to be listened to. Interesting. Then we played a number of tracks that she
knew from dancing switching back & forth between the two. Now her preference switched to the
Tundra, hearing the additional nuances it brought to the experience, describing it as more engaging
as though the musicians were performing just for her. By the end of the evening she said that both
were enjoyable but on balance although the Tundra is more demanding, she felt it is also (a bit)
more engaging.
So am I swapping my modded Olive 250s for Tundras? Hmmm! The 20 minute warm up is a bit of a
downer. Most mornings, I have a listening session that's, at most, ½hr while I have a cup of coffee
after I've done my morning workout & there would be that nagging doubt that the amps are not
performing at their best for the majority of that time. Additionally, I've been in discussions with John
Jackson (ex Naim & Witch Hat) about an further mod to my 250s to add another regulator to power the amplifier board to create a Phoenix Plus board if you like and elevate the performance further.

So the jury is still out.
At the end of the day, the Tundra is a very musical amp & should certainly be on your shortlist to
audition if you are in the market for amps at this sort of level. In my view it's considerably more
musical than the latest generation Naim 250 which, to me, is very hifi, which is great if that's what
you are looking for but for me, Naim have lost the PRaT that they were renowned for. I also
preferred the Tundra over the Klimax twin which, considering its ~⅓ of the price, makes the Tundra
something of a bargain. And if you have a standard Naim Olive 250, again the Tundra will be an
upgrade. At the end of the day, you could argue that my Naim 250's are no longer Naim amps - all
that remains of the original amps is the case, transformer & the sockets.
Thank you to Neil Hallworth for the loan of the Tundra, & Nigel Moore for the loan of the Klimax