Reporter: Maarten van Casteren -
Report: March, 2006
It was my third Bristol hi-fi show this year, and I've enjoyed this one even more than the previous two, as I am with TNT now and as such a member of the press. For all of you who have never visited a hi-fi show: it is basically a large hotel with in each room a sound system and a few guys trying to demo and/or sell it to you. Heaven for nuts like me, perhaps not for many others. The show itself was bigger than ever, with over 160 participants and this year even a full floor reserved for audio-only, where screens were not allowed. I'm not interested in home cinema myself, so this floor was of special interest to me, and it was here that I spent most of my time. One of the advantages of a special audio floor is that there is much less interference from neighbouring rooms. On other floors there's usually a dinosaur stamping around in the next room, which can distract the attention a bit, sometimes.
I will go through a number of rooms that caught my attention. Obviously, this is a very personal choice and there were many other rooms with interesting products.
Linn had a nice big room with beautiful looking gear in it. Sadly, the sound didn't inspire as much as the looks, but it has to be said that their stuff does look really good, and they were playing loud processed pop when I was there.
This was my favourite room last year, and it didn't disappoint this time. No wonder if you know that all electronics were Kondo. This year's set-up was almost the same, except for a simpler turntable (SME model 10 instead of the massive Kuzma Stabi XL). Mind you, that 'simple' turntable still had a Kondo cartridge, which costs several times the price of the table and arm combined. Further down the chain was a Kondo moving coil transformer, the Kondo KSL-M7 phono stage, the M1000 line stage and a pair of Gakugh power amps. All valve gear, of course! The loudspeakers were the Living Voice Avatar OBX R2, in a special version with all custom cross-over components. Digital replay was taken care of by a Resolution audio CD player, which sounded remarkable. That is, until a proper record was put on the SME. Vinyl replay on this system was absolutely breathtaking and left digital far behind. I have honestly never heard piano being reproduced with such complete realism as in that room. The dynamics were unbelievable. The piano was reproduced with complete scale and authority. At a certain point I had to actually stop myself from joining the audience applauding, so convincing and utterly absorbing was the experience. It far transcends hi-fi and it is very difficult to say what it actually is that makes a system like this so brilliant. In the end it's just so involving and musical that you forget about the system and are just swept away by the music. Of course, this is not a very realistic set, with a combined price of over £50,000, but that is not really the point. It shows us what is possible and certainly inspired me.
And I haven't told you yet about the most exotic feature of this system! It was all powered from batteries! Yes, you read that right. This whole chain of fabulous hi-fi equipment wasn't connected to the mains, but got its power from 4 big gel batteries, of a size normally found in big lorries. In one of the corners of the room a large panel was installed with a complete power station. The power from the batteries was turned into 230 Volt AC by two big inverters. An equally sized charger was installed next to these. Demonstrator Kevin also played some music with the charger switched on to let us appreciate the difference. It did indeed sound better without, but I actually also enjoyed it with the charger, to be honest. And I'm not sure how representative a test it really is. But impressive it was. The main reason for this rather extreme solution is not only to get the most from a set, but mostly to enable people in areas with really bad power to still use a high-end system, or for use on (very) luxurious yachts, for example. Again, completely unrealistic, but instructive and very enjoyable. Who needs reality if you can listen to a system like that!
Back in the real world, Neat demonstrated a pair of diminutive little Motive 2 speakers that made more music that their sized suggested. Quite good, especially if you like your speakers small and cute. Not everyone will like the tilted-back styling perhaps, but they surprised me.
No, not a typo, the name of the brand is PINSh. They demoed three floorstanding speakers, each with a true ribbon tweeter of their own design. Within seconds of arriving I was also handed an omni-directional super-tweeter. It looked quite impressive, with a front and back ribbon mounted in a very solid magnet system. Priced around £1500, they surely looked like they could do a very good job. Sadly they were not being used in the demo. The impression of the PINSh speakers was a bit bass heavy and uneven in my ears. The treble was very silky and detailed, but the whole sound was dominated by the bass which was a bit too boomy and boxy for my taste. It just sounded like the small woofers were relying on the ported enclosure too much to produce enough bass. Not my way of voicing a speaker, I'm afraid.
At PMC a very nice and compact floorstander, the GB1, was making very good music. The sound was nice, full and punchy. The perfect sound for a party, that is if you want your guest to dance. The 2 * 300 watts Bryston certainly helped with that, as did the Bryston pre and the very classy TEAC CD player. Still, that small £1150 loudspeaker could be one of the best value components I saw at the show.
In the next room PMC were showing their Wafer speaker system. These are very flat (about 4 inches, 10 cm, thick) panel-like speakers that can be mounted on or in a wall. They were presented very stylishly on three wooden stands. A subwoofer was added and the whole system actually sounded quite good. Certainly something to consider if you can't (or don't want) to have speakers in your room. The stands made the whole thing look very good, in my eyes, but were actually just made for the show. More people had commented on them already, so perhaps PMC should start selling them too.
As a TNT reporter I did feel some apprehension when I entered the Nordost room. Aren't we supposed to solder our own cables together, from network cable or lightning conductor or so? Still, I cannot deny that Nordost is one of the most important cable manufacturers at the moment, so I wanted to see what they could do. They were demonstrating their new range of interconnects on a Naim CD player, a Leema integrated amp and a pair of Leema Xavier speakers. They started at the bottom of the range with the £300 Baldur and worked their way up to the £2200 Valhalla leads. A bit of mildly amusing interaction happened when a guy in the audience asked if they could also demonstrate an interconnect on the impressive VPI turntable that was sitting on top of the rack. Sadly, it turned out that the turntable had a fixed lead and could not be used with a Nordost cable! After some commotion, in which I enjoyed taking part, the analogue lover left, disappointed. A bit of a lost opportunity, I think, but it didn't change the fact that the digital demo was actually quite convincing. I felt that the biggest change happened when moving from the £300 Baldur to the £380 Heimdall. The difference between these cables is that the Heimdall has double the number of conductors and uses the new WBT nextgen phono plugs. I have been trying these out myself recently and I am very impressed with them. And here again I heard a clear improvement, over the whole spectrum. But, to be fair to Nordost, each change, including the one to the ridiculously expensive Valhalla, was quite noticeable. By that time, we are talking about an interlink that costs about 70% of what the CD player costs, so you can certainly doubt the cost-effectiveness of such a combination, but I could not deny the fact that it still made a difference. In the end, the two Nordost guys did a very good job defending their product, I have to say, even if I think that some of it is a bit of a religion. Entertaining nevertheless. And, you will not leave that room still thinking cables don't make a difference!
This was my other favourite room from last year, when they were still called Tact audio. Lyngdorf was using their new CD transport/player, the CD-1, with the TDA2200 full digital amplifier driving a pair of Dali speakers. The new thing this year was the introduction of 'RoomPerfect'. This system can be installed in the TDA2200 digital amp, for about £1200, and allows for full room correction. I was told it is more powerful than their previous correction system. You can correct globally, where the sound will be improved in the whole room, or there is the possibility of a local optimisation, where a part of the room will get even better sound. The best correction can be achieved when done for a specific 'hot seat'. Two such locations were available. I sat down in one of them and the system was switched from no correction to global correction and finally to correction for my seat only. The effect is a better bass sound and a slight clearing up of the rest of the spectrum. The bass boom that the room creates in addition to the bass coming from the speakers is more or less completely removed. Initially this felt like there was less bass, but soon you realise what is left is much more precise and natural. It would be a fantastic system to try out at home, as I think the real effect will take a bit longer to sink in than the 5 minutes we had for the demo. Of course, the sound of the Lyngdorf set was excellent, even without correction. That TDA2200 amp is an unbelievable machine, capable of tremendous power and control, but without sounding 'digital' at all.
Naim had several rooms, one of which contained all their top equipment. The electronics consisted of 6 boxes: the new, and very costly CD555 CD player, the NAC 552 pre-amp and de NAP 500 power amp, each with their own separate power supply. They were playing through a pair of Naim DBL speakers. The whole sound was a little bit too Naim for me to really appreciate, and as all the other people in the room were having a conversation with their backs to the speakers, I guess I wasn't the only one. In contrast with rooms like Living Voice, where everyone in the room is just mesmerised by the sound, this was a strangely disconnected event. Perhaps I came at the wrong time, who knows.
Eclipse were introducing their new, more affordable, TD510 speakers. These are a smaller version of the 512 and TD712 speakers. They have a similar, egg-shaped enclosure, but smaller cones, at 10 cm instead of 12 cm for the bigger models. I've always been a big fan of the Eclipse full range speakers. They keep amazing me with their natural and holographic sound. At first it is always difficult to believe that such a small cone is capable of producing the bass you hear. I keep finding myself looking for the sub woofer. Not that these speakers produce such deep and powerful bass, but they do seem to be able to make up for what they lack with fantastic speed and accuracy in the bass. It is not the sort of bass that makes the floor vibrate, but it does have impact. And spatially these are amongst the best speakers available. I always enjoy watching the surprised looks on the faces of the people who sit down to listen to these speakers. When you sit in the sweet-spot, which is admittedly not very big, everything clicks into focus and the sound stage is just amazing. The little TD510 speakers were doing the usual good job, and as a bonus they only cost about £1800, including the very nice matching stands, or about £1200 without. Sadly, the stand doesn't allow you to hide the speaker cable in it, spoiling the good looks a bit, but apart from that this seems like a very attractive new speaker from Eclipse.
Judging by the number of units you see Arcam and Naim are by far the most popular brands at the Bristol show. Not only are these brands very well represented themselves, but many other companies seem to use their electronics to combine with their own units. On the other hand, you do not see very much valve gear, fancy record players or other exotic stuff. It is there all right, but the bulk of the show is digital and transistor based. Also, a large proportion of rooms is now filled with cinema surround set-ups. Two-channel sound, certainly analogue, seems to be in the minority nowadays. I personally think that is a shame, but I have to admit that there's still more than enough around for me to enjoy, so I shouldn't complain.
I thoroughly enjoyed this year's Bristol show. There's something for everyone there, and the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. Who could ask for more?
© 2006 Maarten van Casteren - www.tnt-audio.com