Sound & Vision
Bristol, February 22-24, 2002
Author: Werner Ogiers
"Hey, it's black. I never thought it would be black!" "Actually it is purple. Very deep purple." "Careful, yes. That should do ...".
This wasn't about eggplant. This wasn't about heavy metal. This was about John Richards of Diverse Records cueing an acetate cut of Alison Krauss latest album in the Michell Engineering room. Diverse Records are in progress of releasing this album as an LP, and had just made two test pressings as well as a unique direct cut from the lathe into acetate. Two Johns (Michell and Richards) had arranged for a unique comparison between what a cutter head produces, and what amounts to what a vinylphile listens to, N generations removed from that master.
Well then, it wasn't subtle. Imagine your best LP. Imagine a somewhat brighter tonality, yet a smoother presentation throughout. Imagine dynamics like you've never heard from a mortal cartridge (we used a Koetsu). Imagine a record lifetime of ten plays. At most. Oh well, can't have it all, can we? But this event indicated how lossy a medium mass-market vinyl actually is. It also indicated how high-resolution it can be, too. Addictive, but unobtainable.
And for me it somewhat defined the tone of this 2002 Sound & Vision. Where last year's show was all about mid-end home theater (with plenty of decent-quality players, amps, and speakers, mind), this year was decidedly different.
The AV brigade concentrated on dirt-cheap all-in-one DVD-receiver-five-speaker-pack systems. You know, of the Euro 800 variety, built in the smallest possible dimensions. While I recognise such systems as major feats of mass market engineering, I also happen to feel that their performance, while quite reasonable for AV, is outright horrible for music. Still, if ever there was a product class being heir to the music centres of the seventies, this is it.
Pure audio then? There was a little bit of SACD, and a little bit of DVD-A. There were a lot of two-channel setups. And there were a whole lot of turntables and analogue-related products. Twentyfirst century, and we are doing record players like they were going out of fashion.
You probably have been waiting for this. Rega's new version of the P9 sports the RB1000 tonearm. See it as a grown-up RB900, now with a polished aluminium arm tube, wiring running uninterrupted from cartridge tags to RCA plugs, and a seriously reworked all-metal base. Fit and finish are firmly into SME-class, but there still is no adjustment for VTA on this UKP 1000 tonearm. The P9 turntable itself now has a revised plinth of lower mass, while the motor electronics, themselves not modified, sit in the new-style Rega housing. Pretty good sounds were heard with this turntable and Rega's little speakers. Visually I find the new P9 a step back from the original, trading some sharpness and speed for blandness.
Avid, also with fine sound, launched the Volvere Sequel. This UKP3500 turntable is essentially a Volvere, but with an upmarket external power supply unit and a new motor, much like the bigger Acutus. Owners of a Volvere can upgrade to the new drive system for a mere 1500 Pounds. Conrad Mass confided in me about a forthcoming Avid tonearm (actually I knew of this for more than a year already), which will be a gimball bearing unit of radical design. Incidentally, room mates Chapter Audio postponed the launch of their Preface preamp.
And more analogue. This show was the world premiere for the VPI Aries Scout, essentially an Aries reduced to a basic MDF slab with outboard AC motor, delivered complete with a unipivot tonearm, the JMW9.0, itself a much-simplified JMW10.5. The European price for this all is only UKP1100, the US price being US$1500. The JMW9.0 has a Rega-isch base, so we all hope the arm will be made available as a separate item. HiFi+ magazine stole the scoop for this turntable (editor Roy Gregory is a real VPI fan) and reviewed the Scout in the present edition.
Michell showed the MkII Orbe with tacho-controlled DC motor (see Geoff's review), playing through Trichord's new Delphini MkII phonostage. John's brooding on something, but I can't tell you anything. Yet. The speakers in the room were the ProAc Future .5 open-baffle designs, and yes, the sound here was agreeable too.
Moving over to ProAc. Two new product launches here. The Tablette Reference 8 stand-mounted two-way speakers go back to ProAc's original Tablette, being of the same positively tiny dimensions. And yet, these minis (micros?) delivered a grand and sweet sound with plenty of bottom end. Check them out if you're looking for a Euro 1000 pair of speakers and don't have any room for them. The other launch was of the Response D15. This is nominally a replacement of the venerable Response 1.5, aiming at a higher sensitivity and better dynamics. Later on the whole Response series will be changed over to 'D' status. I let ProAc boss Steward Tyler promise me not to harm the brand's legendary sweetness in this process, as I feel far to many manufacturers have gone for a too-fast too-fierce too-thin sound.
Quad's ESL989 electrostatics were demonstrated to good effect, even in a small room. But the real smasher was the new 11L bookshelf speaker. More than a little bit inspired by the Spendor-designed 10L of yore (a personal fave of mine, reviewed here), but only costing half of it at Euro 450, this little wonder astounded with a neutral and natural tonal balance, married to again a surprisingly complete bass range. People of Quad and sister-company Wharfedale assured me that the 11L was conceived not to be like any other speaker in the IAG/Wharfedale portfolio. If this isn't going to be a monster hit then something really is wrong with hifi buyers looking in this segment. In addition, there was a new Quad 99 range CD-player-cum-digital-preamp: The UKP1100 99CDP combines an audiophile CD player with three digital inputs (DAC function) and controlled output volume. Add a good power amp and a pair of speakers (the 989s in the new unbelievably vintage finish?) and you're set. So ... drum rolls ... QUAD IS BACK!
Pro-Ject had the RPM9 turntable on display with the seemingly impressive 9c carbon fibre tonearm. The formally announced RPM12 turntable apparently was put back into the fridge, the company instead contemplating the release of a mid-market RPM6. There's also a new as-yet unnamed MM/MC phonostage, looking positively cute for its UKP100 cost.
I could get an individual demonstration of the much talked about Japanese Eclipse loudspeaker/amplifier system. For those who don't know it yet, these are single-driver loudspeakers with an innovative enclosure design, driven from a minimalist single-source amplifier. Eclipse claims sonic benefits from the system simplicity and streamlined shapes, especially in the area of imaging, and luminaries like Brian Eno have taken to use this as near field studio monitoring. Shades of 47 Labs, but entirely different again. Lots of hype, but I have to admit that the sound was something special indeed. Bravely replaying standing bass at loud levels, these tiny Fostex drivers succeeded in painting a believable picture of the big instrument. If not with real bass mass, then at least with plenty of presence and information in place to tell you what is played, how it is played, and why it is played (studio monitors, anyone?). A quite smooth tonality, and an airy, refined, and well-proportioned treble finished the bill. Interesting, at the very least. The recent review by Alvin Gold in HiFi News is spot-on. The smaller 508 speakers and their amplifier were also on display, but not in use during my stay in the room. They seem targetted at building a five-channel system, with the 512s taking care of the front channels.
In one room Naim played a UKP10000 system with the new upmarket Allae loudspeakers (separate box speakers much like the SBL of yore). Much to my dismay the sound was extremely thin, flat, and harsh. It gave me a headache in 30 seconds, making me loose all desire to cue up for the ticket-only demonstration of the new 'taking audio replay to a completely new level' NAC552 preamp. The mate I travelled with, a professional, got into the big dem and commented rather unfavourable on what he heard there.
Likewise, the new Exposure 2010-series electronics, developed after a recent Malaysian cash injection, sounded rather fierce. And so did the Creek/Epos system in a nearby room. B&W top model Nautilus 800, driven by Classe electronics, sounded wholly uninspiring. According to the Sound & Vision brochure, these were to be 'the sound of the show'. Such events make me believe that quite a few manufacturers are losing the plot altogether, substituting much-too-high-fi for musicality. This is a development that has been going on for somem years now, and I really wonder when the masses will finally turn away from it.
(I already hear you shout that I can't possibly judge sound at a hotel show. Of course I can't go into minutiae like imaging: you're right there. At shows I listed and base my opinion on the direct sound as heard quite close to the speakers. If the basic tonality is wrong, I deem the system or speaker beyond all hope. If the tonality is essentially correct and enjoyable, then I note that the system has potential. This way I can easily devide the crop in the good, the bad, and the don't-know-yets.)
What else was there?
As last year, Wilson Benesch had occupied the large Conservatory hall, this time demonstrating their new and gorgeous 'small' Arc carbon-fibre-loudspeakers-with-integrated-stands (UKP2400) together with the German Audionet electronics. Looking at the WB line-up it is now also clear that they have moved on from being mainly a turntable manufacturer to mainly a loudspeaker brand. Another new German high-end kid on the UK block was Steinhart Audio, with a serious tube preamps and a tube power amp doing its job entirely free of coupling capacitors. Some impressive looking loudspeakers were on static display, too, the company using Vienna Acoustics models for demonstrations.
With Denon it was the 201-series of mini-components that caught my eye. These small components are utterly stunning with their lower half in stylish perspex, the displays shining softly through. The range's integrated amplifier even still sports a phonostage, and the matching loudspeakers are UK-designed. Really a system to recommend to a rich aunt who's not into hifi, and to buy for your own bedroom.
Marantz launched the DV-12 DVD player, in a darkish room with silent (!) demonstrations of their AV setups. Most of the loudspeakers used were Mordaunt Short, among them the very cute and tiny Premiere home theatre system with aluminium bass cones. Again "I wanna have" was the predominant reaction. Oh, and shouldn't you have heard it by now: Marantz and Denon are to merge under an umbrella holding, the US-funded D&M. I sincerely hope that the individuality of both brands will remain.
Cabasse were there with a new upmarket subwoofer/satellite combination, the Ki and Thor, the former with the company's BC12 concentric midrange and tweeter. Another big speaker premiere was the tall Dynaudio Confidence, sadly only on static display. Probably as an answer to Acoustic Energy's established practice on audio shows, JBL had some nice-looking models hanging around. Some nice-looking speakers they had too, with the top of the range TiK series now available in a number of primary colours. The sound quality of these was surprisingly good. I mean: surpising for those who never heard a decent JBL like a Ti-5000 or S2600. (And as for the nice-looking, I really think the TiKs are butt-ugly.)
Tannoy's new extended-treble Eyris series (pronounce 'iris'), with their supersonic tweeters, played tight and quite well balanced. The new Kingdom series are probably going to make it in Japan: imagine traditional Tannoy virtues and workmanship married to their new supertweeter. From Aspen Media came the Leema Acoustics range of crossover pro/domestic monitor speakers and subwoofers, starting at the tiny UKP1000 Xen, rising up to speakers with in-built amplification. I was happy to find speaker doyen Spendor at this show. Since the take-over by Philip Swift (of Audiolab) fame, a fresh wind is blowing at this venerable speakercrafter. The new S series were on display, in a room that was ann oasis of calmth. Quite the contrary was the interpretation car audio manufacturer VIBE gave to home theater, with a range of speakers muscular enough to make Arnold S happy, and futuristic enough to feature in Terminator 3.
Out of the blue, UK manufacturer Emotive Excellence came with a complete system of amplification, time-aligned digital crossovers and equalizers, main speakers and subwoofers (yes, the plant stand in the corner). All outrageously shaped, all of more than outrageous cost. The manufacturer claimed to be aiming at world dominion in the field of audio, an aim to be reached next year. I guess all that's left to us is to wish them good luck.
KEF did a major job of re-working most of their line-up, though it was only in the Chord room that I could get a short listen to the new Reference speakers of the Kentish manufacturer. Pleased to say that KEF are heading into the right direction now. Likewise, the 4th generation NXT panel Cyrus Icon floorstanders tonally were much more correct than last years versions. Maybe NXT is feasible for real music after all.
Loewe showed their astonishing TVs (I want one, or better, two) alongside a totally new integrated AV system of B&O-like ambitions and Enterprise command bridge-like proportions. Sound input is coming from ... Bose, so it seems the Loewe-Linn marriage has gone down the drain. Small wonder, with Linn's recent foray into home theater electronics.
Digital amp builder Veritas have found the solution to the question "how large can you make an empty box?" with their new passive preamp that shares its bulk and dimensions with the company's big power amplifier. Also shown was a matching amplifier stand that turns the combination into something furniture-sized.
Mission released a - for the brand - gargantic top of the line model, the UKP20000 Pilastro flagship speaker. Imagine a WB Bishop taken on by a team of engineers who must have deemed it too low-tech. Also new are the positively streamlined-looking m51, m52, and m53 stand-mounted speakers. Next one! You want more NXT? SoundpaX have taken the idea to the extreme, coupling a NXT-type exciter unit to a foldable ... card board box. These monstrosities were seen being sold for UKP 20 each, and were heard to emit really loud and obnoxious noises. Still, from an engineering point of view this was indeed rather, er, special. What's next? A singing pizzabox?
Being a proven descendant of Morgaine le Fay it was only natural that I got attracted by Morgan Audio, a relatively unknown British manufacturer concentrating entirely on export. Morgan make two series of Quad-like music systems, and the sounds heard through their own loudspeakers (sadly not for sale, these) were promising enough to, maybe, yield a review in the near future.
Pioneer demonstrated the DV747 universal disc player (DVD, DVD-A, SACD, the lot), over a huge AV system with five of their unique horn-loaded speakers, seldom seen outside of Japan. Too bad the room was too crowded and noisy for any assessment. Meridian's room, too, was inaccessable due to a crowd, so I could not see whether they'd made any progress (in sound, or in humility) since last year. I heard, though, that upon arrival at the Marriot hotel, Meridian's van with the complete show setup was stolen. Which is of course a very sad thing.
Fellow townsman Wim Verellen and his Joenit team now handle the distribution of Totem loudspeakers in the UK, Belgium, and Holland. New were the cute Dreamcatchers, sort of a dream of a 5-channel setup. Indian makers of gorgeous hybrids Cadence used the Marriott to launch the new Avita with electrostatic tweeter.
It seems TAG McLaren have gotten rid of some of the edge and arrogance they displayed shortly after their acquisition of Audiolab (would this have something to do with Ferrari being back where it belongs?), a result being that their entry level products are now available at 500 UKP. Two new products were presented: the front-loading DVD32FLR DVD player, and a matching very upmarket AV processor, the AV192R. TAG also emphasised all of the add-on upgrades that through the years have been made available to users of the venerable AV32 processor, the latest being a full trade-in for those wanting to buy the '192.
Since the gradual decline and all of the London Hifi Show (organised by HiFi News & Record Review), Bristol has taken over as the UK's prime audio event. But it may not stay like this: London is re-organising its September act, and there is even an all-new Spring show scheduled for London. In the end Bristol may have to fall back to the position of underdog. Yet, three distinct things I shall remember from this year's show: the brilliant sound of acetate cuts, the Quad 11Ls proving that the Huntingdon manufacturer is more than alive and kicking, and the mediocre to bad sounds heard from some excruciatingly expensive systems.
© Copyright 2002 Werner Ogiers - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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