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[can I have your autograph mister?]

National Audio Show 2010

Go wild in the country!
From antenatal product previews
to burial rites

[Italian version]

Organisers: The Chester Group
Venue: Whittlebury Hall, Towcester
Visitor: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Visited: 26th September 2010

Arriving at the 2010 audio show, I could hear the glorious sound of racing exhausts from the Silverstone motor racing circuit just over the hedge in leafy Northamptonshire. I had just passed Towcester horse race course on the way too, so those traditional and ultra high-tech races to the winning post are a fitting metaphor for the range of technologies harnessed (equine pun in paragraph one) in pursuit of audio excellence from 1930s triodes to iPhone controllable multi room integration.

The DPA (Deltec Precision Audio) room immediately impressed me with their attempt to raise money for the charity Casa Alianza that helps children who live on the streets of South American cities. DPA show helper, Kate Smart (one of the oppressed minority of young women at a hifi show) explained how this organisation make a big difference and DPA hoped to make a difference by selling their logo emblazoned tea mugs for a tenner. One visitor quipped that he hadn't got a tenner (so what was he was doing at an event promoting systems costing tens of thousands?) and had only a fiver. Quick as a flash, DPA dude Martyn Warsop offered his autograph for a fiver. The DPA fan duly obliged with his 5gbp adding to the day's take for this worthy cause. Go to the Casa Alianza website and donate to make life better for children who struggle to get a meal let alone a decent pair of WE300Bs.

DPA had divided their tiny room in two to enable the system to lurk in a space akin to a studio drum booth for intimate listening to mostly acoustic music. Meanwhile the business end immediately inside the door was among the friendliest in the show, handing out sandwiches to hungry customers (and reviewers) exchanging banter while still telling the technical tales of their products. As one of the first companies (many years ago now) to address the problem of uniting the transport and outboard DAC to the same clock via an umbilical; DPA use the services of Chevron Audio to install the the necessary socket and tiny circuit board in the owner's cd transport. In every respect the DPA philosophy is to keep it simple and basic including no upsampling. Martyn plays anything with a keyboard and is especially knowledgeable about the technology of, as well as playing, pipe organs and will chat with anyone who shares his passion for music.

[typical high end room] I entered all of the 'high end' rooms to see well laid out spacious displays, well positioned systems and no overcrowding. Indeed the major activity in these rooms seemed to be visitors walking in, peering at all the very expensive product they'd read about in the comics and then leaving. This must be very disheartening to the exhibitors, but they must bear their share of responsibility. Absolute sounds had taken several rooms to construct systems of synergistic brands but the rooms were unwelcoming and I was never approached as a potential customer. I did not wear a press or trade badge, but was deliberately wearing a 'VIP' badge which are usually given to regular customers of particular stores or brands. Hence, to the staff on stands, your old scribe looked like Joe Public and it was heartening to note the friendly reception this Joe Public encountered at the smaller brands. Coherent Systems were showing the immaculate Oracle source components, the Delphi (now in Mk V iteration) joined by two CD transports and full player versions of each, together with the DAC 1000 DAC/Preamplifier. The Audiofreaks room planted high end Conrad Johnson amplifiers and Kuzma turntables and arms on Finite Elemente Pagode racks but seemed to be using a Macbook Pro running iTunes as their source. That old audio show cliche, Ricky Lee Jones' first album was sitting at the front of their LP rack making your old scribe wonder if there has been any real progress at audio shows in the last 30 years.

The same LP lurked guiltily near the front in the Inspire HiFi room almost next door and had your old scribe bothered to look for it, probably in many other rooms too. Their wares are more innovative than their choice of vinyl though, and after a short conversation I realised their sense of irony may have fuelled this LP's presence. They make a turntable called the Eclipse which bears no connection with Chris orchard's underrated Sheffield made stainless steel and sorbothane solid plinth design of the late 1980s, despite also making use of unique Sorbothane decouplers. Inspire HiFi's 2k Eclipse uses precisely machined acrylic as does their 259 Vivid LP12 subchassis and armboard that is a work of art compared with the old spot-welded subchassis, glued subchassis or cirkus subchassis; the Vivid comes complete with machined inserts and bonded acrylic armboard. With a 400 entry level deck (gentlemen, why bother with 399?) and a 900 midprice, both including arms, this is a bold range in today's market conditions, pricing helped by direct selling without retail or wholesale mark-up.

One high end brand with a room so packed that your old scribe couldn't get in comfortably was the Audio Note UK room. This was the smallest room used by a major brand and the chairs were packed in tight as were the punters. The sounds were provided via Audio Note's updated rebranded Snell loudspeakers which were squeezed into the corners of the room rendering any possibility of great sound very unlikely, which felt like a missed opportunity. Sceptics might argue that flea powered amplifiers couldn't fill a bigger room with those venerable direct radiators but the full room testified to their allure. Big triodes were in order in the equally small and equally popular Icon Audio room, where new introductions for 2011 bring Leicester based David Shaw's range to a dozen valve amplifier products to feed Icon's own MFV (Made For Valve) loudspeakers, which include sheeps wool in the diaphragm pulp mix. Their new MB845 mkII is on dem, offering over 100W from single ended triodes, which is quite an achievement demanding over 1kV B+ power supply. This power and control from paired 845 triodes might imply them to be P-P (push-pull) but they are in fact PSE (parallel single-ended) driven by choke loaded drivers, the 6SN7 variant recently reviewed and output transfomers capable of this power and standing current (and just 3dB down at 20Hz) push the mass to 37kg per channel. The input valve is the lush 6SL7...

"Pah!" snort plebs chorus, stage left, "He's biased; we know the 6SL7 is his favourite input valve."

From ancient to modern technology, the Chord room were demonstrating the most dramatic contrast with pre-war triodes; indeed their room was trying to emulate multi-room in one of the largest rooms. The Chord Chordette has bluetooth smartphone connectivity. It can use your smart-phone or iPod as the pre-amp controller to control every enabled system in your house (providing they're in bluetooth range) separately. This also means your iPod touch has access to 1Tb of music storage. The enthusiastic demonstrator showed me, using my own iPhone, the three core sales features:

  1. It works with any hardware, e.g.
    • CDP or universal disc spinner
    • Mac or PC
    • iPod or similar
  2. It is not limited to Chord software but uses any software:
    • iTunes
    • Spotify
    • YouTube
    • Camcorder
  3. It uses any remote device, including
    • iPhone
    • Logitech
    • cheap wireless keyboards
    • Blackberry
    • Nokia etc.

Every Chordette (sounds like a sixties girl band) includes a DAC. There are phono stages with A-D converters and YouTube videos showing the functionality and operation of every device. We had fun trying to control the various elements of the system from my iPhone. No longer will exasperated parents shout upstairs "Turn it down", they'll just make sure their smartphone has administrator privileges on the audio they buy for their offspring. The Chord Chordette is compact and bijou enough to be welcome in homes otherwise resistant to room heating valves and may represent the rennaissance of domestic audio for the 21st century. The average show goer over the weekend was male, 35-65 and an obvious dyed in the wool audio casualty. Innovation is needed to attract new blood as your young scribe attending shops and shows in the late 70s was then among other young men and women from teens upwards.

[unique for each TT]
The TNT-audio accessory of the show award would be honours even between two analogue accessories both of which prompt the thought, "Why didn't I think of that?". Avid HiFi (maker of the Acurus turntable) have designed and produced the neatest turntable spirit level design I've ever seen...

"The old fool's getting excited by a spirit level?" snort plebs chorus, stage left, "Perhaps he'll be reviewing the bubbles next."

The Avid HiFi spirit level sits above the spindle so the mass is loaded at the centre of the platter, its weight acting straight down and thus not upsetting sprung subchasses. Better yet, the combined mass is approximately 180g (each is marked with its actual mass e.g. 179.5g) so the platter/subchassis/spirit level should level and bounce just like it would with an audiophile LP. Avid accessories include useful acrylic covers that would serve many skeletal turntables and they've also succumbed to the cable bug. They were even demonstrating their turntables, which include black versions originally designed to match Naim electronics (but not the Olive cases obviously) and the gold plated Acutus for the front end of your Tannoy Kingdom system.

[flatter earth] Flat Earth recyclers TOMTOM Audio have embraced the new by demonstrating DeVore loudspeakers, which true to form they were demonstrating with a Rega Osiris source. The TomTom Audio room was full of Flat Earthers whose (presumably flat) feet were tapping. MIT had a big room with a big system to show off their cables with big tuning boxes and big pricetags, and Simon Rust did try hard to convince your old scribe that just one cable review won't hurt. An $8k starting price for 1M of MIT Oracle MA interconnect and yet another knob to twiddle and optimise and then become paranoid about seems like insecurity as the user tries to find the "optimal balance between transients, detail, imaging and musicality. All with the simple rotation of the MIT patent-pending Articulation Selector", really?


Canor had a room to themselves and were demonstrating the VR+ versions of TP106 VR+ amplifier and CD2 VR+ CD player, recently reviewed in these pages. Their choice of Sonus Faber Cremona M might seem a surprise, given the Canor's massive dynamics and soundstage and the Cremona's delicacy and ability with subtle nuances and tonal shading, but within the show hotel room limitations this combination worked. Canor's big news is at the smallest end of the signal chain with no less than three new phono stages: the revised TP306 VR+, the mid range half-width MM/MC (plus outboard PSU) TP206 + and MM only TP206. Unfortunately your old scribe was driving so had to decline the offer of Slovakian liquor guaranteed to introduce show goers to Slovakian culture and make everything sound better.

dba (Demand Better Audio) were showing Virtue amplification so enjoyed by our own Nick Whetstone along with the carbon fibre Envy range arising from their collaboration with MCT, the composite manufacturer usually responsible for motorsport and armaments components. The implication might be faster more indestructible amplifiers in the new range. Most interesting are the new Envy range of three loudspeakers, featuring one, two and three (respectively) carbon fibre spheres with a circle cut out to include large voice-coil small drivers or ribbon tweeters. Large voice coils have the benefit of improved power handling and reduced dynamic compression but the disadvantage of small BL product so a review is in order. The thin wall ultra low mass 'cabinets' will store less energy than sludgy mdf or even splendid birch ply so the characteristics of the drive units will be exploited to the full.

Your old scribe enjoyed exercising shared prejudices with fellow "only birch ply cabinet active loudspeakers will do" Unity Audio designer Kevin van Green. Their Rock loudspeaker features a "folded ribbon" tweeter, that reminds your old scribe of the Isodynamic tweeter of Wharfedale back in the day when they were a force to be reckoned with. This sits above a one piece coned 180mm bass-mid with a 0.2mm aluminium foil skin (thus looking like a metal inverted dome, which it is not) long throw (&plusm;15mm) unit on a Corian baffle loaded by a sealed enclosure. Corian is a very dense hard material usually used for kitchen worktops, although I have seen a bass guitar body made from it. Your old scribe saves the best news till last: these babies are active. Unity come from the pro sector so see no reason why anyone would want passive loudspeakers, as your old scribe has argued before, with amplification more cost effective than big passive crossovers, there is no place for passive crossovers ever to be used in any loudspeaker ever again. Eschewing any proprietary power amplifier modules, Unity drafted in Tim de Paravicini, who they accord "guru" status in their literature, to design the electronics to audiophile standards.

[worth its weight in copper?] [wellcome to my kingdom Mr Bond] Speaking of which, the Tannoy room had these monster crossovers ripped from their flagship Kingdom model on demonstration in their room. The decor of the room joins the nomenclature to imply that the target market must be oil producing kingdoms along the Southern Mediterranean or gulf coast. The capacitors in this crossover could store much more energy than the Metz CL45 hammerhead flashgun I was lugging around which is as good an argument as any against passive crossovers. I have spect many hours in front of full size Tannoy Dual Concentrics and I love what they do well, but those that were driven actively do it even better. The Kingdoms extend both ends of the frequency spectrum, with supertweeters atop and ABR's (Auxiliary Bass Radiators as described by Stanley Kelly in the 60s), the ABR being one of the most tuneable and controllable reflex base tuning methods ever devised. The Kingdoms did successfully fill one of the largest rooms at the venue but your old scribe would love to hear them bi-amped with a line level filter, and the supertweeter having the only (tiny) passive cap filter. Entering the enormous rococo Kingdom of Tannoy after the miniature The Rock active bookshelf loudspeakers felt like a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous. I was the only visitor for most of my time in this, one of the largest rooms, and Tannoy really have achieved the classic monitor gold sound and dispersion with a bit extra at both ends, so assuming they shift some units Tannoy have presumably achieved their goal for this design, but oh how much better if they'd left the driver connections bare and direct to allow active configurations, and provided the crossover phase and frequency response requirements to a high end electronics manufacturer.

Much time was spent wandering around lost in the poorly signposted maze of corridors, whose few direction signs simply pointed towards "More rooms this way". Hey, we could all see there were more rooms this way and that way; it's a hotel and conference centre so what would we expect. More helpful would have been a list, at each turn or junction, of the exhibitors down each side of the quadrangles of corridors on each floor. The most common question or comment this visitor encountered was "We're lost" or "What rooms are down there?" or "Do you know where the Oggleclunk rooms is?", which is especially weird as Oggleclunk weren't showing this year.

Your old scribe has history with Mark Baker of Origin Live; Mark was good enough to supply samples of his various turntable boards for your old scribe to experiment with his jig to measure acoustic properties of planks. Your old scribe still uses the only known Ultra version of the original Origin Live Super wall shelf and would welcome the reappearance of Origin Live equipment supports and made this opinion very clear to Mark Baker. However, for now your old scribe will have to be content with news of a new Origin Live all discrete the biggest range of tonearms from any manufacturer and a couple of LP spinners to put them on.

[wiring at the london palladium?] I dropped in on two cable makers who are local to me. Graham Nalty of Black Rhodium (formerly Sonic Link) has just secured a partnership deal with Oyaide of Japan. They both believe their two ranges of cables and accessories compliment each other and while I was on the stand none other than A J Van Den Hul arrived to collect Oyaide XLR connectors among other things. These are a step up from Neutrik, which in turn were a leap forward from the old cannons folk used to use to climb up speaker stacks. These Oyaide connectors overcome the audiophile criticisms of Neutriks by combining the minimum of metal with Teflon insulation. The locking mechanism has the precision feel that separates desirable product from stuff we barely notice. Speaking of connectors, the Black Rhodium range has replaced all their previous grades of RCA connectors with Eichmann plugs. I have to agree that in my own tests anything is better than conventional RCAs whatever they cost and even heavy plug jewellers WBT's NextGen range use the minimum of conductor these days. Where Black Rhodium do indulge is in exotic materials, the pursuit of which has been a quest of almost religious significance for Graham for over 25 years, culminating in the pure palladium wire currently topping the range. Most unexpected product on the stand was the MJ-12: "original turntable sheet of the new analog generation", manufactured from A5052 Aluminum, featuring spirals of piercings of diameters diminishing towards the centre like drilled disc brakes, defying the 80s hegemony of no changes of support beneath the platter, we are witnessing the resurgence of vinyl supported by novel configurations. Coupled to the STB-MS/HW "original heavyweight vinyl stabilizers", or rather, they couple the vinyl to the mat, and the show sample was already sold.

The other local cable dude is Mark Sears of The Missing Link who has been so busy he had to move to larger premises, growing from small beginnings only a decade ago. Alongside his range of wires, plugs and ultra quiet mains sockets lurks the new VP Dust Buster. Not a miniature vacuum cleaner as the name might imply, but a "Stylus Cleaner and Preserver".

"Stylus Preserver?!" heckle plebs chorus, stage left, "What can preserve diamond, the hardest material known to mankind?"

VP stands for Vinyl Passion and the passion leads to tenderness with the delicate stylus, cantilever and suspension. Mark has noticed the damage that may be caused (indeed he admits to damaging his own in the past) using many established methods of removing burned on dust and debris from the surface of the stylus. The paradigm shift he hopes to inflict on the audio world is cleaning after every side. Proposals like this (such as the Flat Earth's old vogue for 3M abrasive Green Stuff wipes after every side) surface from time to time, but the unique selling point of VP Dust Buster is the absence of abrasive or undue force. The VP Dust Buster comes in a little pot bearing a passing resemblance to lip gloss, and containing a polymer formulated for the purpose. This is the other contender for analogue accessory of the show and there will be a review on TNT-audio.com soon.

Suddenly no time was left and your old scribe realised he'd not visited NVA (Nene Valley Audio) whose Emotive Statement CD player wss the first he could tolerate for more than 5 minutes over 20 years ago. Nor was there time to visit the Henley room, Burmester, E.A.R. Yoshino, Triangle or, most sadly, Diverse Vinyl.

My abiding memory of the show was the DBA room. They were all watching the Formula 1 GP from the Marina Bay street circuit on TV. The MCT Carbon guys laughingly said they have to watch to see what gets damaged as they have carbon fibre parts on most of the cars on the grid and Monday morning will see orders from the teams for all the bits that got broken over the weekend. They mentioned their oddest request this weekend.

A mature gentleman entered the room and picked up the sample carbon fibre sphere, turning it over in his hands and examining it from every angle.

"How long would this carbon fibre thing last?" enquired the aforementioned gent,
"It'll last thousands of years, at least," reply the puzzled team,
"Then it would make a great urn for my ashes," the gentleman stated.

Music enjoyed at the show

It is simply not possible to relax and listen to music while one's aural hypervigilance is turned up to the max to separate the tunes from the background conversational hubbub, leakage from neighbouring rooms and often dreadful music choices.

Spinning while I write is the HDCD of the Grateful Dead: Birth of the Dead which reminds me what CD should have offered from its inception and how the later format wars have driven the HiFi industry back towards its hobbyist roots as demonstrated by the National Audio Show where the money changing hands was mostly at the hobby end of the market, for cables and accessories to delight the tinkerer. This busy show demonstrated that we will be able to enjoy music for years to come as there are new makers entering the marketplace and the established ones continue to innovate.

© Copyright 2010 Mark Wheeler - mark@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com

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