Big speakers, bold vinyl, and beer!
- Steve Dickinson
- Dec 2015
I’m not sure I was particularly good this year, so I didn’t have any great expectations that anything featured below would find their way into my Christmas stocking (and fitting some of them into a stocking would be something of a challenge). But, as there are less than 365 days until it all happens again, if I live up to my promise to do better next year, then I hope Santa reads Hi-Fi+.
It’s been a fairly quiet 2015 for me; other activities have kept me from the hi-fi scene rather more than I’d have preferred, which means I don’t have as big a bag of goodies to choose from. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to experience some truly great, and some surprising and remarkable hifi this year. The first was the current range of Accuphase products. My introduction to Accuphase came in a review I did, years ago, of the e213 integrated amplifier. At the end of the review, the distributor grew tired of the endless struggle to prise my fingers away from the amp, and decided the easiest solution was to sell it to me. Ever since then, I’ve had a soft spot for Accuphase kit, even though I’d moved elsewhere in my own system.
The new range has done remarkable things, retaining Accuphase’ marvellous musicality, warmth, and beauty, but raising its game with a natural, human touch which forced a bit of a rethink about how I would deploy the old cliché about getting closer to the performers. The DP550 is somewhere in the middle of the range of one box disc players, the cheapest of the range to offer both CD and SACD replay, and while the more expensive players are even better, I’m not greedy, and the DP550 does have the feel of a ‘forever’ product about it. Partly, of course, that’s down to build quality – the DP550 feels like something you could hide behind in the event of a global thermonuclear war, but mostly it’s because when I first heard it, my gut reaction was “That’s it! That’s what I want”. Having heard it a fair few times since then, it still is.
Quite a lot of product passes through the portals of chez Dickinson, but my core system hasn’t changed all that much in recent years, and one constant feature have been the Focal Electra 1028Be loudspeakers which continue to amaze and inform me. They’re not perfect, of course, as a quick listen to the Focal Utopia range will readily attest, but the Utopias are (once past the Diablo standmounts) a wee bit, well alright, far too large for my listening space. Even the larger standmount, the Viva Utopia, which I reckon to be the best of the range, is, size-wise, more like an Electra 1028 on a stick, with added bigness.
So, there’s a bit of a gap ‘twixt Electra and Utopia, and this year it was filled by Sopra. Specifically, the Sopra No.2. It concedes little to the Utopias in terms of scale, coherence, and downright musical communication, but is not all that much larger than the Electra 1028, so is probably well suited to many typical UK domestic settings. In terms of performance, it is another of those products which impresses largely because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. It just quietly (alright, pretty noisily but the neighbours are used to it) gets on with the business of telling you just how amazing so many of the musicians are in your music collection. It doesn’t flatter, this is no rose-tinted, soft-focus soft-soaping; there is no euphonious coloration to pretty things up, in fact detecting any form of coloration presents something of a challenge. It gives you confidence that the foibles of the loudspeaker aren’t getting between you and your music and that is a remarkable thing.
I’m going to need some considerably bigger stockings.
This was the year vinyl came back into my life in a big way, courtesy first of the Avid Diva II turntable, which reset my expectations as to what a sub-£2,000 turntable can achieve, but more recently thanks to the Audio Origami Uniarm. I’ve recently reviewed it, but suffice to say, it took the Avid turntable to a level of performance it has no claim to, at its price. The arm costs exactly as much as the turntable, so the pairing is £3,000, but I’m struggling to think of a combination, for that money or quite a lot more, which would approach the sheer levels of musical communication this remarkable tonearm brought me. It’s a unipivot design, and I like unipivots in much the same way as I like dogs, on a matter of general principle. The Uniarm is the Labrador of unipivots: solid, reliable, trustworthy, but huge fun to be around. It also looks pretty good, but happily for me, doesn’t eat cartridges like a Labrador would if you left one on the floor.
If you’ve got a Labrador, as we have, then some stern retraining might be required if you decide to invest in some Panda Feet, which are mostly intended as cable-lifters, not dog toys. A crisply-machined cube of compressed bamboo which serves as a neat and eco-friendly cable lifter, or could conceivably be pressed into service as a discreet equipment support under, say, a freestanding power amp. As a cable lifter, it seems to open out the music, creating more space around the instruments and contributing to the sense of fluency and life in the performance. At around £100 for a set of four, these can give an inexpensive, er, lift to your system, or a, somewhat more expensive few hours of entertainment to your dog. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
If there is any space left in my stocking, I’d almost certainly fill it with various little bits of PEEK, from MusicWorks. Regular readers may recall the MusicWorks Revo support platform, an acrylic ‘table’ which resembles a normal hi-fi rack in much the same way that I resemble George Clooney. Lately, MusicWorks have been experimenting with PEEK, a type of engineering plastic, in key elements of their design. Aside from upgrades to the table, they have also produced a range of cones, feet and sundry bits and bobs to keep an inveterate tweaker like me happy for weeks on end. I’ve replaced the spikes under my loudspeakers with a set of turned PEEK feet, and may yet replace those with a set of cones. The thing is, I have no real idea what the PEEK is doing, or not doing, except that every change so far has taken me closer to the music and further from the hifi. It is truly bizarre, and not a little troubling, to hear the difference one PEEK cone makes, when replacing something else under the equipment. But it is fun and while PEEK is not a cheap material, and I can’t claim the bits and pieces are pocket-money prices – a set of cones can be had for under £100, which is not a lot for an opening into a world of better music, hours of harmless experimentation (points ‘up’ or points ‘down’, source, preamp or speakers first…), and bemused head-scratching.
After which, I might need a drink, and this year has been the year of barrel-aged sour beer. I’m not sure quite where this fits in the Chinese calendar, but I’m lobbying for having it every year because it’s been an experience, thanks to the creativity of the modern craft beer movement. Sour beers use naturally occurring yeasts, and associated bacteria like Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces, to ferment the liquor, producing a characteristically savoury and sour taste. It’s much the same process that is used in sourdough, and some of the smells in the beer are very much present in sourdoughs too. The flavour is, as you’d expect, predominantly sour, but the use of hops means a complex sour/bitter thing is going on which is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Barrel-ageing brings a degree of creaminess, maturity and complexity to the flavours which I’d normally associate with wines, in fact one of my very favourites, ‘Sour Grapes’ (sadly, all gone now), aged three years in oak wine barrels, had the creamy complexity of a really fine white Rioja. There are lots of others, ‘Modus Operandi’ by the Wild Beer Company being a current favourite, but new sour beers, or ‘saisons’ are cropping up all the time and it’s proving hard to keep up. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best.
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