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Bristol Sound & Vision 2015 – Part Two

Bristol Sound & Vision 2015 – Part Two

The Bristol Show is the hot spot in audio’s cold and wet late February. Numbers were up this year and although sales were slightly lower than last year’s record-breaker, a lot of that came down to a significant downturn in decent home cinema. According to show organiser Jerry Lewin of Audio T, the top selling brands this year were Naim, Pioneer, Rega, and Yamaha, and this is the first time in years that two audio brands were sales leaders in a show with traditionally so strong an accent on multichannel and vision products.

Last week, we concentrated on the new products seen on the audio electronics side, this week it’s the turn of loudspeakers and portable audio. Bristol does not have as strong a presence in the headphone world as yet, and the number of new launches in the headphone and portable audio world were strictly limited as a result, but there were some surprises, all the same.

The Acoustic Research name has resurfaced, with the same logo, but in a very different guise to the brand started by Henry Kloss and Edgar Vilchur. Now part of the VOXX International group out of Hong Kong, the UK is the first market beyond Asia to see the return of the AR name, and it’s hit the ground running with the new M3 portable high-res audio player (£899) and the UA1 compact portable hi-res USB DAC/headphone amp (£399). The AR-M2 supports files up to 5.6MHz DSD files and, with 64GB of built-in flash memory, a micro SD and USB slot, a 5” touchscreen display, an ALPS volume potentiomenter, and a 4000mAH battery expected to deliver up to nine hours of charge. Meanwhile the new UA1 supports DSD128 and DXD, ships with a free copy of JRiver Media Centre (Mac/PC), and is designed to drive even difficult loads with ease. The show was busy and noise pollution was limiting how much you could get from Sennheiser HD800, but despite this, these two AR models were the portable stars of the show.

Alongside the popular DAC2 HGC (and its two new cut-down counterparts; the digital-only DAC2 DX and the headphone-less DAC2 L), Benchmark Media was showing its ABH2 power amplifiers, and had completed the line with its new £2,500 SMS1 bookshelf loudspeaker. A two-way passive loudspeaker is what Benchmark calls ‘a return to acoustic suspension’ – in other words, a sealed box!

The Chord Company is rare in offering updates to its top cables, instead of leaving its premium customers out in the cold. Those using Chord cables with Tuned ARAY (Anthem, Signature, and Sarum) will be able to bring these cables to ‘Super ARAY’ status, also taking advantage of the upcoming PTFE plugs that will be fitted to new versions of these cables. The upgrade is expected to cost around £300. The Chord Company also showed a prototype of a top-end cable called ‘Chord Music’. This turquoise coloured cable uses an as-yet-undisclosed dielectric not commonly found in audio in place of PTFE and is expected to cost twice as much as the company’s top Sarum cable.

The UK audio buyer can be accused of only buying British loudspeakers, but he seems to have a soft spot for the Danish DALI brand. For good reason; the company’s £1,600 Rubicon 2 standmount and £3,000 Rubicon 6 tower were turning out some fine sounds on the end of Rega’s Saturn R CD player and Elicit R amplifier. These two loudspeakers were first seen at the end of last year, but this was their first formal show outing in the UK.

 

Dynaudio is one of those companies that recognises the ‘Show’ part of an audio Show. Not content with simply sticking a pair of loudspeakers in a room, Dynaudio built a whole crisp, cool white room-set to showcase the excellent £9,000 Focus XD system. This builds the digital audio (up to 24/192), DSP, and active amplification into the loudspeaker. You just bring the digits (in this case, the Naim UnitiServe of Dynaudio’s Bill Livingston). It’s an elegant solution that sounds as good as it looks.

Epos launched its K3 flagship tower loudspeaker at CES, but the £1,400 loudspeakers were on demonstration next to the £1,000 K2 tower speakers, driven by sister brand Creek’s Evolution electronics. Designed by Mike Creek’s son Luke, the K3 is a two and a half way design in a braced black or white MDF cabinet with a reflex slot port. Available now in passive form, Epos is also developing a K-Active module that can replace the crossover and speaker terminal box. Price of the K-Active unit is still to be determined.

The last time Harbeth Audio attended an audio show in the UK, it printed brochures in Latin. However, the company’s new £3,279 per pair Super HL5 plus loudspeakers (with their new Radial2 polymer composite drivers) have been garnering a lot of attention in the home market, and Alan Shaw of the company thought this was high time to present the vented three way design. Shaw has all but admitted defeat in playing classical music to modern show-goers; fortunately, the quintessentially English loudspeakers do as jolly well quite well with Trentemøller as they do with Elgar, albeit on extremely tall stands.

Heed Audio shared a room with welcome returnee to the UK Parasound and GIK Acoustics. Alongside its top Thesis range of electronics, Heed now has a bigger brother to its Enigma omni-directional loudspeaker, the £10,000 Envoy. This uses a clever ‘transmission-line reflex’ system, and is a three-way, although only two of its three drivers are visible from the front. However we have no idea how it sounded; every time we visited the room, it was Paradigm hour!

Kudos Audio’s new Titan 808 flagship draws from the company’s Titan 88 separate box floorstanders, with a large mid-bass and tweeter cabinet sitting above an isobaric bass cabinet. The design can be driven as passive, bi-amped, or in full active mode, however it is also the first non-Linn loudspeaker to use Linn Products’ sophisticated Exakt system, bypassing the passive crossover and allowing monitored and DSP-driven control of the loudspeaker drivers directly. This drew a lot of attention from industry and consumers alike. The price of the Titan 808 is expected to be somewhere between £20,000-£25,000.

Monitor Audio launched a completely new Gold range of loudspeakers at the show. The eight-strong line (including two floorstanders and two standmounts) replaces the popular GX Series and starts from £950 for the Gold 50. We heard the £2,300 per pair Gold 200 floorstanders, a three-way design with twin 140mm bass drivers, a 100mm midrange, and a ribbon tweeter, and it sounded excellent playing through a Moon CD and integrated amp.

Neat Acoustics was playing what were arguably some of the nicest sounds at the show, alternating between the tiny Iota £695 and the new £3,785 Momentum SX5i two-way floorstanders. Both were played through a Well-Tempered turntable and arm, Dynavector cartridge and phono stage, and a Naim SuperUniti and standard cables. No fuss, no pretense, just good, solid, enjoyable sounds. In truth, like many I thought the big speakers were playing until I saw the cable lead to the little ones!

 

NuNu Distribution took two rooms opposite one another in almost every sense. One had a system ending with a pair of passive Brodmann loudspeakers, the other culminating in active Quadrals. Both made good, if distinctly different, sounds, and neither cost a fortune (although driving the active Quadrals off TAD electronics raised the price a, er, tad). It seemed half the people loved the Quadrals but not the Brodmann, while the other half loved the Brodmann, but not the Quadral. This way NuNu got to please some of the people all of the time. Clever!

Paradigm was showing its Prestige Series, first seen late last year. Played through a Trinnov processor and Anthem power amplification, this range features high-performance tweeters with a ‘perforated phase aligning lens) and aluminium bass and mid/bass cones in a low-resonance cabinet. As ever with a DSP-based room treatment, the loudspeakers sounded excellent in the listening ‘bubble’. Prices for the audio range begin at £1,600 per pair for the 15B standmount and rise to £5,600 for the 95F tower speaker in piano black.

PMC’s Twenty series is proving immensely popular at the moment, and the range has been joined by the new £2,950 Twenty Sub. With two 170mm long-throw drivers coupled to a 400W Class D amplifier, PMC’s onw Advanced Transmission Line and some surprisingly powerful DSP, the new Twenty Sub is designed to partner the smaller speakers in the Twenty range. Which it did extremely well.

ProAc was a part of the white revolution, with its two new models joining Audio Note, Epos, KEF, Leema, Neat, Panasonic, PMC, and Wilson Benesch in producing loudspeakers in an all-white gloss finish. ProAc’s latest offerings were the £1,690 floorstanding Studio 148 replacement to the Studio 140 mkII, and the Studio 118 replacement to the Studio 100, for £1,075 per pair. These sounded great on the end of a Naim system, and ProAc’s – some in white – were featured in the vdH and Michell Engineering rooms.

I’ve said there are no bargains in audio, but the Q Acoustics 3000 Series makes me think again. The range of two standmounts, a floorstanders, centre, and subwoofer starts from just £140 per pair, and the 3050 towers (making some really outstanding sounds running off Arcam electronics) cost £500 per pair. We hope to be testing some of these high performance, low cost beauties soon.

Quad’s new S-Series loudspeakers are a new departure for the brand, coupling conventional cone midrange and bass units with a ribbon tweeter. A range of two floorstanders, a standmount, centre, and possibly even a subwoofer, the baby of the S-Series range was playing with the new Artera system. Prices and more formal details to follow.

 

Rega showed prototypes of a new RX range of loudspeakers, which are said to replace most of the models in the existing RS range; the reference RS10 being the notable exception. Some of the improvements to the standmount and two floorstanders includes new doped paper cones (previous Rega speakers were undamped paper) and thicker 18mm MDF veneer-wrapped cabinets, making each speaker weigh almost twice as much as its direct predecessor. The floorstanders retain the side-firing bass drivers of the RS models, but the increased cabinet thickness means they can now be flush-mount. Expect the new RX trio to range from around £750 for the RX1 to about £2,000 for the RX3.

REL launched the £2,750 212SE at CES, but was playing a pair of them at Bristol, making a pair of ELAC tower loudspeakers go from having deep bass to having the sort of bass that pushes your eyes back in their sockets. This was all about control and authority, although standing some 81cm tall, the four driver bass unit is physically impressive. That much bass on tap gave Kev Starkie of REL a lot to smile about.

Russell Kauffman of Russell K fame wasn’t exhibiting at the show, but he was there to help promote our competition to win a pair of his Red 100 standmount loudspeakers…

Fresh from being ‘spun out’, Sony’s audio division looks in rude health. The company was showing its range of high definition players, amplifiers, and loudspeakers (with promises of more to follow), but the brand was showing its £549 MDR-Z7 flagship high-resolution headphones for the first time to UK show-goers. Designed to extend to 100kHz, the Z7 also looks good.

Spendor launched the £1,995 A5R at the show. The slim, short 2.5-way floorstanders is designed to be easy to drive, phase coherent, and very natural sounding, but was almost totally overshadowed by its bigger brother, the SP100R in Spendor’s own ‘classic’ livery, being driven by a Devialet. This reminded many users of their old Spendor BC1s, and was giving show-goers a touch of nostalgia.

 

First seen last year, Bristol was nevertheless the first official UK outing for the Tannoy Revolution XT range. Comprising of two standmounts, two floorstanders, and a centre channel, the larger of which – the £1,299 per pair XT 8F – were playing in two of the rooms. Elsewhere a pair of Kensington GR loudspeakers – playing through Accuphase electronics, Audiomica cables and a lot of MusicWorks tabling – was sounding entertaining.

Trichord, best known for its outstanding phono stages and power supplies is investigating the headphone world with a couple of prototype headphone amps. These were deep-cover prototypes, with no details on technology, price, availability, or anything else on tap. Just one in a black box, and the other in this extremely elegant designed case…

Last, and very definitely not least, there were other devices that showed the future of audio, but might be taking things a little too far for Hi-Fi+ followers. These included ELAC’s excellent in-wall loudspeakers and Canton’s surprisingly good soundbar. But perhaps most important of all these is the £549 Core by Mass Fidelity, available in June. This is a box about the size of a stack of eight CD jewel cases, with some sophisticated ‘audio rendering’ DSP (thanks to seven ARM processors built into the unit), Bluetooth connectivity, four one-inch drivers, and a lithium ion battery inside. It makes a surprisingly credible and, most importantly, fun sound without pretense, but instead with  good stereo presence and – if you include the up-coming £399 subwoofer – decent bass. No, it won’t make people trade in their Wilson X2 loudspeakers for a Mass Fidelity, but it offers a glimpse of how people will listen to audio tomorrow. 

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