Manchester, England: Once the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester in the north west of England is home to more than two and a half million people. It has a vibrant music scene (the town spawned bands like Joy Division, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, Elbow and Oasis, and is home to the Hallé Orchestra) but is getting close to being overfished in when it comes to audio shows. With two – admittedly very different - shows in five months, the Northern High Fidelity Show was hardly packed out with attendees, but the products on show were of a supremely high quality.<o p=""></o>
In many respects, the Northern High Fidelity Show is the optimum size for serious listening, even if not for those who think a show is the perfect excuse to pick up two carrier bags full of brochures and a chance to tick off hundreds of must-see products. This show had just a couple dozen rooms, many with considerable promise.<o p=""></o>
Two of the best sounding rooms were the ones that greeted you as you walked in the door. First, Alternative Audio was demonstrating the direct drive Brinkmann Oasis turntable for the first time in the UK, played through NAT Audio amplifiers and Vandersteen loudspeakers. Next to it was the Midlands Audio Exchange room, running a Wadia CD player (and a Mac Book running Spotify) into a Lavadin amp and a pair of LeConture speakers.
Speaking of good sounds, some of the best were coming from the best American brands. The country’s biggest high-end distributor (Absolute Sounds… no relation) has long cited some of the finest names in audio in its portfolio, including the likes of Crystal Cable, Krell, Magico, Sonus Faber and Theta. So, its demonstrations are always a draw, and always need a big room. This time, Absolute Sounds played Audio Research’s Reference CD8 into a Reference 5 preamp and a pair of Reference 210 power amps to drive a pair of Wilson Sashas, all linked up with Transparent Audio cable. All good stuff and sounding very good indeed, but where it gets really interesting and exciting is the demonstration flipped between the CD8 and a WiFi set-up, with a laptop filled with lossless files driving a Micromega AirStream through Airport Express. The musical quality of both was exceedingly high.
In what must be the largest room in the hotel, Select Audio demonstrated a system comprising Basis 2200 turntable and arm with a full Soulution set-up (including the 700 monos) its and distinctively back-swept Neeper loudspeakers from Denmark. The electronics sat on an almost all-wood Cut Loose Audio equipment table which had a kind of big, hand-hewn chic about it.
Equipment supports are clearly a big issue in some parts of the UK, and the show saw some very distinctive alternatives on demonstration. Townshend Audio’s suspended VSSS stand rubbed uprights with the all-acrylic ReVo from MusicWorks (a popular local choice, it housed everything from entry-level Electrocompaniet to a room full of dCS and Spectral with ease, many of these systems driving different Focal loudspeakers), while the show also saw the launch of a line of elegant and well thought-through supports from amp and cable specialist LFD.
New products weren’t restricted to equipment supports. Chord Electronics is continuing its steady dominance of the next generation of audio products with its new 2800 Digital Integrated, currently with a UK only price of £6,000. Featuring Bluetooth, USB and all the regular slew of analog and digital inputs, this 140W amplifier is designed to replace the whole system for PC users, but still retain the audio values Chord Electronics is known for. Chord has also announced a new product in the baby Chordette range – the £799 Toucan is a USB converter mated to a headphone amp and a pair of ¼” headphone jacks. It also supports both balanced and single-ended analog inputs. Other UK firsts included the first outing of MIT’s $34,000 Oracle loudspeaker cable and the new to the UK Chapman T-8 and T-9 loudspeaker range.
Although this was a UK show with many local names, there were also a lot of well-known US and Canadian brands on display. Some of the best sounding included Pass Labs INT30A 30W Class A integrated, Bel Canto’s two box CD player feeding Belles amplification (into a pair of Audio Physic loudspeakers) and Moon’s new 750D DAC/transport and 700i integrated amplifier driving a pair of Monitor Audio PL200 floorstanders.
Turntables are still in high fashion in Manchester, and the show saw the final prototype of the Systemdek 3D, a hanging-spring suspension turntable design featuring a DC motor and a peripheral drive belt round the main platter. This was sporting an Audio Origami PU7, an as custom-as-you-like English tonearm made by an engineer who’s spent much of his live repairing tonearms. So the gimballed, frictionless arm is also semi-decoupled, which is claimed to give some of the benefits of unipivots too. Meanwhile, Sound Hi-Fi was showing precisely what can be done with the DJ’s workhorse, the Technics SL-1200 or SL-1210. With a separate power supply, Jelco SA-750D arm and a Denon DL304 MC cartridge, this deck has radically changed the way some UK audiophiles view vinyl.
A few rooms crossed the great divide between analogue and digital. Artisan Audio also used a Jelco arm – modified – on a Galibier Gavier turntable and a Soundsmith Straingauge cartridge and amps into a pair of Green Mountain Audio Rios. On the digital side, the company by-passed CD and went straight to hi-res files, played through Pure Vinyl as a cheaper alternative to Amarra.
We are still behind the curve when it comes to music servers and computer audio, so these products were relatively low in number compared to the likes of the CES earlier this month. Nevertheless, McIntosh’s MS750 and the interesting Bladelius Embla flash memory player were on show and gaining some serious interest.
Instead, there were a lot of rooms featuring disc players, often into tube amps. Musicology’s demonstration was a fine example of that, featuring an EMM Labs front end into Atma-sphere tube pre/power into Zu Essences. The Atma-Sphere amp wins the award for product that most looks like it came out of a 1950s Russian submarine. Audio Note (no stranger to having products that look distinctly Cold War) were also staying firmly on the tubular side of things, with a new Jinro copper version of its top silver Ongaku amplifier. AN is well known for its ‘uncompromising’ demonstrations – no Evil Nine or Puscifer played at full tilt this time, but a burst of Headhunter can still scare young and old alike.
In some respects, the rise of the tube market highlights what’s best about the underground audio movement in the UK… the rise of the bodger! This was perhaps best seen in the Music First Audio room. The company – gaining an excellent reputation for its excellent transformer-coupled passive preamps – not only runs regular product upgrades so that any MFA owner can play ‘Pimp My Preamp’, but the company’s product was playing into a custom-made pair of mono PX25-based amps built by noted Quad-modder John Howes. There was even a room dedicated to classic ‘pre-loved’ hi-fi from the 1950s to today. This was a blend of old and new, running a Denon CD player into an MSB converter for traditional digital and a laptop plus Firestone DAC for the new world, all of which played into a pair of distinctly elderly Rogers LS3/5a loudspeakers.
Finally, spare a thought for plucky Arcam. It was the only company brave enough to show what multichannel movies and music can do, in a show otherwise entirely devoted to stereo. Armed with a Sherwood Blu-ray player (Arcam’s own Blu-ray player will sadly never see daylight, thanks to the chip manufacturer having to make cutbacks), AVR700 (and a CD37 for stereo use), five Muso speakers and a pair of subwoofers. By reclocking the Sherwood sound in the AVR700, it looked and sounded pretty fine, and was one of the most consistently filled rooms in the show.
There’s yet another show on the way, this time in Bristol in the south-west, which is a little more than a month away. In a way, the two shows perfectly reflect the UK audio scene. The upcoming Bristol Sound & Vision Show is filled with products from brands that concentrate at more attainable prices, while the smaller Northern High Fidelity Show is filled with aspiration and products audiophiles dare to dream of.
For now at least, there’s room for both.