Show Report: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - Bristol and Heathrow

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Show Report: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - Bristol and Heathrow

 Unlike my recent Estoril AudioShow round-up, this is not a single show report. The UK is overstocked with audio shows; in the first quarter of the year there have already been four, with possibly a similar number to follow before they year is out. Either there are thousands of audiophiles willing to travel the length and breadth of the country (in fairness, it’s not a big country) every few weeks, or there are too many shows diluting what audio interest exists.

If you view things from the position of the Bristol Sound & Vision Show, you’d guess the former. Now well into its twentysomethings, this annual event – run by main-street specialist retailer Audio T and sponsored by What Hi-Fi Sound & Vision magazine – is the most popular expo on the UK audio calendar. Run at the end of February, come wind, rain or snow, there’s always a line forming around the block before opening. This year was no different; attendance and sales were almost unaffected by the economy and those there were taking their music (and occasionally their home theater) seriously.

Audio T’s success comes down to the seemingly unheard of idea of giving the customer what they want, and in UK the high street (that’s 'main street', but with more tea and biscuits) they want good budget to mid-range equipment. The famous names of Brit-fi – Acoustic Energy, Arcam, Cyrus, KEF and Rega – as well as home theater brands like Denon and Yamaha all do very well both at Audio T stores and at their bi-annual shows in Bristol and Manchester. Both stores and shows have a distinct price ceiling, which stops at the likes of Electrocompaniet, Meridian and Naim. Most companies that show here are well-versed at setting up a good stand and generally the level of performance is pretty high, despite the Marriott rooms being far from perfect.

A regional ‘selling’ show (especially one so close to the CES) is not the place to unveil exciting new products, so the number of ‘firsts’ is strictly limited. Paul Miller of Hi-Fi News was showing just how good the Devialet D-Premier is, when fed from a Linn Digital Streamer and into Sonus Faber loudspeakers. PMC also showed off its new Fact standmount speaker, and Arcam had a hush-hush USB DAC, said to be out in May and costing £299 (no US price as yet). Given Arcam has licensed technology from dCS before and this DAC is rumored to be an Asynchronous USB device (a technology currently used by a limited number of brands including dCS), this could prove an exciting addition to the line. Spendor also launched its new A9 floorstander, the flagship of the company's highly-successful A-series.

Speaker brands at two extremes had what were commonly considered some of the best sound of the show; KEF’s Blade Concept (shown for the first time in the UK) once again lived up to the hype and those who heard it first spent most of the show spoiled by the high-quality sound. Back on planet Icanbuythis, Neat Acoustics Motive SE2 (also shown for the first time to UK listeners) were making a very real, very enjoyable sound, fed from a couple of racks of top-flight Linn and Naim equipment.

Another very, very good sounding system was in the Coherent Systems room, with Bel Canto and Belles electronics driving a pair of Cabasse Bora loudspeakers and a Cabasse subwoofer. This was one of the few rooms running US-based equipment. Many of the other rooms were – understandably – home grown. Companies like Leema Acoustics; relatively unknown outside the UK, the company’s product range has a good reputation for being the last outpost for good BBC-derived design. Its revised Mk III versions of its Stream multi-DAC CD player and Pulse integrated amp were on show for the first time.

Another small company making great plays for the future is Heed Audio. The company – based in Eastern Europe – builds electronics and loudspeakers, with a lot of the electronics DNA deriving from popular 1980s and 1990s Brit-fi brands Nytech and Ion Systems. Its small omnidirectional loudspeaker designs were proving a hit, too.

While this show has a built-in lack of high-end equipment, it remains a popular event. Numbers are steady, interest is high and the general view is one of cautious optimism from the manufacturers. Good audio is alive and well and living in Bristol.

A month later, and the venue shifts to just outside of London’s Heathrow Airport. And the impression shifts too; if the Sound and Vision show held hope for continued interest in hi-fi, then the Heathrow High-Fidelity Show largely dashes that hope. A show, mostly populated by the lesser-known brands and smaller distributors, was always going to draw a specialist audience, but this one was particularly poorly attended.

There were new products on show. Distributor Alium Audio showcased the latest products in the Consonance (‘Opera’) range, including some exciting sounding and affordable mono tube amps, an anniversary version of its tube integrated design and even a linear streamer DAC. Elsewhere, Revolver was showing off its new flagship loudspeaker, complete with 15in bass driver! Perhaps the most exciting product at the show was the StormAudio integrated amplifier duo, from France. French-fi seems to be going through a purple patch at this time, with exciting products from Cabasse, Cairn, Devialet, Focal, Metronome, Micromega, Neodio, Triangle and Waterfall and now StormAudio. What's next?

(manufacturer's photo... the room was too dark!)

Some were striving to make a good sound; mostly those who had spent time as dealers or distributors, who had learned through years of experience how to do things properly. Even here, though, there were limitations – a room in a show has to be slightly live, because when the room is full of people soaking up HF, people criticise the room for sounding ‘dead’. Except, if there are not enough visitors to fill the rooms, they sound too live. Nevertheless, dealers like the Right Note, Audio Emotion and Tom Tom Audio made good sounds, and Absolute Sounds deliberately went for a minimalist Audio Research/Sonus Faber system to good effect; normally the company is keen to showcase its top-end equipment, but this time highlighted just how well a system comprising a CD5, DSi200 integrated amp and a pair of Liuto loudspeakers can sound. 

Townshend Audio delivered its first full system in years, complete with three-watt triode amp for the array of ribbon tweeters and class D amp for the bass of the new versions of the Glastonbury loudspeaker. With each component fully decoupled from the surroundings by Seismic Sink stands, it is somewhat disconcerting to watch a large, wide-baffled loudspeaker moving to and fro freely, but the net result was an extremely good sound.

There were also companies running regular demonstrations and workshops. Singled out for praise here was Audio Workshop Norwich, for the scope of its seminars (including a fascinating comparison between MP3, CD, high-res FLAC and SACD version of the same album… which was won by SACD) and AudioWorks for its demonstrations on the importance of good power and good support systems. 

The balance of sources was very different between the two shows, perhaps indicative of the feelings of those attending. Bristol was very much a forward-looking digital show; LP was being played in a couple of rooms, but it was predominantly CD and computer audio sounds issuing from the majority. Heathrow, in contrast was more retro, and saw greater interest in analogue sources (the show was the formal UK launch of the Artemis Labs turntable (with a Naim ARO arm and a Lyra Dorian cartridge) and even reel-to-reel was being played) and SACD, and no sign of home theater at all. There were a few laptops and DACs and music servers playing, but the senior sources predominated.

Although the hallways were as ever filled with the sound of jazz and Stevie Ray Vaughan, one or two were breaking free from the audiophile music headlock. Kudos must go to Absolute Sounds, Coherent Systems, Pure Sound and Aspara, Wadia, Emillé and Triangle and Tom Tom Audio for playing everything from Elvis to Bomb The Bass. It was also good to see a few companies beginning to take room acoustic treatment seriously, using bass traps and absorption to overcome some of the poor potential of hotel rooms.

The problem is, if I am having to praise companies for their choice in music, I’m reaching to find good things to say. The show was under-attended (by both public and manufacturer alike) and under-promoted. With last year’s Whittlebury Hall show success under its belt, the show organizers should carefully consider whether this show can be saved, or even if it should be saved. If it is to be saved, though, it's going to need some strong medicine.

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