The audio industry’s annual migration west to the Marriott Hotel in Bristol has become the most lively and entertaining show on the British circuit. You can see a surprising amount of new product there from brands both large and small, some of which manage to make remarkably good sounds given the limitations of a hotel bedroom. Pretty much every sector of home entertainment is represented albeit largely without the aid of multinationals, one exception being JVC, which had a static display of a flat screen and headphones in the lobby.
This was the first time I recall that awards have been given out for sound quality, an initiative set-up by the Clarity Alliance (of which Hi-Fi+'s Editor, Alan Sircom is outgoing Chairman). The Clarity Alliance best sound of the show award went to Computer Audio Design; its 1543 DAC I reviewed in the January 2013 issue of the magazine – it was well deserved. Scott and Isobel from CAD brought their home system which consisted of a laptop running JPlay, the latest prototype CAD USB cable, the 1543 converter, a Townshend Allegri autotransformer preamp and Brinkmann Mono power amps driving Dynaudio C1 speakers, cabling was Townshend throughout. The sound escaped the speakers so completely that it was uncanny, not a bad effort for a show debut. There was also a new product of sorts in the shape of a shiny white acrylic CAD 1543, very Apple.
The boom in headphone sales has encouraged manufacturers to build better portable electronics and two rather appealing examples were in action at Bristol. The Astell & Kern AK100 is a high resolution player, I don’t know if it plays MP3s, but it certainly plays WAV and FLAC files at up to 24/192. With a 2.4inch touch screen and nicely finished aluminium body, it has 32GB of onboard space and slots for two Micro SD cards bringing the maximum potential storage up to 96GB. Not cheap at £569, it is in many ways a Walkman Pro for our time and thus highly desirable.
Meanwhile, Furutech’s electronics arm ADL showed the X1 headphone amp (£485), not much bigger than an iPhone 4 it houses an ESS Sabre DAC and has USB in and optical output. It runs with iOS and Android devices at up to 16/48 or the full 24/192 with a PC.
Headphone legend Sennheiser has also produced some headphone amps, their first ever in fact. The HDVD 800 (£1,500) has an onboard DAC and USB input with jitter reduction circuitry while the HDVA 600 (£1,300) only has analogue in and outputs. They were created for Sennheiser’s HD 700 and 800 headphones but with the ability to drive high impedance loads via balanced and jack outputs they should work across the board.
Chord Company the cable specialist was demonstrating a breakthrough that it has made with the geometry of interconnect cables. Dubbed Tuned Array the technique is being applied across the range to both analogue and digital cables. They don’t want to share the secret, but it’s not making a great deal of difference to price. It does, however. dramatically improve performance; I heard standard versus TA versions of Sarum coaxial interconnect and was quite staggered at the extent to which TA revealed so much more dimensionality in the soundstage. Chord Co used Spendor D7 speakers for the dem which are clearly very capable and really not very Spendor like.
Spendor itself was playing the D7 with a Devialet D-Premier powered system and produced a rather more refined sound, showing that the D7 is both transparent and adaptable. Spendor also showed a replacement for the A6 called A6R (£2,500) which has a new crossover and a midbass driver that uses the same EP77 polymer cone and new surround as the D7 but in a two-way design. Spendor’s Philip Swift claims it has more even and extended bass and sounds more like its range mates the A5 and A9 than the original A6.
The most impressive new speaker at the show however was PMC’s BB5 se (£25,000). I have seen the pro version of this in studios but never has it seemed so substantial. Maybe it’s the rich macassar veneer or the fact that you rarely see a an 87kg (192lb) speaker that’s over a metre high on a stand. But the bass is glorious, apparently the room was limiting absolute extension but I’ve never encountered lows of such power and speed at a show before. The BB5 se is not just a pro model with nice veneer, the tweeter has been offset for better imaging, it has a new flange on the dome midrange for greater dispersion and the cabinets have been beefed up for increased rigidity. I don’t want to have to install them but I do want a pair to try at home. After all, this is a domestic loudspeaker!
Leema Acoustics took the highest room at the show (six floors above anyone else) and demonstrated the first DAC in its Constellation series. The Libra (£5,995) has more inputs than you can shake a stick at (15 to be precise) with some unusual options alongside the usual suspects. Chief among these are mappable I2S inputs on RJ45 connectors, apparently Leema will be making a transport with this output but Northstar and M2Tech are already using this connection. The DAC also has Leema’s M1 USB module, a fully asynchronous receiver that works with Windows and Mac.
Leema also showed its Elements Ultra Phono stage (£1,195), this is a fully adjustable MM/MC ready device with dip switches to vary sensitivity as well as resistive and capacitive loads which include a 100kOhm loading for MMs.
Armour Home Electronics showed off the latest addition to its Q-Acoustics budget speaker range. The Concept 20 (£350) looks similar to their 2020i but is shinier and a bit bigger on account of its twin-wall cabinet. It’s built with two 10mm thick enclosures separated by an adhesive called Gelcore that remains elastic and thus absorbs vibration. They made some very convincing sounds on the end of an equally affordable NAD system. Matching stands for the three locating pins on its underside are also available.
Rega has kicked off its 40th anniversary celebrations with two new components and another at the prototype stage. They had the shell of a Saturn-R CD player on show as well as an Aria phono stage (£798) and Elicit-R amplifier (£1,598) in action. Aria is an MM/MC stage with two transformers onboard and dip switches to vary loading and gain. Elicit-R sees the introduction of a new case design and a 105 watt power stage that uses the same output devices as the Brio-r but in greater number, it’s a complete redesign of the previous Elicit and sounded very musical on the end of RS7 speakers.
Michell Engineering turned the tables on me by unveiling its first cartridge. Not sure where the name Cusis comes from but students of European generator production might be able to identify the mechanics of this moving coil. Michell makes the Cusis housing out of carbon loaded acrylic which is also found in its platters but you don’t usually notice its translucency. It has a boron cantilever with a nude line-contact diamond tip and a pure iron coil, price is £1,065.
Audio Note has been working on its analogue sources as well and showed the imaginatively titled Arm 2. With this version AN has done away with the Rega parts entirely and produced a one piece machined arm tube, low slung counterweight and VTA adjustable arm base. Price will vary with wiring choice but starts at £650. The same company has also added a new monoblock to its bulging catalogue of tube amplifiers, the Princess is a 2A3 parallel single ended power amp with a poultry six watt output and three levels of build starting at £4,500 per pair.
I saved what was one of the most talked about launches for last; the Guru Pro Audio Junior.
The name Junior derives from its relationship to the QM10Two which has a similar driver array in a more complex cabinet, Although seen in late prototype form at the Top Audio show in Milan last year, Junior is less than half the price of its QM10Two brother at £800, but is at least as stylish with its anodised aluminium baffles and veneer or white lacquer finishes. Distributor Tom Tom Audio was using a Naim UnitiLite and providing a lot of entertainment for a system cost not far off two grand.