No, not the Queen becoming the longest serving English monarch, or the election of left-field, left-winger Jeremy Corbyn to the post of Leader of the Labour Party out of almost nowhere, we're talking audio here.
New product launches from UK manufacturers are like waiting for a double-decker bus in London – nothing happens for ages, and then several come along at once. So it was at the tail end of last week, when important launches from major brands all arrived at the same time. Within a few hours of one another, Bowers and Wilkins, Linn Products, dCS, and exciting newcomer Entoterm had all delivered major new products and product lines, and a few hours later, Audiolab followed suit. Reviewers and audio journalists more used to days of quiet between the end of IFA and the start of the new season at the end of September were criss-crossing London in order to try to get the bigger picture.
Bowers & Wilkins was first in line, and its new 800 Series Diamond range, which will be given the suffix ‘D3’ to differentiate it from previous diamond-tweeter 800 series models. This is a complete overhaul of the company’s flagship range, and is significant because it marks Bowers & Wilkins moving away from the distinctive yellow Kevlar midrange unit that has been a signature part of Bowers & Wilkins designs for decades. The diamond tweeter, however, remains unchanged. According to Martial Rousseau, Bowers & Wilkins Head of Research,
“This is not a product update. This is a completely re-imagined entity. One of the sole remaining elements is the Diamond tweeter. We found it impossible to improve on the performance offered by diamond.“
The company is keen to stress that this is not simply a cosmetic reworking, with an as yet undisclosed ‘Continuum Cone’ midrange device, as virtually every other component from the ground up has been changed in the new 800 range. This meant a complete retooling of the company’s Worthing factory in West Sussex, England. We’ll know more on these loudspeakers in time (I couldn’t attend the formal launch), but the prices range from £4,500/€6,000/$6,000 per pair for the 805 D3 stand, to £22,500/€30,000/$30,000 per pair for the flagship 800 D3. Every loudspeaker in the range save for the flagship will be available from next month, with the top dog rolling out in Spring next year.
Next up, Linn Products. Linn is repositioning itself from an audiophile brand to a high-end audio lifestyle brand, rather like a sort of hyper-B&O. Its latest products in this transition fall into the System 5 series. Currently comprising two Exakt active tower loudspeakers – the £9,250 per pair 520 and £12,000 per pair 530. Both designed with an Akurate Exakt DSM network music player in mind, all the drivers in the two-way reflex 520 and isobaric-loaded three-way 530 loudspeakers, are powered by internal 100W Chakra Class D amplifiers. Linn has pitched these loudspeakers very much at the designer end of the market, by completely encasing the loudspeaker in Linn Fabrik (Linn loves its letter K); currently a choice of three weaves in eleven different solid colours, by 2016, the company will offer these loudspeakers in vibrant ‘timorous beasties’ and Harris Tweed, to drive home the company’s Scottish roots. The System 5 speakers do appear to play well to audiophiles and non-audiophiles alike, so domestically acceptable floorstanders might be one of the ways forward for audio.
Cambridgeshire digital expert dCS has been discussing the new Rossini player/streaming DAC for some time – prototypes were supposed to be shown at Munich in May – but the company announced the new devices in finished form at a roadshow in London’s swanky KJ West One audio store. By virtue of several SACD devices ceasing to be made available to third-parties like dCS, the company has had to make a bold decision over its product lines, and the Debussy DAC, the Rossini, and Vivaldi lines are the only ones still in production. While the up-market four-box Vivaldi retains CD/SACD disc replay, this is only because dCS has a finite number of Esoteric transport mechanisms available, and not enough to continue production of the Paganini or Puccini lines (the Scarlatti being phased out with the development of Vivaldi). So the new Rossini is available as either with or without its CD-only transport inside the dedicated streaming DAC. Essentially a Vivaldi stripped to the bone, the new Rossini sounded extremely promising playing everything from MP3 to DSD files, the accompany app shows considerable development in that field, and the player will be quickly followed by a matching Rossini Master Clock. Price is £18,000 for the CD player with DAC, or £15,500 for the standalone DAC. Price for the Master Clock has not been finalised.
Entotem’s Plato is a unique Android-based home entertainment player/server. Like the Rossini, it has been seen in early form, but the continuous development of the system has achieved something of a plateau, and the £3,600 audio/video file serving device is now being rolled out across Europe. Because it eschews off-the-shelf solutions, it uses a linear power supply in place of the usual switch-mode PSU, and a device that supports US voltages is still in the pipeline, but the Plato has two or three aces up its sleeve to make it worth waiting for. It’s most immediate ‘must have’ function is an ability to use a Shazam-like algorithm when ripping LPs, so that track information can be automatically populated from music databases, and a muting system can be used to create individual tracks. This makes digitising LPs a practical solution, rather than a chore. It also has provision to automatically downconvert audio files to suit restricted bandwidth devices on a network (so a 24/96 file will automatically be converted to 16/44 for any Sonos players on the network, and can do this conversion on the fly). Finally, it can stream many different high-resolution audio and video channels across the home network – at the launch, Development Director Dave Belcher showed this by playing two HD streams simultaneously to two different systems, while downmixing high-resolution audio on the fly at the same time.
Last, but not least, Audiolab announced its new £900 8300A amplifier. A completely new design, and one of the first in its 8300 Series (following the 8300CD), the new integrated harks back intellectually (if not quite physically) to the popular 8000A first seen in 1983, because the 75W integrated includes a built-in MM/MC phono preamp, can be used as an integrated, preamp, and power amplifier, and is designed as a ‘step up’ from basic amplifiers. The old Audiolab aesthetic (as well as the headphone socket and tone controls) is gone, however, with a centre OLED display in place of unlit knobs and dials.
This was a busy week for the UK audio industry, and potentially shows there is some excitement back in the business. A year or two ago, this kind of launch ‘frenzy’ would not be seen in three months of product launches. We live in interesting times, and for once that might not be a curse!