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Highlights from Bristol Sound & Vision 2018

  • Brizzle – not a peculiar form of British rain but ‘Bristol’, as spoken in a West Country accent. The city is earthier than swanky neighbour Bath, blessed with slices of foodie heaven like St Nicholas’ market, a happening place to work and live – I miss it.

    The Marriott Hotel staggers into life at the end of every February for the 3-day Sound & Vision show – the UK’s number one hifi event. Buzzing on a Friday morning, first stop was the multi-booth Bristol Suite. Noisy like your favourite Italian restaurant, headphones aplenty, lots of gear to cover/t.

    Henley’s stand was candy heaven. Turntables galore, Klipsch’s sexy heritage gear and Project’s modular electronics, including the Pre-Box S2 Digital, a multi-tasking DAC / preamp / headamp. How they squeeze an ESS9038 DAC (not pro), 3 digital inputs, 512 DSD, 7 digital filters, and MQA into £300 I don’t know. And I was shocked at how tiny it is (‘holy crap it’s small’ to be precise); we’re talking 4 CD cases stacked together. The Austrian company’s formidable reputation commands respect; a review unit is promised.

    The S2 in Bristol was fed by Roon’s Nucleus server, which simplifies setting up a Roon core. Intel’s NUC in Gucci, it runs Roon’s Rock software and is small and stylish. The £1,500 i3 is good for simple DSP or 6 endpoints, the £2,300 i7 being for the more ambitious (room correcting, DSD upsampling types). Music-First Audiophiles with >10k tracks will need the i7. Yes, you can DIY cheaper, but not every computer audiophile has the know-how or time to build and bug fix. Nucleus is a single purpose solution that’ll do Roon Core out of the box. If not, there’s dealer support to fall back on – a key part of its fit and play brief. Niche for sure, but well considered.

    Venturing upstairs reignited my desire for an old flame: Ruark’s R7 ‘radiogram’. In £2,300 Mk3 form the aesthetic retains its pizazz, even after a refresh. The speaker drivers are carried over from the previous version but the electronics have been updated for better sound. A new app is due soon.
    I reviewed the original R7; every single visitor fell in love with it. The look was beautiful, facilities were everything-bar-coffee-maker, and sound quality, whilst not pandering to audiophile sensibilities, wasn’t half bad. If the Mk3 delivers on improved sound then it’s a shoe-in for a second system; truly classy a la Fred & Ginger, not Kim & Kanye.

    Goldnote’s Tommaso Dolfi was impeccably dressed (without trying) and genuine; an instant friend. The kit was rather nice too (Brit-speak for oh-so desirable). Focusing on the new IS-1000 integrated, its understated looks and (for me) almost perfect spec will set many a pulse racing.

    Features include streaming (Roon, Tidal, Spotify, etc), phono stage, 3 analogue / 5 digital inputs, and 125W of Class A/B amplification (with variable damping to switch from techno to Ella on the fly). If sound quality matches build then £4,000 is eminently reasonable; one-box lovers form a queue now.

    Don’t upset the Danes! (Dali, Dynaudio; easily confused, your honour). Cue tongue-in-cheek castigation. Dali’s new Callista range of loudspeakers are actives – bingo! They’re also wireless, a separate £499 hub providing connectivity and network, as well as DSP to aid room placement. The £460 BlueOS module giveth multi-room as well. The Callista 2 are £2399, the floorstanding Callista 6 £3,199; everything is manufactured in-house in Denmark. Proper sound meets interior design; well worth considering.

    Doug Graham of Neat introduced me to the new Iota Explorers – the daddy bear to the original Iota’s baby which blew me away – so I was all ears. Unlike the middle range Alphas, the Explorers have a completely new driver complement including an AMT tweeter, a first in a Neat speaker. Isobaric bass also delivers more from a smaller enclosure.

    That’s important; size matters to the original Iota bookshelf monitor. They are tiny, competing with Bill Bryson for bookshelf space. The Alphas are, by a country mile, the smallest floorstanders I’ve seen; too small for some to take seriously apparently (more fool them). Hence the Explorers, which retain both the Iota form factor and bijou nature whilst delivering a bigger sound. Just don’t be fooled; in the flesh they’re smaller than they look on the page.

    Alternatively, you could go large with Fyne Audio’s imposing F1-10 floorstanders for £18k; Tannoy meets Sonus Faber. The sound was supremely balanced (despite the matchbox room they were playing in) and the quality of finish so good you want to lick them (I didn’t). The F1-10s (and F1-12s) are flagships from a team that grew tired of Tannoy’s new owners flip-flopping over commitment to Scotland, so they set up on their own. Did I mention drop dead gorgeous?

    Coming down to earth (slightly). Chord’s £1200 Qutest was turning digits into music for a £21k amp and speaker combo (B&W 803s and Chord 3350). David supporting Goliath. With aplomb; digital really has changed system building rules.

    The Qutest is a shaved Hugo 2; mains only, no headphone output, purely for home use. It retains the FPGA architecture and Rob Watts’ code, meaning sound quality is identical to its sibling. USB goes to DSD 512 and the dual-BNC coax inputs can be used with appropriate kit for a smidge better SQ. The Qutest also offers 4 different filters. Just don’t play with alternative power supplies as it invalidates the warranty – interesting. A nice product at a good price point.

    Mentioned in dispatches, Monitor Audio’s new Studio speaker gave me one of those turn-back-into-the-room-moment. A small £1,350 standmount (including stands) that borrows technology from further up MA’s range. Clearly to good effect; it sounded darned good, eschewing showiness for across-the-board balance. The style was also chic. One for the shortlist.

    Naim introduced 3 streamers on static display, including the high end ND555-500, that build on the Uniti networking platform. I nearly missed them, the lack of the usual Salisbury launch brouhaha puzzling me. Turns out the soft launch was a result of a marketing faux-pas that surfaced the products early in the USA. Oops. Deliveries are expected late March, certainly worth investigating given the reception the Unitis have had.

    PMC and AVM could be found making nice noises in a suitably large room; defying the bass-orientated sound of my expectation bias. The AVM 30 amps and sources were launched at the show, with the £3,250 CS30 and £3,995 CS2.2 streaming CD receivers (appearing to be) of particular interest to fans of fewer boxes (165w vs 110w).

    Also interesting were the Result 6 active monitors from PMC’s pro line. With a total of 165W available and D-fin technology to aid dispersion they’re small enough for the desktop but large enough for main speakers. Think Genelec 8341 ‘The Ones’ but at half the price (£2,400/pair). Hmmmm.

    Other impressions? I found one reel-reel tape deck, so clearly a revival is underway. Sarcasm on the ‘net doesn’t work but it did sound good. Roon was prevalent, as was Chord’s Qutest, as was vinyl; all fine by me. ‘Proper’ wireless and / or active speaker were definitely on the up, as our publisher predicted. He also (depressingly) got the music right (not hard, though); copious Eagles, Fleetwood Mac etc. The exception being the Chord Electronics guys who were getting down to some serious electronica (Felix Laband’s Dark Days Exit for example). Excellent.

    Overall it was another Bristol Show. A format refresh is needed to expunge the vague trainspotter air. How about a Friday night club room with monster PMC actives to get the thousands of millenials working nearby in? If that’s a bit ambitious then at least change to the soooo last-century carpets.
    Despite this, I had fun. Surprises were found, as was some silliness (you know who you are, ‘subwoofer man’) and good sound was available from many. Will I be back next year? Rhetorical question.

    Further information: Sound & Vision Bristol

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    Written by Phil

    Phil is a Brit living in deepest Devon. Think: Tolkien's Shire but with killer cream teas. He's been around since digital audio's inception - he even wrote his dissertation on the introduction of the CD - but today's developments in both music and audio gear make him think 'we have never had it so good'. Phil is a Music-First audiophile with wide ranging tastes (Trad Jazz excepted): 5000 albums in his local library with the remainder coming from Tidal.

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