20 bits of Hi-Fi kit for audio perfection
8th May 2011 | 07:00
Top new speakers, turntables, streamers and amps
20 bits of Hi-Fi kit for audio perfection
With all the exhibition space sold there was a buzz about the 2011 Bristol Sound & Vision show before it had even started. A buzz which rose to fever pitch when the massed audio enthusiasts burst into the Marriott foyer on the first day.
This show has grown in importance to the point where it is the most popular in the hi-fi events calendar. The driving force being the array of key manufacturers showing their latest wares.
This year's theme was clearly affordability. There was definitely some high-end exotica in action at Bristol, but even more keenly priced components and accessories.
Three cable manufacturers revealed radically revised designs with one coming straight out of left field. Speaker makers, meanwhile, have been revisiting the sub-£200 sector with renewed enthusiasm, which has to be good for newcomers to the pursuit.
Computer audio solutions were clearly in the ascendant and there can't be many electronics companies left that don't offer a USB input on their DACs. Several, including Cyrus, Electrocompaniet and XTZ, have gone a long way to provide a hassle-free, sonically rewarding result. So expect some review surprises soon.
Here's our pick of the best gear that was at the show.
1. Chord Co. VEE Plug
Chord has made a breakthrough with its phono plugs that is so dramatic that it has applied it to the entire range, save for the very top-end cables.
The new plug, dubbed VEE for 'vibration eliminating enclosure', is made from ABS plastic and replaces the metal outer casing on both digital and analogue cables. The connectors within are still silver or gold-plated with Teflon insulation, but the difference between the standard and VEE casings was nothing short of dramatic in Chord's demo.
2. Chapter Foreword
Chapter Electronics is a British company that made its name with high-end switching PSU-based amplifiers. With the Paperback series it is trickling down this high-end technology to a more affordable level.
The Foreword CD player is a slot-loader with a multi-input DAC and Chapter's ultra low-phase noise clock and a balanced output stage, it also has a volume control and costs £3,995. The range also includes two-, three- and five-channel Paperback class D power amps each delivering 200 watts per channel. Prices start at £2,995.
3. Cyrus Streamline
Cyrus has taken the streaming plunge with three RF-controlled, net radio-receiving components.
Streamline (£1,600) is the all in-one Naim Unitiqute competitor with a 30-watt power amp, five digital inputs and a USB connection. Like its range-mates it can stream wired or wirelessly up to 24-bit/96kHz and incorporates a second-gen XP preamp. These can be hooked up to a NAS drive and run from an OLED display n-remote for full streaming operation without a Wi-Fi network.
The Stream X (£1,400) is the minimal list option with no volume control and only digital output, while the XP is the £2,000 range- topper with high-quality DAC and second gen XP preamp onboard.
4. Wilson Benesch Geometry
Sheffield's foremost audio technologist Wilson Benesch has developed its own tweeter dubbed Semisphere.
This drive unit benefits from experience the company has had with the Murata Sphere supertweeter and because it's made specifically for WB's Geometry range, the designers has managed to reduce moving mass by a third compared to the Scanspeak used previously. It has side ventilation rather than rear-ward ala Bowers & Wilkins and output extends beyond 30kHz.
The Vertex (£4,500) and Vector (£7,800) Geometry speakers combine this tweeter with WB's Tactic II main driver(s) in standmount and floorstanding monocoque composite cabinets.
5. Dali ME9
Scandinavian speaker-meister Dali followed KEF's footsteps by showing a concept project at Bristol, a speaker built purely to show what the company is capable of with no holds barred.
The ME9 is a very curvy and high-tech floorstander with a two-part composite construction and a curved front baffle that aims to focus five drivers at the listener's ears. Dali has built all the drivers specifically for the ME9 and these include a 45mm treble dome and a ribbon supertweeter, alongside two ten-inch bass drivers and a pair of six-inch wood pulp mids.
6. Ken Ishiwata With Boston A Series
Hi-Fi guru Ken Ishiwata has been working with speaker wunderkind Karl Heinz Fink on Boston's new entry-level A range. This 'European' input was chosen to give the speakers a worldwide appeal according to KI who showed us three bookshelf models starting at £169 for the A23 and two floorstanders that culminate in the £599 A360.
The range uses polypropylene main drivers for their consistency alongside softdome tweeters. The range's subtle styling is courtesy of industrial designer Kieron Dunk and you can have any colour you like so long as it's black or white.
7. Acoustic Signature Barzetti
Sounding Italian, but hailing from Germany the £1,749 Barzetti is the latest and most affordable design from Acoustic Signature. Supplied complete with a Rega RB301 arm this superbly finished turntable has a six-kilo aluminium platter and is available in gloss black or white.
The motor is run by an S Alpha electronic controller which is said to isolate the drive from variations in the mains. The bearing is hardened and polished steel in a sintered bronze shaft with a Tidorfolon base. We've not seen a tidier turntable for less.
8. Chord Chordette Maxx
Chord's cute Chordette range has been supplemented by a newcomer called Maxx. This £800 (plus £140 PSU) DAC receiver manages to cram two channels of 40-watt class A/B power, a Bluetooth APTx receiver and digital-to-analogue convertor into its 160mm width.
Chord is excited by Bluetooth APTx being incorporated into the Android operating system and the likelihood that conventional Wi-Fi networks will be replaced by this system in future due to its considerably greater efficiency.
9. Exposure 2010S2 DAC
For reasons unknown Exposure has never made a standalone DAC until now. The 2010S2 is a six-input, Wolfson-powered convertor, which will cost around £700.
Unusually, it eschews RCA phono coaxial connections in favour connector is a proper 75-ohm interface and thus is the right way to do things, especially as the matching 2010S2 CD player has the same socket. It also has digital volume control, headphone output and a USB input.
10. Spendor A3
Spendor has reduced the entry level for a floorstander by £400, with the sub-compact A3 at £1,295. This two-way comes in real-wood veneer and sports a 110mm main driver and 22mm-wide surround tweeter.
It's joined by the latest variant on Spendor's long-running bookshelf, which is called the S3/5R2 (£850). The main driver here has been re-engineered with a new magnet and phase corrector. It also has the wide surround tweeter and, thanks to its sealed box nature, can be wall or shelf-mounted.
10 more top bits of Hi-Fi kit
11. Pro-Ject Experience V Pack
Henley Designs showed two variants on the theme of the Pro-Ject Experience turntable. Both have an acrylic plinth, but are differentiated by arm and cartridge.
The V Pack has the latest Evo carbon fibre arm and an Ortofon Vivo Blue moving coil cartridge for £1,050, while the Two Pack has a 9cc carbon fibre arm in place of the older 9c and an Ortofon 2MM moving magnet for £775. The latter matching the price of the standard cartridge-less wooden plinth Experience.
12. Van Den Hul 3T
Van den Hul has completely revised its interconnect range up to the £1,000 price point. It's 3T, or true transmission technology, involves combining five types of metal and one non-metal conductor in a precise combination that is claimed to offer considerably improved long term stability compared to single metal designs.
The 3T cables have a higher impedance than usual, but are said to offer greater flexibility, strength and resolution after a short burn-in time. The range starts at £240 for the Valley and includes a single unscreened model dubbed The Cliff.
13. Tannoy DC6T
Tannoy has added two new models to its Revolution range, the DC6T (£820) features a six-inch dual concentric driver for mid and high frequencies, with a titanium dome tweeter, which is allied with a multi-fibre pulp cone bass unit. The cabinet is trapezoidal in shape to avoid parallel surfaces and stands 950mm high.
The DC6 standmount (£560) has the same dual concentric in a 365mm tall trapezoidal cabinet. Both models come in a finish dubbed Espresso, which suggests that no trees were harmed in its creation.
14. Vertere Pulse
Touraj Moghaddam is the creative force behind Roksan, but clearly has too many ideas for one company and created Vertere in order to 'address weak links' in the audio chain.
His first product is the Pulse range of cables, Touraj doesn't give much away about their make-up, but his samples reveal separately insulated multi-strands within each lead and these are terminated in custom-machined, copper alloy RCA phono plugs.
Several variations exist including the handbuilt Pulse interconnects for tonearms, as well as dedicated line level out and pre-out models. Entry level Pulse-B interconnect starts at £890 for a one-metre pair.
15. Elipson Music Centre and Planet L
Elipson has been making spherical loudspeakers in France for over 70 years and following its purchase by Inovadis, it now has its sights on the design-conscious British audiophile.
The Planet L is a 29cm, ported glass-fibre enclosure that houses a 6.5-inch coaxial driver, which can be mounted on a pole stand, wall bracket or hung in a hoop from the ceiling.
Elipson's circular Music Centre is a DAB+, FM and CD player with 2x 120 watts of Bang & Olufsen class D, ICE amplification. It has a receiver for an iPod/Phone Kleer wireless transmitter.
16. XTZ MH800 DSP
XTZ makes a range of loudspeakers and electronics in Sweden and at Bristol the company launched its MH800 DSP system. This is a computer audio set-up based on Dirac HD speaker optimisation software, which operates much like a soundcard on a computer, sending a signal that's phase optimised to the speaker and amplifier that are part of this €450 package.
The speakers themselves have a forward firing three-inch aluminium driver and a downward-firing 5.25-inch woofer. These are driven by an aluminiumcased, 40-watt ensemble sounded remarkably good for the money.
17. Electrocompaniet PD1
A better established Scandinavian brand, Electrocompaniet brought its latest offering to the convertor table in the form of the £1,250 PD1.
Electrocompaniet's angle is the EMS-1 – a dedicated Wi-Fi transmitter (£250) that connects to your PC's USB output and sends a signal to the built-in receiver on the PD1. This avoids the need for a Wi-Fi network and a soundcard.
The DAC has five inputs, including USB and the company was demonstrating it with an Apple iPod Nano in a PURE digital dock to good effect.
18. Leema Elements
Leema showed examples of the three components in its forthcoming entry-level Elements range. With pricing under £1,000 they have the company's high-quality metalwork and LIPs control system alongside more volume controls than most.
The CD player has a Quattro DAC, an analogue volume control and two sets of balanced outputs, so that you can run a bi-amped system without a pre.
The integrated amplifier has both digital (inc USB) and analogue (inc balanced) inputs with a 45-watt output, while the DAC has seven digital inputs and one analogue-in via 3.5mm jack.
19. PMC PB1i Signature
Having given the treatment to its FB1i and TB2i PMC has brought the Signature touch to its PB1i floorstander.
The process has involved PMC's designer Pete Thomas reworking the 24dB crossover with higher-quality components, a process which has resulted in greater transparency. The drivers remain the same: 27mm soft-dome tweeter, 75mm midrange dome and a pair of 170mm bass drivers, housed in one of the company's transmission line enclosures.
The signature finish is rose palisander veneer with goldplated fixings and each comes with a serial number plate and ten year warranty.
20. Acoustic Energy NeoV2-4
Acoustic Energy has beefed-up its Neo range with the biggest floorstander in its catalogue, the 1.2m tall NeoV2-4. It gets its name from the Neodymium magnet that powers its ring radiator tweeter and promises high SPLs without the need for massive power, thanks to a healthy 91dB sensitivity rating.
Its cone drivers consist of two six-inch aluminium bass units and a five-inch aluminium midrange. At £700 the walnut finish is not real, but it looks the part.
The rapid growth of computer audio resulted in a wide array of great sounding approaches on demo at Bristol. Companies like Naim had their own systems in action, but the majority were using third-party solutions, such as the ripNAS or laptops of both Mac and PC persuasion.
The exciting thing is that this approach is bringing both great usability (thanks to the iPad) and great sound as a result of the various systems that companies like Cyrus, among others, are creating.
There was a clear trend for streaming systems that operate without a computer or wireless network. These keep noise at bay and should make set-up a doddle.
Traditional formats are still being supported, of course, but the download revolution has clearly gripped the industry's imagination and this, combined with the expanding range of hi-res software, means that digital files represent the future for high-fidelity.
First published in Hi-Fi Choice Issue 345
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