Adventures in High Fidelity Audio contributor Barry Hunt gives his own unique views on the National Audio Show at Whittlebury Hall.
Whittlebury Hall 2010 – my impressions
I have a love-hate relationship with audio shows, however having attended the Whittlebury Hall show last year and finding it of use, I decided to give it a repeat visit.
This year I couldn’t visit all the rooms; there was neither enough time, nor would I want to do so. I visited about twenty rooms with mixed results. What follows is my, very personal, take on it all.
Zouch Audio, a purveyor of audio goodies to the wealthy and new to me, were demonstrating a very expensive system (£35,350) consisting of the Musical Fidelity’s AMSCD CD player, M1 DAC, Primo preamp and AMS100 power amplifier, all emptied into a pair of Focal Electra 1000 Be II speakers. At that price it should have been stunning – it wasn’t. No nasties or faults I could put my finger on – it just didn’t enthral me or do anything for me, so I left after a couple of minutes.
Burmester were demonstrating in a much larger room to good effect, despite an occasional ‘room-boom’, though they were playing some wonderfully toe-tapping reggae. Aesthetically there was something complementary and satisfying about the ‘bling’ mirror-chrome finish of the Burmester electronics (CD player, DAC and amplifier) to play reggae.
Creek/Epos were making horrible noises in a room that was far too large for the speakers. At best the sound was ‘impressive’; used as a term of opprobrium with all the connotations it suggests, and at worse (depending on what was being played), one with a ‘spitty’ treble and thick muddy bass.
Tannoy were demonstrating their Kingdom speakers. Visually big and imposing and finished with their usual excellent care and attention, these speakers detained me for a while. At £35,000 a pair they are, I presume, Tannoy’s flagship model.
Unfortunately, there were some problems with them, or rather with the speaker/room/listener arrangement. There was, again, the rather frequent room boom ‘thrum’, though I suspect this was caused by the advertising display panelling set up behind the speakers. Also the seating was perhaps a little too close to the speakers; certainly the seating was too low relative to the height of the tweeter (4’ 2”, that is well above ear level when seated), to the effect that image height was too high: singers appeared far too tall and the drummer’s cymbals far too high. These are a three (or four (?)) – way speaker: I do wonder if in moving away from the point-source attributes of the dual-concentric design, something has been lost.
Certainly the speakers sounded a lot better when one stood further away from them. Even so, on this acquaintance, and with what I heard, Tannoy would be hard to justify the proposed £35K they are asking.
A Wadia CD player, Music First ‘transformer’ preamp and a Moscode 402AU valve hybrid power amplifier were used for the demonstration
Coherent Systems were demonstrating the Cabasse Pacific 3SA speakers with Bel Canto CD/DAC. Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ sounded good even if it is a clichéd ‘70s demonstration track. The cash register noises and the unusual 6/8 time signature of Water’s bass were very well displayed – most enjoyable.
Symmetry used an Ayre CD player, Brinkmann turntable, arm (based on the Breuer arm) and cartridge (a modified EMT) and Trilogy phono stage, pre-amp and multiple power amplifiers. I didn’t take note of the speakers, but whatever they were, Symmetry were giving a good demo.
Tron/GT Audio demonstrated the visually imposing and striking Avantgarde Uno horn loudspeakers fed by a valve amplifier. Again I didn’t take note of the make of amplifier, as I was sidetracked by the use of an EMT JSD-6 cartridge (the latest design from the resurrected EMT, mounted on a Simplicity 001 arm (completely unknown and totally new to me); EMT are a company dear to me – I use one of their decks and have several of their cartridges ). I didn’t even note what the turntable was, but no matter – whatever it and the amp were, Johnny Cash never sounded so good.
EMT JSD-6 cartridge in a Simplicity 001 arm
I came across the Avantgarde horn loaded speakers last year at Whittlebury, and they caused me to reconsider my prejudices against horns. They displayed all of the fine attributes of horns, good attack, speed and dynamics, without the ‘cuppy’ sound so often associated with horns. I don’t know how Avantgarde load the bass driver, but the mid/treble horn is unfolded and I think that could well have something to do with the lack of obvious colouration.
This was one of the better demonstrations in a reasonably small room – around the same size as a typical living/listening room.
Icon Audio were using their valve amplifiers to feed, amongst others, the Kingsound Queen 2 electrostatic hybrid speakers. Maybe I was just attracted to the dipole speaker/electrostatic sound, but the overall sound was just so relaxing and convincing that I thought this was also one of best demos, played at a sensible volume level in a small room of the show.
Astin Trew/Revolver were playing John Martyn’s ‘Solid Air’ on the Music 5 TT. Certainly Danny Thompson’s bass was very clear and Martyn’s lyrics more articulate than usual.
Absolute Sounds (in one of their non-ticketed demonstrations: what an arrogant marketing strategy that is) were playing a Micromega CD player through some small Sonus Faber speakers and sounding pretty good. Unfortunately I find Absolute Sounds’ attitude and aloofness quite off-putting, discouraging me to enquire further.
Audiofreaks as usual gave an impeccable demonstration in a large room. This was a non-ticketed demonstration, people were coming in and out, yet such was the high standard of the demonstration, they did so with decorum and spoke in hushed tones (Absolute Sounds take note!). When I was there they were using a Zanden CD player via Karan solid-state amplification and Avalon speakers to play the overture to Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’. Played at a sensible and realistic level, with excellent sound-staging, this was to my ears one of the best demonstrations of the show. I found it so enjoyable I was reluctant to leave. Also on demonstration was the Kuzma turntable and arm with a Benz cartridge. I heard this combination in the Audiofreaks’ room last year and know it to be an excellent vinyl player.
Avalon speakers and Karan amplification
Focal JM Lab/DCS had demos in two rooms. In the first I felt that the speakers, Focal’s Diabolo Utopia, were too small for the large room, and were struggling to cope. Fed by a DCS Puccini player via VTL IT-85 amplifier, ‘Ave Maria’ just sounded ‘wrong’ (sorry, can’t elaborate any more than that). A later cello piece played also sounded tonally wrong.
However in the second, equally large room, larger Focal speakers were used, again with the dCS Puccini payer/DAC, but this time with Mark Levinson amplification (ML333s (?)) and were sounding much, much better. Not without it’s faults: the width of the sound sage was defined precisely by the separation between the speakers; and with a live recording of a singer/guitarist, the voice was too loud whereas the guitar was correct. This latter of course might have been a fault of the recording; the singer could have been singing into a microphone, whereas the guitar was un-miked. Even so, the feeling and atmosphere of the venue came across well.
DCS digital , Mark Levinson amplification, with VTL pre and JM Labs speakers
Kudos/Cymbiosis are obviously Linn/Naim enthusiasts. Kate Melua was being played on an Linn LP12/Naim Aro/ Dynavector XV combination, via Naim electronics into Kudos speakers. I found the sound to be bass light (and I listen to Quad ESLs; not noted for their bass weight), but otherwise overall very good.
I’m fascinated by the Dynavector XV design. You probably can’t see it in the photo, but the geometry of the generator exactly mirrors that of the disc cutter, unlike all other mc designs (with the notable exception of the Allnic Audio ‘Verito’ and ‘Puritas’ designs: http://www.allnicaudio.com/eng/produ…0000001&page=1).
Cymbiosis were displaying some beautiful, hand-crafted, bespoke and expensive plinths for the Linn LP12, available in a bewildering range of hardwoods.
Music First Audio were not only displaying and demonstrating their excellent ‘transformer’ pre amps, but were demonstrating John Howes’s Howes Acoustics ‘Quarter Wave Omni’ loudspeakers, fed by his PX4 SET amplifier (3 watt). When I visited, the source being used was a Revox A77 (Mk. III (?)) reel-to-reel machine.
Obviously inspired by Paul Voigt’s Corner Horn speaker of the 1950s, Howes’s designs use an upward facing Lowther driver (either the PM6 or later DX2) for the mid/treble with the sound being reflected outward by a semi-circular conical reflector, with the bass being derived from the rear of the driver, exiting the cabinet at floor level. These speakers are intended to be situated against a wall, or in the corner of the room. In Music First’s room the speakers were neither against a wall, nor did they seem to be sufficiently far in a corner, and this might be the cause of the problems I had with them. A solo female vocalist was being played and it has to be said that the sound was very pure, clean and naturalistic. The problem was the voice was completely disembodied – it just appeared out of the aether, somewhere between the speakers. No mouth, no head, no body – just the voice of some angelic spirit. I have to confess that I have never got on with omni-directional designs, since they lack for me the essential focus that I look for. I don’t know if they would have sounded better if they had been situated differently, but John Howes was there and was presumably happy with the way his speakers were being demonstrated.
Despite this I would be more than interested in hearing Howes’s speakers in a more controlled setting – i.e. my own home, as I feel they deserve more than a passing listen.
Howes has a more powerful PX25 SET design (6 watt) available as an alternative to the PX4 design.
Select Audio/AMR were displaying and demonstration Abingdon Music Research massively OTT, top-loading CD player with valve output stage, the CD-77. The build level of this player was most impressive – I dared not ask the price, but suspect it is in five figures. A recording of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter sounded really good, played at a realistic level.
AMR CD-77, Luxman pre-power and Verity Audio Amadis speakers
So that just about sums it up for this year. Another good show; equally well attended but, I’m afraid to say, with the equally confusing labyrinthine layout of demonstration rooms. This year most of the demonstrators seemed to have overcome the problems of speaker -(hotel) room interactions (1). Ironically, it was those who used the larger rooms that had problems. I was also pleased to note that the great majority of demonstrations were carried out at a sensible volume level, without the stupidity of each trying to out do the other. On the whole most of the music played was the sort of material that most people listen to, but there was the occasional, and perhaps understandably, ‘gee-wizz’ track played.
(1) This was the case in the rooms I visited but may well not have been the case in all rooms.
© Text and photos Copyright 2010 Barry Hunt
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