Bristol Hi-Fi Show 2019 Report
'Brilliant' sums up Bristol 2019 nicely. Last year's show was a tad deja-vu, I felt: it's not that it wasn't still the best UK trade-run show, but we were all treading water. This year there were new exhibitors, a new energy and gems to be found, meaning I got more innocent, giggling joy from the Bristol Show 2019 than from any other show in recent memory. There was even a trend or two to pick up on, but first let's take a cruise round some of the rooms that tweaked the interest of this wandering scribe.
Ruark: What do you say to a company that produces stereograms and Bose-like table-top radios, good enough for me to yearn to find room for one of its R7 High Fidelity Radiograms (approx. £2200) somewhere in the house? You need nerves of steel to bring a faux-1950s radiogram to market, but not only is it bang up to date technically, but it sounds pretty damned good too.
More practical is the R5 High Fidelity Music System (approx. £1000): it's very svelte and able, offering a very serious alternative to the Tivoli range, albeit at a much higher price. Our kitchen needs something along these lines.
ATC: This was ATC's first time at Bristol and it brought the new CD2 player and SIA2-100 amplifier. These are narrower than the norm – a theme I will pick up on later – and the sound via SCM40 speakers was excellent; being tonally accurate and dynamic. The Helius Designs Alexia turntable was interesting too but, I'd rather see an ATC turntable! Come on Billy and Ben: what I'd like is a high-end turntable in the style of the P1 amp – all polished stainless steel with titanium highlights – with direct drive, a start time of less than a second and room for a 12" arm. Or even two 12" arms.
Spendor And AURALiC: There's something inherently right-looking about Spendor's Classic 100: it's a chunky standmount that pretty much defines the classic UK speaker for audiophiles of a certain age. It's like going home and your mum cooking a roast dinner: it may not be the last word in haute cuisine, but hell, it tastes wonderful. The room sounded pretty good with a pleasing rich mid and upper bass range, and while the speakers lacked a bit of sparkle, that could just be down to the music played. At home, and with the right electronics, these are going to prove to be keepers for many audiophiles.
Harbeth: Both speakers and people in the two Harbeth rooms oozed urbane sophistication. The P3ESR has a timbral accuracy and ease of delivery that pleases while playing within its limits, but like virtually all mini-monitors, the speakers congest when driven hard. More capable was the C7ES-3 next door, where Alan Shaw played some marimba music that charmed with its naturalness.
Primare: I've paid scant attention to this brand in the past, but the i15 and CD15 integrated amplifier and CD player should make any audiophile sit up and take notice, being super Internet-savvy and able to be voice controlled via the proprietary Prisma control solution. One to watch.
Fyne Audio: When I entered the Fyne Audio room I winced: the music was much too loud and harsh, and was exciting a room mode that almost had me heading straight out again. However, with my solo piano recording going from pianissimo to triple forte, from 27Hz upwards, all in the space of 27 seconds, the Fyne Audio F702 delivered timbre, density, flow and musicality in bundles. What a transformation! Were I looking for speakers, I would definitely have them on my audition list.
Mellow Acoustics: New company. New product. New designer. Tim Mellow's FrontRo electrostatic hybrid speakers (12" electrostatic panel top section, 5" dynamic driver lower section) are a bold offering. Whether Tim has 'solved many of the problems facing electrostatic enthusiasts', to quote his own words, remains to be seen. What I heard was, according, to my notes, 'interestingly fast and spunky', but panel speakers of any description have to work very hard to survive, especially now that dynamic drive units are so good.
FUNK FIRM: I found Funk Firm's Arthur Khoubesserian in full flow demonstrating the claimed superiority of his FX arms over an SME V. Not being familiar with his products and demonstration protocols meant that what was blindingly obvious to Arthur was less so to me. After an entertaining and interesting demonstration and subsequent discussion I left with the distinct impression that I needed to try very much harder to keep up with this brilliant and indefatigable entrepreneur. A legend in his own dem room, is Arthur.
Tri-Art Audio: The company showed its Bamboo turntables, from plinth to footers, platter and tonearm: visit triartaudio.com to ogle these strikingly unusual creations. However, I don't quite know what to make of it all. I too have tried putting IKEA bamboo cutting boards under kit and heard the difference but a bamboo turntable? Is it a bit like making an amplifier completely out of paper because paper can sound great as a drive unit cone material?
Trends: With Exposure and now ATC joining Cyrus in the narrow box electronics race, products that are easier to house and hide are now a distinct sub-category. More in less; and a counter to the older audiophile paradigm where an integrated amp explodes into a preamp, two monoblock power amps, a separate phono stage and as many power supplies as you can house.
Having those sort of problems? Try this rig: A Primare CD15 connected directly to a pair of KEF LS50 wireless active speakers. That's just three room friendly boxes with CD playback, streaming and superb audiophile sound, and all with the potential for voice control.
Except... I have to admit that talking to my kit does nothing for me. After all, it might start talking back at me....
...Kevin Fiskr, however, was less convinced.
This year's Bristol Show was a largely dismal affair, with very few rooms notable for good sound. Most were on the spectrum of instantly forgettable to hauntingly awful. What's more, on the first morning of the show I sat on the wall of the park opposite the venue and watched the queue: of over 100 people waiting for the doors to open, only one was female. The average age of the queue? In the 35-45 region, with less than a handful under 20.
These two observations illustrate why the audio industry today is a shadow of what once it was. It needs to deliver quality, and needs to worry about the cohort of young customers it must recruit each year and take on a lifetime's journey of discovery. Without quality, recruitment dwindles. And without new customers the sector will continue to contract.
One of the greatest and most damaging conceits is that Generation X needs to be 'educated in how to listen.' A friend of mine auditioned some new speakers from a 'leader' in the field, and they were un-dynamic, over-bright and analytical. My friend said so, much to the dismay of the dealer principal who rounded on him and barked: "But how are you listening?" My friend's response: "With my ears." We don't have to be 'in the trade' to be able to discern good from bad: most people are well able to make a grounded value-judgment without 'education.' They stand patiently in line to get into a high end audio show, take in the sound produced by the majority of systems - and then leave having made the entirely rational decision to spend the money on a good holiday instead.
As if that wasn't enough, some companies seem trapped in a self-fulfilling doom loop of depression, unable to muster sufficient self-awareness to make positive changes. At Bristol one company head subjected me to a 10 minute monologue on how audio is dying and why it's all the consumers' fault. They don't want to wait for products to be built to order, and they baulk at the high costs.
I expressed interest in reviewing and possibly owning a pair of the American speakers he sells in the UK, but he ploughed on, telling me he never exhibits at shows, doesn't advertise and reviews are a waste of time. Yes, I could give him circa £10,000 to order a pair of the speakers unseen and unheard, but no, I couldn't borrow a demo pair to try them at home or review them.
You couldn't make it up.