Report by Alvin Gold
If I tell you that the Hi-fi Show, the UK's main hi-fi and home cinema showcase, opened at the Novotel, West London on the 13th September, you'll already know half of the story. Just two days after the events in New York, Washington et
al. Feelings were too raw for many people to cope with. Even if flights from the UK hasn't been completely frozen, and from other regions badly disrupted, it would still have been a
quiet and not just a sombre opening. The public days were well attended, however, which was some recompense for an industry that like many others at the moment feels decidedly battered. The consensus was that this was not the largest or most vibrant show to have been organised by
Hi-Fi News, but for those who did attend, there was a fair amount of new and interesting
gear. Heavily home theatre oriented of course, but without the excess and bombast that has marred some previous shows covering the same turf. New media like DVD-Audio and SACD had an important place, but did not
dominate. Neither was it just a showcase for antediluvian tube amps and horn speakers constructed from papier mâche, paper clips and old tin foil on kitchen tables in minute quantities. In fact it was a thoroughly balanced, mainstream show with something to interest almost everyone, but there were significant big name absentees, including Arcam, B&W and Meridian, who were missed.
Martin Logan Descent subwoofer (UK price £2,898)
Best sound of the show in my view came from Nordost who reprised their CES demonstration of cable differences using a modest but decent system to show the advantages of their top cables, many of which dwarfed the cost of the system, but there were no new products on show and so no story.
Russ Andrews (R) cutting 15th anniversary cake,
which was excellent.
Best cake of the show came from Russ Andrews - thanks guys - celebrating their fifteenth year in operation selling Kimber Cable by mail
order. A model operation of its kind which has succeeded by offering knowledgeable service, extended home trial periods and generous upgrade schemes.
Best start-up was an egg shaped loudspeaker from Eclipse, part of Fujitsu Ten. The main model is the TD512, a costly back to first principles design fitted with a single 12cm full-range driver,
is based on what is described as time domain technology. For a 'fast and dramatically detailed sound' with which boasts what can only be described as unconventionally beautiful aesthetics. The speaker is used and endorsed by Brian Eno, and sounds, er,
interesting. Sensitivity is extremely low - around 81dB/watt - and they are to be sold with a dedicated and rather dramatic looking cone shape stereo amplifier called the Eclipse A
502. Rated at 30 watts/channel for an all-in £3,055. Not a headbanger's charter, obviously, and dynamically there was little going on during my brief earball in admittedly unfavourable acoustic circumstances. Eclipse was also showing a smaller speaker using the same design principles called the TD508PA (price not set). This model uses an 8cm driver, and has a 79dB/watt sensitivity, which must be in the running as an all time low for a moving coil design.
There were other interesting new names. Among them Karan
Acoustics from Yugoslavia. Their well endowed balanced mode, fully differential solid state amplification which I was assured are 'better made than Roland'. They certainly look the business, and come at prices ranging from
£4,000 for a 180 watt integrated to £29,000 for a pair of 1.2kW monoblocks. This model was on demonstration, but how it survived on the hotel mains supply is anyone's guess.
Synthesis Ceamus integrated amp and Pride CD player
Another newcomer was Synthesis from Italy specialises in
colourful loudspeakers and tube amplifiers. Prices starting at £950 for a 2 x 30 watt integrated pentode.
Tannoy, basking in the glow of an important European EISA award for the top-of-the-range TD12 (High End Product of the Year 2001/2002), used the occasion of the
show to show some important new models. The Tannoy TDC-1 centre speaker and
TD-SUB subwoofer match the TD12 and its smaller brothers, the TD10 and TD8 (the numbering indicates the main driver diameter in inches). The latter was developed with
co-operation from REL of subwoofer fame, who were exhibiting revised and improved models under their own names elsewhere in the show. You'll recognise the association from the terminal/control panel. Both new models were designed a grand scale, and aimed principally the high end markets in the US and the Far East.
Back in the real world, Tannoy also slowed a complete new range of mainstream hi-fi/home cinema speakers under the Eyris range
name. These are chiefly notable for their DVD-A/SACD friendly wide bandwidth
(upwards of 44 kHz) titanium dome tweeters which draw on technology first developed for the ST-200 Prestige Super Tweeter. Tannoy has taken the rather improbable step of registered the name Wideband as a trade mark for this iteration of the Prestige tweeter technology, but hey. If Bose can get away with registering 'lifestyle' (with normal and capitalised first letters by the way), then what grounds do I have to complain?
But Tannoy was not alone in addressing the wide bandwidth paradigm which threatens to become a bandwagon. It was all change at KEF, with more new models than I could shake a stick
at. Their new Uni-Q (coincident source) equipped models at prices from £250 (less for the centre and surround models) to
£9,000 for the Reference 207, which looks much more conventional than the Maidstone flagship - and don't all shout 'thank goodness' at once. The senior models include extended bandwidth super tweeters with a 55kHz upper limit. By next
year mass market manufacturers whose loudspeaker lack such a tweeter will have a struggle on their hands.
One of the themes of the show of course was the ongoing battle for supremacy between DVD-Audio and SACD, but for once it was DVD-Audio on the back foot. JVC was one of the few major names at the show supporting the
DVD-Audio system in depth. Between them, Sony, Marantz and Pioneer - a once time DVD-Audio stalwart - made most of the
running with SACD. Sony was showing a wide range of mostly affordable SACD players, including the cheapest
multi-channel player yet, the SCD-XE670. The SCD-EE670 is a dedicated SACD
unit and therefore does not play DVD-Video discs. They also had a small, extremely attractive 5.1 channel
system called the DAV-S500, which is a one piece multi-channel SACD/DVD-V/FM-AM receiver.
This system is supplied with a very creditable 5.1 sat/sub speaker package, and whose amplifier is a surprisingly sweet sounding fully digital design which claims a 20-bit resolution. At £500 all in, it's not exactly
hi-fi though I have tested it and it really sings as well as being a technological tour de force. All the new models are
multi-channel and CD-R/RW compatible. DVD models will play DVD-RW discs recorded using the non-DVD compatible VR (Video Recorder) format. This might not matter much right now, but give it a few
Pioneer’s new VSA-AX10 monster AV amp with THX Ultra2
Pioneer showed a variety of key new models including an all-singing, all-dancing high-end one piece home theatre amplifier called the VSA-AX10 designed to wrest the crown away from Denon and Integra
(by Onkyo). This is a serious piece of kit that was developed in co-operation with Pioneer UK, who have installed one in George Martin's Air Studio control room. It is expected to be the first product of its type with music friendly THX Ultra2 technology, and it will cost around
£3,000. With seven channels of 170 watts THX certified power, it is the world's first amplifier with
24-bit/96 kHz dts decoding. It will also have a powerful acoustic calibration/equalisation
system and will be available in the U.S.A. as a receiver under the Pioneer VSA-AX10 Elite designation. Pioneer also showed what I believe to be the first
DVD-Audio/multi-channel SACD player to break cover outside Japan. Known as the DV-747A, it will sell for around
£1,000 in the UK. This unit is expected to be on sale at the back end of the year, or possibly January
2002. Of course this will be merely the first of many, but it is not a fully integrated solution under the skin, being essentially a DVD-Audio player with an add in SACD processing board. Later models will use an integrated chipset for both functions. Such chipsets already exist with two channel SACD capabilities, and there are known to be a number of low cost players on the way using this already defunct technology.
Important as they are, these product announcements were somewhat overshadowed by some internal research data that was shared at a press
briefing. That for me was the highlight of the show. This came in the form of a slide comparing the number of commercial releases have were available, or are forecast to be available in the first five years from launch of various optical media, including compact disc, LaserDisc, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio and SACD. The forecast indicated that by the end of year
five there will be substantially more releases available on SACD than on DVD-Audio at the same stage in it's development cycle. If they are right, the difference will look even more dramatic in practice as SACD is about a year further down the road than DVD-A.
Conrad Johnson Premier 18LS solid state line preamp,
a C-J first– US price $3,000-ish
Of course any figures of this kind are open to the charge of being speculative or plain self serving, and yes of course they should be taken with a pinch of salt. Certainly all conventional wisdom to date has pointed to the overwhelming probability that DVD-Audio would prevail, as VHS did over
Beta... and for the same reason. Namely because it commands overwhelming marking clout from the real industry
heavyweights - Warner, Matsushita and so on. But there are few companies whose expertise in optical media rivals Pioneer, and the presentation came from a Pioneer (John Bamford, ex-hi-fi magazine editor and a committed audiophile, who from very long experience I know would not have said anything if he could not have given it to us
straight). Plus of course Pioneer has no obvious axe to grind. The company has always supported DVD-A in the past, the VX-747A being the first Pioneer product to support SACD. And there are other straws in the wind that point in the same direction: SDMI is in turmoil, the DVD-Audio launch was badly mishandled, and there is a fund of bad feeling among the important opinion forming early adopting fraternity that has been accumulated by the foisting of Verance analogue watermarking without the normal checks and
balances - which has not been shown to be unobtrusive aurally. In addition the first SACD titles from one of the few widely respected audiophile labels, Opus 3, broke cover at the show, and EMI has added its name to the rollcall of record companies issuing titles on SACD. Most important of all, however, was the decision announced shortly before the show by Universal, the largest and most powerful record company in the world, to name SACD as their preferred high resolution format. There's something interesting going on
The Marantz room was also home to Mordaunt-Short, which they have now teamed up with (Marantz North America has distributed Mordaunt-Short for some time) now that the previous association with Tannoy has drawn to a close. The range is headlined by the attractive and capable THX Select loudspeaker system, which is already a familiar sight, but new models were
shown including the Premiere Home Theatre (a small 5.1 channel sat/sub system which will compete with entry level models from Polk, Boston and
Energy). It is an attractive looking package but the subwoofer has rather agricultural aesthetics, though it scores by being compact.
Marantz SA-12SI flagship multichannel SACD player
Marantz has severed another link recently too, with parent company Philips. Their new found independence should have important consequences in the future, but the past lingers
on. For example in the SA-12SI, which is their new high end flagship multichannel SACD/DVD Video player, finished in the now traditional Marantz champagne
gold and equipped internally with a circuit topology quite similar to the Philips
SACD-1000 (the first multi-channel SACD player on both sides of the Atlantic). This is a much enhanced
model with better and beefier components, and a video kill feature. But you should know that the SACD-1000 was originally developed for Philips by Marantz.
Linn Products used a light, airy room to show several significant new
products including two follow-ups to the original Classik integrated CD amplifier. One is a
multi-room (Knekt) enabled version, which confusingly shares the same model name, and the other is the Classik Movie System, which as the name suggests includes a DVD
drive... along with a Dolby Digital/dts decoder and a 5.1 channel amplifier with improved styling and ergonomics. One notable omission from the
roll call of this model (on the provisional spec list at least) is Dolby Pro Logic II. Back on their traditional high end turf, Linn was demonstrating the £40,000 Komri five-way monitor class speaker and a twin channel version of their elegant switch mode Klimax power amplifier, the Klimax Twin. This version produces
two channels with 125 watts into 8 Ohms, and twice this into 4 Ohms from a small, lightweight and cool running box which is nothing less than stunning visually.
Naim NA-P630 multi-room power amplifier
Last but not least (the traditional qualification, but true), mention of Linn leads naturally to one time partner in arms Naim Audio, who had several new products on
show. Not all of which will be available immediately, including the Allæ that
is a passive two box, two-way speaker that slots in below the NBL at £1,990 a pair. Naim was also showing a prototype six channel multi-room power amplifier called the 6-50, rated at 30 watts/channel, arranged as three stereo pairs. More radical, and for many much more shocking is a few theatre surround processor, the AV2, which has the very Dolby Digital and dts algorithms that the first generation Naim surround processor turned its back on. There is also a matching three channel power amp, the NAP175, based on the
NAP150. Naim envisages that the pair will be used with existing two channel Naim systems, which should be possible without detriment to two channel performance. Julian Verreker will be turning in this grave. So why the change of heart to embracing Dolby and dts in favour of the matrix surround that was used in the
AV1? Could it have been - perish the thought - that the matrix just didn't work, that if you moved six inches from the central position the image would collapse into the nearest loudspeaker? Answer at the bottom of the page.
Click here to see a
complete listing of show exhibitors.