NAS2014There is something I really love about the annual National Audio Show in Whittlebury, Northamptonshire, UK. It could be the lovely scenic route there, or the free parking, or maybe the sound of racing cars screeching around nearby Silverstone. The smiles of Roy Bird, the Chester Group chairman of the annual event, now in its sixth year, walking around the plethora of corridors, and the facial expressions from would-be hi-fi millionaires ogling at and listening to a Fingle’s Cave of equipment make this a really popular event, even if some (and I stress just some) of the old fashioned paper magazine mafia boycott this event for their own personal issues. Grow up. Rant over now, so let’s start talking about the equipment, which us why you are reading this.loved this one

This year was different to last year on several fronts. Firstly, there was less of the “same as, same as” productions; there were much more individualistic and jaw dropping products this year with less of the white elephants that you see one year and never again. There was an emphasis on getting more of the bigger brands back in again, though with the obvious exception of one set of brands distributed by one giant. A shame because any show is better than no show. Numbers of feet walking in were less than I expected, but I did notice more women and children and many felt business more bullish on Sunday. Whilst I visited every room (and constantly got lost in the process, despite the very useful ‘shoe transfers’ imprinted on the carpet – if it looks upside down you know you are working your way back to the front of the show), there were a relatively small number of absolutely amazing products that I wanted to talk you about.

Whilst omni-directional speakers have been around for many years, the Pluto, based in Newark, Nottinghamshire (and
made in China), is perhaps one of the most unique looking; not dissimilar to the water dispensers at work, though in white, green, blue or red (or any other colour at 10% more). This was one of the best omnidirectional speakers I have listened to, largely because whilst mid and bass is pointing up the tweeter is foreword facing, negating somewhat the definition omnidirectional. However, because of this inconsistency of terms, this one actually works. Bass and mid are all around the listener, but the important directional information, whether or not you are sitting centre, is still there. At £3000 the unit comes complete with cables and amplifier.Pluto

In terms of the most amazing little speaker I have heard for far too long was the little Kralk Audio Black Cat Br-3. At £349 the musical footprint was much greater than the cost suggested. Everything was there, from the lowest lows (though it panicked a taj with 32ft pedal organ, in line with the laws of physics) to the highest highs. It was precise, with a detailed and exciting soundstage being fed from an ancient Sansui amplifier with, and I stress, EQ flat. I was looking for a sub hidden in the corner. There wasn’t one. These would give any near field studio monitors a run for their money, and, at the same size and equally “toed-in” as infamous LS3/5a, I would be very happy to use them if I was still twiddling knobs at the BBC. If only they’d been around when I was looking at replacements for the Rogers back in 2004. There are four wood finishes, and any other colour can be got at for £50 more.kralk Audio

From one extreme to the other, it was great to see KEF back in the picture with the £20,000 Blade. This is quite some performer and puts KEF back in the speaker arena again. With an expensive design with hand crafted fibreglass body made from two halves stuck together, complex internal chambers and damping system this is actually better value for money than the price suggests. The body is assembled before the engineers get a chance to put the drivers, cross-over or padding inside. Quite a feat for the engineers to fit it in. With two pairs of back-to-back bass drivers, and a front facing Uni-Q driver array, creating a single horizontal axis of sound, these offer exceptional stereo sound stage, and these monuments are now available at 75% of the cost and 66% of the size in the new-to-be released sequel Blade 2 (sounds like a film). At £15,000 this is far easier on the living room space as well as the husband’s wallet. Bass was tight, and treble – with the new Uni-Q driver array – was much less nasal than it’s very old antecedent, something which always worried me. This was fun and an easy speaker to drive. I was glad KEF was there, and happier that it wasn’t to show a pointless Muon exercise. Available in black and white and any other colour at extra cost. Surprisingly the most popular ‘other colour’ is orange! In the real world, this new KEF blade runner is no Oscar Pistorius.Blade 2

In terms of headphones, an increasingly major part of the hi-fi industry, there were many examples on show, and I and the staff showing them noticed the amazing expressions of folk putting Stax SR009 on their ears. Whilst I know their sound (see review last month), what I wasn’t prepared for was the ugliest headphone I have ever seen, the relatively new Abyss, powered by the Goliath of headphone amplifiers, the McIntosh MHA100, both from across the pond. With very little adjustment when put on your head, and definitely not to be put on when you’re on a date, or on a motorbike, this was nothing less than the most amazing piece of kit I have had the pleasure of wearing. Its physical openness – hardly touching your ear – did nothing to reduce the bass end. This was like listening to the most esoteric speaker-based kit you could put together. Top, middle and bottom were just perfect. They should be, at £4,500 (without the £4,995 amplifier). I’m starting to save up for one.Headphones galore

 

Abyss headphones

Abyss close up

Also at £4500 was the long awaited Townshend Excalibur arm, sitting proudly next to the Rock7 turntable. Incorporating many of the Cranfield design of 1978 by a Jack Dinsdale (particularly with the iconic and very effective trough/paddle damping) this aluminium paint’ coated stainless steel arm with magnesium head-shell and F1 fractal wire throughout incorporates a

“new spring downforce to maintain absolute kinematic principles for rejection of external vibration”

Yes Professor Townshend, I think I know what you mean.

Excalibur

From one extreme to another, Henley Designs were rightly proud to demonstrate the Pro-ject MaiA integrated amplifier. At £399 this miniature marvel did everything, with aplomb. MaiA stands for My Audiophile Integrated Amplifier. Just as well Audiophile isn’t spelled Audio File… This really was a monster of a product that any magician would be pleased to get out of his hat with the rabbit or flowers on stage. It has a 37W/4 ohm class-D amp, built in DAC, basic (but respectable) MM phono stage, an apX Bluetooth module, 192kHz asynchronous USB streamer, comprehensive analogue and digital inputs, headphone socket, and a full remote control. This really was magic. Whilst Pro-ject were originally known for their excellent value, but basic MFI turntables, they are now starting to make some impressive vinyl spinners. On show were the RPM 1 Carbon, which as it’s name suggests has a carbon covered aluminium arm to strengthen it, at £325, the RPM 3 which goes one step higher with an intelligent counterweight and platter surface made from recycled vinyl, not in an effort to save the planet, but because like lovers, the two work well next to each other. ahh…. At the top end was the beautifully presented Signature, costing £7,000.Project RP 1

Other items at the show were Timestep product’s SME M10-D. Based on the M10, this version, with provision for two arms, was inspired by the fact that with many excellent mono remastered discs coming into circulation, having only one arm for both stereo and mono cartridges can be a real pain. Whilst not endorsed by SME they are not objecting to this very clever version, probably because perhaps they should have thought of it first.2 arm SME M10

Ikon Audio were proud to show their new show-stopper, the goliath MB 81pp, with its massive Russian GU81 pentodes driven as triodes, pulling out 200W with so much ease it gave one of the most smile inducing performances at the show, though at £12,500, my wallet might not be quite so happy.Ikon Audio

It was great to see Mike Valentine back at the show again. Last year he won award for the best sounding room playing his Chasing The Dragon album recorded on 50 year old Neumann valve microphones. This year the flamboyant ex-BBC sound engineer was here again, this time with some extremely expensive and OTT Promethian Audio, Ikeda Kai and Durand phono gear. And four new recordings on vinyl.

Chasing the Dragon

One of my favourites of the weekend was actually not hi-fi, but the oh-so clever wooden cabinets made by Audio-Cabi.net. Beautifully constructed they made my female instincts come to the fore with their ability to hide the hi-fi when not in use and then for each internal rack to be pulled out so that you could get to the wiring behind. Such an original idea and whilst not cheap would be a very long term investment.  Hand built at a factory in Bedfordshire, this 1978-launched company proud, of making staircases, launched the Hi-Fi mega accessory at last year’s Whittlebury show, winning the “most innovative room” prize last year. And they won it again this year, too! I want one. Then my Hi-Fi won’t get so dusty!cabinet open 2

This year’s prize winners for me: 

“Best Demonstration’                –         dCS

“Best Pre Show Marketing”      –         Henley Designs

“Best Presented Room”            –         The Vinyl Frontier

“Most Innovative Room”            –       Audio-Cabi.net

“Best Stand in Open Areas”     –         Townshend

“Overall Best of Show”            –          dCS

Janine Elliott

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