Ian Ringstead takes us through his thoughts of this year’s North West Audio Show held over the weekend at De Vere Cranage Estate in Cheshire.

The sun shone on Cranage Hall this year and in sweltering heat on Saturday it was a real joy to be greeted by a free glass of bubbly as we entered the hotel – and here’s fellow Hifi Pig write John scott enjoying his. This has always been a friendly show aimed at families not just audiophiles, and the fact it is free entry as well is a real bonus.

All the staff were super helpful and made the day a pleasure. I have been asked to tell you about my favourite rooms/products, so this report is very much my own views and opinions. The show itself was over two days so I had plenty of time to drink in the atmosphere as well as a few pints!John Scott of Hifi Pig enjoying a free glass of bubbly.

Cranage is big and well laid out with a good variety of room sizes which makes listening to big systems and small systems a pleasure. There was also a good range of static stands for the accessory companies to show off their wares and they looked to be doing a great job of extracting cash from the punters’ pockets, (mine included). Although aimed at enthusiasts the show had enough variety to suit all tastes and pockets and keep people entertained.

Standout products for me were from the small companies that aim high and one such company is Acoustand based in Gainsborough. They had a stunning purple coloured turntable on show that I just couldn’t take my eyes off. At £5995 it was a bargain and is machined on traditional lathes the old-fashioned way, not modern CNC machines. The owner Lee Drage said it was how he was taught, and he had complete control over the whole build process. It was finished to immaculate standards and can carry four tonearms and has the option of different platters, one in bronze. I listened to it through some headphones and it was excellent. The arm was a basic Rega 250 and moving magnet cartridge. Lee deserves to do well with this product. He could sell it for far more but is not interested in trying to make a fast buck. A man of true passion.

Another product that caught my attention was an isolation material called Acouplex which has been developed by the people at Music Works in Cheshire. A blend of Perspex and a ground material, this product looks deceptively simple but took many hours of trials to develop. A sheet placed under a piece of equipment was night and day sound wise when the comparisons were done. I was shocked at how good it sounded and you wouldn’t want to go back to the untreated system. Not cheap at £500 a sheet but it could be a real winner.

The most impressive rooms for me were in no particular order:

Absolute Sounds. They had a large room with a relatively cheap system consisting of an Eat Audio turntable, phono stage through a Krell integrated amp and some Sonus Faber floor standers. A streaming device was used as well. The sound was very easy on the ear and was one you could listen to all day long. It was nice to hear a cheaper system from Absolute Sounds this year and prove you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a great sound.

Avid Audio as always produced a lovely easy open sound that always impresses me. They were showing off their new £ 15000 floor standers that have wooden cabinets rather than machined from solid metal billets like others in their range. Conrad is a firm believer in having a great foundation on which to start a system, so he used his Acutus turntable through his new integrated amp. I voted Avid best sound of Munich in 2016 and they continue to impress.

Music Works had Accuphase electronics on dem with a pair of speakers new to me from the USA by a company called Role. These were slim floor standers at £4500 a pair and they had superb clarity. I love Accuphase as they are like Luxman in their design philosophy and build quality. When you buy one of their products you tend to hang onto them.

BrianandTrevors room was relaxed and they were using a Linn LP12 through some Kudos stand mounts. A gentleman asked if he could play a record through the system. It was a £2.50 classical record from a charity shop and it sounded superb. It just goes to show that quality sound can be achieved with a bargain-priced record given quality components.

The great Linn front end was aided by a host of components and digital front ends from B-fly audio, Chord Cables, Kudos Audio, Melco, Puritan Audio, Quadraspire and REL.

3 Square Audio were showing their new stand mount the Ayal for the first time aimed at smaller rooms and pockets. Initially, at £1000 on offer at the show, they will increase by next year to about £1300 approx. A pair of matching stands will be available for £350. They were impressive and I hope to audition a pair soon.

Auden Distribution were showing the top of the range Amphion speakers driven by a Hegel 590 and Innuos streamer. I love the Amphion sound and all their speakers impress me. This was another system that used the Acouplex and we were all hugely impressed by the improvement.

Karma AV had two rooms, the smaller having a very modestly priced system using a Mofi turntable, Primare electronics and Falcon Acoustics diminutive LS3/5A speakers. The bass was excellent and again was easy on the ear with great mid-range presence and a smooth top end.

Of note elsewhere in the show, Chasing the Dragon recordings by Mike Valentine had a big room to show off his recordings he has made over the last few years. A big pair of ATC SCM150’s were driven by ATC electronics and a Clearaudio turntable, ATC cd player and a Studer reel to reel. Mike has an infectious enthusiasm and is a real showman. His day job is an underwater specialist cameraman having worked on several James Bond films amongst many other projects. The recording is a hobby that has become a passion. His recordings cover cd and records some of which are direct cut masters. MFSL started this trend many years ago and when you have heard a direct cut master the difference is staggering. The recordings were made at Air Studios in London where George Martin used to work (Abbey Road couldn’t accommodate him all the time ), so he bought Air Studios. The stuff of legends. Needless to say I bought a couple of records and an ambisonic (dummy head) recording on cd.

Icon Audio had their full range of valve amps on show with several speakers designs of their own as well. Fortunately, their room was air-conditioned, a boon given the heat valve amps create. Mantovani was being played through some new Horn designs at £10,000 and they sounded spot on. They reminded me of the Living Voice speakers, but considerably cheaper. I’m not a fan of Mantovani but appreciate his popularity in the 50s and 60s and the recordings are excellent. Very smooth and open. Strings can be very seductive.

Other products of note were the range of quality accessories on offer. Record cleaning machines are proving very popular now. I use a Project VCS which for a budget machine is great, just very noisy. Kirmuss Audio were busy showing their new machine that Stuart and Linette enjoyed reviewing and The Nessie from Germany was being shown by Divine Audio. I saw the Nessie at Munich in 2016 and was very impressed by it. They are very quiet and have three models from the basic through to the fully automatic model. I buy a lot of vinyl and most is second hand, so a good machine is vital. Even new records need cleaning to remove release agents on the vinyl from the pressing machines.

Brook Audio were showcasing the Kondo range of eye wateringly priced valve amps and associated equipment. At this price level it is unfair to judge it in unfamiliar surroundings and value can’t be assessed in the same way. It sounded very good for the time I listened to it. The buyer will make the ultimate decision based on preference and not necessarily price.

Missing Link/Vinyl Passion had the new Kralk Audio 30.4 speakers playing which had only just been finished a few days before the show. At £3000 they represent a real bargain for what’s on offer.

Kralk had their own room playing their TDB12’s launched last year. These have been a good success for him at £1200 to £1300. He had a rock hour on the Sunday where we listened to many rock classics. I was impressed and know Alan is very proud of this model.

The Klipsch Forte speakers impressed for £4000 and Henley Audio look to be doing well with this range.

Actually, Henley had two rooms. In Nobel they used the Musical Fidelity Pre and PRX to drive the Klipsch Forte speakers I mentioned. The analogue front end was the new Project Classic Evo and Lehmann Decade phono stage while the digital side was looked after by the Roon Nucleus and Stream Box S2 Ultra. They used the Project Wall Mount IT 1 to mount the turntable to the wall and Custom Design Cuba stands for the remainder of the system.

In Nobel Henley ran three systems to suit different room sizes, budgets and requirements. For the main analogue front end, they had the new Project X2 turntable, fitted with the Project DS2 cartridge with the Lehmann Black Cube SE2 phono stage, into the Musical Fidelity M2Si amplifier and Klipsch RP8000F. They used another Project Stream Box S2 Ultra combined with the Project Pre Box S2 Digital and Amp Box S2 combined with Klipsch RP500M speakers to demonstrate a compact and affordable streaming based system. Finally, they combined the new Project T1 Phono SB turntable with Klipsch The Sixes.

Fanthorpes Audio of Hull had the Luxman L509 X flagship integrated amp driving PMC’s new Fact 12 signatures with a Project Signature 10 turntable and various Ortofon cartridges. Kieran from Henley did a stirling job of demonstrating the differences between all the cartridges and it was easy to hear the changes. Having a turntable with a detachable headshell made life so much easier for this demonstration. This was again another very fine sounding room.

So, another successful show that all enjoyed I’m sure. Organisation was excellent and gets better each year. If you didn’t get chance to go this year or have never been before then please try to go next year, you won’t be disappointed.

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Ian Ringstead

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