Bristol Sound & Vision is the longest running audio visual show in the UK. Bristol has been running since 1985 in the Bristol City Centre Marriot. The location has never changed over 30+ years, and in some places the facilities look like that also. The outside of the building is of the severe concrete brutalism variety. The externals are all angles—no curves allowed. Entry is through cramped entryways with a fairly closed off lobby. No area to wait and meet friends, just get to it, and look upon the sales desk just to the right of the entry-way and despair.
I arrived Friday, around 3:50, and knew that I would have little time to see much. I would have been an hour early except for a breakdown on the M5 blocking a lane (no shoulders on many sections of British motorways), followed by the cleanup of a lorry (semi-truck) fire, that happened early in the morning, still closing two lanes of traffic as they tore the lorry apart for removal to another location in the afternoon. The fire was out. They still wouldn’t move it until it was completely disassembled. I think likelihood of fireball after putting that fire out was pretty remote. Better safe than
Luckily, there were no fires in Bristol. My walk from the Megabus—I’m not paid for this, no judgements, please; was an easy 8-minute jaunt and sign-in at the press booth was straightforward. I grabbed my show manual chock-full of nuggets, advertisements and text telling you where to go to try to get a little bit of the more than £12k of show giveaways. Free stuff, I’m there dude.
I decided to go visit some of my favourite folks first, iFi Audio. Meze was on the way.
Where’s the EMPYREAN? I’ve got everything at this stand at home. Moving on. Apparently Meze didn’t send it for the poor folks at SCV because some folks in New York were still playing with it after CanJam NYC. Bummer.
The setup at the iFi station was new. They had basically all of their gear on display, from their power and USB filtering tech to their big Pro stack. They also had a really good variety of headphones with smart variety. On display: Audeze LCD-X, Stax SR-009, HiFiMAN HE-6, Audiotechnica MSR7, and Meze 99 Classics. Smart distribution of sounds.
Pro iDSD stack
iFi has a bit of new stuff coming out soon. I had a listen to a few of them and talked shop with some of the iFi folk. They are such a nice team. I even got to talk with the enigmatic Thorsten Lösch. Thorsten is the chief engineer and director of R&D at iFi, he’s basically Skyn the Skunkworks skunk.
Thorsten told me a little bit about FPGA in the new Pro iDSD. The FPGA is basically running digital filters, which is a form of high level digital signal processing (DSP), from what I can tell. He also told me that the Bit Perfect+ setting restores a little bit of air that he believes is missing from some other settings. I started out in Bit Perfect.
I had a listen to the new Pro stack.
Signal chain: Macbook Pro to Pro iDSD to Pro iCAN to iESL to Stax SR-009 all connected with iFi and Forza Audio cables.
First, I had a listen to what they were playing. Something soulful that I had no clue what it was. Nice, but then I asked for some Houses of the Holy. On The Song Remains the Same the treble sounded thin and too vaporous—it dissipated almost as soon as I heard it with no sustain. I don’t think the SR-009 works for me.
I’m actually not a fan of the Stax SR-009. It’s a thin, overly quick headphone with bass that is as temporary and lean feeling as an honest statement from a politician. I’m not convinced that all the people who say they love the SR-009 truly do, because it is almost always is paired with a tube amp that adds a bunch of euphonic harmonics. In other words, they add a bunch of steroids to the signature and describe it as the best. I don’t buy it. Throwing on a bunch of tube harmonics thickens up the sound, but it isn’t a neutral amp. Throw the Stax SR-009 with a neutral chain and I’m not sure it’s proponents feel the same. It did sound technically excellent out of a £100,000 setup (MSB Select stack), but still lacked soul. I wished that the Sennheiser HE-1 could have played out of that MSB, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The SR-009 was the weakest link there. I’ve heard the SR-009 out of the Blue Hawaii (not quiet room, didn’t blow me away). I’m not convinced I’ll ever truly feel like this headphone has a soul. It moves like a phantasm.
So I switched to a headphone I like: the HiFiMAN HE-6. Immediately much much much better. Holy crap the HE-6 is way better. The Pro iCAN gave the HE-6 everything it needed with overhead to spare. The sound was full and engaging without being over-emphasized anywhere. That’s how you do. I’ve observed on a few previous iFi incarnations that there can be a tendency towards bright sound (iDAC2, original Micro iDSD). Thorsten has the iFi’s level adjustment knobs set with 3D (treble boost) on, so that bright sound is on display, but not the untuned sound. The treble was being driven a bit too hard with 3D on with the HE-6.
I preferred the HE-6 with the 3D effect turned off. On D’yer Mak’er the sound is a touch sharp and very incisive, I’d prefer a touch smoother treble. I switched to Bit Perfect+ and liked it. My favourite setting with the HE-6 was XBass and 3D off with Bit Perfect+ on the Pro iDSD.
Well this little sucker is some big news. This is the first time that iFi have deviated from their ‘boxy but good’ utilitarian aesthetic and grabbed a new French designer who seems to have thought ‘people love curves’ and ran with it. Good move.
For the most part, I like the design. I’m not sure how I feel about the chrome just yet. This design is iFi’s first DAC/Amp design that is truly portable. You’ll have no problems stuffing this in a coat pocket compared to the Nano iDSD Black Label. Now it doesn’t have iEMatch like the Nano iDSD BL, but it does have XBass and 3D. Both use USB OTG for their connector. I find this to be a stable, pragmatic connection. Micro USB and USB C are a bit flimsy, USB OTG is rock solid the way that iFi implements it on their DAC/Amps.
I had a listen to some tracks playing out of my phone with the Forza Audioworks OTG cables they had at the show. Macy Gray’s voice was lovely with that delicate fragility that makes it so enticing. The stand up bass was full and engaging. The treble was sweet and smooth.
On my first listen, I thought that the xDSD might be a little thin in Macy Gray’s vocals, but upon switching to the Questyle QP2R, I found that the vocal characteristics were the same. This is a lesson to not trust your audio memory and always have a reference. I used my reference IEM for the listen, the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered (UERR).
I still dig XBass. In my view, it’s the best bass boost I’ve heard on an amplifier. It’s a good move to make sure the xDSD has it. This thing is going to sell gangbusters.
I didn’t listen to the 2.5mm version of iEMatch at the show, but I knew that I wanted it from when I reviewed the Micro iDSD Black Label and bought it without a listen. I’m very glad I did. I’ve been listening to the Noble Encore out of the Questyle QP2R with iEMatch2.5 for the last few days and it is heaven. Before iEMatch2.5 I was getting hiss with the Noble Encore out of both the single-ended and balanced jacks (especially bad on the balanced jack) on the QP2R. That hiss has gone away. Hallelujah!
After iFi, there was no time left on the day. So I met up with a friend upstairs at the bar, talked with Audio Note and a distributor, skipped an award show (5 minutes presentation in a claustrophobic room, no thanks), and then went out and got some Five Guys. After dinner, I packed up and went to my Holiday Inn Express right across from Bristol Temple Meads station. I then watched some food network, called my wife, planned 20+ stops for the next day, and went to bed.
When the next morning dawned, I was off bright and early. The show didn’t open till 10:00, but folks were already lined up at 9:05. By 9:15 there were 25 people in line. I had a chat with the folks in line. They told me they’ve been coming to the show for a long time and that by 10:00 the line can be around the building (block). Nice folks, we had a brief chat about the NHS (one was a nurse, I’m a health economist) and then I headed in and got to work.
Astell & Kern / Audeze
Exertis Unlimited is the distributor for Astell & Kern, Audeze and Chord Mojo/Poly in the UK, so it was no surprise to see this pair-up. They also had some Hugo2s at the table.
I’ve been intending to listen to more Astell & Kern gear since CanJam London 2016, but I somehow keep missing them. My first listen to Astell & Kern was in Japan at Yodabashi Camera in Osaka. The AK240 blew me away with the quality of sound it brought out of my meagre HiFiMAN RE0 IEMs. Since then I’ve had a listen to the AK70 (original) inside a Richer Sounds, but I missed hearing the last wave of top of the line players from Astell & Kern. Not today.
I had a listen to a bunch of Astell & Kern and Audeze pair ups and compared the DAPs and DAC/Amps to what the QP2R in my chest pocket could do.
A&Ultima SP1000 Cu to Audeze MX4
First off, it’s about time that Audeze made a headphone that was actually comfortable to wear. Yay! I was advanced warned that the MX4 might not have been burned in yet. “The mids and lower highs may be a little bit veiled.” I didn’t detect that.
I had a listen to David Bowie – Soul Love. Guitars were nice and crunchy. The treble sounded a little bit prickly. Stage depth was excellent with layers of microdetails.
The SP1000 Cu was a surprisingly hand friendly size. It had little bezel. The multipurpose volume knob felt great and worked a treat.
When I switched to the Questyle QP2R it was an instant upgrade. The QP2R is more powerful, with increased soundstage. The SP1000 Cu has a somewhat busy sound with the MX4. The QP2R sounds more organic while matching the SP1000 for detail resolution. The QP2R has more instrument separation and more stage width. The SP1000 sounds a bit sharp. I think the QP2R sounds better with this pairing. The caveat is that I had a new MX4 and a loud show environment. I’d be interested to repeat this test somewhere quiet.
Acro L1000 to LCD i4
In person, the L1000 doesn’t look as ridiculous as online. The feature volume knob turns smoothly with a nice light-up ring around it. It is a good size for a desktop and has a lot of power. It needs that power for the LCD i4.
I’ve been waiting to hear the LCD i4 for a long while. It does not disappoint. The LCD i4 really does sound like an in-ear LCD4. That’s a very good thing as the LCD4 is one of the best sounding headphones on earth. The LCD4 also happens to be one of the least comfortable headphones on earth. While I had some finicky fit with the plastic earguide on the LCD i4, I was able to get a good comfortable fit. They are developing new earguides for enhanced fit. I hope to check the new earguides out in the future.
When I switch to the QP2R to drive the i4, I discover that it takes absolutely tons of juice to fully drive. I’ve got the QP2R in high gain with high bias and it is doing it, but it is eating a lot of volume knob. The QP2R has a smoother, more organic sound than the L1000. Strings especially sound more natural. Edge, once again, goes to QP2R as a source. The comparison was done in single-ended, as that is the connector that was there.
KANN to LCD-X
I threw on some Norah Jones – Feelin’ the Same Way. The pair has a very natural sound to it. I definitely like the LCD-X. I also tried the LCD-X out of the QP2R. Now mind you, both of these comparisons were done in single-ended. The KANN is known to have a better balanced out. Planars also like lots of current, and the QP2R delivers current in spades. I found that the KANN had less power than the QP2R in single-ended. The QP2R gave a larger stage representation in all dimensions. Vocals and bass were more emotive on the QP2R. Overall, I much preferred the QP2R.
The KANN has an operating system that is easy to operate, but overall I preferred the A&Ultima SP1000 Cu interface. Both have a better interface than the QP2R. I’m just not a big fan of the scroll wheel. I haven’t yet applied the grip disc they include in the package to the wheel because it photographs terribly (why did they make it black?!) and I’ve found that the wheel being polished glass makes it very difficult to turn. I would have sandblasted the glass to give it some grip. People with gritty finger texture will have no problem. My soft, white collar hands have trouble getting the wheel going.
I love the folks at Atlas Cables. They are fully willing to explain why cables make a difference with plausible answers grounded in engineering. Today they showed me some speaker cables that have built in powered grounds on their shielding. I was incredulous, saying that the common wisdom is that speaker cables don’t need to have shielding, much less grounding, as the potential for interference is small. They told me that some systems suffer from wireless interference and that shielding helps with that. Your phone and wireless modem in your house may be screwing up the maximum capability of your system. Externally grounding the shielding and powering the ground makes the shielding even more effective at syphoning off interference, according to Atlas.
At Klipsch, I did my best to have a listen to the HP3, their new £1300 flagship headphone. They had some music that I couldn’t control and that I didn’t know playing out of the Klipsch Classic headphone amplifier. The environment was very loud, as they were also showing off some Klipsch Bluetooth boombox type speakers. Booom! I couldn’t box it out. Luckily, the amp had a free AUX input to hook my QP2R in via it’s headphone jack. So I threw on Feelin’ the Same Way, again (fitting), and had a listen.
My overall impression was the sound was very natural and organic sounding with a warm tilt. I think these would be very pleasing to listen to in a more controlled environment. The headphones are comfortable and have excellent build quality. They look and feel like a flagship should. I also really like that they built the headphones with a lot of input from online audio communities. This one was made for us online audiophile geeks.