Bristol Sound & Vision 2018: Pioneer, Audio Technica, Quad, Ophidian Audio, Acoustic Energy, Prism Sound (part 2)

Read further for tiny speakers with big sound and professional audio produced for consumers. There’s headphones too.

Pioneer

The Pioneer setup was running the SE-Master 1 (£1699) from the Pioneer U-05 (£540) DAC/Headphone Amp combo with the Pioneer XDP-300R (£459). I’ve checked all these elements out before, but haven’t covered them for the blog. I really like the SE-Master 1. It’s hand-built in limited numbers in Japan. When I previously listened to it, I thought of it as a smoother, slightly less spacious Sennheiser HD-800. The first time I listened to it I had just listened to the HD-800 as they were neighbours at CanJam London 2016 (my first audio show), and I preferred it to the HD-800. The HD-800 has since grown on me a bit and I didn’t have a direct compare at the table—one of the negatives of single-brand booths.

The first track up was the love/hate that is Hotel California—it was just the first thing on their player that I recognised. The bass was big and beefy. Whoah. Next up was Rebecca Pidgeon – Spanish Harlem. The vocals were silky and sweet but there was a touch of soft ‘s’ emphasis (sibilance). I didn’t mind it. The vocal tone was really nice. Piano on the track was a touch sharp. I’ve noted this sharpness before in Pioneer/Onkyo gear. The treble tuning on Pioneer/Onkyo DACs has been a bit peaky in my past experience.

Next track up is Fleetwood Mac – Never Going Back Again. The guitars on the track have some hardness to them and sharp edges, similar to the piano on Spanish Harlem. The sharp, bright tuning of the Pioneer DAC sound has to be percolating up here. I don’t think it’s the headphones. Maybe the wrong filter setting is on? A fast filter can make sounds more abrupt and sharp. I need to get a Pioneer/Onkyo DAP in house so I can test more settings.

Audiotechnica

First, I’m going to talk about the DAC/amp all the headphones were playing from. The AT-HA5050H (What Hi-Fi review linkf) is a large beastly amp that looks like it was designed specifically for testing headphones. It’s got a bunch of output impedances and gains for driving low impedance IEMs all the way up to 600Ω. It has two rows of headphone outputs, with 8 jacks in total, but only two should be powered at a time (I asked the Audiotechnica representative). Output impedance ranges from 0.1Ω to 120Ω, so it should be able to drive any headphone you want. There are four levels of gain ranging from -30dB up to 0dB. It has a cool real wood bottom to the fascia and VU meters that will make any fan of VU meters swoon. They look really frickin’ cool. The volume knob has a nice feel too. The Audiotechnica booth used the Astell & Kern KANN as the source.

ATH-ADX5000 the new flagship open headphone

The Audiotechnica crew recommend the 82Ω output, so I used it. The ATH-ADX500 has an impedance of 420Ω so it takes some driving, but the 82Ω output doesn’t specifically follow the rule of 8 on headphone versus output impedance (headphone impedance should be 8 times output impedance). My experience has been that when the rule isn’t followed, you get a bit extra bass. I didn’t test multiple settings—no time!

I threw on Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (didn’t note the version, SACD is best). Guitar was crisp and focused with a slightly bright tone. Decay was a bit lean. I generally prefer a little bit more weighty tone in guitar plucks. Bass drum is full and well-represented with great impact. I found that the separation between instruments was excellent with lots of detail resolution. Depth of the stage was good and deep. Width was less than I expected. Audiotechnica headphones have a reputation for having one of the biggest stages with precision placement of sonic elements, partly due to their reputation for brightness. The stage and placement accuracy is why their headphones are in high demand from professional gamers. Piano tone was dead on for this track. I found the representation of the centre-mids down to be exactly true to tone. High mids and lower treble were a touch bright.

There are so many Pink Floyd masters that it is difficult to control for what the guitar ‘should’ sound like. It is also the case that in a show setting, headphones are usually having the ever-loving crap driven out of them due to ambient volume. The ATH-ADX5000 (£2000) are as open as can be, so ambient conditions definitely bleed in. Show impressions are not gospel.

ATH-W1000Z

These might be the best closed headphones I’ve heard in a long while. I loved the sound of these. I also listened with Wish You Were Here. I found the guitar to have better timbral accuracy than the ADX5000. The guitar plucks had more round tone with slower attack and decay giving the sustain lingering emotive notes that I expect on the track. In an interesting twist, I found the bass better on the ADX5000. The W1000Z (£520) are ridiculously good closed cans. They have an open sound to their stage that defies the expectations for closed cans. These sound open, probably due to the big 53mm driver inside. Obviously, these are more isolating than the ADX5000.

QUAD

QUAD was the first speaker room that I went into. I went down there because I knew that they were going to have the big electrostats on. The ones that people have been telling me to listen to for forever. They didn’t have them on. Instead they had these little stand mounts that were absolutely killing it in the room. I had some trouble getting speaker pictures in the room. So I grabbed some stock ones.

S1

QUAD Artera Solus and S1 speakers

The QUAD Artera Solus (£1499) all in one unit (DAC/Amp/CD/Pre-amp/Power amp) was powering those little S1 speakers and they were rocking the room. The sound was filling up the space very nicely. You wouldn’t have thought that the little tiny speakers were what was playing until you moved a little bit to locate the sound. One could have easily thought the big electrostatic QUAD speakers in the background were doing the deed. The S1 had a ribbon tweeter that was rendering transients in the mids and highs flawlessly. The bass extension wasn’t there, but these were tiny. I think they had a 4” woofer on them. The bass only extends to 58Hz ±3dB and 55Hz -6dB, so the sub-bass just wasn’t there. Pair these with a subwoofer, though and these are absolutely dynamite. Only £500, too. Nice.

EAR-1 Prototype

In a surprise to me, and probably most people there, QUAD wasn’t just rocking speakers. They also had a £500 planar magnetic headphone prototype in the room. The prototype was very nice looking with good solid connectors (3.5mm on each side, solid), classic styling, and plush perforated leather pads. I couldn’t get much of an impression of the sound quality, as the room was insanely loud with those S1 speakers rocking out. I put some Bowie on for brief impressions. The sound was crisp, with a nice tall soundstage. I had to drive the pants off them, with the QUAD PA-One headphone amp in the room, so they may have been getting overdriven a bit. I’m hoping to get more listening time with them in the future. These should be coming out this year.

IAG, the distributor that markets QUAD in the UK, also informed me that one of their other brands was coming out with an IEM. Watch this space. It sounds exciting.

ESL-2912

The electrostatic loudspeakers were the whole reason I came to the QUAD room in the morning. I made a special trip back to have a listen in the afternoon. They didn’t WOW me, but they did have a gentle enveloping sound. They weren’t nearly as punchy as the S1 that were on in the morning and were also being played at a quieter volume. The bass is smooooth. Guitar arrangements playing when I walk in are precise and articulate complexity beautifully. I find myself missing the visceral engagement of the S1 from earlier. There is an ethereal quality to the ESL-2912. I like them a lot more than the Stax SR-009, but I couldn’t see myself spending £7995 for a pair. I’d much rather get the Artera Solus/S1 combo and a sub-woofer for a third of the price.

Ophidian Audio

Last year, our former mate of state Trekasaurus, made the trip to Bristol and gave some coverage. His winner of the whole show was the Ophidian Minimo. A pint-sized speaker with a 90mm (3.5”) woofer and absolutely tiny space. I had to go check this out, especially since the picture was not terribly clear from last year. We’ve got a prettier picture this year.

Minimo

These £600 Minimo are throwing down a lot of sound. Basically, they are a lot like the QUAD S1, but a bit smaller. The frequency response is similar. Both have room-filling, punchy, engaging sound. These Minimo speakers are designed and made in the UK, just outside Liverpool in Wirral. Pretty cool. The bass is absolutely impressive for the driver size, but for the deep down lows, you’ll probably want a sub-woofer. A cool feature of these little guys is they are amenable to wall mounting and throwing inside bookshelves. So if space is really coming at a premium these take up no room at all. When the folks of Ophidian Audio moved the speakers back closer to the wall, they got a bit more bass extension.

The QUAD S1 speakers are also British designed, but production has moved to China. There’s an article on IAG, which owns QUAD and some other British brands, in What Hi-Fi. This is to say nothing against Chinese manufacture, some of the best audio gear on Earth is manufactured in China, QUAD included, but there are differences in labour costs and there are positives to supporting local production. Vote with your purchases, but also listen with your ears. I buy and/or review stuff from all over the world.

The price of both the QUAD S1 and Ophidian Audio Minimo are fair, and they have slightly different footprints. The Minimo is a little more flexible on placement, and has a bit more technological innovation inside with its AEROFLEX port technology. A little about that from their website, below:

AEROFLEX port technology

Ported, vented or reflex speakers as they are commonly known re-use what would otherwise be wasted energy from the rear of the bass driver to boost the low frequencies – much like a turbocharger on a car. The greatest problem which ported speakers face is the velocity of the air in the port.

As velocity in the port rises its ability to limit and control cone movement at these frequencies disappears leading to chuffing noises and wasted energy. While devices such as flares or dimpled surfaces can help smooth airflow they cannot make up for the insufficient port area which many ported boxes suffer.

Our AEROFLEX solution uses a much larger and longer internal port in order to massively reduce air velocity by 200 percent or more while avoiding many of the side effects suffered by full length transmission line designs. Building the port directly into the cabinet greatly increases the structural rigidity and allows the use of thinner outer panels which store less energy and require less damping – in turn improving the quality of the midrange.

AEROFLEX properly loads the driver right up to its maximum excursion enhancing dynamics and ensuring the speaker produces the same tonal balance at high volumes as at low volumes – all within a more compact package.

I didn’t get to hear the Minimo at low volume, so I can’t testify to the last aspect.

Mojo

The Mojo are the bigger versions of the Minimo and come in at £900. They have about 6Hz more bass extension with a bit more texture and control in the bass. They carry a very similar sound signature, and the same technology inside them. The Mojo were very technically proficient with a nice impactful sound and strong note edges.

Ophidian Audio was definitely worth a stop. The Minimo were seriously impressive.

Acoustic Energy

I really liked this room. The room was decked out with bean bag chairs and a Union Jack rug on the floor. The speakers that were playing in the room were the AE300. The sound was very organic sounding. I really liked it. The bass was a tad thick. They could have used a touch more texture. The mids definition and treble resolution were excellent. The Acoustic Energy AE300 speakers were fed by a Bluesound Mode 2 and an AVI Laboratory Series amplifier.

Prism Sound

I first heard Prism Sound last year at Headroom in Metropolis Studios. Prism Sound is a pro audio brand that has just branched out into the mainstream with their new DAC/Amp, the Callia. The Callia won’t win any beauty contests, but it sounds excellent. Prism Sound gear uses custom FPGA chips (Chord aren’t the only game in town), and ‘custom everything’ inside their DAC and amplifier circuits.

There are a lot of people who won’t have any idea who Prism Sound are, but they just happen to be one of the most used British brands in recording studios and in the movie industry. Here’s a list of people and pieces that have used or are using Prism Sound for their recordings (courtesy of Jody Thorne of Prism Sound):

  • Mark Knopfler uses Prism Sound in all his studios
  • The movie Gravity
  • All of Sting’s albums since All This Time
  • John Paul Jones, formerly of Led Zeppelin just bought some Prism gear
  • All the Lord of the Rings movies used Prism Sound
  • The King Kong movies used Prism Sound
  • Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, uses Prism Sound
  • Metropolis Studios in London use Prism Sound
  • LucasFilm uses Prism gear extensively
  • Eminem used Prism Sound on his latest album Revival

I asked Jody Thorne, the marketing and sales representative for Prism Sound, for some album recommendations for testing gear. These were his recommendations:

Diana Krall The Girl in the Other Room Natalie Merchant Retrospective 1995-2005

I don’t think there’s a bad recording from either of those artists. For Natalie Merchant, I think I just need to get her whole discography. I think this ‘greatest hits’ album might not be enough.

Prism Sound Callia listening

First, I listened to the speaker setup in the room. A pair of ATC SCM40A (£6800) active speakers is being fed by the Prism Sound Callia (£1795). The setup sounds excellent. It is clear, powerful, and neutral. The ATC SCM40 are very sensitive to room characteristics. There is a very specific sweet spot. The speakers are being fed music direct from the Callia and doing their own amping. GiK screens are lined up around the edges to try and fix the room some. There are a good number of exhibitors who have complained about the poor sound of the rooms and a few who have brought room treatments like the GiK ones in this room to try to adjust room sound.

The Callia is also set up in the back of the room with the Focal Utopia (£3499). It’s every bit as excellent sounding as you’d expect, but the listening environment is too loud for critical listening. I took a listen to Daft Punk – Get Lucky and concluded that the Focal Utopia was treated pretty well by the amping, but I couldn’t conclude more than that.

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