Acoustica show 2018 impressions: some speakers are magic

The Acoustica Audio Show is an small audio show that Geoff Coleman of Acoustica has been putting on for the last 5 years. It attracts a pretty good local crowd and has a good variety of exhibitors with about 25 brands represented across the rooms.

This was my first time going to a small scale ‘dealer’ show. The ‘dealer’ show idea evokes in me an instant reaction that this is going to be small, maybe not worthwile, and with very limited brand presence. One could argue that the biggest show in the UK, Bristol Sound & Vision is a dealer show, as the primary sponsor, Audio T is a chain dealer all over the UK and they are definitely plugging brands that they sell. I didn’t really feel that way the Acoustica show, was small or poorly represented.

I found the Doubletree Hotel in Chester to be a beautiful venue. In general, the hotel and the rooms were much nicer than the rooms in the Bristol Marriot used for Sound & Vision. That hotel looks like it’s old and falling apart—they really should upgrade the venue. However the rooms in the Doubletree had an interesting shape that some vendors struggled to maximise the sweet spot of the speakers inside the room. In the Russell K room, for instance, sitting in the front row was useless for getting an idea of what the speakers sounded like—it was simply too close to the speakers.

This being a dealer show did have one advantage, the amplifier and wiring set-ups were largely the same in most rooms. NAIM amps and dacs and separated power supplies were spread all over the hotel with little variance on the amps being used. The wires being used throughout appeared to be primarily the Chord Sarum T, though I know there was one Nordost cable in the house. The advantage of this, is when you are listening, some of the variability in sound is controlled for you. Every component change can result in a sound change, so sharing components across most set-ups was the best possible situation for controlling for the most variables. Still can’t control for room acoustics and positioning, but this is a hotel we are talking about, not a concert hall or even a listening room.

There weren’t a ton of rooms, but I enjoyed what was there. I didn’t hit up every single room, but I didn’t miss many. There was one room I didn’t like, and it may be surprising.

Leema Acoustics

Leema Acoustics was the first room I hit up. I’ll present mostly in chronological order, but I’ll mix up a little. Leema Acoustics was rocking the following set-up:

  • Leema Acoustics Sirius (source, Innuos based network streamer/DAC, £3955)
  • Leema Acoustics Tucana II (integrated amplifier, £3995)
  • ATC SCM-50PSLT (£10,800)

I was given free reign over which track I’d choose, and I chose to pick one that I would never listen to except for reviewing, Steely Dan – Aja. I’m not a Steely Dan fan, but Aja is incredibly mastered with lots of the frequency spectrum represented in space.

First thing I noted was that the depth of the room was too small for these speakers. It was such that the front row was useless. The back row was also not quite right, but better. It felt like the sweet spot was 3 feet out of the room. That said, sonic impressions.

The mids resolution was really good. Smooth guitar. The cymbals sounded a touch splashy. There was plenty of power and stage. The stage was cleanly and clearly defined. Percussive speed was excellent and the body on the drum solo was dead on. Lots of weight in those strikes. Piano sounded very natural, no crystalline tinkles or unnatural bluntness. On bass guitar the lower end of notes seemed a bit blunted, this might be some not so smooth roll-off being heard. Specs for frequency response on these speakers are -6dB at 38hz, so roll-off is almost definitely why I’m missing something in the bass notes.

Bowers & Wilkins

The Bowers & Wilkins room was using a Naim CD player as the source, with a NAIM stack (like most rooms) providing power to the big beastie 803 D3 (£12,495 per pair) speakers. The room was one of the largest in the show. Focal had a larger room showing off their Scala speakers, and Dynaudio had a similar size room.

The soundstage height cast off the 803 D3s was impressive. It was Bunyanesque in it’s height. The specs say that the bass on these drops down to 19hZ, but I’m not hearing it. The bass has a smooth character with a rolled off bottom end. It lacked good texture and rumble for me. The kick drums kicked big, but all the focus was on the centre of the note without the full round character of the drum strike represented.

I found the upper mids/lower treble to be a bit strident. Percussive instruments were thrown far forward of their rightful place in the stage. It may have been the track, but the depth of the stage was nothing special. At £12,495, these were simply not competitive with offerings at lower and sometimes far lower price-points. In fact, I preferred the sound of the £2500 standmount speakers across the hall in the Dynaudio room.

What’s more, for the first couple hours of the day, Bowers & Wilkins wasn’t closing their door and had the speakers pointed directly at the door. The poor folks at Revox were getting drowned out trying to play any tracks at all on their speakers with their streamers.

Dynaudio

Dynaudio had a number of speakers they switched out during the day. The speakers I heard were the Dynaudio Special 40 (£2500). They were punchy and realistic sounding. The folks at Dynaudio were also a bit more polite than their cross hall neighbours, they closed the door.

Listening to Michael Jackson – Billie Jean (24/176 FLAC) these were impressive. These sound bigger than their size. The soundstage depth isn’t huge, but the height and width are performing very well. These are more dynamic than the Bowers & Wilkins speakers. They are neutral and engaging. On Macy Gray – I Try the presentation is absolutely lovely. The soundstage didn’t have huge depth (this could be the Naim DAC), but still had a big sound. The acoustic bass was terrificly natural.

Revox

Revox is a company that’s been around for 70 years and is famous for their reel-to-reel technology. For the studios that still record to analog tape, Revox is a big consideration. Revox was at Acoustica for the first time this year (much like me), and much like me got swallowed up in some loud noises. Revox was in an alcove in between Bowers & Wilkins and Dynaudio. Bowers & Wilkins was blasting it as if the zombie apocalypse was a desirable outcome of playing music.

Revox wasn’t bringing old ‘analogue’ technology to this show. They had on tap some tiny speakers (Re:Sound G Elegance), with some surprisingly big sound that reached down to 40Hz. The sound is adjusted by using DSP calibration from the paired Revox Joy S120 to get the most out of the four 90mm drivers and 30mm tweeter. The Revox Joy S120 all-in-one streamer/DAC/class D (120W) integrated amp (£1940) includes automated adjustment for frequency response and also has the ability to adjust for speaker position so that timing and frequency response are maintained even in non-ideal speaker placements.

CD ripper and NAS are not included in the Revox Joy S120, so you’ll need to add these if you want them, unlike with Innuous or Auralic network streamer options.

The representative was very passionate about what he does. If this guy doesn’t love working for Revox, his career should be in politics, not in audio, because he would have to be a fantastic liar. He was a lovely chap. I talked with him for a lot longer than planned.

We listened to Shelby Lynne and Leonard Cohen. Shelby Lynne was soulful but the recording was poorly mastered with lots of noice. The Leonard Cohen track off Popular Problems was represented well on the tiny Elegance 120 floorstanders. Leonard had a deep baritone that defied the limits of the human vocalisation with the kind of rich sub-bass tones it displayed. All that was there.

Chord

I’ve been to three shows where Chord was doing their cable demonstration and this was the first time I attended it. After Audioquest’s power cable demonstration, I was ready to see what would happen here. The audio set-up was a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 804 speakers, a stack of Naim 200 series components and an Innuos streamer playing CD rips.

The testing was not blinded, so all caveats on that apply, though to be fair, the cables largely look the same. Chord definitely has their own look in the Sarum line. None of the cables were from outside the Sarum line. They did mention that Aray technology has trickled down into all their lines, but that the tuning of th Aray varies. Cable switches were quick as the amplifier was set up facing outward and cables were on a stand. Each test track was played twice with the initial cable and then once with it’s comparator (upgrade cable). All comparisons were pairwise. No switchbox was used to increase speed or facilitate multiple way comparison. There was no instantaneous switching. Between each new cable switch there was an explanation of what changed between the cables from a material and design standpoint, but no explanation of what the sound would be like. The observations that follow can be taken with as much salt as you like—pretend this a North of England roast and smother it in salty gravy if that’s your beef with cables. The observations are from my unprompted notes.

Sarum vs. Sarum Tuned Aray

The way they explained it, is that a cable gets reflections, especially where two different materials meet (plug and wire), so the Aray is designed to dissipate the reflections by giving them somewhere to go. The Tuned Aray version of the Sarum only has the Aray on the signal side, not on the earth.

I noted a little bit of extra bass body and rumble, better drum impact and some increase in separation when switching from Sarum to Sarum Tuned Aray.

Sarum Tuned Aray vs. Sarum Super Aray

The Super Aray just adds Aray tech to the earth. Something to note, Aray cables are directional, with Aray only on the amp side, so follow the arrows on Chord cables.

For the comparison the track was Chris Isaacs doing I Walk the Line. The recording was a bit rough sounding. When the switch was done there were two notable things that happened: 1. the treble got cleaner, 2. a female backing vocal was pulled away from the lead male vocal where it had been buried. I didn’t note the female vocal until the Super Aray switch was made.

Sarum Super Aray (acrylic dielectric on plug) vs. Sarum Super Aray (teflon dielectric on plug)

All that was switched here was the dielectric around the plug. The track was First Aid Kit. When switching to the teflon shielded plug the sound actually got shriller. There is a high pitched noise in the 16 to 18k region that is accentuated. Basically it shows where the recording fell down. The vocal also came out a bit cleaner.

Sarum Super Aray (teflon dielectric) vs. Sarum T

Sarum T uses a military grade dielectric. Apparently Teflon (PTFE) is awesome, but at it’s worst at room temperature where a bit of phase instability develops, which is what most of us listen at. Taylon is a dielectric developed by the US military and licensed to Chord for use. They can’t disclose what the actual chemical formula is. The dielectric performance of Taylon is more temperature constant. Supposedly, Taylon gives a more phase stable sound.

The change was very subtle. The recording sounded just a touch more real, more natural.

Sarum T vs. ChordMusic

The demonstrator didn’t tell us what the differences were, and didn’t tell us anything about Music’s characteristics. All he said is this is our top of the line cable.

Holy moley is it ever. Cable changes are supposed to be subtle, this was anything but. Instrument separation greatly improved. Stage depth had a large improvement. I was actually shocked. I’ve never heard a cable make that much difference. It didn’t sound like a recording at all anymore, it sounded like live music. It was phase correct with crazy separation and timbral accuracy. That was unexpected.

Sarum T is £1800 per 1.5m pair. ChordMusic is £3800. If you’ve got the money, Chord Music is absolutely worth it. That difference was incredible.

Kudos

The Kudos Titan 606 was my favourite speaker of Bristol Sound & Vision 2018 at any price. I got to hear it here also, but it didn’t sound as big and engaging out of the Naim systems as it did out of the Linn Akurate set-up that Audioquest was rocking at Sound & Vision.

They did debut another speaker here, and it was one of the more organic sounding speakers, the Kudos Titan 505 (due out in July, if everything goes according to plan). The Titan 505 (£7000) has almost all the same technology as the Titan 606, but it’s a standmount, which saves you £2k versus the Titan 606 (£9000).

Listening to Daft Punk – Georgio by Maroder, the background noises have explicitly clear boundaries. The detail resolution is incredibly precise with out ever sounding sharp. One thing to note, coming from headphones, the bass on most 2 channel setups just doesn’t go as deep as headphones are capable of reaching. The Titan 505 are not an exception. Georgio by Maroder goes lower than the Titan 505s are showing. The sound is wholesome with a well-bodied treble presentation. I dug the good level of funk through the whole delivery on this track. When shifting to some old Leonard Cohen, Suzanne, the female backing vocals have amazing delicacy and a very natural timbre.

I don’t think Kudos has disappointed me yet. I have a feeling I’d get more out of the speakers from a non-Naim rig though. I hope to get a listen another time (maybe The Festival of Sound).

Russell K

Russell K has a history. It seems he’s worked for almost all the big British speaker manufacturers in his long career. In the last few years he decided to branch out on his own and do something different. Russell K speakers don’t have internal damping. Instead they use internal bracing and compartments to prevent harmful resonance. The idea is to allow the speakers to have perfect phase response and get deeper bass extension.

It works. It works really friggin’ well. The bass coming out of these Red 150SE  floorstanders (£6000 with beryllium drivers) does what it says on the tin, dropping all the way down to almost 20Hz, which is the best response in their size category and better than some significantly bigger speakers. The room is actually too small for these speakers. I had to be in the back row, and I think I was still a couple feet of the sweet spot.

Listening to Pantera – Cowboys from Hell, the treble is cooking nice and crispy with great speed.  The bass is dropping low and full. This is easily among the top 3 speakers I’ve heard at the show. These things are serious. I wanted ’em.

After I mercifully turned off the Pantera—I think I scared some people off, a lady came in and wanted to hear Kelly Clarkson – Break Away. Loud! She really enjoyed it, but boy were the speakers unforgiving. The Russell K Red 150SEs showed every bit of bad mastering that went into the track: the brickwall filter, the super hashy treble, chopped up cymbals, and extreme vocal compression. That was brutally honest.

Russell himself was showing the speakers and he informed me that for half the cost, you get most of the characteristics of the Red 150SE in the Red 120 (£3000), which extends that bass on down past 30Hz in the same size cabinet. Time to start selling organs.

Spendor

The Spendor A7 (£2995) was playing with just one all-in-one box feeding it, the Auralic Polaris (£2995). It sounded pretty great. Funny enough, another one of the best set-ups also ditched the Naim stacks and went with an Auralic Vega G2 as the DAC (fed by Auralic Aries G2 streamer). I think I might need to spend some time with Auralic gear. The room was pretty sparse and the bass sounded a touch thumpy on the first track. Since I’ve got no idea if the bass sound was due to the room acoustics, I’ll reserve judgement on the performance. One thing I could tell was that the bass extended pretty low (32hZ), low enough for me to ask in room how low it went. I later called (basically) the frequency that a Revel hit.

Cool fact: Spendor makes their own enclosures and enclosures for a bunch of their competitors.

Innuos

Innuos and Leema have a good relationship from everything I can tell. Leema uses Innuos OS in their streamer, and Innuos was using a stack of Leema gear instead of the Naim gear in many rooms. Here was the signal chain:

Innuos Zenith (£2299) ⇒ Leema Libra (£5995) ⇒ Leema Hydra II (£3795) ⇒ Kudos Titan 606 (£9000)

I heard the Kudos Titan 606 at Bristol Sound & Vision. It was my favourite speaker of the show, but it was an active version at Bristol Sound & Vision and it was being fed by an expensive Linn stack with active crossover and phase control via their Exakt technology. It also had some beefy power cords from Audioquest. The Kudos Titan 606 I heard at Bristol Sound & Vision was a lot more authoritative with better bass extension and power. The Kudos Titan 505 was one of my favourites at Acoustica (smooth, natural, weighty). Source matters. Also, active speakers can kick some serious butt. More on that later.

Arcam/Mark Levinson/Revel

The Revel Performa M216Be speakers are really beautiful statement speakers. The Be stands for Beryllium, which is the stiffest diaphragm material out there, which means fast without distortion. It really shows on these as the resolution is fantastic, and resolution is often driven by Tweeter performance. The Be tweeter is doing good things here. The setup:

  • Arcam CDS50 Streamer/SACD player (£699, playing streamed content)
  • Arcam SA20 Integrated amplifier (£999)
  • Revel M216Be (price not yet announced)

The first track playing was Elvis – Crying in the Chapel, it sounded so natural and pure. Loved the sound. I called the bass having hard limit at about 40hZ (39hZ listed spec). Then they put on a bad remaster of Enter Sandman and it was a crushed unholy mess nakedly exposed like a playmate in a sextape. Metallica should be embarassed.

Every flaw of that recording was brought out. Tinny treble, lack of stage, shouty vocals, complete overall lack of texture.

That sucked. That sucked so bad. That suc

On to the next room.

ATC

ATC does not suck at making speakers, in fact, the rooms where their speakers were playing consistently rocked out. The Leema Acoustics room was sporting SCM-50PSLT (£10,800) loudspeakers from ATC. They were excellent. The ATC room was rocking the SCM50 (£9800) playing out of a Naim stack with Naim 252 and external power supply for each item in the stack. The idea behind separating the power is to ‘separate noisy power from delicate music’ according to the engineer from ATC in the room.

ATC nailed the sound here. It is absolutely gorgeous. The sound is stunningly realistic, probably the best sounding room at the show. The female vocals are arresting. Stringed instruments have beautifully accurate and timbrally realistic decay. The organ drops lower than you think it should according to the stats that ATC presents on their website (40hZ at -6dB).

It sounds like being there. That is the highest praise that any setup can recieve in my mind. It’s not like listening to a recording, it’s being in the room.

Auralic

So, I think probably the two biggest winners of the show for me were ATC and Auralic. In the Auralic room,

paired up. It was a kick-ass room. The Auralic Aries G2 (£3,899) was streaming Qobuz 24/192 to the Auralic Vega G2 (£5,499) which was feeding that delicious signal to the ATC SCM40A (£6800). The SCM40A was impactful and natural. It was a sound that made you immediately notice, damn that sounds good. ATC knows what they are doing. I’d be plenty satisfied never having to think about an amp by getting one of ATC’s active speakers. If you get an opportunity to listen to anything ATC, you are in for a sublime treat, like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream designed just for you.

they were

Focal

Focal was playing in two rooms. One room had the super stylish Focal Kanta (£7000) and a group of people just relaxing like it was their own living room. The Kanta fits that vibe. It has a smooth sound with natural tone. It has a bit of mid focus, but doesn’t fail to get some bass rumble in too. The drum kick sounded precise and realistic. I was impressed. They also look dead sexy.

Focal also had their £35,000 Scala loudspeakers set up in a big ballroom and filling the whole place with sound. The room acoustics weren’t the best, but holy moly did the Scala fill every corner of that super tall and super wide room. The sound was big and effortless with great technical proficiency. I think diminishing returns would kick in pretty quick in most normal size rooms. They didn’t sound miles better than much less expensive speakers.

SCV Distribution

Acoustica 2018-28

Full disclosure, the whole reason I got involved with this show was because Matt at SCV distribution saw this as an opportunity to introduce more high-end headphones to a HiFi audience and asked me to help recruit vendors. Turns out that three months isn’t enough time for most, so we’ll get ’em next year.

Matt still came along with his standard and high quality set-up. He had Questyle amps and DACs all around, with both reference stacks (golden and otherwise), the CMA600i all-in-one DAC/headphone amp/pre-amp, and the CMA400i DAC/headphone amp/pre-amp, and of course the Questyle QP2R. He had the trio of Focal headphones: Elear (£899), Utopia (£3499), Clear (£1399) (in chronological order). He had Meze 99 Classics (£279), and Meze 99 Neo (£229) (I might prefer the Neo, way down on my docket, but it will be reviewed). He also was rocking a Fostex T60RP (£299).

SCV’s corner of the show was relatively quiet compared to some areas. There were no big blasting speakers that muddied the water of impressions, and it was relatively easy to control for sources, as all the headphones could be played off any of the sources there. They also had a MacBook for each source with Tidal available. Many exhibitors were using Tidal here, and a few used Qobuz. CD+ quality streaming and being able to choose what you listen to is where it’s at. One problem when listening to HiFi setups is you can’t do quick comparisons in a familiar setting, and you can’t control for all parts of the set-up at a show with familiar equipment. Most rooms here were using Naim gear, but I don’t know Naim gear’s sound with any speakers I’m familiar with. The Naim gear also had some variance, and from what I’ve been told, units were at different levels of electrical burn-in. There are many components that benefit from burn in, and amps are definitely included. From capacitors to valves, burn-in matters.

SCV’s items were all burned in. I decided I was going to listen using a source I know well, with tracks I know well, the Questyle QP2R, my current favourite digital audio player (DAP).

I started out with the Fostex T60RP playing Why? – Strawberries, which is a track I use for a variety of reasons: it has some bass that drops low with some power, it has simultaneous sparkly tinkling highs, and a busy mid section capped by Yoni Wolf’s slightly sweet nasally voice. It’s got a whole lot going on and I know the track very well. The T60RP gave me good mids definition, and bass that was a touch withdrawn. Stage width was good. The sound was lacking in sub-bass extension, but had a pretty open sound for semi-open headphones.

To further test the bass, I threw on Max Richter – Dream 1 (before the wind blows it all away). Dream 1 has some deep and heavy volume bass notes that will cause many drivers to distort in pain, and the Fostex T60RP is not an exception. On the deep sub-bass notes, the driver distorts like a fun house mirror acid trip. It just can’t handle this bass. Massive Attack – Teardrop has less potent bass. The driver doesn’t distort here and represents the bass notes fully. Teardrop’s bass is less potent in the sub-bass, so isn’t as hard a test as Dream 1.

Switching to the Focal Elear, which is the only one of the current model line of Focal headphones I hadn’t spent time with, Teardrop was much more meaty with a thicker and slower feel. Female vocals were less vibrant. The T60RP had a less coloured sound with more accurate female vocals.

On Why? – Strawberries the Elear has more sparkle up top than the T60RP and a wider soundstage, but it feels darker. On Charles Mingus – Better Get Hit in Your Soul, the Elear is more in your face than the T60RP with very forward saxophone.

Best in show

  • Source(s): Auralic. The Auralic systems were always among the best sounding, which might be due to…
  • ATC loudspeakers: the SCM40A was a fantastic sounding speaker (paired with Auralic system) and good value at £6800 (includes triple channel power amplification built in).
  • Best Room: ATC room with Naim stack and ATC SCM50 (£9800)
  • Best Loudspeaker: Russell K Red 150SE (£6000)
  • Best Value: Spendor A7 (£2995)
  • Biggest Surprise: ChordMusic interconnects. That shouldn’t be possible.

Top 3 loudspeakers

  1. ATC SCM50
  2. Russell K Red 150SE
  3. ATC SCM40A

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