Bristol HiFi (previously known as Bristol Sound & Vision) organised by Audio T and What HiFi is the biggest audio show in the UK. It’s huge, taking over 4+ floors of the Bristol Marriott with over 100 brands on exhibition. Many new technologies are debuted here and it’s a good place to have identify gear you may want to have further auditions with later. It’s also a great place to check out stuff that is exotic and unique, which is where my speaker focus was on my listening.
This year, there were also a number of excellent opportunities to listen to fantastic headphones, and headphones and portable audio are becoming a much bigger part of the show. With the likes of headphone manufacturers Sennheiser, Sony, Audio Technica, Focal, Meze, and Audeze (Klipsch was there too with Henley audio) there was no shortage of good stuff to listen to.
Last year I did the show over two days at a breakneck pace that was extremely taxing and left me totally bushed when I arrived home past midnight. This year, I had planned to go with the family and attend all three days, taking it easy and just enjoying myself. My wife said no. So instead, I got one day to take as much as I wanted in, but I decided not to hurry. Luckily, I met some friends from Subjective Reviews and had a fantastic day with excellent company and some audio enlightenment.
For this article I’m not organising anything thematically. I’ll be organising by time, as time was limited, and vendor as location is a lot easier to reference with extractable meaning. What the heck does 10:00AM mean anyway.
The Bristol Marriot is old, and a touch dingy, but it works as a location for Bristol HiFi and has for over 30 years. Signs hung on the building announce your approach, but this is not all. There are permanent street signs that direct you to the show as you get closer to it and further from Bristol Temple Meads station.
The show is such a part of Bristol that temporary signs would be an insult to it. Approaching the entrance at about 9:30, there are a handful of people already waiting outside. At 10:00 this number may stretch around the building.
I’ve got a press pass waiting for me, so I don’t wait here, I get started.
SCV Distribution (Meze Headphones, Questyle Audio, Nova Fidelity, Focal)
I’ve got a long relationship with SCV Distribution. Ever since reviewing the CMA600i (which I later bought), I’ve worked with their portfolio either indirectly or directly. My favourite digital audio player (DAP) is the Questyle QP2R, which was supplied by SCV. It was also my reference DAP for the show. Matt at SCV is an excellent guy with a history in music production who heads up most of the consumer audio side of SCV.
Meze Rai Penta (£969, $1099)
The first thing I tried on the day was Meze’s new flagship in-ear, the Rai Penta. The Rai Penta has been in development for over a year and various images of build candidates have been out on instagram and elsewhere from Antonio Meze (the founder) and the Meze Headphones account. They showed some textured dark grey versions in a couple flavours. I liked the rougher version they showed as it gave almost a ring-mail appearance. The version they have put into production is neither, it is a smooth classy looking deep charcoal unit instead. I’ve been looking forward to hearing this for a while.
Meze’s logo resembles a harp or a trident, so seeing a texture like fish scales would have been cool. I preferred the one on the right. The final version is the one below. The cable is a nice looking cable with my preferred type of earguide (pre-formed heatshrink). The cable is detachable, just like all cables at the £969 price-point should be. I found these to be perfectly proportioned and very ergonomic in the ear. They are nice-looking, too.
Sound was a mixed experience for me. When I threw on Rush – Spirit of the Radio the treble was a bit splashy. On Metallica – Master of Puppets this was also observed. Geddy Lee’s vocals on Spirit of the Radio were presented excellently though forward and a touch sweet. On Damien Rice – The Animals Were Gone this sweetness is there too and still pleasant. There will be some tracks that this sweetness will be a detractor, but it works with vocal led tunes. I wager these will be good on female vocals and confirm this with Macy Gray – I Try. The stand-up bass on I Try sounds big but a tad stuffy—this could be source related, as sometimes the QP2R needs the UE buffer jack or iFi iEMatch to present lows honestly on low impedance IEMs.
The frequency response on these is definitely not linear. There is a bit of added sweetness in the upper midrange and there are some aspects of the midrange that sound slightly out of phase, uneven. These are fresh out of the box, so they might just need some burn-in (the bo. Given that the Rai Penta is a 4 balanced armature, 1 dynamic driver hybrid, I’m not sure that the treble splashiness or some uneven parts of the mids will clear up. My experience has been that dynamic drivers burn-in and balanced armatures don’t, though I have known some listeners and manufacturers that I trust who have said that the sound of crossovers can change over time. I’ll be curious to hear if these improve next time I hear them. I’ll make sure to bring my Ultimate Ears Buffer Jack, too.
Meze Empyrean (£2699, $2999)
After another show-goer finishes their turn with the Meze Empyrean, I have a go. The source is a new brand picked up by SCV Distribution, Nova Fidelity. Last time I heard the Empyrean, it was at CanJam London 2018 and it was also the first time I listened to anything out of the Chord DAVE. It was absolutely sublime. This time, out of the Nova Fidelity HA500H, which bears a striking resemblance to the old Oppo HA1, but has some upgraded components. Firstly, the Nova Fidelity is a hybrid, second, it has a lot more power, as demonstrated by Trev and his “speakers posing as headphones” AKG K1000 Bass Heavy headphones.
The person who listened before me was listening loud, in hybrid mode, with high gain. After a quick test, I decided these were not the settings to let the Empyrean shine. I turned down the volume, turned off the tube, and set the gain to low. Much better! The Meze Empyrean is silky, and can verge on soft, but it sounds beautiful. Macy Gray – I Try is like butter. For me, it sounds a bit too silky, and I’d like to see if I can get more edge on it. So I ask Matt if he has a 3.5mm cable for the Empyrean, and he gets it from the Focal room upstairs while I watch the stand.
When Matt gets back, it’s somebody else’s turn for the Empyreans, so I have a little Sennheiser sojourn (more on that later) and come back in a bit. When I switch to the Questyle QP2R it’s a definite improvement. While the sound is still a touch gentle on Metallica – Master of Puppets I’m really digging the luscious guitars and great bass. On Daft Punk – Instant Crush the vocals are exceptional. It’s alright that these aren’t headbangers, as the clamping force isn’t good for that anyway (could use a little more). The sonic signature is reminding me a bit of the Sennheiser HD820. The stage width is great and the bass is really grooving. The treble decay on King Crimson – Lizard (Steven Wilson Remaster) is perfect. The mids are clear and silky letting Jon Anderson’s vocals shine. The sparkle is excellent and the layering is really good too; I’m picking out some vocal details I hadn’t really noted before. These are fantastic headphones that will benefit from a very precise source.
Focal Elegia (£799, $900)
The Elegia is Focal’s first foray into high-end closed headphones. Lest people forget, they did previously produce the more consumer level Listen headphone. Macy Gray starts it off with Slowly. Playing out of the Questyle QP2R, the bass is a touch thick and stage depth is limited, but okay for a closed-back headphone. Shifting to vocals on Damien Rice – Elephant produces some nice emotional content, if a bit forward in tuning. The bass and the treble are back of the mids.
On Blue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear (the Reaper) there is a bit of muddling in complex passages. The Elegia isn’t keeping up with separating fast-moving individual elements. The inability of the Elegia to keep up on Don’t Fear (the Reaper) makes me want to torture them. So I do. Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 fires off percussion like a fusillade full of needles. The Elegia doesn’t keep up in the treble. I’ve got lots of notes blending together. The Elegia just isn’t fast enough.
Focal Stellia (£2799, $2999)
The Focal Stellia takes brings down the price of getting a beryllium driver in a top-of-the-line headphone. At $3000 your average person will probably react with incredulity to the reduction. Personally, I’m good with $1000 being knocked off the Utopia price, and the headphone coming with a case and more useful cables. Win.
But how does it sound? First I listen with Focal’s new Arche DAC and amplifier unit. I’m not quite sure what I’m listening to is burned in. The bass is slower than I would expect from a Focal beryllium driver. It isn’t matching what the Utopia can do on bass speed. Beck – Golden Age (DSD64) is oddly loose and slow. On Led Zeppelin – When the Levee Breaks bass also feels a touch muddled and muted. Mids sound a touch cloudy.
Maybe it’s the amp? The amp may not be burned in yet, either? I switch to the Questyle CMA Twelve and it makes me want the CMA Twelve more than I already do. The CMA Twelve greatly improves the mids and treble. The bass remains a bit slow with limited extension. The driver almost certainly needs some formal burn-in.
Mids are absolutely great with the CMA Twelve. I think that the treble may be a touch sweeter than the Utopia, which is a good thing, as sometimes the Utopia is pin-sharp. The CMA Twelve drives the snot out of the Stellia. Finishing with Kate Bush – Running Up That Hill her voice sounds stellar and the percussion is really good too.
The Sennheiser stand is the best lit and cleanest looking of any at the show, if more stands were like this one, I wouldn’t need a pocket sized fill light at the show. So last year I missed out on the debut of the Sennheiser HD820 at Bristol HiFi. I didn’t make that mistake this year. Many folks were trying out their new 100% wireless in-ears. I went straight for the big cans, starting with the HD660.
Sidenote: Sennheiser, a CD player is not adequate as your only source at the station with big cans. Do better.
Sennheiser HD660S(£429, $499)
The HD660S is not hard to drive on the Questyle QP2R, I’m only on medium gain and have plenty of volume knob left. On Blue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear (the Reaper) the mids are good, except for guero and cowbell being a bit faded (dip in 2-4kHz?). The guero is missing some texture. Vocals are great on this track.
On Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 the HD660 doesn’t quite keep up speed-wise. I’m getting some blending. These aren’t doing poorly, but I’d like more distinct instruments in speedy parts. The drum impact on these is really excellent and bass guitar comes through groovy too.
Why? – Strawberries shows me that bass extension could be deeper, but impact is good. It just doesn’t have strong sub-bass extension and isn’t pushing enough air in the lower octaves.
Sennheiser HD820 (£1999, $2399)
This is the most expensive headphone that Sennheiser makes outside of their HE1 $50,000 statement piece. It marks a substantial move up in price, but I’m willing to wager that like many of Sennheiser’s other offerings it remains a bargain. I enjoyed the HD820 the most of any headphone I listened to at Bristol HiFi, and I may not have been driving it sufficiently with the QP2R. These are tough to drive; the HD820 took the QP2R up to 114 out of 120 volume in high gain and high bias in the show setting.
These have an excellent stage for a closed back. They aren’t original HD800 good (those have otherworldly width), but they are impressive. They give a very natural presentation on Michael Jackson – Billie Jean—yes, I think he’s creepy and dead, I still think he was a musical genius; there are so many artists we couldn’t enjoy if judged them beyond their art or looked deeply at hidden currents in their art, I still like Elvis’s music too.
Diversion aside, these HD820s have good bass on Wilco – Handshake Drugs. These are just good headphones. Sennheiser’s tuning is really pulling the maracas out of the mix on this track.
YES! These are the first headphones to fully keep up and have enough focus on Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4. This track needs some adderall and these headphones can count blades of grass. The precision is excellent. These also handle the aggression of Master of Puppets brilliantly. The guitar and bass guitar show off some fantastic crunch and drive.
The stand-up bass and ambiance have a lovely warmth on Macy Gray – Slowly. The rendition of Macy’s vocal is especially good. There is a nice mix of sweetness and dryness. The binaural recording also shows off stage capabilities well.
As always, Sennheiser has also made some supremely comfortable headphones. These are light with easy adjustability and great pads. Mmmm hmmm, these are damn fine headphones.
Exertis is the UK distributor for Audeze and Astell & Kern, which means they are the UK distributor for some of the best sounding stuff on the planet. Nice.
Audeze LCD-2 Classic
The LCD-2 was the first high-end headphone I fantasized about. Funny enough, like most fantasies I never consummated the deal. They were like a pin-up on my internet audio wall, I looked at the review action unfolding, but never listened at a show. With the release of the LCD-2 Classic, I finally got to hear what all the fuss was about.
They’re good. They have a nice warm sound that is coming off good in spite of the shitheads blasting JBL speakers 10 feet away at ridiculous volumes for the space. I love the Harmon-Kardon/AKG rep, Mark, who is often at these shows demoing headphones and being a generally cool and easy-going guy, but these douches are not him. Maybe Samsung brought these guys in when they bought JBL/Harmon-Kardon/AKG/Revel/etc.
The LCD-2 Classics are really nice on Macy Gray – Slowly. The bass is north of neutral, vocals are a touch back and the treble is further back than I expected, but these are nice melt into your seat headphones. Very relaxing once I tune out the douche-nozzles with crappy looking orange 1970s chic speakers—I was half-way expecting to see Ron Jeremy and a shag carpet in that general vicinity.
Audeze LCD-2 Closed
On the LCD-2 Closed, Macy Gray’s vocals are further back. These do a fairly good job of recreating the LCD-2 Classic sound, but are a bit more forward. There is slight disjoint in parts of the mids. The soundstage is small with good height, low width, and artificial depth created by the frequency response tuning. They aren’t bad, but there are better options.
On the other hand, there aren’t many headphones that sound better than the LCD-4Z. The 4Z has taken the 4 and made it lighter. The LCD-4 is a fabulous sounding headphone, but it feels like wearing a barbell on your head. Buy this instead.
I love the LCD-4 sound. It’s got just the right amount of warmth, enough for romance, but not to burn your darn house down. The weight of these is so much improved. There is one niggle though, the clamp force on the bottom edge is a little tight. I’d probably be working the headband a bit if I owned these.
The bass texture on Slowly is very nice. Bass is slightly elevated playing out of the Questyle QP2R.
Since the LCD-4Z are not only lighter, but also easier to drive than the original LCD-4, I tried these out of the SP1000M. The SP1000M balances out the touch of extra warmth that the QP2R pairing doled out. Daft Punk – Instant Crush and Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On sound super fine. Smooth with excellent depth and imaging. As Yello says, oh yeah.
The station at Audio Technica was busy and is easily one of the better looking stands. with its well set up wall of headphones and cool looking retro amplifier with tons of adjustability (mess with all dem impedances!). I listened to a good deal of stuff last year, dffso decided to check out their new leather ATH-L5000.
These closed cans sound amazingly open. The tuning is bright and detailed. The stage is super impressive on Amber Rubarth – Storms Are On The Ocean. Mids are a tiny bit soft, but still good.
These do have one problem, though, and it’s a fairly major one. The fit is totally stupid. The headband has little in the way of adjustment and the earcups have no swivel to them. I find myself with an exceptionally poor fit, and I’m still not a fan of the wing system, it just lacks proper firmness in the suspension. The lack of swivel in the earcups means that these don’t seal well at all.
These look swish and sound swish, but they feel ick on my head. It’s damn shame.
I only tried out one headphone at the Sony stand, the WH1000-MX3 active noise-cancelling headphone. The noise cancelling was absolutely refreshing in the environment. The sound was pretty good, and I didn’t even have LDAC going. In this loud setting this was a standout. Sony did a really nice job on this one.
I wanted to buy the WH1000-MX3, but I just spent a bit of money on bicycle parts. Oh well.
Inside this room were the Kudos 505. I’ve heard these before, but they sound a little better this year on different amplification. Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes is playing and it sounds really good. However, whenever I listen to vinyl I’m not struck only by how good it sounds, but by how flawed it sounds. The sound was big, but also full of pops and crackles. Digital, properly done, generally beats vinyl.
I’ve been wanting to check out Neat Acoustics for a while, and luckily for me, they were in two rooms, their own, and Norma Audio’s room.
Neat Acoustics Ekstra
The Neat Ekstra looks like a normal floorstander, a little pedestrian even. It deceives! Not only does it not sound ‘average’ with it’s gorgeous stand-up bass, super clear mids, and silky flow. Those are rich, liquid mids. Not only that, they hold a secret. Mad scientist stuff up in here. I loved them.
Neat Acoustics Iota Alpha
These speakers look like children’s toys pretending to be speakers. Nobody who sees these will take your hifi seriously. That is, until you turn them on and their face melts into a stroke like WTF face. Now that was unexpected.
The Iota Alpha have an open sound with a big sweetspot. They get some good midbass quantity, but a bit of distortion is audible in the bass. The mids sound really good. I have socks taller than these speakers (they are only 45cm tall, or 18″ for my fellow Americans). Knee-high speakers shouldn’t sound as good as these do. Impressive.
Like the Ekstra, these have a secret weapon. They have a down firing woofer on the bottom to give more bass. They might be even better on a hardwood floor, and set a little closer to the wall.
I wasn’t planning on going to the Dali room, but boy am I glad I did. They had the Dali Oberon 5 playing and it was solid and at a solid price of £699 ($899, is it even possible?). They threw on some Stevie Ray Vaughan – Tin Pan Alley and it did well. The bass had nice texture and depth. The guitar was smooth and lucid. The drum strikes were huge when called for. The mids were a touch husky when Stevie came in to sing, but it worked well. If I was buying anything at full price from the show. These would be them. Not only were they an excellent price, but they also come in several attractive finishes (the ones below are light oak) and a small size that won’t piss off your wife when you install them in your living room. The reported frequency response is 39 – 26,000 Hz with a nominal impedance of 6Ω, and they don’t require any monster amping.
If you’ve read my coverage of last year’s Acoustica Show in Chester, you know I love ATC. All their speakers sound spectacular. Outside of a top of the line NAIM stack powering their top of the line speaker at Acoustica, I generally preferred their powered speakers. This year, ATC has released the ATC SIA2-100 integrated amplifier. At £2499, it is less than the price difference between powered ATC speakers and passive ATC speakers, and the SCM40s sounded beautiful through it. The ATC SIA2-100 integrated amplifier isn’t just an amplifier, it also has a top of the line DAC powered by the Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AK) DAC capable of PCM at 352kHz and DSD256. That’s pretty sweet. It also has a fully discrete 6.3mm headphone output (little data on it, so I have no idea on it’s quality). The amp hits store shelves on April 1st along with a their CD2 CD player. I still don’t really understand high-priced CD players. I’d get it if they played SACD, but 2-channel audiophiles are weird about old formats. The reality is vinyl almost always sounds worse than the digital version of the same master and most modern vinyl are made from digital masters.
The music was Kate Bush. Kate Bush + ATC should a priori be assumed to be awesome. It was.
Russell K was back with their Red150SE (£6000, no grills), and it sounded as good or better than last time I heard it at Acoustica. This time it was powered by a PMC Cor instead of Leema Acoustics gear and was being streamed hi-res and CD quality digital tracks via a Melco streamer with the Questyle CAS192D as the DAC. I like digital, it lets people choose from a huge variety of high quality recordings rather than being limited to the obscure crackly vinyl in the room (complete with long-winded vinyl switching ritual). I loved the really natural deep reaching bass. Russell K doesn’t use damping in his cabinets. He’s a mad genius and his gear is well worth checking out. The Red150SE had the aforementioned deep satisfying bass, but also came with some clean mids and precise treble. I still very much like it, and this year I could get in the sweet spot. Delicious.
Sound Fowndations (Larsen speakers)
Yep, you see that right. That is two Larsen 8 (£4795) speakers jammed as close to the wall as they can get with some really unconventional tech. The demonstrators are also cool cats that put some Metallica on for us. It rocks. These rock. They use an unconventional design: three tweeters (one visible, two firing upwards and out of phase to create a crazy stage), one midbass driver angled 45 degrees up and cambered inwards, and one woofer firing in towards the centre.
The sound was a revelation. Most speakers have a sweet spot that is only a couple feet wide or not even in the room in a small sized room such as this one. These speakers have a sweet spot that occupies the full height of the room, the full depth of the room and width out to a few feet beyond the outer edge of the speakers. You aren’t having the music cast at you like a fishing line, you are swimming in it like an ocean. The frequency response is also just about perfect, its super honest. Bass is surprisingly powerful and extended, treble is nicely defined and the drum fires like a machine gun on Unforgiven.
The company is also cool. The speakers are built in a small town in Sweden and they aren’t interested in reinventing their line-up every two years. They even talk about allowing their customers to upgrade at low cost.
I was really glad to get to explore this room with some audio friends in Stefan and Trev. It truly was a brilliant surprise.
There was only one downside to the Larsen 8, because of the inward firing woofers, you need a basically clear line in between the speakers, so they don’t work in my living room, which has a fireplace. Sad. However, we also listened to the Larsen 6 (£2395) and it was also awesome, but didn’t have the inward firing woofers, so should be more flexible on room arrangement. It had the same crazy good open soundstage and just felt like being in the music. Stayin’ Alive was on. These Larsen speakers are staying alive in my dreams.
This was the room where we listened to the Neat Iota Alpha, but we were also told that the Norma amplifier in the room had a built in headphone amp that could handle anything. Trev just happened to have a pair of headphones that usually requires a speaker power amplifier to fully drive, the classic AKG K1000 Bass Heavy. Did it work?
No. The K1000 caused the Norma HS-IPA1 to clip and then activate a safety shut-off. The headphone amplifier was tried again later with a different impedance setting and it worked beautifully. However, there is one design feature that they need to fix if anyone is to ever consider this a viable headphone amplifier. The socket can’t be in the back. There isn’t any regular headphone listener who wants to reach behind their HiFi rack to plug in their headphones. That headphone jack needs to be on the front, or the amp needs to come with a dogtail adaptor to allow the consumer to plug in from the front while keeping the option of using the back.
When I saw that somebody had made an electrostatic speaker that didn’t take up your whole wall, I was excited to hear it. The Mellow Acoustics FrontRo (£7500) is that speaker. It’s an interesting speaker. Much like Neat Acoustics and the brilliant Larsen speakers heard earlier, it casts a soundstage that doesn’t feel like a speaker, it feels like having a room filled with omnidirectional music, like being swallowed by the music.
The speakers are hybrids with big dynamic woofers built into the base of the speaker. The bass sound is really tight. I really dig the sound of these speakers. We got here just as the place was closing down, which is too bad, because these were worth the wait.
Favourite budget speaker: Dali Oberon 5. £700 shouldn’t sound anywhere near that good. I’ve seen them on sale for an even better price and if I hadn’t blown my money on bike components I’d be all over this.
Favourite speaker any price: Larsen 8, fantastic sound that immerses you in the music. Awesome.
Favourite headphone of the show: Sennheiser HD820. I really enjoyed the focus, detail and immersive soundstage of these.
Neatest trick: Neat Acoustics Iota Alpha. They look like a toy and sound like a speaker 2 or 3 times the size.