Saturday, 15 July 2017

North West Audio Show, Cranage Hall, June 2017

Currently, my favourite commercial show of the year is at Cranage Hall in Cheshire - held in June. Even after the extreme experience that is Munich (report part 1 here and part 2 here), Cranage remains at the top of the UK list.

This year the format changed again.  Last year the show was over 2 sites, which didn't work too well - I imagine those exhibitors in the second site felt rather isolated and perhaps some visitors didn't make the journey for a small number of systems.  So 2017 saw an expanded number of rooms at Cranage Hall and the show running over 2 days.

As before, it was free to enter, free to park.  Tea, coffee and biscuits at a very good price and lunch at reasonable prices. Footfall seemed busier to me this year, despite the 2 days, and the relaxed, spacious nature of the show continues to shine through.

I'm writing this whilst enjoying the chilled atmosphere at "audiophile bar" SPIRITLAND in London. Particularly chilled this evening as Chris Coco is spinning the tunes - so lots of Baleric daytime / poolside / sunset music on in the background.

Let's get stuck into the systems:

MERCE ROOM
BrianAndTrevors - PS Audio, Quadraspire, LINN, ATC

BandT chose to run a passive ATC system this year - using their integrated amp and large SCM50 speakers, fonted by a Klimax spec Linn Sondek LP12, equipped with BandT's booplinth of course.
Unusually, the music was played at a moderate level and flowed nicely into the room - not bad for a vinyl system, but seemed to lack some of that incisiveness and attack that ATC actives are normally associated with.

Round the back of the ATCs - a passive pair of 50s


Linn Sondek above ATC integrated amp

The robust styling of the ATCs

A kit list - nice touch!

YOUNG ROOM
The Missing Link. Kralk Audio, Vincent, Ming Da

Playing a HanssT30 TT into Ming Da phono stage, Vincent amplifcation and Kralk Audio standmounts.  The main emphasis here seemed to be on the little Kralk standmounts with their impressive looking transparent lidded separate passive crossover boxes.  Playing Yello (which is nice), the system had excellent, pacey timing and lots of detail.  Unfortunately this system was far far too bright - enough to make it unlistenable.  I have no idea if this was a TT set up issue or just the way the crossovers have been designed, but it fundamentally wasn't right in respect of tonal balance.

The Kalk Audio Speaker on the right were being played


Nice separate box for the passive speaker crossovers.  Good looking components.

WRIGHT ROOM
Malvern Audio Research - Planalogue TT, Ming Da CD 500, Lampizator DAC, Ming Da phono stage, Ming Da 805/300B integrated amp, EME speakers. Gigawatt power supply. Corner room treatment


Curiously, this room had no centre seating position - there was a corridor down the centre of the room between the chairs.  Not sure what that was about.  Also, the speakers looked to be too far apart.  So imaging was difficult to discern.  Listening to the CD player, the sound was very languid, tuneful, detailed without being in your face, perhaps a little too laid back?  A live Clapton recording sounded very life like.  Love the finish on the speakers - described as rolled copper foil, which looks to be underneath many deep and lustrous layers of lacquer.  Gorgeous.

EME Rolled Copper finish


WREN ROOM
LW Audio - Audio Music valve amps, Horning speakers, PS Audio, Hifi Racks, Fore Audio DAC, Innuos server, Ziro Audio cables. No room treatment


The Turntable (apologies, I failed to make a note of this item) was playing Sade through the enormous valve amps, along the Ziro cables (with mysterious boxes part way along their lengths) into the Horning hybrid speakers.  The kit looked very well made, but I still fail to "get" the Hornings, as in previous encounters.  Here, there was good speed and imaging but the sound was curiously lifeless and there was very little evidence of the lower registers.

Horning Hybrid


Nicely built

I'm not sure which room this MHZS CD99 was playing and I have no notes.  Apologies.

ASTON ROOM
Mark Levinson streamer / DAC / amp and JBL 4429s. Torus power supply

Initially playing Shelby Lynne when I went in the room, I thought perhaps there might be something to enjoy about this combination.  The sound was very smooth but surprisingly light.  A change of track to the extremely familiar Malia & Boris Blank's "Celestial Echo" revealed woolly bass, a lack of nuances in the vocals and none of the sense of mild insanity & slight spookiness this track can convey.  Hmmm.


ROOM BELL 2
Doug Brady - ELAC FS507 Reference speakers, Audio Alchemy electronics - Discovery as a server and a streamer. Also the new ELAC TT.

ELAC recently purchased the Audio Alchemy electronics brand, which will shortly be re-branded as ELAC Alchemy.  Also good see the new ELAC turntable on dem at £2150 for the complete TT / arm / cart combination.
With the streamer combination into the Reference speakers (featuring the familiar JET tweeter in a more unusual concentric arrangement with the mid unit) there was music to be enjoyed here. Good imaging and details coupled with a very articulate bass line made for good, tuneful, listening. With the TT the sound was more rounded off with less attack but very respectable. As is often the case, ELAC speakers producing an enjoyable sound.



The new ELAC TT

BELL 1 ROOM
Auden Distribution - CAAS Audio electronics, Amphion Krypton 3 speakers, Merging NADAC, Audiomica.

An OK sound here - very smooth and "undigital" if that makes sense.  Not as detailed and incisive as I normally would expect from Amphion speakers.  I think many would find much to enjoy here, especially those who are normally anti-digital or anti-solid state.



STEPHENSON
Novafidelity streamer, Oracle power supply, TAD amps, TAD reference standmount

At the Munich High End Show this year, my favourite system of the show was an all TAD affair - but using the 80k gbp floorstanders which are part of the same "reference" series as these standmounts.  I was hoping that my previous disappointment with the standmounts might prove to be wrong, but here they are again and now that's 3 times that I've not enjoyed their lightweight shoutiness.



A tad (sic) picky but one pull-up banner says "with obssesive attention to every minute detail" with the other one mentioning "overwhelminly massive sound from a compact cabinet".  If the first were true, perhaps the second wouldn't contain a typo?


STEPHENSON
Nova Fidelity X40, Belles Aria and small Broadmann speakers



A warm welcoming sort of sound with a reasonable sense of scale from these small speakers.  Soft on dynamics and no imaging to speak of.

SOME BARGAINS WERE ON OFFER AT THE SHOW


FLEMING ROOM
3 Square Audio speakers, Wire On Wire, Oppo 103 source and NVA amplification


Boasting a first order crossover, that seemed to be the main claim to fame for the 3 Square speakers.  This was a decent sounding system, nothing extraordinary to report - plus nor minus.  Demonstrated with wire on wire adjustable cables - these are an interesting idea - their spacers can be moved within the cable contruction to tune their performance to the system in use.  A couple of demo configs were compared and I thought I could hear some small differences but they weren't significant enough to make a call on real vs imagined.



JENNER ROOM
Music First Audio, Graham Audio speakers, Nagra digital Reel to Reel, Akai analogue Reel to Reel.


I seem to have good experiences with MFA pre-amp based systems - today the Baby Classic was in action.  Here, with the various reel to reel sources, the sound was simple, straightforward, fluid without being smushed together, superb vocals, lots of detail and a low noise floor.  Very nice.

JOULE ROOM
Icon Audio


Icon were playing their CDX2 CD player into a stereo integrated valve amp, then along to their new, very large, JBL look-a-like horn / dynamic driver speakers which come in at around 10k gbp.  Unlike their JBL look-a-likes, this Icons have deep, well defined and controlled bass, good integration between the drive units and lots of crisp but not harsh details.  Their veneered finish is very well executed.  Shame I didn't take a picture of them...

BEDROOM 8
Fanthorpes - Innuos Zen Mk2 used as a streamer into Luxman electronics, including DAC and amps, all feeding PMC FACT12 speakers.


Despite a little boom induced by the room, this system was producing the best sounds of the show.  I wasn't expecting much from the Luxman electronics - they look like extremely high quality remakes of 80s Japanese amps with their silver finish and VU meters.  But looks can be deceiving and here we listened to music. Music which was very clear, crisp vocals and taught with impactful and tuneful bass lines.  I'm not normally a fan of the FACT speakers (despite being an owner of a different part of the PMC range), but it seems I've just not heard them with the right electronics before.  Nice work Fanthorpes (again).



BEDROOM 1
Karma AV - Primare electonics with Revel Performa speakers


2 very enjoyable visits to this room.  And whilst the Primare electronics are not exactly low rent, the speakers are, in the company they're keeping at this event, a real bargain.  I preferred the floorstanding F206 due to their extra heft, but the little standmounts were exceptionally good too.  Plenty of life in the music, reasonably refined and fun to listen to.  Nice!



BEDROOM 2
AudioNote


One of 2 AudioNote rooms at the show.  This one had lots of dynamics, but then got shouty, which is often a risk with AN systems.  I much preferred the other AN room.

BEDROOM 3/4

A&D Audio - Squeezebox, Meridian DAC, Caintuck Audio and Pylon Audio speakers


Unfortunately, and acknowledged by the exhibitor, these speakers were not working in this room, overwhelmingly bassy.  The room was closed for a while and the speakers re-positioned which improved matters a little, but not enough to be able to assess the rest of what this system was doing.  A shame.

A system here that I didn't make any notes about, apologies, other than to say that these tiny floorstanders didn't impress at all, even for their size:



BEDROOM 5
Melco into Heed Thesis into Neat Iota Alpha


The massive scale of Floyd's "High Hopes" wasn't quite captured by this system, but the little Neat Iota Alpha floor squatters delivered lots of detail and were musically enjoyable.  Quite remarkable for their diminutive stature.


BEDROOM 8
Planalogue TT, Isol8 power conditioner, Audio Analogue Puccini Anniversary, YBA CDP, Pearl Acoustics Sibelius speakers


I have to declare a bias heavily against single (dynamic) driver speakers.  They have never sounded good to me - boxed, open baffle, mounted in massive cabinets with intricate and extensive folded horns - they all have underwhelmed.  Lacking in the frequency extremes (no real surprise there), but, more importantly, completely falling apart when the music gets complex.
But here's the first exception to that experience, the beautifully crafted solid oak Sibelius from Pearl Acoustics.  They use a unique Mark Audio provided driver and cost around £5k.  These are stunningly good.  No, they don't go very deep, but they go deep for such a small driver and the go plenty high enough to feel like there's nothing significant missing from the experience.  Musical, tuneful, dynamic, smooth and they don't fall apart when you throw something as complex as Malia & Boris Blank at them, despite the amount of bass the tracks contain.  Excellent.


GROUND FLOOR
Ultimate Stream - Merging NADAC, PSI Audio, AVAA Active Bass Traps, Kii Three active digital speakers

Given the hype surround the Kii Three speakers (they are full of DACs, Digital Signal Processing and a whole bunch of power amps - one per driver) includes how good they are at "processing" the bass to allow them to fit "anywhere" in a room, it was odd to see them paired with some active bass traps in this room - surely the Kii's should be able to cope on their own?  The active bass traps are an interesting idea - they kind of work like noise cancelling headphones - by producing bass that is 180degrees out of phase with the bass reaching them, hence cancelling them out to reduce room mode boom.
Well here, it wasn't a match made in heaven.  The Kii Threes sounded OK from a treble and mid perspective, but there was muddiness and a lack of tunefulness.  No swing, if you like.  Decent imaging and they played some interesting music.
Hype not matched on this occasion, but then I don't think they were being given a chance really.



BEDROOM 10
Colman Audio CA 300 System

A new venture in this room - a fully active system which comes as a package - digital active crossovers, power amps and tall floor standing speakers with matching subwoofers.  Here the system was being demonstrated with an Audiolab source and a Rotel 1500 series pre-amplifier.

This was quite an expensive system, the centre of which are 2x 4 channel class D amplifiers with built in digital crossovers, configured to match the speakers which are actively fed and contain no passive crossovers.  The amps appear to be based on the Gisen Audio DSP 4.12 product - which sell for around 1,000 to 1,200 Euros each.

The speakers were probably too large for the room, but even making some allowance for that, this was a very disappointing sound.  Would like to hear again in a larger room, but I don't hold out much hope.





BABBAGE
BD Audio - Garrard 301 TT, Trafomatic Evolution One 2A3 amp and Tune Audio Anima speakers

As usual, BD Audio had one of the best rooms in the building, in terms of shape, decor and "relaxation factor".  Also, as usual, they presented an immaculate looking set up, or at least, you have to admire the workmanship that has gone into the products in action, even if the speakers themselves are an acquired taste, visually.  Whilst this has been one of the best rooms in the past, for me this wasn't quite up to the usual standard.  Nice enough to listen to, but lightweight and lacking in life - somehow the music didn't stir up any interest for me - I was hoping from more based on past performances.



FARADAY
Kronos Sparta TT, Accuphase electronics and NSMT speakers


Gorgeous looking turntable, reasonable sounds.  I liked the look of these speakers, but perhaps there is more work to do as they just didn't boogie enough for me.  Perceived value isn't too high either.


BAIRD 1
Tannoy speakers and a whole bunch of gear from Auralic, Auris, Acoustic Signature and more.


The "little" standmounts (they're actually quite big as standmounts go) were playing when I visited this room.  Another system that just didn't provide any emotional connection with the music for me.  I'm soon going to give up on visiting rooms with the big traditional Tannoys - I've heard many pairs in many different systems and rooms but none of them have given me cause to be interested in what they do.

Notes

I didn't manage to get around all the rooms this year due to other commitments on the same weekend.  I was particularly disappointed to have missed the big Gamut speakers fed by a Clear Audio turntable and Gamut electronics.

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