By Duncan Bell
Welcome to Bristol: Audio Tech City!
Sound & Vision: The Bristol Show, to give it its full title, is Britain's biggest and best hi-fi show. Exhibitors range from Sony to people you've never heard of, and products from common-or-garden Bluetooth speakers to crazy, valve-festooned 'proper' hi-fi products, and massive boxes with one knob on the front, the purpose of which you cannot even discern.
It's a very old-school show, in the uncompromisingly retro setting of the concrete, brutalist mega-bunker that is Bristol's Marriott hotel. The people here (well, I say 'people'; I mean 'middle-aged men', largely) know their stuff. It's like a real-life version of Steve Coogan's comedy about former roadie turned pest exterminator Tommy Saxondale, basically.
We picked through the teak boxes and hushed listening rooms filled with expensive speakers to bring you the newest and techiest offerings from this most traditional of shows, with some gear making its UK debut and some we've seen already at CES and elsewhere but which is now nearing readiness for injection into YOUR home. Yes, yours.
Technics Ottava SC-C500
There were no shortage of one-box streaming solutions at Bristol, but most of them were quite ugly, and about the size of a large suitcase. The Ottava, by comparison, packs AirPlay and DLNA over Wi-Fi and ethernet, USB and digital inputs for hi-res audio and has a CD player built in. Best of all, said CD player boasts a most pleasing "swing-top" lid, like so.
There's also AAC/Apt-X Bluetooth, if you prefer simplicity to fidelity.
The Ottava was announced last year but has only just gone on sale. From our exposure to it, we'd say the audio is really good for such a small unit. The narrow speakers use a mix of amplifier optimisation and cunning driver placement to put out decent quality sound and if you don't fancy AirPlay or Bluetooth, Technics' own streaming app is responsive and well thought through.
Admittedly, there were a few connectivity issues but a concrete hotel with dozens of Wi-Fi signals bouncing around it (from all the other exhibitors) is not an ideal testing ground for such things, as this photo demonstrates. Mmmm, LOVELY drapes.
At £1,699 the Ottava has the distinction of being the most expensive audio product John Lewis has ever sold, and if John Lewis is confident in something, that's usually a sign it'll fly.
You can also get a slightly tweaked version, the just-renamed, hot-off-the-presses, £1,199SU-C550. This comes without Technics' speakers, and hence without the amp optimisation for said speakers.
The Japanese consumer-to-pro headphone gurus were showing off a wide range of cans, the most interesting of which being the wireless ATH-SR5BT, which is the Bluetooth bro of the wired ATH-SR5.
Offering 38 hours per charge of Apt-X Bluetooth, for £149, this seems like something of a steal. However, while its promotional image features someone who looks like this…
The people at the Bristol Show ACTUALLY tend to look like this…
Oh well. Also on show was the £249ATH-MSR7NC, which is a noise-cancelling headphone with 'hi-res audio compatibility', whatever the hell that means. Surely all wired headphones that aren't useless are hi-res audio compatible?
Marketing aside, Audio Technica make really great headphones, even at the more consumer/high-street end of its range, and these new arivals are no exception.
However, we were most taken with A-T's ker-razy headphone amp, the AT-HA5050H. With eight outputs for headphones of different impedances, it's aimed at the true headphone afficionado, and created for the Japanese market, where people tend to have more pairs of headphones than of schoolgirls' underwear, from a vending machine.
In conjunction with the brand's more high-end cans, this $6,000, tube/transistor hybrid amp gives truly orgasmic results.
Shown off at CES and on sale in a few months, these 'TrueWireless' in-ear headphones are for those who are totally allergic to cables.
Our first thought on seeing them was, "Wow, those look really easy to lose, and probably have really shitty battery life," but the included case seeks to address both issues, keeping them safe and having a built-in battery that allows you to top up these bulbous ear buds' three-hour life-span four times. Charging is, of course, wireless.
These do sound very good and are worth a look, if you can put up with the slightly 'Uhuru from Star Trek' look and feel of them. Unobtrusive, these things are not.
Confusingly, Onko's portable products are actually made by guitar brand Gibson, who also do Phillips' portable audio gear, as well as its own branded products such as these running headphones. No, we don't get it, either. They'll be £230 when they launch in June.
Acoustic Research M20
AR's M2 was a very good, hi-res audio player, well able to take on Astell & Kern in the high-bit portable stakes. It was, however, rather a chunky fella. So now meet the M20.
This has a lower power output than the M2 and loses the analogue volume control, but given that it's a much more affordable (usual caveat: this is hi-fi gear we're taking about here) £649, to the M2's 900 quid, and somewhat nicer looking, we can deal with that. The demo at Bristol was through the Sennheiser HD800 headphones and sonic quality was not noticeably lacking.
A 32-bit Texas Instruments DAC serves up all your favourite hi-res formats, piping hot, from PCM to DSD. Mmmm-mm. Again, it's on sale in the next few months.
"Now, this is what I believe is known as a DAC," mused one Bristol Show punter on seeing this. Quite correct sir!
Portable headphone DACs such as the £400 Mojo are a growing section of the audio market and this one stands out by means of excellent sound and wonderfully tactile buttons that change colour as you alter the volume level, or change the sample rate of your source. Oh!
Rather than using an off-the-shelf DAC chip, Mojo builds its own and is fully confident it's "the best in the world". That's quite the bold boast but undeniably, if you plug a smartphone in via USB and a decent pair of headphones into one of the two outputs, the results are rather splendid.
Mojo handles a wide of high-res audio formats, and supports headphones with impedance from 4 to 800 Ohms, so it's a versatile thing, too. And it's British made!
Hands up who remembers the Fatman valve-based iPod docks? Well, this is a bit like an updated, upmarket version of that, from the long-standing UK hi-fi stalwart. Although, admittedly, it is decidedly light on valves compared to this thing from Henley Design
'Round the back you've got analogue, digital audio and USB inputs but there's also Apt-X Bluetooth so it's all modern. Up front you've a plethora of valves, taking the 30W output of this versatile Bluetooth amp and giving it a bit of smooth. It'll be £1,300 when it hits the shelves in spring.
Mission LX Series
Probably like a lot of UK punters, the first speaker I ever bought was by Mission, from Richer Sounds, using a student loan. I subsequently nearly starved to death, but I did have a very nice stereo so I didn't care.
The brand's been in the doldrums slightly in recent years, as even its own spokesperson said at this, the smallest press conference ever - with room for only five seats, the launch was absolutely rammed.
Employing Mission's trademark 'tweeter under the woofer' approach to speaker design, the new range (a bookshelf speaker and floor stander, with some other variants to follow) starts at £200 and offered reliably good sonics for the entry-level price. Some things never change. Launch is in the next month.
Moon Neo Ace
It's a somewhat less sexy box than Technics' roughly similar all-in-one digital music solution, but then as you can tell from its brooding, dark, brutalist look, American brand Moon's Neo Ace means serious business.
Offering network streaming from a NAS via Moon's MiND app, and none of your DLNA or AirPlay frippery (althought there is Apt-X Bluetooth, weirdly), this is an audiophile product, albeit one at a price (£2,500) that is merely high-ish, as opposed to outright intimidating.
There are no fewer than four digital audio inputs, as well as USB, Wi-Fi, ethernet and the aforementioned Bluetooth. There's also three line-level analogue inputs AND a moving magnet phono pre-amp for your turntable. The 100W output promises bass that is nothing less than 'visceral', so stand well back.
Arcam irDAC 2
The follow up, obviously, to the big-selling irDAC, this adds Bluetooth and a headphone amp to the previous, winning mix of co-axial, optical and USB inputs and high quality Sabre DAC. Price? £495 to you, sir.
The irDAC 2 is available to preorder now. Compared to most of Arcam's battleship like boxes, it's positively compact and chic, but it'll no doubt share its (much) bigger brothers' musical DNA and longevity-enhancing build quality.
Wharfedale Active A1
Another very old-school brand having a stab at new-fangled wireless audio, the A1 is a pair of Wharfedale's mighty fine loudspeakers given an active boost, with a 60W Bluetooth-bridge bolted on for good measure.
Based on the British stalwart's Diamond 220 bookshelf speakers, the A1 also has digital and analogue inputs, as well as the Apt-X Bluetooth, but no USB.
Making setup and placement easy, the bridge connects to the speakers wirelessly, so long as you don't stray more than 20m away.Price is a not-unreasonable £500, execution date: 'spring'.
Ruark and Tannoy
…And finally, here's a limited edition version of Ruark's R7 'high fidelity radiogram'. Somewhere between a wireless speaker and something from your nan's house, the R7 was alreadyentirely ridiculous, in a good way, but now you can get one adorned with work by graffiti artist Pure Evil (NB: that's not his real name).
The unkind might say that mister Evil is an exceedingly poor man's Banksy, but his "weeping Marilyn Monroe" (or is it Margaret Thatcher?) adds a certain edgy modernity to Ruark's wittily retro audio statement piece.
And finally finally, there's this from Tannoy. There are no words.