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“The Shawlines are really top-class interconnects... Give them an audition and hear for yourself” OUR VERDICT

Close To You

Chord Shawline Analogue Hi-Fi Choice July 2016

“If you have a good system and want to give it a boost these may just be the most cost-effective way to do that” Chord Shawline Range Hi-Fi World October 2016

Connect with us Designed and hand built in England by music lovers since 1985. Enjoyed by music lovers all over the world. The Chord Company Ltd, Millsway Centre, Amesbury SP4 7RX, UK To get more information and find your nearest retailer, please call us on: +44 (0)1980 625700 or visit:

www.chord.co.uk


INTRODUCTION

PASSION FOR SOUND

WIN! Elipson Omega 100 RIAA BT

146 Beautiful System Boenicke/Konus Audio

BADGES EXPLAINED

Welcome

www.hifichoice.co.uk Issue No. 419 Yearbook 2016

Welcome to the Hi-Fi Choice Yearbook 2016. In putting together this special edition, it’s clear to see what a landmark year it has been for audio, with a staggering number of high-performance components emerging to feed our passion for sound in increasingly innovative ways. But this has also been the year we said goodbye to too many cherished musicians, and you’ll find our tributes to David Bowie and Prince starting on p122. Elsewhere inside this 164-page issue you’ll find our pick of the greatest-sounding audio products to undergo our respected reviewing process in 2016. From headphones to turntables and loudspeakers, every product is a coveted Hi-Fi Choice badge winner applauded by our experts for a winning combination of outstanding sound quality and value for money – prices shown are from the time of original publication. And don’t forget our competition to win one of three Elipson Omega RIAA BT turntables worth £500 each, equipped with everything you’ll need to get you spinning vinyl in 2017. Turn to p110 to enter now!

Lee Dunkley Editor

OUR AWARDS

Follow us:

EDITOR’S CHOICE: Awarded to those products that are judged to deliver outstanding performance

RECOMMENDED: Products that we feel meet a high standard of performance

GROUP TEST WINNER: Comparative tests can only have one winner, and this badge says it all!

twitter.com@HiFiChoiceMag facebook.com/hifichoice.co.uk

SUITE 25, EDEN HOUSE, ENTERPRISE WAY, EDENBRIDGE, KENT TN8 6HF

THE EXPERTS

DAVID PRICE

DAVID VIVIAN

ED SELLEY

JIMMY HUGHES

ANDREW SIMPSON

CHRIS WARD

NIGEL WILLIAMSON

NEVILLE ROBERTS

YEARBOOK 2016

3


Contents hifichoice.co.uk Issue No. 419 Yearbook 2016

BEST B EST O ON N TTEST EST 2 2016 016

WIN!

3x Elip Omegson turntab a l p110 es

44

23

Audio-Technica AT-LP5

Ming Da Dynasty Duet 300 Plus

MATCHING HI-FI SEPARATES

DACS

8 Denon DCD-2500NE/PMA-2500NE

31 Audiolab M-DAC+ 33 AudioQuest DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red

81 Quad Z-3

CD/SACD/NETWORK PLAYER 11 Arcam Solo Music

35 Arcam irDAC-II 35 Chord Electronics Mojo 36 Mytek Brooklyn 37 Meridian Explorer 37 Simaudio Moon NÄ“o 230HAD 38 Rega DAC-R 39 Roksan K3 DAC 40 Veractiy Audio Mystra 2

CD PLAYER/DAC 13 EAR Yoshino Acute Classic

NETWORK PLAYER/ HDD/AMP 15 Plato Class A

15 Plato Class A

PRE/POWER AMP 16 Arcam FMJ C49/FMJ P49

INTEGRATED AMPS/ DACS 39 Roksan K3 DAC

19 Arcam FMJ SR250 21 Audiolab M-ONE 22 Marantz HD-AMP1 27 Onkyo TX-8150 29 Roksan blak

INTEGRATED VALVE AMP 23 Ming Da Dynasty Duet 300 Plus

91 Dynaudio Xeo 2

4

YEARBOOK 2016

TURNTABLES 44 Audio-Technica AT-LP5 47 Analogue Works Zero+ 48 Edwards Audio TT2SE 48 Elipson Omega 100 RIAA BT 49 Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon 50 Rega Planar 3 53 Pro-Ject The Classic 53 Sony PS-HX500

PHONO STAGES 54 Cyrus Phono Signature 54 Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator

INTEGRATED AMP

RECORD CLEANER

25 NAD C 316BEE

55 Pro-Ject VC-S


CONTENTS YEARBOOK 2016

48

94

Edwards Audio TT2SE

AKG N90Q

STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKERS

HEADPHONE CABLE

56 DALI Menuet 56 Quadral Chromium Style 2 61 Dynaudio Contour S 1.4 LE 63 KEF Reference 1 65 Leema Acoustics Xen 2 67 Monitor Audio Bronze 2 69 Revel Concerta2 M16 70 Roksan TR-5 S2 71 Tannoy Mercury 7.2 73 Wharfedale Reva-2

STREAMING SERVICE

FLOORSTANDING LOUDSPEAKERS

106 AudioQuest JitterBug USB filter 107 Acoustic Revive LAN

75 ATC SCM19A 77 ELAC Debut F5 78 Heco Direkt 79 Neat Iota Alpha 81 Quad Z-3 83 Spendor A5R 85 Tannoy Eclipse Three

107 Atacama Audio MOSECO

“David Bowie’s final curtain call was, a work of art in itself” Music Legends p122

98 Atlas Cables Xeno 1:2 98 Tidal HiFi

PORTABLE PLAYERS 100 101 103 104

Astell&Kern AK300 Pioneer XDP-100R Questyle QP1R Sony NW-ZX2

ACCESSORIES Isolator RLI-1GB XL600 speaker stands

83 Spendor A5R

108 bFly Audio BaseTwo M PRO equipment platform

108 Black Rhodium Foxtrot speaker cables

109 The Chord Company Shawline analogue interconnects

WIRELESS MUSIC SYSTEMS/SPEAKERS

109 Hi-Fi Racks Ltd

86 Devialet Gold Phantom 89 DALI Zensor 5 AX 91 Dynaudio Xeo 2 92 Naim Mu-so Qb

MUSIC REVIEWS

HEADPHONES

MUSIC LEGENDS

94 AKG N90Q 94 Audio-Technica ATH-SR5BT 95 Bose QuietComfort 35 95 Focal Elear 96 Grado GR8e 96 Meze 99 Classics 97 Sennheiser HD 800 S 97 Sennheiser PXC 550

Grand Stand equipment rack

140 Beautiful System

113 The best releases from the last year to put your hi-fi system through its paces

122 The original Starman, David Bowie 128 The king of sexy funk, Prince 134 The king of guitar, Jimi Hendrix

BEAUTIFUL SYSTEMS 140 Incredible setups that sound

every bit as good as they look from: Astell&Kern, Audeze, Boenicke, Konus Audio, Audio Research and Sonus faber

OPINIONS 127 The HFC team say it as they see it on the hottest hi-fi topics

BACK ISSUES 151 Missed a past copy of HFC? Complete your collection here

NEXT ISSUE 162 The sonic treats to look out for in next month’s review-packed HFC

Never miss an issue – see p42 for Denon subs gift offer YEARBOOK 2016

5


MATCHING HI-FI SEPARATES

Denon DCD-2500NE/ PMA-2500NE Denon’s latest heavyweight SACD/CD player/integrated amplifier duo has both style and technology on its side o, you’re a company that started with record players, and was responsible for much of the digital tech that’s used in studios and CD players, but you’re best known for your AV receivers: what do you do to redress the balance? If you’re Denon you kit yourself out with a substantial SACD/ CD player and even heftier integrated amp, and label them with a new suffix on the model names, indicating that this is the start of a New Era. That’s the story of the DCD-2500NE and PMA-2500NE, the former able to play hi-res files up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD5.6, the latter quoting a 2x

S

8

YEARBOOK 2016

160W output and a digital section able to handle files up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD11.2. But isn’t the conventional disc player and stereo amp a dinosaur concept in this modern computer-driven multi-format age? Denon disagrees – at least, provided they can be adapted to the latest needs while supporting those with physical music collections. It’s not alone: several companies are launching similar components, in the form of players with digital inputs or built-in streaming. And you can be sure it’s only doing so in anticipation of sensible sales, not through nostalgia.

DETAILS PRODUCT Denon DCD2500NE PRICE £1,499 ORIGIN Japan TYPE SACD/CD player WEIGHT 13.7kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 434 x 138 x 335mm FEATURES ● SACD/CD playback ● Can also play files up to DSD5.6 from DVD-R/RW discs ● Pure Direct mode for optimal sound DISTRIBUTOR Denon UK TELEPHONE 02890 279830 WEBSITE denon.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 415

The DCD-2500NE may look conventional, in a heavyweight, solid and beautifully finished kind of way, but this is a player designed with a single purpose in mind: playing discs to a high standard, and outputting the results via its analogue outputs (there are optical and coaxial digital outs, too, but they’re really only there for playing CD-quality content, or digital from 44.1-192kHz on CD-R/RW or DVD+/-R/RW discs). As usual, there’s no digital output with SACD discs or DSD formats, the former for copyright reasons, the latter due to S/PDIF bandwidth limitations. The player performs its basic task very well, and especially so when the Pure Direct setting is used to turn off the display and the digital outputs, thus removing a slight level of haze from the sound. That ability is in no small part due to tried and tested Denon technology under the hood, allied to sensible, logical design and the kind of solidity and vibration proofing, plus breathing space for the sections of the player, afforded by the size and weight of the chassis. At the heart of the DCD-2500NE’s digital implementation is the latest version of Denon’s AL32 processing, here designated Advanced AL32 Processing Plus: this has long been a plank of the company’s offering, in very broad terms being designed to


MATCHING HI-FI SEPARATES

interpolate extra data into a digital signal to ‘fill in the gaps’, thus smoothing the sound. Here it works with 32-bit/192kHz converters and the ultra-stable Advanced SVH transport mechanism derived from even higher-end Denon players, and designed for the most accurate disc reading possible, with servo control and decoder circuitry that’s been newly developed specifically for this model. The PMA-2500NE amplifier, meanwhile, looks just like a conventional, if generously proportioned, stereo amp – at least until you spot the little display located between the substantial volume and input selector controls, which shows the digital input selected and the sampling rate of the data that’s being received. Denon describes it as an “Integrated Amplifier with DAC-Mode” and, as well as the Source Direct button to bypass the tone controls

The PMA-2500NE is capable of incredible impact and musical involvement DETAILS PRODUCT Denon PMA2500NE PRICE £1,899 ORIGIN Japan TYPE Integrated amplifier with DAC WEIGHT 25kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 434 x 182 x 431mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 80W (into 8ohm) ● Asynchronous USB DAC; optical and coaxial digital inputs ● Can handle files up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD11.2 DISTRIBUTOR Denon UK TELEPHONE 02890 279830 WEBSITE denon.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 415

provided, it also has an Analogue Mode selector, allowing the digital input section and display to be switched off for the purest sound with analogue sources. There are two optical and two coaxial inputs, plus a USB Type-B connection able to handle music all the way up to the amp’s 32-bit/384kHz and DSD11.2 maximum, again with digital data handled by Denon’s Advanced AL32 Processing Plus upstream of PCM1795 conversion, with Denon’s proprietary DAC master clock providing the reference. The USB input is isolated to ensure electrical noise from a computer doesn’t find its way through to the audio circuitry. On the analogue side it has a very good phono section, as I discover on a brief listen with my trusty Rega, and MM/MC switching, plus four line inputs and a single set of analogue outputs – a sign of the times is that the connections are labelled for phono, CD, aux, recorder and network (ie for a network music player). One interesting addition is Denon’s take on a home cinema pass-through, enabling the amp to work in concert with the front left/right preouts of an AV amp or processor. Rather than go for a volume control bypass on one of the main line inputs, a separate set of sockets labelled Ext Pre In goes direct

to the power amp, avoiding all the input selection and control circuitry. Use with caution! The amp is manufactured using Denon’s separate blocks concept, with separate sections for the phono equaliser and input circuitry, volume control, DAC, amplification, power and control sections – all built on a hefty chassis of 1.6mm steel. It has a generous power supply with custommade capacitors, and two transformers mounted in opposition for mutual cancellation of any leakage. The power amp section, using Ultra High Current MOSFETs in a single push-pull configuration with a constant voltage supply, is capable of delivering a peak current of 210A. The output power is quoted as 160W per channel into 4ohm, or 80W a side into 8ohm.

Sound quality

Yes, ‘only’ 80W from an amp of this size, but you’d never guess it from the effortlessly dynamic, totally unrestrained way that the PMA2500NE plays music, ably assisted by the DCD-2500NE if playing discs is your thing. Of course, there’s the argument that the modern music system really doesn’t need a physical media player, but the Denon is so persuasive with CDs – even more so with SACDs – and striking when loaded with DVD-R discs of higher-res DSD, that it’s hard not to see a bright future for those that still choose to have their music on little pieces of silvered plastic. Plugged into my reference system and playing the lovingly recorded jazz of Claire Martin (on Linn Records) from SACD, it is more than capable of revealing the extra detail, ambience and dynamic power this muchmaligned format can offer over CD, which is solid testament to the quality of its onboard conversion. There’s that total lack of digital edginess that’s the hallmark of Denon’s AL32 Processing: instead you get a rich, warm, liquid sound, yet one that doesn’t stint on all the audio niceties that set fine hi-fi apart from the merely humdrum. Voices are close focused, soundstages have realistic width and depth to them, with excellent front-to-back layering and despite the powerful yet tightly controlled bass here, there’s no shortage of insight into everything from the touch of finger on string to the shimmer of cymbal. Even the big, lush sound of ABC’s Lexicon Of Love II, swathed though it is in Anne Dudley’s strings, is opened up for inspection and Martin Fry’s voice shines through as strong and characterful as ever.

However, the big PMA-2500NE is definitely the star turn in this partnership, from the way it handles multi-DSD formats via its computer interface to that very good phono stage, which is far from simply there to keep the amplifier on trend. Whether delivering large-scale orchestral music with its characteristic sense of ‘plenty in reserve’ or delineating every touch of finger on key in Christian Budu’s recent set of Beethoven solo piano works (on the Claves label), the Denon amp is both firmly in its comfort zone and capable of eye-opening impact and musical involvement. Change genre and age to some vintage Faces, with their Nod Is As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse album in 24-bit/96kHz, and the way it slams out the driving good-time rock is exceptionally toothsome, while at the same time it revels in the rather shambolic studio ambience of Too Bad and the straight down the line attack of Stay With Me.

Conclusion

With this new duo there may be the sense that Denon could be treading on Marantz’s toes, but the fast, bright and hard-hitting sound, underpinned as it with finesse and substance, suggests D+M’s ‘other brand’ still has plenty to bring to the hi-fi party. JP

OUR VERDICT DCD-2500NE SOUND QUALITY

VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Fit and finish; smooth, generous sound; wide format compatibility DISLIKE: Lack of digital inputs

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: A mighty impressive disc player, which also has some less obvious tricks up its sleeve

OVERALL

OUR VERDICT PMA-2500NE SOUND QUALITY

VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: A flexible mix of digital ability and analogue purity; looks and feels really special DISLIKE: It’s a bit on the large side

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Fully loaded, this amp combines all the inputs most will want with a controlled, unflappable sound

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

9


M6 ENCORE 225

Intuitive Operation, Huge Connectivity, Internal 1TB Upgradeable Hard Disc Drive The Encore 225 is a complete audio solution allowing you to keep all your music in one place. It accepts almost any conceivable analog or digital audio source. Experience it for yourself at your local Musical Fidelity dealer.

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CD/SACD/NETWORK PLAYER

Arcam Solo Music n hi-fi terms the standout feature of the Solo is the use of a Class G output stage, taken from one of the finest sounding amplifiers at its price, Arcam’s FMJ A29. It gives 80W RMS per channel (8ohm) and 125W per side (4ohm) – which is more than generous for this sort of application. Alongside this, a Cirrus Logic CS42526 DAC chip sits at the heart of the Solo. It is capable of running at up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM resolution, but doesn’t sport DSD functionality. Interestingly, it does have a disc transport capable of playing back SACDs and CDs. The DAC can play through its coaxial, optical and USB (storage media) inputs, and there’s aptX Bluetooth and UPnP streaming. Arcam always does good tuners and it offers both DAB (and DAB+ in some markets) and FM, too. Four HDMI inputs are offered for future proofing. There’s line input via RCA phonos around the back, and a 3.5mm mini-jack line input too. Toslink optical and coaxial digital audio inputs are also on the rear.

I

Sound quality

The new Solo Music is smooth but powerful in nature. Where its predecessor sounded like good hi-fi – admittedly an accolade for a product such as this – this is less musically standoffish and more emotionally committed. It puts its heart and soul into any tune, and gives a real sense of being right there

at the musical event. It maintains its feisty and fun demeanour across a wide variety of sources, with hi-res digital audio proving a particular pleasure. Kate Bush’s Snowflake charms me, the system showing its large reserves of power, and confident, nuanced and engaging sound. Tonally, it’s pretty neutral, perhaps just a tad on the warm side, but certainly not euphonic. Those lustrous piano cadences prove a joy to hear, shimmering with rich harmonics and augmented by the physical scale the Solo is able to recreate. Even at high volumes, it remains composed and resolutely in control. It manages to keep everything together and serves up a confidently articulated and expensive recorded acoustic, inside which sit her sublime vocals. CD proves to be an unexpected treat too, and there’s no sense that the disc spinner has been thrown in simply for convenience’s sake. Simple Minds’ Theme For Great Cities is positively engrossing, the Arcam taking control of the bassline in a commanding way and setting it behind the synthesiser fills and the scratchy rhythm guitar. It’s not a great recording in the way that the Kate Bush track is, but this makes little difference to the way it imparts the intensity and power of the music. Indeed, its glass-clear midband proves ideal for picking through the slightly murky, lowbudget, early eighties analogue recording – to convey the musicianship of this great Scottish band.

DETAILS PRODUCT Arcam Solo Music PRICE £1,599 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE One-box system WEIGHT 11.5kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 420 x 90 x 414mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 80W (8ohm) ● Digital inputs: 1x coaxial; 1x optical; 1x USB; 4x HDMI ● AptX Bluetooth DISTRIBUTOR Arcam WEBSITE arcam.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 414

Across all sources – watching Game Of Thrones on Blu-ray via its built-in DAC, relaxing with my iPad playing ABBA’s Eagle via iTunes and aptX Bluetooth or listening to LBC on DAB radio – its transparency is a welcome yet slightly unexpected pleasure. Whatever you choose to play, and however you choose to play it, it doesn’t introduce too much of its own character to proceedings, preferring to step back and thump the music out with gusto and glee. This is not something you can say about most one-box systems. Of course, the Solo Music is still mortal in hi-fi terms and not entirely blameless – it could be criticised for its slightly two-dimensional soundstaging for example – but at the price, it sounds a bit churlish. It’s far better across all of its sources than you’ve a right to expect at the price. Surely the best-sounding single-box system at or near its price, the Arcam Solo Music has come a long way from its already auspicious origins, back in the middle of the last decade. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you like its aesthetics and ergonomics, but I can think of nothing else at its price that boasts such fine sound and superb flexibility. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Superb sound; build; finish; functionality

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Front panel display isn’t great

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: The most musically satisfying one-box system in its class

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

11


Everything you need. Nothing you don’t. Music brings us so much joy. An audio system shouldn’t reduce music’s unique DLNSHNM@KR@SHRE@BSHNMVHSGTMMDBDRR@QXBNLOKHB@SHNM@MCRTODQkTNTR ODQENQL@MBD QNAAHMFED@STQDR 1NSDKRMDV1 2SDQDN(MSDFQ@SDC LOKHjDQBNLAHMDROQNUDM @M@KNFCDRHFMVHSG@CU@MBDCCHFHS@KBHQBTHSRSNAQHMF@KKNEXNTQE@UNQHSD@QSHRSRSNKHED VHSGRTQO@RRHMFjCDKHSX (SR@ONVDQETKV@SSRODQBG@MMDK"K@RR !@LOKHjDQ  GHFGKXQDjMDCOQD@LOKHjDQ@MC#HFHS@KSN M@KNFBNMUDQSNQSTBJDCADGHMC @SHLDKDRRQTRGDCLDS@K TRDQ EQHDMCKXEQNMSO@MDK 6GDSGDQXNTBGNRDSNKHRSDMSN BK@RRHBUHMXK+ / R UH@XNTQRL@QSOGNMDNQS@AKDS NQJ'YAHS/" 42!CHFHS@K RSQD@LR SGD1 S@JDRXNTRSQ@HFGSSNSGDGD@QSNE@LTRHB@KODQENQL@MBD  6HSGNTSBNLOQNLHRDNQBNLOKHB@SHNM  6@MSSNjMCNTSLNQD@ANTSGNVVDCNHS5HRHSVVV QNSDK BNL4*SNjMCXNTQ nearest authorised Rotel retailer.

R O T E L . C O M


CD PLAYER/DAC

EAR Yoshino Acute Classic his is no ordinary CD player, it’s one with a DAC that accepts extra digital inputs. Around the back, balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA analogue outputs are joined by coaxial, Toslink optical and USB 2.0 digital inputs enabling you to feed digital signals from a streamer, portable player, transport or computer to the Wolfson WM8741 DAC. Pushing the source button toggles through these extra inputs, performing simple digital preamp duties. The chrome knob on the fascia is an analogue volume control meaning you can plug the player directly into power amps or active speakers. The traditional benefit of an analogue potentiometer over a digital volume control is that you won’t be truncating digital bits to reduce signal gain. EAR employs a pair of ECC88 valves and some rather special hand-wound transformers claimed to achieve exceptionally good signal-tonoise level ratios.

T

Sound quality

Playing Kate Rusby’s No Names on CD provides a sublime start. Plucked guitar strings ring sweetly and her clean voice presses forward convincingly out of the plane of the speakers with real body. Her fragile vibrato is communicated with superb clarity and sensitivity while vocals are conveyed with lifelike warmth and masses of insight. The noise floor feels vanishingly low and tiny

emotional nuances in the voice come through beautifully. A double bass joins the melody and low tones are especially deep, dark and supple. I sometimes find bass is CD’s weak suit, but this feels extremely convincing and far more analogue. Deep notes have a distinct start but they also bloom mellifluously, feeling like a real wooden instrument more than a simple tone. The entrance of Roddy Woomble’s vocal is so clean, clear and present in the room it catches me off guard. CD can often seem to present a smaller, more compressed image than analogue or hi-res digital, but the Acute Classic does a fine job of making the performance feel more expansive and relaxed, able to breathe, across a very wide, deep and highly three-dimensional soundstage. The sound quality has just that little bit more light, shade and texture than I expect from CD and more sensitivity and ability to communicate the emotional qualities in a performance. Boris Blank’s Electrified shows that the Acute Classic needn’t be mild mannered, and tubes certainly don’t mean pipe and slippers. I wind up the motorised volume control and Blank’s taut, electrified pulses slice through my room while seismic bass drones sink through the floor. Some players may exhibit slightly more snap with sharper edges, but the EAR excels in painting the entire musical picture with utter conviction and with a characteristic flow that seems to come with valves. Ultra-deep bass is layered

DETAILS PRODUCT EAR Yoshino Acute Classic PRICE £4,800 ORIGIN UK TYPE Valve CD player/DAC WEIGHT 8kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 435 x 65 x 285mm FEATURES ● 2x ECC88 valves ● Inputs: 1x S/PDIF up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM; 1x Toslink up to 24/88 PCM; 1x USB 2.0 up to 24/192 PCM ● Outputs: 1x stereo RCA; 1x balanced XLRs; 6.35mm headphone socket DISTRIBUTOR EAR Yoshino TELEPHONE 01480 210004 WEBSITE earyoshino.com REVIEWED HFC 415

with fizzing synths, staccato percussion, robotic vocals and infectious wah-wah guitar to add up to a compelling and propulsive track that motors along with real verve. I boot up iTunes and connect my MacBook Pro to the back of the Acute Classic via The Chord Company’s SilverPlus USB cable (HFC 407). Selecting the USB source, I play a 24/96 recording of Arnesen’s Magnificat, Et Misericordia, performed by the Trondheim Soloists and Nidaros Cathedral Girls’ Choir. This piece of choral music is particularly lush so I expect any shortcomings in this file to be laid bare, but instead the opening strings sound sweet and clean and the clear timbre of the soloist soars high above the rich, flowing orchestra. Tiny inflections in the lead vocal are beautifully captured without ever sounding harsh or shrill against the rising power of the female choir. I’m playing a simple file via iTunes and yet this performance truly makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Everything flows effortlessly and musically. If you love musicality and enjoy the convenience of your CD collection, then this is for you. Thoroughly recommended. CW

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Musicality; DAC with remote volume control; build

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Keeping the front panel shiny

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Smart blend of analogue mastery with digital know-how creates sumptuous product that makes music sound great

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

13


NETWORK PLAYER/HDD/AMP

Plato Class A t was always intended that the original Plato (HFC 400) would be an evolving platform, and sure enough the quest for even better sound quality has resulted in a new power amp that runs mainly in Class A, albeit with a clever technical twist. The original Plato (Class AB) continues in production, selling for £3,600, or £2,700 sans power amp. The Class A option may be more expensive, but it is targeting true, high-end, audiophile sound quality without the need to plug in a third-party power amp. Plato’s appealing function as a repository for all things ‘entertainment’ is further enhanced by the ability to copy music and video stored on it to any other home network device such as a phone or tablet running the control app. As before, when new music is imported – whether digital or analogue – the Gracenote database is searched at six-second intervals and the matching track metadata (song, artist and album name) attached to the recording. Things have been taken further with the introduction of a ‘Mood’ grid, which tags additional information from Gracenote to create mood-based playlists.

I

Sound quality

I really liked the sound of the first ‘Class AB’ Plato, which for a claimed 45 watter, certainly seemed to have the minerals to drive my resident DALI Rubicon 6 floorstanders (HFC 399) to within an inch of flapping the

DETAILS

curtains while possessing a fine sense of transparency, rich tonal textures and foot-tapping rhythmic energy. More than good enough given the type of product, you might think. But did I mention the guys behind it are music lovers? Solid-gone music lovers? Good enough is never enough. So what improvements does the Class A bring to the party? Time to wrestle the big £3k Rubicons into position again. The front end has changed a little since then, but since we’re investigating just how capable the new amp is, it’s all to the good. Thoughtfully, a handful of hi-res HighResAudio tracks has already been loaded into the media library, a Questyle QP1R DAP (HFC 413) is on standby to inject more and, for CD, Cyrus’ £1,750 CD Xt Signature transport (HFC 386) connected to the Plato’s internal DAC via a 2m run of Nordost Blue Heaven digital interconnect is just the job. And as our review sample has swapped the optional Speakon speaker connections for banana plug terminals, it’s Nordost Red Dawn doing the connecting between amp and speakers. As before, it’s a sound you can live with, a sound that’s beautifully even handed and musically compliant. But, this time, it doesn’t just hit the ground running, it nails your attention from the start. It’s special the second air pushes through Gregory Porter’s caramel vocal chords on the over air-played but nevertheless exceptional Consequence Of Love from Take Me To

PRODUCT Plato Class A PRICE £3,999 ORIGIN England TYPE 2TB music/video server system WEIGHT 15kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 370 x 136 x 301mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 50W ● Audio formats: FLAC; ALAC; AAC LC/PLUS; MP3; VORBIS; m4a; PCM/ WAVE; AIFF ● 24-bit/192kHz recording from analogue sources DISTRIBUTOR Entotem Ltd TELEPHONE 01332 291972 WEBSITE platoentertainment. com REVIEWED HFC 414

The Alley. Oh, the satiny tones, the air, the resolution of those vanishingly small but vital ambient cues. But most of all, the sheer, solid presence of Porter. His vocal span is given full reign, the lower registers a weight and authority that’s downright naughty. The soundstage is wider and deeper than I remember the original Plato’s being, too. It’s as if a layer of previously unnoticed haze has been lifted from the sonic landscape, making tonal colours cleaner and more intense, instrumental intricacies easier to follow and understand. Even good old Jeff Lorber on vinyl, his brand of early career funk already turned up to 11 via the original Plato, seems to have found an extra gear and off-loaded some of the corn. A kind of magic, surely? What can I tell you? I was blown away by the original Plato, but I like the Class A even more. If you’re prepared to take the plunge, it can’t help but define your music and video leisure downtime and, through sheer addictive attraction, probably leverage you some more. Yes, 4K compatibility and a drive to play/rip CDs would be nice, but as it stands the Plato Class A is the best-sounding do-it-all box of delights there is out there. DV

OUR VERDICT VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Does everything the original did and more; high-quality sound and versatility

BUILD QUALITY

DISLIKE: No 4K (yet) or CD drive; small touchscreen display

SOUND QUALITY

WE SAY: This could well be the last hi-fi component that you ever need

FEATURES

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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PRE/POWER AMPLIFIER

Arcam FMJ C49/FMJ P49 Arcam’s C49/P49 pre-power amplifier combination is an unsung hero of the affordable high end ack in the late seventies, it felt like there were more preamp/power amplifier combinations around than there were people to buy them. But around the late eighties, when things began to downsize, we saw the appearance of the ‘super integrated’ amplifier breed. Fewer people bought separate pre-power combos as a result, and now they’re comparatively scarce. The C49 preamp is a cleanly styled box with a long row of buttons and a large central volume control, allied to a green alphanumeric display. Unlike many of its rivals, it doesn’t come with a DAC inside – for this, there’s Arcam’s rSeries accessories range. It does have a good-quality moving-magnet phono stage, and seven line-level analogue

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inputs, including one via balanced XLR. It also offers the choice of balanced XLR and RCA phono line outputs, and sounds better with the former when feeding the partnering P49 power amp. Speaking of which, this £3,245 box is arguably the more interesting of the two. It’s the finest expression of the company’s foray into Class G operation, the idea being that this machine works in full Class A operation up to a certain power level after which it moves into Class AB. Running at lower power – and at normal listening levels – the amplifier is devoid of switching distortion, but when more power is called for the P49 is able to deliver it. This is done at high listening levels and only very briefly on

DETAILS PRODUCT Arcam FMJ C49 PRICE £2,749 ORIGIN UK/USA TYPE Preamplifier WEIGHT 8.7kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 433 x 171 x 410mm FEATURES ● Inputs: 6x RCAs; 1x balanced XLR ● MM phono stage DISTRIBUTOR Arcam WEBSITE arcam.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 409

transients, so it doesn’t degrade the sound – the idea goes. It puts out 200W RMS per channel into 8ohm, which is more than enough for most. It’s a fairly minimalist design with nothing more than an on/off switch and the ability to switch between two pairs of loudspeakers on its fascia. Also, there’s a sculpted air vent inset into this. I repeatedly try to get the amp hot, but can confirm that you’re more likely to suffer from early onset deafness, than the P49 saying good night Vienna due to overheating. Indeed, both pre and power amplifiers perform unerringly reliable in testing.

Sound quality

The essence of a fine amplifier is one that doesn’t get in the way of the music. While some might enjoy amps that embellish the original recording, or strip it of its edge and bite in the name of an easier listen, the only truly satisfactory answer is a transparent design that works in a consistent and predictable way across a range of music. The C49/P49 is just such a combination. I use it to drive a range of speakers, from Quad electrostatics to Yamaha’s NS-1000M and my usual reference ATC SCM40 (HFC 389). With all of these and others too, it remains a highly capable package. The standout aspect of its sound is its open and even nature. And


PRE/POWER AMPLIFIER

midband, it remains clean, delivering some beautifully tactile and snappy snare drum work. Gregory Isaacs’ voice is also satisfyingly rich in tone, yet possesses a superlative smoothness, and his delivery is beautifully nuanced rhythmically. The pair duly delivers an addictive combination of subtlety, poise and power that’s hard to beat at the price. All well and good, but how does it sound on less well recorded material? I find it still has the ability to pick through mediocre recordings and bring out the best in the music. The Smiths’ Wonderful Woman isn’t your archetypal hi-fi demo track, yet this pre-power is well able to slice right through the murky mix, to the heart of the proceedings. Again proving highly neutral, it sets up an expansive soundstage inside which all the elements are tightly defined. There is no sense of this being two dimensional either. Instead it seems to make the

The Arcam duo expertly captures all the music’s special little inflections DETAILS PRODUCT Arcam FMJ P49 PRICE £3,249 ORIGIN UK/USA TYPE Power amplifier WEIGHT 18kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 433 x 171 x 425mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 200W (8ohm) ● Class G operation ● Inputs: 1x RCA; 1x balanced XLR DISTRIBUTOR Arcam WEBSITE arcam.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 409

unlike some Class A designs, it’s not piercingly transparent – some amps sound like there’s a massive spotlight glaring onto the recording, revealing every detail. There’s a subtle sense of this, but no more – it’s obviously less forensic than some rivals. Instead, it just gets on with the job of playing music in an honest and matter-of-fact way, with little embellishment. Whatever you choose, it remains accurate, detailed and engaging. When you push the volume down it stays this way, and when it goes in the opposite direction it doesn’t sound too forceful – just strong and steady with no strain. Tonally it’s very neutral – perhaps a fraction on the lighter, brighter side, but still close and its tuneful and powerful bass helps. Gregory Isaacs’ Night Nurse features a lot of lowfrequency energy and this combo sets out to prove it. Even the sealed-box ATC has my listening room doors rattling. At high volume levels, the P49 shows complete indifference to the amount of power it is being asked to pump, giving the speakers a serious workout in the process. It proves to be excellent, able to serve up lots of watts at a millisecond’s notice. Fine, so this Arcam pre-power is a little powerhouse – but what really impresses is the ease with which it generates the power, and the smoothness too. Further up into the

speakers disappear somewhere inside the vocal booth, as Morrissey’s dulcet tones project all around the room – both in front of and behind the plane of the speakers. At the same time, the pair expertly captures all the music’s little inflections – it doesn’t sound especially spectacular in a hi-fi sense, yet proves wonderfully beguiling. Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way is something of a ‘sink or swim’ experience for a hi-fi – it needs to have a light and deft touch to convey it convincingly. Happily the Arcam does not get in the way, instead providing an open window on the proceedings that lets every last aspect of the emotion captured on this recording to shine through. Indeed, it pulls the listener right into its soundscape. My only reservation is its subtle lack of tonal colour – it doesn’t provide much sense of there being a deep, rich hue to recordings that are on the warm side. You wouldn’t exactly mistake it for an EL34-powered valve amplifier then, but this can work in both a bad and a good way. Taken in isolation, I’d say the P49 power amplifier is the stronger of the pair. While the C49 gives a clean, detailed and balanced sound, it doesn’t have the ‘wow factor’ of the power amplifier. This latter product is excellent and easily able to hold its own with dramatically more expensive

rivals. Don’t let its sensible styling fool you – here is a power amplifier of rare ability at the price. It’s hard to think of anything near that’s so neutral yet so powerful, and it can comfortably be used in systems costing substantially more. I find that the P49 works very well with high-quality passive preamplifiers and valve designs, too.

Conclusion

Snobs might disapprove. After all, what’s a hi-fi brand doing selling a pre-power amplifier combination for around £6,000, when it’s normal position in life is making products costing well under half that? While the Arcam badge might not have the audiophile cachet of more high-end designs, it is very hard to argue with the performance that’s on offer. Here’s a preamplifier that sounds quiet, smooth and detailed and has a wide range of facilities too, plus a power amplifier of great quality and serious grunt, for the price of an entry-level high-end integrated from one of the North American boutique brands. It may lack the cool badge of high-end Americana or the glitzy finish of the best Japanese kit, but it’s highly functional and capable. Wonderfully unassuming yet surprisingly effective, here’s something to put the cat among the audiophile pigeons. DP

OUR VERDICT: FMJ C49 SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Clean styling; sensible facilities; detailed sound

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: No MC phono stage; slightly resonant casework

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Strong allround preamplifier, ideal for the P49

OVERALL

OUR VERDICT: FMJ P49 SOUND QUALITY

VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Open, clean, detailed sound; very powerful; highly musical DISLIKE: Slightly resonant casework

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Superbsounding powerhouse – an audiophile bargain

OVERALL

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INTEGRATED AMP/DAC

Arcam FMJ SR250 his receiver has been designed expressly for hooking up to a Blu-ray player and watching movies with the sound provided by your system. Inside is much of the FMJ A39 – a fine-sounding Class G stereo amplifier (HFC 394) – plus a decent DAC and a plethora of codecs for cinema use. There are also seven HDMI inputs and three outs, which means it becomes the centrepiece of your AV system, as well as your hi-fi. Uniquely for a two-channel product, it also contains a powerful room correction algorithm, one that is far more effective and less invasive than any I have previously tried. Dirac Live works by getting the user (or ideally your dealer) to take a number of measurements and then upload them to a central computer, which then does some sophisticated calculations to compensate for the failings of your speakers, room and listening position. It comes up with a new ‘equalisation map’ that gives a flatter response and corrects things in the time domain. The SR250 is basically an evolution of the old two-channel receivers that we used to buy in the seventies. In this case that means both FM and DAB. But to this a Cirrus Logic CS42528 DAC chip has been added, and an analogue control section based loosely on the high-end C49 preamplifier (p16) – complete with its special distortion-nulling technique and multiple power supplies to negate inter circuit block noise.

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The SR250 can run as a ‘straightthrough’ stereo amplifier, with no processing, from a line-level analogue input, or you can use its onboard DAC and/or home cinema codecs should you wish. Alternatively, you can use it as a preamp, bi-amp it or hook it up to the massive P49 power amp (p16).

Sound quality

Running in direct mode with Dirac processing turned off, this is a clean, crisp and open-sounding device. Don’t think that this means it is sterile, though, because the great thing about it is that it combines a wonderful sense of openness and detail with a natural musicality that makes listening a very involving experience. To me, it is this that makes this current generation of Arcam amplifiers truly great. Hook up a high-quality analogue source via the line inputs, and you’ll be amazed by the scale, power and get up and go when playing Boz Scaggs’ Lido Shuffle. At the same time, it has unexpected transparency that makes most solid-state amps sound mushy and polluted. There’s an inherent smoothness and incision that’s hard not to live with when you go back to a Class AB or Class D design. But don’t go thinking it’s some soft, fat old smoothie in the style of a budget valve amp – it isn’t. It’s a well-lit and quite forensic sound that doesn’t have any excess warmth. It’s not the sort of thing to buy to sweeten up a cold-sounding system.

DETAILS PRODUCT Arcam FMJ SR250 PRICE £2,500 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE Two-channel receiver WEIGHT 15.1kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 433 x 171 x 425mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 90W (8ohm) ● Cirrus Logic CS42528 DAC ● Inputs: 4x coaxial; 2x optical; USB; 7x HDMI; 6x RCA DISTRIBUTOR Arcam WEBSITE arcam.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 408

Via its digital inputs, driven from a Teac CD transport, the SR250 is punchy, crisp and tight – with just a slight lack of depth perspective and fine detail reminding you that this isn’t a high-end digital converter. The onboard DAC is the match of most £500 designs. Running via coaxial in, it makes a very nice noise with Coldplay’s X&Y, giving a large, powerful and confident presentation that lacks depth perspective but more than makes up for it with a wide soundstage, a tuneful and powerful bass and a sweet and smooth treble. This really is something of a muscle amp, considering its price. When I switch Dirac Live on, there’s a quite profound change to the sound. Despite cutting out a big bass boom in my room, it gives subjectively more (upper) bass, pushes the top end up slightly (just as it should) and cuts out an upper midrange peak. The system sounds much smoother, but interestingly it is snappier and more musical too. The FMJ SR250 is a genuinely innovative product that’s ideal for stereophiles that love watching movies. It’s one of the company’s best products for years, and so comes heartily recommended. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Smoothness; detail; power; Dirac; AV flexibility

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Nothing at the price

BUILD QUALITY

WE SAY: Ingenious niche product that brilliantly hits the spot

FEATURES

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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+44 (0)118 981 9891 www.audioconsultants.co.uk F I N E TWO C H AN N E L AU DIO SYST E MS

German Physiks Omnidirectional Loudspeakers

Clockwise from top left: HRS-130, Borderland Mk IV and Unlimited Mk II Model featured: HRS-130 Two way driver compliment: 1 x Carbon 360° DDD driver 1 x 10 inch bass driver Frequency response 29 – 24,000 Hz Crossover point 220 Hz Sensitivity 87 dB Impedance 4.0 ohms Minimum amplification 70 wpc/4 ohms 4 position high frequency adjustment around 8000 Hz The soundstage is huge and it’s as though I can wander through the performers. Effortless musicality.

Unique DDD design produces a very wide frequency range from a single driver Large, deep soundstages well beyond the speaker boundaries No box colouration resulting in a natural tonal balance and the correct timbre of instruments Realistic stereo image more like that experienced in a concert hall Precise, focused images and exceptional coherence in almost all positions in the room Fast dynamics due to lightweight driver material and design

Chris Ward – HiFi Choice

info@audioconsultants.co.uk 4 Zephyr House Calleva Park Aldermaston Berkshire RG7 8JN UK

AC/101


INTEGRATED AMP/DAC

Audiolab M-ONE ssentially, this is an Audiolab M-DAC+, plus a preamplifier and power amplifier, shoehorned into the same box. Added to this is the handy aptX Bluetooth functionality. The result is a versatile, up-to-date music maker, in a diminutive chassis. Under the hood it has an ESS Sabre32 ES9018K2M DAC chip – the twochannel little brother to the flagship eight-channel ES9018 one found in the M-DAC+. It plays Direct Stream Digital and ultra-high-resolution PCM, while the number of userselectable digital filters – a kind of 21st-century tone control that lets you fine-tune sound – has been reduced to three, but they haven’t gone completely. And there’s a Class AB amplifier section conjuring up 40W per channel into 8ohm.

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Sound quality

The M-ONE sounds much more like a grown-up hi-fi system than its size would suggest. Anyone that’s heard Audiolab’s DACs and amplifiers won’t be too surprised by its sound, because there’s a clear family resemblance between it and its bigger brothers. In absolute terms, this is a dry and clean-sounding performer, with a detailed midband and taut, tidy and tuneful bass. At the other end of the frequency spectrum, it sounds crisp and fairly spacious with a clear and inoffensive treble. Whatever type of music you play, you’ll always get this kind of tidy and detailed sound. It’s

not the most gushingly emotional performer, but it’s always musically communicative and fun. Simple Minds’ Theme For Great Cities is just the sort of programme material it likes getting its teeth into. Delivered via CD using the coaxial digital input, the results are punchy and propulsive. The music shuffles along letting me enjoy the powerful bass guitar groove. Over this, it delivers a crisp, dry snare drum sound that cuts through the mix, and lovely thick swathes of synthesisers that resound around the room. You’d never call this track the best recording to come out of the eighties, but this little system still makes it accessible and entertaining. It doesn’t gloss over the mediocre recording quality, but refuses to let it spoil things. Moving forward in time by nearly a decade, and Inner City’s Good Life is next on, via LP and the analogue inputs. This is a thumping house music tune, with a wonderfully thick and pushy electronic bass line, above which is a dreamy but densely mixed synthesiser part and Paris Grey’s superb vocals. The M-ONE gets all of this right, serving up a solid and dynamic sound that only really starts showing signs of compression at really high listening levels. Tonally it’s certainly a little dry, because it doesn’t quite communicate the track’s very warm, analogue sound, although it does sound pleasingly crisp and muddle free on what is certainly a dense mix. It also stays consistent

DETAILS PRODUCT Audiolab M-ONE PRICE £800 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE Integrated amplifier/DAC WEIGHT 5.5kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 247 x 114 x 292mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 40W (8ohm ) ● ESS ES9018K2M DAC chip ● 32-bit/384kHz PCM & DSD256 capable DAC ● Digital inputs: coaxial; optical; USB Type-A and USB Type-B; aptX Bluetooth ● Analogue inputs: 2x RCA DISTRIBUTOR IAG Ltd TELEPHONE 01480 447700 WEBSITE audiolab.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 416

across the volume scale, refusing to descend into brightness at high levels. Firing up my MacBook Pro, I play some hi-res music files via its USB input. Supertramp’s Oh Darling at 24/96 PCM is a joy, the little box really ramping up the quality. The improvement isn’t as great as you’d get via grown-up separates, but there is a clear improvement compared with the CD version, with a real sweetening of the treble (the hi-hat sound suddenly becomes spacious, sweet and silky) and opening up of the midband. Given the chance with a good recording, the Audiolab can sound surprisingly big. Image placement is stronger than you’d expect for a one-boxer, and there’s a decent degree of depth – even if you can’t quite call the soundstage ‘cathedral-like’. Bluetooth implementation proves good too, with a useful 10m range. A fine little single-box system, this strengthens Audiolab’s M-series range and gives punters the chance to get a compact all-in-one with some real audiophile credentials. It’s simple to use, flexible and sounds surprisingly good with no obvious power limitations for most people in most situations it’s likely to find itself. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Punchy, engaging sound; decent power output

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Nothing at the price

BUILD QUALITY

WE SAY: Cute, flexible and fine-sounding single-box system

FEATURES

OVERALL

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INTEGRATED AMP/DAC

Marantz HD-AMP1 f you ever doubted that products drawing on a brand’s heritage have a place in an audio market dominated by iThings, look no further than the HD-AMP1. This fashionably compact amplifier is equipped with an asynchronous USB input able to handle the highest resolution music files available. Not only does that mean PCM-based formats up to 32-bit/384kHz, but also DSD64/ 2.8MHz as used for SACD discs, all the way through to DSD256, at a sampling rate of 11.2MHz. If the styling looks familiar, that’s because it draws from the HD-DAC1 (HFC 405). It still offers a high-quality headphone section, but also has analogue inputs as well as digital, even more wide-ranging file compatibility, and power amplification, delivering 35W into 8ohm and double that into a 4ohm load. In addition to the asynchronous USB-B input there’s also an iOS-compatible USB-A port on the front, plus a coaxial and two optical digital inputs. Oh, and two sets of analogue ins, too.

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Sound quality

All of which is borne out in the way it sounds – which is not at all like a little amp. On paper the output may be modest, especially to those familiar with the claims of mid-market amps of the past, but it is anything but feeble, either in the way it can drive even demanding speakers or the excellent control it exerts over them. 22

YEARBOOK 2016

I start things gently – even though I soon discover I don’t need to – with Hall & Oates’ Rock & Soul Pt I in DSD64 from SACD, and it instantly impresses with its big, lush and yet fine-detailed delivery. The bassline of Maneater powers out of the speakers, the sax fills are deliciously distant, and the drum synths are just so distinctive. With big, dense productions such as this, the ability of the Marantz to give a ‘listen-in’ experience is striking, but as with just about every mainstream product from this company the most impressive thing is the way it makes even the most familiar track come up fresh and bursting with life, making the listener hear it anew and with a rapidly spreading silly grin. It’s a trick Ken Ishiwata loves to play when demonstrating at shows and product launches – perhaps he just enjoys seeing expressions change from “what the…” to admiration, and even better is the fact that the company’s equipment can do the same thing when you get it home. In the manner of the best hi-fi, the HD-AMP1 is one of those ‘collection trawlers’, likely to have its owner going through music unplayed for years and enjoying it all over again. What’s more, it can do it with a wide range of speakers, from budget to “blimey!”: I have great results with the cute-as-anything DALI Menuet – see p56 –, which the Marantz proves capable of driving to within an inch of its life, and an old pair of PMC DB1s, while I’ve also heard this relatively

DETAILS PRODUCT Marantz HD-AMP1 PRICE £799 ORIGIN Japan/China TYPE Integrated amplifier/DAC WEIGHT 5.8kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 304 x 107 x 352mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 35W (8ohm) ● 32-bit/384kHz PCM & DSD256capable DAC ● Digital inputs: 2x optical; 1x coaxial, 1x asynchronous USB ● Analogue inputs: 2x RCA DISTRIBUTOR Marantz Europe WEBSITE marantz.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 409

tiny amp doing great things hooked up to the big Bowers & Wilkins 803 D3 floorstander. Yes, all £12.5k’s worth – but then that’s just the setup sound manager Ryuichi Sawada chose to demonstrate his final product to the Japanese press (the fact that Marantz distributes the speakers in Japan may have helped). Through the DALI, the Marantz gives a wonderfully deep and detailed presentation of the atmospheric 2002 Hyperion re-creation of The Coronation Of King George II – again in DSD64 – complete with its brass, drums and soaring choral singing, while the intimacy of Coltrane’s My Favourite Things set, in 24-bit/192kHz, reveals again just how the subtlest nuances are used by this DAC/amp combination to enhance the listener’s involvement in the music. For all that, the HD-AMP1 is more than adept at doing the down and dirty thing, too, whether with the slightly bonkers blues of Ironing Board Sam’s Super Spirit or the thunder of Thin Lizzy in their pomp. You see? I warned you it leads to serious music-collection trawling – yes, that combination of powerful bass and wide-open midband and treble is just too much to resist. JP

OUR VERDICT VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Superb sound for the money; real power despite the modest spec

BUILD QUALITY

DISLIKE: If only it had real wood – or at least veneered – side panels

SOUND QUALITY

FEATURES

OVERALL

WE SAY: If the rest of the Music Link range is this good, we’re in for a treat. This is a cracker


INTEGRATED VALVE AMP

Ming Da Dynasty Duet 300 Plus his valve amplifier is an incarnation of an existing Duet 300B triode amp design, but now employs zero feedback and claims many other audio improvements. Operationally, it has four line-level inputs selectable by the front right dial. Ming Da offers an optional built-in Wolfson DAC for an extra £200, enabling coaxial and USB inputs for those with digital sources. Volume can be controlled by hand or remote control that operates the motorised volume potentiometer. The quantity and types of tube is noteworthy. A 6LP is an unusual and very powerful driver valve for 300B triodes and this could well create a differentiated sound quality from other similar 300B designs. Ming Da has also opted for valve rectification and cathode bias over fixed bias, so the benefit is that it doesn’t require constant tweaking. Bias should never need adjustment and you’re free to swap in alternative tubes of the correct specification to tune or ‘tube roll’ the sound to your liking.

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Sound quality

Starting things off gently with Roxy Music’s Rain Rain Rain on HDCD, the opening bass line and synthesiser reveals this modest 9W amp is punching beyond its specification. Bass notes are far deeper and more defined than a single-ended triode amp has any right to achieve. The drum kit kicks in and this track has much greater drive and punch than I

expect. Bryan Ferry’s vocals are portrayed with a blend of richness and ethereal airiness. Soundstaging is strong with the sonic image extending very wide, but with possibly a little less front-to-back depth than class-leading preamp sections. Spinning the glorious Sheffield Lab ‘direct cut’ vinyl of the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries, I’m really struck with its masterful authority. 300B triode output valves in a single-ended arrangement are often celebrated for a highly transparent portrayal of more intimate music and voices, but given the modest power on tap, they are rarely known for their drive, especially around more dense music. Consequently, single-ended 300Bs can sometimes struggle to portray the full scale and dynamics of larger orchestral works and can err on the side of a little extra creaminess, a slight smoothing of punchy dynamics and potentially a narrowing of the soundstage. Here, however, the 300B tubes sound like triodes on steroids. This is a track that could embarrass a featherweight amp, but Wagner’s huge dynamic swings are handled with majestic ease. In particular, the power and detail in the orchestra’s bass instruments have a really forceful drive and a speed of attack that catches me off guard. This perceived speed is most likely the benefit of zero feedback being employed on this ‘Plus’ version of the amp. As a result, Wagner’s

DETAILS PRODUCT Ming Da Dynasty Duet 300 Plus PRICE £3,499 ORIGIN China/UK TYPE Single-ended 300B valve integrated amplifier WEIGHT 32kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 430 x 220 x 340mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 9W (8ohm) ● Inputs: 4x RCA line level ● Single-ended triode ● Zero feedback DISTRIBUTOR Ming Da UK TELEPHONE 07831 197019 WEBSITE mingda.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 410

most complex, dense and dynamic passages sound more open and less congested and I’m getting all the power of the orchestra, but in a way that enables me to pick out the timbre and virtuosity of individual musicians. Stereo imaging is excellent, especially in width, with a highly focused and sweet triangle ringing high and bright above the other musical instruments. Playing Låpsley’s Station on CD, the track’s evocative mix of stripped-back instrumentation, sound effects and haunting vocals is presented with sumptuousness and a sprightly snappiness. A heavily chorused, mournful keyboard sits at the back of the soundstage, rich, round and lusciously organic. Låpsley’s voice has the perfect balance of hear-through transparency alongside a honeyed richness, such that tiny nuances are exquisitely revealed but aren’t served up desiccated. The quality of the bass kick is noteworthy again for its speed and impact and it’s hard to equate this dynamic agility and punch I’m listening to with just nine singleended integrated watts. It’s rare to hear weight, detail, transparency and lively dynamics so balanced, but in the case of the Dynasty Duet 300 Plus, Ming Da has nailed it. CW

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Transparency; strong bass; sweet treble; build quality

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Only available in black, for now

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Well-built, beautifully voiced integrated valve amp that punches way beyond its output

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER

NAD C 316BEE n an age where phono stages, digital inputs and tuners abound on most integrated amplifiers, this model from Canadian-based NAD can come across as a little puritanical. It’s the entry-level model in its lineup, and is finished in grey like any self-respecting NAD amp should be. Connections include five line inputs (one shared with a front-panel 3.5mm mini-jack) and a tape loop. A headphone socket and defeatable tone controls are pretty much the limit of NAD’s generosity, while an indication of the C 316BEE’s age is the fact that it doesn’t have a phono stage, as it came into the world when vinyl was still considered as something of a fringe interest. Power output claims of 40W per channel are competitive if not class leading, but the figures are given at commendably low distortion levels and signs like the large heatsink that is visible through the underside of the chassis suggest the manufacturer has gone to considerable lengths to ensure a decent performance. This is then encased in an impressively

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compact case. It would probably be a stretch to call it pretty, but there is a certain elegance to its simplicity. The overall construction levels are respectable enough, but there are some annoyances. The captive mains lead feels a little cheap and while the NAD has a remote control, it is just too small – making it easy to lose – and seems to have rather a short range and limited effective angle of operation. There’s just a single set of loudspeaker terminals, which are actually pretty sturdy.

Sound quality

Hitting the test level provides no trouble for the C 316BEE and it manages to sound completely free of strain in doing so. This is a simple device, but there is something to be said for this approach and the way it sounds. From the outset of Peter Gabriel’s This Is The Picture, the C 316BEE feels agile and rhythmic. The clever bit is that this lightness of touch hasn’t been obtained at the expense of bass impact. The NAD has a relatively deep and well-defined low end that while perhaps not the best in

DETAILS PRODUCT NAD C 316BEE PRICE £250 ORIGIN Canada/China TYPE Integrated amplifier WEIGHT 5.5kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 435 x 80 x 286mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 40W (8ohm) ● Inputs: 5x RCAs; 1x tape loop input ● Bypassable tone controls DISTRIBUTOR Sevenoaks Sound & Vision TELEPHONE 01732 459555 WEBSITE nadelectronics.com REVIEWED HFC 409

the business, certainly isn’t left wanting when it comes to enjoyment. As a result of this energy, it feels consistently entertaining to listen to. It might not be able to resolve complex information in the way that some models can – Montanari’s Violin Concerto feels more like a single mass of instruments than a collection of individual ones, but with Mark Knopfler’s Privateering it once again displays a lightness of touch combined with a fundamentally accurate and believable tone that consistently engages the listener, making it genuinely enjoyable to listen to for long periods. With David Bowie’s Girl Loves Me, the slight lack of bass weight catches up a little with the NAD, but not so severely that it hinders the enjoyment of the music. Bowie’s vocals are well presented and the electronic riff has the fizzle of drive and excitement that is needed to gain the maximum benefit from the piece. There is no question that in the context of the market, this amp is a little light on features but its musicality goes a good way towards redressing the balance. If you have no need for a phono stage, there is much to be said for its high performance levels. ES

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Punchy, lively and engaging sound; solid build

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Sparse features; slightly limited bass extension

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: It doesn’t do a huge amount in feature terms, but sonically it delivers in spades

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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INTEGRATED AMP/DAC

Onkyo TX-8150 t’s time for the rebirth of the stereo receiver and this machine is designed to do what your average 21st century stereo-type will want. Which is to say, it plays vinyl (there’s an MM phono stage), it handles line sources (it has six), it has a radio (DAB/ DAB+, FM and internet) and it is network-capable so you can play music from your NAS. It has four digital inputs too, so you can plug your TV or Blu-ray into it, and enjoy far superior sound. It’s AirPlay and Bluetooth equipped (not aptX), and there’s a USB socket so computer audio files can be piped in direct. Then, via wi-fi, there’s Deezer and Spotify. The power output is quoted as 2x 135W (into 6ohm). The DAC is 32-bit/384kHz capable, but this doesn’t extend to all inputs; the front panel USB handles 24/96 PCM and DSD 2.8MHz.

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Sound quality

This makes for a smoother, richer sound than some budget rivals, with a nice rhythmic flow. There’s definitely a subtle richness to the upper bass, which leads up to a smooth midband and sweet but quite lively treble. The Onkyo has a big-hearted personality with a solid bottom end and confident demeanour, but it’s only mortal and so at high volumes it does begin to lose some of its dynamic prowess. No matter which source you choose, it is an enjoyable music maker that likes to get into the groove. Via its

DETAILS

phono input, Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love via a Technics SL-1210 deck fitted with a Shure V-15VxMR cartridge is fun. There’s a lot of processing to the sound, and the album from which it’s taken does seem a little tonally dull, yet the Onkyo delivers a large scale, widescreen performance with lots of space within. The electronic percussion comes across in a powerful and rhythmic way, sounding far more animated than I’d expect at this price. Impressively, things never get harsh or brittle, yet it doesn’t sound bland either. It has a better phono stage than it should at this price too and is admirably devoid of hiss and hum. Via a line-level analogue input, the sound opens up a touch more. I play Prefab Sprout’s seminal Appetite from an Audiolab 8200CD silver disc spinner (HFC 370), and am greeted by an animated performance with an enjoyably fluid bass. Midband is clean and carries lots of fine detailing. Instruments are well placed spatially, but again there is a slight two dimensionality to proceedings, which isn’t entirely unexpected at this price. Switch to one of its digital inputs, and it’s soon apparent it contains a decent DAC. True, it isn’t going to render mid-to-high-end digital sources obsolete, but it stages an impressive attempt to carry the power and the glory of any music you care to play from CD. Gregory Isaacs’ Night Nurse proves lots of fun, with an innate charm. There’s obviously a

PRODUCT Onkyo TX-8150 PRICE £549 ORIGIN Japan/China TYPE Two-channel receiver WEIGHT 8.6kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 435 x 149 x 328mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 135W (6ohm) ● FM/DAB/DAB+ tuner with 40 presets ● Inputs: 6x RCA line-level; 2x coaxial; 2x optical digital ● Bluetooth, AirPlay and wi-fi network playback ● MM phono stage DISTRIBUTOR Onkyo UK TELEPHONE 08712 001996 WEBSITE uk.onkyo.com REVIEWED HFC 410

slight softening of the lowest bass notes, but a little further up the range the receiver really gets into its stride, and bounces along beautifully. True, the bass is a little loose, but it’s excused because of its tunefulness. This syncopates nicely with a clean, matter-of-fact midband that carries a decent amount of detail. In absolute terms, it does sound a little ‘overetched’ in the upper-mid, with a subtle sense of chromium plating – but it’s nothing to worry about at the price. Treble proves crisp, but it lacks any real sweetness or delicacy. Across all sources, the TX-8150 proves to be an accomplished performer with real charm. Its pleasing tonality includes a subtly generous upper bass, which is ideal for small standmounting speakers for example, and there’s plenty of detail in the midband and real life and sparkle up top. Dynamically it’s strong, and doesn’t run out of grunt until your flares are really flapping; rhythmically it will have you tapping your feet. I am impressed by the FM sound, which isn’t as poor as I’d feared, and it does a sterling job with DAB broadcasts. Indeed whatever input you choose, it’s consistently clean and glitch-free. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Unerringly musical performer; facilities; flexibility

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: No aptX support

BUILD QUALITY

WE SAY: Keenly priced do-it-all stereo product with real appeal

FEATURES

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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A U D I O

S Y S T E M S

The Classic

August 2016

Best Turntable 2016-2017

An Instant Classic The Classic was released to celebrate Pro-Ject Audio Systems’ 25th Anniversary. This retro-inspired turntable has been designed from the ground-up to combine timeless aesthetics with modern technology and audiophile sound performance. The striking frame design is available in three wood finishes, and provides clever decoupling between the acoustically treated aluminium platter and the motor.

The new motor is powered by a built-in generator, for a consistent performance, and drives a sub-platter that sits atop a precision-engineered main bearing. The all-new 9� Classic Tonearm is made of aluminium and carbon fibre, for unrivalled rigidity while retaining a low mass. The arm benefits from a new bearing system for completely free movement and is supplied as standard with an Ortofon 2M Silver cartridge.

Available Now for ÂŁ799.00 (UK SRP)

Distributed by Henley Designs Ltd. T: +44 (0)1235 511 166 | E: sales@henleydesigns.co.uk | W: www.henleydesigns.co.uk


INTEGRATED AMP/DAC

Roksan blak highish-end integrated that pushes out a claimed 2x 150W RMS, the blak sports a wide range of inputs to make it flexible enough for today’s brave new hi-fi world. Inputs total three RCA line ins, a pair of analogue XLRs plus a USB Type-B, aptX Bluetooth and MM phono stage. A Burr-Brown DSD1794A DAC handles PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD64 and DSD128, the latter only via the USB socket at the back.

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Sound quality

Powerful, punchy, feisty and tough – this is not the sort of amp that shirks its responsibilities. When asked to drive tricky loudspeakers with powerful dance music like Age Of Love’s Age Of Love, it supplies a thunderous yet supple and fluid sound. I find myself luxuriating in the rare combination of sheer brute force and pleasing subtlety. This densely mixed electronic track has a combination of sledgehammer bass and ethereal synthesiser across the midband, which the Roksan catches beautifully. Tonally it is sweeter than your average muscle amp. That self same monster bass is deployed to great effect with the opening Lento Allegro of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.2 (Haitink). It paints a bold, expansive and powerful picture, with a fulsome bottom end and a clean, delicate treble, while the midband remains even and completely devoid of jagged edges.

DETAILS

It’s incisive enough to grip the listener, yet never descends into any obvious hardness or grain. The designer has come up with a great balance that sits comfortably across a wide variety of music types. The blak also delivers a quite ‘architectural’ soundstage; all well ordered with everything in its rightful place. It has a fine sense of depth perspective, possibly not quite the best at the price, but still highly convincing. This natural tonality allied to the confident soundstaging makes for a great sense of ‘being there’ in the concert hall. There’s also a sense of seamlessness, it avoids the trap of sounding like two different amplifiers at two different volume levels. Blasting The Dukes’ So Much In Love at high levels shows this. This type of music is less about physical scale, instead the emphasis switching to how well it flows. The blak proves itself adept at bringing together the rhythmic qualities – capturing the subtle interplay between bass guitar, drums and keyboards – as well as thumping out high levels. Notching the volume down a peg or three, it continues to sound fluid and musical, with a subtly sweet tonality. Its fundamentally well balanced nature makes for an inviting and lustrous sound that really works for the music. Another challenge is good old unreconstructed rock music, so I cue up REM’s Maps And Legends. This was recorded in a cheap London studio back in the early eighties and sounds

PRODUCT Roksan blak PRICE £2,750 ORIGIN UK TYPE Integrated amplifier/DAC WEIGHT 13kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 440 x 140 x 305mm FEATURES ● Quoted power output: 2x 150W (8ohm) ● Inputs: 1x MM phono; 3x RCA line; 1x balanced XLR; 1x USB ● AptX Bluetooth DISTRIBUTOR Henley Designs Ltd. TELEPHONE 01235 511166 WEBSITE roksan.co.uk; henleydesigns. co.uk REVIEWED HFC 413

rather dirge like. Still, the Roksan proves well able to scythe through and bring the music out brilliantly. The Rickenbacker guitar work and Byrds-like vocal harmonies are carried delicately, the music flowing freely yet punching its way around my room with genuine authority. The midband is commendably neutral and carries singer Michael Stipe’s plaintive vocals very well, too. The amp tracks the song’s dynamics adeptly, never sounding breathless or falling to pieces on crescendos and gives a highly natural sound. Again, this type of music really benefits from the amplifier’s vast, cathedral-like soundstage going from left to right, and the sheer confidence with which it drives even tricky speaker loads. The built-in DAC is better than the ‘merely competent’ I expected. It means the amp is quite listenable if digital is your sole source and you don’t wish to buy an external DAC. You can do better, but you’ll need to spend around £1,000 to really improve on what the blak comes fitted with. It’s also worth pointing out that there is superb headphone sound, for those of you with a decent pair of cans, or neighbours who don’t share your taste for loud music. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Highly enjoyable sound; loads of power; impressive facilities

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Quirky ergonomics won’t suit all tastes

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Lovable, great-value monster integrated amp

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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DAC

Audiolab M-DAC+ hen it came out, the original M-DAC (HFC 359) had no real rivals at its £600 price point. It was one of the first DACs to use the (then) new and highly regarded ESS Sabre 9018 DAC chips. The new version is considerably larger than the original, mainly on account of the fact that the power supply has been brought inside the unit. Around the back, there are more digital inputs than ever, including an AES/EBU socket and a USB Type A input alongside the existing USB Type B connection. These join the M-DAC’s twin coaxial and twin optical digital inputs, optical and coaxial digital outputs, singleended RCA and balanced XLR analogue outputs. The M-DAC+ now runs PCM right up to its 32-bit/384kHz ragged edge via USB, but the headline news is DSD support (DSD64, DSD128 and DSD256).

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Sound quality

It’s best to think of the M-DAC+ as a brilliant refinement, rather than the reinvention of the DAC wheel. It brings worthwhile improvements to pretty much every aspect of the M-DAC. If there was ever a criticism of the original, it was the slight sense of musical constraint. The new model addresses this to a great extent, bringing a more natural and organic feel. It sounds less mechanical and less ‘electronic’ and seems better than its predecessor at disappearing and simply letting the music flow.

Tonally Badly Drawn Boy’s Something To Talk About sounds much less chromium plated leaving the listener better able to immerse themself in the music, enjoying its wonderful singalong quality and honey-smooth vocals. Percussion instruments play gently but expressively without throwing themselves at you, and the song lopes along joyously. Switch to some classic electronica in the shape of Kraftwerk’s The Robots, and you get the same effect. Even though it’s not an acoustic track, it still sounds less processed and more natural. The vast size of the soundstage is just as impressive, but it’s the subtle details that make the difference. The music appears to fall back to a deeper, darker silence, and the rhythm section seems less crisp and better resolved – it’s more nuanced and doesn’t simply just hit you in a blunt fashion. All the power is there as before, but it’s delivered in a more finessed and natural way. Notes appear to decay gently and fall off into space. It’s a cliché, but this new box sounds so much more ‘analogue’ than the original. The improvement is most noticeable when you move to higher-resolution source material, such as a 24/192 recording of REM’s Texarkana. Once again it delivers a great sound for its price, one that is balanced and refined yet powerful and immersive. There’s a lovely rhythmic gate and it speeds the song along, focusing on the driving

DETAILS PRODUCT Audiolab M-DAC+ PRICE £800 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE Digital-to-analogue converter WEIGHT 3.7kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 247 x 114 x 292mm FEATURES ● ESS Sabre32 9018 DAC chip ● 32-bit/384kHz PCM & DSD256capable DAC ● Digital inputs: 1x AES/EBU; 1x USB-A; 1x USB-B; 2x coaxial; 2x optical ● RCA phono; balanced XLR outputs DISTRIBUTOR IAG Ltd TELEPHONE 01480 447700 WEBSITE audiolab.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 410

bassline. The rest of the mix isn’t bad either, with the band’s distinctive, crunchy Rickenbackers carried with power and passion. The drum kit is great too, with a super-tight, cutting snare sound and some lovely cymbal work. Indeed, the high frequencies are very well resolved, sounding clean and devoid of noise. This new DAC isn’t quite the most soulful around, but it’s certainly one of the most transparent and has bundles of energy. Indeed, it’s this detailed and neutral character that makes it so good across a wide range of music. It’s particularly suited to acoustic material, including classical. A Phillips recording of Debussy’s Submerged Cathedral is a joy. This prelude is wonderfully ethereal and atmospheric if properly reproduced, and the M-DAC+ proves well able to do this. Its handling of the subtle dynamic accenting of the piano is first rate and it skilfully delivers the pianist’s rhythmic input too. Tonally, it isn’t the sweetest and most sumptuous-sounding digital converter ever heard, but it is certainly an improvement on its predecessor and gives an unerringly balanced and satisfying sound. Superb in pretty much every respect for its price, it is an essential audition. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Excellent sound; functionality; packaging

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Display not as comprehensive as on the M-DAC

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Quite superb mid-price DAC packed with the latest tech

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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USB DAC/HEADPHONE AMP

AudioQuest DragonFly Black & DragonFly Red USB DAC/headphone amp THE COMPACT DAC market has become a major growth area in recent years and it’s no longer enough for a converter to work with a computer to decode files stored on it, phones and tablets are now where it’s at. In order to work successfully with portable devices, they have to consume a great deal less power. In the case of the AudioQuest DragonFly (HFC 370) these power limitations were too great for the original model launched in 2012 and the follow-up v1.2 that came a year or so later. This has now been corrected and two new DragonFly updates have been launched. In the case of the less expensive DragonFly Black, the lineage from the proceeding DACs is sufficiently clear that on the rear of the chassis it is listed as a “DragonFly v1.5”. It uses an ESS Sabre 9010 chip while the upgraded Red opts for the 9016, which promises higher performance. The key difference between these models and their predecessors is that they now communicate via a custom interface that’s been produced by a company called Microchip. This is a much more energy-efficient design – with input from Gordon Rankin who is one of the leading lights of USB audio – which allows the DACs to be connected to phones and tablets. While the ESS Sabre is capable of decoding a wide variety of formats, in the DragonFly it is set up to run as a USB1 device and is limited to handling 24/96 PCM files. Externally both models are simple, but attractively finished. The chassis is roughly the size of a USB stick and made entirely from metal and the logo changes colour to show the different sample rates.

Sound quality

Connected to a Lenovo ThinkPad T530 running JRiver software, both DragonFly DACs have some immediate advantages over the onboard socket. There are large reserves of power on tap and the

low-level noise that blights the Lenovo’s socket is immediately eradicated. A 24/96 download of David Bowie’s Girl Loves Me is powerful and assured. Connected to a pair of Noble Savanna in-ear monitors (HFC 418), the differences between the Black and Red are not immediately apparent or significant. Both have more than

The jump in terms of performance when the DragonFly is used is enormous DETAILS PRICE Black: £89 Red: £169 TELEPHONE 01249 848 873 WEBSITE audioquest.com REVIEWED HFC 414 OUR VERDICT

enough power to push the Noble to beyond onset of hearing loss levels and the sound is impressively refined. Where the Red starts to make more sense is when you switch from in-ears to over-ears. Swapping the Noble Savanna for Audio-Technica’s ATH-A2000Z (HFC 412) headphone shows that the Red has a greater sense of control and refinement as you make use of the higher volume levels. The Black is still deeply impressive for a sub-£100 unit, but the Red has a clear edge with more demanding headphones.

Switching to a Google/LG Nexus 5 smartphone and connecting via an OTG cable is simple enough (although you will need to ensure that the internal volume of the DragonFly is set to max for best results) and shows both units off to excellent effect. The internal headphone socket of the Nexus is very poor and the jump in performance when used with the DragonFly is enormous. The combination of DragonFly Black and a decent pair of in-ear monitors is enough to keep most dedicated audio players honest. Use the Red and you can drive more demanding headphones. Power consumption increases with a DragonFly attached, but the drain on battery life is not severe in my tests. The changes that allow the latest DragonFly models to work on the move mean that these models are comfortably the best iteration yet. For earphone users, the Black is an extremely cost effective way of boosting the performance of a mobile phone while the Red is an impressively compact means of driving more challenging headphones. In both cases, they represent exceptional value for money. ES

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EVOLUTION R 1000 E

The new E-series is a complete redesign of a classic range and consists of three models offering class-leading performance. The dynamic PA 1000 E integrated amplifier and the MP 1000 E multi-source player are the superlative individual components of an extremely modern high-end system. The classic analogue technology of the PA 1000 E, which features symmetrical construction and a continuous output of 500 Watts, provides an incredibly natural, audiophile sound experience. The MP 1000 E plays music to the very highest standards of quality from every imaginable source: from CD; via Bluetooth; from VHF, DAB+ and Internet radio; from UPnP network music servers; from external digital sources; from USB memory media and from PCs and Laptops - even in the high-res DSD format. The streaming services Tidal, Deezer and qobuz are also supported.

The R 1000 E receiver has been developed to combine the functionality and quality of these two high-end separate components into a single, convenient package. With a continuous output of 2 x 180 Watts and a wide range of digital and analogue inputs, the R 1000 E offers true audiophile performance, making it the perfect multifunction receiver.

T+A elektroakustik GmbH & Co. KG · Planckstraße 9 – 11 · 32052 Herford · +49 (0)5221-7676-0 · info@ta-hifi.com · www.ta-hifi.com

Hand built in Germany, the MP 2000 R MKII from T+A is available in the UK now. For more information or to arrange a demonstration, please contact: Kog Audio PO Box 5260 · Coventry CV4 0GB Office: +44 (0)24 7722 0650 Email: info@kogaudio.com Web: www.kogaudio.com


DACS

Arcam irDAC-II HEADLINE NEWS HERE is a new headphone amplifier stage, new Bluetooth aptX input and the adoption of the ESS ES9016K2M Sabre DAC chip, which plays DSD, and this functionality is duly present on the irDAC-II. As well as 24-bit/192kHz PCM, it handles DSD128. Indeed, the USB input itself runs up to 384kHz, with coaxial topping off at 192kHz and optical at 96kHz.

Sound quality

Hooked up via its coaxial input to a decent mid-price CD spinner, it’s hard to believe you’re listening to a relatively inexpensive front end. Scritti Politti’s Cupid And Psyche reveals tight and animated lower frequencies. Things are propelled along further still by the crisp, well-defined midband which has plenty of fine detail, while

instruments are located positively in the mix, and up top the Arcam is well able to capture the sparkle of those hi-hats without striking a harsh note. Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding comes over with crystalline clarity. Costello’s voice isn’t an easy one to reproduce, but this little box of tricks is not defeated by the challenge. Tonality isn’t quite as warm as the rDAC of five or so years ago, but there’s so much more information coming through; the oldie may be golden, but it’s also opaque compared with the forensic precision of this incarnation. It has far more focus, and is livelier with a propulsive gait. This new DAC catches the power of the song well and frames it with almost architectural precision, showing off this excellent recording in a most favourable light. Moving on to USB, and my MacBook Pro and copy of Audirvana are duly summoned. Overall it is a

noticeable step up, bringing appreciable benefits over Compact Disc in terms of scale and depth. Bass is fractionally stronger and more dynamically expressive, while the midband seems to fall back rather further behind the plane of the loudspeakers than it has previously. Kate Bush’s superb Snowflake (24/96) is wonderfully immersive and her voice smooth if a little lacking in warmth, while Alex De Grassi’s The Water Garden via DSD is glass-clear and breathtakingly open. A fully rounded product, the irDAC-II is great at reproducing a myriad of sources and formats. DP

DETAILS PRICE £495 TYPE DAC/preamplifier/ headphone amp WEBSITE arcam.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 412 OUR VERDICT

Chord Electronics Mojo

DETAILS PRICE £399 TYPE Portable headphone amplifier/DAC TELEPHONE 01622 721444 WEBSITE chordelectronics. co.uk REVIEWED HFC 405 OUR VERDICT

MOJO AIMS TO do much of what Chord’s Hugo (HFC 386) does only smaller and cheaper. It can decode material from 32kHz to a faintly unnecessary 768kHz and all flavours of DSD up to 512 (a rate at which almost nothing is commercially available). It sports coaxial and optical inputs, a pair of 3.5mm outputs and claims a 10-hour battery life from a four-hour charge.

Sound quality

Mojo leaves very little trace of itself on the recording. Jack White’s Lazaretto is free of any traits that can easily be assigned to it and instead lets Three Women sound composed, detailed and as entertaining as it should be. White’s vocals are laden with detail and their relationship to supporting instruments is entirely logical. The snap and drive to

the percussion is also extremely appealing. Switching to a 24/96 remaster of Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell, it retains the same compelling sense of neutrality, but the boost in performance is immediate and extremely impressive. Keep Talking is vast and almost liquid smooth while the layers of vocals and instruments are arranged perfectly. There is sufficient headroom to ensure it can take most headphones louder than you would reasonably want to listen. Using Mojo as a line-level DAC doesn’t fundamentally alter the

presentation, but it does at least give the Hugo a breathing space as the line-level setting appears to be a touch on the high side and doesn’t appear to have quite the same sense of scale when the two are compared side by side. As a device to work in both home systems and more portable ones, the larger (and more expensive let’s not forget) Hugo certainly has the edge. Having said that, Mojo is a remarkably neutral piece of digital decoding at a price that is firmly at the affordable end of the market. ES

YEARBOOK 2016

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DAC/PREAMP

Mytek Brooklyn ytek prototypes end up with major mastering and recording engineers in New York for field testing, before the final production versions arrive. Perhaps that’s how the conversation started that saw the inclusion of MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) in this new converter. But MQA is a mere bauble in the great scheme of Mytek Brooklyn things. It’s a USB-capable DAC with 384kHz PCM and DSD256 capability. There’s also a preamplifier with line/MM/MC inputs and a headphone stage. It sports USB Class 2 and AES/EBU digital inputs (handling PCM audio up to 192kHz and DSD64), plus two S/PDIF (PCM up to 192kHz and DSD64) electrical digital ins, one Toslink optical input (PCM up to 192kHz and DSD64), and one SDIF-3 (for DSD up to DSD256). Analogue fans can look forward to RCA and balanced XLR outputs, and there’s a 500mA headphone output via dual front panel 6.35mm jack sockets. Balanced operation is available via the 6.35mm four-pin XLR adapter. An ESS Sabre 9018 chip does the honours.

M

Sound quality

The Brooklyn isn’t something you can slouch on your sofa to. It has a highly animated and expressive sound with lots of life and action. That’s not to say it’s a coarse, in-your-face performer as it boasts smoothness and impeccable sonic manners. For me, the test of a good DAC is not how fancy it sounds with audiophile 36

YEARBOOK 2016

DETAILS

recordings – I prefer to start with something less well recorded, to see just how unlistenable it is. I hook it up via USB to my MacBook Pro running the latest Audirvana player. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu at 16/44 PCM is pressed into service, and one of its finest moments – Country Girl – played. It’s a sublime song but wins no prizes for sound quality, so I am surprised by just how clean and powerful it sounds. I hadn’t expected it to be so delicately rendered yet so well balanced tonally. If we’re honest, you’re never going to get wonderful warmth and dimensionality from this recording. Yet still the DAC makes it sound highly listenable, clean and natural. There’s none of the harshness you often hear with the track, and in its place is a wealth of detail. Moving to Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual on DSD64, and Time After Time is no less impressive. This classic production is heavily compressed and features some of the eighties less likeable synthesisers, while the acerbic and breathless vocals don’t help smooth things out. Yet still the Mytek delivers an engaging and enjoyable rendition. It has a powerful and expressive bass, which is put to full effect, pushing the song along. The midband is blessed with great clarity too, able to scythe through most of the recording’s nasty processing to give a balanced tonality. Most impressive is the handling of the vocals, which are reproduced in a delicate and tender way. Eighties drum machine hi-hats

PRODUCT Mytek Brooklyn PRICE £1,520 ORIGIN USA TYPE DAC/preamplifier WEIGHT 2kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 216 x 44 x 216mm FEATURES ● 32-bit/384kHz PCM; DSD256 & MQA-capable DAC ● ESS Sabre 32 9018 DAC chip ● Digital inputs: 1x USB-B; 1x AES/EBU; 2x coaxial; 1x optical ● Analogue input: line-level/MM/MC phono ● Outputs: balanced XLR; stereo RCAs DISTRIBUTOR MCRU TELEPHONE 01484 540561 WEBSITE mcru.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 416

aren’t ideal for making judgements about treble, but the Mytek is crisp, clean and incisive without grating. Moving to superlatively recorded hi-res music, and it’s finally time to hear what it can really do. A 24/192 PCM download of The Crusaders’ Street Life conjures a massive recorded acoustic, full of air and space from left to right and front to back. Instruments are brilliantly located, and the musicians given space to breathe. Indeed, across all formats it proves an excellent listening companion, with an intricate yet powerful sound full of dynamic contrasts – from great brass stabs to the microscopic detailing of delicate hi-hat cymbal work. And most importantly it can really get into the groove, delivering a musical sound whatever your choice of material. The handful of MQA sample tracks I have available proves to be superb too, but whether they’re representative of future output isn’t yet clear. The Brooklyn is massively flexible and sounds great with PCM, DSD and MQA. It’s a neutral line-level preamp and powerful headphone amp too, making it so capable and versatile that almost all its longer established rivals suddenly look ordinary. An audition is quite simply essential. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

VALUE FOR MONEY

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

OVERALL

LIKE: Excellent sound across all inputs; MQA DISLIKE: Fiddly control system; gain jumpers WE SAY: A quite superb do-it-all DAC with great flexibility


DACS

Meridian Explorer2 EFFECTIVELY TRANSFORMING A laptop into a hi-res digital player, the Explorer2 supports the new MQA format as well as playing back standard, non-MQA digital files in PCM format, although not DSD. It’s intended for use with a computer via its USB input and additionally sports an internal headphone amplifier. There’s a mini USB input at one end, and a 3.5mm headphone socket and a 3.5mm line output on the other.

Sound quality

Listening begins with relatively low quality music, via Radioplayer and iTunes podcasts, revealing this little headphone amp has an even and balanced sound. Playing CD-quality material allows me to get the feel of the Meridian. From a MacBook Pro, my dBpoweramp CD rip of The Smiths’ Death Of A Disco Dancer

sounds rather hard and steely, with a general coldness that reminds me just how mediocre Smiths recordings can be, even by the standards of the day. I then click on to another track from a couple of years earlier, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s San Jose, and am gobsmacked by the difference in sound. Suddenly things warm up, grow in scale and begin to bounce along with real rhythmic aplomb. Normally, via relatively inexpensive DAC/headphone stages, the difference between good and bad recordings is less pronounced, but here it is as plain as day. Fascinated, I decide to up the ante and move to the 24/96 hi-res version, and it is like switching from AM to FM stereo. There is another step change in the sonics, with a wider and more three-dimensional soundstage, a punchier and more fluid bass and some beautiful fine

detailing to the hi-hat cymbals. All of which shows that when given high-quality source material, the Explorer2 is capable of flying. Used via its line output, the Meridian gives more of the same. A 24/192 version of Cafe Regio’s from Isaac Hayes’ Shaft: Original Soundtrack is an unalloyed joy via the Explorer2, which proves utterly at ease with such a superlative recording, glistening with detailing, blushing with warmth and displaying an almost mineral clarity. Though, MQA is a nice feature to have, it’s the performance with other hi-res material that makes it so impressive. DP

DETAILS PRICE £200 TYPE USB DAC/ headphone amp TELEPHONE 01480 445678 WEBSITE meridian-audio.com REVIEWED HFC 409 OUR VERDICT

Simaudio Moon Nēo 230HAD

DETAILS PRICE £1,150 TYPE USB DAC/ headphone amp TELEPHONE 0131 5553922 WEBSITE simaudio.com; renaissanceaudio. co.uk REVIEWED HFC 411 OUR VERDICT

BUILT AROUND THE popular ESS Sabre chipset, the Moon has the sort of file and sample rate handling that might be expected of a digital device today. The USB input decodes PCM at sample rates up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD256. This is joined by two coaxial and one optical input that are all 24-bit/192kHz capable. The Moon deviates from the norm by adding an analogue input for its fourth input. This is truly analogue, in that at no stage does the 230HAD perform any form of digital conversion on the signal.

Sound quality

Kicking off with the Moon being used as a fixed-level DAC, it has a presentation that is utterly unforced. A 24/44.1 download of Carbon Based Lifeforms’ Hydroponic Garden simply opens out as a vast and spacious

soundfield in front of the listener. The performance drips with detail and nuance, which is delivered without any sense of strain or indication that parts of the recording are being given undue prominence. Neither is this the preserve of big thundering bits of dance music. The wonderfully intimate Despite The Snow by Emily Barker is laden with emotion, but the Moon doesn’t do anything to overdo it. There’s still the same impressive detail and space and Barker’s vocals are rendered with magnificent texture and body, but it all comes together in a way that

allows you to enjoy listening to the music rather than examining it like a piece of forensic evidence. Given the impressive range of highresolution formats supported, it isn’t too much of a surprise to discover that it is impressive when fed high-quality files. What is even more pleasing is that the fundamental characteristics of the 230HAD don’t change with standard CD rips. It’s no stretch of the imagination to see the Moon being used as either a line-level DAC, preamp or headphone amp and delighting all listeners in any of these roles. ES

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DAC

Rega DAC-R n a world where DACs are preamps and headphone amplifiers, this Rega offering comes across as a little bare. It is an updated version of the earlier (and highly regarded) Rega DAC. This revision is almost identical to the earlier model, but incorporates a number of changes to the digital circuit and a fairly critical functionality upgrade. The older DAC was limited to USB 1.0 and a 48kHz incoming sample rate. The DAC-R is capable of asynchronous 192kHz-capable operation – at the moment where DSD support is the order of the day. This is combined with a revised power supply and an increase in depth to accommodate it. The digital filters can now also be selected via the remote control. In specification terms, these filters are about the only area of note. The DAC-R has two optical and two coaxial connections in addition to the USB. Output is via RCA phono only, but the Rega is unusual in that it is fitted with both an optical and coaxial output as well. This simplicity helps

I

DETAILS

the DAC-R, though. The controls are logical and well laid out, and the red LED indicators are easy to follow and understand. The build quality is also excellent with a solid and well-damped casework and well-weighted buttons. The only slight oddity is that the DAC-R runs rather warm in use.

Sound quality

With the first filter selected, if pushed to pick a single word to describe the Rega, it would be the one that crops up time and time again across the blind listening panel’s notes – “engaging”. It consistently manages to entertain the panel in a way that other models struggle to do. From the moment the bass begins on London Grammar’s If You Wait, the DAC-R has a drive and timing that elicits a consistently positive response. If timing is something that matters above everything else for your listening preferences, this DAC is head and shoulders above most rivals in its ability to deliver. There is more than propulsive timing, though. The way that it

PRODUCT Rega DAC-R PRICE £598 ORIGIN UK TYPE Digital-to-analogue converter WEIGHT 4kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 215 x 80 x 320mm FEATURES ● 32-bit/192kHz PCM-capable DAC ● Digital inputs: 2x coaxial; 2x optical; 1x USB ● Outputs: optical; coaxial; RCA phonos DISTRIBUTOR Rega Research TELEPHONE 01702 333071 WEBSITE rega.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 405

unpicks The Police’s So Lonely is effortless and keeps the speed and frenetic nature of the recording while delivering detail and information about the piece that other models miss. Neither is this something that requires the music to be high tempo. The delicacy of Montanari’s Largo II is also deeply impressive and it manages to produce a realism and smoothness with the strings that impresses all three listeners. The relationship of the musicians to one another is clear and easy to follow and the DAC-R produces a wonderfully spacious and well-defined soundstage. The final ribbon to an already compelling sonic bow is the way that it handles vocals. This is something that pleases all the panellists and further listening suggests that this is an area of real strength for the DAC-R with wonderful weight and texture to its presentation. It might offer a limited specification in terms of bells and whistles, but when it comes to the business of sound quality it is very lavishly equipped indeed. Unless you absolutely must have a volume control or a headphone input or you feel that DSD is too important to ignore, the DAC-R’s performance is well worth hearing for yourself. ES

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Involving, lively performance; excellent build; good price

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: No DSD support; runs a little warm

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

OVERALL

38

YEARBOOK 2016

WE SAY: The Rega goes light on features to deliver a truly involving and highly engaging sound


DAC

Roksan K3 DAC hile many DACs are sized half-width (or smaller), this is a proper, full-size product that’s as chunky as Roksan’s other K3 separates. This gives it plenty of room for its wide variety of inputs. There’s an XLR AES3 (giving up to 192kHz operation), an RCA coaxial S/PDIF (ditto), a Toslink optical (ditto, providing you use the right cable), plus a USB Type-B input. Unusually, Roksan has chosen to offer another USB input Type-B on the front too. The standout feature is its K-Link wireless functionality. The DAC comes supplied with a K-Link transmitter dongle, which allows any computer you plug it into (via the USB socket) to output music to the DAC. This effectively means it sets up a local wireless network, and it works up to around 30m away. Inside, the K3 DAC is powered by a Texas Instruments DSD1794A DAC chip.

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Sound quality

Kicking off the listening with Elvis Costello’s Watching The Detectives (DSD) proves to be loads of fun. This isn’t the world’s most nuanced audiophile recording and relies on raw energy and physical power to work. It’s still a very clean-sounding thing, though, and the K3 DAC is well able to exploit all the positives. Its soundstaging is excellent at the price; offering up a great big acoustic space inside which the different elements of the mix all thrive. There’s never any

DETAILS

sense of them being squashed or subdued by others. Over this hangs Costello’s voice, which is rendered beautifully. There’s just a trace of edge to it, just as it should be, yet you still appreciate its distinctive timbre. Most striking is his phrasing, and the way it syncopates with his band. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Warriors Of The Wasteland (DSD) proves a pleasure, too. A sumptuous, all-electronic Trevor Horn production, it’s very complex, multi-layered and bombastic in its sound. The Roksan exploits this through a mixture of low-down punch and fine midband clarity. Its bottom end is notably stronger than some rivals, suggesting a robust analogue output stage, and this really propels the song along. Again, its expansive soundstage gives a great ‘widescreen’ presentation of the song, heightening the drama. The K3 DAC is well able to scythe through the mix to get small details out, though, and give a great timbre to those mid-eighties synthesiser stabs. Tonally it is a little warmer than some in the bass, but you wouldn’t call it sweet. Indeed, it reminds me of various studio DACs I’ve heard, which have a powerful live sound that makes a lot of hi-fi sound quite anaemic in comparison. Herbie Hancock’s beautiful piano work on The Jungle Line (24/96) is wonderfully carried too. Those rich harmonics flood out, while the instrument fills my room and sounds so solid that it could have been bolted

PRODUCT Roksan K3 DAC PRICE £1,250 ORIGIN UK TYPE Digital-to-analogue converter WEIGHT 7kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 432 x 105 x 380mm FEATURES ● 24-bit/192kHz PCM & DSD128capable DAC ● Digital inputs: 1x coaxial; 1x optical; 2x USB: 1x AES/EBU ● Analogue outputs: 1x RCA; 1x XLR stereo DISTRIBUTOR Henley Designs Ltd. TELEPHONE 01235 511166 WEBSITE henleydesigns. co.uk; roksan.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 415

to my wall. Leonard Cohen’s gravelly vocals provide a poignant contrast to the tenderness of Hancock’s piano work, and the effect is mesmerising. Once again, the K3 DAC’s innate solidity and poise is just the job for this type of music – it offers up a combination of authority and insight that’s unexpected at this price. Its glass-clear midband lets the emotion of the performance shine through, while the treble is spacious and delicate, letting those lovely piano overtones sparkle skywards. Dynamically, this DAC is very strong; it tracks the performers’ phrasing in a free and easy way, without giving the impression that the music has been in any way sat upon. Across all genres, file types and resolutions – including via the K-Link – the Roksan works very well indeed. It has a clean, strong and highly assured sound that’s never found wanting. Give it a poor recording and it makes a good fist of it, feed it a great one and it flies. This is its strength; it’s not exceptionally distinguished in any one way, making it a jack of all trades and master of some. If you’re looking for a fine quality, grown-up hi-fi DAC, you really should audition this one. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Powerful, articulate, detailed sound; K-Link

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: No sample rate display

BUILD QUALITY

WE SAY: A versatile, grown-up DAC at a bargain price

FEATURES

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

39


DAC/PREAMP

Veracity Audio Mystra his dual mono design can handle PCM audio up to 24-bit/192kHz, but also automatically detects DSD files and routes them to a standalone DSD DAC for native processing. Around the back, there are digital inputs for two coaxial S/PDIF feeds and a single USB. There is also an analogue input to simply utilise the Mystra as a dual mono, dual valve rectified, pure Class A, single-ended triode valve preamp, as well as a ground lift switch in case you experience any hum in your system. Analogue output is via RCA or balanced XLRs, and in this instance headphone output has been moved to the back. The valves employed are 2x 6SN7, 2x ECC82 and 2x CV574 with Veracity Audio offering customers a number of quality tube options according to preference or budget.

T

Sound quality

Stina Nordenstam’s Little Star on CD immediately portrays the leading qualities of the Mystra. The closemiked vocals have real intimacy without any grain. I feel like I’ve moved five rows closer to the performer at a live acoustic venue. Some DACs dredge masses of forensic information from a recording, with a downside being a brittleness that leaves you wanting less detail. Equally, some valve output stages give a lovely silky presentation, but can occasionally smooth over the finest details robbing you of some of the electricity of the 40

YEARBOOK 2016

performance. The Mystra avoids both pitfalls. It feels very detailed but entirely undigital in its presentation. There’s lots of realistic air around the vocals, but absolutely no glassiness to the sound. Some of this quality resides within the beautifully refined output stage, but I sense that the DAC section is refreshingly free from many of the traditional digital vices around jitter, distortion and interference. The detail is all there, but in a remarkably relaxed way with excellent timing. Depth of imaging is particularly good as musical layers all have effortless space and room to breathe. Midband detail has a convincing body and presence and bass is particularly supple and fulsome. The upsampling selector is a quite beguiling and subtle addition. Non-oversampling seems to help tracks flow with even greater ease, 8x setting appears to give treble a little more air and bass tones a shade more force, with 4x being a half-way house. The difference isn’t quite night and day, though, because the music is being handled so sympathetically through the entire signal path on all settings. Spinning Fakear’s Red Lines on CD, the Mystra confirms any flair for acoustic instruments and intimate vocals is easily matched by its rendition of electronic music. Timing and transparency are critical for this exquisite track and it nails both. Opening keyboards positively glow with their rounded presence as razor-edged clicks and electric ticks

DETAILS PRODUCT Veracity Audio Mystra PRICE £3,740 ORIGIN UK TYPE DAC/valve preamp WEIGHT 13.5kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 440 x 150 x 310mm FEATURES ● 24-bit/192kHz PCM & DSD128capable DAC ● Digital inputs: 2x coaxial; 1x USB; 1x stereo RCA analogue ● Outputs: RCA; balanced XLRs; headphone output DISTRIBUTOR Veracity Audio TELEPHONE 01604 922704 WEBSITE veracityaudio.com REVIEWED HFC 416

are layered with properly metallic hi-hats and a phat, driving bass beat. The soundstage becomes an ultrawide, high-definition image that would shame any 4K Ultra HD screen. There is something magical about the Mystra’s balance of being extremely revealing and yet never feeling like your nose is being pressed into edgy, fatiguing detail. I’m getting vast amounts of tiny insights, but I simply experience this as more ‘music’. An ethereal choir of children floats in and out of rich layers of crystalline textures and dense rhythms and the infectious track just builds and flows, making beautiful, musical sense. This is proof positive that hi-fi can still be an artisan purchase, blending ingenious design with uncompromising engineering to create a luxurious product that is a joy to use and own. Supreme attention to detail extends all the way through from smart data conversion to beautifully refined signal handling by the valve section, from clever circuit design and relays to precision machining and faultless assembly. This design is clearly a labour of love, fuelled by a passion to make digital music sing like never before. This isn’t a DAC/valve preamp, it’s a work of audio art. CW

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Transparent and musical; exquisite valve section; superb design

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Styling may not be for everyone

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

OVERALL

WE SAY: The ultimate digital decoder for analogue addicts? Quite possibly


dynaudio.com

Close your eyes and see We’ve included the ultra-pure, ultra-clear, ultra-sweet-sounding Esotar2 silk soft-dome tweeter. Mated to innovative new Dynaudio MSP woofers with varying diaphragm thickness that offer a higher level of sonic refinement and extraordinary dynamic range. Integrated into a new multi-layer curved cabinet and sleek-butsolid aluminum baffle to provide your music with a robust, defined acoustic foundation. =PZP[^^^K`UH\KPVJVT[VÄUK`V\YULHYLZ[ H\[OVYPZLK+`UH\KPVYL[HPSLY

Powerful, controlled, remarkable. This is Contour 30.


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USB TURNTABLE

Audio-Technica AT-LP5 his direct-drive turntable package comes with a tonearm, cartridge and built-in phono stage that can easily be bypassed if required. And if that’s not enough, it also has a USB-B digital output to allow you to rip vinyl and store it as a digital file on a hard drive, and comes supplied with the Audacity computer software to help you carry this out successfully. The cartridge is bespoke to the AT-LP5, although it has a more recognisable origin. The AT95Ex is a hot-rodded version of the budget favourite with a revised stylus and detail tweaks. It comes in a deep red housing, which is rather easier on the eye than its pea green ancestor and is pre-mounted in an AT-HS10 lightweight headshell for easy set up.

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Sound quality

The sound that the AT-LP5 produces is subtly different to its rivals. The vast majority of affordable belt-drive turntables are commendably pitch stable, but the A-T takes this idea and runs with it. The opening piano notes of Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues are rock solid and this little detail has a surprising effect on the realism of the track. There is no sign of any of the gremlins that can so often bedevil direct-drive turntable designs. It is entirely free of rumble or any other form of noise, and music rises out of a silent and unobtrusive background. It achieves a pleasing three-dimensional performance too, with Talk Talk’s 44

YEARBOOK 2016

Happiness Is Easy opening out and creating a believable relationship between voices and instruments. It is happiest with a rhythm to get behind and there is a propulsive force to the way it makes music that is different to most rivals. The bass response is usefully deep and has a detail and definition that can often elude some affordable rivals. Leftfield’s enormous sounding Bad Radio is delivered with much of the fury and drive intact and there is genuine impact to the bottom end. It’s fractionally less assured in the upper registers, but the AT95Ex cartridge sounds rather more grown up and refined than its stock cousin, although the AT-LP5 still hardens up a little at higher frequencies and at higher volumes. The effect is rarely so severe that it makes me want to stop listening or even turn the volume down by any measurable amount, but the package will respond well to a little care and attention to partnering with other components. This requirement shouldn’t automatically mean you look to switch the phono stage out of the system, though. The unit built into the AT-LP5 is extremely good and compares well with standalone MM phono stage options at a similar price. When you do remove it from the signal path, the audio signal still manages to possess a slight brightness, suggesting that the AT95Ex cartridge is the reason rather than any of the on-board electronics.

DETAILS PRODUCT Audio-Technica AT-LP5 PRICE £330 ORIGIN Japan/China TYPE Direct-drive turntable WEIGHT 7.4kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 450 x 157 x 352mm FEATURES ● 33 & 45rpm ● J-shaped arm with detachable headshell fitted with AT95Ex cartridge ● Selectable MM phono stage DISTRIBUTOR Audio-Technica Ltd TELEPHONE 0113 2771441 WEBSITE eu.audio-technica. com REVIEWED HFC 405

As a device for ripping your vinyl to a hard drive, the rapid start and stop characteristics – along with the easy to cue arm – make it a better partner for this sort of work than some rivals. The bundled Audacity software will only encode at CD resolution (16-bit/44.1kHz), but a test of a vinyl track ripped to a Windows 7 laptop suggests that playback results are very favourable. Like many vinyl ripping systems, the process is a little fiddly and nowhere near as straightforward as physically playing the record but none of these issues are the fault of the AT-LP5, and this value-added functionality is likely to give the deck even greater appeal. Any minor quibbles should not detract from what is a very fine package. What stands out most is that it is not a by-the-numbers response from a company that wants to be in on the action in what has become a competitive product category. The AT-LP5 looks and feels different to its price rivals and comes across as a much clearer extension of AudioTechnica’s philosophy. It sounds wonderfully composed and brings the delights of direct drive at an impressively low price, making it one of our favourite sub-£500 decks. ES

OUR VERDICT VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Propulsive and engaging sound; impressive spec; good build

BUILD QUALITY

DISLIKE: Slightly bright top end; not the best-looking deck

SOUND QUALITY

FEATURES

OVERALL

WE SAY: A starter deck that delivers excellent performance at a competitive price


Wireless Music System

MCR-870D

MCR-870

FM / DAB+

App

AirPlay

Bluetooth

Wi-Fi

ECOmode

High-Res Audio

Natural Sound for your Music Yamaha‘s new MusicCast system spans a huge variety of products, but at the root of all of them is superior sound and build quality. Offering second to none performance with the flexibility to listen anything, anywhere. Free all your audio and music all over your house with MusicCast

MusicCast Controller App

For more info visit yamaha.com/musiccast


3050 FLOORSTANDER

‘Best Floor Standing Speaker £500 - £1,000’ What Hi-Fi Award Winner 2016

This beautiful range of floorstanding speakers offer an unaltered, descriptive audio response with a low resonance cabinet reducing audio distortion. Transparent uncoloured audio with dynamics that are deep and powerful.

Breathing art, passion, beauty into your home.

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BEAUTIFULLY ENGINEERED SOUND


TURNTABLE

Analogue Works Zero+ he Zero is available as a basic model for £1,000 or as seen here in Zero+ form, which upgrades the arm and cartridge supplied for an extra £500. This is an unsuspended, belt-drive design with a high-mass steel type platter that is seriously weighty for the price. Completing the package is a Jelco SA-750DB tonearm and Audio-Technica AT440MLB cartridge. There is also the possibility to upgrade performance further at a later date with the optional WM One Power Supply, which will set you back an additional £745.

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Sound quality

Connected to an Avid Pellar phono stage (HFC 363), Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp and Neat Momentum 4i speakers, it demonstrates a number of distinctive and likeable traits. The first is that it is a genuinely quiet turntable. Mechanical noise is almost completely absent, which contributes to a low noisefloor on the deck itself. As a result, with Spaces by Nils Frahm, the Zero+ excels itself. The increasingly frantic piano work of Hammers rises from near total silence and the scale and power of the instrument is captured perfectly. It is able to get out of the way of the music and let it happen in a way that is unusual for a deck at this price. There is a clear perception of the space on the stage and the audience in front of it, which gives a fine sense of realism to the performance.

With the more boisterous Art Angels by Grimes, there is a clear sense of drive and attack that gives the deck an enthusiastic quality without sounding forced or relentless. Instead, the punchy bassline of California is rendered in an unapologetically joyous fashion. The relatively high mass seems to make itself felt in consistently deep and controlled bass that has plenty of impact without sounding sluggish or dominating. The upper registers are also well presented. Claire Boucher’s striking vocals are crisply and clearly defined, but remain well integrated with the music as a whole. Vocals seem to be a particular strength. While the deck doesn’t tend to over emphasise the midrange – it is very even from top to bottom – there is a genuine sense of life to voices and stringed instruments in particular that makes any recording with them a pleasure to listen to. The Zero+ is unfazed even by extremely complex arrangements and this sense of control is consistent across a wide variety of material. Past experience with the AT440 cartridge suggests that it is slightly on the bright side of neutral, but it combines with the Zero+ and Jelco to excellent effect sounding lively without tipping over into being thin or bright. The presentation also holds up well with less than stellar recordings. The Audio-Technica is a little susceptible to surface noise, but congested and confused records like Placebo’s Meds still sound listenable and fun where

DETAILS PRODUCT Analogue Works Zero+ PRICE £1,500 ORIGIN UK/Japan TYPE Belt-drive turntable WEIGHT 11kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 468 x 108 x 369 mm FEATURES ● 33 & 45rpm ● Jelco SA-750DB arm with detachable headshell ● Audio-Technica AT440MLB cartridge DISTRIBUTOR Divine Audio TELEPHONE 01536 762211 WEBSITE analogueworks. co.uk REVIEWED HFC 407

many rivals can all too often reveal the flaws that are in the mastering. The synergy of the deck, arm and cartridge and this evenhanded nature means that it is very hard to wrongfoot the Zero+ across a huge variety of music. It seems just as happy with the delicacy of the Cinematic Orchestra as it is powering its way through the more chaotic clatter of Underworld. On occasions, sources with a lively presentation can sound a little ill at ease with music that doesn’t require the same get up and go. Where the Zero+ is particularly impressive is that while it never stops sounding powerful and engaging, this never seems to interfere with music that really doesn’t benefit from this. Neither is it terribly fussy about partnering equipment. Equally, those clever feet do a fine job of keeping the deck isolated and while a dedicated platform will provide a further boost, the performance when positioned directly on a Quadraspire QAVX Rack (HFC 395) is extremely good. Analogue Works has focused on using the best materials and sound engineering practise to deliver a turntable that is beautifully made and exceptionally capable across a very wide variety of music. ES

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Controlled, powerful and involving sound; build; looks

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Odd start-up procedure; very slight lack of fine detail

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: A well thought out and brilliantly implemented deck that delivers a superb performance

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

47


TURNTABLES

Edwards Audio TT2SE OFFERING A NUMBER of revisions from the original TT2, the Special Edition gets a 25mm full-gloss finished MDF plinth that comes in a choice of gloss black or white, with the red you see here at no extra cost. It comes complete with a pre-fitted TA202 tonearm, which is hardwired to RCA phono sockets fitted on the back. There’s also a separate earth terminal, which is a major improvement on the Rega tonearm on which the TA202 is based. The deck comes with a range of options, including a new external speed control box which is claimed to give lower wow and flutter and there’s also an ISO1 mains isolation filter.

Sound quality

Bass is taut and lithe with no excess padding or overhang, so there’s never any sense that the music is being slowed down by a bottom end that is

too heavy for the rest of the music. Moving up to the midband, and again it needs to be applauded for its air and space – there’s a good deal of information coming through, and it’s set in a decently wide stereo soundstage with accurately placed images. Kraftwerk’s Computerwelt is most enjoyable with a fine sense of width and depth. Moving up to the treble, and the synthesised hi-hat sounds are crisp and well resolved with a good deal of atmosphere. This turntable is quite matter of fact in its manner and just gets on with the job without editorialising too much. I spin some classic eighties pop in the shape of The Smiths’ The Headmaster Ritual and am greeted with a vigorous and propulsive sound. The deck manages to pick its way through the murky mix and communicate the beautiful multilayered guitar parts and carry

Morrissey’s voice with an intricacy and subtlety that’s unexpected at the price. All good fun, but one is always aware that the deck has a slightly ‘lean’ tone. The fact that it’s not particularly coloured will be seen by many as a good thing, but some may want to run it with a warmer-sounding cartridge. Although pretty consistent across a wide range of programme material, the TT2SE is happiest with classical music. Cue up a beautiful piece of piano, and the basic speed stability is such that you can completely absorb yourself in the performance. This is a highly capable yet affordable turntable that offers a smoother and more stable sound than price rivals. DP

DETAILS PRICE £700 TYPE Belt-drive turntable TELEPHONE 01344 844204 WEBSITE talkelectronics.com REVIEWED HFC 409 OUR VERDICT

Elipson Omega 100 RIAA BT

DETAILS PRICE £500 TYPE Belt-drive turntable TELEPHONE 01628 484968 WEBSITE elipson.com REVIEWED HFC 415 OUR VERDICT

48

CHIEF AMONG THE Omega 100’s new technology is a computercontrolled motor with electronic speed switching. The arm is also unique and features a carbon fibre armtube connected to an innovative bearing arrangement that combines vertical and horizontal yokes into a single knuckle and applies the antiskate down the bearing axis using a patented rubber torsion system. An Ortofon OM10 cartridge is also fitted. There’s also an onboard phono stage with the ability to connect via aptX Bluetooth to a suitable device. The internal phono stage can’t be switched out of the system.

Sound quality

You might reasonably expect that dependence on its own internal phono stage might put it at a disadvantage, but quite the opposite. The internal

YEARBOOK 2016

board is encouragingly quiet with no hiss or hum, which allows the Omega to show off its performance to good effect. The Portico Quartet’s News From Verona displays a fantastic combination of effortless space and an appealingly lively presentation. What makes this such a capable design is the way it manages to balance excitement and refinement in such a way as to let the Portico recording sound refined and tonally accurate, but then conversely gives Nothing But Thieves’ Hostage the attack and energy it needs to sound just right. Some of this is down to the Ortofon OM10, which is a comparatively expensive cartridge and one that offers a level of

refinement that others struggle to match. This means that the way the Elipson replays Fischer-Z’s Cruise Missiles is also deeply impressive. By the same token, the weaknesses of the Omega are comparatively slight. There is the merest sense of midrange congestion with Låpsley’s Hurt Me that means voices and instruments are less well defined than some other decks, while some fine detail is marginally harder to discern. It’s clear that not only has Elipson provided the Omega 100 RIAA BT with a useful feature, in the built-in phono stage, but something that can hold its own in exalted company. The result is an impressive turntable. ES


TURNTABLE

Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon his teardrop-shaped plinth is manufactured from an advanced sandwich construction of MDF, carbon fibre and steel pellets that has been subjected to a thermo treatment. The polished 7.2kg aluminium platter has a vinyl top and is fitted with an inverted ceramic main bearing that has been designed to deliver stable speeds with very low rumble. Spinning the platter is a freestanding precision DC-driven, AC generator. The drive is coupled to the platter via a circular cross section rubber belt. Pro-Ject’s 9CC Evolution tonearm, employs a conical carbon-fibre arm tube fitted with very flexible high-quality copper internal wiring. Henley Designs can fit an Ortofon Quintet Black moving-coil cartridge for an extra £400, but for this test I install a Lyra Clavis DC moving-coil cartridge, costing £1,500.

T

Sound quality

I start off with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons performed by Interpreti Veneziani. The first thing that strikes me is the incredible realism of the recording. The RPM 9 Carbon is adept at extracting all of the subtle nuances from the music. I can even hear the players moving their fingers on the fingerboards of the violins as they play. Instruments are well positioned in a soundstage that is both wide and extends a long way back, and enables me to focus on a particular instrument, almost as if each is being reproduced

individually. The playing is wonderfully harmonious and deeply enjoyable, and a massive credit to its refined abilities of reproduction. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana performed by the London Symphony Orchestra has a huge dynamic range evident from the powerful opening of O Fortuna. The chorus is conveyed as a well-defined group of singers and not simply a blur of sound, which can so often be the case with choral music. The aggressive drum solos in the third movement from Raymond Fol’s Big Band jazz version of The Four Seasons are tuneful and musical and the plucking of the double bass leads beautifully to the crisp trumpet blasts. It’s crystal clear and not overly harsh, and the jazzy interpretation swings along throughout. The performance really impresses with the complexity of the music, and it digs deep into the groove and mines every ounce of detail from this LP. Next up Branford Marsalis playing Stravinsky’s Serenata from Pulcinella on saxophone. The gentle rapid bowing of the strings playing behind the sax during the intro is very clear and the pace is well maintained throughout. Once again, I am impressed with the vast amounts of detail and emotion the RPM 9 Carbon manages to extract from the recording. The heavy thumping bass of Arctic Monkeys Do I Wanna Know? is tight and well controlled throughout. It’s a complex sound, yet the vocals are clear and intelligible.

DETAILS PRODUCT Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon PRICE £1,500 ORIGIN Austria/Czech Republic TYPE Belt-drive turntable WEIGHT 16.7kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 440 x 180 x 325mm FEATURES ● 33 & 45rpm ● 9CC Evolution carbon-fibre tonearm ● Optional Ortofon Quintet Black cartridge (£400) DISTRIBUTOR Henley Designs Ltd TELEPHONE 01235 511166 WEBSITE henleydesigns. co.uk REVIEWED HFC 409

Finally, I turn to the Sheffield Labs direct-to-vinyl recording of Lincoln Mayorga & Distinguished Colleagues Vol. 3. You Are The Sunshine Of My Life is fast, clean and incredibly energetic. After the prolonged silence that follows the words “Alright, stand by!”, the players explode into action with all the adrenaline that comes from a live performance such as this. The bass is meaty, tight and beautifully controlled. The saxophone is throaty and tuneful. Then the triangle kicks in and is crystal clear and perfectly positioned at the back of the group of musicians. The RPM 9 Carbon is undoubtedly a highly sophisticated turntable and its minimalist style combines well with the modern materials that are used in its construction. The carbon-fibre structure of the 9CC Evolution tonearm matches well with the plinth but important as looks are, if you’re shelling out this sort of cash for a turntable and tonearm you want it to perform exceptionally well and here it doesn’t disappoint either. The Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon turns in a highly polished performance with every bit of vinyl that’s placed onto its sumptuous platter, and is one deck I’ll be very sad to say goodbye to. NR

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Contemporary styling; sophisticated sound with all material

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Obtrusive earth connection behind cartridge

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Modernlooking high-quality design that produces a very refined sound

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

49


TURNTABLES

Pro-Ject The Classic REMINISCENT OF A turntable from the sixties, The Classic is based around a framed ‘two-plinth’ design that allows the motor to sit on a separate plinth from the one that supports the bearing and tonearm to reduce the transference of any unwanted electrical or mechanical noise or interference. The Classic sports a new tonearm design with the ability to adjust both azimuth and VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle) so it can be used with a variety of cartridges. It is supplied with an Ortofon 2M Silver moving-magnet cartridge, that’s been designed exclusively for Pro-Ject by Ortofon.

Sound quality

Tchaikovsky’s Cossack Dance from Mazeppa played by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is sprightly while the sound remains delightfully realistic throughout the performance.

Next up, Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1, by the London Symphony Orchestra has a full sound that is both expressive and open. All of the instruments seem well balanced, although the strings can appear a touch over bright during the crescendos. With Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass playing Our Day Will Come, the trumpet sounds well balanced and clear. But what strikes me most is the timing and tempo, which are spot on. For a slice of jazz, I turn to a CBS recording of the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing Vento Fresco. Hi-hats are delightfully crisp and fast. The double bass is taut and full, and balances perfectly with the piano, which tunefully carries you along until the melodic and clear saxophone takes over.

Finally, Barbra Streisand singing I Don’t Break Easily allows me to check the vocal performance. The clarity of her voice is very good indeed, although the front-to-back imaging is slightly compressed. However, this doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the performance, which draws me in and is highly enjoyable and convincing. This is a sophisticated turntable that’s been brought bang up to date by the carbon fibre tonearm. This matches well with the supplied cartridge and it turns in a great performance that’s particularly at home with vocals and jazz. NR

DETAILS PRICE £799 TYPE Belt-drive turntable TELEPHONE 01235 511166 WEBSITE henleydesigns. co.uk REVIEWED HFC 416 OUR VERDICT

Sony PS-HX500

DETAILS PRICE £450 TYPE Belt-drive turntable TELEPHONE 0845 6000124 WEBSITE sony.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 414 OUR VERDICT

IN ORDER FOR this new deck to fit into Sony’s brave new world of hi-res audio, it’s equipped with the ability to rip vinyl to digital files via USB and some nifty software. This is not unusual in itself, but the scope of its abilities is rather more ambitious and as well as ripping files in PCM at rates up to 24-bit/192kHz, it can also do DSD at 2.8MHz and 5.6MHz. The PS-HX500 is a relatively conventional unsuspended belt-drive design with electronic speed adjustment, a 5mm-thick rubber mat and a built-in switchable movingmagnet phono stage.

Sound quality

Kraftwerk’s Minimum Maximum, quickly reveals that it has all the basics in place. The noise floor is commendably low, pitch stability is very good and the levels of surface

noise are usefully absent. All this adds up to a good presentation of this vast and powerful record. Autobahn, captures the sense of the space that the group is performing in. The bass has enough weight to it to be convincing and combines this with excellent detail retrieval and tonality. The upper registers are less assured, however. With good-quality vinyl pressings the top end is a little forward, but not unduly so. Keep off the rough and ready material, however, and this is a lively and entertaining performer, albeit not the most refined one. It always manages to sound open and has a convincing soundstage, while the

slightly forward nature of the presentation helps it to sound punchy, detailed and entertaining. The minor quibbles with the top end don’t stop the PS-HX500 from being an excellent device to rip records with. The software makes the process far less haphazard than it can be and the business of separating the tracks and applying metadata is far in advance of any third-party offering I’ve experienced. The PS-HX500 is not setting any new standards at the price, but it makes considerable strides with its straightforward ripping capabilities, and the software alone makes it well worth serious consideration. ES

YEARBOOK 2016

53


PHONO STAGES

Cyrus Phono Signature CYRUS TECHNICAL DIRECTOR Peter Bartlett wanted the ability to change capacitance and impedance ‘on the fly’ as the loading instructions for many cartridges are suggestions rather than rules. So, there are four inputs, each of which can be configured for either moving-magnet or moving-coil operation and if you choose the latter you also have the option of setting the gain, capacitance and impedance to best suit the cartridge you have chosen to connect.

Sound quality

This is not a phono stage that you buy to romanticise your vinyl. It will display no more warmth or bloom than is naturally on the record. The trade off to this is that it is at times startlingly vivid. With a Nagaoka MP-150 cartridge playing Nils Frahm’s beautiful Spaces album, it

is very much in its element. The complete absence of noise allows the rustling and murmur of the audience to be easily discerned while the piano is rendered with vividness and energy. The scale of the presentation is fantastic. The gain levels, meanwhile, ensure that its scale is effortlessly reproduced without the amplification ever having to break into a sweat. On Fink’s Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet, the vocals are filled with texture and energy and are layered on top of the supporting instruments in such a way as to be part of the piece without ever being lost in it. The extended version of Sort Of Revolution is also underpinned by phenomenal bass. At various points, a huge hand drum is struck and the sound is felt as much as heard without any trace of either bloat or bloom evident.

It also has energy and a sense of fun that shines through. Listen to the wonderful Rose Rouge by St Germain and it simply grooves. Every beat and break is relayed with the speed and precision of an atomic clock and within seconds you are completely immersed in the music. The more genres of music you throw at it, the more skilful it becomes. This is a welcome arrival to the ranks of high-end phono stages, and – judged by the prices of many of its rivals – is a real bargain. ES

DETAILS PRICE £1,200 TYPE MM & MC phono stage TELEPHONE 01480 410900 WEBSITE cyrusaudio.com REVIEWED HFC 408 OUR VERDICT

Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator

DETAILS PRICE £180 TYPE MM phono stage TELEPHONE 01909 568739 WEBSITE gspaudio.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 407 OUR VERDICT

54

THIS IS THE most affordable model in Graham Slee’s range of phono stages. The spec is strictly moving magnet (or high-output moving coil) and it is devoid of controls. The casework feels solid enough and the rear panel is laid out in such a way as to allow for the easy hooking up of inputs, outputs and ground connection. The only slight issue is that due to its very light weight, the Communicator tends to ‘rear up’ when moderately heavy or stiff interconnects are used with it, which can look a little odd in use.

Sound quality

The Gram Amp 2 has reasonable levels of gain, and manages to reach the test level without any issue. When running at this volume, a slight audible hum is present and no adjustment of the earthing is able to

YEARBOOK 2016

completely remove it – although it isn’t audible once the music starts playing. And once music is playing, you are unlikely to care too much because this is a seriously accomplished performer. Neil Cowley’s Kneel Down is attention grabbing. The plucked strings of the bass have a palpable sense of realism with wonderful presence and decay. With Chvrches’ Leave A Trace, it is in its element. There is considerable impact to the bass, but never at the expense of the speed and definition needed to truly convince. In terms of transient speed and timing, it is quite superb, but where it really impresses is that this immediacy doesn’t come at the expense of refinement. Talk Talk’s

Happiness Is Easy is a fantastic display of scale and poise and the top end is perfectly judged. Vocals are well defined from supporting instruments and yet able to maintain the relationship between them. This range of talents comes together perfectly with Editors’ No Harm. The Communicator is able to capture the dark and brooding nature of the piece perfectly and particularly excels at reproducing the sudden peaks of sound that spring from near silence. Vocals have real weight and texture and are underpinned by deep and clear bass. At the low price, this is all very impressive indeed. ES


RECORD CLEANER

Pro-Ject VC-S record cleaning machine DRY CLEANING AN LP using just a brush or cloth is the go-to method for most vinylistas and can easily be done each time you get a disc out to play it. Unfortunately, this will never completely release all of the dirt that has sunk deep into the groove – this can only be done with a wet clean, and the best way to do this is to use a dedicated record cleaning machine (RCM) that vacuums off any dirty fluid after cleaning, ensuring that any dirt particles suspended in the fluid are disposed of and the record dried at the same time. The catch is that RCMs can be rather expensive, making the dry cloth option far more appealing. Enter Pro-Ject’s VC-S, which at just under £300 is far more affordable than many of its rivals. The VC-S spins the record in both directions to ensure that all the cleaning fluid is removed properly and has a motor that is claimed to spin faster than many of its competitors. There’s a high-power vacuum unit that can dry a record in just two rotations. The vacuum arm that sucks up the dirty fluid from the record and then dries it is very robust and is supported by a stable pivot. The record is fixed in place with an aluminium clamp that is lined with a rubber seal that holds the LP against the small motorised platform. This is the size of a record label and keeps cleaning fluid away from the label during use. The small platform means that a full-size supporting record platter is not required, which could potentially bring dirt into contact with a clean record surface. To clean a record, first clamp it to the support platform and apply a small amount of cleaning fluid and then turn the motor on. Next, using the supplied goat-hair brush spread the fluid evenly across the playing surface to ensure that it gets into all of the groove. Finally, swing the vacuum arm over the record and turn on the vacuum motor. Within a couple of rotations (one in each

direction), the side should be clean and dry. Flip it over and repeat the process on the other side. The LP is then immediately ready for playing or inserting into a new protective record sleeve. The dirty solution that is removed from the record’s surface is stored in an internal 2.5-litre waste container. There’s a handy gauge to indicate the level of dirty water on the side of the VC-S and emptying is easily accomplished using the supplied funnel.

In operation DETAILS PRICE £299 TELEPHONE 01235 511166 WEBSITE henleydesigns.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 410 OUR VERDICT

The VC-S is supplied with 100ml of vinyl cleaning solution – Wash-IT – together with all the accessories required to start cleaning up your vinyl collection. Other items, including a special alcohol-free cleaning solution – Wash-IT 78 for use with 78rpm shellac records – a dust cover and various sizes of the standard Wash-IT cleaning solution, are also available separately. I mix the Wash-IT concentrate with deionised water as per the instructions and fill the supplied

application bottle before testing the VC-S with a newly purchased record on which I had previously noticed some slight surface noise when playing. I switch on the motor to rotate the record and apply the fluid and then use the brush to spread it evenly over the playing area. I wait for 10 seconds, then swing the cleaning arm over and turn on the vacuum to suck up the fluid from the surface. The motor is so powerful, that only one revolution is required to dry the surface completely, but I repeat it in the other direction just to be sure. After cleaning the flip side using the same process, I play the record again. I am pleased to discover that the background noise has now completely disappeared. It is extremely quick and easy to clean an LP using the VC-S and I am able to rattle through a dozen or so of my records in next to no time with excellent results. Of all the RCMs I have tried, Pro-Ject’s VC-S is certainly one of the best and what’s more it is also excellent value. NR

YEARBOOK 2016

55


STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKERS

DALI Menuet COMPARATIVELY TINY BUT finely crafted, the Menuet stands out for taking the small is beautiful thing to heart. While undeniably cute, it doesn’t look very much speaker for the money, so it has a lot to prove. The first sign that all might not be quite as it seems comes when you lift one of the glossy, elegantly curved enclosures. These are nuggety little beasts, weighing an improbable 4kg apiece. They seem amazingly dense and solid. DALI’s contention is that the Menuet resolves the often conflicted goals of ‘reference class’ sound and the amount of space taken up by the transducer producing it. The baffle measures barely 25cm top to bottom and has a 114mm wood fibre-coned mid/bass driver and a large diameter but low-mass 28mm soft dome tweeter. It’s a bass reflex design with a rear-firing port.

Sometimes designers of very small loudspeakers have to sacrifice efficiency to gain a modicum of realistic bass extension. Not so here. Music leaps into the room, and even with the speakers on stands pulled away from the walls (sub-optimally, according to DALI), bass energy seems right on the money.

Sound quality

The most obvious and startling first impression is that the Menuet delivers a soundstage out of all proportion to its diminutive size. It might be titchy, but sonically it doesn’t give an inch. This is an incredibly spacioussounding little speaker. Almost as arresting is its power, brio and enthusiasm for a good tune. It gets stuck in and nails the musical message of a piece so swiftly and securely, consideration of hi-fi stylings are left pirouetting in the dust.

All right, there’s mildly pushed presence in the midband, bass doesn’t go as deep as some and the high frequencies, while sweet, detailed and extended, aren’t quite as silky and resolute as they could be. But the way the Menuet latches onto a rhythm and carries the natural colour and emotional power of a song is quite thrilling to hear. And it does this with all types of music, displaying a rare knack of being able to combine delicacy and dynamism without compromising its inherent focus and speed. DV

DETAILS PRICE £799 TYPE 2-way standmount loudspeaker TELEPHONE 0845 6443537 WEBSITE dali-uk.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 408 OUR VERDICT

Quadral Chromium Style 2

DETAILS PRICE £795 TYPE 2-way standmount loudspeaker TELEPHONE 0203 5442338 WEBSITE quadral.com/en/ REVIEWED HFC 408 OUR VERDICT

56

IT MIGHT BE a name we’re not too familiar with in the UK, but Quadral is big on the international scene with a vast range of model lines catering for more or less every pocket. The Chromium Style range wants us to be as snared by its appearance as its sound and combines elegantly curved cabinets with flash-looking aluminium drive units, including a very vorsprung durch technik ribbon tweeter. Stereotypically Teutonic, maybe, but the result does look extremely smart. Quadral’s ribbon is a bespoke design derived from a larger unit developed for its flagship models. The ribbon element is folded inside the enclosure to increase the surface area and moved by a double magnet assembly. The 155mm mid/bass driver is also made inhouse and employs a titanium-coated polypropylene cone.

YEARBOOK 2016

As far as I can tell, Quadral is uniquely alone in using this innovative technique.

Sound quality

Is it possible for an unknown quantity to be a revelation? Perhaps our expectations for this German ‘newcomer’ (which has been in business for over 40 years) are unfairly muted. Whatever the case, it’s clear that this is a class act. And it’s the fact that your attention isn’t immediately drawn to the treble in the form of ‘obvious detail’ that sets it apart. That and the clean attack and speed afforded transients. The mid/ bass driver seems to be almost as responsive as its tweeter and integrates so seamlessly that everything coheres with a naturalness and tonality that’s very seductive.

The presentation has everything to accommodate anything I play: control and authority with Prince, a fluid and tuneful bass for Al Jarreau and terrific fine detail and handling of micro dynamics for Lewis Taylor. It captures the acoustic not just of the instrument but the ambient envelope around it, as well as the overall space of the venue itself. Reverb has discernible velocity and direction of travel. In short, everything meshes together for a muscular and meticulously engineered sound. DV


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STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKER

Dynaudio Contour S 1.4 LE epresenting the latest chapter in the Contour story, the S 1.4 LE replaces the standard S 1.4, despite its ‘Limited Edition’ moniker. The driver complement begins with an inhouse 170mm mid/bass cone formed from a single piece of Dynaudio’s MSP (magnesium silicate polymer), which removes the need for a separate central dust cap and glued joints. Below this sits an upgraded inhouse 28mm Esotec soft-dome tweeter, which claims finer precision coating than its predecessor.

R

Sound quality

What strikes me straight away about the sound of this speaker is its sheer sense of presence. While many high-end standmounts can drive generously sized listening rooms without too much hassle, few can do this while also making music sound so convincingly real and evenly proportioned as the 1.4. Streaming a 16/44.1 ALAC rip of Nick Cave’s Abattoir Blues shows just how capable the 1.4 is. The mighty piano slams kick in with unflinching authority, while the resonating ring in the sustain also highlights the delicate subtle tones of the instrument, showing how the speaker can make the music

sound grand but graceful within the same note. This sense of bringing out the scale without compromising finer detail is also etched into the percussion, which sounds crisp, punchy and nicely imaged while being possessed with incredible density. In some ways, the sound of how the tweeter and bass units interact with one another is more akin to a top-quality full-range driver than a two-way speaker design in how they’ve been configured to present the music as a very convincing whole. Tim Buckley’s vocal performance on Driftin’ from his Lorca LP, illustrates this point perfectly, with Buckley putting his wide vocal range to full effect which can leave many two-ways sounding blurry around the crossover point. Buckley’s vocal gymnastics are seamless, allowing the speakers to get out of the way and let the music do the talking. As with previous generations of Dynaudio’s no-compromise speakers, in general terms the more refined power you can throw at the Contour the more you’ll reap the rewards, a trait I’ve found less common with Dynaudio’s more affordable and amp-friendly Excite models. A 16/44.1 FLAC rip of Counting Crows’ Colorblind from my Cambridge Audio

DETAILS PRODUCT Dynaudio Contour S 1.4 LE PRICE £2,750 ORIGIN Denmark TYPE 2-way standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 12.6kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 188 x 404 x 360mm FEATURES ● 28mm precision coated soft-dome tweeter ● 170mm singlepiece MSP mid/ bass driver ● Quoted sensitivity: 85dB/1W/1m (4ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Dynaudio UK TELEPHONE 01353 721089 WEBSITE dynaudio.com REVIEWED HFC 408

Minx Xi (HFC 379) all-in-one player and with less than 60W on tap into 4ohm (claimed) gives more mixed results, as despite the music being way more insightful than what my usual partnering bookshelf speakers can deliver, the Dynaudio seems a little lacking in energy while demanding more volume. Back in my main system with over 300W into 4ohm (claimed) available from my M6PRX power amp and Adam Duritz’s vocal performance combined with the accompanying piano, is hairs on the back of the neck stuff such is the depth and clarity of the musical image that’s conjured. Placing the 1.4’s woofer above the tweeter means that while the generous bass that’s on offer sounds deep and forceful, it’s also lithe and highly potent, giving me the impression that little is being transmitted and lost through unwanted resonance reaching my sprung wooden floor. Listening to a 24/88 download of Daft Punk’s Game Of Love reveals how the 1.4 revels in digging deep without any unwanted boom, despite the speakers’ bass ports being only 20cm or so from a rear wall. In this respect it is able to deliver genuine levels of deep and refined bass with a vice-like grip, highlighting why high-end standmounts can be so captivating when done right. Thanks to a few carefully thoughtout revisions, Dynaudio has taken the Contour 1.4 to the next level in LE guise, both in terms of the luxurious build and sonic appeal, while also retaining much of the original’s character. While the standard of finish is what you expect of a speaker in this price bracket, it’s in the sound stakes that it really makes its mark. With an exceptionally dynamic and full-bodied performance that retains a smooth and controlled nature, Dynaudio has crafted a standmount loudspeaker of class-leading quality. AS

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Superbly built; dynamic sound; bass and imaging

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Needs healthy levels of power to sound its best

BUILD QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

WE SAY: One of the most refined standmounts in its class that will have your senses truly captivated

OVERALL

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Connect your home to a deeper music experience

Experience at John Lewis, selected Apple stores and our network of specialist audio retailers.

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Channelling forty years of audio engineering, we present Mu-so. A range of compact, yet commanding wireless music systems, that will unleash you music wherever it’s stored, in breathtaking quality. Advanced connectivity includes AirPlay, Bluetooth®, Spotify Connect®, TIDAL, iRadio and multiroom streaming.


STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKER

KEF Reference 1 s KEF’s flagship standmount with enclosure and driver tech trickled down from the £20k Blade concept statement floorstander, the Reference 1 is shooting for the stars. It uses the same latest iteration Uni-Q midtweeter, its distinctive tangerine wave-guide garlanding the 25mm vented aluminium high-frequency dome that sits in the centre of the ribbed 125mm aluminium midrange cone. It’s joined by a 165mm woofer with a vented magnet assembly and a large aluminium wire voice coil attached to a continuous surface aluminium cone claimed to be incredibly light and stiff. The rear-firing reflex port is supplied with a ‘short’ port sleeve to fine tune the bass output and allow a choice of near wall or open space placement.

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Sound quality

It’s rare for a high-end speaker to give a respectable account of its capabilities straight out of the box. But placed none too precisely on my Slate Audio stands fairly close to the rear wall of my smaller listening room, and without even checking to see if it has the right port sleeves fitted, the Reference 1 sounds stunning. Corinne Bailey Rae’s Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart acquires

more melancholy majesty than I suspected it possessed and a midway change of tempo that sets the hairs on the back of my neck moving like a field of wheat in a stiff breeze. Tell Me, from the same album, serves up the widest, deepest, tallest soundstage I’ve heard in the room, quite possibly the deepest bass and, without question, the most seductively open and natural midrange. Haste and curiosity satisfied, I swap the Plato Class A media server-amp (see page 15) still in situ on my equipment rack for my regular reference ATC CA-2/P1 pre-power combo and Cyrus XT Signature/Chord Hugo CD transport and DAC. A Nordost Red Dawn loom takes care of connections and the mains feed is from a 20 amp Nordost Qb8 block. Turns out the port sleeves fitted are the right ones, and the stands and speakers stay more or less in the same spot. I know that the ATC amplification is drier, grippier and more dynamic than the Plato’s and this is certainly heard, but the difference in overall character isn’t as great as that revealed by the DALI Rubicon 6 floorstanders (HFC 399). More transparent? Not really, the KEF just seems to have the ability to present whatever’s fed to it with a coherence that tunes out sonic ticks and focuses on the substance of the

DETAILS PRODUCT KEF Reference 1 PRICE £4,499 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE 3-way standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 18.2kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 205 x 440 x 430mm FEATURES ● 25mm Uni-Q dome tweeter with 125mm mid driver ● 165mm aluminium bass driver ● Quoted sensitivity: 85dB/1W/1m (8ohm) DISTRIBUTOR GP Acoustics (UK) Ltd TELEPHONE 01622 672261 WEBSITE kef.com/gb REVIEWED HFC 414

music. There’s density and dimensionality to the sound, a reach-out-and-touch presence in the forward plane layering back to distant perspectives way beyond the walls of the room that can only speak of meticulous attention to bandwidth linearity and imaging. The Reference 1 has spectacular resolving power in the mid and treble – the sort of clarity that can enable you to hear distinct differences in attack and fret slide sounds between the D’Addario strings Larry Carlton uses on his guitar and Eric Clapton’s preference for heavier items from Ernie Ball. It’s clear enough. Clear, too, that Eric’s voice is improving with age. On Catch The Blues, he’s never sounded more affectingly gritty. The sense of depth and subtlety this kind of detail brings to the experience can be mesmerising and massively addictive. That it’ll also play astonishingly loud without any compression or compromised dynamics is even more remarkable. I wouldn’t say the Reference 1 is the fastest or the most rhythmically explicit standmount design I’ve ever heard, but then I’ve never heard another standmount sound more like a true monitor-class floorstander in its ability to deliver a wide bandwidth sound with quite such effortless fluency. Its remarkable bass extension and power, certainly on the end of the ATC P1, are party to the deception. And the longer I listen the more I begin to doubt the veracity of other speakers I’ve loved and left. Truly, it’s hard to get a handle on just how good it is. Here is a standmount to judge others by. Some aspects of its performance – the midband voicing and transparency in particular – are as good as I’ve heard at any price. If there’s a caveat, it’s that it doesn’t really do down ‘n’ dirty – despite the prodigious, undistorted sound levels it’s capable of. But hats off to KEF. As a supremely revealing and musical loudspeaker, the Reference 1 is well and truly named. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Design, build and finish; sublime midrange and deep bass married to unfettered power

BUILD QUALITY

DISLIKE: Timing might not be the fastest

EASE OF DRIVE

WE SAY: One of the finest-sounding standmount speakers we’ve ever heard

OVERALL

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UPGRA D

System assassins – upgrade your system by cleaning these evils, NOT by changing components

There

are two pernicious, pervasive, unseen evils lurking within allKLŸV\VWHPVVRPHcreated by the system, and the damage is MASSIVE. What are these assassins? RF Interference: from mobiles, TV and radio transmissions, also mains-borne – especially damaging in digital replay. It adds a hard, aggressive edge to treble and destroys imaging. and detail. It must be absorbed. Vibration that’s created within the system by the speakers and power supplies. Then it’s carried everywhere by the metal cables, destroying detail, bloating bass and trashing timing. Isolation is not the answer because it traps the vibration within the system. Instead it must be absorbed and drained away harmlessly. Solution: cables, mains blocks and absorbing devices from Vertex AQ, which drain both RFI and vibration.

Like carbon monoxide, you won’t see, feel or smell them but hear them you will. Defeat them first and build permanent foundations, otherwise all your efforts to “upgrade� will be sticking plasters on the symptoms. Why does that matter? – because you will aim to match components that have their own mirror-image characteristics to cancel the audible problems. So you’re aiming to cure one set of problems with your choice of more problems?! Have you thought what happens An ideal start is a Taga distribution block.They filter to system “balance� when you change a component? RFI from the mains AND absorb vibration, incoming Your system is teetering on from the mains and drained wobbly foundations. down the mains cables Try before you buy _ we’re from your equipment power delighted to lend items. supplies.

A BETT ER

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WAY

– DON’T BUY COMPO NE Read on NTS! ‌

Examples: You play mostly CDs or stream from a hard drive

but there’s a hard, tiring edge to the sound and it becomes “too loud� if you turn up the volume. Imaging is also limited. Classic RFI problems, because some of the RF is merging with the music data and it’s all being decoded together.The signal is corrupted and information is lost. RFI is very intrusive and hard to banish, even with shielded cables, BUT had you thought of the mains input to hard drives and switches, especially from “wall warts�? Insert a Yushan and prepare to be shocked! Both streaming and CD suffer from internal vibration that generates spurious signals. Vertex Yushan – an They add a “haze� and also interact with incredible RFI and the music signal, destroying detail, imaging vibration absorber and timing. Bass is bloated and boomy. LeadingEdge platforms containing Vertex’s vibration and RFI-absorbing labyrinth material work wonders in cleaning up these system assassins.

Yours is a mainly vinyl system (you don’t like digital for the reasons above!) but you also suffer from a “fat�, slow bass. You like valve amps for their “warm� sound. Cartridges are naturally very sensitive to vibration but, think, they are connected mechanically directly to the speakers through the cabling! Solution: insert a Moncayo block between the speakers and the amplifier to absorb vibration, producing deeper, tighter bass, better timing and liberating your sound stage.Valve amps also thrive on LE platforms as they are very microphonic. Try before you buy – we’re delighted to lend items. Customers say we make some of the best sounds in our studio they have ever heard, so you know we can do the same in your home. Our advice takes account of your best components and guides you where change is needed, in stages you can afford. You avoid expensive mistakes, enjoy music and save money in the long run.

Just listen and you’ll know

Digital: Aurender, Bel Canto, CEC, dCS,Vertex AQ dac.Vinyl: Graham, Spiral Groove,Transfiguration. Tuners: Magnum Dynalab. Amplifiers: Bel Canto, Storm Audio,Vitus,VTL. Loudspeakers:Avalon, Kawero!, NEAT,Totem. Cables: Chord Co., DNM, Nordost, Siltech,Tellurium,VertexAQ. Mains:Aletheia,Vertex AQ. Supports:Arcici, Black Ravioli, Hi-Fi Racks, LeadingEdge, Stands Unique,Vertex AQ. Room acoustics: LeadingEdge

www.rightnote.co.uk 01225 874728


STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKER

Leema Acoustics Xen 2 decade and a half after the launch of the first Leema Xen mini monitor comes this new update. Whereas the first Xen used a SEAS mid/bass unit, the Xen 2 one gets a customdesigned 100mm affair specified by Leema. It has been specially designed to, “give a little just at the right frequency”, the company says – so it counters the tendency for small mid/ bass drivers to peak across the midrange. It is loaded by two 26mm reflex ports, which extend into the cabinet then fold down behind the bass driver. Based on a nowdiscontinued VIFA design, the new 25mm tweeter is a soft-dome unit with a neodymium magnet and Ferro-fluid-loaded coil, which helps damp resonance and aid cooling.

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Sound quality

In my experience, there are two types of small speakers – crisp, clean and detailed but lightweight and analytical sounding, and those that try to sound like bigger ones with more extended bass, but less detail and definition. The Xen 2 is a fine mixture of the two, giving much of the detail and accuracy of BBC-type monitor speakers, with a fuller-bodied sound and less cerebral nature. It needs a decently powerful

amplifier driving it; for the review the 2x 110W Exposure 3010S2-D (HFC 397) does the honours. Listening kicks off with Wooden Ships, by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, which is not something you’d normally expect a small speaker to handle particularly well. I am surprised by its beautiful treatment of this classic. It sets up an unexpectedly large and spacious recorded acoustic, with instruments accurately located. There is little sense of listening to a small speaker, the Xen 2 is obviously able to project the music well beyond its own boundaries – left and right, and back to front, dissolving into the room. Another hallmark is the quality of bass. There’s no way to defy the laws of physics, so nothing is going to match a large floorstander, but the cabinet shifts lots of air with relative impunity, showing little sign of stress even at high volume. It sounds surprisingly extended, serving up a lovely fat bass guitar that makes this song so special. Feed the Leema a more tortuous piece of music – 808 State’s Ancodia – and you’re more aware of its limitations. This slice of early nineties techno can bog down some small speakers. The Xen copes admirably, proving remarkably deft even at highish volumes, but still it is

DETAILS PRODUCT Leema Acoustics Xen 2 PRICE £1,295 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE 2-way standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 9kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 140 x 220 x 202mm FEATURES ● 25mm soft dome tweeter ● 100mm mid/bass driver ● Quoted sensitivity: 85dB/1W/1m (6ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Leema Acoustics TELEPHONE 01938 559021 WEBSITE leema-acoustics. com REVIEWED HFC 409

clear that it is working hard, compressing at very high levels. With Boz Scaggs’ Lido Shuffle, the Xen 2 bounces along in a wonderfully supple and carefree way. This is when you really begin to appreciate just how much fun music can be – there’s little like a small speaker with excellent drive units and a stiff cabinet to get the foot tapping. Yet unlike some rivals it doesn’t sound fast due to a peaky treble or midrange forwardness; it has a fine and smooth tonal balance that doesn’t accent any particular part of the frequency spectrum. Instead, it captures attack transients with great speed, thanks to the quality of materials that have gone to make it. Despite obviously being mixed for seventies radio, the Boz Scaggs track is very well recorded and lets the Leema showcase its rather lovely tweeter. It gives a very silky yet well-defined sound that has lots of atmosphere, which is something that isn’t always expected from a mini monitor. This works especially well with jazz, as Donald Byrd’s Stepping Into Tomorrow proves. The delicate triangle work on the title track of this classic album is well carried, and supplies the icing on the cake for this densely recorded cut. Indeed, it sashays along beautifully, the Xen 2 making full use of its rhythmic alacrity and fine handling of dynamics to give a very involving yet delicately detailed sound. It’s not an easy job being a small speaker, but the Xen 2 carries off its destiny in life with grace. It offers a wonderful combination of all the good things about properly engineered small speakers (pace, detail, accuracy) without really giving too much ground on the downsides (bass extension, dynamic compression). As a result, it’s a very accessible-sounding speaker that is far less of a ‘Marmite’ product than many of its rivals. If your listening room is spatially challenged, it would be worthwhile giving this diminutive diamond an audition. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Highly engaging nature; transparent midband

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Ultimately limited by size; hard to drive

BUILD QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

WE SAY: Superbsounding, great-value small loudspeaker

OVERALL

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STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKER

Monitor Audio Bronze 2 rue to mission, Monitor Audio has lifted elements from older Silver and Gold series tech to make the Bronze 2. The box hasn’t changed much, but the drive units have. In line with current Silver series models, it now uses a dished cone for its 165mm C-CAM mid/bass driver, which abandons the previous dustcap and resulting cone aperture to increase rigidity, control and radiating area. The 25mm gold-dome tweeter, MA’s emblematic metal driver, appears to be the same, but is modified as well with new geometry and venting that prevents back pressure behind the dome – a measure claimed to reduce distortion, improve dynamics and reduce mechanical resonance. Also revised and upgraded is the crossover, which uses polypropylene capacitors and air-cored and laminated steel core inductors. The mid/bass driver hands over to the tweeter at 3.1kHz. I audition the B2 with a couple of different amps. First up is Monitor Audio’s own A100 (HFC 388) streaming amp, a largely forgotten gem that’s never had the success that it deserves. Connected with single runs of QED Silver Anniversary speaker cable and playing hi-res tracks from a Questyle QP1R (p103),

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it’s an effective pairing with a very approachable sound – as synergistic as Ant and Dec on a roll, but with the kind of broad appeal that’s much easier to comprehend.

Sound quality

Yes, these Brit boxes really do have talent and, like their Bronze 5 stablemates (HFC 402), look and sound like much more expensive and sophisticated items. It may be small, but the A100 is more than capable of extracting a big, dynamically expressive sound from the B2. Soundstaging is open and ordered with a fine sense of depth. Timing is on the money, too, even the fastest and most elaborate polyrhythmic drum solos from the Whiplash soundtrack failing to trip it up. The gold dome tweeter has never sounded better. Even during the most fearsome cymbal bashing, it has the knack of resolving fine harmonic detail precisely but not at the expense of musical context. There’s lucidity, there’s flow. You can listen into a mix easily, but nothing about the sound is overtly analytical or artfully hyped. If anything, tonal balance sits slightly on the warm side of neutral, which is probably no bad thing if the speakers are to be partnered with brighter-

DETAILS PRODUCT Monitor Audio Bronze 2 PRICE £279 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE 2-way standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 5.3kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 185 x 350 x 281mm FEATURES ● 25mm C-CAM dome tweeter ● 165mm C-CAM mid/bass driver ● Quoted sensitivity 90dB/1W/1m (8ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Monitor Audio Ltd TELEPHONE 01268 740580 WEBSITE monitoraudio.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 411

sounding budget electronics. Even with the loudspeaker pulled well clear of boundaries and secured to Slate Audio stands, the bass is strong enough to have me wondering if using the foam port bungs might be a good idea. Playing Chuck Loeb’s version of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, the walking bass line is fruity and then some. The bungs certainly slug the output by a few dB, but on balance the speakers breathe more easily without them and, in truth, the A100 is probably the guilty party here, lacking the grip to keep the lowest frequencies firmly in check. When a Roksan Caspian M2 (HFC 356) integrated relieves the A100 of its duties, the step up in power and quality is clearly appreciated by the B2 and readily heard. Playing that Loeb track again, the bass guitar sounds superbly supple and altogether tauter with more realistic weight and better-defined leading edges to notes. Indeed, the whole track acquires new levels of authority, drive and transparency, strengths that transfer just as positively to Grieg as they do Al Green. And, exactly as Monitor Audio claims, the B2 won’t buckle in the company of expensive source and amp electronics. It just sounds better and better still. In the end, though, it’s the Bronze 2’s ability to present music with clarity, generosity and finesse allied to an innate sense of performance that’s so likeable and rare in a speaker that costs under £300. Monitor Audio has had a long time to perfect the Bronze 2 and it’s hard to think of another standmount in the same price bracket that gets quite so much right. As such, it remains the cream of the class and a terrific buy. The £15k Platinum PL500 II may set a new high for the company, but this modestly priced standmount will surely prove over time to be its proudest achievement. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Build and finish; high-quality drivers; superb sound quality

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Not at its best too close to walls

BUILD QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

WE SAY: Monitor Audio’s stalwart standmount goes from strength to strength. Warmly recommended

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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Super Size Sound End user’s experience with Maximum Supertweeters in his system.

For me the best placement was dead center top, in line with my tweeters, and at

music collection to get another playlist together. At which point I should also tell you that I

the main speakers. With cables, connections and positioning sat down for a listen.. ..Wow.. The sound had changed, and not a tiny change either, quite a discernible change. The sound stage has grown, the whole sound has matured not just at the high frequency range but across the whole range! Vocals sound fuller and more correct, breaths on wind instruments were real, violin and strings in general sounds as real as I’ve heard on my system to date and atmosphere on live recordings were more perceptible. Without exception one of the best purchases I have made within Hi-Fi. If I could compare Hi-Fi to food it would be like adding a little bit of salt to the food,

night time listening levels, but it does need a few decibels to be "magical". My 15W per channel Leak valve amps had no problems with the load on top of my speakers and when using full range "horn" speakers, these Supertweeters are simply a must have item and being quite minimal in operation they don't seem to destroy the single driver sound of a good Lowther or Fostex, rather adding to it to give a fuller sound so long as you are careful with the volume level. Discretion is the key, and blending without over exuberance or understatement is a must and worth taking the time to tune in and get right because when you do, the sound is simply stunning... ...In conclusion, my humble opinion can only be used as a guide because we all

and adds a further dimension to the

That's what the Maximum Supertweeters have done for my set up. Just as a well set up subwoofer adds to the fullness and roundness of the sound, the Supertweeter does the same also, just tailor the level to your preference and system matching and away you go. Removing them after a few days has made dimensional. Was that really what I was calling decent quality Hi-Fi a couple of weeks ago?! What I had thought was a pretty good sound was now without the Supertweeters only mediocre in terms of

sound. The Townsend Maximum Supertweeters are well executed, well made, capable, very discrete super tweeters. In my opinion in terms of user friendliness and sound they are the best passive super tweeters I have heard on the market today and the fact I have purchased a pair with my own hard earned money is testament to how good they are and the impact they have had on the sound of my system. I am not going to get into the "snake oil" debate because they work within my hearing range and with all of the formats I use. Lossless on the MacBook, DAB, Cd and analogue, vinyl

I'm sure my hearing doesn't extend much above 16kHz or so and yet the super tweeters work and work well for me. I think transients, atmosphere, detail, timbre between instruments, sounds and especially vocals within the hearing range due to less distortion, less smearing and

..A worthwhile investment and I will not be returning them or selling them on. Many Thanks and keep the music musical.. Patrick Thomas.

more emotional sound.

and day one. So obviously they were welcomed with open arms and re-instated into the system once I had established play the smile returned to my face and I earnestly started to rummage through my

For more information and best advice on all Townshend products, please visit: WWW.TOWNSHENDAUDIO.COM Email mail@townshendaudio.com or phone on +44 (0) 20 8979 2155.


STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKER

Revel Concerta2 M16 hat sort of company would actually have the nerve to produce a new two-way standmount that conforms so exactly to the archetype – the dome tweeter and nondescript main driver, the round rear-firing port, the curved cabinet, the glossy black or white finish – that it simply wouldn’t warrant a second glance in a well-stocked showroom containing rivals offering ribbon tweeters, woven cones, atypical porting arrangements and flawless finishes for hundreds of pounds less? Revel, that’s who. The Concerta2 M16’s 25mm aluminium dome tweeter sits in a waveguide that merges elegantly with the gasket for the mid-bass driver. This ‘fourth-generation Acoustic Lense Waveguide’, as Revel has it, boosts the tweeter’s sensitivity and helps integrate its dispersion characteristics with the 165mm mid-bass unit. This driver uses an aluminium/ceramic composite cone, the deep anodising treatment cunningly increasing rigidity and internal damping without adding significant mass.

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Sound quality

If all of this leads you to think you’ll be getting the M16’s A game straight out of the packing carton, think again.

Factory fresh, it’ll sound a little forward, bright and uptight to begin with. As with many speakers that employ metal drivers, a degree of patience comes in handy while the units are run-in. Although a prolonged hammering with Biffy Clyro’s back catalogue will probably do the trick, hiding the speakers away in a closed room for at least 24 hours with the burn-in tracks of a test disc on repeat is maybe the better bet. I opt to use my Cambridge CXC CD transport (HFC 401) and Monitor Audio A100 streaming amp/DAC (HFC 388) for this and feel no urgent need to substitute more expensive front-end components when the time for serious listening arrives. So here’s the first bit of good news: high-quality budget kit will work just fine with this £900 standmount. Take a potently produced recording like Corinne Bailey Rae’s Been To The Moon from The Heart Speaks In Whispers album. Here the M16 is sensitive enough to make the A100’s 50W a side sound like more and a benign enough load to showcase its best traits (soundstage air, imaging and resolution) without drawing attention to the amp’s slight lack of grip in the low bass. And that’s telling because, just as Revel claims, the M16 does a

DETAILS PRODUCT Revel Concerta2 M16 PRICE £950 ORIGIN USA TYPE 2-way standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 7.3kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 218 x 375 x 270mm FEATURES ● 25mm aluminium dome tweeter ● 165mm anodised aluminium coned mid/bass driver ● Quoted sensitivity: 86dB/1W/1m (6ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Karma-AV TELEPHONE 01423 358846 WEBSITE karma-av.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 416

mighty good impression of a full-range speaker for a box of such relatively compact dimensions. With the Cyrus CD Xt Signature transport (HFC 386), Chord Hugo DAC (HFC 386) and ATC CA2/P1 pre-power amplification (HFC 397) in situ, things move up a couple of gears, the track gaining scale, air, soundstage depth and a room-filling presence. The album’s very lowest bass notes – and we’re really talking about the subwoofer-category room shakers here – are understandably absent, but the lower registers are full bodied, tuneful and well timed. Add to this first-rate coherence and focus – an orderliness that lets you hear into the recording’s multi-layered structure without fuzzy edges and sense of approximation. The Cyrus transport and Chord DAC have an unerring ability to be truthful and unearth detail right down to the noise floor, and it’s a tribute to the Revel that you’re left in no doubt as to the combo’s communication skills. In short, the M16 can keep up and really does have a deft touch with rhythms. Can it play loud? Can it ever, but what’s remarkable is the way clarity and focus is maintained as the decibels rise. No, there isn’t the thudding overkill headbangers might seek, but you’ll be amazed how vivid, dynamic and muscular this standmount can sound. The recently remastered CD of jazz legend Oscar Peterson’s most dazzlingly virtuosic studio album, Walking The Line, is a riot with the great man’s impossibly fast and elaborate two-handed keyboard runs reproduced with sparkling precision and weight. Thankfully, the aesthetically self-effacing Revel doesn’t sound anything like as plain and understated as it looks. Easy to drive and live with, it turns in a superbly open, detailed and dynamic performance that makes budget components sound great while still allowing higher-end kit to properly express itself. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Clean, precise, open sound with great bass. System friendly

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Rather ‘generic’ appearance

BUILD QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

WE SAY: The M16 faces stiff competition and is a little pricey, but is a hugely likeable performer

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKER

Roksan TR-5 S2 his Roksan is just a little off the beaten track, which is quite a surprise at the price. Instead of a conventional dome tweeter, it sports a ribbon tweeter that works with a more regular moving-coil mid/bass unit – in other words, it’s a hybrid. The idea is to combine the power and punch of a standard woofer with the delicacy and finesse of a ribbon high-frequency unit. The drive units comprise Roksan’s custom-developed, high-tolerance ribbon design working from 2.5kHz to 40kHz; below this is the 130mm coated-paper cone mid/bass driver, with its diecast chassis and double magnets working down to 39Hz (-3dB). Peak power handling is quoted at 100W, and efficiency at 88dB.

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Sound quality

Every Roksan speaker I’ve heard has had a spirited performance – if not quite an unerringly neutral transducer of the music. Its boxes are voiced to impart the intensity of what’s going on in the recording, rather than seduce with silky refinement. So I’m surprised to find that it is a good deal more polished than I’d expected. It has real strength in depth, combining suaveness and refinement with a real penchant for making music. 70

YEARBOOK 2016

DETAILS

Cue up ABC’s Show Me and the TR-5 S2 has a slightly fuller bottom end than many at its size. There’s a sense that its low frequencies get a little helping hand, which pushes the bass line along a treat. Moving up the frequency range, the designer has blended the low-end performance seamlessly into the midrange and treble. You certainly don’t get the idea that you’re listening to two drive units in one box. It is never completely possible to get a perfect marriage between a ribbon and a moving-coil bass unit, but Roksan has done as well as can be expected. Right down low, it lacks bass extension, just as you’d expect from a smallish box. The real joy is the midband and treble. That ribbon has real delicacy, speed and transparency – it’s well able to tell you all about the ancillaries in the system, and the quality of the recording itself. Despite this, it remains unshrinkingly musical, giving that characteristic Roksan sound that makes everything seem like a special event. This is a most charming and enjoyable listen, as William Orbit’s Million Town proves. The speaker’s solid bass gives it a useful boost in the bottom octaves, without overshadowing the delicate percussion and keyboard higher up. It seems so effortless in the way it unlocks this average recording, lending

PRODUCT Roksan TR-5 S2 PRICE £995 ORIGIN UK TYPE 2-way standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 8kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 190 x 370 x 280mm FEATURES ● 104 x 104mm ribbon tweeter ● 130mm paper cone mid/bass driver ● Quoted sensitivity: 88dB/1W/1m (8ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Henley Designs Ltd TELEPHONE 01235 511166 WEBSITE henleydesigns. co.uk; roksan.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 414

it a fair degree of space and depth. It really lets the music’s haunting melody and sense of drama shine through. The Smiths’ Half A Person displays a generousness of character that keeps pulling you towards the music’s heart and soul. It’s naturally slightly warm tonal balance helps here, sweetening up the cold, steely recording a touch. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.2 proves a joy. The 1987 recording by Bernard Haitink with the London Philharmonic is spectacular, and the TR-5 S2 thrills with its combination of delicacy, detail and pace. From the opening Lento Allegro to the magnificent sound of massed orchestral strings and cor anglais that follows, it shows its fine breeding. It’s incisive and revealing without ever descending into harshness, and possesses a fine sense of spatiality. The recorded acoustic hangs relaxedly around and behind the plane of the speakers, never coming out to punch you in the face, yet it invites you to peer ever further inward and rewards with loads of low-level detail, air and space. Instruments are very well located and the sound remains consistent even at high volumes. Only a slight lack of dynamics at higher levels marks it down, but all small boxes compress things to a certain extent. Also, some might find the subtle bass warmth an unwelcome addition, but with anything less than high-end sources I doubt it. This is a quirky design, but none the worse for it. It is a smallish box with real ability and charm. It’s a great performer at the price, offering a degree of sophistication that few would dare to expect from a sub-£1,000 product. Yet it’s not just all about good manners, as it has real zap to it, infusing the music with energy and emotion. It’s a real slice of budget esoterica, something that performs way better than expected, and which can be hung on the end of far more high-end systems. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Sophisticated and musically satisfying nature

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Limited low bass response

BUILD QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

OVERALL

WE SAY: Superb small standmount speaker with a grown-up sound


STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKER

Tannoy Mercury 7.2 annoy’s Dr Paul Mills was the main driving force behind the 7.2, but he credits “significant input from our rising star engineer Ryan Sheen and tuning input from Tannoy’s pro-audio director of engineering, Phillipe Robinaeau”. The boys have been busy, because it’s touted as the most significant overhaul of the Mercury since the original, back when New Romantics roamed the earth. Interestingly, it has a larger mid/ bass driver than you’d expect for its cabinet size and it’s wider than many rivals. The larger the drive unit and greater the internal volume of the cabinet, the more chance it has to sound good. The 9.4-litre cabinet is connected to the outside world by a single rear-mounted bass port with the option of using the (supplied) foam bung. It also sports a new 28mm soft dome tweeter, with a high-tech dome lamination process and powerful neodymium motor.

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Sound quality

In absolute terms this isn’t a strictly neutral loudspeaker. There’s a subtle upper bass warmth – due in part to cabinet coloration – and the treble is well lit where it meets the upper

midband. The speaker gives a bright, upfront sort of sound. Cleverly though, Tannoy has avoided the temptation to overdo it, and the Mercury isn’t a wildly unbalanced design. Instead, you might call it a characterful one, which brings a little extra zest to the proceedings. This speaker is more than just a fulsome upper bass and lively lower treble though; it’s fast, thanks to a very agile pair of drive units. This, allied to its best-in-class dynamics makes for a great baby box. That larger mid-bass driver, with the slightly bigger enclosure, means it doesn’t compress peaks quite as much as rivals. It’s still a small box with a modestly sized mid/bass unit, but it feels less constrained than many. This useful trait makes for a bigger, ballsier and more expansive sound. Cue up Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ King Of New York, and you’re greeted with a sound that is far bigger than expected. Punchy, bouncy and uplifting, you can almost forgive the lack of low bass, as the upper bass gives the song a great sense of motion. It’s also surprisingly weighty for such a small box. Move up the frequency spectrum and it throws out plenty of detail, although by the standards of more expensive rivals it’s rather opaque.

DETAILS PRODUCT Tannoy Mercury 7.2 PRICE £230 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE 2-way standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 5kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 193 x 292 x 266mm FEATURES ● 28mm polyester dome tweeter ● 152mm multi-fibre mid/bass unit ● Quoted sensitivity 89dB/1W/1m (8ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Tannoy Ltd TELEPHONE 01236 420199 WEBSITE tannoy.com REVIEWED HFC 410

It images wide, throwing elements of the mix far left and right, giving an immersive feel that belies its size. True, it doesn’t hang instruments back as accurately as some, but it has a good stab at recreating the recorded acoustic or studio mix. Factor in its obvious transient speed, and it’s great for pop, dance or rap music. I drop Steely Dan’s Aja into my CD spinner and all of the Mercury’s fine qualities continue to impress, but I begin to get the measure of the speaker better. Even though it’s highly musical, you’ll need to spend more for the last word in refinement. The lack of air and space right at the top end of the treble is another reminder of its mortality. Overall, its excellent breeding gives it an instinctively musical gait. Even with far less well recorded sixties rock music – such as The Kinks’ Arthur – it proves a joy to listen to. It gives a big-hearted performance, full of life and happiness. It captures rhythmic nuances brilliantly, and again proves dynamic and unconstrained considering its size. It’s a little speaker with a big sound, if it is anything. Ray Davies’ voice is beautifully carried, with a very emotional rendition of Victoria, complete with soaring guitar work and drums. Most small speakers give a rather downsized, diminished and partial account of the music they’re asked to play. So often when buying a budget box, it’s a case of trying to find the least bad compromise. Not so with the Mercury 7.2, which is an enjoyable and engaging little loudspeaker in its own right. Indeed, it’s the sort of thing you could happily live with after spending time with substantially more expensive transducers. Of course it’s not perfect, but Tannoy has cleverly ensured that its sins are those of omission – it doesn’t add anything unpleasant that gets in the way of enjoying the music. Heartily recommended. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Highly tuneful, musical sound; fine dynamics

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Nothing at the price

BUILD QUALITY

WE SAY: Charming small speaker with huge appeal

EASE OF DRIVE

OVERALL

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STANDMOUNT LOUDSPEAKER

Wharfedale Reva-2 haring exactly the same price as Quad’s S-2 (HFC 408) – which has a common design boss in Peter Comeau – the Reva adopts a 25mm textile soft dome tweeter, accompanied by a single 125mm woven glass fibre mid-bass driver. It also utilises a so-called ‘Slot-Loaded Distributed Port’, which according to Wharfedale’s engineers allows a smoother transition between the pressure variation in the cabinet and the low-frequency output into the room. The claimed upshot is greater efficiency and less distortion than would be the case with more typical ported bass reflex arrangements leading to a deep, articulate and well-integrated bass response, even if the speaker is placed close to a wall.

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Sound quality

It doesn’t really matter what you kick off with – I’ve chosen a little uptempo Gregory Porter from his Take Me To The Alley CD – I doubt you’ll be dazzled from the off. This isn’t meant as a negative criticism, and as auditioning progresses, what had initially seemed a little lacklustre becomes good. Then better still. Rather than attempt to snare your interest with sonic showboating, the

Reva-2 plays the long game with a much more measured and careful interpretation of what it is being fed. With each passing track, its slowerburning style summons greater musical traction and emotional pull than speakers that set out to be more overtly ‘transparent’ but can end up sounding rather bright. It conveys just the right amount of edge with a convincing sense of dynamic ease on the few occasions Porter squares his shoulders and opens up. And although not quite as spacioussounding as the KEF R100 I have to hand (HFC 408 also £600), there’s a solid, three-dimensional believability to the imaging the smaller KEF simply cannot match. This is not, by any stretch, a lean-sounding speaker stripped out for speed and rhythmic impact. Timing is good without drawing attention to itself. Foot-tappingly good for sure, but the Reva-2 doesn’t exaggerate for effect and doesn’t trip over itself trying to sound impressive. But instruments and performers do sound almost tangibly believable. There’s a fine sense of cohesion top-to-bottom, too. If it doesn’t quite manage to reproduce the subtlest of micro-dynamic nuances like my reference standmount (ELAC’s

DETAILS PRODUCT Wharfedale Reva-2 PRICE £600 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE 2-way standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 7.8kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 204 x 357 x 275mm FEATURES ● 25mm soft dome tweeter ● 125mm glass-fibre weave mid/bass driver ● Quoted sensitivity: 86dB/1W/1m (8ohm) DISTRIBUTOR IAG Group Ltd TELEPHONE 01480 447700 WEBSITE wharfedale.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 412

ribbon-equipped BS263 – HFC 401 – which is twice as expensive), it doesn’t miss by much. Just as important, detail is conveyed with a degree of naturalness and harmonic richness that really brings out timbre and texture. The Reva-2 also has plenty of presence and authority, in part thanks to its excellent bass performance. Some ported standmount boxes give you plenty of bang for your buck while largely glossing over shape, timing and texture, making lower frequencies sound amorphous and undifferentiated. Not so here. Smooth extension, well-defined pitch and realistic dynamics are all in evidence and, once more, swat any lingering notion that this is merely a pair of souped-up budget boxes. It aims much higher than that and, accordingly, is voiced more in the manner of a high-end loudspeaker. Without sounding in any way forward or forced, the midband has focus, dimensionality and transient accuracy, while treble is extended and silky and does very nicely without the help of spray on sparkle. Also very grown up is a talent for proportion and scale – a feeling of spatial coherence that can bring a sense of venue alive as much as the performers themselves. My favourite benchmark test in this regard is Al Jarreau’s superbly realised Tenderness CD, a ‘live studio’ recording with an invited audience. Admittedly, it makes most speakers sound good but the Reva-2 delivers a ‘being there’ ambience, which is truly immersive. So – grace, balance and resolution. Not a bad skill set. And, yet again, there’s a lesson here most of us have probably learned over time. Real rewards are seldom those that gratify immediately. The Reva-2 is woefully short of razzle-dazzle. But if you appreciate genuine insight and effortless musicality, it most definitely makes the cut. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Great musical insight; fabulous build; superb finish

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Some lack of soundstage width

BUILD QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

WE SAY: Much more than a Diamond in a fancy box, the Reva-2 consistently delivers on all fronts

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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FLOORSTANDING LOUDSPEAKER

ATC SCM19A pting to make its largest passive standmount – the SCM19 (HFC 390) – into a floorstander might seem a strange thing to do, but that’s precisely what’s happened with the SCM19A. The two-way speaker employs ATC’s latest cooler-running, wide bandwidth, low noise MOSFET Class AB bi-amp pack to deliver a total of 182W (32W to the tweeter, 150W to the mid/bass unit). The 25mm SH25-76 soft dome tweeter is a dual suspension system, designed to suppress rocking modes even when driven exceptionally hard. Meanwhile, the 150mm ATC SL mid/ bass driver has a weighted doped fabric cone incorporating a 75mm soft dome. According to ATC, the metal grilles on the front should be left in place for the best sound. And so they are.

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Sound quality

Even if you’re familiar with the dynamic largess and gloriously un-hyped presentation of the

DETAILS

standmount passive SCM19, this active tower moves the game on in unmistakable ways. In raw terms it goes louder with less distortion while exhibiting tighter control, wider and more finely graded dynamic contrasts, a deeper, harder-hitting bass and greater rhythmic impetus and drive. Yep, rather than peering through the window, we’re standing in the open doorway of the studio, here. But it’s more than that, as you might well hope given the £3k difference in price. ‘Naturalness’ is a hard characteristic to nail. Characteristic is the wrong word, of course. What we’re seeking, in an ideal world, is the absence of character, and it’s some way further down this path that the SCM19A takes you. While many of the standmount’s virtues remain intact – very low colouration, precise imaging and proportionate scale, fine rhythmic integrity – the leap in dynamic headroom, start-stop accuracy and low-frequency power has a remarkably

PRODUCT ATC SCM19A PRICE £4,990 ORIGIN UK TYPE 2-way active floorstanding loudspeaker WEIGHT 31kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 370 x 980 x 344mm FEATURES ● 25mm soft dome tweeter ● 150mm SL mid/bass driver with integral 75mm soft dome ● 182W Class AB amplification DISTRIBUTOR Loudspeaker Technology Ltd TELEPHONE 01285 760683 WEBSITE atcloudspeakers. co.uk REVIEWED HFC 413

profound effect on proceedings, adding scale, solidity and, for want of a better phrase, a sense of life force that the nevertheless unflinchingly neutral and unflappable standmount sometimes just fails to capture. This is performance hi-fi, be in no doubt. With an ATC CA-2 preamp (HFC 397) up front, fed by my Cambridge CXC CD transport (HFC 401) and Chord Hugo DAC (HFC 386) combo via 2m runs of Nordost Heimdall XLR interconnect, the active ATC portrays the percussion sections on Paul Simon’s Allergies from the Hearts And Bones album with convincing attack and weight while the slower, gentler title track, which can so easily slip over into cloying smoothness and warmth on more mellifluous types of floorstander, is handled with the kind of insight that gives the lie to superficially impressive spotlit detail, allowing the rich tonal colours and nuanced dynamics to shine through unforced and unsullied by any trace of artificial emphasis. In short, the ACT SCM19A gets it right where it matters. It builds on the sonic talents of the SCM19 passive standmount, adding considerable power and enhanced precision through its floor-up build, onboard amps and active crossover networks. It may wear its monitor chops on its sleeve, but that doesn’t mean it’s frostily forensic. Yes, it plays music with plumb-line honesty but great generosity, too – full of texture, colour and life. Clearly shot through with the solid engineering and acoustic expertise loved by fans of ATC around the world, the SCM19A is an important and effective addition to the company’s extensive domestic lineup. Used in anger with high octane rock it will make most similarly sized passive floorstanders sound somewhat flat and loose. But it does the delicate stuff with great care and finesse as well. A better advert for properly implemented active design at a relatively sane price I’ve yet to hear. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Studio-class insight and neutrality; fabulous dynamics and bass; build DISLIKE: Starkly functional appearance

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: If you really want to hear what your music collection sounds like, look no further

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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FLOORSTANDING LOUDSPEAKER

ELAC Debut F5 s ELAC’s entry-level floorstander in the Debut lineup, the F5 employs drive units bespoke designed and built for the company and runs as a true three-way speaker. The two lower drivers work as woofers, wired in parallel, where the upper large driver is the mid/bass unit, and on top of that is the tweeter. The F5 uses a bass-reflex port to provide deeper low frequencies than you would otherwise get, given the cabinet volume. This makes the speaker easier to drive, but this relatively big box offers a rather poor (quoted) sensitivity of 85.5dB. ELAC suggests it has worked to make it an easy load, rather than give it the ability to go loud with just a few watts.

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Sound quality

The sizeable F5 sounds like it looks, impactful and large in scale. Dynamic and animated, you wouldn’t say it is the most subtle of speakers, and nor

is it the most sophisticated, but it stands out sonically from the crowd. As you would expect, it adds depth and breadth to this basic template, on account of the extra cubic inches its cabinet sports, and the larger volume of air that those extra woofers can shift. Unsurprisingly, its bass response is deeper and its low-frequency performance sounds more articulate and less compressed. Still, it’s not overpowering or boomy in any way, which might limit showroom appeal slightly but makes it more enduring over the long term. There’s little sense of an upper bass peak, either – it stays reasonably flat and doesn’t unduly exaggerate things low down. This helps it to integrate nicely with the midband. It sounds crisp and decently detailed yet dynamic and punchy too. The F5 doesn’t attempt to be the most detailed and forensic sounding in its class, preferring to give a sound with wider appeal. Everything integrates well and there’s

DETAILS PRODUCT ELAC Debut F5 PRICE £599 ORIGIN USA/China TYPE 3-way floorstanding loudspeaker WEIGHT 14.9kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 200 x 965 x 222mm FEATURES ● 1x 25mm soft dome tweeter ● 1x 130mm mid/bass driver ● 2x 130mm bass drivers ● Quoted sensitivity: 85.5dB/1W/1m (6ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Hi-Fi Network TELEPHONE 01285 643088 WEBSITE elac.com REVIEWED HFC 411

little sense of listening to more than one speaker at a time. It’s very good at throwing wide stereo images, pushing out a wide recorded acoustic inside which the various elements of the mix sit with a good deal of space between them. Indeed it gives a most expansive rendition of Harold Budd and the Cocteau Twins’ The Moon And The Melodies, filling the room with ease. The speaker is more concerned with the timing of the music, and the counterpoint between Budd’s melancholic piano and Robin Guthrie’s distinctive processed guitar. Interestingly, feed it a quite different type of recording, and it proves no less uplifting. With the Waterboys’ Glastonbury Song, it is particularly accomplished at capturing the leading edges of notes, sounding hugely powerful and propulsive, well able to communicate the majesty of this great song. Bass is tuneful and usefully deep, the midband is balanced and detailed and the treble gives a decent sense of the power and bite of the crashing ride and hi-hat cymbals. The F5 proves absolutely in its element with driving, energetic programme material such as this, once again throwing out a wide soundstage with decently placed instruments within. Of course, no £599 loudspeaker is a universal panacea. It’s a largish box at a low price and thus not immune to cabinet resonances. So it comes as no surprise to hear a degree of coloration in the upper bass. It’s not a completely unpleasant sensation, lending extra weight and body to the proceedings, and bringing a gently euphonic nature to a speaker that’s likely to be used with less-than-perfect ancillaries. While some speakers have an obvious character that flatters some types of music and detracts from others, this is very well rounded for a product of its price, and never less than fun to listen to. That’s some achievement for a pair of sub-£600 speakers, so it comes highly recommended. DP

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Punchy, lyrical, wide-bandwidth sound

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Cabinet colouration; finish

BUILD QUALITY

WE SAY: Charming, exciting, musical budget box

EASE OF DRIVE

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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FLOORSTANDING LOUDSPEAKER

Heco Direkt here are few high sensitivity, easy load speakers especially designed for fans of lower-powered valve amps, and those that do exist can be out of reach of many budgets. The Direkt has a 440mm-wide front baffle hosting a 28mm silk compound dome tweeter and generous 280mm mid/bass driver. I opt to test it with Audion Golden Night 300B monoblocks as well as an Audio Note OTO SE Signature integrated amp. Both max out at 10 single-ended watts, but create ample listening levels with surprisingly low gain.

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Sound quality

I kick off listening with Hello by Adele on vinyl. The opening piano notes have fantastic weight and richness. Pianos are notoriously tricky to portray convincingly, but the Direkt gets straight to the point, combining rich timbre with a lightness of touch. 78

YEARBOOK 2016

DETAILS

Adele’s voice appears centre stage at head height and the Direkt reveals outstanding imaging. Her vocals have real presence and focus and every tiny inflection of her voice seems to hang in the air above the speaker. This holographic quality is often the preserve of electrostatic panels. Choruses build in intensity and with every dynamic gear change it is eager, willing and very able. Valve lovers often feel they can’t have fast, deep bass from sensibly sized speakers, but the Direkt offers really impressive deep bass that feels entirely credible, although upper bass can seem less resonant than the deeper, more port-assisted notes. This is nit picking, though, as many valve lovers will simply celebrate that they can now access deeper octaves previously beyond their reach. The midband is rich, fast, transparent and insightful with vocals and acoustic instruments. Treble is never harsh, but is highly energetic and detailed.

PRODUCT Heco Direkt PRICE £2,500 ORIGIN Germany TYPE 2-way floorstanding loudspeaker WEIGHT 25.8kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 440 x 998 x 397mm FEATURES ● 28mm silk compound tweeter ● 280mm Kraft paper mid/bass driver ● Quoted sensitivity: 95dB/1W/1m (8ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Puresound TELEPHONE 01822 612449 WEBSITE heco-audio.de REVIEWED HFC 407

Playing Automatic Part 1 and Part 2 from Jean-Michel Jarre and Vince Clarke on CD really shows that while the speaker’s design may reference a previous era, its sound is bang up to date. The Direkt sets out layer upon layer of highly transparent synth loops over a razor sharp and deep, punchy electronic beat. Shimmering keyboard chords wash left and right over the soundstage with highly extended fizzing detail, while a simple crystal clear glockenspiel melody hangs stationary above the speakers. Again, the vivid presentation from these broad boxes seems more akin to large electrostatic panels, but it can do this with far more propulsive drive and potent bass than most panels can muster, and rarely driven by the most elegant valve designs. This isn’t just a highly dynamic performance, it’s more of a firework display that has you scanning the room excitedly for the sonic pyrotechnics. By way of contrast I leap back over 400 years and play a hi-res download of Harry Christophers conducting Nisi Dominus from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. Within the first few bars the Direkt paints a rich, wide and deep tapestry of lush voices and Baroque instrumentation. Here the speaker’s sensitivity gives excellent light and shade between the intimacy of individual voices and the more opulent choral sections in the large acoustic space. It’s this sensitivity that enables quieter elements to be just as communicative as more dramatic dynamics, and the highly nuanced midband performance creates a sumptuous layering of male and female voices alongside a genuine ability to resolve the subtle timbre of the more unusual period instruments used here. The speed of the speaker also helps the excellent timing and so the music just flows through the drivers absolutely unfettered. In short, it’s spellbinding. CW

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Sensitivity; transparency; build; bass; price

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Novelty of stripe may wane

BUILD QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

OVERALL

WE SAY: Modernlooking sensitive speakers perfect for valve amplifiers


FLOORSTANDING LOUDSPEAKER

Neat lota Alpha irst unveiled at The Bristol Show 2016, Neat’s speaker was so new it didn’t even have a name, which made things awkward as it was probably the most talked about product there. Now the Iota Alpha has a name, a price and the details of the design have become clear. Yes, the top section is essentially an Iota (HFC 357), complete with a 50mm EMIT tweeter and a 100mm mid/bass driver, but here those drivers are in a sealed enclosure, with a pronounced upward tilt. Inside is a 134mm downward-firing bass unit, given space to breathe by the high-quality floor spikes and a rear-venting port.

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Sound quality

The Iota Alpha isn’t too demanding, thanks to 86dB sensitivity and 4ohm nominal impedance, and just about any competent amp should be able to drive it. I try it with a variety of partners including an entry-level

Marantz and Rotel’s RA-1592 powerhouse, as well as my original NaimUniti, and rapidly come to the conclusion that, while the speaker works well with modest amp output, it really starts to sing when you sneak up on it with a decent dose of oomph. To that end, I start with my Naim Supernait 2 moving up through the Salisbury lineage with a pre/power combo using an old ‘olive’ NAP 250, and ending up with a brand-new NAP 300 DR, and at each stage the Neat reveals the advantages of the added power and quality being unleashed. Drive it properly, and place it so it has a bit of boundary reinforcement, and it can really power out tight, fast, well-extended basslines, beautifully integrated with what the rest of the frequency range is doing. However, that’s not the most magical thing here: that honour goes to the way the speaker sits way below the listener’s eye-line yet manages to ‘project’ a sonic image up seemingly

DETAILS PRODUCT Neat Iota Alpha PRICE £1,385 ORIGIN UK TYPE 2.5-way floorstanding loudspeaker WEIGHT 6kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 200 x 450 x 160mm FEATURES ● 50mm EMIT tweeter ● 100mm mid/bass driver and 134mm bass unit ● Quoted sensitivity: 86dB/1W/1m (4ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Neat Acoustic TELEPHONE 01833 631021 WEBSITE neat.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 414

into thin air. The mark of a good speaker is the way the sound can be made to break free from the box and take on an independent solidity, but this usually only happens in two dimensions; from side to side and front to back. Here it happens in all three axes. This ‘ball of sound’ effect is even impressive with the one-mike recording of Applewood Road’s self-titled album, where the effectively mono sound still has air and space in it, and Emily Barker, Amber Rubarth and Amy Speace are beautifully distinct. But it’s with more conventional two-channel recordings that things open up and spread around, beyond, between and above, in a manner unusual even for very good conventional speakers. Play Neko Case, kd lang, and Laura Veirs on their case/lang/viers album, and that free-floating sound, with effortless vocal and instrumental layering, is what captures the attention from the opening bars. The dreamy harmonies and accompanying musicians, plus the tight focus on voices, are rather special. Of course, its wide open balance and focus are well suited to small ensemble acoustic music such as Phantasm’s latest set of Dowland’s Lachrimae, where the five instruments are as clearly delineated as is the recorded acoustic, but the Alpha is just as adept when crashing out the stately opening of Schumann’s 1st Symphony played by the Berlin Phil under Simon Rattle. Or indeed anything as diverse as the tight rhythms of Whiplash from the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s Four MFs Playing Tunes set, or a spot of dense, synth-heavy electro-pop in the form of New Order’s Blue Monday. Yes, this speaker will pootle on the end of very modest amplification, but don’t let its diminutive dimensions let you overlook that it is a very serious design. Neat’s Iota Alpha is worthy of being used with amps and sources fully able to keep it under control and drive it as it should be heard. JP

OUR VERDICT VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Compact dimensions; excellent finish; ‘holographic’ imaging

BUILD QUALITY

DISLIKE: Might be a little too odd for some; best with hefty amps

SOUND QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

WE SAY: This little speaker combines near invisibility with a fine sound

OVERALL

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FLOORSTANDING LOUDSPEAKER

Quad Z-3 ccording to design supremo Peter Comeau, the Z Series is the closest approach to the ESL sound you’ll find from a box with dynamic drivers. And, the thing that allows him to make such a bold claim is the unmistakable presence, both visually and sonically, of a ribbon tweeter. The Z Series bespoke ribbon tweeter is nearly twice the size of the one used in the S Series. My guess is the Z-3 might well be a lot of people’s idea of the optimum transducer: a handsome, beautifully built and finished floorstander large enough to accommodate four drivers in a true three-way configuration.

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Sound quality

There are no hard and fast rules as to what makes a speaker suddenly ‘sing’ like a lark. What constitutes long-term

DETAILS

listenability, however, is easier to ascertain and, for me, it all boils down to balance. The most satisfying speaker for the long haul is the one that successfully nails that elusive sweet spot between refinement and excitement. The Z-3 does this so well it possesses an almost chameleon-like ability to ‘become’ the music rather than bend it to its will. The absence of discernible manipulation has much to do with the honesty of the ribbon. Dizzyingly high in resolution and vanishingly low in distortion, it brings a sense of realism to transients and textures even the best dome tweeters, metal or fabric, would be hard-pressed to challenge. Also, being larger than the S Series’ ribbon, it is more efficient and reaches lower, integrating superbly with the Kevlar-coned midrange driver that sits below it.

PRODUCT Quad Z-3 PRICE £2,500 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE 3-way standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 19kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 267 x 965 x 340mm FEATURES ● 90 x 12mm ribbon tweeter ● 150mm Kevlar weave midrange driver ● 2x 175mm Kevlar weave bass drivers ● Quoted sensitivity 89dB/1W/1m (6ohm) DISTRIBUTOR IAG Ltd TELEPHONE 01480 447700 WEBSITE quad-hifi.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 416

The Z-3 is strong at the other end of the frequency scale, too, pumping out the fat synth bass line of Stevie Wonder’s I Wish with the bouncy enthusiasm it warrants, but without the thickness and bloat some less well controlled and mannered floorstanders can bring to the party. Furthermore, the speed and clarity allied to a beautifully judged midrange (lots of presence but not too forward), does vocals and massed strings no harm at all. Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, usually a bit syrupy, actually gains in emotional power through sounding cleaner and more precise, with less melancholy ‘musk’. In broad terms, muscle and poise go hand in hand. There’s an overarching sense of control, but the pulse of a thrill is never far from the surface. For recordings with a built-in change of pace and dynamic reach, such as Corinne Bailey Rae’s fab Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart from her The Heart Speaks In Whispers album, the Z-3 is a natural, able to track the change of pace as deftly as the kick in tempo and dynamics. As I’ve already hinted, it’s the Z-3’s remarkable compass and even-handedness that inform its ability to score with all types of music, however loudly or softly it’s played. Did I mention it images beautifully as well? Funny thing is, when a pair of speakers gets the stereo right, you hardly notice. The Quad Z-3 ticks so many boxes I’m inclined to think it may be one of the very best speakers Quad has ever made. The way the speaker looks and the quality of its build and finish are powerful hooks in themselves. Photos really don’t tell the whole picture, this is one £2,500 floorstander that could take the Pepsi Challenge with high-end exotica at twice the price. That goes for its performance, too. Yes, it’s that good and, at the price, an absolute steal. Finally a Quad speaker has stepped out from the shadow of the ESL. It’s called the Z-3. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Superb sound; great build; classy looks and finish

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Nothing

BUILD QUALITY

WE SAY: Serious contender for the Quad hall of fame and terrific value for money

EASE OF DRIVE

OVERALL

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GROUND-BREAKING TOWNSHEND SEISMIC PODIUM The Seismic Podium is designed to brake the acoustic connection between the floor and the speaker. The Podium, together with the speaker, forms a low pass mechanical filter that prevents the passage of deleterious vibrations both to and from the speaker cabinet. Break this link and the result is simply magical, the sound is transformed for every speaker, everywhere, every time. The effect on the sound quality is outstanding. Everything sounds much cleaner and clearer, but for me the best improvement is the purity of tone of the strings when listening to classical music. Previously I couldn’t enjoy listening to orchestral music because the violins sounded so ‘dirty’, and I have spent years trying to eliminate the problem by experimenting with different DACs, interconnects and speaker cables without any meaningful results. I only wish that I had bought them earlier! “ RM

Winner INNOVATION INNOVA VATION

ntering the speakers. · Blocks ground borne vibration from entering

2015

om entering the floor. · Blocks speaker generated vibration from · Neighbour friendly due to elimination of structure borne sound. · Huge reduction in bass boom. d. · Clearer and much more tuneful sound. · Far deeper and wider sound stage. ors. No more spikes! · Suitable for wood, tile or carpeted floors. e and wood floors. · Works on solid or suspended concrete er-cabinet mass and floor. · Eliminates resonance between speaker-cabinet

Watch the demonstration video showing with and without Seismic Podium. http://goo.gl/Hy4boC


FLOORSTANDING LOUDSPEAKER

Spendor A5R newly revised small floorstander, purposed for small-to-medium-sized rooms, the A5R is certainly easy on the eye, but look closer and you’ll note there is not a single hole in the cabinet to be found. A quick inspection reveals it to be an infinite baffle design. Infinite baffle speakers have obviously superior and ‘correct’ bass. There’s no time-smearing that you get with reflex port designs and bass notes stop and start in a more natural way. The downside is that the speaker is harder to drive and less loud for a given amount of power.

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Sound quality

On first listen, the A5R sounds a little meek, rather unimposing and not the sort of thing that indelibly stamps itself on anything. But the longer you stay with it, the more you begin to love its lack of flaws. Within its operating envelope – placed in a small-to-medium-sized

room – it works way better than most, across a wide range of areas. The infinite baffle cabinet makes it sing surprisingly close to a boundary wall. Feed it Randy Crawford’s You Might Need Somebody, and it soon finds its feet. Yes, stereo soundstaging isn’t quite as wide and tall as you get from a large floorstander, but you can’t criticise its precision. All the instruments are placed accurately and lead vocals are carried with confidence, hanging ethereally above the rest of the mix. The vocal line is what you’re drawn to, because of the Spendor’s innate clarity and smoothness in the midband. The other distinct characteristic is the bass – which is tight, taut and propulsive. The A5R isn’t the strongest low down, but the bottom end is quite extended, very well timed and largely devoid of weight. Matt Monroe’s On Days Like These works best when played on highly transparent equipment. The A5R does well here, again locking in on the vocal

DETAILS PRODUCT Spendor A5R PRICE £1,995 ORIGIN UK TYPE 2.5-way floorstanding loudspeaker WEIGHT 15kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 165 x 830 x 250mm FEATURES ● 22mm widesurround dome tweeter ● 150mm EP77 mid/bass unit ● 150mm Kevlar bass unit ● Quoted sensitivity: 87dB/1W/1m (6ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Spendor Audio Systems Ltd TELEPHONE 01323 843474 WEBSITE spendoraudio.com REVIEWED HFC 413

line and Monroe’s rich voice. Yet it gives plenty of space for the backing orchestra and conveys the instruments with impressive accuracy. The recording can sound thin and harsh on some speakers, yet the Spendor shows that while it’s very detailed and revealing, it doesn’t become overly forensic and prefers not to accent the negative. With The Prodigy’s Your Love, it doesn’t quite serve up the visceral thrill of larger and more muscular speakers, but it certainly gets into the swing of things. The lead keyboard is beautifully clear and is backed up by a solid and surprisingly extended bass that is capable of switching on and off as fast as a flashing LED. There’s little sign of any cabinet effect, and all three drive units work well together to give a tonally smooth yet crisp rendition. Only when served up with very large amounts of power from my reference Arcam P49 power amplifier (see page 16) do things begin to compress slightly, and this is at volumes that in a semi-detached house or flat will have the police outside your front door. Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Elgar’s Nimrod shows the A5R in its very best light. By nature, a clear and uncoloured loudspeaker with a limited tendency to ‘editorialise’ any aspect of the sound, the music floods into the room. String tone is excellent, with a superb sense of instrumental timbre. At the same time, it carries the music’s rhythm with an almost ‘liquid’, sense of flow. There’s a fine sense of space to the concert hall courtesy of the detailed tweeter. The A5R provides the sort of refined musicality you get from a high-end loudspeaker at a more affordable price. The trade off is its lack of visceral punch and physicality – but then you’re not going to get much better from any speaker of this size, regardless of price. If you’re after something just a little more classy than its competitors, this is well worth a listen. DP

OUR VERDICT VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Even-handed; refined; open and musical sound; fine build quality

BUILD QUALITY

DISLIKE: Reasonably powerful amplifier needed

SOUND QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

WE SAY: Excellent small floorstander in a class of its own

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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blak,QWHJUDWHG Issue 413


FLOORSTANDING LOUDSPEAKER

Tannoy Eclipse Three eware of cheap, large floorstanding speakers. They might go loud and have lots of boomy bass, but you’ll be better off spending your limited budget on a standmount box. But, rules are made to be broken and what a lot of people really want is a cheap, large floorstander that delivers on the promise of its size and impressive number of drivers. The Eclipse Three boasts a slightly larger than usual 28mm woven polyester dome tweeter alongside a brace of 127mm mid-bass drivers using light and stiff coated enriched paper pulp cones, which are said to offer exceptional transient response. The spec rates system efficiency at 90dB, which shouldn’t require much amp wattage to get the party started.

B

Sound quality

Don’t go getting the wrong impression if I say that this loudspeaker is an easy listen. I just

mean that it seems to be free from sonic nasties, a feat that would have required the intervention of witchcraft for such a modestly priced floorstander just a few years ago. Even playing Anita Baker’s Only For A While from the album Rhythm Of Love, an otherwise fine recording that can apply a wincingly bright and wiry edge to the songstress’ voice when played on some budget loudspeakers, the treble is free from spitty brightness and grain, the overall tonal balance sits just the warm side of neutral and you do indeed get plenty of bass for your buck, but in a nicely measured and controlled fashion with satisfying weight and extension but hardly anything in the way of boom or bloat. The sins, such as they are, tend to be those of omission. So, yes, there are similarly priced standmounts that will sound clearer and more obviously detailed. Monitor Audio’s £280 Bronze 2 (p67) is a good example. It’s a compact box

DETAILS PRODUCT Tannoy Eclipse Three PRICE £299 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE 2-way floorstanding loudspeaker WEIGHT 12kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 270 x 959 x 287mm FEATURES ● 28mm polyester dome tweeter ● 2x 127mm coated paper pulp mid-bass driver ● Quoted sensitivity: 90dB/1W/1m (8ohm) DISTRIBUTOR Tannoy Ltd TELEPHONE 01236 420199 WEBSITE tannoy.com REVIEWED HFC 415

with a sparkling midrange that has excellent bass for its size, too. But it doesn’t go quite as deep as the Tannoy or deliver low frequencies in such an easy-breathing manner. This is what we look for in a floorstander – more or less its raison d’etre – and, with a few understandable caveats regarding speed and grip, this one more than passes muster. Moreover, it possesses some really pleasing qualities higher up the frequency range. The well-rounded warmth and solidity of the presentation is as adept at portraying the extreme energy and dense intensity of Biffy Clyro’s Wolves Of Winter as it is the more jaunty lyricism of Paul McCartney’s Heart Of The Country. So perhaps it isn’t the fastest or most resolute loudspeaker you can buy for the money. Nor is it the most tonally pure. What makes it a satisfying listen is its ability to deliver the whole musical event – the performance, the acoustic, the buzz – as a well stitched-together whole. The Eclipse Three has a lucid, fluent, easy-going nature that gets the basics pretty much spot on without concentrating excessively on sonic minutiae that could so easily trip up the music making. It draws considerable strength from a kind of overarching synergy that contributes to a more generously fleshed-out musicality, which is able to show a clean pair of heels to most price-point standmount designs. As compromises go, that’s a good one. Tannoy appears to have played something of a blinder here. No, it doesn’t sound as good as a £1k floorstander, but by stripping back the sonic agenda to the musical elements that connect at a fundamental level and making sure they’re as good as they can be for the modest sum asked, it’s a very canny package indeed that will make the most of similarly value-orientated electronics. Strongly recommended. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: A skilful blend of sonic abilities married to super material value

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Apart from the plastic outriggers, nothing at the price

BUILD QUALITY

EASE OF DRIVE

WE SAY: That rare thing, a budget floorstander that sounds terrific

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

85


WIRELESS MUSIC SYSTEM

Devialet Gold Phantom The third member of the Devialet Phantom family is the most extreme and ambitious yet. Prepare to have your mind blown e-imagining the rather sprawling and untidy sub-hi-fi world of networked, wireless, multi-room speakers as a kind of supersonic sound bomb, Devialet’s Phantom ‘Implosive Sound Centre’ resembles a long exposure photo of a ten pin bowling ball hurtling down the alley. Of the many innovative technologies incorporated into the Phantom, arguably the most eye catching are the pumped power stats attributed to the physically shrunken ADH (Analogue Digital Hybrid) amp design lifted from the company’s domestic high-flyers, rated at a barely believable 4,500W. Make that 9,000W of peak power as I’ve got two, which I’m running with the help of the £249 Dialog wi-fi sharing centre.

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YEARBOOK 2016

The Silver Phantoms proved to be every rounded centimetre the revolutionary product when I tested them back in HFC 400. It’ll be helpful to recap why they are so extraordinary. Shoe horned into 12-litre volume is the breakthrough amp tech, a DAC, a wi-fi streamer and the numerous speaker components – all achieved without any internal wiring. Each Phantom packs four drive units. The ‘imploding’ drivers that form the ‘cheeks’ are perhaps more accurately termed exceptionally long-throw, force-cancelling bass units that work in tandem and under far higher pressures than conventional drivers to reach down to a claimed 14Hz in the Gold Phantom, which is knocking on the door of infra bass and the sort of low end usually only

DETAILS PRODUCT Devialet Gold Phantom PRICE £4,629 ORIGIN France TYPE Modular wireless music system WEIGHT 11.4kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 253 x 255 x 343 mm FEATURES ● Claimed: 4,500W ADH amplifier ● Internal DAC and wi-fi streaming up to 24-bit/192kHz ● AptX Bluetooth ● Ethernet and optical inputs ● Configurable for mono or stereo DISTRIBUTOR Devialet UK WEBSITE en.devialet.com REVIEWED HFC 417

achievable with hulking towers or subwoofers. As the drivers do their thing laterally and are self-cancelling, the Phantom remains inherently stable and essentially vibration free. Formed from the same type of alloy as the bass drivers, but 0.1mm thinner to reduce moving mass, is the powered 110mm curved white midrange ring that surrounds the tweeter. For the Gold Phantom, the Silver model’s 25.4mm aluminium dome is replaced by a superior titanium design, which extends the claimed frequency ceiling from 25 to 27kHz and is recessed behind a fixed metal grille. The tweeter and midrange ring are both angled 11.5° upwards. The Gold Phantom also adds an extra 1,500W to the Silver’s ample 3,000W via the same proprietary ADH technology. The approach uses analogue Class A voltage amplification working in parallel with digital Class D current dumpers, weaving the benefits of a Class A delicacy and resolution with Class D drive and muscle. To fit it all in, it has a dedicated ADH chip in which the analogue stages of each core have been miniaturised. The chip also incorporates Devialet’s Magic Wire topology, which embeds its own 24-bit/192kHz DAC. Upstream, Speaker Active Matching (SAM) processes the audio signal in


WIRELESS MUSIC SYSTEM

the digital domain ahead of the DAC and power amp, tailoring it to take into account the characteristics of the drive units and their acoustic load across the volume range. SAM is applied to all of the drivers. Despite its surprising weight and core solidity, some care is needed hefting a Gold Phantom from its box, the best technique being to cradle its underside to avoid pressing what are effectively exposed drivers side and front. The rubber base makes landing on a flat surface reassuringly secure and wobble free, though more elegant dedicated ‘Tree’ stands finished in white aluminium (£299) or wood-veneered (£339) are available from Devialet. Whatever you think of the sci-fi aesthetic (I suspect the gold ‘gills’ might be a little too garish for some), the Phantom design is splendidly tactile, neat and ergonomically satisfying. The curved plate attached to the mains plug that

As a stereo pair, they have an immense soundstage with no obvious sweet spot forms a flush contoured surface with the casework when the plug is pushed home (and conceals the Ethernet, optical and USB sockets) is a very nice touch indeed. Two Phantoms means using the Dialog hub which, both physically and operationally, is a small and simple thing. Once connected to your home router with an Ethernet cable – a titchy one is supplied, which is fine if the router is in your listening room, but a long-run CAT6 installation might be required otherwise – just download Devialet’s Spark app to a smart device of your choosing, power up the speakers by pressing the button on the back and await set-up instructions from the app. Depending on your state of mind at the time, this can be either a mystical experience or teeth-itchingly twee. It involves a sequence of to-do and move-on events punctuated by a Pope-like laying on of hands (seriously, you have to touch the Phantom’s forehead with all five fingers for confirmation) whereupon it makes a hissing sound and puffs out its cheeks. While this is going on, each Phantom emits a series of ambient soundscapes similar to those floating behind Captain Kirk and co after they’d beamed down to a plaster and cardboard planet in the original Stark Trek TV series.

Installation complete – it consumes about three minutes – the software takes care of all your connection and user needs, accessing music libraries from multiple sources, teeing up streaming services such as Tidal, Spotify and Deezer. The Dialog can control up to 24 Phantoms across identified zones (up to 12 playing simultaneously), which should be enough for most. It’s all very fit and forget, too, the EVO platform automatically installs firmware upgrades as they’re signed off by Devialet HQ.

Sound quality

There’s a mighty sonic talent between the shivering cheeks of this ‘future shock’ design that can be an unfeasible amount of fun. In any event, I can award the pair of Golds under review several listening room records: highest undistorted sound pressure level (by a country mile), deepest and most powerful bass (less emphatically, but still by a breezy margin), most authentic rendition of a live Emerson, Lake & Palmer recording and the only system that can seriously damage my hearing, and possibly several internal organs, if I play too much ELP at realistic stadium levels. Devialet should echo the ‘Insane’ and ‘Ludicrous’ acceleration modes of Tesla’s electrically powered saloons and, instead of calibrating the Spark app’s volume slider with numbers, have a ‘Preposterous’ setting at the half-way mark. Devialet is right when it talks of an ultra-dense sound with physical impact. Right too about the ultra-low noise floor and complete absence of saturation and distortion. Dynamics are pretty spectacular as well. It all contributes to an unusually physical style of presentation that urges you to seek out your most ‘shock and awe’ recordings and play them as they’ve never been heard, and felt, before. And I say this as someone who appreciates how my resident reference Cyrus CD Xt Signature transport (HFC 386), Chord Hugo DAC (HFC 386), ATC pre-power (HFC 397) and SCM 40 speakers (HFC 389) excel in these areas. Does this mean the Gold Phantom is the ultimate party speaker? Can’t recommend any better, even if you live in the corner of an aircraft hanger. Does it also mean it doesn’t really do soft and subtle? Not at all, though it’s doubtful Norah Jones will be at the top of the playlist. The sound is typically crystal clear and clean top to bottom, the dynamic contrasts are largely preserved at sane

The composite body has an ABS/ stainless steel shell with a glass fibre-filled polycarbonate internal skin and aluminium core

listening volumes and, as a stereo pair, they throw out an immense soundstage with no obvious sweet spot. Even speech is convincingly portrayed as a few hours of Radio 4 on iPlayer confirm. The ‘hi-fi’ aspects of the performance are bomb-proof and completely and utterly unburstable. And yet, there are things that I miss and, after a long session sampling everything from Grieg to GoGo Penguin, I am left feeling strangely fatigued and yearning for the return of the SCM 40 which, going over the same material, fills in the finer microdynamics, timbral textures and rhythmic nuances that are the true hallmarks of top-drawer hi-fi. I am shocked and awed by the Gold Phantom, but I never feel relaxed in the same way that I do when listening to a large, three-way floorstander.

Conclusion

For ultimate circa-£5k sonic dibs, it’s a case of close but no cigar. That said, I have huge fun with the Gold Phantom and even experience things that simply shouldn’t be possible – not from a compact wireless speaker system at any rate. In that particular arena, the Gold Phantom is nothing short of astonishing and so comes warmly recommended. DV

OUR VERDICT VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Rock-concert sound levels and bass in the comfort of your listening room

BUILD QUALITY

DISLIKE: Not quite the last word in finesse and subtlety

SOUND QUALITY

WE SAY: Monsters all other wireless systems. Huge fun

FEATURES

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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WIRELESS LOUDSPEAKER

DALI Zensor 5 AX ffering the plug ‘n’ play convenience and wireless/ streaming/decoding capabilities of a wireless speaker, but with the sonic reach and flexibility of proper floorstanders, the self-powered Zensor 5 AX isn’t a true active design, but one where the crossovers are kept passive and the stereo integrated amplifier and wireless electronics are housed in the left-hand cabinet. This is linked to the other cabinet by a single run of speaker cable or of your own choice, which comes supplied. Power is provided by a Class D amplifier rated at 50W per channel. There are two physical input connections on the back panel of the left-hand cabinet, plus an output for a subwoofer. The optical input reads signals up to 24-bit/176.4kHz. The other connection is via a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack. The analogue feeds supplied by this and wirelessly by Bluetooth are changed to a

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24-bit/96kHz digital signal by an A/D converter and routed through to the DSP, which delivers a PWM signal at 384kHz to the open loop amp. The amplified signal is then received by the passive crossover that splits it up for the drivers. DALI says the wide dispersion, 25mm ‘ultra lightweight’ fabric dome tweeter is derived from a design used in its more expensive models. Also familiar are the 133mm woodfibre-coned mid-bass drivers, which have a blend of fine grain paper pulp reinforced with wood fibres.

Sound quality

If it looks like a DALI Zensor 5, walks a bass line like a Zensor 5… well, you get the idea. Assuming a fondness for the Zensor sound – clean, well-articulated, sprightly, not-quiteneutral but always toe-tappingly rhythmic, fun and engaging – the self-powered version isn’t going to spring any major surprises.

DETAILS PRODUCT DALI Zensor 5 AX PRICE £800 ORIGIN Denmark TYPE 2-way floorstanding active loudspeaker WEIGHT 11kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 212 x 840 x 282mm FEATURES ● 25mm fabric dome tweeter ● 2x 133mm wood fibre mid/bass drivers ● Quoted power output: 2x 50W DISTRIBUTOR DALI UK TELEPHONE 0845 6443537 WEBSITE dali-uk.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 410

What’s clear is that the matched amplifier and decoding electronics have honed and polished the presentation to the point where the 5 AX sounds classy and cohesive across all of its inputs. This is no accident, of course, when you consider the ‘digital unification’ processing protocols used. The sense of structure and clarity that’s a hallmark of decent Class D amplification pleases from the off. The sound is well balanced, with no obvious tonal hot spots or depressions but a ready penchant for resolving detail and ambience. This provides a decent impression of space and venue within which performers and instruments are impeccably focused and perfectly positioned, affording a real sense of three-dimensionality to the overall soundstage that works particularly well with live recordings. The 5 AX sounds deftly dynamic, too, doing the punch and delicacy thing with a sense of proportionality that’s usually the preserve of more expensive designs. This is all showcased to good effect with a spot of Larry Carlton live in Tokyo with David T Walker. On the funky jog The Well’s Gone Dry, the relaxed groove is beautifully carried, the interplay between drums, bass guitar, saxophone, keyboards and Carlton’s lead sounding effortlessly lucid and empathetic. Musicianship and the atmosphere of the venue are pushed right to the fore, hi-fi histrionics a largely forgotten concern. Let’s be clear. If you can accommodate a compact and smartly designed pair of floorstanders and you keep your music on your phone, tablet or hi-res personal player, the DALI Zensor 5 AX will be more musically rewarding than any single-box wireless speaker you can buy. And, unless you overspend on the amplifier, the speakers will sound better than a more conventionally driven pair of regular Zensor 5s. Best of both worlds? Close enough. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

VALUE FOR MONEY

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

LIKE: Fine sound; elegant floorstander DISLIKE: Remote control is naff WE SAY: A smart solution for people who want to cut the clutter without sacrificing the sound

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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WIRELESS LOUDSPEAKER

Dynaudio Xeo 2 s long ago as 2012, Dynaudio unveiled its first-generation range of Xeo active, wireless speakers. It proved beyond any doubt that cable-free convenience was compatible with true high fidelity and that buying into less discriminating sound served up by too many one-box solutions was optional rather than obligatory. Now a second-gen Xeo lineup has arrived and unlike previous models doesn’t need extra external hardware to work wirelessly, as the control speaker communicates with its partner over a built-in closed A-to-B wireless link. The control speaker has RCA line-in, a Toslink optical input (accepting up to 24-bit/192kHz, but outputting at a max of 24-bit/96kHz) and a 3.5mm aux socket. It’s a true active design with a generous 65W (claimed) of pulse width modulated Class D amplification assigned to each driver and electronic crossovers to divide up the workload. Doing the business, and sitting neatly in the Xeo 2’s extruded aluminium baffle, are a 27mm soft dome tweeter and a 140mm magnesium-silicate polymer (MSP) mid-bass unit. Both are made inhouse by Dynaudio. No MDF was harmed in the making of

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the bass reflex cabinets. Instead, they’re formed from an acoustically inert composite moulding, the alloy baffle adding extra rigidity.

Sound quality

With the DSP EQ switches set to open space, I place the Xeo 2 on my 24in Slate Audio stands, slightly toed-in and pulled clear of corners and walls. My iPad makes the only truly wireless connection via Bluetooth. A Roksan Caspian M2 (HFC 356) CD player bags the RCA sockets using extra-long runs of Townshend F1 Fractal interconnect while a Questyle QP1R hi-res portable (HFC 409) and iPod Classic fill the Toslink and 3.5mm aux roles respectively. The Xeo 2’s best qualities are both remarkable and remarkably consistent across all of the inputs. Bluetooth is easily good enough to call ‘hi-fi’ and well-recorded hi-res from the Questyle does “refresh the parts that other systems cannot reach” as you’d hope. Presentation is gorgeously spacious with crisp imaging and an impressive sense of scale, power, tonal richness and rhythmic surety. In fact, the weighty bass performance is key to the Xeo 2’s sound and what makes it a little special. In its smooth and apparently

DETAILS PRODUCT Dynaudio Xeo 2 PRICE £995 ORIGIN Denmark TYPE 2-way active wireless standmount loudspeaker WEIGHT 4kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 173 x 255 x 154mm FEATURES ● 27mm soft-dome tweeter ● 140mm mid/bass driver ● Quoted power output: 65W Class D amp per driver ● AptX Bluetooth; wi-fi via add-on Hub & Connect units DISTRIBUTOR Dynaudio UK TELEPHONE 01863 721089 WEBSITE dynaudio.com REVIEWED HFC 411

effortless downward reach, it’s as if it belongs to an altogether larger system and provides a top-to-bottom balance you’d never experience with a passive standmount speaker of similar size. But while its adaptive bass tech is clever stuff, it isn’t quite the panacea it might initially seem. Although the lower frequencies are full-bodied and extended, they have a mildly samey, occasionally over-ripe quality that doesn’t always ring true. Listening to ATC’s passive SCM7 (HFC 384) confirms that while the Dynaudio has almost uncanny weight and extension and remains ever agile and tuneful, it can’t get close to matching the ATC’s attack, precise articulation and resolution of timbral texture. Perhaps you can’t have everything. For a speaker system competing in the wireless sector, though, the Xeo 2 is heady stuff, that pleasingly controlled lower-end heft underpinning an almost magically tangible midrange and sweet, airy treble. It all hangs together brilliantly and, because of ample bandwidth and surefooted timing, with great even-handedness and musicality. I play the Pat Metheny Group’s Speaking Of Now album along with newer outings from the Whiplash soundtrack and GoGo Penguin’s Man Made Object CD and the same thing strikes me time and again. It all sounds as if it’s been remastered by someone with a cupboard full of Grammys. If the Xeo’s tech is manipulative, it’s in a good way. The full-bodied balance and unfussy transparency, in particular, are an absolute joy. With the Xeo 2, Dynaudio has raised the bar for compact wireless speaker systems to a level that would barely have seemed possible a year or so ago. Its Bluetooth performance is outstanding, but best of all it allows anyone for a reasonable outlay to enjoy sound quality that was once the preserve of audiophiles. High fidelity is the winner. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Speed and transparency; Bluetooth performance

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Bass can lack timbral finesse

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Top-drawer sonics meet wireless convenience in a smart, small yet affordable package

OVERALL

YEARBOOK 2016

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WIRELESS MUSIC SYSTEM

Naim Mu-so Qb ffering exactly the same functionality as the original Mu-so (HFC 391), the Mu-so Qb reduces the size of the chassis down to a cube, hence the name. It offers UPnP streaming over wired and wireless connections (the latter being limited to 48kHz), AirPlay, apt-X Bluetooth and optical and line-in connections. It also natively supports Tidal and Spotify streaming services and offers internet radio. The Qb uses a pair of passive bass radiators on either side of the unit to augment and tune the bass response. These are joined by a single bass driver, two midrange drivers and two tweeters, each with its own Class D amplifier. The rear is both the heatsink and the mount for the amplifiers, power supply and decoding hardware as well as the network and input connections.

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Sound quality

Once up and running on a network – a process that is simplicity itself – the Naim does a great deal right. First and perhaps most importantly, it retains the same impressive ability to gently subvert the laws of physics as its predecessor. With some punchy tracks from Nothing But Thieves, it 92

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sounds bigger and more spacious than you’d reasonably expect. It also avoids sounding over processed. Given its size and the bass extension it produces, it’s fair to say processing is always present, but it never draws attention to itself over the music. This effortlessness is also apparent further up the frequency response. The presentation is full and open with a more commendable stereo spread than might be anticipated from a single-point source. It isn’t perfect, of course – there is a very slight graininess to the upper midrange that is apparent across all sources, and this is never overly pronounced – but even at higher levels it sounds powerful and controlled. Best results come with the Loudness setting switched off, and unless you are listening at very low volumes, it can rob the Mu-so Qb of some of the delicacy and agility that it otherwise possesses. Given that the Mu-so Qb supports a impressive amount of connectivity options, performance is consistent across the multiple inputs. Admittedly, it can’t work miracles – listening to low-bitrate internet radio stations it tends to sound a little thin and strained, but in direct contrast higher bitrates via Spotify streams are very commendable. Wire

DETAILS PRODUCT Naim Mu-so Qb PRICE £595 ORIGIN UK/China TYPE Network streaming music system WEIGHT 5.6kg DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 218 x 210 x 212mm FEATURES ● UPnP; apt-X; AirPlay; wi-fi ● 24-bit/192kHz DAC ● Tidal and Spotify integrated support ● Quoted power output: 4x 50W; 1x 100W ● Multi-room functionality DISTRIBUTOR Naim Audio TELEPHONE 01722 426600 WEBSITE naimaudio.com REVIEWED HFC 409

it up to an Ethernet connection and send high-resolution material to it – in this case the 24/96kHz version of David Bowie’s Blackstar, and it doesn’t really show the leap forwards in performance that the format really deserves. For many customers, though, the world of hi-res is likely to be something they’ll visit occasionally, and it makes much more sense for the Mu-so Qb to deliver most of its performance with more typical CD-quality material. The HLS streams that the BBC offers are also impressively listenable. Where the Mu-so Qb truly excels, though, is as a partner to an existing Naim system. If it is on the same network as a streamer or Uniti system, it can be selected to become a slave to that zone and can additionally play whatever the main system is playing. Up to four rooms can be configured in this way. In practice this works brilliantly with no latency or lag issues and the real testament to the Mu-so Qb is that if you walk out of the room where the main system resides and continue listening on what is a far smaller and less expensive device, the same propulsive force and willingness to get to the musical message is just as present here as it is with more expensive equipment. And it is this ability to give customers a taste of the more expensive Naim products that really gives the Mu-so Qb an edge at this price point. This is an extremely assured and capable performer that makes music in an effortless and exceedingly enjoyable way. If you buy one, on an immediate level, you will have a system that offers exceptional flexibility and performance. On a wider level, it offers a taster of the brand and for people that want to move further up the hierarchy, it will continue to work brilliantly as part of a wider system. Throw in those lovely looks and you have a real winner. ES

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Refined but punchy performance; features; build; looks

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Slightly grainy midrange; no remote as standard

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

OVERALL

WE SAY: A brilliantly executed shrinking of the Mu-so concept that is likely to please many new owners


HEADPHONES

AKG N90Q FORMING PART OF the Quincy Jones signature line, the N90Q claims to be the world’s first headphone to be fitted with unique auto-calibration technology designed to deliver sound that’s specifically tailored to your ears. AKG’s TruNote auto-calibration technology uses two microphones in each ear cup to measure the characteristics of your ear canal while you are wearing the headphone. Volume level adjustment is provided via an outer ring on the right earcup while EQ alterations use a similar outer ring action on the opposite earpiece. Three soundstage settings can also be cycled through by pressing the calibration button.

Sound quality

Connecting the AKG N90Q via USB direct to a MacBook Pro laptop to try out the built-in DAC with some hi-res material, I kick off with a

24/96 version of Bob Marley’s Stir It Up and things don’t get off to the smoothest of starts. The track might not boast the greatest recording quality around, but even so the bass is rather more bloated than I am used to and the vocal has a slightly raspy edge and lacks the refinement I expect to hear from the 24-bit/96kHz Cirrus Logic DAC. Switching the cables over to the chunkier 3m hi-fi-quality lead and plugging the N90Q into an LH Labs Geek Out M headphone amp/DAC (HFC 393) connected to my MacBook yields far smoother results. It’s a much more together sounding performance that loses all the edginess. The sound is big and with a good level of space and detail that means you don’t get that shut-in feeling, while background noise level is reassuringly low. The string sections in Craig Armstrong’s Tender stretch wide of the earpieces

with a rich involving sound that draws me deeper into the track. There’s plenty of drive to deliver Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole with the level of bass energy the track deserves, and although it’s not the tightest bass line, on balance everything is in good measure and the AKG serves up the track with gusto and in a very enjoyable way. It’s an impressive feat to balance high-quality sound with effective noise-cancelling, but the N90Q is a tremendous success in a stunningly luxurious headphone package. LD

DETAILS PRICE £1,300 TYPE Over-ear, closed back, noisecancelling headphone TELEPHONE 01707 278113 WEBSITE uk.akg.com REVIEWED HFC 405 OUR VERDICT

Audio-Technica ATH-SR5BT

DETAILS PRICE £149 TYPE On-ear closed-back wireless headphone TELEPHONE 0113 2771441 WEBSITE eu.audio-technica. com REVIEWED HFC 413 OUR VERDICT

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AIMED SQUARELY AT the upper entry-level market, the ATH-SR5BT is equipped with wireless Bluetooth streaming with SBC, aptX and AAC support. However, if wireless streaming isn’t high on your priority list, you can always opt for the non-Bluetooth version for £100. Both models boast 45mm internal drivers and an extended frequency range of 5Hz to 40kHz. The SR5BT claims up to 38 hours of battery life in Bluetooth mode and takes four hours for a full recharge.

Sound quality

What’s apparent from the outset is just how smooth and well balanced the sound is, which makes it forgiving for poorer-quality material. It has a good grip on the music beamed from my iPhone, and Dusted’s track Property Lines streamed at a lowly

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160kbps via Spotify sounds raucous enough to have a sense of danger, without becoming too raw edged or thin sounding with the guitars, letting me wind the wick up without fear. Sound leakage is well controlled thanks to the closed-back design and the music is both open and expansive. Streaming a 320kbps rip of Ben Howard’s Time Is Dancing gets the cans pushing the percussion wide, well beyond the physical parameters of the ear cups. My suspicions that its true audiophile capabilities are being held back by the quality of the source are quickly proved right. On the receiving end of my Cambridge Audio Minx Xi (HFC 411) via a hard-wired connection, I’m immediately struck by the added density to the instruments during the slow-building intro of the track (this time ripped as an ALAC file at 16/44.1), which sounds so

much richer and more engaging than previously as the instruments and vocals gain extra layers of detail and insight, demonstrating its impressive ability. This headphone deserves to be near the top of any shortlist. On the convenience side it ticks many boxes, being lightweight, comfy and easy to use in wireless mode. Its biggest selling point, however, is a balance and capability that’s well beyond its price point. AS


HEADPHONES

Bose QuietComfort 35 THE US AUDIO firm is opposed to mentioning anything about the technology or specs of its products and there’s no info about the size of the drivers fitted to the enclosures, either. What we can tell you is that noise-cancelling tech is partnered for the first time with Bluetooth wireless connectivity. The QC35 doesn’t support aptX, but it does have NFC contact pairing.

Sound quality

Used as a conventional wired headphone, the Bose is good if not challenging for top honours. The presentation is broadly neutral, but the upper registers can come across as a little smoothed off. Underworld’s Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future is powerful and controlled, but lacks some of the sparkle that’s available with wired models at a similar price. However, it has good

tonality and detail levels deliver sufficient insight. Switching to Bluetooth is much better as it has almost no decline in performance. The low levels of background noise are especially helpful here and the QC35 continues to extract good detail from whatever you’re listening too. Interestingly, the lack of aptX doesn’t seem to affect its performance. Spotify and other compressed streaming services sound extremely similar to how they do via a wired connection, and even lossless material via Tidal and the Onkyo Music player manage to produce a perceived quality improvement that’s not obviously compromised by a lack of bandwidth. Activate noise cancelling allows the Bose to show its full advantage. The tonal balance is not especially affected by the processing going on. Listening to the delicate and lively Tel Aviv Sessions by the Touré-Raichel

Collective suggests that the QC35 slightly augments the bass when used in this manner, but the tonality of voices and instruments remains convincing. Unlike the EQ options that are part of the Connect control app functionality, which are a little inconsistent in that they have very little effect on the overall sound until the point where they drastically alter it. Noise cancelling is well implemented, effective and even more accessible thanks to the inclusion of basic Bluetooth implementation. This is a truly exceptional headphone then, for use on the move and particularly in noisy environments. ES

DETAILS PRICE £290 TYPE Over-ear, closedback Bluetooth & noise-cancelling headphone TELEPHONE 0808 1688572 WEBSITE bose.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 414 OUR VERDICT

Focal Elear

DETAILS PRICE £800 TYPE Open-back, overear headphone TELEPHONE 08456 602680 WEBSITE focal.com REVIEWED HFC 416 OUR VERDICT

TAKING MUCH OF its design philosophy from the flagship Utopia headphone, the mid-range Elear has a pair of 40mm drivers made from the aluminium/magnesium alloy that is also used in the construction of the tweeters for Focal’s Aria speaker series. Each driver, viewed in cutaway, is in the shape of an M, which the French company claims improves nearfield listening.

Sound quality

This is a usefully sensitive design that should not be beyond most headphone amps to drive to a good listening level. The performance with the complex beats of Michael Kiwanuka’s One More Night is effortlessly agile. Each beat is beautifully defined and has plenty of impact to it. The vocals have a wonderful texture and detail to them and the Elear manages the neat trick

of ensuring they take pride of place in the performance without ever becoming detached from it. Where it really excels is the sense of spaciousness it brings to music. The stripped-back simplicity of Oliver James by Fleet Foxes is replicated perfectly with the vocals sounding vibrant and believable. Against these impressive qualities, the negatives are pleasingly limited. The Elear avoids showing up limitations in recordings and partnering equipment to a point, but sometimes it can’t help but expose the foibles in what you give it. Crucially though, it knows how to have fun. Listening to Boy King by Wild Beasts it effortlessly finds the swagger of the album and while it is undoubtedly delivering an accurate and precise take on the material, the speed and sense of agility is enough to get you to stop analysing the music and start enjoying it. When you

combine this with the sensible weight and reasonable comfort levels that it offers, you have a headphone that makes long-term listening sessions deeply satisfying. Huge amounts of care and attention have clearly been lavished on the Elear and it very effectively balances accuracy and fun. If you are shopping for headphones at this price, your shortlist has just become a little longer. ES

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HEADPHONES

Grado GR8e UNLIKE MOST RIVALS, Grado doesn’t use a conventional balanced armature driver for its earphones. It instead uses a moving armature, which takes the basic operating principles of a balanced one and scales it up so that the design is capable of generating a deeper bass response. The wider frequency response of the moving armature gives it a claimed frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz from a single driver while offering a claimed sensitivity of 118dB/W.

Sound quality

While the supposed calling card of the moving armature is meant to be improved frequency response, the first thing that leaps out at you is the midrange. Like all single-driver earphones, it is seamlessly integrated in a way that only a device without a crossover can achieve. David Bowie’s

Lazarus is at times startlingly immediate. At the same time, there is a presence and weight to the delivery that sets it apart from rivals. Bowie’s vocals are wonderfully vivid and have force and scale. Even before you consider the bass, the GR8e seems to have more scale and impact than you might expect coupled with the speed and immediacy that armature designs are renowned for. Like all in-ear designs, it is dependent on getting a good seal in the ear canal and if you can achieve this the low end is sufficient to be felt as much as heard. The only area of concern is the top end. Used with Pioneer’s XDP-100R (p101), it is an excellent partner – and sensitive enough to complement the Pioneer’s slight lack of headroom. With the more revealing and powerful Chord Mojo (p35), it can come across as slightly brittle at high volumes when listening to less than perfectly

recorded albums. The effect is only really present when it’s pushed hard, and if you listen to material with a lot of treble energy it’s something you should consider. For the most part, the GR8e does an awful lot right. The innovative driver design gives it the ability to deliver most of the punch of dynamic rivals while offering the speed and agility of single-armature designs. The build is great and easy to live with while delivering a fantastic performance, meaning it represents one of the best in-ear options under £500. ES

DETAILS PRICE £300 TYPE In-ear headphones TELEPHONE 01279 501111 WEBSITE grado.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 405 OUR VERDICT

Meze 99 Classics

DETAILS PRICE £260 TYPE Over-ear closedback headphone TELEPHONE +40 749 048138 WEBSITE mezeheadphones. com REVIEWED HFC 410 OUR VERDICT

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DESPITE BEING HARDER to source and work with, Meze chooses walnut and maple for this headphone in the belief that it gives a brighter and more balanced sound than other woods. The artisanal nature of the 99 Classics is clear from the moment you open the extravagantly lovely box containing the equally OTT hard-shell travel case it comes in. Here are components you can savour individually or as a rather beautifully screwed together entity: the handfinished and polished CNC-milled wood ear cups, the cast zinc alloy fittings with electroplated coating, the stamped manganese spring steel headband, the memory foam and soft PU leather ear pads. It’s quite something just to handle the 99 Classics for the first time. Meze doesn’t anticipate it being a short relationship, either. The headphone can be taken

YEARBOOK 2016

completely apart for easy parts replacement. Theoretically, you could keep it forever. The model on test has the ‘walnut gold’ colour scheme. If that seems a little too ostentatious (it is), there’s a walnut silver alternative (better) or, failing that, maple silver (very tasteful). Accessories, curled up in a separate zipped pouch, comprise two sets of Kevlar-wrapped OFC cables, one with inline microphone/media controller and an in-flight adaptor.

Sound quality

The 99 Classics sound simply glorious – uncannily spacious, brimming with energy and vivacity and a cranked up sense of performance that’s genuinely surprising and frequently riveting. Efficient and easy to drive, it comes across like a pair of speakers that have been ‘un-damped’ for greater

immediacy, impact and musical communication. If you want a headphone to provide a gentle, sophisticated background soundtrack to accompany an activity, give the 99 Classics a miss as the task just won’t get done. If, however, you want to hear Pat Metheny’s Imaginary Day in full-blooded stereo with every element given unfettered dynamic expression and every musical nuance a presence you can almost touch, the Meze will make your day. DV


HEADPHONES

Sennheiser HD 800 S COSMETICALLY NOTHING HAS changed from the original HD 800 to the new S. As before, the 56mm driver remains. What has changed, if only slightly, is the frequency response – according to Sennheiser, the S has a little more output below 150Hz and a little less around 6kHz. Also new is the use of a revised absorptive material within the capsules, plus an unbalanced lead terminated in a 6.35mm jack plug and a balanced lead terminated in a four-pin male XLR plug are bundled.

Sound quality

The HD 800’s stock in trade was precision and the S is no different. On the end of worthy ancillaries it is full of life and engagement. And it has a tonal balance that’s as close to neutral as we’ve ever heard from a headphone. Let’s deal with the balanced versus unbalanced issue

straight away. We begin listening using the Teac UD-503 to compare the two connections and come away with a distinct preference for the unbalanced option, which is crisper and more informative. Keith Emerson’s Lucky Man has a shortfall in resolution over the balanced connection and via the unbalanced link the guitar is clearer, and Emerson’s famous synthesiser solo grumbles and soars in a more convincing fashion. This doesn’t mean the balanced connection won’t give a superior result. In other circumstances, it might, but having two amplifiers per channel always raises the possibility of sound quality being degraded rather than improved. For the remainder of the listening we revert to an unbalanced feed. The original HD 800 sounded better with the dust covers removed from inside the capsules, and the sound is

vastly superior on the 800 S. One of the tracks to best demonstrate this is Rassa, Tan Creis E Monta E Poia by the Martin Best Ensemble. With the covers removed the sound opens up and the energy level increases, but harshness is kept at bay. When you already have a fine product it’s important to be careful not to over cook it. Sennheiser has been subtle and the result is that the HD 800 S easily earns a place at the top table alongside the very best headphones on the market. It isn’t artfully euphonic, just honest, capable and, above all, highly enjoyable. HFC

DETAILS PRICE £1,200 TYPE Over-ear, openback headphone TELEPHONE 033 2408185 WEBSITE en-uk.sennheiser. com REVIEWED HFC 411 OUR VERDICT

Sennheiser PXC 550

DETAILS PRICE £330 TYPE On-ear, closedback, Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphone TELEPHONE 0333 2408185 WEBSITE en-uk.sennheiser. com REVIEWED HFC 415 OUR VERDICT

AS WELL AS being usefully wireless, the PXC 550 is also fitted with Sennheiser’s NoiseGard noisecancelling system, offering standard and adaptive settings, selected via a microswitch on the right earpad. The compact over-ear headphone is built around a pair of dynamic drivers and the Bluetooth is of the superior aptX variety. This is partnered with an internal battery that gives the headphone a claimed battery life of up to 30 hours.

Sound quality

With Bluetooth engaged, there is no background noise and the music rises from a commendably silent start. Sturgill Simpson’s cover of In Bloom is tonally rich, wonderfully detailed and impressively spacious. The headphone manages to put very little character into the performance, which is impressive considering that

it is responsible for amplification as well. With the complex and demanding Trip Switch by Nothing But Thieves, it effortlessly retains the punch and aggression needed to convince and does an excellent job of opening out the slightly congested recording making it sound big and involving. Considering that it’s a closed-back design, there is an impressive three-dimensionality to the performance too. Perhaps the only real weakness when used wirelessly is that with quieter recordings it can sound slightly lacking in outright volume level. It goes convincingly loud, but there is the slight sense that under some conditions it might benefit from fractionally more power. The NoiseGard function works in a similar manner to many noisecancelling rivals in that it’s at its best with low-frequency noises, but it does

work well and has little effect on the tonality of music being played. This, then, is a very accomplished travel headphone. It might be seen by some as a little expensive when compared with rivals, but the combination of Bluetooth wireless and active noise cancelling works well and makes the Sennheiser an excellent option and a worthy contender for any travelling music fan’s shortlist. ES

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HEADPHONE CABLE/ STREAMING SERVICE

Atlas Cables Zeno 1:2 WHEN IT COMES to cable upgrades, replacing the one that’s supplied with a set of headphones is often well down the list of priorities. But, as we shall discover, it’s well worth considering. The Zeno cable incorporates Ohno Continuous Cast (OCC) copper conductors that are covered in FEP (fluorinated ethylene propylene) low-temperature deposition dielectric to protect the integrity of the OCC material. The wires are then wrapped in a protective soft PVC inner liner and finished with a tangle-free red fabric outer jacket. A wide range of termination options is available employing Atlas’ Metik non-solder crimp plugs to give an airtight metal-to-metal contact. The Zeno is available fitted as standard with a single 3.5mm stereo plug or two 2.5mm, 6.35mm or 4-pin XLR mini plugs for the

headphone end, together with a choice of 3.5mm, 6.35mm or 4-pin XLR plugs for the amplifier end. In addition, a wide range of brand-specific headphone connectors are also catered for, including Sennheiser. For this review, the cable is tested with a pair of Oppo PM-2 planar magnetic headphones (HFC 402).

Sound quality

Listening to a direct-to-disc vinyl recording of the Syd Lawrence Orchestra playing Sing Sing Sing, the track really comes alive. The treble opens up and there is even more excitement in its performance with the already superb Oppo. Bass is

DETAILS

tighter and more extended. Swapping back to the supplied cable, the sound is a little more closed-in and the extreme top end disappears as the performance misses some of the energy of the recording that’s gained with the Zeno 1:2 cable in place. This is a serious upgrade for the discerning headphone listener. NR

PRICE £245 for a 3m cable TYPE Replacement headphone cable TELEPHONE 01563 572666 WEBSITE atlascables.com REVIEWED HFC 410 OUR VERDICT

Tidal HiFi

DETAILS PRICE £20/month TYPE Desktop & mobile app music streaming service WEBSITE tidalhifi.com REVIEWED HFC 414 OUR VERDICT

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WITH A MONTHLY subscription price of £20, users get access to a lossless library of media via Tidal’s HiFi streaming service. You can pay £10 for MP3 only, but there is no free streaming option and no retail side for downloading hi-res content. The service offers exclusive access to material not available anywhere else, and is integrated with video content viewable on a number of platforms. It has also been on a charm offensive in terms of third-party integration too and if your device has access to a service beyond Spotify, chances are that it is Tidal. The app is logically laid out and easy to use, while functions like search and related artist are effective and accurate. Like Qobuz, Tidal can be set up to have a dedicated connection to a USB DAC and provides a small boost in sound quality. The only slight downside I’ve found in the past is that

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it suffers under slow internet more than any of the other services and really requires a reasonable bandwidth at its disposal to perform at its best.

Sound quality

Our blind listening panel is very complementary about Tidal’s performance and receptive to some of the advantages of lossless files. The sound is consistently praised for the accuracy with which it handles voices and instruments and Annie Lennox’s rendition of Legend In My Living Room attracts plenty of positive comments. The remarks that the sound has a good sense of three-dimensionality and space to it are also repeated at various points throughout listening. But it isn’t all good news and Tidal doesn’t consistently deliver in terms of excitement and lacks some level of energy and life with both Seasick Steve and Chopin Project tracks.

Listening to this material on my own in comparison with Apple Music suggests that Tidal is most likely producing the more accurate version of the music of the streaming services currently available. The Chemical Brothers’ Wide Open is decisively better for all three panellists on Tidal than it is with any other rival streaming service. The bass is deep and controlled and well integrated with the rest of the frequency response. Vocals are detailed and rich and there is a level of space and soundstage that is comfortably the best of the bunch. Tidal has the slight issue that it cannot always demonstrate this superiority all the time across all material, but combined with the quality of the supporting software this is a truly excellent streaming service that manages to get an awful lot right. ES


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XXXXXXXXXX PORTABLE PLAYER

DETAILS PRODUCT Astell&Kern AK300 PRICE £749 ORIGIN South Korea TYPE 32-bit/384kHz & DSD-capable Digital Audio Player WEIGHT 205g DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 75 x 112 x 15mm FEATURES ● Quoted battery life: 10 hours ● 64GB internal storage ● MicroSD slot (128GB max) DISTRIBUTOR Computers Unlimited TELEPHONE 0208 2008282 WEBSITE astellnkern.com REVIEWED HFC 413

Astell&Kern AK300 ew would deny that the South Korean brand Astell&Kern is king of the hill when it comes to portable hi-res audio, responsible not just for setting and regularly raising the performance bar against which others are judged but also for giving the sector an aspirational, luxury sheen that has inspired many imitators. The AK300, which made its debut at this year’s Munich High End Show, is another strategically placed and

F

Whatever I play sounds just right: tonally, temporally – almost tangibly priced addition to the lineup. It effectively replaces the ageing AK100 (HFC 370) but is just under half the price of the next model up in the range, the £1,499 AK320. In their chiselled, cool alloy chunkiness and distinctly high-end feel, the two are hard to tell apart. But the spec, while incorporating many of the features seen on AK’s pricier models, has been trimmed back to just one AK4490 100

YEARBOOK 2016

DAC rather than the dual-configuration on the AK320 and AK380. That said, the AK300 can accept high-resolution audio files up to 32-bit/384kHz and 5.6MHz DSD – both down converted to PCM for play back – and uses an extremely accurate VCXO Reference Clock to minimise jitter. A 20-band parametric EQ and wireless streaming via the AK Connect app also figure, and the unit can be used as a USB DAC. Internal storage is 64GB, but there’s only one microSD slot for adding up to a further 128GB, whereas many cheaper rivals sport a pair capable of accepting 200GB each. On a more positive note, there can’t be many DAPs that are nicer to use. Its snug palm fit and precise click-step volume thumb wheel are a joy, the full-depth touchscreen bright, crisp and responsive. And if the OS isn’t the slickest on the market, it is at least logically structured and extremely simple to navigate.

Sound quality

This is a massively accomplished player that wouldn’t know how to put a foot wrong if it was told. Whatever I play sounds just right: tonally, temporally – almost tangibly. Notably

free from artifice and undue emphasis, it nails the neutral ground with such cool confidence that you’re allowed to relax into the music and forget about the machine playing it. Wherein lies the path to many a long, unfatiguing listening session. I’m not usually one for headphone marathons, but its extraordinary uncoloured clarity and even handedness are so persuasive I find myself drifting way beyond the time I’ve allotted for the test tracks. But perhaps the AK300’s talents are shown to best effect with Joe Sample’s supremely funky All God’s Children. His distinctively percussive Steinway tinkling has real bite and harmonic structure yet is allowed to mesh seamlessly with the rhythm section of Marcus Miller’s bass guitar, Lenny Castro’s percussion and Omar Hakim’s drums that, as a combined force drives the track along so powerfully. Add the multi-layered synth elements and it’s a piece that can easily seem fussy and overwrought. What the AK does so well is preserve the musical impetus. DV The cool alloy chunkiness is impressive

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Style; build; superb sound quality

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Not the slickest interface

BUILD QUALITY

WE SAY: Pricey yes, but it oozes quality on all fronts

FEATURES

OVERALL


PORTABLE PLAYER

DETAILS PRODUCT Pioneer XDP-100R PRICE £500 ORIGIN China TYPE Portable hi-res digital audio player WEIGHT 198g DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 76 x 129 x 13mm FEATURES ● Quoted battery life: 16 hours ● 32GB internal storage: ● 2x micro SD (SDXC) up to 200GB each DISTRIBUTOR Pioneer UK TELEPHONE 0208 8363524 WEBSITE pioneer-audiovisual. eu/uk REVIEWED HFC 407

Pioneer XDP-100R ompatible with just about every hi-res audio format on the planet (including DSD 11.2MHz and 24-bit/384kHz FLAC/WAV) Pioneer’s premier DAP is also the first portable able to handle Meridian’s Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) lossless format. MQA uses a technique to fold a master recording into a file that’s comparable in size with a CD-quality recording. The player has 32GB of internal memory – a paltry amount for hi-res albums (even MQA) – but two microSD card slots facilitate a further 400GB of storage – a not insignificant hidden cost of over £200. Under the bonnet is ESS Technology’s flagship Sabre ES9018K2M DAC and Sabre 9601K amp. The DAC and amp boards are separated from the CPU circuit to minimise the possibility of noise, while the analogue circuitry is consolidated around the headphone jack. Each device has an independent local power supply, allowing for closed loop circuit design and (unlike your average smartphone) audio signals are completely isolated from other blocks to keep them pure. The XDP-100R boasts audiophile features such as lock range adjust,

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digital filter, up sampling to 384kHz and real-time DSD conversion to 5.6MHz. High precision mode (2.8 or 5.6MHz) improves signal-to-noise ratio, but drains the battery.

Sound quality

Listening to Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (a 2.8MHz DSF file) using Oppo’s PM-2 headphone (HFC 402) confirms this is a highly accomplished performer. The player draws out the subtler harpsichord that is often lost on less able players and blends it adeptly with the lower registers of the strings. When the higher register of the main violin builds on top with great intensity there’s none of the shrillness that an inferior player exhibits. Instead you have a terrifically balanced ensemble of instruments that’s highly detailed but not overly polished, retaining a pleasing sense of texture as the music delivers a wonderfully emotional rendition. It’s also a pleasure to listen to something like Van Morrison’s Ballerina from Astral Weeks (a 24/192 FLAC) and hear all the warmth and delicacy of the percussion acting as the perfect foil to the twanging bass and enchantment of Van at his vocally

mesmerising best. I’m not a huge jazz fan, but Ornette Coleman’s sax on a 192 FLAC of Lonely Woman is exquisitely presented and perfectly anchored to the drums and lightly tapped cymbals that gradually build. It’s as coherent a soundfield as you could wish for. There’s no noise or hiss to mar the action and as I listen to it repeatedly I become totally hooked. You really can’t ask for more from a portable player. There’s more sax enjoyment with Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther Theme (a 24/96 FLAC), and again there’s none of the grating raspiness exhibited by inferior players. The double bass is perfectly timed as the triangle pings deftly and the piece as a whole is quite simply a winning slice of easy listening. The player’s knack for resolving finer detail doesn’t come at the expense of the overall soundstage. Over on Tidal, New Order’s True Faith pulls me in thanks to a keen sense of attack from the synth and Peter Hook’s bass guitar. Bernard Sumner’s vocals sit a little further back in the mix than I’ve heard elsewhere, but the presentation is authoritative and assured. Also on Tidal, a remastering of The Beatles’ A Day In The Life is quite a thrill with John Lennon’s voice proving utterly beguiling against the guitars and drums. There’s more headroom with streamed content than hi-res files, which requires you to listen at maximum volume to music stored on the player if you’re in a noisy environment. Switching over to Tidal or Spotify from stored music, you will need to temper the volume by about 10 steps or so. The Pioneer XDP-100R does just about everything you could want from a portable player. With MQA playback assured, it’s easily the best sub-£500 hi-res portable especially for those that also want to listen in to hi-res streaming services. AJ

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

LIKE: Excellent sonics; durable build quality; user-friendly OS

VALUE FOR MONEY

DISLIKE: Derisory internal memory; external controls

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: Highly capable and versatile, the addition of MQA is the icing on a very tasty hi-res cake

OVERALL

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Loads and loads and loads of specials available… www.pjhifi.co.uk

Call in to the shop, telephone or email now. New boxed unopened, ex demo, second hand… PJHiFi_new_ad_17_sept_2015.indd HFC_A4_Ad_blank.indd 120_PJ.indd 1 1 1 k.indd 1

20/12/11 19/08/201517: 17/09/2015 20/12/11 19/08/201517:21:52 20:42

Too many to list here… Anthem/Paradigm, Arcam, Audiolab, Audiovector, Bowers & Wilkins, Cyrus, Dyn Audio, Focal, ISOL-8, Linn, Neat, Naim, PMC, Quad, Rega, Rotel, Sennheiser, Spendor, Trichord, Van den Hul. The Chord Company (Speaker cables/interconnects) and others.


PORTABLE PLAYER

DETAILS PRODUCT Questyle QP1R PRICE £699 ORIGIN China TYPE 24-bit/96kHz & DSD-capable Digital Audio Player WEIGHT 225g DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 70 x 137 x 17mm FEATURES ● Quoted battery life: 8-10 hours ● 32GB internal memory ● 2x Micro SD slots (432GB max) DISTRIBUTOR SCV Distribution TELEPHONE 03301 222500 WEBSITE scvdistribution. co.uk REVIEWED HFC 409

Questyle QP1R bout the size of a regular smartphone, but with a facia layout that will seem like an old friend to iPod Classic owners, the QP1R goes its own way in a bid to be classier than most portables. This starts with the cool chunkiness of its bead-blasted CNC-machined casework. Meanwhile, there’s an awful lot of the tech from its larger flagship units under the compact casework. The DAC section has the 3x clock design found in the company’s best game CAS192 DAC. It’s used in conjunction with Cirrus Logic’s top-line CS4398 DAC chipset to handle native decoding of DSD64 and DSD128 files as well as PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz. File format support covers WAV, FLAC, ALAC, APE, AIFF, ADPCM, LPCM, WMA, WMA Lossless, OGG, AAC, DFF, DSF and, if you really must, MP3. All I can see missing from that list is Meridian’s compressed hi-res MQA format which, for the time being at least, isn’t compatible with the Cirrus Logic chips. Still, with a potential 432GB of storage available, it’s not such a pressing problem. The amp section uses a pure Class A circuit with discrete components and Questyle’s proprietary CMA (current

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mode amplifier) topology lifted from the CMA800R-series headphone amplifier. The chief claimed benefit over the more usual voltage amplifier is a vanishingly low level of transient intermodulation distortion, the kind of distortion that subjectively manifests itself as edginess. Usefully, there are selectable master gain settings for accurate headphone drive matching, variable as well as max output gain for the line out and user definable EQ settings via a 10-band graphic equaliser.

Sound quality

As useful as the attendance of Astell&Kern’s £399 Junior (HFC 401) would be to keep the QP1R’s sonic performance honest, my second-gen £159 FiiO X3 (HFC 382) will have to do, which makes life a little more interesting as, despite the difference in price, it shares the same Cirrus Logic DAC chipset. I use Oppo’s PM-2 headphones (HFC 402), costing about the same price as the Questyle player. Just about every hi-res format save MQA is stored on my PC laptop and an example of each painlessly transfers to the QP1R without a hitch. I won’t draw this out. The QP1R sounds little

short of stupendous. The FiiO X3 is a very fine player that benefits from its Cirrus Logic chipset but in truth, only gives a good hint at what the DAC is capable of. As ever, implementation determines the final sonic outcome and here the Questyle’s triple clocking, Class A circuitry and proprietary amp topology are able to combine to tremendous effect. Take the track Strom from Australian modern jazz trio Trichotomy. This immaculately engineered 24/48 recording sounds like a very decent improvement over CD played on the FiiO: bold, warm, lavishly detailed and dynamic – especially through the Oppo PM-2. On the QP1R, the sound is warmer and richer yet also more pristine, resolute and atmospheric. Drummer John Parker’s delicate stick work acquires new levels of subtle intricacy while Sean Foran’s piano has harmonic complexity and a sense of its own acoustic space, which the FiiO suggests but can’t quite nail. The experience sells ‘hi-res’ so powerfully, it soon has you wondering if you can ever go back to ‘mere’ CD quality. It’s much the same result across all formats and music genres, but perhaps clearest of all with DSD128 – the Questyle possesses what seems the essential knack of removing the sterility that sometimes seems part and parcel of the hyper-clean clarity and detail hi-res is famed for and replacing it with an inviting warmth so that whatever you play sounds detailed and dynamic but also superbly natural, organic and easy to listen to. In a market populated increasingly by touchscreen, do-it-all smartphone clones, the QP1R is a refreshing and desirable departure that’s wilfully a little old school in appearance and operation, but offers a sublime twist. It’s a gorgeous thing even just to hold and sounds as good, if not better, than any hi-res portable I’ve heard to date. At last, a genuinely different and gifted alternative to Astell&Kern. DV

OUR VERDICT SOUND QUALITY

VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Superbly natural and engaging sound; terrific build and finish; simple to use DISLIKE: Not exactly slick or feature packed

BUILD QUALITY

FEATURES

WE SAY: If you put sonics and quality before touchscreens and features, the QP1R is a very desirable player

OVERALL

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XXXXXXXXXX PORTABLE PLAYER

DETAILS PRODUCT Sony NW-ZX2 PRICE £950 ORIGIN Japan/Malaysia TYPE 24-bit/192kHz & DSD Digital Audio Player WEIGHT 235g DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 65 x 131 x 18mm FEATURES ● Quoted battery life: 33 hours ● NFC Bluetooth with LDAC ● 128GB internal storage ● Micro SD slot (max 128GB) DISTRIBUTOR Sony UK TELEPHONE 0207 3652810 WEBSITE sony.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 405

Sony NW-ZX2 s Sony’s flagship personal audio player, the NW-ZX2’s specification is rather enticing. Building on the earlier NW-ZX1 (HFC 384), this Android-based device is supplied with 128GB of internal memory, bolstered by a micro SD card slot that supports an additional 128GB. It supports pretty much every compressed and lossless sound format except WMA Lossless and will also playback DSD files, although these are converted to PCM and then processed to restore the ‘DSD sound’. Additionally the NW-ZX2 is fitted with DSEE HX upsampling software that is primarily aimed at compressed music, but as there is no means of switching it on or off it is applied to all files including apps and is intended to effortlessly restore lost data to them. This software and the partnering S Master amplification is what really sets this portable player apart from smartphones. The amps operate exclusively in the digital domain and are a Class D-based design that incorporates digital-toanalogue conversion as part of the same process. Sony has also fitted two clock oscillators – one for

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multiples of 44.1kHz and one for multiples of 48 – in a bid for a higher performance. This amplification also means that it is capable of driving headphones that are beyond most smartphones and there is plenty of headroom on offer, but efforts have been made to ensure that the output is quiet with more sensitive designs.

Sound quality

With a selection of different material on the internal drive, the good news is that the Sony delivers a very strong performance with both lossless and high-resolution material. Starting with a 16/44.1 FLAC of Fink’s Distance And Time, it is extremely assured. There is a smoothness and refinement to the way it makes music that is consistently likeable. The top end has an almost liquid quality that is often found with Japanese high-end electronics. There’s no loss of fine detail or sense that the presentation is artificially smoothed over, just an overall refinement that’s appealing. The tonality is consistently believable. Greenhall’s vocals are well defined and their relationship with his guitar is well judged and manages to have an appreciable sense of space even via

the comparatively affordable Etymotic Research HF3 earphones (HFC 404). Switch to the rather more talented (and considerably more expensive) Noble 6 and it has a truly impressive soundstage. With a hi-res 24/88.2 recording of Kraftwerk’s phenomenal Minimum Maximum, the NW-ZX2 is perfectly capable of capturing these sizeable recordings without issue. The huge reserve of power from the headphone socket is also extremely impressive. Not only does it allow it to run devices like Oppo’s PM-3 (HFC 399) without breaking sweat, but it also gives a sense of effortlessness to lower levels, which aids refinement and makes this a tremendously easy device to listen to for long periods. The Kraftwerk piece also goes on to demonstrate that the very refined top end is underpinned by deep and assured bass. There is a tremendous sense of drive and power to the NW-ZX2 even at lower listening levels and it manages to sound consistently agile and entertaining. Conversely, it is still revealing enough to make the limitations of compressed audio and streaming services like Spotify periodically sound a little thin, despite the very best efforts of the DSEE HX software. The overall package feels more cohesive than bolting a DAC onto a smartphone interface. But where Sony has been particularly clever is that it has used its experience with phones to ensure that it has the user friendliness and experience that we have come to expect from devices of this nature. The fact it has gone on to use its equally comprehensive audio skills to partner it with extremely high-quality hardware, has paid off. For many people, the ‘want one’ solidity and feel of the NW-ZX2 will be enough to tempt them over trying to boost the performance of a smartphone. Happily, one of the biggest names in the business is back doing what it does best. ES

OUR VERDICT VALUE FOR MONEY

LIKE: Refined and powerful sound; excellent build; decent specification

BUILD QUALITY

DISLIKE: Interface is a little old fashioned; no digital output

SOUND QUALITY

FEATURES

OVERALL

WE SAY: It isn’t cheap, but the NW-ZX2 is a desirable and very capable player


Annual Clearance Retail Clearance Audio Research LS26 preamplifier Bel Canto REF1000M Mk2 amplifiers (pair) Bryston 28B SST2 1000W amplifiers (pair) Burson Audio Conductor and Timekeeper Burson Audio Conductor SL9018 Chord Chordette Maxx amplifier Cyrus 82 DAC QX (Quartz Silver) Cyrus SmartPower Denon AVP-A1HD processor Denon DVD-A1UD universal player Devialet 200 Devialet 250 Companion Devialet 400 Dynaudio Focus 220 Focal Diablo Utopia + stands (White Carrara) Focal Scala Utopia V2 (Black Lacquer) Focal Stella Utopia Reference (Imperial Red) HRT iStreamer KEF LS50 KEF R500 (Walnut) KEF R700 (Rosewood) KEF R900 (Gloss White) Linn Akurate 212 (Rosenut)

£6,000 £7,000 £19,000 £3,449 £1,199 £989 £1,970 £699 £6,799 £4,500 £5,490 £7,990 £9,890 £2,600 £9,898 £21,399 £65,000 £209 £850 £1,500 £2,000 £2,750 £4,380

£2,499 £2,499 £7,599 £2,299 £999 £799 £1,549 £349 £1,499 £1,199 £4,399 £5,499 £6,999 £799 £6,499 £12,749 £32,499 £149 £649 £1,149 £1,549 £2,099 £3,299

Linn Akurate 4200 (Silver) Linn Majik 4100 (Black) Linn LP12 Akurate (Walnut, No Cartridge) Mark Levinson No32 Reference preamp Moon 180 MiND streamer Moon 380D MiND DAC streamer Naim 555 PS DR PMC Fact 12 (Tiger Ebony) Proac D30R (Cherry) PS Audio P5 mains regenerator Raidho D1 + stands (Walnut Burl) Raidho X1 + stands (Gloss White) Sennheiser HD800 headphones Sennheiser IE800 headphones Sim2 HT5000 projector Sonus Faber Olympica II (Graphite) Sonus Faber Olympica III (Walnut) Sonus Faber Venere 1.5 + stands (Gloss Black) Spendor D1 (Dark Ebony) Torus RM16 power conditioner Vitus RCD-101 (Black) Vitus RI-100 (Black) YG Acoustics Carmel (Silver)

Retail

Clearance

£5,270 £2,410 £5,260 £15,000 £799 £4,500 £6,420 £12,995 £4,750 £3,500 £15,125 £4,485 £1,099 £599 £42,500 £6,398 £8,998 £1,298 £1,995 £7,900 £9,700 £9,500 £20,000

£3,849 £1,899 £4,449 £7,499 £499 £2,999 £5,449 £9,749 £3,749 £2,199 £10,599 £3,349 £799 £499 £7,499 £5,049 £6,799 £999 £1,499 £1,999 £7,249 £6,999 £14,999

Welcome to Criterion Audio’s annual clearance, where we have great prices on ex-demo and customer trade-in stock from the last year. You can help us make space for the amazing new models and brands we are bringing in. Please contact us if you are interested in more information, or come to our Cambridge showroom for a listen.

www.criterionaudio.com info@criterionaudio.com 01223 233730


ACCESSORY

AudioQuest JitterBug USB filter YEARS AGO, ALL audio fans ever seemed to worry about was clicks, pops and background hiss from their analogue recordings. Over time a number of different techniques were developed to minimise these audio ailments, but they were never perfect. When digital audio finally arrived with the promise of noise-free reproduction, it seemed as though we had at long last found the ideal recording medium. Alas, we quickly discovered that digital recording comes with its own raft of problems that need to be overcome. Close to the top of this list of issues is jitter. Generally speaking, jitter is a deviation from what was intended of the signal pulses in a highfrequency digital signal. This can be caused by a poor frequency response of the digital circuits and cables, as well as by electromagnetic interference (EMI), crosstalk with other signals and even mechanically induced noise, especially with CD players. The circuitry in the DAC will do its best to regenerate the waveform, but as with all errorcorrecting circuitry, it is never 100 percent perfect. It would be far better to eliminate, or at least minimise, jitter before it gets to the DAC. With many of us using a computer or smartphone as a music source and connecting it to a DAC via a USB cable, the USB connection should be as jitter-free as possible. USB ports can be the source of a significant amount of noise and parasitic resonances (ringing) on both the power and data connections. Components such as a keyboard, mouse and video camera can corrupt the data and power and so to tackle this problem, the JitterBug sits between your computer’s USB port and your DAC to reduce noise currents and ringing in the power lines and the data signals. It claims to measurably reduce jitter and in some cases completely eliminate data packet errors. Up to two JitterBugs can be hooked up to a single USB bus at any time.

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I connect the JitterBug to a USB port of my PC and then plug one end of a USB cable to the socket of the JitterBug and the other into Alpha Design Labs’ GT40a DAC (HFC 399). I play a FLAC of Vivaldi’s L’Amore Per Elvira at 24-bit/88.2 both with and without the JitterBug fitted.

Sound quality

DETAILS PRICE £39 TELEPHONE 01249 848873 WEBSITE audioquest.com REVIEWED HFC 407 OUR VERDICT

The first thing that strikes me is that the violin sounds more refined with the JitterBug. It seems to move more out in front of the orchestral continuo, which also sounds slightly fuller. I then move to a Vivaldi cantata from the same album to check out the effect on vocals. The soprano responds well to the JitterBug and her singing comes across as more effortless and easy flowing – something that is particularly noticeable during the crescendos. Next up is Pat Metheny’s solo guitar interpretation of And I Love Her (16/44 WMA). When I remove the JitterBug, the sound image seems to collapse in from all directions and a lot of the guitar’s subtle nuances fall into the background. This impression is confirmed when I re-install the JitterBug. The loud notes now stand out more clearly and the emotion of the playing is much better conveyed. In fact, it is with this recording that I

am able to perceive the greatest improvements with the JitterBug. Winding up the pace with Fallulah singing The Black Cat Neighbourhood with its pounding rhythmic drums and female vocals (16/44 WMA), I feel the bass comes more alive and it is more exciting with the JitterBug attached although the vocals – which seem to have been heavily processed – don’t sound any better.

When I remove the JitterBug, the sound image collapses in from all directions After all that energy, I wind back down with a Nigel Kennedy jazz CD recording of Fats Waller’s Sweet And Slow. Once again, I find that the bass line is much fuller and more authoritative. Nigel’s playing is altogether more engaging and effortless with the JitterBug. To sum up, there is little doubt that the JitterBug is very effective at what it does. Music emerges from a blacker background and this is most apparent with solo instruments. For the money, it is a real snip and is a must-have accessory for any digital audio enthusiast. NR


ACCESSORIES

Acoustic Revive LAN Isolator RLI-1GB IT IS GENERALLY accepted that connecting a music player to your computer network via a LAN (Local Area Network) cable is better than relying on wi-fi. But very few people have a dedicated network for audio from, say, a NAS running media server software or broadband connection for internet radio and streaming audio services. This is where the LAN Isolator comes in. The RLI-1GB is made specifically for use in the UK and is designed to tidy up the digital waveform and significantly reduce noise pollution in the digital domain.

Sound quality

Starting off with Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings, I find a noticeable improvement to the sound with the RL1-1GB fitted. I can hear much more going on with the music, while the soundstage is

deeper and the solo performers are more forward, adding a greater sense in realism to the performance. A 24/176 AIF file of Widor’s Organ Symphony No.6 in G minor shows off the fuller sound and there is an improvement in clarity. Switching to internet radio and listening to a Radio 3 concert in 128kbps MP3 format, the LAN Isolator provides better imaging and more realism. The performance is cleaner with the performers being more defined in the soundstage. A CD-quality 16/44 WAV file of GoGo Penguin’s Hopopono reveals more energy and the bass has much more clout and punch. The silences between the beats of the opening solo drum sequence are blacker and the drum appears to stand out more. For vocals, I turn to a 16/44 FLAC of End Result by East India Youth. I discover that I can pull the vocals out

from the electronic music backing and they are slightly more in front with the isolator fitted. To conclude my listening session, I relax with a 24/192 WMA file of the Pierre Gossez Jazz Quintet’s Diamant. The percussion appears brighter and the saxophone is much more to the forefront of the soundstage. Overall, the A/B tests demonstrate noticeable audible improvements. Music has a blacker background, detail is clearer and the sonic images are denser, inhabiting a deeper soundstage. The bass is a touch more authoritative and the upper treble seems more extended without being over the top. In the grand scheme of things, this is a reasonably priced upgrade for a digital audio system and it works a treat. NR

DETAILS PRICE £195 TELEPHONE 0203 5442338 WEBSITE nunudistribution. co.uk REVIEWED HFC 408 OUR VERDICT

Atacama Audio MOSECO XL600 speaker stands

DETAILS PRICE £300 TELEPHONE 01455 283251 WEBSITE atacama-audio.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 409 OUR VERDICT

A VITAL CLUE to the best way to maximise the performance of bookshelf speakers comes from their other name – standmount – not only does a stand provide the required support, it also positions the speakers at the perfect height for listening. Manufactured in the UK, the MOSECO XL600 is available in two heights (615mm or 515mm) for positioning at ear height when seated. It is supplied as a pair and fitted with a 5mm-thick carbon steel top plate that is 200mm wide by 275mm deep to enable it to support larger models. Rather than sit the speakers directly on the steel plate, there are domed gel isolation pads included to dampen the cabinet and protect its base. The top plates are supported by three carbon steel tubes that are painted in a satin black finish – two 50mm diameter ones at the back and a 75mm diameter one at the front. At

the bottom, the tubes are located in individually recessed holes in the wooden bases to improve rigidity and stability. All three are designed to accept the optional Atabite SMD 7.5HD filler (£30), which appears to be comprised of small metal granules, to add mass and reduce ringing.

Sound quality

The base of the stand is made from hand-finished 40mm-thick bamboo to provide resonance dampening. Two sets of four adjustable 8mm bright zinc-plated steel spikes with locking nuts are supplied to make levelling easier and to provide an additional layer of isolation. Matching spike shoes can be purchased separately for use when the stands are to be

placed on a delicate floor covering. The review sample also comes supplied with the optional Atabite filler. In use, the stands perform well without the filler, but with it poured into the tubes I find that the bass is even tighter and punchier. The general appearance of these sturdy stands is very smart indeed, and the addition of the filler proves to be a worthwhile investment. NR

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ACCESSORIES

bFly Audio BaseTwo M PRO equipment platform

DETAILS PRICE £325 TELEPHONE 0208 4204234 WEBSITE bflyaudio.uk REVIEWED HFC 416 OUR VERDICT

AN EQUIPMENT PLATFORM is an ideal way to isolate sensitive audio components from external vibrations. It is particularly important for turntables as well as for CD players where mechanical vibrations can increase jitter. Apart from providing isolation, platforms can also help to dissipate vibrations and the BaseTwo M PRO equipment platform from bFly Audio is designed to do exactly that. The BaseTwo range is based on a 30mm slab of layered birch wood. On the upper side is a 3mm aluminium plate that is bonded to the wood with a soft polymer adhesive. Each wooden layer is designed to provide filtering of different vibration frequency ranges, which according to the designers offers an improved cumulative effect when compared with a single piece of wood. In

addition to absorbing vibrations, the 3mm aluminium plate serves as a shield for RFI. This platform is fitted with PRO feet. The top is a thick aluminium disc, which is separated from a Sorbothane section by a 1mm circle of cork and rubber. Below this is a smaller disc of aluminium, which serves as separation layer and provides horizontal stabilisation. At the base there is another 2mm disc composed of cork and natural rubber. The BaseTwo comes in four sizes. The one

pictured here is the M model, measuring 440 x 350mm (WxD).

Sound quality

Placing the platform under my CD player, I immediately hear more information in the soundstage. Fitting it under my turntable results in an improvement in midrange clarity while the bass tightens, giving much more punch and attack. Everything sounds so much cleaner, and as though the music has been lifted further from the noise floor. NR

Black Rhodium Foxtrot speaker cables EACH CONDUCTOR OF the Foxtrot comprises 16x 0.2mm diameter plated copper wires, resulting in a conductor of 6mm diameter. The conductors are insulated in silicone rubber of 1.2mm thickness. Gold-plated Z plugs are fitted and they are flexible enough to make installation around the perimeter of the room tidy and easy.

Sound quality DETAILS PRICE £275 for a 3m pair TELEPHONE 01332 342233 WEBSITE blackrhodium.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 412 OUR VERDICT

108

I start off listening with Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. There is a deep and extended drum roll during the opening that tends to be most noticeable when it pauses for a few bars before starting again. During this pause I become aware that the rumbling has stopped. When it is there, it is almost felt rather than heard, and I have a sense that the Foxtrots are perfectly conveying the

YEARBOOK 2016

power and fullness of this drum roll. Further into the recording, the twittering of the strings is so clear and crisp I can almost identify each violin playing in the orchestra. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, played by the London Symphony Orchestra demonstrates the excellent full sound presentation that is transported to my speakers. The sudden changes of mood throughout are beautifully rendered, from the loud sections to the delicate detail of the gentler passages. The music is both intimate in the quieter sections and stately with greater dynamics than I am used to hearing. With Scarlatti’s Sonata in G major on the harpsichord, I am really drawn into the performance. The silences between the phrases are inky black indicating that the noise floor is kept

low, while the musical edges are well defined, and the natural decays of each note add to the overall realism of the reproduction. I round off proceedings with Ane Brun singing These Days. The deep accompanying bass and organ are well positioned behind her. When the echo on her voice is added, I get a real sense of spaciousness, as though I am listening in a large hall, rather than in my sitting room. This is a very sophisticatedsounding set of speaker cables and gets a well-deserved five stars. NR


ACCESSORIES

The Chord Company Shawline analogue interconnects NAMED TO HONOUR a late associate of The Chord Company – David Shaw – these interconnects make use of the Tuned ARAY cable conductor geometry that was originally developed for the company’s premium Sarum range. The Shawline is £200 in the standard 1m length and fitted with silver-plated Chord VEE 3 RCA terminations, but it can be made to other lengths at £80 per additional metre. It is also available with The Chord Co.’s new lightweight DIN connections for an extra £25 or with Neutrik XLR plugs for an extra £50. The conductors are silver-plated and the construction of the Tuned ARAY means that they are hand assembled. The cables are directional and this is clearly indicated by an arrow that’s been printed on the heatshrink at one end of each interconnect.

I connect the Shawlines between my preamp and monoblocks. I decide to start off listening with some rock music and turn to the unmistakable voice of the late David Bowie singing Love Is Lost.

Sound quality

Vocals are splendidly clear and expressive and the Shawlines never allow the voice to become submerged in the accompanying drums or guitar. Next up is a fantastic Decca recording on vinyl of Khachaturian’s Spartacus with the famed composer conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The performance is again superbly full and powerful. I am given a real sense of chariots charging around with the authoritative drums beating away and commanding the

DETAILS orchestra in all the frenzied activity. The trumpets sound robust and imperious while the percussion section is crystal clear. The Shawlines are really top-class interconnects whose performance makes them stand out from the crowd. Give them an audition and hear for yourself. NR

PRICE £200 for a 1m pair TELEPHONE 01980 625700 WEBSITE chord.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 412 OUR VERDICT

Hi-Fi Racks Ltd Grand Stand equipment rack

DETAILS PRICE From £300 per tier TELEPHONE 01572 756447 WEBSITE hifiracks.co.uk REVIEWED HFC 408 OUR VERDICT

WHATEVER YOUR VIEWS on the sonic benefits of an audio equipment rack, there is no arguing when it comes to pleasing appearance and build quality. Both of these attributes are to be found with Leicestershirebased Hi-Fi Racks’ products. The company produces a unique and stylish range of audio equipment supports that can be adapted to suit your own requirements. All the products are individually handmade using high-quality solid hardwoods, rather than veneered MDF. Manufactured from solid oak, the Grand Stand is available in a number of standard configurations that should cover most requirements. However, should something special be desired, the manufacturer can also build bespoke racks to your spec. This will be delivered well packaged straight to

your door via a courier. Inside, you will find everything you require to assemble the support, which should take around 15 minutes to assemble. The stand is held together with threaded rods, making it very sturdy, while the shelves are decoupled from the main structure with spikes. Each vertical support is made from a single piece of oak and the shelves are manufactured from oak planks bonded with the grain ‘concave to convex’ to make it very rigid and to give it excellent acoustic properties.

Sound quality

Being solid wood, the rack is very heavy and sturdy, which is essential to eliminate resonances and dampen out any vibrations. In use, the solid wood shelves perform as well as they look, neither ringing nor vibrating.

Listening to Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, the bass kettle drum that resonates throughout the military march segments is super tight and each impact of the drum punches you in the stomach. This highquality solid hardwood rack represents excellent value and is recommended for both its performance and looks. NR

YEARBOOK 2016

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COMPETITION

WIN: An Elipson turntable and revive your LP collection Three flagship Omega 100 RIAA BT decks worth £500 each must be won f there has been a theme to 2016 – aside from the loss of some of our most cherished musicians, take a bow David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen et al – it would have to be the continued rise in popularity of vinyl and the equipment that plays it. The last 12 months have seen the black stuff rise to become the most cherished physical music format of all. As records have once again become a common sight in all record stores and even on some supermarket shelves, so too has the production of turntables risen – providing existing vinyl fans, and both lapsed and newcomers alike with plenty of variety. Suddenly, there’s a real choice of decks available to prospective purchasers from both established hi-fi specialists with a focus on best-quality sound, to more conveniencebased models with a raft of features at very attractive prices.

I

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The real trick is investing in a model that gets the equilibrium between performance, features and price right. And few have managed this delicate balancing act quite as proficiently as Elipson’s stunning Omega 100 RIAA BT, which won our mid-priced turntable Group Test in issue 415. The flagship offering from the company’s premium range of decks, the £500 Omega comprises a completely bespoke design that’s been specially developed inhouse by the French company.

Dress to impress

Chief among the highlights of this stunning belt-drive turntable is the computercontrolled motor with electronic speed switching. The unique tonearm features a carbon fibre armtube connected to an innovative bearing arrangement that combines both horizontal and vertical yokes

into a single knuckle and applies antiskate down the bearing axis using a patented rubber torsion system. An Ortofon OM10 cartridge is included and there’s a built-in MM phono stage – which can be switched out of the system if you prefer. Finally, as the BT part of the name suggests, the Elipson can communicate via aptX Bluetooth to compatible speakers. Balancing excitement and refinement is key to the success of any serious record spinner and the Elipson absolutely nails it. Music sounds tonally accurate and refined, but it also has attack and energy in spades when it’s needed and serves up a stunning performance across a wide variety of music, as you’ll discover on p48. We have three of these fantastic turntables up for grabs and winners can choose from gloss black, white and red colour options. All you have to do is answer the simple question opposite.


COMPETITION

TO BE IN WITH A CHANCE OF WINNING, ANSWER THIS SIMPLE QUESTION: What sort of cartridge is bundled with the Omega 100 RIAA BT? A) Ortofon 2M Blue B) Ortofon OM 10 C) Ortofon 2M Bronze

HOW TO ENTER: Visit our website at www.hifichoice.co.uk/competitions and follow the instructions to enter

TERMS & CONDITIONS 1. No purchase is necessary to enter a Competition. 2. Entrants must be over 18 years old and resident in the United Kingdom. 3. Employees of AVTech Media or My Time Media and companies supplying competition prizes are not eligible to enter. 4. All prizes are non-transferrable and no cash or credit alternatives will be offered. 5. The editor’s decision is final. The closing date is 2 February 2017.

To submit your entry to the Elipson competition, simply register using the online form and provide your answer to the question shown left. Please ensure you complete all required fields, including your email address, telephone number (including area code) and postal address. We regret we cannot take postal entrants. Arrangements for the fulfilment of prizes may be made by a third-party sponsor. AVTech Media & My Time Media reserve the right in its sole discretion to substitute any and all prizes with prizes of comparable value. By you entering a Competition, if you are a winner, you grant permission to use your name and likeness for advertising and future promotional purposes. For full privacy policy and terms and conditions, visit www.hifichoice.co.uk/terms

YEARBOOK 2016

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Bat For Lashes The Bride CD Parlophone

AS BAT FOR Lashes, Natasha Khan earned Mercury Music Prize nominations for her 2006 debut Fur And Gold and its follow up Two Suns. Her third album, 2012’s The Haunted Man, a set of beguiling art-school pop on which her lofty soprano floated beguilingly above her characteristically dreamy soundscapes gave her a first American chart entry. Yet despite such critical and commercial success, a feeling persisted that she had more to give and we were still awaiting her first truly great album. At 36 and no longer the fluttering ingénue, The Bride is that record, destined to catapult her into the premier league. By creating a concept album in which she is playing a role rather than singing about her own inner-life, Khan has at a stroke liberated herself from the confines of the confessional, pages-from-mydiary shtick that seems to be the expected currency of female singer songwriters. Conceived as the soundtrack to an imaginary movie, on The Bride she assumes the identity of a woman who is left at the altar when her husband-tobe dies in a car crash on his way to the wedding. Consumed by an overwhelming grief, she climbs into the honeymoon car and drives off on a voyage of self discovery as she seeks the strength to put her life back together. By the end, she has acquired a self-knowledge that suggests not only acceptance of her fate but a hard-earned transcendental wisdom. A classic ‘break-up’ album with the twist that it’s based on mortality rather than betrayal, Khan pulls it off with a smartly judged mix of melodrama and subtlety that delivers the narrative compellingly. Richly textured and sonically layered – the result, perhaps, of seven different producers – opener I Do floats idyllically on a heavenly harpsichord, a suitably naïve evocation of the anticipation of wedded bliss, before the dream is brutally shattered via the terrifying electro-beats of In God’s House and the theatrical Honeymooning Alone, which opens with the sound of the screeching tyres of a crashing car. By the spoken-word interlude Widow’s Peak we’re in full-on emotional meltdown. But then comes the purgation via the piano and AOR chorus of If I Knew, a ballad where she evokes her inner Karen Carpenter, and the gentle guitars and mellow strings of In Your Bed, before the ethereal Clouds ends the album with a sadder-but-wiser restoration of calm. Epic, accomplished and ambitious, The Bride sees Khan emerge as the most significant British female singer-songwriter since Kate Bush. NW YEARBOOK 2016

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Joanna Newsom Divers

CD

Drag City

NEWSOM’S QUIRKY SINGULARITY inevitably recalls Kate Bush and Björk, and the fourth album confirms her as a unique artist with a lofty ambition and vision. What makes her so fascinating is that there seems to be a duality about everything she does. Her lyrics are dense, literate and layered with sophisticated allusion. Her bewitching voice is elegant and dextrous and yet weirdly disconcerting. Her arrangements are rich and elaborate but full of subtlety and nuance, featuring not only her trademark classical harp but clavichords, mellotrons, baroque strings, horns and much more besides. NW

Tori Amos

Ryan Adams Heartbreaker: Deluxe Edition

Two CD/Four LP box set

Pax Am

ON ITS RELEASE in 2000, the solo debut by Ryan Adams was judged by many connoisseurs to be the finest singer-songwriter album of the decade. Now it's reissued with 20 previously unreleased demos and out-takes and a contemporary concert recording. If you missed it first time and you are in any way an admirer of troubadour songcraft at its finest, it’s the 14 exquisite songs on the original album that you really need. Produced with pin-dropping clarity and crepuscular atmospherics by Ethan Johns, the stripped down, hushed ambience is spell binding on a set of the most epically bereft break-up songs you'll ever hear. NW

Boys For Pele

Atlantic/Rhino

CELEBRATING ITS 20TH anniversary, Tori Amos’ Boys For Pele was an ambitious and uncompromising collection of songs focussing on mythology (Pele was a Hawaiian volcano goddess), suppression and discovery. It reached number two in the album charts both here and in the US and went on to become her most successful long player. Legend has it that she was undergoing one of her most prolific spells of writing during this period and consequently a number of tracks had to be ditched from the album to make room for the likes of Caught A Lite Sneeze and Professional Widow. Some of these rarities (including Toodles Mr Jim and Frog On My Toe) can be found in the CD boxset, but vinylistas will have to make do with this remastering of the original album stretched out over two 180g discs. From the opening Horses (recorded along with Beauty Queen in one take), it’s clear that Amos is two steps ahead of her contemporaries, hinting at a darkness and vulnerability in the imagery that she evokes with that breath-takingly unique voice of hers. Her piano is joined by some lavish string arrangements that are given new life and depth thanks to sensitively executed remastering. If you missed this firecracker first time around, this is the perfect gateway to Amos’ unique world view. JDW

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Israel in Ägypten Soloists and Choir of the King’s Consort 2 CDs

Presumably, early 19th century audiences found Handel’s original score too austere and lacking in colour

Vivat 111

HERE IS A studio recording of Robert King’s painstaking reconstruction of Mendelssohn’s arrangement of Handel’s mainly choral oratorio, based on the first performance given in Dusseldorf in 1833. Mendelssohn slightly shortened the work by cutting a few numbers, re-orchestrated it, and even added his own Trumpet Overture to get things off to a rousing start. King’s performance is certainly lively and full of enthusiasm, and the soloists and chorus are excellent. The recording sounds open and clean, with voices and orchestra set back in a warm yet clear acoustic. A fascinating curiosity, well worth hearing! JH

AUDIOFILE VINYL Clare Teal with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra A Tribute To Ella Fitzgerald 180g vinyl

LAST YEAR, CHASING The Dragon recorded this orchestra playing swing classics direct to disc and it must have proved popular because the irrepressible Mike Valentine has taken the band plus singer Clare Teal back to Air Studios to do it again (check out Insider back in HFC 415). If you are a fan of the material, classic Fitzgerald standards that even the casual jazz fan has heard, that’s a bonus. For the rest of us, this is all about the sound. Direct-to-disc recordings are made

Chasing The Dragon

entirely live including the page turning between tracks, each side has to be done in one take because the mastering lathe doesn’t stop and start. Which brings a musical purity to the process that the direct cut only enhances. The result is phenomenal dynamics, an incredibly natural tonal balance and timing that’s to die for. The brass blasts, the kick drum kicks and Teal’s voice gets close to the range and power of Fitzgerald, an artist incidentally who must have recorded in this style back in the day. The sound is captured by a single Neumann U47 mic and cut by a Neumann VMS 80 lathe, it’s hard to imagine a more purist sound capture system in the electronic age, nor a more lifelike sound. JK

Tori Amos picture credit: Cindy Palmano

2x 180g vinyl

Handel (arranged by Mendelssohn)


MUSICREVIEWS

WINTER PROMOTIONS

HIGH RESOLUTION DOWNLOADS The Flaming Lips Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

FLAC 24-bit/96kHz

hdtracks.co.uk

THERE WAS A fear that Yoshimi would struggle to reach the highs of it predecessor The Soft Bulletin. But listen to this HD release and you realise it's full of lilting psychedelia and luscious, involving textures. Wayne Coyne's voice and the effects he uses on it are brought forward into the mix, while some of the layering of textures is gorgeously detailed. Yoshimi remains a hugely satisfying record, that's further enhanced by this HD treatment. PH

Paul Simon Stranger To Stranger

FLAC 24-bit/96kHz

PAUL SIMON IS back with an astonishing record that mixes complex, jaunty rhythms and arrangements with his trademark world musical view. You'll want to get up and shake and move when you hear tracks like opener The Werewolf and the samba-like In A Parade. There are African field recordings fashioned into rhythms and textures, while Simon's lyrics tell rueful, fascinating stories. This HD release – with five extra tracks – is an absolute must-buy. PH

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The Four Symphonies Wiener Philharmoniker Sir John Barbirolli

£95!

3 CDs

Warner Classics

RECORDED IN 1966/7 this had a mixed reception – the general feeling being the tempi were fatally slow, and Sir John Barbirolli's interpretations flabby and indulgent. After deletion on LP, they more or less vanished, until being reissued on a cheap CD label (Royal Classics) in 1994. Slow they certainly are, but there’s a wonderful richness to the playing, and there’s no doubting the deep sincerity JB brings to every bar. The recordings sound warm yet detailed, with excellent clarity and separation despite some massive sonorities. Re-hearing this set leaves you amazed these performances were ever ‘forgotten’. Yet they were... JH

Forgotten no longer, Sir John Barbirolli's interpretations might be slow, but they're certainly very special

Phil Collins The Singles

BLU-RAY DVD The Jam About The Young Idea Blu-ray

4x 180g vinyl

hdtracks.co.uk

LOTS MORE OFFERS ONLINE!

Atlantic

THE RECENT REMASTERING of Phil Collins’ back catalogue has led to a welcome re-evaluation of his significance in the pop music firmament. During the eighties, he was one of the most successful solo artists in the UK, if not the world. But it’s his singles that are perhaps what he is best known for and this collection ticks all the right boxes. The remastering has been overseen by Nick Davies with a touch of finesse that gives a delicate polish to some already extremely high production values. Sussudio, In The Air Tonight and You Can’t Hurry Love might be getting on a bit, but they sound every bit as good as the day they were released, if not better. JDW

Eagle Vision

With their sharp suits and even sharper music, the Jam seemed out of tune with the punk scene from which they emerged, but listening to live footage of the band in 1980 you realise that Paul Weller had punk attitude in spades. The difference was that not only was he angry and intense, but he was also articulate and could write a great song. All of which is apparent in this Rockpalast footage, as is great playing and decent sound for the era. There isn’t any real bass but it’s pretty clean, unlike the scenes in the extras. A raw and real blast from the past. JK

By allowing your electronics to give their best, this mains block is worth every penny. What Hi-Fi?, September 2015

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MUSICREVIEWS

Van Morrison Keep Me Singing CD Caroline

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING borrowed, something blue – but not a lot that’s new. That’s the tried and trusted recipe on Van the man’s first album of fresh material in four years, and given that he celebrated his 70th birthday last year there’s no shame in his determination simply to keep on doing what he has always done best. Constancy rather than innovation has been the watchword of Morrison’s output for pretty much the last 20 years as he has mined familiar themes with the skill of a master artisan, reworking the vernacular argot of R&B, blues, jazz, country and Celtic folk into a uniquely timeless soundtrack that is all his own. Some have accused him of coasting, claiming he has not pushed himself to the same heights of transcendental inspiration that gave us such masterpieces as St Dominic’s Preview or the ineffable into-the-mystic moods of Common One, let alone the career-defining genius of Astral Weeks. 116

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The criticism misunderstands Morrison’s psyche. After all the years as a romantic – if often grumpy – seeker of truth and enlightenment, in middle-age he has settled for finding salvation in the enduring craft of his vocation. His musical heroes – Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles – were all innovators, but in the latter stages of their life worked to a formula which they refined and perfected to a ripe maturity, and Morrison is more than happy to join them. It’s no coincidence that his last album of new material in 2012 was titled Born To Sing: No Plan B – nor is it accidental the follow up is titled Keep On Singing. And whatever it is that keeps him singing into his dotage, it continues to pack a potent emotional punch as is illustrated by the class, craft and consummate skill of these dozen songs – plus closing instrumental on which he plays some smoochy saxophone.

There’s mellow balladry on Let It Rhyme, cocktail jazz on Out In The Cold Again and In Tuburon, dreamy Celtic melodicism on Memory Lane, a touch of big band swing on Too Late, simmering R&B on The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword, a rather good attempt to rewrite the classic Moondance on Look Behind The Hill and even a welcome glimpse of the old, elusive rhapsody on Holy Guardian Angel, while the lyrics throughout remain wrapped in a becoming autumnal nostalgia. Although his career has experienced all of the peaks and troughs that inevitably come with more than 50 years of music making, Van Morrison has never really produced a bad record. He almost certainly couldn’t, even if he wanted to, for music is his life’s blood and he doesn’t really give a damn about anything else. And as long as he’s continuing to produce records that are as good as this one, then neither should we. NW


Unico Series

+\EULGKLĂ€HOHFWURQLFVIURPWKHPDVWHUVRIYDOYHDXGLR The Unico range of hybrid electronics from Unison Research combine the warmth of valves with the power and the accuracy of solid-state systems. All Unico products are recognised by their thick sand-blasted aluminium fascias and solid, reliable build quality. Unison Research are seen around the world as a leading manufacturer of high-end audio systems, and the quality shines through in the Unico range. First-class components, solid build and phenomenal sound; all designed and assembled in Italy.

www.unisonresearch.co.uk


MUSICREVIEWS

Regina Spektor Remember Us To Life

Regina Spektor photograph by Shervin Lainez

CD/vinyl Warner Bros/Sire

118

EVERY NEW FEMALE singer-songwriter invariably seems to get compared to either Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush. The two great touchstones of the genre, one is noted for her confessional poetry, the other for her quirkiness. Regina Spektor has it both ways and draws smartly upon elements of both to emerge as perhaps the most exciting, literate and complex of a new generation of female troubadours. Born in Moscow into a Russian-Jewish family, she left the Soviet Union with her parents in 1989 and the family was given refugee status in the United States. Brought up in the Bronx, she took classical piano lessons and graduated in composition from the Conservatory of Music at New York State University in 2001. By then she was writing her own songs and her debut album 11:11 appeared that same year. Her major label debut and commercial breakthrough came in 2003 with Soviet Kitsch, her YEARBOOK 2016

first album to feature a full band. Since then her reputation has grown. Neil Young signed her up to perform at his annual Bridge School Benefit, she performed for President Obama at the White House during Jewish Heritage Month, Peter Gabriel covered her song Après Moi and her 2009 album Far got to number three in the charts, as did 2012 follow-up What We Saw From The Cheap Seats. Her seventh studio album Remember Us To Life comes after the longest gap between records in her career to date, largely due to the birth of her first son in 2014. The new songs, she tells us, were inspired by motherhood but domesticity has resulted in no diminution of her poetic vision; Spektor is not the kind to allow even such a life-changing event to divert her from her path as a transgressive indie-girl exploring such subjects as love, death, religion and the rhythms of modern urban living and turn her to cloying Mumsnet cosiness; there’s nothing here like

the ode to her washing-machine or the child’s voice lisping "mummy, daddy”, as we heard on Kate Bush’s 2005 comeback Aerial. “What a strange, strange world we live in” she yells on the melodramatic The Trapper And The Furrier, one of the highlights of an 11-song set on which she examines life’s multi-focal complexity and confusion with dazzling eclecticism. Sad and sweet, breezy and melancholic, exuberant and reflective by turn, no two songs seem to come from the same place. Simple, unforced piano ballads (Grand Hotel) sit alongside florid pop singles (Bleeding Heart) and the off-kilter rocker Small Bills – which sounds like Tori Amos – rubs shoulders with the hymn-like Obsolete. It’s impressive, often breathtakingly lovely and – whether this is down to motherhood or not – the most emotionally and musically mature set that she has produced to date. NW


MUSICREVIEWS

Accademia Bizantina Haydn Symphonies 78, 79, 80 and 81 Ottavio Dantone (conductor) 2 CDs

Decca

FOUR RARELY RECORDED Haydn symphonies make for an interesting and highly entertaining disc. Accademia Bizantina play on original instruments and make a lively sound, with clean articulate strings and some crisp low horns. Decca claims these are the first recordings of these works to employ period forces, and the symphonies are among those omitted from Christopher Hogwood’s incomplete L’Oiseau Lyre cycle, which stopped at 77. Clean immediate sound, with excellent clarity and detail, makes this a good release. It’s just a pity it isn’t the start of a new complete cycle from these forces! JH

WINTER PROMOTIONS

Copland Orchestral Works 1 –Ballets John Wilson BBC Philharmonic

Hybrid SACD

LOTS MORE OFFERS ONLINE!

Chandos

‘AWESOME’ IS RATHER over-used these days. But what other word describes the massively thunderous bass drum/tam-tam stroke that launches Copland’s Fanfare For The Common Man? It shakes your room and rattles objects in it – such is the depth and power of the recording. The first in a new series of Copland’s orchestral works from Chandos, Vol 1 contains popular favourites like the suites from Billy The Kid and Rodeo, plus El Salon Mexico. John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic play the music with idiomatic flare and great panache, and the recorded sound is outstanding – rich, dynamic, and very detailed. JH

The Hope Six Demolition Project

Do you agree with our reviewers? Decide for yourself and listen to some of this month’s tunes at

www.hifichoice.co.uk

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PJ Harvey

CD

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Island

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POLLY JEAN HARVEY has reached that point in her long and illustrious career where she can indulge in concept albums and pull them off with aplomb. Where Let England Shake focused on vivid portraits of war, this is a searing indictment of the plight of refugees. Highly political it all may be, but her stories are always framed in an accessible melodic framework. Deep drum rolls, handclaps and galloping clicks provide the rhythmic framework, while much of the guitar work recalls her earlier career. It's innovative yet familiar, heartfelt and emotional. It's almost a given that one or two from this collection of songs will feature in many end-of-year lists. PH

AUDIOFILE VINYL

SAVE

Stevie Nicks The Wild Heart 2x 180g vinyl

Like her 1981 solo debut Bella Donna, The Wild Heart went on to become a multiplatinum selling disc. Though chart-friendly and relatively straight forward, it’s Nicks’ deliberately oblique lyrics and choice of collaborators that prove to be key to the album’s success. With contributions from Mick Fleetwood (Sable), Tom Petty (I Will Run To You) and The Eagles’ Don Felder (Nothing Ever Changes) now part of the myth of this classic long player, it’s perhaps the uncredited appearance by Prince on

£138.60

Modern Records/Warner

pulsating disco-fuelled hit Stand Back that is perhaps most notable given the tragic passing earlier this year. Nicks claimed that the repetitive funky groove of the track (which spent six weeks in the top 10), was influenced by Prince’s Little Red Corvette, but it’s her crabby foot-stomping tantrum of a voice that really elevates the track. The remastering on The Wild Heart is subtle throughout and brings some of the finer elements of the lush production more into focus (unlike the sleeve itself), ensuring that some of the more slushy material (Enchanted) still has enough edge to it to keep it interesting. A classic in every sense of the word, just don’t try to figure out what the hell she is going on about… JDW

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MUSICREVIEWS

INTRODUCING THE

RUPERT NEVE PRECISION HEADPHONE AMP

NEW

David Bowie picture credit: Jimmy King

CD Columbia/ISO

IT’S HARD TO be objective about David Bowie’s final album, a last will and testament that producer Tony Visconti describes as his “parting gift to the world”. Yet critical objectivity is what Bowie himself would have demanded, for like the great and self-aware artist he was, he despised sycophancy and was a seeker after truth; he once lamented on looking back on one of his lesser releases that nobody had possessed the guts to tell him he could have done better. Fortunately, as he spent his last months on earth preparing Blackstar, no such message was required. He knew he was dying and was determined to leave us with an album that encapsulated the qualities that we consistently admired most in his work over the years: experimental, fearless, wide-ranging, confrontational, exploratory and futuristic, yet with subtle resonances of his illustrious past. Blackstar puts a full stop to an extraordinary career, although one hapless critic, reviewing the record only days before his death, wrote that it “feels like the beginning of a new Bowie phase”. In a paradoxical way, that judgement was right. In turning his own untimely death into a work of art, Bowie has left us with a haunting, mysterious masterpiece that will continue to thrill and disorientate for a long time to come.

It’s characteristic of his aesthetic that his swansong was recorded with a new band whom he knew would challenge his comfort zone – in this case a jazz quartet he found in a Greenwich Village bar. Just as typically, he refused to frontload the album’s more accessible moments and we are launched straight into the 10 minutes of the title track’s ambient-progelectronic weirdness, as audacious as anything he recorded. Then it’s the equally challenging free-jazz skronk of ’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, although both ‘songs’ fold elusive lines of gorgeous melody into their outré casings. The wistful Dollar Days and the soothing I Can’t Give Everything Away close the album more conventionally, so that rather than starting on terra firma and setting sail for the furthest horizon, Bowie’s voyage is made in the opposite direction. Is the safe return to harbour with which he concludes his final opus intended as a resolution of his life? Those searching for such intimations of mortality will find plenty – not least in the voice, rendered thinner and higher by illness, no longer sounding like an alien Scott Walker but simply alien on lines such as “look up here, I’m in heaven” and “something happened on the day he died, spirit rose to leave him and stepped aside”. This feels like the most important album Bowie ever made. And it’s been 30 years since anyone was able to say that. NW

David Bowie Blackstar

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MUSIC LEGENDS DAVID BOWIE

h t r a e o t l l e f o The man wh Following David Bowie’s untimely passing, we look back at the life and work of the Starman he value of a life cannot be measured in column inches, but the sheer volume of the tributes paid to David Bowie and the breadth, depth and weight of the assessments of his cultural legacy across every serious media platform early this year represented eloquent testament to the loss of an artist whose rare genius changed our world. Newspapers such as The Times produced wrap-around souvenir editions, which devoted more space to Bowie’s demise than they had done to Margaret Thatcher on her death two years earlier. There were a handful of crusty letters from those who grew up in a pre-rock and roll age, and who dismissed his art as “just pop music” and complained that his death did not warrant such saturation coverage. But there were few under the age of 70 who agreed. Around 200 years ago, Shelley said that poets were the true legislators of the world. For us baby boomers and the generations which followed, the poets of the romantic period have been replaced as symbolic archetypes by rock stars whose spirit defines our age

T

THE ALBUMS

1967 Space Oddity (1969) Confusingly released with the same eponymous title as its predecessor, but then renamed on its 1972 reissue. Space Oddity remains the stand-out track, but you can clearly hear his songcraft maturing.

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YEARBOOK 2016

1969

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust (1972) Fractured, decadent, futuristic and melodramatic with an alien quality unlike anything heard before. The first post-modern rock album from the man who changed the world.

The Man Who Sold The World (1970) Twisted, fuzzy guitar rock with a few tantalising hints of future greatness. The original cover, which depicted him dressed as a woman, was more revealing of the shape of things to come.

David Bowie (1967) (1 Released on the same day as The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, Bowie is still very much a work-in-progress as Anthony Newley, music hall and English whimsy are the dominant influences.

1970 Hunky Dory (1971) Including such classic songs as Changes, Life On Mars and Oh You Pretty Things, Hunky Dory’s eclecticism is all over the shop – yet somehow Bowie’s vision manages to turn it into a coherent statement.

1971

1972 Aladdin Sane (1973) Cracked Actor, Jean Genie and the weird jazz-dissonance of Time made the follow up to Ziggy almost its equal in memorable songs, even if it felt like a sequel rather than a genuine departure.

1973


MUSIC LEGENDS DAVID BOWIE

– and our musical heroes have had a more profound and lasting impact on how we live our lives than any here-today-gone-tomorrow politician or prime minister. Let us take the year 1972, an annus mirabilis in the cultural calendar. Everyone of a certain age knows it was the year that Bowie released The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. But can you recall who was the chancellor of the exchequer, let alone what was in his red box in that year’s budget? (For the record it was Anthony Barber and he introduced a range of tax cuts that led to rampant inflation followed by a wage freeze. More than 40 years later even the most dedicated policy wonk inside the Treasury would surely rank Bowie over Barber among 1972’s noteworthy achievers). But while Barber’s budget is long forgotten, the lives of a generation changed forever one Thursday night in 1972 when David Bowie appeared on Top Of The Pops singing Starman, dressed as an androgynous alien with orange hair and outrageous make up and with his arm draped around guitarist Mick Ronson. Outraged parents wondered aloud if it was a boy or a girl. But for anyone under 20 years old, it was the defining moment in the emergence of glam-rock and launched thousands of Ziggy look-alikes on high streets across the country.

Picture credits: Aladdin Sane by Brian Duffy

Daring to be different

But it was far more than the launch of a teenage fashion. While other glam-rockers such as Gary Glitter and Marc Bolan could be seen as part of a cynical lineage of old-school light entertainment, Bowie represented something of much greater significance: nothing less than an iconoclastic assault on notions of ‘normality’ and which gave a generation the courage to dare to be different. With its self-referential rock and roll theme and blurring of fiction and reality, we can now look back and see The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars as the first post-modern pop record. My own introduction to Bowie came one autumnal Saturday afternoon in September 1969, when I stood no more than six feet

away from him on the bandstand in Bromley Library Gardens as he sang Space Oddity to an audience of just a few hundred people. I wasn’t even there to see Bowie; I only turned up because some school friends in a long-forgotten band called Aslan were also on the bill. They were heady days and Bowie – whom I can still see in my mind’s eye with bubble perm and yellow-tinted sunglasses – was fabulous. America had just conquered space the final frontier and Neil Armstrong had taken his ‘giant leap for mankind’. Space Oddity, like Star Trek, captured the zeitgeist.

Bowie’s final curtain call was the most elegantly stage-managed exit in rock history Yet at the same time it also ran against the mainstream and marked Bowie as an outlier. Instead of joining the universal celebration of scientific progress and the modern marvel of manned space travel, Space Oddity was a dystopia that imagined the unimaginable – what if humankind’s ultimate triumph over a hostile universe ended in disaster and Major Tom was lost in space forever? Imagining the unimaginable was to become Bowie’s trademark. His constant shape-shifting, endless innovation and restless determination to look forward rather than back, led many of the tributes on his death to describe him as rock music’s most masterful chameleon. Masterful for sure, but the rest of the phrase doesn’t quite fit, for a chameleon changes colour in order to blend in with its surroundings. Bowie spent the greatest part of his career dictating trends and landscaping new, avant-garde possibilities in music,

Diamond Dogs (1974) A futuristic nightmare (originally intended as a musical version of 1984), which reaches its paranoid climax as he declares his intention to “buy some drugs, watch a band and jump in the river holding hands”.

1974

Low (1977) Bowie meets Eno on a subversive set that mixes dense and angular songs with ambient, experimental instrumentals and hits max pop accessibility on the shimmering Sound And Vision.

Young Americans (1975) Synthetic or ‘plastic’ it may have been, but Bowie’s blue-eyed take on Philly-soul was still funky enough for James Brown to borrow the riff to lead track Fame, which was co-written with John Lennon.

Pin-Ups (1973) We didn’t realise it at the time, but with its reclamation of pop‘s most elemental impulses, Bowie’s back-tobasics collection of sixties covers was a signpost to the coming punk insurrection.

1973

fashion and popular culture for others to follow. If Elvis and The Beatles forged the pop template, it was Bowie who reinvented rock and roll for the modern urban world of colour television and moon landings. Like Icarus, the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Tim Buckley flew too close to the sun, each of them dying uncannily at the age of 27. Others, including Elvis, Bob Marley and two of The Beatles, were taken from us before their time. But Bowie went on reinventing popular music for almost 50 years, true to the “strange fascination, fascinating me” aesthetic he had set out in one of his earliest and greatest songs, in which he instructed us to “turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes”. In addition to being an inventor and visionary, Bowie also possessed the sharpest antennae in popular culture, astutely seeking out other innovators, from Brian Eno to Nile Rogers, and broadening his horizons far and wide beyond the English suburbs which had spawned him. Ziggy mutated into Aladdin Sane as Bowie planned his next grand project, a musical version of George Orwell’s 1984. When that was thwarted by the short-sighted attitude of the author’s estate, he disappeared to the United Sates, where he recorded Young Americans, a white-skinned, blue-eyed take on black dance music which he called ‘plastic soul’ and yet which still managed to sound as funky as anything coming out of the urban ghettos of America at the time. Some 20 years earlier in Sun studios in Memphis, Elvis Presley had taken black R&B music and a dash of country and had created rock and roll. Here was Bowie updating and subverting the form by fusing rock and soul into a new and thrillingly colour-blind hybrid. He also played a seminal role in the birth of another musical movement that was to have a seismic impact upon the seventies. Although Bowie did not invent punk, he

1975 Station To Station (1976) Art-disco and vocal pyrotechnics in his ‘Thin White Duke’ persona on Golden Years and TVC15, plus a couple of epic ballads in Word On A Wing and Wild Is The Wind.

1976

1977

1978

Heroes (1977) Robert Fripp’s guitar toughens up the sound with dense layers of art-rock strangeness. Only the title track directly references Berlin – but the album’s sinister synth-pop reeks with cold war menace.

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Rodg dgers rs o of Chic Chic. Onee of hi Rodgers his greatest achiev achieveme v me was his ability to make achievements cutting-edge art that was constantly evolving but at the same time to take a substantial mainstream audience with him. When he finally took time out from his relentless creativity, 1988 became the first year since 1971 that he had not made an appearance in the British singles or album charts.

There are few people that could fill the front pages in the way that Bowie’s death did

understood its ethic and songs such as Suffragette City and Rebel Rebel were arguably punk before the genre existed. Nor would punk have ever happened without his championing of an obscure and neglected band from Detroit named the Stooges and their lead singer Iggy Pop. It was significant that when the Sex Pistols and the Clash vented their spleen on rock’s bloated dinosaurs and ‘old farts’, Bowie was exempted from the ‘year zero’ fury. But if his music remained hip, he caused outrage when in his ‘Thin White Duke’ persona he expressed some highly dubious fascist sympathies. Describing Adolf Hitler as “one of the first rock stars” he opined that “Britain could benefit from a fascist leader”. It was a rare and damaging stumble in a career in which artistically he seldom put a foot wrong. He blamed his comments on an astronomical cocaine habit which left him “out of my mind, totally, completely crazed” and took exile in Berlin in search of a cure. In the forbidding shadow of the Berlin wall and fascinated by the new German electronic music of Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can, he found fresh inspiration and in collaboration with Brian Eno, over the next three years he

created an extraordinary, experimental triptych of eerie, densely synthesised avant-pop albums that once again captured the zeitgeist and which would influence and shape British pop in the eighties from Gary Numan to Ultravox. His Berlin period was perhaps best represented by the title song of 1977’s Heroes

Bowie spent most of his career dictating trends and landscaping new, avant-garde possibilities where he sang, “I can remember standing by the wall, and the guns shot above our heads, and we kissed as though nothing could fall, and the shame was on the other side.” A defiant message of hope for a better future, on the news of his death the German foreign ministry tweeted a link to the song, thanking him for “helping to bring down the wall”. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) brought him back closer to the rock mainstream and he enjoyed the biggest hits of his career in 1983 with Let’s Dance, produced by Nile

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980) A return to a song-based approached, epitomised by Ashes To Ashes. Even when being ‘conventional’, Bowie still sounds ahead of his post-punk contemporaries.

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Never Let Me Down (1987) An intriguing hybrid of loud guitars and art-rock cleverness, Bowie’s own judgement was that he had “mistreated” a bunch of decent songs on his last solo offering for six years.

Let’s Dance (1983) The slick co-production of Chic’s Nile Rodgers helped Bowie to the biggest-selling album of his career via the chart-topping title track and further hit singles China Girl and Modern Love.

Lodger (1979) The third and most poporiented installment of the Berlin trilogy was dismissed on its release as inferior to its predecessors, but is now rightly regarded as an under-rated classic.

1979

His decision at the end of the decade to abandon his solo career and form the band Tin Machine was surprising, although characteristic in its bravery as he sought to return to his roots by playing low-key venues. Less surprisingly, he found group democracy to be a straightjacket too far and he soon resumed his solo career, working with Nile Rodgers on 1993’s Black Tie White Noise and two years later reuniting with Brian Eno on Outside, which found him assuming seven different characters in a concept album based around a murder story. Then he was off once more in another direction with 1997’s Earthling, an album of drum and bass which divided critics into those who felt the innovator had turned imitator and those who claimed that it proved Bowie was still abreast of current trends. Either way, it’s hard to think of any other middle-aged rock star who would even have attempted an album that explored the sounds being made by the new urban dispossessed on run-down inner city council estates, rather than opting for the easy option of turning himself into a tribute act to his own past. His last album of the 20th century, Hours... was a collection of smartly crafted pop songs, different again from the dance beats of its predecessor. Several of the compositions were written for a computer game in which Bowie and his wife, Iman, made appearances as onscreen characters. Then, after 2003’s Reality, came 10 years of silence. After he suffered a heart attack, rumours grew of further health complications. Then in 2013, and totally out of the blue, The Next Day appeared. No explanation for his long absence was offered and his surprise return generated something close to hysteria

1983 Tonight (1984) Five co-writing credits for Iggy Pop plus a cover of God Only Knows are indicative of a project that was over-rushed following the blockbuster success of Let’s Dance and the ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour.

1984

1987 Black Tie White Noise (1993) After the grunge-rock digression with Tin Machine, Bowie sounded audibly happier on what is sometimes called his ‘wedding album’, an avant mix of soul, glam, art-rock and dance beats.

1993

Picture credits: Left-hand page: Shutterstock/Lenscap Photography. Right-hand page: Herb Ritts

Return to his roots


MUSIC LEGENDS DAVID BOWIE

THE LEGACY

“He was and wen a benefactor to besto t out of his w karma w some good ay friends on me. David’s of my l hip was the lig such a bife. I never met ht He was rilliant person Iggy Po the best there is . p .”

ld work o one wou “When n is guy, who was th with me reat, innovative eg y to th of e on disco gu picked a rockers, with, and we te collabora making the p .” wound u rd of his career co re t es g ig b gers Nile Rod

“David Bowie w band’s earlie as one of the st champion “David Bowie had everything. He s. He not only crea te was intelligent, imaginative, brave, made it poss d the world that ible for Arcad charismatic, cool, sexy and e Fire to exist, he w elco inspirational. He created such with grace an med us into it d warmth. The staggeringly brilliant work, yes, world is m but so much of it and it was so good. myster ore bright and ious because of him, and There are great people who make great we will continu work but who else has left a mark into the atm e to shout prayers osphere he cr like his? No one like him.” eate Win Butler, Arcade Fire d.” Kate Bush

ne ie was otant w o B d i r “Dav most impo less, of my tions, so fear s inspirative, he gave u .” so crea for a lifetime magic West Kanye

with at least one front-page headline hailing ‘the comeback of the century’. Five-star reviews followed and the album went straight to number one – the first time Bowie had topped the charts in 20 years.

A parting gift

Three years later came Blackstar, which his producer, Tony Visconti, described as Bowie’s “parting gift” to the world. Outside of his family and close colleagues, nobody knew he was terminally ill and the album’s release two days before his death meant the world was listening anew and being amazed all over again at how he managed to remain so cutting edge, even as he took his leave of us.

“He had su profound efch a my life, I fect on where to stadon’t know Damon Albrt.” arn “We were so lucky to be adolescent when Bowie burst on to the scene. We got him in real time, when we were forming, and the yearning for each new record from him was thrilling. Congregating in bedrooms, devouring it, no talking. A side, B side, flip it over, needle to the start, again and again. For quite a long time most of my waking g hours were spent thinking about Bowie.” wie.” Edwyn Collins, Orange Juice

iness the conf beyond always y a w g s d operatin him wa ld “He was rdom which for end. We shou er g ta s ig p b o a n of p to a s m n at hu cale. e mea only th Bowie as a gre r or Mandela s e a er rememb tor on the Bolív people. He was th a f emancip onal liberator o , the uninvited er s ti o id ts em u o n e of him a A .” aint of th to think patron s isfit. It’s hard ays the future lw m and the ecause he was a b history, ple em T en li Ju

‘Iconic’ is probably the most over-used er-used er used word in modern journalism. But it applies plies l es to o Bow Bowie we arr ever ver in its truest sense, for no rock star iilities i ies off h hiss understood the symbolic possibilities ial better. ia be ter art or grasped its mythic potential om ake k His ambition, he once said, wass tto make hi h could pop music a “wider receiver” which r s” H He “incorporate ideas from other arts”. “a cro cros cr osss described his Ziggy persona as “a cross orths”, rths , a phrase between Nijinksy and Woolworths”, ability lity to o that perfectly encapsulated hiss ab w,, ki kitsch sch and the bridge highbrow and lowbrow, o draw ffrom om m avant-garde, and his capacity to n mu music, u ic ccinema nem ma experimental developments in into o th the he fabr fabricc o of and literature and fold them in mainstream chart pop. Hours (1999) The first album by a major artist available as a download, although the songs – some written for a video game – don’t quite share the urgency of Bowie’s desire to stay abreast of the technology.

Outside (1995) A classic dystopian theme and the return of Eno – as the title implies, Bowie was taking risks again. If the album is overlong at 75 minutes, even the failures are fascinating.

1995 Earthling (1997) Drum and bass, sequencers and 160 beats per minute – was Bowie merely following fashion or boldly leading it to new pastures? The answer was probably a bit of both. Either way it’s a brave effort…

1997

His broadband approach eventually led to the Victoria & Albert Museum curating an exhibition dedicated to his art in 2013 that dipped into Bowie’s archive and encompassed handwritten lyrics, stage costumes, paintings, fashion, photography, film, videos and set designs. His final curtain call was, as Visconti put it, “a work of art” in itself and the most elegantly stage-managed exit in rock history. And his death brings us close to the end of an era. The original rock gods who created the explosive culture that convulsed the world in the second half of the 20th century are slowly being extinguished, one by one. Dylan, McCartney, and Jagger remain and when their time comes they can expect the kind of global state funeral by popular acclaim that Bowie was afforded. After that, the lights will go out. Our one consolation is that, even in the darkness, the music will play on. NW

1999 Heathen (2002) Edgy and full of angst and anxiety, the songs were allegedly written before the events of 9/11 but as a New York resident, a sense of dark trauma clearly pervades the record.

2002

Reality (2003) A typical Bowie concept – there is no such thing as reality – belies the sense of ripeness on an album that finds him at his most honest.

2003

Blackstar (2016) Reviewed on page 121

2013

The Next Day (2013) The first album of new material in 10 years, the great comeback was everything fans wanted, but had almost given up hoping for – intelligent, provocative and filled with great songs.

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OPINION

Cassette comeback? The opinions expressed in the following pages are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the attitudes or opinions of Hi-Fi Choice or AVTech Media Ltd. Picture credit: Shutterstock/Alextype

As vinyl sales continue to rise to mass-market awareness, stories of a cassette revival suggest a similar trend. Lee Dunkley gets nostalgic for tape, but doesn’t miss the hiss

orget about the latest high-resolution digital file formats hitting the headlines, the world is going crazy for old-school analogue sound complete with warts-and-all quality in a quest for tangible music formats. Vinyl has long been championed by HFC and even though we all knew the format never really went away, its return to mainstream popularity is well documented in these pages. But it’s not the LP that’s currently catching the ear of the audio hipster, but the forgotten compact cassette tape. As the resurgence of vinyl reaches greater consumer awareness – finding its way on to supermarket shelves – with the biggest Record Store Day event so far held earlier in the year, we’ve become accustomed to the idea of an analogue format making a comeback into the heart of our audio systems. But I confess to being more than a little surprised by the reports of a Lazarus-like return of the temperamental cassette tape as a serious music option. Back in the format’s heyday I was very much a fan. Like any music-obsessed teenager of the time – and despite being aware of the BPI's Home Taping Is Killing Music campaign – I was addicted to recording albums I owned (and some I possibly didn’t) onto Super Ferric or CrO2 formulated cassette tapes from brands like BASF and TDK so that I could play my favourite albums on my prized Sony Walkman. But it was my introduction to the compact format that began my love affair with music as soon as I managed to save up enough pocket and birthday gift money to purchase my first radio cassette recorder. Routinely listening to the Top 40 music chart was a rite of passage for any teenager back in the seventies and eighties and like many my age I sat beside my new machine poised to hit the record button the instant the presenter stopped talking over the intro of the song I liked so that I could capture it for myself and endlessly play it back in the hours and days that followed. It was a crude and mechanically unsophisticated process on my Sanyo recorder, and one that could seriously shorten the life span of the cassette tape with all that cueing, rewinding and pausing – and easily result in a tangle of tape if it unspooled and wrapped itself around the pinch wheel or the playback head. But I loved it, and even more so when it eventually brought portability that was unheard of with the first Sony Walkman in 1979, and changed the way we listen to our favourite music forever.

F

The RIAA has denied any significant upturn in tape sales amid the reports

I'm not alone in my fondness for tape, but despite once owning a three-head Sony cassette deck in the early nineties equipped with Dolby B, C and S noise reduction systems, I haven't played a single cassette in more than 20 years, and I actually think the deck found its way to the municipal dump during a recent house move after years of being relegated to a dusty attic, although I held onto my collection of mix-tapes. In an era where retro is cool, it seems that cassettes are collectable again as music fans discover the format that was originally developed for dictation machines desirable as a means for listening to the latest music, or so we're lead to believe. In a story run by the Daily Mail newspaper – and picked up by other publications as evidence of the format's rising popularity – it was claimed that much like the recent revival of vinyl, the cassette tape is returning to prominence some 20 years after it succumbed to the wholly more practical and hiss-free silver disc. The report suggested that sales of cassettes are growing so rapidly in the US that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) – the body that certifies record sales – is looking for ways of tracking tape sales for the first time since the nineties. But despite the rise in music on the format from underground acts as well as a handful of commercial releases from the likes of Justin Bieber and Kanye West sold through Urban Outfitter stores, the RIAA has denied any significant upturn in tape sales amid the reports.

Like so many of us, Lee used to sit and record the Top 40 off of the radio

Obscure trend Despite what only looks like some minor traction in sales of cassette tape, the format clearly has plenty of loyal supporters and even has an annual Cassette Store Day much like the RSD event held in mid-April. As I've yet to see any serious audio brands jump on the bandwagon in the same way they have for vinyl with a range of new tape decks and portable players, it does make me wonder what tape fans are listening to the format on. Whether tapes are just an obscure trend, or a chance to offer a reliably tangible object in an age where music is more ephemeral than ever is up for debate, but I can't quite see the hissy format finding its way back into my setup just yet ●

LEE DUNKLEY Tape head

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MUSIC LEGENDS PRINCE

N G I E R E L PURP Another artist that 2016 stole away from us too early, Prince Rogers Nelson had a knack for writing incredible music t was somehow rather fitting that at Prince’s final gig in Atlanta on 14 April, he sang David Bowie’s Heroes as a tribute to the fallen singer. A week later Prince, too, was dead and it was a bitter cruelty that we should lose two of the most inventive, original and outright imaginative artists of the last 50 years within three months of each other. It’s a long and winding road from Bowie’s arts lab in Beckenham where he first honed his genius to Prince’s Paisley Park fun palace in Minneapolis where he plotted his dazzling reinventions of popular music. But the two are united in more than keeping rock obituarists over busy in what has been a tragic 2016. Like Bowie, Prince made highly visionary, transcendent music that was experimental yet highly accessible, profound and yet with a boundless, universal appeal, instant but epic so that their songs worked as high art on canonical albums and thrilled on commercial radio as ephemeral uber-pop perfection. Bowie and Prince both made records that made you want to dance until you dropped. Yet both were also genre-bending pop polymaths, restlessly creative chameleons who seldom repeated themselves and fearlessly

I

STUDIO ALBUMS

1978 Prince (1979) Sexy R&B with disco traces alongside a handful of classic songs. Meanwhile the hardrocking Bambi gives the first indication that he’s not going to be confined to any genre.

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1999 (1982) An audacious double of synthesised funk, but the lengthy workouts mean there are only 11 songs, including hits such as 1999, Little Red Corvette and Delirious.

Dirty Mind (1980) His first full-blown masterpiece on which he again plays every instrument. Sexually explicit, he expands the R&B template to take in new wave pop and rock and roll.

For You ((1978)) A mainstream and largely conventional debut of R&B, funk and soul – but precociously accomplished for a 19-year-old with fascinating hints of what was to come.

1980 Controversy (1981) New age funk on some of his best sex songs (Jack U Off and Sexuality), but protest and social commentary, too (the title track and Ronnie Talk to Russia).

1981

1982 Purple Rain (1984) Most people’s favourite Prince album – his Ziggy Stardust, if you like. His songwriting was at its peak here, from When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy to the grinding Darling Nikki.

1984


MUSIC LEGENDS PRINCE

avoided lapsing into anything that in any way resembled a comfort zone. Their boldness meant that on occasion they both sometimes failed. But few in popular music have ever balanced artistic and commercial imperatives more astutely – which is why their deaths have resonated so profoundly across such a broad swathe of fans of different generations and proclivities with radically different tastes and musical interests. “I am something that you’ll never understand,” Prince sang on I Would Die 4 U on his touchstone Purple Rain album. It was a prophetic statement, for in the course of his unconventional career it was sometimes difficult to comprehend the quixotic choices and off-the-wall pronouncements that made him one of pop’s most enigmatic superstars.

Picture credits: Shutterstock/Northfoto (both pages)

Slave to the rhythm

His eccentricities were legendary, from the obsession with the colour purple and his idiosyncratic spelling many years before the advent of textspeak to writing ‘slave’ on his cheek and his bizarre interviews in which he refused to allow interviewers to look him in the eye. “Can you keep up?” he often asked during his concerts. Hard as we tried, Prince moved and morphed at such velocity that it wasn’t always easy. Yet there was universal recognition of a lavish talent that enabled him to sell more than 100 million albums and gave us enduring hits such as Let’s Go Crazy, 1999, Purple Rain, When Doves Cry, Little Red Corvette, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World and dozens more. Then there was Nothing Compares 2 U, covered by Sinead O’Connor and Manic Monday which he wrote for The Bangles. He wasn’t the most natural collaborator and if he’d been a film-maker we would have called him an auteur. At the age of 19 he was credited with playing 27 different instruments on his debut album and he seldom worked with other musicians unless they were totally under his direction. Mostly he believed he could do the job better himself and he regularly sang, played, composed, arranged and produced every note on his records. He worked in a myriad of forms and styles, from rock and funk to jazz and psychedelia

and as a magnetic performer he combined the flamboyance of James Brown with the theatricality of Madonna. Like Jimi Hendrix before him, he liquidated the conventional boundaries between white and black music. He was a prolific songwriter who sang about sex and seduction and flirted outrageously with the listener; it was his lyrics on libidinous songs about oral sex, masturbation and threesomes such as Head, Do It All Night, Darling Nikki, Jack U Off and Sexuality which provoked Tipper Gore, wife of politician Al, to launch the campaign that led to the introduction of Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics stickers on CDs. Gett Off on his 1991 album Diamonds And Pearls in which he boasted about “23 positions in a one-night stand” was typical. Yet his songs also dealt with serious social concerns and delved into areas of mysticism and strange sci-fi visions. The one subject he seldom seemed to sing about was himself. “I don’t wanna die, I’d

He battled to keep his music off-line and removed it from streaming services rather dance my life away”, he sang. At the time it seemed like an expression of pure hedonism; but was there a serious comment on mortality in there somewhere? We shall never know. The paradox of the self-assured global superstar who was at the same time intensely private was one of the many dualities that drove his art and sustained his mystique. His interviews were rare and he gave little away. He refused to allow journalists to use tape recorders and his last encounter with the press before his death was as strange as ever: sitting behind a piano, if he didn’t like a question, he refused to answer, shook his head and picked out the theme from The Twilight Zone on his keyboard. The message was clear: you entered ‘Prince world’ on his terms or not at all. He was born 7 June, 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota into a musical family. His father John Lewis Nelson was a pianist and his

Parade (1986) The soundtrack of his second film, Under The Cherry Moon, the album was better than the movie with its shifting musical moods and textures, with Kiss serving as the highlight.

1986

mother Mattie Della Shaw was a jazz singer. He was named Prince Rogers Nelson – after his father who used the stage name Prince Rogers – but throughout childhood he was known to his friends as Skipper. His early years were not straightforward; he suffered from epilepsy and his parents split up when he was 10. He lived with his mother and step-father until his early teens, when he went to live with the family of a school friend, Andre Cymone, with whom he formed his first band Grand Central at the age of 15. By then he had already stopped growing and he wore stack heels to augment his diminutive five foot two inches throughout his life. Yet when you saw him in concert you never would have guessed at his elfin size for his presence filled the stage like a giant. By 1977 he was fronting a group called 94 East and the word was out in music industry circles that the outfit’s singer,

Batman (1989) Prince’s soundtrack to Tim Burton’s dark film was a tad scattergun; but Batdance is a fab pastiche, Scandalous a great sex jam and Arms Of Orion almost a conventional pop ballad.

Sign O’ The Times (1987) An eclectic album that crossed every genre known to pop. Full of apocalyptic imagery, a record that defined the decade, even as it showed there was no defining Prince…

Around the World In A Day (1985) Shimmering psych-pop textures, full of cryptic imagery, mystic messages and some of his most mindboggling guitar playing.

1985

The artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince...

1987 Lovesexy (1988) Sequenced as one long track on CD, Prince delivered a song cycle that sought to square the circle between the spiritual and the carnal.

1988

1989

1990

Graffiti Bridge (1990) The soundtrack to a disastrous movie, Prince wrote all the songs but only performed half of them. It’s the tracks he kept for himself that are the real standouts.

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Come (1994) The artwork proclaimed Prince was dead (1958-1993) and the album was a contractfiller to get him away from Warner. One of his few albums not to attempt anything new.

Diamonds And Pearls (1991) After the pop sensibilities of his late-eighties albums, a return to urban R&B and funk, packed with great songs such as Money Don’t Matter 2 Nite, Cream and Gett Off.

1991

1992

Love Symbol Album (1992) The album that introduced the symbol was danceable and funky. The Artist formerly known as... was backed by the New Power Generation, the best band he ever had.

1993

1994

The Gold Experience (1995) Containing his only British number one in The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, a loose concept album that spanned the gamut of rock, pop, soul, funk and jazz.

1995

1996

Chaos and Disorder (1996) The final album of the ‘Slave years’, Prince kissed Warner Bros goodbye with an album that was slight but fun, as if he couldn’t hide his glee that it was finally over.

The Black Album (1994) Intended as the follow-up to Sign O’ The Times, but withdrawn at the last minute. Seven years later, it finally saw the light of day and its hard, heavy funk hit the mark.

The album spent six months at number one in America and eventually sold more than 13 million copies. At one point he had the number one single, album and box office film in America, a feat which has never been repeated. But with fame and celebrity his behaviour grew ever more eccentric and at the end of his 1985 world tour he announced that he was retiring to go and “look for the ladder”.

Like David Bowie, Prince’s untimely death was front page news worldwide

Always evolving

multi-instrumentalist and writer was destined to be the next big thing. The bidding war which followed was won by Warner Brothers who granted him artistic control over his recordings, an unprecedented clause in a first contract for an unproven artist who wasn’t yet out of his teens. What followed can be described as Prince’s ‘imperial phase’ as a string of eighties albums that included Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, Parade, Sign O’

The Times and Lovesexy put him in a triumvirate of titans alongside Michael Jackson and Madonna as the defining artists of the decade. Not even being booed and pelted off stage by conservative-minded Rolling Stones fans when invited to support them on their 1981 tour could halt his rise. His touchstone 1984 album Purple Rain was accompanied by a semi-autobiographical film of the same name, in which Prince played a rock star known simply as The Kid.

N.E.W.S (2003) Four long instrumental tracks recorded in a day at Paisley Park with plenty of scope for fellow musicians. It was allegedly the worst-selling album of his career.

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The Slaughterhouse (2004) The same formula as The Chocolate Invasion on another installment of rescued tracks, including Y Should Eye Do That When Eye Can Do This?

Musicology (2004) …followed by his best-seller in a decade as he eschewed the jazz leanings with a funky set which on its title track paid nostalgic homage to half a dozen of his biggest hits.

Xpectation (2003) Nine cool-and-mellow all-instrumental jazz cuts, all beginning with the letter X, released as a download before he decided that the internet was sinful.

2003

In an obvious parallel with Bowie ‘killing off’ Ziggy Stardust and breaking up the Spiders From Mars, he disbanded his backing group The Revolution. But his resurrection was almost immediate and he continued producing music at a prolific rate; 1987’s Sign O’ The Times was arguably the finest album of his career and he ended the decade on a high by recording the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman and duetting with Madonna on the album Like A Prayer. The nineties were less happy, due in large part to the notorious battle with his record company which led to him appearing at the Brit Awards in 1995 with SLAVE written on his cheek in felt tip pen. “If I can’t do what I want to do, what am I?” he said. “When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave. I don’t own Prince’s music. If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.” He renounced his name and insisted that he should be known as an unpronounceable

2004 The Chocolate Invasion (2004) Another album released through his NPG Music Club of tracks mostly rescued from an abandoned project named High. Standouts include Supercute and You Make My Sun Shine.

2005

2006 3121 (2006) His first number one album since 1989, led by the banging Afro-funk of the brilliant single Black Sweat. Playful, likeable and with an intriguing Latin tinge added to the mix.

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The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale (1999) Most of the songs had previously been heard on bootlegs and hardcore fans reckon these are not the definitive versions.

Emancipation (1996) Having signed to EMI, this was intended as a rebirth – he got so carried away that it ranged across his panoply of styles from gentle ballads to funky jams.

1996

1998

emblem which approximated to a combination of the scientific symbols for male and female and was often referred to as ‘the love symbol’.

The name game

He claimed he changed his name “because I heard a voice telling me to. Was it God’s voice? Who knows.” Indeed; as with most of Prince’s pronouncements, who knows the real truth? But in reality the gesture was primarily designed to throw his record company Warner Bros into chaos. It caused confusion in the media, too. Broadcasters were unable to pronounce it and newspapers were stymied because the symbol did not exist on any keyboard, and so he became known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”, often shortened to “The Artist”. His first album after freeing himself from his ‘slavery’ to his record company was titled Emancipation and in 2000 he announced that he was resuming the use of his original name, although “The Artist Formerly Known as ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’” still used the squiggle in artwork on his albums and on stage he continued to play a guitar eye-catchingly shaped into the love symbol. No longer a slave but now the master, he then picked a fight with the internet, battling to keep his music off-line and removing it from streaming services. “The internet’s completely over,” he prophesied somewhat prematurely in 2010. “I don’t see why I should

LOtUSFLOW3R and MPLSºUND (2009) A triple-disc set of two albums by Prince and the debut recording by his protege Bria Valente, featuring plenty of heavy riffing.

2001

2002

One Nite Alone... (2002) Prince solo at the piano on an intimate set that includes a cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You and Avalanche, on which he described Abraham Lincoln as a racist.

give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.” Like Michael Jackson, he used his wealth and celebrity to create his own fantasy world in which the rules and values of conventional society did not apply. Just as Jackson built his own bizarre private theme park Neverland, the physical manifestation of ‘Prince world’ was Paisley Park, the ‘fun factory’ he built at Chanhassen, near Minneapolis.

At the age of 19 he was credited with playing 27 different instruments on his debut album Named after a song of the same title – the lyrics of which declared: “Love is the colour this place imparts, there aren’t any rules in Paisley Park” – the huge 70,000 square foot site included his private living quarters, a recording studio, a hair salon, a concert hall and even his own nightclub. One end of the building housed a team of tailors, employed to make costumes for his concerts, during which there might be seven changes a night. Like pop’s answer to Andy Warhol, he populated Paisley Park with starlets, pop wannabes, supermodels, girlfriends and hangers on, shaping and directing the careers

Movie Purple Rain marked Prince’s cinematic debut

of the singers Vanity, Susan Moonsie, Sheila E, Carmen Electra and Mayte Garcia, the latter of whom he married and who was the subject of his song The Most Beautiful Girl In The World. It was another of the paradoxes that made Prince an enigma that such a libidinous figure who wrote and sang some of the raunchiest, most carnal songs in pop should become a Jehovah’s Witness. He denied that he had undergone a conversion and insisted it was more a “realisation” which he likened to “Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix.” Drugs, sex and alcohol were “funky” he said; but they were “just paths, a diversion, not the answer.” He seemed to imagine that he was Peter Pan and once claimed that he did not age because “time is a mind construct... It’s not real.” Sadly the years caught up and then overtook him in the fast lane and at 57 he died far too young. But he was surely right that his timeless, majestic music will live forever. NW

Art Official Age (2014) Released simultaneously with Plectrumelectrum, a lush, sexy, seductive electro-funk album with a sci-fi theme that showed he had lost none of his thrilling ability to surprise.

20Ten (2010) Given away with the Daily Mirror, which declared it was “his best record since Sign O’ The Times”. It wasn’t, but it has its moments even though it lacks memorable songs.

Planet Earth (2007) Given away at his ‘21 Nights In London’ residency and with the Mail On Sunday, tracks such as Guitar and The One U Wanna C were worth anyone’s money.

2008

2000

Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (1999) Never much of a collaborator, Prince went overboard with guests Gwen Stefani, Eve, Sheryl Crow and Ani DiFranco.

Crystal Ball /The Truth (1998) A sprawling four-disc box set, with three CDs of previously bootlegged material and a fourth CD titled The Truth with a dozen new acoustic songs.

Picture credit: Shutterstock/Lenscap Photography (left-hand page)

1999

The Rainbow Children (2001) A concept album about spirituality and love built around a fictitious story about a utopian society, inspired by his Jehovah’s Witness faith – and the jazziest album of his career.

2009 2010 Plectrumelectrum (2014) After the longest break between albums in his career, Prince re-emerged with the all-female rock trio 3rdeyegirl, who toughened up his sound.

2013

2014

2015

HITnRUN Phase One (2015) HITnRUN Phase Two (2015) Of the two albums, Phase Two was the better release, full of consistently engaging songs including the social commentary of Baltimore.

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BRANDSBOOKEDWITH MORETOCOME



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OPINION

Turn back the clock David Price returns to his audio roots, exhuming his hi-fi ghosts of yesteryear as he discovers a long-lost friend on ebay and decides to relive the magic of his youth

t had to be done! There they were, staring at me on ebay, saying “Buy It Now”. I pressed the magic button and became the proud owner of a Sony TA-73 integrated amplifier and matching ST-73 tuner, for the princely sum of £40. Launched in Autumn 1976 and sold until 1979 – by which time they were heavily discounted – both these products cost £62 when new and were the company’s cheapest stereo amplifier and tuner available. Why, then, would I want such basic, bottom-of-the-range stuff? After all, I own some substantially more expensive classic and modern hi-fi gear – even the top-of-the-range turntable, cassette deck, reel-to-reel and loudspeakers from that year. The dinky TA-73 with its measly 10W RMS per channel, and the ST-73 with its single signal strength meter and poorly weighted tuning knob are hardly objects of desire. As it happens, they formed the heart of my family’s first hi-fi, back in 1977. Indeed, when my father purchased his TA-73 from Westwood and Mason in Oxford in September of that year – alongside a pair of Wharfedale Chevin XP loudspeakers and a Garrard SP25/IV turntable – it was the first ever time I heard stereo. This was the seventies, when there was an amazing new experience to be had every few years. Just a couple of autumns previous, we’d got our first colour TV and not long after our first video recorder, then microcomputer. By the end of that decade, it felt like our 17th century cottage was like the control room of the Starship Enterprise! As I recall, my dad had looked at an advertisement for an Amstrad EX222 amplifier for ‘just’ £50 and I’d ‘persuaded’ (ie begged) him to get something better. So one evening after school in Oxford, we went to Westwoods and out came his Access card. I was flabbergasted that he’d gone for such a premium brand, fully expecting to end up with the Amstrad, or if we were lucky an Alba from Comet. But oh no, this was the big league – and what an effect it had! Being 11 at the time, hearing my copy of ABBA’s Arrival for the first time in stereo was probably the most affecting experience I’d had, short of getting a brand new purple Raleigh Chopper for my eighth birthday. When you’re that age, life is intense. Nearly 40 years later, the feeling of twiddling the Sony amplifier’s volume knob – which seemed so big then and so dinky now – is eerily familiar, as is the green glow of the tuner’s tuning scale. The sad thing was that – contrary to the ebay description – neither the amp nor the tuning were

I

It is surprisingly sweet and delicate, like a solid-state valve amplifier

working properly. The TA-73 produced no sound on one channel, so a quick foray under the bonnet began. It turned out to be nothing more than a blown fuse, and some very dirty contacts. A squirt of contact cleaner and lots of knob twiddling and button pushing with the power off, resulted in a binaural amp once more. The tuner’s stereo pilot light was also replaced, with the dead neon swapped for a red LED hardwired to a small resistor. Finally, this diminutive duo worked just as nature intended. Hearing them for the first time since 1979 – when my dad upgraded to a more powerful Sony receiver – was an amazing experience. As that great American wordsmith George W Bush would say, it was “Like déjà vu all over again”. The first album I played was Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside, which came out pretty much at that time when the Sony arrived in our house, and was soon purchased by me.

David’s first hi-fi from his youth is up and running

Thanks for the memory Rather like the backstreets and pathways of the village I grew up in, the sound of that Sony was spookily familiar. Everything that I liked about it – and all that I wished could be different – was there before my very ears nearly 40 years later. In its favour, the amp is surprisingly sweet and delicate, rather like a solid-state version of a valve amplifier in some ways. To its discredit, it proved utterly gutless and lacking in power. Happily at that time, the Wharfedale speakers we ran with it had a sensitivity of 89dB/1W/1m, and so made the most of its limited power. The tuner, by the way, sounded superb – shockingly good considering it was Sony’s entry-level model. I lived with – and loved – this little Sony system through my formative music years. As I grew up, I played punk, new wave, 2 Tone and prog rock through it, and much more. Although it sounds rather quaint by modern standards, it still has – and had – an innate ‘rightness’ that made me want to listen more. It opened my ears to the greatness of music, and for that I am forever in its debt ●

DAVID PRICE Time lord

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E L I H C O O VOOD A look back at the man they called Black Elvis who played the guitar like no other – James Marshall Hendrix, aka Jimi f you want to know just how good Jimi Hendrix was, ask Eric Clapton. When the two most eminent guitarists of the rock and roll age met for the first time in October 1966, Clapton and Cream were already in pole position to become the hottest act on Britain’s nascent psychedelic-rock scene and Hendrix was an unknown hopeful who had arrived in London from America only a week before. When he turned up to see Cream and asked if he could sit in for a couple of numbers, an intrigued Clapton agreed. “I thought he looked cool and probably knew what he was doing,” he later explained. What followed as Hendrix launched into a tour-de-force version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor was so extraordinary that it made Clapton feel like giving up. “If you’re jamming with someone for the first time, most musicians will hold back, but Jimi just went for it,” he recalled. “He played the guitar with his teeth, behind his head, lying on the floor, doing the splits… it was amazing and it was musically great, too, not just pyrotechnics. It scared me because just as we were finding our own speed, here was the real thing.”

I

UMS JIMI’S JAMS – THE ALB

1966 Axis: Bold As Love (1967) The tenderness of Little Wing contrasts with the bold experimentalism of If 6 Was 9 on a set that showed how fast Hendrix’s mastery of the studio was developing.

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1967

Cry Of Love (1971) The first posthumous album, culled from studio tapes recorded from 1968 to 1970, the same material would later be reconfigured on the album First Rays Of The New Rising Sun.

Electric Ladyland (1968) All Along The Watchtower – perhaps the greatest Dylan cover of all time – provided the hit single; but Voodoo Chile showcased his inspired improvisational abilities.

Are A Y You E Experienced i d (1967) From the psychedelic frenzy of Foxy Lady to the deep blues of Red House, this was a stunning debut that displayed Hendrix’s craft as a songwriter as well as his explosive guitar playing.

1968 Band Of Gypsys (1970) Recorded live at the Filmore East on New Year’s Day 1970, Hendrix is at his funkiest with an all-black rhythm section and some of his most violently potent guitar playing.

1970

1971 Rainbow Bridge (1971) Another collection of unreleased studio material that would later be repackaged, including such classics as Dolly Dagger and a studio take on The Star Spangled Banner.


MUSIC LEGENDS JIMI HENDRIX

Clapton stopped playing and joined the crowd in gob-smacked admiration. He knew he couldn’t compete with the force of nature standing alongside him and has never complained that Hendrix has consistently pipped him for the number one spot in every ‘world’s greatest ever guitarist’ poll in the 50 years which have elapsed since. Hendrix’s comet arched spectacularly, but all too briefly across the firmament of popular music. Previous subjects in this Music Legends series – David Bowie and Prince – boasted a track record of making consistently challenging and ever-evolving music over a number of years. Hendrix, by contrast, released his first album in May 1967 and was dead less than four years later.

Game changer

There were only four albums in his lifetime (augmented by countless posthumous releases) and there’s a huge frustration in wondering what uncharted territory his music might have ventured had he lived. Yet it’s testament to how he transformed the

Hendrix and the Experience potently defined the concept of the ‘power trio’ vocabulary, diction and syntax of rock guitar playing in such a short space of time that his influence is as profound and his legacy as iconic as anyone in the rock pantheon. Some 45 years after his death, sales of his music exceed those achieved during his lifetime. In the scholarly Jimi Hendrix: A Step-byStep Breakdown of his Guitar Styles and Techniques, the musicologist Andy Aledort observed that in rock guitar playing, “there are but two eras — before Hendrix (BH) and after Hendrix (AH).” Guitar Player magazine credited him with nothing less than the entire rebooting of guitar culture, “in technique, gear, signal processing, rhythm playing, soloing, stage presence, chord voicings, charisma, fashion and composition.” Miles Davis likened Hendrix’s

Noel Redding, Jimi and Mitch Mitchell, aka The Jimi Hendrix Experience

improvisational abilities to those of the saxophonist John Coltrane and when he was admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame he was simply described as “the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.” He played the guitar with a virtuosity and invention that has still not been surpassed. A technical analysis of how he changed rock guitar playing is not the main thrust of this piece, but his use of feedback, effects pedals including the wah-wah, stereo phasing and distortion were all revolutionary while his ability to play rhythm chords and lead lines simultaneously – so that it sounded as if he was playing two guitars at once – was quite simply jaw dropping. More to the point, he hitched technical wizardry and ground-breaking innovation to an innate musicality which synthesised the

Crash Landing (1975) Scouring the tapes for unused scraps, producer Alan Douglas controversially brought in session musicians to overdub what were merely demos or works in progress.

Hendrix in The West (1972) A live set from the concert vault, recorded at different venues during 1969-70. Fifties rock and roll classics Johnny B Goode and Blue Suede Shoes act as filler between the improvised jams.

1972 War Heroes (1972) More studio out-takes, including covers of Elmore James’ Bleeding Heart and The Peter Gunn Theme, plus a brace of excellent Hendrix originals in Stepping Stone and Izabella.

1973

1974 Midnight Lightning (1975) Another Douglas compilation culled from studio off cuts and once again dubiously doctored and overdubbed, although the studio reworking of Hear My Train A Comin’ is impressive.

1975

raw, earthy power of blues, the dynamic rhythms of R&B and soul, the kick of rock and roll, the fiery syncopation of funk, the subtlety of jazz, the melodic felicity of pop and the euphoric surge of psychedelia into something boldly experimental and new, creating some of the most memorable and enduring recordings in the entire canon of popular music. Although he blazed like a shooting star and seemed to arrive fully formed as the wild man of rock trailing clouds of ineffable psych-glory, in reality his rise was far from meteoric, and there was a long apprenticeship, learning his trade, honing his skills and biding his time while backing artists who had just a fraction of his talent. He was born James Marshall Hendrix in Seattle, Washington back on November 27,

Nine to the Universe (1980) Five extended studio jams recorded by Hendrix in 1969, none of which were written or played as individually named songs and were never intended for release.

1980

1982

The Jimi Hendrix Concerts (1982) A dozen tracks recorded at various concerts between 1968-70. All but two of the songs were recorded with the original Experience and the bulk of the material comes from the first two studio LPs.

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musician was now free to begin, as he eked out a living as a sideman, backing the likes of the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. In 1965 he joined Curtis Knight and the Squires, a New York-based rhythm and blues band but frustrated by the limitations of being a backing musician, in 1966 Hendrix renamed himself Jimmy James and formed The Blue Flames – who included future Spirit guitarist Randy California – and started playing the clubs in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It was there that he was spotted by Linda Keith, a girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and subject of the song Ruby Tuesday, who immediately switched affiliation and lent Hendrix a white Fender Stratocaster that belonged to the Rolling Stones’ guitarist, as his own guitar was at the time under the ownership of a pawn shop.

Smash and grab After pressure from the black power movement, Hendrix broke up the Experience in June 1969

1942, primarily of African-American extraction, but with a smattering of both Cherokee and white slave owner’s blood in his DNA. Described as a “shy and sensitive boy”, young Jimi didn’t start playing an instrument until he was 14 – a broken, one-stringed ukulele he found among the garbage. A year later he got his first guitar proper, an acoustic model costing five dollars. He taught himself to play and the first tune he learnt was Henry Mancini’s theme for the TV series Peter Gunn. Spending long hours listening to old blues records, he soon mastered the licks of Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin and BB King. When he joined his first amateur band, The Velvetones, he was still playing an acoustic guitar, until his father Al bought him his first electric instrument, a white Supro Ozark, in 1959. It was a right-handed model and Hendrix had taught himself to play left handed; so he restrung it and played it

‘upside down’, a practice he would follow throughout his career. In 1961 at the age of 19 he joined the US army – essentially to avoid a spell in prison after he had been caught riding in a stolen car. He trained as a paratrooper, but to no great surprise military discipline didn’t

Hendrix released his first album in May 1967 and died less than three and a half years later really agree with him. He spent every spare moment playing his guitar and an army report concluded that he had “no interest whatsoever in the army” and would “never come up to the standards required of a soldier.” Discharged on the grounds of “unsuitability” in 1962, his career as a professional

Live At Winterland (1987) Recorded in San Francisco in 1968, the ‘hits’ from the studio albums are augmented by a Cream tribute on Sunshine Of Your Love and a great version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor.

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1987

BBC Sessions (1998) This two-CD set collects 38 recordings from various BBC appearances, including one-off versions of songs such as Day Tripper, Hound Dog and Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.

First Rays of the New Rising Sun (1997) An attempt to recreate the fourth studio album Hendrix might have released had he lived. This pulled together his final studio sessions into a coherent whole.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986) Some of Hendrix’s 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival performance had previously been available, but here the full nine song set was presented for the first time.

1986

Richards never got his girlfriend back or his guitar after Hendrix smashed it up on stage during a showcase at the Cafe Au Go-Go, trying to impress the record producer Seymour Stein, whom Keith had invited along to see him perform. Stein passed on signing Hendrix, but Chas Chandler, the former bassist with The Animals, who had ambitions to move into production, took him on as his first client and astutely concluded that London – at the time the hippest musical city in the world and home to The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces and Cream – was the place to launch his swaggering, flamboyant future superstar. With Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell swiftly recruited on bass and drums respectively, The Jimi Hendrix Experience played its first gigs in October 1966 and was soon the talk of the town. It was still the era of the 45rpm single as pop’s premier medium and the top 10 singles Hey Joe and Purple Haze introduced Hendrix to an unsuspecting world before the debut album Are You Experienced? appeared in May 1967. By the end of the year it had been followed by Axis: Bold As Love and the double LP Electric Ladyland, with its gatefold sleeve

1996 South Saturn Delta (1997) Another 15 tracks culled from studio out-takes that didn’t fit the concept of First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. Many had appeared elsewhere in scatter-gun form in the seventies.

1997

1998 Live at Woodstock (1999) The complete set of his most famous performance. There’s a fair amount of random noodling “You can leave if you want to. We’re just jamming, that’s all,” Hendrix even says at one point.

1999


MUSIC LEGENDS JIMI HENDRIX

Picture credit: Nigel Dickson/© Authentic Hendrix

Hendrix famously played left handed with his guitar held upside down

of 19 naked women, appeared in 1968. Together with Cream, Hendrix and the Experience potently defined the concept of the ‘power trio’. But despite the obvious debt of such bands to the electric blues riffs of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy, sixties rock music was a predominantly white manifestation, both in terms of those playing it and the music’s fan base. Although his backing musicians, Redding and Mitchell, were white, as were most of his audience, Hendrix went a long way to redressing this imbalance. Nevertheless, in America he was coming under increasing pressure from the black power movement to be more visible in the civil rights struggle and to show solidarity with his ‘brothers’. For many of his critics, this meant playing with black musicians and at the end of an American tour, he broke up the Experience in June 1969. He played at Woodstock two

months later (see box), with a multi-racial band, but by the end of the year he had formed the Band of Gypsys, an all-black power trio with bassist Buddy Cox, an old US Army buddy, and Buddy Miles on drums. Yet these were turbulent times and the Band Of Gypsys was short lived, releasing jjust one live album. With Cox retained on bass but Mitchell restored to the drum stool, Hendrix undertook his final American tour in the summer of 1970, the highlight of w which was an appearance in front of 500,000 people at the Atlanta International Pop Festival, on July 4, during which he performed his rendition of The Star Spangled B Banner to accompany the American Independence Day fireworks display. It was the biggest crowd he played to in his entire career and his spectacular set was eventually released some 45 years later. Hendrix’s final months on earth were restless and his last few gigs unsatisfying. He w was taking to the stage messed up on drugs and by the time he set out on the European leg of the tour, it was evident he didn’t really w want to be on the road at all. An appearance at the Isle of Wight festival on August 30 fell well short of his best and three days later he abandoned a concert in Germany after three songs, telling the audience, “I’ve been dead a long time.”

People, Hell and Angels (2013) One last, final trawl of the unreleased studio tapes drawn from sessions in 1968 and 1969 for what was intended to be the follow up to Electric Ladyland. One for completists only.

2013

Hendrix was due on stage at Woodstock at midnight on Sunday 17 August 1969, to close the three-day festival. But technical and weather delays caused the timetable to over run into Monday morning and by the time he eventually took the stage it was gone 8am. Backed by Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums plus rhythm guitarist Larry Lee and conga players Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez – the only time the six piece lineup appeared together – the band was introduced as The Jimi Hendrix Experience. In fact, he’d broken up the Experience two months earlier and clarified: “We decided to change the whole thing around and call it Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. For short, it’s nothing but a Band of Gypsys”. By the time he took the stage, the massive audience of 500,000 had thinned out considerably to fewer than 200,000. Dressed in a white-fringed leather jacket with a red bandana, Hendrix had reportedly been up for three days, but played an epic set that included perhaps the most electrifying performance of his career: a deconstruction of The Star-Spangled Banner soaked in feedback and distortion with his guitar simulating the sounds of exploding bombs and machine gun fire, and which seemed to channel a generation’s disillusion with the American dream and the Vietnam war. Although there are more than 40 live recordings of Hendrix playing the American national anthem in concert during 1968-70, the movie of the festival ensured that the Woodstock version – performed solo in the middle of a long medley which also included Voodoo Chile and Purple Haze – is the most iconic and has come to be seen as the defining moment of the most famous festival in rock history.

Excuse me while I kiss the sky

Just 16 days later, his corpse lay in the morgue. After making his last appearance on stage jamming with Eric Burdon and War at Ronnie Scott’s club in London’s Soho on September 16, he spent the next day with girlfriend Monika Dannemann. On the morning of September 18, she found him unconscious in their bed. Unable to wake him, she summoned an ambulance but it was too late. A post-mortem concluded that he had choked on his own vomit and died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates. Although his final weeks were messy and confused, there were signs that he was on the cusp of a new surge of creativity. He had just opened his own studio, Electric Lady, in New York, and had been working and talking enthusiastically about a new style

Live at Berkeley (2003) The Hendrix/Mitchell/Cox lineup captured live in May 1970, including a nuclear version of Machine Gun and revealing versions of embryonic new songs Pass It On (Straight Ahead) and Hey Baby (New Rising Sun).

2003

WOODSTOCK

2015 Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival (2015) The biggest crowd Hendrix ever played to in his career, recorded in concert on July 4, 1970 – and it’s one of his last great performances with a set of tightly focussed songs augmented by a brace of extended blues workouts on Red House and Hear My Train A Comin’.

and direction. There was also talk of collaborating with Miles Davis, who attended his funeral. There are hints of where his muse might have taken him on posthumous releases such as Cry Of Love and First Rays Of The New Rising Sun; but for the most part the dreams of a new kind of musical freedom which he described as “electric church” went undeveloped – not least because on stage he remained shackled to the power trio format, one of the main reasons, perhaps, why his final performances seemed to leave him unsatisfied and frustrated. Since his death there has been a quite staggering number of posthumous releases, many of which are stellar live recordings, others gathering together studio recordings in an attempt to reconstruct the albums he might have been planning. We will never know what further heights he might have scaled if he had lived. But that he revolutionised popular music once in his short, frenetic career was enough and for that alone we should be grateful. NW YEARBOOK 2016

137


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OPINION

Room for improvement A lot of consideration is given to which components go into our hi-fi systems, but Chris Ward believes that taking a look at the room they’re placed in is equally important

e regularly get asked on the Letters pages about the proportion of budget to spend on the various elements of a hi-fi system. I find that people approach a new set up as three major purchases – source, amplification and speakers, with an increasing number acknowledging the importance of power cords, interconnects and speaker cables. Historically there have been three main schools of thought around system building – ‘source-led’, ‘balanced’ or ‘speaker-led’. The ‘source-led’ argument is based on the premise that if you don’t start with vital information, retrieved from your music medium of choice, how can it appear later in the signal chain. The ‘balanced’ investment argument suggests that there are few areas of life where focusing too much budget in one specific area produces a great result. And the ‘speaker-led’ argument is similar to the source-led thinking. If you can’t do a top job of transducing all silent electrical energy into audible acoustic energy, there is little point generating it in the first place. But I’d like to consider a different strategy. My starting point is the one component nobody mentions… the room, or more precisely, the relationship between the room and the speakers. Your room (and everything in it) is the hi-fi component that affects how sound energy is conveyed and perceived. It’s simple enough to visualise a conventional loudspeaker as drivers (commonly) in a box, but deeper insights come when one imagines those same drivers inside another larger box – that is your listening room. Think of this as a total enclosure eco system. Huge speaker drivers in a tiny room can easily build up uncomfortable sound pressures and over drive the room. Similarly, tiny drivers might feel lacklustre and unable to generate sufficient energy to represent music. All musical frequencies are important, but I believe getting bass energy correct within a room sets one up for success. Increasingly I see bass energy as the foundation stone on which to build anything musical. If bass is uneven, lumpy or ill fitting, then the vital mid tones that the human brain is so sensitive to are easily compromised. Rather than thinking about budget as the starting point, think instead about the physical nature of a speaker that inherently wants to drive the room correctly. In practice this may come from some Goldilocks experiments, with some designs being far too powerful and others being too restrained, while a few are just right. Speaker placement is inextricably linked to finding this balance as the bass energy

W

10cm of movement can change the way bass energy wants to fit in your space

from most conventional speakers is hugely affected by proximity to walls, especially with rear-ported designs. And while it’s tempting to generate more bass energy by placing small speakers near walls or corners, this may only energise certain overpowering room node frequencies or eigentones. It’s tempting to imagine that bringing speakers into completely free space is superior, but this rarely works in practice. The practicalities of room layout means that sofas, chairs, fireplaces, tables and TVs all need to find their space alongside speakers. More curiously, have you ever heard speakers in completely free space? Put your speakers outside on a patio on a summer’s day and they’ll probably sound thin and uninteresting.

Loudspeaker placement and the stuff that you fill your room with can have a huge impact on system sound

Know your space Given that front or rear-ported standmounts, floorstanders, transmission lines, sealed boxes, electrostatic panels and many other speaker designs all generate their bass energy in very different ways, it really pays to get an experienced pair of ears involved. An expert can look at your listening space, understand the speaker location constraints and know the nature of the designs that will best fit the bill. Get appropriate designs in your room and deeper sound energy can start to feel balanced. Small adjustments can significantly alter the bass wavelengths that are perceived as boosted or reduced. Given the wavelengths involved, even 10cm of movement in speakers or listening position can markedly change the way that bass energy wants to fit in your space. Returning to the idea that your listening room is an integrated acoustic enclosure around your speakers, opening doors or windows will ‘port’ that space. Similarly, professional bass traps are expensive and unsightly, but the chances are you already have a sofa or comfy chairs that could be perfect bass baffles to tweak how that space reacts to lower wavelength energy. Some purists say that the first amplified watt is the most important. Maybe this approach here hypothesises that the first 200Hz are the most important. Have a play and let us know how it works out for you and your system ●

CHRIS WARD Space man

YEARBOOK 2016

139


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM ASTELL&KERN/AUDEZE

COMPONENTS

ASTELL&KERN AK380/ AK380 AMP £3,000/£500 Flagship of the Astell&Kern portable range, the AK380 packs state-of-the-art decoding and processing into a striking all-metal chassis that can be augmented with the external amplifier.

AUDEZE LCD-3 £1,500 Audeze’s hefty LCD-3 headphone features a pair of large planar magnetic drivers in circular mountings with double-sided magnetic driver elements. The enclosures are heavily padded for comfortable long-term listening.

140

YEARBOOK 2016


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM ASTELL&KERN/AUDEZE

Pocket

Symphony Can a portable system really be truly beautiful? It’s time to venture into the great outdoors to find out

iven the notionally simple premise of Beautiful System, it might come as a surprise to learn that it is periodically a source of angst to its creators. Rather than simply serve up a stack of kit made from exciting corners of the periodic table over and over again, we seek to find beauty in more unexpected combinations and routinely ask ourselves what a beautiful system really can be. In the course of a recent discussion we realised that we had never featured a completely portable setup, so our thoughts swiftly turned to the mechanics of such a thing. Are portable systems beautiful? They’re frequently extremely clever and they’re unquestionably a godsend at drowning out the inanities of fellow commuters and workmates, but in themselves they are generally utilitarian rather than beautiful. Like most rules though, there is an exception and that – as so often is the case with portables – comes courtesy of Astell&Kern. The company has produced an impressive range of portable audio players that are unconstrained by the normal restrictions of the breed. Sitting at the top of the pile is the AK380, a portable player that features the sort of specification you’d be impressed with in a full-size digital source, let alone one that fits in a

G

YEARBOOK 2016

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BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM ASTELL&KERN/AUDEZE

pocket. Built around a pair of AKM AK4490 DACs and a precision clock accurate to the femtosecond, the AK380 can handle files up to 32-bit/384kHz without compression or conversion. It can also handle DSD with no conversion taking place during the decoding process, which requires serious processing horsepower.

Come fly with me

All this is coupled to a DSP-controlled 20-band parametric EQ system that can be adjusted on the fly. If you find yourself disdainful of such a thing, you can of course switch it off, but you’ll be missing out on the ability to perfectly match the AK380 to the characteristics of the headphones or earphones you’ve partnered it with. Furthermore, although the technology behind the EQ is undoubtedly frighteningly complex, using it is simple and entirely straightforward. To make sure, you are left in no doubt as to the AK380’s flagship status, Astell&Kern has wrapped it in a chassis that looks and feels utterly unlike anything else that’s currently available on the market. Constructed from duralumin (an aircraft-spec aluminium), it is extremely solid and substantial as you might expect. What you might not expect, however, is that the design itself is far bolder than it 142

YEARBOOK 2016

may seem on a cursory inspection. The whole chassis is partially staggered so that while the display is vertical, the outer edges run diagonally to it. Combined with the deep, angled indentations around the rotary volume control, the AK380 feels like the sort of thing that architect Frank Gehry might come up with if he ever fancied trying his hand at designing an audio player.

Delivers a sound that stretches the limits of what near-field listening can achieve This particular AK380 comes bolstered with a matching external amplifier (AK380 AMP) for greater battery capacity and a more powerful headphone amplifier. This shouldn’t be taken as a critique that the basic unit is underpowered, but more that this sample has been supplied with a pair of headphones that would cause most portable players to give up and go home. The Audeze LCD-3 is part of the upper echelons of its range and makes no concessions whatsoever to being used with portable devices. The LCD-3 is built around a pair of planar magnetic drivers mounted in

Above left: Detachable AK380 AMP lends extra power and battery life where needed Above centre: The LCD-3 is capable of making you forget you’re wearing headphones Above right: Exquisite details separate the A&K from more mainstream portable players

large open-backed enclosures. As each driver is no less than 106mm across and given that planar magnetic designs aren’t terribly sensitive at the best of times, it represents a fair show of confidence on the part of Astell&Kern to select it. Aesthetically, the pairing makes much more sense. The LCD-3 is less overtly modern than the AK380, but it is still a striking and rather handsome piece of industrial design. Everything is there for a reason (with the possible and wholly noble exception of the wood trim) and the attention to detail that has gone into the design is seriously impressive.

Great expectations

The pairing of AK380 and LCD-3 packs state-of-the-art technology and enough design flair to certainly warrant consideration as beautiful, but can they honestly deliver a performance to move them beyond a convenience feature to something more? Beautiful System is above such considerations as value, but this is a significant amount of money for a portable system and this combo has a lot to live up to. Perhaps the best way to answer these questions is with my own state of mind after 10 minutes of listening to a 24/48 download of Peter


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM ASTELL&KERN/AUDEZE

Gabriel’s So. I’ve heard this album hundreds of times. It acts as a fixed point of reference to allow me to determine what the electronics are really doing. Tellingly, my notes for this period could be transcribed on the back of a postage stamp. Not only does this duo entirely bypass the analytical side of my brain, it does a convincing number on the sensory side too as I also rapidly forget that I am listening to a portable system.

Disappearing act

What this pairing does is effortlessly convert its impressive engineering and technology into a visceral musical experience. The Audeze simply ignores the supposed limitations of headphone listening in a way that makes going back to any other pair of cans as claustrophobic as being shoved into the boot of a car. The LCD-3 is so completely free of any constraint in the scale and space of its presentation that it completely vanishes. Sound arrives at the ear without anything so crude as a physical speaker in the way. It is aided in this neat conjuring trick by the AK380, which manages to take its highly sophisticated decoding and sound – more than anything else – like analogue mastering tape. The sound is unfailingly accurate, detailed and

CONTACT DETAILS DISTRIBUTOR Computers Unlimited TELEPHONE 0208 2008282 WEBSITES astellnkern.com; unlimited.com

tonally even, but it is completely free from any sense of digital processing. It is at times startlingly vivid too. Listen to Pretty Good Year by Tori Amos and the vocals are as tangible as if they were being sung live into your ear. There’s plenty of grip on offer for more high-energy material as well. If you decide to stop playing nice and stick on Art Angels by Grimes, the

The AK380 feels like the sort of thing that architect Frank Gehry might come up with AK380 hammers its way through California with the bass, the swagger and above all, the sense of fun that is really needed to make this track work. This is a system unfazed by any genre you can think of and which can then play it back at pretty much any volume level you fancy. In keeping with any good system, this duo sounds good with excellent recordings. It is the mark of a truly great system that it also sounds fantastic with less than perfect material as well. And like all really great systems, it makes no great demands of the listener. The interface of the AK380 is

slick and totally self explanatory and the album cover collage option for browsing is gorgeous. Meanwhile, the LCD-3 is a big headphone, but the well-judged weight distribution and very high comfort levels help it disappear when wearing. The additional amplifier adds a little more bulk to the portable player, but not so much that it won’t fit comfortably into a trouser pocket.

Control freak

Above all, the AK380 has the control and headroom needed to run this demanding headphone. I’ll head off any thoughts about just how ‘portable’ this pairing really is by adding that you could just as easily use the AK380 on its own with any earphones during the day and come home, attach the AK380 AMP and the LCD-3 headphones and achieve your very own personal hi-fi nirvana. This is a pairing that delivers a sound that stretches the limits of what near-field listening can achieve and does so from equipment that is built to an incredible standard and exactingly thought out. Above all, it feels special enough to comfortably warrant inclusion as a Beautiful System ensuring that life on the move doesn’t mean that you need to forgo some serious audio brilliance. ES YEARBOOK 2016

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Call: 0845 6019390

Email: choice@2ndhandhifi.co.uk

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399

Spendor BC1, near mint boxed

used Due in

Whest Audio 30RDT Phono stage, vgc+

NAIM NAP140, excellent boxed

used

349

VDH Colibri M/C cartridge, as new boxed, REDUCED

x/d 2749

used 1549

NAIM NAP250/2, 2014 model, nr mint boxed

Radio/Recorders Cambridge Audio D300DAB Tuner, vgc+

used

69

Fostex G16, 16 track Reel to Reel, amazing!

used

Call

x/d 2499

Accessories/Cables

Sonus Faber Venere Centre channel excellent

999

Totem Mite in black, ex dealer demo

x/d

Usher Mini Dancer 1, excellent boxed

x/d 1299

379

Usher S520, excellent boxed

x/d

Usher Be20DMD, nr mint boxed

x/d

999

Usher N Series. Various

x/d

Call

229

NAIM Supernait 2, 2014 excellent boxed

used 1999

Audeze headphones, most models ex demo

x/d

Call

NAIM NAP250 2002 model Class A serviced 2015

used 1199

Elemental Audio speaker stands

x/d

449

NAIM NAP200, 2008 excellent boxed

used

Grado headphones many models

x/d

Call

M2Tech Harley headphone amplifier

used

Call

used 1399

NAIM Flatcap 2X

used

339

used 2499

NAIM HiLine, boxed

used

429

used

NAIM Powerline, boxed

used

339

Special system deals

used 1499

NAIM Supercap Olive, boxed choice from

used

779

Arcam Solo Mini, remote boxed

used

279

used

499

NAIM Supercap 2, vgc+ from 2002

used 1549

Arcam Solo Mini and Usher S520s

used

279

949

Mitsubishi DA-F10, excellent

used

229

Musical Fidelity A3 RDS Tuner, excellent

used

199 Pathos InPol Remix Hi Dac, ex dem,

NAIM NAT101 & SNAPS, excellent £500 NAIM service

used

879 Pathos Logos Integrated, excellent,

Naim UnitiServe, near mint boxed

Quad FM4, vgc, serviced

used 1279 Pathos TT Anniversary, nr mint crated used 449 Primare I21, excellent used 79 Primare Pre32 with MM30 module, boxed used 139 used 79 Quad QC24 preamplifier, excellent boxed

Devialet 400 & Magneplanar MG3.7i speakers

used 9979

Revox PR99, crated, REDUCED

used

729 Quad Artera Stereo Power amp, nr mint boxed

used

879

NAIM HiCap, Olive with SNAIC

used

379

Devialet 200 & Magneplanar MG1.7 speakers

used 5249

Revox A77, just serviced, great condition

used

used

199

Oppo HA1 Headphone Amp excellent

used

729

Naim Muso nr mint boxed

used

Revox B77, just serviced, great condition

used

399

used

729

Naim UnitiQute 2 with Unitiserve

used 1999

used

x/d

Pathos Aurium Headphone amplifier

Rotel RT850, excellent Sony STDB900 DAB/AM/FM Tuner, excellent

used

Stax 404/006 system

used

Call

TEAC X1000M, serviced, superb

used

Call Quad 405, excellent condition Call Rega Brio R, excellent boxed 29 Roksan Caspain M2 Integrated, near mint boxed 99 549 Sugden Masterclass Monoblocks

used 3899

Stax 4070 closed system, excellent RARE!

used 2399

Naim SuperUniti, nr mint boxed

Technics RS1500 in flightcase near mint

used 2249 Tandberg TPA3003 Power amplifier, excellent!

used

Stax Omega 007 system, excellent boxed

used 2399

Scansonic USB100 Turntable & Active Speakers

Nakamichi 680zx, vgc Pure 702ES DAB/FM Tuner, excellent Quad FM3, vgc

x/d 1999

429

x/d 1349

479

Vandersteen Quattro, accessories, transformers

used 2899

Veritas H3 (Lowthers) gloss black, 100db,

x/d 2399

Wilson Benesch Square Two Mk2, boxed

used 1349

679

Naim UnitiQute 2 with Usher S520s

used 1149

Naim UnitiQute 24/192

used

829

x/d 2949 new

349

Tel: 01642 267012 or 0845 6019390 Email: choice@2ndhandhifi.co.uk


OPINION

Some really Top Gear Unimpressed by the reboot of the BBC's flagship TV show, David Vivian has a few ideas for Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc. The revolutions will be televised after all

t may not have escaped your notice that the re-launch of everyone’s favourite car show, with new presenters Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc, hasn’t ignited the nation's combustion chamber. The major beef seems to be that, contrary to all the promises, it’s a lightly microwaved version of what had already become a moribund format, only not as good. And if you think those remarks are forced and lame, that seems to be precisely the problem with new, not improved, Top Gear. It isn’t funny, just clapped out. It got me thinking. Do you remember that story some years ago, apparently true, where model Kate Moss on being introduced to Jeremy Clarkson – who was admittedly less famous than he is today – asked what he did? Clarkson naturally replied "Top Gear". "Are you trying to sell me drugs?" she asked. Very amusing for onlookers. But, looking back, I think Kate’s faux pas may have pointed up a future direction for a show that, in 2015, had already reached the end of the road. Instead of being a reference to a car’s transmission, the show's title could adopt its looser, more generic slang meaning. No, not what Kate Moss was referring to, but good stuff, ace kit, top gear. Not to put too fine a point on it, hi-fi equipment. Why not? Maybe it wouldn’t work as a subject on its own – we don’t want another Gadget Show – but it could be the kind of mash up that, at the very least, might open some so-far unexplored avenues for presenters and, who knows, include antics from other shows, too. I’ve got a few ideas. They’re not very good but, hey, who can afford to be picky right now? To kick off the new, revamped Top Gear I’d suggest a tribute to American composer John Cage who, in 1952, wrote a threemovement piece called Four Minutes, 33 Seconds. As those familiar with the work will know, that’s 4:33 of complete silence. Chis and Matt would sit cross-legged on the floor looking straight at the camera with impassive (possibly contemplative) expressions and their mouths firmly shut for that iconic gobbet of time. Memories of Evans shouting his way through the entire length of the season opener and Matt’s staggeringly incongruous "lighter than your mother’s G-string" reference to the weight of the Ariel Nomad he drove would be cleansed and segue nicely into a much gentler and more cerebral style of show. Who am I kidding? Top Gear loves its raw and ragged showdowns and drag races so, yeah, we’re talking a

I

How many REL subs does it take to blow the doors off an Austin Allegro?

studio-based sound-off slap-down. Which sound source truly melts the decibel meter’s needle, a V12 Lamborghini Aventador at 8,000rpm or a pair of flat-out Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF loudspeakers? And, keeping it musical, how many REL subwoofers does it take to blow the doors off an Austin Allegro? Here’s the twist. Maybe, just maybe, the formidable combined shouting talents of Brian Blessed and Chris Evans trump all. This is the stuff we need to know. The studio layout would have to change, too. Keep the huge hangar and permanently chortling live audience, but get rid of that big car engine table and the adapted car seat armchairs. What’s needed now, to respect the vinyl revival zeitgeist, is a giant, fully operational turntable big enough to accommodate the presenters and their guests. I’d incline towards a replica Technics SL-1200, complete with jumbo direct-drive motor so that, if they wished, the presenters could carry on the childish tradition of talking about ‘torques’ instead of torque during discussion of the SL-1200’s legendary adequacy in this department.

We can dream, can't we?

Look who's torque-ing Apart from its topicality, I see several advantages in having the presenters do their stuff on a giant rotating turntable. One, watching Evans and Le Blanc trying to stay on their feet while talking to a stationary camera would, at least, be quite funny and thus elevate the entertainment value of the show at a stroke without the need to hire Barry Cryer to write some quality one liners. Two, there’d be an opportunity to pinch and modify an idea from another show. Instead of Graham Norton’s big red chair – in which a member of the audience is invited to sit and tell a funny story under the threat of being tipped off it backwards if the yarn doesn’t measure up – there’d be the big red 78rpm button that a member of the audience could hit if the presenters started talking about doing yet another Reliant Robin challenge, thus launching them, thanks to the Technics’ many torques, into the arms of the adoring fans. Desperate times, desperate measures ●

DAVID VIVIAN Driving ambition

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BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM BOENICKE/KONUS AUDIO

Miracle workers Two brands with a reputation for doing things their own way combine forces and you’ll be blown away by the results ometimes, the combination of products we assemble for a Beautiful System speak for themselves, combining as they do well-known partnering brands or technology that obviously complements the other. You will be forgiven for not immediately seeing the connection between these grey boxes and a pair of diminutive but elegant small floorstanders, but there is a reason for their partnering up. Both Konus Audio and Boenicke are companies with a philosophy of doing things their own way. This means that in some regards, this system is exactly in keeping with received wisdom and in others completely at loggerheads

S

with it. With both brands, the idea has never been to be different for the sake of it – there’s method to the madness. In the case of Konus Audio, the inspiration for the Integrale amplifier and Digitale DAC is one of applied simplicity. The core thinking behind the company’s products is that adding engineering complexity to the design of the circuit and component often introduces a different set of problems to overcome. By paring back the number of components and the roles the product is asked to perform, you can attain a level of performance that is unmatchable by any other method. This means that the Integrale is an integrated amplifier boasting a

COMPONENTS

KONUS AUDIO DIGITALE DAC £2,299 The Digitale is a two-input, line-level DAC built around the principles of short circuit paths and extremely simple circuitry in order to produce the best possible sound quality.

KONUS AUDIO INTEGRALE AMPLIFIER £2,299 The Integrale is a matching twin input amplifier that offers 33W into 8ohm that is output via a single set of hefty speaker terminals. Different colour casework options are also available. The enclosures are heavily padded for comfortable long-term listening.

BOENICKE AUDIO W8 LOUDSPEAKER £5,500 The W8 is the smallest floorstander in the Boenicke range and manages to pack no less than four separate drivers into its small but distinctive cabinet made from two matching wood sections.

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princely 33W into 8ohm. The execution is admirably close in concept to the classic ‘straight wire with gain’, with only a volume control by way of human interaction. 33W isn’t the sort of number that has you imagining a PA system, but it’s enough power to drive a wider range of speakers than you might at first assume. Two RCA line inputs are fitted and output is by a hefty single set of speaker terminals.

Instead it marks the division between the two solid halves of the cabinet. Internally, this is divided into chambers and sections with the divisions all forming part of the same single piece. Into this labyrinth of passages are placed four drivers per speaker. Visible at the front is a combination of 4in paper cone with distinctive wooden dust cap and a 3in-wide band driver that together cover almost the full

Glass half full

This stunning setup is attractive, easy to use and unconcerned about placement

The matching Digitale DAC is no less purist. This is a line-level only design with a single coaxial and USB input apiece. The internals make simplicity the primary focus of the design, including short signal paths and minimalist implementations, but there are some useful real-world features like the ability to handle hi-res digital via USB. Both units are very roughly equivalent to half-width size and can fit side by side on a conventional equipment rack. The Boenicke W8 that accompanies the electronics is the more visually striking of the components and that visual impact gives some clues that in design terms, these are in no way conventional speakers. That line down the centre of the cabinet is not some shortcoming of the veneering process. 148

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frequency range the speaker is asked to. There is a tweeter, but it lurks on the back of the speaker and acts to fill out the very upper registers. The low end in turn is augmented by a 6.5in driver on the side of the cabinet. You might assume such an arrangement might require an extensive crossover implementation, but instead the W8 crosses over only so far as to prevent the smaller drivers being overwhelmed. The end result is a tiny but utterly gorgeous loudspeaker. Standing just 770mm high, the W8 is smaller than most entry-level floorstanders, but the

Above left: Quite unlike any other speaker, the W8 is a stunning performer Above centre: The Konus Audio duo is minimalist, but effortlessly musical Above right: Simplicity is the order of the day, although lovely details abound

level of fit and finish coupled with the lovely industrial design means you are unlikely to ever feel short changed with it sitting in front of you. Sat in their grey casework complete with SPDT switches for input selection, the Konus Audio boxes on the other hand feel more like test equipment than home hi-fi – devices you switch on and then rely on for years without ever giving them a second thought.

Just an illusion

The moment, you hear this system for the first time is likely to be something that sticks in the memory, however. The human brain is an adaptable beast and it does a wonderful job of tying together what you see and hear in such a way as to make sense. This system overloads those finely honed processes as effectively as any conjuring trick. 33W into a pair of titchy floorstanders shouldn’t sound this big. It shouldn’t convey the effortlessness of a system with unlimited headroom or offer the sort of dynamics that bring to mind drivers the size of dinner plates and cabinets you could get changed in. Give this system, the hefty London Can Take It by Public Service Broadcasting and the performance is simply outstanding. The bass is deep,


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM BOENICKE/KONUS AUDIO

tight, detailed and perfectly integrated with a midrange that is spellbinding. The Boenicke is a speaker that has no need to embellish material it is given, it simply relies on there being so little of itself in the way of the music that you sit there slack jawed at the immediacy of it. The Konus pairing for its part combines a sense of matter-offact accuracy with a tonal sweetness that doesn’t alter the overall balance of the music, but instead gives it the merest hint of additional refinement of the sort that makes a poorer recording an order of magnitude more pleasant to listen to.

Size isn’t everything

Where the compact dimensions and terrestrial power output of these components do make themselves felt is that they have a speed and effortlessness with complex material that leaves most larger rivals trying to make their extra power and size felt. The lightning-fast guitar work of Bjørn Berge in his live performance of Trains is usually something that becomes unavoidably congested as a speaker struggles to differentiate the unstoppable flow of notes. Here, you can discern every single one of them. It’s the audio equivalent of watching sport at 120 frames per second – what

CONTACT DETAILS DISTRIBUTOR Midland Audio Exchange TELEPHONE 01562 731100 WEBSITES midlandaudioxchange.co.uk; boenicke-audio.ch; konus-audio.com

looks like sleight of hand at ‘normal’ speed becomes self explanatory when experienced this way. The final aspect of these electronics is perhaps the most compelling of all. The tonal realism of the system is extraordinary. Even after acclimatising myself to the discrepancy in physical size and the scale of the performance,

33W into a pair of titchy floorstanders really shouldn’t sound this big the ability of the Boenickes and Konus to reproduce a voice or instrument is enough to have me stop whatever I’m trying to do at the time and stare in rapt astonishment at them. Given the construction of the speaker, it might not be too surprising to discover that it handles stringed instruments in a way that makes most rivals sound like a bedside radio, but its performance with voices is such that it gets you wondering if Boenicke has also found a way to equip the W8 with lungs. What ties all of this astonishing ability together is that it is never matter of fact or workmanlike. For all the outstanding accuracy and

transparency, this system never forgets that the purpose of its existence is to bring a little joy to the business of listening to music. It doesn’t matter what you throw at it, almost independent of your state of mind, it sets to work improving your mood and providing a little escapism from whatever ails you at that moment. This isn’t a rock system, a setup for classical music and neither should it be considered an all-rounder. It is, in all senses of the word a music system.

The price is right

If this ability came at the expense of completely dominating a room and costing as much as a well-equipped sports car, I’d still be enthused, but the most impressive part of this system is that it is neither of these things – in fact barring portable and headphone Beautiful Systems, it is one of the smallest and easiest to accommodate setups we’ve ever featured and the price, while hardly inconsequential is not outlandish either. It’s attractive, easy to use and unconcerned about placement. In return, it produces a performance that has me wondering how on earth I spin out the business of giving it back. In this case, good things very definitely come in small packages. ES YEARBOOK 2016

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OPINION

Spot the difference Improvements brought about by audio upgrades are always going to be a contentious issue likely to cause some debate. Neville Roberts tackles the controversy head on

hen somebody spends their hard-earned cash on a new interconnect cable or mains lead, they naturally want to feel their investment is worthwhile. The process usually starts by allowing the upgrade to run in for an appropriate length of time and then spending a prolonged period listening and playing some familiar music. Hopefully, they start to feel reassured that they can hear some real benefits, but then ask the question “Am I fooling myself?”, so the next stage is to invite a friend or two around to listen. If all goes well, there is a general nodding of heads combined with utterances of appropriate superlatives. The initial euphoria brought on by this behaviour is short lived, however, as doubts begin to creep in – “What if my friends are just being nice?” So the final stage of reassurance is to find someone who is considered to be independent with no hidden agenda behind any expressed view or someone who has a reputation for telling it like it is. Possible candidates are a remote work associate who has an interest in audio, the next door neighbour or in my case my long-suffering wife. If they give their seal of approval, all is well and satisfaction with the purchase is complete. Of course, all this demands complete objectivity from all participants. Bias can take all sorts of forms both for and against a particular upgrade. It may be that someone is biased towards products from a manufacturer because they have had a good experience of their products in the past. Someone else may be prejudiced against an upgrade as it goes against what they believe to be the truth or, more subtly, what they want to believe to be the truth. Online discussion forums are full of people who fall into this category and passionately agree with each other that, for example, cable upgrades won’t make any difference to the sound because they all measure the same and are, in any case, just pieces of wire. It doesn’t matter how many times they swap out a cheap lead for a more expensive one, they won’t be convinced that there is a difference to the sound. This may be true and would certainly be the case if you upgrade the mains lead on an audio system purchased from a supermarket. The difficulty arises, however, when someone seeks an opinion from a group of people who won’t ever be convinced that a cable can make a difference. As Dale Carnegie, in his 1936 book How To Win Friends And Influence People famously said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” I was told of a situation

W

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It’s difficult to remain unbiased when listening to an upgrade

Measure for measure The problem is that you can’t just use measurements as the sole determining factor in deciding if an upgrade really works. The truth is that it would be arrogant to assume that we know everything there is to know about, for example, the physics of a cable. We live in a world where new, unexplained issues constantly arise. One of the latest mysteries puzzling scientists is the phenomenon of LED droop where the efficiency of white Light Emitting Diodes plummets when the current is increased. Answers on a postcard to assure your place in history! Returning to the subject of audio, many people are sceptical about claims of sonic benefits, which they consider to be unsubstantiated since they can’t be backed up with cold-hard scientific proof. The reality is that we may simply be unable to explain or measure the effect at this point in time. So, what do we do in the meantime? The answer is surprisingly easy; use your ears. When it comes to buying an item of audio, see if the supplier will let you borrow it or sell it on a sale-or-return basis. Then sit down and listen to it with a variety of music. Swap the item on trial in and out while listening to the same piece of music. It’s surprising how you become increasingly aware of the subtle changes. It would be incredibly satisfying to be able to explain why something sounds better on an audio system, but if I can’t I am content to simply enjoy the results ●

NEVILLE ROBERTS Lets his ears decide

Picture credit: Semmick Photo/Shutterstock

We live in a world where new and unexplained issues constantly arise

recently when someone was invited to listen to a system to evaluate the effect of an upgrade. They acknowledged that there was indeed an improvement and went on to describe the sonic changes that he could hear. When afterwards he was told that a mains cable was the only item that had been changed, he made all kinds of excuses, dismissed the mains cable as a contributory factor, and then left the premises.


JITTE RBUG USB Filter

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Can a £39 insect make all your CD files sound better than Hi-Res?

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Yes and no: Using the same equipment and a quality DAC, a 24/96 file (for example) will always sound better than a CD 16/44.1 file … but, even a single JitterBug will often allow a CD file to be more musical and more emotionally stimulating than a Hi-Res file without the benefit of a JitterBug. Noise is the problem. Real noise— the kind you can’t hear directly. Most often, the word “noise” is used to describe tape hiss or a scratch on a record, but these sounds aren’t noise; they are properly reproduced sounds that we wish weren’t there. Problem noise is essentially random, resonant or parasitic energy, which has no meaning. It can’t be turned into discrete sounds, but it does compromise signal integrity and the performance of everything it touches. JitterBug’s dual-function lineconditioning circuitry greatly reduces the noise and ringing that plague both the data and power lines of USB ports, whether on a computer, streamer, home stereo or car audio front-panel USB input. A single JitterBug is used in between devices (i.e., in series) as shown below. For an additional “wow” experience, try a second JitterBug into another USB port on the same device (such as a computer). Whether the second port is vacant, or is feeding a printer or charging a phone, JitterBug’s noise-reduction ability is likely to surprise you. No, the printer won’t be affected—only the audio! While a JitterBug helps MP3s sound a lot more like music, high-sample-rate files have the most noise vulnerability. Try a JitterBug or two on all your equipment, but never more than two per USB bus. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM AUDIO RESEARCH/SONUS FABER

Sonic masters Audio Research and Sonus faber have given us many memorable moments and Ed Selley suspects this might be an all time great s a reader of HFC, you are unquestionably someone of great knowledge and taste and I’ll wager even before you fully clocked the products that comprise this setup, you already knew on a subconscious level. This is two of the original high-end audio brands in partnership together. The products are new and their features and abilities have changed a little, but in essence this pairing is one of the hi-fi industry’s power couples.

A

COMPONENTS

AUDIO RESEARCH CD6 £7,998 The CD6 combines a top-loading CD transport with a selection of digital inputs that are fed into a 24/192kHz DAC that has separate clocks for PCM and S/PDIF sampling rates.

AUDIO RESEARCH GSI75 £14,500 The flagship integrated in the Audio Research range, the GSi75 combines a healthy power output from its four KT120 valves with an extremely extensive feature set including digital inputs.

SONUS FABER VENERE SIGNATURE £4,448 The flagship member of the Venere range, the Signature is a three-way floorstanding speaker that features a downward-firing reflex port that is intended to avoid conflict with the drivers and aid placement.

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Audio Research is one of the few companies that has been consistently committed to the use of valves throughout its existence – even to the point where doing so was almost painfully unfashionable. What is almost as important is that when the company does not see a benefit to using vacuum tubes, it chooses not to. And this is why the GSi75 integrated amplifier is blessed with a considerable compliment of them and the partnering CD6 CD player is not.

Of course, depending on your requirements, the GSi75 might be all the electronics you ever need. Within its sizable chassis is a valve preamp, power amp, phono stage, headphone amp and DAC, the latter of which can handle formats up to and including DSD. As it is built around a quartet of hefty KT150 output valves – each looking like a scale model of Norman Foster’s Gherkin – the output on tap is an entirely real-world relevant 75W into 8ohm.


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With all this wizardry in a single box, you might ask what the function of the matching CD6 CD player is. Quite apart from its ability to play CDs directly and without requiring any form of conversion to another format, there is the inescapable fact that there is enough of a ceremony to using its Philips Pro 12 CD mechanism to make even the little silver disc feel a bit special. If you are going to have a CD player at your disposal, why not make it a rather lovely one? Additionally, Audio Research has equipped it with its own digital inputs, which means that across both units this system can play host to a serious quota of sources.

Signature move

The setup is completed by a pair of Sonus faber Venere Signature floorstanders. These hefty towers were not part of the original Venere range and sport a few visual touches that are not shared with the smaller models. And I emphasise smaller because while the Venere 2.5 is a fairly sizeable speaker, the S is a real whopper, standing 1.2m tall and with a correspondingly greater volume thanks to its three 180mm bass drivers, which give it a real sense of purpose. This purpose doesn’t come at the expense of the Signature losing the 154

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qualities that make it a Sonus faber, though – in many ways quite the reverse. The bright work around the drivers compliments the wood finish in a way that doesn’t always come across in pictures and sets off a shape that has people wanting to interact with them. It might be big, but it has almost perfect proportions and it manages to look more expensive than it is. Combined with the Audio

Few rivals at this price so effortlessly achieve the balance between style and substance Research pairing, the result is a system that is never going to tuck itself away in the corner of a room but instead one that is going to dress it and provide a focal point. In some ways, the CD6 and GSi75 don’t feature ‘styling’ as everything on them is there to provide a means of controlling them. But the result of this simplicity is a pair of products that have real presence. This is not simply because in the case of the GSi75 in particular, they are seriously imposing bits of kit, but because they make no apologies for what they are. No less

Above left: Simple controls front an extremely sophisticated amplifier Above centre: The Signature is big, but exceptionally handsome Above right: With digital and analogue connectivity, this is a very flexible system indeed

clever is that they have a considerable amount of flexibility in their setup, but only if you desire it. If you don’t want to play with adjustable filters and balance settings, that’s fine.

Feel the music

What they are, above everything else is a means of making music something that is a visceral presence rather than a pleasing effect that happens at a safe distance. Starting off with Lloyd Miller And The Heliocentrics’ eponymously titled album, there is an electrifying sense of energy to the way these units make music. What makes this happen is a collection of attributes that combine to spectacular effect. The first is fairly self evident – with 75W on tap into a pair of speakers that are large and usefully sensitive, this system scales in a way that is utterly effortless. The plucked bass at the start of Electricone is utterly believable because there is real weight and texture to it. There is unquestionable tonal brilliance, too. The manner in which Audio Research employs valves ensures they are kept under a tight leash and the GSi75 puts in a very measured performance, although an intangible sense of life and energy to the way it handles instruments that is


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM AUDIO RESEARCH/SONUS FABER

rarely encountered in solid state remains. When you combine these two key skills with the ability to take a piece of music and – regardless of its scale and arrangement – ensure it reaches the listening position in a manner that is instantly and unequivocally logical, you don’t so much have an audio system as a live act generator.

Keeping control

Now, you might reasonably say that with a well-recorded piece of Jazz, this is hardly an enormous surprise. But what separates this system from pretenders to the throne is that if you do something uncouth like stick The Crystal Method’s Sine Language on at a volume level that could reasonably be described as ‘healthy’ the system remains absolutely in control of events. This is a congested and at times actively harsh recording, but the GSi75 finds the fury and energy while delivering ever syllable of the ridiculous lyrics and placing them atop a bass line that pairs serious heft with a fleetness of foot that seems impossible for a valve-driven speaker. In short, if you place them in a vaguely sensibly sized room, there is no genre of music at any level that won’t boil the fluid in your inner ear

CONTACT DETAILS DISTRIBUTOR Absolute Sounds TELEPHONE 0208 9713909 WEBSITES audioresearch.com sonusfaber.com absolutesounds.com

that will upset this trio of units. After a little while you appreciate that the relationship the components have with one another is greater than the sum of their parts. The CD6 has an accuracy and assurance that ensures that the material the GSi75 works on is an unfailingly accurate portrayal of the digital signal. The GSi75 then

of speaker for the asking price. It is as effortlessly happy delivering a single unamplified voice as it is standing in for a stadium PA system, and that it’s able to do this while feeling like a decent piece of furniture is worthy of note – few other rivals at the price walk so effortless a balancing act between style and substance.

This is a system that is never going to tuck itself away in the corner of the room

Coming up trumps

adds that intangible sense of realism and airiness without losing that all-important original tonal honesty and passes it on. What the Venere Signature does is – if anything – even more impressive. This is a speaker that is a third of the price of the GSi75 and yet it works in partnership with the Audio Research in a manner that would have you blissfully unaware of any such disparity. It is unquestionably big and beautiful, but it is also seriously capable at the business of tonal accuracy and timing. Beautiful Systems is above such trite considerations as value, but this is an enormous amount

In fact, this is an enormous amount of system full stop. As a means of unlocking the true joy in a music collection regardless of what it happens to be, this is a truly exceptional collection of equipment. It delivers at every level, from the simple joy of interacting with the Audio Research remotes that could be used for demolition work, to the moment when you hear something previously unsuspected in a piece of music that you have heard hundreds of times before. Both Audio Research and Sonus faber have been tweaking their offerings to make them more suitable for the requirements of 2016, but at their core they haven’t forgotten that their purpose is to deliver music at its very purest. There’s a reason why this system triggers instant recognition and that’s because it is quite simply exceptional YEARBOOK 2016

155


OPINION

The big re-issue One way or another, Christmas can be a fairly unforgiving time for music lovers, but perhaps the biggest affront for Nigel Williamson is the recent trend of the boxset

or music fans, this time of year can seem like the season from hell. Even before the clocks go back, a trip to the supermarket finds one harangued by infuriating jingles and madly irritating songs about little drummer boys and sleigh bells. Carole King once sang that “it might as well rain until September”. But then it has to stop, for come October the rain turns to snow, at least in the canned ‘seasonal’ music we’re forced to endure for what seems like months in advance of the actual event. To make matters worse, record companies stop releasing decent new music and put out artless cash ins called ‘holiday albums’, a pointless and misleading euphemism designed not to offend those of other faiths. Even credible artists feel compelled to release these abominations; alongside the crass commercialism of Michael Bublé we have to file Bob Dylan’s frightful 2009 offering, Christmas In The Heart. To be fair, this is mostly an American phenomenon; the US trade magazine Billboard even has an annual ‘holiday albums’ chart, which it launches with ridiculously premature over excitement around the middle of October. In Britain the ‘holiday album’ takes second place to endless vapid speculation about which daft novelty single will make it to the Christmas number one spot. As the supply of interesting new music freezes up, those of us that adopt a ‘bah humbug’ attitude to ‘holiday albums’ are offered the expensive compensation of that other staple of the festive season, the serious box set. This can be a simple repackaging of an artist’s back catalogue dressed in new livery to persuade us to buy music we already own by adding a miserly handful of hard-to-find B sides and other must-have ‘rarities’. Or it can be hours of previously unheard music deemed by the artist or the label to have been unworthy of release at the time. A typically wallet-emptying, mega boxset market-leader has to be the Noble-prize winning artist’s Bob Dylan 1965-1966: The Cutting Edge, which is available in various configurations including a 379-track version spread over 12 discs and an absolute steal at just $600. But in musical obesity, even this has been trumped by the Grateful Dead, whose 30 Trips Around The Sun boxset in its maximum configuration contains 80 discs chronicling 30 concerts, one from every year of the band’s 30-year existence. You’d have to stay up for three days and nights

F

Every anniversary of a classic album seems to bring a desperate reissue

156

YEARBOOK 2016

on end to play it all in a single sitting. Am I alone in thinking that dredging the vaults to release every fart, burp and gurgle from the studio sessions that produced a great and much-loved record has now reached preposterous proportions? Do we really need warts-andall versions of our favourite albums in which we get to hear every acoustic demo, false take and bum note, which the original producer sensibly decided to leave on the cutting-room floor? The phenomenon is no longer restricted to the seasonal market, but now goes on all year round. Every significant anniversary of a classic album seems to bring an increasingly desperate ‘deluxe’ reissue. 2016 saw the 45th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s stunning 1971 album What’s Going On, which was celebrated with the release of a special 10in EP and then followed by a seven-album boxset. Heaven knows what the label’s catalogue division will come up with to mark the album’s half century.

What has the world come to...

Scraping the bottom of the barrel But how many of these reissues really add to our listening pleasure? Dylan is not typical, for there is arguably genuine interest in hearing how he shaped and mutated early versions of songs such as Like A Rolling Stone into the classics we know, in the same way it’s fascinating to go to an art gallery and see a great painter’s preliminary sketches for a masterpiece or to visit the British Library and see the handwritten manuscript of a great novel, with the author’s crossings out and corrections. Do we really need Suede’s Dog Man Star outstaying its welcome over seven discs or Dubnobasswithmyheadman by Underworld rebadged as a five-disc marathon? And what possible justification can there be for Wet Wet Wet’s Picture This dribbling incontinently over four discs or Ocean Colour Scene’s Marchin’ Already fattened up from the original 13 songs to a will-to-live sapping 71 tracks? Frankly, as loyal fans we’re being taken for a ride. This boxset deluxe anniversary collector’s edition barrelscraping exploitation has gone too far. It’s time to shut the door of the vault and call a halt ●

NIGEL WILLIAMSON Bah Humbug!


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£459

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£1419

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£3599

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£6995

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“All in all it was a sonorous and sophisticated sound that swept over me in a wave.” - John Myles - Hifi-World Magazine

“A major step forward in amplifier performance” - Robert Deutsch - Stereophile Magazine

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Hi fi Choice – Yearbook 2016