It’s not often one gets to spend the weekend listening to some of the world’s best audio systems in an Elizabethan-style manor house built in 1828, surrounded by Doric columns and illuminated by glorious chandeliers. It’s not often that one enters a hi-fi show by walking Oscars-style up a red carpet before getting personally greeted by the organizer and receiving a perfectly chilled glass of fizz from a silver platter. But that was my experience entering the North West Audio Show, which was held June 17–18 at the De Vere Cranage Hall Estate in Cheshire, England.
Don’t think for one minute this VIP reception was offered to me because I am a reviewer. This was how show organizer Kris Sawicki and his team greeted every single person who entered. It was enough to bring out the blue-blooded aristocrat in me.
Class, sheer class, is how I would describe the North West Audio Show. Every single person I spoke to—exhibitors, the press, and the public—agreed that this is now the best hi-fi show in the UK, and maybe the most enjoyable hi-fi show in the world. It’s big enough to provide a huge range of equipment to hear, while still being manageable. The show attracts thousands of visitors because entry is free. The cost to exhibitors for demo rooms is modest, and those rooms are of outstanding quality.
The grand entrance.
High-quality food and drink are available from the bar and restaurant throughout the show. There are several excellent outdoor seating areas where you soak up the sun and sink a cold beer while overlooking the extensive grounds.
It’s not all champagne and chandeliers for us hi-fi hacks. (OK maybe it is.)
Before I go all Downton Abbey on you and start talking about how fine the grouse shooting is in these parts, I’d better tell you a little about the audio delights on offer! All prices are in British pounds.
Melco had its full range of digital music libraries on display, including the flagship N1-S38 (£11,995) and mid-market N5-H50 (£7499). These new streamer-servers incorporate upgraded 3mm aluminium chassis and casework, plus completely redesigned main circuit boards. They have extensive shielding on all inputs and outputs to minimize network interference. All Melco servers have a dedicated player port for direct connection to a streamer without any data switch in the signal path to contaminate musical data.
The Melco N5-H50 streamer-server, scheduled for review later this year on SoundStage! Ultra.
Naim was displaying the incredibly cute and desirable Nait 50, courtesy of local dealer Acoustica. Created to commemorate Naim’s foundation in 1973, only 1973 of these classic amplifiers will be made. That means even I’m struggling to get hold of a review sample because Naim hasn’t allocated any! Priced at £2699 and offering 25Wpc (compared to 15Wpc on the original Nait 1), the Nait 50 offers a headphone socket for the first time—and the promise of more than a little Naim magic.
Naim’s new Nait 50, a glorious homage to the legendary original.
Also on display were the new Naim 200 series components driving KEF’s extraordinary Blade Two Meta loudspeakers (£22,500 per pair). The sound was powerful yet beguiling and filled the large room with aplomb. I was particularly struck by the taut bass extension on George Benson’s “The Ghetto.” I look forward to reviewing Naim’s latest separates soon.
Naim 200 electronics driving KEF Blade Two Meta loudspeakers—a heavenly match.
Chasing the Dragon
What a glorious name for a record label, and, oh boy, what a label! Mike Valentine was a BBC sound engineer who later became a world-class underwater camera operator. His credits include several James Bond movies, among other blockbusters. After he grew tired of dodging sharks and submarines, Valentine embraced his passion for music and set up his own record label.
From 007 to maestro, Mike Valentine entertains the assembled crowds.
His recordings are of such staggering fidelity that you can scarcely believe that what you are hearing is even possible. His methods include recording direct to acetate as well as analog tape, resulting in vinyl LPs and reel-to-reel tapes that will make you wonder why digital ever happened. Chasing the Dragon sells a wide variety of titles encompassing classical, jazz, singer-songwriter, and Latin styles on reel-to-reel, vinyl, CD, and digital download.
The extraordinary Chasing the Dragon system fronted by ATC SCM150 loudspeakers.
Mike is an incredibly witty and engaging presenter. During a series of timed presentations, he thoroughly engrossed the attendees who packed the very large demo room. Played through a system fronted by ATC SCM150 ASL active loudspeakers, the recordings simply sounded like live music. Dynamics were off the scale. There was total command of every single sonic element, from the deepest plucked double-bass notes to delicate soprano voices. For me, these recordings set a new benchmark for transparency. This was one of the best-sounding demos I have ever attended, and it was definitely the highlight of the show for me. I plan to write a feature on this unique and wonderful man and his recordings.
Chasing the Dragon has titles to suit all tastes.
Touraj Moghaddam is a name familiar to many audiophiles. He cofounded Roksan in 1985 and created the legendary Roksan Xerxes turntable. Almost 40 years later, as CEO and chief designer of Vertere Acoustics, he is still creating vinyl playback systems that retrieve every nuance of the record. On display at the North West Audio Show were updated versions of the MG-1S Magic Groove (£13,300) and DG-1S Dynamic Groove (£3550) turntables. Both are supplied with cartridges and tonearms from Vertere’s own line. The new DG-1S gets the Groove Runner S tonearm while the new MG-1S benefits from Vertere’s premium SG-1 Super Groove tonearm. This tonearm utilizes a revolutionary tri-point articulated bearing, which Vertere claims offers many of the benefits of a unipivot design (better warp riding) but with the stability of a more conventional tonearm. Vertere also showcased its own MM/MC phono stage, which is priced at £1350 and offers a plethora of gain, capacitance, and impedance settings. Vertere’s demo system utilized ATC’s flagship SCA2 preamplifier (£7300) and SCM50 ASLT active loudspeakers (£16,200 per pair).
A brace of Vertere.
An acetate of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” demonstrated superb timbre on piano and vocals. There was plenty of sparkle in the upper registers. Freddie’s voice sounded incredibly lifelike, so it’s clear that Vertere has done a good job of further refining these already excellent record spinners. You can expect to hear much more about Vertere on SoundStage! Ultra. I will be visiting the factory next month and reviewing the updated MG-1S thereafter.
The Vertere MG-1S.
Another firm with a history dating back to the 1990s is Alphason, whose turntables and tonearms gained widespread acclaim back in the day. Alphason is now back with the all-new HR200S reference tonearm (£4795). The HR200S incorporates a one-piece titanium headshell and armtube, ceramic bearings with zero clearance, and a unique tonearm cable. Formed from a continuous wire with negligible capacitance and inductance, the tonearm cable runs from the cartridge to the external connector. The Alphason Specialist Audio Pin-Jack provides a consistent and repeatable contact force on every insertion of the cartridge pin, which Alphason says offers the highest possible signal integrity and the least signal degradation.
Alphason HR200S tonearm on a Technics SL-1200G.
For the demonstration, Alphason fitted the tonearm to the Technics SL-1200G, indicating it has no plans to re-enter the turntable market at this time.
The unique and brand-new HEX3 open-baffle loudspeakers (£4750) were used in this room. The HEX3 utilizes a Monacor horn-loaded ribbon tweeter for sweet highs, a 7″ SEAS magnesium midrange driver, and an impressive 15″ bass driver. The system sounded extremely detailed, and even without the reinforcement a loudspeaker cabinet provides, the bass seemed well-balanced.
The interesting HEX3 open-baffle loudspeakers.
Cyrus has evidently been very busy because the company arrived at the show with a new range comprising the Stream-XR streamer (£2495), Pre-XR preamplifier (£2595), and Power-XR power amplifier (£2995), plus a redesigned power supply that works with each of these, the PSU-XR (£2395). All are finished in Cyrus’s house style, with space-efficient shoebox-style cases similar to the Naim Nait 50. Booker T’s “Tennessee Voodoo” sounded particularly impressive with excellent definition on leading notes played on the acoustic guitar. His rich vocals were smooth and detailed.
Cyrus Audio’s compact XR range takes the stage.
NVA is another revitalized boutique British amplifier brand able to offer spectacular value for money thanks to its direct-selling business model. All components benefit from acrylic cases to minimize eddy currents. Rigorous attention is applied to ground paths. There’s no evidence of cost-cutting. NVA amplifiers feature Vishay capacitors, Toroidy audio-grade transformers, and minimalist circuit design. All models are hand-built in the UK.
The NVA room—impressive audio performance and design.
NVA partnered its flagship P50SA MKII passive preamplifier (£830) with two M600 80W monoblocks (£2650 per pair). These proved a formidable combination paired with the Scansonic MB1 bookshelf loudspeakers (£1995 per pair). On the Beatles’ “Come Together,” the system delivered very nice natural sound with good dynamics and a great sense of “snap.”
Chord Electronics continues to expand its new Ultima range, this time with a brand-new integrated amplifier priced at £8500 called, appropriately, Integrated. It is expected to be available this autumn. Ultima-series components benefit from a fundamental redesign of circuits, power supply topology, and casework. I’m a big fan of the new aesthetic. Having just reviewed Chord’s Ultima Pre 3 preamplifier and Ultima 6 power amplifier, I’m an even bigger fan of the company’s newfound ability to convey the emotional impact of music. At the show, Chord partnered the new Ultima Integrated with the Dave streaming DAC (£10,500) and Kudos Titan 505 loudspeakers.
The new Chord Ultima Integrated.
Chord’s amplifiers incorporate new dual-feed-forward error-correction topology, which the company claims is capable of monitoring and immediately correcting signal errors before the output stage. The Ultima Integrated is also fairly futureproof because it offers dual balanced XLR outputs for connection to an external power amplifier.
Chord and Kudos.
Michael Bublé’s “Cry Me a River” offered very articulate yet firm bass, excellent portrayal of brass instruments, and a wonderful shimmering decay to cymbals.
Leema Acoustics revealed the all-new Quantum series of components at the show. These include the Quantum preamplifier (£1500) and power amplifier (£1500). If you buy both together, the combined cost is £2800. The Quantum CD player costs £1400; a streamer is due to follow in a few months. The Quantum amplifier can deliver 150Wpc into 8 ohms. All models in the range are built in Wales—hence the furry sheep mascot!
Didn’t Kate Bush once sing, “Let me sleep and dream of sheep”?
I particularly love the aesthetics, build quality, and clear blue LED displays. Add in very impressive sound quality, and I can confidently predict these will soon be flying off dealers’ shelves. Played through Serhan Swift Mu2 Mk II loudspeakers (£6495 per pair), George Benson’s “The Ghetto” had a particularly beguiling top end, while the overall sound was smooth, detailed, natural, and refined. INXS’s “Original Sin” sounded punchy but never harsh.
Leema’s impressive new Quantum range.
I know we all love looking at and listening to ridiculous über-fi, but Leema Acoustics exemplifies the kind of hi-fi that is affordable and beautifully designed. It’s good to see that the Welsh company is still able to build excellent-quality affordable audio equipment in the UK.
I’m glad to see Technics back in the audio separates market. My formative years in the 1980s were spent listening to my father’s excellent Technics system, which outperformed anything my friends or I had at the time.
Technics’ new SU-GX70 streaming amplifier.
Technics had a raft of products on display, including the new SU-GX70 streaming amplifier (£1700), which features a moving-magnet phono stage. In addition to the famous SL-1200G (£3999), Technics was also demonstrating the very beautiful SL-1500C turntable (£1099, including Ortofon 2M Red cartridge). This turntable features the brand’s famous direct-drive motor system but doesn’t sport the DJ-orientated features of its famous cousin. The white top plate and platter edge set this turntable apart; it’s one of the most attractive designs I have seen in many years.
The gorgeous SL-1500C turntable.
Also on demo were the SL-G700 streaming SACD player (£2899, review pending on SoundStage! Hi-Fi) and SU-R1000 integrated amplifier (£8500), which is rated at 150Wpc and includes a vinyl record that is used to calibrate the phono stage so that crosstalk is minimized and phase response is optimized. Calibration settings for three different turntable/cartridge combinations can be stored in the amplifier.
The Technics room.
This clever tech is all very well, but what I loved best about the SU-R1000 were the large VU meters that dominate the front panel. They are just gorgeous to behold and come very nicely backlit for those late-night listening sessions with a glass of single malt.
Padood showcased a glorious high-end system comprising products from several of the brands it represents in the UK. That system included the SME Model 12 Mk2 turntable (£10,473), Aurender N20 streamer-server (£12,000), and various Nagra components, including a sneak preview of the company’s new Classic DAC II (price TBA). The system also featured CAD (Computer Audio Design) ground controls (from £1995) and a CAD 1543 DAC (£14,500), as well as the brand-new Tannoy Sterling III LZ Special Edition loudspeaker (£11,995 per pair).
The Tannoy Sterling III LZ Special Edition features a stunning antique cabinet. Speakers are made in pairs with book-matched veneers. This magnificent speaker incorporates the latest version of Tannoy’s famed 10″ dual-concentric drive unit. This combines a 2″ aluminium/magnesium dome tweeter at the center of a 10″ paper cone bass driver. It’s worth noting that Tannoy invented the dual-concentric driver in 1947, so this latest design benefits from 76 years of development!
The end to a perfect day, relaxing with a great system and some fine wine.
The Tannoy Sterling speakers suited their country manor surroundings particularly well. Notwithstanding their traditional looks, they sounded utterly modern. Marcus Miller’s remarkable bass playing on “Cousin John” was incredibly articulate, while percussion cut through the mix with amazing speed and definition. London Grammar’s classic “Hey Now” deeply impressed—Hannah Reid’s vocals have rarely sounded so transparent.
Tannoy Sterling III—just right for one’s manor in the country, sir.
By the time I left the drinks reception hosted by Padood, it was 7:20 p.m., and I’d enjoyed ten hours of world-class music and audio in opulent surroundings. It had indeed been a good day, but there was still more to come. Join me for the second part, coming soon.
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!