If you’re unfamiliar with SoundStage! Ultra senior editor Jason Thorpe, here’s the most important thing you need to know about him: he’s an elite-tier button-pusher. “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” he told me as we left one of the demo rooms at the Radisson Blu Sobieski hotel. He smiled out the corner of his mouth and rubbed his hands together. “Why don’t we do a faceoff between Audio Note UK and Kondo Audio Note, which is from Japan? I’ll write up one, you do the other; it builds tension.” He’s the audiophile press’s version of hovering your finger half an inch from your older sibling’s nose and squealing, “I’m not touching you!”
Imp that I am, I was completely game. We checked out both rooms, after which it was determined I’d write about the Brits while Jason would tackle the Far East. Though squeezed into a smallish room way at the end of the corridor, the Audio Note UK gear was a subtle show of force from a company of hi-fi veterans.
The system, comprised entirely of Audio Note UK products, was centered around the Meishu Phono Tonmeister Silver integrated amplifier, which starts at zł56,000 (all prices in Polish zlotys). In true Audio Note UK fashion, this is an all-tube, single-ended amplifier built around 300B direct-heated triodes, using valve rectification, premium parts, and, in this iteration, an onboard tube phono stage. Also included on the rack was a TT-Two Deluxe turntable (starting at zł19,000) fitted with an Arm Two tonearm (starting at zł5500) and IQ III moving-magnet cartridge (starting at zł3300). A CD-2.1x CD player (zł25,000) rounded out the stack.
In case you’re not an Audio Note UK initiate, know that the company has a unique philosophy about speakers. Audio Note UK says to cram them back into the corners. In fact, their speakers are specifically designed to be corner-loaded—bass response will not be correct if they are placed more conventionally. Indeed, the lovely AN-E speakers (zł53,000/pair) sat in the corners of the room, toed in substantially.
Despite any beliefs that you may harbor about speaker placement and soundstage, set up this way, the AN-Es did a wonderful job of creating a field of sound with realistically sized and shaped figures. Vocals had an almost-oversized, in-the-room kind of presence that was very satisfying. And percussive elements had such realistic snap, clarity, and scale that you could almost swear that they were real.
I’d attribute that to the high-frequency reproduction of this Audio Note UK system—it was sweet and musical but with a touch of acid and salt added, creamy smooth but incisive, surgically placed but lacking no sense of scale. In other words, the treble in the Audio Note UK room sounded right on, and in my opinion, was some of the very best in the entire show.
That’s not to denigrate AN-Es’ rendering of the rest of the audioband. The midrange had loads of body and smoothness, while retaining its ability to articulate the fine details of a singer’s vocal performance or the touch of a pianist gliding from mezzo-forte to fortissimo. And the bass, whew! It’d rattle your pantlegs, but didn’t infringe upon the midrange, a necessary though rare feat for floorstanding speakers in a small room. In short, I was not left unimpressed by the Audio Note UK setup.
Jason tackled the much larger Audio Note Japan room, so you’ll have to read his piece to see what they’re up to. We both agreed that the Brits’ music choice surpassed that of the Japanese by a wide margin. In the Audio Note UK room, I heard an eclectic rotation of delicately delivered acoustic music, melodic jazz, and some almost intimidatingly heavy dub music. I guess Jason was content to jam out to the retirement-home soundtrack in the Audio Note Japan room, but if not, he didn’t have much choice.
That’s enough pot-stirring from the two of us for now. But we still have more to cover from Audio Video Show 2023, so keep your ear to the ground.