Some favorite sounds, a new Pink Triangle, and a little Atmos . . .
I can’t count how many times I have attended the Bristol Hi-Fi Show during its 34-year history, but it’s well into double figures. This has long been one of my favorite shows on account of its cozy hotel environment and the camaraderie I find here. Due to its compact layout, I often bump into people without even trying.
At this show, for example, I was queuing for coffee when one of audio’s great designers came bounding over. Suddenly we were having an interesting discussion about amplifier design. That doesn’t happen in “enormodrome” shows in the same way. It’s one of many things that make Bristol special.
The bar is always a hive of activity in Bristol. But with so much to cover, there’s no time for a beer for this reporter!
For punters, shows present an opportunity to hear a vast array of products and hopefully come away inspired by some of them. For manufacturers, shows represent an opportunity to demonstrate their latest wares to the public, distributors, dealers, and press. For the press, it’s a great opportunity to put faces to names. Make no mistake, manufacturers can be picky about the people who get to review their latest creations. They want to feel confident that the reviewer is going to give their product a professional and impartial assessment. They’re also keen to ensure that a reviewer has the competence to extract the best out of the product, and that it is going to be assessed alongside other synergistic components.
Planning is vital when attending a show as big as Bristol.
For manufacturers, audio shows are a major expense. I’ve heard figures of £10,000 to £100,000 bandied around for the cost of exhibiting. The return on investment is very difficult to quantify, partly because it is unlikely to occur in the same financial year. Few people attend a show, hear a £5000 amplifier they like, and then rush out and purchase it. As an example, I fell in love with the SME Series IV tonearm back in 1987 when it first launched and was reviewed in Hi-Fi News & Record Review. The first time I heard one was at the Bristol Hi-Fi Show in the late 1990s when Michell was using them on the GyroDec and Orbe turntables. It took until 2020 for me to buy one. But throughout those 30-odd years, I knew that the SME was the tonearm I was aiming for. Those encounters at the Bristol, Heathrow, and Ascot shows kept the dream alive.
The people at Michell Engineering told me they often get people coming up to them and saying, “I dreamt of owning one of your turntables for 20 years, and now I finally do.”
So I bought an SME tonearm because another manufacturer used it on its turntables at a succession of shows. There’s no way that SME will ever be able to quantify that payoff, but the payoff was real. How many audiophiles began dreaming about a component they first heard at Bristol—a dream they may only realize five, ten, or even 20 years hence? How many people had never heard a Michell GyroDec before this weekend but came away with it on their bucket list? Quite a few, I would wager.
The Michell GyroDec on the left—still beautiful after all these years.
Shows are more important than the bean counters can measure. Few of us have the nerve to go into a high-end audio store and ask to hear an expensive product that we can’t afford. But it’s vitally important for manufacturers to show their wares to people who will then aspire to own them. That’s where shows come in!
While contemplating this, I recalled Hank Marvin and Mark Knopfler both saying that they dreamt of owning a red Stratocaster after seeing Buddy Holly play his. Or take the case of Chris Rea, whose obsession with Ferrari began in his childhood when he saw Wolfgang von Trips driving for Ferrari in early Grand Prix motor racing. This led to Rea acquiring several Ferrari cars years later. Dreams take time to realize, but they’re all the sweeter for it.
Wilson Benesch may not have the profile of PMC or Naim, but boy does the company know how to engineer advanced composites! In a huge, almost circular suite at the Marriott, Wilson Benesch assembled a delectable system fronted by the brand-new A.C.T. 3Zero loudspeakers, which retail for a cool £31,995 per pair (all prices in British pounds and include 20 percent value-added tax). These impressive floorstanders emerged from a pan-European project called SSUCHY, which involved around 30 companies and universities with expertise in composites. Participants came from fields as diverse as audio, motor engineering, and aero engineering. The goal was to develop composite materials that were environmentally sustainable but performed better than existing carbon-fiber technologies.
Wilson Benesch’s impressive room.
The results of this five-year project are reflected in the 3Zero. Its enclosure utilizes a hemp-based composite material that is said to offer better damping and higher stiffness than carbon fiber. This is also the first time Wilson Benesch has used an isobaric drive system in an A.C.T. loudspeaker. The 3Zero’s all-new drivers have benefitted from the study of the mathematical Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the preceding number pair. Wilson Benesch applied this principle to its new tweeter by using a Fibonacci sequence to sculpt a geometrically optimized faceplate/waveguide, which is decoupled from the tweeter chassis. The tweeter itself is a 1″ silk/carbon hybrid dome capable of very flat frequency response.
Fibonacci-inspired dust caps and tweeter surrounds on the A.C.T. 3Zero.
The 7″ Tactic 3.0 midrange drive unit is directly amplifier-coupled, while the 7″ Tactic 3.0 bass unit is isobarically loaded by two 7″ Tactic 3.0 clamshell radiators firing down toward the cabinet’s base.
The 3Zero loudspeakers were part of an extraordinary system that included the now-discontinued Wilson Benesch turntable, a Computer Audio Design CAD CAT streamer (£17,500 with 2TB SSD) and CAD 1543 DAC (£14,500), an Ypsilon Electronics PST-100 Mk.II Special Edition preamplifier (£45,500), two Ypsilon Electronics Aelius II monoblocks (£89000 per pair), and an RCM Audio TheRIAA phono preamplifier (£13,500). Ground control was provided by CAD GC1 and GC3 ground controllers, respectively costing £1995 and £4950. This gear was arrayed on Wilson Benesch R1 carbon racks, which cost £6000 per level—so there must have been over £100,000 in support tables alone! Rounding the system off was the extraordinary cylindrical Wilson Benesch IGx infrasonic generator (subwoofer to you and me) in prototype form (hence no price).
I didn’t get as far as asking what speaker cables or interconnects they were using—sorry. I expect they were some kind of titanium superconductors borrowed from CERN, the European nuclear physics laboratory in Switzerland. With a system at this level, why bugger about?
This system is the stuff dreams are made of.
As you can imagine, the sound was extraordinary—smooth, clear, detailed, and refined, with lightning-fast bass and immense control. My only complaint was that they seemed to be playing things awfully quietly while I was there. I’d have really loved them to open the taps.
ATC had one of the best-sounding rooms at the show. Yet compared to some exhibits, the system on demo was positively parsimonious! The system included a Technics SL-1200G turntable (£3999), a Vertere Phono-1 Mk.II phono stage (£1350), ATC’s own ATC CDA2 CD-preamplifier (£3100), and a Roon Nucleus for streaming (£1700). Loudspeakers were ATC SCM50 ACL actives (£15,600 per pair), and they sounded superb in that room.
A world-class system featuring ATC’s SCM50 active loudspeakers.
A friend who is an accomplished orchestral trumpet player sat mesmerized by a Rachmaninoff piece he regularly plays with his orchestra. Afterwards he said he had heard notes on the ATCs that he hadn’t realized he wasn’t playing. This system had it all: detail, astonishing transparency, delicacy, full bandwidth, and the kind of slam that redefines gut punch. What makes the ATCs so special is that they excel at every type of music, from Rammstein to Rachmaninoff.
Chord Electronics was demonstrating its recently released Ultima Pre 3 preamplifier (£6000) and Ultima 5 power amplifier (£11,000), along with its established top-of-the-line Dave DAC-preamplifier (£10,495) and Hugo M upscaler (£4195). A pair of Kudos Titan 606 loudspeakers (£11,400 per pair) rounded out the system.
There’s no doubt what company makes this system!
The new Ultima components incorporate Chord’s latest circuit topology and are designed to take advantage of the latest low-distortion power supplies for ultra-low noise and high linearity. The Ultima Pre 3 offers five sets of analog inputs (two balanced and three unbalanced). The Ultima 5 power amplifier is a successor to the classic Chord SPM 1200 Mk.II and delivers 350Wpc into 8 ohms. The rear panel is equipped with balanced and unbalanced connections, while the facia is machined from 28mm-thick aircraft-grade aluminium.
Internal circuit illumination is just cool.
There’s something slightly outrageous about Chord Electronics’ styling, but I’ve always liked its striking internal circuit-board illumination and wonderfully sculpted aluminium casework and heatsinks. Peering through the grilles to see the internal circuits is like looking inside the engines of the starship Enterprise—it’s otherworldly! I wouldn’t be surprised if they were powered by dilithium crystals or antimatter! Chord will be supplying a similar system for review in SoundStage! Ultra soon, so watch out!
Those of us of a certain age will recall that back in the 1980s and 1990s, Pink Triangle launched a couple of turntables that challenged the established references of the time. It seems that after 20 years of modifying other companies’ turntables with the Funk Firm, Arthur Khoubesserian has decided to resurrect his iconic Pink Triangle brand.
Pink Triangle reborn!
The new Pink Triangle 7th Heaven with FZ arm will retail for £8400, while an enhanced package with Audio-Technica VM760SLC cartridge and the mysterious Akutrak frequency compensator and phono stage will retail for £10,500. The new deck bears little resemblance to the old design. It incorporates sprung feet rather than a sprung sub-chassis, and it features a belt drive via a triple-pulley arrangement driving the inner platter. The Funk K-Drive 2 was being used as an external power supply, providing advanced motor regulation and speed change.
Pink Triangle 7th Heaven with power supply.
The outer platter is still made of acrylic and is illuminated from underneath. The plinth is made of wood-based resin, with an attractive insert that will be offered in various colors. The purple insert on the deck shown at Bristol was referred to as Purple Rain.
Amplification problems prevented me from making any sonic assessment, but this looks like a welcome return from the old firm.
JBL & Arcam
JBL continues to evoke the spirit of the 1970s with its gorgeously retro loudspeakers, plus a new range of audio electronics that had their UK debut at Bristol.
1970s styling never looked better!
Outputting 90Wpc into 8 ohms, the SA550 integrated amplifier (£1749) has three line-level analog inputs (RCA), one optical (TosLink), and two coaxial (RCA) S/PDIF inputs, along with aptX Adaptive Bluetooth. Impressively, a switchable MM/MC phono stage is also included. The new TT350 direct-drive turntable (£925) offers a heavy aluminium platter and 33/45-rpm speed selection. The range also includes the MP350 media player (£899), which supports Apple AirPlay 2, Google Chromecast, Spotify Connect, and Tidal Connect, and is Roon Ready. The CD350 CD player (£799) rounds things out.
JBL’s new range of electronics even has retro walnut sides.
In its demonstration suite, JBL partnered with Arcam to showcase Dolby Atmos in an impressive room styled to resemble a rock stage. This only served to reinforce my enthusiasm for Atmos in the home. The sound from movie soundtracks was significantly more immersive than a conventional 5.1 setup.
For those about to rock.
Arcam premiered the new high-end AVR31 A/V receiver (£6249), which was partnered with a complete 7.1.4 JBL Studio 6 loudspeaker system. The AVR31 employs class-G amplification and is rated at 7×100W, all channels driven. The receiver supports all the latest surround formats, including Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro 3D. It is also Dirac Live ready, although a software license is required. Arcam claims that class-G topology combines the purity of class-A with the efficiency of class-AB.
Also making its UK debut at Bristol, the JBL Studio 6 range employs tweeters with compression-driver technology derived from JBL’s live PA loudspeakers, which maximizes headroom. They also use HDR waveguides specifically engineered for wide dispersion horizontally and vertically, and curved corners to minimize diffraction. The Atmos array comprised the JBL Studio 665C center-channel (£729), Studio 660P 12″ 500W subwoofer (£749), JBL Studio 698 front L/R (£1650 per pair), JBL Studio 620 surrounds (£1099 per pair), and JBL Control X for the overheads (£500).
The Chord Company
One of the most interesting demonstrations of the day was by the Chord Company, which focused on power treatment and distribution products. Attendees first heard a series of tracks without any treatment, then with the Chord Company’s new PowerARAY (£550) plugged in, and finally with the PowerARAY Professional (£5500). The PowerARAY resembles a peculiar-looking AC plug, while the PowerARAY Professional resembles a small power-supply box.
Chord PowerARAY—a very intriguing product.
Apparently, these devices do not actually use power or get between the electrical supply and the equipment. They merely introduce a potential gradient that turns high-frequency noise affecting the mains into heat.
To my surprise, the sound of the Naim-based system changed considerably with the PowerARAY plugged in. There was a reduction in grain and digital hash, while tonally the sound seemed more detailed and slightly richer. I’m looking forward to exploring this effect in my own system. I’ve used Chord cables as my preferred choice for years now, and I’m convinced that the quality of mains supply is crucial to the sound of an audio system, which is why I have a dedicated mains spur for the audio system.
Also on demo were the new PowerHAUS M6 (£2000) and S6 (£1000) mains distribution blocks, which incorporate PowerARAY technology in a six-outlet mains block.
PowerHAUS M6 (top) and S6 distributors, both with PowerARAY built in.
And so another Bristol show draws to a close. I was reassured to see 167 exhibitors and many thousands of visitors at the show. I came home with a lot of ideas for equipment I want to review in the coming year. And I discovered a whole load of new music thanks to the various exhibitors and Shazam. At the end of the day, it’s all about the music and making it sound better and more accurate than you ever thought possible. That’s a journey that never ends. Next stop, Munich!
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!