It’s hard not to be awestruck as you walk up to Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire, England. Located 25 miles west of London, Ascot was the site of UK Hi-Fi Show Live 2023, held September 29 to October 1. The scale of the venue, not to mention its rich heritage, reminds you how important this event is. It’s put on by the UK magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review.
I’ve been coming to the Hi-Fi News London show in its various guises as a journalist for over 25 years and as a civilian for another ten years before that. In the old days, the show was held in a generic hotel near London’s Heathrow Airport. Ascot is a huge improvement, with every room affording glorious views over the hallowed turf. There are more international brands represented here than at the other UK shows, and the focus tends to be on the high end of audio. All prices are in UK pounds.
Ascot Racecourse is an impressive sight
As I approached the cavernous building for the first time in four years, I reflected on the fact that the show didn’t run in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID pandemic, and it was cancelled last year following the death of Queen Elizabeth. Seeing the huge, animated UK Hi-Fi Show Live billboard reminded me just how much the British audio industry needed this—hell, it reminded me how much I needed it! The opportunity to hear so many wonderful systems in one place, to speak with designers and friends in the industry, to discover lots of great music, and to listen to an array of fascinating presentations makes it one of my favourite weekends of the year.
A stunning array of topflight designs in the entrance foyer
The first day was a trade day and pretty quiet, so I met up with SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider, who had just flown in from Canada. It was a pleasure to spend time in each other’s company while exploring the various rooms. Doug was keen to embrace his inner Brit, so with high hopes we ordered fish and chips from an Ascot Racecourse restaurant. Sadly, the tasteless tray in no way represented the sublime magnificence that is possible with Britain’s national dish. Disappointing catering aside, this is simply a superb show, and attendance should be mandatory for audiophiles from the length and breadth of Britain. Fortunately, the beer was good, so we enjoyed a pint together before moving on to explore the musical delights on offer.
As usual, distributor Absolute Sounds had hired a gigantic array of rooms and had a vast assortment of aspirational products on static display and on demo. This is a great opportunity for audiophiles to audition the kind of products that they only get to read about in magazines like Hi-Fi News or on online publications like SoundStage! Ultra. Even if you know you’ll never drop a hundred grand on an elite audio system, you can use this experience to guide your next purchasing decisions. There’s real value in that, even though it leaves me feeling that I don’t earn enough!
Dohmann Audio Helix One Mk3 turntable
I was pleased to see Audio Research demonstrated in two of Absolute Sounds’ listening rooms, as I’ve always had a hankering to own one of these iconic amplifiers. I adore the way Audio Research has maintained the brand’s traditional sonic and visual qualities.
But it was the UK debut of the all-new Wilson Sasha V loudspeakers (£53,998 per pair) that really grabbed my attention. There’s something so inherently right about the way Wilson Audio’s speakers present music. The fifth generation of this loudspeaker offers several design changes to elicit even higher performance. These include a new tweeter—the Convergent Synergy Carbon (CSC) 25mm (1″) doped silk-dome tweeter, which is also used in the Alexia V. The midrange driver is new too—it’s the 180mm (7.1″) AlNiCo QuadraMag driver, also from the Alexia V. As before, the bass drivers comprise twin 200mm (7.9″) pulp-based paper-cone units, but they’re housed in an enclosure that’s 25 percent thicker than the fourth-generation Sasha’s enclosure. Played through the new Sashas, a recording of Handel’s Italian Cantatas featuring soprano Sabine Devieilhe and mezzo Lea Desandre demonstrated stunning transparency and vocal timbre, while Le Concert de Astrée under Emmanuelle Haïm had palpable scale, richness, and presence.
Wilson Audio Sasha V loudspeakers, Audio Research Reference 160M monoblocks, D’Agostino Momentum preamplifier, and Wilson Loki subwoofers made for divine music . . .
Audio Research Reference 160M monoblock with a Wilson Audio Loki subwoofer and Sasha V loudspeaker
It was interesting to note that even with a loudspeaker of this calibre, the addition of a pair of Wilson Audio Loke subwoofers (£10,500 each) not only augmented the scale of the performance but gave a far greater sense of the acoustic space in the recording venue.
Audio Research Reference 6 SE preamplifier, Innuos Statement music server, and full complement of dCS Vivaldi Apex CD/SACD transport, clock, upsampler, and DAC
Hegel Music Systems
Making its UK debut at Ascot was Hegel Music Systems’ new H600 integrated amplifier-DAC (£10,500). Rated at 303Wpc into 8 ohms, this powerful amplifier features a completely redesigned chassis claimed to offer lower noise. Its new preamplifier stage is a baby version of the one fitted in Hegel’s flagship P30A preamplifier. Also included is an all-new DAC, along with a considerably enhanced streaming offering. While the unit doesn’t have Wi-Fi on board, it does have an ethernet port, and this enables it to seamlessly update its own firmware as well as offer streaming capabilities. Coupled with the Hegel Viking CD player (£4500) and EgglestonWorks loudspeakers, the sound on “N.Y.C.” by Bryan Ferry exhibited very firm and tight bass control and plenty of dynamics.
Hegel’s new H600 integrated amplifier and Viking CD player
Hegel has always been known for its slightly austere Scandinavian styling. Following feedback from the American market, the brand has made its rear RCA phono socket mounts in rose gold, apparently to appease the Yanks’ love for bling. Given the fact you’re unlikely to ever see the phono sockets after installation, this token gesture made me smile.
Scandinavian design meets Yankee flourish
UK distributor Karma AV was showcasing the Perlisten S7t Limited Edition loudspeaker (£30,000 per pair), an all-new design whose MDF enclosure has carbon-fiber panels. Production is limited to 50 pairs worldwide. This imposing floorstander features the firm’s signature DPC (Directivity Pattern Control) waveguide array, now in aluminium and incorporating the firm’s finest 28mm (1.1″) beryllium dome tweeter flanked by dual 28mm TPCD (thin-ply carbon diaphragm) ultra-lightweight domes. The result of 18 months of simulations and prototyping, the DPC array is claimed to offer amazing accuracy, smoothness, and directivity control. The four bass drivers feature TPCD cones. Bass loading can be configured as either bass reflex or acoustic suspension depending on listener preference. The speaker also incorporates custom-matched IsoAcoustics isolating feet designed to provide greater immunity from vibration and enhanced clarity and openness. The S7t has been certified THX Dominus, which is the highest level of THX certification possible.
Perlisten’s signature DPC array
Driven by a brace of Primare A35.2 amplifiers backed by a Primare Pre35 preamp, the Perlisten towers sounded incredibly holographic and utterly clean and balanced on “Isn’t She Lovely” by Livingston Taylor, with splendid delineation of the acoustic guitar. Dire Straits’ “Six Blade Knife” was similarly impressive with superb bandwidth, clarity, and whipcrack-fast response.
The Swedish elegance and sonic capability of Primare is always deeply impressive
Perlisten was also showing its R7t loudspeaker, which falls into a hotly contested market segment at just £8800 per pair. The R7t features a plastic-moulded DPC array incorporating three 26mm (1″) silk-dome tweeters flanked by four 165mm (6.5″) paper-cone woofers, and is available in high gloss white or black.
What is especially impressive about Perlisten is that it manufactures all its own cabinets, drive units, and even crossover boards, and has expanded its line to include a full complement of rear surrounds, Atmos in-ceiling loudspeakers, and center-channel units.
Perlisten S5t loudspeakers on static display, Fender x MoFi turntable in sunburst behind
Karma was unique at the show for also showcasing A/V equipment. There was a time when hi-fi shows embraced surround sound and video with relish, but nowadays it’s all retro styling, vinyl, and VU meters. It’s enough to make me dust off the safari suit, start wearing cravats, and fantasize about dating a Stevie Nicks lookalike in chiffon, hot pants, and boots . . .
SVS, that American doyen of the home-cinema subwoofer scene, has been expanding its offerings to include a full complement of stereo and A/V loudspeakers, including floorstanders, surrounds, center-channels, and even a beautifully designed Atmos overhead loudspeaker that can be mounted on the wall near the ceiling. This latter design really caught my eye, as being able to install overhead Atmos speakers without lifting floorboards and replastering ceilings is a huge plus!
SVS Prime Elevation loudspeaker—the answer to an Atmos prayer?
The SVS Prime Elevation loudspeaker (£569 per pair) is a very neat wedge-shaped two-way incorporating a 1″ aluminium dome tweeter and 4.5″ polypropylene coned midrange-woofer. It’s available in a range of finishes that include Black Ash, Piano Gloss Black, and Gloss White. The Prime Elevation looks and sounds like the answer to a prayer for anyone hoping to augment an existing home-cinema setup with Atmos. The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” from Certifiable (Live in Buenos Aires) sounded superb through the all-SVS system, with excellent bass, great transparency, and impressive dynamics. The rest of the system comprised Prime Tower speakers in the front left and right channels, a Prime Center center speaker, and Prime Satellite surrounds.
The Chord Company
Chord Company has become my default cable provider of choice in recent years thanks to its superb quality and fine value for money. In 2023, the company’s ARAY geometry, previously available only in its premium line, trickled down to Epic X-Aray, which starts from £400 and offers silver-plated conductors and the latest XLPE (cross-linked polyethylene) insulation, all of which Chord claims contributes to better rejection of RF and external interference. The ARAY geometry has just recently been introduced even further down the range and is now available in Chord’s Clearway X interconnect, which retails from around £130 and includes ChorAlloy plugs and XLPE insulation.
Chord Company Burndy cables (top) with power solutions below
Debuting at the show were Chord’s new Burndy cable upgrades for Naim owners. The two new models are called BurndyX (£880) and BurndyT (£1760). The latter replaces the previous generation model while BurndyX brings the benefits of Chord Company’s cable expertise to a new lower price point.
All insulation has been upgraded to XLPE, and the plugs use Chord’s new ChorAlloy material. BurndyX benefits from multi-stranded silver-plated OFC conductors and high-density silver-plated braid and foil high-frequency shielding. The flagship BurndyT benefits from Taylon-insulated conductors and multiple layers of screening to protect delicate signals from high-frequency noise.
The Chord Company’s impressive display area
PMC is the UK distributor for MartinLogan, and for UK Hi-Fi Show Live 2023, the company brought along ML’s Renaissance ESL 15A electrostatic loudspeakers (£29,995 per pair). With its huge, perforated AirFrame grilles covering a vast electrostatic panel with two powerful stators, this towering-but-wafer-thin monolith oozes cool. Because electrostatic panels are best at high and middle frequencies, MartinLogan has fitted the ESL 15A with two 12″ woofers driven by two 500W amplifiers. The ESL 15A also incorporates Anthem Room Correction (ARC), which compensates for room anomalies.
MartinLogan’s stunning Renaissance ESL 15A loudspeaker
Driven by AVM’s Ovation CS 8.3 Black Edition CD receiver (£18,495), the MartinLogan electrostats presented Sting’s “It’s Probably Me” with a speed and snap that I have never heard from any other loudspeaker. The finger-click sounds jumped out with staggering clarity and definition, while the bass was powerful and controlled. Best of all, these loudspeakers did that thing that only panel loudspeakers can—they disappeared entirely and just presented life-size instruments live in the room. A wonderful demonstration of what makes electrostatics so special.
AVM Ovation CS 8.3 Black Edition flanked by a pair of ESL 15As
At the opposite end of its room, PMC had set up its flagship Fenestria floorstanders driven by a Bryston pre-power combination. This £66,000-per-pair loudspeaker design incorporates a 19.5mm (0.77″) SONOMEX soft-dome, ferrofluid-cooled tweeter, and 75mm (3″) soft-dome midrange in an isolated nest mount, plus four 6.5″ transverse-weave carbon fiber multicellular-core piston drivers. This is a transmission-line design of extraordinary finesse. On the same Sting track, the midrange was noticeably fuller and more natural than on the MartinLogans, even if it didn’t have quite the same startling speed in the upper registers.
PMC’s magnificent Fenestria-based system
Two utterly glorious loudspeakers in one room and a real treat for the senses . . .
The Fenestria’s nest-mounted midrange driver and tweeter
Naim Audio has had a very busy year, having launched its all-new 200- and 300-series components, as well as the 50th-anniversary Nait 50 integrated amplifier. On demo at Ascot and making its show debut was the complete 300 series, comprising the NSS 333 streamer (£7899), NAC 332 preamplifier (£7899), NPX 300 power supply (£5700), and NAP 350 mono power amplifiers (£11,999 per pair). This ensemble was driving Focal Sopra N°2 loudspeakers. “Kyrie (Vidala-Baguala)” by Mercedes Sosa was presented in a huge acoustic space with tremendous dynamics and clarity.
The complete Naim Audio 300 series
The new Naim range strikes me as a perfect redesign because the company has managed to incorporate elements from its heritage—the triptych styling of its previous range, the heatsink sculpting of the 500 series, and the classic proportions of its olive-colored, chrome-bumper equipment that dates back to 1973. The series manages to look incredibly classy without being ostentatious or fussy.
Naim Audio’s NSS 333—classy but never ostentatious
As a long-time Naim owner, I’m looking forward to reviewing these components—I am awaiting review samples as I write. It’s the dawn of a new era for Naim, and I’m eager to pitch these new components against my legacy Naim system.
Yamaha revealed one of the most gorgeous pieces of retro design I have yet seen with the UK launch of its R-N2000A streaming receiver (£3000). It so perfectly captures the heyday of classic Japanese gear that I thought I had stepped into 1975. This is a retro-fabulous 120Wpc amplifier, but it includes a plethora of features to enable modern music sources to be used.
Yamaha’s sublimely ’70s R-N2000A
The receiver incorporates Yamaha’s MusicCast multiroom music platform, which supports a wide range of streaming services, and it also has a top-flight ESS Sabre ES9026PRO DAC built in, with USB connectivity. The amplification stages have been carefully laid out. The power supply uses a high-quality toroidal transformer mounted on a solid brass base to minimize vibration. The unit also features HDMI ARC so that TV sources can be easily routed through it, and it includes solid-brass speaker terminals for a secure connection. The amplifier includes Yamaha Parametric Acoustic Optimizer (YPAO) to compensate for difficult room acoustics. Best of all, it’s got beautiful VU meters that glow softly and warmly when it’s powered up. These aren’t the fake LED kind; they’re bona fide mechanical meters and are utterly beautiful to look at.
Yamaha’s gorgeously illuminated VU meters
Yamaha paired the R-N2000A with its NS-2000A floorstanding loudspeakers (£6000 per pair), which were finished in a stunning piano-black gloss. This three-way, four-driver, bass-reflex design incorporates a 1.25″ soft dome tweeter, 3.25″ midrange, and twin 6.5″ bass drivers. Lana Del Rey’s “Doin’ Time” showed good, firm bass, while Jack Johnson’s “Staple It Together” had a great sense of groove.
Bowers & Wilkins / Classé
Bowers & Wilkins needs no introduction, but making its debut at Ascot was the 805 D4 Signature in a stunning Midnight Blue finish. B&W already builds some of the most beautiful loudspeakers in the world, but the new color has taken this to new heights. This beauty comes at a significant premium—while the 805 D4 retails at £7000 a pair in standard finishes, the new Midnight Blue finish of the Signature version elevates it to £10,000, though there are also upgraded crossover parts in the Signature.
B&W 805 D4 Signature in Midnight Blue finish—achingly gorgeous
Fronted by the Classé Delta Pre preamplifier (£11,000) and Delta Stereo power amplifier (£13,000), a pair of 805 D4 Signatures produced a detailed and impressively room-filling sound, which was a surprise from such modestly sized enclosures. Richard Thompson’s “I Misunderstood” sounded gloriously precise, while Lady Blackbird’s “Did Somebody Make a Fool out of You” demonstrated superb piano timbre and wonderfully sonorous double bass.
Classé’s classy Delta Pre preamplifier and Delta Stereo power amp vertically flanking an Innuous server
It’s not often that a radical new tonearm emerges from an entirely new audio manufacturer, but that is precisely what has happened at Ascot with the Supatrac Blackbird. This was actually a lockdown project for Richard Braine, who is a lifelong audiophile with a degree in physics and philosophy from King’s College London, but who was working as a photographer until COVID struck. The Blackbird looks unlike anything else on the market and adopts a number of radical design features.
The Blackbird comes in three lengths: 9″ (£2300), 10.5″ (£2500), and 12″ (£2700). The arm comprises a straight twin-box-section carbon arm tube that is hung at two points just forward of the counterweight assembly by a thread attached to the arm pillar. It’s a unipivot design, but it’s quite unlike any unipivot I have ever come across because it is a sideways unipivot that opposes stylus drag at a single point. Unlike most unipivot arms, it doesn’t wobble because the suspension trapeze constrains its movement. The pivot point is below the level of the record so that any drag caused by loud dynamic passages causes a torque reaction that enhances groove contact. It’s a fascinating and unique approach that has garnered ecstatic praise from quite a few reviewers and audiophiles, despite being built by a one-man operation. As they say, never underestimate the genius of a man in a shed!
The Supatrac system, including a Linn Uphorik phono stage and KEF Reference 1 Meta loudspeakers
The arm offers built-in VTA adjustment. Downforce is applied and adjusted via moving weights that are low-slung beneath a cage at the rear of the arm. Listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Panama” with the arm mounted on a Technics SL1200G turntable and an Audio-Technica AT33SA mounted in the headshell, I was struck by the lively, rhythmic presentation, which exhibited plenty of bounce and verve. This is certainly an arm that gets your foot tapping thanks to its engaging presentation and mastery of rhythmic drive. At this price, it seems something of a high-end bargain, and it can be supplied with a variety of arm mountings to fit turntables from Linn, SME, etc.
Origin Live has developed an impressive reputation for its tonearms, but I must confess I had little experience with the company’s turntables until I walked into their room at Ascot and saw the gorgeous Voyager vinyl spinner, now in its Mk5 guise. Priced at £24,000 (or £47,000 for the more highly specified “S” version), this is very much a super-deck, with looks to match. As a huge fan of space exploration, I noticed that the Voyager turntable’s formidable superstructure is exactly the same slate-grey color as that of the Voyager spacecraft. Coincidence? Perhaps.
The Interplanetary influenced Origin Live Voyager turntable
At 28kg (62 pounds), the Voyager is a very heavily engineered spinner whose complex aluminium alloy chassis has a number of shock-absorption mechanisms built-in and is coated to minimize high-frequency artifacts. The deck uses a single-point cantilever suspension, where the subchassis is mounted at a single semi-flexible point to isolate it from vibration. Origin Live argues that this approach avoids the softening of leading edges noted with some suspended decks while avoiding the hardness noticed in many non-suspended designs. The platter, which has under-slung weights, is made of multiple layers of a top-secret composite material that aims to transmit vibration through the platter without reflections. Twin DC motors drive the platter via a redesigned belt that provides high grip and low stretch.
Stunning looks and design aided by advanced materials science
A variety of tonearms can be fitted from the Origin Live range, and up to three tonearms can be accommodated. The demonstration deck used the Renown tonearm, priced at the staggering sum of £26,000. I’m happy to report that Jack Savoretti’s “What More Can I Do?” sounded extremely precise, articulate, and rhythmic, with great definition between different instruments in the mix. This is a turntable I would certainly like to pull in for a formal review next year, as it looks and sounds fantastic.
Closing thoughts on days one and two
By the time I got around to the exhibitors covered in this report, the second day was drawing to a close, so I made my way out of the vast venue, marveling at the range of equipment on display. It’s always struck me that music in our youth is a shared pastime, but as we age, it too frequently becomes a solitary pursuit. Attending an audio show like Ascot reminds you that you’re not alone in this crazy passion—which can only be a good thing.
You are not alone!
Where else but an audio show can you hear such a vast array of systems, talk to the manufacturers directly, and discover such a huge variety of excellent music? It’s a fantastic experience, and I couldn’t wait to get back in there to report on the UK’s most important high-end audio show.
Join me for the second part of this show report soon . . .
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!