Featuring a huge swath of new products and some genuinely world-class systems, this second part of my coverage of UK Hi-Fi Show Live 2023 from Ascot Racecouse in Berkshire is even more diverse than the first. A strange thing about Ascot is that it never feels busy, even when there’s a huge number of people in the venue. Only when I visited the exhibit rooms did I realize just how many people were in attendance. Most of the manufacturers I spoke to seemed to be having a good show. All prices are in UK pounds.
Decent Audio distributes a variety of brands in the UK and at Ascot demonstrated a pair of Magnepan 1.7i three-way, dipole, quasi-ribbon loudspeakers driven by some eye-catching red-colored SPL amplifiers. The speakers cost £2995 for the pair. An uncommon sight in the UK, the Maggies displayed all the classic virtues of a panel design—spaciousness, life-size scale and speed—but with a fuller bottom end than is common with panels. Bass weight seemed ample enough to provide sonic balance, which surprised me. If your listening tastes lean towards singer-songwriter, folk-rock, baroque classical, or chamber music, this loudspeaker offers a spectacular glimpse of the high end at a mid-fi price.
The legendary Magnepan 1.7i
The rest of the system comprised the SPL Director Mk2 DAC-preamplifier (£3750), SPL Phonos phono stage (£2000), and SPL Performer s1200 power amplifier (£6500). It was a visually arresting and sonically rewarding combination. These components exude jewel-like precision and exemplary finishing, which arguably makes them a poor man’s Nagra. Heck, the Director even has proper VU meters—what more could you ask?
SPL’s quirky but attractive amplification
NH Audio Design
NH Audio Design is a new startup company led by Nikolay Hristov. At Ascot, the firm debuted its first product, a radical-looking loudspeaker priced at £30,000 per pair. The sculpted cabinet, whose spherical shape minimizes internal reflections, is made from fibreglass. It employs a ribbon tweeter and 12″ midrange-woofer, both designed and built by NH. The ribbon tweeter bears more than a passing resemblance to the legendary Decca Kelly ribbon-based tweeters of yore. I was told there are plans to offer a smaller version with an 8″ midrange-woofer.
NH Audio—striking spherical design
Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the ’60s, but I’ve always had a love for spherical loudspeaker designs like the Grundig Audiorama 9000 speakers of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as the Gallo Acoustics range. There’s something space-age about them. I love the fact that you could mount those old Grundigs on chains and suspend them from the ceiling—what could be cooler than that?
The NH Audio speakers on demo had a black-gloss finish, but I couldn’t help thinking that a white-gloss pair hung from the ceiling would be the ultimate in 21st-century style. Sonically, they were impressive, with tight, punchy, and extended bass and a high level of clarity thanks to the ribbon tweeter. “Pick Up the Pieces” by the Phil Collins Big Band from A Hot Night in Paris sounded impressively natural. I will be following the development of these unique speakers with great interest, as it’s nice to see somebody trying to do something genuinely different from boring rectangular boxes.
Led by Nigel Crump, well-known distributor Symmetry Systems imports a wide variety of exotic brands to the UK, including Kiseki, Lyra, Brinkmann, HRS, and Stax. The distributor’s room seemed to be packed for much of the show thanks to the combination of an excellent-sounding system and presentations by the legendary Mike Valentine of Chasing the Dragon, an audiophile label that offers music on CD, download, vinyl, and reel-to-reel.
Symmetry Systems’ room had been extensively treated acoustically and sounded particularly good, while the system included Brinkmann Oasis (£16,000) and Brinkmann Taurus (£16,000) direct-drive turntables, both with Brinkmann Tonearm 12.1 tonearms (£5000). One ’table was fitted with a Goldenberg Brilliant moving-coil cartridge (£2695), the other with a Lyra Etna moving coil cartridge (£6900).
Oh Lyra, dear Lyra, I’d rather Nigel didn’t mention it—after reviewing the company’s glorious Kleos SL cartridge, I’m still traumatized about not being able to afford the review sample. My vinyl listening sessions nowadays are consumed by memories of the Lyra’s staggering transparency, the crystalline sparkling highs of a Steinway piano, and the utter conviction and control of its bass registers. The darned thing has become like the ghost of some achingly adorable ex-girlfriend who remains agelessly embedded in my memory just as she was at 21—the one who got away, who destroyed me when she left. As an alternative, I’ve pursued the legendary Kiseki Purple Heart, which Symmetry also imports, but they seem to be as rare as a virgin in a brothel. At this rarified level, it would seem demand exceeds supply because of the artisanal techniques involved in the manufacture of these cartridges.
Symmetry was using a full suite of Brinkmann electronics, including the Edison Mk II phono preamplifier (£12,000), Marconi Mk II line stage (£12,000), Nyquist Mk II streaming DAC (£16,000), and Mono power amplifiers (£16,000 per pair), which were finished in a striking red/black colour scheme, powering a pair of Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeakers (£24,998 per pair). This was a superb system sonically and visually, especially when Mike Valentine started playing his exceptional recordings.
Symmetry’s striking and sonically impressive system
Mike is one of the most charismatic and amusing people on the audio scene, and his presentations at hi-fi shows are fast becoming the stuff of legend. He’s an ex-BBC engineer who eventually became one of the world’s most acclaimed underwater cameramen. He has a score of blockbuster features to his credit, including five Bond movies, a couple of Jason Bourne films, and some Indiana Jones movies. However, Mike’s passion for music and sound drove him towards audio engineering, and so he established Chasing the Dragon.
Mike Valentine and the author modeling their new signature shirt collection at Ascot
Mike’s records are jaw-dropping in their naturalness and lifelike quality. It’s very rare to hear the acoustic signature of the recording venue come across quite as well as it does on his records. As part of his presentation, Mike played a recording of a solo cello recorded in a church and then the same cello recorded outside the church on the grounds. The difference convincingly demonstrated the importance of an engineer’s expertise in capturing the reverberation of the recording venue. His presentation included an explanation of the Decca Tree microphone array, a comparison of vintage valve and modern transistor microphones, and a discussion on dynamics and microphone placement. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about how music is recorded, Mike’s presentations will light the way. Everything is amply illustrated with extracts from his records and enlivened by his rapier wit and self-deprecating good humour.
This was one of the highlights of the whole show. Be sure to check out Mike’s recordings at www.chasingthedragon.co.uk, and try to catch him next time he speaks.
Mike Valentine in full flow entertaining the crowd
Signature Audio Systems, which distributes more brands than I can count, had one of the largest and most engaging rooms at the show. Its most impressive exhibit was an incredible PS Audio reference system fronted by Aspen FR30 loudspeakers (£30,000 per pair). “Cool Struttin’” by the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet sounded superb, with tremendously lifelike piano weight and soaring dynamics. This was yet another illustration of the importance of attending hi-fi shows to calibrate your ears and tastes to what is possible, given no financial constraints.
Every time I visit hi-fi forums, I read accounts by people who state with authority that only the unknowing can muster, that hi-fi show systems sound universally disappointing and are easily bettered by their own home hi-fi systems. This is almost always an exercise in self-delusion from people who cannot accept that their choices can be easily bettered. Sure, some rooms at shows can be sub-optimal, but frankly, a well-engineered £250,000 system in the worst room is still going to destroy a £10,000 system—irrespective of how well set up you think it is.
PS Audio’s stunning reference system making sweet music
PS Audio debuted its new StellarGold range, including the StellarGold preamplifier (£4000), which features fully balanced connections, a pure class-A output stage, and selected audiophile-grade parts. This was augmented with the new StellarGold DAC (£4000), which features ESS9038Pro DACs in a parallel configuration, supports up to 768kHz PCM and DSD256, and offers a plethora of analog and digital outputs.
PS Audio StellarGold line
One of the world’s great turntable makers, Thorens was founded in Switzerland 140 years ago. To celebrate this milestone, the company launched a brace of new turntables, including a signature edition of the classic Thorens TD 124, which debuted in 1957! The new TD 124 DD 140th Anniversary turntable (£13,000) will be manufactured in a limited edition of 140 units. It will include a custom-made SPU124 Anniversary cartridge, which will only be available for this particular deck. The fit and finish are utterly exquisite, with premium gloss-wood veneers and materials and an eye-catching copper-topped platter. Other highlights include retro-styled controls, an electric arm lift, and an external power-supply unit to maximize performance. With its stunning looks, I would imagine the 140th Anniversary is going to sell out extremely rapidly to Thorens collectors and fans worldwide.
The stunning TD 124 DD 140th Anniversary turntable
Also on display were the TD 1600 manual (£2799) and TD 1601 (£3299) electric-lift/auto-shut-off turntables. Both are belt-drive models that feature a two-piece aluminium platter and a suspended subchassis design that is now supported on springs from the base rather than hung from the top plate. The styling is reminiscent of the classic TD 160 of the 1970s and 1980s, but with more impressive standards of fit and finish than I recall from that era.
Thorens’s wonderfully retro TD 1600
At Ascot, German brand Canton launched its new Reference 7 floorstanding (£6250) and Reference 9 standmount (£3800) loudspeakers. These modestly sized loudspeakers incorporate something Canton calls BCT (Black Ceramic Tungsten) in the loudspeaker drivers for enhanced performance. Both also feature WBT next-gen terminals for optimum connection.
Canton’s new Reference 9 and Reference 7 speakers
The Slovakian brand Canor was new to me, although the company apparently has been an OEM manufacturer and technical consultant to other brands such as Creek and Musical Fidelity for some 30 years. However, Canor’s own range of products dates back just five years. At Ascot, Canor was showcasing the CD 1.10 CD player (£4450), Asterion tube phono preamplifier (£8000), Virtus I2 tube integrated amplifier (£7500), and 2.10 DAC (£3650), all of which benefit from a signature triode tube output stage.
Canor’s 2.10 DAC
While these components weren’t playing music, I was captivated by their astonishing styling and the fact that they don’t actually look like tube-based components, but have a fresh and modern design aesthetic.
Canor’s Virtus I2 integrated amplifier—40Wpc of KT88 goodness
Harmony HiFi Distribution / DALI Audio UK Ltd.
Danish audio brands are undergoing a renaissance of late, which is no wonder when their designs are so stunning and their engineering so impressive. Few brands carry quite the cachet of Gryphon Audio Designs—pretty much everything it has ever made is the stuff of audiophile dreams. Harmony HiFi Distribution, which handles Gryphon in the UK, really pushed the boat out for the Ascot show. They were demonstrating a jaw-dropping system costing in excess of half a million pounds fronted by a pair of DALI’s stunning flagship Kore loudspeakers (£85,000 per pair).
The Kore’s twin 11.5″ bass drivers employ cones made from a combination of wood fiber and paper and feature new dual-voice-coil Balanced Drive technology. The Kore incorporates DALI’s new SMC-2 (Soft Magnetic Compound) in the magnet pole pieces of the woofers and 7″ midrange driver. According to DALI, SMC reduces eddy currents and hence distortion because the material is magnetic but not conductive. The high-frequency section combines a ribbon and a soft-dome tweeter. The thinking behind this dual-tweeter configuration is that soft-dome tweeters behave optimally up to 13kHz and ribbon tweeters work optimally between 13kHz and 30kHz. By combining the two, seamless response and wider dispersion can be obtained over a broader frequency range. Kore technology has trickled down to the company’s new Epikore 11 loudspeaker, which was also on display, but I didn’t hear it.
DALI’s Epikore 11 loudspeaker
Sources included the head-spinningly gorgeous Gryphon Ethos CD player (£35,000); Ideon Audio’s sublime Absolute Stream (£20,000), Absolute Epsilon DAC (£44,000), and Absolute Time master clock (£40,000); plus a Bergmann Audio Galder & Odin Signature turntable (£38,500). That’s £104,000 just on the streamer alone, plus another hundred grand for the CD player and turntable by the time you have furnished the latter with a phono stage and decent cartridge.
The head-spinningly gorgeous Gryphon Ethos CD player
With such elite sources, what better choice to amplify the signal than Gryphon Audio Designs, perhaps the most elite of high-end audio brands? Amplification comprised the astonishing Gryphon Commander preamplifier, which with its power supply costs £60,000. This was complemented by the Gryphon Legato Legacy XLR phono stage. Normally I would raise an eyebrow at spending £14,500 on a phono stage, but in this company it’s a mere bagatelle. Power amplification was provided by two enormous Gryphon Apex mono power amplifiers (£190,000 per pair). Each of these can deliver 225W of class-A power into an 8-ohm load. Lest you think this sounds modest, consider the following: these amplifiers are the only ones I can think of still in production that essentially double their output into 4-ohm, 2-ohm, and 1-ohm loads, at which point each amp is pumping out 1690W of pure class-A power. This amplification rig is so spectacular in looks and performance that I’m not sure I can think of anything made by any other audio company that is so desirable. They are the optimus testiculae canis of high-end audio.
The magnificent Gryphon Audio Commander
This system is to audio reproduction what the Saturn V rocket is to aerospace engineering—a technical marvel at the limits of what human endeavour and technology can achieve. Don’t bemoan the fact you cannot afford it. Instead, revel in the knowledge that it exists and that there are companies out there with the resources to build this stuff. “We’re All We Need” from a vinyl LP of Above & Beyond’s Live at the Hollywood Bowl sallied forth with incredible power, scale, clarity, depth, and dynamics to the extent that I felt shivers up my spine and tears in my eyes. Hearing this system was the experience of a lifetime.
Complete system—the stuff of dreams
Sound Design Distribution
Another distributor with an array of new products was Sound Design Distribution. Of particular note were the new Kii Audio Seven wireless loudspeaker, Halcro Eclipse stereo amplifier, and Lumin D3 streaming DAC.
The Kii Audio Seven will ship in early 2024. This attractive new standmount design packs a huge amount of technology into its small enclosure. The tweeter benefits from a custom waveguide to improve dispersion. Surprisingly for a speaker of this size, there are two side-mounted 6.5″ woofers and a 5″ midrange driver. The speaker has been engineered following Kii Audio’s extensive studio-monitoring experience to radiate in a cardioid dispersion pattern so as to minimize interaction with the room. With 600W of onboard amplification, the Kii Seven has XLR analog and AES/EBU digital inputs, as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, with support for AirPlay 2. Support for Tidal Connect, Spotify Connect, and Qobuz Connect will be provided by a future software update.
Kii Audio Seven—future-fi
The Kii Home app enables multiroom streaming in up to 12 zones of your home simply by adding more Kii Audio Seven speakers.
The distinctive Halcro Eclipse stereo amplifier made its UK show debut at Ascot. This ultra-low-noise amplifier utilizes substantial shielding and physical separation to isolate the power supply from delicate audio circuitry. The result is extremely low THD, which Halco claims is one-fifth of that exhibited by competing designs.
Specified to output 180Wpc into 8 ohms or 350Wpc into 4 ohms, the Halcro Eclipse features a completely redesigned input stage, multiple independent power supplies, improved shielding, and higher power, while maintaining the legendary Halcro’s signature sculpted aesthetic.
Halcro’s unmistakable Eclipse stereo power amplifier
At Ascot, Lumin debuted its new D3 streaming DAC, priced at £2195. This combines entirely new processing hardware with more flexible resampling capability, a new DAC section built around ESS Technology’s Sabre ES9028Pro chip, a new analog output stage that draws on the technology of the Lumin X1, and an all-aluminum chassis with a CNC-machined front panel. The D3 is Roon Ready, and it supports AirPlay 2, Tidal Connect, and Spotify Connect. The revamped Lumin app adds support for Qobuz, Plex, and TuneIn. The D3 has maximum resolutions of 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 and MQA decoding and rendering capability.
Lumin’s new D3 streaming DAC (top) and L2 server
Coming up soon on SoundStage! Global—the third and final instalment from UK Hi-Fi Show Live.
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!