Here’s the third and final instalment of my coverage of UK Hi-Fi Show Live 2023 from Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire, England. As in my first and second reports from Ascot, this one includes a raft of new product launches, informative audio presentations, and another world-class system.
Auralic was demonstrating its new Aries G2.2 streaming transport (£5299, all prices in UK pounds) and Vega G2.2 DAC (£6899) using Heed amplification and GoldenEar loudspeakers. The new 2.2 range continues with Auralic’s UnityChassis II pure-copper sub-enclosure and multi-point tuned base. Fundamental to the redesign is the move to the new Tesla G3 streaming platform, which uses a 64-bit architecture with eight times the processing power of the previous generation. Auralic claims that this revision has also reduced latency and jitter by 90 percent. The casework now includes a nickel-plated, pure-copper top plate to reduce resonance. The power supply has also been upgraded. A 4TB SSD, available as an optional £600 upgrade, should be big enough for almost any real-world music collection.
Auralic Aries G2.2 streaming transport
After examining the circuit layout with the top plate removed, I was pleased to note that Auralic has maintained the same meticulous quality of construction that has been a feature of the brand from the beginning.
Very neat internal design and build
Henley Audio is another leading distributor with a wide array of products. At Ascot, Pro-Ject Audio Systems launched its new Evo-series tonearms, which are offered in S-bend and straight shapes, with carbon fiber and aluminum arm tubes, with fixed or SME headshells, and in 9″, 10″, and 12″ lengths. Prices range from £799 to £2199, which struck me as competitive for the quality on offer.
Pro-Ject’s X8 turntable and new Evo 8 CC tonearm (£2099)
WiiM Home, the manufacturer of economical network streamers ranging in price from £89 to £219, launched a new streaming amplifier at the scarcely believable price of £299. This neat and portable unit basically takes the streaming capability of the WiiM Pro Plus flagship streamer and combines it with a 60Wpc stereo amplifier. I have an 18-year-old daughter who will be heading to university in a few months, and the WiiM Amp seems like the ultimate in student-fi! Just add a pair of speakers and you’ve got a system ideal for any student dorm room. Like WiiM Home’s streamers, the WiiM Amp is Roon Ready and supports AirPlay 2, Chromecast, Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, and UPnP/DLNA. And with the WiiM Home app, users can access many more services, including Qobuz, Amazon Music, Deezer, and SoundCloud, as well as iHeart Radio, vTuner, and TuneIn internet radio. I’ve got a four-grand Naim streamer sitting in the lounge that can’t do what this little box of tricks can do! At the launch, I wasn’t really worried about queues; I was just surprised there weren’t riots.
WiiM Home’s hardware lineup, including the new WiiM Amp (beside right speaker)—perfect student-fi!
Musical Fidelity, another brand handled by Henley Audio, debuted a brand-new belt-drive turntable. The M8xTT (£8249) is based upon a 20-year-old Musical Fidelity design that has finally been put into production. It features a twin-acrylic plinth, a Pro-Ject-derived tonearm, Teflon damping for the subchassis, RCA and XLR outputs, and a heavyweight aluminium-sandwich platter. A record puck is included. The package has all the gleaming appeal one would expect from this illustrious brand.
Musical Fidelity’s gleaming M8xTT turntable
Avidhifi has long been a manufacturer of high-end audiophile turntables, and in recent years it has expanded its range to include phono stages, amplifiers, and loudspeakers. On show at Ascot were the Ingenium Plug&Play turntable (£1500), Accent integrated amplifier (£4500), and a pair of Evo Four loudspeakers (£8000 per pair).
The Ingenium Plug&Play looks like an impressively engineered vinyl spinner at a very attractive price. It features a unique sapphire-jewelled bearing, vibration transfer clamp, solid-aluminium chassis, and sorbothane isolation feet. True to its name, it’s supplied with Avidhifi’s TA-1 tonearm and CA-1 moving magnet cartridge.
The Avidhifi Ingenium turntable
Available in white-gloss and black-gloss finishes, the Evo Four loudspeaker is an attractive two-way design featuring a 28mm (1.1″) Acuflex-coated soft-dome tweeter and a 160mm (6.3″) low-frequency driver with a titanium voice-coil former. The unusual cabinet shape is designed to minimize internal standing waves.
Avidhifi’s Evo Four loudspeaker
In the room next door, Avidhifi had its legendary Acutus turntable on demo equipped with the Reference power supply and Nexus tonearm. I spent around half an hour with founder Conrad Maas listening to the Acutus and discussing its design aspects. The suspension is utterly fascinating. It has a resonant frequency of 2.5Hz, which is far below the resonant frequency of cartridge cantilevers and is uniquely low compared to other suspended-subchassis designs. Conrad showed me how he could push down on the platter, causing it to bounce slowly with the record playing, and the stylus didn’t jump at all—a very impressive demonstration of the effective suspension design.
The iconic Avidhifi Acutus turntable
Alanis Morissette’s “Diagnosis” sounded extremely natural and transparent. I’m rather keen to review the Acutus as part of a series of turntable reviews I have planned for 2024.
Stratton Acoustics is a new company founded by David Fowler and Phil Ward. Phil was a seminal designer of many of Naim’s most iconic loudspeakers. David believed that in the pursuit of ever-smaller driver cones and narrow baffles, even in high-end loudspeaker designs, some of the magic offered by wide-baffle, large-woofer speakers like JBL studio monitors had been lost. Making its Ascot debut was the Stratton Acoustics Elypsis 1512 (from £82,800 per pair), a huge and unique loudspeaker designed to perform without compromise in a domestic setting.
The wide-baffled Stratton Elypsis 1512
The driver complement is as good a place to start as any when discussing these 308-pound behemoths. It’s a three-way, reflex-loaded design with two 15″ paper bass cones, an 11.8″ hand-doped paper midrange, and a 1.2″ soft-dome tweeter. Sensitivity is quoted as 96dB (2.83V/m), so the Elypsis 1512 can be used with relatively low-powered amplifiers. With nominal and minimum impedance of 8 ohms, it should present an easy load to the amplifier.
Elypsis 1512 main drivers
Played through a lovingly curated system that included an Innuos streamer, EAR 912 preamplifier, and EAR 509 monoblocks, New Order’s 2016 remix of “Blue Monday” proved immensely dynamic, punchy, and engaging. In my listening notes I was moved to write, “This doesn’t sound like valves at all.” There’s none of that softening of dynamic edges that you might associate with valve amplification, just a rock-solid bottom end and a feeling of infinite headroom and great transparency. If these loudspeakers have an automotive equivalent, it would be a V8- or V12-powered Aston Martin. Just as there’s no replacement for displacement in car engines, I firmly believe that there’s no substitute for cone diameter in loudspeakers. Large cones have a muscular ability to move air. You can’t get the same effect from smaller drivers, no matter how well they’re engineered.
Renaissance Audio / Moon
Renaissance Audio distributes several key brands in the UK, including Moon by Simaudio, Audiovector, Nordost, and VPI.
Making their show debut were the brand-new Moon 600 and 700 North-series components, which have further enhanced the already beautiful design, performance, and styling of previous Moon products. The 600 series comprises the 641 integrated amplifier (£11,000) and 681 streaming DAC (£12,000), while the 700 series is led by the 791 streaming DAC-preamplifier (£16,000) and 761 power amplifier (£14,000). There is also an 800 series comprising the 891 streaming DAC-preamp and 861 power amp, but these were not shown at Ascot.
Moon’s gorgeous 791 streaming DAC-preamplifier
Enhancements in the North series include the new MDCA (Moon Distortion-Cancelling Amplifier) circuitry, which is designed to lower noise and distortion significantly. The amplifiers are fully dual mono in design. The 641, 681, 791, and 891 all benefit from the ability to utilize the beautifully tactile new BRM-1 remote controller, which is included with those components. This might be the coolest remote control ever designed. In addition, the color screens fitted to the streaming components now benefit from auto brightness control. Moonlink comes as standard to improve operability. All components can now be network connected via ethernet to permit seamless firmware updating.
Moon’s ergonomically delightful BRM-1 remote
The 791 and 761 were part of a stunning system that included a pair of Audiovector R8 Arreté loudspeakers (£58,495 per pair). These elegant four-way floorstanding loudspeakers looked a million dollars in their Italian walnut-burl piano finish. The R8 Arreté’s driver complement includes a downfiring, isobaric low-frequency section with external 8″ and internal 6.5″ carbon-fiber woofers, three front-firing 6.5″ mid-woofers with carbon-fiber cones, a rear-firing 4″ midrange driver, and an AMT (Air Motion Transformer) tweeter.
Audiovector R8 Arreté speakers flank the new Moon North line
Vinyl replay was courtesy of a VPI Titan direct-drive turntable (£55,000), which uses an acrylic/aluminium/acrylic sandwich chassis on top of pneumatic air-suspension isolation footers. The platter is driven by a sophisticated offboard power supply that utilizes regenerated sine waves to deliver a clean feed to the AC motor. The deck is capable of taking up to three tonearms and visually is a formidable engineering statement.
Yet another exotic turntable to lust over! VPI’s Titan
Chord exhibited its recently launched Ultima range at Ascot, comprising the Ultima Pre 3 (£6000), which I reviewed earlier this year, and the spectacularly muscular Ultima 3 mono power amplifiers (£11,000), each rated at 480W into 8 ohms. Paired with Magico A3 speakers and using a Chord Dave DAC (£10,495) and Chord Hugo M scaler (£3495), the system proved that the new Ultima range contains the most musically rewarding amplifiers Chord has ever released.
Chord’s distinctive styling wows the crowds at Ascot
Once again, Cadence Distribution occupied one of the largest and most impressive rooms at the show. Cadence handles several legendary brands, including SME, Nagra, Rockport Technologies, Loricraft, Spendor, Plinius, Siltech, Crystal Cable, and Garrard, among others. The firm, led by industry luminary Ajay Shirke, had assembled a truly monumental system to support its extensive program of presentations and demonstrations.
Cadence Distribution’s monumental system
At the head of the system was a stunning SME Model 60 turntable in aquamarine-blue finish, which is part of a limited release of 60 SME Model 60 turntables in 60 different colours. Each is literally one of a kind—the sort of exclusivity that Ferrari owners can only dream of! This particular deck sported the new Audio-Technica AT-ART20 moving-coil cartridge (£2749.99). As a longtime Audio-Technica fan, I have been trying to secure one of these for review for months, so it was a delight to finally hear it! This cartridge has an almost liquid metal look, which put me in mind of James Cameron’s Terminator films. It’s a visual feast, especially on a deck as beautiful as the Model 60.
The SME Model 60 and Audio-Technica AT-ART20, resplendent in aquamarine
The rest of the system consisted of an Aurender W20SE streamer (£16,500) fed into a Nagra Reference DAC and Nagra’s flagship amplification using the rare Nagra HD AMP monoblocks (£76,500 each) to drive Rockport Orion loudspeakers (£140,000 per pair). That’s more than 300 grand on just the power amplifiers and loudspeakers. This is the kind of system that is so far beyond normal high fidelity that it transcends mere reproduction and becomes performance. No matter what was played, I was in musical heaven: Dynamics? Off the scale. Bandwidth? Total control from the deepest bass synths to the highest registers of a piccolo trumpet. Clarity? Utterly mesmerizing. This was one of the very best audio systems in the world, lovingly assembled and set up by a team of people so skilled in system optimization that they are the audiophile equivalent of a Formula One pit crew.
One of the highlights of the show was the interview with legendary recording engineer Tony Faulkner, conducted with great enthusiasm by Cadence’s newest recruit, the sparkling Kat Ourlian. That’s the joy of shows like Ascot—you hear directly from industry luminaries like Mr. Faulkner and gain unique insights into how they approach the business of recording.
Tony Faulkner being interviewed by Kat Ourlian
Also of note in the Cadence suite was the evergreen Garrard 301 turntable housed in a new polymer plinth made of the same material as the SME Series VA tonearm. While this deck was not actually on demonstration, SME’s CEO, Stuart McNeilis, described the sonic improvement wrought by the new plinth design as revelatory. As if that weren’t enough to whet the appetite of the most seasoned audiophile, Garrard (which now falls under the SME umbrella) can finish the new plinths in any Pantone color the customer desires. The exhibition deck was matched to an old Land Rover color and looked absolutely stunning.
Garrard 301 with new advanced-polymer plinth
Equally impressive was the properly book-bound replica Garrard manual, which the firm had typeset and printed to replicate the 1950s originals. They even photographed the assembly guidance pictures on the Ilford black-and-white photographic film used in the 1950s to ensure total authenticity. It’s this attention to detail that sets SME and Garrard apart. Both brands exhibit an obsessive attention to quality and detail—everything they build is very special as a result.
Garrard 301 book-bound manual
Almost the full line of SME turntables was displayed at Ascot along one wall, and they made an impressive sight. It’s a bit like seeing half a dozen Spitfires in the sky at the same time—it’s such a rare thing to experience that it stops you dead in your tracks. I don’t mind admitting that it made me proud to have achieved my lifetime ambition to mount an SME Series IV tonearm on my GyroDec. I went home after the show and spun some vinyl, delighting in being a member of the SME club. It is a magnificent tonearm, and SME remains a national treasure.
The SME turntable lineup
And so, Ascot came to a close for another year. What an enjoyable show this was to attend! Despite spending three whole days there, I still didn’t make it into every single room (my apologies to those I missed!). I hope SoundStage! readers have gained a comprehensive insight into the wonderful sights and sounds of this audio extravaganza.
The vinyl sales area was doing a roaring trade all weekend
It’s difficult to pick out highlights, but I would have to say that Mike Valentine’s presentations were outstanding. Cadence Audio’s and Harmony Distribution’s megabuck systems fully justified their ne plus ultra status. If you didn’t attend this year, you missed some exceptional presentations from luminaries like Matthias Böde and Tony Faulkner, but I’m sure they and many others will be back next year to delight the crowds all over again.
Mike Valentine charming one of his young fans
Most of all, I found it comforting that so many of us came together in 2023 to celebrate the very best in audio. It’s easy to think that real hi-fi is dying and that the masses don’t care anymore, but it’s clear that many thousands of us really do care, and that we’re every bit as passionate about music and its reproduction as the audiophiles of yesteryear were. We’re blessed to be living in an era where the greatest audio systems in history are being made, to be savoring the resurgence of vinyl, and to be able to stream the entire world’s music at the press of a button. We’ve never had it so good.
Royal Ascot basking in the late afternoon sunshine . . .
See you there next year!
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!