NAS Whittlebury 2014

September means many things to many people but to the audio enthusiast it means show time. The first date of the season in the UK is the National Audio Show at Whittlebury Hall not far from the Silverstone F1 race track. This large and warren like hotel has rooms great and small, some of which can be induced top produce a good sound as some exhibitors managed to reveal. It doesn’t attract many big names but systems with components from such companies could be heard in dealer rooms, Fanthorpes of Hull for instance had a Chord Electronics and PMC system doing sterling stuff. Instead you get smaller British brands alongside a panopoly of imported kit. All in all it’s a lot of fun and even manages to offer up new gear as the following report reveals.

Townshend Audio Excalibur II
I was under the impression that the long awaited Excalibur II tonearm was finished around this time last year, but the refinements continued and now at last it really is finished. It has sprouted spring downforce with a micrometer style control on the side and Fractal wiring throughout, which should help if experiences with this interconnect are anything to go by. The base can be adjusted for fore/aft movement, height and tilt, he appears to have thought of everything, let’s hope he can let it lie. Price will be £4,500.

KEF Blade 2
Johan Coorg was demonstrating the Blade 2 or mini Blade that has now been finalised and is going into production. It sounded rather convincing on the end of Musical Fidelity electronics with a Macbook front end.

Every show should have a newcomer and this year it was Richard Best with two distinctive loudspeakers. Both feature sloping baffles with the largest, the 40/4 (£2,850 direct) having a pair of 170mm ally bass drivers allied to a dome midrange and tweeter. This sounded open and dynamic if a little forthright in the square, undamped dem room, but that bodes well for more conventional settings. The Model 22/3 also has twin bass drivers but combines these with a 28mm tweeter. Construction is obviously plywood and both models are said to offer an easy load that will suit lower powered amps. I liked his piano maquettes too.

Teddy Pardo
Power supply specialist Teddy Pardo had a new phono stage on demonstration, this is an MM/MC ready unit with an onboard PSU and allows changes in impedance and gain via plugs on the rear panel. It’s the one on the left, allegedly.

Russ Andrews
Russ does not seem to have retired completely and was having fun demonstrating how the ‘musical performance’ could be enhanced by upgrading cables. The dem I got involved a vintage Arcam Alpha CD and Alpha 6 integrated combo driving Focal Chorus V standmounts. Moving from basic/freebie cables (interconnect, speaker and mains) to £600 worth of Kimber did a fair job of transforming the system’s resolving powers. Which ultimately results in a more convincing performance and reveals how much potential there is in inexpensive hardware.

Royd Audio Troubadour
Every show seems to have a blast from the past these days. This time it was Royd Audio which hasn’t been seen since Joe Royd retired in 2002. It has been resurrected by product designer Adam Norbury who, with the aid of an audio engineer, has created the Minstrel inspired Troubadour. Standing 680mm high it comes with a black (£999) or coloured (£1,199) Valcromat MDF baffle and is made in Oxfordshire. Solid wood fronted versions are on their way.

Aurender X100
I got a good result with the original Aurender S10 digital transport so was interested to see that a smaller variant has been built. The Aurender X100 has an SSD for cached playback with an HDD for storage, works with DSD up to 128x, supports NAS drives and has a dedicated control app. Price is £3,250.

Audio Note Jinro
The Aurender sounded pretty good with an all Audio Note system but the eye catcher in the room was a yellow Jinro integrated, a £16,500 single ended beauty/beast that would look great in my front room.

Bully Sound M5
BSC or Bully Sound is the creation of Dan D’Agostino’s son Bret, so it’s big, the M5 150 watt class A mono power amplifier was on static display in the Hi-Fi Guy room. It is still a prototype but the distinctive cast aluminium casework make it stand out and the D’Agostino name gives it the sort credibility that makes me want to hear it. But at £28,500 per pair they are going to have to be good.

AKG K812
The Harman group showed a slew of new headphones at Whittlebury but the one that caught my eye was the £1,100, K812 from AKG. This is a pro audio, open-back model with 53mm drivers, the largest the company has ever used. Designed for long periods of use and maximum accuracy they could well put this classic brand back at the top of the tree. AKG also launched the colourful Y series which includes a Bluetooth model (Y45BT £109) but starts at £69 for the Y40. JBL has three E series models starting at £60 and including two BT receiving models, alongside the S400BT at £200.

Headphone zone
Placed right where visitors entered the show the headphone contingent looks like the most buoyant sector in the industry right now. With companies like Oppo producing phones and amps and new companies making a name for themselves it’s an exciting area. All we have to do is come to terms with sound so close to our ears!

Icon Audio MB81
David Shaw has been having a bit of fun with monster GU81 pentode valves. This has resulted in the MB81 monoblock, a 200 watt design that runs the valve in triode mode. He chose this particular glass because it is relatively inexpensive compared to better known varieties, this however doesn't’ stop these behemoths from retailing for £12,500 a pair. Note the EL34 driver valves for scale.

Gamut RS7
Sound Fowndations had a rather good system in action in one of the larger rooms, very good in fact. This down to the use of Gamut RS7 speakers allied to Gamut M250i mono power amps, the Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable and Statement TT1 parallel tracking arm probably had something to do with it too. I also liked the Placebo album they were playing, a reissue of a 1974 release by a Belgian jazz rock combo.

Art Audio Composer
Turntable spotters might recognise valve brand Art Audio’s latest product as being very similar to something that was called Claro, that’s because Tom at Art got involved with the metal workers that produced that design and revised it for his own purposes. He changed the bearing so that it had PTFE for the thrust pad, put on an acrylic base to allow for a dust cover and added a strobe disc to fine tune speed, there is also an optional Art Audio power supply with a speed adjuster onboard. The standard turntable is £3,000 for the single armboard version or double that for two armboards.

Music First Reference phono
Music First has been using the talents of Nick Gorham (Long Dog Audio) to make its first phono stage. The Reference Phono (£9,850) is MM only, MFA makes a step-up transformer, and based around a valve circuit that uses pentodes in an ultralinear configuration rather than the more common triode approach. The outboard power supply is shunt regulated for maximum grip. I don’t usually go for MM only stages but this one could be seriously good.

Chasing the Dragon
Mike Valentine has been putting his recordings on vinyl and even cutting one direct to wax, his Four Seasons was made this way and sounds extraordinarily real and vivacious. Mike gave a talk at the show and demonstrated these records with a Prometheus turntable, Nagra preamp and Focal SM9-L active monitors. A system that easily filled a large room with Mike’s music.

Mitchell & Todd
Mitchell & Todd make active professional monitors with attractively anodised tweeter mounts. Former Cornflake Chris Adair, now of Adair Acoustic, encouraged them to build active in-walls to the same standard. They will be making three models starting with the 725mm high, 80W+80W i1 at £2,500 and going up to the 1100mm high i3. All will be capable of high, clean SPLs thanks to class AB amplification and the company’s studio know how.

Audio Analogue & Usher
Decent Audio put together a refreshingly affordable system that produced very engaging results. They used an Audio Analogue 4270 integrated amp (£1,749), Crescendo CD player (£872) and Vivace Airtech DAC (£1,499) to drive a pair of Usher S520 standmounts (£350). Maybe it was the room or the choice of Jill Scott’s music but this was a very enjoyable system that proves it’s not all about how much you spend.

Leema Elements Ultra Phono
Leema has a new version of its mid price phono stage the Elements Ultra which has gain and impedance switching on the underside and comes in at £1,195. Leema also showed details of the forthcoming Spectra series which consists of the Pulse IV integrated amplifier with asynchronous USB DAC, Bluetooth aptX receiver and a headphone amplifier, it poots forth 180 Watts and will cost £2,500 when launched. The Stream IV is the same price and is a CD player with a Quattro infinity DAC and the option to add a streaming board.

The Vinyl Frontier
While Colleen Murphy was doing her Classic Album Sundays thing with an Audio Note system and a talk from Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd, The Vinyl Frontier was doing something similar downstairs with music from U2, Carole King and Wings among others. This was to promote a classic album event that usually takes place in Maidenhead and includes “trivia, chat and slides”. At Whittlebury it also included album artwork info and giant 45s in frames (see top of page).

Hart of Gold HD Sound & Vision
David Hart has come up with his own system for sending YouTube or any computer content to the telly and sound system via Wi-Fi. The Hart of Gold HD S&V system places a Wi-Fi receiver alongside amplification inside a new and relatively compact speaker for Hart, with an HDMI connection to take the image to the screen. The speakers have Tannoy Dual Concentric drivers and can be augmented with small versions of Hart’s rear firing, multi driver bass speakers as shown below. Price for the two speaker active, Wi-Fi video package is £2,850 and the speakers can be finished in any RAL paint finish.