National Audio Show 2011
Walking the corridors of Whittlebury Hall, a massive red-brick edifice casually occupying a swathe of open ground adjacent to the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit, it was hard to avoid a heavy whiff of nostalgia. Whilst the times have definitely changed, there was something distinctly redolent of the atmosphere and experience of early '80s hi-fi shows -- and this wasnt due solely to the pictures of James Hunt and Emerson Fittipaldi in the bar. Of course, its the products and people that make a show, and this was no different; its just that this time around it was more a combination of what was there and who wasnt.
So lets start with the who and a list of notable absentees. Given the economic climate and recent policy decisions on the part of several major companies, it was no surprise to find that B&W, KEF, Linn and Naim were all absent -- although the removal of such a central block of corporate power did much to dilute the presence of the sort of impressively professional display and presentational materials weve all come to take for granted: no huge, fully dressed stands showing extended product families; no large flat-screens looping corporate videos; a lot less flashy literature. More surprising to many was the absence of Absolute Sounds, the well-established distributor that did so much to create a high-end market and ethos in the UK and which still stands astride that market. One distributor might not sound like much of a loss, but when they occupied five large rooms last year and represent upwards of 30 brands, including heavyweights like Krell, Audio Research, Wilson Audio, MartinLogan, Sonus Faber, Koetsu and Jadis, as well as important ingénues like Devialet, Continuum, Dartzeel and Prima Luna, that knocks quite a hole in the list of exhibitors. Add to that the quality of their presentations and their ability to attract important personalities from those brands, giving the British public a rare chance to meet designers they might only otherwise read about, and it was a loss all the more more keenly felt.
Both these factors (the lack of corporate presence and the absence of so many familiar names and faces) contributed to what struck me as the slightly eerie, or at least decidedly different atmosphere. What they also did was create considerable space or opportunity for those brands that wanted to spread their wings. For example, Burmester mounted yet another concerted assault on the UK market theyve somehow never managed to crack, with a big system and plenty of passive display products in the massive Monza room. It was certainly an impressive presence, albeit one summed up by one visitor as, "The big splash before they once again sink from view." Only time will tell, but if that proves to be the case, it wont be for lack of effort.
But what was really spooky was the way every fourth or fifth room seemed to confront me with a blast from the past. I know horn speakers are enjoying a (gentle) surge in popularity, with modern designs from the likes of Acapella and Voxativ turning in impressively musical performances, but I wasnt prepared for the Voigt Memory (above), lovingly crafted modern iterations of the fabled domestic corner horn -- running from (amongst other things) a ReVox reel-to-reel deck. The Systemdek 3D Reference turntable isnt new (although a half-the-price version sharing most of the materials and technology is), but the name slotted straight into that '80s vibe, whilst who would have foreseen the reemergence of Albarry Music amplifiers, complete with original red Perspex fascias?
Vinyl was everywhere, both for sale and as a source, but perhaps most nostalgic of all, subscription-only magazine Hi-Fi Critic were showing a kit speaker based on the BMR driver, with flat-pack cabinets available from none other than Wilmslow Audio, longtime supplier of first speaker systems to impoverished students and audio enthusiasts. I tried to get into the room on no fewer than four separate occasions but couldnt get through the door, which I guess tells its own story. The fact that designer Martin Colloms proudly declared that he was "giving it away" (the design, that is, not the speaker) tells another. Clearly not everything has traveled back in time.
A less obvious link, but in its own way no less reminiscent of those earlier shows, was the sheer number of rooms filled with unfamiliar products or projects, all reaching (in some cases a little frantically) for the light. Weve become so inured to the sight of affordable CNC-machined casework and slick brochures that the reappearance of stock extruded boxes and off-the-shelf knobs, photo-copied data sheets and handwritten signage definitely qualifies as a back-to-the-future movement.
Was it all an illusion or are we seeing a genuine shift in the market? For me, the most telling indicators were two of the smaller rooms, those occupied by Audiofreaks and Symmetry Systems. Second only to Absolute Sounds in longevity and the profile and importance of its products (Conrad-Johnson, Kuzma, Avalon, Cardas, Zanden, Magnum Dynalab and Karan Acoustics), Audiofreaks can always be relied on to offer one of the best-sounding systems at any show. This show was no different, although the system used certainly was. A modest C-J pre-power combination (ET3 SE and Classic Sixty SE) were used to drive the small but perfectly formed Avalon Idea floorstanders ($7995/pair). The equipment was placed on Finite-Elemente racks and the cabling was all from Cardas. So far so good -- and all pretty much as expected. The break with tradition came with the source: a Mac laptop feeding an HRT Music Streamer II+ -- to very great effect, I might add.
Meanwhile, three doors and one floor down, Symmetry and close associate ElectroMod filled an entire room with high-quality headphone systems. Having imported Stax since the dawn of time (at least it seems like it), Symmetry contributed their 'phones and energizers along with an exquisitely elegant headphone amp from Trilogy, while ElectroMod provided the impressive Schiit headphone amps from Germany (shown above), the HiFiMan headsets and Omega headphone stands. That pretty much covers the range, with amps from £239 for the Schitt Asgard (£329 for the all-tube Valhalla) up to £1995 for the Trilogy 903, a single-ended, pure-class-A design constructed from discrete components and littered with audiophile parts. Headsets start at £395 and go pretty much as far as you could want.
What is most significant about these two rooms is just how clearly the equipment choices indicate the changing priorities within high-end audio. At the same time, their size hints at both the economic uncertainties and the shifting terrain. Everybody knows that things are changing and changing fast; what theyre not quite so sure about is just where theyll end up. What both of these rooms did so successfully was demonstrate just how high-end audio can adapt itself or be applied to emerging trends and markets. While so much of the show seemed to step back in time, these exhibitors (and a small number of others) were looking resolutely forward. The nostalgia trip is not so much a shift in the market as a hiatus, while the big players gather their breath, weather the economic storm and decide in which direction they should be heading.
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