Brizzle in the Drizzle - The Bristol Sound and Vision Show 2014
Be it audio or video, higher resolution is the name of the game
It’s been a tough winter and anyone heading out west must have half expected to find the Marriott Hotel in the centre of Bristol under water.
Thankfully, the worst of the weather appears to be behind us and despite the odd shower, the Bristol Sound and Vision show went off without a hitch. In some respects the Bristol Show, coming as it does at the end of February, can be seen as a harbinger of spring. Reminding us that the winter months are behind us and ahead lies a new season of audio and video products. So what were the big themes at this year’s show?
Well, predominantly, the main theme appears to be higher resolution, regardless of whether it’s audio or video. We all know 4K is coming and that means ultra resolution video but the audio manufacturers clearly feel that higher resolution audio also has a big future. That means streaming devices and DACs galore, all of which can handle high resolution audio up to and including DSD2 (DSD64/128) - even if you can’t actually find any content encoded using the latter.
We’ll cover the video products first and kicking things off there was JVC in their usual spot, just to the left of the main entrance. JVC were demonstrating their DLA-X500 projector which has already been awarded a Best Buy badge here at AVForums. The X500 is a D-ILA projector and includes the latest version of JVC’s proprietary e-shift technology, along with their usual deep blacks and a new ability to accept a 4K signal. The X500 uses a 1080p panel so it’s not a native 4K projector but, thanks to e-shift, it can still produce an image from a 4K source that is clearly at a higher resolution than normal 1080p. The demonstration was using 4K content from one of RED’s Redray players and those in attendance were definitely impressed. Whilst JVC’s X500, X700 and X900 might not be native 4K projectors, they will still allow you to take advantage of the higher resolution on offer, once 4K content becomes more widely available.
Whilst not 4K, up on the fourth floor Optoma were showing their new LED DLP projector. The HD91 launches next month at a game changing price of £2,999 and was awarded a Highly Recommended badge when we reviewed it. The advantages of using a LED light source are numerous, including a much longer life than a bulb, very little dimming and far greater consistency. There is also no need for a colour wheel, so the incidences of rainbow artefacts are reduced significantly. The demo was using quite a large screen, an achievement in itself when you consider it was in a hotel bedroom. Those who saw the demonstration were impressed by the brightness of the image, the motion handling and the level of detail. Unfortunately like every other demonstration the content was all in 2D, so those attending didn’t get a chance to see how good the HD91 can be with 3D material.
Epson were on the third floor and were demonstrating their latest flagship 1080p LCD projector, the EH-TW920. This year’s model includes 2,400 lumens of brightness, 3D at 480Hz, ISF certification with a colour management system, MHL connectivity and WirelessHD. We’ll be getting a TW9200 in for testing soon, so look out for a review and it certainly made an impact at the show, with big and bright images to impress those attending. Strangely, despite all the hype surrounding 4K, Sony were not demonstrating their VW500 native 4K projector at the show. This was a real shame because it would have been an ideal opportunity for visitors to actually see a native 4K projector in action and compare it to JVC’s X500. Sim2 were also not demonstrating at the Bristol show this year, aside from one of their little Domino projectors being used in the Anthem/Paradigm room.
Of course, it isn’t only 4K that has been attracting attention recently and OLED has also been getting its share of the press, with its promise of deep blacks and stunning dynamic range. Now that plasma has finally been put out to pasture, it’s OLED that holds the hopes of video enthusiasts everywhere. LG were demonstrating their 55-inch EA980 OLED TV against their 65-inch LA970 4K LCD TV. We have already reviewed both those TVs at AVForums, finding the LA970 a little disappointing but being blown away by the EA980 and awarding it a Reference Status badge. In the demonstration, the superior blacks of the OLED TV were evident but the advantages of native 4K content were also apparent. However, what visitors realised more than anything else, is how the perceived resolution is utterly dependent on viewing distance.
The Bristol Show remains predominantly an audio event and moving onto that side of things, Pioneer were drawing the crowds with a demonstration using their latest SC-LX87 AV receiver and BDP-450 Blu-ray player. Instead of the traditional Kuro they were using a large screen and a projector provided by Epson, so that would seem to be another nail in plasma's coffin. However, the big sound and immersive effects coming from their room certainly impressed those that heard it. It wasn’t all AV receivers and Blu-ray players though and the manufacturer was also demonstrating its two-channel prowess with the A-70 high-end amplifier and top-of-the-range PD-50 Super Audio CD player. The Pioneer range supports Apple AirPlay and of course it can play high resolution 192kHz/24 bit audio from a number of different sources, showing that traditional two-channel audio is going through something of a renaissance.
Yamaha were at the show in force, demonstrating their new 5000 series of AV receivers which both looked and sounded impressive. The manufacturer also had their latests soundbars on show, from the excellent YSP-3300 that we reviewed previously to the smaller but equally as impressive YSP-1400. Of course, keeping to the general theme of the show there were high resolution streaming products as well, with the R-N500 catching our attention. This HiFi receiver is DLNA certified, AirPlay compatible and supports FLAC and WAV up to 192kHz/24-bit, making it a great one-stop solution. There is a definite trend of manufacturers more normally associated with multi-channel audio, AV products and soundbars, moving into two-channel and high resolution audio, as both Pioneer and Yamaha have demonstrated.
Perhaps the best example of this move towards two-channel audio and high resolution audio is Sony who, as we mentioned earlier, weren't showing any of their video products or even their multi-channel AV receivers. Instead the manufacturer was keen to stress the advantages of high resolution 192kHz/24-bit audio over heavily compressed MP3 and AAC files. They were demonstrating their new line-up of Hi-Res Audio products including the HAP-S1 all-in-one Hi-Res player and amplifier or for those who prefer HiFi in separates form their was also the HAP-Z1ES HDD audio player and TA-A1ES stereo amplifier. If you would rather use your computer or laptop as an audio source, then Sony have their UDA-1 USB DAC with integrated amplifier to help upgrade the sound quality of your digital library. Of course, whilst no one denies the improved sound quality of higher resolution audio, the problem is always how to get hold of the Hi-Res audio files and ironically Sony were promoting Linn and Naim, who both provide a high resolution audio download service. Since Sony are in the unique position of actually owning a music label, perhaps it's time for them to step up to the plate if they truly believe that Hi-Res Audio is the future.
Moving on to the the more specialist HiFi companies and Cyrus were heavily promoting their new Lyric 09 music solution. This stylish and well designed device includes a streaming music player that allows you to stream music from your computer or hard drive over your network using your iPad as a controller. It also includes a CD player, the ability to connect an iPod, iPhone or iPad, Bluetooth aptX, USB A inputs, a USB B input, a DAB and a FM radio, Internet radio, digital inputs, a high resolution colour screen, a proximity sensor for basic control, ambient light sensors and a black panel touch screen. There's also a 32-bit DAC, support for high resolution audio formats and a 175W per a channel built-in amplifier, so even at £3,000 the Lyric 09 starts to sound like pretty good value.
If you're a fan of high resolution audio but are looking for something a bit more mobile, then Astell and Kern might have just the thing for you with their range of portable MQS (Mastering Quality Sound) Systems. These high resolution audio players range from the AK100 up to the AK240, which is their new flagship model. It certainly isn't cheap but you do get tank-like construction and 256GB of built-in storage, plus the option to add a 128GB microSD card, giving a total storage capacity of 384GB. There are also dual DACs, balanced outputs and support for all the high resolution audio formats, up to and including double DSD. If you're looking for a USB DAC and headphone amplifier, then LH Labs Geek Out device might be the just the ticket. Promising superior performance to the similarly priced AudioQuest Dragonfly and Meridian Explorer, the Geek Out includes balanced outputs, unto 1000mW at 16ohms, a maximum native sample rate of 384kHz/32-bit and support for double DSD.
Arcam were on hand to show off their latest flagship products for the first time in the UK, with their reference level AV950 pre-amplifier processor and their new A49 stereo amplifier. The AV950 is a 7.1-channel audiophile pre-pro with 7 HDMI inputs, 2 HDMI outputs and support for both 4K, 3D and ARC. There is also support for all the main audio formats, along with auto setup and room correction, balanced outputs and a iOS remote app. Arcam had a strong showing of their other AV products but like many manufacturers they seem to be getting their HiFi groove back and pride of place went to the A49 stereo amplifier. This two-channel beast incorporates Class G amplification, a toroidal-based power supply, an acoustically damped chassis, parallel transistor output stages and 200W per a channel into 8ohms. Arcam are also heavily supporting streaming audio with an excellent range of wired and wireless DACs, including the irDAC, rLink and rBlink, all of which we have recently reviewed.
Anthem have been making waves with their superb range of AV receivers for the last few years but even we were surprised at how good their new line-up was when we reviewed the new MRX 710 recently. The Canadian manufacturer's flagship AV receiver offers 7-channels of built-in amplification, a new design, improved electronics, support for 4K, 3D and ARC, control over a network and the latest version of Anthem Room Correction (ARC). All this combined to deliver the best sounding AV receiver we have reviewed to date, winning Anthem a well deserved Reference Status badge in the process. Their demo at Bristol used a MRX 710 in conjunction with a Sim2 Domino projector and a Paradigm 5.1 speaker setup. Thanks to the power of ARC, even a Bristol hotel can sound good and the demonstration certainly impressed those in attendance.
Dali were demonstrating their latest range of speakers and the Fazon Mikro range were particularly impressive. These include Fazon Mikro at the front, the Fazon Mikro Vokal for the centre speaker, the Fazon Sat for the rears and the Fazon Sub 1 subwoofer. The Dalis were being used in conjunction with an Anthem MRX 510 and the results were incredible from speakers this small, with the system delivering a wonderfully cohesive sound field. There was excellent tonality between all the speakers and plenty of deep and well integrated bass. There's no doubt that the Dali Mikron speakers and the Anthem MRX 510 would make fantastic combination in anyone's setup.
Neat Acoustics had an interesting range of speakers on show, with some equally interesting colour schemes. We're not entirely sure we'd want a pair of pink floor standers but presumably someone does. Neat have completely redesigned their Motive range and not just in terms of colours, with a new SXT tweeter, improved crossover, a better internal cabinet configuration and revised reflex tuning. The result is a new line of Motive SX speakers that combine looks, compact designs and performance, with the SX1 and SX2 floor standers, the more compact SE2 floor stander, the smaller SX3 and the SX-C dedicated centre speaker. We've been impressed by the Neat speakers that we have reviewed to date, including the IOTAs and we're looking forward to putting the revised Motive range through their paces.
Tannoy were demonstrating their Prestige range of speakers and these high-end, beautifully finished models certainly harked back to a more refined age. The Prestige Gold Reference range use new versions of the company's Dual Concentric drivers, along with new high frequency compression diaphragms, upgraded crossovers and an extensive use of deep cryogenic treatment of components. There are controls for adjusting the treble energy and treble roll-off or, as Ed Selley put it, '1930s room correction.' The speakers also come with a gift box, inside which you'll find your owner's manual and certificate, polish for the wood finish and a key for adjusting the crossover. The demonstration that we heard included the late Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side and his voice has never sounded better.
In terms of show stoppers, Naim took pride of place with the preview of its new Statement NAC S1 preamplifier and NAP S1 mono power amplifiers. These 'no compromise' products were conceived by Steve Sells, Naim's Electronic Design Director, who over a decade ago dreamed of the ultimate amplifier. Development began in 2011 and the result is a series of products that redefined the topology, methodology and philosophy of amplifier design. The NAP S1 mono power amplifiers are each rated at 746W (or one horse power) into 8ohms and a staggering 9000W burst power into 1ohm. The NAC S1 includes a new electronic design, dual volume control and vertical suspension isolation, resulting in an uncompromising performance at an equally uncompromising price of £130,000. The demo was in conjunction with a pair of Focal Grande Utopia speakers, which meant the system had a combined cost of £250,000, and whilst it sounded incredible you really have to question the logic of a sound system that costs as much as a house!
Finally, every year we wonder which Blu-ray will be the demo disc of choice and this time the hands-down winner was Life of Pi. The Oscar-winning 3D picture was used in almost every demonstration we saw and it was usually the flying fish sequence. Although all the demonstrations were in 2D, which meant that those watching couldn’t take full advantage of the added dimensionality for which the scene was actually designed. Special mention goes to Anthem who, along with the obligatory Life of Pi, also used a complete and very funny Minion mini movie from the recent Blu-ray release of Despicable Me 2.
This year's Bristol Sound and Vision Show might not have been a classic but it certainly had plenty to enjoy and it was good to see that not only were numbers up from last year but those in attendance ranged in ages and even gender. Ultimately 2014 promises to be an exciting year for the audio and video enthusiast and whilst we might mourn the passing of plasma, with Ultra HD 4K coming and OLED waiting in the wings, the best is yet to come. Meanwhile, the world of HiFi has never looked stronger thanks to a resurgence in two-channel audio and higher resolution formats. Whether you're into sound or vision or both, welcome to the resolution revolution.
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