The Bristol Sound and Vision Show - The changing face of Hi-Fi

â??Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember itâ??

by Steve Withers Feb 26, 2013 at 9:56 AM

  • That quote is from Galadriel at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring but I found myself thinking about it as I walked around this year’s Bristol Sound and Vision Show.
    The way that people listen to music has fundamentally changed over the last few years and even a Hi-Fi stronghold like Bristol must eventually recognise that fact - like some supertanker that takes miles to turn around. Of course rebels have been battering at the gates of the Bristol Show for years; young upstarts like multi-channel audio and AV receivers have all tried to storm the barricades but the Hi-Fi defenders have held strong. However, like a great tree that could never be damaged from the outside, the decay spread from within and gradually weakened the once mighty edifice. This particular ‘stream’ of decay began as just a trickle but in time it would wash away all before it in a torrent of wireless speakers, DACs and earphones.

    Last year I noticed that the attendance seemed down on previous years but in 2013 it appeared that the crowds had returned, perhaps recognising Bristol’s status as the only Hi-Fi and AV show left or perhaps just reflecting the fact it was freezing outside. Either way it was comforting to see the crowds milling around the rooms and corridors of the Marriott City Centre Hotel. What was immediately apparent was the general lack of 'vision' at The Bristol Sound and Vision Show - there were still a few old faithfuls but far less than previous years. JVC were there of course, in their usual spot just to the left of the entrance and they were demoing the DLA-X55 projector we reviewed in January, but only with 2D material. They weren’t the only ones, with Epson also demoing their new TW6100 and TW9100 projectors, again with 2D material. Only Optoma appeared to still be showing 3D material, although that is a strong point of DLP and their new HD23 looked very impressive for a 3D projector that only costs £795.

    Moving away from the projected image, Sony had their 85” Ultra High Definition TV on display, giving many people their first chance to see native 4K content. Despite the quality of both the native 4K content and the upscaled 1080p, it’s doubtful that many will be swayed by the £23,000 price tag but, with smaller and considerably cheaper UHD TVs on the way, 4K’s time will come. Sony were also showing their new DA5800 receiver and seemed confident that the improvements they have made will result in an even better performance than last year’s award-winning DA5700. Interestingly the number of AV receivers on display was considerably less than previous years and Denon/Marantz weren’t even there, mainly due to a lack of new product. The same was true of big hitters likeOnkyo, who had a much smaller demo than in previous years. Pioneer had their recently reviewed SC-LX86 AV receiver setup with a Kuro (funnily enough) but they seemed more interested in promoting their new line of stereo products like the A-70 Class D amplifier, the PD-50 Super Audio CD Player and the X-P01 Hi-Fi System.

    In recent years the bottom seems to have fallen out of the AV receiver market and nowhere was this more obvious than at the Yamaha booth, where they were heavily promoting their new YSP-4300 soundbar. As modern TVs have become slimmer and slimmer, so their sound has become worse and worse, resulting in an explosion in the size of the market for soundbars. At Bristol there were even new high-end soundbars from GoldenEar and Paradigm, showing that just because you are using a soundbar, you don’t need to compromise on audio quality. Interestingly Sim2/Anthem/Paradigm had eschewed their usual large projector and 5.1 demo room, relegating the 3D-S projector to a smaller part of their stand. Instead they were promoting the new lineup of Peachtree audio products and the emphasis was very much on streaming, DACs and two-channel.

    Much like soundbars, DACs are another product area that has seen substantial growth over the last few years. As people play more and more music from digital sources, so they, and perhaps more importantly manufacturers, have realised that to get the best sound they need improved digital to analogue conversion. There were a multitude of DACs on display at Bristol, kicking off with Arcam, who have been building themselves a heathy niche in the DAC market. Arcam had their SonLink DAC on show, which has been designed to work with and specifically match the Sonos Connect. They also had their airDAC which as the name might suggest, allows you to network any audio system to an Apple Airplay enabled music source. Not to be outdone, the higher end of the market also had a number of DACs on display, from Bryston’s BDA-2 DAC to Chord’s flagship QBD76HDSD with DSD (Direct Stream Digital) decoding - your’s for a very 'reasonable' £5,000. Still that does buy you the kind of build quality that you can drive a tank over - seriously, there’s a video on YouTube! Naim were also showing their DAC-V1, whilst relative newcomer Computer Audio Design were showing their 1543 DAC which is hand-built in the UK and designed to be a no-compromise asynchronous USB-only DAC to get the very best out of your digital sources. At the Anthem AV Solutions room, they had the daddy of all DACs with the DaVinci from Light Harmonic, which can be picked up for a cheeky £20,000. Suddenly the Chord DAC doesn’t seem so expensive.

    What are these digital sources that need converting? Well it certainly isn’t the humble these days, which has almost been relegated to the dustbin of history. It seems that when a CD drive is in evidence, it’s main purpose is to rip your CD collection rather than actually play one. As lossless downloads increase, there can be only one outcome for the CD, a sad thought for those of us who prefer physical media. Still even we have to admit that the convenience offered by storing your music on a hard drive and streaming it to numerous devices is appealing. As our lives become more hectic, so music’s place in it changes, going from star performer to soundtrack. Just about every manufacturer is offering a streaming solution these days, with some like the Yamaha CD N500 still including a CD drive as a half-way house before the inevitable move to a downloadable future.

    Of course you can use a PC or Mac as your digital source but if you fancy a dedicated streaming device there are plenty of choices, starting with the undisputed kings - Naim. They had their full range on display including the NDS Network Player, the NAC-N 172 XS Streaming Pre-amp, the Naim Uniti2 All-in-One and the UnitiLite All-in-One that recently won an AVForums Reference Status badge. Not to be outdone, Chord had their DSX1000 Digital Network Player which includes uPNP/DLNA access and control, HD audio support, Internet radio and smartphone apps. At £7,000 it certainly isn’t cheap but then it does effectively include the £5,000 QBD76HDSD DAC, so perhaps we should consider it a bargain.

    Hot on the heels of Chord, Bryston have their BDP-2 Digital/Player Server which has been designed for people with larger music libraries who require multiple hard drive connections and improved interface speed. Pioneer were showing their N50 Music Streamer as part of their two-channel room and Anthem AV Solutions had dedicated much of their room to the launch of their Peachtree range of integrated amplifiers.

    A lot of the displays were using Mac Minis or AppleTV as a source and the seismic impact of Apple on the audio world can never be understated, with the iPod, iPhone and iPad all changing the way we listen to music and creating a cottage industry of new products to support them. The number of docks available for your iDevice are almost limitless and every manufacturer now offers a way of connecting your smartphone or tablet to their products, be it Hi-Fi systems, AV receivers, docking stations or wireless speakers.

    The latter category in particular is growing as people move away from physical connections in favour of a more wireless approach. Pioneer had their Wireless Direct XW-SMA Speaker Range on display, along with mini-systems and docks from both Pioneer and Yamaha. Every manufacturer also offers both iOS and Android apps, further assimilating the smartphone and tablet into our audio world.

    The flexibility and convenience of our modern digital world means that everyone now has a music source in their pocket and the inevitable result of that is that the headphone market has changed beyond all belief. We could review nothing but headphones and earphones being released this year on AVForums and still not be able to cover them all. Sennheiser were at Bristol in force, promoting their new Club Orpheus which is designed to deliver the very best in terms of their headphone products.

    There were the HD800 and HD700 headphones offering uncompromising audio performance, as well as the RS220 which provides a wireless option. New for this year, Sennheiser are offering the HDVD 800 and HDVD 600 headphone amplifiers, along with their new IE 800 in-ear system. In-ear headphones and headphone amplifiers are both growing markets but across the board, manufacturers are jumping into the headphone arena. At Bristol there were new headphone lines on display from Grado, Pioneer, Yamaha and JVC, with in-ear solutions being particularly well covered. There was also a surprisingly retro feel to many of the new headphone designs, with soft brown leather making a welcome comeback.

    Of course it wouldn’t be Bristol if there weren’t plenty of speaker manufacturers in attendance and this year didn’t disappoint. Focal had a large display on the mezzanine level and even brought a live band - a brother and sister act called The Luck - to entertain the crowds on Saturday and Sunday. Meanwhile Q Acoustics were showing off their technical wizardry with a new design of speaker cabinet that uses an adhesive that never quite sets to dampen vibrations and improve the sound. Just like the Q7000 system from last year they sounded fantastic but the use of quite expensive custom stands will add to the price.

    Ed Selley was raving about the Guru Juniors and given that there were quotes from his review on the wall, it’s just as well that they lived up to their billing. Their unique design allows them to work with the room rather than against it and anything that can sound good in a stripped out hotel room deserves consideration, especially at £795 a pair. KEF and PMC were also in attendance and SVS appeared to be doing their best to bring the Marriott down around our ears as the demoed their subwoofers up on the third floor. Wilson Benesch were in the conservatory, showing their new flagship speaker - The Cardinal - and doing remarkable things with carbon fibre.

    The imminent demise of the CD player appears to have opened a hole in the market for the trusty turntable and vinyl was definitely more in evidence this year than previously. Having not heard vinyl in a long time, it was like meeting an old friend and the warmth of the analogue sound was a welcome treat. Who of a certain age doesn’t miss the joy of a gatefold LP or the ritual of cleaning and playing a record? Avid were showing off their new Ingenium turntable which has two arms, demonstrating that there remains a fine line between enthusiast and lunatic but it was comforting to see all the same. The presence of vinyl reminds us that not everything is lost and some of us still live to remember.

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