The Bristol Sound & Vision Show - Britain's best kept secret!

AVForums looks for audio and video highlights in the South West

by Steve Withers Feb 29, 2012 at 4:20 PM

  • Just to be clear, I don’t mean that the show itself is a secret, it was well promoted by the organisers, what I’m referring to are the number of British manufacturers that you’ll find there.
    In an age when we’re constantly reminded of the sad state of British industry, it is comforting to realise that in the rarified world of high-end audio, it's British manufacturers that still dominate. A few, such as REL, may have fallen into foreign ownership along the way but there are still plenty of British companies like Arcam, B&W, KEF, Monitor Audio and Q Acoustics, to name but a few. Whilst the average person might not be familiar with all of them, it is encouraging to see them thriving in these austere times - a well kept secret indeed.

    The Bristol Show itself is now in its 25th year and back when it started, it was very much an audiophile event with LPs (if you remember those), 24k gold CDs and more than a few anoraks in evidence. These days vision has been added to sound but there’s no mistaking the show’s hi-fi origins with three floors of hotel rooms brimming with speakers, amplifiers and subwoofers. In fact whilst moving through the hotel corridors, you might even still see the occasional anorak. We spent two days working our way through the labyrinth of hotel rooms that constitute a large part of this show, checking out all the delights on offer from some highly innovative companies. Obviously there are a lot of manufacturers at the show, more than we could hope to see, even over two days, but here are some of the products that caught our eye. I should caveat my comments by pointing out that a hotel room is rarely the ideal space in which to conduct any critical reviewing, so we will have to wait until we get products in for review before making any meaningful observations.

    Since I’ll be doing this alphabetically, let’s kick off with the Canadian manufacturer Anthem who were, not surprisingly, in the Sim2 room. Here they were showing off their AVM 50v AV processor, their MCA and PVA Series power amplifiers, their 225 integrated amplifier and their MRX 300/500/700 AV receivers. We reviewed the MRX 700 and were mighty impressed, awarding the £2,000 receiver a Best Buy badge; which gives you an idea of how much we're prepared to spend on quality audio equipment! Speaking of which, whilst not actually an Anthem product, the Da Vinci 384K DAC was also on show in the Sim2 room. This DAC is manufactured by an American company called Light Harmonic and is the size of a Honda Civic and actually costs more, a cool £18,000 to be precise. That’s right, eighteen grand for a DAC! Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to hear the Da Vinci in action but if we ever get it in for review, I’d be interested in seeing if it wins an award.

    Next up is the British manufacturer Arcam, who are based out of Cambridge, and were showing their entire lineup in one of the larger rooms on the ground floor. They had their current Blu-ray player the BDP100, along with their AV888 pre-amp and P777 power amp. They also had their multi-award winning AVR600 AV receiver and AVR400 AV receiver, as well as their highly rated D33 Super DAC. Arcam’s all in one systems looked both attractive and feature packed, and they had an extensive selection of mini DACs and docks to cater towards those whose primary music source is an iPod or a computer. Arcam said that they will be launching their new lineup in April and we'll make sure you're kept up to date with all their new releases.

    Moving on and it’s another British manufacturer, in the shape of Bowers & Wilkins. They were showing off their Mini Theatre system in a hotel room on the second floor. Perhaps it was the source content or the room itself but I found the system something of a disappointment, especially compared to the ones on offer from Paradigm and Q Acoustics. The female vocals were very bright and somewhat unpleasant to listen to, almost shrill at times. However on the plus side, their Zeppelin Air not only looked cool but also sounded very impressive and as well as allowing you to dock your iDevice, you can also stream content via Apple’s AirPlay technology. The iPod dock market is a competitive one bit it would seem that B&W are determined to remain at the head of the pack.

    Heading over to Europe for a moment, we have the German speaker manufacturer Canton, who were also showing off their wares in a hotel room on the third floor. Canton make some interesting products, especially their Chrono speaker series and Movie all-in-one systems and it was nice to hear them using something other than female vocals or jazz for the demo. In fact the new Yellow album sounded pretty good and I believe the two guys in the band actually used Canton speakers in the album’s creation, sending pieces of music to each other digitally and never actually recording together. The more more bass driven tracks on the album really suited the speakers being demonstrated with a precise soundstage and nimble bass response.

    The Japanese manufacturer Denon, who were in a large room on the ground floor with stable mate Marantz, were showing off their latest audio products. Top of the heap was the combination of the AVP-A1HDA pre-amp and POA-A1HD power amplifier, that offers an unprecedented level of features but at a wallet busting price. For a more sensible price, there was their AVC-A1HDA AV receiver and their DVD-A1UD universal AV player. Also in the same room were Marantz, who currently dominate the CD player market, with about 60% of allCD players being sold bearing their name. Needless to say they had a few CD players on display and including Blu-ray players, there are no fewer than 12 disc spinners in their current lineup. They also had a number of AV receivers on display, many of which now also include Apple's AirPlay technology.

    The French speaker manufacturer Elipson were also at the show, with their uniquely designed products on display. The spherical speaker cabinets need to be seen to be believed but these are more than just a design statement and the performance from both the speakers and the subwoofer were excellent. The quality of the sound produced by our Gallic friends really surprised us when we tested their Planet L speakers back in December.

    Moving down to the lower ground floor and we find another British company in the form of speaker manufacturerKEF. They are currently celebrating their 50th anniversary and as such had a display showing various famous models from their past. KEF caused something of a stir when they showed the prototypes of their Blade speakers at the Bristol Show a couple of years ago and this year they had the finished versions in action. The Blades certainly sounded amazing but then they should for £18,000 a pair but what was even more interesting was how technology like Uni-Q has trickled down to the cheaper lines. KEF played the same piece of music on both the Blades and their new R series speakers and I have to say the R series sounded superb, we will definitely be looking forward to reviewing those soon. Also on show from KEF was their Q700 speaker package that has just been reviewed by us and the inclusion of technology from the Blades would explain why we were so impressed with these speakers.

    Up on the first floor were Monitor Audio, another British speaker manufacturer who were proudly showing off their Shadow series. The Shadow series have been designed to offer very slim cabinets which will allow for more discreet placement but without compromising sound quality. The speakers certainly looked the part and despite the shallow depth of the cabinets, they also sounded great. Monitor Audio also had their Gold series of speakers on display, with the smaller GX50 and GX100 and the floor standing GX200.

    Back at the Sim2 room on the terrace was Canadian speaker manufacturer Paradigm, who were showing off their Cinema 100 CT 5.1 system and I must say it did sound very impressive. We will be getting them in for testing quite soon, so look out for our review. Aside from that, they also had some of their other speakers on show, including the excellent MilleniaOne speaker package which has already been reviewed by us. They also had the SUB 1 subwoofer on show that equally impressed us when we reviewed it.

    Back on the ground floor was Japanese manufacturer Pioneer, who were showing off their extensive range of AV amplifiers and receivers. They had the VSX-421, VSX-521, VSX-821, the award winning VSX-921, VSX-1021 and VSX-2021 on display and all of these AV receivers come feature packed. They also had their SC-LX75 and top of the line SC-LX85 AV receivers that offer flexibility, features and uncompromised audio performance.

    Also on the ground floor was Q Acoustics another British company and the in-house brand of consumer electronics distribution leviathan Armour Home Electronics. They had their Q7000 speaker package on display and despite their raves reviews, I had to hear them for myself. Well, they deserve all the plaudits, the sub/sat system was superb, offering a level of performance that punches well above its weight. At a price of only £800 they really are a bargain and for once no one can argue with our awarding a Best Buy badge.

    Back up the stairs to the second floor and we find Swedish manufacturer XTZ who had their impressive line up of speakers on display. we recently reviewed their 99.26 Mk2 speakers, awarding a Best Buy badge in the process. Aside from the speakers, the manufacturer was also showing their CD100 CD player, their Class A-100 D3 integrated amplifier and their AP100 power amplifier. There was certainly some serious high end equipment on display but thankfully the performance was equally as high end.

    Well that's the sound side of the show, but what about the vision part of it? Well up on the 3rd floor, there wasHDanywhere, who were demonstrating their connected home solution. It basically uses Cat5/6 cabling to distribute HDMI from four individual sources to up to four different displays. It certainly offers a neat and elegant solution to anyone who is thinking of wiring their home and we are currently testing this product, so look out for a review very soon.

    were at their usual spot by the main entrance and were showing their current DLA-X30 and DLA-X70 3D projectors. Whilst I had already reviewed the X30 and Phil had already reviewed the X70, it did provide an opportunity for consumers who hadn't had the chance, to see both projectors in action. I remain impressed with the performance of both the X30 and the X70 and whilst the latter projector's e-shift device doesn’t offer genuine 4K resolution, the images do look impressive with improved motion handling compared to previous JVC projectors. My only criticism of JVC was that they didn’t show any 3D content on the X30, which is a shame. JVC had very generously lent a DLA-X90 to the What Hi-Fi demo and Phil’s currently has that projector in for testing, so look out for a review soon.

    Whilst Sim2 are obviously Italian, they do have a significant presence here in the UK and they were demonstrating their latest top of the range projector, the C3X Lumis 3DS. I actually reviewed this projector back in June, you can find the review here, and the 3DS was amazing delivering superb 2D images and some of the best 3D images you will see. Outside the demo room was Sim2’s new MICO 150 3D LED projector, which we will be getting in for review in the next two weeks.

    Finally we had Sony on the lower ground floor, who were showing their VPL-VW1000ES native 4K projector. This is the third time I have seen this projector and it improves with each viewing. With 1080p content the scaling remained excellent but the motion handling was also better than when I saw it in Tokyo two weeks ago and whilst there was a slight digital look to the image, overall I thought it was very impressive. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t get permission from Sony Pictures to show The Amazing Spider-man trailer in 4K, so all we got to see was a still image at the panel’s full resolution.

    Whilst walking around the show, I became aware of the fact that the numbers of attendees appeared to be down on last year. Certainly in previous years, moving around the crowded corridors had been quite difficult but this year it was easy to traverse them. Perhaps the reduced numbers were a symptom of the current economic malaise or perhaps it was just because there weren't any really hot new products on display. Whatever the reason, let's hope that the reduced numbers are only a temporary drop because the Bristol Show has gone from strength to strength over the last 25 years and I'd like to think that it will still be going strong in another 25. I'd also like to think that all those wonderful British manufacturers will also still be thriving in the audiophile world 25 years hence but perhaps they might be slightly less of a secret by then.

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