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Hi-Fi Choice - May

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Talent scout<br />

VPI’s Junior package<br />

makes your vinyl sing<br />

Shape shifter<br />

KEF’s iconic EGG<br />

satellites go wireless<br />

PASSION FOR SOUND<br />

Issue No. 410<br />

<strong>May</strong> 2016<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-res hero<br />

Audiolab’s superior M-DAC+<br />

adds DSD support & more<br />

24<br />

PRODUCTS ON TEST:<br />

Audio-Technica,<br />

B&O, Goldring,<br />

Oppo & Tannoy<br />

WIN!<br />

Geneva<br />

speakers<br />

worth over<br />

£1,400<br />

Headphone<br />

Group Test<br />

Six of the best<br />

sub-£350 cans<br />

PRINTED IN THE UK US$15.00<br />

MAY 2016 £4.75<br />

DALI<br />

Zensor<br />

5 AX streaming<br />

speakers with<br />

a hi-fi pedigree<br />

Music and<br />

movement<br />

Portable perfection from<br />

Astell&Kern and Audeze


Criterion Audio is a new, premium hi-fi dealer in Cambridge. From vinyl and valves to the latest in streaming and headphones,<br />

we can help you find the perfect audio system to suit your budget and needs. We have a wide range of carefully<br />

selected products: from familiar brands to amazing manufacturers you will not find anywhere else in the UK. Come visit<br />

us and listen in one of our purpose-built demo rooms or relax in our dedicated headphone lounge.<br />

www.criterionaudio.com info@criterionaudio.com 01223 233730<br />

AND MANY,<br />

MANY MORE


INTRODUCTION<br />

PASSION FOR SOUND<br />

Welcome<br />

www.hifichoice.co.uk Issue No. 410 <strong>May</strong> 2016<br />

Picture credit: Fabienne Pennewaert<br />

46<br />

Tannoy<br />

Mercury 7.2<br />

100<br />

Kel Assouf<br />

Tikounen<br />

107<br />

Clearaudio<br />

Performer<br />

If this month’s cover star is<br />

anything to go by, hi-res audio is<br />

gaining traction among serious<br />

audio fans. Audiolab’s hotly<br />

anticipated M-DAC+ sits alongside<br />

its original M-DAC model – one of<br />

our favourite digital-to-analogueconverters<br />

since its launch in 2011<br />

– and adds 32-bit/384kHz PCM<br />

format support as well as compatibility with DSD64,<br />

128 and 256 music files. It’s undeniably one of the best<br />

specified digital-to-analogue-converters around at the<br />

price, but how many of us actually own any DSD<br />

content? There seems to be a dearth of DSD files of any<br />

form around and I suspect that most of us will continue<br />

to play just a few hi-res files via USB and a lot more<br />

CD-quality material for a good while yet. The launch is<br />

undoubtedly seen as an encouraging sign that greater<br />

resolution music files are on the way, but it will remain<br />

futureproof for a good time to come. Read our<br />

four-page In-depth review starting on page 16.<br />

Since we all miss an issue of <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> from time<br />

to time it’s good to know that you can plug any gaps<br />

in your collection by making use of our Back Issues<br />

service, which has recently found a new home. The<br />

website at mags-uk.com is where they’re at and finding<br />

them couldn’t be easier. Sign in on the home page,<br />

then select <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> via the Titles or Publishers<br />

(MyTimeMedia) listing on the menu bar. Add what you<br />

want to the ‘cart’, proceed to the checkout, pay and<br />

await speedy delivery direct to your door. Simple!<br />

BADGES EXPLAINED<br />

OUR AWARDS<br />

Lee Dunkley Editor<br />

Follow us:<br />

EDITOR’S<br />

CHOICE:<br />

Awarded to those<br />

products that are<br />

judged to deliver<br />

outstanding<br />

performance<br />

RECOMMENDED:<br />

Products that<br />

we feel meet a<br />

high standard of<br />

performance<br />

GROUP TEST<br />

WINNER:<br />

Comparative tests<br />

can only have one<br />

winner, and this<br />

badge says it all!<br />

twitter.com@<strong>Hi</strong><strong>Fi</strong><strong>Choice</strong>Mag facebook.com/hifichoice.co.uk<br />

ENTERPRISE HOUSE, ENTERPRISE WAY,<br />

EDENBRIDGE, KENT TN8 6HF<br />

MAY 2016 3


Contents<br />

hifichoice.co.uk Issue No. 410 <strong>May</strong> 2016<br />

NEWS & OPINION<br />

6 Audiofile<br />

The latest news on the hottest products<br />

from the world of hi-fi coming your way<br />

12 Webwatch<br />

Essential websites to direct your browser<br />

towards for all your hi-fi requirements<br />

69 Letters<br />

Put your points of view and queries on<br />

audio matters to our team of experts<br />

79 Opinion<br />

The <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> team say it as they see<br />

it as they discuss the issues of the day<br />

99 Music Reviews<br />

The month’s essential new CD, vinyl<br />

and hi-res releases given a work out<br />

READER SERVICES<br />

122 Reader Classifieds<br />

Sell your unwanted hi-fi for FREE here<br />

124 Back Issues<br />

Get your hands on old copies you missed<br />

130 Next Issue<br />

The sonic treats to look out for next month<br />

FEATURES<br />

60 Record Re-mastering<br />

Champion vinyl re-masterer, Sean<br />

Pennycook, reveals the tricks of the trade<br />

GROUP TEST<br />

24<br />

Get those heads<br />

nodding as we test six<br />

of the best headphones<br />

WIN!<br />

Geneva<br />

wireless<br />

loudspeakers<br />

page 120!<br />

102<br />

90 Beautiful System<br />

Astell&Kern and Audeze team up to create<br />

the perfect portable hi-fi setup<br />

94 Labelled With Love<br />

Immediate, record company of two of the<br />

best-connected names in late sixties pop<br />

102 Music Legends<br />

Voice of his generation – and most others<br />

– Bob Dylan comes under the spotlight<br />

118 Colleen Murphy<br />

The woman behind Classic Album<br />

Sundays talk about her love for vinyl<br />

6 99<br />

Audiofile: Quad Z Series loudspeakers<br />

Music Reviews: Santana’s Santana IV<br />

4 MAY 2016


50<br />

VPI<br />

Scout Jr<br />

TESTED THIS MONTH<br />

“It’s not unusual to<br />

spend over an hour<br />

trying to eradicate a<br />

single problem click”<br />

CONTENTS<br />

MAY 2016<br />

Sean Pennycook Record Re-mastering feature p60<br />

42<br />

Ming Da Dynasty Duet 300 Plus<br />

52<br />

DALI Zensor 5 AX loudspeaker<br />

58<br />

Onkyo TX-8150 network stereo receiver<br />

16<br />

Audiolab M-DAC+ digital-to-analogue converter<br />

REVIEWS<br />

Kit testing<br />

16 Audiolab<br />

M-DAC+ digital-to-analogue converter<br />

42 Ming Da<br />

Dynasty Duet 300 Plus valve integrated<br />

amplifier (Exotica)<br />

46 Tannoy<br />

Mercury 7.2 standmount speaker<br />

50 VPI<br />

Scout Jr belt-drive turntable<br />

52 DALI<br />

Zensor 5 AX floorstanding active speaker<br />

56 KEF<br />

EGG wireless digital music system<br />

58 Onkyo<br />

TX-8150 network stereo receiver<br />

88 Sony<br />

SS-5050 Carbocon speaker (Retro)<br />

GROUP TEST<br />

Headphones £220-£350<br />

27 B&O BeoPlay H6<br />

29 <strong>Hi</strong>fiman HE400S<br />

31 Meze 99 Classics<br />

33 Oppo PM-3<br />

35 Philips <strong>Fi</strong>delio X2<br />

37 Sennheiser Momentum 2.0<br />

MINI TEST<br />

Cartridges £250-£395<br />

106 Audio-Technica<br />

AT150Sa<br />

107 Clearaudio<br />

Performer V2<br />

107 Hana EH<br />

108 Goldring 2400<br />

CHOICE<br />

EXTRAS<br />

111 Arcam<br />

MusicBOOST iPhone 6<br />

headphone amp & DAC<br />

113 Pro-Ject<br />

VC-S record cleaning machine<br />

115 Atlas Cables<br />

Zeno 1:2 headphone cable<br />

115 Spec Corporation<br />

RSP-501EX Real-Sound Processor<br />

117 PAB<br />

Ceramic FS equipment feet<br />

117 Titan Audio<br />

Tyco and Helios mains cables<br />

Never miss an issue – turn to p14 for our latest subs offer<br />

MAY 2016 5


THE LATEST INDUSTRY NEWS…<br />

Quad's<br />

Z stars<br />

Distinguished British hi-fi brand introduces<br />

Z Series loudspeaker range as part of a host<br />

of new products set to mark its 80th year<br />

PRICE: £ 1,200-£3,200 AVAILABLE: NOW CONTACT: 01480 447700 WEB: QUAD-HIFI.CO.UK<br />

ITS REPUTATION AS one of the<br />

world's greatest audio brands<br />

is largely based on its iconic<br />

electrostatic loudspeakers, which<br />

first set the hi-fi scene alight in 1957.<br />

Any <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> reader will know all<br />

about Quad's impressive legacy, and<br />

successive loudspeaker models from<br />

the Cambridgeshire-based company<br />

have been able to justifiably boast<br />

that its approach gets closer to the<br />

original sound than its challengers.<br />

Like the company's S Series released<br />

last year, the new Z Series combines<br />

advanced Kevlar-coned bass and<br />

midrange drivers with a specially<br />

designed ribbon tweeter. The new<br />

lineup comprises two standmount<br />

models and two floorstanders. The<br />

Z-1 standmount (£1,200) – pictured<br />

right – is 383mm tall and utilises a<br />

150mm mid/bass driver, while its<br />

larger Z-2 standmount sibling<br />

(£1,500) uses a 175mm mid/bass<br />

driver. Both floorstanders utilise a<br />

three-way configuration, coupling a<br />

150mm midrange driver with two<br />

175mm bass drivers in the Z-3<br />

(£2,500), and three 165mm drivers<br />

in the Z-4 (£3,200), pictured above.<br />

Each Z Series model sports a<br />

bespoke 90 x 12mm ribbon tweeter<br />

design by Quad's parent company<br />

IAG. Like the ribbon unit developed<br />

for its S Series, the composite<br />

sandwich construction of the Z Series<br />

ribbon ensures it is robust enough to<br />

handle high-powered amplifiers,<br />

delivering greater sensitivity and<br />

bandwidth for even better dynamics<br />

and smoother integration with<br />

midrange frequencies, says Quad.<br />

Bass and midrange drive units<br />

throughout the series feature a unique<br />

double-roll Kevlar cone surround said<br />

to enhance accuracy and transparency.<br />

Commenting on the Z Series, Peter<br />

Comeau, director of acoustic design<br />

6 MAY 2016


for IAG said: “The Z Series is the<br />

pinnacle of Quad’s enclosure speakers<br />

and features the largest ribbon treble<br />

unit that I’ve ever used, giving the<br />

Z Series a clarity and definition<br />

throughout the upper midrange and<br />

treble that is utterly beguiling. This<br />

combines with the acoustic filter bass<br />

reflex system and low-coloration<br />

enclosure to deliver the perfect<br />

embodiment of the natural sonic<br />

realism that is the hallmark of Quad."<br />

The Z Series is launched as part of<br />

Quad's 80th anniversary celebrations<br />

and is available in black, white or<br />

rosewood piano lacquered finishes.<br />

Z-1 standmounts in<br />

sumptuous rosewood<br />

COMMENT<br />

DEVIL'S ADVOCATE:<br />

RECORD STORE DAY<br />

Over the years, HFC has proudly<br />

championed the vinyl format – at times<br />

being a lone voice crying out in the<br />

wilderness among the naysayers that<br />

favour digital over the pure pleasure that<br />

comes from the black stuff. And now,<br />

it would appear that our out-dated,<br />

old-fashioned thoughts on the matter<br />

have been adopted by the mainstream<br />

as records have once again become the<br />

format de jour. But while we're delighted<br />

that the general public is realising<br />

something that we've been banging on<br />

about for years, we can't help but feel a<br />

sense of dismay about what the popularity<br />

of vinyl means for the independent record<br />

labels that stayed true to the format. And<br />

nowhere is this better illustrated than by<br />

Record Store Day.<br />

In the past we've been a big supporter<br />

of the annual event, but we can't help but<br />

feel that it has rather lost its way. As we<br />

write these words, RSD 2016 is a couple of<br />

weeks away and we can predict how it will<br />

go. Like previous years, on the morning of<br />

Saturday 16 April stores will open to find<br />

queues of punters eager to get their hands<br />

on the exclusives. And like previous years,<br />

most of these people will be making their<br />

one and only trip to the store until next year.<br />

It's difficult not to draw similarities between<br />

these 'bargain hunters' forming an orderly<br />

line and those that camp out for days<br />

outside an Apple store to be first to get a<br />

the latest iPhone. These are not the sort of<br />

people that support their local record store<br />

during the other 51 weeks of the year.<br />

They're not the supporter of the indie label<br />

that can't get it's records pressed in the lead<br />

up to April, as the plants are getting Justin<br />

Bieber or Ghostbusters discs cut for the<br />

ebay dealers and johnny-come-latelies<br />

willing to splash the cash on novelty discs.<br />

Back when RSD started, its goal was to<br />

draw people back into record shops, and to<br />

keep them coming back. In an era where<br />

supermarkets are stocking the black stuff<br />

again, the old strategy no longer works and<br />

is actually having a detrimental effect on the<br />

very labels, stores and fans that it should be<br />

supporting. It's time for a serious rethink.<br />

MAY 2016 7


AUDIOFILE<br />

Mission<br />

launch<br />

Exceptional sound at affordable prices is the goal<br />

for the all-new LX-2 and LX-3 entry-level speakers<br />

PRICE: £200/£400 AVAILABLE: LATE SPRING<br />

CONTACT: 01480 447700 WEB: MISSION.CO.UK<br />

BUDGET TWO-WAY SPEAKERS<br />

the LX-2 and LX-3 (shown) are the<br />

debut models from Mission’s latest<br />

entry-level loudspeaker range, the LX<br />

Series. Despite their affordable price<br />

tags, Mission informs us that the new<br />

models have been designed to deliver<br />

compelling musicality. For the LX<br />

Series the company has produced a<br />

tweeter with a neodymium magnet<br />

(selected for maximum magnetic<br />

force in such a small space) and a<br />

25mm microfibre dome. This is<br />

partnered with the 130mm mid/bass<br />

IN BRIEF<br />

LEEMA EXPANDS<br />

ELEMENTS SERIES<br />

driver unit (one in the case of the<br />

LX-2 and two for the LX-3), sporting<br />

cones fashioned from an advanced<br />

fibre formulation apparently selected<br />

for its superior self damping and<br />

excellent stiffness. The standmount<br />

LX-2 has a claimed sensitivity of<br />

86.5dB, while the floorstanding LX-3<br />

claims 89.5dB. Both models will<br />

initially be available in black, with<br />

further colour options to follow. A<br />

smaller standmount (LX-1) and two<br />

larger floorstanders (LX-4 and LX-5)<br />

will join the series in the summer.<br />

Clearaudio record cleaner<br />

PRICE: £3,250 AVAILABLE: NOW<br />

CONTACT: 0118 9814238 WEB: CLEARAUDIO.DE<br />

● The Elements Pre-Amp is Leema<br />

Acoustics’ latest addition to its<br />

space-saving range of components.<br />

Retaining the same half-width chassis<br />

for which the range is famed, the<br />

Elements Pre-Amp also boasts an<br />

onboard digital-to-analogue<br />

converter. The result is a S/PDIF<br />

coaxial input, three S/PDIF optical<br />

inputs and an asynchronous USB port<br />

all capable of handling files up to<br />

24-bit/192kHz resolution. Analogue<br />

inputs include three unbalanced RCA<br />

inputs, a pair of balanced XLRs and a<br />

3.5mm input jack on the front panel.<br />

Leema’s proprietary communication<br />

system (LIPS) is also onhand for<br />

system integration with other Leema<br />

products. The Pre-Amp is available to<br />

buy now and costs £1,395.<br />

LEEMA-ACOUSTICS.COM<br />

There can be few things more<br />

frustrating than sitting down to<br />

listen to a favourite record only to<br />

find that it’s filthy. Giving your vinyl<br />

a proper wet clean can be a time<br />

consuming and at times messy job.<br />

Enter Clearaudio with what it’s<br />

describing as its best solution for<br />

cleaning records yet – the Double<br />

Matrix Professional Sonic.<br />

Integrating both sonic and<br />

vacuum cleaning elements, the<br />

Double Matrix Professional Sonic<br />

record cleaner is claimed to deliver<br />

a deep, but importantly, gentle<br />

cleaning of pressing residues and<br />

persistent dirt that’s deep within<br />

the grooves of your vinyl – enabling<br />

you to listen your music as it really<br />

should be heard.<br />

The Double Matrix Professional<br />

Sonic is able to clean LPs, EPs and<br />

7in singles, thanks to its range<br />

of adaptive cleaning brushes,<br />

which have been designed to<br />

automatically adjust to different<br />

record diameters and thicknesses.<br />

The bi-directional rotation means<br />

that discs are cleaned in both<br />

directions and because the cleaner<br />

is double sided, both sides of your<br />

album will be given a clean up<br />

simultaneously. Much like a regular<br />

washing machine for clothes,<br />

there’s a wide selection of different<br />

cleaning pre-set programmes<br />

alongside a fully automated super<br />

clean that can be accessed at<br />

the press of a button or you can<br />

manually adjust your own personal<br />

parameters to suit your needs. A<br />

Clearaudio ‘Seal’ clamp is bundled<br />

to hold discs in place, while a LED<br />

light indicates the level of cleaning<br />

fluid in the reservoir. It weighs 16kg<br />

and is described as being quiet in<br />

operation. The Clearaudio Double<br />

Matrix Professional Sonic is<br />

available to buy now and is being<br />

distributed by Sound Fowndations<br />

(soundfowndations.co.uk).<br />

8 MAY 2016


NU-VISTA 800 AMPLIFIER<br />

State of the art design for<br />

reference level reproduction<br />

The Nu-Vista series is a passionate labour of love for all of us at Musical <strong>Fi</strong>delity.<br />

We hope that at least you get a chance to hear this combo because we<br />

consider it the ultimate expression of our art.<br />

Experience it for yourself at your local Musical <strong>Fi</strong>delity dealer.


AUDIOFILE<br />

ATC Signature edition<br />

The SCM10SE celebrates a life in sound<br />

PRICE: £3,491 AVAILABLE: NOW CONTACT: 01285<br />

760561 WEB: ATCLOUDSPEAKERS.CO.UK<br />

WHAT BETTER WAY to mark the 70th birthday of<br />

your company’s founder than to launch a luxury edition<br />

of a timeless favourite loudspeaker? That’s precisely<br />

what ATC has done in honour of founder and managing<br />

director Billy Woodman. Taking the classic design of<br />

the SCM10 mini monitor from the nineties, the new<br />

SCM10SE comes with a lustrous blue piano finish, with<br />

silver detailing and a fine-grain blue leather baffle. The<br />

original SCM10’s soft dome tweeter has been updated<br />

with the recently developed SH25-76S ‘S-spec’ 25mm<br />

dual-suspension design alongside the SB45-1255C<br />

125mm mid/bass unit with integral soft dome. In turn<br />

the crossover has been reworked for the new units<br />

using ATC’s hand-wound air-cored inductors and<br />

polypropylene capacitors throughout. The result is<br />

a crossover frequency at 2.5kHz and sensitivity of<br />

82dB/1W/1m. Around the back the SCM10SE have<br />

4mm plugs/binding posts for bi-wiring and the mini<br />

monitors also come with a six-year warranty.<br />

IN BRIEF<br />

BLUE AURA<br />

BLACKLINE V40<br />

M6 Encore 225<br />

PRICE: £3,999 AVAILABLE: END OF MAY<br />

CONTACT: 0208 9002866 WEB: MUSICALFIDELITY.COM<br />

● With JJ Electronics Europeanproduced<br />

valves, the Blackline V40<br />

is claimed to provide the warm,<br />

luxurious sound that’s so commonly<br />

associated with tube amplifiers.<br />

Output is quoted as 30W with an<br />

impedance of 4 or 8ohm, and the<br />

V40 is the first product in the<br />

Blackline range to offer Bluetooth<br />

4.0 connectivity – aptX no less.<br />

Additional socketry includes RCA<br />

phono inputs and a micro USB port.<br />

With a piano black finish, the<br />

Blackline V40 is available to buy now<br />

for £449. Meanwhile Blue Aura<br />

founder, Nick Holland, tells us that<br />

the company will be launching<br />

sonically matching loudspeakers to<br />

accompany the V40 amplifier<br />

“towards the end of April”.<br />

BLUEAURA.CO.UK<br />

Described by Musical <strong>Fi</strong>delity as a<br />

complete solution allowing you to<br />

keep all of your music in one place,<br />

the M6 Encore 225 is essentially<br />

a streaming audio player with<br />

an impressive selection of<br />

connectivity options.<br />

At its heart is a dual-core 64-bit<br />

Intel CPU with 2GB of RAM to<br />

ensure that operation is fast and to<br />

allow for upgrades as time goes by<br />

in an effort to ensure that it remains<br />

futureproof. The internal 1TB<br />

storage is claimed to be able to<br />

hold as many as 2,500 CDs (using<br />

the built-in CD drive’s bit-perfect<br />

ripping), but is also upgradeable<br />

should you need to add more<br />

as time goes by. Power output,<br />

meanwhile is quoted at 225W per<br />

channel into 8ohm and the M6<br />

Encore 225 has the same power<br />

amplifiers under the hood as the<br />

Recommended badge-winning<br />

M6si (HFC 400), while a<br />

32-bit/384kHz chipset is onhand<br />

for digital-to-analogue conversion.<br />

Connections include three<br />

line-level RCA analogue inputs, two<br />

optical and two coaxial S/PDIF<br />

inputs (both capable of handling<br />

signals up to 24-bit/192kHz), a USB<br />

3.0 A port, USB 3.0 B and three USB<br />

2.0 A ports alongside an Ethernet<br />

for network hook up. Outputs<br />

include a line-level analogue out,<br />

optical and coaxial S/PDIF (again<br />

capable of handling 24/192 signals),<br />

a line-level preamp out, headphone<br />

out (for headsets with an<br />

impedance of 8ohm) and speaker<br />

terminals. The M6 Encore 225 is<br />

also compatible with network<br />

speakers – such as those<br />

popularised by Sonos, while<br />

operation can be handled by the<br />

bundled remote control or an app<br />

for either Android or Apple devices.<br />

It is available in a choice of silver or<br />

black finishes and comes with a<br />

large, hi-res full-colour display.<br />

10 MAY 2016


AUDIOFILE<br />

Webwatch<br />

Andrew Simpson checks out the best hi-fi<br />

websites, social media and online content<br />

Behind the Blade<br />

As one of the most striking speakers<br />

of our age, KEF’s Blade models reveal the<br />

company at the top of its game. In this video,<br />

KEF’s head of acoustics Jack Oclee-Brown<br />

talks us through the speakers’ groundbreaking<br />

design. youtu.be/f-hF8hhIh4c<br />

Pocket archive<br />

Music database and marketplace Discogs has<br />

recently launched its dedicated app for iOS<br />

devices, with an Android version in the<br />

pipeline. You can now discover new music,<br />

build your own archive and hunt out that<br />

elusive pressing all from your pocket device.<br />

discogs.com/app<br />

One-minute maker<br />

Ever wondered what magic goes on<br />

inside the The Vinyl Factory? This 60-second<br />

film rolls up its sleeves to go behind the<br />

scenes and show the company’s workings<br />

as it presses some of the world’s most iconic<br />

records ever to grace our platters. youtu.be/<br />

DuLCpvX718Y<br />

New language<br />

It is and always has been ‘vinyl’ right? But<br />

the format’s new-found fame with young<br />

Americans has led to this petition calling for<br />

its plural form to be recognised as ‘vinyls’<br />

in the interests of inclusiveness. Pledge<br />

your support or not at: chn.ge/1SnIa4w<br />

Sleeve notes<br />

In its latest blog series, #SleeveNotes,<br />

Bowers & Wilkins picks five music lovers<br />

from the world of art and design to discuss<br />

the album artwork and music that has<br />

influenced their life and careers. <strong>Fi</strong>rst up is<br />

art director Bruce Usher on @TheDangelo’s<br />

Black Messiah b-w.social/bti<br />

Oppo adventure<br />

Good luck to the Oppo team who are<br />

taking to the streets on two wheels for the<br />

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Rugby Foundation. Follow their epic travels<br />

on Twitter @oppoheadphones and via the<br />

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@Newton0290 and ow.ly/ZLqBj<br />

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Streaming now the biggest recorded<br />

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PONOMUSIC (@PONO)<br />

This week’s Album Of The Week is Jethro<br />

Tull’s classic fourth album, Aqualung, in<br />

celebration of its 45th fb.me/17hYPaFp8<br />

AUDIO-TECHNICA USA<br />

(@USAUDIOTECHNICA)<br />

[#ICYMI] Set up your AT-LP60 #turntable<br />

with this step by step guide: buff.ly/1RxhktC #vinyl<br />

#vinyljunkie<br />

CHESHIRE AUDIO (@CHESHIREAUDIO1)<br />

Listening to Blodwyn Pig ‘A head rings out’<br />

classic album from the golden age of Island<br />

Records and Joe Boyd<br />

MUSICAL FIDELITY (@MF_HIFI)<br />

Check out the connectivity of our @MF_<strong>Hi</strong><strong>Fi</strong><br />

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system bit.ly/1RDcyVm<br />

ABSOLUTE HI END (@ABSOLUTE_HI_END)<br />

Goldmund Telos 390.5 integrated amp<br />

on demo at Absolute <strong>Hi</strong> End<br />

Absolutehiend.com<br />

KUDOS AUDIO (@KUDOSAUDIO)<br />

Many thanks to Acoustica for inviting us to<br />

their <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> Show in Chester. We had a great<br />

time running the Titan fb.me/3UwMfr0Gw<br />

TIDAL (@TIDALHIFI)<br />

Jeff Buckley had over a four-octave vocal<br />

range. As a point of comparison, Adele has<br />

just over a two-octave range.<br />

MERIDIAN AUDIO (@MERIDIANAUDIO)<br />

A pair of British Racing Green DSP7200<br />

Loudspeakers rolling off our production line<br />

just in time for #StPatricksDay<br />

OXFORD AUDIO (@OXFORDAUDIO)<br />

Ready for our relaunched Music club with<br />

this smashing @dCSonlythemusic<br />

@WilsonAudio @RegaResearch combination!<br />

STONEAUDIO.CO.UK (@STONEAUDIO)<br />

Enjoyed very much listening to Luxman’s<br />

new L-590AX Mark II pure Class A Integrated<br />

Amplifier last night. #highend<br />

RECORD STORE DAY UK (@RSDUK)<br />

The official list of UK #RSD16 releases will be<br />

revealed here: recordstoreday.co.uk tmrrw<br />

(8th March) at 6.15pm.<br />

SUGDEN AUDIO (@SUGDENAUDIO)<br />

#SugdenSoundRoom Great mix of tunes<br />

again this week. #AlGreen #ImperialDrag<br />

#TheSoftMachine #TheSweet #JanJohannson<br />

12 MAY 2016


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Listen to the new Emit Series.


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AUDIOLAB<br />

IN-DEPTH M-DAC+ £800<br />

Second coming<br />

David Price tries the new and updated version of Audiolab’s<br />

excellent digital-to-analogue converter. Meet the M-DAC+<br />

16 MAY 2016


IN-DEPTH<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

Audiolab M-DAC+<br />

ORIGIN<br />

UK/China<br />

TYPE<br />

Digital-to-analogue<br />

converter<br />

WEIGHT<br />

3.7kg<br />

DIMENSIONS<br />

(WxHxD)<br />

247 x 114 x 292mm<br />

FEATURES<br />

● ESS Sabre32<br />

9018 DAC chip<br />

● PCM up to<br />

32-bit/384kHz;<br />

DSD64/128/256<br />

● Digital inputs: 1x<br />

AES/EBU, 1x USB-A,<br />

1x USB-B, 2x coaxial,<br />

2x optical<br />

● RCA phono,<br />

balanced XLR<br />

outputs<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

IAG<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

01480 447700<br />

WEBSITE<br />

audiolab.co.uk<br />

A<br />

nd so it comes to pass that<br />

after nearly five years, the<br />

Audiolab M-DAC finally<br />

gets itself a bigger brother!<br />

Rather like that famous difficult<br />

second album that recording artists<br />

battle with, it was never going to be<br />

easy for Audiolab to improve on one<br />

of the strongest products it has ever<br />

released. When it came out, the<br />

original M-DAC (HFC 359) had no<br />

real rivals at its £600 price point.<br />

Indeed, it got off to a good start<br />

because it was essentially the digital<br />

converter section of the 8200A CD<br />

player – itself one of the best silver<br />

disc spinners under £1,500, thanks to<br />

designer John Westlake’s prodigious<br />

talent. Also, interestingly, it was one<br />

of the first DACs to use the (then)<br />

new and highly regarded ESS Sabre<br />

9018 DAC chips. Basically, the M-DAC<br />

had a great start in life.<br />

The new version is considerably<br />

larger than the original, mainly on<br />

account of the fact the power supply<br />

has been brought inside the unit. It’s<br />

a high-quality toroidal affair using<br />

multiple windings to feed separate<br />

analogue and digital rectification<br />

stages. From there, multiple power<br />

It brings worthwhile<br />

improvements to<br />

pretty much every<br />

aspect of the M-DAC<br />

supply sections feed the necessary<br />

voltages to each area of the DAC,<br />

keeping any crossover interference to<br />

a minimum, Audiolab says. It makes<br />

this new box quite a bit heavier than<br />

its predecessor, and it stands taller<br />

and deeper too. Beautifully made<br />

from aluminium, its casework has<br />

been updated visually to match the<br />

look of the new 8300 series. Hence<br />

a smoother and less crowded<br />

front panel with two main controls<br />

replacing the four buttons and one<br />

knob of the M-DAC. One selects<br />

volume, and the other is a multifunction<br />

controller for source and<br />

setup. It’s considerably nicer to use<br />

than the original, although the central<br />

OLED display is smaller than the<br />

M-DAC and less informative.<br />

As a package, the M-DAC+ feels far<br />

more like a piece of budget esoterica,<br />

than its predecessor. It’s much more<br />

svelte and grown up, whereas the<br />

M-DAC seems more of a buttonpushing<br />

geek’s dream. Around the<br />

back, there are more digital inputs<br />

than ever, including an AES/EBU<br />

socket and an additional USB Type A<br />

input – ideal for connecting Apple<br />

MAY 2016 17


IN-DEPTH<br />

AUDIOLAB<br />

M-DAC+ £800<br />

devices – alongside the existing USB<br />

Type B connection. These join the<br />

M-DAC’s twin coaxial and twin<br />

optical digital inputs, optical and<br />

coaxial digital outputs, single-ended<br />

RCA and balanced XLR analogue<br />

outputs and the usual 12V trigger<br />

loop. With the choice of fixed or<br />

variable outputs, the J-FET Class A<br />

output stage can feed an integrated<br />

amplifier or a power amp direct.<br />

The M-DAC+ now runs PCM right<br />

up to its 32-bit/384kHz ragged edge<br />

via USB, meaning it is unlikely to be<br />

obsolete for a while. But the headline<br />

news is DSD support (DSD64,<br />

DSD128 and DSD256), which<br />

Audiolab says: “has an important role<br />

to play in the developing highresolution<br />

downloading and<br />

streaming scene”. True, but the<br />

emphasis is very much on the future<br />

because right now there’s still a<br />

All of the power is<br />

there as before but<br />

it’s delivered in a<br />

better finessed way<br />

paucity of DSD files of any type. In<br />

truth, most users will be using this<br />

new Audiolab for a little bit of<br />

high-resolution PCM file playback via<br />

USB, and a lot of 16-bit/44kHz CD<br />

playback via one of the coaxial inputs.<br />

To this end, the company has<br />

included a number of user-selectable<br />

digital filters, letting people tune the<br />

sound to their taste. The plus inherits<br />

seven PCM filter settings from the<br />

original, and adds four more for DSD<br />

playback. It’s difficult to be definitive<br />

about the sound of these because it<br />

depends very much on your system<br />

and ancillaries. I’d recommend new<br />

purchasers spend a few weeks<br />

switching these filters around to<br />

find their favourites, although they<br />

may find they vary from recording<br />

to recording, or even track to track.<br />

Sound quality<br />

It wasn’t until the arrival of the<br />

Audiolab M-DAC in 2011 that<br />

cash-strapped audiophiles had a<br />

genuinely flexible yet fine-sounding<br />

DAC. It was so good at its £600<br />

price point that it turned the market<br />

upside down. The new M-DAC+<br />

doesn’t do this – think of it as a<br />

brilliant refinement, rather than the<br />

reinvention of the hi-fi wheel. It<br />

brings worthwhile improvements<br />

to pretty much every aspect of the<br />

M-DAC, from far superior operation<br />

sophistication to a greater<br />

musicality. If there was ever a<br />

criticism of the original, then it<br />

was the slight sense of musical<br />

constraint. Although detailed,<br />

powerful and commanding in the<br />

way it made music, it was never<br />

quite as lucid or as fluid as I would<br />

have liked. The new DAC addresses<br />

this to a great extent, bringing a<br />

more natural and organic feel. It<br />

sounds less mechanical and less<br />

‘electronic’ and seems better than<br />

its predecessor at disappearing and<br />

simply letting the music flow.<br />

For example, Badly Drawn Boy’s<br />

Something To Talk About is a<br />

fine example of a modern pop<br />

recording; the original M-DAC<br />

proved lots of fun with a bold and<br />

explicit sound, but the new one<br />

removes the slightly processed feel.<br />

Tonally, the sound seems less<br />

chromium plated, and the listener is<br />

better able to immerse themself in<br />

the music, enjoying its wonderful<br />

singalong quality and honeysmooth<br />

vocals. There’s less of a<br />

HOW IT<br />

COMPARES<br />

For me, there are two<br />

DACs to have under<br />

£1,000 – the M-DAC+<br />

and Chord Electronics’<br />

Chordette 2Qute (HFC<br />

402). The former is a<br />

brilliant do-it-all digital<br />

front end, with masses<br />

of flexibility and a<br />

superb sound. The<br />

latter is a highly<br />

eccentric ‘art piece’<br />

that sounds even better.<br />

The Chord certainly<br />

wins no prizes for ease<br />

of use; with its crazy<br />

lens and coloured light<br />

show, it is something<br />

you’ve got to learn how<br />

to operate. Sonically<br />

though, it is superb; the<br />

M-DAC+ is powerful,<br />

detailed, clean and<br />

crisp, while the Chord<br />

is all of this and has a<br />

wonderful rhythmic<br />

gait too; music flows in<br />

an enthrallingly natural<br />

and liquid way. It also<br />

has a slightly smoother<br />

tonality to the Audiolab,<br />

with a warmer, fuller<br />

bass and sweeter<br />

treble. Both are superb,<br />

but you need to decide<br />

exactly what you want<br />

from your new DAC<br />

before you buy.<br />

sense that you’re listening to a budget<br />

digital source, and everything sounds<br />

more natural and less forced.<br />

Percussion instruments play gently<br />

but expressively without throwing<br />

themselves at you, and the song lopes<br />

along joyously.<br />

Switch to some classic electronica in<br />

the shape of Kraftwerk’s The Robots,<br />

and you get the same effect. Even<br />

though it’s not an acoustic track, it<br />

still sounds less processed and more<br />

natural through the new M-DAC+.<br />

The vast size of the soundstage is just<br />

as impressive as before, but it’s the<br />

subtle details inside that make the<br />

difference. The music appears to fall<br />

back to a deeper, darker silence, and<br />

the rhythm section seems less crisp<br />

and better resolved – it’s more<br />

nuanced and doesn’t simply just hit<br />

you in a blunt fashion. All the power<br />

is there as before but it’s delivered in<br />

a more finessed and natural way.<br />

Notes appear to decay gently and fall<br />

off into space, rather than simply just<br />

‘falling off a cliff’ as its predecessor<br />

was prone to do before. It’s a cliché,<br />

but this new box sounds so much<br />

more ‘analogue’ than the original.<br />

Pro Plus<br />

You’d never say the Plus is<br />

dramatically better, but it’s certainly<br />

comprehensively so. This is most<br />

noticeable when you move to<br />

higher-resolution source material,<br />

such as a 24/192 recording of REM’s<br />

Texarkana. Once again it delivers a<br />

great sound for its price, one that is<br />

balanced and refined yet powerful<br />

and immersive. There’s a lovely<br />

rhythmic gate to the M-DAC+ and it<br />

speeds the song along, focusing on<br />

that great driving bassline from Mike<br />

Mills. The rest of the mix isn’t bad<br />

either, with the band’s distinctive,<br />

crunchy Rickenbackers carried with<br />

CONNECTIONS<br />

1<br />

2<br />

1<br />

2<br />

3<br />

4<br />

5<br />

USB Type A and<br />

B inputs<br />

AES/EBU digital<br />

input<br />

Two coaxial digital<br />

inputs and one out<br />

Two optical digital<br />

inputs and one out<br />

Balanced XLR<br />

analogue outputs<br />

5 4<br />

3<br />

18 MAY 2016


AUDIOLAB<br />

M-DAC+ £800<br />

IN-DEPTH<br />

IN SIGHT<br />

1<br />

2<br />

1<br />

Toroidal<br />

transformer and<br />

standby supply<br />

Linear power<br />

supply<br />

Asynchronous<br />

USB receiver<br />

Class A active post<br />

DAC filter stage<br />

Q&A<br />

Tim Bowern<br />

Audiolab Public Relations<br />

2<br />

3<br />

4<br />

LIFTING THE LID<br />

The aluminium-cased M-DAC+ is remarkably well finished<br />

for a product at its price, and is surprisingly sturdily<br />

constructed too. Inside, its tall, half-width box is packed<br />

tight with circuitry and other components – the most<br />

obvious of which is the toroidal transformer, which is<br />

shielded in its own enclosure. This is one of the key<br />

differences from its predecessor, the M-DAC, which used<br />

an offboard power supply kept out of the main casing.<br />

The power supply section is well done, with numerous<br />

smoothing capacitors, and this is kept separate to the<br />

power and passion. The drum kit is<br />

great too, with a super-tight, cutting<br />

snare sound and some lovely cymbal<br />

work. Indeed, the high frequencies<br />

are very well resolved, sounding clean<br />

and devoid of noise. This new DAC<br />

still isn’t quite the most soulful<br />

around, but it’s now certainly one of<br />

the most transparent and has bundles<br />

of life and energy too.<br />

Indeed, it’s this detailed and neutral<br />

character that makes it so good across<br />

a wide range of music. It’s particularly<br />

suited to acoustic programme<br />

material, including classical. A<br />

Phillips recording of Debussy’s<br />

Submerged Cathedral is a joy. This<br />

prelude is wonderfully ethereal and<br />

atmospheric if properly reproduced,<br />

and the M-DAC+ proves well able<br />

to do this. Its handling of the subtle<br />

dynamic accenting of the piano is first<br />

rate and it skilfully delivers the<br />

pianist’s rhythmic input too. Tonally,<br />

it isn’t the sweetest and most<br />

sumptuous-sounding digital converter<br />

I’ve ever heard, but it is certainly an<br />

improvement on its predecessor and<br />

gives an unerringly balanced and<br />

satisfying sound. The result is a<br />

compelling rendition of this fine piece<br />

of music, and the pattern continues<br />

with a DSD file of Alex de Grassi’s<br />

The Water Garden, which has a lovely,<br />

lilting, unforced quality and the guitar<br />

sparkles with harmonics in a way that<br />

you simply don’t expect from digital.<br />

Conclusion<br />

This is a clear step forward from the<br />

original M-DAC, and makes the<br />

original look rather average value<br />

for money. The Plus is way more<br />

sophisticated operationally, and has a<br />

usefully smoother and more subtle<br />

sound that pushes it one rung up the<br />

ladder. The only regret is the display,<br />

which isn’t as informative as its<br />

predecessor. Superb in pretty much<br />

every other respect for its price, this<br />

new DAC is an essential audition ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

FEATURES<br />

OVERALL<br />

3<br />

4<br />

DAC section, which has the USB board mounted above it<br />

and located adjacent to the rear panel, obviating the need<br />

for extra wiring. The Class A analogue output stage sits<br />

right on the XLR and RCA socketry, for the same reason.<br />

As you’d expect from a modern, state-of-the-art DAC<br />

design, surface-mount devices are used to keep the<br />

size down. Indeed, the M-DAC+ is a complex, seemingly<br />

over-engineered product, and unlike some rivals is<br />

certainly not a box full of air. As a result, it tends to run<br />

a little warmer than some.<br />

LIKE: Excellent sound;<br />

functionality;<br />

packaging<br />

DISLIKE: Display not<br />

as comprehensive as<br />

on the M-DAC<br />

WE SAY: Quite superb<br />

mid-price DAC packed<br />

with the latest tech<br />

DP: What is the new M-DAC+’s<br />

raison d’être?<br />

TB: It’s a precisely engineered rework<br />

of the classic M-DAC. The aim of<br />

the project was to update key areas<br />

and enhance performance while<br />

maintaining everything that<br />

continues to make the classic M-DAC<br />

such a popular product. It’s more<br />

than just a cosmetic makeover of the<br />

original, with an array of carefully<br />

targeted improvements under<br />

the hood. An obvious update is<br />

the extension of PCM support to<br />

32-bit/384kHz, as well as the addition<br />

of DSD64/128/256 with associated<br />

digital filter settings, thus ensuring<br />

the M-DAC+ is fully equipped to make<br />

the most of all forms of hi-res audio<br />

now and in the future. The updated<br />

digital processing associated with<br />

the increased resolution at the<br />

M-DAC+’s USB input delivers<br />

additional sonic benefits with all<br />

levels of digital audio, and the<br />

power supply has been substantially<br />

upgraded and fully incorporated<br />

within the main chassis, bringing<br />

further improvements to the<br />

sound quality.<br />

Have there been any changes to the<br />

core circuitry?<br />

Many elements of the original design<br />

continue to lead the sub-£1,000 DAC<br />

pack and are unchanged here – the<br />

ESS DAC chipset, discrete master<br />

clock, extensive time domain<br />

isolation, high-spec JFET output<br />

stage and so on.<br />

Is DSD functionality of any real<br />

practical use at the moment?<br />

DSD files are available of course, but<br />

whether end users wish to use them<br />

is a matter of personal preference.<br />

There is no doubt that DSD has the<br />

potential to offer exceptional sound<br />

quality, with a specification that can<br />

push far beyond where SACD left off.<br />

Going forward, we believe that DSD<br />

will have a significant part to play in<br />

the developing hi-res audio scene;<br />

any serious DAC launching in 2016<br />

should support it.<br />

MAY 2016 19


Future music<br />

Totally equipped for the latest music tech<br />

trends – and those still to come – the<br />

Denon DRA-100 is the complete ‘just add<br />

speakers’ solution<br />

here’s a lot of confusion<br />

about the ‘computer<br />

T music’ revolution: do you<br />

download or rip your<br />

music? Which format should you use?<br />

Do you store your favourite tunes on<br />

a USB memory device, Network<br />

Attached Storage or just your home<br />

computer? Can you play music from<br />

your phone or tablet through your<br />

get<br />

about buying music and simply<br />

stream it from an online service?<br />

All of that’s before you even address<br />

the ‘what else do I need?’ question,<br />

but fortunately there is an answer<br />

for all these concerns, and it comes<br />

in the form of Denon’s DRA-100<br />

Network Stereo receiver. Clad in<br />

the sleek style of the Denon Design<br />

Series, and much smaller than most<br />

<br />

complete computer audio solution,<br />

<br />

of use, and yet using all of Denon’s<br />

<br />

technology, developed over more<br />

than 100 years.<br />

Forget about add-on bits and bobs<br />

to bring Apple AirPlay, Bluetooth or<br />

network streaming to your world of<br />

entertainment: it’s all built into the<br />

Since it was founded<br />

back in 1910,<br />

in the early days of<br />

records and gramophones,<br />

Denon<br />

has been all about<br />

the development of<br />

higher-performance<br />

recording and playback<br />

technology.<br />

Under its ‘Nipponophone’<br />

brand it<br />

was not only the<br />

first record company<br />

in Japan, but<br />

also the first audio<br />

manufacturer in its<br />

home country!<br />

As well as developing<br />

one of<br />

the very first CD<br />

players, it was also<br />

instrumental in<br />

the design of the<br />

digital recording<br />

technology used in<br />

studios.<br />

DRA-100, along with high-quality<br />

<br />

complete ‘just add speakers’ solution<br />

for all your music needs. Yet it does<br />

all this in a package just 28cm wide<br />

and a little over 10cm tall, with <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong><br />

<strong>Choice</strong> reviewer Andrew Everard<br />

saying in the December 2015 issue<br />

that it “proves to be quite a remarka-<br />

<br />

some fairly ambitious speakers to<br />

very good effect, and delivering a<br />

<br />

Like the other models in the Denon<br />

Design series – the DCD-50 CD<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

smallest of living spaces, and with<br />

styling that’s both understated and<br />

eye-catching, it’s still capable of<br />

being partnered with everything from<br />

standing<br />

models. What’s more, it’s as<br />

at home playing gentle background<br />

music as it is blasting out your<br />

favourite tunes at party levels.<br />

That’s due to the application of all of<br />

Denon’s digital audio and ampli-<br />

<br />

well as playing all the popular music


ADVERTORIAL


<strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> employs the most rigorous test and measurement<br />

regime in the business. Here’s how we do it...<br />

Unique group tests<br />

Our Group Tests are supported by rigorous and<br />

exhaustive listening tests carried out by experts<br />

REFERENCE SYSTEM<br />

SOURCES<br />

Questyle QP1 R, <strong>Fi</strong>iO X3 II,<br />

Apple iPod Classic<br />

HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER/DAC<br />

Chord Hugo, Oppo HA-2<br />

HEADPHONES GROUP TEST<br />

THE PROCESS OF reliably auditioning six<br />

headphones isn’t as straightforward as<br />

conducting a single standalone review. Each<br />

model is connected, with its supplied cable, to<br />

a headphone amplifier and run-in for 24 hours<br />

before any comparative listening takes place.<br />

Levels are set by placing both earpads over<br />

an SPL meter while a pink noise signal is<br />

generated. The background noise level of the<br />

room is also checked for consistency. This done,<br />

the listening test programme is carried out using<br />

two different headphone amplifiers and DAPs<br />

to build a picture of performance. Headphones<br />

supplied with a choice of cables are listened to<br />

with each cable fitted in turn.<br />

The testing period takes place over several<br />

days. Numerous tracks are listened to, but the<br />

sessions focus on four albums chosen to provide<br />

a variation of musical styles, recording quality<br />

and sample rate. Each track is played several<br />

times until a definitive picture of the<br />

headphone’s sound quality is obtained.<br />

Two types of headphone are on test, open and<br />

closed back, with each having their own relative<br />

merits and weaknesses. Open-back models tend<br />

to be more spacious sounding, while closed-back<br />

ones have tighter bass and better isolation from<br />

external noise. All models on test are over-ear<br />

designs – widely considered to be the most<br />

comfortable – and principally for indoor use.<br />

TEST MUSIC<br />

WHIPLASH<br />

Original Soundtrack<br />

Overture 16/44.1 FLAC<br />

CARLOS SANTANA<br />

Blues For Salvador<br />

Blues For Salvador 16/44.1 FLAC<br />

ROBERT LEN<br />

Fragile<br />

Brazilia 96/24 FLAC<br />

BLIND LISTENING TESTS<br />

This crucial process is very<br />

carefully controlled so that we<br />

get reliable and consistent<br />

results in a relaxed and friendly<br />

atmosphere. Our listeners must<br />

not feel that they’re being tested,<br />

despite being unaware of the<br />

brand or price of the products<br />

they are auditioning.<br />

The session begins by setting<br />

the volume level to an agreed<br />

point, one that all three panellists<br />

feel comfortable with, yet that is<br />

high enough to make differences<br />

easily discernible. Then the<br />

choice of music is agreed – it<br />

needs to be familiar, but also well<br />

recorded and of sufficient variety<br />

to give meaningful listening<br />

comparisons. The chosen<br />

selection of music is played, and<br />

the panellists are encouraged to<br />

discuss their impressions of the<br />

sound of the product. This is then<br />

repeated, and periodically the<br />

panel listens to earlier products<br />

for reference purposes. The<br />

consensus, or otherwise then<br />

forms the basis of our sound<br />

quality section.<br />

At the end of the session,<br />

there’s a final debrief when<br />

panellists discuss their findings.<br />

It’s an exhaustive process, but<br />

carried out in this way is free<br />

from prejudices based on brand,<br />

price or appearance, while the<br />

different sensitivities of the<br />

listeners help to round out the<br />

analysis in order to make it more<br />

widely applicable.<br />

PAT METHENY GROUP<br />

Imaginary Day<br />

Imaginary Day 16/44.1 FLAC<br />

22 MAY 2016


Designed for<br />

listening<br />

The new CM Series loudspeakers are undoubtedly beautiful,<br />

capable of gracing any room with their clean lines and highquality<br />

finishes. But as with all Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers<br />

form must follow function, and thanks to our Decoupled<br />

Double Domes and tweeter-on-top technology you won’t<br />

believe how beautiful your music can sound.<br />

bowers-wilkins.com<br />

Decoupled Double Dome tweeter


HEADPHONES £220-£350<br />

Head rules heart<br />

David Vivian tries out<br />

six pairs of cans with<br />

hi-fi cred and style…<br />

LIKE THAT OTHER comeback kid,<br />

the bicycle, headphones haven’t<br />

changed their basic shape for over a<br />

century. Nathaniel Baldwin started<br />

the ball rolling by making what’s<br />

generally accepted to be the first<br />

recognisable pair on his kitchen table<br />

106 years ago and selling it to the US<br />

Navy as a communications tool. The<br />

inventor neglected to take out a<br />

patent, but the audio world hasn’t<br />

looked back since.<br />

Today’s headphones have imbued<br />

that seminal design with seductive<br />

tech, sexy materials and, of course,<br />

the lure of celebrity-endorsed fashion<br />

status. At no other time in history<br />

have so many heads – especially<br />

young ones – felt the gentle embrace<br />

of pillowy ear pads and the gift of<br />

pulsating bass while going about their<br />

daily business. Some folk, a growing<br />

number it seems, wouldn’t listen to<br />

music any other way.<br />

Sea change<br />

Once considered a fall back if you<br />

couldn’t afford a fine pair of<br />

loudspeakers or – even if you could<br />

– a way to enjoy music at decent<br />

volume levels without annoying the<br />

neighbours or room-sharing relatives,<br />

headphones have become both an<br />

essential lifestyle accessory and,<br />

for a certain kind of audio fan, a<br />

delicious shortcut to hi-fi nirvana:<br />

true high-end sonics at more or less<br />

earthbound prices. A selfish pursuit to<br />

be sure, but one with great rewards.<br />

The six models here veer strongly<br />

towards the audiophile end of the<br />

spectrum. No noise cancelling, no<br />

wireless Bluetooth, no DSP – they<br />

represent the pure breed with<br />

circumaural (over-ear) ear cups and<br />

cables of various lengths and hues to<br />

connect to a source, be it smartphone,<br />

hi-res portable player or dedicated<br />

headphone amp. In deference to<br />

sound quality and the engineering<br />

required to achieve it, it’s bulk before<br />

beauty. This isn’t to say style doesn’t<br />

get a look in, though it’s true that<br />

some try a little harder than others.<br />

24 MAY 2016


ON TEST<br />

B&O<br />

BeoPlay H6<br />

£279 p27<br />

From the land that<br />

pretty much all but<br />

invented cool design<br />

comes a headphone<br />

so achingly stylish<br />

that it’s a shame to<br />

take it off. The fine<br />

build is exceptional,<br />

have a listen and you<br />

might not want to take<br />

it off either.<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>fiman<br />

HE400S<br />

£220 p29<br />

The only open-back<br />

model with planar<br />

magnetic drivers<br />

and the largest<br />

headphone in the<br />

group, the <strong>Hi</strong>fiman<br />

has a reputation for<br />

top-drawer sound that<br />

precedes it, and the<br />

HE400S consequently<br />

has much to prove.<br />

Meze<br />

99 Classics<br />

£260 p31<br />

With its polished solidwood<br />

ear cups, elegant<br />

design and sparingly<br />

applied bling, this<br />

closed-back design<br />

from Romania looks<br />

like a true high-ender.<br />

Understandably,<br />

expectations are high<br />

for its debut showing in<br />

the UK.<br />

Oppo<br />

PM-3<br />

£349 p33<br />

Beautifully built but<br />

pricey, the PM-3 is the<br />

other planar magnetic<br />

contender in the<br />

group, though, unlike<br />

the <strong>Hi</strong>fiman, a closedback<br />

design. This<br />

compact design has<br />

done well before, but it<br />

could have more of a<br />

fight on its hands here.<br />

Philips<br />

<strong>Fi</strong>delio X2<br />

£230 p35<br />

Representing a school<br />

of design that thumbs<br />

its nose at frilly<br />

nonsense compared<br />

with rivals, the openback<br />

<strong>Fi</strong>delio X2 is<br />

built like a battleship,<br />

equipped with big<br />

drivers, comfy earpads<br />

and it promises one<br />

thing: high quality.<br />

Sennheiser<br />

Momentum 2.0<br />

£270 p37<br />

The original<br />

Momentum was<br />

arguably the perfect<br />

blend of style that<br />

doesn’t try too hard<br />

and a signature sound<br />

that doesn’t have to.<br />

The mk2 version adds<br />

foldability, comfort<br />

and the promise of<br />

even better sonics.<br />

MAY 2016 25


Everything you need.<br />

Nothing you don’t.<br />

Music brings us so much joy. An audio system shouldn’t reduce music’s unique<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

<br />

nearest authorised Rotel retailer.<br />

ROTEL.COM


HEADPHONES<br />

£220-£350<br />

GROUPTEST<br />

B&O<br />

BeoPlay H6 £279<br />

It has good looks and fine build, but can the H6 deliver<br />

a sonic performance worthy of the price tag?<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

B&O BeoPlay H6<br />

ORIGIN<br />

Denmark<br />

TYPE<br />

Over-ear closedback<br />

headphone<br />

WEIGHT<br />

230g<br />

FEATURES<br />

● 40mm dynamic<br />

drivers<br />

● Quoted sensitivity:<br />

97dB/mW<br />

● Detachable 1.2m<br />

cable with 3.5mm<br />

mini-jack<br />

● Carrying pouch<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

B&O Play UK<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

0118 9692288<br />

WEBSITE<br />

beoplay.com<br />

T<br />

here’s something rather<br />

wonderful about first<br />

contact with the BeoPlay<br />

H6. It’s a leather and<br />

aluminium vision of exquisite<br />

simplicity and confident good taste<br />

that only gets better when you<br />

appreciate just how light yet solid and<br />

beautifully put together it feels. It’s<br />

a fusion of pared-back design and<br />

sumptuous luxury that might elicit<br />

a little gasp. B&O at its best.<br />

Of all the headphones here, it’s the<br />

one you’ll probably look coolest<br />

wearing if you want to venture<br />

outdoors, so it’s a little disappointing it<br />

doesn’t come with a zipped travel case,<br />

though the velvety drawstring pouch it<br />

is supplied with is more than big<br />

enough to accommodate the fully<br />

retracted and flattened ’phones with<br />

their ear cups swivelled through 45°.<br />

Accessories are basic and consist of a<br />

single-input 3.5mm plug cable (1.2m<br />

long) with a three-button iPhone-<br />

compatible remote – which doesn’t<br />

function with non-Apple products –<br />

and a two-pin adaptor should you<br />

want to plug into an airline<br />

entertainment system. A useful feature<br />

unique in the group is a second cable<br />

jack on the other ear cup so that two<br />

or more pairs can be daisy-chained<br />

together. If it’s just the one pair, either<br />

socket can be used.<br />

Although relatively light at 230g, it<br />

exerts a fairly firm grip on your bonce<br />

as defined by the tension of the single<br />

hoop headband. This is a leanly<br />

dressed affair with a leather top and<br />

Low frequencies<br />

possess proper<br />

timbral texture,<br />

power and extension<br />

section-padded fabric belly that<br />

initially feels fine, but never quite lets<br />

you forget about its presence over a<br />

long session. While there’s nothing too<br />

unusual or exciting about the tech spec<br />

– 30ohm impedance, slightly angled<br />

40mm dynamic drivers, closed-back<br />

ear cups, 20Hz-22kHz frequency range<br />

– you can be sure B&O will have<br />

endurance-tested the design to hell<br />

(frozen-over kind, too) and back.<br />

Sound quality<br />

This is a friendly and assuredsounding<br />

pair of headphones. Any<br />

suspicions that B&O blew the whole<br />

development budget on aesthetics<br />

and premium build tactility are<br />

swiftly allayed with a presentation<br />

that’s agreeably open, detailed, well<br />

balanced and not skewed towards<br />

any particular musical genre. The<br />

bass issue – of prime concern to<br />

many younger headphone users not<br />

necessarily schooled in the ways of<br />

traditional hi-fi values – is particularly<br />

well served, maybe even educational<br />

for anyone unaware that low<br />

frequencies can possess proper<br />

timbral texture and pitch as well<br />

as power and extension.<br />

What’s more, an overriding sense of<br />

poise and control and finely judged<br />

GREEN LIGHT<br />

B&O has quite a reputation for<br />

putting its products through the<br />

wringer before they’re released for<br />

sale, and it’s all done with a strong<br />

nod to environmental responsibility.<br />

In addition to the exhaustive<br />

endurance tests (extreme cold, heat,<br />

vibration, sunlight, dust and so on),<br />

environmental thinking is on the<br />

table at the design stage. The<br />

company even has a name for this<br />

approach: Environmental Design<br />

Standards. It means every B&O<br />

product not only has to comply with<br />

existing statutory regulations, but<br />

cope with ones no one else has<br />

thought of yet. Each product also has<br />

a product manager who can’t allow it<br />

to progress to the next development<br />

stage until the relevant<br />

environmental design standards<br />

specs are met. Tough call for a pair of<br />

headphones, but there’s no doubting<br />

B&O’s thoroughness and attention to<br />

detail shines through at the end.<br />

voicing makes Santana’s Blues For<br />

Salvador a little less crowded and<br />

overpowering than some of the other<br />

models on test. This attests to an<br />

easy-going nature that maybe doesn’t<br />

dig too deep, but is good at keeping<br />

competing elements in harmony – in<br />

this instance some gloriously warm,<br />

expansive, laid back synth pads and<br />

Mr Santana’s especially energetic,<br />

up-front guitar runs.<br />

Those seeking a deeper dive into the<br />

recording mix may find it falls a little<br />

short on the finest details, but it isn’t<br />

by much and it seldom sounds<br />

anything less than comfortably in<br />

command of the bigger musical<br />

picture. Crucially, it seems particularly<br />

adept at carrying the musical message<br />

with a grasp of flow and tempo that’s<br />

as good as any in the group. In short,<br />

it sounds almost as lovely as it looks,<br />

which can’t be bad ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

EASE OF DRIVE<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: Cool design;<br />

build; approachable<br />

sound that does<br />

everything well<br />

DISLIKE: Detail could<br />

be a little sharper; not<br />

the most comfortable<br />

WE SAY: If looks matter<br />

as much as sound, the<br />

B&O is worthy of<br />

serious consideration<br />

MAY 2016 27


Enjoyed Worldwide.<br />

“The Sigma SSP can be regarded as a superb stereo analog<br />

preamp, and all the rest of its bells and whistles as a gift.”<br />

Kal Rubinson, Stereophile, USA<br />

“It combines the flexibility of a Swiss Army knife with the<br />

precision of a surgeon’s tool in an easy-to-use package. There’s<br />

simply not enough room here to even pretend to detail what you<br />

can do with this processor. It’s just awesome.”<br />

Theo Nicolakis, Audioholics.com, USA<br />

“But most impressive is the sound quality. This is real<br />

high-end at a price that must be considered reasonable.<br />

And the step up from the traditional home cinema<br />

receivers is nothing but huge.”<br />

Ludwig Swanberg, HemmaBio, Sweden<br />

“Oh my, what a wonderful system Classé has provided<br />

with the Sigma range. It shows that audiophile sound is<br />

not the sole preserve of stereo and equally that it is not<br />

incompatible with reliable and convenient operation.”<br />

Stephen Dawson, Audio Esoterica, Australia<br />

“This Sigma system is a huge achievement<br />

which everyone must absolutely discover.”<br />

Adrien Rouah, Québec Audio & Video, Canada<br />

www.classeaudio.com<br />

Classé — every detail matters.


HEADPHONES<br />

£220-£350<br />

GROUPTEST<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>fiman<br />

HE400S £220<br />

This rising star brand delivers high performance at<br />

increasingly lower prices. We like the sound of that<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>fiman HE400S<br />

ORIGIN<br />

China<br />

TYPE<br />

Over-ear open-back<br />

headphone<br />

WEIGHT<br />

350g<br />

FEATURES<br />

● Planar magnetic<br />

drivers<br />

● Quoted sensitivity:<br />

98dB/mW<br />

● Detachable 1.5m<br />

cable with 3.5mm<br />

mini-jack<br />

● 6.35mm adapter<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Audio Affair<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

0844 5040350<br />

WEBSITE<br />

hifiman.com<br />

C<br />

hinese brand <strong>Hi</strong>fiman,<br />

founded by current owner<br />

Dr Fang Bian in 2007,<br />

certainly seems to have<br />

mastered the art of ‘trickle down’. The<br />

HE400S takes its tech cues from two of<br />

the company’s much more expensive<br />

planar magnetic high fliers – the<br />

HE560 and HE400i (HFC 397) – and,<br />

rumour has it, sounds very nearly as<br />

good, prompting <strong>Hi</strong>fiman to claim that<br />

its budget planar ’phone redefines<br />

what’s possible in the mid-price class<br />

represented by our group here.<br />

Planar magnetic headphones have<br />

traditionally had two drawbacks.<br />

One, they’re big and heavy. Two,<br />

they’re power hungry and need a lot<br />

of driving. The claim for the HE400S,<br />

however, is that it’s sensitive enough<br />

to be driven by a smartphone alone<br />

without the additional muscle of a<br />

headphone amp. At 350g, it isn’t the<br />

lightest planar magnetic design on<br />

the market (that honour belongs to<br />

the Oppo PM-3 which undercuts it by<br />

30g), but it is a little less heavy than<br />

Philips’ <strong>Fi</strong>delio X2.<br />

Unlike the Oppo and in line with<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>fiman’s pricier models, the HE400S<br />

is an open-back design which, on<br />

paper, could give it an edge sonically,<br />

but confers no favours aesthetically.<br />

The soft-sheen silver finish, large,<br />

perfectly round ear cups and sharply<br />

angled headband frame are certainly<br />

distinctive, but unlikely to woo<br />

headphone fashionistas. No matter,<br />

those jumbo ear cups permit a decent<br />

surface area for the planar membranes<br />

What we have here<br />

is the headphone<br />

equivalent of<br />

Quad electrostatics<br />

within and, lined with removable<br />

velour-covered memory foam, sit very<br />

snugly on the head, the generous<br />

circumference distributing the<br />

pressure generated by the metal frame<br />

comfortably. No travel case is supplied,<br />

but the split twin-plug 1.5m cable<br />

looks both cheerfully snazzy and<br />

durable and additionally comes with<br />

a 6.35mm adaptor.<br />

Sound quality<br />

Despite the claimed smartphonefriendly<br />

sensitivity, the <strong>Fi</strong>iO X3 DAP<br />

(HFC 382) requires quite a volume<br />

push from the group norm – though,<br />

admittedly, no more than with the<br />

Oppo PM-3 – to reach a decent level.<br />

That said, it copes, though the<br />

Questyle QP1R (HFC 409) and Chord<br />

Hugo (HFC 386) are needed to show<br />

what the HE400S is really capable of.<br />

Partly because it is open backed, the<br />

HE400S is a little brighter and quite<br />

a lot airier and, well, less closed-in.<br />

Initially, at least, the sound seems<br />

thinner and a tad undernourished,<br />

with a significantly leaner bass. There<br />

certainly isn’t the up-an-at-’em attack<br />

and sense of joyful enthusiasm<br />

displayed by the Meze offering,<br />

but sticking with the programme<br />

eventually reveals what the HE400S<br />

FANG CLUB<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>fiman’s founder and boss, Dr Fang<br />

Bian, is a firm believer that ‘high-end’<br />

is an attitude and not a price tag –<br />

an approach that is perhaps best<br />

expressed with the HE400S, which<br />

brings the benefits of planar<br />

magnetic driver technology to a new<br />

low price point and wider audience.<br />

In fact, when it comes to headphones,<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>fiman’s entire lineup is planar<br />

magnetic, for which Dr Fang makes<br />

no apology. While conceding that<br />

electrostatics offer the best possible<br />

sound quality, he sees planar<br />

magnetics as a very close runner up<br />

for out-and-out sound quality but a<br />

more practical proposition for the<br />

evolving headphone market, not least<br />

because they require less power and<br />

can be driven by a smartphone. And<br />

they play louder, too. Dr Fang,<br />

perhaps unsurprisingly, predicts a<br />

rosy future for the headphone<br />

market, and especially hi-res portable<br />

players, which he also makes.<br />

is all about and yields deeply<br />

satisfying results.<br />

There is a weakness with the bass.<br />

Agile, tuneful and articulate as it is,<br />

it could really do with a little more<br />

propulsive oomph. That apart, what<br />

we have here is the headphone<br />

equivalent of listening to Quad<br />

electrostatics: ultra-low colouration,<br />

beautifully rendered high frequencies,<br />

superb transparency, whip-crack<br />

timing and a powerful sense of<br />

cohesion that lets the music roll in<br />

a lucid, free-flowing manner. The<br />

languid grace of Brazilia, the hi-res<br />

track from Robert Len’s Fragile, is<br />

exquisitely captured. And just listen<br />

to Overture from the Whiplash<br />

soundtrack. Of all the headphones in<br />

the group, this is the only one that<br />

truly pulls the piece together. Even<br />

cinema’s angriest band leader,<br />

Terence Fletcher, would smile ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

EASE OF DRIVE<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: Transparency;<br />

detailed sound; timing<br />

DISLIKE: No oil<br />

painting; bass needs<br />

more beef; fairly<br />

inefficient<br />

WE SAY: Revealing,<br />

enjoyable and terrific<br />

value, but a little more<br />

bass would certainly<br />

go a long way<br />

MAY 2016 29


HEADPHONES<br />

£220-£350<br />

GROUPTEST<br />

Meze<br />

99 Classics £260<br />

These cans are as much a product of art as science.<br />

We’re not sure about the bling, but can they sing?<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

Meze 99 Classics<br />

ORIGIN<br />

Romania<br />

TYPE<br />

Over-ear closedback<br />

headphone<br />

WEIGHT<br />

260g<br />

FEATURES<br />

● 40mm dynamic<br />

drivers<br />

● Quoted sensitivity<br />

103dB/mW<br />

● Detachable Kevlarwrapped<br />

OFC cable<br />

with 3.5mm minijack<br />

● Hard shell travel<br />

case<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Meze Headphones<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

+40 749 048138<br />

WEBSITE<br />

mezeheadphones.<br />

com<br />

A<br />

nd now for something<br />

almost completely<br />

different. Meze, a small<br />

specialist company working<br />

out of Baia Mare in Romania, is clearly<br />

the David in a group of Goliaths. On<br />

the one hand, this means it doesn’t<br />

have the resources and deep pockets<br />

of its bigger rivals. But it also means it<br />

can do its own thing and, in the case of<br />

its most ambitious headphone design<br />

to date, the new 99 Classics, spend<br />

quite a lot of time doing it – see<br />

boxout. Its appearance gives a strong<br />

hint as to why. Wood.<br />

Why wood? It isn’t just because it’s<br />

pretty. Nor is it a unique material<br />

among headphone makers, of course.<br />

Despite being harder to source and<br />

work with, Meze chooses walnut and<br />

maple in the belief they give a brighter<br />

and more balanced sound than other<br />

woods. The artisanal nature of the 99<br />

Classics is clear from the moment you<br />

open the extravagantly lovely box<br />

containing the equally OTT hard-shell<br />

travel case it comes in.<br />

Here are components you can savour<br />

individually or as a rather beautifully<br />

screwed together entity: the handfinished<br />

and polished CNC-milled<br />

wood ear cups, the cast zinc alloy<br />

fittings with electroplated coating, the<br />

stamped manganese spring steel<br />

headband, the memory foam and<br />

soft PU leather ear pads. It’s quite<br />

something just to handle the 99<br />

Classics for the first time. Meze doesn’t<br />

anticipate it being a short relationship,<br />

either. The headphone can be taken<br />

Every musical<br />

nuance has a<br />

presence that you<br />

can almost touch<br />

completely apart for easy parts<br />

replacement. Theoretically, you could<br />

keep it forever.<br />

The model on test has the ‘walnut<br />

gold’ colour scheme. If that seems a<br />

little too ostentatious (it is), there’s a<br />

walnut silver alternative (better) or,<br />

failing that, maple silver (very<br />

tasteful). Accessories, curled up in a<br />

separate zipped pouch, comprise two<br />

sets of Kevlar-wrapped OFC cables,<br />

one with inline microphone/media<br />

controller and an in-flight adaptor.<br />

Sound quality<br />

The 99 Classics’ self-adjusting<br />

headband isn’t quite as successful as<br />

some in the group, applying a little<br />

more pressure at the top of the ear<br />

pads than spreading it evenly. It’s more<br />

of an initial impression than a lasting<br />

one, though, and as the headphone<br />

is reasonably light, at 260g, it is<br />

comfortable enough. Slightly<br />

concerning is the bell-like ringing<br />

should you accidentally flick the metal<br />

part of the headband; the cables are<br />

mildly microphonic, too.<br />

Small company slip ups? <strong>May</strong>be. But<br />

it doesn’t matter. Indeed, who cares?<br />

The 99 Classics sound simply glorious<br />

– uncannily spacious, brimming with<br />

energy and vivacity and a cranked up<br />

ANOTHER FINE MEZE<br />

Making headphone ear cups out of<br />

wood isn’t a guarantee of sonic<br />

success, of course, but there’s no<br />

denying Meze puts great store by<br />

its properties, aesthetic and aural.<br />

There’s an awful lot of curing and<br />

drying of the raw material before<br />

construction of the 99 Classics can<br />

even start, but Meze is sure it’s well<br />

worth the wait. The process of<br />

shaping just a single pair of ear cups<br />

can take up to 8 hours. And by the<br />

time all the sanding, lacquering<br />

and finishing is done, that’s over six<br />

weeks gone. Any flaws detected in<br />

the wood before final assembly, and<br />

it’s shown the door. Walnut is the<br />

staple for Meze, chosen for its<br />

sturdiness and ‘acoustic properties’.<br />

And the company would like it to be<br />

known that all the wood it uses for its<br />

headphones is harvested from trees<br />

that have reached the end of their life<br />

cycles, giving old trees a chance to<br />

‘shine one more time’.<br />

sense of performance that’s genuinely<br />

surprising and frequently riveting.<br />

Efficient and easy to drive, it comes<br />

across like a pair of speakers that<br />

have been ‘un-damped’ for greater<br />

immediacy, impact and musical<br />

communication. A starker contrast<br />

with the smoothly composed and<br />

controlled <strong>Fi</strong>delio X2 it would be hard<br />

to imagine, and it’s a difference that<br />

will prove divisive. If you want a<br />

headphone to provide a gentle,<br />

sophisticated background soundtrack<br />

to accompany an activity (writing a<br />

headphone Group Test, for example),<br />

give the 99 Classics a miss as the task<br />

won’t get done. If, however, you want<br />

to hear Metheny’s Imaginary Day in<br />

full-blooded stereo with every element<br />

given unfettered dynamic expression<br />

and every musical nuance a presence<br />

you can almost touch, the Meze will<br />

make your day. It does mine ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

EASE OF DRIVE<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: <strong>Hi</strong>ghly musical;<br />

expressive and<br />

engaging sound; highend<br />

looks and build<br />

DISLIKE: Some of the<br />

gold bits (we’ll take<br />

maple and silver)<br />

WE SAY: Simply more<br />

enjoyable than<br />

headphones usually<br />

sound. A gem of a pair<br />

MAY 2016 31


T<br />

<br />

<strong>Fi</strong>nd out more at www.unisonresearch.co.uk<br />

Analogue Seduction<br />

Peterborough, Cambs: 01733 350878<br />

Audio T<br />

Brentwood, Essex: 01277 264730<br />

Audio T<br />

Oxford, Oxfordshire: 01865 765961<br />

Dooleys <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong><br />

Macclesfield, Cheshire: 01625 264666<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> Sound<br />

Stockton-on-Tees: 0845 6019390<br />

Peak <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong><br />

Sheffield, Yorks: 01226 761832<br />

The Audio Room<br />

Hull, East Yorks: 01482 891375<br />

Audio Destination<br />

Tiverton, Devon: 01884 243584<br />

Audio T<br />

Cardiff, Wales: 02920 228565<br />

Audio T<br />

Portsmouth, Hamps: 02392 663604<br />

Doug Brady <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong><br />

Warrington, Cheshire: 01925 828009<br />

Inspire <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong><br />

Chesterfield, Derbys: 01246 472222<br />

Rayleigh <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong><br />

Rayleigh, Essex: 01268 779762<br />

The Listening Suite<br />

Dublin, ROI: +35316750974<br />

Vickers <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong><br />

York, Yorks: 01904 691600<br />

Audio Lounge<br />

London, W1: 0207 4874080<br />

Audio T<br />

Cheltenham, Glos: 01242 583960<br />

Ceritech Audio<br />

Cinderford, Glos: 01600 716362<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> Gear Ltd<br />

Hereford, Herefs: 01432 354921<br />

KJ West One<br />

London, W1: 0207 4868262<br />

The Audiobarn<br />

Nr. Bishops Stortford: 01279 454860<br />

The Music Room<br />

Glasgow, Lanarks: 01413 339700<br />

Zouch Audio<br />

Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leics: 01530 414128<br />

Distributed by Henley Designs Ltd.<br />

T: +44 (0)1235 511 166 | E: sales@henleydesigns.co.uk | W: www.henleydesigns.co.uk


HEADPHONES<br />

£220-£350<br />

GROUPTEST<br />

Oppo<br />

PM-3 £349<br />

The current champ in this price bracket faces some<br />

stiff competition, but can it hang onto its crown?<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

Oppo PM-3<br />

ORIGIN<br />

China<br />

TYPE<br />

Over-ear closedback<br />

headphone<br />

WEIGHT<br />

320g<br />

FEATURES<br />

● 55mm planar<br />

magnetic drivers<br />

● Quoted sensitivity:<br />

102dB/mW<br />

● Detachable 1.2m<br />

cable with 3.5mm<br />

mini-jack; 2x 3m<br />

cables with 3.5mm<br />

and 6.35mm jacks<br />

● Carry case<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Oppo Digital UK Ltd<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

0345 060 9395<br />

WEBSITE<br />

oppodigital.co.uk<br />

F<br />

ew headphones you can<br />

buy for around £350 make<br />

as convincing a case for<br />

your money as the PM-3.<br />

By any reasonable reckoning, it’s the<br />

real deal, the complete package – an<br />

assessment we haven’t been reticent<br />

in expressing in these pages. Planar<br />

magnetic drivers derived from the<br />

PM-1 flagship, lavish build quality, a<br />

comprehensive set of accessories<br />

including three cables and a stylish<br />

and sturdy denim travel case and<br />

decidedly up-market sound quality<br />

seem to close the argument on what’s<br />

possible at this price. Affordable<br />

high-end seems a fitting description.<br />

The whole getting acquainted<br />

experience exudes the kind of quality<br />

vibe you might expect at twice the<br />

price. It shouts luxury, from the<br />

pampering softness of the earpads to<br />

the lightweight precision engineering<br />

of the framework to the ‘just right’<br />

feeling when you don the headphone<br />

for the first time. True, the Oppo isn’t<br />

stylish in the way that the B&O,<br />

Sennheiser or Meze are, but its<br />

understated functionality is arguably<br />

just as valid an aesthetic proposition.<br />

Next to highly specialised electrostatic<br />

tech, a planar magnetic driver –<br />

essentially a diaphragm printed with a<br />

conductor held between two magnets<br />

– is theoretically the ideal solution for<br />

headphone sound quality, delivering<br />

greater accuracy and less colouration<br />

than commonly used dynamic drivers.<br />

What was once thought of as an<br />

unacceptable weight penalty has been<br />

mitigated by Oppo’s implementation,<br />

Subtlety, speed and a<br />

well-proportioned<br />

bass are definite<br />

strong suits<br />

which tips the scales at just 320g.<br />

On-the-go ease of drive, previously<br />

a problem for this typically powerhungry<br />

type of headphone, has also<br />

been overcome, making the PM-3 fit<br />

for use with a smartphone, a phone<br />

and pocketable headphone amp/DAC<br />

or the emerging breed of hi-res DAPs.<br />

Oppo admits getting this right took<br />

around a year to crack. The company<br />

is nothing if not thorough.<br />

Sound quality<br />

A five minute audition won’t work<br />

for the PM-3. Despite the elevated<br />

expectations set up by its planar<br />

drivers, you might well feel tempted<br />

to walk away – especially if you’ve<br />

just listened to some of the more<br />

exuberantly voiced models here. The<br />

reason is what seems initially to be a<br />

mildly muted top end and closed-in<br />

soundstage. After a session with the<br />

Meze 99 Classics, the Oppo appears<br />

a tad lacklustre and boring. But give<br />

it a longer go, and subtlety, speed,<br />

transparency and a powerful but<br />

well-proportioned and controlled bass<br />

are definite strong suits. The longer I<br />

listen the more seductive and virtuous<br />

these qualities become, and the less<br />

obvious the restrained top end seems.<br />

A GOOD PLANAR<br />

Oppo was first to market with an<br />

‘affordable’ and ‘easy to drive’ planar<br />

magnetic design, no doubt<br />

persuading <strong>Hi</strong>fiman to get a move on.<br />

When the company launched its own<br />

flagship show-opener in 2014, the<br />

PM-1, no one was greatly surprised<br />

that such a large and luxurious<br />

open-back design, intended purely<br />

for home use, eschewed dynamic<br />

drivers for planar tech. It cost £1,100<br />

after all. A few eyebrows headed<br />

north when, a few months later, Oppo<br />

pulled off the same trick with the<br />

built-down but considerably more<br />

affordable PM-2 (HFC 402),<br />

sacrificing little of the spacious,<br />

balanced, ultra-low distortion sonic<br />

performance that set the benchmark<br />

at the £1k mark. The £350 PM-3 really<br />

sets Felix among the featherweights,<br />

though. Compact with over-ear<br />

closed-back swivel-able cups, it hits<br />

the spot combing planar magnetic<br />

tech and high street wearability.<br />

Indeed, once acclimatised to the<br />

tonal balance, I find myself delving<br />

instinctively deeper and deeper into<br />

recordings that had perhaps seemed<br />

superficially more impressive and<br />

colourful on a few of the other models.<br />

Overture from the Whiplash<br />

soundtrack is a good example. This is<br />

a fast and frenetic big band workout<br />

with so many loud instruments and<br />

constantly shifting dynamics pushing<br />

the pace, the result can all too easily<br />

sound overwrought and difficult to<br />

follow. But the PM-3 does better. Not<br />

only does it track every contribution<br />

clearly, but it also presents a coherent,<br />

tight and well-ordered ensemble<br />

performance. Instrument pitch and<br />

timbre are very well conveyed too<br />

without tipping over into stridency or<br />

sharpness. This is perhaps the most<br />

natural-sounding headphone here, but<br />

it takes a while to appreciate it ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

EASE OF DRIVE<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: Solid, finely<br />

nuanced and natural<br />

sound; great bass;<br />

build and comfort<br />

DISLIKE: Muted high<br />

frequencies; rather<br />

confined soundstage<br />

WE SAY: A lovely<br />

product capable of<br />

very fine results, but no<br />

longer the very best<br />

MAY 2016 33


Designed in England by music lovers.<br />

Enjoyed by music lovers all over the<br />

world.<br />

The Chord Company Ltd, Millsway<br />

Centre, Amesbury SP4 7RX, UK<br />

To get more information and find your<br />

nearest retailer, please call us on:<br />

+44 (0)1980 625700 or visit:<br />

www.chord.co.uk<br />

“In short, this is a good value<br />

and great-sounding cable”<br />

Chord Clearway speaker cable<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> Dec 2015<br />

“This interconnect handles complex music with ease, delivering a<br />

performance that is lively and involving. It takes both classical and<br />

modern music in its stride”<br />

Chord C-line interconnect<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> Nov 2015


HEADPHONES<br />

£220-£350<br />

GROUPTEST<br />

Philips<br />

<strong>Fi</strong>delio X2 £230<br />

This headphone won’t make much of a fashion<br />

statement, but it is very serious about how it sounds<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

Philips <strong>Fi</strong>delio X2<br />

ORIGIN<br />

Hong Kong<br />

TYPE<br />

Over-ear open-back<br />

headphone<br />

WEIGHT<br />

380g<br />

FEATURES<br />

● 50mm dynamic<br />

drivers<br />

● Quoted sensitivity<br />

100dB/mW<br />

● Detachable 3m<br />

cable with 3.5mm<br />

mini-jack<br />

● 6.35mm adapter<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Gibson Innovations<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

0207 9490241<br />

WEBSITE<br />

philips.co.uk<br />

Y<br />

ou’d have to be brave to<br />

venture down the high<br />

street wearing <strong>Fi</strong>delio’s X2.<br />

This is an unapologetically<br />

big, beefy open-back headphone that<br />

wouldn’t look out of place in a<br />

recording studio. The vibe, of course,<br />

is hardly accidental. Serious cans for<br />

serious music lovers – that’s all you<br />

really need to know. Besides, no<br />

open-back headphone is really suitable<br />

for use outside the privacy of your own<br />

home. But that’s not a bad thing. The<br />

X2 is designed for optimum sound<br />

quality. Everyone’s on the same page.<br />

An evolution of Philips’ highly<br />

regarded <strong>Fi</strong>delio X1 (HFC 365), the X2<br />

has new multi-layered diaphragm<br />

drivers which, at 50mm, are still<br />

around 10mm larger than the class<br />

norm. In stark contrast to the rather<br />

flimsy plain black box the X2 comes in,<br />

the headphone is a thing of real<br />

substance, sturdily built from quality<br />

materials. The slightly retro studio<br />

look is retained from the X1, which<br />

means mesh open-back ear cups, a<br />

two-tier ‘hammock-style’ self-adjusting<br />

headband and arguably the plushest<br />

and most comfortable ear pads in the<br />

group, made from plump rolls of<br />

memory foam covered with fine-nap<br />

velour. They’re replaceable, too, which<br />

is a nice touch.<br />

Other parts have been upgraded as<br />

well. The stainless steel accents on<br />

each ear cup are now a low-sheen<br />

black rather than silver, blending more<br />

harmoniously with the similarly dark<br />

leather headband and ear cups.<br />

It’s hard to believe the X1 came with<br />

just a 6.35mm plug, but, as part of the<br />

Velvet-gloved it may<br />

be, the Philips can hit<br />

hard when the music<br />

really calls out for it<br />

thorough modernisation, it’s the<br />

obligatory 3.5mm stereo mini-jack this<br />

time, with an adaptor for slotting into<br />

the larger socket. Just the one cable<br />

is supplied. It doesn’t have an in-line<br />

remote, but it does have a classy fabric<br />

sleeve and is a generous 3m long. But<br />

that’s your lot as far as accessories go.<br />

No flight adaptor and, as these are<br />

pretty much stay-at-home types, no<br />

travel case either, sexy or otherwise.<br />

Sound quality<br />

The <strong>Fi</strong>delio X2 weighs a comparatively<br />

whopping 380g – that’s twice as much<br />

as the Sennheiser – but, although<br />

you’re never quite likely to forget<br />

you’re wearing it, it’s comfortable in a<br />

luxurious, ear-coddling kind of way.<br />

Comfortable is an apt one-word<br />

description of the listening experience.<br />

The sound the X2 produces is<br />

effortlessly muscular and unerringly<br />

refined with a spacious, precisely<br />

delineated soundstage, deep but<br />

well-proportioned bass and a relaxed<br />

way with detail that encourages<br />

insightful and remarkably un-fatiguing<br />

listening sessions.<br />

Tempted to swerve the obvious car<br />

engine analogy here, but I can’t resist.<br />

There’s a bit of the V8-powered Lexus<br />

SUPER-SIZE ME<br />

Super-sized 50mm drivers, eh?<br />

Powerful neodymium magnets, too.<br />

And since no one in their right mind<br />

would be seen dead wearing the X2<br />

outdoors, it can derive maximum<br />

advantage from a fully open-back<br />

design. Not only do open-back types<br />

eliminate air pressure build up<br />

behind the driver, allowing the<br />

diaphragm greater free movement,<br />

but they usually also have superior<br />

transparency and smoother extended<br />

high frequencies. Philips claims that<br />

multiple layers of polymer encasing a<br />

layer of damping gel form a flexible<br />

boundary that absorb and dampen<br />

any exaggerated frequencies,<br />

resulting in a smooth frequency<br />

response. The drivers are pre-tilted to<br />

minimise sound reflections and work<br />

in conjunction with ear cups that tilt<br />

at 15°, the idea being that this is a<br />

more natural fit with the ear’s natural<br />

geometry, resulting in a better<br />

dynamic performance.<br />

limo about the X2. Much of the motive<br />

character is masked by engineered-in<br />

smoothness and hush, but the<br />

all-important scenery-blurring thrust is<br />

there when you really need it. The X2<br />

has a similar two-speed personality.<br />

Velvet-gloved it may be, the Philips<br />

can hit hard when the music really<br />

calls out for it.<br />

Pat Metheny’s Imaginary Day most<br />

definitely does. In places explosively<br />

dynamic, in others quieter than a pin<br />

drop and tonally more varied than just<br />

about any other piece of music I can<br />

think of, it’s a real challenge for any<br />

item of hi-fi kit. The <strong>Fi</strong>delio X2 isn’t<br />

fazed by any of it, capturing the loud<br />

and soft and the highs and lows with<br />

calm confidence. There’s more bite,<br />

colour and expressiveness to be had<br />

elsewhere in this group, but the X2’s<br />

balance, refinement and unflustered<br />

power is very appealing ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

EASE OF DRIVE<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: No-nonsense<br />

design build and<br />

comfort; effortlessly<br />

smooth and spacious<br />

sound<br />

DISLIKE: Some lack<br />

of bite and sparkle<br />

WE SAY: Not the most<br />

exciting sound around,<br />

but built for long-term<br />

satisfaction<br />

MAY 2016 35


HEADPHONES<br />

£220-£350<br />

GROUPTEST<br />

Sennheiser<br />

Momentum 2.0 £270<br />

Sennheiser’s Momentum headphone range is very<br />

popular, but can the tweaked mk 2 shade its rivals?<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

Sennheiser<br />

Momentum 2.0<br />

ORIGIN<br />

Germany<br />

TYPE<br />

Over-ear closedback<br />

headphone<br />

WEIGHT<br />

190g<br />

FEATURES<br />

● 40mm dynamic<br />

drivers<br />

● Quoted sensitivity:<br />

113dB/mW<br />

● 1.4m cable with<br />

3.5mm mini-jack<br />

● Travel case<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Sennheiser UK<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

0333 2408185<br />

WEBSITE<br />

en-uk.sennheiser.<br />

com<br />

M<br />

arrying classy design and<br />

premium sound quality for<br />

reasonable money was<br />

what the original<br />

Momentum had down to a degree that<br />

must have made the opposition green<br />

with envy. Hoards of headphone<br />

enthusiasts obviously agreed.<br />

Sennheiser reckoned it wasn’t beyond<br />

improvement, though, and set about<br />

designing second-generation models<br />

with a few key tweaks.<br />

Top of the list was easier portability.<br />

Simple fix – add a couple of hinges to<br />

the headband, allowing the ear cups to<br />

fold in on themselves. Thus articulated,<br />

the M2 doesn’t need the previous<br />

model’s bulky carrying case and now<br />

slips comfortably into a more modestly<br />

sized zip-up faux suede pouch.<br />

Ear cups have expanded in size and<br />

changed shape to properly envelop the<br />

lughole rather than pin down parts of<br />

it. As well as enhancing comfort, the<br />

larger, leather-covered memory-foam<br />

ear pads also give better noise isolation<br />

and reduce bass leakage. And while it<br />

was at it, Sennheiser re-profiled the<br />

leather-swathed headband to sit more<br />

snugly on the wearer’s head.<br />

The 1.4m twist-to-lock cable now<br />

sprouts from the right ear cup instead<br />

of the left, but features a smaller<br />

in-line remote made from black rather<br />

than silver plastic (Apple or Android/<br />

Windows compatible, you choose<br />

when you buy). Intriguingly, colour<br />

schemes have been woven into this.<br />

Android and Windows users get the<br />

choice of black or ivory ear cups, while<br />

Sounds as if it has<br />

been voiced to<br />

please a broad cross<br />

section of listeners<br />

for those of the Apple persuasion<br />

there’s an additional brown finish.<br />

Either way, the combination of<br />

stitched leather and skeletal<br />

aluminium framework looks great and<br />

suggests a lightness and comfort that’s<br />

entirely borne out in practice. At just<br />

190g, this is the lightest in the group<br />

and the easiest to forget you’re<br />

wearing. To be fair, it also looks and<br />

feels less robust than some of the<br />

others – an impression reinforced by<br />

the rather vulnerable exposed ear<br />

cup-to-headband wiring.<br />

Sound quality<br />

Rather like the B&O, first impressions<br />

are of the smile-inducing kind. The<br />

Sennheiser sounds as if it has been<br />

voiced to please a broad cross section<br />

of listeners, from audiophiles who love<br />

to scavenge detail deep within the<br />

mix to people who simply appreciate<br />

good quality sound and can tell the<br />

difference between properly defined<br />

and pitched bass performance and a<br />

bloated thump.<br />

Immediately appealing is a spacious<br />

soundstage that has the happy knack<br />

of placing vocalists and players outside<br />

the head rather than using your<br />

cranium as a rather claustrophobic<br />

auditorium. The M2 manages this<br />

EXTRA MOMENTUM<br />

The Momentum family contains a<br />

wireless version of the full-sized<br />

over-ear models here and a smaller<br />

and less conspicuous on-ear version,<br />

which costs about £100 less and<br />

has also undergone a number of<br />

improvements in mk2 guise mirroring<br />

those granted the over-ear model.<br />

Go wireless and the cost of owning a<br />

Momentum jumps considerably, but<br />

then so does the convenience factor.<br />

With battery, aptX Bluetooth and<br />

active noise cancellation on board<br />

you can expect over 20 hours of<br />

music playback with the NC engaged<br />

and even when the juice runs out, just<br />

plug in the supplied cable and you<br />

can continue listening, albeit only<br />

passively. The right ear cup hosts<br />

the music and power controls. A<br />

multi-function button takes care<br />

of volume adjustment as well as a<br />

selection of other functions, which<br />

can be fiddly and confusing until you<br />

have had a chance to get used to it.<br />

more successfully than the Oppo, for<br />

example, and is unusual in this respect<br />

for a closed-back design.<br />

There’s an impression, not<br />

unpleasant at all, that the sun shines<br />

on everything the M2 plays. It isn’t<br />

spotlighting so much as an early<br />

evening glow that picks out the<br />

necessary beauty of the music and its<br />

timbral character without the need to<br />

be stringently analytical. Take Brasilia<br />

from Robert Len’s Fragile. This<br />

hauntingly beautiful 24/96 FLAC<br />

builds slowly from delicate solo<br />

clarinet to the baleful swell of a full<br />

horn section. Handled by the M2,<br />

the piece has space to breathe and<br />

proceeds with a melancholy grace<br />

that’s perfectly judged. Open, clear,<br />

musically supple and tuned to please,<br />

this might not be the most accurate<br />

headphone in this group, but it gets an<br />

awful lot right ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

EASE OF DRIVE<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: Brings out the<br />

best in music; light and<br />

portable; great design<br />

DISLIKE: Not as robust<br />

feeling as some<br />

WE SAY: The original<br />

Momentum was a big<br />

hit and this model is<br />

even better still<br />

MAY 2016 37


GROUPTEST<br />

HEADPHONES<br />

£220-£350<br />

Group test verdict<br />

Emerging from the listening room with a flattened hairstyle, David Vivian<br />

ponders the relative merits of six good-looking headphones with a lot to offer<br />

CHOOSING THE RIGHT<br />

headphone is a deeply personal<br />

business. Serious headphones simply<br />

have to be the perfect fit: physically,<br />

aesthetically and sonically. So that’s<br />

how I’ve approached this round up.<br />

The winner is the one I’d buy having<br />

been in the fortunate position to give<br />

them all a very fair crack of the whip.<br />

If you’ve read this far, you’ll know<br />

they all impressed in different ways.<br />

Placing the B&O BeoPlay H6 last<br />

was a tough call. It’s a lovely thing<br />

with off-the-charts style and build and<br />

a beautifully judged, even-handed<br />

sound that never grates. But fine<br />

detail falls a little short and, although<br />

generally comfortable, ear cup<br />

pressure and a hard headband, knock<br />

off a few more points.<br />

That’s not something I could level at<br />

the Philips <strong>Fi</strong>delio X2 which, although<br />

bulky and heavy, has limo levels of<br />

plushness and comfort. I really like<br />

the spaciousness of the sound, too,<br />

and the truly great bass – probably<br />

the best of the group. But its<br />

smoothness is a bit of a double-edged<br />

sword, easy to live with but lacking<br />

the last few degrees of insight.<br />

Separating the Sennheiser<br />

Momentum 2.0 and the Oppo PM-3<br />

isn’t easy, not because they are<br />

so similar but so different. The<br />

Momentum has lots going for it<br />

– style, comfort, fold-up portability<br />

and musical bones. But, in the end,<br />

it’s the sheer class of the Oppo that<br />

snatches third spot, not least for<br />

its terrific build and comfort and a<br />

beguilingly natural sound. But, on<br />

that score, it suffers in comparison<br />

with the other planar magnetic<br />

headphone, the <strong>Hi</strong>fiman HE400S.<br />

It really presses home its open-back<br />

advantage, creating a stunningly<br />

transparent, detailed and coherent<br />

sound and is a worthy runner up.<br />

WINNER<br />

And so the Meze 99<br />

Classics, the dark horse<br />

from Romania, romps<br />

home to victory. It’s a<br />

thing of beauty with<br />

wood and gold bling,<br />

but more importantly it<br />

has a love of musical<br />

performance that<br />

makes even the best of<br />

the rest sound a little<br />

dry and po-faced.<br />

Make/model<br />

B&O <strong>Hi</strong>fiman Meze Oppo Philips Sennheiser<br />

BeoPlay H6 HE400S 99 Classics PM-3 <strong>Fi</strong>delio X2 Momentum 2.0<br />

,<br />

Sound<br />

Value<br />

Build<br />

Ease of drive<br />

Overall<br />

Price £279 £220 £260 £349 £230 £270<br />

A marriage of style<br />

and sound in the true<br />

B&O idiom and<br />

lovely to behold<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>gh value planar<br />

magnetics with speed<br />

and transparency<br />

to die for<br />

Style and sonics at a<br />

great price. Musical<br />

and wonderfully<br />

entertaining<br />

Closed-back planar<br />

magnetic design<br />

that gives a real taste<br />

of the high-end<br />

Built for comfort,<br />

the X2 is no slouch<br />

sonically, but a bit<br />

of a smoothie<br />

A great all-rounder<br />

and sound quality<br />

that competes with<br />

the very best<br />

Key features<br />

Open back No Yes No No Yes No<br />

Closed back Yes No Yes Yes No Yes<br />

Carry case Pouch No Yes Yes No Yes<br />

6.35mm jack No Yes Yes Yes Yes No<br />

Detachable cable Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No<br />

TRY WITH THESE<br />

MUSIC DOWNLOAD SERVICES:<br />

Qobuz, HDTracks, <strong>Hi</strong>ghResAudio<br />

There are now numerous online music stores in<br />

the UK providing legitimate high-resolution<br />

lossless downloads of recordings both new<br />

and old. Each has its focus and you may need<br />

to hunt around for a particular album, but<br />

some of our favourite sites to explore and<br />

try out include qobuz.com, hdtracks.co.uk<br />

and highresaudio.com.<br />

PORTABLE SOURCE:<br />

Acoustic Research AR-M2 £900<br />

HFC 399<br />

The AR-M2 is the standout digital<br />

audio player of the moment. It looks<br />

great, has a smooth touchscreen<br />

operating system and manages to<br />

extract every last nuance from all<br />

your recordings. It’s an ideal source<br />

for any headphone.<br />

HEADPHONE AMP/DAC:<br />

Chord Hugo £1,400 HFC 386<br />

The Chord Hugo is an extremely<br />

talented headphone amp and<br />

DAC in a small, beautifully<br />

finished box. It will make a fine<br />

partner for any of these<br />

headphone designs, with<br />

enough power on tap to drive<br />

them to the level you see fit.<br />

38 MAY 2016


SEE PAGE 10<br />

HI-RES AUDIO. THE FUTURE OF SOUND<br />

Hear it today at Sevenoaks - the experts in hi-res audio<br />

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ARCAM • irDAC-II • DAC / PREAMP<br />

The irDAC-II is designed to be the heart of a digital system and<br />

can be connected to a host of different types of digital sources<br />

and connections including asynchronous USB and Bluetooth.<br />

Up to 24bit/384kHz is supported via USB plus DSD128 support.<br />

SONY • PS-HX500 • USB TURNTABLE<br />

The PS-HX500 is equipped with a high-quality A/D convertor.<br />

So just connect it to your PC with a USB cable and record<br />

your vinyl as <strong>Hi</strong>gh-Resolution Audio tracks. This is a great<br />

way to backup your precious vinyl collection.<br />

NAIM • UNITI LITE WITH BLUETOOTH<br />

ALL-IN-ONE STREAMING SYSTEM<br />

Combines an integrated amplifier, CD player, DAB/FM tuner,<br />

internet radio, iPod dock, digital-to-analogue converter and high<br />

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Features TIDAL, Spotify Connect and Bluetooth aptX connectivity.<br />

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NEW<br />

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BLUESOUND • PULSE MINI<br />

HI-RES WIRELESS SPEAKER SYSTEM<br />

The PULSE MINI delivers true hi-fi to any nook and cranny of<br />

your home. Includes digital and analogue inputs and supports<br />

files up to 24bit/192kHz. Bluetooth aptX capability is built-in.<br />

NAIM • MU-SO Qb<br />

WIRELESS MUSIC SYSTEM<br />

New compact wireless music<br />

system. Its advanced yet simple<br />

to use connectivity includes<br />

Spotify Connect, TIDAL, UPnP,<br />

Internet Radio, USB, analogue and<br />

digital inputs. Supports WAV, FLAC<br />

and AIFF files up to 24bit/192kHz.<br />

OPTIONAL GRILLE<br />

AVAILABLE IN RED, BLUE<br />

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BLUESOUND • POWERNODE 2<br />

HI-RES WIRELESS MUSIC STREAMER/AMPLIFIER<br />

With its advanced Wi<strong>Fi</strong> antenna design and blazing ARM Cortex9<br />

Processors, the POWERNODE 2 ensures a solid connection<br />

even when streaming high-res audio files around your home.<br />

HI-RES AUDIO ON THE MOVE<br />

NEW £269<br />

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BLUESOUND • PULSE FLEX<br />

HI-RES WIRELESS SPEAKER<br />

This ultra-compact wireless speaker<br />

will change the way you think about<br />

personal audio, delivering up to 8<br />

hours of <strong>Hi</strong>-Res streaming with its<br />

optional battery pack.<br />

OPTIONAL BATTERY PACK REQUIRED<br />

FOR PORTABLE USE.<br />

5 YEAR<br />

WARRANTY<br />

ASTELL & KERN<br />

AK Jr<br />

PORTABLE HI-RES AUDIO PLAYER<br />

The AK Jr gives everyone the<br />

opportunity to comfortably listen to<br />

high resolution audio, supporting<br />

24bit/192kHz and DSD files while<br />

fitting comfortably in your pocket.<br />

PIONEER • XDP-100R<br />

PORTABLE HI-RES AUDIO PLAYER<br />

The <strong>Hi</strong>-Res XDP-100 digital audio player<br />

from Pioneer is the right travel partner<br />

for demanding music fans. It plays<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-Res WAV and FLAC files with Studio<br />

Master resolutions of up to 24bit/384kHz<br />

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NEW £499<br />

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PRO-JECT • ESSENTIAL II • TURNTABLE<br />

Entry-level “plug’n’play” two speed turntable with single piece<br />

aluminium tonearm and pre-fitted Ortofon OM5e cartridge.<br />

NAD • C 556 • TURNTABLE<br />

Time to enjoy vinyl collections with extraordinary quality!<br />

With a minimalist design, the C 556 turntable offers accurate<br />

reproduction by using performance-focused parts and<br />

components that put music first.<br />

B&W • ZEPPELIN WIRELESS SPEAKER SYSTEM<br />

Introducing the Zeppelin Wireless. The instantly recognisable<br />

silhouette may be the same, but every element of the speaker has<br />

been redesigned to deliver superlative audio performance; once<br />

again redefining what is possible from a single speaker system.<br />

£249<br />

OR LESS<br />

HALF<br />

PRICE<br />

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OR LESS<br />

FLEXSON • VINYLPLAY • DIGITAL TURNTABLE<br />

Gives the best-of-both-worlds: an excellent record player that’s<br />

easy to use and can be simply integrated into a streaming system.<br />

£575<br />

OR LESS<br />

PRO-JECT • 1 XPRESSION CARBON UKX • TURNTABLE<br />

With its Carbon armtube and supplied Ortofon 2m Silver cartridge,<br />

the 1 Xpression Carbon UKX sets new standards in its price range.<br />

NAD • VISO 1AP • WIRELESS SPEAKER SYSTEM<br />

The Viso 1AP offers Wi-<strong>Fi</strong> network capability and supports<br />

Apple AirPlay, as well as high fidelity aptX Bluetooth. Includes a<br />

USB input and a 24/96 capable optical input.<br />

£595<br />

OR LESS<br />

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£399<br />

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ARCAM • FMJ CDS27 / FMJ A29 • CD / AMPLIFIER<br />

Introducing Arcam’s audiophile Class G integrated amplifier<br />

and SACD/CD player with Network streaming up to 192/24<br />

for class leading sound quality.<br />

NEW £999<br />

OR LESS<br />

AUDIOLAB • 8300CD / 8300A • CD / AMPLIFIER<br />

The 8300CD improves upon its illustrious predecessor and delivers<br />

even better performance while the 8300A includes radically<br />

redesigned circuitry and a high-performance phono stage.<br />

RUARK AUDIO • R2 MK3<br />

WIRELESS SPEAKER SYSTEM WITH DAB/FM TUNER<br />

Play your music and discover new music in a variety of convenient<br />

ways. Spotify Connect lets you select R2 as your player and<br />

then control playback using the controls on R2 itself.<br />

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MARANTZ • CD6005 / PM6005 • CD / AMPLIFIER<br />

Replacing the 6004 models, the 6005 amp gains digital inputs<br />

using the same 24-bit/192kHz DAC as the CD player which now<br />

features enchanced USB playback and improved performance.<br />

£199<br />

OR LESS<br />

SAVE<br />

£50<br />

NAD • C 516BEE / C 316BEE • CD / AMPLIFIER<br />

Received an outstanding product award from <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> News<br />

magazine who descrided the C 316BEE is an “absolute barnstormer<br />

of an amplifier”. The C 516BEE is the perfect partner.<br />

£429<br />

OR LESS<br />

SONOS • PLAY:5 • WIRELESS SPEAKER SYSTEM<br />

Step up to the all-new PLAY:5; the powerfully smart speaker<br />

that fine-tunes its sound to bring you all the energy and emotion<br />

the artist packed into the original recording. Music that’s pure,<br />

ferocious, tasty and true.<br />

£2245<br />

OR LESS<br />

NEW £1299<br />

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B&W • P5 WIRELESS<br />

HEADPHONES<br />

GRADO • SR325e<br />

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NAIM • CD5 XS / SUPERNAIT 2 • CD / AMPLIFIER<br />

CD5 XS uses developments from Naim’s more costly CD players<br />

and when combined with the SUPERNAIT 2 it simply delivers<br />

dynamic, detailed and engaging music that can’t fail to move you.<br />

ROKSAN • K3 • CD / AMPLIFIER<br />

New integrated amplifier with aptX Bluetooth, a phono input plus<br />

five additional line inputs for other sources. The K3 CD Di player is<br />

the perfect match for the K3 amplifer. Three finish options available.<br />

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NAD • VISO HP30<br />

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SENNHEISER<br />

MOMENTUM 2.0<br />

WIRELESS HEADPHONES<br />

£169<br />

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DENON • D-M40DAB • CD/DAB SYSTEM (EX SPEAKERS)<br />

With better connectivity, including an additional optical input,<br />

along with performance upgrades to its main components,<br />

the D-M40 improves on its award-winning predecessor.<br />

MARANTZ • M-CR611 • CD/STREAMING SYSTEM<br />

The M-CR611 is a superb performer, reproducing excellent CDaudio,<br />

FM, DAB/DAB+ and Network files. Supports 192kHz / 24-bit<br />

high-resolution files, 2.8MHz DSD files and Gapless playback.<br />

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BOWERS & WILKINS • 685 S2<br />

At home on a stand, wall or bookshelf,<br />

the versatile 685 S2 is ideal<br />

for stereo and home theatre uses<br />

in most rooms. And performance<br />

is enhanced with the addition of a<br />

Decoupled Double Dome tweeter.<br />

£499<br />

OR LESS<br />

Price excludes stands<br />

PMC • TWENTY . 23<br />

The first and overwhelming impression<br />

of the Twenty.23 is an open,<br />

engaging and communicative speaker.<br />

Its size defies both the depth of bass<br />

and scale of presentation by taking<br />

any music or film material in its stride.<br />

The sound is vivid and dynamic and<br />

delivered with authoritative bass.<br />

£2425<br />

OR LESS<br />

Q ACOUSTICS • 3050<br />

The flagship 3050 is the perfect<br />

speaker for larger rooms,<br />

boasting ultra-low levels of<br />

distortion, typically found of<br />

speakers costing three or four<br />

times its price.<br />

£499<br />

OR LESS<br />

3050 Standard finishes • Premium finishes £649<br />

BOWERS & WILKINS<br />

CM10 S2<br />

The flagship floorstanding<br />

speaker of the CM Series sets a<br />

new standard for performance.<br />

It combines technologies<br />

taken from across B&W’s<br />

ranges. The result simply<br />

sounds and looks beautiful.<br />

£2999<br />

OR LESS<br />

KEF • LS50<br />

An innovative concept derived<br />

from the legendary LS3/5a.<br />

Rarely the case in such a<br />

compact design, the LS50<br />

monitor delivers a rich, multidimensional<br />

’soundstage<br />

experience’ that is out of all<br />

proportion to its size.<br />

MONITOR AUDIO<br />

GOLD 200<br />

Amazing scale and impressive<br />

dynamic control are available from<br />

this slender three-way design,<br />

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MING DA<br />

EXOTICA DYNASTY DUET 300 PLUS £3,499<br />

Heart<br />

of glass<br />

Chris Ward samples the latest integrated<br />

valve amplifier offering from Ming Da and<br />

discovers a sweet and dynamic sound<br />

M<br />

ing Da has been producing<br />

valve amplifiers for over<br />

22 years and is gaining<br />

fans worldwide.<br />

Furthermore as with this example<br />

here, after the amp’s arrival in the UK,<br />

Malvern Audio Research upgrades<br />

key internal components, swaps in<br />

higher quality valves and adds a three<br />

year warranty. Taken altogether, this<br />

China/UK partnership feels highly<br />

compelling and without compromise.<br />

This Dynasty Duet 300 Plus is an<br />

incarnation of an existing Duet 300B<br />

triode amp design, but now employs<br />

zero feedback and claims many other<br />

audio improvements. Lifting its<br />

considerable 32kg into place confirms<br />

that this is a whole lot of amplifier.<br />

With this ‘Plus’ version weighing an<br />

extra 8kg over the existing Duet 300,<br />

it’s clear there must have been<br />

considerable extra attention to meaty<br />

transformers and beefy chassis work.<br />

With eight large and lavish tubes on<br />

show, this is an amp for conspicuous<br />

visual consumption. I’m a fan of its<br />

function-first, slightly ‘steam punk’<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

Ming Da Dynasty<br />

Duet 300 Plus<br />

ORIGIN<br />

China/UK<br />

TYPE<br />

Single-ended 300B<br />

valve integrated<br />

amplifier<br />

WEIGHT<br />

32kg<br />

DIMENSIONS<br />

(WxHxD)<br />

430 x 220 x 340mm<br />

FEATURES<br />

● Quoted power<br />

output: 2x 9W<br />

(into 8ohm)<br />

● Inputs: 4x RCA<br />

line level<br />

● Single-ended<br />

triode<br />

● Zero feedback<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Ming Da UK<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

07831 197019<br />

WEBSITE<br />

mingda.co.uk<br />

styling, but some may find it a tad<br />

utilitarian. To me, the black finish,<br />

rounded corners, chunky controls and<br />

slightly retro dials lend it a certain<br />

Cold War charm. Add the beautifully<br />

finished acrylic tube guard (not<br />

shown), however, and the amp takes<br />

on a far fresher, 21st century vibe, so<br />

the aesthetic choice is yours. Mark<br />

Manwaring-White at Malvern Audio<br />

Research even hints at bespoke<br />

coloured options in the future.<br />

Operationally, it has four line-level<br />

inputs selectable by the front right<br />

dial. Ming Da offers an optional<br />

built-in Wolfson DAC for an extra<br />

£200, enabling coaxial and USB<br />

inputs for those with digital sources.<br />

Volume can be controlled by hand<br />

or remote control that operates the<br />

motorised volume potentiometer. As<br />

with many rather fetching VU meters,<br />

these are possibly more for retro<br />

appeal than meaningful data, but<br />

they lend it a personable face.<br />

The amp has been hand built within<br />

a well-finished cast aluminium chassis<br />

using high-purity copper point-topoint<br />

wiring throughout for quality<br />

audio connections and near infinite<br />

serviceability. Ming Da claims all<br />

42 MAY 2016


MING DA<br />

DYNASTY DUET 300 PLUS £3,499<br />

EXOTICA<br />

materials have been selected for<br />

maximum audio quality and<br />

reliability. The transformers are hand<br />

wound using enamelled, low-oxygen<br />

wire around especially sourced<br />

Japanese steel laminations, made of<br />

an alloy chosen explicitly for sound<br />

quality. Even the amplifier’s feet<br />

are made inhouse from turned<br />

aluminium. Sometimes in the rarefied<br />

CONNECTIONS<br />

1<br />

A mixture of<br />

steam punk chic<br />

and Cold War<br />

charm make the<br />

Ming Da a highly<br />

desirable amp<br />

3<br />

world of high-end valve amplifiers,<br />

sound quality can come at the<br />

expense of build, but not here. The<br />

attention to detail fills me with<br />

confidence that a superlative<br />

engineering-led ethos extends<br />

through the entire signal path,<br />

even to the robust remote control.<br />

The quantity and types of tube is<br />

noteworthy. A 6LP is an unusual and<br />

very powerful driver valve for 300B<br />

triodes and this could well create a<br />

differentiated sound quality from<br />

other similar 300B designs. Ming Da<br />

has also opted for valve rectification<br />

and cathode bias over fixed bias, so<br />

I get all the power<br />

of the orchestra<br />

but can still pick out<br />

individual musicians<br />

the benefit for owners is that this<br />

amp doesn’t require constant<br />

tweaking. Bias should never need<br />

adjustment and you’re free to swap<br />

in alternative tubes of the correct<br />

specification to tune or ‘tube roll’ the<br />

sound to your liking.<br />

Connecting up my 91dB quoted<br />

sensitivity Cadence Arca speakers, a<br />

Shanling CD T-100 HDCD player and<br />

Timestep T-01MC phono stage (HFC<br />

371) via Black Rhodium Sonata VS-1<br />

(HFC 398) and Chord Company<br />

Shawline RCA interconnects, I switch<br />

on and let everything warm through<br />

ahead of serious listening.<br />

Sound quality<br />

Starting things off gently with Roxy<br />

Music’s Rain Rain Rain on HDCD, the<br />

opening bass line and synthesiser<br />

reveals this modest 9W amp is<br />

punching beyond its specification.<br />

Bass notes are far deeper and more<br />

defined than a single-ended triode<br />

2<br />

1<br />

2<br />

3<br />

RCA analogue<br />

inputs<br />

IEC mains<br />

input socket<br />

4 and 8ohm<br />

speaker taps<br />

amp has any right to achieve. The<br />

drum kit kicks in and this track has<br />

much greater drive and punch than I<br />

expect from just 9W. Bryan Ferry’s<br />

vocals are portrayed with a superb<br />

blend of richness and ethereal<br />

airiness. Soundstaging is strong with<br />

the sonic image extending very wide,<br />

but with possibly a little less front-toback<br />

depth than class-leading preamp<br />

sections. Pace, rhythm and timing<br />

is a beguiling quality in amplifiers<br />

and lower-powered triodes can<br />

occasionally be criticised for being<br />

too laid back, but here the Ming Da<br />

is grooving beautifully and exhibiting<br />

a speed and agility that perfectly<br />

communicates the track’s lilting,<br />

funky vibe.<br />

Spinning the glorious Sheffield Lab<br />

‘direct cut’ vinyl of the Los Angeles<br />

Philharmonic playing Wagner’s Ride<br />

Of The Valkyries, I’m really struck with<br />

its masterful authority. 300B triode<br />

output valves in a single-ended<br />

arrangement are often celebrated<br />

for a highly transparent portrayal of<br />

more intimate music and voices, but<br />

given the modest power on tap, they<br />

are rarely known for their drive,<br />

especially around more dense music.<br />

Consequently, single-ended 300Bs<br />

can sometimes struggle to portray<br />

the full scale and dynamics of larger<br />

orchestral works and can occasionally<br />

err on the side of a little extra<br />

creaminess, a slight smoothing of<br />

punchy dynamics and potentially a<br />

narrowing of the soundstage. Here,<br />

however, the Ming Da 300B tubes<br />

sound like triodes on steroids. This<br />

is a track that could embarrass a<br />

featherweight amp, but Wagner’s<br />

huge dynamic swings are handled<br />

with majestic ease. In particular, the<br />

power and detail in the orchestra’s<br />

bass instruments have a really<br />

forceful drive and a speed of attack<br />

that catches me off guard. This<br />

perceived speed is most likely the<br />

benefit of zero feedback being<br />

employed on this ‘Plus’ version<br />

of the amp. As a result, Wagner’s<br />

most complex, dense and dynamic<br />

passages sound more open and less<br />

congested and I’m getting all the<br />

power of the orchestra, but in a way<br />

that enables me to still pick out the<br />

timbre and virtuosity of individual<br />

musicians. Stereo imaging is again<br />

excellent, especially in width, with a<br />

highly focused and sweet triangle<br />

ringing high and bright above the<br />

other musical instruments.<br />

Coming bang up to date playing<br />

Låpsley’s Station on CD and the<br />

track’s evocative mix of stripped-back<br />

instrumentation, sound effects and<br />

haunting vocals is presented by the<br />

MAY 2016 43


MING DA<br />

EXOTICA DYNASTY DUET 300 PLUS £3,499<br />

Q&A<br />

Mark Manwaring-White<br />

Owner, Malvern Audio Research<br />

IN SIGHT<br />

1 2<br />

1<br />

Audyn Reference<br />

capacitors<br />

Input and driver<br />

valves<br />

300B output<br />

valves<br />

Choke filtered<br />

power supply<br />

2<br />

3<br />

5<br />

4<br />

5 Twin rectifier<br />

valves<br />

CW: What are the main differences<br />

between this amplifier and the<br />

standard Duet 300?<br />

MMW: The increased size and<br />

superior design of these output<br />

transformers allows far higher DC<br />

current, enabling more power with<br />

zero saturation on heavy bass peaks.<br />

The coupling capacitors are of a<br />

higher quality and we use a much<br />

larger mains transformer with twin<br />

rectifiers for increased longevity,<br />

along with a hefty smoothing<br />

capacitor bank. The 6L6 driver tubes<br />

also offer a powerful and unusual<br />

driver for the 300Bs that yields<br />

great results.<br />

Build quality seems very high. How<br />

are standards maintained?<br />

Ming Da has been manufacturing<br />

valve amplifiers for over 22 years, and<br />

the owner Mr Jigui Xiou is extremely<br />

passionate about sound and build<br />

quality. This is a family-run business<br />

where Mr and Mrs Xiou take the<br />

welfare of their staff very seriously,<br />

with many of them having been there<br />

since the beginning. This mutual<br />

appreciation results in very high build<br />

standards and real attention to detail.<br />

I personally aim to visit the factory<br />

once or twice a year, and all the staff<br />

know me well. I work closely with<br />

them in exploring new product ideas,<br />

new design work and experimenting<br />

with circuit changes to improve these<br />

excellent products still further. Prior<br />

to shipping, products get a 60-hour<br />

burn in and re-test at the factory.<br />

Upon arrival in the UK, we inspect<br />

every amplifier, undertake any<br />

upgrades, then each amplifier is soak<br />

tested for a further 24 hours, along<br />

with some power cycling to test<br />

the whole power supply. I have<br />

complete confidence in giving a<br />

three-year warranty.<br />

What speakers are best suited to<br />

this amp?<br />

This amp has far more drive than one<br />

might expect, but we generally<br />

recommend speakers of 90dB or<br />

more. The Ming Da MD-009<br />

standmount speakers at £1,300 are<br />

well suited, but visitors to Malvern<br />

Audio Research can sample many<br />

excellent choices.<br />

HOW IT<br />

COMPARES<br />

Icon Audio’s integrated<br />

amplifiers deserve<br />

consideration and the<br />

Stereo 40 MkIII 2A3<br />

(£1,999) represent’s<br />

excellent value, but to<br />

me the Ming Da has<br />

greater sonic<br />

refinement and<br />

superior build. At a<br />

similar budget,<br />

Audion’s Silver Night<br />

300B Anniversary and<br />

‘Special Edition’ (HFC<br />

402) have similar high<br />

transparency, speed<br />

and bass grip that<br />

belies their power<br />

output. Audion’s more<br />

svelte aesthetics may<br />

also have greater<br />

appeal to some. Audio<br />

Note’s Oto line SE<br />

Signature amp (£3,450)<br />

has a very different<br />

compliment of valves,<br />

but achieves a superb<br />

blend of lightness of<br />

touch and control and<br />

offers similar inputs.<br />

4<br />

Dynasty Duet 300 Plus with<br />

sumptuousness and a sprightly<br />

snappiness. A heavily chorused,<br />

mournful keyboard sits at the back<br />

of the soundstage, rich, round and<br />

lusciously organic. Låpsley’s voice has<br />

the perfect balance of hear-through<br />

transparency alongside a honeyed<br />

richness, such that tiny nuances in<br />

her delivery are exquisitely revealed<br />

but aren’t served up desiccated. The<br />

quality of the bass kick is noteworthy<br />

again for its speed and impact and it’s<br />

hard to equate this dynamic agility<br />

and punch I’m listening to with just<br />

nine single-ended integrated watts.<br />

The track builds with unusual,<br />

pitch-shifted vocals, extra percussion<br />

and potent rhythmic hand claps<br />

and the Duet 300 Plus strikes a<br />

consummate balance of intimacy with<br />

scale, rich tone with crackling detail<br />

and razor sharp timing with an easy<br />

going, highly musical fluidity.<br />

Conclusion<br />

If you are in the market for an<br />

integrated valve amplifier, but are<br />

undecided between the intimate<br />

transparency and silky airiness that<br />

can come with lower-powered,<br />

single-ended triodes, or the weight,<br />

control and scale from meatier,<br />

push-pull valve amps, auditioning the<br />

Dynasty Duet 300 Plus could be music<br />

to your ears. It’s rare to get weight,<br />

detail, transparency and lively<br />

dynamics so well balanced, but Ming<br />

Da (with Malvern Audio Research’s<br />

sonic tweaking) has nailed it.<br />

Increasingly, I’m hearing a new<br />

breed of quality valve amps throw off<br />

3<br />

any remnants of a stereotypical,<br />

cuddly, ‘pipe and slippers’ sound<br />

and instead create real drive, speed,<br />

agility and bass weight alongside<br />

their dependable transparency and<br />

sweet treble. This is a product that<br />

has clearly had a lot of love and<br />

attention to detail laboured on it and<br />

£3,499 feels like exceptional value for<br />

a hand-built integrated amp of such<br />

novel design, exquisite build quality<br />

with the convenience of auto bias and<br />

remote control. If you have digital<br />

sources and you haven’t got a DAC,<br />

the ability to integrate a built-in one<br />

could also be a smart option. This is<br />

a lot of amplifier for the money and<br />

the combination of a dedicated and<br />

highly experienced, family-run<br />

team in China alongside extra<br />

knowledgeable service and technical<br />

expertise in the UK feels highly<br />

compelling. This is an extremely<br />

well-built, superbly voiced amplifier<br />

that could last a lifetime ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

FEATURES<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: Transparency;<br />

strong bass; sweet<br />

treble; build quality<br />

DISLIKE: Only<br />

available in black,<br />

for now<br />

WE SAY: Well-built,<br />

beautifully voiced<br />

integrated valve amp<br />

that punches way<br />

beyond its output<br />

44 MAY 2016


TANNOY<br />

REVIEWS MERCURY 7.2 £230<br />

46 MAY 2016


TANNOY<br />

MERCURY 7.2 £230<br />

REVIEWS<br />

Mercury<br />

rising<br />

David Price auditions the latest in a long<br />

line of extra terrestrial Tannoys, the Mercury<br />

7.2 standmounting speaker<br />

A<br />

long time ago, in a galaxy<br />

far, far away, Britain’s most<br />

long-established speaker<br />

company launched a range<br />

of affordable, high-performance boxes<br />

called the Planet Series. This proved a<br />

big hit in the early eighties, especially<br />

the entry-level Tannoy Mercury,<br />

which offered an unexpectedly big<br />

sound from a medium-sized box.<br />

Despite its low cost and modest<br />

construction, it had an uncanny<br />

ability to get to the heart of the music<br />

– I should know, I owned a pair.<br />

The original Mercury of 1982 had a<br />

distinctly unlovely vinyl wrap over its<br />

The Mercury 7.2’s<br />

obvious transient<br />

speed makes it great<br />

for pop, dance or rap<br />

large, thin MDF cabinet, but the new<br />

ones are obviously better turned out<br />

and come in a choice of walnut, light<br />

oak or black oak wood grain effect<br />

finishes, with dark cloth grilles. The<br />

7.2 here is the larger of the two<br />

standmounters, but is still tiny in<br />

comparison with the original.<br />

Tannoy’s Dr Paul Mills was the main<br />

driving force behind the 7.2, but he<br />

credits “significant input from our<br />

rising star engineer Ryan Sheen and<br />

tuning input from Tannoy’s pro-audio<br />

director of engineering, Phillipe<br />

Robinaeau”. The boys have been busy,<br />

because it’s touted as the most<br />

significant overhaul of the Mercury<br />

since the original, back when New<br />

Romantics roamed the earth.<br />

Interestingly, it has a larger mid/<br />

bass driver than you’d expect for its<br />

cabinet size and it’s wider than many<br />

rivals, countering the ‘small footprint’<br />

philosophy so beloved of 21st century<br />

speaker designers. Either way, it’s a<br />

win-win situation because the larger<br />

the drive unit and greater the internal<br />

volume of the cabinet, the more<br />

chance it has to sound good. The 9.4<br />

litre cabinet is connected to the<br />

outside world by a single rearmounted<br />

bass port with the option of<br />

using the (supplied) foam bung. It<br />

also sports a new 28mm soft dome<br />

tweeter, with a high-tech dome<br />

lamination process and powerful<br />

neodymium motor.<br />

The good doctor says the mid/bass<br />

unit features a stiff, lightweight cone<br />

and new roll surround – a proprietary<br />

multi-fibre cone material with a<br />

smoothly sculpted profile is used. The<br />

tweeter employs soft woven polyester<br />

with a micro layer of nitro-urethane<br />

internal vibrations.<br />

The result is a quoted efficiency of<br />

89dB, which is good for a smallish<br />

speaker but not outstanding. Just<br />

about usable with low-powered tube<br />

amps, it also works with muscular<br />

solid-staters and has a 200W peak<br />

power handling capacity. Quoted<br />

frequency response is 42Hz-32kHz at<br />

-6dB. I find it fairly easy to drive by a<br />

solid-state amplifier, and it also works<br />

very well close to a rear wall if you fit<br />

the supplied bass port bungs. It’s at its<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

Tannoy Mercury 7.2<br />

ORIGIN<br />

UK/China<br />

TYPE<br />

2-way standmount<br />

loudspeaker<br />

WEIGHT<br />

5kg<br />

DIMENSIONS<br />

(WxHxD)<br />

193 x 292 x 266mm<br />

FEATURES<br />

● 28mm polyester<br />

dome tweeter<br />

● 152mm multi-fibre<br />

mid/bass unit<br />

● Quoted sensitivity<br />

89dB/1W/1m<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Tannoy Ltd<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

01236 420199<br />

WEBSITE<br />

tannoy.co.uk<br />

It may look very<br />

similar to its<br />

predecessor, but<br />

the difference<br />

is clear to hear<br />

best about 30cm from the back wall<br />

on 24in stands, slightly toed-in,<br />

without bungs.<br />

Sound quality<br />

In absolute terms this isn’t a strictly<br />

neutral loudspeaker. There’s a subtle<br />

upper bass warmth – due in part to<br />

cabinet coloration – and the treble is<br />

well lit where it meets the upper<br />

midband. The speaker gives a bright,<br />

upfront sort of sound – one that’s<br />

bound to attract your attention.<br />

Cleverly though, Tannoy has avoided<br />

the temptation to overdo it, and the<br />

Mercury isn’t a wildly unbalanced<br />

design. Instead, you might call it a<br />

characterful one, which brings a little<br />

extra zest to the proceedings, – this<br />

doesn’t obstruct the music, but rather<br />

makes it seem a little more dramatic.<br />

This speaker is more than just a<br />

fulsome upper bass and lively lower<br />

treble though; it’s fast, thanks to what<br />

are obviously a very agile pair of drive<br />

units. It has excellent transient<br />

response, and it makes for a<br />

wonderfully snappy sound that<br />

renders any music you play dramatic<br />

and involving. This, allied to its<br />

best-in-class dynamics makes for a<br />

great baby box. That larger mid-bass<br />

driver, with the slightly bigger<br />

enclosure, means it doesn’t compress<br />

peaks quite as much as most rivals.<br />

It’s still a small box with a modestly<br />

sized mid/bass unit, but it certainly<br />

feels less constrained than many. This<br />

useful trait makes for a bigger, ballsier<br />

and more expansive sound.<br />

Cue up Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ King<br />

Of New York, and you’re instantly<br />

greeted with a sound that is far bigger<br />

than you’d expect. Punchy, bouncy<br />

and uplifting, you can almost forgive<br />

the lack of low bass, because the<br />

upper bass is wonderfully fluid and<br />

gives the song a great sense of<br />

MAY 2016 47


REVIEWS<br />

TANNOY<br />

MERCURY 7.2 £230<br />

Q&A<br />

Dr Paul Mills<br />

Director of development, Tannoy<br />

IN SIGHT<br />

1<br />

2<br />

1<br />

28mm polyester<br />

dome tweeter<br />

Bass reflex port<br />

(bungs supplied)<br />

4mm binding<br />

posts<br />

152mm multi-fibre<br />

mid/bass unit<br />

2<br />

3<br />

4<br />

DP: What would you say is the<br />

Mercury 7.2’s raison d’être?<br />

PM: It has been our entry-level ‘real’<br />

hi-fi loudspeaker for three decades.<br />

We have always put a great deal of<br />

effort and resource into ensuring<br />

each generation of Mercury has<br />

lead the field for technology and<br />

performance. Mercury 7 is no<br />

exception and we have undertaken<br />

a major design overhaul, with<br />

completely new, larger drivers and<br />

improved electronics, to ensure<br />

class-leading performance at the<br />

price. Ironically, being at the cutting<br />

edge of technology and performance<br />

does not go hand in hand with very<br />

low price points, so we have<br />

developed the forthcoming Eclipse<br />

series for audiophiles on an even<br />

tighter budget.<br />

In what way is the new generation<br />

better than the last?<br />

Mercury Vi, with its metal dome<br />

tweeter, had a very upfront and<br />

energetic sound that was not overly<br />

tolerant of hard-sounding amplifiers.<br />

The goal with Mercury 7 was to make<br />

it the best all-round budget speaker<br />

available today. It is smoother and<br />

more refined, but loses none of the<br />

energy and impact required for more<br />

dynamic music. Its key strength is<br />

in its ability to communicate the<br />

power, passion and emotion of<br />

music, without adding its own colour<br />

to the mix.<br />

What’s the ‘multi-fibre’ cone<br />

material exactly?<br />

The actual fibre mix is a closely<br />

guarded secret, but the base mix is<br />

purely organic, being a ‘paper’ pulp.<br />

We have tried literally thousands of<br />

cone material mixes over the years,<br />

from plastics and polymers to carbon<br />

and even Kevlar fibres, but the best<br />

price/performance ratio keeps<br />

coming back to organic fibres<br />

embedded in a doped paper pulp.<br />

The new Mercury 7 driver cones have<br />

the stiffness for well controlled bass,<br />

excellent midrange damping for<br />

pure, uncoloured vocals.<br />

HOW IT<br />

COMPARES<br />

ELAC’s Debut B6<br />

standmounter (HFC<br />

406) is a close rival to<br />

the Tannoy Mercury 7.2,<br />

albeit pricier at £299.<br />

It’s similar, offering a<br />

slightly wider front<br />

baffle and a fractionally<br />

larger diameter mid/<br />

bass unit than the group<br />

norm. Both speakers<br />

are quite similar<br />

sonically – both major<br />

on musicality and have<br />

more welly than you’d<br />

expect from their size.<br />

The Tannoy is a little<br />

less punchy and<br />

powerful, but sounds<br />

fractionally tidier<br />

across the midband, yet<br />

has a subtly brighter<br />

low treble and a slight<br />

lack of high top end.<br />

The ELAC is marginally<br />

smoother tonally, but<br />

like the Tannoy places<br />

musicality above strict<br />

neutrality. Both are very<br />

strong designs, and<br />

deserve auditioning.<br />

4<br />

motion. It’s also surprisingly weighty<br />

for such a small box. Move up the<br />

frequency spectrum and it throws out<br />

plenty of detail, although by the<br />

standards of more expensive speakers<br />

it’s rather opaque. The point is that<br />

there is just enough to work with, and<br />

I’m drawn into the recording.<br />

Unsurprising for a Tannoy is the<br />

excellent soundstage. It images wide,<br />

throwing elements of the mix far left<br />

and right, giving an immersive feel<br />

that belies its size. True, it doesn’t<br />

hang instruments back as accurately<br />

as some, but it still has a good stab at<br />

recreating the recorded acoustic or<br />

studio mix. Factor in its obvious<br />

transient speed, and this makes it<br />

great for pop, dance or rap music.<br />

Moving to something that’s far<br />

better recorded – I drop Steely Dan’s<br />

Aja into my CD spinner. All of the<br />

Mercury’s fine qualities continue to<br />

impress on the superb title track, but<br />

I begin to get the measure of the<br />

speaker better. The tweeter begins to<br />

announce its presence – Tannoy has<br />

obviously voiced the speaker for bite<br />

and speed with pop, but with the<br />

deliciously subtle and sonorous hi-hat<br />

work on this classic rock album, it<br />

sounds slightly coarse. Admittedly,<br />

its price rivals aren’t obviously any<br />

better, but you’re definitely reminded<br />

that you’re listening to an entry-level<br />

model. Even though it’s highly<br />

musical, you’ll need to spend more for<br />

the last word in refinement. The lack<br />

of air and space right at the top end<br />

of the treble is another reminder of<br />

the Mercury 7.2’s mortality.<br />

Overall, this speaker’s excellent<br />

breeding gives it an instinctively<br />

musical gait. Even with far less well<br />

recorded sixties rock music – such as<br />

The Kinks’ Arthur – it proves a joy to<br />

listen to. It gives a big-hearted<br />

3<br />

performance, full of life and<br />

happiness. It captures rhythmic<br />

nuances brilliantly, and again proves<br />

dynamic and unconstrained<br />

considering its size. It’s a little speaker<br />

with a big sound, if it is anything. Ray<br />

Davies’ voice is beautifully carried,<br />

with a very emotional rendition of<br />

Victoria, complete with soaring guitar<br />

work and drums.<br />

Conclusion<br />

Most small speakers give a rather<br />

downsized, diminished and partial<br />

account of the music they’re asked to<br />

play. So often when buying a budget<br />

box, it’s a case of trying to find the<br />

least bad compromise. Not so with<br />

Tannoy’s Mercury 7.2, which is an<br />

enjoyable and engaging little<br />

loudspeaker in its own right. Indeed,<br />

it’s the sort of thing you could happily<br />

live with after spending time with<br />

substantially more expensive<br />

transducers. Of course it’s not perfect,<br />

but Tannoy has cleverly ensured that<br />

its sins are those of omission – it<br />

doesn’t add anything unpleasant that<br />

gets in the way of enjoying the music.<br />

Heartily recommended ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

EASE OF DRIVE<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: <strong>Hi</strong>ghly tuneful,<br />

musical sound; fine<br />

dynamics<br />

DISLIKE: Nothing at<br />

the price<br />

WE SAY: Charming<br />

small speaker with<br />

huge appeal<br />

48 MAY 2016


Revolution starts<br />

from within.<br />

Look at our new range of power amplifiers<br />

and you’d be forgiven for thinking not<br />

much has changed. Only the DR badge on<br />

the rear panel hints at the revolutionary<br />

technology within. Inside, our new Naim DR<br />

(Discrete Regulation) power supply circuitry<br />

and the radical new NA009 transistors<br />

developed for our flagship power amplifier,<br />

the Statement NAP S1, enhance the<br />

fundamentals of pace, rhythm and timing<br />

for which the originals are so renowned.<br />

The result is an even more immersive and<br />

involving music experience. Listen and<br />

you’ll feel the difference immediately.<br />

Discover more and book a demonstration<br />

with your nearest specialist retailer at<br />

naimaudio.com<br />

Go Deeper


REVIEWS<br />

VPI<br />

SCOUT JR £1,650<br />

Scouting<br />

for boys<br />

The smallest member of VPI’s Scout range<br />

pitches into a competitive market. Ed Selley<br />

thinks it deserves a merit badge<br />

I<br />

f you’re in the market for<br />

a turntable in the price<br />

range of £1,500-£2,000 at<br />

the moment, you are truly<br />

spoilt for choice. This price point has<br />

become keenly contested and<br />

manufacturers have been pulling out<br />

the stops to produce options that<br />

reflect their philosophy while offering<br />

simplicity and convenience in terms<br />

of setup and use.<br />

For VPI industries, competing at<br />

this price point has required some<br />

evolution of its existing models. The<br />

original, long-running Scout turntable<br />

has evolved into the Scout 2, but has<br />

seen commensurate price rises taking<br />

it above £2,000. The answer has been<br />

to take the Scout design and refine<br />

aspects of it to become the Scout Jr<br />

– available for £1,600 without<br />

cartridge or £1,650 with an Ortofon<br />

2M Red (HFC 345), as seen here.<br />

In keeping with the VPI philosophy,<br />

the Scout Jr is an unsuspended,<br />

belt-driven design and VPI has been<br />

able to keep a number of Scoutspecific<br />

design attributes. The Jr has<br />

a separate motor, which sits in a<br />

recess on the left-hand side of the<br />

plinth. This is a 500rpm AC design<br />

chosen for the EU market and it sits<br />

on chunky rubber feet for isolation.<br />

The motor has a full-size IEC mains<br />

input and speed adjustment is made<br />

by changing the belt over two pulleys.<br />

The plinth is non-resonant MDF<br />

coated in the traditional VPI black<br />

crackle finish. It is mounted on four<br />

large metal spiked feet with rubber<br />

tips that lend the Scout Jr a degree of<br />

isolation. The plinth contains an oil<br />

bath bearing and a steel shaft with<br />

Jacobs taper onto which the platter<br />

sits. This bearing comes supplied<br />

pre-assembled and lubricated so it is<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

VPI Scout Jr<br />

ORIGIN<br />

USA/Denmark<br />

(cartridge)<br />

TYPE<br />

Belt-drive turntable<br />

WEIGHT<br />

11kg<br />

DIMENSIONS<br />

(WxHxD)<br />

500 x 180 x 380mm<br />

FEATURES<br />

● 33 & 45rpm<br />

● Machined<br />

aluminium platter<br />

● Ortofon 2M Red<br />

cartridge<br />

● 9in vertical yoketype<br />

tonearm<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Renaissance Audio<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

0131 5553922<br />

WEBSITE<br />

vpiindustries.com;<br />

renaissanceaudio.<br />

co.uk<br />

a simple matter of dropping the<br />

platter onto the spindle when you<br />

unpack the deck. The platter itself is<br />

a 1in-thick piece of machined 6061<br />

aluminium that comes with a rubber<br />

anti-slip mat.<br />

Where the Jr differs most<br />

significantly from the more expensive<br />

Scout model is the tonearm. By<br />

preference, VPI tends towards<br />

unipivot-style designs that are freely<br />

suspended on a spike-type mount.<br />

These are relatively costly to produce<br />

and can be a little intimidating to less<br />

experienced users. As such, the Jr<br />

makes use of an arm that is captive<br />

in the horizontal axis, but acts as a<br />

unipivot in the vertical to try and give<br />

some of the performance traits of a<br />

true unipivot.<br />

One area where the arm is clearly<br />

a VPI design is the way the wire does<br />

not exit through the pivot axis, but<br />

instead arcs in a loop out the top of<br />

the arm and into a terminal block. By<br />

applying a twist to this cable, the<br />

force it applies back onto the arm acts<br />

as an anti-skate mechanism. This is<br />

resourceful, but not without some<br />

rather testing quirks.<br />

Out of the box, the arm is rather stiff<br />

and can ‘stick’ at points on a record<br />

until loosened up. The loop anti-skate<br />

is effective in operation, but the<br />

exposed cable is very vulnerable<br />

to outside interference from other<br />

nearby electronics.<br />

These quirks aside, the Scout Jr feels<br />

solid and very well thought<br />

out. The hefty platter and smooth<br />

movement of the arm give the deck<br />

50 MAY 2016


VPI<br />

SCOUT JR £1,650<br />

REVIEWS<br />

Setting the<br />

Scout Jr<br />

up is a breeze<br />

a feeling of solidity and quality and<br />

the Scout Jr can be assembled quickly<br />

and easily in a few minutes. Like a<br />

number of rivals, there is no form of<br />

dust protection which may or may not<br />

infuriate, but the footprint is small<br />

enough that a number of box covers<br />

will fit.<br />

Sound quality<br />

Left to run for a few hours and with<br />

the arm loosened up, the Scout Jr gets<br />

an awful lot right. In presentation<br />

terms, it is an interesting counter to<br />

strong rivals in the category. Kicking<br />

off with St Germain’s Tourist, it<br />

sounds quick and lively but without<br />

losing any sense of scale or impact.<br />

A common accusation that’s often<br />

levelled at unipivots is that they are<br />

lacking in bass response, but the<br />

‘quasi unipivot’ design on the Scout Jr<br />

has a very pleasant shove to it with<br />

plenty of low-end impact and<br />

excellent fine detail.<br />

Effortlessness and spaciousness are<br />

traits often associated with unipivots<br />

and are very much part of how the<br />

Scout makes music. This is most<br />

noticeable with recordings that can<br />

sound a little congested and confused<br />

like Ritual by The White Lies. Where<br />

at times the music can sound a little<br />

dull and muddy, the VPI is able to<br />

introduce a subtle but appreciable<br />

level of top-end sparkle. This adds<br />

HOW IT<br />

COMPARES<br />

Analogue Works<br />

Zero+ (HFC 407)<br />

remains one of<br />

the most fluid and<br />

engaging turntables<br />

under £2,000. It is<br />

consistently able<br />

to find the beat in<br />

whatever it plays.<br />

Against this, the<br />

VPI can be less<br />

immediately<br />

engaging, but<br />

hits back with that<br />

spaciousness and<br />

refinement that can<br />

elude the Analogue<br />

Works. In value<br />

terms, the Zero+ is<br />

slightly cheaper and<br />

the Audio-Technica<br />

cartridge it is<br />

supplied with offers<br />

higher performance<br />

than the Ortofon on<br />

the VPI. However, the<br />

VPI offers a more<br />

solid build quality<br />

and greater upgrade<br />

potential. Choosing<br />

between the two is<br />

hard, but any wouldbe<br />

owner is unlikely<br />

to be disappointed<br />

with either option.<br />

to the sense of effortlessness that it<br />

brings to almost everything it plays<br />

and while superficially less exciting<br />

than some rivals, it is nonetheless<br />

extremely enjoyable and easy to listen<br />

to and never goes so far as sounding<br />

slow or languid.<br />

Further listening reveals that while<br />

the upper registers are detailed<br />

and reasonably refined, there is a<br />

graininess to them which is present<br />

even on very good pressings. It turns<br />

out that the culprit is the Ortofon 2M<br />

Red supplied with the turntable. As<br />

part of the package, it acquits itself<br />

better than you might reasonably<br />

expect an £89 cartridge, but it is<br />

unquestionably the weak link in the<br />

performance chain. Poor recordings<br />

The even handed<br />

way it handles poor<br />

recordings makes it<br />

a decent all-rounder<br />

in particular can sound thin and<br />

scratchy in the upper registers and<br />

the Scout Jr also seems to show some<br />

susceptibility to surface noise with it<br />

in place.<br />

UK distributor Renaissance Audio<br />

has clearly seen this eventuality<br />

coming and as noted, the turntable<br />

can be ordered without a cartridge<br />

for a £50 saving. Unless you are<br />

particularly strapped for cash, this<br />

would strike me as the best way<br />

forward as it is fairly clear that the<br />

design can handle rather more<br />

cartridge than the 2M Red. Of course,<br />

charging £50 for a 2M Red is itself<br />

good value and any Red can be<br />

upgraded at a later date with the<br />

stylus from a 2M Blue, but it is fairly<br />

clear that the Scout Jr can offer more<br />

performance if you want it.<br />

Substituting a Hana EH from this<br />

month’s Mini Test – starting on page<br />

106 – (a process that is entirely<br />

painless) yields a considerable<br />

improvement in the treble<br />

performance with a much smoother<br />

and effortless presentation that loses<br />

none of the positive qualities it<br />

displayed with the Ortofon, while still<br />

keeping the all-important price under<br />

£2,000 and retaining compatibility<br />

with moving-magnet phono stages.<br />

With the Hana in place, the VPI is<br />

a deeply impressive turntable.<br />

That same wonderfully unforced<br />

presentation moves up another notch<br />

and the tonality becomes more natural<br />

and convincing at the same time.<br />

Conclusion<br />

Quibbles over the cartridge should<br />

not detract from the extremely<br />

positive qualities that the Scout Jr<br />

displays as a whole. This is a very<br />

impressive piece of design that<br />

manages to give a good taste of what<br />

the VPI brand is about without doing<br />

anything to scare new customers<br />

or make life difficult for them.<br />

The wonderfully even handed and<br />

spacious way it handles even poor<br />

recordings makes it an impressive<br />

all-rounder and yet another seriously<br />

capable turntable to add to the<br />

shortlist at this price point ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

FEATURES<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: Spacious<br />

presentation; solid<br />

build; easy setup<br />

DISLIKE: Tonearm is<br />

a little quirky<br />

WE SAY: An assured<br />

turntable that offers an<br />

extremely impressive<br />

performance in a well<br />

thought-out package<br />

CONNECTIONS<br />

1<br />

2<br />

3<br />

1<br />

2<br />

9in vertical yoketype<br />

tonearm<br />

Ortofon 2M<br />

Red cartridge<br />

Speed changing<br />

pulley<br />

Phono outputs<br />

Earthing post<br />

3<br />

4<br />

5<br />

5<br />

4<br />

MAY 2016 51


REVIEWS<br />

DALI<br />

ZENSOR 5 AX £800<br />

52 MAY 2016


DALI<br />

ZENSOR 5 AX £800<br />

REVIEWS<br />

A sound<br />

solution<br />

Does the relentless march of the wireless<br />

speaker spell the end for the floorstander?<br />

David Vivian reckons DALI has the answer<br />

T<br />

he more things change,<br />

the more they stay the<br />

same. The old French<br />

proverb seems particularly<br />

apt in the world of consumer audio<br />

electronics these days. For all the<br />

advances in wireless, streaming and<br />

hi-res technologies, all most people<br />

buying a music system want is what<br />

they’ve always wanted: maximum<br />

satisfaction for a reasonable outlay<br />

with minimum messing around. A<br />

plug ‘n’ play solution that sounds<br />

great, in other words.<br />

Equally, there’s no getting away<br />

from the impression that while it’s<br />

Well-articulated,<br />

not-quite-neutral<br />

but always rhythmic,<br />

fun and engaging<br />

never been easier to buy just such a<br />

solution off the shelf – subsequently<br />

to be placed unobtrusively on a shelf<br />

in the home – there’s been a bit of an<br />

excursion down the garden path by<br />

marketing folk when it comes to the<br />

sonic goodies on offer. Solo wireless<br />

speakers that use closely coupled<br />

drivers and Digital Signal Processing<br />

to unpack a stereo image can be good<br />

at what they do, but even superstars<br />

like the Naim Mu-So (HFC 391)and<br />

Geneva AeroSphère Large (HFC 407)<br />

struggle to compete with conventional<br />

components for real hi-fi sound quality.<br />

The beauty of progress, however, is<br />

that manufacturers can create new<br />

niches that meld tradition with<br />

cutting-edge tech – in theory, nailing<br />

what, to some, will be the best of both<br />

worlds. Let’s say what you really<br />

want is the uncluttered plug ‘n’ play<br />

convenience and wireless/streaming/<br />

decoding capabilities of a modern<br />

single-box wireless speaker, but with<br />

the sonic reach and flexibility of two<br />

established classy floorstanders that<br />

you can position precisely where you<br />

want for the best performance.<br />

Not such a big ask when you think<br />

about it and one already addressed<br />

by German brand Raumfeld with its<br />

bulky three-way Stereo M standmount<br />

speakers (HFC 399). Now Denmark’s<br />

DALI is serving up a similar proposition<br />

with the self-powered Zensor 5 AX<br />

floorstander. As with the Raumfeld,<br />

it isn’t a true active design, but one<br />

where the crossovers are kept passive<br />

and the stereo integrated amplifier<br />

and wireless electronics are housed in<br />

the left-hand cabinet. This is linked to<br />

the other cabinet – essentially a regular<br />

Zensor 5 – by a single run of speaker<br />

cable, supplied or of your own choice.<br />

Cool runnings<br />

In common with the standmount<br />

Zensor 1 AX that completes the range,<br />

power is provided by a lightweight,<br />

cool-running Class D amplifier rated<br />

at 50W per channel. There are two<br />

physical input connections located<br />

on the back panel of the left-hand<br />

cabinet, plus an output for a<br />

subwoofer. The optical input reads<br />

signals up to 24-bit/176.4kHz, which<br />

gets passed on to the DSP section and<br />

finally the amp. A pure digital<br />

pathway. The other connection is<br />

via a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack. The<br />

analogue feeds supplied by this and<br />

wirelessly by Bluetooth are changed<br />

to a 24-bit/96kHz digital signal by an<br />

A/D converter and routed through to<br />

the DSP, which delivers a PWM signal<br />

at 384kHz to the open loop amp. The<br />

amplified signal is then received by<br />

the passive crossover that splits it up<br />

for the drivers.<br />

DALI says that the wide dispersion,<br />

25mm ‘ultra lightweight’ fabric dome<br />

tweeter (no speaker toe-in required)<br />

is derived from the design used in its<br />

more expensive models. It features a<br />

vented voice-coil former and damping<br />

material under the dome to minimise<br />

reflections from the pole piece. Also<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

DALI Zensor 5 AX<br />

ORIGIN<br />

Denmark<br />

TYPE<br />

2-way floorstanding<br />

active loudspeaker<br />

WEIGHT<br />

11kg<br />

DIMENSIONS<br />

(WxHxD)<br />

212 x 840 x 282mm<br />

FEATURES<br />

● 25mm fabric<br />

dome tweeter<br />

● 2x 133mm wood<br />

fibre mid/bass<br />

drivers<br />

● Quoted power<br />

output: 2x 50W<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

DALI UK<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

0845 6443537<br />

WEBSITE<br />

dali-uk.co.uk<br />

They might not<br />

be the biggest<br />

floorstanders,<br />

but they still<br />

have the grunt<br />

where it counts<br />

familiar are the distinctive ruddy hues<br />

of the 133mm woodfibre-coned<br />

mid-bass drivers. DALI contends that<br />

the blend of fine grain paper pulp,<br />

reinforced with wood fibres, creates a<br />

stiff yet lightweight and well-behaved<br />

structure that, in combination with<br />

a low-loss surround and spider<br />

suspension, reproduces the smallest<br />

details of the signal fed to it. What<br />

you can’t see are the four-layer voice<br />

coils and the rigid metal baskets – the<br />

combined effect of which is claimed<br />

to improve bass authority and the<br />

reproduction of transients.<br />

The slim, elegant, front-ported<br />

cabinets are well constructed from<br />

CNC-machined MDF and partially<br />

dressed with a glossy laminate plate<br />

for the baffle. They look impressive<br />

despite their modest dimensions.<br />

Confronting resonance is internal<br />

bracing and acoustic damping<br />

material on all the inside surfaces<br />

except the back of the baffle, this<br />

is to create a more direct connection<br />

between the mid-bass drivers and the<br />

reflex port and, claims DALI, achieve<br />

better bass precision and increased<br />

‘attack’ in the midrange. Each speaker<br />

enclosure is hoisted an inch into the<br />

air on a rather wonderful minimalist<br />

integrated aluminium plinth, which<br />

has slim foam pad ‘treads’ to protect<br />

solid flooring and machined threads<br />

to accommodate spikes or the<br />

somewhat more surface-friendly<br />

screw-in rubber bobbles supplied.<br />

MAY 2016 53


REVIEWS<br />

DALI<br />

ZENSOR 5 AX £800<br />

Q&A<br />

Lars F Jørgensen<br />

Product Manager, DALI A/S<br />

DV: What inherent advantages do<br />

the self-powered Zensor 5s have<br />

over a standard pair driven by a<br />

separate amplifier?<br />

LJ: In a word, simplicity. There is a<br />

growing demand from the market<br />

for speakers that don’t need an<br />

accompanying stack of electronics.<br />

The goal of the Zensor AX models<br />

was to create loudspeakers that were<br />

easy to set up and convenient to use,<br />

but at the same time could provide<br />

the same level of audio performance<br />

as our traditional passive speakers.<br />

The Zensor AX models give you that<br />

freedom without losing the ability to<br />

deliver great audio experiences.<br />

Class D amplification is improving<br />

all the time. Did you have to wait for<br />

it to get ‘good enough’ before<br />

designing the AX range?<br />

Absolutely. The decision to launch<br />

the Zensor AX series was closely tied<br />

in to the significant improvements in<br />

Class D technology over the last<br />

couple of years. We needed an<br />

amplifier that had the audio quality<br />

to drive the Zensor models, but which<br />

was also affordable enough to keep<br />

the pricing in line with the Zensor<br />

ethos. <strong>Fi</strong>nding the right amplifier was<br />

a long process. In the end it came<br />

down to a LOT of listening. We<br />

already knew how good this speaker<br />

can sound with a standalone<br />

amplifier so we had to make sure<br />

that the AX sounded just as good,<br />

or even better.<br />

Are you planning any more<br />

self-powered or, indeed, fully<br />

active designs?<br />

DALI is fully committed to the active<br />

speaker segment. The success of the<br />

Kubik and Zensor AX series shows us<br />

that there is a great demand for highquality<br />

amplified speakers in the<br />

market and there is no doubt that<br />

DALI will launch more speakers into<br />

this segment. Expect to see both<br />

brand new and more traditional<br />

products from us in the near future.<br />

HOW IT<br />

COMPARES<br />

IN SIGHT<br />

4<br />

For almost exactly the<br />

same money, you can<br />

have a Naim Mu-so<br />

(HFC 391), arguably the<br />

best one-box wireless<br />

speaker around and an<br />

easy win for anyone<br />

who wants great sound,<br />

design and connectivity.<br />

Plenty of power, too, so<br />

it will drive a large room<br />

with ease. Sonically,<br />

the bijou DALI towers<br />

batter the nuggety<br />

Naim but need quite a<br />

lot more space and an<br />

acceptance of that ‘old<br />

school’ hi-fi look to do<br />

so – albeit without the<br />

accompanying clutter.<br />

However, a pair of<br />

Monitor Audio Bronze<br />

5s (HFC 402) driven by<br />

the company’s slim yet<br />

talented A100 (HFC<br />

388) streaming amp<br />

will save you around<br />

£50 and deliver a yet<br />

more full-blooded and<br />

transparent sound.<br />

1<br />

2<br />

3<br />

An LED just below the drivers on the<br />

left-hand speaker of thankfully muted<br />

brightness with the grilles off (and<br />

just visible with them on), signifies<br />

the input in use. Green is for the<br />

analogue line-in, pale orange for<br />

digital optical and blue for Bluetooth.<br />

The remote is tiny and plastic, but<br />

covers all the bases: power, volume<br />

and input selection.<br />

Sound quality<br />

If it looks like a DALI Zensor 5, walks<br />

a bass line like a Zensor 5… well,<br />

you get the idea. Assuming a fondness<br />

for the Zensor sound – clean,<br />

well-articulated, sprightly, not-quiteneutral<br />

but always toe-tappingly<br />

rhythmic, fun and engaging – the<br />

self-powered version isn’t going to<br />

spring any major surprises.<br />

What’s clear, however, is that the<br />

matched amplifier and decoding<br />

electronics have honed and polished<br />

the presentation to the point where<br />

the 5 AX sounds classy and cohesive<br />

across all inputs. This is no accident,<br />

of course, when you consider the<br />

‘digital unification’ processing<br />

protocols used.<br />

Pleasing straight away is the sense<br />

of structure and clarity that’s often<br />

1<br />

2<br />

3<br />

4<br />

25mm fabric<br />

dome tweeter<br />

Front-firing<br />

reflex port<br />

Terminals to link<br />

passive speaker<br />

2x 133mm<br />

wood fibre mid/<br />

bass drivers<br />

a hallmark of decent Class D<br />

amplification. The sound is very well<br />

balanced, with no obvious tonal hot<br />

spots or depressions but a ready<br />

penchant for resolving detail and<br />

ambience. This provides a good<br />

impression of space and venue within<br />

which performers and instruments<br />

are well focused and positioned,<br />

affording a dimensionality to the<br />

soundstage that works particularly<br />

well with live recordings.<br />

The 5 AX sounds deftly dynamic,<br />

too, doing the punch and delicacy<br />

thing with a sense of proportionality<br />

that’s usually the preserve of more<br />

expensive designs. This is all<br />

showcased to good effect with a spot<br />

of Larry Carlton live in Tokyo with<br />

David T Walker. On the funky jog<br />

The Well’s Gone Dry, the relaxed<br />

groove is beautifully carried, the<br />

interplay between drums, bass guitar,<br />

The sound is very<br />

well balanced, with<br />

no obvious tonal hot<br />

spots or depressions<br />

saxophone, keyboards and Carlton’s<br />

lead sounding effortlessly lucid and<br />

empathetic. Musicianship and the<br />

atmosphere of the venue are pushed<br />

right to the fore, hi-fi histrionics a<br />

largely forgotten concern.<br />

Conclusion<br />

Let’s be clear. If you can accommodate<br />

a compact and smartly designed pair<br />

of floorstanders and you keep your<br />

music on your phone, tablet or hi-res<br />

personal player, the DALI Zensor 5 AX<br />

will be more musically rewarding<br />

than any single-box wireless speaker<br />

you can buy. And, unless you<br />

overspend on the amplifier, the<br />

speakers will sound better than a<br />

more conventionally driven pair of<br />

regular Zensor 5s, too. Best of both<br />

worlds? Close enough ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

FEATURES<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: <strong>Fi</strong>ne sound;<br />

elegant floorstander<br />

DISLIKE: Remote<br />

control is naff<br />

WE SAY: A smart<br />

solution for people<br />

who want to cut<br />

the clutter without<br />

sacrificing the sound<br />

54 MAY 2016


Apprentice MM<br />

Phono stage<br />

HFC<br />

Recommended<br />

SP2 floor standing<br />

Speakers - gloss<br />

HFC Recommended<br />

jan 2015<br />

IA 1 & 2 Integrated<br />

amplifiers<br />

TT2SE turntable<br />

HFC Recommended<br />

April 2016<br />

TALK Electronics Ltd<br />

Unit 2 Stroude Farm<br />

Stroude Road<br />

Virginia Water<br />

Surrey<br />

GU25 4BY<br />

01344 844204<br />

www.talkelectronics.<br />

Turntables:- from £250 - £900<br />

Phono Stages:- from £90 - £1500<br />

Headphone amplifiers:- from £120 - £650<br />

Integrated amplifiers:- from £400 - £900<br />

Loudspeakers:- from £400 - £1700<br />

Interconnect cables:- from £65 per pair<br />

Speaker cables:- from £4 per metre<br />

NEW - MC1 Mk2<br />

Phono stage


REVIEWS<br />

KEF<br />

EGG £350<br />

Satellites<br />

of love<br />

The latest member of KEF’s EGG family<br />

updates the iconic speaker design.<br />

Ed Selley enjoys some over-easy beats<br />

A<br />

s the revival in the fortunes<br />

of two-channel audio looks<br />

set to continue, we’re<br />

seeing companies adapt<br />

products that were originally intended<br />

for multi-channel use to more<br />

traditional stereo-orientated designs.<br />

In the case of KEF, the company has<br />

taken its long standing ‘egg’ satellite<br />

speaker – a benchmark in the compact<br />

home cinema multi-channel<br />

loudspeaker market – and given it a<br />

thorough overhaul to turn the design<br />

into the active stereo setup you see<br />

before you here.<br />

The EGG digital music system is<br />

derived from KEF’s latest 5.1-satellite<br />

and subwoofer system and makes use<br />

of the same Uni-Q driver that<br />

originally gave the speaker its shape.<br />

In this case the Uni-Q is a 115mm<br />

aluminium mid/bass driver with a<br />

19mm tweeter placed at its centre.<br />

This version incorporates the latest<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

KEF EGG<br />

ORIGIN<br />

UK/China<br />

TYPE<br />

Wireless digital<br />

music system<br />

WEIGHT<br />

2.2kg each<br />

DIMENSIONS<br />

(WxHxD)<br />

136 x 274 x 172mm<br />

FEATURES<br />

● 19mm vented<br />

aluminium dome<br />

tweeter<br />

● 115mm Uni-Q<br />

driver<br />

● Quoted power<br />

output: 50W<br />

● 24-bit/96kHz<br />

capable USB and<br />

optical inputs<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

GP Acoustics Ltd<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

01622 672261<br />

WEBSITE<br />

kef.com<br />

refinements of the design such as the<br />

‘tangerine’ waveguide in front of the<br />

tweeter and the ‘Z Surround’ system<br />

that allows for more controlled driver<br />

excursion. Each enclosure has a small,<br />

front-mounted bass port, which along<br />

with the drivers is concealed behind<br />

the grille.<br />

The conversion to a stereo product<br />

has also led to some alterations. In<br />

order to accommodate the ‘active’<br />

amplification, the base of each speaker<br />

has been enlarged – with a selection of<br />

controls being added to one – and the<br />

leg that connects the speaker enclosure<br />

to the base has been beefed up as<br />

well. A 50W-rated Class D amplifier is<br />

inside each speaker, which is unusual<br />

because while the practise of powering<br />

a driver with a dedicated amp is<br />

relatively common, this makes the KEF<br />

a true dual mono design, meaning that<br />

each speaker runs independently.<br />

Despite the twin amplifiers, it<br />

requires just a single mains socket for<br />

power. Along with audio signal inputs,<br />

the power connection is made on one<br />

speaker, which is then connected to<br />

the second via an umbilical cable to<br />

56 MAY 2016


KEF<br />

EGG £350<br />

REVIEWS<br />

carry power and audio signals. This is<br />

an elegant solution, but the umbilical<br />

cable is a little on the short side at just<br />

1.5m. While you are unlikely to want<br />

the speakers to be positioned much<br />

further apart than this, getting<br />

anywhere near to this distance does<br />

mean that the wire will be stretched<br />

tight between them.<br />

A good selection of inputs are on<br />

hand and include a USB connection<br />

with 24-bit/96kHz support as well<br />

as a 3.5mm jack socket that works<br />

as both an analogue or digital optical<br />

connection that also supports 24/96<br />

formats. Wireless streaming is via<br />

aptX Bluetooth connectivity when<br />

paired to a compatible device. In<br />

keeping with the speaker’s home<br />

cinema roots, there is also a<br />

subwoofer pre output.<br />

The KEF impresses with its looks<br />

from the moment it’s extracted from<br />

its excellent packaging and it certainly<br />

looks like a serious piece of audio<br />

equipment perched on a desktop.<br />

Some of the elegance of the original<br />

EGG has been lost in the conversion<br />

to active stereo speaker, but judged on<br />

its own aesthetic merit, this is a great<br />

piece of design. Build quality and<br />

finish are of a very high standard<br />

and the speaker enclosures feel<br />

impressively solid and well<br />

implemented. A small remote<br />

control is also supplied.<br />

Connecting the KEF to my laptop<br />

running Windows 7 and jRiver, has<br />

me up and running in a little over a<br />

minute with no issues. Given that the<br />

EGG is closely derived from<br />

a multi-channel system that<br />

is designed to work with<br />

a subwoofer, it isn’t<br />

unreasonable to wonder<br />

how effectively it will work<br />

without one.<br />

Sound quality<br />

As you might expect, with<br />

only a pair of 115mm mid/<br />

bass drivers housed in<br />

rather small enclosures,<br />

this is no bass monster.<br />

The amount of energy<br />

that it produces below<br />

100Hz is fairly negligible.<br />

But this doesn’t seem to<br />

have as dramatic an effect<br />

on performance as you<br />

might anticipate, and while<br />

it is unlikely to vibrate your<br />

internal organs, the EGG is<br />

able to generate a stereo<br />

image that is outstanding.<br />

The level of immersion<br />

that this soundstaging<br />

attribute generates is not<br />

to be underestimated, and<br />

HOW IT<br />

COMPARES<br />

The closest match to<br />

the KEF EGG in terms<br />

of design is the £999<br />

Eclipse TD-M1 (HFC<br />

390) system that also<br />

makes use of two<br />

active speakers. In<br />

terms of inputs, the<br />

KEF is impressively<br />

close to the Eclipse<br />

with USB, a digital<br />

input and analogue<br />

connection, but the<br />

TD-M1 offers AirPlay<br />

instead of the EGG’s<br />

Bluetooth. For the<br />

extra outlay the<br />

Eclipse offers 192kHz<br />

support and a nonupsampling<br />

mode.<br />

Both units are well<br />

built and stylish, but<br />

the Eclipse possibly<br />

looks a little sharper.<br />

Audio performance<br />

of the two is close<br />

too. The Eclipse has<br />

better bass response<br />

and a greater sense<br />

of urgency, but lacks<br />

the KEF’s refinement<br />

at the frequency<br />

extremes. If you can’t<br />

stretch to the TD-M1,<br />

the KEF makes a<br />

more than convincing<br />

case for itself at less<br />

than half the price.<br />

it does a fine job of appeasing the<br />

brain more than any loss of bass does.<br />

This is further aided by it being<br />

punchy, well integrated and<br />

entertaining to listen to. Choosing<br />

White Bear, the latest release from<br />

The Temperance Movement, it<br />

manages to capture the intent of the<br />

piece extremely well with plenty of<br />

energy and drive. The heady rock of<br />

Oh Lorraine has enough of the punch<br />

of the original recording to negate any<br />

sense that the KEF is cutting off any of<br />

the bottom end. This is further aided<br />

when positioned in a near-field<br />

configuration when used as speakers<br />

with a computer.<br />

It has an extremely<br />

wide sweet spot and<br />

decent, believable<br />

stereo image<br />

Further up the frequency response,<br />

the EGG is more assured. The Uni-Q<br />

system has superb integration between<br />

its two drivers, resulting in a seamless<br />

performance from 100Hz upwards.<br />

There is plenty of space and presence<br />

to vocals and Regina Spektor’s<br />

Consequence Of Sounds is deeply<br />

impressive. The speaker manages the<br />

neat trick of having an extremely wide<br />

sweet spot that means a decent and<br />

believable stereo image can be had,<br />

even when used at a greater distance<br />

from your listening position.<br />

Poached, fried or<br />

scrambled, you<br />

can’t help but be<br />

impressed by<br />

KEF’s EGGs<br />

One of the more impressive aspects<br />

of the EGG is that despite the fairly<br />

reasonable price tag, it responds<br />

positively to high-resolution material.<br />

As you might expect, the bass response<br />

doesn’t change significantly but with<br />

the 24/96 download of Joe Satriani’s<br />

Shockwave Supernova, the almost<br />

liquid quality of the guitar work is<br />

handled impressively well.<br />

Where the system further impresses<br />

is that this ability to respond to<br />

higher-quality material doesn’t impair<br />

the KEF from sounding perfectly<br />

listenable with Spotify and more<br />

compressed material. It is only when<br />

you wind the bitrates down to very<br />

compressed material that it starts to<br />

sound in any way strained or brittle.<br />

Switching to Bluetooth does not<br />

really change any aspects of the<br />

performance that the speakers<br />

demonstrate via the USB port. Making<br />

the connection itself is simple and<br />

painless and in the case of the Android<br />

devices that I use for testing,<br />

reconnection is automatic.<br />

Listening to My Wild West by Lissie<br />

on Tidal over USB from the laptop and<br />

over Bluetooth via a phone, reveals<br />

little noticeable fundamental change<br />

in the way that the KEF is able to grab<br />

the vocals and generates a meaningful<br />

and engrossing soundstage with them<br />

carefully placed over the top.<br />

Conclusion<br />

The KEF EGG active speaker system<br />

is an effective refinement of the<br />

multi-channel home cinema original.<br />

While perhaps not quite a perfect<br />

replacement for a more conventional<br />

separates system, it is more than up<br />

to the task of replacing an all-in-one<br />

dock-type speaker system, providing<br />

significantly improved functionality<br />

and a far superior sense of stereo<br />

soundstage. The useful selection of<br />

inputs combined with the excellent<br />

build quality and unfussy placement<br />

makes this an impressively flexible<br />

audio system ●<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

FEATURES<br />

OVERALL<br />

LIKE: Involving and<br />

lively sound; useful<br />

inputs; solid build<br />

DISLIKE: Limited bass<br />

performance; nothing<br />

else at the price<br />

WE SAY: A clever use<br />

of KEF’s longstanding<br />

home cinema champ<br />

makes an excellent<br />

desktop stereo system<br />

MAY 2016 57


REVIEWS<br />

ONKYO<br />

TX-8150 £549<br />

Stereo type<br />

David Price looks back to a simpler time as<br />

he auditions Onkyo’s ultra-modern take on<br />

the classic stereo receiver, the TX-8150<br />

A<br />

h yes, the stereo receiver,<br />

how quaint! The last time<br />

the breed was really<br />

fashionable, many of us<br />

were wearing flared trousers and<br />

dreaming of buying our first Ford<br />

Capri. Once upon a time, receivers<br />

sold like hot cakes from dealers’<br />

showrooms. Audiophiles generally<br />

regarded them with derision because<br />

some were pretty poor, but others<br />

were simply the same circuitry used<br />

in a company’s high-quality separates,<br />

put into a single, neater-looking<br />

package. Beyond the rarefied world<br />

of seventies hi-fi magazine reviewers,<br />

they had really wide appeal.<br />

Receivers enjoyed a renaissance in<br />

the early noughties. This time they<br />

had the prefix ‘AV’ and at least five<br />

channels of power amplification built<br />

into them. And, now, it’s time for the<br />

rebirth of the stereo receiver – in the<br />

crisp shape of Onkyo’s TX-8150.<br />

You can be reassured that this<br />

machine is designed to do what your<br />

average 21st century stereo-type will<br />

want. Which is to say, it plays vinyl<br />

(there’s an op-amp based MM phono<br />

stage, with a pretty standard<br />

sensitivity of 3.5mV/47kohm), it<br />

handles line sources (of which we<br />

all now have many; it has six), it has<br />

a radio (DAB/DAB+, FM and internet<br />

variety via TuneIn) and it is networkcapable<br />

so you can play music from<br />

your NAS. It has (four) digital inputs<br />

too, so you can plug your swanky new<br />

telly or Blu-ray into it, and enjoy far<br />

superior sound. It’s AirPlay and<br />

Bluetooth equipped (although sadly<br />

not aptX), and there’s a USB socket so<br />

computer audio files can be piped in<br />

direct. Then, via wi-fi, there’s Deezer<br />

and Spotify. And there was me<br />

thinking that my old seventies Sony<br />

receiver, with its twin tape monitors<br />

and aux input was versatile!<br />

DETAILS<br />

PRODUCT<br />

Onkyo TX-8150<br />

ORIGIN<br />

Japan/China<br />

TYPE<br />

Network stereo<br />

receiver<br />

WEIGHT<br />

8.6kg<br />

DIMENSIONS<br />

(WxHxD)<br />

435 x 149 x 328mm<br />

FEATURES<br />

● Quoted power<br />

output: 2x 135W<br />

(6ohm)<br />

● FM/DAB/DAB+<br />

tuner with 40<br />

presets<br />

● Inputs: 6x RCA<br />

line-level; 2x<br />

coaxial; 2x optical<br />

digital<br />

● Bluetooth, AirPlay<br />

and wi-fi network<br />

playback<br />

● MM phono stage<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Onkyo UK<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

08712 001996<br />

WEBSITE<br />

uk.onkyo.com<br />

The power output is quoted as<br />

135W (into 6ohm), which translates<br />

to 94W RMS per channel into 8ohm.<br />

That’s a lot for a product of this price,<br />

and of course in another league<br />

to stereo receivers of yesteryear.<br />

Interestingly, it’s Class AB too – so<br />

doesn’t take the Class D road to cheap<br />

power. Project leader Takao Ogawa<br />

says the circuitry isn’t based directly<br />

on any of its amplifiers, but “uses the<br />

same design concept” with Onkyo’s<br />

proprietary Wide Range Amplifier<br />

Technology circuitry. Inside, you<br />

see the familiar Onkyo EI toroidal<br />

transformer and two custom-made<br />

8,200μF high-current capacitors in<br />

the power supply. The digital heart<br />

of the TX-8150 is the Asahi Kasei<br />

AK4452 DAC chip. This is placed on<br />

Onkyo’s anti-vibration Oval Chassis;<br />

for the price the unit feels sturdy. The<br />

brushed aluminium fascia is a thing<br />

of beauty, even if the pressed steel<br />

casework is a little resonant and<br />

there’s a plastic volume knob.<br />

The DAC is 32-bit/384kHz capable,<br />

but this doesn’t extend to all inputs;<br />

the front panel USB handles 24/96<br />

PCM and DSD 2.8MHz. The fascia<br />

also sports a large fluorescent display;<br />

although it has a three-stage dimmer<br />

it isn’t particularly inspiring in these<br />

days of crisp OLEDs. You get a<br />

headphone socket, input selection,<br />

speaker A/B switching, tone and<br />

volume controls on the front, plus a<br />

58 MAY 2016


ONKYO<br />

TX-8150 £549<br />

REVIEWS<br />

CONNECTIONS<br />

Pure Audio switch that defeats the<br />

tone controls. One nice touch is that<br />

the unit wakes up if it detects an<br />

optical digital signal – perfect for<br />

the aforementioned TV viewing.<br />

The tuner has 40 nameable station<br />

presets, and four quick-access front<br />

panel presets which work across FM,<br />

DAB and internet radio – another<br />

pleasing feature.<br />

Sound quality<br />

Anyone familiar with Onkyo’s A-9010<br />

(UK) entry-level integrated amplifier<br />

(our Group Test winner last issue)<br />

will notice the ‘house sound’ of the<br />

TX-8150; although not the same, it’s<br />

not a million miles away. This makes<br />

for a smoother, richer sound than<br />

some budget rivals, with a nice<br />

rhythmic flow. It’s absolutely ideal for<br />

the type of environment this receiver<br />

is likely to find itself in, where a little<br />

warmth doesn’t go amiss. There’s<br />

definitely a subtle richness to the<br />

upper bass, which leads up to a<br />

smooth midband and sweet but<br />

quite lively treble. The Onkyo has<br />

a big-hearted personality with a<br />

solid bottom end and confident<br />

demeanour, but it’s only mortal and<br />

so at high volumes it does begin to<br />

lose some of its dynamic prowess.<br />

No matter which source you choose,<br />

this receiver is an enjoyable music<br />

maker that likes to get into the<br />

groove. Via its phono input, the<br />

TX-8150 sounds very pleasing indeed.<br />

Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love via a<br />

Technics SL-1210 deck fitted with a<br />

Shure V-15VxMR cartridge is fun,<br />

despite this not being the best<br />

recording ever committed to disc.<br />

There’s a lot of processing to the<br />

sound, and the album from which it’s<br />

taken does seem a little tonally dull,<br />

yet the Onkyo delivers a large scale,<br />

widescreen performance with lots of<br />

space within. Some budget amplifiers<br />

can sound tonally rather thin and<br />

bereft of life, but this receiver gets<br />

into the song and keeps me<br />

mesmerised throughout. The<br />

electronic percussion comes across<br />

in a powerful and rhythmic way,<br />

sounding far more animated than<br />

one might expect at this price. Kate’s<br />

voice is as icy and fragile as ever,<br />

but is carried in an accurate and<br />

immediate way. Impressively, things<br />

never get harsh or brittle, yet it<br />

doesn’t sound bland either. It has a<br />

better phono stage than I’d expected<br />

at this price too and is admirably<br />

devoid of hiss and hum.<br />

Via a line-level analogue input, the<br />

sound opens up a touch more. I play<br />

Prefab Sprout’s seminal Appetite from<br />

an Audiolab 8200CD silver disc<br />

spinner (HFC 370), and am greeted<br />

by an animated performance with an<br />

enjoyably fluid bass that underpins<br />

A smoother, richer<br />

sound than some<br />

budget rivals, with<br />

a nice rhythmic flow<br />

the song, even on the crescendos<br />

where on lesser amplifiers, it can be<br />

overshadowed by other elements in<br />

the mix. Midband is clean and carries<br />

lots of fine detailing from the<br />

recording right out to the listener.<br />

Instruments are well placed spatially,<br />

but again there is a slight two<br />

dimensionality to proceedings, which<br />

isn’t entirely unexpected at this price.<br />

Switch to one of its digital inputs,<br />

and it’s soon apparent the TX-8150<br />

contains a decent DAC. True, it isn’t<br />

going to render mid-to-high-end<br />

digital sources obsolete, but it stages<br />

an impressive attempt to carry the<br />

power and the glory of any music<br />

you care to play from silver disc. For<br />

example, a CD of Gregory Isaacs’<br />

Night Nurse proves lots of fun, with<br />

an innate charm. There’s obviously a<br />

slight softening of the lowest bass<br />

notes (there’s plenty of them on this<br />

track), but a little further up the<br />

range the receiver really gets into its<br />

stride, and bounces along beautifully.<br />

True, the bass is a little loose, but<br />

it’s excused because of its obvious<br />

tunefulness. This syncopates nicely<br />

with a clean, matter-of-fact midband<br />

that carries a decent amount of detail.<br />

In absolute terms, it does sound a<br />

little ‘over-etched’ in the upper-mid,<br />

with a subtle sense of chromium<br />

plating – but it’s nothing to worry<br />

about at the price. Treble proves<br />

crisp, but it lacks any real sweetness<br />

or delicacy in absolute terms.<br />

Indeed, across all sources, the<br />

TX-8150 proves itself to be an<br />

accomplished if not earth-shattering<br />

performer with real charm. Its<br />

pleasing tonality includes a subtly<br />

generous upper bass, which is ideal<br />

for small standmounting speakers for<br />

example, and there’s plenty of detail<br />

in the midband and real life and<br />

sparkle up top. Dynamically it’s<br />

strong, and doesn’t run out of grunt<br />

until your flares are really flapping;<br />

rhythmically it will have you tapping<br />

your feet. I am impressed by the FM<br />

sound, which isn’t as poor as I’d<br />

feared, and it does a sterling job with<br />

DAB broadcasts. Indeed whatever<br />

input you choose, it’s consistently<br />

clean and glitch-free.<br />

Conclusion<br />

There’s a lot to like about Onkyo’s<br />

TX-8150 – it offers an unusually<br />

diverse range of sources and/or<br />

inputs and sounds strong across them<br />

all. It has plenty of useful features, is<br />

built well and isn’t unattractive to<br />

look at. In use, this budget box<br />

doesn’t draw attention to its<br />

affordable price tag. Overall<br />

then, thumbs firmly aloft for this<br />

thoroughly modern stereo receiver –<br />

just like the good old days, but<br />

without having to suffer polyester<br />

shirts and kipper ties ●<br />

1<br />

2<br />

1<br />

2<br />

3<br />

4<br />

5<br />

Coaxial<br />

digital inputs<br />

Ethernet network<br />

port<br />

Speaker terminals<br />

with A/B switching<br />

Six analogue<br />

line-level inputs<br />

Optical digital<br />

inputs<br />

OUR VERDICT<br />

SOUND QUALITY<br />

VALUE FOR MONEY<br />

BUILD QUALITY<br />

FEATURES<br />

LIKE: Unerringly<br />

musical performer;<br />

facilities; flexibility<br />

DISLIKE: No aptX<br />

support<br />

WE SAY: Keenly priced<br />

do-it-all stereo receiver<br />

with real appeal<br />

5<br />

4<br />

3<br />

OVERALL<br />

MAY 2016 59


FEATURE HOME RE-MASTERING<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>s master’s voice<br />

HFC meets legendary master of the re-master, Sean Pennycook,<br />

to discover what goes into breathing new life into a classic<br />

M<br />

ention the name Sean Pennycook<br />

– AKA Sean P AKA P-ski – in<br />

dance music circles and respect<br />

is very much due, thanks to his<br />

formidable reputation as a record collector<br />

and DJ extraordinaire.<br />

Sean has been described as the “black<br />

music oracle” and is also known as The<br />

Knowledge due to his mind-blowing music<br />

library of thousands of records and CDs that<br />

make up his enviably vast jazz, disco and<br />

hip-hop collection.<br />

Constantly in record shops as a customer<br />

from an early age, he eventually made the<br />

switch to the other side of the counter in<br />

the eighties, and his musical knowledge<br />

soon saw him supplying record labels with<br />

information, records and sleeves for reissues,<br />

writing sleeve notes and compiling soul,<br />

disco and jazz LPs. <strong>Hi</strong>s DJ sets are legendary,<br />

his compilations an education and it will<br />

come as little surprise to discover that his<br />

hi-fi set up is also one of a kind.<br />

A bit tired but certainly enthusiastic when<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> pays a visit to his London HQ,<br />

Sean has just returned from a DJ set in<br />

Manchester and his next re-mastering jobs<br />

have just arrived: a parcel containing a<br />

cassette from Michael Kasparis’ Glasgowbased<br />

independent label Night School, with<br />

whom Sean has worked his audio magic for<br />

a couple of releases (see page 62) and some<br />

LPs by an Italian composer for restoring.<br />

“They look and sound like library records,<br />

though I haven’t investigated them online<br />

yet,” assesses Sean. Despite a busy workload<br />

ahead, he graciously takes time out to pop<br />

the kettle on and give us an exclusive tour<br />

of his supremely complex-looking setup.<br />

With a Holy Grail jazz platter on his<br />

Clearaudio reference turntable, an instant<br />

signifier that we’re in an audiophile’s lair,<br />

one tonearm is carefully lowered… followed<br />

by another. With two styli simultaneously,<br />

elegantly navigating the grooves, it’s an<br />

extraordinary sight – this is clearly no<br />

ordinary kit. Each arm goes into a separate<br />

phono amp – another indication of the<br />

one-of-a-kind nature of this setup. “I may<br />

be the only person who has this combination<br />

of elements on that deck,” beams<br />

accomplished, autodidactic, audio<br />

restoration engineer Sean whose<br />

commissioned work – both credited and<br />

60 MAY 2016


HOME RE-MASTERING FEATURE<br />

uncredited – has seen him become<br />

in-demand eyes and ears for artists and<br />

record labels across Europe and as far<br />

afield as America and Japan.<br />

“That’s part of the fun, if not the focus, of<br />

customising your setup,” Sean says. “It’s a<br />

slow-moving work in progress, so every now<br />

and then a carefully selected component<br />

will be added and stand or fall by its<br />

abilities. I imagine every hi-fi enthusiast has<br />

a link in the chain they’re most particular<br />

about. Mine is the cartridge: I still have<br />

every model I’ve acquired since the eighties,<br />

with the exception of the Karma, which I<br />

sold along with my LP12. I’m constantly<br />

buying and getting disappointed by them,<br />

but I just love them”. Old favourites include<br />

Clearaudio’s Sigma (“Tracks heavily at 2.8g<br />

and doesn’t do inner grooves very well”),<br />

Denon’s now discontinued DL-304,<br />

Audio-Technica’s AT0C9 III (“Nice but<br />

smooth and a bit laid back”) and its modern<br />

classic, the AT440mla (“My first one cost<br />

£75. They almost doubled the price when<br />

they woke up to how brilliant a bargain it<br />

was and, to be honest, still is”).<br />

The dream setup<br />

Typically, Sean uses a VPI fan-cooled record<br />

cleaning machine, with home-made cleaning<br />

solution; Milty gun; Clearaudio reference<br />

turntable powered by the company’s<br />

Accurate Power Generator, fitted with<br />

Clearaudio Universal and Moerch DP-6 12in<br />

tonearms; various cartridges, both moving<br />

magnet and moving coil; various phono<br />

stages, though usually Musical <strong>Fi</strong>delity X-LP2<br />

monoblocs, older X-LP and the Micro<br />

iPhono; E-MU soundcards; Tascam and<br />

Pioneer DAT machines, if required; Cedar<br />

Audio hardware for the declicking and<br />

decrackling process; and Adobe Audition<br />

and various software programs, along<br />

with various custom cables. “The deck<br />

– I’m constantly adjusting it and swapping<br />

cartridges, experimenting with overhang<br />

and azimuth,” Sean admits. “I still haven’t<br />

found the magic formula yet. But I would<br />

get bored with it if I did.”<br />

The latter components are all bespoke<br />

affairs, the most recent additions are tailor<br />

made by online retailer Design-A-Cable,<br />

which allows its customers to select specific<br />

terminators and so on.<br />

The iPhono is also a neat addition – this<br />

£300 cartridge amp is as versatile as it is<br />

diminutive: “Whether moving magnet or<br />

moving coil, you can change several aspects<br />

of a cartridge’s performance,” he says. “All<br />

cartridges have different characteristics, so<br />

depending on your setup, the ability to<br />

change the gain, EQ and loading to your<br />

liking is very handy. The tiny dip switches<br />

are very fiddly, admittedly, but with a<br />

steady hand, you can adjust them on the<br />

fly and see if all the tinkering makes the<br />

difference most pleasing to you”.<br />

The source material from which Sean<br />

works is mostly vinyl, although DAT and<br />

various types of digital file and cassette<br />

are not uncommon. “Sometimes audio<br />

transferred from reels needs some kind<br />

of denoising, due to degradation,” Sean<br />

explains. “My only preference is for good<br />

quality vinyl pressings, but that’s something<br />

of a pipedream. There are very few pressings<br />

I actually rate as being above average.”<br />

When pressed on this subject, he elaborates<br />

with the precision and detailing you’d expect<br />

from some of the most in-demand ears in the<br />

business: “When I bought the Classic<br />

“It’s not unusual to<br />

spend over an hour<br />

trying to eradicate a<br />

single problem click ”<br />

Records’ edition of [jazz drummer] Dave<br />

Bailey’s [1960 LP] One Foot In The Gutter, I<br />

was surprised how quiet the playing surface<br />

was. I later got the four 12in, 45rpm set of<br />

[Miles Davis’] Kind Of Blue and brought it<br />

round to a mate’s flat. This guy was using<br />

an £8,000 cartridge at the time, whose<br />

brand eludes me, but after a whole<br />

afternoon playing both records and CDs,<br />

So What came on… and laid waste to all<br />

that came before it. The leap in scale,<br />

presence and realism was an eye opener...<br />

It was as if all we’d played up to that point<br />

had been flat, two-dimensional.”<br />

Bitten by the bug early, Sean started<br />

collecting records when he was about 12 and<br />

has been working in record shops since the<br />

eighties. An early adopter, he bought his<br />

first CD player in 1990 and still buys discs<br />

There are few<br />

pressings<br />

that Sean<br />

rates, but<br />

this is one<br />

regularly. “I have lost count of how many<br />

records and compact discs I have. If<br />

‘thousands’ is an estimate, I’m afraid that<br />

will have to be it,” he admits, when asked<br />

the inevitable question.<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-fi was also an early passion. “I used to<br />

tinker with my father’s record player when I<br />

was young,” curious-minded Sean explains.<br />

“I found that doing things like altering the<br />

height of the cartridge on this BSR deck<br />

changed playback characteristics in some<br />

surprising ways, things like that. I borrowed<br />

a book from the school library called Sound<br />

Recording and <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong>, which was very<br />

informative and easy to understand. The<br />

club music I was into in the early eighties<br />

involved a lot studio manipulation to get<br />

that cutting-edge sound and, in awe of its<br />

protagonists – largely New York DJs<br />

recruited to mix disco records – I wanted to<br />

be an engineer, either mix or mastering. In<br />

fact, my first job interview after I left school<br />

was for the tape library at Tape One Studios,<br />

but I never got the job and didn’t have the<br />

luxury of waiting for an opening in a studio,<br />

so I went to college and studied computing.<br />

It’s little more than a hobby, but still, I’m<br />

doing a variant of something I wanted to do<br />

from an early age – that’s enough for me.<br />

“Occasionally, I will completely re-master<br />

something just for my own personal<br />

listening. I don’t do this much as it’s<br />

extremely time consuming and gets in the<br />

way of paid work if I have any on.”<br />

And without further ado, Sean guides HFC<br />

through the basics, beginning with a concise<br />

definition of the process that defines his<br />

trade. “Re-mastering is preparing a master<br />

recording, usually for reissue,” he explains,<br />

“Technology constantly improves, so<br />

re-mastering an old track may improve<br />

Sean’s Clearaudio deck fitted with Clearaudio<br />

Universal and Moerch DP-6 12in tonearms<br />

Cedar Audio hardware is used in the lengthy<br />

declicking and decrackling process<br />

Several phono stages are used including<br />

Musical <strong>Fi</strong>delity’s X-LP2 monoblocs with X-PSU<br />

MAY 2016 61


FEATURE HOME RE-MASTERING<br />

Sean is constantly adjusting<br />

and swapping cartridges to<br />

find the perfect formula<br />

its sound quality. Sometimes it’s decreed that<br />

a record or CD that’s currently available is<br />

somehow flawed and needs adjustments.<br />

If you’re into the minutiae of vinyl, you’ll<br />

perhaps notice slightly different pressings of<br />

the same release. This could have a number<br />

of reasons behind it, including a re-cut<br />

correcting fidelity issues [such as sibilance<br />

and volume and maybe skipping].<br />

“Plenty of reissues don’t need interfering<br />

with, but get re-mastered anyway – and<br />

occasionally to their detriment, as overcompensating<br />

for perceived EQ or amplitude<br />

deficiencies can ruin, not enhance audio.<br />

“Brick-wall limiting [in which volume<br />

levels are maxed out to the point of near<br />

unlistenability] is still prevalent in CD<br />

mastering and remastering can make the<br />

music quite stressful to listen to, as it<br />

hampers nuance,” Sean adds. “In these<br />

situations, it’s a case of ‘I want my CD to<br />

sound louder than yours’.”<br />

Getting the mix right<br />

Compression and limiting are beneficial<br />

to a finalised mix, as they add sparkle and<br />

presence, as well as levelling peaks. Music<br />

on the radio sounds more animated and<br />

bright as it’s put through these processes to<br />

make everything sound consistent to the<br />

listener. It’s only a problem when used<br />

incorrectly, so when too much limiting is<br />

applied (ie, ‘brickwalling’), the gaps between<br />

the highest and lowest points of the audio<br />

(dynamics) are reduced, or even closed<br />

completely. “The end result can be really<br />

stressful to listen to, as there’s no subtlety,”<br />

says Sean, “because even at low listening<br />

levels, the elements within the music are<br />

battling with each other because they’re<br />

all turned up to 11.”<br />

Despite a record collection that the word<br />

enviable scarcely does justice to, Sean is no<br />

vinyl fetishist. “I’m not sentimental about the<br />

format’s flaws – clicks, crackles, pops, hum<br />

and various noises analogue playback<br />

introduces,” he states. “I always wanted to<br />

eradicate – or at least mitigate – these<br />

distortions. For me, they get in the way of<br />

enjoying the music.” Setting him apart<br />

from many of his contemporaries, for his<br />

legendary, eclectic DJ sets, Sean shuns vinyl,<br />

preferring his own re-mastered CDs. “When I<br />

record vinyl to put on CDs, I always do some<br />

basic restoration first,” he explains, “which is<br />

essentially a ‘lite’ version of the full process I<br />

undertake for commercial jobs. I’ll usually<br />

beef up some less punchy tracks, but more<br />

often, I try to keep transfers flat.”<br />

Sean began his solo flight into remastering<br />

about 15 years ago. “I took the plunge and<br />

Sean started collecting<br />

records when he was 12<br />

and has worked in record<br />

shops since the eighties<br />

invested in the Cedar system in the early<br />

2000s,” he explains. The initial outlay was<br />

considerable: his first two Cedar units cost<br />

nearly £8,000, with the subsequent<br />

investment in a third unit costing another<br />

cool £4,000. For the uninitiated, the<br />

Cambridge-based company pioneered digital<br />

audio restoration, but for those in the know,<br />

their first exposure to Cedar will most likely<br />

have been the same as Sean’s – a feature on<br />

the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World in the eighties<br />

in which the future was unveiled with the<br />

demonstration of an analogue LP being<br />

played through a computer.<br />

Having finally learned the ropes with his<br />

specialist kit, Sean began by offering his<br />

services out to friends with labels and slowly<br />

building his business from there.<br />

Much rides on a successful project and<br />

Sean always asks for records to be sent to<br />

him so that he can clean and digitise them<br />

himself. “I will accept files as a last resort,”<br />

he explains, “but in such cases I sometimes<br />

NIGHT SCHOOL<br />

Sean’s two projects for<br />

Michael Kasparis’<br />

eclectic, Glasgowbased<br />

independent<br />

label, Night School –<br />

launchpad for<br />

memorable releases<br />

from The Space Lady<br />

and Molly Nilsson –<br />

have both involved cult<br />

eighties act Strawberry Switchblade and founder<br />

members Rose McDowall and Jill Bryson.<br />

The first was Rose McDowall’s cover of Blue<br />

Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear The Reaper (shown below),<br />

put out by Night School for Record Store Day in<br />

2015, originally released as a single in 1988 and very<br />

hard to track down on first issue. “Michael ordered a<br />

copy of the 12in from the US which was poorly<br />

graded, unfortunately,” Sean explains, “but<br />

despite the vinyl’s challenging condition, it<br />

came out pretty well after restoration, as did<br />

the 7in version. The 3:30 vocal of Don’t Fear The<br />

Reaper was stretched out to 5:30, incorporating<br />

sections from the 12in instrumental and featured<br />

as a bonus track on the reissue.”<br />

The other was a 90-minute cassette of unissued<br />

Jill Bryson tracks. “This was transferred using a<br />

Nakamichi CR-7 [three-head cassette deck],” says<br />

Sean. “Although the tracks appeared to have been<br />

recorded to the cassette on different occasions and<br />

possibly not on the same machine, there were<br />

minimal phase issues. The TDK SA90 was in good<br />

condition and, thankfully, the tape itself exhibited<br />

no audible signs of stress or creasing.”<br />

Once transferred, Sean de-clicked the audio,<br />

as there were spikes at various points. The next<br />

step was removing the hiss and noise. “This varied<br />

from track to track, with some of the more demolike<br />

tracks hampered slightly by higher noise levels<br />

and generally lower fidelity overall than the others.”<br />

The Jill Bryson recordings are scheduled for release<br />

soon, at time of writing.<br />

feel I could have done a better job, had I<br />

started from scratch. I’ve had to work with<br />

recordings sent to me, made on surprisingly<br />

high-end gear that sound closer to AM radio<br />

than anything approaching hi-fi, as well as<br />

noisy records played back and EQed through<br />

basic DJ setups. A good recording of a<br />

bad-sounding record will always clean up<br />

better than a bad recording of a greatsounding<br />

record, so I’m set up for dealing<br />

with problem vinyl when I am sent it. I have<br />

a Technics 1200 with a Shure Pro-Track<br />

1000E I got back in the nineties, which in<br />

some cases, will provide a better transfer<br />

62 MAY 2016


FEATURE HOME RE-MASTERING<br />

than the main deck as it plays back some<br />

records with less background noise, although<br />

it’s prone to sibilance.”<br />

For a typical job, all vinyl is first cleaned<br />

on the VPI – and Sean’s happy to divulge<br />

the ingredients of his home-created cleaning<br />

solution: “I use one part surfactant, scentless<br />

medical soap, basically, and a bit of wetting<br />

agent, which helps to break the surface<br />

tension of the water, some pure alcohol, and<br />

lots and lots of distilled water.” Alcohol is<br />

used to help the solution evaporate from the<br />

grooves and the surfactant – washing up<br />

liquid can also be used – if used incredibly<br />

sparingly, typically just a pindrop of soap to a<br />

gallon of water.<br />

Next, the record is ‘shot’ with the anti-static<br />

Milty gun before the process of transferring<br />

to PC begins. As the turntable has two<br />

tonearms, two simultaneous recordings<br />

are made of each record or track, using<br />

cartridges with very different characteristics.<br />

“The reason for this,” Sean explains, “is that<br />

different stylus shapes affect playback in<br />

several ways, so even the same cartridge will<br />

track – and therefore sound – differently<br />

when fitted with, say, a conical stylus, as<br />

opposed to an elliptical one. Pretty much all<br />

styli – the actual needle tips – will be either<br />

conical, which is more common on cheaper,<br />

usually moving-magnet cartridges, or an<br />

elliptical variant, such as micro-line,<br />

fine-line, Shibata, or others.”<br />

I’ve had to work with<br />

recordings that sound<br />

closer to AM radio than<br />

anything close to hi-fi<br />

The differences in these variants can be<br />

profound and all have benefits and<br />

shortcomings, depending on the records they<br />

play, he adds. “The reason I make two<br />

recordings is simple: the better cartridge<br />

reveals more of the imperfections in vinyl,<br />

despite offering improved tracking,<br />

groove-tracing, frequency response and<br />

overall clarity. The lesser cartridge offers less<br />

of the sonic benefits, but plays back with less<br />

clicks, crackles and groove noise – in some<br />

cases by a considerable amount.”<br />

Once recorded levels are adjusted, loud<br />

clicks are removed manually and Sean uses a<br />

subsonic filter to regain some headroom –<br />

essentially the audio palette. The audio is<br />

then played through the Cedar process and<br />

any remaining clicks, thumps and broadband<br />

noise – such as rumbles and constant<br />

background hiss – are removed manually.<br />

This can take a considerable amount of time<br />

and patience on Sean’s part: “It’s not unusual<br />

to spend over an hour trying to eradicate a<br />

single problem click,” he admits. “I once<br />

spent over eight hours on something like<br />

the first 90 seconds of a Brazilian LP. I sit in<br />

front of a screen scrolling the waveform in<br />

spectral view (the intensity of the sound<br />

Sennheiser’s HD 600 – the only component<br />

Sean has that he’s 100 percent happy with<br />

elements are shown as colours, so ‘hot’<br />

sounds like clicks will ‘light up’ against the<br />

darker shades, making them easier to<br />

identify and remove) playing back the audio<br />

in bursts of as little as less than a second,<br />

listening for impulse disturbances left<br />

behind, as the real-time hardware Cedar<br />

Declickle unit I use isn’t quite as thorough<br />

as the more expensive offline processing<br />

system, but still indispensable.<br />

Headphone heaven<br />

“I monitor on Sennheiser’s HD 600, which I’ve<br />

had for a long time. They’re the standard I<br />

judge everything by and the only component<br />

I’ve ever had I’m 100 percent satisfied with. I<br />

wanted a high-quality in-ear monitor I could<br />

use for both my iPod and mastering, so I got<br />

a pair of JH 13 Pros. They’re way better than<br />

the boxy Shure SE535s I previously used for<br />

portable listening, but nowhere near as<br />

revealing as the HD 600.<br />

All tracks are then topped and tailed. “If<br />

the client requires, I’ll EQ the tracks and<br />

apply some gentle limiting,” he says. “I’ll<br />

even brick-wall when requested. If the end<br />

product is for vinyl, I don’t use a limiter.”<br />

“I feel I’ve gotten better at restoration<br />

throughout the years, learning more from<br />

trial and error than anything else,”<br />

perfectionist Sean admits. “I would love to<br />

re-do much of the earlier stuff, but that’s not<br />

going to happen – I’m always looking at<br />

ways to improve what I do. All I try to do is<br />

take everything that is an adverse analogue<br />

artefact out and leave the music unimpeded,<br />

but I’m at the mercy of the source material.”<br />

Thankfully, the results of all the hard work<br />

carried out by Sean’s expert eyes and ears<br />

speak volumes, and we can only expect even<br />

greater accomplishments on a return visit to<br />

this skilled audio-restorer’s unique setup ●<br />

SHOPPING LIST<br />

For a taste of Sean’s incredibly eclectic<br />

collection, seek out these killer compilations,<br />

which have been curated, compiled or<br />

re-mastered by the man himself...<br />

Eyes On The Prize<br />

(Sureshot)<br />

A nine-track set of US<br />

12in club tracks centred<br />

around the early eighties,<br />

Some tracks were from<br />

Sean’s personal vinyl<br />

collection. No restoration<br />

was available.<br />

Prelude: The Sound Of<br />

New York<br />

(Deepbeats)<br />

“Unfortunately, an<br />

oversight meant the<br />

compilation couldn’t be<br />

sold legally after a few<br />

months and the remaining<br />

copies were destroyed.”<br />

Disco Not Disco – Vol. 1 & 2<br />

Strut<br />

Curated in conjunction<br />

with producer, Joey Negro,<br />

as Sean puts it these are:<br />

“Collections of danceable<br />

tracks compiled by two<br />

dance music aficionados<br />

who can’t dance.”<br />

Destination Boogie<br />

Z Records<br />

“28 early eighties tracks<br />

which were originally 12in<br />

singles, indicative of the<br />

disco/funk-infused soul<br />

music of this period. This<br />

type of sound has made a<br />

comeback recently.”<br />

“SupaFunkAnova – Vol. 1 & 2<br />

Z Records<br />

A selection culled largely<br />

from independent, US<br />

12in singles, focusing on<br />

the funk end of disco and<br />

R&B. The first volume was<br />

recently issued on vinyl for<br />

the first time.”<br />

Originals Vol. 3<br />

Claremont 56<br />

“A 10-CD series of<br />

compilations, each with a<br />

track list selected by a DJ.<br />

Sean’s killer funk and disco<br />

selections appear on the<br />

third volume. There was a<br />

run of just 1,000 copies.”<br />

Rock It... Don’t Stop It<br />

BBE<br />

“A set which brings<br />

together early hip-hop<br />

influenced records<br />

from the 1979-1984<br />

period. Sean compiled,<br />

re-mastered and provided<br />

the sleeve notes.”<br />

Under The Influence Vol. 5<br />

Z Records<br />

“The latest in the edition of<br />

a series, where collectors<br />

and DJs show off some of<br />

the lesser-known elements<br />

of their record collections<br />

worth showcasing.” Out<br />

very soon on Z Records.<br />

64 MAY 2016


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YOUR LETTERS & QUESTIONS ANSWERED<br />

THIS MONTH<br />

NEVILLE ROBERTS<br />

EXPERTISE: ENGINEER<br />

Neville has an eclectic taste<br />

for classical baroque. <strong>Hi</strong>s<br />

wife was forced to marry his<br />

transmission line speakers in<br />

the eighties and he collects<br />

BBC test card music.<br />

JASON KENNEDY<br />

EXPERTISE: REVIEWER<br />

Editor of HFC from 1998 to<br />

2001, Jason’s first turntable<br />

was Rega’s Planar 3 and Elvis’<br />

40 Greatest <strong>Hi</strong>ts was his first<br />

vinyl, so don’t go stepping on<br />

his blue suede shoes.<br />

DAVID VIVIAN<br />

EXPERTISE: REVIEWER<br />

David’s love of hi-fi started at<br />

an early age after a near-deaf<br />

experience with a rubbish<br />

Pye music centre and his<br />

favourite prog-rock LPs. He<br />

hasn’t been the same since.<br />

CHRIS WARD<br />

EXPERTISE: REVIEWER<br />

Like his first kiss, Chris will<br />

never forget the sound of his<br />

first amp – an Aura Evolution<br />

VA-100. War Of The Worlds<br />

and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours<br />

were his first records.<br />

More ways to get in touch:<br />

You can also send your<br />

questions to us via social media:<br />

twitter.com@<strong>Hi</strong><strong>Fi</strong><strong>Choice</strong>Mag<br />

facebook.com/hifichoice.co.uk<br />

Email us at letters@hifichoice.co.uk or write to: <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> Letters, AVTech Media Ltd, Enterprise House, Enterprise Way,<br />

Edenbridge, Kent, TN8 6HF. Your letters may be edited before publication and we cannot enter into personal correspondence<br />

Quad query<br />

In your December issue David<br />

Vivian wrote an interesting<br />

article on the Quad S-1, which I<br />

recently bought and am looking<br />

for a suitable budget amplifier to<br />

partner. David mentioned that he<br />

tested the speakers with three<br />

amplifiers, including the Monitor<br />

Audio A100, but he only made<br />

reference to how the Quads<br />

sounded with two of them, both<br />

of which are outside my price<br />

range. It would be helpful if he<br />

could comment on how the<br />

speaker sounded with the A100,<br />

especially its ability to drive<br />

what is only an 84dB sensitivity.<br />

Can you suggest any other<br />

budget amp to fit the bill?<br />

John Lawrence, Anguilla<br />

DV: Fear not, John, the Monitor Audio<br />

A100 (HFC 388) acquitted itself<br />

admirably with the S-1. You don’t say<br />

what your budget is, but if it doesn’t<br />

stretch to Quad’s own Vena (HFC 390)<br />

desktop amp at £600 (certainly worth<br />

I’m after a cartridge<br />

upgrade – any<br />

chance you could do<br />

a round-up soon?<br />

considering as it sounds a little more<br />

muscular than the A100), then the<br />

slim-line Monitor Audio is a no-brainer<br />

for the money – ie, comfortably under<br />

£200 if you really shop around.<br />

Ergonomically, it isn’t the best. Expect a<br />

lot of fiddly tiny button pressing if you<br />

want to set it up for streaming. But<br />

sonically, it punches way above its<br />

weight with a wonderfully spacious,<br />

smooth and highly detailed<br />

presentation. And it has easily enough<br />

drive and control for the Quads and a<br />

lovely supple, tuneful bass. One of the<br />

great hi-fi bargains of the moment.<br />

Not enough needle<br />

Many thanks for continuing to<br />

provide such an excellent<br />

magazine and reviews of kit. Like<br />

many of your readers I have<br />

never given up on vinyl and have<br />

a modest collection of dearly<br />

loved records, which I play<br />

regularly on my Pro-Ject<br />

turntable. It has an Ortofon<br />

Rondo Red cartridge, which<br />

provides excellent results<br />

Monitor Audio’s<br />

slimline A100 is<br />

a no-brainer for<br />

the money<br />

through my Arcam amp and B&W<br />

805 standmounts. I have often<br />

considered a cartridge upgrade,<br />

but while your reviews of the<br />

turntables available are excellent<br />

there seems to be a paucity of<br />

reviews of the types of cartridges<br />

that would reward an upgrade<br />

seeker like me. Please help.<br />

Richard Vass, Gloucester<br />

LD: Hello Richard, never let it be said<br />

that we don’t listen to our readers!<br />

Turn over to page 106 and you’ll find a<br />

Mini Test featuring cartridges, I hope<br />

you find it useful.<br />

NR: I must confess to really loving the<br />

sound of Ortofon cartridges and the<br />

MAY 2016 69


‘I’ve made my decision,<br />

I’ve chosen my religion,<br />

it’s music...’


JITTERBUG<br />

USB <strong>Fi</strong>lter<br />

Quintet Black certainly comes to mind<br />

as an excellent upgrade consideration<br />

for you. However, if you fancy a change<br />

of manufacturer, then the new Hana<br />

SL (HFC 408) is a superb-sounding<br />

cartridge with an extremely<br />

competitive price tag. It offers a very<br />

refined sound and will perform really<br />

well in your setup.<br />

Cassette boy<br />

I would appreciate it if you could<br />

give me some advice regarding<br />

some gear. I am looking for a<br />

component that would create a<br />

typical tape signature sound. I<br />

pretty much fell in love with the<br />

sound of cassette in my old car<br />

and I’ve been looking to enjoy<br />

the same signature in my home<br />

system. Can you recommend<br />

something suitable?<br />

Guillaume, by email<br />

NR: <strong>Hi</strong> Guillaume, well, the obvious<br />

choice is to look for a secondhand<br />

cassette deck. As we said in our Guide<br />

To Buying Secondhand Audio Equipment<br />

in HFC 396, there are some real<br />

bargains to be had and you are likely<br />

to be able to pick up a Nakamichi or<br />

similar for a fraction of the new price<br />

as people are clearing space in their<br />

hi-fi racks to accommodate new<br />

equipment. Many items have been<br />

sitting unused for many years and<br />

some are in superb condition. <strong>Hi</strong>gh<br />

quality cassette tapes are also still<br />

readily available from all the usual<br />

outlets, including Amazon.<br />

Drunk and disorderly<br />

I have purchased a pair of DALI<br />

Ikon 1 Mark 2 speakers and I’m<br />

more than happy with them.<br />

For the price they offer a good<br />

degree of accuracy and respond<br />

well to my amplifier – the Rotel<br />

RA-10. During a manic drunk<br />

session last week the speakers<br />

got accidentally turned up to<br />

12 and this was too loud for my<br />

stereo – in the space of a couple<br />

of minutes the speakers had<br />

started sounding fuzzy and old.<br />

On the advice of a contact over<br />

the internet – who informed me<br />

that there was a residual charge<br />

in the drivers, which was<br />

affecting the performance – I left<br />

the stereo off for three days. This<br />

allowed the charge to naturally<br />

dissipate and they magically<br />

repaired themselves!<br />

I’m so happy I still have a<br />

stereo and I want to share this<br />

information with everybody<br />

I fell in love with the<br />

sound of tapes in<br />

my old car and want<br />

it in my hi-fi system<br />

because it could well save<br />

someone from throwing out a<br />

pair of speakers which could<br />

have been reused had they been<br />

given a little bit of a rest.<br />

Alex Hampson, by email<br />

CW: This is great news Alex, but you<br />

may have been lucky. Very few<br />

manufacturers give clear guidelines for<br />

safe volume levels alongside associated<br />

units of alcohol. Please drink and play<br />

music responsibly. Other readers<br />

should note that 12 is of course only a<br />

‘theoretical’ volume level, with 11<br />

being more widely accepted as the<br />

maximum possible, as pioneered by<br />

Spinal Tap in 1984.<br />

Ethos excitement<br />

I am writing to you from Sydney,<br />

Australia. Although far away,<br />

I have been getting my <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong><br />

<strong>Choice</strong> every month for years.<br />

I recently had a hybrid power<br />

amp, which I used with a<br />

PrimaLuna Prologue Premium<br />

Can a £39 insect make all<br />

your CD files sound better than<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-Res?<br />

Yes and no: Using the same<br />

equipment and a quality DAC, a 24/96<br />

file (for example) will always sound<br />

better than a CD 16/44.1 file … but,<br />

even a single JitterBug will often<br />

allow a CD file to be more musical and<br />

more emotionally stimulating than<br />

a <strong>Hi</strong>-Res file without the benefit of a<br />

JitterBug.<br />

Noise is the problem. Real noise—<br />

the kind you can’t hear directly. Most<br />

often, the word “noise” is used to<br />

describe tape hiss or a scratch on a<br />

record, but these sounds aren’t noise;<br />

they are properly reproduced sounds<br />

that we wish weren’t there.<br />

Problem noise is essentially random,<br />

resonant or parasitic energy, which<br />

has no meaning. It can’t be turned<br />

into discrete sounds, but it does<br />

compromise signal integrity and the<br />

performance of everything it touches.<br />

JitterBug’s dual-function lineconditioning<br />

circuitry greatly reduces<br />

the noise and ringing that plague both<br />

the data and power lines of USB ports,<br />

whether on a computer, streamer,<br />

home stereo or car audio front-panel<br />

USB input.<br />

A single JitterBug is used in between<br />

devices (i.e., in series) as shown<br />

below. For an additional “wow”<br />

experience, try a second JitterBug<br />

into another USB port on the same<br />

device (such as a computer). Whether<br />

the second port is vacant, or is<br />

feeding a printer or charging a phone,<br />

JitterBug’s noise-reduction ability is<br />

likely to surprise you. No, the printer<br />

won’t be affected—only the audio!<br />

While a JitterBug helps MP3s sound a<br />

lot more like music, high-sample-rate<br />

files have the most noise vulnerability.<br />

Try a JitterBug or two on all your<br />

equipment, but never more than two<br />

per USB bus. There is such a thing as<br />

too much of a good thing.<br />

Buying a<br />

secondhand<br />

tape deck on<br />

ebay needn’t<br />

break the bank


LETTERS<br />

M A D E W I T H<br />

KIMBER KABLE<br />

Pre; something went array with<br />

the power amp and blew the<br />

bass midrange cones in one of<br />

my Opera Grand Mezza speakers<br />

(now repaired). I will get the<br />

power amp repaired, but do not<br />

now trust it and have already<br />

purchased a less expensive<br />

power amp, the Roksan Kandy<br />

K2. I can’t believe how much<br />

more livelier my music sounds,<br />

the old hybrid sounds heavy and<br />

lethargic compared with the<br />

Will electrostatic<br />

loudspeakers like<br />

MartinLogans sound<br />

okay in my setup?<br />

Roksan. Was it a case of too<br />

many tubes? The PrimaLuna Pre<br />

with the Roksan power amp<br />

sounds lively yet still has plenty<br />

of substance. I don’t know if I<br />

was lucky to strike a great<br />

balance in the combination?<br />

Unfortunately in Australia it is<br />

not practice for retailers to loan<br />

out components for trial, as<br />

appears to be the case in the UK,<br />

so judging the sound from your<br />

system with a new component is<br />

down to chance. Which brings<br />

me to my next decision…<br />

I have heard and read much<br />

about the MartinLogan Ethos,<br />

Chris suggests<br />

MartinLogan<br />

ElectroMotion<br />

ESLs for Joe<br />

yes it sounds great in store, but<br />

once again there’s no telling if it<br />

will suit my system. I listen<br />

mostly to symphonic music.<br />

I have an Audiolab CDQ,<br />

Clearaudio Emotion turntable/<br />

Graham Slee Reflex M,<br />

PrimaLuna Prologue Pre,<br />

Cocktail Audio server and<br />

Roksan K2 power amp. Will my<br />

present system do justice to the<br />

Martin Logan Ethos, and what<br />

differences could I expect?<br />

Thanks for all the guidance and<br />

interest your magazine provides.<br />

Joe Defina, Sydney Australia<br />

CW: Sounds to me Joe like you are<br />

broadly happy with where you are. If<br />

however, you are really hankering for<br />

the virtues of a hybrid electrostatic, the<br />

Ethos is an impressive product. Of<br />

course, with an in-built Class D 200W<br />

amplifier, this may rather negate some<br />

of the amplification magic you’ve<br />

stumbled upon. It may be worth you<br />

also trying to audition the less<br />

expensive (and passive) MartinLogan<br />

ElectroMotion ESL speakers. These are<br />

remarkably good value and may hit<br />

your brief for far less outlay. Hybrid<br />

electrostatics are usually great for<br />

symphonic works, having the qualities<br />

to portray large soundstages with<br />

superb air around performers<br />

alongside some much-needed bass<br />

slam for large dynamic swings. Of<br />

course many panels are more ‘beamy’<br />

than the Operas you are used to, so<br />

factor this in, especially if you listen<br />

with others. <strong>May</strong>be also taking your<br />

amplifiers to the dealers will enable<br />

more contenders to be auditioned?<br />

Ear for detail<br />

These days to most<br />

people – especially the<br />

younger generation – hi-fi<br />

as we know it or used to<br />

know it is dead. By and large<br />

floorstanding speakers the size<br />

of small cupboards are not being<br />

bought in the same quantities as<br />

they were in years gone by.<br />

My argument, or shall we say<br />

observation, is this: yes,<br />

44/96/192kHz resolution is<br />

lovely, and no doubt with today’s<br />

ever increasing numbers of<br />

headphones in all guises it will<br />

be possible to glean a clearer<br />

more detailed sound with better<br />

source product. But musical<br />

reality, producing the illusion of<br />

music being played virtually live<br />

in your home is enhanced 100<br />

fold by musical dynamics, deep<br />

powerful bass and souring highs,<br />

AND at substantial volume and<br />

LETTER<br />

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LETTERS<br />

in this regard big and powerful is<br />

beautiful and simply more real.<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>gh resolution or no high<br />

resolution, the detail is no good<br />

without the bandwidth to create<br />

the reality and this simply<br />

cannot be reproduced through<br />

the plethora of tiny speakers<br />

currently marketed.<br />

Yes, high-resolution sound is<br />

desirable, bring it on, but don’t<br />

let’s kid ourselves that the<br />

smidgen of extra detail will<br />

compensate for little or no<br />

dynamic realism. It is this that<br />

makes the hairs on our necks<br />

stand up and creates a genuine<br />

event every time the volume is<br />

cranked up and the realism<br />

makes a very welcome<br />

appearance. Long live proper<br />

hi-fi and proper dynamics. The<br />

extra icing is no good when the<br />

cake itself is only half baked!<br />

Alan Whittle, by email<br />

JK: You’re not wrong Alan but be<br />

thankful that your neighbour is not<br />

of the same opinion!<br />

CW: You are touching on an<br />

important nerve Alan. Resolution<br />

mustn’t be an end in it’s own right.<br />

This can be underlined by the<br />

potential arms race over ever more<br />

sophisticated DACs making the<br />

previous year’s model appear<br />

antiquated. There are links between<br />

resolution, bandwidth and dynamic<br />

range, enabling higher signal-to-noise<br />

ratios on paper. In practice, advanced<br />

components can have a superior<br />

ability to resolve the quietest sounds<br />

from the loudest dynamics and<br />

extract more bass and treble detail.<br />

Yet generally, analogue vinyl has a far<br />

lower measurable signal-to-noise<br />

ratio than most digital technologies,<br />

but many prefer the dynamic delivery<br />

of the black stuff. So we start to open<br />

the digital can of worms around<br />

dither, oversampling, quantisation,<br />

compression and a world of<br />

psychoacoustics that cannot yet be<br />

fully explained. As you say, playing<br />

music louder does enable greater<br />

subjective realism to the dynamics we<br />

hear in real life, but increasingly, the<br />

When will people<br />

realise hi-res is<br />

nothing without<br />

dynamic realism?<br />

majority of people live in smaller<br />

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dynamics at lower volumes though<br />

smaller, often less sensitive speakers<br />

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in people having longer and longer<br />

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to understand that music for many<br />

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home, via a car system or increasingly<br />

but more optimistically, through<br />

sophisticated mobile players and<br />

portable DAC/amps via quality<br />

headphones. So, maybe the cake is<br />

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LETTERS<br />

When we tested<br />

the phono stage<br />

capabilities of<br />

the ADL and<br />

Graham Slee in<br />

HFC 407, the<br />

latter came<br />

out on top<br />

often fully cooked, but potentially<br />

mostly through quality<br />

headphones or by audiophiles in<br />

larger detached properties?<br />

DV: A good system should be able<br />

to retain the relationship between<br />

the loudest and quietest sounds<br />

whatever volume it’s played at.<br />

‘Dynamics’ are scalable. There’s<br />

usually something wrong with a<br />

system if it has to be played loud to<br />

sound any good. That said, when<br />

power, bandwidth, resolution and the<br />

right track come together at the same<br />

time and place, something has to give<br />

and it’s usually restraint.<br />

Take centre stage<br />

I’m looking for some advice on a<br />

suitable phono stage for my<br />

setup, which consists of an<br />

Arcam FMJ A19 amplifier, KEF<br />

LS50 speakers on Atacama<br />

MOSECO 6 stands with a Graham<br />

Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator<br />

phono stage. I’ve just ordered a<br />

Clearaudio Concept MM to<br />

replace my Pro-Ject RPM 1.3<br />

Genie turntable and am excitedly<br />

awaiting its delivery. I would be<br />

most grateful for your opinion<br />

on my current Graham Slee<br />

phono stage versus the Furutech<br />

ADL GT40a.<br />

I really like the idea of being<br />

able to use it for recording my<br />

vinyl to digital and it would be<br />

used as a phono stage rather<br />

than as a DAC as I have a<br />

Cambridge Audio CXN with<br />

built-in DAC which I use in<br />

conjunction with a Cambridge<br />

Audio CXC for CD playing or<br />

streaming duties when not<br />

listening to vinyl.<br />

Would the Furutech be a<br />

significant upgrade and suitable<br />

for my set up or would you<br />

recommend that I explore<br />

another alternative? I’m pretty<br />

relaxed on the budget, but it<br />

needs to be appropriate to the<br />

limitations of the rest of the kit.<br />

Ian Riley-Brown, by email<br />

NR: Hello Ian, that’s a very nice setup<br />

you have there and the Graham Slee<br />

Gram Amp 2 Communicator phono<br />

stage (HFC 407) is certainly a great<br />

little performer, as is the ADL GT40a<br />

(HFC 399 and HFC 407). So it really<br />

boils down to whether the extra<br />

facilities that the ADL has to offer are<br />

important to you. Obviously, the<br />

Graham Slee is purely an analogue<br />

Can you give me your<br />

thoughts on ADL’s<br />

phono stage vs<br />

Graham Slee’s?<br />

phono stage and only suitable for MM<br />

cartridges, while the ADL has an ADC<br />

and will give you the ability to digitise<br />

your vinyl in high resolution 24/192<br />

format. It also has a very respectable<br />

headphone amplifier, which may also<br />

be of value to you as neither the<br />

Graham Slee nor the Cambridge<br />

Audio CXN (HFC 399) has one. I<br />

know someone who uses the ADL as a<br />

dedicated phono stage in his high-end<br />

system and is very happy with its<br />

performance. However, the Graham<br />

Slee also offers superb sound quality<br />

and comes at a bargain price.<br />

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OPINION<br />

Cassette comeback?<br />

Just as vinyl sales have risen to mass-market awareness, stories of a cassette revival<br />

suggest a similar trend. Lee Dunkley gets nostalgic for tape, but doesn’t miss the hiss<br />

The opinions expressed in the following pages are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the attitudes or opinions of <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> <strong>Choice</strong> or AVTech Media Ltd. Picture credit: Shutterstock/Alextype<br />

F<br />

orget about the latest high-resolution digital<br />

file formats hitting the headlines, the world is<br />

going crazy for old-school analogue sound<br />

complete with warts-and-all quality in a quest<br />

for tangible music formats. Vinyl has long been<br />

championed by HFC and even though we all knew the<br />

format never really went away, its return to mainstream<br />

popularity is well documented in these pages. But it’s not<br />

the LP that’s currently catching the ear of the audio<br />

hipster, but the forgotten compact cassette tape.<br />

As the resurgence of vinyl reaches greater consumer<br />

awareness – finding its way on to supermarket shelves –<br />

with the biggest Record Store Day event so far held just a<br />

few weeks ago, we’ve become accustomed to the idea of<br />

an analogue format making a comeback into the heart of<br />

our audio systems. But I confess to being more than a little<br />

surprised by the reports of a Lazarus-like return of the<br />

temperamental cassette tape as a serious music option.<br />

Back in the format’s heyday I was very much a fan. Like<br />

any music-obsessed teenager of the time – and despite<br />

being aware of the BPI's Home Taping Is Killing Music<br />

campaign – I was addicted to recording albums I owned<br />

(and some I possibly didn’t) onto Super Ferric or CrO2<br />

formulated cassette tapes from brands like BASF and TDK<br />

so that I could play my favourite albums on my prized<br />

Sony Walkman.<br />

The RIAA has denied<br />

any significant<br />

upturn in tape sales<br />

amid the reports<br />

But it was my<br />

introduction to the<br />

compact format that<br />

began my love affair<br />

with music as soon<br />

as I managed to<br />

save up enough pocket and birthday gift money to<br />

purchase my first radio cassette recorder. Routinely<br />

listening to the Top 40 music chart was a rite of passage for<br />

any teenager back in the seventies and eighties and like<br />

many my age I sat beside my new machine poised to hit<br />

the record button the instant the presenter stopped talking<br />

over the intro of the song I liked so that I could capture it<br />

for myself and endlessly play it back in the hours and days<br />

that followed. It was a crude and mechanically<br />

unsophisticated process on my Sanyo recorder, and one<br />

that could seriously shorten the life span of the cassette<br />

tape with all that cueing, rewinding and pausing and<br />

easily result in a tangle of tape if it unspooled and<br />

wrapped itself around the pinch wheel or the playback<br />

head. But I loved it, and even more so when it eventually<br />

brought portability that was unheard of with the first Sony<br />

Walkman in 1979, and changed the way we listen to our<br />

favourite music forever.<br />

I'm not alone in my<br />

fondness for tape, but<br />

despite once owning a<br />

three-head Sony cassette<br />

deck in the early nineties<br />

equipped with Dolby B, C<br />

and S noise reduction<br />

systems, I haven't played<br />

a single cassette in more<br />

than 20 years, and I<br />

actually think the deck<br />

found its way to the<br />

municipal dump during a<br />

recent house move after<br />

years of being relegated to a dusty attic, although I held<br />

onto my collection of mix-tapes.<br />

In an era where retro is cool, it seems that cassettes are<br />

collectable again as music fans discover the format that<br />

was originally developed for dictation machines desirable<br />

as a means for listening to the latest music, or so we're<br />

lead to believe. In a recent story run by the Daily Mail<br />

newspaper – and picked up by other publications as<br />

evidence of the format's rising popularity – it's claimed<br />

that much like the recent revival of vinyl, the cassette tape<br />

is returning to prominence some 20 years after it<br />

succumbed to the wholly more practical and hiss-free<br />

silver disc. The report suggests that sales of cassettes are<br />

growing so rapidly in the US that the Recording Industry<br />

Association of America (RIAA) – the body that certifies<br />

record sales – is looking for ways of tracking tape sales<br />

for the first time since the nineties. But despite the rise in<br />

music on the format from underground acts as well as a<br />

handful of commercial releases from the likes of Justin<br />

Bieber and Kanye West sold through Urban Outfitter<br />

stores, the RIAA has denied any significant upturn in tape<br />

sales amid the reports.<br />

Obscure trend<br />

Despite what only looks like some minor traction in sales<br />

of cassette tape, the format clearly has plenty of loyal<br />

supporters and even has an annual Cassette Store Day<br />

much like the RSD event held in mid-April. As I've yet to<br />

see any serious audio brands jump on the bandwagon in<br />

the same way they have for vinyl with a range of new tape<br />

decks and portable players, it does make me wonder what<br />

tape fans are listening to the format on? Whether tapes<br />

are just an obscure trend, or a chance to offer a reliably<br />

tangible object in an age where music is more ephemeral<br />

than ever is up for debate, but I can't quite see the hissy<br />

format finding its way back into my setup just yet ●<br />

Like so many of<br />

us, Lee used to<br />

sit and record<br />

the Top 40 off<br />

of the radio<br />

LEE DUNKLEY<br />

Tape head<br />

MAY 2016 79


Super Size Sound<br />

End user’s experience with Maximum Supertweeters in his system.<br />

For me the best placement was dead<br />

center top, in line with my tweeters, and at<br />

the main speakers.<br />

With cables, connections and positioning<br />

sat down for a listen..<br />

..Wow.. The sound had changed, and not a<br />

tiny change either, quite a discernible<br />

change. The sound stage has grown, the<br />

whole sound has matured not just at the<br />

high frequency range but across the whole<br />

range! Vocals sound fuller and more<br />

correct, breaths on wind instruments were<br />

real, violin and strings in general sounds as<br />

real as I’ve heard on my system to date and<br />

atmosphere on live recordings were more<br />

perceptible. Without exception one of the<br />

best purchases I have made within <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong>. If<br />

I could compare <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> to food it would be<br />

like adding a little bit of salt to the food,<br />

and adds a further dimension to the<br />

That's what the Maximum Supertweeters<br />

have done for my set up. Just as a well set<br />

up subwoofer adds to the fullness and<br />

roundness of the sound, the Supertweeter<br />

does the same also, just tailor the level to<br />

your preference and system matching and<br />

away you go.<br />

Removing them after a few days has made<br />

dimensional. Was that really what I was<br />

calling decent quality <strong>Hi</strong>-<strong>Fi</strong> a couple of<br />

weeks ago?! What I had thought was a<br />

pretty good sound was now without the<br />

Supertweeters only mediocre in terms of<br />

and day one. So obviously they were<br />

welcomed with open arms and re-instated<br />

into the system once I had established<br />

play the smile returned to my face and I<br />

earnestly started to rummage through my<br />

music collection to get another playlist<br />

together.<br />

At which point I should also tell you that I<br />

night time listening levels, but it does need<br />

a few decibels to be "magical".<br />

My 15W per channel Leak valve amps had<br />

no problems with the load on top of my<br />

speakers and when using full range "horn"<br />

speakers, these Supertweeters are simply a<br />

must have item and being quite minimal<br />

in operation they don't seem to destroy the<br />

single driver sound of a good Lowther or<br />

Fostex, rather adding to it to give a fuller<br />

sound so long as you are careful with the<br />

volume level. Discretion is the key, and<br />

blending without over exuberance or<br />

understatement is a must and worth<br />

taking the time to tune in and get right<br />

because when you do, the sound is simply<br />

stunning...<br />

...In conclusion, my humble opinion can<br />

only be used as a guide because we all<br />

sound. The Townsend Maximum<br />

Supertweeters are well executed, well<br />

made, capable, very discrete super<br />

tweeters. In my opinion in terms of user<br />

friendliness and sound they are the best<br />

passive super tweeters I have heard on the<br />

market today and the fact I have<br />

purchased a pair with my own hard<br />

earned money is testament to how good<br />

they are and the impact they have had on<br />

the sound of my system. I am not going to<br />

get into the "snake oil" debate because<br />

they work within my hearing range and<br />

with all of the formats I use. Lossless on the<br />

MacBook, DAB, Cd and analogue, vinyl<br />

more emotional sound.<br />

I'm sure my hearing<br />

doesn't extend much above 16kHz or so<br />

and yet the super tweeters work and work<br />

well for me.<br />

I think transients, atmosphere, detail,<br />

timbre between instruments, sounds and<br />

especially vocals within the hearing range<br />

due to less distortion, less smearing and<br />

..A worthwhile investment and I will not<br />

be returning them or selling them on.<br />

Many Thanks and keep the music musical..<br />

Patrick Thomas.<br />

For more information and best advice on all Townshend products, please visit:<br />

WWW.TOWNSHENDAUDIO.COM<br />

Email mail@townshendaudio.com or phone on +44 (0) 20 8979 2155.


OPINION<br />

Pipe dreams<br />

A reader’s letter gets Chris Ward thinking about missed hi-fi opportunities, dream<br />

products, mid-life crisis and going for a spin in a Lancia Stratos with Cindy Crawford<br />

Picture credit: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images<br />

A<br />

reader recently wrote to the Letters page,<br />

describing a deeply cherished hi-fi system<br />

that couldn’t be surpassed. But they weren’t<br />

describing their most recent or most expensive<br />

purchases. Instead they talked about older pieces of kit<br />

that had brought them the most pleasure. We hi-fi lovers<br />

are often painted as a somewhat logical and unemotional<br />

bunch, so let’s challenge that notion (in a logical way).<br />

This reader was almost becoming dewy eyed describing<br />

the impact of first hearing the components that meant so<br />

much to them. Sharing this experience with others, it soon<br />

became apparent that this is a common story, albeit with<br />

some interesting sub-plots.<br />

With many younger audiophiles there’s commonly a<br />

‘money’ story, where a deeply hankered-for component is<br />

financially out of reach. That is, until one day when the<br />

yearning is matched with income from a new job and they<br />

come out of a dealer’s, grinning from ear to ear. In other<br />

instances, the story becomes a search for a holy grail, where<br />

a ‘love at first hearing’ is followed by indecision not to buy,<br />

that can go on to fuel year’s of regret, longing and a tireless<br />

search for an unrequited love. I once heard an early<br />

Tresham pre/power amp. It had a quality that was simply<br />

sublime, but I didn’t snap it up at the time. Thereafter, I<br />

regularly kicked myself, and only recently tracked down<br />

another example<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-fi lovers are<br />

afflicted with a<br />

more expensive<br />

quality threshold<br />

on ebay. Happily, it<br />

didn’t disappoint.<br />

Many hi-fi lovers<br />

describe hearing<br />

a component at a<br />

dealer’s or show that<br />

blows them away, but they know they can’t afford it. These<br />

pipe dreams lodge in part of the brain that neuroscientists<br />

now recognise is reserved for lottery-win shopping sprees,<br />

supercar ownership and fantasy romantic liaisons. Time<br />

passes and savings build in ISAs, but the advent of mid-life<br />

crisis can dislodge pipe dreams and savings. Before you<br />

know it, a casual glance online reveals that pre-loved iconic<br />

hi-fi items are now within your grasp. Previous performance<br />

may well have declined and modern standards now exceed<br />

your dream, but the ideals you locked away are untarnished<br />

and remain alluring. So whether you idealised a Krell CD<br />

player, Wilson speakers or indeed a Lancia Stratos driven<br />

by Cindy Crawford, you are convinced that owning it will<br />

scratch that mid-life itch. In some instances it works, but<br />

sometimes those icons from your memory turn out to be<br />

less satisfying than you might have hoped.<br />

Many readers get most passionate when they describe<br />

their greatest ‘leap’ in hi-fi performance. This can be from a<br />

tired midi system<br />

to your own<br />

‘separates’. For<br />

some, the greatest<br />

leap is more of a<br />

paradigm shift,<br />

say from<br />

solid-state amps<br />

to valves, box<br />

speakers to<br />

electrostatic<br />

panels, or movingmagnet<br />

to<br />

moving-coil<br />

cartridges. One<br />

insight that does shine through is that a ‘leap’ in<br />

performance is often more important than any ultimate<br />

measure of ‘quality’. So, the upgrade from an aged midi<br />

system to hi-fi separates could represent a leap from a<br />

notional 20 percent quality to say 60 percent, or upgrading<br />

some tired standmounts to some modern, full-range<br />

floorstanders might take you from 60 percent to 80 percent,<br />

whereas a deep investment in cryogenically frozen lengths<br />

of pure silver cabling can take one from a notional 80<br />

percent to 90 percent quality.<br />

Making the connection<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>-fi (along with almost all purchases) is often proof<br />

positive of a diminishing return on one’s investment, but<br />

maybe the deeper and more interesting insight in hi-fi<br />

ownership is for us all to recognise when and where along<br />

our upgrade story we first connected with music in a more<br />

impactful and emotionally rewarding way. For some, the<br />

car radio sounds just dandy and feet start tapping simply<br />

by spinning vinyl. Some ears only prick up when they first<br />

buy a preamplifier, while others discover they need Class A<br />

amplification. Some just needed to hear an idler drive<br />

turntable, where others work out that zero-feedback<br />

transforms their enjoyment of triodes. Some expensively<br />

work out that they need two systems – monster transistor<br />

power for nineties dance music, while chamber quartets<br />

only come alive with vinyl and valves.<br />

So, the final, more heartfelt insight might be that we hi-fi<br />

lovers are in fact afflicted with a higher more expensive<br />

quality threshold, before we can really become more<br />

emotionally involved in the music. At least, this is what<br />

I’ve explained to my partner…<br />

Please write in to letters@hifichoice.co.uk and tell me<br />

about your most cherished hi-fi components and the effect<br />

they had on your experience of music ●<br />

Sometimes,<br />

window<br />

shopping is the<br />

closest we can<br />

get to owning<br />

that dream<br />

component<br />

CHRIS WARD<br />

Misty eyed<br />

MAY 2016 81


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OPINION<br />

Art of noise<br />

As anyone who’s ever collected vinyl knows, the artwork that appears on the album<br />

cover is a major contribution to the enjoyment of music. Rob Lane explains all<br />

O<br />

ne of the pleasures of recently rediscovering<br />

my love of vinyl has been a re-acquaintance<br />

with the record sleeves themselves. The cover<br />

designs for myriad classic albums could<br />

justifiably be called art, and even if this isn’t always the<br />

case – or if ‘anti art’ is a more appropriate label (think The<br />

Fall’s Totale’s Turns) – there’s invariably something about<br />

an album cover that resonates with the true music fan.<br />

Much like the reader of a good novel pauses mid-read to<br />

return to the book’s cover, a record sleeve is something to<br />

return to time and time again.<br />

For me, album covers have always been intrinsically linked<br />

with the accompanying music, meaning that vinyl’s original<br />

demise and the rise of downloads/ripping has had an<br />

adverse affect on my appreciation of music. There’s often<br />

more than one contributing factor to one’s addictions, and<br />

for me listening to music has parallels with a previous, long<br />

since kicked smoking habit – very rock ‘n’ roll.<br />

Where I only really enjoyed smoking when drinking<br />

coffee, with wine/beer, after a meal and while listening to<br />

music, my consumption and enjoyment of LP covers was<br />

also rarely in isolation. The complete vinyl experience –<br />

the sleeve; the touch and feel of the record; the ritual of<br />

unsheathing disc, placing on platter and engaging stylus;<br />

the eventual listening – was what had me hooked. It was<br />

never quite the same<br />

Does anyone care<br />

what the artwork<br />

looks like when<br />

viewed on iTunes?<br />

with tape or CD.<br />

So my recent<br />

reintroduction to<br />

the beauty of vinyl<br />

sleeves has not been<br />

in isolation; it’s the<br />

whole experience that I’ve reengaged with. Of course, it is<br />

possible to appreciate the album covers in isolation, as art,<br />

without putting the needle on the record – and there are a<br />

number of iconic sleeves that are instantly recognisable,<br />

whether or not we’ve owned or have even listened to them.<br />

Many – Dark Side Of The Moon, Unknown Pleasures and The<br />

Velvet Underground to name just three – are widely regarded<br />

as iconic works of art in their own right.<br />

Generally, appreciation of a particular album’s artwork is<br />

accompanied by a love of the music, and is most effective<br />

when it’s in 12in wall-hang-friendly packaging. Sure, there<br />

are loads of CD album covers I appreciate, but each and<br />

every one of them would have had a much greater impact<br />

upon the way I feel about both the artwork and the music it<br />

sheaths had I purchased them on vinyl. Think Definitely<br />

<strong>May</strong>be and Dog Man Star, by way of example. And when it<br />

comes to downloads, does anyone really care what the<br />

artwork looks like when viewed on iTunes?<br />

Some of my favourite<br />

sleeves – some mounted on<br />

my walls – are instantly<br />

recognisable and need no<br />

introduction: Rubber Soul,<br />

Parallel Lines, Rio, The<br />

Stone Roses, Blue Lines,<br />

Violator, Screamadelica.<br />

Others might need more<br />

explanation: The House of<br />

Love (iconic band photo),<br />

Doolittle (monkey going to<br />

heaven collage), Gentlemen<br />

Take Polaroids (David<br />

Sylvian, rain, lightning,<br />

umbrella), Bummed (by<br />

influential Manchester<br />

design studio Central Station), Technique (Peter Saville’s<br />

guitar cherub, above), Penthouse And Pavement (eighties<br />

avarice writ large), Strange Times (Dali-esque nightmare by<br />

Chameleons’ guitarist).<br />

And more recent faves include Yoshimi Battles The Pink<br />

Robots (crazy robot nightmare by Flaming Lips singer<br />

Wayne Coyne), Music Complete (Peter Saville’s cubist<br />

statement) and AM (which references Saville’s Unknown<br />

Pleasures design in terms of its radio wave simplicity).<br />

Is there a pattern to the album sleeves I covert the most?<br />

It would appear not: they’re a mixture of painted art, band<br />

photography, iconic arty ‘statements’ and collage. But all<br />

would look great on most living room walls, and each and<br />

every one of them protects and augments a great record.<br />

Indeed, bands and the artists they commission continue to<br />

innovate, providing works of art to accompany the music.<br />

Alongside that iconic new work from Peter Saville for New<br />

Order, the sleeve for 2013’s Paradise <strong>Fi</strong>lter from seventies<br />

jazz/prog combo Caravan was extracted from the incredible<br />

painting Trapped And Untrapped by renowned artist Sean<br />

Hewitt. And Dave McKean – an artist perhaps best known<br />

for his book illustrations, films, photography and comic<br />

books – has produced over 150 stunning ‘collages’ for bands<br />

as diverse as Front Line Assembly and Counting Crows.<br />

The last word on album artwork should probably go<br />

to David Bowie. After over 40 years of innovative, ground<br />

breaking and sometimes shocking sleeves, all featuring<br />

images of the artist, his swansong replaced the man with a<br />

black star. Blackstar – the perfect musical epitaph for an<br />

incredible career – also produced arguably his most<br />

memorable and iconic cover. If another excuse was needed<br />

to buy this excellent piece of musical innovation on vinyl<br />

rather than other formats, this is it ●<br />

New Order’s<br />

Technique is just<br />

one of many<br />

iconic album<br />

covers. Tell us<br />

about your<br />

favourites on<br />

our Letters page<br />

ROB LANE<br />

Art lover<br />

MAY 2016 83


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with the comfortable, intimate feel of the<br />

venue in amongst a very relaxed rural setting.’<br />

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www.theaudiobarn.co.uk


OPINION<br />

Vinyl, how cool is that?<br />

With all the talk about the vinyl revival, is the black stuff really cool or is it just a current fad<br />

that will fade into the background once again? Neville Roberts gets into the groove<br />

I<br />

think the subject of the revival of interest in<br />

the humble LP is getting rather passé now.<br />

Granted, modern teenagers, who a few years<br />

ago derided their parents’ record collections,<br />

are now queueing up to get the latest releases carved into<br />

a couple of grooves in the magic black stuff. However,<br />

have we really created a modern generation of audiophiles<br />

or are they coveting records for other reasons?<br />

A while ago, having nothing better to do one evening, I<br />

was channel hopping and alighted on a chat show. Elton<br />

John was being interviewed by Graham Norton and had<br />

clearly been invited onto the show to promote his new<br />

album Wonderful Crazy Night. During the interview,<br />

mention was made that the album was being released on<br />

vinyl, as well as in the usual digital download formats and<br />

on CD. The discussion then moved onto why vinyl is<br />

becoming popular again. Photos were shown of Elton in the<br />

seventies signing album covers for the hordes of enthusiastic<br />

teenage rockers, who were keen to get a personalised<br />

signature on their latest purchase. Elton then commented<br />

that his new release had prompted him to dig out his own<br />

set of LPs and he acknowledged that, to his surprise, they<br />

actually sounded better than his CD collection. “That’s what<br />

I’ve been telling everyone for ages!” I yelled at the TV<br />

screen. Neither Graham nor Elton took any notice and I sat<br />

back in my chair<br />

I believe that people<br />

are choosing vinyl<br />

for the better audio<br />

quality it offers<br />

deflated with<br />

my enthusiasm<br />

flickering, much like<br />

a candle in the wind.<br />

This got me<br />

thinking – are<br />

people jumping on the vinyl bandwagon simply because<br />

it’s trendy and is the so-called revival being driven by<br />

marketing hype? Certainly, there are now many collectors<br />

who seek rare copies of albums from the fifties through to<br />

the eighties, but that doesn’t explain why there is a market<br />

for brand new material.<br />

In fact, how many modern record collectors actually own<br />

a turntable? Well, actually I suspect most, if not all, given<br />

the dramatic increase in the number of new turntables<br />

being launched in recent years. Such investment in design<br />

and manufacturing costs wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t a<br />

real market for it. Furthermore, there is now an established<br />

range of turntables, which not only incorporate a phono<br />

stage to enable the deck to be plugged into a spare line<br />

input on an amplifier, but also a digital interface. This can<br />

feed an external DAC or PC, often in resolutions that are<br />

higher than CD. To me, this indicates that the renewed<br />

interest in the medium is not simply its death throes with<br />

the establishment of digital<br />

media, but a genuine move<br />

to embrace digital<br />

technology and work<br />

alongside it.<br />

As a lover of classical<br />

music, I was very sad when<br />

classical LPs were the first to<br />

go at the start of the digital<br />

revolution in the early<br />

eighties. What a delight for<br />

me to now see new releases<br />

starting to reappear.<br />

A friend of mine has<br />

commented that many<br />

of the music shops he<br />

frequents have started<br />

having a proper vinyl section alongside the racks of CDs on<br />

sale and these often include a section for classical music.<br />

Another clue as to why there is renewed interest in record<br />

collecting is the number of audiophile recordings that are<br />

being released, often on 180g virgin vinyl. Also, we’re<br />

once more seeing several direct-to-disc recordings being<br />

produced, such as the range of classical and big band<br />

records from Mike Valentine’s Chasing The Dragon label.<br />

One of these is a set of two LPs of the Syd Lawrence<br />

Orchestra where one is a direct-to-disc version and the<br />

other identical recording was made more conventionally via<br />

a multi-track tape recorder. Interestingly, even though the<br />

conventionally recorded LP sounds fantastic and would be<br />

superior to a CD version, if one had been made, the<br />

direct-to-disc version has that extra dimension of realism.<br />

Investigating the evidence<br />

For me, the final clue that this revived interest in vinyl is<br />

not just a flash in the pan is the fact that LPs are not cheap<br />

– the latest Elton John album costs over £20, compared<br />

with £12 for the CD. That is quite a premium to pay for<br />

some nice 12in square artwork and I believe that people<br />

are choosing vinyl for the improvement in audio quality it<br />

offers. Nor should we ignore that weird pleasure that is to<br />

be had in the process of removing a record from its sleeve,<br />

placing it on a turntable, lowering the stylus and then<br />

sitting back to enjoy at least an entire side, rather than the<br />

odd one or two tracks downloaded from a website.<br />

The mention on prime time TV is certainly good for the<br />

cause. Suddenly a whole new generation of music lovers are<br />

discovering there is so much more to enjoy when listening<br />

to their music on vinyl – not least the high quality and<br />

atmosphere that you only get from an analogue medium ●<br />

Mike Valentine’s<br />

Chasing The<br />

Dragon label<br />

has released a<br />

number of<br />

direct-to-disc<br />

classics to feed<br />

Neville’s passion<br />

for vinyl<br />

NEVILLE ROBERTS<br />

Spin doctor<br />

MAY 2016 85


OPINION<br />

All white on the night<br />

Music shouldn’t be about colour, right? Nigel Williamson can’t help but wonder where<br />

all the black, asian and ethnic minorities are when it comes to awards ceremonies<br />

Picture credit: Shutterstock/Tinseltown<br />

S<br />

uddenly race is back on the cultural agenda.<br />

The reality, of course, is that despite the<br />

lip-service we pay to multi-culturalism, racism<br />

never really went away and has remained the<br />

elephant in the room. <strong>Fi</strong>rst the Oscars set everyone talking<br />

about the inherent racism of Hollywood and now the same<br />

argument has broken out in the music industry.<br />

At the Grammy awards in February, the most prestigious<br />

award, the album of the year, went to Taylor Swift who<br />

beat off Kendrick Lamar and Alabama Shakes to make it<br />

eight years in succession that the winner has been a white<br />

artist. The other main ‘prestige’ award, best new artist,<br />

went to Meghan Trainor, the ninth time in the last 10 years<br />

that a white performer has won.<br />

A similar thing happened at the Brit awards, where only<br />

two non-white acts even received nominations. The event<br />

was lambasted for ignoring black British music and a<br />

number of artists – including Lily Allen and Laura Mvula<br />

– spoke out about the failure to recognise such black<br />

British success stories as grime king Stormzy. The<br />

controversy generated its own Oscar-style hashtag,<br />

#BritsSoWhite, and Stormzy went on to express his<br />

frustration in his tune One Take Freestyle.<br />

Then you can add in the fact that the biggest music<br />

companies in the world including Live Nation, Apple,<br />

Spotify, AEG, Warner Music Group, Clear Channel and<br />

Black musicians<br />

gave us disco, which<br />

made millionaires<br />

of the Bee Gees<br />

Universal Music<br />

Group are all lead<br />

by teams of<br />

predominantly<br />

white executives.<br />

As a pale male, I<br />

find this disturbing.<br />

Some will say that I am showboating my liberal conscience<br />

and claim that good music is good music regardless of the<br />

social, cultural or racial background of those making it.<br />

I’d like to believe that is true, but that doesn’t mean there<br />

isn’t a problem – and in an art form that’s supposed to be<br />

breaking down barriers, the stats aren’t good enough.<br />

Nobody in a position of authority in the British music<br />

industry is prepared to use the ‘r’ word. But they do<br />

acknowledge a “lack of diversity” and something positive<br />

may yet come out of the rumpus surrounding this season’s<br />

award ceremonies and Ged Doherty, chairman of the<br />

British Phonographic Industry, the body which organises<br />

the Brit awards, has moved swiftly to promise changes.<br />

For many years I was a member of the Brits voting<br />

academy and the Mercury Music Prize judging panel and<br />

both were overwhelmingly white in composition. Doherty<br />

is now committed to establishing an advisory committee<br />

comprising “members of the black and minority<br />

ethnic music [BAME] community” and has<br />

pledged that in future the Brits voting college<br />

will have at least 15 percent BAME participation,<br />

in line with national population trends.<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>story shows us that almost every<br />

successful rhythm in popular music was<br />

first invented by black musicians and then<br />

appropriated by white musicians. When Sam<br />

Phillips was recording black r&b singers at<br />

his Sun studio in Memphis in the early<br />

fifties, he famously opined: “If I could find a<br />

white man who had the Negro sound and<br />

the Negro feel, I could make a billion<br />

dollars.” The result was Elvis Presley and<br />

rock ’n’ roll.<br />

Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf invented<br />

the electric blues, but it was the likes<br />

of Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin who<br />

reaped the greatest rewards. Black<br />

musicians at labels such as Motown,<br />

Atlantic and Stax went on to create<br />

soul music, which has since been<br />

copied by generations of<br />

blue-eyed singers starting<br />

with Steve Winwood, Van<br />

Morrison and Joe<br />

Cocker, followed by<br />

Simply Red through<br />

to Amy Winehouse<br />

and Adele.<br />

Redressing<br />

the balance<br />

It was black musicians who gave us disco which made<br />

multi-millionaires of the Bee Gees and a black Jamaican<br />

rhythm called reggae that created hits for the likes of The<br />

Police, Eric Clapton and 10cc. It was black artists who<br />

created hip-hop for the likes of the Beastie Boys and<br />

Eminem to exploit. And more recently it has happened all<br />

over again with dubstep and grime.<br />

None of this appropriation has been wrong or directly<br />

racist in intent, and white musicians borrowing from black<br />

forms and styles has given us some great music. But the<br />

originators can be forgiven for wondering if they have<br />

received their full dues. Ged Doherty is to be commended<br />

for admitting that the Brits “have somehow become<br />

disconnected from this heritage of diversity”. But that’s the<br />

easy bit. Now comes the part of translating those<br />

well-meant words into a meaningful outcome ●<br />

Taylor Swift<br />

at this year’s<br />

Grammys<br />

continued the<br />

long run of<br />

white ’prestige’<br />

award winners<br />

NIGEL<br />

WILLIAMSON<br />

Colour blind<br />

MAY 2016 87


RETRO<br />

Turning Japanese<br />

David Price spends time with one of the most innovative<br />

loudspeakers of the seventies, Sony’s SS-5050 Carbocon<br />

T<br />

he seventies was a<br />

fascinating time for<br />

speakers. Most designs<br />

were pretty crude, but<br />

there were still some breathtaking<br />

boxes on sale, using state-of-the-art<br />

technology. There was a far larger gap<br />

between run-of-the-mill products and<br />

leading edge ones then – standard<br />

speakers weren’t that different from<br />

the sort of fare you’d see in the fifties,<br />

whereas the best aren’t far off today’s<br />

top designs in technological terms.<br />

The average audio buyer of that era<br />

would likely end up with a pair of<br />

two-way Wharfedale Dentons or<br />

suchlike, and consider it £50 well<br />

spent. Meanwhile, serious listeners<br />

thought a three-way to be the badge<br />

of hi-fi respectability, because they<br />

were what professional sound<br />

engineers used, weren’t they? In the<br />

great scheme of things then, Sony's<br />

SS-5050 was right at the top of what<br />

mere mortals could afford, costing a<br />

cool £800 (RRP) per pair in 1976.<br />

Price aside, one of the biggest<br />

obstacles to commercial success was<br />

the received wisdom of the time – that<br />

Britain built the best loudspeakers. We<br />

had illustrious brands such as KEF,<br />

Tannoy, Celestion and IMF, plus a new<br />

wave of BBC speaker builders, from<br />

Chartwell to Rogers and Spendor,<br />

producing boxes that often had the<br />

same (often KEF) drive units inside.<br />

What chance did this relatively new<br />

company, best known for transistor<br />

radios and televisions, possibly have?<br />

Although Japanese hi-fi was selling in<br />

vast quantities, there was still a lot of<br />

snobbery surrounding it.<br />

The upshot of this was a kind of<br />

parallel audio universe – British<br />

companies tended to sell their wares<br />

Sony's seventies loudspeakers<br />

1970<br />

1971<br />

Sony unveils the SS-8150 as<br />

Simon and Garfunkel release<br />

their final album together<br />

Sony's SS-7600 is released and<br />

George Harrison's My Sweet<br />

Lord is the best-selling single<br />

1975<br />

The SS-5050 is launched in Tokyo<br />

in October, while in the UK Peter<br />

Gabriel leaves Genesis<br />

1976<br />

The SS-5050 is the flagship speaker in<br />

Sony's range as Brotherhood Of Man win<br />

Eurovision and have the best-selling single<br />

88 MAY 2016


RETRO<br />

through specialist hi-fi dealers, and<br />

these would not in turn sell much (if<br />

any) Japanese kit. If you wanted this,<br />

‘sir’ was asked to leave the dealer in an<br />

orderly fashion and pay a visit to the<br />

local Lasky’s, Dixons or Comet, where<br />

he could find the sort of thing that<br />

better suited him.<br />

The Japanese Yen’s value relative to<br />

the UK Pound was three times lower<br />

back then, yet still the SS-5050 sold<br />

for more than most high-end British<br />

boxes. This was reflected by its<br />

battleship build – and also the<br />

technology inside. By this time, Sony<br />

had a vast research and development<br />

budget compared with the average<br />

British specialist hi-fi manufacturer.<br />

Like every range-topping product<br />

from this company, the SS-5050 was<br />

built without compromise and was<br />

surprisingly complex for a seventies<br />

speaker. The three-way design<br />

weighed in at 20kg per box, quite a lot<br />

for its 365 x 630 x 318mm (WxHxD)<br />

dimensions. Although large, it is<br />

effectively a standmounter – requiring<br />

a serious frame stand (think Linn<br />

Isobarik) rather than the spun chrome<br />

There’s none of the<br />

time smearing that<br />

you get from a reflexported<br />

speaker<br />

affair on castors that it often ended<br />

up on. Inside its largish, well-braced,<br />

beech-ply cabinet were three drive<br />

units all built and designed by Sony<br />

– a 25mm cone tweeter, a 35mm<br />

midrange driver and a 300mm woofer.<br />

The two upper drive units featured<br />

special protectors, which also aided<br />

dispersion; that big 12in bass unit<br />

needed no extra assistance in its task.<br />

All three were screwed into the wide,<br />

thick wood front baffle and had their<br />

own air-tight sealing gaskets.<br />

By the mid-seventies, the Sony<br />

Corporation had become very<br />

interested in materials technology.<br />

For the SS-5050, the bass driver cone<br />

was a carbon-fibre/paper hybrid<br />

(something that Sony called<br />

‘Carbocon’); this was a technology that<br />

the big Japanese company was very<br />

proud of and it appeared in all its<br />

subsequent high-end speakers. (The<br />

SS-5050’s replacement, the SS-G7,<br />

sold 20,000 pairs around the world,<br />

a remarkable number for such an<br />

expensive speaker.) The midband and<br />

treble drivers were also carbon coated,<br />

and all drive units had diecast frames<br />

and high-quality wiring terminals.<br />

The drivers crossed over from one<br />

another at 800Hz and 8kHz, which<br />

makes the midband driver the star of<br />

the show, keeping its breakup regions<br />

well away from the human ear’s most<br />

sensitive area of 2-5kHz. The result<br />

was a claimed 40Hz to 20kHz (-3dB)<br />

frequency response, which was an<br />

excellent result for that time. The<br />

SS-5050 also had an amazingly high<br />

power handling by the standards of<br />

the day. When an average budget box<br />

would be torn apart by anything more<br />

than 25W RMS, the Sony took 80W<br />

before doom came its way. It had a<br />

quoted impedance of 8ohm, and<br />

very high sensitivity for a seventies<br />

three-way speaker: 91dB/1W/1m.<br />

Considering its 73 litre cabinet was a<br />

sealed infinite baffle design, this was<br />

a great result – all the more so when<br />

you remember that most seventies<br />

speakers were stupidly power hungry.<br />

Modern romance<br />

It's fascinating to hear a wellpreserved<br />

SS-5050, four decades after<br />

it first reached British shops – you'll<br />

be surprised how modern it sounds.<br />

That infinite baffle cabinet and its<br />

lightweight, high-power drivers make<br />

for a fast, tight, punchy sound which<br />

is far less coloured than most speakers<br />

of its time. We’re told narrow baffles<br />

are better for imaging, but it works<br />

just as well as a far smaller bookshelf<br />

in this respect. And what really strikes<br />

you is the bass – which switches on<br />

and off like a flashing LED. There’s<br />

none of the time smearing or slurring<br />

of bass notes that you get from a<br />

reflex-ported speaker, and this is<br />

aided and abetted by the obvious<br />

strength and rigidity of the box.<br />

Even though it looks old school, it<br />

interferes with the sound relatively<br />

little, even at high volume levels.<br />

Interestingly, if there’s any modern<br />

loudspeaker you can liken it to, it’s<br />

models from ATC. This company is<br />

fond of sealed cabinets and big<br />

three-ways, and the Sony is a textbook<br />

example of the concept done well. Its<br />

Decent stats<br />

for the time<br />

added up to an<br />

impressive sound<br />

BUYING TIPS<br />

Prices for the SS-5050 range from around<br />

£90 per pair to £300 and because of their<br />

relative scarcity you have to wait your turn<br />

for a pair to come up in the classifieds.<br />

Unlike many things on ebay, though, they<br />

haven’t been seized upon by sellers with<br />

vivid imaginations just yet. Some Japanese<br />

high-end products that used to cost £100 a<br />

few years ago are now being advertised for<br />

£1,000 or more, in a wild exercise in greed<br />

and wishful thinking, but the SS-5050<br />

remains sensibly priced.<br />

Buying any old speaker secondhand is a<br />

punt, so it’s wise to try before you buy; if<br />

necessary bring your own amp and source,<br />

and push the volume up while they’re cold,<br />

in search of random buzzes or booms<br />

which shouldn’t be there. The contacts<br />

inside the treble and midrange level pads<br />

respond well to a squirt of Servisol, so this<br />

is always worth doing before any more<br />

serious surgery. Once you’ve got a good<br />

pair, it doesn’t hurt to tighten the drive<br />

units up in the front baffle and clean the<br />

rear terminals either. This done, some<br />

20cm-off-the-ground tubular steel frame<br />

stands will get the best out of them.<br />

ability to move air quickly and without<br />

fuss, allied to a powerful punch when<br />

called upon is pure monitor speaker<br />

territory. Despite this, the Sony still<br />

sounds completely unlike the BBC<br />

designs of its day with Bextrene cones,<br />

or even the (then) ultra-modern<br />

polypropylene-coned Mission 770 that<br />

arrived a year or two later. Feed the<br />

SS-5050 some well-recorded period<br />

rock music and you’re immediately<br />

struck by just how dry, crisp and clean<br />

it sounds.<br />

Missing in action<br />

This big speaker is superb, but play<br />

some beautifully rich and sumptuous<br />

sounding music from Isaac Hayes<br />

– Bumpy’s Lament – and you’re soon<br />

aware there’s something missing. It’s<br />

a riot of strings, brass and flutes, yet<br />

the SS-5050 sounds dry and analytical.<br />

Sure, it’s very tidy and composed with<br />

no harshness or grain, but things<br />

sound just a little too forensic and<br />

antiseptic to really pull the listener in.<br />

It does brilliantly on the hi-fi aspects<br />

of the track – powering the beat<br />

along, serving up dramatic dynamic<br />

peaks and giving a pleasing low-end<br />

wallop – but it sounds a tad<br />

dispassionate to these English ears.<br />

More pairs of Sony SS-5050s were<br />

sold in the UK than you might think,<br />

so they’re still around and relatively<br />

cheap on the occasions that they<br />

surface secondhand. It’s a fascinating<br />

‘time warp’ transducer and an<br />

intriguing reminder of a largely<br />

forgotten hi-fi past. Japanese high end<br />

isn’t common in this country, but it still<br />

soldiers on uncomplainingly, doing a<br />

surprisingly competent job ●<br />

MAY 2016 89


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM<br />

ASTELL&KERN/AUDEZE<br />

COMPONENTS<br />

ASTELL&KERN AK380/<br />

AK380 AMP £3,000/£500<br />

Flagship of the Astell&Kern portable<br />

range, the AK380 packs state-of-the-art<br />

decoding and processing into a striking<br />

all-metal chassis that can be augmented<br />

with the external amplifier.<br />

AUDEZE LCD-3 £1,500<br />

Audeze’s hefty LCD-3 headphone<br />

features a pair of large planar magnetic<br />

drivers in circular mountings with<br />

double-sided magnetic driver elements.<br />

The enclosures are heavily padded for<br />

comfortable long-term listening.<br />

90 MAY 2016


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM<br />

ASTELL&KERN/AUDEZE<br />

Pocket<br />

Symphony<br />

Can a portable system be truly beautiful? Ed Selley<br />

ventures into the great outdoors to find out<br />

G<br />

iven the notionally simple<br />

premise of Beautiful<br />

System, it might come as a<br />

surprise to learn that it is<br />

periodically a source of angst to its<br />

creators. Rather than simply serve up a<br />

stack of kit made from exciting corners<br />

of the periodic table over and over<br />

again, we seek to find beauty in more<br />

unexpected combinations and routinely<br />

ask ourselves what a beautiful system<br />

really can be. In the course of a recent<br />

discussion we realised that we had<br />

never featured a completely portable<br />

setup, so our thoughts swiftly turned<br />

to the mechanics of such a thing.<br />

Are portable systems beautiful?<br />

They’re frequently extremely clever<br />

and they’re unquestionably a godsend<br />

at drowning out the inanities of fellow<br />

commuters and workmates, but<br />

in themselves they are generally<br />

utilitarian rather than beautiful.<br />

Like most rules though, there is an<br />

exception and that – as so often is the<br />

case with portables – comes courtesy<br />

of Astell&Kern. The company has<br />

produced an impressive range of<br />

portable audio players that are<br />

unconstrained by the normal<br />

restrictions of the breed.<br />

Sitting at the top of the pile is the<br />

AK380, a portable player that features<br />

the sort of specification you’d be<br />

impressed with in a full-size digital<br />

source, let alone one that fits in a<br />

MAY 2016 91


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM<br />

ASTELL&KERN/AUDEZE<br />

pocket. Built around a pair of AKM<br />

AK4490 DACs and a precision clock<br />

accurate to the femtosecond, the<br />

AK380 can handle files up to<br />

32-bit/384kHz without compression<br />

or conversion. It can also handle DSD<br />

with no conversion taking place during<br />

the decoding process, which requires<br />

serious processing horsepower.<br />

Come fly with me<br />

All this is coupled to a DSP-controlled<br />

20-band parametric EQ system that<br />

can be adjusted on the fly. If you find<br />

yourself disdainful of such a thing,<br />

you can of course switch it off, but<br />

you’ll be missing out on the ability to<br />

perfectly match the AK380 to the<br />

characteristics of the headphones or<br />

earphones you’ve partnered it with.<br />

Furthermore, although the technology<br />

behind the EQ is undoubtedly<br />

frighteningly complex, using it is<br />

simple and entirely straightforward.<br />

To make sure, you are left in no<br />

doubt as to the AK380’s flagship<br />

status, Astell&Kern has wrapped it in<br />

a chassis that looks and feels utterly<br />

unlike anything else that’s currently<br />

available on the market. Constructed<br />

from duralumin (an aircraft-spec<br />

aluminium), it is extremely solid and<br />

substantial as you might expect. What<br />

you might not expect, however, is that<br />

the design itself is far bolder than it<br />

may seem on a cursory inspection.<br />

The whole chassis is partially<br />

staggered so that while the display<br />

is vertical, the outer edges run<br />

diagonally to it. Combined with the<br />

deep, angled indentations around the<br />

rotary volume control, the AK380<br />

feels like the sort of thing that<br />

architect Frank Gehry might come up<br />

with if he ever fancied trying his hand<br />

at designing an audio player.<br />

Delivers a sound that<br />

stretches the limits<br />

of what near-field<br />

listening can achieve<br />

This particular AK380 comes<br />

bolstered with a matching external<br />

amplifier (AK380 AMP) for greater<br />

battery capacity and a more powerful<br />

headphone amplifier. This shouldn’t<br />

be taken as a critique that the basic<br />

unit is underpowered, but more that<br />

this sample has been supplied with a<br />

pair of headphones that would cause<br />

most portable players to give up and<br />

go home. The Audeze LCD-3 is part of<br />

the upper echelons of its range and<br />

makes no concessions whatsoever to<br />

being used with portable devices.<br />

The LCD-3 is built around a pair of<br />

planar magnetic drivers mounted in<br />

Above left:<br />

Detachable<br />

AK380 AMP<br />

lends extra<br />

power and<br />

battery life<br />

where needed<br />

Above centre:<br />

The LCD-3 is<br />

capable of<br />

making you<br />

forget you’re<br />

wearing<br />

headphones<br />

Above right:<br />

Exquisite details<br />

separate the A&K<br />

from more<br />

mainstream<br />

portable players<br />

large open-backed enclosures. As each<br />

driver is no less than 106mm across<br />

and given that planar magnetic<br />

designs aren’t terribly sensitive at the<br />

best of times, it represents a fair show<br />

of confidence on the part of<br />

Astell&Kern to select it.<br />

Aesthetically, the pairing makes<br />

much more sense. The LCD-3 is less<br />

overtly modern than the AK380, but it<br />

is still a striking and rather handsome<br />

piece of industrial design. Everything<br />

is there for a reason (with the possible<br />

and wholly noble exception of the<br />

wood trim) and the attention to detail<br />

that has gone into the design is<br />

seriously impressive.<br />

Great expectations<br />

The pairing of AK380 and LCD-3<br />

packs state-of-the-art technology and<br />

enough design flair to certainly<br />

warrant consideration as beautiful,<br />

but can they honestly deliver a<br />

performance to move them beyond a<br />

convenience feature to something<br />

more? Beautiful System is above such<br />

considerations as value, but this is a<br />

significant amount of money for a<br />

portable system and this combo has<br />

a lot to live up to.<br />

Perhaps the best way to answer<br />

these questions is with my own state<br />

of mind after 10 minutes of listening<br />

to a 24-bit/48kHz download of Peter<br />

92 MAY 2016


BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM<br />

ASTELL&KERN/AUDEZE<br />

Gabriel’s So. I’ve heard this album<br />

hundreds of times. It acts as a fixed<br />

point of reference to allow me to<br />

determine what the electronics are<br />

really doing. Tellingly, my notes for<br />

this period could be transcribed on<br />

the back of a postage stamp. Not only<br />

does this duo entirely bypass the<br />

analytical side of my brain, it does a<br />

convincing number on the sensory<br />

side too as I also rapidly forget that<br />

I am listening to a portable system.<br />

Disappearing act<br />

What this pairing does is effortlessly<br />

convert its impressive engineering<br />

and technology into a visceral musical<br />

experience. The Audeze simply<br />

ignores the supposed limitations of<br />

headphone listening in a way that<br />

makes going back to any other pair<br />

of cans as claustrophobic as being<br />

shoved into the boot of a car. The<br />

LCD-3 is so completely free of any<br />

constraint in the scale and space of<br />

its presentation that it completely<br />

vanishes. Sound arrives at the ear<br />

without anything so crude as a<br />

physical speaker in the way.<br />

It is aided in this neat conjuring trick<br />

by the AK380, which manages to take<br />

its highly sophisticated decoding and<br />

sound – more than anything else – like<br />

analogue mastering tape. The sound<br />

is unfailingly accurate, detailed and<br />

CONTACT<br />

DETAILS<br />

DISTRIBUTOR<br />

Computers Unlimited<br />

TELEPHONE<br />

0208 2008282<br />

WEBSITES<br />

astellnkern.com;<br />

unlimited.com<br />

tonally even, but it is completely free<br />

from any sense of digital processing. It<br />

is at times startlingly vivid too. Listen<br />

to Pretty Good Year by Tori Amos and<br />

the vocals are as tangible as if they<br />

were being sung live into your ear.<br />

There’s plenty of grip on offer for<br />

more high-energy material as well. If<br />

you decide to stop playing nice and<br />

stick on Art Angels by Grimes, the<br />

The AK380 feels like<br />

the sort of thing that<br />

architect Frank Gehry<br />

might come up with<br />

AK380 hammers its way through<br />

California with the bass, the swagger<br />

and above all, the sense of fun that is<br />

really needed to make this track work.<br />

This is a system unfazed by any genre<br />

you can think of and which can<br />

then play it back at pretty much any<br />

volume level you fancy. In keeping<br />

with any good system, this duo<br />

sounds good with excellent<br />

recordings. It is the mark of a truly<br />

great system that it also sounds<br />

fantastic with less than perfect<br />

material as well.<br />

And like all really great systems,<br />

it makes no great demands of the<br />

listener. The interface of the AK380 is<br />

slick and totally self explanatory and<br />

the album cover collage option for<br />

browsing is gorgeous. Meanwhile,<br />

the LCD-3 is a big headphone but<br />

the well-judged weight distribution<br />

and very high comfort levels help<br />

it disappear when wearing. The<br />

additional amplifier adds a little more<br />

bulk to the portable player, but not so<br />

much that it won’t fit comfortably into<br />

a trouser pocket.<br />

Control freak<br />

Above all, the AK380 has the control<br />

and headroom needed to run this<br />

demanding headphone. I’ll head<br />

off any thoughts about just how<br />

‘portable’ this pairing really is by<br />

adding that you could just as easily<br />

use the AK380 on its own with any<br />

earphones during the day and come<br />

home, attach the AK380 AMP and the<br />

LCD-3 headphones and achieve your<br />

very own personal hi-fi nirvana.<br />

This is a pairing that delivers a<br />

sound that stretches the limits of what<br />

near-field listening can achieve and<br />

does so from equipment that is built<br />

to an incredible standard and<br />

exactingly thought out. Above all, it<br />

feels special enough to comfortably<br />

warrant inclusion as a Beautiful<br />

System ensuring that life on the move<br />

doesn’t mean that you need to forgo<br />

some serious audio brilliance<br />

MAY 2016 93


LABELLED WITH LOVE<br />

IMMEDIATE<br />

All you need is connections in this business, right? Simon Berkovitch introduces<br />

the industry of human happiness, where heavy hitters are two a penny<br />

H<br />

appy To Be A Part Of<br />

The Industry Of<br />

Human Happiness<br />

runs the tagline of<br />

Immediate Records. But in the<br />

shadows of this memorable,<br />

optimistic phrase lie intrigue,<br />

crippling debt, bribes, mistruths,<br />

flag burnings, outrage, shady<br />

deals… and an impeccable<br />

soundtrack from some of the key<br />

players of the sixties.<br />

Its roster speaks for itself:<br />

heavy-hitters Fleetwood Mac<br />

(one epic 45, Man Of The World,<br />

while Peter Green’s group was<br />

between contracts), Amen<br />

Corner and The Nice (pre-ELP<br />

Keith Emerson) are joined by<br />

lesser names as the exotically<br />

named The Apostolic<br />

Intervention, songwriter Billy<br />

Nicholls and freakbeat legends<br />

The Poets. Flop acts the latter<br />

trio may have been during the<br />

label’s brief existence – it was<br />

game-over and bankruptcy by<br />

1970 – but hindsight has<br />

afforded them cult status.<br />

The label was formed in 1965<br />

by Tony Calder and Andrew<br />

Loog Oldham, armed with<br />

impeccable pop CVs despite<br />

their tender years. The tuned-in<br />

pair met doing press for an<br />

obscure Liverpool group by the<br />

name of The Beatles. The<br />

super-connected Oldham<br />

became manager of another<br />

little-known R&B combo, The<br />

Rolling Stones, aged just 19.<br />

Following the advice of producer<br />

Phil Spector to lease your own<br />

recordings to get a larger<br />

financial cut instead of signing<br />

to a label, the logical step was to<br />

set up an independent record<br />

company, branching out to<br />

include hip subsidiaries<br />

Revolution Records and Instant.<br />

The Jagger-Richards-penned<br />

classic Out Of Time provided the<br />

label with its first major hit, a<br />

showcase for the fine lungs of<br />

Chris Farlowe. Immediate was a<br />

haven for powerful voices, with<br />

PP Arnold and white-soul singers<br />

Rod Stewart and Steve Marriott<br />

of Small Faces on the books.<br />

Immediate’s house band after<br />

their defection from Decca<br />

Records, once freed from a<br />

punishing gigging schedule,<br />

Small Faces evolved from<br />

rugged, organ-drenched, mod<br />

R&B to the studio-based<br />

psychedelia of 1968’s classic LP<br />

Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake.<br />

Of course it was money – or a<br />

lack of it – that eventually sank<br />

Immediate. Royalties went<br />

unpaid, as were songwriters…<br />

bills begat bills… accusations of<br />

embezzlement abounded… the<br />

spending continued… And then,<br />

despite one last hurrah from<br />

Marriott’s new, post-Small Faces<br />

project with The Herd’s Peter<br />

Frampton – Humble Pie – the<br />

plug was finally pulled.<br />

The rights to Immediate were<br />

acquired by NEMS in the late<br />

seventies, Castle in the nineties,<br />

and today the catalogue is in the<br />

hands of Chrysalis Music and its<br />

diverse, life-affirming sounds of<br />

human happiness are readily<br />

available to explore.<br />

94 MAY 2016


LABELLED WITH LOVE<br />

Small Faces<br />

The label’s house band and one of the cornerstones of UK psych-pop<br />

Released from record<br />

company Decca and<br />

formidable manager Don Arden,<br />

Oldham wasted no time in<br />

signing Small Faces to Immediate.<br />

Although the thorny issue of<br />

cash would eventually be part of<br />

the group’s undoing, at the time,<br />

the creative freedom the label<br />

gave songwriters Steve Marriott<br />

and Ronnie Lane was priceless.<br />

Small Faces’ first flowering of<br />

their new direction was infectious<br />

45 Here Comes The Nice. The<br />

Small Faces LP followed: the<br />

group’s second album, it barely<br />

puts a foot wrong, home to<br />

perfectly formed cuts such as<br />

Get Yourself Together, My Way of<br />

Giving and Green Circles. Retitled<br />

There Are But Four Small Faces for<br />

the US, follow up single Itchycoo<br />

Park was added, along with<br />

arguably the greatest Marriott-<br />

Lane composition: Tin Soldier.<br />

The follow-up album flew even<br />

higher: Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake<br />

fused psychedelia, folk, music<br />

hall and English whimsy –<br />

courtesy of narrator of<br />

gobbledegook Stanley Unwin –<br />

and wrapped it up in an<br />

innovative, fold-out circular<br />

sleeve, which must have cost a<br />

fortune to realise. This was a<br />

major artistic leap forward and a<br />

chart-topping LP but, unable to<br />

shake their pop image, Small<br />

Faces were no more by 1968:<br />

Small Faces<br />

enjoyed the label’s<br />

creative freedom<br />

Marriott unveiled his Humble Pie<br />

project while the remaining<br />

members joined ex-Jeff Beck<br />

Group stalwarts Ronnie Wood<br />

and Rod Stewart as Faces.<br />

An excellent posthumous album<br />

The Autumn Stone was released in<br />

1969, rounding up key cuts, live<br />

recordings and unreleased gems,<br />

with final epic 45 Afterglow (Of<br />

Your Love) a fitting full stop for<br />

one of the swinging sixties’ most<br />

fondly remembered groups.<br />

The other fab four’s debut for Oldham’s imprint<br />

overflows with infectious pop goodness<br />

PP Arnold<br />

The spectacularly groovy voice of The <strong>Fi</strong>rst Lady of Immediate<br />

Patricia Ann Cole, otherwise<br />

known as soul vocalist<br />

extraordinare PP Arnold, began<br />

her singing career in America,<br />

joining the Ike & Tina Review<br />

in 1964, but dropped anchor<br />

in London in 1966 to go solo,<br />

thanks to the encouragement<br />

of one Michael Jagger.<br />

She cut two excellent albums<br />

for Oldham’s imprint: The <strong>Fi</strong>rst<br />

Lady of Immediate, closely<br />

followed by Kafunta, both 1968.<br />

The former hoovers up her<br />

most well-known recording –<br />

soulful 45 The <strong>Fi</strong>rst Cut Is The<br />

Deepest, also made famous by<br />

Cat Stevens, among others – and<br />

inexplicable near miss (If You<br />

Think You’re) Groovy. An<br />

explosive mod classic written<br />

by and featuring Small Faces’<br />

Marriott and Lane.<br />

Kafunta sees Arnold placing<br />

her distinctive stamp on some<br />

of the biggest acts of the sixties,<br />

including interpretations of The<br />

Beatles (Eleanor Rigby), The<br />

Stones (As Tears Go By) and the<br />

Beach Boys (God Only Knows),<br />

but the standout cut is her<br />

irresistible cover of Evie Sands’<br />

Angel Of The Morning.<br />

Following the crumbling of<br />

Immediate, Arnold released<br />

a couple of strong singles on<br />

Polydor, produced by Bee Gee<br />

PP Arnold began<br />

her career on the<br />

Ike & Tina Review<br />

Barry Gibb, and then threw<br />

herself into stage and session<br />

work – memorably contributing<br />

backing vocals to Nick Drake’s<br />

Poor Boy on his cult early<br />

seventies LP Bryter Layter. More<br />

recently, she collaborated with<br />

Primal Scream as PP & The<br />

Primes for a cover of the Small<br />

Faces’ Understanding and<br />

recorded an album with the<br />

Blow Monkeys’ Dr Robert,<br />

2007’s <strong>Fi</strong>ve In The Afternoon.<br />

Kafunta sees PP Arnold placing her<br />

own soulful stamp on sixties classics<br />

MAY 2016 95


LABELLED WITH LOVE<br />

The Nice<br />

Their inventive musical mix lay the groundwork for progressive rock<br />

Emerging from the shadows<br />

of PP Arnold’s backing<br />

group, The Nice had a<br />

reputation for controversial<br />

stage antics. Their virtuoso<br />

organist, the late Keith<br />

Emerson, was the main<br />

offender, fond of attacking his<br />

feedbacking Hammond with<br />

WWII daggers, but burning<br />

the American flag on stage<br />

while deconstructing Leonard<br />

Bernstein was a step too far.<br />

Christened The Nice by<br />

manager Oldham, this<br />

inventive yet often overlooked<br />

group hit the ground running<br />

with its ambitious blend of<br />

psych, pop, jazz and classical,<br />

paving the way for seventies<br />

prog rock, a genre in which<br />

Emerson would find major<br />

league success as part of ELP.<br />

The Nice recorded three<br />

albums for Immediate<br />

between 1967 and 1969: The<br />

Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack;<br />

keyboard-heavy Ars Longa Vita<br />

Brevis and Nice.<br />

Released in 1968 on<br />

Immediate’s subsidiary<br />

Instant, the soundtrack to Peter<br />

Whitehead’s cult movie is one<br />

of the most important vinyl<br />

documents of the capital’s<br />

acid-rock scene for the<br />

inclusion of Pink Floyd.<br />

The three-minute version of<br />

Interstellar Overdrive that<br />

opens proceedings is a wilder,<br />

more exploratory journey into<br />

the avant garde than was<br />

permitted by Columbia’s top<br />

brass on debut The Piper At The<br />

Gates Of Dawn.<br />

The original issue of this<br />

LP is a fantastic mix of<br />

Immediate’s best-known acts<br />

and more obscure gems. Chris<br />

Farlowe (Out of Time) and<br />

Small Faces (Here Come The<br />

Nice) are ably supported by<br />

atmospheric pop classics from<br />

Vashti, aka acid-folk singer<br />

Vashti Bunyan, and Twice As<br />

Much. Throughout, the voices<br />

of sixties faces such as Allen<br />

America (1968) is the group’s<br />

15 minutes of fame. A radical<br />

reworking of the West Side<br />

Story song, The Nice<br />

performed it at the Royal<br />

Ginsberg, Mick Jagger and<br />

David Hockney are heard,<br />

interspersed with the music,<br />

giving the soundtrack an<br />

intimate, mix-tape feel.<br />

Albert Hall while setting the<br />

Stars and Stripes alight, an act<br />

that outraged composer<br />

Leonard Bernstein, who tried<br />

to block the single’s US release.<br />

Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London<br />

The soundtrack to the defining documentary of the swinging sixties<br />

Unavailable for decades,<br />

the LP was finally reissued<br />

in the early nineties by the<br />

See For Miles label in<br />

gloriously expanded form.<br />

SHOPPING LIST<br />

Stacking the HFC Dansette high,<br />

here’s our selection of highlights<br />

worth hunting down from one of<br />

the UK’s grooviest indie labels.<br />

The Apostolic<br />

Intervention<br />

(Tell Me) Have You<br />

Ever Seen Me<br />

This Small Faces<br />

cover is one of<br />

the rarest – and<br />

most expensive –<br />

Immediate cuts.<br />

Nico<br />

I’m Not Sayin’<br />

This Gordon<br />

Lightfoot cover’s<br />

flip, The Last Mile,<br />

is overseen by<br />

future-Zep Jimmy<br />

Page, session<br />

gun for hire.<br />

John <strong>May</strong>all & The<br />

Bluesbreakers<br />

I’m Your<br />

Witchdoctor<br />

Stinging,<br />

overdriven guitar<br />

voodoo courtesy<br />

of Eric Clapton on<br />

this 1965 7in.<br />

Mick Softley<br />

I’m So Confused<br />

Strident debut<br />

from the cult<br />

peacenik folk<br />

singer. Donovan<br />

went on to cover<br />

Softley’s seminal<br />

The War Drags On.<br />

The Poets<br />

Baby Don’t You Do It<br />

This propulsive<br />

cover of a floorfilling<br />

Marvin Gaye<br />

number by the<br />

raucous Scottish<br />

R&B group is a<br />

freakbeat classic.<br />

Chris Farlowe<br />

Out Of Time<br />

Stones gem given<br />

the orchestral<br />

treatment by<br />

producer Mick<br />

Jagger. <strong>Hi</strong>t the top<br />

of the charts in<br />

summer 1966.<br />

Les Fleur De Lys<br />

Circles<br />

Another helping<br />

of hard-edged<br />

freakbeat with this<br />

rough diamond<br />

from 1966, written<br />

by kindred spirit<br />

Pete Townshend.<br />

Fleetwood Mac<br />

Man Of The World<br />

Somebody’s<br />

Gonna Get Their<br />

Head Kicked In<br />

Tonight, credited<br />

to Earl Vince and<br />

the Valiants, is on<br />

the flip of this 45.<br />

Shopping List sleeves courtesy of 45cat<br />

96 MAY 2016


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100 White Lung<br />

Paradise<br />

101 Accademia Bizantina<br />

Haydn Symphonies<br />

101 Xiayin Wang<br />

Tchaikovsky/<br />

Khachaturian<br />

piano concertos<br />

BACK IN THE nineties, Carlos Santana appeared<br />

to be a spent force. <strong>Hi</strong>s records had stopped<br />

selling, the inspiration had dried up and he was<br />

dropped by Columbia. Then in 1999, and already<br />

into his fifties, he teamed up with a star-studded<br />

cast of young singers including Lauryn <strong>Hi</strong>ll, Cee Lo<br />

Green and Wyclef Jean to record Supernatural.<br />

It seemed like the last throw, but it worked<br />

spectacularly. Supernatural gave him his first<br />

number one since 1971 and won nine Grammy<br />

awards. Further hit albums repeated the all-star<br />

guests formula. Yet although his guitar playing was<br />

as burnished as ever and the youthful collaborators<br />

felicitously contemporised his sound, for long-time<br />

fans it was no substitute for the Afro-Latin rock<br />

fusion which set alight the 1969 Woodstock festival.<br />

Now for the first time in 45 years Santana has<br />

reunited with Woodstock survivors Gregg Rolie on<br />

Santana<br />

Santana IV<br />

keyboards and vocals, guitarist Neil Schon and<br />

percussionists Michael Shrieve and Michael<br />

Carabello. Only bassist Michael Brown, who died in<br />

2000, and conga player Jose ‘Chepito’ Areas are<br />

missing, replaced by Benny Rietveld and Karl<br />

Perazzo respectively.<br />

The classic lineup which Santana put together in<br />

the late sixties stayed together for just three<br />

albums, hence the title of their ‘reunion’ album,<br />

which sounds gloriously like you might have<br />

expected Santana IV to sound if they had made it in<br />

1972. If that seems conservative, then bear in mind<br />

how radical and quite unlike anything else in the<br />

rock firmament Santana sounded at the time. The<br />

group’s combustible fusion of Latin rhythms,<br />

Afro-percussion and electrifying psychedelic-blues<br />

guitar solos was revelatory, a thrilling hybrid of<br />

global styles two decades before the term ‘world<br />

CD Thirty Tigers<br />

music’ had been invented. The band are now all in<br />

their late sixties, of course, although they play with<br />

an energy that effortlessly rolls back the years. The<br />

opener Yambu swirls around Hammond organ,<br />

crunching guitars and an African chant to sound<br />

like a first cousin to Jingo from the group’s 1969<br />

debut. Anywhere You Want To Go has a Latin-soul<br />

rhythm reminiscent of Oye Como Va from 1970’s<br />

career-defining Abraxas. <strong>Fi</strong>llmore East is a spacey,<br />

acid-rock instrumental jam, All Aboard is a<br />

contemporary update on their Woodstock<br />

showstopper Soul Sacrifice, the moody Latino<br />

tones of Sueños evoke the slow burn of their classic<br />

Samba Pa Ti and Blues Magic delivers exactly what<br />

its title promises. You cannot recreate the past. But<br />

Santana IV is living proof that when nostalgia is<br />

celebrated with such freshness and energy it can<br />

be jubilantly irresistible. NW<br />

MAY 2016 99


MUSICREVIEWS<br />

Chris Rea<br />

La Passione<br />

Corinne<br />

Bailey Rae<br />

The Heart Speaks<br />

In Whispers<br />

CD Jazzee Blue CD Good Groove/Virgin EMI<br />

20 YEARS AGO, Rea composed a soundtrack for<br />

a semi-autobiographical film he’d made about a<br />

boy who develops a lifelong obsession with motor<br />

racing. But his record company were unconvinced<br />

and the project never saw the light of day in the<br />

form he had envisaged. He’s now re-recorded the<br />

soundtrack, a wonderfully evocative soundscape<br />

combining sweeping orchestral arrangements,<br />

shimmering lead guitar and wistful, lyrical songs<br />

sung affectingly and with heart-felt conviction. Rea<br />

regards La Passione as his magnum opus, which is<br />

opulently presented here as a two CD/two DVD set<br />

housed in a lavish 70-page coffee-table book. NW<br />

AWARD-WINNING BRITISH SINGER/<br />

SONGWRITER Corinne Bailey Rae releases her<br />

third album, and it starts off in soaraway soul pop<br />

fashion with The Skies Will Break, which pushes<br />

dancey piano stabs to the forefront. But then, as<br />

the album progresses, you get a feel for Bailey<br />

Rae's diversity. Hey, I Won't Break Your Heart is a<br />

soulful lament, while Been To The Moon is a sassy<br />

funk roller and Tell Me is a dancefloor-friendly tush<br />

waggler with some pleasing bass notes. So there's<br />

a lot going on for your hi-fi to digest, but it's all<br />

beautifully contained without ever feeling that it<br />

will burst out of the box at you. PH<br />

Kel Assouf<br />

Tikounen<br />

White Lung<br />

Paradise<br />

CD<br />

Igloomondo<br />

THE IMPROBABLE SUCCESS of the<br />

nomadic Tuareg guitar band Tinariwen,<br />

who came roaring out of the Sahara<br />

desert a few years back to conquer rock<br />

festivals around the world, has resulted<br />

in a spate of copycat bands. Led by<br />

guitarist/singer Anana Harouna, who<br />

left Mali 10 years ago for Brussels,<br />

exile has lent a distinctively urban<br />

edge to Kel Assouf’s take on the<br />

timeless rhythms of the endless sands<br />

to make them the hardest-hitting<br />

desert-rockers of them all.<br />

Do you agree with our reviewers?<br />

Decide for yourself and listen to<br />

some of this month’s tunes at<br />

www.hifichoice.co.uk<br />

CD<br />

Domino<br />

LIKE THEIR PREVIOUS efforts, White Lung's<br />

fourth album is a short, sharp blast of catchy rock<br />

that sweeps you off your feet. And the good news<br />

is that it's perfect for a decent system as the band<br />

like to add effects to their melodic, metal-tinged,<br />

anthemic pop rock. And we're talking a lot of<br />

effects. Guitars are spangly and outlandishly<br />

processed, the vocals are multi-layered and often<br />

have a touch of the Courtney Loves about them.<br />

Listening to this, you could imagine White Lung<br />

being an excellent festival band because they<br />

attack every track as if their lives depended on it.<br />

Paradise it isn't quite, but it's fun, in your face and a<br />

short, sharp jolt of an album. PH<br />

Kel Assouf's timeless<br />

rhythms make them the<br />

hardest-hitting desert<br />

rockers of them all<br />

AUDIOFILE VINYL<br />

The Groundhogs<br />

Scratching The Surface<br />

180g vinyl<br />

Pure Pleasure/Liberty<br />

Think Tinariwen with added rock heft<br />

as a European rhythm section shakes<br />

and pounds like a cross between Black<br />

Sabbath and Queens Of The Stone Age.<br />

Keyboards add further textures seldom<br />

heard in desert blues and Harouna’s<br />

guitar playing combines quicksilver<br />

lead lines with a tougher, riff-based<br />

approach. From the jagged rock thump<br />

of Europa to the militant stampede of<br />

Medden, Kel Assouf takes the desert<br />

blues to places it has never previously<br />

been before. NW<br />

THE GROUNDHOGS<br />

CAME out of the<br />

British blues explosion<br />

that spawned<br />

Fleetwood Mac and<br />

Chicken Shack. They<br />

were fronted by the<br />

guitar and vocals of<br />

Tony McPhee and for this debut the lineup<br />

included harmonica player Steve Rye. It’s the<br />

latter’s playing that marks this 1968 album out<br />

from those that succeeded it, it has a raw, vivid<br />

and extremely authentic sound that gets as close<br />

to that of its inspiration as any British act. The<br />

sound is particularly appealing because of its<br />

apparent simplicity, a result of live recording at<br />

the Marquee Studios over just two days. Despite<br />

this it is also clearcut, the drum recording is<br />

particularly strong and despite the lack of deep<br />

bass manages to deliver energy in abundance.<br />

The material is a mix of classics, including a<br />

fabulous version of Rosco Gordon’s No More<br />

Doggin’ and an inspiring choice of opener in Fats<br />

Domino’s Rocking Chair, alongside originals by<br />

McPhee and Rye with the harp player’s work<br />

being particularly strong. McPhee’s guitar is the<br />

most powerful instrument in the mix, his chops<br />

on Married Man being properly scorching, it’s no<br />

surprise that he remained the sole original<br />

member until the band’s very recent demise. JK<br />

Kel Assouf image courtesy of: Fabienne Pennewaert<br />

100 MAY 2016


MUSICREVIEWS<br />

HIGH RESOLUTION DOWNLOADS<br />

Harry Belafonte<br />

An Evening With<br />

Belafonte/Makeba<br />

Ray LaMontagne<br />

Ouroboros<br />

DEMO DISCS<br />

Doug Graham, sales<br />

director at Naim Audio,<br />

reveals the music he<br />

uses to demo the<br />

company’s products<br />

FLAC 24-bit/96kHz hdtracks.co.uk FLAC 24-bit/96kHz hdtracks.co.uk<br />

THIS GRAMMY AWARD-WINNING album,<br />

originally released in 1965, is a proper studio<br />

album, made in collaboration with South<br />

African singer Miriam Makeba. It's an<br />

extraordinary collection of songs, fusing<br />

Belafonte's infectious Calypso numbers with<br />

Makeba's traditional South African songs. The<br />

fact that this is a hi-res version gives each track<br />

real clarity and depth, which delivers a joyous<br />

listening experience. PH<br />

LAMONTAGNE HAS BROKEN down this<br />

album into eight songs. The first part, or four<br />

songs, are heavier than we've come to expect<br />

from LaMontagne – full of sweeping, dusky<br />

fuzzed-out soundscapes, all infused with his<br />

trademark, breathy vocals. The second half –<br />

starting with the too-twee Another Day, goes on<br />

a much more mellow journey. And, of course,<br />

this ambitious album benefits hugely from<br />

being a hi-res recording. PH<br />

Accademia Bizantina<br />

Haydn Symphonies 78, 79, 80 and 81<br />

Ottavio Dantone (conductor)<br />

Grateful Dead<br />

Terrapin Station<br />

This is something that<br />

I go back to time and<br />

time again. Fantastic<br />

arrangement, guitar<br />

noodling and riffs.<br />

Sweet vocals too. If you<br />

like West Coast rock<br />

this is just perfect.<br />

Tom Waits<br />

Mule Variations<br />

Not ‘music for<br />

hi-fi‘ for most<br />

commentators.<br />

Wrong. It’s just a<br />

different approach<br />

to how things can<br />

sound. Tom Waits is<br />

scary. Scarily good.<br />

2 CDs Decca<br />

A lively sound, with clean<br />

articulate strings and crisp<br />

low horns – what's not to like?<br />

FOUR RARELY RECORDED Haydn symphonies<br />

make for an interesting and highly entertaining<br />

disc. Accademia Bizantina play on original<br />

instruments and make a lively sound, with clean<br />

articulate strings and some crisp low horns. Decca<br />

claims these are the first recordings of these works<br />

to employ period forces, and the symphonies<br />

are among those omitted from Christopher<br />

Hogwood’s incomplete L’Oiseau Lyre cycle, which<br />

stopped at 77. Clean immediate sound, with<br />

excellent clarity and detail, makes this is a good<br />

release. It’s just a pity it isn’t the start of a new<br />

complete cycle from these forces! JH<br />

David Bowie<br />

Black Tie<br />

White Noise<br />

A mixed bag, but in<br />

my experience there<br />

is always something<br />

great in a Bowie<br />

album. Don’t Let Me<br />

Down & Down is a<br />

real stand out.<br />

Lambchop<br />

Is A Woman<br />

Kurt Wagner can’t<br />

sing, but that’s not the<br />

point. It’s storytelling<br />

that makes no sense<br />

but somehow impacts<br />

heavily and you don’t<br />

think about lyrics. It's<br />

just part of the music.<br />

Xiayin Wang<br />

Tchaikovsky/<br />

Khachaturian piano<br />

concertos<br />

BLU-RAY DVD<br />

The Who<br />

Live at Shea Stadium 1982<br />

Bernard Herrmann<br />

Twisted Nerve Original<br />

Motion Picture<br />

Soundtrack<br />

Blu-ray<br />

Eagle Vision<br />

SACD<br />

Chandos<br />

WANG PLAYS ENTHUSIASTICALLY and gives<br />

a brilliant festive account of this ebullient<br />

warm-hearted work. Her playing is powerful and<br />

full-blooded, but not bombastic, and the recording<br />

produces a beautifully clear natural sound that<br />

avoids tonal hardness and congestion. The<br />

Khachaturian concerto is a fairly loud bombastic<br />

piece, but once again Wang and Oundjian seem to<br />

avoid the worst excesses. The slow movement –<br />

featuring an instrument called a flexatone – creates<br />

a wonderful effect that simply has to be heard. The<br />

SACD recording is excellent – refined and detailed<br />

– while sounding smooth, natural, and dynamic. JH<br />

It’s a shock to see Pete<br />

Townshend with a quiff<br />

wearing new romantic attire in<br />

the sort of video quality that<br />

cut it in 520P but looks crude<br />

today. He still looks miserable<br />

though, barely scrapes a smile<br />

over a long set. But the band in its longest-lived<br />

lineup are in top form, belting out the classics<br />

alongside contemporary numbers and proving<br />

to a rain-soaked crowd that they still had the<br />

power. The sound is appealingly unpolished<br />

with restrained use of compression and a<br />

natural balance that sounds real even if crowd<br />

noise is well down in the mix. JK<br />

180g vinyl<br />

Stylotone<br />

THE PROBLEM WITH Twisted Nerve is that once<br />

you've heard it you won't be able to get it out of<br />

your head for the rest of the day. The rising/falling<br />

whistling motive that Quentin Tarantino 'borrowed'<br />

for Kill Bill is so damn catchy that you'll be whistling<br />

it to yourself long after you've put the record away.<br />

The soundtrack includes a mix of more traditional<br />

orchestral scene-setting fair along with a jazz<br />

version of the catchy ditty that sounds just<br />

fantastic – making a decent low-end vital to enjoy<br />

those menacing cellos and kettle drums.<br />

A beautifully put together package from this new<br />

UK label specialising in classic soundtracks. JDW<br />

MAY 2016 101


MUSIC LEGENDS<br />

BOB DYLAN<br />

Bob Dylan<br />

Voice of his generation<br />

Nigel Williamson looks<br />

over the career of the<br />

songwriter’s songwriter<br />

that dared to go electric<br />

W<br />

hen The Who’s Pete Townshend<br />

was asked how he had been<br />

influenced by Bob Dylan, he<br />

replied that the question was “like<br />

being asked how I was affected by being<br />

born”. Dylan’s impact on popular culture has<br />

been all-pervasive and there can surely not be<br />

a songwriter on the planet who hasn’t been<br />

influenced by him. Dylan changed our world<br />

and remains the yardstick by which every<br />

other songwriter is judged and measured.<br />

But the genius of his songwriting is only half<br />

the story. Dylan was the first of the modern<br />

singer-songwriters and his artistry as a<br />

performer, both on record and in concert, has<br />

been immense and charismatic, singing not<br />

only his own compositions, but a vast<br />

repertoire of traditional blues and folk ballads<br />

and, on his most recent release, reinterpreting<br />

the Great American Songbook of Irving Berlin<br />

and Rodgers and Hammerstein.<br />

Throughout his long career Dylan has<br />

regularly excited, often causing furious<br />

controversy. <strong>Hi</strong>s early folk fans denounced<br />

him as Judas for going electric. Others were<br />

offended when he began using his songs to<br />

STUDIO ALBUMS<br />

Bob Dylan (1962)<br />

A debut of mostly blues<br />

and folk covers, but sung<br />

with a poise and maturity<br />

way beyond his 20 years.<br />

The Times They Are<br />

A-Changin’ (1964)<br />

The high tide of the protest<br />

movement, featuring potent<br />

anthems such as the title track,<br />

The Lonesome Death Of Hattie<br />

Carroll and Only A Pawn In<br />

Their Game.<br />

Bringing It All<br />

Back Home (1965)<br />

Along with the Byrds’<br />

Mr Tambourine Man,<br />

the album that invented<br />

folk-rock as Dylan plugs in<br />

on Subterranean Homesick<br />

Blues and Maggie’s Farm.<br />

1962 1963 1964 1964 1965 1965<br />

The Freewheelin’<br />

Bob Dylan (1963)<br />

The ‘voice of his generation’<br />

emerges, with his first truly great<br />

compositions including Blowin’ In<br />

The Wind, Masters Of War and A<br />

Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.<br />

Another Side Of<br />

Bob Dylan (1964)<br />

Still acoustic, but the lyrics are<br />

growing more poetic and the<br />

imagery more complex on<br />

songs such as Chimes Of<br />

Freedom and Gates Of Eden.<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>ghway 61<br />

Revisited (1965)<br />

The rock ’n’ roll messiah<br />

fuses raucous blues-rock<br />

with inspired lyrics, kicking<br />

off with the tumultuous<br />

Like A Rolling Stone.<br />

102 MAY 2016


MUSIC LEGENDS<br />

BOB DYLAN<br />

Picture credits: Dylan with dartboard: Daniel Kramer. Graffiti: Shutterstock/Steve Lagreca<br />

preach a born-again Christian agenda. Some<br />

could not get beyond his voice, which David<br />

Bowie described as sounding “like sand and<br />

glue” and which grew croakier and more<br />

uncertain in its ability to hold a tune as the<br />

years went on.<br />

But if you want to know the extent of his<br />

influence as both a performer and a writer,<br />

ask the other great singer-songwriters of the<br />

age. Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Bruce<br />

Springsteen will all tell you that Dylan is the<br />

master and they are merely disciples.<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>s music has drawn liberally on the rich<br />

vernacular traditions of folk, country and<br />

blues. But he dramatically extended the<br />

cultural, political and social remit of popular<br />

music and broke new ground in the subject<br />

matter it might cover. As Paul McCartney<br />

noted, after Dylan it became possible to<br />

write about almost anything in a pop song.<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>s greatest compositions have operated as<br />

anthems for our times, from The Times They<br />

Are A-Changin’, Blowin’ In The Wind and A<br />

Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to Mr Tambourine<br />

Man, Subterranean Homesick Blues and Like A<br />

Rolling Stone.<br />

Sixties shaper<br />

It is often said that along with The Beatles,<br />

Dylan invented the sixties and certainly<br />

the decade might have been very<br />

different without him. But his artistry<br />

cannot be confined to the era that<br />

spawned him and over half<br />

a century and more he has<br />

remained restlessly creative,<br />

consistently surprising his<br />

audience and often swimming<br />

against the tide.<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>s songs and utterances<br />

have been forensically dissected<br />

for hidden meaning by a school<br />

of ‘Dylanologists’, obsessive fans<br />

who have generated a scholarly<br />

industry of books, lectures, papers,<br />

symposiums, dissertations and<br />

doctoral theses, analysing every<br />

aspect of his work.<br />

Yet despite his ubiquitous influence,<br />

Dylan has remained an enigmatic<br />

figure who shuns celebrity, the JD<br />

Salinger of popular music who seems to be<br />

saying to his public: “You know my songs, but<br />

you don’t know me”.<br />

He gives little away in his rare interviews,<br />

which he conducts as metaphysical jousting<br />

sessions. Those who have worked with him<br />

attest to a highly developed sense of humour<br />

and an enjoyment of practical jokes. But the<br />

jealousy with which he has guarded his<br />

privacy means we still know surprisingly little<br />

about his true character beyond his music.<br />

<strong>Hi</strong>s 2004 autobiography, Chronicles Volume<br />

One, was a vivid and fascinating read, but<br />

Between 1989 and 2015<br />

he played more than<br />

2,700 shows averaging<br />

100+ concerts per year<br />

ultimately a perplexing one, which posed<br />

more questions than it answered.<br />

This, of course, has all contributed to his<br />

mystique, perhaps deliberately so, for evasion<br />

and self-mythologising have always been an<br />

integral part of the face Dylan has presented<br />

to the world. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman<br />

in 1941 into a middle-class Jewish family, he<br />

grew up in the dull conformity of middle<br />

America and like millions of other teens<br />

in the fifties found escape from his<br />

monochrome surroundings in rock ’n’ roll.<br />

After he enrolled at university in<br />

Minneapolis in 1959, he added an<br />

interest in American folk music<br />

to his love of Elvis and Little<br />

Richard and became obsessed<br />

with Woody Guthrie.<br />

By early 1961 he had made<br />

his way to New York, where he<br />

began singing in the folk clubs of<br />

Greenwich Village, and made regular<br />

visits to the bedside of the dying<br />

Guthrie, who gave him his blessing.<br />

He changed his name and fabricated<br />

an improbable backstory, claiming to<br />

have been an orphan from New Mexico<br />

who had hoboed around America and<br />

spent years travelling with a carnival.<br />

Playing an acoustic guitar and blowing a<br />

harmonica, his early recordings were<br />

derivative of Guthrie. But he was learning<br />

fast and by his second album in 1963 he was<br />

already the smartest, sharpest songwriter on<br />

the block, leaving the likes of Phil Ochs, Tom<br />

Paxton et al trailing in his wake.<br />

An affair with Joan Baez, who was already a<br />

star, boosted his career and for a brief while<br />

they became folk music’s king and queen.<br />

It was the civil rights era and Dylan swiftly<br />

became a youthful spokesman for the cause,<br />

the ‘voice of his generation’, penning some of<br />

those most potent and effective protest songs<br />

written and sitting at Martin Luther King’s<br />

feet as he made his “I have a dream” speech.<br />

But he soon left Baez, the protest movement<br />

and folk music behind. Tired of all the<br />

responsibilities that came with being a<br />

spokesman, he set about crafting a more<br />

abstruse and personal form of poetry. And<br />

when he added a rock ’n’ roll backbeat, he<br />

John Wesley Harding (1967)<br />

The Old West meets the Old<br />

Testament on a collection of<br />

austere and allegorical songs<br />

that are about as far removed<br />

from Blonde On Blonde as it<br />

was possible to get.<br />

Blonde On Blonde (1966)<br />

Rock music’s first double<br />

album and the climax<br />

of Dylan’s hipster phase<br />

and the swirling electricity<br />

which he dubbed “the wild<br />

mercury sound”.<br />

Self Portrait (1970)<br />

A deliberate act to subvert<br />

his own celebrity or an<br />

honest homage to the music<br />

that influenced him? Either<br />

way, this collection of<br />

slushily arranged covers left<br />

many fans perplexed.<br />

Nashville Skyline (1969)<br />

Dylan invents country-rock on<br />

an album of heartfelt songs<br />

such as Lay Lady Lay and I<br />

Threw It All Away full of<br />

simple but timeless verities.<br />

Pat Garrett & Billy<br />

The Kid (1973)<br />

An evocative soundtrack for<br />

Peckinpah’s movie in which<br />

Dylan also starred, featuring<br />

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door<br />

as the main highlight.<br />

New Morning (1970)<br />

Shocked by the anger that had<br />

greeted Self Portrait, Dylan<br />

hastily put out this collection<br />

of a dozen new compositions<br />

to prove that he was still a<br />

creative force.<br />

1966 1967 1969 1970 1970 1973<br />

MAY 2016 103


MUSIC LEGENDS<br />

BOB DYLAN<br />

Dylan (1973)<br />

After Dylan briefly left<br />

Columbia, his old label<br />

released this ragbag of<br />

out-takes and rejects that<br />

hadn’t been good enough<br />

for Self Portrait.<br />

Blood On The Tracks (1975)<br />

Dylan dips his pen into his<br />

own veins on a set widely<br />

and justifiably dubbed “the<br />

greatest break-up album of<br />

all time”.<br />

Desire (1976)<br />

Theatrical storytelling,<br />

a couple more great<br />

divorce songs in Isis<br />

and Sa