FESTIVAL OF SOUND 2018 SHOW REPORT AND GALLERY
The Festival of Sound celebrated its debut last month, even though technically this was the third year for the team presenting a show at Novotel London West.
It was a brave decision to essentially go back to square one after two years as the Indulgence Show. I was there for the first Indulgence, and it certainly had plenty of promise. However, this year we welcomed the Festival of Sound for the first time, and we were there for all three days.
The change in name signified a shift in focus by the show organisers. Now the show covered the primary aspects of music and its enjoyment. I applaud this idea as it placed live music performance and recorded audio presentation at the same event for all to enjoy.
On the subject of live music, the organisers did a fantastic job with the live room. The gig room had a large stage supported by the Bowers and Wilkins Sound System hi-fi grade PA set-up. Moreover, the variety of the acts taking to the stage had something for everyone. I was suitably impressed by not only all the performances I enjoyed but also by the professionalism of the light and sound. I tip my virtual hat to all the hands behind the scenes as well as those at 'front of house'; you all deserved many beers.
Space. The festival frontier.
The Festival Of Sound may have been rumoured by some to have been quiet or poorly attended (more on that later); however, I think one thing that may contribute to that feeling is the amount of space that attendees had to move around. Never before have I been able to wander the corridors and halls without having to say continually "excuse me", or "sorry, can I just squeeze past". This spaciousness was not merely due to low numbers; it was due to careful planning (I assume) and booking a venue fit for purpose.
Regarding the tales of low attendance numbers, where it is true that footfall seemed small, especially on the Friday, I have heard positive noises coming from both visitors and stallholders alike. Those with stands seemed happy with the number of sales/serious enquiries in comparison to what some in the trade would call "tyre-kickers". The visitors to whom I spoke liked the airy feeling of the venue, and I have to agree.
The rooms were generally larger (apart from Audio Note's broom cupboard/server room) and had more room inside. I also liked the fact I could enjoy some quality listening time in each room closer to the sweet spot. Having the event spread out over three days also meant that I could spend time talking with representatives from the manufacturers.
Additionallly, I feel that I should mention the travel disruption caused by the Piccadilly Line tube strike on Friday which took out the main route in from Heathrow to Hammersmith which caused the obvious hassles for representatives flying in as well as customers. Also, over the weekend four other lines feeding Hammersmith were suspended due to engineering works. These transport niggles will probably have had an impact on visitor numbers although, most Londoners will have figured their way around just as I did.
Regarding the rooms, I have to say that I found the sound within the rooms better than those at some other hotel-hosted shows.
Festival of Sound hi-fi highlights
KEF was showcasing their new R-series speakers. They share more than a passing resemblance to the Reference but boast a more advanced UniQ. The new R-series feature the 12th-generation UniQ, the new speakers also get a cleverly designed grille. Additionally, the R-series is available in three different sizes of floorstanding speakers to choose from as well as the bookshelf and home cinema centre speaker.
KEF's Dolby Atmos demonstration was terrific. My first visit was during a presentation of the 2-channel system next door, so I was told to come back later. I'm glad that I did. They were playing Hans Zimmer's live concert recorded in Prague. The sound was outstanding.
I was looking forward to hearing Audiolab's new very affordable 6000 range of products. The 6000A (£599) and 6000CDT (£379) were paired with Wharfedale D300 speakers (£200). This entire system costs £1,178 all-in and so ranks extremely highly in the bang for buck stakes. It really did sound impressive and received many nods from equally impressed visitors.
After dragging myself away from the Audiolab demo, I noticed the brand new Audiolab M-DAC Nano. The price and specifications piqued my interest, and I was told that we'd be getting official word soon.
Blue Aura was showing their very affordable valve amplifiers and speakers. My other half inherited my X30 desktop speakers, and they still sound pretty good. Blue Aura continues to produce attractive, small, neat and very affordable hi-fi components that certainly look the part. The company's valve amplifiers are a case in point with their V30i Blackline costing £379.
Naim and Focal weren't pulling any punches at the show. Armed with their Grande Utopia Speakers (£130,000) plugged into the Naim Statement Amplifiers (£125,000), that's a partnership that never fails to make me smile. Focal was also showing their brand new Kanta No.3 speakers with the latest Naim electronics and amplifiers.
Vertere Acoustics were also pulling out all the stops; this was a genuinely impressive room. In fact, I had to visit it on each of the three days I attended. The walnut-finished PMC MB2 XBD-SE speakers naturally made an impression as soon as you glanced into the room but it was the entire system that made me stay. The FM Acoustics electronics and Vertere turntables worked wonderfully with the prominent PMCs speakers.
While we are on the subject of large PMC speakers, in another room the brand's fact fenestria (£45,000) partnered with AVM Audio monoblock amplifiers and Bryston front-end electronics. I have to admit that I wasn't blown away on first listen. The reason could have been the track, where I was sitting or that I hadn't quite woken up yet. However, I did revisit the room on the second day and found it a much more enjoyable listen.
Computer Audio Design, Trilogy Audio and Wilson Benesch loudspeakers had joined forces to create a fantastically British room. Here visitors were treated to the CAD CAT (£12,000) and 1543 MKII DAC (£8,950), Trilogy's brand new 915R Reference tube preamp (£14,995) and 995R Reference Hybrid Monoblock amplifiers (£11,250 each) feeding the Wilson Benesch Resolution 2.5-way speakers (£35,500). The components were supported by a Wilson Benesch R1 HiFi rack where each level costs £4,950.
The interconnects and power cables were also CAD items ranging from £600 to £3,995 although I did spot that Gekko Cables were providing their speaker cables. This room sounded outstanding and expensive rigs doesn't always mean a great sound.
Chord Electronics was showing their new Hugo M Scaler and Etude Amplifier which was hooked up to Raidho speakers. Bowers and Wilkins were also using Chord Electronics with the DAVE, Blu MKII M Scaler and monoblock amplifiers powering rosewood B&W 802 D3 Loudspeakers (£19,500).
Auden Distribution's room was home for Amphion Speakers as well as American-brand Role Audio. Role Audio was being represented at the show by the Enterprise SE floor-standers (£4,5000) and the Discovery stand-mounts (£1,300). These were being driven by an Accuphase DP560 CD player (£9,700) and the new E650 Class-A integrated amplifier (£10,500). The combination was simple and very effective although, I had not taken much notice of the rack until the representatives decided to swap them over for a MusicWorks PEEK version.
If you have any doubts that a frame can make a difference, what I heard in that room would be powerful enough to change almost anyone's mind. The cabling and power supply/conditioning were MusicWorks, of which I was particularly interested in the Reflex Ultra Gen 3 power distribution block (£999). Also on display was the RePlica acrylic speaker stands (£850 for the pair).
Over in the ProAc room, the sounds were being provided by Michell Engineering's timeless turntables. The team included Sugden Class A electronics, and it was all being presented through the ProAc K3 speakers. The resulting sound was very natural and pleasing.
It is always a delight to find something new, and at this festival, I was introduced to Cambridge-based Node Audio Research. The simple, uncluttered room really suited the fussless HYLIXIA speakers (£27,000) which were being demonstrated. Company Director, Ashley May explained the speaker's unique spherical transmission line called "Helical Bass". The design extends the bass response from the small egg-shaped speaker cabinet constructed from glass particles and nylon 0.2mm layer at a time (just don't say 3D printing as the method used for the HYLIXIA is much more specialised). The upshot of all that is the HYLIXIA can reproduce lifelike instrumentation in the room. These speakers were extremely impressive in their transparency and musical detail.
Marantz had a very special guest in their room, announced by a multitude of posters dotted around the exhibition. Audio industry legend Ken Ishiwata was performing set demonstrations of the company's new 40th Anniversary Ruby KI amplifier and DAC. The Marantz equipment was feeding Q Acoustics Concept 500 loudspeakers.
Wire On Wire's products are familiar to me through the magic of the interwebs, so it was great to take time to chat to Chris Bell, the maker himself, about them. These rather unusual interconnects and speaker cables are tuneable by the grace of adding spacers between the interweaving individual wires which is said to alter the cable's geometry. You can opt to buy a set to tune yourself or purchase sets that are already set up to present a particular sound signature. I was fortunate enough to be in the room when Chris brought a set of the ready-to-go speaker cables to the guys of Node. I was allowed to stay as they swapped out the existing speaker cables that they had been listening to for the past two days of the show for the Wire on Wire pair. Opening their little test session with some solo bass work which is one of their reference tracks the expressions made between the Node guys spoke volumes. It will be interesting to see if the next Node speaker demos will be partnered by Wire on Wire speaker cables. I hope so.
I fell in love with another simple yet effective set-up in the Renaissance Audio room. The great VPI Avenger turntable was partnered with SimAudio's recently announced Moon 390 streamer (£4.800) and Moon monobloc amps. The front-end was feeding the incredibly dynamic Dynaudio Special 40 speakers. The entire set up (and coffee maker) were hooked up using Nordost Heimdall cables.
Yamaha announced themselves as sponsors of the show and had a good range of equipment on display. Although, aside from the flashy self-playing piano out in one of the corridors, I had seen everything on show at IFA. I was disappointed to see that they hadn't brought any of their 5000 series over though as I am sure it would have been a great attraction.
Chats and gigs
Bookending my first day at the show was live music, which I have entirely no problem with. Upon arrival, I caught Chris Difford of Squeeze fame's set. As an aside, I was later introduced to him as "currently one of the UK's hottest hi-fi journalists". For some reason, I felt that I had to point out to Mr Difford that I'm really not that sexy. The Friday night ended with a set interspersed by chat from JJ Jeczalik and Gary Langan of Art Of Noise. The Bowers and Wilkins Sound System was put to good use that night.
There was also live music played around the show, most notably on one of the landings. Here I stopped to enjoy a string trio as well as a jazz band as I moved from floor to floor.
I was impressed by the variety and number of presentations going on over the show, even though I couldn't make many of them due to meetings. The Chris Kimsey one was of particular interest although a timetable change meant that I missed that one too (but there may be something special coming in that regard reasonably soon). I did, however, manage to make GIK Acoustic's David Shevryn's presentation regarding room treatment which was as entertaining and informative as my earlier chat with him indicated it would be.
Head-Fi was well represented, but I fear I may have spoilt myself by attending Can Jam London earlier in the year. Although, saying that, it did not stop me from visiting Electromod's stand to have another listen to the Mr Speakers and Schiit Audio combos. Nor did it prevent me from spending more time with my current crush, the Meze Audio Empyreans being driven by Benchmark electronics.
Festival of Sound 2018 final thoughts
The systems that made the most significant impact on me were the ones in the Vertere room and the Wilson Benesch/CAD/Trilogy set-up. I always enjoy the Focal/Naim high-end pairing, but a special mention really needs to go to the Audiolab and Wharfedale partnership for their great performing system.
I think the show organisers did an outstanding job of pulling everything together and I for one believe that the combination of live acts, seminars along with a well thought out hi-fi show worked and offered something for everyone. Too many hi-fi shows are aimed purely at 'audiophiles' rather than music lovers. I think that shows need to cater for the established audiophile with deep pockets but they should also remember that the future of the industry is dependant on getting new hi-fi fans interested by encouraging music lovers and showing them that it is not only big budget systems that can impress and delight.
There was a fantastic atmosphere at the venue, and everybody I spoke to seemed to be really enjoying themselves. The free cold bottled water stations were also a nice touch.
All at StereoNET UK are looking forward to what Festival of Sound 2019 brings and rumour has it that the entire StereoNET Global team will be present for the next one. We wish all the people involved the very best of luck for the next event.
StereoNET UK's Editor and Bass playing gadget junkie. He's captained the GadgetyNews good ship for over a decade, making low jargon high tech a very handy thing. His passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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