A Report on the 1998 London HiFi Show

The annual London Hi-Fi Show is the UK's premiere Hi-Fi show and runs for four days, two of which are restricted to the Hi-Fi trade. I have regularly attended the show which is located in two hotels on the edge of Heathrow Airport. This year I arrived in good time for the 10 a.m. opening but not wanting to waste time by joining the queue at the main entrance I headed off to the Excelsior Hotel where I walked along empty corridors in search of music.

By good fortune my first call was at Acoustic Reproduction. I sat down to listen to a couple of tracks and very good they were too. The speakers feature a tweeter, mid range and massive 15in woofer. When the tracks were over the exhibitor and I were still alone and we got talking, it transpired he was the Technical Director of Acoustic Reproduction and the designer of their unique midrange unit. Instead of a cone this unit has a 50mm octagon of carbon fibre sheet which is obviously much stiffer than a traditional cone. This produces a pistonic drive which is used to produce all frequencies between 250 Hz and 10k Hz. To get a flat response within this range the signal is processed digitally and this processing is also used to sharply roll off the signal at the frequency extremes. The total cost of the speakers was quoted at 10k GBP. The exhibitor challenged me to find a better sound at the show and proceeded to tell me all the best rooms to visit. What a great start! The Acoustic Reproduction pistonic drive deserves to be a success and perhaps if it is the price will come down to more affordable levels.

Russ Andrews has always been on my list to visit as he usually has an enjoyable sound. This year he had adjoining rooms with one set aside for the display of his extensive range of audio accessories. In the next was an a/v presentation of the new range of Kimber cables which Russ Andrews distributes in the UK. While there I recognised the massive speakers from previous years vaguely discernible behind the drapes though their sound did not make quite the same impression as the first time I heard them many years ago. On the way out I was able to obtain a complimentary copy of his guide to mains improvement which usually sells for 3GBP, thanks Russ!

Cadence were also located in this area of the show. I can remember the first year they were at the show with what was clearly a prototype. Then the hybrid electrostatic was remarkable both in its sound and in it origins in India. Since then the product has matured nicely maintaining their high sound quality and they now have a range of four models. Also in this room was a new plinthless turntable, the Avid. With its power supply reminiscent of a Naim pre-amp, because of its large round switch, and its patented pronged sub chassis looking like a massive heatsink it is certainly distinctive. No comment about the sound though as it was not playing while I was there.

GT Audio have come up with a new twist to the valve amplifier theme with an amplifier designed to be used as power supply for a turntable, pre-amp, transport or DAC. Two types are available with powers of 25W and 50W.

With the changes in ownership the company has gone through recently it was a surprise but a pleasure to see Quad at the show. They were in the largest suite of the show which was a little too large for the twinned electrostatic loudspeakers on display. Still the ESL988 at 3000 GBP with two mid range and 2 bass panels and the taller ESL989 with 4 bass panels are most welcome.

Absolute Sounds is one of the top distributors of high end equipment in the UK and I was in two minds about whether to visit them. Entrance is by ticket and there is usually a queue to enter and get the best seats. If you are not careful you can spend a large proportion of your day queuing for or locked into presentations leaving little time for anything else. My last port of call at the Excelsior was the Absolute Sounds a/v room but the next available showing was too far in the future so I headed back to the main show at the Renaissance Hotel.

I was feeling quite pleased with myself, I had seen a portion of the show that I had missed in previous years, was back in the main hotel and it still appeared not too busy. I immediately set off to the first floor where the main loop of exhibitors rooms is located. First stop was Wilson Benesch, the carbon fibre specialists, to look at their turntables, arms, cartridges and speakers. Their Circle turntable which debuted last year is cute beyond words and their new Bishop loudspeaker looked impressive in carbon fibre and wood, and so it should be at 20kGBP, but unfortunately these were only static displays.

I wanted to visit the Path Premiere room, distributors of Stax, Lyra and other high end brands. Entry was by ticket only so I got a 12 a.m. appointment. Another favourite of mine is Audiofreaks who distribute Audiostatic loudspeakers which have consistently displayed well over the years. Their demos began at 1 p.m. so I got another ticket. The time flew by till I had to retrace my steps back to Path Premiere. Their demonstration featured an a/v system comprising Revel home theatre speakers, Barco projector, Martin Logan processor and Faroudja line quadrupler. I have only been exposed to a home theatre system once before. A friend of mine, in fact the one that introduced me to Hi-Fi 20 years ago, has recently put together a system and I heard it for the first time this summer. That was inspiring (or should that be aspiring) but the Path Premiere system was far better. Co-incidentally both demonstrations featured the film "The Fifth Element" which is one I must see in full, once I have my own a/v system. I'll swear the picture I saw at the show was better than at the cinema probably due to the line quadruplers but with the cost at 25k GBP I have to question the value of processing power when compared with say the number of high end PCs that could be purchased for the same price.

Emerging almost stunned from the Path Premiere demonstration there was only time for a few more rooms before it was time to visit Audiofreaks where the demonstration was to be gentler. It comprised a comparison of 16bit CD 24bit/96k and vinyl. This was my first exposure to 20bit/96k and I was pleasantly surprised. Compared to 16bit CD the difference was immediately obvious with 24bit/96k being noticeably more refined. The vinyl was last, after the 24bit/96k and the two were much closer to each other than CD. A single track comparison was not enough to tell if 24bit/96k bettered vinyl but the gap was certainly smaller.

Now it was time for lunch but as I headed back to the ground floor I kept being drawn into the rooms I passed. Michell with their new Orca pre-amp and new Alectos power amps. A nice sound was heard from RT Services demonstrating the BKS Audio Hybrid Ribbon Speaker, Basis turntables and Nagra Amplifiers and then found the second Audiofreaks room! Here the Audiostatic DCI direct coupled, full range electrostatic speakers were being driven by a pair of BelCanto single ended triode amplifiers at 3500GBP each and I was well and truly captured, at least till they changed the programme. This room had a surprise in store when the presenter from the first Audiofreaks room entered and declared there was something wrong with the sound. The problem was soon found when he stated that the Audiostatics were a 4 ohm load and switched the amps to their 4 ohm taps. I was amazed at the change this made; the volume appeared unchanged but the sound quality improved to even higher levels. However hunger was becoming ever more evident and I left resolving to return later.

Downstairs I devoured my sandwiches while also devouring the valve amplifier catalogue of CR Developments which had been left lying on the table and who are located only 20 miles from where I live. As I was now on the ground floor of the hotel I continued my exploration of the show there. On this floor instead of being located in vacant bedrooms the exhibitors are either in larger rooms or in stalls set up in the corridors in which case they dont have music. That is except Meridian who were trying to demonstrate an a/v set-up in the open, right next to the main entrance; what a shame and what a mistake as the quality of their system (if quality there was) could not be appreciated in such a location.

London DIY Circle member Geoff Mead helped in the development of the Eros hybrid electrostatic loudspeaker from Inner Sound. He has done a good job as the two units sounded well integrated.

Audio Synthesis, makers of the highly reviewed DAX d/a converter were showing their Transcend transport which in addition to the usual AES/EBU/SPDIF data encodings offers two additional codings which reduce jitter. They also announced a module providing analogue input to their Decade digital pre-amp.

All too soon the time for my departure arrived. I had covered the ground between the over 130 exhibitors even if much of it was only at a cursory level. I realise that this report is not comprehensive or unbiased - it reflects my preferences and presents the things that took my interest at the show. My only excuse is that when I visited it I did not intend to write a report on it, otherwise I may have paid more attention to details instead of enjoying it. Two points occur to me about the show. First the continuance of vinyl and even an increase of diversity in the makes of equipment available in the UK. Secondly the predominance of valve amplification, someone looking for a high end non valve amp would have to look hard for suitable candidates.

For comparative purposes the exchange rate is 0.36 Australian Dollar to the British pound or one pound is 2.8 Australian dollars. We pay between 10 and 15GBP for a CD.

About The Author
Neil Mackie has been a active member of the London DIY Hi-Fi Circle for 5 years. His first DIY project was a Linsley-Hood turner built from a kit. He currently has (and has had for a long time) a pair of Pass A75 amplifiers under construction in co-operation with the Circle's Webmaster Paul Winser. The Circle's site can be found at http://www.earthcurrents.com/london-live/ . He is also a long standing member of the Analogue Addicts mailing list and has compiled the Linn LP12 FAQ for the list ("SUBSCRIBE ANALOGUE-ADDICTS" in subject line to listserv@wavenet.co.uk). He works as a system designer for a bank in the City of London.

The author admits there may well be inaccuracies in this article and takes no responsibility for actions based on them.

Last modified: Fri Dec 21 14:21:38 GMT Standard Time 2001
© Neil J Mackie 1998