The mighty B&W Nautilus 801s, Chord, and Naim wrap up our coverage of the UK's main event.
Martin wrote the book on pace, rhythm, and timing, of course, so you expect his systems to swing---and they do. I came to the UK with CD-R dubs of Stereophile's recent recording sessions involving the Jerome Harris jazz quintet, which I really wanted to hear on Martin's rig. These undedited, un-EQ'd rough mixes sounded marvelously alive through Martin's system, especially the start/stop herky-jerky rhythms of Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," featuring Ellington alumnus Art Baron on trombone. Can't wait 'til you get a chance to hear it too. (It's scheduled for release in January.)
We also played tracks from Emmylou Harris' newest, the live Spyboy (Eminent ER-25001-2), which reinforced my already high opinion of its worth; its dynamic range is little short of breathtaking, especially as played on the Wilsons powered by the mighty Krell monoblocks. I rode all the way back to the Renaissance Hotel with a euphoric grin.
And, since Martin and I had done no "research" at the Show bar last night, I woke up bright and early this morning and ran downstairs to catch the day's first demo of the B&W Nautilus 801s. Turns out I was so anxious I showed up an hour early, but the folks running the booth were sympathetic and started a private session for me.
The speakers were running off of bridged Chord SPM1400B amplifiers (£4210), a Chord CPA 3200 preamp (£3785), Chord DSC 1500 DAC (£4135), and a Denon DPS1 transport. B&W had a programmed musical presentation prepared that showed off nicely the system's rather remarkable strengths: Elgar's Symphony 3 in a BBC Symphony Orchestra performance under Andrew Davis revealed them to be wizard at reproducing the ambient signature of a specific concert hall, as well as the extraordinary tonal color of a symphony orchestra; Madonna's "Frozen" flashily highlighted their deep-bass solidity; and a track off of Marc Cohen's eponymous debut album demonstrated that they excel at getting out of the way of emotional nuance.
Perhaps the Nautilus sounded a little too emphatic at the bottom, but that could be the room---always a potential culprit at shows. It could also be a case of B&W designing a speaker for the American market. Nor am I convinced that the tweeter was fully integrated with the remarkable midrange driver, but we'll see about all that when we get a pair in Santa Fe. But I liked what I heard enough that I did something I'm a little ashamed of. I asked if they'd mind playing "The Mooche" for me.
Playing an unedited, un-EQ'd raw take in public is rather like showing off a medical specimen or asking someone to read your unedited copy---in polite society, it just isn't done. But the staff indulged me, and I'm glad they did. Now I understood the 801 Nautilus.
As the track unfolded, I heard every nuance, every change in Jerome's fingering, every change in Art Baron's embouchure, every stick change on the cymbals, every stop and start in the rhythm . . . every detail that could be coaxed off the CD-R, in other words. There's a reason you'll see the older 801 in recording studios all over the world---the monitor heritage of the Nautilus series probably means that they, too, will soon be cropping up wherever recordings are mastered. They make a superb tool for monitoring purposes, and I want a pair in Santa Fe when we make our final editing and mixing decisions before signing off on the jazz disc.
Does this also make the 801 Nautilus a great speaker for home use? Not necessarily---and certainly not for every listener---but accuracy isn't a bad place to start from in designing speakers. All I can say for now is that anyone looking for a speaker in the $10k+ price range ought to add the 801 to their must-audition list.
Having had such great experiences with the Chord amplification in the B&W demo, I thought I'd hear what Chord was doing in its own room. Getting great sound out of the Wilson Benesch Bishops (no US price set yet, but somewhere between $35k and $40k/pair) was what. These floorstanding three-ways have eight bass drivers per side in an Isobarik configuration. They're quite striking---you see the backsides of four woofers, which are mounted facing in toward the aluminum front baffle.
I expected a speaker with so much obvious woof to sound overly authoritative, but the sound was robust yet delicate. The Chord electronics in evidence in the room included the SPM 5000 amp (£14,570) driving the woofers, the SPM 1200C (£3790) on the mids and highs, the CPA 3200 preamplifier (£3785), and the 24-bit DSC 1500 DAC (£4135), fed by a Wadia 6 transport.
The Chord electronics are beautifully designed and finished, and both the B&W and Chord rooms were characterized by first-rate sound. Their stuff isn't currently distributed in the US, but they seem be in the final stages of arranging for a distribution deal. Expect to see it Stateside by Christmas---and check it out.
Tube lovers with long memories will remember that Stereophile spilled some positive ink on Beard amplifiers in 1987. Well, Bill Beard is back with a gorgeous-looking 30Wpc integrated, the BB 30-60 (£1495-1595, depending on finish), that features zero loop feedback. It sounded warm and punchy driving a pair of Veritas Model 7s, and attracted admiring crowds on both Public days. There's no US distribution at this time.
Another amplifier that hasn't made its way across the pond yet is the 40Wpc Lavardin Model IT integrated (£3200). M. Lavardin has spent 12 years researching what he calls "memory distortion" in audio circuits, a subject you can read about in some detail on his website. I can't speak for his theories, but his system, which included a pair of ARS La Diva stand-mounted two-ways and a Helios 1 CD player, was certainly doing something right. It wasn't the last word in tonal refinement, sounding a little rough and edgy, but it swung like the devil on Stereophile's recording of the Mendelssohn Sextet (Encore, Stereophile STPH011-2). Chris O'Riley's athletic pianism fairly crackled with electricity, and several passers-by from the hall outside were pulled in to the room and silenced by the brisk inevitability of the final movement's progression toward the conclusion. The Lavardin IT serves as a potent reminder that the High End, at its best, is about the excitement of music.
Excitement was certainly what Naim was serving in their room. They've been busy in Salisbury---new at the Show were the £5000 NBL (Nested Box Loudspeaker), as well as the CDSII CD Player ($11,550 with XPS power supply). The NBL is a refinement of Naim's philosophy of using separate enclosures for the different drivers, but this time out they've enclosed the separate enclosures in a skin, which makes the speakers stronger, and easier to ship and move about. They're also beautifully designed and finished in a Po-Mo Deco kind of way.
The CDSII uses a Philips CD7 transport with a tuned leaf-spring suspension. Naim has also suspended the main circuit boards, which feature totally discrete circuitry. Digital data are routed to a PMD-100 HDCD decoder/digital filter and then to a pair of Burr-Brown PCM 1702-K 20-bit D/A converter chips, which, Naim says, sound superior to the 24-bit ones available. The unit has 25 low-noise, regulated power supplies on the main circuit board, four on each of the two analog output boards, and another three on the servo board. Additionally, the XPS power supply, which powers the whole thing, has six separately regulated, very-low-noise outputs.
Naim has also added a new de-jitter circuit to the CDS, which, they claim, will put the CDSII's jitter below the noise level of Paul Miller's test equipment.
I was struck by how undigital familiar discs sounded. The sound was focused and coherent. There was detail, but no sense of it overwhelming the overall picture, which remained musical and very, very relaxed---but we're talking Naim here, so it was also lively and totally engaging.
Show sound doesn't get much better than the Naim room was getting, so I decided to end my visit to the Hi-Fi Show 98 on a high note and called it a Show. Next year's Show will be in the Hammersmith Novatel, so we're all ringing down the curtain on a 16-year tradition out here at Heathrow Airport. It's been a grand run, but one of the most enduring certainties of the High End is that everything changes. Hi-Fi News & Record Review should be congratulated on establishing---and continuing---such a class act. It's been grand.