Great sound; great music! Day Two at England's The Hi-Fi Show 98

Wandering around the halls of the Heathrow Renaissance Hotel, I saw and heard a lot more affordable audio on display than I've seen at most American shows. This makes sense. After all, this is a consumer show (or it will be tomorrow---yesterday and today were trade days), and, while consumers want to fantasize about the state of the art, they also like to see kit they can actually own. Me too.

Acoustic Energy knocked me out with their £149.95/pair Aegis One loudspeaker, which employs a 25mm silk-dome tweeter and a 130mm aluminum-alloy cone woofer. These speakers sounded brawnily superb hooked up to an Arcam Alpha One integrated amplifier ($399) and an Arcam Alpha 8SE CD player ($1249). The entire system cost under two grand, but it stopped me in my tracks, unlike many costlier systems, forcing me to listen to song after song from Tracy Chapman's debut disc.

The Musical Fidelity room was also making beautiful music, with an entire system composed of its X-series components: the super-cool X-Ray CD player ($1200), the X-P100 remote-control preamp ($1200), and a pair of X-A200 ($1200) 200Wpc monoblock tube amps driving a pair of Kelly loudspeakers. On closer examination, however, it wasn't the X-Ray making the music after all, but a Pioneer DV5 DVD player feeding 24/96 to the $450 X-24K D/A converter. Nope, that's not a misprint---it's a 24-bit/96kHz processor that costs only $450. And it doesn't skimp on features either: the X-24K takes two digital inputs (one with a choice between TosLink and electrical S/PDIF, the other S/PDIF only), it has a digital recording loop and special low-jitter clock-recovery circuitry, and it can process 96, 88.2, 48, 44.1, and 32kHz digital inputs. I can't wait to get my hands on one, and I won't have to---Musical Fidelity will be shipping them to the States next week.

Of course, there were systems to fantasize about as well. I particularly enjoyed hearing Sonus Faber's newest speaker, the $14,000/pair Amati homage, in a system that included Audio Research's new LS25 line stage, the VT200 power amp, ARC's DAC5, Theta's DaViD, and Transparent Cable. These full-range, floorstanding, 3-way speakers looked scrumptious, of course, with the curved, lacquered wooden casings we've come to expect from Sonus Faber. They sounded even better than they looked. At the press conference launching them, tenor John Oakman sang "Vesta la giubba," accompanied by an orchestral disc, and the integration between his live voice and the orchestral accompaniment was uncanny---the recording was as vibrant and immediate as his voice. Sumiko will be introducing these amazing speakers into the States in late October.

Franco Serblin, the Amati homage's designer, charmed the assembled press with his sincerity as he spoke of his love for the three great luthiers of Italian history---Guarneri, Amati, and, of course, Stradivari---and of how they inspired him to create his homages. "I traveled to Cremona," he confided, "and asked the craftsmen still practicing there, 'What was the secret of these brilliant instrument makers?' One wise man told me, 'There is no secret: greatness lies in the man and the work.' " The same could be said of certain speaker builders.

Just down the hall, I heard another spectacular-sounding demo featuring an exquisitely crafted loudspeaker: the Avalon Eidolon ($19,500/pair), which was accompanied by Conrad-Johnson's $7995 Premier 16LS (the single-chassis version of their ART preamp), C-J Premier 8s, and Resolution Audio's VT-900 CD/DVD transport ($3500) and D-92 D/A processor ($1500). I was thinking it sounded fairly magnificent when Classic Records' Mike Hobson whipped out his latest batch of 24-bit/96kHz DADs, which included Sam Phillips' Cruel Inventions (DAD 1013) and Terry Evans' Blues for Thought (DAD 1014). Hooo-weee! Those discs really got the room rockin' and rollin'. The Eidolons are not reticent loudspeakers; they showed presence and control. I, on the other hand, did not---I boogied to 'em.

But for all-out slam, I heard nothing today that rivaled Linn's flagship system: a $60,000, totally Linn-built setup that included their CD-12 CD player, a pair of Keltik loudspeakers quad-amped via their Aktiv crossover with four Klout amplifiers, and augmented by not one, but two Bass Extensions (that's what Linn calls subwoofers). Marketing guru Brian Morris asked if I'd heard Spyboy (Eminent EM-25001-2), Emmylou Harris' new live album featuring Buddy Miller. Goodness gracious, yes indeedy, it's got the Wes Phillips stamp of approval, so we promptly cued up "Deeper Well" and really cranked it.

Now, you've got to understand that the Renaissance is at Heathrow, home base for the Concorde, and that overgrown fighter plane is loud---so noisy that, when it takes off, every car alarm within two miles is tripped. We had the Linn system playing so loud that aircraft queued for take-off were phoning the hotel asking us to turn it down, but the sound was coherent, crystal-clear, and absolutely distortion-free. And the bass was tight enough to bounce a quarter off of. I loved every minute of it!