Quad, Hales, Audio Physic, Cabasse, WBT---Day 3 at the London Heathrow Hi-Fi Show

Are there differences between an American hi-fi show and the British variety? A few---the biggest is the extent to which all the real business takes place at the bar. This is true for the audio press (okay, not all that different from an American show), but it's true for manufacturers as well. After Show hours, the boozer is jammed with everybody in the business sharing a few pints, smoking, and talking shop. It's not unusual to see business rivals chatting amiably about the state of the industry---and even discussing distribution in some detail.

Yesterday evening I was doing some serious marketing research at the bar (and, Mr. Tax Auditor, I have the receipts to prove it) when I noticed an excited crowd of reviewers and manufacturers gathered in the WBT booth. I joined them to see what all the hubbub was about.

It was about a $300 screwdriver. WBT has produced a torque screwdriver with 18 replaceable bits that has to be just about the sexiest tool I've ever seen. I'm probably revealing how sheltered a life I've lived when I confess that I've never been in a bar where 30 men were standing around fondling a tool, but then, I've never seen anything like the WBT-0481 before. It's massively overbuilt, looking like something constructed for NASA out of machined steel and plated with chromium and gold. It has adjustable torque (factory-set to 0.05 Newton-meters, which happens to be what WBT connectors will bear). It's distributed in the US by Kimber Kable, who are packaging it in a Pelican tool case along with its set of exchangeable bits: slot and Philips screwdrivers, as well as Torx and hex drivers.

Who needs a $300 screwdriver? Probably no one, but once I saw it I wanted one---and I got one. Review forthcoming.

As I continued my research at the bar last evening, my British colleagues filled me with dire warnings about how awful things were going to be when the Show opened to the public today. It did change things, to be sure, but despite the throngs in the halls and the rooms, I think the change was for the better. British audiophiles are not a reserved lot---they're enthusiastic and excitable, and I got a contact high just being among them. The English show, sponsored by Hi-Fi News & Record Review, has to be counted a success---it's crowded and busy and happy.

But that doesn't make things easy, you understand. I haven't had a chance to hear B&W's new Nautilus 801 speaker yet, despite going by their room four times today. The fans obviously really want to hear these speakers. Me too---I'm going back first thing tomorrow, and won't leave until I've secured a place in the demo area.

I did make it over to Quad's exhibit, though. The company has introduced a total of nine new products---the five electronics components that comprise the "99 series," and two new electrostatic loudspeakers. Well, okay, one of the speakers, the ESL-988, isn't really "new"---it's a refinement of the ESL-63 and features greater rigidity, new board materials, a redesigned diaphragm coating, higher-powered audio transformers, new power supplies, and improvements to the delay line. It will retail in the UK for £2999.99/pair. The ESL-989 is about 16" taller than the 988 (and the ESL-63) and is designed to play louder or be used in larger rooms. It will retail for £3999.99/pair.

The 99 series of electronic components is designed to be sold as integrated systems, linked by Quad's data-link and balanced cables. There are three models of power amp: the 90Wpc Model 99 (£499), the 140Wpc 909 (£799), and the 140W Model 99 monoblock. The Model 99 preamplifier/CD player (£1299) and Model 99 FM tuner (£699) complete the package. ESL-63s, which from now on will be made on a special-order basis, were playing when I was in the room---everything new was on static display, so I can't report on sound quality.

However, I did get a chance to hear the Hales Transcendence 5 speakers playing with C.A.T.'s SL1 Signature preamp and JL1 Triode monoblock amplifiers, and the sound was taut, focused, and snappy. Showgoers at HI-FI '98 in Los Angeles gave the T5s a big thumbs-up, and it seemed like the folks in the Excelsior Hotel agreed. The turntable playing Stevie Ray Vaughan's Can't Stand the Weather was called the Stratosphere, and it seemed solidly constructed and quite good at sorting out timing issues. But don't look for it in the US yet---it's barely even distributed in the UK.

Audio Physic was showing a new loudspeaker called the Libra, which is flat-out beautiful. It's a narrow, floorstanding three-way priced at just under £5000/pair in the UK. The Libras were being driven by a pair of handsome solid-state components from Meracus, a company I'd never run across before: the £1395 Tanto CD and the £995 Intrare 50Wpc integrated amp. AP's Berndt Theiss demoed them with Ian Tyson's "Trail Rider's Lament," a song I'd introduced him to when he visited Santa Fe last spring. It was more than a little strange to be listening to the desert winds blowing through the room to the accompaniment of howling coyotes while I eavesdropped on a pair of London audiophiles comparing Show notes. But it was instructive---the Libras are superb at low-level resolution, even though the first thing I noticed about them was their impressive bottom-end response. While an American price has not yet been set, they'll be imported by Immedia.

Cabasse's floorstanding 3-way Skiff loudspeaker ($3000/pair) was another impressive performer. Fed by Conrad-Johnson's DF-2 CD player and driven by Bel Canto's 40Wpc SETi remote-control integrated, the Skiffs sounded vibrant and credible. I listened to Stereophile's recording of the Mendelssohn Sextet on Encore (STPH011-2), and as pianist Christopher O'Riley galloped to bring the piece to a conclusion, a small crowd formed in the room---drawn, I'd like to think, by the ripping good sound and infectious energy of the performance. I left the disc with Christophe Cabasse so that he could provide an (ahem) encore. The crowd stayed too, but I had to press on. I have one more day to go and a lot of Show to cover.