Heathrow Penta Hi-Fi Exhibition Report
A look at the shape of things to come in the recording world.
With the apparent demise of the Harrogate show, Link House's August Bank Holiday event at the Heathrow Fenta Hotel, London assumed centre-stage position among the summer's hi-fi exhibitions. A broad cross-section of manufacturers and importers were present, and it was good to see a shift away from video, computers and so on in favour of traditional domestic audio.
The major talking-point in hi-fi circles over the past year or so has been the merit or otherwise of the Compact Disc system, and as a result of this, a large proportion of the exhibitors were using CD players as part of their demonstrations. The standard of demos from those manufacturers actively engaged in making the players was disappointing, however. Philips, who invented the system and co-developed it with Sony, contrived to produce a thoroughly ghastly noise using their new separates and loudspeakers 'designed specifically to complement the potential of digital audio'. The casual visitor would have been wrong to write off the system there and then, however, as Marantz (themselves a subsidiary of the Dutch company) were putting on an excellent demo of CD's capabilities, using their own much-respected 'Esotec' power-amplifiers and small loudspeakers.
The best CD sounds of all were to be found in the rooms of exhibitors promoting auxiliary equipment rather than the system itself. Bose were a case in point. Well-known for their PA systems and ludicrously expensive in-car set-ups, they were producing some truly thunderous sounds using the CD version of Phil Collins' 'Hello, I Must Be Going', amongst others.
Conventional analogue disc is far from dead, however, as anyone who visited the Tandberg room will tell you. Using the esoterically-designed (and priced) Dais turntable, the company were putting their 3012 integrated amplifier through its paces using a pair of their own (very underrated) loudspeakers. As is so often the case with such demos, the overall quality of the hardware on show only served to throw into light relief the inadequancies of the world's record pressing plants.
Tandberg are also world-renowned for their range of semi-professional cassette-and open-reel tape decks, though once again, poor software quality precluded a proper evaluation of these products. For the record, the 3034 cassette-deck seemed a good compromise for those unable to dig up the necessary £1300 for the company's state-of-the-art 3004 model.
Still with semi-pro cassette-machines, TEAC were showing for the first time their Z-7000 mastering deck, which seems destined to compete pricewise with the big Tandberg. The 7000 is top of a range of their decks, all of which feature three noise-reduction systems (Dolby B, C, and dbx) for indecisive hiss-haters, separate heads for record and playback, and gold-plated input/output jacks. Not surprisingly, the Z-7000 sounded excellent playing a dbx demonstration tape through a pair of JBL monitors, and it won't be long before one or other of the range finds its way into a goodly proportion of small studios.
On the amplifier front, few could have missed the Mark Levinson room, which contained no fewer than five ML-series power-amps, a pair of JBL's biggest domestic monitors, and a Studer A80 two-track mastering machine modified with Levinson electronics. The amps deliver 25 watts per channel (rather more in bridged mode) of pure-Class A power, but cost a few pounds the wrong side of £4000 each... Levinson himself was not available for comment, but it is known that his range of modified tape-machines sell in surprisingly large quantities to American 'purist' recording engineers.
More realistically, MOSFET amplifiers have become as big in domestic audio as they are in the professional world. Even ultra-conservative Yorkshire company JE Sugden are utilising MOSFET's in their 128 pre- and power-amp combination. As originally launched, the pre-amp (the C128) boasted a whole range of features, but this model has now been supplemented by the C128SL, the suffix being short for 'straight-line'. This device implements a theory long-espoused in hi-fi circles which states that the fewer obstructions you put in a signal's path, the closer to the original that signal is likely to be. So the C128SL has nothing more than the bare essentials, ie. a volume control, an input selector and an on/off switch. In addition to sounding better than the C128, it's also cheaper and - dare I say it - more aesthetically pleasing.
Revox are perhaps best known for their tape recorders, but they also make hi-fi separates, and the B251 is the latest in a long line of expensive, facility-laden integrated amplifiers. It features infra-red remote control, an LCD peak program meter, and a preamplifier section consisting of only one PCB, which obviates the need for long current paths and the noise and distortion they usually entail. The B251 was being demonstrated alongside the B261, its matching (and equally costly) tuner. One interesting point is that the amp's remote control unit can also be used to convey instructions to a B77 tape deck or a B710 cassette machine if the owner has these to hand.
There are more speaker manufacturers in Britain than just about any other country in the world, and a wide selection was on show in August. Bowers & Wilkins were showing their 'digital ready' mini-monitors, in addition to the established 801 and 802 series, the former being the choice of almost all major record labels for classical music studio monitoring. Both these speakers utilise a separate enclosure for each drive-unit, and have been criticised in the past for producing a tonally incoherent sound balance, though it must be said there was little evidence of this at their demonstrations.
Two of this country's most popular domestic speakers are the Quad ESL-63s and the Celestion SL6. The latter model has now been supplemented by a 'turbocharged' heavyweight design, the SL600, which should retail at around the £600 mark. Driven by a pair of Dr Thomas power-amps (another MOSFET design), they lived up to their reputation of being one of the most accurate-sounding dynamic speakers around.
The Quad ESL-63 is not, of course, a dynamic speaker. It uses the electrostatic principle, and even at over £1000 a pair (nearly twice as much as the original ESL), it has become one of the world's bestselling loudspeakers.
Quad as a company have been enthusiastic backers of digital audio from the start (indeed they put on one of the first public demonstrations of the system at last year's Harrogate show), and both their pre-amps have line inputs designed specifically for the new medium.
Choosing an overall 'best demo' for the show as a whole is difficult, but judging from my brief visit, I'd say the new Pierre Etienne Leon speakers from France, driven by the Sugden 128 combination with signal supplied by the classic Linn Sondek turntable would just about have taken the gold medal amongst some stiff opposition. It may have been an expensive show for exhibitors, and attendance may not have been as high as the organisers had expected, but it was still an enjoyable occasion, and the overall standard of demonstrations was higher than it ever was at Harrogate.
Show Report by Dan Goldstein
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