Australian Hi-Fi & AV Show 2017

Iconic images come to mind as soon as Sydney is mentioned: the Opera House, a cricket ground which has seen so much England misery over the years, famous beaches and that bridge. All picture postcard stuff.  Less well-known is the InterContinental hotel that hosted the 2017 Australian Hi-Fi & AV Show, featuring more stereo and less home theatre than its title might suggest. But that was no bad thing.

Still jet-lagged on the event’s opening Friday I returned in a more compos mentis state over the weekend to listen to the array of high-end systems being demonstrated. The acoustics of smallish hotel bedrooms on the 21st floor did little to help sound quality, while vacuous space in the huge seminar rooms on level two brought their own sonic challenges. Certainly the best-sounding dems were those which paid attention to room treatment and others which ensured that careful equipment choice and music selection didn’t exacerbate resonances.

Krix Altum

In the first room I visited Unison Research valves, courtesy of the Unico 150 flagship integrated, partnered the line-up from leading local speaker brand Krix which boasts a 40 year history in the market-place. I was introduced to the AUD $6,500 Altum bookshelf being launched in a variety of finishes. Imaging was above its class thanks to the meticulously engineered waveguide for the Scanspeak Revelator tweeter which not only reduces distortion but controls directivity, generating a soundstage much larger than expected from an enclosure of this size. Shipment begins in September and it sounds promising.

D'Agostino Momentum Lifestyle

Would an audio event anywhere be complete without an enormous space being dedicated to Wilson Audio? Here it was courtesy of Audio Connection who drew a crowd with a system that included Gryphon and Nagra. Despite the total system price, I didn’t class it as producing one of the ‘best’ sounds of the event. The brands on display read like a high-end dictionary: Arcam, Dali, Dan D’Agostino, Linn, Steinway Lyngdorf.

Kii Three

Feeling rather homesick, admiring the SME 20/3 turntable produced close to my Sussex home, the Pure Music Group room offered a friendly welcome as I enjoyed the diminutive Kii Three active loudspeakers in stunning high-gloss white. An involving sound with bags of clarity and impressive timing left a lasting impression of these German masterpieces which, needless to say, have impeccable build quality.

In a huge ballroom, hundreds of chairs were arranged in conference mode for a series of seminars and live musical performances. During my visit the stage was taken by Australian vinyl guru Mark Döhmann, taking time to give his attentive audience a revealing insight into setting up an analogue system. There was also the odd plug for his own Helix One and Helix Two turntable creations that were to be heard elsewhere at the Show. Later in the day singer Fiona Joy [Hawkins] was to be performing live at the venue, her evocative combination of piano and ethereal vocals winning awards wherever she goes it seems. With entry fees to the Show of AU $28 a day (over £17), it was good to see the Chester Group organisers offering some added value for visitors.

Redgum electronics and Kantu floorstanding loudspeakers

Diving into one room, and admiring the impressive view of Sydney Harbour, I discovered two further brands on home soil. Redgum likes to be known for its ‘bullet proof’ MOSFET amp designs, all Australian designed and made. The real-wood fascia plates add elegance to seriously impressive sonics. I noted ‘sweet, delicate and natural piano forte with open and highly transparent sound’ coupling with Legend Acoustic’s Kantu speakers from the Australian brand’s reference range (AUD $4990 pair), producing highly enticing musical sounds. 

Dynaudio Special Forty standmounts with an Aurender A10 streamer atop Bryston amplification

Dynaudio decided on a corner suite but left the connecting door between the two rooms open, which made any meaningful sound evaluation almost impossible. In the larger area was a chance to sample the new Special Forty Anniversary (shouldn’t this be ‘Fortieth’, I couldn’t help wondering?). Locals were lapping up the experience in droves so, before being crowded out, I made a tactical withdrawal next door to unearth one of the best sounds of the event.

DPS turntable and Harbeth P3ESR standmounts

Here the affable Aleksandar Maksimovic from Audio Magic was working with Sydney dealer Cameron of Crispy Audio. My first visit here was while the shoe-box sized Harbeth P3ESRs (rather like the ones in my own listening room) were playing soulful jazz and effortlessly produced a huge sound from the tiny enclosures. Rarely do these masterpieces fail to impress and, in smaller spaces such as this, they really come to life. Later I returned when the much larger Super HL5plus were playing and the effect was far less pleasing in such a confined space. But the affordable P3/Lavardin amp and Lindeman source combo was just magic, Audio Magic!

Marantz SA and PM 1451 electronics with Jamo C 109 floorstanders

Proving that at hi-fi shows you have to make the best of what you have, Qualifi had judiciously stuffed a pair of [clean] socks up one of the rear ports on the mighty Jamo floor-standers in use, and placed them along the room’s long wall – in contrast to most other rooms which opted to fire their speakers from the short wall, in front of the window. The results were impressive and I lingered a while to absorb the sheer musicality from a brand I’ve not really enjoyed so much before, and to chat with Jamo’s man here, David Campbell who played me some delicate violin courtesy of Joshua Bell. The performance had real poise and was a delight to listen to. Finished in a pleasing walnut, the AUD $7,490 C109s were carefully partnered with Marantz electronics, the AUD $4990 SA 1451 SACD player and AUD $5490 PM1451SE stereo amp. Impressive stuff all round, with a very coherent sound from this three-way design featuring a pair of 7inch woofers, a 7inch mid and 1inch decoupled tweeter per enclosure.

Elemental Watson headphone amplifier

In a room crammed with all manner of on-ear and in-ear headphones in every conceivable colour and shape, my eye was drawn to a valve powered headphone amp in a clear-acrylic enclosure. The Elemental Watson is a tube design from a Taiwan, USA and Japan collaboration which offers plug ‘n’ play for AUD $309. One of the niftiest things at the show this highly-efficient Class-A MOSFET/valve hybrid sounded pretty impressive as well. I was less comfortable with the miniaturised in-ear ‘phones from Japan’s Fitear (too much like hearing aids) which would be a AUD $700 purchase to consider in more detail.

Leaving the window blinds up revealed magnificent views but they could be highly distracting as was the case when attempting to listen to Triangle speakers from France partnered with Krell and Musical Fidelity electronics. The music chosen during my brief stay was hardly a match for this iconic Sydney scene featuring the botanic gardens on a bright winter’s day when the outside temperature was above 20 degrees.

DeVore Fidelity 0/96 Orangutan

Being presented with a pre-printed sheet detailing all the equipment being played allows maximum time to absorb the sound rather than having to scribble frantically as over-zealous sales staff outline their line-up. Such was the situation as I sat back and prepared to be transcended by DeVore Fidelity 0/96 Orangutan floor-standing speakers from Brooklyn, resembling as they did mini wardrobes that are not unlike Audio Note/Snell speakers in appearance. They feature 10 inch paper cones with phase-plug and 1 inch silk-dome tweeter with a powerful double-magnet motor system which is gently horn-loaded. Driving these were new -to-Australia Linear Tube amplifiers, also from the States, and featuring ZOTL technology by top amp man David Berning who spent 25 years perfecting his valve designs. Results were impressive with a wide soundstage and immediacy to the performance. A large digital SPL meter on the floor revealed some 70dB of background noise before anything was played, such is the level of hubbub at a hi-fi show. Once up and running, here was a hugely dynamic system which had the capability to play very loud and yet remain clean and detailed. 

Döhmann Helix 1

With a space devoted to vinyl, it was possible here to sample the Australian creation which is the Döhmann Helix 1 turntable, all AUD $80,000 of it. Alongside, the mighty Ypsilon 200W Aelius power amp and matching PST100 pre plus CDT 100 transport and DAC, it made for a truly high-end combo that extracted immense detail from the variety of vinyl played. The space probably didn’t do justice to a high-end system of this calibre and I’m convinced it had more in reserve, given the right surroundings. Nevertheless, the London Grammar album If You Wait was portrayed with realism and listener involvement, and certainly had visitors’ feet tapping.

Bricasti M12, M1 and M28 electronics with Tidal Diacera speakers

Tidal’s Diacera goliath floor-standers were ably coupled to the latest Bricasti electronics, a brand which is finding much favour down under. The partnership is of Bri-an and Cas-ey, former Lexicon engineers who were among those to bale out after the Harman takeover. Now their creations are found worldwide with new models appearing to meet market demands. Thus the M1 DAC was gestated from what began as a one-off single-bit converter for personal use. It will feed the M28 monoblocks directly using a digital volume control but, demand for a hi-fi pre-amp intensified and so M12 was launched – basically an M1 with a top analogue section to cater for phono. Then followed the M5 stand-alone Network Player. Soon the Mahler was playing and I was in my element, absorbing ‘Veni creator spiritus’ as Solti’s CSO filled the room.

Audio Research and Sonus faber

Shows throw up surprises and here I heard models from the Sonus Faber (perhaps a ‘brand of the moment’ as some are suggesting) Homage Tradition range on top form. For starters, the floorstanders obviously welcomed the AUD $50,000 Audio Research electronics collection of LS28, VT80, PH9 and DAC 9. A deep, open and spacious reproduction with wide soundstage and throaty vocals emerged from a 1958 Tennessee Ernie Ford recording to create one of the most enjoyable sounds of the event. The chairs were comfortable and the welcome warm. I lingered here for a while to soak up the music and rest my weary frame, which was still coming to terms with the 11,000 mile journey from England.

Prism Callia and ATC SCM19A

ATC active floorstanding SCM19A speakers were being used to showcase the latest DAC/pre-amp combo options from Prism Sound of Cambridge, UK. Known for their professional audio range, the brand’s popular in Australia among audiophiles too, I discover. Distributor CDA Pro Audio was enthusiastic about the future of encouraging greater hi-fi use of such well-engineered and sturdily-built studio equipment. The audience were enjoying the ATC domestic model which projected vocals well into the second row. Meanwhile, the Prism Callia is USB equipped to offer plug-and-play, plus a headphone output for personal listening. [Note to self: wouldn’t mind getting my hands on one of these to try!]

Osborn speakers with Consonance and AM electronics

As the temperature outside reached a stifling 23, inside an all-valve room it was almost too hot to handle. Alas, therefore, my visit to hear Australian Osborn speakers (the choice of the Sultan of Brunei, no less) was not as long as it might have been. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this one-man company (founded back in 1984 by Greg Osborn) boasting no fewer than 25 models, has a certain something. The mighty Epitome Tower References were playing when I arrived; they had a most involving sound quality about them with a refined, warm tonal balance. These four-way, 110kg heavyweights rely on a 25mm soft tweeter for the delicately detailed treble and 26cm paper cone with Nextel coating in the bass unit for thunderous LF, the system was crying out for a larger room. Electronics here were by AM Music and an ingenious-looking Consonance CD5 ‘Droplet’ 24-bit 192kHz up-sampling, top-loading valve CD player at AUD $3450.

Crystal Cable Minissimo

Resulting from an effort to create a loudspeaker cabinet with continuously curved walls is the Crystal Cable Minissimo stand-mount. Visually unusual yet obviously sonically competent, they have been well received since their launch. Playing them in ‘free space’ was undoubtedly helping to create a very natural sound. Peter Wu was on hand to outline his portfolio which includes Spec, Einstein, and Telos conditioners, grounding devices, cables and tuning accessories.

Audio Note turntable, amps and speakers

With speakers spaced well apart and pushed into the room corners, Audio Note attracted its usual niche following with a complete system that sounded most inviting. It was my last room to visit on an increasingly warm Sunday afternoon with few visitors to a hi-fi show when the lure of so many beaches was close at hand. So it was a delight to take advantage and enjoy a selection of musical repertoire all selected not to heighten room resonances.

And so it’s off to Melbourne next year as the Show moves 900km west. When it’s there, I’m told, it’s not only larger but also much better attended. Meanwhile a rival show is poised to hit the same city in November and it remains to be seen whether exhibitors are willing and able to support both. The saving grace I’m told is that they are each marketed to separate audiences, so both could thrive, potentially. That’s the hope of many in the industry over here, at least.

Trevor Butler