Hifi Pig reader Ken Stokes rather enjoys his first audio show. 

I recently attended my first ever audio fair, The North West Audio Show, held at Cranage Hall in Holmes Chapel and additional venue, Wychwood Park near Crewe.  It seems because I have never been to any kind of audio show before, this has earned me the dubious reward of being asked to write up my impressions as an audio show newbie for Hifi Pig.  I consider this an honour. I am aware there are several other write ups of this event so I will try not to repeat comments made by others.  Well, apart that is from perhaps gushing a little bit about one or two of the truly awesome systems present and moving substantial quality air.

5360470 - colorfull candy sweets isolated on white background

5360470 – colorfull candy sweets isolated on white background

I would have to say that my first thought, other than the excitement, after booking a room for this event around 5 months ago, was the reluctant realisation that I was opening a can of the proverbial that might leave me feeling my system was seriously lacking.  A concern for me, the idea that perhaps I had not spent my money as wisely as I hoped!  We all know where that idea leads I’m sure. Also, possibly an even bigger concern, that I might have to re negotiate hifi allocated budgets and spends with my wife after several years of ‘well this will be the last upgrade…would this result in yet another upgrade itch?

Perhaps I should at least start by giving an impression of why I was going to an audio show in the first place after 60 years of avoiding them. Two years ago, after ten years of no box swapping, I decided to upgrade my amplifier and CD player (yes I know, fatal).  A small windfall on the cash front gave me a brief window of opportunity before the wife could think of good reason to say no.  I duly did my research, upgraded from my 10 year old NAD integrated and equally ageing Arcam CD spinner to a Roksan M2 integrated and matching M2 CD spinner.  Of course the upgrade itch had set in.

It wasn’t long before I started to think that my ten year old Monitor Audio Silver 6’s were maybe not up to delivering what my new boxes could offer.  I can hear all the old hifi enthusiasts laughing in some arcane ethereal hifi netherworld while I type this piece, obviously the audio junkie had reared and as cheerfully as I could muster the subject it was broached with full (IDF) Interior Design Factor charm offensive to placate the aforementioned significant other. Her brow creased instantly of course, because she had spotted the signs and she of course knows better!  Anyhoo, as so oft said in the Simpsons by Homer’s neighbour, I pressed on. This audio upgrade game is not for the faint hearted.

This time my upgrade route took a very much more in depth and measured approach.  I had learned a few things since buying the Roksan boxes.  This was thanks to joining several audio/hifi groups on Facebook, I had gained some real insight about how to assess and progress.  When I bought the Roksan I had bought to a large extent on magazine reviews, a listen in a shop demo and frankly a good deal. By now for speakers I had a notion that more was at stake and room acoustics, cosmetics and matching with those Roksan boxes…I spent around 6 months home with demos, cable changes and even experimenting with room treatment.

I really felt I had learned a great deal.  I eventually chose a pair of Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand SE’s.  Once chosen following home demo with a 2nd hand pair I had decided that I wanted a new pair, frankly the 2nd hand ones were less than perfect cosmetically.  With no UK distribution this proved a little more taxing than the average purchase, but after chatting with a nice chap in a hifi shop we came up with a plan.  However, that is another story! I eventually received my new speakers, new speaker cable and new balanced XLRs.  I felt like a proper hifi enthusiast. I had learned lots and now a fully fledged member of several Facebook hi fi groups.  Of course I was going to a hifi show!  Be crazy not to…

So back to Carnage, sorry I mean Cranage 

My involvement with the Facebook groups and reading the online Hifi Pig articles plus my upgrades had really wetted my appetite.  I wanted to know if I could make any other tweaks to improve things.  I told myself I might ‘skirt round the edges’ and maybe look at further mains cable upgrades…honest, that was it.  OK yeah I’m lying again.  I was considering an upgrade for my ageing Mini Disc player that I was using as a DAC for my laptop so maybe a stand alone DAC?  Maybe a uni player such as the Oppo and upgrade my bluray as well?

The anticipation for Cranage really started to mount knowing that Oppo were to have a stand, that Schiit UK would have a stand and of course there would be lots of other kit to marvel at, right?

Well I wasn’t wrong!

Once I’d sorted basic housekeeping and stuffed my bag in my room I was eager to see if I could get a sneaky preview of any rooms while they were being set up.  I arrived the Saturday afternoon the day before the main event.  Of course this proved disappointing because I soon learned that exhibitors couldn’t start setting up ‘til much later, in the evening in fact.  Anyway, I figured have a beer, explore the place a little.  I must say Cranage is a lovely venue, two bars and nice grounds. I won’t elaborate on this as I know others have, but suffice to say it is a good venue.  Lots of decent size rooms and nice grounds etc.

That evening I met up with my fellow Facebook audio conspirator David Robson and we headed for the bar..for a coffee.  Soon to be thwarted in our sober intentions by Hi Fi Pig stalwarts Stuart and Linnette Smith and a few other serious hifi associated drinking buddies.  We had a very enjoyable evening.  I also started to realise that my research had only started to scratch the surface and frankly much of the discussions was techno babble to me, but I would have to say that all were very willing to explain when asked.  We even had a sneaky preview in a couple of rooms, not fair really because the exhibitors had not set up properly, but more than enough to whet my appetite. I knew there was going to be some very serious kit being used! 

North West Audio Show commences!

The following day the audio onslaught commenced following a fulsome English breakfast.  Food was good.  After breakfast David and I decided to get a little fresh air before the show was to actually commence at 10a.m.  We didn’t make it to the front door, well not for several hours.  It was like being in audio heaven.  A real hifi enthusiasts sweet shop, even though officially open battle had commenced in several rooms and I guess I at least was like a rabbit being stared at by a cobra…

Frankly much of the kit was way, way above my budget, but to be honest that really didn’t matter.  I knew with some of the more exotic and pricey kit that if you need to ask, as the saying goes…  It was though absolutely fascinating to see what is possible, what no expense spared really can buy.  Kit ranged from things that looked wacky, to kit that really didn’t look so different to what I have.  Speakers approaching 10ft high and cables as thick as anacondas that looked to have sections in the middle with a digesting animal stuck in place.

However, there were also real world (well for me on my limited budget) kit as well as the exotic.  One thing I realised quickly, just because it looked exotic and was probably excruciatingly expensive it may not mean it would be to everyones’ taste.  I heard both, kit I was totally drooling over in a completely unashamed manner and kit that, even though a bit pricey was not for me.

I found the Magico room breathtaking.  I know I will likely never be able to afford that kit, but boy was it good!  I also loved the Mark Levinson room, Divine Audio and the Egglestone Works speakers, the Zellaton Legacy loudspeakers, Kralk Audio and Alan Clark’s Kralk BC-30 speakers (although I know he was disappointed to be let down by a component supplier and consequently unable to bring a pair of his freshly minted Elite speakers, a real leg up), the Swiss Soundkaos room and their new open baffle Libération was also very interesting.

I could literally wax lyrical about how good the good was for pages and pages more, I saw stacks of kit that I really would love to own and also visited the specific rooms I wanted to regarding my own personal upgrade ideas.  I could have spent days at that show.  Literally I think I probably missed around a third of the rooms at Cranage and because it was so late in the day I saw what was on offer at Wychwood in a very hurried manner.  I didn’t get there ‘til almost 4 in the afternoon and I needed to get back to Yorkshire for around 7 in the evening.  To be honest I should have booked a room at Cranage for another night.  I missed the live performance by Scott Wainwright at Wychwood because I had to leave before his performance started. I understand his gig was very much enjoyed by those who did attend.

One room I did manage to visit at Wychwood was Colin Durridge of IQ Speakers.  I really wanted to check out the IPL speakers and his new NORD Hypex NCore D class amplifiers.  He was clearly in a room a bit too big for his kit, but he freely admitted he had booked late.  Despite this I was still impressed.  I know that Class D amplification has been dismissed for years by many audio junkies…I mean aficionados and audio enthusiasts..oops.  Anyway, as I say I was impressed with both IPL speakers and the build service Colin offers and those Nord amp packages which surprise surprise are actually within my potential upgrade budget.  I was also very impressed with the electrostatic speakers and D Class amps being demoed in the HI FI Hanger room at Wychwood.  A special bonus, I had never heard electrostatic speakers before and I was very impressed.

So was it worth it?  You bet.  I loved every minute of the show and will definitely be going to the next.  Yes there is stacks to see and listen to and I defy anyone interested in audio bliss to not find something of interest.  There were talks, presentations, manufacturers who you could ask direct questions of and more quality sounds at every level than you could shake a stick at!  I loved it, checked out some great kit, assessed re potential upgrades, but more than that…it was a pleasure to meet people from the Facebook audio groups I have been involved with and share a few shandies with them.

Oh and those upgrades?  Did my kit measure up?  I guess to be fair I think my set up did measure up, least within my spend.  I realised that I have spent reasonably wisely.  I also realised that there maybe some ‘tweaks’ I could make and I might have to navigate a few negotiations with the Mrs….

It might require caution, it may even get dangerous, but my wife likes a quality bit of audio as well and guess when those Nord D Class amps arrive with an Oppo 105d for home demo we will cross the well worn bridge acceptance then!

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