Preconceptions, don’t you just love them. My first visit to the North West Audio Show – aka Cranage for its location – looked like it was going to be another small regional show. Friendly, not many brands, attended by men of a certain age (so expect tube amps). But fun, they’re usually fun.

I wasn’t anticipating three large floors of exhibits, the lovely venue or the high quality of the rooms (there were far fewer ‘duffers’ than most shows). Okay valve amps were out in force – not ideal when the weather’s hot to start with. But the clientelle was thankfully more mixed, attendance was good and, to a person, exhibitors were very positive.

As usual you had to hunt down equipment appropriate for HiFi Starters, shows just don’t focus on it. No worries, there was plenty of eye and ear candy to take in (the car park alone was petrolhead heaven). So let’s dive into the show, photos to the fore with a few supporting words.

HiFi Starters fayre

iFi’s tiny GO Link dongle DAC with matching tiny price (£59). It sounded good, and with a dedicated connector there’s no need for an On-The-Go cable (Android) or Camera Connection Kit (iOS). A review is being organised.

Equally small for a desktop DAC, the bijou iFi Uno (£79)

Parasound’s Z range focuses on smaller, slightly more affordable devices, including this Zdac V2 at £679. It’s actually a DAC, pre-amp and headphone amp in one, complete with balanced outputs. We hope to review it.

There are also two phono amps. The Zphono XRM is the dearer one at £749 – as can be seen it’s pretty flexible – or go for the non-XRM version at £379

Chord’s tiny Mojo 2 DAC is a perennial favourite, even if the price has crept up to £499. 

Best Sound at Cranage

ATC’s brutish SCM150ASL active speakers (£23,150). Spaced 5m apart, the sound was concert hall realistic, helped by Chasing the Dragon’s fantastic recordings (it was their room). Total (digital) system cost < £30k.

Other notably good sounding rooms

Sometimes show systems just don’t click, expensive equipment sounding good but not special. Usually the room has a lot to do with it. When it all comes together the sound can take your breath away though. Here are a few rooms at Cranage that did just that. And it wasn’t just the expensive ones.

Tannoy Stirling III LZ Special Edition (£12,000) speakers driven by Nagra Classic electronics (power amp £15,500 etc). The room was big enough for the speakers, which sounded dynamic and clear. Second-best sounding system at Cranage

ATC SCM50ASL active speakers (£15,600) driven by a £5,300 Auralic Altair G2.1 streamer. Despite the small room the sound was fantastic, making ATC my brand of the show.

Kudos 707 speakers with Chord Electronics. Big room, big sound, erring slightly on the warm side of neutral. Not something I normally associate with Chord or Kudos, but it sounded lovely. 

Low light equals grainy picture. The sound from Kudos 505 speakers (£9,700 inc stands) and Chord Ultima amp (£8,495) was anything but grainy though.

The lowest bass heard at the show was from Amphion’s Krypton 3X speakers (£17,600) driven by Hegel (P30A/H30A – £24,000). Nor was the system a one-trick pony, the overall sound was very polished.

Powered by Primare electronics, the Falcon LS3/5a was jumping like there was no tomorrow (yes I looked for a subwoofer.) Rioutously good – like your grandad throwing shapes on the dancefloor and just nailing it.

Another dark room (excuses excuses!) The £6k KEF LS60 was pumping out electronic bass when I entered. Or so I thought. Turns out it was the new R3 Meta standmount (£1,999) that was playing. Gobsmackingly good.

In the dedicated headphone room I had my first listen to Stax’s headliner, the SR-009S with SRM-T8000 tube energiser. Gorgeous. £8,300 or thereabouts.

Distinguished mentions

KEF’s big Blades fitting remarkably well into a pseudo domestic scenario. Although I’ve heard them sounding better – the room was adding some warmth to procedings.

REL’s big No.32 subwoofer (£10k) was on hand to help the KEF Blades. ‘Like they need it‘ thought most people. Until they joined in.

A smorgasbord of Audio Note UK electronics playing through AN-E/D speakers. A room that finally made me ‘get’ the Audio Note speaker sound – very detailed, plenty of bass but pretty darned neutral (I normally find them warm).

Sorane’s SA-1.2 tonearm (£1,870) certainly stands out. Behind it sits the more conventional TA-1 (£1630) that would look great on my Garrard 401.

The Kii Three BXT System may cost close to £30,000 but packs in a host of technology such as room correction as well as full amplification. Let’s just say it didn’t struggle to fill the room.

French speaker brand Diptyque (new to me at least) did a good job of colonising Cranage, being used in several rooms. Isodynamic speakers rather than electrostatics, they all sounded really rather nice.

Huge (50cm deep). Heavy (30kg). Two massive 845 tubes for power. Say hello to the £13k Viva Egoista 845 headphone amplifier. 

Mola Mola’s unassuming and small Tambaqui DAC (£9,999). Top drawer digital replay according to those who’ve reviewed it. Colour me lustful.

Naim nostalgia – a rework of the original NAIT 5 amplifier. £2,699

I’m guessing that’s £200k of electronics (the dCS Rossini alone is £40k, the Burmester CD player £18k). Impossible to say what it sounded like given the open room. Oh and someone had an open Coke can sitting on a £120k dCS Vivaldi!

The detailing on d’Agostini amplifiers is impressive. The pre-monoblock setup powered Magico S3 speakers. If you have to ask the price you can’t afford it.

Distributor Mian Audio was showing the £1,495 NuPrime Omnia AS300SE streamer / DAC / amplifier. Which makes it an all-in-one, just add speakers. It packs a punch too, with 2 x 150W to hand.

Lumin’s T3 streaming DAC is yours for £4,195. With an ESS9028Pro DAC and Leedh lossless digital volume control, plus Lumin’s excellent app, it’s one to consider. Beautifully finished too, like all Lumin gear.

Might the collective noun be a ‘loveliness’ of Accuphase?

Naim’s new Classic 200 series electronics were used in several rooms and always sounded stellar. £5,700 each for the streamer, power amplifier and power supply.

Pro-ject turntables were also prevalent, this Xtension 10 at £3,250 plus cartridge looking particularly sultry. That platter weighs 5.7kg. 

The New Horizon 101 turntable hails from Italy. £499 complete with Audio Technica AT-91R cartridge. It’s in a very competitive market sector but UK distributor Mian Audio is confident it can hold its own.

A mixed Schiit and Topping system from UK distributor Electromod. With Golden Ear loudspeakers it sounded very nice indeed. Boys was that room warm though!

Node Audio’s HYLIXA Signature speakers divide opinion, not least because of their £33k cost. My good friend Chris Kelly reviewed them and was impressed though. One to get up close and personal with methinks.

Dali’s Epicon 6 was the most sumptuous speaker at the show. £9,999 is expensive but the perceived value is much higher. Oh and now I know what Dali stands for!


And finally a couple of faces that stood out from the crowd.

My old friend David Spiers, one time manager at Manchester dealer The Music Room. He didn’t have to work too hard to part this fool from his money (Kinergetics CD player anyone?)

My new best friend – Lee from Acoustand. Purveyor of hand-made plinths for Garrards, Thorens and the like. Yes, that’s my new Garrard 401 plinth in the boot. Me, excited? Nah!

The Wrap

Overall the show was a big success. Pleasantly rammed on Saturday, visitor numbers were also steady on Sunday despite it being Father’s Day. And it all felt a bit different. There were several dealers hosting rooms, which saw some interesting combinations of gear. Big players like KEF sat alongside many smaller outfits. Live music reminded us what it’s all about. And the vibe was nicely relaxed, not least because of the venue, which shone as much as the sun did.

I’ve mentally booked my tickets for next year. By which time I might actually have got my Garrard 401 installed in that shiny new plinth! In the meantime I’ll be chasing the review requests made to several exhibitors at the show. Watch this space.

It just remains to say a big thanks to organiser Kris Sawicki and his team, plus media sponsors HiFi Pig (hello Lin & Stu!) who all did an excellent job.