With the coming of spring, it's not only the buds of trees and flowers that reach a point of near bursting. The audio blood starts rushing through the veins, too. It seems that the longer days do not only awaken the reproductive systems of flora and fauna but also the more cerebral parts of mankind - the frontal lobes to be precise. In these incredibly complex parts of our bodies, somehow the perception of music can cause the release of all kind of glandular chemicals that gift us with great feelings. Next to music, beautiful smells accomplish the same. In spring, nature starts releasing these smells. When our bodies perceive them combined with music, it produces plenty of happiness-inducing and very legal blood chemistry drugs.
Thus spring is also a good time for audio shows. The season in the European lowlands starts in Antwerp/Belgium. The very active audio and video community congregates at a website called audioforum.be. The driving forces behind the site, Benny Winnen and Marco Isli, identified the Scandic Hotel as being conveniently located on the Antwerp Ring and willing to host their High Fidelity Antwerp show.
Just an hour away from our own Rotterdam, Antwerp is a completely different world. The mere hundred kilometers required to get one there deposit you in another country. The language -- Flemish Dutch -- is roughly the same as in Holland but sounds so much sweeter and far less harsh. The hard Dutch 'g' sound resembles a bad dry cough or a cat trying to get rid of a fur ball. Try pronounce Scheveningen where the 'ch' is that dastardly cough. But there's more to Belgium. Take the appreciation of good food. The Dutch kitchen is based on mashes. Green cabbage & potatoes. Carrots, onions & potatoes. These and others are mashed into a semi-solid, easy to download half-dry slur. Eet smakelijk. The Belgian kitchen is far more refined in this respect. It relies heavily on the appealing French habit to leave things on one's plate recognizable, adding their distinctive native flavors to the palate. A trip to the Antwerp show was thus a good excuse for a long weekend of R&R.
After a good meal, a matching relaxing sleep and breakfast in the center of Antwerp, we were off to the Scandic, with organizer Benny [above] personally welcoming many of the attendees. Admission was more or less pro forma at two Euro. The show covers the ground floor and the two top floors and in that regard isn't very different from other hotel-based shows. What makes this show different is that it's a dealer show. A good handful of audio/video dealers from and around Antwerp use the opportunity to show their wares in a much larger environment than their shops could offer. Contrary to importer shows, a dealer has far more freedom to combine gear of various makes and shapes. This means some interesting combinations were merely waiting to be discovered.
All visitors had to pass by a grand piano with a setup of differently sized bottles of Nicolas Feuilatte champagne in order to reach the rooms at the ground floor - a nice touch before entering the room where the new B&W 800 center speaker formed the heart of the exhibit. Since its very conception, this Nautilus-inspired design was given the nickname Hummer. A well-chosen name that, although Humvee would have been more appropriate - this box isn't plastic.
The way to the elevators led once again past those alluring champagne bottles. On the top floor, the rooms are quite large and accommodated even larger systems. Dealer Alpha High End had asked Dutch supplier More Music to outfit one of his rooms. Harry van Dalen, a true music man who not only runs More Music but also the Turtle Records label, is as happy as a lark when he can entertain visitors with all kinds of music. His system consisted of dCS sources, Pass Labs amplifiers and Audio Physic speakers. At a decent volume, the sound was very realistic even though the room was treated with a bare minimum of acoustic enhancements. Harry practiced the 22-degree setup known from the great CES demos of the deHavilland rooms. Lou Reed's Animal Serenade in this room had a wondrous beauty. With the passage of time, Reed's voice seems to be getting better still. When Jane Scarpantoni entered the virtual stage with her cello, it wasn't easy to control our tears.
What goes up must come down and this is true also for audio shows. One room sounds great and the music selection is daring and revealing, the next room has all the same potential but is ruined by the presentation and music played. The adjacent large room housed Accuphase and big B&W 800 series loudspeakers with the new diamond tweeters on board. Nothing wrong, you'd assume - but the musical sources were audiophile and announced in the same snooty manner. Dianne and Hugh were powerful reasons to move on quickly. A combination of McIntosh and MartinLogan was next and refreshing, with this perhaps not so obvious combination sounding remarkably open and musical. The serenity of the immediacy and openness of electrostatic loudspeakers placed correctly was heartwarming.
That zeros and ones lined up correctly can sound good is proven by TacT Audio time and again. Peter Lyngdorf traveled from Denmark to Belgium to play DJ. One wonders if Peter is ever at home. We meet him everywhere. Oops, when are we at home? The setup in the room was visually strange. In each front corner of the wide room, there was a subwoofer. The two main speakers were placed close to the front wall and well removed from the corners. Without correction, this setup calls for phase problems. Enter TacT's room correction. After a quick measurement and the choice of a correction setting, the whole pictures snapped into place in a matter of minutes. Depth, separation, height -- all the parameters that make up a good presentation -- were accounted for. Being TacT users, we're naturally biased toward this approach but this 100% digital system proved once again that audio matters are still evolutionary. Listening to Deen Pear's bass was sheer bliss though some listeners would clearly have preferred the usual audiophile-approved fare. Not Peter. A big smile crossed his face from ear to ear.
The seventh floor had smaller rooms and one of them housed a Linn setup featuring their new Chakra amplifiers. A small room with all sorts of nooks and crannies takes some time to voice properly and required some unusually creative measures. The subwoofer ended up in the corridor for instance but in the end, the sound was musical and friendly.
Another special combination was that of Jadis and Magnepan. The beautifully crafted French chrome-and-blue amplifier driven by the new Jadis Symphonia Evolution CD player provided a stark contrast to the drab-looking loudspeakers. Isn't it time the Maggies got a new dress? Their sound surely deserves it.
Dutch Daluso loudspeakers made from cast aluminum enclosures exhibited with another Dutch product, the made-in-China Prima Luna integrated amplifier. Things sounded very promising. The setup with two pairs of speakers effected the dispersion and thus imaging but attendees in the room were nevertheless enthusiastic about the sound and cosmetics so who were we to disagree?
The last room we entered proved the most odd - in a positive way. Instead of the common naked bedroom into which some equipment is dropped, this room was fully decorated with a painting, plenty of candles, nice scents to activate the nasal receptors and a very non-audiophile placement of the loudspeakers. On a very heavy German wooden table, a Clear Audio turntable became the source for again a Prima Luna amplifier. The end of the chain was literally a pair of Cadence hybrid speakers placed at either end of the table. The room was full of people happily chatting and smiling. Music, scents and spring are really all you need. Antwerp's Technology Factory understood what it's all about.
Upon leaving the Scandic hotel, the third encounter with the champagne bottles proved too much to ignore. A glass of the bubbly stuff became the perfect finishing touch for the Antwerp show.