The ‘Bristol’ System

System Details

Digital / Pre-amplifier Meitner Audio MA3
Power Amplifier Norma PA-150
Speakers Wilson Benesch P1.0
Approximate Cost: $39,000

Cables

Interconnects Audience Conductor SE interconnects at the required lengths
Speaker Cables Audience Conductor SE speaker cables at the required length
Power Cables Audience Au24 SE-I power cables at the required lengths
Meitner Audio MA3 Integrated DAC with Streamer & Volume ControlWilson Benesch P1.0 Precision Series 2-Way Stand Mount Speaker

How does it sound?

We can all appreciate the way a great system can make us feel but if those magical moments can only be experienced in a dealer’s showroom, then they will not enrichen our lives the way a great sound system is supposed to. The reason these systems exist is to connect us with the joy of music whenever we want it.

So we’ve been listening to many combinations of equipment looking for that elusive ‘magic without breaking the bank’ experience. So why has it taken so long? Well, for a system to appear here on our website, it has to possess first and foremost an exceptional sound and these sonic standards are simply not negotiable. We appreciate that there are many brands out there that sell well, or are considered good, or are promoted & hyped by reviews, forums, influencers, etc but when we bring them in for an audition, we often feel underwhelmed and uncomfortable about recommending them to people.

So imagine our collective joy when we finally heard a combination of components that gave us that ‘jump out of the chair high 5’ moment.

Let’s say that you’re in the market for a great sounding system and you’re not into analog. You want real audiophile quality but within a conservative budget. You don’t want ten boxes sitting in your lounge room and you don’t want huge speakers dominating your space. But you want superb sound, certainly much better than the common, mass produced mid-fi brands offer you at a typical hi-fi store. If this is you, welcome to our ‘Bristol System’. Two components with a pair of compact speakers that will leave you speechless.

This system sounds highly resolved. Meaning that it has an ability to extract a lot of musical information and micro-details from the recorded file and communicate them as a cohesive whole. Present them as an intricate, precise sonic picture with all of the tonal, timbral & spacial cues in order. It also means that the timing of the music is spot on, and as many people have commented, the PRAT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) is at the heart of a musically satisfying experience.

However (and this is a BIG however), most systems that are highly resolving PRAT specialists tend to have some characteristics which are undesirable to some listeners. They tend to focus so much on the definition of each note, that they can sound a bit etched, slightly bright and fatiguing to the ear. Sometimes in an effort to get all the details out and presented to the listener, they lose a bit of tone and ‘naturalness’ and they start to sound like hi-fi, like a poor facsimile of the real event rather than resembling the real event.

In order to avoid that common pitfall, hi-fi equipment tends to get very expensive. There are many ways to produce a detailed, information-rich sound without the etch & fatigue but these ways are expensive to implement. This is one of the reasons this system is so special. It overcomes those common issues to give you a highly resolved yet natural, easy, flowing, enthralling sound. Lots of detail, without the ‘digit-itis’.

You know what happens when you can hear more musical information but in a natural, non-fatiguing way? You hear more of the very essence of what’s giving you the enjoyment. It’s like the difference between a glass of Johnnie Walker Red Label and a glass of Sullivans Cove French Oak Single Malt. Both glasses contain whiskey but… very different experiences.

This system is fun! It has all the qualities to keep the most ardent audiophile happy but it just hunkers down and plays music in a way that makes you forget about all that audiophile stuff and just get lost in the artist’s story. It is a music explorer’s dream. Using the built-in streamer, you can connect with Tidal or whatever music streaming service you prefer and go on a journey, exploring any musical rabbit hole your heart desires. You will never feel that the sound quality can get better. It’s like an open portal to the limitless universe of music libraries and playlists out there with a license to enjoy them at their full potential.

It also sounds like a bigger system. Despite its modest dimensions, it has a big expansive sound, large soundstage and great tonal character. It communicates the fundamentals of the music with a solid grass-roots practical ease and a touch of whimsical sophistication. Perhaps the greatest feature though is that it forms the basis of a system that can be upgraded in the future should you want to ‘up the ante’. You can easily replace the cables, power amplifier or speakers to shift your experience up to another level while maintaining that compact form and giant killer sound quality.

Why does it work so well?

The heart of this system is the Meitner MA3 which has been one of the most anticipated releases in recent years and has actually surpassed expectations. Imagine if Bugatti decided to release a sports car under $50K. Very unlikely, I know, but just go with it. If they did, wouldn’t it be a mouth-watering proposition? Imagine driving an affordable sports car made by the same people that make a $2m hyper-car. With their expertise & pedigree, imagine how they would design and spec it. Imagine what it would be like to drive!

This is certainly a colourful analogy but it’s not far from what the MA3 represents. Ed Meitner brought DSD technology to life and has been at the forefront of DAC development for decades. He’s a legend in the industry and the EMM Labs DV2 and DA2 DAC’s at a shade under $50K are considered among the very best money can buy. So when these people decided to build a one box solution with a DAC, a streamer and a high quality volume control, everybody sat up to listen. When they announced that it would have a RRP of only AUS16K, it shocked the audiophile world. Naturally, expectations were high but when you actually hear it, you realise that it is very special. You can literally keep this as your digital front end and spend four times as much on your other components – it’s that good.

The reason it sounds so awesome is that it incorporates high-end technology to cultivate & maintain signal purity. It keeps the signal circuitry as short and as simple as possible while incorporating their amazing MDAC2 fully discrete single-bit 16xDSD DAC technology. The all-important volume control is the VControl™ which maintains the input signal without re-quantisation. This produces complete transparency at any volume setting, wide attenuation range and no loss of audio resolution. There’s just nothing at this price point with this level of wizardry out there!

This carefully managed signal then gets handed to the Norma PA-150 stereo power amplifier which is designed with a very similar philosophy. Nothing unnecessary in the design, just what is needed, designed to amplify the signal with pristine purity. Hand built by Enrico Rossi in Cremona, Italy, the Norma stable of products have an heirloom quality presence. Using designs refined over 20 years, military standard build quality and highest performance componentry, there is a real elegant efficiency with these products that cannot be communicated in photographs.

The Norma has a clean, articulate, powerful sound. At this price point, it has an unusually transparent, sophisticated presentation. All of the music is there, projected evenly, tonally correct and everything in its right place. If you are used to amplifiers that are designed to emphasise the mid-bass or mid-range or are engineered to ‘tame’ bright electronics or any of that type of ‘voicing’ that is common place, this amplifier will be a revelation to you. Many people that have heard this system have expressed that they now realise that their previous system çoloured the sound. The Norma just gives you the unadulterated truth. In some ways, the Norma is like ‘cleansing the palette’ sonically, and the resulting musical experience is very rewarding.

The Wilson Benesch P1.0’s are the cheapest speaker in the Wilson Benesch range and that is actually a great thing. If you can buy a speaker for this price that is made by the same people who make the globally acclaimed $300K Eminence speaker system, then yes please! The P1.0’s are a conventional looking 2-way stand mount speaker with some serious trickle-down technology from the more expensive models. Key to their sound is their in-house designed and built Tactic II drive units with Isotactic Polypropylene cones. This cone material has a unique balance of stiffness with exceptional damping. The key to this design is the serious reduction in transient response time compared to other driver technologies. It also uses the Leonardo tweeter with the proprietary Neodymium magnet ring and the decoupled polymer-carbon fibre faceplate which also appears on the Eminence.

The P1.0’s are well balanced music communicators. They have a solid sound with weight behind each note, dynamic energy, a touch of warmth, a hint of smoothness and a very fun, engaging overall presence. The bass has weight and the mid-range is tonally convincing but the overall feature of these speakers is that they are fast and lack that resonant character that can often smear the micro details. They communicate the ebb and flow, the light and shade, ‘the gestalt’ of the music on a clean, open canvas.

We used Audience Conductor SE cables with great results. Audience cables are very musical and the Conductor SE represents spectacular value. We chose it because it’s a relatively cost-effective cable that facilitated the flow & cohesiveness of the sound very well indeed.

This system can be described as ‘honest and enjoyable’. If a system has a strong sonic character of its own, it will present every piece of music through the lens of that character. Recently, a client bought in this push-pull tube amplifier for us to listen to and told us that it had a very ‘romantic’ sound. We played a few tracks from a 70’s punk album and a thrash metal band through this amplifier and it tried to make the music ‘beautiful’. This music is not supposed to be beautiful!!. It’s supposed to sound angry, aggressive, in your face. That’s the whole point of this music and that’s what the artist is intending.

No such issues with this system. Every song sounds different. The resolution and neutrality of the electronics ensure that each track is expressed with its intended energy and emotion. The speakers ensure that it gets communicated without sounding too analytical or too mushy. The combination of all of these elements working together results in a system that you can sit in front of all day and just explore one track after another. You may forget to eat, to contact your loved ones and even forget what day it is.

Earlier we mentioned that a great sound system should enrichen our life and connect us to the joy of music whenever we want. Mission accomplished – in spades!

Norma PA-150 Power AmplifierAudience Au24 SE-i Precision Power Cable

What changes could you make to the system?

If you wanted to save money, but maintain the sonic qualities and synergy of this system, you can try:

  • If you can place the speakers up against the back wall and have at least 1.2m between the speakers and the side walls, you can substitute the P1.0 speakers for a pair of Larsen 8.2 speakers. They will project the sound very differently to the Wilson Benesch stand mounts but they are worth considering. Have a chat to us if you are considering doing this.

If your budget extended a bit further and you wanted to upscale this system, you can try:

  • The first thing that we would do is to upgrade the cables to the Audience Au24SX series. They are a bit of a jump in cost but they are a significant sonic upgrade. The sound will become more relaxed, more natural & there will be a slight hint of this aural inner glow within the music, yet it will increase the dynamics.
  • Replace the Norma with the Aesthetix Atlas Signature Series power amplifier. The Atlas in its Signature specification is another giant killer product, possessing an incredible sound for the modest cost. Compared to the Norma, it has a slightly more tonally rich, layered character. The increase in power to 200W also gives the system more grip & drive.
  • It is perhaps in the speaker selection that you can make the most difference in this system because the electronics are so good, they can easily support a significant investment in speakers. If you want to stay within the same sonic palette as the P1.0’s then it is a great idea to consider the P2.0’s or the P3.0’s. With each successive upgrade you get significantly more bass and a bigger, more expansive soundstage.
  • If you would like a more ‘audiophile’ sound, the Wilson Benesch Vectors are unbeatable value. The geometry series technology results in a very neutral speaker that sonically disappears and gives you exactly what’s on the recording, nothing more, nothing less. The bass is fast and tuneful and the speaker feels like a precision instrument. Whereas the Precision series is full bodied, forgiving and fun, the Geometry series is a microscope into the recording. If you want to keep moving in this direction and climb to greater heights, the A.C.T. One Evolution speaker would be superb, as is the Discovery II with a Torus Infrasonic Generator. Now you have taken this system into another galaxy.
  • If you would like to experience the many benefits of an omni-directional speaker, including an open, linear, distortion-free soundscape enveloping you, then any of the German Physics speakers would be a great choice, but only recommended if you have changed the amplifier to the Aesthetix Atlas Signature or another higher powered amp because these speakers need more power to be at their best.

Why Bristol?

Situated in South West England, Bristol is full of surprises. It is only the 11th largest English city in terms of population and rarely attracts much media attention relative to other English destinations. However, Bristol was selected in 2009 as one of the world’s top ten cities by international travel publishers Dorling Kindersley in their Eyewitness series of travel guides. The Sunday Times named it as the best city in Britain in which to live in 2014 and 2017, and Bristol also won the EU’s European Green Capital Award in 2015.

Visiting Bristol is a rich cultural experience but distinctly different to other parts of the UK. It’s considered a centre of excellence for the creative media, electronics and aerospace industries with a chic techie vibe. It has two universities which give it a youthful, progressive feel and the city-centre docks have been redeveloped as centres of heritage and culture. The food scene is delectable and one gets a real sense of community when exploring its treasures. Bristol is famous for trip-hop and drum and bass, due to local music acts Massive Attack and Portishead among others. Understated, not clambering for your attention but once discovered… it’s a fountain of good times and interesting experiences. This is a city full of surprises.

This system gives us that feeling. Research audio gear at this price level, and your attention will be drawn to lots of other brands that pop up in promotions, fire-sales, google searches, green-guides, etc. But take the time and discover this system and you will never look back. It is an entry portal into the world of true high-end sound. Just when you think you’ve discovered its measure, it does something that makes you shake your head.

By the way, what’s the largest hi-fi show in the UK?

The Bristol Hi-Fi Show.

Full of surprises!

We love the quintessential British hi-fi system. Often designed for smaller listening spaces, British audio gear traditionally focuses on PRAT, imaging, accuracy and a leaner, faster more agile sound. With a similar set of virtues, the Bristol system tips its hat at the British audio ideals and celebrates music.

Bristol