chicago-axpona-2018 Part 2: Thomas and Wright
Dave Thomas Reflects
My feelings about high-end audio shows over the last five years have more resembled a typical relationship breakup; increasing disinterest followed by acerbic apathy. Think I’m kidding? Just go back and read my report on day one of the 2014 AXPONA show. It took my brother and fellow StereoTimes writer, Mike Wright to catch me in the parking lot and keep me from blowing the whole show off.
Like so many other people, I have started to back away from attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, something that I never thought I’d ever do because I love going to Vegas. One of my guilty pleasures was hanging out near the Sands Convention Center (which was adjacent to the Venetian) and watching all the audiophiles slip into the Adult Video Network (AVN) expo to check out the latest offerings from Vivid Video, Evil Angel, Penthouse, Digital Playground, Wicked Pictures, Naughty America and Bang Bros. At least, that’s what I was told. Not that I know anything about the porn industry… Uh, anywho…
But just like in some relationships, your significant other can put on some sharp new clothes, spritz on a new fragrance, and then remind you of just how wonderful they could be with just a little more effort. That’s what the 2018 AXPONA show felt like this year. Suddenly, I’m looking forward to a long and exciting relationship again.
Let’s begin by discussing the venue. It’s not that the Westin O’Hare was an unpleasant venue for AXPONA, it’s just that it wasn’t particularly inspiring either. The lobby and show floors were functional and easy to navigate. The hallways were long and narrow, but the rooms were at least a decent size. However, the $24.00 parking fee left little to be desired.
By comparison, the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel was a definite upgrade. To begin with, parking was free! The ground floor is where the marketplace could be found in the Expo Hall. There you would find the Ear Gear Expo, the Record Fair and the Master Class Theater. The Master Class Theater was a particularly neat idea as it gave audio hobbyist a chance to hear from industry experts on a variety of issues designed to enhance the joys of music listening and system setup.
Also on the ground floor were some large demo rooms which were showcasing systems from local retailer, Quintessence Audio. Oh, before I forget, kudos to Quintessence for having someone in their main demo room who actually played real music. At one point I thought I heard him play Beyonce’s “Formation.” Now that’s how you demo an audio system. The Quintessence rooms featured gear from Audio Research, Aurender, Clearaudio, dCS Ltd, Sonus Faber and Wilson Audio and many more. Clearaudio also featured a static display of their attractive and wonderfully engineered turntables, cartridges and tonearms. One tonearm in particular that caught my attention was the Clearaudio TT-5 tangential tonearm ($3,750). At first glance it looks like an air-bearing arm, but when I couldn’t find where the vacuum hose connected, Musical Surrounding’s Garth Learer stepped over and explained how the tangential design was being employed. I won’t try to explain it here since I’ll hopefully be getting one in for review in the near future.
On the second level were more large rooms where I found the first room that would go on my “Best of Show” list. Wynn Audio occupied Utopia Room C and their room featured a couple of my longtime favorite audio companies. The first thing I noticed when I entered the room were the towering Penaudo Sinfonia loudspeakers ($27,000/pair). I have had the great fortune of reviewing a few pairs of smaller speakers from this company out of Finland and all of their speakers beautifully render music. But, of course while the smallish designs gave much to be desired, I often wondered what could come from a more full-range design? Enter the Sinfonia. These beautifully finished towers feature a 1” textile dome tweeter, two 6” midrange/woofers and two 10” woofers and a frequency response of 20Hz – 30KHz! A completely full-range Penaudio speaker. What could be better? Nothing at this show… Well maybe. Keep reading. The electronics driving these speakers were the gorgeous Karan Acoustics KA Ph Reference Phonostage ($23,995), KA L Reference Linestage ($16,995) and Karan Acoustics KA M 2000 Monoblocks ($59,995/pair). The sources were the Kalista Audio DreamPlay CD turntable ($48,000) and a pair of Thales TTT-Compact II Turntables ($14,850/each). One table sported a Thales Statement Tonearm ($21,090) and the other a Simplicity II arm ($9,450). Both arms were outfitted with an EMT JSD VM cartridge ($4,995). ZenSati cables were used throughout.
I walked most of the show with Mike Wright and a couple of our audiophile friends whose ears we trust, former StereoTimer Courtenay Osborne and Allen Richards. It was interesting to visit rooms with these guys and hear their thoughts on what we were hearing. To be honest, a lot of rooms that we went into we were sadly underwhelmed by what we were hearing. It’s not that the systems themselves didn’t sound good it’s just that for rooms where you can only listen to digital downloads you had to settle for the exhibitor’s often crappy music. This brings me to a room that I have come to have high expectations for, Doug White’s The Voice That Is. In my opinion, Doug is unparalleled in his field and his great ears and knack for fantastic sounding rooms prompted me to send him a download that I desperately wanted to hear on his system. That system consisted of Tidal’s Piano G2 speakers ($39,900 -$42,900/pair), Preos preamp ($32,900), and Impulse amp ($35,200). The digital source was the Antipodes DX music server ($7,700) and the analog source was the TW Acustic Raven AC-1 turntable ($15,500), 10.5 tonearm ($5,500) and Transfiguration Proteus cartridge ($6,000). The download that I sent Doug was Loggins & Messina’s, “Pathway to Glory” from their album, Full Sail. I love this classic rock song that begins as a rather tame little tune before it explodes with stirring mix of driving guitars, violins and crashing cymbals. It’s a staple on my personal playlist and really shows off the best of a great music system. In this room and on this system it did not disappoint. Bravo to Doug and the components in this system. This was another of my “Best of Show” rooms.
Just down the hall from The Voice That Is’ room was the High Fidelity Services room. This room was an Oasis of affordability compared to the desert of mortgage crushing systems that could be found at every turn (sorry Doug). This room featured the North American debut of the Neat Acoustics Iota XPLORER loudspeakers ($4,995/pair). These speakers render a goose bump inducing sound that makes you just sit and listen and smile and that’s exactly what I did in this room. The rest of the system consisted of the Audia Flight FL3S integrated amp ($3,995 w/DAC and Phono), Trilogy Audio Systems 906 phonostage ($1,395), AnalogueWorks TT One turntable ($2,895) with SME 309 tonearm ($1,795) and Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge ($2,729).The didgital source was the Melco N1ZH Mk.2 ($4,995). Cabling was from Vibex and Signal Projects. There weren’t many rooms that offered this level of musicality at such an affordable price. But while I would say this room was among the better sounding rooms at the show, more importantly, I think this room represented one of the “Best Values at the Show.”
And then there’s the other side of the coin. The Audio Federation room, in my opinion, represents a serious problem in high-end audio. Compared to the sound heard in the High Fidelity Services room the sound in this room was certainly better. After listening to a couple of tracks in this room I was definitely ready to say that it was among the best at the show… And then I picked up the price list. Take a look at the prices of the components in the High Fidelity room and the other rooms in this report for that matter. Now check out the prices of the components featured in this room: Acapella Audio Arts Cellini High loudspeakers ($59,990/pair) and LaMusika integrated amp ($109,600). The source was an Audio Note UK CDT Five transport ($52,000) and Fifth Element DAC w/Fifth Force external power supply ($147,850). Cabling is from Audio Note and Acapella Audio Arts and the equipment sat on a HRS SXR stand ($16,805). That’s over $350,000 for an audio system that only sounds better than the system in the High Fidelity room. I’m sorry but in order for a system to be worth that much money it has to do more than just sound better, it needs to greatly improve the quality of life. And quite frankly, while the Acapella speakers are certainly gorgeous, the Audio Note stuff is barely more Spartan looking. In the end these are still really good sounding products with little visual appeal that are horrifically overpriced. So, I have no problem saying that this was one of the “Best of Show” sounding systems, but I will also say that it also represents one of the worst values I’ve ever seen at a show.
Let me get to a system that definitely put a smile on my face during the AXPONA weekend and that was the Avantgarde room. The ridiculously massive Avantgarde Trio XD with four Basshorns system ($148,700) was being driven to near perfection by the beautiful Esoteric Grandioso F1 integrated amp ($31,000). The digital source was the Grandioso K1 SACD/CD player ($31,000), G-01 Master Clock ($20,000) and N 01 Music Server/DAC ($20,000). Transparent XL cables were used throughout and the components sat on Harmonic Resolution VXR racks ($23, 260).
Now you may be saying to yourself, “Wait a minute Dave, you just went off on the Audio Note/Acapella system for being overpriced but the Avantgarde/Esoteric system costs nearly as much. What gives?!” Well, it’s simple. When you look at and hear the Avantgarde/Esoteric system you can easily say, “Yes, that system is worth the money.” But when you look at and hear the Audio Note/Acapella system, you can’t. To be fair to Acapella, this is probably a case of guilt by association.
There were many other items that I thought were noteworthy such as the MastersounD BoX, a 35-watt tube integrated amp ($3,500) which sounded shockingly good paired with the Rosso Fiorentino Certaldo speakers ($6,500/pair).
Beautifully made and reasonably priced cables and analog devices from Zavfino. I hope to get some of these products in for review this year, so be on the lookout for more about this intriguing company.
The new additions to Bel Canto’s Black components line were very impressive. The Black EX DAC/Control Preamp ($13,990) and EX Dual Mono amp ($11,990) drove the Tidal Piano Diacera G2 loudspeaker ($39,900/pair) spectacularly. Audioquest cables were used throughout and of course, more HRS equipment stands.
I have to admit that my brother and I were drawn to the David Michael Audio room, not because of the equipment being demonstrated but because with our names being David and Michael, we felt like the room was calling to us. Okay, okay so maybe the lure of music that was coming from the Nagra system in this room had something to do with it too. The system was comprised of the Nagra HD preamp, HD mono amps, HD DAC, VPS phonostage and MPS power supply. The digital source was the Aurender W20 and the vinyl rig was the Döhmann Helix 1 turntable with Schroeder tonearm and Phasemation PP2000 MC cartridge. The system fed a pair of handsome Graham LS5/8 monitors. Cables were Kubala Sosna and the components sat on Modulum Audio Platforms. Music coming from this system was wonderfully rendered with lifelike placement of voices and instruments. It’s the kind of system that leads to extended listening sessions and expands recording collections. Definitely a “Best of Show” system.
Those are my thoughts. I’m already looking forward to next year.
Mike Wright Chimes In
You want to talk about a rebirth in high-end audio? AXPONA has really taken off here in Chicagoland (actually Schaumburg, but who cares) and it’s a mutual love kind of thing. The manufacturers, distributors, and local dealers, love coming to it so they can see how they’re doing with consumers, and the consumers love coming to see all the equipment. AXPONA moved to the larger, Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center and drew more than 8,000 attendees, which was a 21% increase over last year.
According Mark Freed of JD Events, the organizer of AXPONA, more than 550 audio brands exhibited throughout the 165 listening rooms and 150 booths. To be honest, I wasn’t planning on doing a show report but I did want to pass along some of my thoughts on specific items of interest to me. Unfortunately, many of the rooms that we visited did not have “press sheets” which we use to make sure that we accurately report on the equipment used in the demonstration. Also of note is the fact that I covered a lot of the show with my brother and Stereo Times editor, Dave Thomas. It seemed every time we left a room that we both enjoyed, Dave would be sure to exchange business cards with the exhibitors before I could even get my hand in my pocket to fish one of my cards out. That’s why he always gets all the good stuff for review (Not true. –Ed.). With that in mind, there should be some great reviews coming in these pages in the weeks and months to come. Here now are just some of the rooms of note that I was able to spend time in that I wanted to make mention of.
Vince Galbo and the folks at MSB had their usual excellent sounding room. The sound was very natural and organic with a lot of detail. I’ve never taken MSB seriously for anything but their digital source components, but I’m here to testify to strengths of their M204 amplifiers. In the words of my brother: “Oh my God! I’ve never heard an amp get so much from the YG Acoustics speakers.” This was the first room that made it to my “Best Sound at the Show” list.
MSB Select DAC $89,500
MSB Mono Power Base option $19,500
MSB Femto 33 clock option $9,950
MSB Reference Transport $18,000
MSB Reference Transport Power Base option $11,500
MSB M204 mono amplifiers $39,500
Analysis Plus Gold Oval interconnects $8,500
Analysis Plus Gold Oval Speaker Cables $11,000
Analysis Plus Ultimate Power Cords $2,400
YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2 Loudspeaker $72,300
Audiooquest Niagara 5000 Power Conditioner $5,995
Tweak Geek Stealth Dark Matter Power Purifier $6,995
This room was somewhat confounding. The sound in this room was beautiful, involving and highly enjoyable. However, the speakers were on the long wall on one side of the room and all of the wonderful Technics turntables were on the other side. The chairs were closest to the tables where the turntables were making it next to impossible to enjoy the music for any length of time with all of the people moving in and around the seats. Being fair about it, I can’t say that I blame them for wanting to see these legendary turntables up close. The sound here was good, to say the least, and they should be given recognition for it. But they could’ve done a better job with room logistics.
Ricardo Reyes of Musical Artisan in Skokie, IL had a very good sounding room this year. He usually does a fine setup job every year, but the music sounded especially good this year. Judging from the quality of the components he employed, I can see why.
Nagra HD Preamplifier $59,500
Nagra HD Monoblock Amplifiers $86,000
Nagra HD DAC with MPS power supply $44,475
(x2), VFS isolation base (x2)
Kharma DB-11S Loudspeakers $54,000
Argento Extreme Edition RCA Interconnect 1m $23,500
Argento Extreme Edition RCA Interconnect 1.5m $28,300
Argento FMR Speaker Cable 3m $36,600
Argento Audio FMR Power Cable 2m (x6) $49,200
Luxman Corporation and Triangle Loudspeakers
This room was another whose sound was a lot to my liking. The sound was relaxed and smooth with plenty of detail and was skimping on the dynamics when the music called for it.
Triangle Grand Concert Loudspeaker $70,000
Luxman Control Preamplifier $14,995
Luxman Stereo Power Amplifier $14,995
Luxman SACD Player With USB DSD Support $14,995
Luxman Belt Drive Analog Turntable $6,995
Luxman Vacuum Tube Phono Equalizer Amplifier $6,495
Luxman Music Server $4,999
JPR-15000 1.3M RCA $1,095
JPR-15000 1.3M XLR $1,095
JPR-15000 3.0M Speaker Cable $3,495
The Silnote room was another room I made note to mention. They had a simple system setup but got a lot of excellent sound in their room. There’s a lot to be said for room setup and Silnote did an exceptional job as music in this room was very musical.
Magnepan 3.7i $5,995
Mark Levinson 335 $7,900
Allnic L-4000 $11,900
Silnote Audio Cables $4,900
Schiit Audio Yggdrasil $2,399
Mac Book Pro $1,299
Toska Audio/Gold Note
The Toska Audio gents (Joe and Pete) were running a very nice sounding room that was highly musical and very enjoyable. Judging by the traffic I saw each time I went by there, I could tell why. The Gold Note gear was producing music effortlessly and was both delightful and appealing with all kinds of music. Gold Note definitely can play the tune and do it realistically. Looking forward to hearing more from them.
Gold Note P-1000 Preamplifier $6,295
Gold Note PA-1175 Stereo Amplifier Per Pair $15,200
Gold Note DS-1000 DAC/Streamer $6,295
Gold Note PH-10 Phono Preamplifier $1,595
Gold Note XT7 Speakers $16,995
Gold Note Mediterraneo Turntable $7,495
Gold Note Galileo Stand $5,500
Gold Note Donatello Gold Cartridge $1,195
Now I’m going to share with you readers my absolute favorites from this year’s AXPONA show. These are rooms that I wanted to just hang out and listen to music to all day.
Of my group of favorites, this was probably the smallest room with the simplest setup, but Derek Skipworth of Audio Thesis had this room simply pure joy to listen to. This room made use of some equipment platforms from Robert Maicks and Star Sound Technologies and the combination worked pure magic. The music that came across was absorbing and highly involving. I had not heard the Rosso’s sound as good as they did in this room. I was not expecting music from such a simple system to be that captivating, but it certainly was. This room was a treat to listen to music in.
MastersounD Box Integrated Amplifier w/Phono $3,000
North Star Design Supremo DSD DAC $4,000
North Star Design Magnifico DSD Transport $4,000
Rosso Fiorentino Certaldo Loudspeakers $6,500
I had a tie for 2nd place, the other being VAC, for my most favorite rooms at AXPONA and couldn’t help but to give Quintessence their props for a job well done. Mick Survance and the Quintessence folks had a large room with wonderful sound that went well beyond the normally good sound I hear from the ARC/Wilson combo. This year, the sound was not just good with classical fare, which has always been a Quintessence strength, but also sounded lively, fast, dynamic, and emotionally involving on the more up-tempo or contemporary music. I found myself having to hang out there and listen longer than I normally do to make sure that I was being accurate in my description. This was definitely a big win for Quintessence and the lines represented in their room.
Wilson Alexia 2 Speakers $57,900
Audio Research Ref 6 Linestage $14,000
Audio Research Ref 160 Monoblock Amplifiers $30,000
AMG Viella 12 Turbo Cherry Turntable $21,500
with/AMG 12JT 12” Turbo Tonearm
AMG Turbo Tonearm Cable $2,250
DS Audio DS W2 Optical Phono Cartridge System $13,000
dCS Rossini Player/DAC $28,499
Kubala Sosna Interconnect & Speaker Cable
Critical Mass Component Stands
VAC electronics and Von Schweikert speakers have been showing together at audio shows since I saw them at my very first WCES in 2003, and probably before then. They make beautiful music together and it shows. The sound at this show stood out for me because for as large a room that they were showing in, the sound was as though you were in a smaller, more intimate listening room listening room at home. The sound was fast, agile, lively and immediate. Usually, at audio events like this, if you’re in one of the larger, lower floor rooms, you don’t get sound like you’re used to in a more intimate setting. This year, the setup in the room was outstanding and a noteworthy achievement for the folks from VAC and Von Schweikert.
VAC Statement Phono Stage
VAC Statement Line Stage
VAC Statement 450 iQ Monoblock Amplifier (2 pair)
Von Schweikert Audio ULTRA 11 Loudspeakers
Von Schweikert Audio Shockwave V12 Subwoofer
Kronos Audio Kronos Pro Turntable
Kronos Audio SCPS-1 Power Supply
Andre Theriault Black Beauty Tonearm
Air Tight Opus One Cartridge
Technics 1520 Reel to Reel (Rebuilt)
Aurender N10 Music Server
Esoteric N-01 Network Audio Player
Esoteric Grandioso P1 Transport
Esoteric Grandioso G1 Master Clock
Esoteric D1 Monoblock DAC
MasterBuilt Audio Ultra Line Interconnects, Speaker Cables, Power Cords
Critical Mass Maxxum Mk III Equipment Racks and Amp Stands
ASC Tube Traps Room Treatment
Normally, in any other year, the Quintessence room and/or the VAC/Von Schweikert room would take my top prize best sounding room at the show. That’s just how good those rooms sounded. But this this was not a normal year and there were a lot of outstanding candidates for very best room at the show. There is now way I could include them all in this report and just because I didn’t highlight them in my report does not mean that I didn’t think they were worthy. That would not be true at all. There was, however, one room that I felt stood out as the best, and quite a few of my pals would support me in that, and that was the Avantgarde room.
This was the best room at AXPONA for me. In a show with a lot of good rooms, and some great rooms, this was the room I walked into and immediately felt that I was hearing something special. In his rapidly creeping up on him “old age,” Dave has been given the genial title of “The Audio Curmudgeon.” This title was given to Dave by our esteemed publisher, CP, who observed that Dave has become a lot more critical of all things audio than he used to be. His edginess was on full display at this year’s show. But when we got to the Avantgarde room and began to listen to music, that was one of the few times when he smiled and genuinely seemed to be excited, even happy, about what he was hearing. I had not seen that type of excitement from him in a few years. And then he made the statement that his smile was already saying: “This is what high-end audio is supposed to be about.”
The sound in the Avantgarde room was exciting, existent, very lifelike and real. Real instruments, vocalists, and performers were being reproduced in the room with a high level of realism that you rarely get at an audio show. And let me also say that this system, which featured their Trio speakers with their massive Bass Horns and Esoteric electronics was DROP DEAD GORGEOUS! It was truly a fascinating achievement. Avantgarde’s distributor, American Sound, should be commended for a job well done.
Avantgarde Trio Loudspeakers with 4 Bass Horns
Esoteric K-1 SACD/CD Player
Esoteric N-01 Streamer
Esoteric Grandioso Integrated Amplifier
HRS VXR Audio Stands w/Platforms
Transparent XL Interconnects, Speaker Cables and Line Conditioners
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