2017 AXPONA Show Report
SHOW REPORT – Part One
AXPONA Audio Expo North America
April 21 – 23, 2017
Another pleasant driving trip from Minnesota to the Chicagoland metro for a visit to the annual AXPONA Audio Expo North America show and fortunately – no incidents on the road other than my GPS taking me on an unfamiliar route once I was within 50 miles of my destination. Found out later that my GPS settings helped to avoid a series of toll roads even though this added approximately 30-45 minutes to my drive. Not complaining though – saved me a few precious bucks (i.e., both coming and going) that I used for food, snacks, other.
Upon arrival in Rosemont, the weather was classic Chicago (aka Windy City) meaning cool and quite breezy. Also, since it was still relatively early in the evening - I was able to secure my registration badge and pertinent information regarding the show. Transaction was quick and easy, very positive experience with the person at the registration desk wearing a smile along with a very pleasant demeanor. At that point, I was feeling good about both the trip as well about being there and looking forward to getting started early Friday morning. My next move was to head over to my hotel, get checked in, drop off my luggage and then hook up with friends for dinner and drinks. This is where things started going south.
Once at the front desk of my hotel – I received an abrupt and dreaded message that somehow the first day of my three-day (prepaid) reservation had been cancelled. Despite having documentation confirming my reservation, the hotel insisted that since the reservation was made by a third party (vs. direct with the hotel), it was my responsibility to insure that my reservation was intact prior to arrival. They further stated that there was nothing that could be done. I’ll spare you the any further commentary about the following discussion other than to let you know that now almost a week later, I’m still working with the hotel to hopefully unravel the mystery of how this happened and also get extra charges to my credit card reversed. Finally, I was off to meet friends for dinner and a couple stiff drinks to help settle me down.
Arriving at the host hotel for the show early Friday morning (i.e., Westin) – the registration desk and adjoining areas were relatively mild in terms of crowd size. But that was early and mid-morning, things started to pick up significantly Waiting lines at the adjacent Starbucks were manageable as well as the main hotel restaurant where attendees were getting fueled up for the day. Having had breakfast at my hotel prior to arriving, I was now all set to get started with my journey of roaming through the many different hallways and checking out the many exhibits. Not exactly sure how many exhibitors there were at this year’s show but suffice it to say – there was no lack of exhibits by dealers and manufacturers from previous years. There were also quite a few well-known products, from main-stream manufacturers, on display as well as a number of new products making their debut showing.
Oh yes – before I go too far, let me state that again for this year’s report, I did not attempt to conduct any sort of “Best Sound” category or any sort of rating and ranking process. However, I will definitely point out those exhibits that I feel warrant special consideration for obtaining good sound. Again, my rationale is relatively simple and fairly straight-forward – that is, I try to keep my expectations within reason due to the many uncontrollable variables that exhibitors must deal with, particularly as they make valiant efforts to get their systems performing as they should. Some of these issues include quality power (i.e., AC) for their electronics, room size, dimensions and configuration for their speakers (i.e., flexible walls, suspended floors, windows, other).
In terms of crowd flow – this seemed to be a typical opening Friday at Axpona. Crowd flow never seemed to get out of hand or over bearing. Hallways remained reasonably passable and even when exhibit rooms became full – there was a relatively smooth rotation of people in and out of the room with everyone being able to gain access to various exhibits whenever they wished to do so.
First up – I did a quick visit to the Marketplace. This venue is always well-organized and attendees were buzzing around looking for specialty products as well as seeking good deals. Items in this area included cables, recordings equipment, various audio gadgets/tweaks and more. Friday’s crowd was moderate with the afternoon picking up considerably. Saturday’s crowd was noticeably beyond Friday – nothing frantic or overly crowded but busy none-the-less. I also noticed signage in various places indicating “Show Specials” These signs were also evident in a number of the exhibits were some show products were available for purchase at prices better than retail.
OK, back to getting started – one thing I definitely noticed as I roamed from exhibit to exhibit, there were lots of very sophisticated analog rigs including wonderful turntable/tonearm combos as well as quite a a good number of serious reel-to-reel tape machines whirling away with some superb sounding specialty tapes. To my ear – whenever experiencing either of these formats, there is often a noticeable difference and something that is very typically rewarding. This is not to diminish in any way the sound from all-digital playback systems because I heard quite a few that truly excelled musically as well. I’ll do the best I can for describing what I heard in these different exhibits and call these out whenever something special hits my ears.
OK folks, here we go. My very first exhibit came completely randomly and only because as I walked past the door – I couldn’t help but notice some rather interesting looking speakers that we belting out some truly gorgeous sounds. It was the Wolf Audio Systems exhibit featuring a speaker unknown to me and produced by Sadurni Acoustics. The particular model I listened to was the Miracoli (96 db efficient). Big and bold sounding and also beautiful to look at, with lots dynamics mixed with delicacy and capturing intimate musical nuance, so I was hooked. System featured Audience SX cabling with the Adept Response power conditioner (hmmm – great start if I may say so). Grand Prix Audio racks and they always great sounding with Nagra tube electronics. The Miracoli speakers are a 4-way, horn loaded type that includes a built-in sealed servo controlled bass system with opposing woofers. With a stated frequency response from 25 Hz to 40 kHz. The cabinets are made out of solid wood MDF and have an absolutely beautiful finish. Music source for this system was digital input into the Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center. Another product that I am not familiar with but very good sounding.
Next door was the Precision Audio Design suite featuring Bel Canto Design’s Black System ACI 600 Integrated amplifier driving a pair of Martin Logan model Impression ESL 11A speakers. Basically the difference between these two rooms was quite significant and going from a horn type speaker to electrostatics with their own powered woofers was most interesting. Anyway – one Day #1 – the sound from this exhibit seemed a bit off. So as I said in the very beginning, whenever this sort of thing happens – especially when I am quite familiar with the products being exhibited, I sometimes wait until things can settle down. Fortunately, this was the case and the sound produced from this exhibit the following day was a literal transformation. The complete system also included the ever present Still Points for the equipment rack with everything connected via Cardas Clear Beyond power cords and speaker cables. With the Bel Canto unit connected via Ethernet and streaming some wonderful MQA encoded recording, there was a naturalness and realism to the music that was quite nice. Listening to Bill Evans with Paul Desmond as well as Frank Sinatra – sounds were very authentic, sounding natural, pure, soothing, smooth and warm.
Many floors down I came across Goldmund USA with yet another unique system. In this suite was the very expensive wireless system featuring the new Logos Sukha speakers. At $95k per pair, and with their rather robot-like appearance I just wasn’t quite sure what to think. Speakers are a three-way design and are self-powered featuring built-in 600 watt amplifiers per side: 2 x 175 watts for midrange and tweeter and 1 x 250 watt for the woofer. Frequency response is rated as 26hz (-6 db) > 25kHz. A good thing was their musical taste for this exhibit with lots of vintage Miles Davis, Coltrane and various other esteemed jazz musicians. Input source was digital streaming with Goldmund electronics. Overall the sound was clear and delicate throughout the midrange, but also somewhat light in the bass and soft in the highs. Beautiful sounding in some ways but not just quite as dynamic as I would have expected from a dynamic designed speaker.
Moving on – I then came across an exhibit that captured my ear so I quickly positioned myself inside and grabbed a seat in the back row. After letting several persons leave who were there before I came in – I then shifted to the sweet spot and in the front row. This suite was presented by Natural Sound a new company based in Los Angeles. The speakers are designed in Slovenia but built by Steve Ozelton who is the owner/manufacturer. The finish on the speakers was quite good and their appearance was very pleasing to the eye (i.e., fiddle back maple veneer). To my own pair of ears – I was more than just pleasantly surprised and found myself listening for an extended period of time. The Natural Sound speakers are 96 dB sensitivity, 2-way bass-reflex design featuring a 1” field coil compression tweeter attached to an elliptical horn and a 15” field coil woofer for the bass. Speakers were sitting on anti-vibration devices with 3” solid carbon balls for absorption. Price for these speakers is $45,000.
By this time, breakfast was long gone and I felt an urge to grab a quick bite to eat for lunch. After some tasty chicken wings and soup at the hotel restaurant and now with my energy restored, I made my way to the exhibit hosted by Doug White, The Voice That Is. I was quite anxious to check out this exhibit since the sensational Tidal Akira speakers were in place and essentially for their debut appearance at a U.S. Audio show. Back in January, I had the distinct privilege of hearing these fabulous speakers at Doug’s dealership near Philadelphia. See this link for a full report of this visit: http://www.stereotimes.com/post/the-voice-that-is-a-visit/
In previous years and at various shows, including Axpona, Doug has managed to consistently put together some of the best sounding exhibits at these shows. This year was nothing less than stellar and even better than what he accomplished last year. Of course I should mention that the Akira speakers are quite a step up, both in price and design, from the pair of superb sounding Tidal Agoria loudspeakers that were used at last year’s show. In fact – we’re talking a major difference of $109,900 for the Agorias and $215k for the Akira loudspeakers. Definitely not for the faint of heart. Fit and finished of these speakers is simply exquisite with that stunning Midnight Gloss Black quite an eye-catcher. Pictured in this photo is Jorn Janczak, founder/president and chief designer of Tidal standing beside the Tidal Akira loudspeaker.
Helping to make these outstanding loudspeakers sound great and really deliver the goods, Doug has assembled a system of components including the following: Tidal Presencio Preamplifier (with phono stage), Tidal Impluse Monobloc Amplifiers, Bricasti Design Ml SE DAC, Aurender A10 Music Server, Tidal interconnects and speaker cables as well as Dynamic Design Neutron SW16 power cords. The electronics were placed on a Stillpoints ESS rack and the room was treated with various Stillpoints Aperture Panels and Isolators. Included in the mix was the superb TW–Acustic Raven AC turntable with Transfiguration Proteus MC. All components were connected to the Signal Projects Poseidon S40 Power Conditioner. In terms of the sound – it was simply magical with a hallmark transparency to die for. This speaker releases sound so effortlessly yet with solid impact and big time dynamics, outstanding delicacy and cohesive sound from the very deepest lows to the highest highs. Special features include a very special diamond midrange driver and tweeter. These are proprietary drivers produced solely for Tidal by Accuton. Whether analog or digital as the source – the sound was always beautifully musical. Definitely a very special exhibit.
As in the past, attending shows like Axpona provides an opportunity to not only see and hear some magnificent high-end audio systems and more, it also provides an opportunity to reconnect with friends/colleagues from the past. My next stop was at one of Quintessence Audio Ltd’s exhibits and where I had the pleasure of reconnecting with Allan Mouton, now with Musical Surroundings. Mouton is someone of specializes in professionally setting up listening rooms in homes, and other venues, and I had the distinct privilege of hosting Allan at my home several years ago as I prepared for an important speaker review. Prior to Mouton’s visit – we shared an number of emails and phone calls so by the time he arrived at my place, we had already established an emerging rapport and understanding of our musical priorities. Through the wonderfully revealing experience of dialing in my system with these new loudspeakers, we became even more aligned in our thinking and appreciation of music and the importance of proper system setup.
Anyway – here I once again found Allan doing his thing and this time working his magic with a most impressive system. In fact, you see Mouton putting some final touches on the Clearaudio Innovation turntable ($15,000) with AMG 12JT Turbo tonearm ($8,500) including Clearaudio Titanium V2 cartridge ($8,000). This analog rig also includes the DS Audio Master1 optical cartridge system ($22,500) as well. With the exception of the amplifiers – all other electronics were mounted on the Clearaudio Olympus stand in piano-black lacquer ($13,400). In terms of the speakers for this system – they were the Sonus Faber Lilium speakers ($70,000), driven by Pass Labs Xs Preamp/line stage ($38,000), Pass Labs Xs Phono preamplifier ($45,000), Pass Labs Xs 150 amplifier ($65,000), Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC Reference Series II ($19,500) and Aurender N10 digital music server ($8,000). Finally, this system also included the Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional Sonic record cleaning machine ($5,500).
And, what about the sound? The good news is that with all this very expensive equipment assembled – the sound was actually very impressive. Also of note – most of the individual components have had favorable reviews in the high-end media so hearing the full effect of their combined greatness was definitely musically fulfilling. And as we all know – just putting things together, there is the crucial element of synergy – something that the folks from Quintessence Audio and their partner for this year’s show (Musical Surroundings) seem to have their focus on. Also, whether digital or analog playback – both mediums provided high levels of musical realism and for that this was another significant system with excellent sound. Congratulations and guess what? This was only one of the four systems assembled by these folks – and with similar, albeit different results in their other exhibits. Sorry – I wasn’t able to visit each of them so no further report although I can only imagine what I missed.
By the end of the day, I was truly ready to sit back – grab some dinner and relax. Lots and lots of listening throughout the day and fatigue starting hitting at multiple levels. Stay tuned - back to you later for a few more exhibits.