The 2015 AXPONA Show - now officially called Audiocon - wrapped-up this past weekend to wide acclaim. By most accounts, this year's show marked a distinct improvement over AXPONA 2014. This was my third audio-related trip to the City of Broad Shoulders, and I enjoyed more than ever the opportunity to hobnob with industry movers and shakers, musicians and most importantly, fellow hobbyists. It also marked my first trip as a representative of the high end press, a particularly lively, generally fraternal, but also a delightfully quirky segment of the industry. The view was markedly different from the inside, not necessarily better, but certainly different. Most notably, by the end of the show, I clearly felt as if I were working instead of listening purely for pleasure. But them's the breaks, folks.
In many ways this year's show, held for the second time at the Westin O'Hare, proved the most successful yet. Attendance numbers jumped by almost 30 percent over last year, and important high end firms notably absent from the 2013-14 rosters - Raidho Acoustics, Audia Flight, and QUAD, to name a few - made exciting debuts this year. Sadly absent were several voices that made 2014 memorable - particularly the Sound Organisation, Devore Fidelity and Kharma Acoustics - but the emergence of new voices more than made up for their absence.
Two notable trends struck me. First, sound quality overall seemed much improved, but bass boom, treble peaks and room resonances remained problematic in a number of rooms, not to mention the apparent power supply spikes that frequently traumatized the digital playback systems in the Modwright/Daedalus and Goldmund suites (both of which sounded lovely, BTW). Still, most exhibitors - many stung by painful memories of coffin sized speakers inartfully angled into pint sized rooms in 2014 - responded this year by exhibiting more room-friendly, space appropriate speakers and electronics. Oh, there were a few blockheads who insisted on placing towering monstrosities in cramped spaces, and most paid the predictable sonic price (poor driver integration, and bloated, one-note bass), but overall show sonics were good if not great, and better than last year's.
The second trend that caught me off guard- but in a good way - was the prevalence of digital streaming as the dominant music delivery and playback architecture (at least in most of the rooms I visited). More telling, a number of rooms lacked any form of compact disc/SACD playback capacity whatsoever, meaning that unless you brought your own pre-loaded thumb-drive, you were stuck with the musical choices (some quite atrocious) of the show exhibitors. Vinyl playback gear was hardly absent, but vinyl clearly played a smaller role this year than at previous shows. (The Sound Organisation's Barnaby Fry, in attendance this year as a spectator, reported seeing only one Rega turntable at the entire show). Don't get me wrong, I love vinyl (and tape), but digital's dominant role at this year's show did not, to my ears, result in a wholesale downgrade in overall sound quality.
Some of my favorites
I wish had the time to report on all of the rooms that I visited over the weekend, but I don't. Below are some of the best-sounding, along with a couple of honorable mentions and rooms whose wares show great promise but need perhaps a little more gestation time and refinement to come on song fully. Enjoy!!!!
The gregarious Klause Bunge, Odyssey Audio's outspoken, larger-than-life chief, put together a cracker-jack system (total system price: $6,900 sans the Symphonic Line CD player) that hit all of my hot buttons: superb transparency and system neutrality, state-of-the-art coherence, wide-open staging, imaging precision to die for, sweet, grain-free highs, and explosive dynamics. The modestly-priced Khatargo mono block power amps ($1,995) and the sublime Kismet monitors - shown here in their floor-standing configuration (sorry, I didn't get the price) - struck me as particularly worthy contenders.
Musical Surroundings and Quintessence Audio dominated the 12th Floor this year. In the Ambassador System, I feel in love with the sound of Dynaudio's dynamite compacts, the gorgeous and gorgeous sounding Evidence Confidence C1 Platinum speakers ($8,750/pair - the best presented Dynaudio speakers at the show IMHO). These handsome numbers (on dedicated stands) threw a soundstage as wide and tall as the Grand Canyon, boasted superb inter-driver coherence, dug as deeply into the bass region as any compact I have ever encountered, and did so with seemingly no dynamic compression whatsoever. An AMG Giro G9 turntable with matching 9W2 tonearm ($10,000/combo), AMG Teatro mc cartridge ($2,750), and a scrumptious suite of Simaudio electronics - the Simaudio 610LP phono stage ($7,500), 650D DAC/CD player ($8,000), 820S power supply ($8,000), 740P preamp ($9,500), and 860A power amp ($15,000) - rounded out an upper-tier system that delivered a performance commensurate with the hefty price tag.
In the even larger O'Hare 2 System, Sonus faber's newish Lilium loudspeakers ($70,000) had listeners swooning. The fit and finish on these numbers has to be seen (and touched) to be believed. They positively reek luxurious sensuality. Driven by the latest generation of Audio Research gear, the GS Pre preamp ($15,000), the GS-150 power amp ($20,000), and Ref CD9 DAC/CD player ($13,000)(the electronics supported by the superb AMG Viella turntable/12J2 tone arm combo ($17,500) and lightning-fast DS Audio DS-W1 'Nightrider' optical cartridge system ($8,500)), the Liliums sounded positively heavenly, with ravishing air and upper-octave sweetness. I was able to identify Charlie Rouse's burnished tenor within seconds of the needle hitting the lead-in groove of a Sphere LP, so accurate and revealing was the system. Down low, things didn't sound quite as convincing. Although the GS-150 allowed the big Liliums to generate sufficient SPLs to satisfy this listener, the speakers sounded a bit bloated and 'boomy' in the bass. Still, the Lilium offers well-heeled music lovers yet another viable option in the über speaker segment of the market. Just make sure you bring a beefy solid state amp with generous damping factor to the party.
On a more affordable note, Vinnie Rossi Audio and Fidelis teamed up to deliver scrumptious sounds for the serious, space-challenged mélomane. The latest incarnation of Harbeth's venerable HL5 model - now the HL5Plus ($7,000 in tiger ebony finish) - sounded sweet, transparent and tonally spot-on as driven by the restless Vinnie Rossi's latest new Lio integrated amp ($6,500 as configured). Acoustic Signature's Manfred turntable/T-1000 tone arm combo (sorry, but I didn't catch the price) sounded just delightful when mated with the sublime SoundsmithSussurro moving iron cartridge ($4,900) as the signal source. Staging, at least under show conditions, wasn't very wide, but images within the somewhat narrow field were precisely placed and commendably stable. The modular Lio outputs a very musical 35 watts into 8 ohms, and can be configured as a preamp or as an integrated amp with USB DAC/streaming capabilities, a highly configurable mm-mc phono stage, and headphone amp. The line stage is tube based while two custom banks of capacitors provide the juice. A single capacitor bank powers the unit for about ten minutes before seamlessly handing off drive duties to the second bank. The first bank then recharges. Rounding out the Lio's impressive suite of available features is a 63-step autoformer-based volume control. However, the autoformer volume control architecture cannot be used with the optional tubestage.
Before continuing, I earlier reported that show attendance numbers had jumped by almost 30 percent over last year. Actually, this year's show saw a 30 percent increase in exhibit rooms and table top exhibits. Ticket sales were up 18 percent, but these numbers still reflect great gains over AXPONA 2014.
On the 2nd floor, the Ann Arbor-based Paragon Sight & Sound /Wilson Audio/Doshi Audio team really delivered the goods. The engaging Nick Doshi, a physicist and philosopher by training (he has degrees in both fields), explained the thinking behind his latest offerings. The gorgeous Doshi Audio V3.01 mono block amps ($26,995 the pair) - some of the loveliest amps at the show - pump out 160 watts per channel of tube-powered bliss. The amps operate in pure Class A up to 130 watts per channel, switching over to Class AB operation to deliver a staggering 200 watts per channel on musical peaks. The minimalist V.30 line stage, phono stage, and tape stage ($15,995 each) rounded out the impressive and impressive-sounding Doshi electronics front-end. By the way, the Doshi electronics were dead quiet.
During my first visit, Nick primarily relied on a lovely Brinkman Balance turntable fitted with the 12.1 tone arm and Rönt II power supply ($35,500), all topped off with a Koetsu Urushi Blue Sky mc cartridge ($5,500). Wilson's new and fabulous Sabrina loudspeaker ($15,900 the pair), 90 pound compact marvels that exhibited all of the Wilson hallmarks (superb build, immaculate fit and finish, bone-crushing dynamics), sounded surprisingly robust in the low end, open and airy on top, and spot-on tonally. Dynamics were punchy and fast, the overall sound remarkably fast and articulate. I admit not to having cared much for the sound of Wilson's Alexia loudspeakers that were demoed at AXPONA 2014, but the little Sabrinas really moved me. These are great speakers that coupled synergistically with the Doshi/Brinkman front end. Transparent Audio cabling held everything together, allowing the system to speak in a genuinely coherent voice. Bravo!
On Saturday night I returned to the Paragon Sight & Sound /Wilson Audio/Doshi Audio suite to share wine, stories and song with Nick Doshi, Barnaby Fry (of the Sound Organisation), Paragon's president Larry Marcus, and none other than the charming and captivating Lyn Stanley. Lyn accompanied several of her latest tracks to a rapt audience. My attached photos hopefully tell at least part of the story. This was certainly the high-point of the show for me.
Down the hall, the always-engaging Doug White of The Voice That Is wowed audiences (and this reviewer) with some great gear, expertly installed, and priced accordingly. TIDAL's new Contriva G2 loudspeakers (approx. $70,000/pair in upgraded finish) - powered by TIDAL's Presencio three-box reference preamplifier, Impulse mono blocks, Aurender W20 Reference Music Server, and Bricasti M1 reference DAC, all linked by beautiful runs of Purist Audio Design cabling - looked stunning and sounded, well, even more stunning. Unfortunately, Doug's price list/press sheets got lost in transit, so I can't provide detailed pricing information here. Take my word, if you have to ask...
Doug's set-up produced some of the biggest, fastest, tonally accurate sound at the show. Images hovered in space, completely unmoored from the speaker enclosures. A Cassandra Wilson cut left me totally disarmed. The jazz icon's voice sounded appropriately husky, dark and resonant, surrounded by a billowy pocket of ambient air, yet unmistakably and organically woven into the larger sonic fabric. In terms of sheer transparency and sonic purity, The Voice That Is suite produced some of the finest sounds at the show, period. BTW, Doug's Saturday evening shin-dig was a blast. Dagogo's delightful Doug Schroeder and I exchanged listening room highlights and cable recommendations over wine (more later); Peter Breuninger was positively beaming with his lovely new bride by his side; and I finally met the light and inspiration behind Doug White the man: his lovely wife Celeste. All in all, a wonderful evening.
On the Lower Level, Kef loudspeakers and Parasound were making beautiful music together, and at total system price-points far lower than what some manufacturers charge for single components. One of my best-in-show contenders, the Kef Blade TWOs ($24,000), here powered by a delightful mix of both reference-level and affordable Parasound electronics, sounded eerily holographic, open and coherent. The Blade TWOs tip the scales at about 90 pounds each and boast roughly 2/3 of the Blade ONE's cabinet volume. Kef's friendly and informative Marketing and Technical Services Manager - Jack Sharkey - noted that the Blade TWOs will work in listening rooms that the ONEs would likely overpower. Still, the smaller reference-level Kefs had no trouble filling the cavernous lower level listening room with glorious sound. I queried whether Kef, like its British rival Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), sometimes falls prey to being taking for granted by high end purchasers and the high end press. Jack smiled and confirmed that he clearly thought this was the case, but he also urged audiophiles and reviewers to take the time to listen to Kef's latest offerings before making up their minds. If what I heard is any indication, Kef is back, and in a big way, kicking serious ass, and yes, taking on some very serious names.
On the electronics side of the equation, Parasound had on tap the John Curl-designed JC-1 mono blocks amps ($9,000), the critically-acclaimed JC-2 line stage ($4,200, and my current reference), and the budget-priced Zdac v.2 half-width DAC ($549.00). The Kef and Parasound folks streamed an assortment of digital files from an attached laptop computer to the DAC. I entered the room expecting the Kef/Parasound combo to sound a bit lean and dark. Instead, what I heard was a sound of striking transparency, some of the most holographic imaging and staging available at any price, and absolutely superb tonal balance.
Parasound's witty and engaging head-honcho, Richard Schram, shared with me some of the thinking behind his products. As many of you know, the JC-1s owe their existence (introduced in 2003) to Schram's desire to reconnect with this two-channel roots after Parasound abandoned its initial foray into the home theatre arena a little over a decade ago. I asked Richard why Parasound had not - in all these years - replaced the JC-1s with a newer model, given the speed with which some manufacturers release new and improved versions of their reference-level gear. Schram responded that Parasound does not use its loyal customer base to field-test its gear, but only brings products to market that have been thoroughly (but not over) engineered, and that offer consumers real value. He noted that the JC-1s can deliver large doses of clean current into virtually any imaginable load with aplomb. The timeless elegance of the design was borne out clearly during my extensive listening session. Superb system synergy and lasting value were the orders of the day!
As I mentioned earlier, Doug Schroeder and I agreed that one room in particular stood out for its extraordinary sound, sound that owed in no small part to the extraordinary cables used to configure the system: the Silnote room. The system that Silnote's approachable proprietor and chief designer, Mark Williams (along with his charming assistant and fiancé) put together, seriously seduced my tired ears for a second year in a row. Their delicious system came within shouting distance of winning my "best sound at the show" designation.
Intriguingly, the Silnote team used a somewhat unorthodox combination of vintage, near-vintage and relatively new gear to startling effect. Speakers, a pair of circa 1995 B&W 805 floor standers ($8,500) - powered here by the long-discontinued McCormack DNA-750 mono blocks - showed no signs of aging. Front-end analog electronics consisted of a BAT VK-32 preamp ($6,750) and VK-P5 phono stage ($3,000). A Transrotor Fat Bob table ($12,000) fitted with SME's time-tested and proven 309 tone arm ($2,400) and Denon DLS1 low output mc cartridge ($949)(alternatively a refurbished and heavily modified Panzerholz Thorens TD-160 table ($4,500), SME M-2 arm ($1,295), and basic Denon DL-103r mc cartridge ($550)) provided old-school, new-school analog playback capabilities.
Digital deconstruction/reconstruction duties were deftly handled by the discontinued Oppo 105 Universal Digital Player ($1,200) feeding a newish NAD M51 Master Series DAC ($2,000). The system captured Danish jazz star Sinne Eeg's moving interpretation of Legrand and Bergman's "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life" from her 2014 Face the Music CD [Stunt Records - STUCD 14042] with all of its lilting pathos and longing intact.
Cables used to wire the system varied from day to day and covered a wide range of models and prices. Some of the cables used included: The Anniversary Edition Master Series interconnects and speaker cables ($1,695 and $1,995 respectively), the Epirus Master Series interconnects ($4,195), the Orion M1 Master Series speaker cables ($4,195/length not specified), and a host of other goodies. Prices ranged from the relatively affordable Poseidon GL Reference power cable ($395) to the toney Epirus Master Series interconnects mentioned above.
Look for a review over the next several months. Oh, and my deepest apologies to the Silnote team in advance, but I was so taken by the exhibit and the great sound coming from this room that I forgot to take photos. Mea culpa!
The self-effacing team over at HiFi Imports hit one out of the ball park with their reference level goodies. HiFi Imports put together a system built around the stylish and gorgeous-sounding Thrax Audio components. Our own Key Kim has written extensively about the Thrax gear in these very pages and uses the Bulgarian-made electronics as his references. I urge you to seek out his reviews of this promising if pricey equipment. In this set-up, the Weiss Man301 Music Archive network player ($12,262 w/DAC; $9,083 w/o) fed the stunning Thrax Maximus DAC ($33,000), which in turn fed the equally impressive Thrax Dionysos line level preamplifier ($21,5000) and newly-released Teres Transformer Coupled hybrid power amplifier ($30,000/250-watts per channel). Holding center court, the all-aluminum Polymer Research MKS-X loudspeakers ($68,000 the pair) produced the biggest, widest, tallest and deepest soundstage of the show. Images materialized out of thin air with no indication as to the positions of the surprisingly compact enclosures. Bass credibly dipped into the low 30 Hz range, an impressive feat given the cavernous room dimensions and lack of any useful rear-wall bass reinforcement. The depth charge-like dynamics were breathtaking, the overall sound startlingly realistic. Start buying your lottery tickets now.
Audio Note (UK) Ltd. and Dave Cope once again defied conventional wisdom and delivered great sound by stuffing the fetching E/SPe HE two-way speakers ($9,600 the pair) into the room corners. The speakers boast a 97 db/w/m sensitivity and fare best when driven by high quality tube gear. Audio Note had some of the best on hand. The top-loading CDT Three/II CD player ($11,775) utilizing the famous Philips CD Pro2 transport and upgraded power supply, DAC 3.1x/II ($9,900) with 6DJ8-based output stage, M6 phono pre-amp ($20,500) and simply stunning Jinro Shochu single-ended power amp ($31,000/20-watts per channel) drove the E/SPe HEs to near-perfection. Richly saturated tone colors, convincing 3-D imaging, beautiful vocal renderings, and surprisingly robust dynamics left me shaking my head in disbelief. Not cheap by any means, but worth every penny and a real sonic balm to music lovers tired of the piercing aural assault that all-too-often passes for state-of-the art music reproduction in some circles.
Dan Wright of ModWrightInstruments and Daedalus Audio's Lou Hinkley teamed up once again to produce some of the best sounds at the show. Lou brought his latest creation to Chicago, the stunning, heavily braced, solid-walnut Poseidon V.2 reference floor standing loud speakers ($16,450 the pair). Like the E/SPe HEs, the Poseidons are high efficiency numbers, boasting a 97 db/w/m sensitivity and benign impedance. Driven by a suite of ModWright gear, here the KWA 150SE amp ($8,495), LS 36.5 'DM' two-box balanced pre-amp ($9,995), PH 150 tube phono stage ($7,900), ModWright 'Truth' modified Oppo BDP-105D universal player ($2,500/modification only), VPI Prime table with Shelter 901 mc cartridge (no table and cartridge prices given), the Poseidons sounded spacious, warm (but not sugar-coated), and transient-rich, with an overall relaxed and engaging presentation. The system reproduced Sinne Eeg's uplifting Crowded Heart as well as I have heard.