Chicago 2017 is now firmly in the rear-view mirror, O'Hare Airport and all.
The show itself was a well attended event, with a just announced attendance of nearly seven thousand paid. According to show organizers, this was a 13% increase over 2016. From my standpoint, AXPONA 2017 was a busy show, with good to great traffic on all three days. In fact, the Westin O'Hare Hotel was so packed that parking really was an issue. Many people had to park elsewhere and walk or shuttle in. Even the Westin shuttle bus to the airport was having trouble making it around the parking loop.
Regardless, the AXPONA team and Liz Miller did a very fine job of making this year's show run smoothly, without any major hassles that I am aware of. My hat's off to them for making the experience a pleasant one for all attendees. A large audio show is a huge enterprise; to do it this well is a tribute to a job well done.
Busy, busy. So much so that AXPONA will be moving to a new site, the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel and Convention Center, which is about 20 minutes further out from where the Westin is now, in order to provide more rooms and much more parking. There will be nine floors of exhibit space, and more suites, apparently. I expect that this will lead to further growth for AXPONA, which is already firmly established as the second-largest show in the USA. Go HERE for more details about AXPONA 2018. Note that the dates for next year's show are set for April 13-15, 2018.
The Audio Oasis! Awards for AXPONA 2017
For those new to these awards: At every audio show I attend, I have my Audio Oasis! Awards to give to rooms that exhibit superior sound and music. As I wrote about AXPONA in 2016:
"As always, my Audio Oasis! Awards are intended to recognize rooms at audio shows that are well above the run of the mill. Yes, we all know that shows are tough environments for fine audio…yes, we all know that it takes special skill and knowledge to put together synergistic matches in those settings. Some folks hit upon a really good combination by serendipity…but some people get great results year in and year out."
Very true, that. Some Audio Oasis! rooms are newcomers, but some are highly experienced and expert campaigners, who know how to do an audio show room at a high level of quality. I strongly suggest that you pay attention to the AO! Rooms that show up, year in and year out…you can count on these vendors/manufacturers to know what's what, and to do the right thing for you and your listening room at home.
I've been doing the AO! awards for quite a while now. All the way back in PF issue 23, January/February of 2006 (HERE), in the aftermath of CES 2006, I put it this way:
The result of this approach is a new [Positive Feedback] show honor, which I'm dubbing the "Audio Oasis!" awards. This is my personal recognition of the rooms that, even under show conditions, really connected with me, and refreshed me in the midst of the tyrannous urgency of CES. If these systems can connect emotionally at CES, I reckon that you can count on them doing great things in your listening room at home. That's a good thing to know if you're looking for guideposts on your audio quest.
A word of warning for my readers: the "Audio Oasis!" awards should not be viewed as a variant of the nearly worn-out "best of show" recognitions that are all too common in audiodom. I did not see every room at CES and T.H.E. Show, and can have no idea of how what I didn't hear sounded like. Furthermore, there aren't nearly enough days at CES to do that properly in the first place, and its hotel-based environment is marginal, at best. "Best of Show" is only a legitimate designation if the listener: a) heard every room at CES/T.H.E. Show, and b) knows what he or she is talking about. Think of it as the combination of opportunity and sensibility. I don't think that these conditions are met very often; if they were, there would probably be fewer of such pronouncements. Enough said.
So, that's the solid rock that my show reports and awards stand upon.
One final note before I dig in. It's a reminder to all exhibitors at high-end audio shows: Please remember to provide complete and accurate room equipment lists for your visitors and for the audio press. If you aren't doing this, then you're missing an opportunity with potential customers, and you're definitely putting a stumbling block in the way for proper coverage of your room by publications like Positive Feedback. Don't be your own worst enemy.
Enough of that: Time to issue my results for this year. Here they are, in no particular order:
This was a room that I visited early on, and one that I hadn't been in for a while. That's too bad, since the quality of the sound in here was first rate. Jeff Joseph was playing open reel tapes which were sounding delicious, as they should. Very refreshing to see how much RTR was in evidence at AXPONA 2017. After all, it's how I started into audio, lo! these many years ago…
Ye Olde Editor with his beloved Sony TC-630, Koss Pro-4A headphones, and a small boom stand intruding, stage left: Sao Paulo, Brasil, 1970.
Jeff is a courtly host, and the room had a great feel to it. The RTR machine was the venerable Technics RS1500, with the Doshi Tape Preamp ($16,000) feeding the Rowland Daemon Super Integrated Amp ($38,800). Downstream was a pair of Joseph Audio Perspectives, definitely punching way above their price point of $13,000 per pair. All cabling was by Cardas Audio (Clear for the power cable [$920 for 2 meters] and interconnects [3160 for 2 meters]; Clear Beyond speaker cables at $10,830 for three meters). Modulum provided the amp stand (Walnut at $2100) and 3-shelf rack (Walnut at $5600).
Excellent sound: smooth, detailed, and mesmerizing. Analog ruled here!
Definitely an Audio Oasis! Award kind of place.
GTT Audio/Audionet/YG Acoustics/KRONOS/Kubala-Sosna/Air Tight
Here's no surprise at all. As usual, Bill Parish of GTT Audio was producing killer sound in all of his rooms, of which there were three.
In his Audionet/YG Acoustics/Kubala-Sosna/KRONOS/Air Tight room, the sound was absolutely exceptional. The KRONOS SCPS power supply ($13,500) has transformed the KRONOS Pro LE ($38,000), Black Beauty Tonearm with arm board ($10,000) and Air Tight Opus 1 MC cartridge ($15,000) into a world-beater turntable system. The downstream combination of the Audionet PRE G2 ($23,350), PAM G2 Phono Amp ($10,100) + EPX Power Supply ($10,100), and MAX monoblocks ($30,500/pair) with Kubala-Sosna Realization! cables (prices vary) and the K-S XPander power distribution unit ($4800) sounded brilliant. The new K-S Realization! cables deserve special mention; as hard as it was for me to believe, they are definitely a step above the Elation! line…and the Elation! cables were already stratospheric. (Joe, I'm going to have to try a set of these!) The YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2 Loudspeakers ($72,800/pair) mated well with the room, and were clean, clear, and extremely musical.
It was hard to leave this room, and I circled back several times. That's always a clear sign of a room worthy of recognition.
Joe Kubala of Kubala-Sosna and Bill Parish of GTT Audio
Once again, Bill Parish, Joe Kubala, and Dick Diamond cut another notch in the Audio Oasis! Award belt…
GTT Audio/YG Acoustics/Mola Mola/Kubala-Sosna
…but wait! There's more!
Stepping across the hall to the second of the GTT Rooms brought me into a different sort of audio system: more compact, at a lower price point, but still packing a real punch. Room two combined the Mola Mola Makua preamp ($11,740) with optional DAC ($7850), a pair of Kaluga mono amps ($16,500/pair) with Kubala-Sosna Elation! cabling, and the YG Acoustics Carmel 2 Loudspeaker ($24,300/pair).
Dick Diamond with the YG Acoustics Carmel 2 Loudspeaker
I've heard this ensemble several times over the years, and each time it's been a pleasure to visit the room. Trim, attractive, dynamic, and detailed in presentation, audiophiles who may be constrained in the amount of space that they have for their listening gear will want to consider this package as an alternative that is potent without needing a lot of real estate.
Bruno Putzey's brilliant design work with Mola Mola deserves wider recognition.
Definitely an Audio Oasis! Award place.
GTT Audio/Kii Audio
Chris Reichert of Kii Audio with the Kii Three self-powered speaker with built-in DACs
The last, but not the least, of the GTT Audio rooms was the GTT/Kii space. Once again, Kii Prez Chris Reichert was showing off his Kii Three Self-Powered Loudspeaker system ($13,900/pair, + $1,650 for the stands + custom color option, $1960) with its Kii Control ($1760).
Talk about trim! A notebook computer, a remote control, a cable, and a pair of speakers: It was a complete digital playback system! Drop-dead gorgeous, punchy and room-filling dynamic, with slam galore, the Kii Three is an exceptionally innovative system that puts DACs and custom-matched amps for each driver into a cabinet that accommodates the whole with no extra components hanging around. You really have to see it…and hear the results…to believe it. Even small apartments can handle the Kii Three without a problem, and without sacrificing audio quality.
I've recommended the Kii Three before; with its ability to do DSD now, plus its attractive control, it's better than ever.
A unique design; definitely an Audio Oasis! Award again for Kii!
VAC/Von Schweikert Audio/KRONOS/LampizatOr/MasterBuilt/ASC
Ungawa! From the compact, to the enormous!
One of the largest rooms…for the scale of performance, for the authority of the sound, and for the elevated reference-level prices…was this one. The list of components is a very long one; in such cases, I normally truncate the list. In this case, due to the extreme nature of the results, I will include the whole thing:
KRONOS Pro LE turntable with SCPS power supply and Black Beauty tonearm with board ($61,500)
Ultimate 4D cartridge ($4400)
J-Corder Rebuilt Technics 1520 ($14,000)
YFS Ref 3 Music Server ($17,500)
LampizatOr Golden Gate DAC ($20,000)
VAC Statement Phono Stage ($80,000)
VAC Statement Line Stage ($75,000)
VAC Statement 450 iQ Monoblock Amplifiers ($120,000/pair)
Von Schweikert Audio ULTRA 11 Loudspeakers ($295,000/pair)
Von Schweikert Audio Shockwave V12 Subwoofer for room correction ($11,500)
MasterBuilt Audio Ultra Line cables (price varies)
Acoustic Sciences Corporation ASC Tube Traps (price varies)
Artesania Audio Exoteryc 4-shelf rack ($7000)
Artesania Audio Exoteryc 3+3 tandem rack ($10,000)
Artesania Audio Exoteryc turntable platform ($3400)
Artesania Audio Aire Platform ($3700 each)
Without a doubt, this was one of the more extensive and expensive systems that I have heard at a show. (I'll let the reader total the numbers.) It was also one of the five best systems that I've ever heard.
Lyn Stanley: a portrait
Also without a doubt is the fact that the sheer scale and authority of the playback presence was galactic. Greg Weaver detailed his thoughts about the music in this place…see HERE…and I would agree with the general direction of his commentary, so there's no reason to be redundant. But I returned to this room several times, including a listening session with Lyn Stanley playing the lacquer (!) of her new record, and must say that the experience was simply incredible.
If you have a few tons of money, a very large listening room, and concrete floors (the ULTRA 11's run nearly 1,000 pounds each), then this system should be one of several that I can think of for you to test drive.
No question of an Audio Oasis! Award here, of course: given with enthusiasm, and a touch of awe.
This year saw Andreas Koch of Playback Designs hooking up again with Brian Tucker of Pro Audio of Chicago and Nordost to showcase the latest from Playback Designs.
Andreas Koch with the Playback Designs Dream MPT-8 Transport and Music Server
Andreas' room featured the Sonoma stack that I reported on from AXPONA 2016, and reviewed in part last October, together with his IPS-3 Integrated Amp with Quad DAC powering ATC SCM-40 loudspeakers. But the real stars of the show were his next generation DAC and transport: The MPD-8 DAC (target price of $22,000) and MPT-8 Digital Music Transport (target price of $14,000 – $20,000, depending on options). Andreas calls these his new "Dream Series."
Once more Playback Designs is breaking new ground, first with a new custom transport for optical (including especially SACD) that is built from the ground up to Andreas' very exacting specifications. He says that this will be the best transport and engine ever made, and will handle SACDs in a manner never before accomplished. At last! A new SACD transport with no compromise in the quality of construction! Naturally, it will also do CDs, as well. Better yet, it can also accommodate a Syrah Music Server internally, and will also handle streaming media in the future, via an upgrade that will be available.
The MPD-8 remains FPGA-based, but provides for many new developments, including pass-through for digital recording, significantly improved power supplies, recording software, and improved algorithms.
Andreas Koch of Playback Designs and Brian Tucker of Pro Audio
And the sound? Dy-no-mite! Even in comparison with the RTR recorder in the room, the Quad DSD performance of the Pinot-to-MPD-8 analog-to-digital-to-analog performance was indistinguishable, one from the other. The sound was superlative, of studio-quality monitor levels. It seemed to be even better than last year's performance of the Sonoma stack at AXPONA 2016, but that was already so good that we're really talking shoulder-of-the-slope comparisons. Clearly Andreas has made serious progress in DAC performance, and his mastery of DSD is, in my experience, second to none.
No doubt: This was a show stopper, and an award winner.
Dan Wright of ModWright, Alex Svetinsky of WyWires, and Lou Hinkley of Daedalus: los tres amigos!
Year after year, the room run by the tres amigos, Dan Wright of ModWright Instruments, Lou Hinkley of Daedalus Audio, and Alex Svetinsky of WyWires is as reliable as an atomic clock in providing musical pleasure and tubic delight. This year was no different; once again I was most pleased to drop in and stay a while.
Dan Wright of ModWright Instruments: a portrait of the artisan
This year the amigos were joined by Mat Weisfeld, who provided a VPI Aries Turntable with a JMW 12 tonearm ($10,000). WyWires (prices vary) tied the whole lovely package together with a fine audio bow, with GIK Acoustics Alpha Series providing the room treatment (prices vary). Altogether, a beautiful synergy.
Lou Hinkley of Daedalus Audio
Featured this year was the new Daedalus Apollo full-range floor-standing loudspeakers (intro price of $14,250), with Lou's new 10" woofer and a 96dB/W/m efficiency. This unit featured the Dueland option ($395 at time of order). It was paired with ModWright's new Ambrose One Balanced Reference Tube Preamp (price to be determined), mated with his Ambrose A30 Mono Blocks ($14,995) at 30 Watts Pure Class A Single-Ended, using EL-34's. The phono amp was the ModWright PH 150 ($7900). Daedalus' DiD's ($480/set of three) provided isolation all around, and Lou also introduced his new DiD Turntable Platform (starting at $390).
Alex Svetinsky of WyWires
I have to say it: The sound was even better than last year's Audio Oasis! Award winning room, manifesting deeper bass, more authority and transparency from the electronics/cables, and an organic, harmonic connection to the VPI turntable. I relaxed in here, simply taking in the music, and the luscious ease with which it massaged my soul.
Every year these companies come in with new ideas, and each year I must dutifully award Dan, Lou, and Alex…and now this year, Mat Weisfeld and the folks at GIK Audio…my Audio Oasis! Award.
GamuT/Pear Audio Blue/Kyomi/Ortofon
Benno Meldgaard of GamuT and his US distributor, Michael Vamos, are on fire! The brilliant work done by GamuT over the past several years has not escaped my repeated notice.
Benno Meldgaard of GamuT
Both Benno and Michael have visited PF Central here in Portland, and we've had some great times listening to music, talking about musicians, beauty in audio, and the possibilities of the audio arts. I'll be publishing a review of the GamuT reference system any time now, in fact, and so I've had some deep exposure to the quality and importance of the designs at Gamut.
The GamuT RS7 Loudspeaker
Michael Vamos of GamuT USA: a portrait
The GamuT sound is intensely musical, exceptionally transparent and authoritative, as I know from my extended experience with it in our own reference listening room here in Portland.
The Pear Audio Blue Kid Thomas Turntable
There's simply no doubt that this was an Audio Oasis! Award winning room.
So let it be written; so let it be done!
Skogrand/ModWright/Daedalus/VPI/GIK/2L/J-Corder/Core Power Tech
Lou Hinkley of Daedalus Audio and Knut Skogrand of Skogrand Cables: a portrait.
Over the past few years, Knut Skogrand and Skogrand Cables have been making very notable strides in the design and building of world-class audio cables. In this room, he teamed up with ModWright, Daedalus Audio, VPI, J-Corder, GIK, and Core Power Tech to produce a musical result that filled one of the larger rooms (the LL Banks Room) with analogic and tubulicious goodness.
There's glory for you!
The updated J-Corder RTR was making lovely music with some open reel recordings that I was unfamiliar with, nicely smuggled in by Knut. An unindicted co-conspirator was Mat Weisfeld's VPI Prime Signature turntable spinning the righteous vinyl, Dan Wright's ModWright electronics, Skogrand cables, and the Daedalus Audio Poseidon loudspeakers, doing yeoman's work.
There is something magical about the combination of RTR tape, LPs, tubes, great cables, and well-crafted speakers. This room had it in spades, and kept me there for quite a while.
Give these folks an Audio Oasis! Award, for sure.
The Voice That Is/TIDAL/Aurender/TW-Acustic/Stillpoints/Bricasti Design/Dynamic Design/Transfiguration/Signal Projects
In The Voice That Is room…spectacular! Superb!
Doug White has been doing excellent jobs at audio shows over the past several years. This year was no exception, as he featured quite an exception collection of top-notch gear in his room. These included:
TIDAL Audio Akira Loudspeaker, $215,000/pair
TIDAL Audio Presencio Preamplifier system (3 components), $77,800
TIDAL Audio Impulse Monobloc Amplifiers, $64,900/pair
TIDAL Audio cables, price varies
TW-Acustic Raven AC-1 Turntable, $15,500
TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 Tonearm, $5500
Transfiguration Proteus Diamond Cartridge, $10,000
Bricasti Design M1sp Dual Mono DAC, $10,000
Aurender N10 Reference Music Server, $8500
Stillpoints ESS Racks, Aperture Panels, and Isolators, price varies
Signal Projects Poseidon S40 Power Conditioner $9995
Dynamic Design Digital Cables, price varies
Signal Projects cables, price varies
This is all first-rate high-end gear. I've previously reviewed TIDAL Audio back in Issue 88, which you can read HERE. It was stellar in my listening room then: the same electronics as in the room at AXPONA, except that I heard the Agora loudspeakers.
But AXPONA was the American debut of the new Akira loudspeaker, with its massive diamond tweeter and a driver array downshifted from the no-holds-barred Assoluta. The results were simply brilliant. The TIDAL Audio gear, with its supporting cast of players, produced a sound from any source that was truly crystalline in its transparency, effortless in its dynamics, and quite authoritative. I had loved the Agoria, but the Akira was clearly outpointing that lesser sibling. I had a new TIDAL love!
Doug White of The Voice That Is with Jörn Janczak, CEO of TIDAL Audio.
I got a chance to meet Jörn Janczak, the honcho of TIDAL, while I was in the room, and compliment him on the amazing new Akira. He was pleased that I liked them so much…and how could I not?
Within seconds, I knew that it was an Audio Oasis! Award room…
LampizatOr/Linear Tube Audio/Spatial Audio/Verastarr
Lukasz Fikus, the CEO of LampizatOr, and its leading design genius.
The LampizatOr et al. room was another obvious oasis of music. The Golden Atlantic DSD DAC (9000 Euros) was showing its splendor by putting the glow in glorious. It was nicely served by the LampizatOr Komputer Server (3900 Euros).
Fred Ainsley, US distributor for LampizatOr.
I wasn't familiar with the Linear Tube Audio ZOTL40 Mk. II Amplifier ($5800), but it seemed to mate quite nicely with both the Lampi gear and push out great sound through another new product to me: the Spatial Audio M3 Triode Master Speakers ($4000/pair). The configuration bespeaks triode OTL deliciousness (Where's Harvey Rosenberg when you need him?! He'd love this!) and highly efficient speakers. The ZOTL is David Berning's design, here updated by Linear Tube Audio.
The sound was rich, clean, and unfailingly music. Great tubes up front and out the back.
Killer! An Audio Oasis! Award here, in glowing praise!
David Kawakami of Sonoma Acoustics at the wheel, driving the superb Model One Headphone Amplifier and DSD DAC and a pair of the Model One HPEL Electrostatic Headphones.
I didn't get much chance to visit headphone spaces this year…there were so many.
But I did get to spend some time with the great folks at Sonoma Acoustics and (finally!) hear for myself their Model One Headphone Amplifier with Double DSD DAC and their HPEL Electrostatic Headphones ($4995 for the system).
Gus Skinas with a boxed set of the Model One: a portrait
Brothers and sisters, I just have to say it: The Model One system is simply superb!
In fact, it was so good that I asked Sonoma Acoustics to ship a review sample my way. This was done shortly after AXPONA. As a sneak preview, I can tell you that I'll be penning a rave about the Model One. This is a real world-class headphone lover's design, sitting right atop my headphone heap!
Andrew Demery and David Kawakami with the Model One HPEL Electrostatic Headphones
This one was a no-brainer: David, Gus, and Andrew deserve this award, and every success going forward. And if you're into headphones, this system will get into you!
Merrill Audio/German Physiks/VPI/EMM Labs/Aurender
In the very impressive Merrill Audio/German Physiks/VPI/EMM Labs/Aurender room
I had reason to praise my last encounter with the folks from Merrill Audio and German Physiks at last year's THE Show. The performance of the Merrill gear with the GP HRS-130 omnidirectional speaker really impressed me, and resulted in an Audio Oasis! Award in 2016, as you can read HERE.
The system consisted of the Merrill Audio Veritas Monoblocks ($12,000/pair), their Christine Line Preamplifier ($12,400), Jens Phono Preamplifier ($15,449), ANAP XLR interconnects and ANAP speaker cables; VPI Reference Avenger with magnetic drive turntable ($23,000) and JMW 12" tonearm ($1500) with Lyra Delcos MC ($1995); German Physiks Borderland Mk. IV speakers ($36,500/pair); Aurender N10 Music Server with 8 TB drive ($8500); EMM Labs DAc2x ($15,500); Studer 810 courtesy of IPI and Jonathan Horwich (no price); and Solid Tech Rack of Silence ($3195).
This system is really stacked!
Once again, the holographic magic that I had heard last year was powerfully in evidence this year. I am quite taken by the very best omnidirectional designs that I have heard, and the Merrill electronics really synergizes well with the German Physiks.
Once again, one of my Audio Oasis! Awards is just begging to be given here.
Finest Fidelity/van den Hul/Convergent Audio Technology/Basis/Galen Carol/Aurender/Berkeley Audio Design/Shunyata Research
Now here's an exceptional room, for sure…
True confession time: In this room, I got to hear some components that really put together an exceptional sound.
I was really knocked out by the performance here, with Basis, van den Hul, and CAT making some really fine music. On the equipment list (no prices available):
Basis 2200 turntable
Basis SA9 Superarm
van den Hul Colibri Signature Stradivarius
CAT Legend Preamp
CAT SL7 Monoblock Amps
Magico S5 Mk. II loudspeakers
van den Hul Field Torsion Modulator (the units on top of speakers in the photographs above)
Quadraspire Rack (no model given)
Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC
audioaero Capitole Classic CD player
van den Hul 3T interconnects
van den Hul Cumulus 3T speaker cables
Aurender N10 Music Server
Synergy in spades here, amigos! The music was detailed and nicely transparent, with well-controlled bass and a midrange that was truly commendable. While I was there, we listened to nothing but LPs, and the killer quality of that playback system through the CAT electronics made the Magicos really sit up and pay attention! (Me too.)
And those bloody new van den Hul Field Torsion Modulators! At first, I (and everyone else) took them to be super-tweeters, but no…they're Field Torsion Modulators. (Don't ask; I'll have to dig in to AJ's tech sheet to learn more about this.) I got to hear them off, and then on…and oh no! They make a very real difference in the soundfield. (Scoffers are politely asked to leave the room.)
So, I'm on the list to evaluate a pair of these soon.
Ken Stevens of Convergent Audio Technology: a portrait
Another audio blessing: I finally got to meet Ken Stevens of CAT. His electronics were sounding amazing, clearly digging the analog juiciness of the Basis/vdH front end, and those bKen's grasp of tube circuitry is really deep; it was pleasant to talk with him, while also getting to hear the results first-hand. An informative conversation, for sure. Some time, if Ken is amenable, I'll have to check out the CAT electronics here at PF home base….
So, an Audio Oasis! Award here…turntables and tubes were thriving!
In the exaSound, Magnepan, Parasound room
It is a commonplace complaint among some in high-end audio that the gear costs too much and takes up too much space.
Not here, brothers and sisters! George Klissarov put together very fine sound that didn't take up much space or eat much power. Furthermore, it was reasonably priced in an audiophile context.
George's e32 stereo DSD DAC ($3499) and e38 multi-channel DSD DAC ($3849) always punch well above their price points. Likewise his PlayPoint Network Audio Player ($1999) brings first-rate LAN and streaming audio to your listening room without setting fire to your wallet. The amplifier in this room was the Parasound A21 stereo ($2500), which drove the Magnepan 3.7i speakers without a problem. Very fine sound on a very reasonable budget.
See? It can be done.
George Klissarov of exaSound
I should also note that George produces some of the finest drivers in the game, and the output from his up-to-Quad-DSD DACs are simply exceptional. I know; I've heard many of them, and own several, including the e32 and the PlayPoint Network Audio Server.
Besides which, George is a heckuva good fellow! (No, you don't have to be a curmudgeon to be brilliant.)
Excellent results here once again, and another Audio Oasis! Award to exaSound.
Kyomi Audio/On a Higher Note/Vivid/Merging Technologies/Graham/Jadis/TechDAS/STEALTH Audio/Artesania/Koetsu
In the ravishing Kyomi Audio room…
As a general audio show rule for me, I always stop by whatever room Philip O'Hanlon is connected with. The man knows his music, and always has top ‘o the heap recordings rolling, in one format or another (LP, SACD, RTR tape, DSD).
This time, his company On a Higher Note was in the Kyomi Audio room. A really impressive collection of audio gear was in action:
Vivid Giya G1 Series II Loudspeakers, $68,000/pair
Jadis JA200 MK II Tube Mono Amplifiers, $33,900/pair
Jadis JP200MC Tube Preamplifier with MC Phono, $32,900
TechDas Air Force Three Turntable, $29,750
Graham Elite Tonearm (10"), $12,000
Koetsu Jade Platinum MC Cartridge, $9995
Ortofon Cadenza Mono MC Cartridge, $1280
Monophonic Phono Stage, $2000
Merging Technologies NADAC Player, $14,000
MBL 1621A CD Transport, $28,000
Stealth Sakra V12 RCA Interconnects, $12,000 (1 meter pair)
Stealth Helios Tonearm Cable DIN-RCA, $9800 (1.2 meter)
Stealth Dream V14 Loudspeaker Cables, $14,700 (2 meters)
Stealth Dram V16 UNI AC Power Cords, $5800 (1.2 meter)
Artesania Audio EXOTERYC Tandem Rack, $9990
Artesania Audio EXOTERYC KRION Turntable Platform, $3390
Artesania Audio EXOTERYC AIRE Amp Stands, $3690
Artesania Audio 4" Decoupling Disks, $170
The viciously seductive Vivid Audio Giya G1 Series II Loudspeaker
Once again, the Giya's were turning earth into heaven in this space. Philip was emceeing the show with some very fine music, both classical and jazz. Of particular interest to me was a vintage mono LP of Duke Ellington entitled Liberia Suite, which was a work that I'd never heard before.
Needless to day, being a very long-time lover of the Duke, I was really entranced and pulled in by this recording. The TechDas Air Force Three/Graham/Ortofon Cadenza (mono) combination was making real music here, and the LP was in reasonably good condition. The Giyas were sounding as foxy as they look: If you could date this speaker, she'd be "a long cool woman in a black dress." What a wonderful experience!
Philip O'Hanlon of On a Higher Note with his favorite squeeze: The splendid Vivid Audio Giya G1 Series II loudspeaker!
No doubt about it; after spending nearly 45 minutes here…because I was so hooked…I was quite sure that I simply must give the Kyomi Audio room and Philip the praise that it deserved. An Audio Oasis! Award for this knockout of a room.
MBL/United Home Audio
Here's an old and familiar friend: The MBL room.
I've mentioned earlier that I do appreciate superior omnidirectional speakers, and MBL is extraordinary in its dedication to Jurgen Reis's exceptional (and exceptionally challenging) designs. In fact, I have reviewed the MBL Reference system with the Radialstrahler 101D loudspeakers in my own listening room on two different occasions: once with the 9008's in monoblock mode, and once with the 9011 monos. So I have some deep experience with MBL.
Anyway, every year Jeremy Bryan of MBL North America does a great job of putting together top-notch rooms at audio shows, and AXPONA 2017 was no different. This time around, MBL teamed up once more with Greg Beron's United Home Audio, producer of some very fine RTR decks, and Greg's great collection of RTR tapes. The results are always musically juicy…some unbelievable (Real! On reel!) music going out to the MBL kit downstream.
Greg Beron of United Home Audio with his Ultima 2 OPS-DC two-box RTR
This year the Radialstrahler 101E speakers ($70,500/pair) were teamed up with the MBL Noble line of electronics: The new N11 preamp ($14,600), and four N15 monoblocks ($17,800 each). The UHA RTR unit was the Ultima 2 OPS-DC (translates to "Outboard Power Supply-Direct Current," at $28,000), a two box system that runs the RTR on DC power.
This is Greg's latest essay on no-holds-barred RTR modification, the underlying machines being Tascams. (For more on that, see the UHA site HERE.) The results were very fine indeed, with the pure analog of the open reels allowing the new MBL electronics to shake their booties and show their power and finesse.
One could listen to music for hours in this room…no exaggeration! MBL has become one of the truly great audio brands over the years, and remains firmly ensconced at the highest level of fine audio performance.
And so, once again, they richly merit one of my Audio Oasis! Awards…gladly given!
Believe it or not, the AURALiC Polaris is that very small white unit on top of the central stand, between the Ryan Speakers. Anyone can make this fit just about anywhere.
AURALiC has made a number for itself over the past few years as bringing a great deal of sophistication, elegance, and compactness to high-end audio. The fact that they are doing so with knockout price-performance numbers has sweetened the deal for many audiophiles.
This year was another signal event for AURALiC at AXPONA. Their Polaris all-in-one wowed me with its combination of capabilities. First of all, it's a stereo amplifier with 120 watts per channel @ 8 ohms/180 watts per channel @ 4 ohms. It's also an analog preamp with a line-level input...and a phono amp with MM support. It has analog out via RCA.
But wait! There's more!
Add to that the fact that it's also a streaming server, supporting everything from USB to uPnP/DLNA, Tidal, Qobuz, Internet radio, AirPlay, Bluetooth, Songcast…and it's Roon-ready, too! And more: Digital inputs include AES/EBU, Coax, USB, Ethernet RJ45 gigabit, and 802.11b/g/n/ac Dual-Band WiFi. (Pause for breath.) All PCM formats are supported, and DSD from Single DSD to Quad DSD are all there; among formats that will find a home here are AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DFF, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV, and WMA. Multiple control interfaces are supported, including Roon.
And all of this weighs only 10 pounds, at a price of only…drum roll, please…$3800!
They were driving the Ryan R630 Loudspeakers ($5000/pair) wonderfully, giving no sense of tapping out. The sound was very clean, detailed, and dynamic, with performance that was remarkable for such a trim duo.
Those who are strongly committed to digital and streaming audio in smaller settings or on a tight budget will certainly want to consider AURALiC + Ryan.
Meanwhile, I was quite impressed with what I heard, and reached for another Audio Oasis! Award.
Carolyn Counnas of Zesto Audio
George and Carolyn Counnas are two really wonderful people in high-end audio. They work as a team, with George doing the tubic and circuit wizardry, while Carolyn works on industrial design and handles business operations. These two have been impressing critics for years now with their blend of sonic bodaciousness and visual beauty.
In the Zesto Audio/Marten/Stillpoints/Cardas/Merrill-Williams room: Beauty and tubulicious power in action!
This year's room housed quite an array.
Zesto Audio Andros Tessera Vacuum Tube Phono Stage, $12,000
Merrill-Williams Audio REAL 101.2 Turntable, $7200
Tri-Planar U2 10" tonearm, $7200 (two of these were used)
Benz Gullwing SLR MC, $3600
Ortofon Cadenza Mono MC, $1280
Electronics and speakers:
Marten Coltrane Tenor Speakers, $80,000
Zesto Audio Leto 1.5 Vacuum Tube Preamp, $7500
Zesto Audio Eros 300 Monoblock Class A Power Amps, $19,900/pair
Stillpoints ESS42-26-5 Rack, $10,000
Stillpoints Ultra 6 Isolation Feet (under amps), $899 each
Cardas Audio Clear Beyond Speaker Cables, $4085 (2 meters)
Cardas Audio Clear Beyond Interconnects, $1875 (1 meter)
Cardas Audio Clear Beyond Interconnects, $2675 (2 meters)
Cardas Audio Clear Beyond Power Cords, $522 (1.5 meter)
Cardas Audio Clear Beyond Phono Cable, $573 (1 meter)
What can I say? This room oozed power and precocious analog virtues. I wasn't familiar with the Merrill-William turntable, but Benz is a longtime favorite with me…always musical…and the Tri-Planar arm was doing a fine job of it, sending out a very agreeable musical signal with LPs.
Bob Levi is a real fan of Zesto electronics at all levels…his reviews of Zesto's new designs have peppered the pages of Positive Feedback over the years…and hearing this tandem, I can hear why. The finesse of the Zesto Andros Tessera/Leto feeding the beefy 150 watt Pure Class A Eros monoblocks really lit up the Marten Coltrane Tenors, and reminded me of why I have a warm spot in my hear for Marten speakers. I know the Cardas Clears, but these new Clear Beyonds showed me that George has hit a new level of performance. As usual, the Stillpoints ESS Rack was providing a magnificently stable platform for this audio orchestra. The synergy of all the players produced a clean, clear, and yet musically rich with glorious midrange and sweet, extended high frequencies that was irresistible.
Nor did I even try to resist it!
Definitely a PF Audio Oasis! Award winner, and done gladly.
David Michael Audio/Nagra/Graham/KRONOS/Kubala-Sosna/Aurender/Modulum
And now for something completely different!
At last! In the David Michael Audio room, I encountered a system featuring a complete set of electronics that I had been longing to hear: the Nagra Audio line. It was in harness with a very fine fellow audio cast:
Nagra Classic Preamp, $17,000
Nagra Classic Amp, $30,000/pair
Nagra Classic DAC, $14,000
Nagra VPS Phono, $7650
Nagra MPS Power Supply, $6495
KRONOS Pro LE Turntable ($38,000) with Black Beauty Arm ($10,000)
Phasemation PP-1000 MC, $4500
Graham Audio LS5_8 BBC Monitor Speakers, $13,500/pair
Kubala-Sosna Emotion Cables:
$3,000 (1 meter interconnects); $3000 (speaker cables); $1000 (power cords)
Modulum Audio Rack (no price specified; prices vary)
René Laflamme of Nagra
Having already had the Nagra HD DSD DAC here in my listening room for the past few months, courtesy of Rene Laflamme of Nagra North America, I was already expecting superior performance. I am very glad to say that not only was I not disappointed…I was extremely pleased and impressed with the results in the David Michael Audio room. The KRONOS Pro LE is, of course, one of my favorite turntables, period. But I must confess that I didn't know the MC cartridge or the Graham Audio BBC monitors at all. And this was my first experience with a complete Nagra system.
David Kassab and Jeff Block of David Michael Audio
Nevertheless, I was really wowed by the sound in here! The KRONOS front end did its usual splendors with LPs, but the Nagra electronics really made the Graham Audio BBC's stand up and salute. The room didn't overload, and was filled with transparent, detailed music, with a fine bottom end, and great harmonic structure throughout. You'd look at this setup, and you might underestimate the potency of the compact Nagra electronics, or the capabilities of the Graham Audio monitors (we already know that the KRONOS Pro LE is a heavyweight champion), but you'd be wrong. This system was the Real McCoy!
Kudos to all here for putting together a first-rate, very gratifying room!
And an Audio Oasis! Award to you all.
Quintessence/Pass Labs/Sonus Faber/Critical Mass Systems/Kubala-Sosna/Aurender/Clearaudio/Berkeley Audio Design/AMG/DS Audio
Big room; big skies! The Quintessence Audio room was truly stratospheric…
On the 12th floor, up high, was another of the really large-scale systems at AXPONA. Quintessence Audio featured a cast of remarkable performers:
Clearaudio Innovation with Universal 9-inch tonearm, $15,000
AMG 12JT Turbo tonearm, $8500
Clearaudio Titanium V2 cartridge, $8000
DS Audio SD Master1 optical cartridge system, $22,500
Clearaudio Olympus stand in piano-black lacquer, $13,400
PASS Labs Xs Line Stage Preamp, $38,000
PASS Labs Xs Phono Preamplifier, $45,000
PASS Labs Xs 150 Amplifier, $65,000/pair
Bekeley Audio Alpha DAC Reference Series II, $19,500
Aurender N10 Digital Music Server, $8000
Sonus Faber Lilium Speakers, $70,000/pair
Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional Sonic Record Cleaning Machine, $5500
Well, there's some gold in them thar hills, for sure. But that's in both senses of "gold." Expensive, yes. But the exceptional results in this large suite was simply undeniable.
Naturally the sheer scale of the O'Hare 2 suite meant that any suitable audio system was going to have to be first rate…but if it was, the possibilities were really serious. Could this system pull it off?
Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, emceeing LPs during my visit to this room.
The simple answer is, "Yes! By a landslide!"
While some of the products there were unfamiliar to me, I have the PASS Labs Xs Phono Amp here in my listening room in Portland, and knew that it was truly killer. Garth was cuing up LPs, so I sat back to listen.
The DS Audio DS Master1 optical cartridge in the groove. Yes, it's really using optical conversion and transmission of analog signal. Bloody impressive.
Damn! Talk about effortless authority, power, and scale! And without dropping any detail, or the ability to handle quietness at all. The Sonus Fabers, driven by the PASS Labs and Clearaudio turntable gear upstream, simply filled the room with great authority, and an effortless ease from top to bottom. The DS Audio Master1 optical cartridge delivered exceptionally transparent and detailed music of a unique quality. I'm still reflecting upon what it was doing…but it was handling the grooves with great aplomb. Impressive.
The Sonus Faber Lilium Loudspeaker with the PASS Labs Xs 150 reference monoblock amplifier
Yes…the above were amazing in tandem!
Garth Leerer at the turntable controls, with the PASS Labs Xs Phono Amp and Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC to his left.
I can't conclude without mentioning that Garth hit a home run with me when he surprised me by pulling out the French Harmonia Mundi LP of Michel Portal's brilliant recording, Turbulence. I first fell in love with this one back around 1989, when an audio buddy shared and then sold a copy of the CD to me. I've listened to it many a time, and just a couple of months before this, had finally tracked down a copy of the French LP in excellent condition from a source in Canada, courtesy of Discogs.com. Cost me a few buck, but boy, does it sound fabulous!
Needless to say, it was mind-blowing to hear this fave spinner of mine…in fact, my fave track, "Mozambic"…in this room, on this system! Garth, you really scored some big-time brownie points with me, amigo! Being able to listen to a track that I've been intimately familiar with for nearly three decades now allowed me to be quite confident in giving this room one of my Audio Oasis! Awards.
Fine audio from a different vector: eXemplar audio, Stillpoints, VPI, and Shunyata
Now we go into yet another direction: that of artisan-made tubes, high-efficiency speakers, an excellent turntable with a different construction, solid cabling and power treatments, and some very fine racks and room treatments.
The cast of players:
VPI Avenger, $15,000
Mysonic Eminence, $5800
eXemplar audio eXception Phono Stage, $6950
eXemplar audio eXception Integrated Amp, $5950
eXemplar audio Upgraded Sonica DSD DAC, $2495
eXemplar audio XL-III Loudspeakers, $8995
Quadrasphere Rack, $900
Stillpoints Ultra 6 Isolation Feet with base, $939 each
Stillpoints Aperture Acoustic Panels, price varies
Shunyata Denali 6000T, $4995
Shunyata Alpha Interconnects, $1995 1 meter each
Shunyata Sigma Power Cordds, $2495 1.8 meters each
Shunyata Delta Speaker Cables, $2000 2.0 meter pair
John Tucker, president of eXemplar audio
I have known John Tucker for many years now, and have appreciated his work for a long time. A fair amount of his gear has come here and impressed me with its excellent creative design, fine workmanship, and great price-performance value. In fact, I have his eXception reference headphone amp here, which has shown itself to be such a potent performer than I now own it.
But John does more than that. Not only is he quite expert in his hardware, but he also is an expert craftsman with high-efficiency loudspeaker designs and the execution thereof. In fact, one of John's projects involving a complete system was evaluated judiciously by Malachi Kenney for Positive Feedback back in Issue 79, May/June of 2015; you'll find it HERE. A man of many talents is our John Tucker!
Mat Weisfeld of VPI with one of his Avenger turntables in the eXemplar room at AXPONA 2017, looking quite cool!
The combination of components here produced a sound that would be familiar to lovers of SETs, triodes, turntables, and high-efficiency (96dB/W/m) speakers provided lots of dynamic punch, but filled with a smooth, elegant tubulicious loveliness that ignites a golden glow in the bosom of analogical tubic lovers everywhere. Mat's Avenger TT was really doing a number on the grooves, and everything downstream contributed to deliver fantastic midrange and extended highs.
While the XL-III loudspeakers with their 10" single-driver system didn't reach down to the lowest octave (35Hz is the -3dB point), they provided a surprisingly deep sense of the bass in their first-rate cabinets. And the sense of coherence and phase/time correctness really locked in the sonic presentation in ways that I found to be highly appealing. I attribute a lot of this to the Stillpoints Apertures, which helped to tame a lot of the first-reflection woes that would otherwise have abounded in this…and just about any…show space.
What a great room! Good show by all!
And an Audio Oasis! Award for John, Mat, Paul, Bruce, and company!
In this room, a visual and aural treat!
This room was another opportunity to tune my ears. Marshall Nack of PF has been enthusiastic about CH Precision, reviewing them in Issues 71, 73, 74, and, most recently, in Issue 89. Since Marshall has a fine set of sensibilities, I have become curious over the past couple of years about the sound of CH Precision myself. (See? That's what good reviews do to you…even if you're the Editor-in-Chief.) And so when I passed the room, in I went.
The room featured:
CH Precision D1 SACD/CD Transport/Player, $37,750, plus some extra goodies
CH Precision I1 Universal Integrated Amplifier, all digital operation, $38,000 base price
KRONOS Sparta Turntable System, $21,500
KRONOS Helena Tonearm, $7,000
Kubotek Haniwa HCTRO1 MKII Cartridge, $11,000
Artesania Three Level Rack, price varies
Magico S1 Mk II, $16,500/pair
CH Precision Cables, price varies
So…I finally got to hear an entire CH Precision system on the wing, pushing the envelope of the Magico S1 Mk II two-way speakers something fierce. The results really sent me to an interesting place. There was an authority and presence in the sound that I found really hard to believe was coming through the compact Magico two-ways. Dynamics were impressive, with some slam that indicated that the Magicos were under do-or-die orders from upstream. Nice!
The clarity and…yes, the precision…of the sound was profound. Details in the recordings that I heard were rendered with truly crystalline effect, and yet without leaving a sense of the music being analytical or dry. Certainly those of us who treasure mic feeds and master tapes as our ultimate audio references could not help but come away from this room with a sense of having heard some sublime level of accomplishment that recalibrated expectations. I certainly did…and I'm pretty hard to impress in that regard.
To tell you the truth, I was not able to spend nearly as much time in this room as I would have liked to have done. Had I more opportunity, and if I had some of my favorite references SACDs along with me, I would have loved to spend an hour or two more, appraising where a system like this fits into my audio galaxy of designs. An intriguing question.
One regret: I missed an opportunity to meet CH Precision's Raphael Pasche face to face. He was out of the room at the time, and I had to get down the road.
Ah well…perhaps next time around.
Meanwhile, there was simply no doubt about it: The CH Precision room was definitely worthy of one of my Audio Oasis! Awards…and that with a certain sense of wonder.
Colleen Cardas Imports/REDGUM Audio/AXISVOICEBOX
Over the past few years, I've become more and more taken by the sound that I hear in the Colleen Cardas Imports/REDGUM Audio room. Colleen Cardas and Marc Phillips bring great sensibilities to the audio table: A sense of fine price-performance components from off the beaten track…in this case, Australia. Plus, they always play really good music! (Marc really knows his tunes.)
This year they teamed up with AXISVOICEBOX to have an interesting collection of audio gear. Several different configurations were available. The cast included:
RGi35ENR Black Series integrated amplifier (65 WPC into 8 ohms), $2500
RGi60ENR Black Series integrated amplifier (125 WPC into 8 ohms), $3500
RGi120ENR Black Series integrated amplifier (175 WPC into 8 ohms), $4500
Black DAC8 Basic, $750
Black DAC8 Deluxe, $1100
REDGUM Rack, $1500
VBS (Voicebox S) 2-way monitor, $2500/pair
EVS active extended bass module, $4500/pair
FLS floor-standing loudspeaker with active low-frequency driver, $4000
Unfortunately, I missed Marc while I was in the room, and Colleen wasn't able to make the trip to AXPONA. (There was a happy ending, however: Marc and I were able to meet in the evening for some good cigars later in the show, sharing the time and space with PF's Greg Weaver. Good times!) Nevertheless, a representative from REDGUM was kind enough to put the system through its paces, piping to the AXISVOICEBOX loudspeakers. I found the music to be similar to the REDGUM sound that I heard and liked last year: well balanced, musical, with a very nice midrange. The music was computer-based, but sounded clean, without annoying glare. This is really good stuff!
For those seeking a computer-based solution that gives a lot at reasonable price (in audiophile terms), this was another pleasant find at AXPONA 2017. Note that my AO! Awards don't have to go to rooms that cost a king's ransom…though many do, for obvious reasons. No, quite reasonably-priced components can merit them, as well.
In this case, I didn't have to give too much thought to it: This room deserved an Audio Oasis! Award. Done with a smile.
Wynn Audio/Karan Acoustics/ZenSati/Critical Mass Systems/Goldmund/Penaudio
Just before the end of the show, I was invited by Joe Lavrencik of Critical Mass systems to check out his new Olympus Reference Rack in the Wynn Audio room. By this time, I was really rushing to finish up, and so had to go there on the fly.
The collection of equipment was mostly unfamiliar to me, frankly:
Karan Acoustics L Ref Preamp, $17,000
Karan Acoustics S600 Stereo Amp, 600 WPC, $30,000
Penaudio Serenade Signature Loudspeakers, $12,000/pair
Goldmund Eidos 36U+ Universal Optical Player, $32,000
ZenSati Seraphim Cables, price varies
Critical Mass Systems Olympus Reference Rack, price not yet announced
Wynn Wong of Wynn Audio and Joe Lavrencik of Critical Mass Systems by the Karan electronics on CMS's brilliant new Olympus reference rack.
But boy! What a sound!
You'd hardly think that the Penaudio Serenades, which strike you as pretty compact floorstanders, could have anything like the depth of bass that I heard here. I was amazed, to tell you the truth…how could such power erupt from them. This reassured me that the Karan Acoustics electronics must be bloody potent; how else could you have speakers deal with music from the Goldmund with such total authority. The source was digital, but the Goldmund was making some truly serious music during the time I was there.
As you've seen from my prior comments, this wasn't the first time that I had been gobsmacked by a room at AXPONA, but this was the most thorough bushwhacking that I experienced. CH Precision, or the big Von Schweikert or PASS Labs rooms, or the bigger GTT Audio room, or the Playback Designs room…yes, they really wowed me, each in its own way way. But this one sucker-punched me out of the blue, and at show's end.
Wynn Wong was a very charming and pleasant person, and I could see that he was delighted that I was so amazed. Joe was chuckling, naturally…he knows that I'm looking at his new reference rack, too!
What could I say? Even there, at the very end of the show, I had to award another Audio Oasis! prize, one that was richly deserved. I hope to revisit Wynn Audio again in the near future…I need to spend more time enjoying what I heard.
What a show AXPONA 2017 was. Bigger than ever at over 6,700 paid attendees. Tons of rooms, much more than I could possibly hope to cover. Very many friends and audiobuds from many years in fine audio. Clearly this was the best AXPONA that I've attended, and I expect next year's show to be even bigger and better at its new site. But if it gets much bigger, then I'll have to strictly regulate how many rooms I visit…it will be the only solution, even when I'm restricting myself to Audio Oasis! Award candidates.
And that's a daunting thought.
But this year's award winners deserve high praise for accomplishing great results under the trying conditions of audio shows. Each did so in their own way, demonstrating the richness and variety of the audio arts in action. I'm pleased at the ongoing progress in fine audio, and look forward to further gains in the future.
Post scriptum: Some photographic portraits
Over the years at these audio shows, I have been spending more and more time making serious portraits of various friends and persons I meet. Frankly, I find people the most interesting element of these events. Oh sure, I love music and fine audio…but it's the people who are endlessly fascinating to me as a photographic artist.
Some of these are in the main body of this report, but others don't fit into the context of visiting a room. Following are some of the portraits that I made at AXPONA 2017 that stand apart from the room/award descriptions…
Chad Kassem, Acoustic Sounds/Analogue Productions/QRP/SuperHirez.com
Michal Jurewicz, Mytek
Lyn Stanley, singer
Lionel Goodfield, Totem and MoFi Distribution
Knut Skogrand, Skogrand Cables
Jeffrey Brown, Positive Feedback
Frank Doris, Audio Technica
Lyn Stanley, singer
All photographs and image processing by David W. Robinson; drawings by Dan Zimmerman.