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Axpona 2016 – Into The Mystic

04-24-2016 | By Robert S. Youman | Issue 85

Hark, now hear the sailors cry

Smell the sea and feel the sky

Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

And when that foghorn blows

I will be coming home

And when the foghorn blows

I want to hear it

I don't have to fear it and I want to rock your gypsy soul

Just like way back in the days of old

And magnificently we will flow into the mystic

My intent is not to sound overly dramatic, but there was something about this year's Axpona that finally made me feel at ease. Van Morrison came to mind and his words seemed appropriate. I don't know if was the crisp fresh air and the sunny temperatures to finally hit the Midwest, or the Cubbies knocking on heavens door after almost 100 years, or the passionate yet discerning crowds in attendance at the Westin O'Hare. All seemed right again after a difficult winter of much consternation. I was seeking good music to get back on track and Axpona 2016 certainly provided that and more.

There were many rooms that impressed, but my head and heart were able to work together and narrow it down to six that were ultimately my favorites. I threw out the science and refused to define clear criteria. I just felt a strong connection with these six (in no particular order). More than ever, the industry is now rolling out product at all price points that can provide both the intellectual and emotional experience that has many folks very excited. Lucky us. It explains all the smiles walking up and down the hallways.

Quintessence Audio – Ambassador Room

Quintessence Audio is on a roll. Owner Mick Survance is one of those few remaining dealers in the industry that just gets it and gets it right (hope that makes sense). Never one to jump on the band wagon for the latest hot component, his product portfolio is like the Rock of Gibraltar—time tested and true. On the other hand, he also understands that time continues to march on for both analog and digital. You can always count on seeing and hearing the very best at Axpona and at his store in Morton Grove Illinois.

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At the last two Axpona conferences, Quintessence easily walked away with some of the highest honors and awards. The three rooms at Axpona 2016 were just more of the same. My favorite this year was the "Ambassador System". This included the following:

  • Pass Labs Xs 150 Monoblock Amplifiers ($65,000)
  • Pass Labs XP-30 Preamplifier ($16,500)
  • Pass Labs XP-25 Phono Preamplifier ($10,600)
  • Focal SOPRA N°2 Loudspeakers ($14,000)
  • Clearaudio Performance DC Wood Turntable ($5000)
  • Berkeley Audio Designs Reference Series Alpha DAC ($16,000)
  • Aurender N10 Digital Music Server ($8000)
  • Kubala-Sosna Elation Cabling throughout
  • Critical Mass Racks

I have been an avid admirer of Focal products in the past, but the Soprano N°2 speakers really caught me off guard. At $14,000 per pair, these speakers provide tremendous performance and value. I was intrigued by the sophisticated cabinet design that tilts forward for proper phase and time alignment between the drivers. The Beryllium tweeter used in several of the Focal models has always been one of my favorites. From what I heard at the show in undeniably very tough listening conditions, the N°2 speakers deliver it all from to top to bottom. I was very impressed with the extreme dynamics and never ending detail.

I am also confident that the Pass Labs Xs 150 monoblock amplifiers greatly contributed to the over all appeal. The Xs lineup has never disappointed and seems to match up well with almost any speaker.  It was also hard not to notice that Aurender had a presence in many of my favorite rooms including here. Coincidence? I think not!

One interesting note from another Quintessence room. At the O'Hare System 2, I was especially thrilled by the AMG Giro G9 turntable and 9W2 tonearm ($10,000) and the AMG Treato MC cartridge ($2750). There was something special going on in that room that was easy to hear. The unique titanium design of the Treato translated to some of the most effortless and natural analog sound that I have experienced at any show. Definitely worth checking out.

Magico Room

Alon Wolf was at the door and greeted me warmly. Always welcoming and introspective, we caught up on things like his weekend in Chicago, his love for photography and even the scary side of college tuition (we both have kids in that age group). The Magico success story has been well documented and Alon has definitely made his mark in the industry. I continue to marvel at the level of cutting edge technology and creative engineering that seems to permeate each generation of his speaker designs.

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The new Mk II iterations of the Magico S1 and S5 speakers are more than just simple upgrades. Alon has reached another pinnacle of excellence as his commitment to design and better sound can not be denied. The new diamond coated Beryllium tweeter, carbon fiber and graphene midrange drivers and ultra stiff aluminum bass drivers have taken the performance to another level.

One comment that struck home later was his forewarning about the sound that I was about to hear. I have had the pleasure of auditioning several Magico speakers over the years, but only with solid state preamps and amplifiers. Via this new speaker design and a tube preamp/amp combination from heaven, I was about to experience something quite exhilarating. The system included the following:

  • Magico S5 Mk II Speakers ($38,000 w/M-Cast Finish)
  • CAT Black Path Statement Monoblock Amplifiers ($120,000)
  • CAT Black Path SL-1 Legend Preamplifier w/Phono ($30,000)
  • Transparent XL Speaker Cables ($17,000)
  • Transparent Gen5 XL RCA Interconnects ($6400 at 1 meter))
  • Transparent Gen5 XL RCA Interconnects ($8950 at 15 feet)
  • Kronos Pro Turntable ($38,000)
  • Black Beauty Tonearm ($8500)
  • Cartridge ZYX Universe Premium Cartridge ($14,500)
  • SONY APR 5003 Reel-to-Reel (Custom Design)

Within a few seconds in my listening position, I was immediately struck by the immediacy and coherence of the sound across all frequencies. It was not an in your face thing—far from it. There was a very natural and organic sense of the real thing that just seemed to explode from various points in the soundstage. As Alon had alluded, bass was tight, weighty and with plenty of impact. Mids and highs were layered and layered with rich harmonics and plenty of detail.

It was obvious that there was some excellent synergy going on here. Designed by the esteemed Ken Stevens, the Convergent Audio Technology (CAT) Statement monoblock amps and SL-1 Legend preamplifier were clearly able to bring the very best out of the S5 Mk II speakers. Alon and Ken should get together more often!

I must also comment about Jonathon Horwich, his custom Sony APR 5003 Reel-to-Reel and his incredible tapes that were recorded locally in Chicago (Internationalphonographinc.com). Dee Alexander on vocals and Jeremy Kahn on piano were now right there with us in the listening room. Recorded directly onto a custom 8-track Studer/Revox tape recorder, using a custom stereo tube microphone on piano and the legendary Telefunken 251e on voice, the sound was beautifully fleshed out with all the proper bloom and dynamic punch that you could ever hope for. 

Playback Designs & Nola Speakers Room

Andreas Koch of Playback Designs has a few things up his sleeve. A key player at Meitner Audio and now the driving force behind Playback Designs, there seems to be much on the horizon for his vision of all things digital. The new generation of products from Playback Designs includes the IPS-3 Integrated Amp, the Syrah Server, the Merlot DAC and the Pinot A/D Converter. Please see the Playback Designs website for complete descriptions which can include support for PCM, DXD, Native DSD and Quad DSD depending on the model. A very impressive assortment of features and formats.

Playback Designs

Again, Andreas also hinted at a few things yet to come in 2016 and 2017. I suggest that you hold onto your Playback Designs MPS-5 CD/SACD/DAC. In addition to it's current ability to handle 128 DSD, there may be Quad DSD coming in the future. Lets not forget that SACD transports are few and far between with many newer transports supporting CD only. Lastly, I still consider the internal MPS-5 DAC as one of the best performers out there. These plans for the MPS-5 are just another example of Playback Designs commitment to legacy products and future hardware and software enhancements.

Andreas also has some interesting thoughts about your extensive SACD collection. If you have been frustrated by the inability to use your SACDs with a transport and DAC that can handle the Sony proprietary SACD format, there might just be a creative solution coming from Playback Designs that will make you one very happy camper. Don't sell off those SACDs just yet.

A few comments about Carl Marchisotto of Nola Speakers. Simply stated, Carl is an industry icon. Without question, one of the all time great speaker designers. This was my first chance to personally meet him and he was an absolute delight.

Known for his firm commitment to midrange quality and multi driver open baffle designs, his legacy began with Dahlquist and then followed up with Alón—two of my favorite speaker brands from back in the day. This design philosophy continues with his current Nola product line. My Father owned the classic Dahlquist DQ‑10 and one of my best friends still has his Alón IV which he refuses to give up.

Carl mentioned that he still gets these models back for repair many decades later. Like my friend, current owners are extremely loyal and swear by the sound. Check out the Internet for pre-owned specials. You will be amazed at the used market pricing for both product lines.

Even beyond all of the technology and planning mentioned above, the system in the Playback Designs/Nola Room was absolutely outstanding. Please see the list below. Unfortunately, I was not able to stay long enough to check out the headphone gear which I hear is a must audition at these price points.

  • NOLA-Studio Grand Reference Gold Speakers ($19,800)
  • Playback Designs IPS-3 Integrated Amplifier & DSD DAC ($13,000)
  • Playback Designs Syrah PCM/DXD/Quad DSD Server ($6500)
  • Playback Designs Merlot PCM/DXD/Native DSD DAC ($6500)
  • Playback Designs Pinot Quad DSD Analog/Digital Converter ($7500)
  • Studer-ReVox PR99 Reel to Reel
  • Simaudio Moon 310LP Phono Preamp ($1900)
  • ReVox B791 Turntable & Sonus Blue-Gold Cartridge
  • M2 Tech Marley - Class A Balanced Headphone Preamp ($1699)
  • Sbooster BOTW 15v Linear Power Supply ($370)
  • Mr Speakers Ether C Headphones ($1599)
  • Questyle QP1R Digital Audio Player ($899)

Compared to the systems discussed earlier, this room provided something much more modest in terms of bottom line MSRP, yet was just as compelling and impressive. I was especially taken by the NOLA Grand Reference Gold speakers driven by the Playback Designs IPS-3 Integrated. Speaker design done right. Digital done right. I found the performance to be pure and effortless regardless of musical genre. During my stay, I had to check twice to make sure that the analog front end was not in play as I was so bewitched and bedazzled by the sound. Congrats to Andreas and Carl for these outstanding products!

One final note. Andreas feels strongly that there is a wonderful synergy between music and 'fine' wine (particularly of the Syrah grape variety). As an extra but appropriate perk for his customers, Andreas will include a bottle and wine glass with each product. Ya gotta love this hobby. It's all about life at its best.

Legacy Audio, Metronome Technologie, and Raven Audio Room

I never miss a chance to visit the Legacy Audio room at these events. I am a big fan of Bill Dudleston, president and founder. Like myself, Bill is an engineering graduate from the University of Illinois so I might be slightly biased. Bill has numerous patents that range from circuit topology to acoustic alignment and beyond. I am especially impressed by his active speaker designs and his many unique executions of these designs. His standing in the audio engineering community is well respected and highly admired.

Legacy (2)

I continue to be mesmerized by the technology, industrial design and performance of the Legacy Audio product line. This year was no exception. This was a large venue with several terrific systems, but I was immediately drawn to the Legacy V speakers and the supporting configuration. This included the following components:

  • Legacy V Speaker System with Wavelet DAC/Preamp/Crossover/Room Correction System ($51,500)
  • Metronome Technologie Calypso Premier Transport ($30,800)
  • Raven Spirit 300B Monoblocks ($26,995)
  • Morrow Audio Cable throughout

My goodness, this was one handsome system. I loved the contemporary cabinetry and baffle design of the Legacy V. The Metronome Technologie Calypso Premier Transport was like the centerpiece at your daughters wedding table—expensive and expressive but worth the price of admission. There is nothing sexier than the cosmetics of a well designed tubed amplifier. I could hear the oohs and aahs from the ladies and the cat calls by the guys as they walked by the Raven Spirit 300B monoblocks.  

All of this hardly matters if the sound does not walk the walk. Utilizing the new Wavelet DAC/Preamp/Crossover/Room Correction system on the Legacy V speakers, the goose bumps were immediately coming up for air. Elvis was standing between the speakers with just a drummer to his left and bass player to his right. I have never heard such an enthralling version of Fever. Peggy Lee will now have to take a backseat. Each pluck of the bass and each thwack of the drums had the hair on the back of my neck standing tall. Elvis never sounded so palpable and expressive. Another winning combination!

TIDAL Audio Room

I have heard great things about Doug White through the grapevine, but I never had a chance to meet him personally until this year at Axpona 2016. Turns out he is everything as advertised and much more. Another one of the good guys who really cares about music and his customers. Watching him work the TIDAL room was like a study in personal communication skills. Very patient. Excellent listening skills. Superb taste in music. His dealership, "The Voice That Is" located in Newtown Square Pennsylvania, also has a wonderful reputation for customer service and some of the most prestigious product lines in the industry.

Tidal1111

Ya gotta love the depth and breadth of the TIDAL product portfolio and the results that can be realized. There is something to be said for system synergy and voicing from the same manufacturer. I found myself staying longer than I had planned and then returning when I had a few spare minutes before closing. Needless to say, this room was clearly one of the highlights of the show. Components included the following:

  • TIDAL Agoria Speaker ($109,990)
  • TIDAL Presencio Preamplifier ($77,990)
  • TIDAL Impulse Monobloc Amplifiers ($64,990)
  • TIDAL Audio Reference Power Cords (new product)
  • TIDAL Audio Reference Balanced Interconnect Cables (new product)
  • Bricasti Design M1se DAC ($9995)
  • Aurender W20 Reference Music Server ($17,600)
  • Dynamic Design Heritage Speaker Cables
  • Dynamic Design Heritage Nutron SW16 Power Cord (new product)
  • Purist Audio Design Cables- 25th Anniversary AES Digital Cable
  • StillPoints Ultra 5 Isolators ($699)
  • StillPoints Ultra 6 Isolators ($899)
  • StillPoints Aperture Room Treatment ($699)
  • Silver Circle Audio TCHAIK 6 Isolation Transformer ($10,500)

Talk about eye candy. The Agoria speakers were simply stunning in both presentation and performance. The fit and finish of the cabinets will have your head spinning. Though quite large in size, if you ever had a chance to get your dream speakers approved for the family living room, these babies just might be it. 

To my ears, the one thing that I have consistently admired about TIDAL speakers is their ability to not only provide all the speed and detail required by many of todays audiophiles, but they also correctly demonstrate the proper weight and timbre of the real event. You would never describe the Agoria speakers as analytical though the amount of musical information just seems to flow like water. Mids are especially seductive and full bodied. Highs have plenty of transient speed and agility without edge. Bass had tremendous depth and authority.

I also could not help but notice the Aurender W-20 music server leading the way. As mentioned earlier, Aurender was making a strong statement as a key player in the very best systems at Axpona. I also noticed the Bricasti Design M1se DAC. I have heard it stated so often that it almost seems boring and repetitive. The Aurender/Bricasti combination is a must audition and just might be the current bench mark for overall digital front end excellence.

Raidho, Aavak Acoustics, Ansuz Acoustics, and Scansonic Loudspeakers Room

Next Level HiFi is an important up and coming dealership currently located in Bartlett Illinois. Their reach is growing beyond the Midwest and extending rapidly within the US and into many global markets. Owners Tyler Mueller and his lovely wife Dana have built something very special that is now blossoming into a premier high end game changer. This summer, Dana and Tyler will be celebrating the grand opening of their new brick and mortar boutique located in Wayne Illinois.

Raidho (2)

Beyond such brands as Soulution, Naim, Devialet, Arcam and Dynaudio, Next Level HiFi has extensive ties into the Raidho family of product lines—primarily sourced from Denmark. This includes the extended family or companies like Aavak Acoustics, Ansuz Acoustics, and Scansonic Speakers. It was these products from Scandinavia that immediately caught both my eyes and my ears as I walked into the room. Please see the system components below:

  • Raidho D1.1 Speakers ($29,750)
  • Aavak Acoustics U300 Integrated Amplifier ($30,000)
  • Naim CDX2 Transport ($7500)
  • Ansuz 2 Meter DTC Power Cord ($20,000)
  • Ansuz 4 Meter DTC Speaker Cables ($40,000)
  • Raidho Low Rack Shelves ($1600)
  • Raidho High Rack Shelves ($1700)
  • Ansuz DTC resonance control devices

Michael Borresen has another winner with his new Raidho D1.1 speakers. The D1.1 version is truly an all new design while retaining only the cabinet and tweeter from the original D series. The D1.1 features a new driver motor structure, new driver surround, new crossover, new cabinet back panel, and new speaker connectors. The speaker is also 1.5dB more efficient. The custom upgrade to the Lamborghini orange finish and black suspension stand was quite extraordinary.

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Despite the elegance and appeal that recalls the beauty of Danish actress Rie Rasmussen, the proof is in the pudding when it comes to sound for these speakers and the supporting system. Our musical guide and raconteur for day was Lars Kristensen as he managed to pull out all stops. As usual, Lars had us on the edge of our seat from beginning to end. From Danish techno pop to Asian punk rock to traditional jazz, these speakers can really move some air.

In addition to this unleashed level of energy and output, I found that the D1.1 speakers can also provide the subtle details and rich sonic textures of the most intimate recordings. From such a reasonably sized enclosure, you get the best of both worlds—a big plus for those challenged by the size or location of your listening room and furnishings.

This was my second impressive listening experience with the 300 watt per channel Aavak Acoustics U300 Integrated—each time driving different speakers.  Something tells me that this Class D amplifier along with an integrated DAC and phono stage was a significant reason for all the superlative sound. I am also told that the new flagship Ansuz DTC power cord and speaker cables were essential players in the game. You may just want to keep it all in the family if you want ultimate synergy and ultimate satisfaction.

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