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Impressions: My AXPONA 2024 Audio Oasis! Awards, Part This One...

07-05-2024 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 134

Ye Olde Editor delivering the goods, Corvallis, Oregon, 1972. (Photograph by John Hull.)

Yes, I've always been this way.

Munich has come and gone...so has my serious bout with pneumonia...and I'd like to get my AXPONA 2024 Audio Oasis! Awards published before any more time goes by. (These are two big shows that are too bloody close to one another!)

First, a word to the newbie:  a quote from the past (2023) reiterating the basis of what these are all about.

As I have been doing for many years now at audio shows, my response to the good stuff is to issue my Positive Feedback Audio Oasis! Awards. What are they?

In 2017, I put it like this:

"'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 others get great results year in and year out.'

Very true, that. Some Audio Oasis! rooms are newcomers, but some others 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.'"

That's what I wrote, and wrote again these many years ago…and nothing has changed since then.

Given the need to get AXPONA 2024 and Munich 2024, I'll go straight to my Audio Oasis! Awards from AXPONA 2024, then.

Short, to the point, and in no particular order...

GTT Audio/Kubala-Sosna Cables/Vivid Audio/Kronos/Audionet/Mola Mola

No surprise at all here. Once again GTT Audio and its associated companies do smashing work at a major audio show. This combination of audio components is very likely the finest that I've heard to this point in time.

Bill Parish of GTT Audio with a Vivid Audio Spirit Loudspeaker and Kubala-Sosna Realization Cables

Over many years, GTT has carefully curated products that are "the best of the best" in Bill's estimation. They should be strong as stand-alones, but should be particularly so as as synergistic sets.

And he's done it again.

Every component in this room is killer, without exception. No weak links; no gotchas.

Kronos; Audionet; Mola Mola; Kubala-Sosna; The results are really overwhelming. Whether analog or digital, hard-wired or streaming, Bill's superior sourcing and matching impresses me every time. Many other high-end audio distributors could learn much from his methods and models.

Yet another Audio Oasis! Award for the Billmeister!

Focal Naim North America

The Focal Naim space was quite a statement from F-N NA. Focal had even managed to smuggle in a pair of the very impressive Grande Utopia EVO reference loudspeakers. Big boys, with lots of authority, especially powered by a pair of the Naim 740(!) watt monoblocks. You had to hang onto your underwear to keep them from being stripped off right through your pants.

Wendy Knowles of Focal Naim North America, giving us some sense of physical scale with the Grande Utopia EVO loudspeaker. Yes...these are large.

Tastes differ, but I found nothing not to like here, and much to praise as standing out at AXPONA 2024.

So let me do so...

The main line of Naim electronics is attractive, workmanlike, and delivers the goods nicely at their price points. Focal-Naim arranges their systems in groups according to cost ranges, almost like a store. This has the advantage of making it easy to move from grouping to grouping, with a lot of elbow space...no stuffed rooms.

On the other hand, it means that music flows around freely, forcing you to getting closer to a given rig to pick out the sonic character of the kit that you're listening to.

There are many solutions to choose from:  indoor systems, outdoor systems (anyone for musical rocks?!), and just about every type of playback component (except, lamentably, SACD/Universal players) that you could think of. 

I paid particular attention to the big Focal system, though. There were the magnificent Focal Grande Utopia EM EVOs in all their seven-foot-tall glory. (84 inches, to be more precise.) Gorgeous. BIG. Detailed. And EXTREME BASS. As in, 18Hz at -3dB; 14Hz at -6dB. And extended up to 40kHz...minimal impedance of 3 ohms and a sensitivity of 94dB. Tips the balance beam at about 630 lbs. per.


For size comparison:  Robert Harley next to one of the Focal Grande Utopia EM EVOs.

My kind of BIG speaker without a doubt. And they backed it with plenty of Naim power (Statement S1 L/R amplification, dual mono in one three-part chassis, outputting 746 watts per channel at 8 ohms, and 1450 watts per channel into 4 ohms...cowabunga!) No argument here...audio might in spades.

The layout was unorthodox, reminding me of Munich Audio shows that I've seen, but Focal-Naim handled the challenges with practiced aplomb. I salute them.

And one of my 2024 AXPONA Audio Oasis! Awards goes to them.

Audio Skies/Fidelis Distribution/Ideon Audio/JMF Audio/Stenheim Loudspeakers

I've known Michael Vamos of Audio Skies for quite a number of years now...ever since we met at one of Richard Beers' THE Show events down in southern CA. He was just getting into the game, and we discussed how he might build his line card over time. 

And brother, that's exactly what Michael has done at Audio Skies over the years. Nowadays, the like of Ideon Audio, JMF Audio, GamuT,...and again...Larsen, Pear Audio Blue Turntables, and Levin Designs are the full-time stock-in-trade there.

At AXPONA 2024, I got to hear the latest iteration of Ideon digital paired with JMF Electronics/cabling/power filtering, and Stenheim Alumine 33E Loudspeakers. A really tight, very congenial synergy here, for sure! Great dynamics, but also ultra-transparency and true clarity.

I've heard this combination both at PAF 2023 and AXPONA 2024 now. I really like the results...killer.

Bloody great! And easily worthy of one of my Audio Oasis! Awards.


Audio Group Denmark/Next Level HiFi

I've known Peter Hansen for many years now, when he was working in several different high-end companies here in the US. He's a real enthusiast for fine audio, a true audio bud of mine, and I've always enjoyed any time that we could spend together.

Back in 2023, Peter left The Cable Company to take a key position with a powerful new audiophile enterprise, Audio Group Denmark. This made a lot of sense, since Peter is Danish himself, and a native Danish speaker. Composed of some real luminaries from the world of Danish audio...Michael Borresen and Lars Christensen, founders, and later joined by Flemming Rasmussen, formerly of Gryphon Audio...Audio Group Denmark has hit the world of high-end audio like a nuke. No hype there:  their divisions are producing some of the very finest fine audio gear in the world, with constant innovation being the driver. Every year, new things are happening!

The Axxess stack at AXPONA 2024...quite eye- and ear-catching.

Michael Borresen (left) and Peter Hansen during a presentation of Audio Group Denmark's new C-1 system. A complete system at this level of quality for $35K?! Are you kidding me?! Killer and diller!

Michael Borresen (left) and Peter Hansen during a break. Congenial audio gents!

Lars Christensen with the Borresen C-1 loudspeaker, before its unveiling...

AXPONA 2024 saw another surge in Audio Group Denmark's remarkable product offerings. The C-1 system ($35K total!!!) all by itself brings top-notch performance into a much more affordable realm that hitherto available from AGD, a serious breakthrough in itself.

No doubt. Audio Oasis! Award time!

AURALiC North America/ESD Acoustic/Hangzhou Co. Ltd.

In the "$4 million room"...

AURALiC sent some real shock waves out at AXPONA 2024, with its so-called "$4-million system." It was composed of a megaton of AURALiC electronics and accessories, all dedicated to driving a handsome and impressive horn rig by ESD. ESD was a company that I wasn't familiar with, which is why I attend audio shows. Something new is always coming along...

Gargantua meets the music! A closeup of the horn array served by AURALiC. Caramba!

I should note that listening to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in Dm was simply mind-boggling. I had never experienced such a sense of real sense of a full-blown organ in an audio system in my life. Dean Waters and I were gob-smacked by the dynamics of the results.

Unfortunately, the host in this room insisted on playing all tracks at pretty much the same level, which took some of the audio joy out of the room.

Room hosts, take note:  a subtle, sensitive hand should be used in high-end audio show rooms. Don't assume that one volume level fits all.

Regardless of that human error, the capabilities of this system were quite striking, and truly worthy of one of my AXPONA 2024 Audio Oasis! Awards. (But damn. That price!)

Nevertheless: There it is.

And yes, there's more to come...