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Impressions:  My Audio Oasis! Awards from AXPONA 2019 - Part the First

05-12-2019 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 103

With assistance on room lists from PF Senior Editor Myles Astor

David W. Robinson, Munich 2018 (photograph by Wojtek Pacula)

A glance backwards, and AXPONA 2019 fades into history. It's already being overlaid by Munich 2019, which occurs too quickly after the event in Chicago. Then again, the calendar for high-end audio events has been chaotic for many years no, and shows no sign of getting better any time soon.

Frankly, I thought it a great show, one of the best in years. I don't remember running into anyone who was badmouthing AXPONA, or complaining about the usual suspects:  turnout, traffic and logistics. There may have been some unhappy folks around…some people are never satisfied…but if there were, I didn't see/hear them.

The Schaumberg facility showed itself to be a fine venue once again, with plenty of capacity for this growing event, some very big rooms for large exhibitors, and reasonable elevator access, with its five shafts doing constant business on Friday-Sunday. Liz Miller and company did a great job of organizing and coordinating the main show, keeping problems to a minimum. The main drawback at AXPONA was the fact that its "standard" exhibit rooms were on the small side, with some non-removable furniture fixtures limiting the available space, and also the seating space for a number of spaces. Then again, that's a constant problem when hotels are used for high-end audio shows. Their rooms are simply not designed and constructed for the exacting requirements of fine audio; compromises, some of them rather serious, abound. Everyone will just have to make their peace with that, and adjust their expectations accordingly.

The turnout seemed to be quite robust. According to Liz Miller, the Event Director, attendance was excellent, tipping the balance beam at 9534, even with the snowstorm that we experienced on Sunday. (It dropped over five inches of the white stuff on O'Hare airport, snarling the travel plans of thousands of people, including many trying to depart from AXPONA. Nasty, that.)

My Audio Oasis! Awards

I've been giving this recognition since CES 2006. A brief word of history and explanation about my AO! Awards for those unfamiliar with them. Quoting myself, quoting myself:

"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.

 All the way back in PF issue 23, January/February of 2006 (HERE), in the aftermath of CES, 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 [in this case, AXPONA 2019], and can have no idea of how what I didn't hear sounded like, [and how it stacked up against others]. 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.

Yep, that says it. Well done, 2006 David.

As I've said before, you should pay special attention to the rooms that you see appear on a regular basis in my Audio Oasis! Awards articles…they know what they're doing, and are proving it to me again and again."

A sure sign that I've found an AO! Award room:  I can't walk by, and am pulled in by the quality of what I'm hearing.

A sure that that I haven't found one:  I keep walking.

Worse yet:  I wince.

And if, while listening, I pull out my trusty Nikon D-850 and begin to photograph…well, that's a sign that the room will very likely receive an AO! Award.

To summarize here in 2019, my Audio Oasis! Awards are intended to be my personal recognition for high-end audio show rooms that really help to set the standard for superior sonic performance. These awards are earned regardless of price point, format, amplification type (solid state, hybrid, tubes, Class D, SETs, or other exotic designs), room size, and so on. Rooms both known and newly discovered can qualify. Loudspeakers large and small, and between…room treatments galore, or not much in particular…varieties of cables, power enhancement/distribution devices…a spectrum of isolation/filtering accessories, stands, and platforms. The recordings can be from just about any genre; I'm extremely eclectic. Mono, stereo, and surround…all welcome!

So, I'm willing to be pleased.

Even if, quite often, I am not.

This year's AXPONA was especially rich in some very fine rooms, I'm pleased to say, sound spaces that pulled me in and let me take in the music, relaxing in great sound.

Pause:  As usual, I have to publish my gripe about the lack of equipment lists in many of the rooms that I visited. If you're an exhibitor, you really need to provide a complete and accurate list of the gear (with prices) that's in your room. It helps potential customers, obviously, and also makes it easier for audio journalists to provide full, correct information about your room.

If you don't provide that, then don't plan on specific coverage. It's as simple as that.

So, sit down and strap in! Here's my list for AXPONA 2019, in no particular order:

GTT Audio/Audionet/KRONOS/Kubala-Sosna/Mola Mola/YG Acoustics/AURALiC

Gee(TT). No surprise at all.

Once again, the team of Bill Parish, Joe Kubala, and Dick Diamond put together a room that was absolutely primo. With a KRONOS Pro LE ($42,000)/Black Beauty Tonearm ($12,375)/Air Tight Opus1 MC ($15,000) with SCPS Power Supply and Louis Desjardins new Reference phono amp ($45,000), feeding the magnificent Audionet STERN preamp and a pair of the HEISENBERG monoblocks, courtesy of Kubala-Sosna Realization cables, shipping signal direct to the YG Acoustics Vantage speaker ($32,800), my delight was unbounded, as you may imagine.

The KRONOS Pro LE/Reference Phono Amp/SCPS Power Supply (bottom right):  a killer combination!

Dick Diamond, Joe Kubala, and Bill Parish:  a pretty typical moment in their room at high-end audio shows

Of course, these gents know their music, which really helps when it comes to demo'ing high-end gear. There's nothing worse than listening to room-after-room of dreadful recordings. Bill always brings a trove of great LPs, and even some DSD to light things up on that side of things.

Howard Sosna and Joe Kubala of Kubala-Sosna:  partners and friends

The sound in this room was its usual world-class standard, as it has been year-in and year-out. Extremely well-balanced tonally; clear and detailed; yet never losing its sense of musicality and soul. Excellent imaging and soundstaging; the new YG Vantage impressed with its overall performance at a lower price point in the YG Acoustics lineup.

Killer system; killer recordings. What's not to like?!

Definitely an Audio Oasis! Award winner.

AXISS Audio/Air Tight/Accuphase/Piega/Reed/Shelter/Franco Serblin/Soulution/TAOC/Transrotor/WireWorld

Arturo Manzano and Yutaka "Jack" Miura:  a portrait

I've known Arturo Manzano for a number of years now. A finer and more courtly high-end audio distributor you will never meet. He handles a number of exceptional products, including the well-regarded Air Tight line of cartridges from Japan.

Yutaka Miura with the new Air Tight ATM-2Plus amplifier

Last year at AXPONA, I had the pleasure of meeting the Lead Designer at Air Tight, Yutaka "Jack" Miura. He and his team made a very strong and favorable impression on me. Very friendly, very knowledgeable, and possessing first-rate audio sensibilities:  what's not to like?! And their MC cartridges...absolutely choice!

This year, I got a chance to see their latest designs. One of them was in evidence immediately when I walked into their room:  Air Tight's newly revised ATM-2Plus amp at AXPONA. Yutaka was quite evidently pleased with this newly upgraded component. And why not? It sounded wonderful!

Sources included Reed's two-motor Muse 1C turntable ($13,000) and 5T laser-guided linear-tracking tonearm. The MC was the splendid Air Tight Opus 1, one of my favorite cartridges on the planet currently. The Opus 1's new kid brother, the PC-1 coda ($8995), was on the second turntable, a Transrotor Rondino with a Reed 3P tonearm. The PC-1 Coda is a recent rave of mine, winning one of my Brutus Awards at the end of 2018, and remaining resident on our VPI Titan turntable presently.

The step-up transformer was an Air Tight ATH-3, feeding the Air Tight ATE-3011. Preamplification was supplied by the Air Tight ATC-5.  Amplification was via either the ATM-2Plus or the ATM-3211.

According to Air Tight, cabling was Cable World throughout. Piega 711 ($25,000) loudspeakers were at the far end of the line, and sounded quite solid with the associated system. Much vinyl was in evidence, and did its usual magic while I was there.

Yutaka Miura with the Air Tight ATM-3211 211-based tubed monoblock amplifier

Also in play was a pair of their ATM-3211 monoblocks. I heard these at last year's AXPONA, and was very pleased with the wonderful musicality that Air Tight gets out of 211 tubes. I've heard 211 designs that did very little for me…not so for these monoblocks! With the right speakers, they're dynamic, rich, and terribly seductive. There's many an audiophile who would adore to own and listen to these.

I have to say in passing that this was the best that I've heard Piega speakers sound. Enough said.

What else can I say? There was no doubt in my mind that tubes, ‘tables, and twirling LPs ruled here. A very clear and definite Audio Oasis! Award winner...thanks again, Arturo and Yutaka!

Nagra/Musical Artisans/Kharma/Organic Reference Cables

In the Nagra/Musical Artisans/Kharma/Organic Reference Cables room:  magic!

Nagra is a name that's been with us for a long time…and for good reason. It's a Swiss brand that has been stroking home runs in fine audio for decades now, going all the way back to their rightly famous RTR tape machines. Notable audio designers like Andreas Koch of Playback Designs spent time with Nagra, and their list of audio brilliancies would be quite long.

The list of electronics featured Nagra's HD preamplifier ($65,950), their VPS phonostage ($8750), the Nagra Seven Recorder ($5500), Nagra TUBE DAC with classic Power Supply ($39,500), a pair of the Nagra Classic amps ($31,995) and Nagra IV-S/QGB open reel (N/A). The Nagra amps piped signal to the Kharma Elegance S7 Speakers ($18,000/pair) and everything was connected with Organic XLR cabling Speaker cable's and power cords (prices vary).

René Laflamme of Nagra, and also of the exceptional label 2xHD

 Once again, my good audio friend René Laflamme was the host of the room, and did his usual fine job of detailing the system and sharing some great recordings with us. I am a big fan of his 2xHD DSD transfers from tape, and have great respect for his audio sensibilities.

The sound here was very detailed, clean, transparent, and well-balanced. The Kharma's acquitted themselves well, and definitely punched above their relatively modest (in high-end terms) price. Regardless of source, including some RTR tapes, the overall effect was quite engaging, and musically satisfying.

René and I have discussed the possibility of me doing a review of one of their HD complete reference systems later in 2019; we'll see if that comes together.

Meanwhile, this room takes a PF Audio Oasis! Award from me.

Ayon Audio/BBS Audio Rack Systems/Lumenwhite USA/USA Tube Audio Labs

In Charles Harrelson's Ayon Audio room…a real delight!

The Ayon Audio room featured quite an appealing list of products. On display were Ayon CD-35 SACD/preamp/DAC/streaming/DSD player ($10,500; soon to be reviewed by me here), the Ayon S-10 Network Streamer Vacuum Tube Preamp ($8800), the Ayon Auris Preamp ($10,500), and a pair of the Ayon Epsilon Gen 4 Monoblock Tube Amps ($18,000). These fed signal to a pair of the Lumenwhite Kyara Loudspeakers in French Nut finish ($49,900).

The audio racks were the BBS Audio Rack Systems Three-Shelf System ($6995).

Charles Harrelson of Ayon Audio/USA Tube Audio:  the man himself!

As always, Charles was a welcoming and quite congenial host. I had enjoyed visiting his room at Munich 2018, which also won one of my Audio Oasis! Awards for that event. He has an obvious love for great music, tubes, and the possibilities of the audio arts that I find very refreshing. Definitely the real thing among audio distributors!

The music in Charles' room was really appealing, and showed a level of synergy that breathed oh yeah! The Ayon Audio CD-35 SACD player really has had my attention since last year's Munich Show, and Charles plans to ship a review sample to me after this year's event is over. Excellent!

The Ayon Audio Epsilon Monoblock KT-150 tube monoblock

And I gotta tell you, those Ayon Audio Epsilon Monoblocks, plugged with a pile of KT-150s, can really kick the hindmost parts! Pure Class A, with both triode (140 watts per monoblock) and pentode (200 watts per) modes available and 4/8 ohms, this is some seriously powerful and gorgeous-sounding gear. The Lumenwhites certainly sat up and saluted while I was there…great, pull-you-into-the-room sound, with luscious tonality, excellent detail, and a fine sense of presence.

No doubt about it:  this was an Audio Oasis! room, for sure. Thanks for the great time, Charlie!

Warwick Acoustics

The Warwick Acoustics Aperio Headphone Amp with Quad DSD DAC and next-generation BD-HPEL Reference Headphones

Months before I showed up for AXPONA 2019, I had been in touch with the good folks at Warwick Acoustics about their (long-)upcoming and looked-for addition to their product line next to their Model One. As it turned out, it was named the "Aperio," and was on active demo during the show.

The team at Warwick Acoustics with the new Aperio reference headphone amp/DAC and headphones:  left-to-right, Dan Anagnos, Martin Roberts, and Orazio Pollaci. Great fellows all!

At last! I got to see it when I took Warwick Acoustics up on their offer to listen to the Aperio (Latin for "uncover," "open," or "reveal") and see if the wait had been worth it. I had reviewed the Sonoma Acoustics (now Warwick Acoustics) Model One headphone amp/DAC nearly two years ago (see HERE), and had been very impressed…with certain exceptions and reservations regarding the handling of DSD files that I mentioned prominently in that article.

I was told that these reservations would be addressed in the Aperio. So I was definitely interested to get an initial feel for the results.

Dan, Martin, and Orazio were very kind and excited to see what my response would be to an initial listen. Right off the bat, I really liked the look and feel of the new and larger amp/DAC, and the BD-HPEL headphones were a dream to wear! There are now six inputs for the unit, ranging from USB to balanced and unbalanced analog…excellent.

Better yet is the fact that the Aperio now supports up to Quad DSD in native mode. I did not get a chance to evaluate that, however, since the team didn't have sample files for me to hear. Nevertheless, a final production review sample will be sent my way right after Munich 2019. It will definitely receive the full monty of DSD files at all resolutions from me…count on it.

But what I did hear at AXPONA 2019 indicated that Warwick Acoustics is delivering the goods…a brilliant design! I can't wait to evaluate this reference-grade headphone system.

Thus, this Audio Oasis! Award….

Quintessence Audio/Musical Surroundings/Wilson Audio/Audio Research/AMG/Hana/dCS/Kubala-Sosna/Critical Mass Systems

The Wilson Audio Sasha DAW Loudspeakers driven by Audio Research Ref 160 monoblocks on their Critical Mass Systems Amp Stands

I'll admit it. Over the past several years, the Wilson Audio speakers have impressed me more and more at shows. I don't think that I've changed, but something's been happening with the design, sound, and (perhaps) synergy with the upstream electronics/cabling/isolation/etc. So much so that I've become a fan of the new generation of their speakers.

Before recent years…not so much. So thank God for life's audio blessings.

But never more than at AXPONA 2019, their best showing to my ears to date. Wilsons were prominent in a couple of rooms that were Audio Oasis! Award winners this year.

For example, this room featured the Wilson Audio Sasha DAW (for "David W. Wilson") loudspeakers ($37,900/pair) with the Audio Research Ref 10 Line Stage ($33,000), the Ref 10 Phono Stage (likewise $33,000), and the Ref 160 Monoblocks ($30,000/pair). AMG's Viella 12 Turbo Black Lacquer was the turntable, with its 12JT 12" Turbo Tonearm, with the Clearaudio Jubilee MC ($6000) and Hana ML MC ($1200) in evidence.

The digital side of the ledger was filled by dCS with their Rossini Player/DAC ($28,499), Rossini Clock ($7499), and Bartok Streaming DAC ($14,499). All cabling was by Kubala-Sosna, with Critical Mass Systems providing the component stands.

This combination did a surprisingly fine job of filling a large exhibition room (this was not one of the standard hotel rooms) with music that was dynamic, harmonically organic, and well detailed. Synergy was quite evident; this is a system that works and plays together quite nicely. In fact, I found myself sitting here for a while, and listening for longer than I expected. Real audio magnetics here!

Joy and Joe Lavrencik of Critical Mass Systems

I got to see Joy and Joe Lavrencik while I was in this neighborhood, two of the nicest folks in high-end audio that you'd ever want to meet. Joe's work with his complex filter-based designs is theoretically and practically major contributions to high-end praxis. I've heard a number of his products in my reference listening rooms over the years, and have never been disappointed. Joy and Joe have become good friends over many years now, and I can tell you that the CMS stands contributed substantially to the performance of this system in this room.

And Kubala-Sosna? No surprise a-toll. Another Joe (Kubala) present!

No, despite my response to the Wilson Audio speakers in distant past years, I can tell you that the Sasha DAW's in tandem with the Audio Research electronics definitely floated my audio boat.

And that means an Audio Oasis! Award for this room, for certain.

AXPONA 2019 was a major show. There's much more of my reflections and awards to come...

All photographs and image processing by David W. Robinson, except as noted.