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

06-02-2019 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 103

Continuing my long march through AXPONA 2019, here's Part the Fourth of my Audio Oasis! Awards.

The Audio Company/Von Schweikert Audio/Valve Amplification Company/MasterBuilt Audio/Critical Mass Systems/Aurender/Esoteric

Lukasz Fikus of LampizatOr taking it easy with the VSA Ultra 11 and VAC amplification:  a portrait

Once again at AXPONA 2019, Von Schweikert Audio linked up with VAC, MasterBuilt, and several other companies in a very large room, appropriately named "Euphoria," to provide another Mt. Everest audio experience.

Damon Von Schweikert and the Ultra 11 Loudspeaker:  a portrait

Variations of this system has appeared for the past couple of years. In fact, I saw it at AXPONA 2018 and Munich 2018, where it impressed and awed a very high number of showgoers. Certainly, the sheer scale of the Ultra 11's in conjunction with reference-grade VAC electronics and superior sources sets what is arguably a (not "the," but "a") performance benchmark. Yes, there are others, but this is nonetheless a significant achievement.

This mammoth system consisted of the following:

  • Von Schweikert Ultra 11 Loudspeakers ($300,000 the pair)
  • Valve Amplification Company (VAC) Statement Line Stage ($80,000)
  • VAC Statement Phono Stage ($80,000)
  • VAC 450iQ Amplifier (two pairs @ $120,000 per)
  • TechDAS Air Force One Turntable ($162,000)
  • Graham Engineering Phantom Elite Tonearm ($12,900)
  • TechDAS TDC-10 Cartridge ($12,000)
  • Esoteric Grandioso P1 Transport ($38,000)
  • Esoteric Grandioso D1 Monoblock DAC ($38,000 per pair)
  • Esoteric Grandioso G1 Master Clock ($26,000)
  • Esoteric N-01 Network Audio Player ($20,000)
  • Aurender N10 Music Server ($8,000)
  • Critical Mass Systems Maxxum Rack System with 12 slots ($73,800)
  • Critical Mass Systems Maxxum Amp Stands ($6,250 per, times four for this system)
  • MasterBuilt Audio Ultra cables and interconnects (a total of over $300,000)

Good audiobud Greg Weaver, Senior Associate Editor of PF…hangs out with TAS and Enjoy the Music, as well…in action in the VSA/VAC/etc. room

The sound in this room really was extremely impressive. (Did I say "extremely?" Believe me, I meant it.) Given the difficult room acoustics of large spaces at audio shows, the presentation of music was full-range, with great detail, nice harmonic structure, and soundstaging that was wide and deep.

And talk about dynamics! Caramba!

There could be no doubt about it:  this room was very special, and very BIG.

If you have the big…really big…bucks and the room for it, this would have to be one candidate system that you'd have to evaluate and consider…definitely.

An Audio Oasis! Award is in order, and done!

Wynn Audio/Thales/Critical Mass Systems/Karan Acoustics/Kalista/Kiso/Vimberg/Métronome/Crystal Audio/Penaudio/Entreq

In the Wynn Audio room

Wynn Wong is a Canadian distributor who has been developing quite a fine line card over the past few years. He and I first met a couple of years ago, and each time that I visit his show rooms, I come away more and more impressed. He's a younger distributor, quite discerning when it comes to the brands and combinations that he puts together, and obviously loves what he does.

As it should be!

Wynn Wong

Wynn Audio's AXPONA 2019 system was made up of the following products:

  • Thales TTT-Compact Mk2 Turntable ($14,850)
  • Thales Statement Tonearm ($21,090)
  • EMT JSD-VM Cartridge ($4995)
  • Karan Acoustics L Reference Preamp ($16,995)
  • Karan Acoustics Ph Reference Phono Amp ($23,995)
  • Karan Acoustics M 2000 Monoblock ($59,999)
  • Vimberg Tonda Speakers ($38,000)
  • Metronome AQWO SACD/CD Player ($18,000)
  • Critical Mass Systems Olympus Racks and Amp Stands (prices vary)
  • Entreq Poseidon Ground Box ($4999)
  • Entreq Silver Tellus Infinity Ground Box ($2400)
  • All cables are Crystal Cable (Future Dream and Ultimate Dream; prices vary)

The Crystal Cables were new products. Other notes from Wynn:

"Crystal Cable Future Dream series, 15th anniversary limited edition, combining the two proprietary conductors: monocrystal silver and silver-gold alloy.

The Entreq Silver Tellus Infinity ground box, the latest model from Entreq with the ‘Infinity technology, have a stronger effect on removing ground noise of your components. It's a passive device, and you just need a wire from the chassis of the component (or the RCA ground) to the ground box.

Also, we just became the North American distributor of Vimberg, and this is the first time showing the Vimberg Tonda D speakers in USA."

I really liked the sound in this room…very detailed and controlled, with reasonable dynamics given the size of the room…to make arrangements for a Karan preamp and stereo amp to be sent to me here at PF Central. They should be here next week, in fact.

Given that, one of my Audio Oasis! Awards to Wynn Wong's room was inevitable.

Von Schweikert Audio/Valve Amplification Company/J-Corder/Critical Mass Systems/TechDAS/Esoteric/Graham/MasterBuilt Audio

Kevin Hayes of VAC at the Nirvana Room

While the Euphoria Room with the massive Ultra 11 loudspeakers and VAC acre of tubes was unarguably ne plus ultra, the neighboring Nirvana room also brilliant. The synergies and superlative sound that you heard in the one was echoed in the other, and vice versa.

The main system in the Nirvana Room consisted of the following:

  • TechDAS Air Force Three Premium turntable ($62,000)
  • Graham Engineering Phantom Elite tonearm ($12,000)
  • Air Tight Opus 1 cartridge ($16,000)
  • Esoteric Grandioso P1 transport ($38,000)
  • Esoteric Grandioso D1 monoblock DACs ($38,000 per pair)
  • Esoteric G-01 clock ($20,000)
  • VAC Statement 450i iQ integrated amplifier ($150,000)
  • Aurender A100 music server/streamer/renderer ($3995)
  • Von Schweikert Ultra 9 loudspeakers ($200,000 the pair)
  • Von Schweikert V-12XS Shockwave subwoofers ($11,500)
  • Critical Mass Systems Olympus V-12 Luxury 6 component rack ($61,5000)
  • MasterBuilt Signature cables

There was a second system in the room, but I didn't get a chance to listen to that one.

How was it? Well, I've had the old VR-9 loudspeakers by Albert V.S. in my reference listening room many years ago, and knew how very fine those were. But I have to say that the new generation production that Damon has overseen really has taken the 9 to a whole new world of performance in the Ultra 9. Absolutely stellar! And the VAC Statement 450i iQ Integrated is one of the most appealing and eye-catching all-in-ones that I've ever experienced.

More big bucks here, though not as many as in the Euphoria Room. Regardless, there was no doubt that the Nirvana Room deserved the Audio Oasis! Award that I am giving it.

Playback Designs/Verity/Lateral Symphony Audio/Kubala-Sosna

In the Playback Designs room…real state-of-the-art digital brilliance!

Andreas Koch and Playback Designs have become regular recipients for my awards, year in and year out. My Audio Oasis! and Brutus Awards have been going Andreas' way over time for a very good reason:  he designs and produces world-class digital performance, and makes the most of both DSD (especially) and PCM. And once again he had put together a show room that riveted my attention and pulled me in to sit and listen…not once, but several times.

Andreas Koch:  a portrait

The system list for this room included:

  • Playback Designs MPS-8 Integrated SACD/CD Player + DAC ($25,000)
  • Stream-X option ($2400)
  • Playback Designs Stream-IF Streamer Interface for all DACs ($3300)

Playback Designs Sonoma System:

  • Merlot DAC ($6500)
  • Syrah Server ($6500)
  • Pinot ADC ($7500)
  • Playback Designs IPS-3 Integrated Amplifier with DAC ($14,000)
  • Verity Parsifal Anniversary Speakers ($25,000)
  • Lateral Symphony Audio Stand – 4 tier ($4000)
  • Kubala-Sosna Fascination Speaker Cables ($1000 for the first meter)
  • Kubala-Sosna Fascination Power Cords ($500 for the first meter)
  • Kubala-Sosna Emotion Interconnects ($3400 for the first meter)

I know the Playback Designs side of the picture very well. I've reviewed the superb MPS-8 (HERE), and have all three of the Sonoma System components here at home base. Ditto the IPS-3 Integrated + DAC, which I happen to be listening to right now, in fact. His Dream System tandem of ultimate reference components, the MPT-8 Transport (which I have outfitted with the Stream-X Streamer for Tidal and Qobuz) and the MPD-8 DAC are here in our stereo listening room, and will not be leaving! So yes, I know Playback Designs.

Kubala-Sosna is deeply familiar, as well. I was not familiar with the Parsifals or the Lateral Symphony stands.

But the results were simply stellar. Andreas played a number of DSD recordings that he had, all of which sounded world class.

But then, I already knew that they would…and I was neither surprised nor disappointed. And they synergized very well with the Parsifals, K-S, and the Lateral Symphony Audio Rack. The sound was natural, detailed, harmonically well integrated, with plenty of dynamics. Extremely nice!

So…another PF Audio Oasis! Award for Andreas, Playback Designs, and all of the components in this room.

Audio Skies/Larsen/GamuT/Pear Audio Blue/Levin Design/Pneuance Audio

Unfortunately, I did not make photographs in this room, which was a very good one. Apologies! I obviously needed more coffee!

Certainly, the combination of components worked together very well; in fact, I've not heard the Larsens sound this good, ever. And I've heard them on a handful of occasions. For those limited on placement space, the Larsens, designed to be placed right up against a wall, represent an excellent option for the space stressed. They sounded quite good here; no sense of boxiness or boominess such as might be expected from their placement.

This room's system consisted of:

  • GamuT M250i Monoblock amplifiers ($25,990)
  • GamuT D3i Dual Mono preamplifier ($8,390)
  • Pear Audio Blue Classic Phonostage ($1,995)
  • Aries Cerat AC-SUT 1B Step Up Transformer ($8,000)
  • Pear Audio Blue Little John/Cornet 2 turntable ($3,995)
  • Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue cartridge ($5,400)
  • Larsen 9 speakers ($14,995 per pair)
  • GamuT cables (prices vary)
  • Pneuance Audio Isolation devices (prices vary)

The adjustable Pneuance Audio NP-1 feet support 20 lbs each, costing $975 for a set of three, and $1295 for a set of four. Their NP-2 feet can handle up to 40 lbs each. They're priced at $1050 for a set of three, or $1395 for a four pack. The platforms without feet retail for $495 (15 x 17") and $1395 (17 x 21"). My experience with the Pneuance Audio Isolation units here at PF Central has been uniformly positive; this new generation of devices will be able to handle heavier units.

I attribute much of the reason for the quality in this room to the GamuT electronics and Pear Audio Blue source. I've used both in our reference listening room here, and consider them to be superb, as I commented in my audiophile love letter back in 2017. GamuT reference cables are in use in our reference desktop audio system, where they are stellar. (These are the same cables that we used with the GamuT Zodiac Loudspeakers, a particular favorite reference pair of transducers in my experience.)

Yes, even if there were no photographs…argh!…there was no doubt. This room had Audio Oasis! Award written all over it.

Do the right thing!

Zesto Audio/Marten/Merrill Williams Audio/Cardas Audio/Stillpoints/Tri-Planar/Benz/Ortofon

In the Zesto Audio et al. room:  golden audiophile gorgeosity

George and Carolyn Counnas always put together a brilliant room at audio shows. AXPONA 2019 was no exception…in fact, it was one of the best of their rooms that I've ever heard.

The system in this room was made up of the following:

  • Merrill-Williams Audio REAL 101.3 Turntable ($8995)
  • Tri-Planar US Tonearm ($6200)
  • Benz Micro Gullwing SLR MC ($3600)
  • Zesto Audio Leto 1.6 Tube Preamplifier ($7500)
  • Zesto Audio Andros Deluxe Tube Phonostage ($6900)
  • A pair of Zesto Audio Eros 150 watts per channel Class A Monoblocks ($19,900 per pair)
  • Marten Django Loudspeakers ($15,000 per pair)
  • Cardas Clear Beyond cables (prices vary)

As always, George and Carolyn Counnas were friendly and cheerful hosts

The sound in this room was truly lovely and quite appealing. George knows how to get all sorts of things out of tubes and circuits, and Carolyn's eye for design shows in the striking chassis of their product line. There's an obvious synergy at work between Zesto, Cardas, Marten, and the Merrill-Williams system. It was a harmonic, complementary, organic blend, relaxing me as I was there. I listened for a while, enjoying every moment of that tubic blessedness!

Once again, George and Carolyn have done it. Another Audio Oasis! Award for them!

Stay tuned for Part the Fifth of my AXPONA 2019 Audio Oasis! Awards, out shortly....

All photographs and image processing by David W. Robinson