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Papa's Got a Brand New Bag Part 2: AXPONA 2018

04-29-2018 | By Maurice Jeffries | Issue 98

In Part I of my AXPONA 2018 show report, I highlighted several "costs more than my first house" mega-systems, systems that only the up-and-coming hedge fund manager or successful neurosurgeon can afford. For those of us who have mortgages to pay, intend to finance our children's educations (in full or in part), still make car payments, and must save to take nice vacations, $5000 (or more) for a component, or even a complete system, represents a big investment.

However fantastic sounding, the mega-systems remain the stuff of pipe dreams.

Fortunately, AXPONA 2018 offered plenty of affordable (or at least reasonably affordable) options for the cost-conscious. The sheer depth and breadth of accessible and cost-effective components gives truth to the lie that the high-end only caters to the über rich, and has largely turned its back on middle-class listeners. In a world where $100K turntables and $200K loudspeakers no longer raise collective eyebrows, these more affordable systems remind us that great sound, great engineering, and great value are not mutually exclusive qualities.

In several instances, the lower priced gear that caught my imagination, and my ear, sounded as good as the mega-spreads I drooled over in my earlier post, surrendering only the last few iotas of frequency range extension, refinement, and resolution of fine detail to their pricier cousins.

Here goes!

MJ's "No Need to Take Out a Second Mortgage" Show Contenders

The Studio Electric/Modwright room charmed my socks off. Studio Electric's tiny M4 compact loudspeakers jabbed way above their weight class, punching with real mid-bass authority, and delivering marvelously detailed, spacious, and naturally unforced sound. This little system floored me. Janis Ian's Tattoo soared effortlessly in the demo room, but with real weight, scale, and authority. Stanko and team once again filled the back third of the room with richly layered, warmly textured hues.

The M4s are sealed box affairs (89dB sensitivity, with custom crossover, a 6.5" copolymer woofer, and a 1" soft dome tweeter) that seem capable of handling hundreds of watts of power without strain. Studio Electric's lead speaker designer, Dave McPherson, and I talked about a review of the M4s ($3100 the pair in real wood veneer finish), so stay tuned. Modwright electronics and a Fern & Roby turntable rounded out the system. I didn't get prices on the supporting gear. Sorry!


Fidelis Audio demoed the sublime Stenheim Alumine Five floor-standers ($60,00 the pair). I know, I know! The Five clearly doesn't qualify as an affordable loudspeaker, but does boast a usefully high 93dB sensitivity rating which permits users to pair them with low powered tube integrateds like the Ars-Sonum Filarmonia ($4950) our own John Marks reviewed back in Issue 94 (HERE). Add an affordable turntable (and quality phono preamplifier) and you're in the game.

These French beauties feature scrupulously machined aircraft-grade aluminum cabinets outfitted with a soft dome tweeter (I would guess a Scan-Speak Revelator), paper midrange transducer, and twin treated paper bass drivers. For those of you who haven't been paying attention to such things, paper drivers have made a major comeback over the last five years. Wilson and GamuT are two popular brands that have returned to the paper fold (pun intended) with a vengeance, while manufacturers like Sonus Faber, Audio Note, and Triangle never left.


A VAC Sigma 170i tube integrated amplifier ($9990) sounded swell driving the svelte Alumine Five. The system exhibited great micro dynamics, excellent tonal purity, and precise timing. Long wall loudspeaker placement maximized sound-stage width, but at the expense of some depth-of-field layering. Still, this system delivered a very balanced, very natural presentation overall. I think the new Stenheim loudspeaker is really something special. Our dear editor should try to secure a review pair for a Positive Feedback reviewer with a big listening room. Unfortunately, that excludes Casa Jeffries.

Ozan "The Wizard of Oz" Turan of High End by Oz really caught me by surprise with his rhythmically upbeat, infectiously musical, and dynamically punchy little system. Vitus Audio's snappy and powerful RI 101 integrated amplifier (about $18,360), Vitus SCD-025mk.II CD Player ($25,200), and Mbl 120 compact loudspeakers ($21,500 with stands) delivered spacious, open sound. Depth cues seemed a bit shallow, however, likely owing to the smallish room. A bit warm-sounding but very involving presentation. I'd love to review this system. Dr. Weaver appeared to enjoy this set-up as much as I did.


Silnote Audio's suave CEO and chief designer, Mark Williams (sporting a hip new haircut, an even hipper assistant named LaToya, and a new attitude), once again hit pay dirt. Showing off a new pair of Maggie 3.7i loudspeakers ($5995 the pair), a Levinson amplifier, and Allnic tube preamplifier, Mark's system (wired with his own Silnote cable, of course) delivered hard-hitting transients with stunning, see-through transparency, oodles of air, and fine focus. Depth was a bit shallow, likely owing to the small room, but everything else sounded just swell. Musicality was simply first rate. Mark has asked me to review his new Poseidon 2 speaker cables (around $2250 for an 8-foot pair), and I reluctantly (LOL) agreed to do so.

On a related note, Dagogo's resident reviewer/preacher and fellow Silnote Audio fan, the engaging and always upbeat Doug Schroeder and I reconnected over dinner Friday night. Doug enjoyed a juicy burger and fries while I settled for the garden salad with grilled chicken. I know who most benefited from the sensible eating choice that night, but I'm pretty sure Doug got the more soulful (not to mention tastier) end of the deal. Damn those fries looked good!

Music Direct demoed the new Definitive Technology Demand D11 loudspeakers, priced at a very approachable $1k the pair. With a tiny REL Acoustics T/7i sub reinforcing the bottom end, these babies sang like no affordable loudspeaker had a right to. Powering the D11s, PS Audio's Stellar electronics (the DAC/pre and M700 monoblock amplifiers), MoFi UltraDeck turntable, and Audioquest and Shunyata cabling sounded natural and lively. These affordable speakers really are worth seeking out (as is the entire system), especially if you are on a budget. Did I mention that the D11s are cute as all get out? Alas, the component listing sheet I got from MD did not list prices.  

Peter Madnick held court in the ELAC suite, demoing the new line of ELAC Alchemy Series electronics (all designed by Peter), these driving the superb ELAC Adante AS-61 stand mounts (stands extra). My iPhone notes describe the sound as "superbly transparent, neutral, 3D, open, and just plain amazing. Eva Cassidy singing Ain't No Sunshine literally illuminated the room. Wow! And with Peter Madnick's crazy good electronics—including Class D amplifiers no less—this system really shined."

I'd love to review the entire package as a New Apartment Lounge special feature (wouldn't we all). This is one real-world system that gave up nothing, I mean nothing, in sheer musicality to the pricier spreads.

The ELAC folks were also kind enough to send a complete product/price list in a follow-up email:

Alchemy Series DDP-2 Pre-Amp/DAC ($2499.98); Alchemy Series DPA-2 Stereo Amplifier ($1499.98); Alchemy Series PPA-2 Phono Pre-amp ($999.98); Miracord 90 Turntable ($2499.98); Soundsmith Zephyr MIMC Cartridge ($1699.99); Adante AS-61 Stand Mount Loudspeakers ($2499.98 Pair); Adante Speaker Stands ($599.98 Pair); Discovery Music Server DS-S101-G ($1099.98); 512 Engineering Marutani Symmetrical Transformer ($22,000); 512 Engineering Marutani 4 Cables (no price listed); SolidSteel S2-4 Rack ($399.98).

Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound soothed sore ears with a totally old school balm: pure vinyl bliss. Fat, warm, meaty sound avoided the hyper detailed ethos prevalent in many rooms and systems. Yes, the balance was a bit dark, but seductively and sweetly so. A mono recording of George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique sounded as three-dimensional, layered, and present as any modern recording, this played over a stunning TW Acustic Raven AC/3 turntable ($21K), 2 TW-Acustic 10.5 tone arms (@ $5500 each), TW phono stage (all tube and pricey at $18K), Horning Aristotle Ellipse loudspeakers ($16K the pair), and really affordable all-tube front end electronics from Arte Forma Audio. Thanks, Jeff. 

Triangle's towering Magellan loudspeaker ($70k) with a scrumptious Luxman stack showed great promise. Present, quick, with natural transients, but also open and dramatic, the speakers nevertheless sounded a bit constrained in the small room. Bass boomed a tad and depth cues were noticeably foreshortened. Still, the sound held great promise.


The real news here for les mélomanes on a budget was two-fold. First, Luxman now distributes its own gear in the United States through its Luxman America Inc. sales arm. Second, Triangle has strengthened its presence in the U.S. and appears to have partnered with Luxman, at least for show demo purposes. Luxman America now also distributes the fine Melco line of digital music servers.


What really caught my eye was Luxman's gorgeous new top-of-the-line integrated amplifier, the L-509X, priced at a stiff but not unobtainable $9495. I hope to have a review sample in-house soon, something Luxman America's affable president, Jeff Sigmund, seemed open to.  

The always dashing and debonair Philip O'Hanlon of On a Higher Note Audio fame and the Kyomi Audio team dazzled with Philip's new electronics, the celebrated Gryphon solid-state line, and partnering loudspeakers. The sound in this room (vinyl only during my visit) bloomed with a seductively sweet, ever so chocolatey balance, but with real bite, oodles of air, and "reach out and touch" tactility. The power region was as present and meaty as any at the show.

Their room featured: a Gryphon Scorpio S CD player $9400, Gryphon brand-spanking new Sonnet phono stage $7500, a sleek and powerful Gryphon Diablo 120 integrated amplifier $11,200, Pear Audio Kid Thomas turntable $10,000, Ortofon Cadenza Black MC cartridge $2729, Gryphon Mojo S loudspeakers (with stands) $29,500, Magnum Audio Reference series cables, interconnects, and power cords (no price listed), Shunyata Denali 6000S line conditioner $3995, Artesania Exoteryc 4 shelf rack (again no price stated), Artesania KRION turntable platform, and Gryphon Audiophile rug (priceless).

In some ways, I've saved the best (well, almost) of my more affordable choices for last. These last two rooms share two qualities in common: they both featured a global selection of components, and they both offered superb sound by any measure, not just the "affordable" qualifier that I have applied to most of the rooms featured in this segment of my report.   

First up is the fine Audio Thesis room. The man behind Audio Thesis, Derek "Skip" Skipworth, had in tow several brands I was largely unfamiliar with: MastersounD tubed electronics from Italy, Rosso Fiorentino loudspeakers, also from, you guessed it, Italy, and digital electronics from yet another Italian firm, North Star Design.

The system featured MastersounD's 35 w/p/c single-ended tube integrated called the BoX ($3500). The BoX employs a conservatively-run compliment of six EL34s (3 per channel) in single-ended parallel configuration. Source components were a North Star Blue Diamond CD player and North Star DAC. The loudspeakers, a middle-of-the-line floor-stander from Rosso Fiorentino called the Certaldo ($6500 the pair), feature an aluminum and leather front baffle, rigid cabinet construction, and stunning visuals.

The sound was even better. The Certaldo bloomed with the body and richness one typically associates with vintage Sonus faber models, coupled with excellent resolution and linearity. Staging was first-rate, with healthy doses of air and tonal openness. Bass was satisfying in reach, but certainly not VSA- or Wilson-like in power or depth. But, the little Certaldo (a 2-½ way design with a 1-inch soft dome tweet and three 5.25-inch midbass drivers) played with surprising grace, authority, and coherence.

IMHO, the arrival of the Rosso Fiorentino speaker line to these shores represents a major development in the high-end. The Certaldo certainly has the potential to become a major force in the sub-10k loudspeaker universe. Skip and I are already planning a review of the Certaldo (How am I gonna review all this stuff???)

The Well Pleased A/V room also had me shaking my head in disbelief. I really hit it off with Mark Sossa, the man behind Well Pleased. Charming, full-of-life, and blessed with boundless energy, Young Mr. Sossa hit one out of the ball park with his globally-sourced system: Rethm Bhaava loudspeakers ($4495 - India), Qualiton a50i tube integrated amplifier ($7500 - Hungary), Innuos Zenith SE music server ($7000 - Portugal), Aqua La Voce S3 DAC ($4750 – Italy), Gigawatt PC-3 SE EVO+ power conditioner ($6500 - Poland), and a fine Anticables loom (cable prices not listed - USA).

While hardly cheap, the Well Pleased system delivered musical value all out of line with the asking price. The little single-driver Rethm loudspeakers, each bolstered by two 6½ inch paper subwoofer drivers mounted in an isobaric configuration (and powered)), sounded open, present, and wonderfully coherent. Transparency was high, imaging stable and focused, the only critique being the shorter than I am used to hearing at home stage height cues.

All in all, a great show for Well Pleased A/V. Bravo, Mark!