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Magnificent But a TAD Expensive? Maybe, Maybe Not as AXPONA Delivers Dream Audio!

05-14-2024 | By Juan C. Ayllon | Issue 133

SCHAUMBURG, IL—Twenty-six years ago, aspiring studio tech and entrepreneur, David Malekpour, launched his Pro Audio Design, Inc. (initially under the banner, Anything Audio, he re-named it in 1993), with Augspurger Monitors that employed Technical Audio Devices (TAD) drivers and components simply because "they were the best." TAD have been tops for years, he says, and their drivers were employed in the Grateful Dead's "Wall of Sound" used in pursuit of a distortion-free sound reinforcement system in 1973 (Wikipedia and Grushkin, Paul (2006). Rockin' Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll. Voyageur Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-0-7603-2292-5).

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

"TAD brings 45 years of engineered excellence to the table," he says. Hand-crafted, they're impeccably made. "I've never found a flaw on any speaker I've opened—except for maybe a fingerprint!"

Now, Pioneer Corporation (which owns TAD) didn't keep TAD "front and center." Malekpour says, and as Pro Audio Designs grew, he was eventually asked not only to become the U.S. distributor for TAD's pro line but their HiFi home audio line, as well (you can read more on their story HERE). 

Fast forward to this year's Audio Expo North America (AXPONA) held at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel: not only are they an official sponsor (the official AXPONA lanyards are emblazoned with the orange and black TAD and PAD HiFi logos), but their $65,000 TAD-Grand Evolution One GE1 floor standing loudspeakers are stupefying guests on the 12th floor with their uncanny power and presence. The experience calls to mind a 16-year-old, 5' 10" Mike Tyson bludgeoning full-grown, six-foot-plus behemoths in the Golden Gloves boxing tourney! "Where's the subwoofer?" becomes a recurring mantra in the room.

Turning up the volume, a deep, guttural bass envelops the room. In the Electronic Dance Music piece, "Queen Mary" by Francine Thirteen, her vocals are pristine and ultra-articulated; the small breaks in her voice are clearly evident. Imaging is huge, wide and deep, as synthesized percussion, clicks, drums, and claps intertwine with Thirteen's vocals—one moment deep and smoky, the next high or whispery—mesmerize with their immensely immersive presentation.

Dave Malekpour, at left with Technical Audio Devices' president, Shinji Tarutani

"At $65,000, they could be the last speaker you buy," Malekpour claims. "It's the value of 45 years of engineered excellence."

He may be right. 

Supporting these towers are the following:

  • TAD C600 Preamp with a separate PSU ($32,000)
  • TAD D1000TX SACD/DAC ($21,000)
  • TAD M700S Stereo Amplifier ($65,000 per pair)
  • TAD Speaker and XLR cables (price varies by length)
  •  Wolf Audio Systems Alpha 3SX Audio Server ($9500-$13,000)
  • Synergistic Research Active Ground Block SX ($11,000)
  • Jocavi Acoustic Panels Low Note C ($1200/pair)
  • Jocavi Acoustic Panels Wall Isolation Panels ($850/pair)

The question of the importance of proper acoustic room treatment comes up, and Malekpour, who also represents JOCAVI Acoustic Panels in the U.S., offers this analogy: "You can drive a Ferrari on the track, or you can drive in on a cobblestone street." (later, Malekpour and Howard Kneller present on a JOCAVI Acoustic Panels installation and custom build of Kneller's residential listening room that you can view HERE). 

Linette and Stuart Smith of HiFi Pig

It's 8:30 Saturday morning, and they're showing both TAD rooms and the TEAC display down the hall by appointment only at this hour before the crowd arrives. So to save time, journalists Stuart and Linette Smith of HiFi Pig (a lovely and eccentric British couple living in France who flew out for the show and met me for drinks two nights ago after the industry mixer) are covering the room several feet away.

Public publicist Jaclyn Inglis says appointments are on a tight schedule, so it's off to the TEAC room next. 

TEAC in the Savanna

Schaumburg is an amalgam of suburb, cement, and savanna, and several doors down is TEAC territory, where electronics, in comparison, are inexpensive—and by that, I mean significantly lower-priced than TAD, as in:

  • VRDS701T CD Player ( $2699)
  • UD701N Network Player ($4299)
  • AP701 Amplifier ($3799)
  • TN5BB Turntable ($1799)
  • PE505T Phono Preamp ($2099)

Nevertheless, the sound is seductively immersive. Streaming Tool's "Fear Inoculum," the grungy, distorted strains of electric guitar panning left and right, punchy drums, congas, and drums is a visceral treat! 

Brimming with realism and weight, on vinyl, "The Battle" on the Gladiator soundtrack by Hans Zimmer inspires with its voluminous whole orchestra crescendos. The woodwinds, horns, trumpets, and drums rise and subside as massive oceanic sea swells. There's a magnificent stateliness—a regal pomp, a triumphant air—and an uplifting call to march to battle. The TEAC turntable featuring an EAT phono cartridge delivers a spacious sound with plenty of depth and detail and a 160-degree-wide soundstage over Amphian loudspeakers.

Yello's "Umbria" kicks off with a light percussion and a melancholic, synthesized pad. The chill vibe gives way to a more upbeat electronic tempo featuring a muted trumpet and keyboards. 

The TEAC components 700 series, I'm told, features new, wider profiled chassis sized around 16" and 17" wide, which signals TEAC's first foray into the higher-end consumer audio market and bridging the gap between mass market electronics and higher-end audio.

For the uninitiated, TEAC Corporation is comprised of four divisions: TASCAM, which makes consumer to pro audio products (the latter more focused on recording electronics); ESOTERIC, which is top shelf, high-end consumer audio products, and TEAC Electronics, which produces mass market audio products. Now, ESOTERIC's engineering team is supporting TEAC Electronics. 

Some of the components holding court include:

  • TN5 TEAC Turntable, which is belt-driven
  • Sound and Engineering Corporation of Tokyo (SAEC) Tonearm
  • UD701 Preamplifier and Headphone Amplifier
  • CD VRD5 701T Transport 
  • AP70L Class D Stereo Amplifier

"The UD701 is a Swiss knife of components," the room's emcee boasts, while the CD VRD5 is an excellent disc transport and doesn't have a built-in Digital to Analog Converter (DAC), but can easily be linked to one of your choosing. 

A TAD Evolved

Moments later, I am in another TAD room, this one showcasing their TAD Evolution Series compact CE1TX stand mount speaker. 

And album by jazz drummer, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, is playing "Nobody Knows." A sonorous saxophone, accompanied by piano, acoustic bass, and Purdie's brushed snares is very clearly articulated. Later, a soprano saxophone's harmonics, the visceral presence of a piano, the snap of brushes on the snare, and the rich and warm tones of an electric guitar's bluesy solo in the right channel are vibrant and lifelike. 

In Bonnie Rait's "I Can't Make You Love Me Any More," her vocals are crisp, timbrally-rich and organic; the keys, piano, drum kit and bass are pinpoint accurate in their imaging. 

Jennifer Warnes' "Way Down Deep" sports a larger than life resounding tom drum, where Warnes' vocals are airy, organically rich. Her male accompaniment vocals are clear and present in the background, while the keys, electric guitar, shaker, and percussion make for an enchanting, full-bodied and ultra-detailed and visceral experience. 

Mighty Fyne Stuff (photo courtesy of Fyne Audio)

The Fyne Audio room showcase the Fyne Audio F703SP Floorstanding Loudspeakers ($19,999/pair), PrimaLuna EVO 300 Hybrid Tube Integrated Amplifier ($6995), PriaLuna EVO 100 Tube DAC ($3395), Aurender N200 Streamer/Music Server ($6300), and Cambridge Audio CXC v2 CD Transport ($599). Holding court are several impressive performances.

First, Paul Simon's lead vocals are accompanied, a cappella, by an African choir in "Homeless." In a seamless mix, Simon's soft-sung lead vocals set against the deeper, darker choral refrains are entirely enchanting. 

And second, Stan Getz' saxophone, and Antonio Carlos Jobim's soft baritone vocals and acoustic guitar perform an intricate and intoxicating listen in "Girl from Ipanema." Getz's sax is very harmonically rich and layered, the ride cymbal comped by Jobim's guitar are hypnotic. The piano are a touch understated while Astrud Gilberto's somewhat flat vocals are well-articulated in the left channel. 

No doubt, the Fyne Audio's horn tweeter, three inch magnesium compression driver, and the first order crossover, set at 750 cycles that, I'm told, is unusually low, has something to do with the intimate imaging. Moreover, the crossover is cryogenically treated and features point-to-point connections; there's no circuit board here, I'm assured!

Nothing Gray About This, Save the Analog and Linkwitz Labs Loudspeakers

Acclaimed recording engineer and Cohearent Records studios owner, Kevin Gray, is holding court on the recording process and demoing his recent vinyl release of jazz guitarist, Anthony Wilson, Hackensack West, in the Linkowitz Audio display. Attendees lean forward and crane their necks from pack chairs and the periphery of the crowded main room and adjoining suite as Gray talks and shares cuts from the album over two pairs of Linkewitz open baffle loudspeakers (one in each room) in A/B fashion. Your name has to be on the list to enter, and thankfully, mine is!

Kevin Gray (still image courtesy of Ben Williams Films/YouTube)

At present, Gray is speaking of the miking of individual instruments. Drummer Jeff Hamilton had a reputation for having mics removed, he said, but when he spotted a single M49 Neuman microphone above the snare and between the cymbals of the drum kit, Hamilton grunted, "It will be interesting to hear this!" However, Gray reports that after he'd heard a tape of their session, Hamilton was elated.

"There is a sound to vacuum tubes," Gray summed up. There is a coloration, but I love it!" (His album cover bears the quote, "All-Valve from microphones to cutterhead.")

Someone else asks about old tape recordings and their propensity to distort at some levels. Gray affirmed that, saying, "Old recordings had no headroom. That's why you hear breakups on the piano, et cetera." Modern innovations in tape production had made a big improvement, he declares, adding that he uses SM 900 tape now. 

The needle lowers on a cut from Hackensack West (which, coincidentally, is the nickname for Gray's Cohearent Records recording studio). A lively shuffle, featuring Wilson's clean-sounding noodling on a hollow body guitar. Gerald Clayton's piano takes over, vibrant and expressive, while Hamilton's snare, cymbals snap and shimmer, anchoring the up-tempo time. Wilson takes over with verbose articulation, followed by a cacophonous drum solo and more of Wilson's tasty licks. 

"Well done!" someone shouts out as the room explodes in applause. 

The Linkwitz budget system consists of the following:

  • USB DAC RME ADI-2 DAC ($1299)
  • SMSL CD Transport ($999)
  • Tri Art B-Series TA-2 Turntable with TA-2 12 with cuing
  • Hagerman Audio Labs Bugle MC R1AA phono cartridge ($3950)
  • Pre Line Preamplifier with Topping Pre 90-EXT Line Preamplifier Extension ($859)
  • Linkwitz LX521.4 MG Full-Range Dipole Turn-Key System with Analog Crossover and 10 Ch Amplification Multiway Speaker Cables in the Standard Version Dark Anthracite HDF/MDF American Walnut Top Baffles Loudspeaker ($23,900).

Switching records, Kirstin Atkins' "Sweet Pickles," which was recorded at Cohearent Records, plays first over the $45,000 more expensive set of Linkwitz loudspeakers in the adjoining suite, then is repeated in this room on the more budget-friendly system.

The rich, expressive strains of a saxophone and a sonorous trombone comped by a sassy piano spearhead the Dixieland vibe. A lively piano solo accompanied by snare rimshots, toms and cymbals prove tasty, and a drum solo comped alternatively by horns and the piano draws raucous applause. 

Linkwitz Audio's Dr. Frank

"Transducers count," says Dr. Frank of Linkwitz Audio. The more expensive turntable and speakers are much better, he asserts, but as we'll see, the less expensive ones are more than adequate for a joyous listening experience. He encourages members in the audience to watch the YouTube video on the recording of "Sweet Pickles" at Cohearent Records (you can view that HERE).

Some questions follow, and someone asks Kevin Gray what the volume level is when he records albums his studio. The Fletcher Munson Curve comes into play when it comes to recording volume, Gray says. Eighty-five decibels is his reference level when he mixes an album.

Next, he plays the first song of side two. Sitting off-axis in the room with the less expensive speakers, it sounds more live and dynamic than around the corner. The hi-hat, snare, toms, and cymbals sound more focused. The drum kit, as a whole, seems rounder and fuller. Ditto for the saxophone lead. It's a vibrant, live sound presentation, as the piano, trombone, drum rim taps sound more real, visceral, and packed with weight. 

Yo, Vinnie! Make that Vinnie Rossi and YG Acoustics

Rich and heavenly operatic female mezzo soprano vocals catch my attention as I enter the room. It's Ani Sofie Von Otter singing something by Handel (I can't make out my garbled cursive notes here!) over the YG Acoustics Hailey 3 Loudspeakers ($63,400/pair). Her voicing is tender and expressive, the backdrop violins exquisite. 

Source components include the Innuos Statement Music Server ($25,000), Innuos PhoenixNET ($4349), and Mola Mola Tabaqui DAC ($13,500). Nordost cabling runs throughout, and the Nordost QB4/QB8 Mark III AC Distribution Units ($1399/$2299) play supporting roles. 

Next, Jon Batiste's "Hollywood Africans" showcases his rich, honey-toned vocals with a touch of grit that remind me a little of Sam Cooke. Set against a piano, choir, and a muted trumpet, this somber anthem sounds very impressive with a deep soundstage behind the speakers. 

Nenad Vasilic's "Bass Room" unpacks a snappy, rich woody sounding acoustic bass, full bodied and rife with detail, along with the room that it was recorded in. 

Audio Note-ables (photo courtesy of Jeffsplace.positive-feedback.com)

The Audio Note Room showcased the ANE/SPx Ltd. Field Coil Loudspeakers ($65,000), which did not disappoint. They're supported by Conquest Silver Signature Power Amplifiers ($30,170), M3 Phono Amplifier ($13,199), CDT Four CD Transport ($21,119), DAC 4.1x Balanced Signature ($37,713) the TT Two Turntable ($4287), Arm Three/II Toenarm ($2465), IQ Moving Magnet Cartridge ($1311), Boxg Furniture Modular Double Width 3 Shelf Stand ($3250) and Audio Note UK Speaker Cables and Interconnects.

Gritty vocals, blaring, grungy electric guitar, slamming drums and cymbals are the earmarks of The Who's "Bell Boy." It's a very convincing and unapologetic live sound presentation. 

How, now, Endow - Audio, That Is! (Image courtesy of Endowaudio.com)

At just under four feet tall, what the Bravura 12.2 loudspeakers ($12,900/pair) lacked in size, they more than made up for in their sound. Eva Cassidy's "Anytime He Goes Away" showcases her acoustic guitar, its timbre richly articulated, a lustrous piano, and her vocals, dynamic and meaty—all rendered in photorealism.

Gregory Porter's vocals rich, mahogany baritone vocals command your attention with clarity in "Hey Laura." The excellent mix of saxophone, keys, and the drum kit captivates in a very organic and unaffected full-bodied presentation. 

Sweet Chariot! Fidelity Imports Swings Lowthers 

The Lowther Edilia Loudspeakers ($39,999/pair), Triode Junone 845's Amplifier ($17,999), and Unisar Research CD Uno CD/DAC ($21,999) were intimate and marvelous in one of Fidelity Imports rooms. 

Chris Farlove, Ray Harrington were lucidly illuminated in "Ain't No Love in the City." The organ, toms, electric guitar, gritty vocals, and ride cymbals were vividly conveyed. 

Blues Company's "My Little Angel" hi-hat, snare, rimshots, and electric guitar stood out in stark relief against the warm tones of the organ. It was quite an enticing listen!

PMC Hammers, Courtesy of Fidelity Imports

Eva Cassidy's vocals were radiant on the vinyl version of "Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water," and in another song on that album, "Blue Skies," details with cymbals, piano, and reverb-laced vocals were especially rich. The piano, lilting cymbals, snappy drum kit were vibrant and visceral, while Cassidy's lyrical and scat singing, accompanied by her guitar, were rich and vivid. 

Warmed by Soul Note via Fidelity Imports

The A3 Integrated Amp for Soul Note ($25,000), D1 Entry Level DAC ($7000), 23 Network Bridge ($15,000), and Opera Callas Diva 2 1/2-way Loudspeakers from Italy—with rear-firing tweeters ($12,000/pair) provided a rich, full, and balanced presentation. A trumpet and piano played beatific, musical, and lush, while Celine Deon's "Beauty and the Beast" showcased her vocals vividly. 

Perlisten Audio, Like BMW, Puts the 5Ms on the Fast Track

Fidelity Imports' Perlisten 5M monitors ($5990/pair) rendered The Knife's "Marble House"—clappers, processed vocals, keys, synthesized bass, and drums in a dreamy and compelling presentation. 

Betty LaVette's "What Was It You Wanted?" delivers Betty's vocal dark with an edge. Accompanied by electric guitar wah-wahs and keys, it was a jazzy bluesy downtempo treat!

Soh What?

In another room, the Soh's R18 loudspeakers ($5000 each) teamed up with the Primare SP25 Home Cinema Processor ($5299) and Primare A35.2 two-channel Amplifier ($3500) to render a rich, full-bodied presentation. 


Did you say RBH? The RBH SVTR/AX loudspeakers were so massive and powerful, that they called to mind a road trip with a former college club football team member (who could kick a football end zone to end zone and later played for the NFL) when he opened the glovebox and showed me a vial of STH—a banned steroid—that he used to great effect on the field. There were no steroids here, but the SVTR/AX ($40,000/pair with active crossover and application), digital crossover, "state of the art" Burr Brown DACs, in tandem with the Eversolo DMP-A6 Streamer ($1300), and Blue Cabling did a pumped-up performance in their showroom.

Diana Krall's "California Dreaming" was stunning with her breathy vocals, clearly articulated strings, crisp piano and strings. The background vocals, guitar, and orchestral backdrop were rendered clearly and larger than life. 

Aurora Borealis? No, Aurora Signature Series

The Eagles' "Hotel California" was served up in a very big, 180-degree soundstage. Henley's vocals, the harmonizing, bass drums, and congas stood out in a massive, weighty presentation. The source? The Aurora Signature Series Three-Way Horn Speaker ($150,000/pair). Resembling a pair of futuristic dishwashers turned on edge with a pair of retro clothing hand wringers, like an aural cannon, they delivered a hefty and powerful sound. Its supporting cast included the Ithaka Mini DAC ($72,000), Ageto Preamplifier ($84,000), Quintessence Amplifier ($84,000), and Pinkfaun Streamer ($30,000). Inakustik Speaker Cables ($70,000 for 2 meters in pure silver) and the Inakustik P45 Power Conditioner ($5000). 

Acora Aces Again! (Image courtesy of Myown.devices Instagram page)

Like going to a Cinemax theater, Acora continues to stupefy with their show-stopping musicality, power, and resolving presentation. The granite-covered VRC-1s loudspeakers ($218,000/pair) teamed up with the Lampizator Poseidon DAC ($25,500) and about a million dollar's worth of electronics to deliver their aural fix. 

Showcased in vibrant aural array, Stevie Ray Vaughan played on reel-to-reel tape, his vocal rasp and grit, whine and growl of his guitar, accompanied by the steady tap on the ride cymbal and snare rim taps. It was stupendous, hugely resolved and impactful. Wow. 

Focal Hi-Fi Night Club

Playing more like they belonged in an upscale, mega-dance club than an audio expo, the Focal Grand Utopia EVO Loudspeakers ($280,000/pair) wowed a standing-room-only crowd with EDM and whatever else it served with immense power and presence. It calls to mind a welterweight boxing champion once stating that even a tap on the shoulder from a young Mike Tyson hurt—such was his power. Supported by a statement system of Naim Mono Block amplifiers ($300,000/pair), Naim Super Lumina preamplifier, speaker cables and interconnects—and Isoacoustic Gaia Footers, they delivered Tyson-esque power, but with a ballerina's finesse. 

"Don't turn it down!" someone shouted as the emcee faded the throbbing and thumping electronica classic, "Make Us Stronger" by Ghost Rider.

The vocals of Geoff Castellucci, and, later, the wailing guitars of Dire Straits' "Where Do You Think You're Going?" are sublime and substantial. The Utopias sound smooth, not shouty, even at higher volumes. 

The emcee tells me that they don't do jazz or classical in their showroom here due to the shared space, large crowd, and the chatting in the back. Fine nuances would be lost amidst the white noise. 

Getting Real with RAAL Headphones

"You have to hear the RAAL headphones," a friend entices as we cross the raised walkway connecting the second floor of the convention center to the hotel. "They're the best headphones on the planet! You've heard of RAAL ribbon tweeters, right?" he continues. "Well, these are their headphones!"

Seated at the RAAL requisite booth at the Ear Gear Experience, I sample the RAAL Immanis Triple-Ribbon Headphones ($9460). It uses the RAAL Ribbon Current Drive Interface that allows you to use their headphones with standard headphone amps, I'm told. Also in play is the Feliks ENVY 300B Headphone Amplifier ($7900).

From the first strike on a snare through Diana Krall's cooing and breathy vocals, the RAAL Ribbon Current Drive headphones yield an extremely detailed and dynamic portal into "Temptation." Brushed snare and hi-hat, Anthony Wilson's plucked hollow body guitar, the warm tones of the Hammond B-3, and Krall's piano are ultra defined.

"Get Lucky," featuring Pharrell Williams and Nils Rogers/Daft Punk unpacks a rumbling low end bass line, vivid vocals, keys, and drums with sparkling resolve, verve, and snap!

Vamping on the Von Schweikert Audio VR-55s (Damon Schweikert, CEO for Von Schweikert Audio with their VR-55 Loudspeaker)

 A gorgeous pair of Von Schweikert VR-55 Mk II loudspeakers, with Foundation/ARC bass controller ($85,000/pair), driven by four WestminsterLab Rei Class A Monoblock Amplifiers in vertical bi-amp configuration ($67,800), two WestminsterLab dual Mono Quest Balanced Preamplifiers full carbon edition ($53,800), Lampizator's Poseidon Balanced DAC/Preamplifier ($25,800), Sonore Signature Rendu SE Deluxe Music Server ($5350), Small Green Computer sonicTransporter i9 (Gen 4) Roon Server ($3999), VIVDUS zwo Ground device ($12,995), and MasterBuilt Audio cabling throughout. 

It's a rich and full-bodied delivery with dynamics and detail. Ricky Lee Jones' vocals in "Chuck E's in Love" are clear, the drums and percussion crisp and clean.

Carlos Santana's guitar guitar is vivid, as are the background female vocals, keyboards, and finger snaps—the VR-55s draw you in with their detailed delivery! The power, breathiness, and energy of Jones' vocals are intoxicating. 

Shirley Horn's vocals in "Beautiful Love" are sultry and smoky; accompanied by a slow-plucked electric guitar, this torch song delivers in spades!

Fred Ainsley, at right, visits with Howard Kneller, who c0-presented with Dave Malekpour on his custom home listening room installation (later Kneller texted me saying, "That's a good picture, but I feel bad for Fred. Makes him look so scrawny.")

"The Vividus contributed significantly to the tonally beautiful, Uber-liquid, and fatigue-free sound you heard in our room with Von Schweikert and Westminster Labs," said the striking and affable bodybuilding attorney and audiophile, Fred Ainsley, North American Distributor of Destination Sound Group and North American Distributor for Lampizator. Later, he emailed me the following message: 

"As promised I wanted to give a bit of information on the Subbase Audio Vividus Zwo, as well as the new Lampizator Poseidon DAC.

"Regarding the Poseidon DAC ($25,000): Our flagship DAC, the Horizon, was designed as an ambitious venture, crafting an entirely new product without financial limitations or existing design constraints. This approach resulted in a device noted for its meticulous attention to detail and unparalleled digital sound quality, setting a new benchmark in the industry. However, its exceptional quality came with a high price tag of approximately $50,000. But with the Poseidon DAC, our aim was to retain as much of the Horizon's exceptional qualities as possible but at a more accessible price point—half that of the Horizon. The Poseidon closely mirrors the Horizon in terms of performance, aesthetics, and features. It includes a high-quality preamplifier, which can be bypassed, balanced functionality, remote control, milled aluminum chassis and a variety of digital inputs. Notably, the Poseidon is the first and only DAC globally (Horizon support is being finalized this week) to offer native support of the XDMI protocol, an exciting innovation developed by Emile Bok of Taiko Audio. (more HERE)

"This protocol represents one of the most significant advancements in high-end audio, and we are thrilled to incorporate it in our product. In summary, the Poseidon DAC is a remarkable piece of equipment, perfectly suited to the finest audio systems in the world.

"About the VIVDUS zwo Ground device ($12,995) and what you need it for: despite a mains filter or the perfect power cables, the audio components generate a potential current. This potential current is exchanged with the other connected audio components via the signal ground. The potential currents have an RF interference load. This interference affects the signal via the signal ground and creates distortions. With Vividus zwo technology, we transform the HF interference into a harmonious overtone spectrum. It is not filtered because a filter always reduces, regardless of the intensity of the interference.

"The Vividus zwo always works for the benefit of the music. At its core, it is about the harmonic adjustment of vibrations, energy and frequencies. To achieve this, every aspect of Vividus zwo has been perfectly coordinated. The housing is milled from a solid block of aluminum. It can no longer be opened. Short and dirty, the Vividus zwo gives the music its full energy, creates deep insights into the musical structures through greatly reduced noise and allows us to experience the musical emotion."

PS Audio Punches with Pizazz

Back on the first floor, a pair of PS Audio's top shelf aspen FR30s are holding court. I recently reviewed their smaller towers, the FR20s (you can read that HERE). These have a similar house sound: full-bodied, nicely balanced throughout, non-fatiguing, with a nice, detailed finish on top—only they're only larger. The FR30s are supported by BHK 600 amps, P20 Power Plant, Airlens Source, and the PS Audio Mk 2 DSD DAC.

Jeff Beck's "Hypnotic" is playing instrumental rock. The drums, Beck's electric guitar, organ, keys, drums, and percussion are vivid, well-balanced, packing plenty of pop, the low growl of bass, and a very clean sound overall. Very nice!

A/V RoomService at Your Service

A/V RoomService had a nice booth showcasing some of their EVP vibration isolators—some of them now featured in a rounded profile (I use some of their more traditional squarish EVP pads to great effect in my home system), internal chassis dampers, PolyFlex diffusers (some for mounting directly to walls and others on wheeled mobile stands), and a special turntable isolation platform.

Scintillating "Boom-Boom-Boom" with the T & As

The T & A Electroakustik loudspeakers ($59,900/pair) were detailed, thumping, and very resolved. Supported by the M40 Monoblocks ($31,425 each), PS D3100 HV Preamp/Streaming DAC ($22,000), PDT 3100 HV CD/Transport ($23,450), they delivered country music superstar Chris Stapleton's vocals and guitar—with banjo and violins accompaniment—rich and resolved.

Sun and Moon's "Above and Beyond" were equally compelling when played in EDM and acoustic versions.

Chi-Town's Own Saturday Audio Exchange Says 'Back At Ya!'

The PSB Synchrony T800 Loudspeakers ($11,998/pair) performed admirably with the NAD Masters M66 Blu OS Streaming DAC/Preamp, with Dirac Live Bass Control and Room Correction ($5499), NAD Masters M23 Elgentakt Class D Stereo Amplifier ($3749).

Elephants on Ice Skates' "It Is What It Is" sported a deep and defined bass line in an upbeat, smooth jazz morsel by Brian Broomberg.

Quintessence Audio LTD Showcases Chicago Suburb Swag

Morton Grove, Illinois' Quintessence Audio Ltd. was quite impressive with the Wilson Audio Alex V ($152,000/pair), Dan D'Agostino 800 Monoblock Amps ($195,500/pair), and Restless Preamp ($149,500) wowed with Marian Hill's "Differently." The deep bass line, electrifying electronica, acoustic guitar, percussion, and resolved vocal harmonics were spot on!

Heavenly Horns - the Avant Garde Phasemation Creation (image courtesy of avantgarde-acoustic.de)

After suffering a setback on Saturday with audible hum issues, they were fixed on Sunday, and the Avant Gard Mezzo G3 Loudspeakers ($140,000 active, $110,000 passive) played heavenly music. Served up with the Avant Gard/Phasematian Phonostage ($60,000), tube monoblock MA 5000 ($140,000/pair), Art Pepper's alto sax lead was brilliant, vibrant, and lifelike. Bill Magnuson's bass, and Russ Freeman's piano were rich and resonant. A drum solo's toms and snare were percussive, and the cymbals shimmered, their aural decay giving goosebumps.

My, MoFi Does It Good and Affordable as well

A Music Hall Stealth Direct Drive Turntable ($1699), supported by the Music Fidelity Master Phonostage ($5995), and Master Sound 845 Tube Monoblocks ($20,000/pair) driving Mobile Fidelity Point Source 888 Loudspeakers ($5000/pair) channeled Leonard Cohen crooning "Samson in New Orleans" with depth and grit in a very pleasant and musical presentation.

Forget a Baby Grand Playing. I'll Take the Big Mac Attack in the Lobby

Who needs a live piano performance to convey a sense of splendor and opulence? A pair of Sonus Faber Stradivari loudspeakers ($50,000/pair) sitting in the main floor lobby on a wall opposite the main entry stairway leading up to the second floor powered by a pair of McIntosh MC1.25 KW Anniversary Monoblocks served sumptuous female vocals and acoustic guitar in a resplendent and resolving Wolf Larsen performance of "If I Be Wrong" via the McIntosh M5500 Music Streamer ($6500) . I was pleasantly surprised.

A Quintessence Audio rep suggested that I should go into one of their adjacent room with better acoustics.

Sisyphus Pushing Boulders Up the HiFi Hill to Higher Highs

We've all heard the Greek Myth about Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill, but today a pair of Sonus Faber Aida Loudspeakers ($140,000/pair), driven by a pair of Boulder 2150 Monoblock Power Amplifiers ($128,000/pair) teamed-up with the Boulder 3010 Preamplifier ($158,000), Vivaldi Apex DAC ($46,500), Upsampler ($27,000), and Master Clock ($21,000) to serve up an extremely resolved presentation of Peter Gabriel's "Your Eyes." The grit and graininess of his vocals were hyper-focused. If it's detail and focus you want, this system delivers it in spades!

Stereophile writer, Herb Reichert, at right, with publicist Jaclyn Inglis

Summing Up...

This year's AXPONA was its biggest show to date, welcoming "10,391 attendees, coming from 42 states and 31 countries...(making it)a 14% increase over 2023," their press release read. Six hundred global manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and brands displayed their wares in 202 listening rooms and spaces—and yet again, I left feeling that I'd hardly scratched the surface. Nearly everything sounded great. All in all, it was a magnificent show! Granted, there were several rooms where the sound was a little too etched or sibilant for my tastes (which may have been due to hotel room interaction issues), but those were in the minority.

Unfortunately, after taking several hundred photos with my Canon EOS 30D camera, most were accidentally lost while I cleared space on my computer's hard drive, and subsequent efforts to recover them were unfruitful. I felt sick. Thankfully, I had taken some backup shots with my iPhone's camera (and borrowed a few others). 

Great show aside, I and several others were surprised at a general upswing in prices this year. Talking with an audio industry veteran, he suggested that perhaps it wasn't merely about rising supply chain costs but more about opportunism. They do it because they can, he suggested. Boutique loudspeakers and components selling for the price of a house or a nice Ferrari have been around for some years, but now it seemed more commonplace.

"At these prices, one sale can fund their whole year's operations!" he exclaimed.

An artisan speaker maker whose flagship sells for over $100,000/pair had offered a smaller horn model for $15,000 per pair several years ago—that is now listed at $50,000! Unbelievable.

You might even say, "That's a TAD expensive!" (Coincidentally, many consider TAD a Ferrari of loudspeaker design, making their $65,000 Grand Evolution One GE1 floor standers a great value, relatively speaking).

A/V RoomService's Norman Varney, at right, with a colleague

Moreover, like high end luxury cars at Chicago's annual Auto Show, uber-expensive flagship offerings dazzle and entice enthusiasts, who may then go on to purchase their more affordable models. That's been going on for years. And, for what it's worth, there certainly was a lot of dazzling going on this year!

Mark Masura and his son purchased a lot of vinyl and enjoyed the show immensely

In the end, it was intriguing, fun, and wonderful seeing familiar faces, friends, and acquaintances—and making new ones, too. Having that shared interest with so many, and a sense of community in the pursuit of aural bliss (which can be a lonely endeavor) makes it all the more enjoyable and worthwhile.

Positive Feedback's Michael Laurance, at left, lets his hair down with a friend