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My AXPONA Adventures: Music (and Laughter) is the Best Medicine

04-19-2019 | By Gary L Beard | Issue 102

Dateline: April, 2019

Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel and Convention Center. Schaumburg, Illinois

Welcome back my Friends, to the show that (hopefully) never ends! (Apologies ELP.)

I arrived at the 10th annual AXPONA on Thursday afternoon. The Renaissance Convention Center was a buzzing audio-hive of controlled chaos. Crates and boxes were everywhere. Audio systems taking shape, tweaking started. It seemed a Herculean effort to me. In 2019, Audio Expo North America is a jewel-bedecked audio showcase; a behemoth show with almost 200 rooms, tons of sonic fun, countless booths, and displays. It is a spectacular slice of the most astonishingly fanciful music-magic making machines in the world. Yes, the gear is amazing, and the extraordinary people who build it are special. But what ultimately brings us all together is the music, without it, the gear would be a still life of industrial art.

A Reporter Sidelined

One of life's unexpected turns gave my body and brain permission to slow down and simply enjoy the soundtrack of the show. I wasn't even planning to write a show report this year. But the energy in the building reawakened my creative side, so I picked up my cyber-pen to write important shit in this old notebook. (Thanks, Minutemen.) Before I go any further, know this: I missed seeing a mega-ton of rooms—I doubt I even made it to a third. Oh, and I think my camera is broken; most of my pictures came out like crap-on-a-cracker. Lastly, I must acknowledge that I will forget to thank, or mention someone of importance to this narrative.

Please don't be offended, it doesn't change how I feel about you.

Cue the cuddly puppy commercial.


The impetus behind this incredibly insightful, and poignant commentary was one Mr. Kent English of Pass Labs. Kent, a thoughtfully Zen conversationalist, reminded me to chill, listen to the tunes, and be happy... like Bobby McFerrin.

Thanks Kent, you have no idea what you've done... But I like it, love it, yes I do.

(Get well soon, Mick.)

I'm Positive... It's been Seventeen Years!

On Thursday evening I had dinner with the PF brain-trust. It was wonderful to spend time with Positive Feedback founders, David Robinson, and Dave and Carol Clark. They allow me a long creative leash, and don't get too mad when I chew up their favorite socks. Also in attendance was PF Senior Editor, and What's Best Forum founder Myles Astor. Mix in a talented maker-of-beautiful-things, Christopher Hildebrand, owner of Fern & Roby/Tektonics Design Group, and it was a nice evening for conversation and a glass of fine Cabernet. Thank you bosses, for allowing me to write about this great hobby, and for not wincing too much when I write stuff like this.

The Oxford Comma

What the world needs now, are more commas, and love, sweet love. (Apologies to Ms. Warwick)

Friday morning, as I was plotting my first full day of AXPONA in the press room, I was joined again by PF's Editor-in-Chief, David Robinson (the PhD, not the Admiral), Managing Editors Dave and Carol Clark, plus John Atkinson (former Editor, now Technical Editor of Stereophile magazine), and two other nice fellows whose names are no longer filed in the gray-matter cabinet. These venerable editorial-minds began a vigorous discussion of comma use. All were in agreement that using the Oxford Comma was the grammatically correct way to write. As Mr. Atkinson explained, the root of his journalistic success came from his family, "I'd like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope. Without their help, I never would have become Editor of Stereophile."

(The quote above is a comma joke. I made it all up. His parents are not Mother Teresa, and the Pope. Or are they? Thanks JA for the set-up, and for your continuing service to the audiophile community. It was an honor to share the moment, and purloin your stand-up material. Cheers!)

Acts of Music

Unfortunately, I missed guitarist Seth Walker (HERE), and his jazzy brand of blues on Friday night (rumored to have been excellent). But I did make the Saturday night live gig. A quick, from the seat, estimate looked to be about 500 BIS (Butts In Seats): A full house...Live.

Shelby Lynne's appearance at AXPONA was a byproduct of the connection between Acoustic Sounds CEO Chad Kassem and the late Tony Joe White. (Kassem's Analogue Productions has re-pressed albums by both artists.) During Chad's introduction of Shelby Lynne—who has a rumored love of all things analog—Kassem quoted her as saying, "You can't roll a joint on an iPad." That's some funny stuff. Come to think of it, it's hard to find an original copy of Waiting for Columbus without a seed stuck somewhere inside the gatefold. Sometimes analog is just better.

Oh come on...Laugh a little...The thought police are off duty.

After a nicely played, and humorous set by New York based singer-songwriter Brian Dunne (HERE) , Shelby Lynne (HERE) dazzled with her genre-defying display of vocal power, and raw emotion. It was a superb performance. Oh, and a shout out to attendee Pete, who gave me his extra ticket after I stood in line for twenty minutes without realizing I needed one!

Thank you, Pete. Swell of you to do.

Within minutes of Shelby Lynne leaving the stage, I was sitting front row, one chair to the right of center, for another incredible performance. The Audio Company / Von Schweikert Audio/VAC room's late night celebration of all things 1970s rock n' roll, and Bosendorfer. Yes, you read that right...a piano.

Now something of a tradition, Positive Feedback Senior Assistant Editor, Greg Weaver (who also contributes to a couple other, less well known publications), was spinning some of his vast collection of vinyl from the classic rock era. The amazing audio system is, I believe, owned by Keith Sequerra of The Audio Company in Marietta, Georgia, and is doubtless one of the best in the world today. It gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Thank you, Keith, for sharing your wonderful system for yet another grand evening. A spin of an audiophile reissue of Traffic's 1971 album, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, was the most stupefyingly fantastic twelve minutes I've ever spent listening to recorded music. As a similarly aged boomer, I can relate to Greg Weaver's honest, infectious love for seventies rock music. I promised not to use Greg's self-declared trademark quantification of goodness, so let's just say it was freakin' awesome!

The Ted and Sharyl Show

Ted Smith: International man of mystery; and also the engineering mind behind PS Audio's digital line-up of DirectStream, DirectStream Junior, and very soon, the new Obsidian DAC. Ms. Sharyl (just don't call me Sheryl), is the architect (or more accurately, the seamstress) behind Ted's now famous sartorial swagger of colorful shirts. I spent a lovely few minutes talking to them separately trying to pry out trade secrets. But, since I can't code, or sew, and I don't really understand what either of them do, their secrets remain. That said, as a DSJ owner, and lover of tropically-themed menswear, I do have great appreciation for their respective talents!

Thar's Music in Them Halls!

A little audio, a dram of scotch whisky, and a slice of life...Talking with Roy Hall and Leland Leard at the Music Hall booth was a show highlight. Not only are these guys fun as hell to talk to, they also happen to rep / build damn fine turntables, electronics, and accessories; all at very accessible prices. Roy's a funny guy; he made me laugh so hard, I snorted Macallan...Twice. That loosened me up just enough to buy a turntable mat.

It's Roy Hall's evil plan.

A Music Hall MMF 3.3 in Walnut beckons in the Marketplace.

Don't Break the Joke

A reviewer walked into the Volti Audio room. Volti told the reviewer he'd sold a pair of speakers to [name here] from the reviewer's home town. The reviewer, scratching his head quizzically says, "I should know that guy, I've lived there all my life." Volti, a dry-wit Mainer, Tennessee transplant who slightly resembles Beethoven, replied in his slight nor'easter accent, "So, you are dead?"

I guess you had to be there.

Volti Audio/Border Patrol/Triode Wire Labs

More Vignettes of the Expo

I love it when I finally meet people that I've spoken to on the phone, emailed, or sent letters to via Pony Express, but have never met face-to-face. This year, that person was the grandpa to a beautiful transient astronomical event, PS Audio's marketer-extraordinaire, Bill Leebens. Cheers Bill!

I was constantly running into Justin from Martin Logan, in the elevator, in the lobby, in the hallway...It got to be kind of a joke that I was following him around. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to get those M/L 13A's into my vehicle…Dang it.

I'm bringing a van next year.

Mysterious Omni Spotted

I noticed this new to me omni speaker as I was entering the hotel on Thursday evening. I'm not sure of the brand. Perhaps someone can illuminate me?

So real, cars, and trucks sounded as if they were going to run me over. 

The Lunch Lobby

Good fortune sent me to the lobby at lunchtime on Sunday, where happenstance found good buddy Greg Weaver (all right, he also writes for TAS and ETM), and the famous Andrew Jones of ELAC, both choking down a quick Earl of BBQ between meetings. It was truly special to meet Andrew in the wild (no joke), and to hear a funny story about his purchase of a Volvo. Yep. We all had a good chuckle 'bout that one. It's true, he's as entertaining recounting buying a car, as when he's talking speaker design to a slack-jawed room of unsuspecting audio-nuts.

So there I was, sandwiched between fame and fortune...thanks for the 15 minutes you two.

I'm available for reviews, audio shows, and corporate events.

Call me.

Finally, The Show

Poking fun at it all, myself included, is what I do best; but AXPONA is about the serious business of fine audio. A trade show is like taking the pulse of an industry. We all know high-end audio is a tough biz, but from the sheer number of exhibitors and products I observed, it is doing better than just surviving, it is thriving. Or at least I hope it is.

My Bad: Please excuse me readers, I didn't even make it to one seminar this year (wishing I had), and I did not sit down to listen to headphones at all either. In fact, I barely walked through the Ear Gear Expo this year. It was a very busy place, with an incredible array of headphoning products available, so I suspect someone is going to report heavily on that part of the show.

Showing Change?

Diversity happens: This year, I saw more women, more millennials, and more kids at the show. In one room, I sat next to a dad with his two young girls, and they didn't even squirm...much. Good job, dad. When kids grow up with music in the house they usually end up loving it too. The girls told me they were tired of the same old stale show favorites being played. Kids wanna hear deep cuts...Just like me. That acknowledged, I dove headfirst into the Avantgarde room from the corridor just to hear the same old staleness of "Whole Lotta Love." (Adults only!) It woke my sorry dead arse right up!

On Avant Garde!

Streaming buz?

There was a definite Qobuz in the building this year. They are rolling out their hi-res streaming services in North America right now, so Qobuz had multiple show and tell demonstrations in different rooms. 

Room-inating on New Products

PS Audio introduced their new prototype AN3 loudspeaker (in memory of Arnie Nudell, founder of Infinity Systems) to the world. It was getting serious current and signal from a host of top-flight PS Audio BHK gear. I think they have my address... On static display, was Ted Smith's new dual chassis (one digital, one analog) Obsidian DAC prototype. I want mine with a custom Sharyl Smith dust cover! (You just think that's a silly idea.)

PS Audio is also adding to their Stellar line of affordable audio gear with the addition of an all discrete phono stage, and the P3 PowerPlant regenerator. PS Audio's Darren Myers has been working overtime! I am hoping to get my hands on one of these lovely $2k or so phono stages when it is released. Darren's broad smile as he showed me the circuit board said it all.

Black Ice Audio (formerly Jolida), continues to develop a complete new line of tube-based electronics. Black Ice has partnered with Jim Fosgate to update his designs into modern products. This includes cool, sexy stuff, like equalizer control, soundstage expanders, crosstalk reduction, and such that older audiophiles will remember with fondness. Ranging in price from $1399 to $2499, these are neat products at affordable prices.

Jeff Joseph was showing his new Perspective 2 Graphene floorstanders. Small, beautiful, and sounding very good with Jeff Rowland Design. The speakers are a very reasonable $14,999 for the pair. Perfectly sized for my room. Uh.

Vinnie Rossi was showing his terrific electronics with a new, and unique hybrid OB prototype loudspeaker named Stiletto. It sounded very Vinnie-like…smooth. Smiley Face. Expected pricing for the speaker when in production is around $20k.

What'd I Like?

There is promise, and peril in an audio show, but there were lots of rooms I thought sounded good. Being a reporter who originally made the decision not to report, the following, a spartan smattering of rooms that caught my ear, is all I got. Uh oh.

If I missed your room, it's not because I don't like you…It's because I missed your room.

Cue the cute-as-hell Kitty vids.

No reason to sell the Harley, Buy the Big V.

I was fortunate enough to spend a few minutes with Mr. Wendell Diller of Magnepan, listening to the fantastic new LRS speakers. This is probably not fair to the LRS, but they are like MMGs on steroids. I think they could be a gateway product too. Once heard, you're hooked. The LRS was driven by a prototype 300 watt Class AB Magnepan amplifier. The combo sounded spectacular. $650 bucks? Seriously? Wow. If they are really as good as I thought in 15 minutes of listening, they are one hell of a bargain. An "entry-level" speaker that could be your last.

Magnepan LRS and Magnepan prototype amplifier

For another incredible value play... both ELAC rooms were simply outstanding. Room 344 featured Carina B-234.4 stand mount speakers ($1199.98 pair, add $399.98 for LS-30 stands). The whole system (less cabling) was sub $6K. In room 342 were the Navis ARF-51 floorstanding speakers ($3990.96 pair). The system complete with digital DAC/streamer (less cabling) was sub $8K. ELAC is a affordable for almost everyone, sized for normal spaces, has terrific electronics, and great sound. Nothing else to say, except, buy the Volvo with all the bells and whistles, and let Andrew Jones, and Peter Madnick drive.

A filtered Peter Madnick, the Alchemist of ELAC!

My Relatives are Not Bargains

A relative bargain? Even though they are in the range of $10K, I really like the VSA Endeavor E3 Mk.II loudspeakers. 

The rear end of an Endeavor E3 Mk II.

In Room 670, Benchmark Media Systems and Martin Logan were showing that you can build a full-tilt electrostatic system for a very reasonable price. Start with ML Impression 11A ($9995) speakers. Add a Benchmark DAC3 ($1695), and a Benchmark LA4 Line Amp ($2495) driving two Benchmark AHB2 ($2995 each) amps in monoblock configuration. Wire up with bang for the buck Benchmark cables, and you have a serious stereo without breaking the bank.

Benchmark/Martin Logan Room

Ryan Loudspeakers were showing their S610 Stand mount speakers ($3995/pair), this year with Vincent Audio, Auralic, Cardas, and Pangea. Very nice sound. The Pangea audio rack looked really nice, and is an outstanding value at $199. The Vincent Hybrid amp, and preamp are a few bucks less than $3K for the tandem.

Ryan Loudspeakers Room

In addition to the expensive stuff, Raven Audio was showing some nice affordable gear. Playing when I was in the room was the $3K Nighthawk MK 3, a 20 watt per channel, push-pull amp using the 6L6GC power tube. It was driving the Corvus System ($14,999), a two-part speaker consisting of a large monitor sitting atop an active powered bass section with DSP. Also on display were the smaller CeLest' ($4999) floorstanders. Very nice gear. Very nice sound. I'm really glad I stopped in this room. I clearly need to investigate further.

Raven Audio Room

Sink the Boat, Buy the Mid-Line

Rutherford Audio/Gold Note. I thought the sound in this room was splendid. The Gold Note turntable, integrated, and phono stage with optional power supply sounded positively fantastico driving the Wilson Sabrinas. While I seem to have misplaced room pricing sheet, I do know Gold Note gear is not super-crazy expensive, and presents a great value. Did I say I have a new thing for the Sabrinas? Gold Note and Wilson: Love, Italian style.

Love that Gold Note and Wilson Sabrina!

Muraudio was showing their very cool, new to me, hybrid electrostatic / dynamic dipole loudspeaker, the SP-1 ($15,000). Driven by the terrific Hegel H360 Integrated, the sound was different, and intriguing. I'd love to hear them in my home.

[My picture sucked. Pretend you are looking at some very cool, stand mounted electrostatic speakers with a couple dynamic drivers on the top and bottom!]

The Stereo Haven room featured a Well-Tempered turntable with Dynavector cartridge, Leben 600 integrated amp and separate phono stage, and Auditorium step-up transformer, driving DeVore Orangutan 0/93 loudspeakers. Cables were Auditorium ICs and Riviera power cables. All sitting on a Box Furniture Rack. It sounded positively lovely. Total system price? Somewhere around a new high-end bass boat, plus or minus a fishing pole or two.

Pack it up. Put it in the Honda CR-V, third row, west lot. Done.

DeVore 0/93, Leben, and Well-Tempered

Fern & Roby Audio / Linear Tube Audio / Modwright / Soundsmith / Black Cat Cables: Having been a single driver speaker enthusiast at one point in my life, I like the point-source simplicity and mid-century vibe of the Ravens speakers ($9500). Fern & Roby's gorgeous Tredegar turntable with Schroder Reference Tonearm ($21,500) fitted with Soundsmith Zephyr cartridge ($1999) is steely sweet driving the Modwright phono preamp ($2900). This was another good sounding room using Linear Tube Audio gear: This time the MZ3 preamp ($3700) and ZOTL40 amp ($6800).

Fern & Roby steel turntable: He's not heavy, he's my analog...

Ditch the Lux Motorcoach, Buy The Top Line

And for something completely different...Not: Constellation Audio was once again showing with Martin Logan, only this year it was the smaller Expression 13A testing the clarity of the Inspiration series components. The analog system sounded smooth, detailed, big, and lovely. I had to be escorted off the grounds. (I just couldn't fit those dang panels in my CR-V, but the Constellation Inspiration Integrated may make an appearance someday soon…) The room consisted of the following:

  • Continuum Audio Labs Obsidian turntable ($35,000) w/Viper tonearm ($10,000) and Ortofon A-95 cartridge ($6000)
  • Auralic Aries G-2 Transporter: $3999 / Auralic Vega G-2 DAC: $5999
  • Constellation Audio Andromeda Phono Stage (18,000) w/DC Filter ($5000)
  • Constellation Audio Inspiration Preamp 1.0 Preamp: ($9900)
  • Constellation Audio Inspiration Stereo 1.0 amplifier: ($11,000) 200wpc.
  • MartinLogan Expression 13A: $15,000
  • Cardas Cabling

The Constellation in Black and White

Daedalus Loudspeakers were showing in two rooms. Both were very good, but I have to say, I really liked the upper floor room 546, with its smooth, extended, and dynamic sound. I expect to be reviewing Lou Hinkley's new Muse Studio very soon! The room featured the Daedalus Apollo Loudspeakers (starting at $18,500), Linear Tube Audio microZOTL Preamplifier ($4450), Linear Tube Audio Ultralinear Amplifier ($6800), Lampizator Golden Atlantic 2 DAC ($9995) and Super Komputer Server ($8000). All wired up with WyWires interconnects, power cords, AC Distribution. ($999-4495).

Daedalus Audio Room 546

I loved everything about the Musical Artisans / Nagra / Kharma / Organic Reference room. Those itty bitty Kharma Elegance S7 Loudspeakers ($18K) sounded huge. This gear would fit fabulously well in a smaller listening room, uh, like mine...Price? If ya' have to ask...Yes, this room was very expensive, but there's no law against dreaming, right?

Kharma Elegance

Cost no object? 

Oh hell. Pick one. Pack it. Move it. Unpack it in my new, much larger house. I'll be glad to share it with you. Well Pie in the Sky Damn...I really can't...But should you be able, I'm thrilled for you. Just remember to be generous. Listening to music on these types of systems should not be a solitary experience. I'll be waiting for my invite with records at the ready. I guess the one below will do...

The VSA Ultra 9 and little 'ol VAC Integrated

Sincere Thanks!

To all the exhibitors!

To Liz Miller, and the JD Events crew.

To Verdant Audio for press support, and trying to play my own music on their nicely balanced stand mounts, powered by the beautiful Art Audio Carissa amps. I enjoyed it, men.

To Snake River Audio: For good, affordable sound, sponsorship of the live shows, the crazy slide show, and finally, for finding Five Finger Death Punch singing Bad Company just when I needed it most; at 10 am on Sunday. Bam! Right in the kisser!

To all the event sponsors: Without you, I'm mowing the lawn for the first time in 2019.

To the stairwells. You are my friends.

To the public restrooms on each floor. You are also my friends.

No Thanks…

To the 3" of snow which blanketed my car on Sunday. Go scrape yourself.

To the stairwells. You are the bane of my existence, and the reason my legs are still sore.

Thank you

If you attended AXPONA.

If you gave someone a ticket, opened a door for another, said a kind word, or didn't laugh when I caught my heel, ending up—after some crazy dance moves—sitting in a listening chair as if I planned it. I didn't even break anything.

For reading my articles on Positive Feedback.

It's Closing Time…

Well now. I haven't written an absurd column like this in a long while. It was fun. I hope you realize much of it is intended as humor. I hope you can discern which is facetiousness, and which is not. And I hope you laughed, at least a little.

I hope I am not on your blacklist now. See you next year!

Over and out.

All amateurish, crappy, cropped, bumped, bruised, and filtered images by Gary L Beard (A new camera is on the Xmas list...)