AXPONA 2014


 

 

The 2014 AXPONA show took place April 25th thru 27that the Westin Hotel near O’Hare Airport in Chicago. I had been anxiously awaiting this year’s show after the success of last year’s first high-end show in my hometown in more than a decade. This year’s show which is now under the management of Connecticut-based JD Events felt a lot more streamlined than last year’s show and was fairly easy navigate. That’s not to say that there weren’t a few miscues along the way. Starting with merely arriving at the hotel and being faced with having to pay for parking. To their credit JD Events did arrange for $5 discount tickets for show attendees (regular parking costs $24). But needless to say, this was a rather auspicious starts for a show at a new venue.

 

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Things also got off to a bit of a funky start sonically as I struggled to find any rooms that sounded even remotely comparable to the quality of sound that I am getting from my current reference system.Usually after coming home from CES/T.H.E. Show I feel a bit let down after being exposed to such great gear. But then I had to remind myself that attending a high-end show can be a lot like listening to a brand new piece of tubed gear. It simply takes a while for things to warm up and start sounding their best. This can be particularly true of systems that feature… tubed gear. For instance, when I visited the Essential Audio room which featured the gargantuan
Sound Lab Majestic 845 loudspeakers ($35,840/pr), Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk.III.2 preamplifier ($16,940) and MA-2 Mk III.2 output transformer-less amplifiers ($41,600/pr) the only thing I could think was: “How can such a massive and expensive system sound so compressed?” The music seemed to be forced into the space between the speakers when the soundstage was obviously wider than that. This was about the fifth room that I’d had that type of reaction to and I was about to make it my last. I was actually headed toward the parking lot to get in my car and head home, feeling that the sound of the rooms in general just weren’t going to be good that day, when I saw my brother and fellow audio writer Mike Wright entering the building. I told him about what I had been hearing and my dismay at hearing such ridiculously expensive systems sound so mediocre. But like a good big brother he told me that if I’d been listening to nothing but tubed gear systems then there was a good chance that they simply weren’t quite warmed up yet and not quite sounding their best. So I swore off tube systems the rest of that day and focused on solid-state gear based systems to see if things were any better.




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Things definitely improved when I came across that Polymer Audio Research/FM Acoustics room. Polymer Audio is a relative newcomer to the American high-end audio scene, but if the debut of their
MKS-X loudspeakers ($60,000/pr) is any indication of what’s to come from this company they will quickly establish themselves as one of the elites.These speakers are flat out loaded with high-end goodies such as silver internal wiring and a pure diamond tweeter and midrange. But the most significant technology used is their totally inert cabinet that is made from a solid billet of “not aluminum” but a combination of metal alloys. It’s an 86 dB, 4-way design that is military industrial grade gorgeous that seems to dare you to feed it with power. And feed it with power they did via the ultra-gorgeous FM Acoustics electronics. This system was driven by the FM Acoustics Resolution Series 115 mono blocks ($130,000/pr) and Resolution Series 245 preamplifier. Also in the system were the Weiss Man 301 Music Archive Network Player ($9,000) and Thrax Audio Maximum 32/384 DAC ($33,000). Cabling was from FM Acoustics and EnKlein Systems. This may have been one of the most impressive sounding systems I’ve ever heard at any show. The soundstage appeared far larger than the boundaries of the room and the instruments had weight and realism. Imaging was spectacular and what this system did for live recordings had to be heard to be believed. Not only did hearing this system put me back into a good frame of mind for the rest of the show, but it was without doubt, the best sound I heard all weekend.


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The good vibes continued when I next stopped at the Tidal/Bricasti Design room where I was struck by the lovely Tidal
Piano Cera loudspeakers ($23,000/pr) and the new Bricasti Design M28 mono amplifiers ($30,000/pr). The Piano Cera is a 2.5-way floorstanding speakerthat features a 1.2” graphite ceramic tweeter and two 7” ceramic woofers. The cabinets are made of 1.5” MDF with tongue-n-groove construction and have a gorgeous high-gloss lacquer finish. The sound was superb. Doug White, the Philly-based owner of a Tidal dealership called The Voice That Is tried to tempt me with a pair of these speakers but I held fast hoping to maybe get a pair in for review later in the year. I also heard a wonderful piece of music in this room that I immediately went out and bought. It was called “Rose Pedals” from Lee Ritenour’s CD Rhythm Sessions [Concord]. Believe me, the way this system rendered this recording, you would have run out and bought it too… the recording that is.

 
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Another notable room was from Merrill Audio, Sadurni Acoustics and International Phonograph. This room featured a pair of big, beautiful, and very-very red horn loudspeakers called the Staccato Horn System by Sadurni Acoustics ($40,000/pr). They were being driven by two pairs of the new Veritas mono amps from Merrill Audio ($12,000/pr) and the Divinitive XR preamp from Miracle Audio. The source was a Sony APR 5002 Reel-to-Reel tape deck and a Meitmer MA-1 DAC ($7,500). Cabling was also from Merrill Audio. Jonathan Horwich of International Phonograph had one of my favorite rooms at last year’s show with a system anchored by a reel-to-reel front-end and has done the same again this year. The Merrill amps drove the horns famously and rendered a wonderfully three-dimensional soundstage.

 

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One room that I kept coming back to was also one of the biggest setups. Musical Surroundings and Quintessence Audio had a few nice sounding rooms but the one that featured the breathtaking Sonus Faber Aida loudspeakers ($120,000/pr) being bi-amped by two pairs of the Audio Research DSM 450 ($24,000/pr) Class D solid-state mono amps. The six-driver, three-and-a-halfway Aida easily filled the spacious hotel room with glorious music. The system also featured ARC’s Reference CD9 CD player ($13,000), Reference 5SElinestage ($13,000) and Reference 2SEphonostage ($13,000) and the gorgeous AMG Viella 12 turntable/tonearm combo ($16,500) with Benz Micro SLR Gullwing cartridge ($3,000). The racks were from Harmonic Resolution and cabling was KubalaSosna. Two words best describe this spectacular system: musical and authoritative.

 
 
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I almost missed another great sounding room when I accidentally came across the Venture Audio room as I was leaving the show near the end of the day Friday. Venture showed of theirVicifloorstanding tower loudspeakers and AW500 subwoofer system ($36,000 for the system). This was an interesting demo in that the rather slender Vici speakers hardly look big enough to fill the rather large room they were set up in but with the AW500 sub, they filled the room and then some.The system no doubt was given a boost from being driven by Venture’s own V200A+ MOSFET, Class-A, 200-watt mono amps ($125,000/pr) and VP100L preamp ($35,100). The source was the Weiss Engineering Medus DAC and Jason Transport. Cabling was Venture Grand Diamond cables.

 

Saturday was a revelation. To begin with, traffic in the hallways and listening rooms was a lot heavier than the day before. The vibe was definitely a little more electric and made the whole day more exciting. Also, not only did most of the systems sound better but some of the tube-based systems were downright mind-blowing. I guess big brother was right. Let me start with going back to the Essential Audio room which had almost pushed me over the edge with disappointment on Friday now sounded the way I expected it to: huge, natural and lifelike. To go along with the giant Sound Lab speakers and Atma-Sphere electronics that I mentioned earlier were two fabulous front-ends: the Aurender W20 music server ($16,800) feeding a Bricasti M1 DAC ($8995), and a Kuzma Stabi XL turntable ($32,280). Teo Audio equipment racks and cables and cables from Clarity Cable and Creative Cable Concepts were also used. A wonderful live jazz recording was being played but sadly I forgot to write the name of the recording down. But the music was lively and of a realistic scale with dynamics and an astonishing level of inner detail. This room went from disappointing on Friday morning to one of the “best sounds” at the show in just 24 hours. Thus is the nature of hi-fi shows.

 

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Another of the “best” rooms was
the Acoustic Zen and Triode Corporation room. It featured a pair of the latest Mk II version of the Crescendo loudspeakers ($18,000/pr) which sported a gorgeous glossy finish and beefed up internal bracing. The electronics were the Triode Corporation’s stunning yet massive TRX-M845SE 50-watt mono amps ($22,500/pr), TRX-2 preamplifier ($5000), TRX-DAC 1.0 ($2500), and TRV-CD5SE ($3200). Cabling was of course from Acoustic Zen. This was one of those rare setups where you have a tube system that sounds closer to solid-state. The soundstage was dynamic, detailed, and had sharply defined instrument and vocal placement. But that’s not to say that the music didn’t still possess the sonic goodies you expect from tubes: warmth, airiness around horns and vocals and lifelike recording venue ambience.


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Holm Audio was one of the many rooms that demoed a system fronted by the highly popular Sony HAP-Z1ES music server ($1,999). Combined with the excellent Rogue Audio Pharaoh integrated amp ($3,495) and Dali Epicon 6 loudspeakers ($13,995/pr) this was probably the least expensive system to make my personal “best at show” list. This was a wonderfully musical system, ideal for a moderately sized room. The system was connected with Nordost Frey 2 and Heimdall 2 cables.


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Midwest Audio of South Bend, Indiana provided a really nice sounding system featuring the gorgeous Legacy Audio Aeris loudspeakers ($20,735/pr) and nicely built electronics from NAT Audio, namely the Transmitter SET 120-watt Class-A mono amps ($23,000/pr), Symmentrical preamp ($10,000) and Signature phonostage ($10,000). But what really got my attention was the Triangle Art Signature SE turntable ($15,990) with Osiris tonearm ($5,800) and Zeus MC cartridge ($3,995). This was one of the finest analog setups I heard all weekend. The Triangle Art table is something to see. It’s a massive glistening work of audio art and sounds as good as it looks. It’s a synergistic match with the NAT tube gear and renders a warm, natural and well defined presentation.

 

 
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It’s always fun to take a timeout to go and dig through all the bins of vinyl and CDs and to see all the latest tweaks and accessories. The Audiophile Marketplace was buzzing with activity all three days of the show and that’s where I once again found my good friend Arnold Martinez of Tweak Studio wheeling and dealing. On top of being a top-notch turntable setup man he is also a connoisseur of fine headphones.

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And speaking of headphones, new at this year’s show was the Ear Gear Expo. An entire room was dedicated nothing but headphones and headphone related products. The growth of headphones in not just the high-end arena but in the consumer marketplace at large has but meteoric. The level of sophistication in headphone design and execution has been mind-blowing. The Ear Gear Expo caters to MP3 player carrying newbie as well as the well-heeled audiophile. I was admittedly slow to get into the whole headphone thing until last year when I purchased a pair of B&W P5s. But after seeing how personal audio has grown, I’ve got my eyes on the Astell& Kern AK120 portable music player ($1,299) and Sennheiser HD700 headphones.

As with most other hi-fi shows I’ve attended, Sunday was decidedly more subdued but still quite active with journalists like me scrambling to get to all of those rooms that had been missed. This is also the day when exhibitors start making deals to unload some of the gear that they heavily discount later in the day.

I kept my credit cards in my wallet and made sure that I focused on rooms that had been too busy to get into the day before. Good thing too or I might have missed some really great rooms like the Artisan Fidelity and Audio Note rooms.

 

Artisan Fidelity is known for its elaborate restorations of turntables from companies such as Technics, Lenco, and Garrard. I won’t say much about the tables that were on display because it wouldn’t begin to do justice to the true beauty of these turntables. A restored LencoAchates “Wraith” turntable with Kuzma 4 Point arm and Van Den Hul Colibri cartridge tonearm fronted a system that featured the David Berning Pre One and ZH-230 amp driving the lovely LaHave Audio Avaza loudspeakers. Sound Design Labs provided the cabling and the Joule Case Reference AE power line conditioner.

 

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Audio Note never has a demo that wows you aesthetically, but musically, there’s not much better. Compared to some of their other megabuck offerings their demo this year was rather scaled back but still extremely enjoyable. The system featured the J/D loudspeakers ($3,700/pr, w/Hemp woofers add $325, stands $640/pr) being driven by a P2 SE Signature stereo amplifier ($6,000). The analog front-end was a TT Two Deluxe turntable ($3,525) with Arm Three V2 tonearm ($2,000) and IQ3 cartridge ($980) feeding a OTO SE Phono Signature phonostage ($6,325). The digital source was a CDT Three/II ($11,775) and DAC 3.1x/II ($9,900). I was really intrigued by what I heard from this vinyl rig and plan to chase one down for review this year.


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The last room I want to mention in this report is another room offered by Musical Surroundings and Quintessence Audio. It featured the Magico S3 loudspeakers ($22,600/pr) being driven by the excellent Pass Labs XA100.5 mono amps ($16,500/pr) and XP30 linestage ($16,500). Digital music duties were handled by the Aesthetix Romulus CD Player and vinyl was played by a Clearaudio Ovation turntable ($5,350) with AMG 9W2 tonearm and Teatro cartridge ($2,000). Cabling was KubalaSosna’s Emotion system cables. This was one of the last rooms that I visited on the weekend and was a great way to end the show. The music coming out of the Magico speakers was… well… magical. Despite their modest stature (they’re towers but not towering) they fill a room without any hint of strain. That’s exactly what you want to hear on the last day of a show.

 

So that’s it for AXPONA 2014. The bad news was that none of my ST colleagues could make the trip this year (or last for that matter) so I simply could not report on every room that I saw and liked and there were many such as Lawrence Audio, Musical Artisans, Pro Musica, Blue Circle and Tyler Acoustics and many, many more. But the good news is that it has already been announced that AXPONA will be back in Chicago in 2015, April 24-26. So hopefully I’ll have a chance to do better next year. Happy listening.


 

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