AXPONA 2017: Clement Perry
Chicago, May 2017
For the record, I had no intentions of attending this year's AXPONA. The reason is because it's just too close to the Munich High End show which always takes up all my energy during the month of May. However, after finding out a few close friends were also attending, and that brothers Dave Thomas and Mike Wright also live in Chicago, I simply couldn't help surprising them.
I'm the one who got surprised!
Based solely on the size of previous AXPONA shows (based on my last recollection), this should be easy to waltz through in a day. OR SO I THOUGHT. This year's show was an absolute shocker for me since it's my first time back in the Windy City in over a decade. I had no idea AXPONA had grown so enormously. The sheer number of rooms and overall magnitude had me overwhelmed considering I came only for a day. This show's expansiveness makes the Denver Audiofest, my favorite US audio trade show, look like a walk through the park. I know the Windy City is a hustle and bustle town rich in its history and home to great sport legends, but I had no idea that the world of high-end audio had decided to name Chicago AXPONA home sweet home.
If memory serves me correctly, I do remember the AXPONA NYC in the spring of 2011 in Manhattan. Thought that was a decent show. Why they never returned and hit paydirt in the Windy City is a mystery to me (especially being NYC native). I just thank God for Bill Wells who also attended previous AXPONA events and knew what to expect. I did not. His show coverage is as insightful as it is informative. It is good enough on its own. However, due to the size of this event, I just had to include some of the interesting rooms he missed out on and that I thought were both inviting and presented outstanding sonics.
Fortunately, I did have my big and heavy Canon camera and sort of walked the show haphazardly (12th floor one moment, basement the next) - going wherever my instincts, unusual looking products and familiar faces led me...
The first person I saw outside of the hotel having a stogie was Acoustic Zen designer Robert Lee. Later I caught up with him in his suite posing proudly besides the marvelous sounding Crescendo 3-way loudspeaker. Lee is a great guy who just so happens to make a great loudspeaker.
Frank Doris of Frank Doris Public Relations (top photo), is most certainly a familiar face. He was proud to show off the newest high-performance headphones, turntables and electronics from the affordable brand Audio Technica. What caught my attention was the ATH-DSR9BT ($599.00) and ATH-DSR7BT ($299.00) Bluetooth equipped headphones. Audio Technica's new AT-LP3 Direct Drive Turntable ($279.00), serves as a easy choice among budget-minded audiophiles. It combines outstanding sound with elegant design and advanced features. The AT-LP3 comes standard with an Audio-Technica's AT91R Dual MM cartridge and features a built-in switchable moving magnet/moving coil phono preamp. It's available in black or white to complement any audio system and home décor.
Was pleasantly surprised to see Wynn Audio now handling the US/Canada importation of Karan Acoustics electronics that featured the Karan Acoustics L Ref Preamp ($17,000) and Karan Acoustics S 600 stereo amplifier (Pure Class A Sliding Bias, 600W/8 Ohms, $30,000). Our own Key Kim called those products his reference for over a decade and never saw a loudspeaker they didn't make sing. Glad to see them here at AXPONA being showcased alongside the rare and beautiful Goldmund Eidos 36U+ CD Player ($32,000), and Penaudio Serenade Signature ($12,000). Ancillary equipment included ZenSati Seraphim cabling and a quite impressively built Critical Mass Systems Olympus isolation platform (the latest model/top of the line, first time showing in North America, price TBA).
Look who I ran into on my way to audio nirvana...
(L to R) Jack Bybee (left), big Jeff Wells of Wells Audio and Bybee's nephew Marc Stambuch (who's helping Bybee through all his business now that he's fastly approaching 88 years of age). Bybee, a retired physicist, is the consumate tweaker who still has a million ideas up his sleeves on how to enhance one's audio system. Trust me, I'm quite grateful of late after hearing and experimenting with his Active Room Neutralizers (reviewed here).
Bybee's latest invention, called Internal Quantum Signal Enhancers or iQSE's, is a totally passive device and I personally believe is his greatest invention thus far. My reason is simple: it's only $150.00! The Bybee iQSE is small (4" w x 2" d x 1/2" h), and designed to be installed inside an audio component via double-sided tape. Having it as close as possible to your component's internal circuitry helps reduce unwanted energy fields which negatively impact the signal. Because there is no soldering or any type of electrical connection required A/B'ing the iQSE's is a cinch. The results proved staggering after placing a pair inside the Laufer Teknik Memory Player and one inside each of my Behold BPA-768 amplifiers. Its an overall balanced improvement across the board but, in my humble opinion, the improvements on piano and the human voice is substantial. The sound (especially that plinkety effect from the piano), is more resonant: has more fundamentals. High frequencies boast greater expression and appear clearer, airier and more articulate. Bass, believe it or not, is more taut and thus quicker and less rubbery sounding. As of right now, Bybee is selling out before he can make them. The reason is obvious: they're affordable and what they do for the money is really quite remarkable.
I visited Chicago native and long-time friend Ezra Hartsfield on Saturday night and surprised him with 16 iQSE's I purchased from Bybee (four for myself and the rest for other tweakers here at ST). For the record, Ezra is not a tweaker and has no tweaks whatsover in his expansive and nicely laid out listening room. After experimenting and installing about 8 iQSE's in his system, I had to put up a fight to retrieve them! Ezra went bananas over the improvements with them installed on the outside of his components: to avoid being too intrusive, they were placed atop his Laufer Teknik Memory Player, DAC and on the terminals of his Sonus Faber Lilium loudspeaker. I was informed that Ezra's son installed four iQSE's: two in his DAC and a pair inside the Memory Player. Ezra too is convinced that these are the real deal. Consider this as only a tease as many reviews are coming your way...so please stay tuned (or better yet, order you a pair with a 30 day money back guarantee from the Tweekgeek).
The SALK suite always produces a sound that belies their look, build quality and asking price. This year, Jim Salk featured both his SALK Exotica 3 (left $12,995/pr), the affordable Song3 Encore loudspeakers ($3,895/pr) and his Gen III SALK StreamPlayer ($1695.00). Both loudspeakers were driven by the fabulous-sounding Wells Audio Inamorata Signature stereo amplifier ($15k reviewed here). Jim Salk used all Danacables throughout the system in addition to Gingko Audio products (also reviewed here). Bybee AC conditioning was also responsible for the fabulous resolution and exquisite three-dimensionality that was evident through a variety of musical genre.
Distinctive Stereo owner Larry Borden (yes, that Larry Borden), showed up in grand style at this year's AXPONA. Handling all U.S. sales on German Physiks, which includes the awe-inspiring Borderland Mk IV ($36,500). Merrill Audio's Veritas mono amps ($12k), Christine pre ($12,400) and Jens phono stage ($15,500) complimented a nice front end that featured the VPI Reference Avenger turntable with JMW 12" arm and Lyra Delcos cartridge ($26,500). I've always been a fan of German Physiks and here again was a perfect example as to why: the sound is open, you can sit anywhere in the room and get the same focus as you would in the sweet spot. The low-end is rich, quick and goes deep only when needed.
Quintessence Audio, another Chicago-based high-end retailer and Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings pulled out the big guns at this year's AXPONA. Featuring Pass Labs, Audio Research, Clearaudio and, a big surprise for me, was to see and hear the all-new Sonus Faber 3.5-way Cremonese and Lilium loudspeakers. Always fascinated by this gorgeously designed Italian transducer I couldn't get a full grasp on it due to all the traffic. However, I did get a chance to visit my good friend Ezra later that evening to hear his pair of Sonus Faber Lilium loudspeakers and came away convinced they are quite well-made and have all the finesse needed to make them qualify as special.
It was nice running into Peder Baeckman of AVM Audio on this side of the Atlantic for a change. I usually see him at the Munich High-End show each May. AVM is a German brand of high-end electronics that, both Greg Voth and I recently discovered, really, really sounds good. We've some of AVM gear in for review and were surprised that they performed above what we expected and we expected quite a bit. Super smooth, yet detailed and non-fatiguing. On display above was the AVM CS8.2 Ultimate All in One reciever ($12,995), AVM MA3.2S Mono Blocks ($5500.00), AVM SD3.2 Streaming Preamp ($4495.00), AVM MP3.2 Streaming Media Player ($4795.00), and AVM SA8.2 Stereo Amplifier $14,995 (in the front). All spent equal time driving a pair of ATC 40 passive monitors with grace, ease and an overall quality that belies its asking price. No, AVM isn't cheap, but the good news is: it performs above, way above its asking price.
The lovely Emerald Physics loudspeakers sets a very high-bar for sound quality per dollar says Dave Thomas and Greg Voth (read their reviews here). And it's always good to see them in a trade show considering how affordable they are and how good they sound. However, the newly released EQUI=CORE Balanced AC Power Source takes the EP's sonics even further. Not a "Conditioner" per say, EQUI=CORE's topology takes incoming 120 volts and converts it into 2 x 60 volt "legs" OUT OF PHASE to one another and thereby eliminating all of the Common Mode Noise. In the average system this can translate to from 12 to 15 dB better Signal To Noise. I'll simply state this as Good Science. A well-designed Balanced AC is FOUNDATIONAL to a great system - it simply works. I've one in my office system composed of the sweet sounding Cherry Maraschino amplifier, matching DAC, KEF monitors, King Sound electrostatic headphones (H03) and headphone amp. The sound of my headphones has never sounded this detailed and elegant sounding while also weightier and more dense. I'm a believer and couldn't recommend the EQUI=CORE any higher and like the Emerald Physics, it's affordability (starting at $799.00), makes it a no brainer.
Chicago-based high-end importer Arnold Martinez, owner of Tweak Studio, put on quite a nice sonic treat for visitors. An entire Burmester system was on display that included their model 077 Preamplifier ($69,000), 911 Mk III Monoblocks ($35,000 ea), Musiccenter ($55,000), model 089 CD Player ($35,000) and model 948 AC power conditioner ($10,000) were on display. Analogue was by way of a Thorens TD550 Turntable ($12,500), Acoustical Systems Aquiler tone arm ($9,500) and Acoustical Systems Archon Cartridge ($3,295). All cabling used were by MIT Oracle series: MA-X XLR interconnect ($12,999), Oracle MA-X Rev2 XLR interconnect ($17,999), Oracle MA-X SHD XLR interconnect ($21,999), Oracle Reference power cable ($1,399) and Oracle Matrix Super HD 120.2 Speaker Cable ($29,999). The excellent YG Acoustics' Carmel floorstanders ($24,300), were used - seemingly throughout the show! STILLPOINTS' Aperture panels and Aperture Stands ($10,784) and (ESS 42-40-3 Rack $29,950) were also used in this exotic setup. I imagine Martinez didn't have too far to travel to get this rig warmed up and ready to go because the sound was ever-so clean, inviting and airy while those Carmel's simply morphed into the walls and disappeared. Impressive setup.
Another room that instantly caught my attention was the MSB suite. Their Platinum 3-tier DAC and transport make for a long argument in choosing analogue over digital. I wouldn't be afraid of throwing in their amplifiers either as they just might be a sleeper. Heard an earlier model in a friends home and thought these were among the best amplifiers to have ever graced his listening space: fast, clean and weighty but nimble. Yes, they were quite impressive!
I've always admired how Magico sets up their rooms at trade shows. Notice, there's no equipment between the loudspeakers? Helps create a much better sonic effect especially for show-goers who are hearing them for the first time. The first thing I notice when I sat and listened here was the space seemed bigger, further in each direction, while possessing more air. My imagination running wild? Could be, but this art form is about creating the right illusion too. Magico makes a great loudspeaker, but has an added advantage based on their room setup.
Ted Denney, president of Synergistic Research put on a eye and ear-popping demonstration that featured his new top-of-the-line PowerCell 12 UEF SE.
Ted Denny, CEO of Synergistic Research was kind enough to personally conduct an A/B demostration that consisted of turning off/on SR Tranquility Bases, SR Atmosphere XL, changing broadcast scenes on the SR Atmosphere XL. Lastly, his A/B of the SR Black Boxes by physically removing them from the room really impressed me. All in all, it was impressive, easy to distinguish and very impressive. Hoping to get my hands on a pair this summer for review. Stay tuned!
Was also surprised to see Rick Schultz, chief designer behind High Fidelity Cables here at AXPONA. Schultz has found a unique way to manipulate the electric current and has put on many fascinating demonstrations to prove why his cables not just work, but do so in a manner that others cannot claim. I love sitting in on his demos because they are quite interesting. So much so, I requested to try out some of his products. Will let you know the results in the coming months.