2013 AXPONA: “The Best Rooms”
The Blues Brothers would put it this way:
“Come on, baby don't you want to go
Back to that same old place
Sweet home Chicago!”
WWE Wrestler and movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would put it this way:
“Finally, the high-end has come BACK to Chi-ca-gooooo!”
Stereo Times editor Dave Thomas would put it this way:
“Man it feels good to just roll out of bed shower, shave and scarf down a bowl of Cheerios before heading up the road to a high-end audio show again.”
Okay, so maybe that third line doesn’t exactly raise the roof the way that the first two do, but for me, for three days during the remnants of chilly Chicago winter, it worked just fine.
When it was first announced that Audio Expo North America (a.k.a. AXPONA) was coming to my hometown of Chicago, I had two immediate thoughts. The first thought was, “Wow! This will be the first show in Chicago since the Stereophile Show 14 years ago.” My second thought was, “March? It’ll still be winter in March.” My second thought turned out to be very prophetic as Chicago experienced its heaviest snowfall of the year just three days before the start of the show at the Double Tree Hotel out by O’Hare International Airport.
Unfortunately, the snow meant the cancellation of numerous flights, including the one that was supposed to bring Clement Perry to the Windy City. So coverage of this AXPONA show will be a solo act by yours truly.
Now as you can tell by how long it took for this report to get published, I’m not big on show reports. Besides most of what I would report on was just seen and reported on at CES just a few months ago. So rather than try and report on every single thing that I saw that weekend, I’m going to tell you about what I thought was the crème de la crème at the show. So here, in no certain order, are the rooms that I had the most enjoyable listening experiences in. These are my “Best Rooms at Axpona.”
International Phonograph, Inc. Let me begin by telling you about a room that many other people kept telling me was the best sounding room that they heard (and I concur). It was the International Phonograph room which featured products from Artisan Fidelity, Wells Audio, Lamm Industries, United Home Audio and Verastarr cables.
Christopher Thornton of Artisan Fidelity was displaying a couple of absolutely stunning turntables: the Lenco L75 and a Technics SP10 MK2. Artisan Fidelity is a Hammond, Indiana based company that restores and modifies classic turntables. I’ve visited their website on numerous occasions and marveled over the gorgeous pictures in their online gallery. But there’s nothing like seeing these beauties in person. They are absolutely breathtaking. The tables on display were both finished in a lovely high gloss black. Equally intriguing was the United Home Audio UHA HQ reel-to-reel tape recorder. Using Meitner and MSB digital components, Lamm and Wells Audio amplification, and Verastarr cables, this system drove the magnificent TAD Reference One loudspeakers to damn-near perfection, especially when the system was fronted by the UHA reel-to-reel. Also of note was the performance of the Wells Audio Innamorata amplifier which at only $6,000 has “Bargain of the Year” written all over it.
The Voice That Is. This Philadelphia, Pennsylvania based audio retailer owned and operated by Doug White, was another exceptional room. First, know that Doug White can get good sound out of a tent sitting in the middle of Times Square. Now consider that his room at the show featured Vitus Audio electronics, an Aurender media server, Tidal Audio loudspeakers and Purist Audio Designs cables and you’ll know why this was one of the best sounding rooms at the show.
Bringing the system together was Doug’s endless supply of great music on his iPad via the Aurender S10 Reference Music Server ($6,990) which fed the Vitus Audio Reference Series RD100 DAC ($14,000)and RS100 stereo power amp ($13,5000). This system drove the gorgeous Tidal Piano Diacera loudspeakers ($37,690/pair). Cables were from Purist Audio Design’s new Corvus series. The sound in this room was splendid. I stopped in this room more than any other over the course of the weekend and was always impressed. This system reproduced music with realistic musicality and rhythm. In other words, it had that magic ability to draw you in and hold your attention. Hans-Ole Vitus told me the they had more listeners in three days of Axpona than they did over four days at CES. With this kind of sound, I’m not surprised.
JPauls Design. One of the great things about having a show hosted in your own backyard is that you get to meet some of the local retailers, audiophiles, and even manufacturers who you didn’t know existed. JPauls Design out of Cary, Illinois is one such retailer. Proprietor James Pauls is a very pleasant man who seems to have a great knack for achieving synergy in the components he selects. It’s easy to put together expensive components, but selecting components that actually sound great together is a true art. Lord knows I’ve visited more than my share of show rooms and thought, “What made them think that combination would sound good together?” The JPauls room featured the Krell Industries Phantom III preamp ($5,500) and Evolution 2250e amplifier ($8,000), Wisdom Audio L75 speakers ($18,700/pair) with SCS subwoofer ($4000), and SC-1 System Controller ($6500) all tied together with Cardas cables. Also in the room were the gorgeous Gato Audio AMP-150 integrated amplifier and CDD-1 CD player/DAC (each $7,995).
Wisdom audio was once one of the leading companies for two-channel audio speaker systems but in recent years has had more of a focus on in-wall home theater type designs. Now they seem to be offering speakers that are almost hybrids of both in-wall and floor standing designs called “on wall” speaksers that are part of their “Sage Series.” The L75 loudspeaker that was used in this room was very impressive sounding. It combines a 48” tall planar magnetic tweeter/midrange driver on top of what I believe were four 6” bass drivers. The sound was huge, spacious and very detailed. I’ll have to make a point of getting out to visit JPauls Design. I think he may be doing something special out in Cary, Illinois.
Orion-4/Wood Artistry. Wood Artistry from Northern California took on the challenge of doing their demo in one of the large rooms on the main floor. Ordinarily, the systems in these rooms don’t fair too well because of all of the room anomalies they have to overcome. But that wasn’t the case here. They were using a Pass Labs XP-20 preamp ($8,600) with a X250.5 stereo amp ($8,250) and two XA30.5 amps ($5,500 ea.). They delivered more than enough power to get the most out of the Siegfried Linkwitz designed Orion-4 loudspeakers ($14,750/pair) and fill the room with excellent sounding music. They used my personal reference, the George Warren Precision Sound turntable ($4,850). It was fitted with the excellent and surprisingly affordable Pete Riggle Engineering designed “Woody” tonearm ($1,600) and Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge. I got to spend some extended time listening to this system on the final day and it ended up being one of the highlights of the show for me. While I’m not a big fan of the looks of the Orion-4, the magic it produces is undeniable. A great analog front end and world class amplification will do that. Also, in the room was an Intel PC based server using JRiver Media Center 18 software.
Herron Audio. Keith Herron is one of the true gentlemen in high-end audio. Every time I’ve stopped by his room at a show I’ve always found him to be very humble, accommodating and pleasant to talk to. This would also be a very apt way to describe the sound of the room he shared with VPI Industries. The system featured a VPI Classic 3 turntable ($6,000) that was finished in a particularly attractive Rosewood. Herron Audio’s VTSP-3A preamp ($6,550), VTPH-2 phonostage ($3,650), and M1A mono amps ($6,850/pair) were also used. But the thing that really made me sit up and take notice were a pair of towering prototype Keith Herron designed loudspeakers. The hope is that the speakers will be ready for production later in the year. I for one hope this happens because this system sounded tremendous.
Tweak Studio/Colleen Cards Imports. Chicago retailer Tweak Studio seemed to be everywhere. And no wonder, they had four rooms setup at the show. By far my favorite was the one featuring components from Colleen Cardas Imports which included the excellent looking and sounding Unison Research Simply Italy integrated amp ($2,450), Unico Upower booster amplifier ($2,895), Unico CDE CD player ($4,120) and Opera Loudspeakers Quinta speaker system. At around $5,500/pair the beautifully made Quintas looked to be an astonishing value. The sound from this room was surprisingly full range and dynamic sounding while giving nothing away in musicality. Very impressive.
Sony/Holm Audio. Mike Holm of Holm Audio was another name that was on many lips. They had two rooms featuring Sony loudspeakers. The room that stuck with me though was the one that featured the new Sony SS-NA2ES loudspeakers ($10,000/pair). Also in the system were a Hegel H300 integrated amp/DAC ($5,500) and CDP4A CD player ($4,000) and an assortment of Nordost cables. Nordost’s Eastern Regional Sales Manager Steve Greene was on hand to allow visitors to experience the variety of Nordost cables including Blue Heaven, Red Dawn LS, Heimdall 2, and Frey 2 interconnects, speaker cables and power cords.
The Sony SS-NA2ES speakers have a lot of the DNA of the slightly larger siblings the SS-AR2 ($20,000/pair) but at a significantly lower price. The sound from this room was dynamic, airy and musical. And considering that this system could be had for the price of the bigger Sonys alone is something to get excited about.
Van L Speaker Works. Pleasant surprises are what shows like Axpona are known for, and what I heard in the Van L Speaker Works room is a classic example. John Van Leishout, the owner of this Chicago speaker builder and retailer has long been dedicating himself to his craft and has now put forth a speaker, the floor standing Silhouette ($3,995/pair) that is more than worthy of the most sophisticated systems. In this case that system consisted of the Modwright Instruments KWI-200 integrated amp ($6,500 incl. DAC and phono), LS-100 preamp ($3,500), and Oppo Digital BDP-105 Universal Disc Player ($1,199). The cables were from Dynamic Design which are hand built by the great Olu Sonuga. I spent a lot of time listening to this company’s products and I can easily say that this man knows how to build audio cables. There was an amazing amount of synergy to this system. The tonal balance was right from top to bottom, especially when they played Cassandra Wilson’s “Red Guitar” from my demo disc. Deep bass, airy highs, and holographic imaging for under $20K are what made this room a pleasant surprise indeed.
Purity Audio/King Sound. I’ll admit that since adding a pair of Maggie MG20 loudspeakers to my system, I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for planars. So it should be no surprise that I loved the sound from the King Sound room where they had their King III loudspeakers ($12,000/pair) on display. But what put me over the top was the contribution from the excellent Purity Audio Reference Series III preamp ($11,495) and Bob Carver’s brilliant Black Beauty 305 mono amps ($12,900). Cables were from Clarity Audio and the front end was yet another Oppo Digital Universal Disc Player. Tube amps on planars, when done right, can be a thing of beauty. This room had a beautiful sound.
Purity Audio also had another room where they drove Daedalus Audio Argo loudspeakers ($13,000/pair) with their new PSE 300B mono amps ($26,000/pair), Silver Statement Series II preamp ($32,000), Sony XA777ES SACD player, and Playback Design MPD-5 DAC. This preamp and amps combo holds a lot of promise but I didn’t get to hear much at this show. Hopefully, I’ll get to hear more in the near future.
Linn Audio Loudspeakers. Finally, and certainly not last, one of the biggest and best sounds I heard all weekend came from a rather unexpected source. For years I’ve seen the ads in magazines depicting a rather scholarly looking gentleman standing next to what looks like a rather handsome looking 7’ tall beast of a loudspeaker. But anyone who I ever asked about them either hadn’t heard them or just dismissed them as just being another big oversized American loudspeaker that can probably play loudly but not very musically.
Well the speakers at this show were not the 7’ tall monsters from the ads but were still very formidable measuring 28” wide, 28” deep, 43” tall and weighing in at an impressive 225 lbs each. They feature a compression horn tweeter/midrange driver and a 15” woofer that uses a 4” voice coil and 25 lb magnet. So while I was ready to be pummeled by deep bass and maybe a little splashy top end, what I got was a shockingly gentle and rhythmic musical experience. It’s called the Athenaeum Speaker System ($60,000/pair). The speaker uses its own active crossover and its high efficiency (97db) allows for the use of low powered tube amps like their own
Oddly, the rest of the system, a Bryston 4BST power amplifier (to drive the woofers), Linn’s own LANH 6-channel tube amp (to drive the horns) and LANH active crossover/preamp unit, and a CD player that I didn’t quite recognize, left me scratching my head a bit as you would expect to see a $60,000 loudspeaker (originally $80,000) pair with much higher level of electronics and source components. Despite that, this was a very good sounding room. I can only imagine how much better these speakers would sound in a larger room and with better electronics like for instance in my house.
Well that’s it folks. Obviously there was plenty of other really great stuff at the 2013 Axpona but I just wanted to be sure and point out the rooms that I thought were exceptional. If you were at the show you may or may not agree with my selections or you may have a completely different list. At the end of the day, the only way to truly appreciate a show like this is to attend a show. And that’s what I look forward to doing next April. That’s right, at the time that I concluded this report, it has already been announced that the 2014 Axpona will be returning to Chicago! I hope to see you there. Happy listening!