AXPONA 2013 - Part 2

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
AXPONA 2013 - Part 2

There was a lot to see and hear in the Orion room. Wood Artistry’s Don Naples was on hand demoing his version of the kit wonder-speaker, the Orion-4 ($14,750). I’ve seen several iterations of this design, in several levels of fitment, and Wood Artistry is the only one I’d buy. The price includes an Analog Signal Processor crossover/EQ system so that “each woofer, mid-range, and pair of tweeters is driven independently”; it was driven here by three Pass Labs stereo amps (X250.5 for the lows, XA dot-5s for the mids and highs), a Pass Labs XP-20 preamp, and a Jolida phono pre. Sitting atop the rack was a George Warren turntable (prices start at $3,700, without tonearm). This clever, well-thought out, and genuinely pretty turntable actively monitors and corrects platter speed. Did you see that the motor sits on only two feet? It leans into the belt to provide the right amount of line tension. Like I said, very clever. Mounted here was a Pete Riggle “Woody” tonearm ($1,600); the VTA, azimuth, and anti-skating can all be adjusted on the fly. A Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge walked the grooves. Sound in this room was explosive – the Orion/Pass Labs combo is a killer.

Another new-to-me experience was in store at Nightingale Audio. A rather svelte Italian-made open-baffle loudspeaker, the CTR-02 ($9,750/pair) features a quartet of drivers set into a nicely turned out wood frame. Nightingale also makes the components – here, we found a pair of ONDA 90 mono amps ($12,450), with, yes, 90wpc from a sextet of 7581 power tubes, and the PTS-03, a battery-driven preamp ($9,750). Also in the lineup were some retro designs that look just fabulous, with matte wood and brass fittings. Take my advice and check out that line up. Sweet, right? Hopefully, we’ll be seeing a lot more of these folks.

Next up was more Venture Audio – this time, paired with Thrax Audio. What a great name! Thrax! I was about to get all Marvel Superhero and whatnot. Thrax! Okay, so it was a new brand for me, and with the chunky aluminum/pinched-front aesthetic, I’m unlikely to forget it. The Dionysos preamplifier ($21,500) uses a transformer-based volume control; a pair of Spartacus monoblocks ($48,500/pair) cranked out 70wpc. The Spartacus is a complicated little beat, featuring zero feedback, and sets of DHT tubes run in or out of phase, for cancellation of noise. The inputs are transformer coupled and there's a choke input full wave tube rectified power supply, all in a microprocessor controlled system. And yes, it's a tube amp. Holy cow. Other bits here: a Thrax Orpheus phono preamp ($21,500), a 32bit/384kHz Maximus DAC ($33k), a Weiss MAN301 (starting at $9,083) for archiving, playback, CD ripping, Internet radio streaming, &c. EnKlein Areos signal, power and digital cables made all of the connections. All of this fed a pair of Venture Audio Grand Ultimate MKII loudspeakers ($98k/pair) for some more truly remarkable sound. No, really. This might be getting a little redundant, but boy-howdy, this six-figure price point was really knocking my socks off, and all over the hotel. This was yet another case in point – AXPONA seemed to be saying “if you have the means, we have the toys”. A must-listen on the tour.

Legacy Audio was on hand to show off the latest Whisper (starting at $21,500/pair) and Focus SE (starting at $9,200/pair) models, now with the dual-AMT tweeter array Bill Duddleston showed me back at Capital Audiofest last year, and first launched in the new Aeris loudspeakers ($17,750), also here on display. A challenging room, acoustically, but I’ve been thrilled by this demo at recent shows. Bill has great, big, crazy plans for his loudspeakers in the future, and I’m totally psyched to see the evolution of these already-great designs. Shown here with Coda electronics, an Oppo digital player, and cabling from Morrow Audio.

Stepping across the foyer, I found another Purity Audio preamp, this time, a Reference ($11,495) fronting a pair of Bob Carver Black Beauty monoblocks ($12,900/pair), cranking 300+ watts into a pair of King Sound King III ESL panel loudspeakers ($12,000). Clarity Cables provided all the signaling and power cables. An Oppo BDP-95 provided the front end. And you know what? Holy guacamole, Batman. This is one cave I was not happy to leave. The big King panels can put out “real bass”, which seems to surprise just about everyone, but brings the speed and detail that an ESL is known for. Truly remarkable, and a price point that’s comfortably under six figures; a reminder for which I was rather grateful after visiting so many sky-high priced systems.

Another Aragon and Waterfall Audio demo showed me exactly what I’ve done wrong in past attempts to sneak loudspeakers past my wife – I used loudspeakers. Silly me. What was I thinking? Waterfall speakers are glass – so they pretty much disappear. Into any décor. Duh! Why didn’t I think of that? Nifty. Indy Audio Labs, the parent of top-flight Aragon, and the more affordable Acurus Audio, were showing an Aragon 8008 stereo amplifier with an Aragon 18k preamp. I didn’t get to hear them here at AXPONA, but I did spend some time with them at CES and was impressed by the sound they made there.

Icon Audio was showing a pair of new FRm 2 “full range” single-driver loudspeakers, paired with their tubed electronics, including an ST40 MK III integrated amplifier ($2,495), a KT88-based design good for 20wpc in triode or 40wpc in ultralinear. For an affordable system, I was impressed, if not exactly blown away. Now, I’m not sure “cute” is a good word for a monoblock amp, but the MB30m ($1,799/pair) are just that, so, fuggedaboutit. 27wpc in ultralinear, this KT120 based amp can run in triode too, for 16wpc. A 6SN7 double-triode drives it, and a 5AR4 does the rectification. Did I mention you can fit one in one hand? Ah, well. Another time.