Road Trip! Those were the words of Jonathan Valin earlier this year when he asked if I was interested in covering analog at AXPONA Chicago this year. I checked my schedule, shifted a few things around, and managed to clear the days necessary to cover the show—walking from room to room with what felt like ten pounds of vinyl (and stuff) in my bag. I did not attend the AXPONA that was held at the Doubletree O’Hare last year, but this year’s show was moved to the larger and more upscale Westin O’Hare hotel. While it was a nice hotel with good-sized rooms, the high ceilings and reverberant spaces turned out to be sonic thorns in the sides of most exhibitors. Taking this into account was a must when observing the rooms. Many exhibitors were offered the option of room treatment, but from my observation most declined. I’m pretty sure that won’t be the case next year. Based on my assessment, it seemed as if the majority of rooms at the show had a turntable or tape deck on display.
Top Five Systems
Clearaudio Master Innovation Wood / Graham Phantom 10” Elite
Musical Surroundings teamed up with Quintessence Audio to show in four rooms. One of those rooms included the Clearaudio Master Innovation Wood turntable with Olympus Stand, the Graham production model Phantom Elite 10” tonearm, and the top-of-the-line Goldfinger Statement cartridge. The rest of the system included Focal Stella Utopia EM speakers, Elation cables by Kubala-Sosna, Aesthetix Atlas mono amplifiers, an Aesthetix Callisto Eclipse preamplifier, an Aesthetix Romulus Signature DAC/CD player, and HRS SXR Signature racks. You may be wondering about the phonostage. The Aesthetix IO Eclipse was also in the room, and most people probably thought it was what was making the excellent sound. However, due to proximity of O’Hare Airport, the noise level was too high to run the IO Eclipse. The discrete Nova II phonostage tucked onto the top shelf next to the turntable’s battery power supply provided more-than-admirable pinch-hitting for the show. I pulled out an LP and played “Private Number” from a recent Record Store Day acquisition of Big Mama Thornton’s Sassy Mama. The track had driving pace, a big voice from Mama, and strong damped bass; the fortes on upper-octave piano strikes were also really clear. Switching to Tchaikovsky, I played the Hopak from Mazeppa on the excellent Reference Recording LP Exotic Dances from the Opera. I was rewarded with nice string tone, very strong and dynamic bass, and a well-placed soundstage. I enjoyed every minute of this recording.
Kronos Sparta / Helena
GTT Audio was showing the prototype Kronos Sparta turntable (which should be in production in the next few weeks) with an André Theriault-designed Helena 10” solid-carbon-fiber tonearm and AirTight PC-1 cartridge. The Sparta retains the suspended isolation system, dual-bearing, and dual-counter-rotating-platters for torsional-force reduction of the more expensive Kronos Pro turntable. The motor control, drive system, platter design, and turntable structure are different. This is an interesting turntable that still looks good in an all-business kind of way. Rounding out the system were YG Acoustics Hailey speakers, Kubala-Sosna Elation cables throughout, along with Audionet’s PAM G2 phonostage with EPX power supply, DNP network preamplifier, and AMP amplifier. The Sparta combination in this system produced nice presence, clear high frequencies, and good separation on a Dan Barrett Octet record as well as good guitar fingering and speed on a Larry Corryell/Steve Kahn recording. The production version of the ’table will get a few aesthetic and user adjustments in addition to growing a little wider for a final 14” x 20” footprint. I’m looking forward to working with this ’table in the near future.
BAT VK-P12SE Superpak / Avid Acutus Reference SP
Balanced Audio Technology introduced the new top-of-the-line VK-P12SE Superpak phonostage from the updated VK series along with the REX II preamplifier and REX II amplifier. All of the cables were from Shunyata Research and the speakers were Focal Scala V2 Utopias. The turntable was the Avid Acutus Reference SP, with SME V tonearm and Lyra Etna cartridge. With the exception of being a bit hard on transients during a Miles Davis cut from Sorcerer, everything else was good. During the third movement of Bach’s Concerto in D major performed by Jacques Loussier’s Play Bach Trio from Bach To The Future, the system showed good extension, clear piano, a bit of reserved bass, and good soundstaging.
Acoustic Signature Triple X
Goerner Communications displayed the beautiful-looking Acoustic Signature Triple X turntable with the Funk FXR-II 12” tonearm holding the van den Hul Colibri XGW cartridge. The Grandinote Celio phonostage and Shinai dual-mono integrated amplifier, Trigon Chronolog music server/CD/DVD player, Creaktiv Midi Reference audio rack, Nordost Valhalla 2 cables, and the excellent-sounding Audio Physic Avantera Plus+ speakers rounded out the system. When I entered the room I heard a Super Analogue Disc reissue of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra recording of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony conducted by Jean Martinon [London]. I remember the recording because about six months ago I went through around fifteen different LPs of that symphony. The Martinon was near the top of my list for sound quality, but was eclipsed for absolute presentation by a Melodiya with the Moscow Radio Large Symphony Orchestra conducted by Konstantin Ivanov. The soundstage and placement of instruments was excellent in this room. On one of my Appalachian folk music LPs, Feather River, the Acoustic Signature system provided a very airy sound with notable ease on mandolin, mandocello, harp, bass, soprano sax, flute, and clarinet. My LP of Big Mama Thornton’s Sassy Mama showed clean guitars, well-managed bass, and really clear voice and piano. The impressive work with speaker and system setup gave this room very good sound.
AMG / Benz SLR Gullwing /ARC / Sonus Faber
The AMG Viella 12 turntable with 12J2 tonearm isn’t new but, graced with the Benz SLR Gullwing MC cartridge, made good music in the O’Hare One room at Axpona. With ARC electronics including the Ref 2SE phonostage, Ref CD9 DAC/CD player, Ref 5SE linestage, and a quad of DS450M amps the sound wasn’t lacking anything. Bringing up the rear was the Sonus Faber Aida speakers, HRS SXR racks, and Kubala-Sonsna Elation cables. The system sounded gorgeous—sweet and non-fatiguing with every LP played. To say there was poetry with this system would not be far from the truth. Every record played had a relaxing character to it that, although not always true to life, made for an oasis of comfortable sound from a system that was really easy on the ears (and eyes).
AMG 9W2 tonearm /AMG Teatro cartridge
AMG introduced two new products at Axpona: the $3500 9W2 9” tonearm and the $2000 Teatro cartridge. These items were shown on a Clearaudio Ovation turntable. The Musical Surroundings Nova II phonostage that was also stealthily running with the Master Innovation Wood system handled RIAA duties here as well. The electronics from Pass Labs included an XP30 preamplifier and a pair of XA100.5 mono amplifiers driving Magico S3 speakers. The HRS RXR racks and Kubala-Sosna Emotion cables rounded out the system. The sound of the whole system leaned to the warm side of neutral with a reduced treble and fuller bass. The fuller bass was due to sitting directly up against the rear wall. (When I moved forward the bass wasn’t as dominant.) Although this makes the bass impressive on short listens, like those at Axpona, long term listening to this system would benefit from a seating position further away from the rear wall. Overall the arm/cartridge combination tracked the LPs without problems.
Triangle Art Zeus
Triangle Art introduced the new Zeus moving-coil cartridge in the Midwest Audio room. The specs were sparse but the sound was good. The turntables were the companies’ Signature SE and Symphony. Both turntables had the Triangle Art’s Osiris tonearm fitted with the Zeus. All interconnects, cables, power conditioners, speaker cables, and record clamps were Triangle Art as well. The electronics were NAT Transmitter amplifiers, Symmetrical preamplifier, and Signature phonostage. The speakers were the Legacy Aeris. The Great Jazz Trio Direct From L.A.’s “A Night in Tunisia” sounded strong and full. Piano was soft on transients but still good. Overall the system played as described with each set of music I listened to.
United Home Audio debuted the UHA HQ Phase 11S tape deck with external power supply paired with MBL 116F speakers and the new Tara Labs Evolution cables in two rooms. One room used MBL electronics C31 CD player, C11 Preamplifier, and four C15 mono amplifiers. The other room had the Luxor line of Electronics from Jolida, including the preamp and four mono amplifiers. I spent an evening in the first room listening to multiple tapes and mid-day Sunday in the other room. In both cases, the sound of these systems with tape playback was very enjoyable and dynamic.
ModWright PS 150 Tube Phonostage
ModWright Instruments introduced the PS 150 tube phonostage ($7900) at this year’s Axpona. The unit features two inputs, front-panel-adjustable resistance and capacitance loading, gain selection, and muting. There is a switch on the rear for selecting RCA or XLR outputs. Rounding out the ModWright room were the KWA 150 Signature Edition amplifier, LS 36.5 “DM” two-box preamplifier, and Elyse DAC. The cables were provided by WyWires. The Custom Audio Rack and Argos v2 speakers are from Daedalus Audio. The turntable used was the VPI Classic 1 with Shelter 901 cartridge. My notes show the analog playback portraying strong midbass punch and a big sound with good drive.
Paragon Sound was showing Doshi Audio’s production version of the V3.0 phonostage and a custom build of the V3.0 tape preamplifier. The remote controlled V3.0 phonostage features three selectable inputs (two moving magnet and one moving coil), three memory-storage settings for loading, along with one thousand and twenty-four load settings from 10 ohms to 10,000 ohms in 5-ohm steps. The remaining electronics were the Doshi V3.0 R/C linestage preamplifier and V3.0 Jhor monoblock amplifiers. The turntable was a Brinkmann Audio Balance with 12.1 ’arm, Ront II tube power supply, and Koetsu Azule Platinum cartridge. Transparent cables were used throughout with HRS SXR stands. The tape deck was a modified Technics 1506 and the speakers were the Wilson Audio Sasha 2s. Everything I played in this room sounded good except for a little bit of treble glare on some recordings.
In Other News
High Water Sound
High Water sound was showing the TW-Acustic Raven GT SE turntable and two TW 10.5 tonearms, with Ortofon Windfeld and Cadenza Mono cartridges on the ’arms. A Tron-Electric Syren II GT preamplifier and Seven Phono/Mono GT phonostage, Electra-Fidelity 300B SE mono amps, and Eufrodite Mark IV Ellipse speakers from Hornning Hybrid Systems completed the system. Cables were Zen Sati (speaker and interconnect) and Tel Wire (power) with Silver Circle Audio providing the Tchaik 6 power conditioner. The Scuttle Rack and Ohio Class stands were from Silent Running Audio. Symposium Acoustics provided the Super Plus Speaker Platforms. Unlike some of the other rooms fighting poor room acoustics, this system seemed to embrace them. I played music from simple live guitar, to a Bach trio, to the last two movements of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. In all cases the system produced a big soundstage with good balance that appeared to work with what the room was offering. Surprisingly the system held it together on the final movement of the 4th at moderately loud levels.
Hanson Audio made the trip to Chicago from Dayton Ohio for Axpona, showing the Clearaudio Innovation Compact turntable with Universal Tonearm and DaVinci V2 cartridge. The electronics were from Octave Audio, including the Jubilee preamplifier, Phono Module phonostage, and Jubilee Mono amplifier. The cables were Nordost Odin throughout with Critical Mass Systems stands. The speakers in this system were the Magico S3s. The analog sound from this combination was smooth and musical with more balanced bass than the other S3-based system. This setup had the speakers and listening seat further away from the room boundaries, making a more even and coherent sound in my opinion.
Best Sound (cost no object): Clearaudio Master Innovation Wood turntable with Olympus Stand, Graham Phantom Elite, Goldfinger Statement, Focal Stella Utopia EM speakers, Kubala-Sosna, Aesthetix, and the Nova II phonostage.
Best Sound (for the money): Music Hall with the $1195 Ikura turntable, Creek OBH-15mk2 and Evolution 50A integrated amp, Epos Elan 15 speakers with “low cost” cables. This setup offered very good sound without the fuss for anyone’s casual listening.
Most Significant Product Introduction: VPI’s Nomad turntable provides a complete analog front-end turnkey solution. With the preinstalled Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, all you need are headphones or line inputs on your home stereo.
Most Significant Trend: Turntable systems and vinyl are showing up everywhere. From the budget units to the mega-turntables, this trend continues to grow. Buying new or used LPs will surely bring enjoyment once the vinyl starts spinning.
Most Coveted Product: Since I’ve already coveted the Kronos Sparta and Lyra Etna, this time it is the Clearaudio Master Innovation Wood turntable with Olympus Stand, Graham Phantom Elite 10” tonearm, and the top-of-the-line Goldfinger Statement cartridge.