AXPONA 2017: Electronics $15k and Up

Show report
Categories:
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Phonostages,
Integrated amplifiers,
Equipment racks and stands
AXPONA 2017: Electronics $15k and Up

Five Most Significant Debuts

Aavik Acoustics M-300 Monoblock Amplifiers, C-300 Preamplifier

The Aavik M-300 monoblocks ($48k) and C-300 made their active-demo debuts in a sweet-sounding setup (alas, all digitally sourced, a Naim CD player used as transport) with Raidho’s stand-mounted D1.1 two-way loudspeakers with diamond tweeters in a bold, fire-y orange finish. An alternate take of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” featured gorgeously lush and rich acoustic guitar. Even the low end was quite impressive, extending far deeper than expected on Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat.” The 300-watt M-300 boasts Aavik’s efficient Class A topography; there’s a bank of capacitors beside output stage transistors that are always fully loaded for a greater sense of speed. Instead of switch-mode power supplies, for more constant current and wattage Aavik uses resonance-mode power supplies that are made in Japan and are of extremely high quality. Also employing this new resonance-mode power supply upgrade, the new C-300 preamplifier ($42k) has PCM and DSD DACs and two phonostages. Indeed the components did not feel hot to the touch.

CH Precision Universal I1 Integrated Amplifier

The CH Precision I1, the latest release from the esteemed high-end Swiss manufacturer was presented in an active demo for the first time in the U.S. (I had seen this model previously at the Munich show.) Alas, it was the tail end of the show and therefore I did not get to listen to the I1 but based on my other experiences with these fine electronics you can bet on extremely high resolution and meticulous transparency backed by plenty of power. CH Precision’s Raphael Pasche detailed the company’s clever modular approach designed to be a gateway to the brand’s offerings. The I1, where the “I” stands for “integrated,” takes the term’s meaning to new levels: With a $38k base price (options extra), this single chassis combines the circuitry and technologies of CH Precision’s amplifier, converter, linestage preamp, and phonostage into one box. The back panel is filled with user-configurable cards that can be preselected at the time of order and switched out individually thereafter—and this design also allows for upgrades to be installed, helping to future-proof the unit. The standard I1 comes equipped with a digital input board (AES/UBU TosLink, RCA, SPDIF, proprietary CH-Link) and for analog inputs two RCA and one XLR stereo, and one XLR stereo preamp output. For additional costs ($1500 to $5000) you can also customize the number and type of outputs and board options for digital (streaming via asynchronous USB and/or Ethernet, I/O clock synchronization) and analog (phono with EQ filters). The 100Wpc I1 has a Class A input stage and Class AB output, and it’s digital at heart: All signals get converted into the digital domain—even EQ curves are digitally processed—and there’s upsampling to 368kHz for digital inputs.

Constellation Revelation Series

First seen on passive display at CES, and heard at AXPONA for the first time in an active demo, the 250Wpc Constellation Taurus stereo power amp ($19.5k), Pictor preamplifier ($18k), and Andromeda phonostage ($18k) with DC Filter ($5k) reproduced an assortment of vinyl cuts beautifully with all the accuracy, clarity, and control the celebrated ultra-high-end marque brings. These new Revelation Series electronics drove MartinLogan ESL 15a Renaissance loudspeakers ($25k) seamlessly and effortlessly; the speakers also sounded more coherent than in some past demos. The source was the Continuum Audio Labs Obsidian turntable ($35k; reviewed in this issue) fitted with Viper tonearm ($10k) and Ortofon A95 cartridge ($6500); cabling was by MIT (its sign read “audio interfacing by MIT”). The crisp tambourine on Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” sounded quite lively and lifelike—plenty of snap here. El Vy’s “Paul Is Alive” featured compelling dimensionality and imaging on guitar and piano flourishes. Bass on “I’m the Man to Be” may not have dived the deepest but maintained respectable definition and deft nimbleness. Alas, I’d longed to return to give a listen to a bit of the MoFi LP reissue of Pixies’ Doolittle, but ran out of time.

Voxativ T-211 Integrated Amplifier

Based on single-ended 211 tubes, the elegantly and thoughtfully designed, pure Class A T-211 tube integrated amplifier ($20k with remote) offers some remarkable features. The latest brainchild from Voxativ’s Holger Adler, this 12Wpc amp is handmade in Germany and its output transformers were custom-designed and made by Japanese artisan Masaaki Oshima, who views the transformer as a kind of musical instrument. All the internal circuit paths are direct and there’s a 48-step attenuator volume control in the remote control that—unexpectedly—controls its adjustments by moving/rotating one of the two motorized dials on the front panel in a great mash-up of old school and new. The second large dial is for input selection. Though these dials dominate the front panel, their aesthetics and ergonomics are rather pleasing as a bold design statement. They feel nice to operate, substantial yet easy to turn. The chassis is milled from a 150-pound solid aluminum block with a smooth anodized surface—when the finish is this perfect, who needs paint?

Metaxas Solitaire and Ikarus Integrated Amplifiers

AAudio Imports introduced on static display a flashy duo of Class AB integrated amplifiers from Metaxas: the 150Wpc Solitaire ($55,900) and 50Wpc Ikarus ($32,500). Both uniquely shaped models are milled from a single block of solid aluminum and required an extensive search to find a manufacturer in Germany with a special five-axis CNC machine that could create these exotic forms. The deep ridges “carved” into the amps’ sides assist with heat dissipation and the entire chassis essentially serves as a heatsink. In addition to its eye-catching futuristic form factor, the heavy chassis is also designed to control vibrations and reduce resonances for extremely quite backgrounds. Even the top of the transformer and the power-supply capacitors, which are visible on top, have been integrated into these integrateds’ design. The automotive paint finishes were the icing on the cake for the showy over-the-top looks of these demo amps: electric blue metallic Porsche paint on the Solitaire and glossy black with iridescent metallic flecks on the Ikarus. As Morris Day might say, these amps ain’t for everybody, just the sexy people (and those with deep pockets).

More Auspicious Debuts

MBL presented the world premiere of its Noble line N11 stereo preamplifier ($14,600) and N15 mono power amplifier, priced at $17,800 per channel, in a bi-amped configuration driving the MBL Radialstrahler 101 E MKII omnidirectional loudspeakers ($70.5k) with thrilling gusto and gorgeous musicality on one track after another—especially when United Home Audio’s new UHA Ultima 2 ¼-inch, 15ips analog tape deck ($28k) served as the source. The N15 amp delivers 560 watts into 4 ohms with 36-ampere peak output current and features a balanced layout for common mode rejection. 

On a Higher Note and Kyomi Audio presented a fascinating and surprising pairing of ultra-classic and ultra-modern designs and approaches to sound: An introduction of the new Jadis JA200 MK II 200W Class A tube monoblocks ($33,900/pr.)—the first pair in the U.S.—and a Jadis JP200MC tube preamp (with mc phono) driving the curvilinear and colorful Vivid Audio Giya G1 Series II loudspeakers ($68k). A sonically and visually appealing combo. Though timbre seemed slightly dark, the initial sonic impression was rich, musical, and very present on the few tracks I heard.

Speaking of stunning electronics, the new Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Progression stereo amplifier was on static display in the larger Paragon Sight and Sound room on the 2nd floor. Conservatively rated at 300 watts into 8 ohms, it features D’Agostino’s proprietary Super Rail circuitry, first introduced in the Progression Mono.

The new Doshi Audio V3 stereo amplifier ($16,990), the latest entry in the V3 series of electronics, made its debut on static display in the second Paragon room and will be available in July. The 75Wpc amp has two gain stages and zero overall feedback, and is fully balanced input to output. It features Sowter Audio transformers along with a custom toroidal power transformer, and the interstage transformer is differentially driven for “perfect” phase splitting to the push-pull output stage.

The $27k Esoteric Grandioso F1 integrated amplifier made its North American debut, after arriving just three weeks before the show, in an active system powering $15.6k Canton Reference 3K speakers with the $27k Grandioso K1 SACD/CD player/DAC and $22k Grandioso G1 Master clock as the source —also new introductions—connected with AudioQuest cabling. A listen to “My Captain” from Muddy Waters Folk Singer on an Analogue Productions CD reissue rendered playback of crystal-clear high resolution, revealing each breath and vocal vibrato, the subtle squeaks of guitar strings (although the upper registers veered a touch bright in this top-down presentation), plus plenty of recording studio ambiance and echo. Placement and staging seemed true and distinct. OK, a little more low-end energy would have been desirable but overall an engaging presentation.

Wynn Audio introduced the new-to-the-U.S., $38k Karan Acoustics S 600 stereo amplifier that delivers 600W into 8 ohms, in addition to the $17k L Reference preamplifier with outboard power supply in a separate chassis. The Karan electronics drove $12k Penaudio Serenade Signature speakers from Finland. This room also boasted another cool introduction, albeit one outside my category: a brand-new rack from Critical Mass, the Olympus, seen in a “sneak preview” here before its official launch in Munich. Granted I’m not familiar with this new system, but I detected some remarkably immersive soundstaging, almost surround-sound-like in effect.

Bertrand Audio Imports debuted the German-made 250Wpc Analog Domain integrated amplifier ($22k) in a demo where it drove Soltanus Acoustics electrostatic hybrid speakers.

More Great-Sounding Rooms and Other News

Although this overall wasn’t the greatest-sounding show I’ve ever covered, there were plenty of sonically striking and/or outstanding demos that did not have debuts in my assigned bailiwick, and I want to share a smattering of them here (order is alphabetical).

The Avantgarde Acoustic room surprised me with Joy Division’s “Transmission” playing back on a wonderful system featuring the German maker’s XA integrated amplifier with 1.1 watts in Class A and 150 watts Class AB ($16.5k) and its highly versatile semi-active Zero TA speaker ($15k) (pictured above) with a 500W DSP-controlled amp powering the woofer. The analog front end was a lovely, brand-new, Danish-made Bergmann Galder turntable ($34k) with vacuum hold-down and Odin tonearm with air-bearing ’arm and platter.

Bang & Olufsen introduced its hefty new BeoLab 90 digital active loudspeaker (pictured above) with high-end aspirations that reminded me slightly of a Transformer (in its pre-anthropomorphic state). There are plenty of high-tech tricks up its sleeve (a trio of listening modes, ventriloquist-like sonic effects, advanced DSP, etc.) in addition to its remarkable high-design form factor. Big sound, big fun.

Merrill Audio electronics, including Veritas monoblocks, Christine Reference linestage, and Jens phonostage drove $36.5k German Physiks Borderland Mk. IV loudspeakers to pleasing effect, with plenty of spaciousness and focused imaging. Dr. John’s “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime” on LP was rendered with nice detail without any loss of body or liveliness.

Exemplary electronics from the Nagra Classic series powered Graham Audio LS5/8 BBC-studio-style monitors in a system showcasing truly classic sound; also striking were beautifully crafted stands from Modulum that are said to be frequency-modulable.

I only had a few fine but memorable moments enjoying the Joseph Audio/Rowland/open-reel tape deck demo (as I did at the Newport Show); here I soaked up a few precious moments of Scheherazade on a new tape reissue from Analogue Productions via a sweet setup that included the mighty 1500Wpc Rowland Daemon Super integrated amp ($38,800) and Technics RS1500 Doshi tape preamp ($16k) behind Joseph Audio Perspective floorstanders ($13k).

The Axiss Audio/Tweak Studio room (pictured above) presented a fine assortment of the superb Soulution electronics (511 monoblock amplifier, 520 preamp, and 755 phono preamp paired beautifully with the lovely-looking and -sounding $25k Piega Coax 711 three-way loudspeakers with a JR Transrotor front end fitted with an Air Tight Opus 1 cartridge; this was yet another room I’d longed to revisit but could not. But even initial listening impressions—to JV’s Johnny Hartman LP, for one—revealed a highly resolved yet musical presentation that scored high in dimensionality (thanks in part to Soulution’s fine gear) and realism. The trumpet sounded like a trumpet (which it didn’t on many other systems). The sense of delicacy was maintained on piano and gentle cymbal taps, and there was a wonderful sense of ease and silky seamlessness. The interconnects were Wireworld Platinum series and speaker cables Silver Eclipse.

Ted Denney of Synergistic Research demo’d his astounding UEF/Atmosphere room-treatment system with Magico S5 MkII loudspeakers powered by Constellation electronics, and connected with Synergistic’s Galileo UEF cabling. A duet version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” sung by Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash sounded as if the pair were there in the room. Yet another room I was sad not to revisit, as I’d heard the sound kept getting better and better as the show went on (as many rooms do).

Von Schweikert Audio Ultra 11 behemoth 13-driver D’Appolito loudspeaker ($295k) driven by VAC’s top-of-the-line tube electronics was another much-ballyhooed system. I only had the chance to listen briefly but these transducers boasted plenty of engaging detail and elements of big-speaker sound but upon first impression did not seem to be the last word in coherence. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to listen more soon.

Best Sound (Cost No Object)

Given the size of this year’s show, there wasn’t adequate time to allow for in-depth listening (let alone tie-breaker listening), so I’ve decided to list a few contenders:

The Voice That Is demo with the gorgeous $215k Tidal Akira loudspeakers, Audio Presencio preamp ($77,600) and Impulse Monobloc amplifier ($64,900), both from Tidal Audio, with TW Acustic Raven AC-1 turntable ($15.5k) analog source and Bricasti Design M1sp dual mono DAC ($10k) digital front end. Smooth as silk, yet rich in dimensionality, definition (even in its deep bass), and dynamic range. This system was simply beautiful in its blend of verisimilitude, swiftness, and expansive soundstaging.

The new Constellation Revelation Series electronics powering MartinLogan ESL 15a Renaissance loudspeakers (system detailed above). A great balance of impressive resolution, coherence, imaging, and effortless musicality while maintaining definition and naturalism.

Honorable mentions go to:

The MBL room (system detailed above). OK, so the room and the bass had some challenges but so what? As I’ve said before, this is visceral listening where you can just lose yourself within the music, no matter what they’re playing. Always a pleasure.

The new Magico S3 MkII speakers driven by CH Precision electronics with a vintage Sony open-reel tape deck source—largely because on a piano and harmonica recording from Jonathan Horwich, the harp playing was possibly the most jaw-droppingly lifelike I’d ever heard.

Sonus faber Il Cremonese loudspeakers powered by Audio Research Reference electronics; it was one of the few times at the show I got goosebumps (on Phil Collins’ gated drum reverbs on “In the Air Tonight” on an LP reissue).

Best Sound (For the Money)

In the tinier-than-thou group, the new wee Vanatoo Transparent Zero, a wireless powered two-way that, unbelievably, is even smaller than the original version, and the single-driver, cube-shaped Kubotek mini-monitor from Japan. Although I only visited this room briefly, the Elac and Audio Alchemy combo demo deserves a special mention.

Most Significant Product Introduction

The CH Precision Universal I1 integrated amplifier—so much can be had in a single chassis, plus its customized and user-configurable cards not only allow for flexibility but upgradability. Seems like a smart way to bring folks into the high-end/CH Precision fold.

Most Significant Trends

By far the most tape decks I’ve ever seen at a show—and new integrated amps galore.

Most Coveted Products

I’ve been coveting MBL Radialstrahlers for some time. The Vanatoos would be nice for (dare I say it?) convenience in a desktop/secondary system. The new Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 could be fascinating to experiment with. And those arresting, painstakingly hand-painted Volya speakers I first saw in Munich last year would be cool to have around—talk about a conversation piece! And they don’t sound bad either.

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