AXPONA 2019: Personal Audio

Show report
AXPONA 2019: Personal Audio

AXPONA 2019, held in the Renaissance Hotel in Schaumburg, Illinois, was one of the best run, best organized, and most enjoyable audio shows I have ever attended. While the Chicago-area weather outside was, especially on the closing day of the show, pretty frightful owing to a freakish mid-April snowstorm, the atmosphere inside the show was warm, convivial, and full of good audio camaraderie. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the Ear Gear Expo located in a medium-size ballroom adjacent to some of AXPONA’s largest demonstration rooms.

The Ear Gear Expo attracted some manufacturers who regularly attend CanJam events, but there were also a good number of exhibitors not commonly seen on the CanJam circuit, which gave the Ear Gear Expo a fresh and exciting feel.

Below, I’ve summarized a handful of new (or at least new to me) personal audio product I discovered at AXPONA. If there are any manufacturers whose products I inadvertently missed, please bear with me: AXPONA is a very large show, which meant I had a great deal of ground to cover.


Cleer Flow 2 Bluetooth/ANC
The Cleer Flow ($279) has long been one of our go-to solutions for readers seeking neutrally voiced, music-worthy Bluetooth/active noise-cancellation headphones. At AXPONA, though, Cleer previewed its new Flow 2, which adds Google Assist capabilities, revised fit and finish, a new grey color, and very small sound changes. The Flow 2 is AAC-, aptX-, and LDAC-compatible and will sell for the same price as the original Flow ($279). The Flow 2 is slated to arrive in August.

MrSpeakers Voicing-Control Earpads for Ether 2
The latest headphone model from MrSpeakers is its Ether 2 planar-magnetic headphone, priced at $1999; Ether 2 is the firm’s top planar-magnetic offering, and arguably one of the finest planar-magnetic headphones on the planet. The Ether 2 is shipped with a luxurious and very comfortable set of leather-clad earpads. For AXPONA, though, MrSpeakers introduced two new sets of optional earpads ($89/pair) for the Ether 2, which adjust the headphone’s voicing characteristics in tasteful ways. One pad set features synthetic suede coverings, while the other features leather covers with perforated leather inner liners. One pad set offers a gentle degree of top-end roll-off, while the other imparts an extremely subtle “V-shaped” (that is, scooped midrange) character to the Ether 2’s voicing curves.

Both pads use a clever press-on attachment method where the rear sides of the pads feature polyurethane coatings that have naturally “sticky” surfaces that feel like adhesives (though they are not). To renew the “sticky” surfaces, one simply wipes down the polyurethane coatings with alcohol wipes and they are ready for re-attachment.

Takstar HD5800
Takstar is a relatively new player in the personal audio marketplace, but the firm’s HD5800 dynamic-driver headphone ($100) is being imported by industry veteran Richard Kohlruss—a man who knows an overachieving product when he hears one. The bottom line with the Takstar HD5800 is that it is a headphone that offers rock-solid sonic performance plainly disproportionate to its modest price. The HD5800 would make a fine go-to recommendation for music lovers on a budget.

Earphones and CIEMs

iBasso IT03 W
At AXPONA the personal audio specialist iBasso previewed its soon-to-arrive IT03 W (“W” for wood) universal-fit earphones, which feature stabilized wood earpiece enclosures and a hybrid driver array consisting of two Knowles-built balanced-armature-type drivers used in conjunction with a single dynamic bass driver with a carbon-fiber diaphragm. The ITO3 W is so new that at show time its price was not yet finalized; expect the cost to be at least a little bit higher than the $249 street price of the standard IT03.

Mee Audio MX4 Pro
Mee Audio showed a range of value minded Pro-series earphones, the most neutrally voiced of which is the MX4 Pro ($199). The MX4 Pro is a hybrid design based on a trio of balanced-armature drives plus a single dynamic bass driver. Based on a brief listen, I felt the MX4 Pro offered a credible take on neutral sound at a very attractive price point. Two interesting options Mee Audio makes available for its Pro series models are an optional Bluetooth cable ($49) and custom-molded soft-gel silicone CIEM-like outer covers ($149) that can slip over the earpiece housings of the Pro-series earphones.

High-End Headphone Amps, DACs, Servers

Bricasti Design M3
Bricasti Design offers high-end audio electronics for both professional and consumer applications, but for AXPONA the emphasis was on the firm’s new M3 Direct Stream D/A converter and headphone amplifier. Pricing for the M3 works out as follows: standard M3 ($4999), headphone amplifier option (+$800), network connectivity option (+$1000), and remote-control option (+$500). Like most Bricasti components, the M3 is a fully balanced design and features a true dual-mono configuration (basically, users get two of everything except the mains cable). The DAC section, which offers absolutely pristine clarity based on a brief listen, supports PCM files to 24-bit/384kHz levels and native DSD decoding to DSD128 levels. While the M3 is certainly not cheap, it arguably offers good value for the money, especially in light of the fact that it gets users about as close as possible to Bricasti’s famous flagship M1 DAC for around half the price.

Linear Tube Audio Z10e
The Linear Tube Audio Z10e is a 12Wpc electrostatic headphone amplifier that is also capable of driving most dynamic or planar-magnetic headphones. Come to think of it, the Z10e is also perfectly suitable for driving high-sensitivity (>90dB) loudspeakers as well.

The Z10e is an output-transformerless design that incorporates a 12AU7-based David Berning-designed preamplifier section and an output section based on a quartet of EL84 tubes. The Z10e is priced at $6950, which really isn’t too bad when you consider that it is in essence a near state-of-the-art electrostatic headphone amplifier and also a near state-of-the-art dynamic headphone amplifier, with a delightfully expressive 12Wpc integrated amp thrown into the bargain. I tried the amp with a set of Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphones and was floored by the way the Z10e imparted a robust, vigorously dynamic character to those headphones (headphones sometimes thought—wrongly, in my view—to suffer from dynamic limitations). The right amp can make all the difference and the Z10e shows strong signs of being that “right amp.”

Schiit Audio Ragnarok 2
Schiit Audio previewed its new flagship Ragnarok 2 headphone amplifier at CanJam NYC earlier this year, while for AXPONA the good news is that this amp is now in production and available to order. Like the original Ragnarok, the Ragnarok 2 is extremely powerful, delivering 60Wpc into 8 ohms or 100Wpc into 4 ohms. The new amp, however, runs much cooler than the original Ragnarok did and incorporates a number of changes: a new Nexus differential gain stage; a 128-step, relay-controlled, ladder-type volume control; three user-selectable gain settings, ranging from 0dB to -30dB; and a remote control. The basic Ragnarok 2 sells for $1499, while for $300 more users can add both a phonostage module and one of Schiit Audio’s signature closed-form multi-bit DAC modules.

Weiss DAC501 and DAC502
For AXPONA’s Ear Gear Expo Weiss demonstrated both its DAC501 ($8000)
and closely related DAC502 ($9000) DAC/headphone amplifiers. Although you might not think so to look at the two side by side, the half-width DAC501 and full-width DAC502 are nearly identical, with the DAC501 providing single-ended headphone outputs and the DAC502 adding balanced headphone outputs. The 5-series DAC section supports PCM to 384kHz rates and DSD to DSD128. One of the most striking features of the 5-series models is a built-in DSP system that supports user-selectable headphone equalization, crossfeed, and stage-width enhancement functions.

XI (“Eleven”) Audio Personal Audio Electronics Suite
Ultimate Headphone Guide has favorably reviewed the XI Audio (“Eleven Audio”) Formula S headphone amplifier ($3499), but many readers may be unaware that the Formula S is only part of a broader XI Audio product family. The other components in the electronics suite—all on demonstration at AXPONA—include the Powerman add-on power supply for the Formula S ($2399), the Sagra DAC ($3395), and the relatively compact Broadway headphone amplifier ($2299). The Broadway is a battery-powered, fully balanced headphone amplifier that delivers 1.5Wpc into low-impedance headphones.


High-Resolution Digital Audio Players

iBasso DX220
IBasso previewed its new DX220 DAP, which in essence expands upon the capabilities of the firm’s present flagship DX200 DAP. The DX220 will use the same user-interchangeable amplifier modules in the DX200. The DX220 features dual ESS ES9028 Pro DAC devices, a quintet of Femto oscillators, provides 4GB of RAM, and offers aptX and LDAC Bluetooth support. The front panel of the DX220 sports a GorillaGlass cover over a very hi-res screen, while the rear panel offers a tough (but not Gorilla Glass) glass cover as well. The DX 220 is so new that at show time its MSRP had not yet been finalized, but expect it to sell for somewhat more than the DX200’s $869 (likely a bit under $1000).

Questyle Audio Engineering QPM
Questyle launched its new flagship QPM DAP (projected price ~$2000), which should be in full release by June. Relative to the firm’s present QP2r model, the QPM offers front and rear 3-D glass panels, a 4.4mm balanced headphone output, 64GB of internal memory, plus the ability to plug in a single micro-SD card with capacity up to 2TB, and the ability to play music from smartphones. Like almost all Questyle components, the QPM uses current-mode amplification and offers extremelAsonay low distortion (0.00049%) plus a very good real-world signal-to-noise ratio (110dB). Taking a page from the QP2r’s playbook, the QPM also allows users to choose between standard and high Class A amplifier bias settings (high bias consumes more battery power, but also dramatically reduces high-order harmonic distortion). In Questyle’s conception of things, one of the main uses for the QPM will be to act as a dock atop the firm’s SBH2 “Superhub,” which in turn can feed the firm’s impressive new 5.3GHz wireless power amplification system. In this context, the QPM becomes more than just a DAP, but also acts as a high-performance music server.

Cables and Accessories

Asona is relatively new audio cable and accessories maker that aims to do something about the high cost of upgrade cables. To this end, Asona focuses on building cables that are long on engineering and design, and that incorporate—with very little fanfare—high-quality materials and construction processes, yet that involve almost zero hype and marketing hoopla. To dealers, Asona’s pitch is that it offers “affordable quality your customers can buy with confidence.” In practice, this means 1.5m headphone cables that range from about $60 to $200 per set.

Cardas Audio Parsec
Cardas Audio was one of the very first reputable cable makers to introduce cable designs specifically for headphones, entering the market years ago with its now familiar and well-loved Cross headphone cable. At AXPONA, though, Cardas revealed its replacement for the Cross family of cables—namely, the new Parsec headphone cables (prices starting at $250). With many cable makers focusing on flagship models with four-figure price tags, it is refreshing to see a firm of Cardas’ stature directing its attention to the other end of the pricing spectrum—specializing, in essence, on what I’ll call “Great-Leap-Forward” models that deliver excellent sonic bang for the bucks.

Dana Cables Lazuli Nirvana
Visitors to personal audio shows will likely have encountered Dana Cable’s Lazuli-series specialty headphone cables, but for AXPONA Dana rolled out its most ambitious effort to date: the new Lazuli Nirvana cable ($3495/2m). In a very compelling demonstration Dana showed two identical HiFiMan HE1000 v2 headphones, one equipped with Dana’s excellent Lazuli Reference cables ($1099/2m) and the other fitted with the new Lazuli Nirvana cables. As expected, the Reference-equipped headphones sounded terrific, but the Nirvana-equipped headphones delivered sound quality and overall expressiveness that were elevated to an even higher level. It was, candidly, one of those “I-wish-I-didn’t-know-what-those-cables-do-’cause-I-really-can’t-afford-them” moments.

Kimber AXIOS
When Kimber first began offering specialized headphone cables the firm had just one model that featured Kimber’s signature noise-suppressing braided geometry: the original AXIOS headphone cable. Over time, though, the range has expanded to become three models that are similar in construction, but that use quite different conductor materials. These are: AXIOS Cu ($698/1.2m), AXIOS HB ($1974/1.2m), and AXIOS Ag ($3000/1.2m). AXIOS Cu (for copper) is basically the new name for the original AXIOS cable. AXIOS HB (for a half blend of copper and silver) is the mid-point model and, said a Kimber spokesperson, is one of the best sellers and performers in the range. AXIOS Ag (for silver) is Kimber’s maximum, supremo, pedal-to-the-metal cable suitable for use on the very finest top-tier headphones.

WyWires Red earphone cables
Many headphone enthusiasts will have encountered WyWiresRed-series and Platinum-series headphone cables, but for AXPONA we discovered a new wrinkle from WyWires. Specifically, the firm has now created a Red-series cable specifically for use with high-performance universal-fit earphones and CIEMs. We tried the new Red-series earphone cables ($299) with a set of Noble Audio Khan earphones and felt they made an already superb earphone sound even better.