AXPONA Chicago 2015: Electronics

Show report
Categories:
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers
AXPONA Chicago 2015: Electronics

What a superlative event! While it is true that covering shows can be challenging, especially when producing the first report for a new magazine, I freely admit that I was looking forward to this gathering, held for the second year at the Westin O’Hare in Rosemont, immediately east of the O’Hare International Airport.

Under the strong and steady guidance of JD Events, “AXPONA Presents AudioCon” has burgeoned into the most diverse, sizable, and exhilarating consumer electronics show in the Midwest. According to numbers provided by the promoter, this year’s show realized an 18 percent increase in ticket purchases and a 33 percent increase in exhibitor rooms, with some 406 exhibitors sharing 104 rooms over seven floors! Tabletop exhibits, like those used by the “Ear Gear” and music vendors, for example, saw a staggering 40 percent increase!

In an effort to produce my first show report for TAS in a timely fashion, I somehow managed to miss several rooms I would have loved to have visited, most notably the Octave/Magico and Audionet/YG suites. Please forgive this oversight.

The rooms I cover below were, for the most part, exceptional, especially for show conditions. So many systems were able to gel and really transcend the sum of their parts, achieving that all-too elusive magic, leaving the listener rapt in the moment, that I was pleasantly surprised. That is not the case at many shows. AXPONA Presents AudioCon has rapidly become one of the annual events that I most look forward to.

Five Most Significant Exhibits


Doshi Audio
Founder and designer Nick Doshi was on hand to introduce his Doshi Audio V3.0 monoblocks ($31,990/pr.), an imaginative 160-watt pentode design using three gain stages. Employing output transformers made in the UK by the oldest audio transformer manufacturer in the world (Sowter), utilizing a pair of 12SN7 drivers and four KT-150 outputs, the V3.0 monoblock conflates old school engineering with microprocessor technology. The result is superior protection and the ability to view the bias voltage or average life of any tube in the circuit directly from the front display. Fronted by the dCS Puccini ($24,998) optical player, feeding the Doshi V3.0 linestage preamplifier ($15,995), using all Transparent Generation 5 XL cabling, and driving the new Wilson Audio Sabrina ($15,900) loudspeakers, this system was liquid and luxuriant, yet full of detail and microdynamic shading, Yet it could flex some serious muscle, too, all the while sounding very relaxed. I hope to have them in for review soon.


Bricasti Design
Bricasti Design
was showcasing its new M28 ($30,000/pr.) 200-watt monoblock power amplifiers. Bricasti President Brian Zolner was on hand to offer a captivating demonstration using a system fronted by a basic Windows 7 laptop serving ones and zero’s to the Bricasti M1 DAC ($9000) via USB, which in turn was driving the M28s from its balanced outputs. All cabling was of the Purist Audio Designs Luminist Series and the speakers were the now-discontinued Tidal Piano Diacrea Diamonds ($30,000/pr.).Whether playing a ripped Red Book CD or a high-resolution file, this system was blisteringly fast, nearly as transparent as air, and rife with lifelike body and instrumental bloom. I was taken by its remarkable transient speed and immediacy. Look for a full review in an upcoming issue.


Constellation Audio
The Constellation Inspiration Series 1.0 preamplifier ($9000) and Mono 1.0 amplifiers ($20,000/pr.) were displaying their amazing prowess driving the new Endeavor Audio E-5 Reference loudspeaker ($35,000/pr.). Sourced by the rock-solid YFS Ref-3 digital file transport ($15,500) feeding the EMM Labs DAC2X DSD DAC ($15,500), with all-Delphi MasterBuilt cabling, it was easy to hear why editor Robert Harley (review January, issue 249) was so taken with the Constellation’s “above class” accomplishments. The Endeavor Audio E-5 Reference readily allowed the Constellation Inspiration electronics uncanny transparency and resolution to provide a startlingly “see through the music into the performance” presentation. The Mono 1.0’s refinement and precise, stable spatial rendering were breathtaking, approaching that of some of the best electronics I’ve experienced.


Allnic
Theorem Science and Care Audio of New Jersey hosted a room with an all-Allnic electronics chain, featuring the DAC D-5000 DHT ($11,900), a pair of 15-watt 300B A-5000 mono amps ($19,900/pr.), driving Mosaic Acoustics Illumination loudspeakers ($20,000/pr.), all sourced from an A Capella II music server ($5500). One of the more intriguing introductions at this event was the Allnic L-5000 DHT linestage preamplifier ($22,900), which Allnic extols as the first commercially produced preamplifier with only directly heated triodes in the signal path. This system produced an engrossingly delicate and intricately layered soundstage, with extended, effortless, and airy high frequencies. Voices were vibrantly lifelike, thanks in part the Allnic’s exquisite portrayal of microdynamics, reproducing all tracks with a delightful immediacy and intimacy.


Aesthetix
One new phonostage caught my ear, the new Aesthetix Rhea Eclipse ($10,000). Using a three-stage 12AX7 gain stage and 6922 outputs, this new phono preamplifier is quite versatile and exquisitely voiced. The Aesthetix Rhea Eclipse was doing the heavy lifting for a phono source that was one of the more expensive systems at this show: the Clearaudio Statement V2 table and TT1 tonearm, fitted with the Goldfinger Statement cartridge ($200,000). Other electronics included the Pass Labs Xs preamp ($38,000) and Aesthetix Atlas monoblock amplifiers ($16,000/pr.), all feeding the new Magico Q7 MkII loudspeakers ($229,000). Though the sound in the room progressively improved over the course of the weekend as the hosts honed in on and resolved room and equipment pairing problems (something not uncommon at a show), the vinyl system regularly excelled presenting musical scale and timbral naturalness and bloom.

Auspicious Debuts

One of the most exhilarating sounding (and looking) exhibits at this year’s event was from retailer The Voice That Is. With all Tidal electronics, including the debuts of its Presencio preamplifier ($77,990), Impulse monoblocks ($64,690), driving Tidal’s Contriva G2 speakers ($69,690/pr., and also a debut), music was sourced from the Aurrender W20 Reference music server ($17,600) and Bricasti M1 DAC ($8995), connected by Purist Audio Design’s Luminist 25th Anniversary ($55,000) cables. From very natural timbre, to dynamic scaling of both the macro and micro varieties, to recreating an expansive soundstage with accurately sized and utterly stable images, this system did so very much right. The Voice That Is gets my commendation for achieving such an engaging and musical exhibit under show conditions.


The suite shared by Classic Audio, Atma-Sphere, and Purist Audio Design provided one of their best presentations in recent memory. While these manufacturers commonly exhibit together, this system comprised a Kuzma Reference table, Tri-Planar Ultimate 12 arm, fitted with the discontinued van den Hul Grasshopper Gold cartridge ($25,000), an Atma-Sphere MP-1 preamp ($20,260), a pair of the relatively recently resurrected Atma-Sphere Novacron amps ($19,200/pr.), and the Classic Audio T-1.5 speakers ($72,950), with Purist Audio Designs new Neptune Series cables ($39,000). While listening and taking special notice of the gorgeous Novacron amplifiers, I spotted The Sheffield Drum Record standing in the stack, and asked John if he’d mind giving it a spin. My jaw hit the floor! I’ve heard that cut on hundreds of systems since its debut in the early 1980s, but I was not prepared for what this system recreated. The dynamics, definition, palpability, and tonality were stunning! This was without a doubt the most lifelike reproduction of this track that I’ve heard.

Dan D’Agostino’s drop-dead gorgeous Momentum gear, including the Stereo Preamplifier ($31,500), and Monoblocks ($55,000/pr.), were in full bloom and really gave the relatively new Wilson Audio Alexia loudspeakers ($55,880) a lilting voice. Sourced with a windows laptop serving the dCS Vivaldi four-box digital system ($108,500) connected with Transparent Audio Generation 5 cabling ($120,000), and all resting on Harmonic Resolution System stands ($45,000), this system was as impressive to look at as to hear.

Once again this year, Simaudio, displaying products exclusively from its Moon Evolution series, and Dynaudio collaborated. Sourced by the AMG Giro G9 table/9W2 arm combination ($10,000), fitted with the AMG Teatro MC cart ($2,750), and the Simaudio 650D DAC and CD player ($8000), the electronics chain included the Simaudio 610LP ($7500) phonostage, the 740P preamplifier ($9500), with the 860A stereo amplifier driving the Dynaudio Evidence Confidence C1 Platinum loudspeakers ($8750/pr.). The entire system was cabled with the remarkably musical Kubala-Sosna Elation. The resulting nearfield sound in that room was spectacular, with surprising weight and remarkable control.


The next room to catch my ear was the O’Hare 2 Suite on the 12th floor. Sources included the AMG Viella Cherry turntable, fitted with the 12J2 tonearm ($17,500) and the DS Audio DS-W1 “Nightrider” optical cartridge ($8500), and the Audio Research REF CD9 DAC/CD player ($13,000). Using Audio Research electronics, including the GS Pre preamplifier ($15,000) and GS-150 stereo amplifier ($20,000), once again wired with a full complement of the wonderful Kubala-Sosna Elation cables. The beautifully appointed Sonus faber Lilium speakers ($70,000) completed the system. This chain of components almost seemed to come alive at times, easily decoding the delicate space of recordings, with very natural tonal color, and a sense of body, bloom, and texture on instrumental voices that was quite natural and relaxed and almost spooky in its lifelikeness.

In Other News

Having somehow lost or misplaced the detailed equipment listing for the exquisite MBL room, I’ll leave it to others to fill you in on the system details. However, my early evening listening in that room, which was all analog tape playback, was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at this or any show in recent memory.

Dropping by the Daedalus Audio/ModWright Instruments/WyWires room was very rewarding. Besides wanting to take a close look at the new ModWright PH-150 tube phonostage ($7900), I couldn’t resist the emotional magic that a ModWright-branded system can evoke. The source was the ModWright-modded Oppo BDP-105D ($2500 mod only) handing off to the all-tube Elyse DAC ($6900). The LS36.5 DM preamplifier, with PS36.5 all-tube power supply ($9995) powered the KWA150 Signature edition ($8490) amplifier, driving the Daedalus Audio Poseidon V.2 loudspeakers ($16,450­–$21,450/pr. depending on finish). The entire system was wired end to end with WyWires cables. I found myself irresistibly drawn in by the articulate, coherent, and harmonically rich sound it generated.


Music Hall introduced the Creek Evolution 100A integrated amplifier ($2195). Using the Music Hall MMF 5.1 ’table with its captive arm and the Magic 3 cartridge ($995), the Tannoy XT-8F loudspeakers ($2600), and Nordost cables, Roy and Leland managed to put together a stunningly musical and engaging system, all at a retail of about $6000. Just how good was it? While in the room, Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds dropped by with a test pressing of “Keith, Don’t Go” from Nils Lofgren’s 1975 eponymous release. Within five seconds of the needle hitting the groove, every listener in that room, myself included, was transfixed! What a marvelously musical synergy, full of detail, with goosebump-producing dynamics and a purity of tone that were just magical. For nearly as long as I can recall, Roy Hall has been finding and promoting affordable, over-achieving products that can entice the novitiate into the fold. This system was a triumphant success.

Another room that could really sing was the King Sound/KR Audio collaboration. Music Vault’s Diamond Ultra music server ($4995) provided ones and zeros to the Allnic D-500 tube DAC ($11,900). KR Audio electronics included the P-130 linestage ($5600) and VA-910 Ultra Linear amps ($16,500/pr.). Speakers were the Kingsound Prince III two-way, full-range ESLs ($9995/pr.), and all wires were from Dana Cable. Detail, microdynamic resolution, and near pitch-perfect timbre were hallmarks of this seductive and engrossing system.

Emotiva released and featured its new XMC-1 preamp ($2499) in both multi-channel and two-channel modes. It offers a high-quality balanced audio signal path, HDMI video switching, and room correction.

Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object): Audio Research/Sonus faber/Kubala-Sosna system. This room effortlessly and consistently promoted the suspension of disbelief, allowing music to “exist” in the space of the room, seemingly independent of the system.

Best Sound (for the money): The combination of the Music Hall MMF 5.1 table with Magic 3 cart, Creek Evolution 100A integrated amp, Tannoy Revolution XT 8F speakers and Nordost cabling created an undeniable magic.

Most Significant Product Introduction: Endeavor Audio’s new E-5 Loudspeaker has all the promise of a game-changer at its price. Full review to come.

Most Significant Trend: Even though the personal audio segment of the market is quite mature, headphones and headphone amps are still showing up everywhere!

Most Coveted Product: The Bricasti M1 DAC. Having heard this DAC in several systems now, it has earned my respect and moved to the top of my short list of sub-$10,000 DACs.