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AXPONA 2013 – Part 3

I read too much, I think that’s fairly clear. Which might explain why, when a fire alarm goes off in a crowded hotel anywhere near Chicago, my first thought isn’t “grease fire over at Gibsons”. This was an audio show, but my first thought wasn’t “blown tube amp squirting jets of burning glass” either. No, my first thought was: “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” I mean, it was Chicago, after all. I’d just finished re-reading all 13 books of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, so I guess I was primed for monsters and fireballs. And since I never got confirmation that there wasn’t a vampire barbeque happening somewhere off stage, I’m going to stick with my own little fantasy, thank you very much.

Aside from the unscheduled visit from our local fire department, the show went over like gangbusters. AXPONA’s Steve Davis says there were over 4,000 attendees, but that next year will be bigger. Stark contrast to the last couple of shows, but whatever was in the air (scorched demon?), it sure was working in Steve’s favor.

Moving on to the gear! Mytek Digital, Pass Labs and Sony loudspeakers have become something of a “regular thing” over the last year, and I for one, couldn’t be happier about the three-way. Ahem. Anyway, here at AXPONA was a new twist – DSD in the round. Three Mytek Digital Stereo 192 DACs ($1,595 each) wired in parallel, were feeding five Sony SS-AR2 loudspeakers ($10k each) and a pair of NA9 subwoofers, for some of the most electrifying audio at the show. A pair of Pass Labs X600.5 amplifiers, supplemented by a trio of 3 Lipinski monoblocks, drove the ping-ponging surriound sound deftly across all corners of my aural compass. That was some crazy stuff, right there. A USB hub connected all three DACs to a Windows computer running JRiver. JRiver “sees” all three DACS, which are automatically assigned channels, and with the right music, you’re done. You’re going to need a slightly more powerful (think Intel I7 cpu) computer than your run-of-the-mill playback machine if you decide to run down that route, so be aware. Some of the DSD surround files on hand included Mahler’s 1st Symphony, a 5.1-channel download from Channel Classics, music from Bluecoast Records, and some SACD rips, like Pink Floyd DSOTM and Dire Straits. For those of you stereo-only folks out there, I think I have the reason to go upgrade that “home-theater only” system you have out in the “other room”. Oh, yeah.

Pass Labs made another entry, surprising at least to me, in the Lowther America room, with an XP-20 preamplifier and an XP-25 phono preamp, facing a pair of First Watt SIT-1 monoblocks and shoveling current into a Lowther-based 3-way. Analog tape (a Technics 1500) sat side by side with an AVID turntable, all squarely sitting on a SolidSteel rack. Rich, immediate, Lowther – and solid state? Definitely not what I was expecting – where are the tubes?!? But I was told this: “Settle down, Beavis. These First Watt amps are amazing.” And guess what? They are. Heh heh. Heh heh. Heh heh.

What else was amazing? The Genesis Advanced Technologies 5.3 loudspeakers ($28,000/pair) over in the other Tweak Studio room! Here paired with Burmester electronics, the Genesis speakers have been a favorite of mine since I stumbled over them at RMAF in 2010. Arnold Martinez of Tweak Studio had a 911 Mk 3 amplifier ($31k) weighing down the bottom of the in the Burmester V3 audio rack ($4,995), matched to a Music Center 111 ($50,000), and a 100 phono with “full options” ($27,500). A Thorens TD 350 turntable with an SME M-2 tonearm ($7,200), mounted with a Magic Diamond cartridge by Blue Electric, upgraded by Peter Lederman of Soundsmith with a saphire cantlilever ($6,500). I got treated to sultry Montreal singer Anne Bisson on high-resolution audio files, vinyl, and live and in her own person (she’s really nice!). This system rocks, and rocks hard.

You’ll know Reinhard Goerner by the bandana – he’s never without it, it’s like a flag, shouting “hey – great sound over here!” Audio Physic, the brand Reinhard brings in, is a show-favorite of mine.  The in-room performance of the Virgo 25+ was extremely satisfying, with a grainless treble, a lovely, clear mid and ample (if not overpowering) bass. What’s not to like? And, as my wife would have put it – they look like speakers (as opposed to space ships, apparently). The “Plus” version here is a special edition, commemorating the company’s 25th anniversary, but I think that was just an excuse to tweak the performance even more. New posts, some new materials, trickle-down footers from the flagship Avanterra, and – ta da! — a new speaker with better bass, detail and presence is on offer. Or so I’m told — all I know is that it sounds great. Price starts at $18k. An Acoustic Signature Storm turntable ($7,500) with a Funk FXR tonearm ($2,995) were demoed with a Trigon Advance phono ($2,995) and a Grandinote Shinai class A, dual-mono, zero-feedback integrated ($16k). A Creaktive Audio-Line 1-4 Aktiv Plus ($2,200) audio rack held all the bits together.

 

The new line source loudspeakers from Newform Research were not what I was expecting. Not that I was expecting anything in particular. But I can’t remember the last time I saw a loudspeaker, even a prototype like the Coaxial Ribbon Line Source, line up the tweeter array in front of the mid/bass drivers. But that’s what they did. With the aid of an outboard DSP system, like what you’d find in a standard home theater preamp – or an audiophile quality room correction device like the DEQX HDP-4 ($5,495) as shown here – you can straightforwardly delay those tweeters to eliminate any time-domain issues. But lining them up this way does do something else – you create a true line source, and one that has “broad and even dispersion while at the same time minimizing diffraction and baffle bounce”. Okey, dokey, says me. All I can say is “it works”. Sound was seamless. Not sure about the durability or aesthetic, but sonically, I get it. Shown two different ways: a series of stacked monitors ($6,800) and as “No Holds Barred” tower ($11,400). An Onkyo TX-SR 818 ($1,300) drove the first; a pair of Wyred4Sound SX-500 and SX-1000 monoblocks drove the second.  Both showed with Atak Sub 12 subwoofers ($1,680) to round out the system.


 

The second “Sony room” featured a pair of the big SS-AR1 ($27k/pair) loudspeakers everyone – myself included – is enamored of. I overheard an exhibitor offer up the following to a puzzled attendee who was asking about “how audiophile Sony really is” – they said, “every ten years or so, Sony goes on a tear and puts out a series of statement-level audio products if for no other reason than to show that it can”. As good a reason as I’ve ever heard for banging out some quality gear, and the SS-AR1 are outstanding. In something of a departure (at least from my expectations), Hegel Audio was the pairing in this room, and here I found the new Hegel P20 preamplifier ($2,900) and the new 32bit HD25 DAC ($2,500) that I first met back at CES in January. The matching H20 stereo amplifier ($5,750), along with the CDP2a disc spinner ($2,650), rounded out the set and all but the DAC wore silver. Hegel, as a brand, has been deadly serious about offering some seriously high-performance gear for high-value pricing – and I can’t be happier about it. A Rega RP6 ($2,500) was paired with a Manley Labs Chinook phono pre ($2,250) for the analog front-end, but it wasn’t playing on my way through. Also unexpected was the über-cabling from Nordost’s flagship Odin line … [insert head-scratching here]. Okay … looks like I had just missed a demo? Anyway, the sound in here would translate really well into my listening room, I’m quite sure, thanks for asking. Hello? Buehler?

Vapor Audio was showing off a pair of stand-mount Cirrus Black monitors ($3,995/pair) when I strolled through – or attempted to, as this room was standing room only. The base-level Cirrus Black features a RAAL tweeter mated to a custom 7” AudioTechnology C-Quenze mid/bass driver in a uniquely shaped cabinet that’s available in a variety of veneers (shown here in an unfortunately yellow and orange) and with a blizzard of upgrade options. Hard to say how the sound was from my position off-axis, but the crowd seemed to be thoroughly digging it. The Due Volte, an 805-based SET monoblock ($5,500) from Arte Forma Audio, with a tube-based Thalia preamplifier ($2,250), and a BMC Audio DAC with an Antipodes computer audio server, rounded out the system.

The Wharfedale Jade 5 ($3,199/pair) was shown with electronics from Marantz and AVID, and this was one of those demos that made me wonder if I’ve overspent on my high-end rig. Everyone talks about how the price/performance curve hits a knee after which you pay an arm and a leg for tiny increments in performance. What I am coming to learn is that the knee happens a bit lower on the pricing scale than many of us believe. Ahem. So … the three-way Jade sports a quartet of aluminum drivers with a laminated cabinet and puts out a very respectable bass extension. The match with Marantz was inspired – shown here with the 90wpc PM-15S2B Limited ($2,499) and the matching SA-152SB Limited ($1,999) SACD player. Rich, smooth, powerful – and under $10k, out the door? Hello, baby!

Meridian makes fine sounding speakers, it’s true, but I think that of late, when I think “Meridian”, I’m thinking “technology”. Case in point is the Explorer ($299), a 24bit/192kHz portable USB DAC. It’s about the size of a cigarette lighter – remember those? It has a headphone jack, an on-board volume control, and a combo analog/Toslink output rather similar to what you find in an iPhone. It’s pretty slick. Back in November, Meridian announced some upgrades, such as “improved linear power supplies, DSP algorithms and new filter designs” to a broad swath of products, including the DSP7200 loudspeakers ($38k/pair). Owners of existing products may be able to upgrade. I’ve been a fan of the speakers for years – they’re attractive and sound great. Contrary to industry norms, pretty much everything you’d need is built into the speaker – you know, stuff like the DAC and the amps. Helpful things. An external controller is all you need to feed your ears pretty music. The idea is compelling, especially if you’re a put off by how complicated a hi-fi system can get, and I have to tell you, simply “networking” your speakers with some flat-wire CAT-5 cabling run under the carpet – and that’s it – sounds a little bit like audio heaven.

Mark Conti was on hand demoing Veloce Audio’s latest, the Veloce Audio LS1 preamplifier ($18,000) Saetta monoblocks ($18,000/pair). Veloce has been working on battery-powered/off-the-grid technology for years now, to no little acclaim. The Saetta monoblocks, which have been in the pipeline now for about 3 years, seem very close to release – orders are in, the final design is done, they’re just waiting on sheet metal. Very exciting! Especially given what I heard coming out of the YG Acoustic Carmel loudspeakers ($18k/pair), from the Accuphase DP-550 ($17,500). Best I’ve heard Veloce? Maybe, yes. This was intoxication, folks. A knockout demo.

Next up was more Sony – and yet again, another Nordost demo that I missed. Thems the breaks, but I wasn’t put off – the new Sony SS-NA2ES ($10k/pair) are quite a treat. The triple-tweeter setup is called I-Array, is crossed over at 4kHz, and consists of three drivers – that much is fairly clear. What’s not is how those three tweeters work together to create the “wide dispersion and ambience of original recordings without adding any unnatural artifacts to the sound.” Arranged in small-big-small configuration, the three are apparently fed the same signal, and yet there’s no combing I could hear – the top end on this speaker is very natural and non-fatiguing. Rated at 45Hz-45kHz, with a 4Ω Impedance and a 90dB/wm sensitivity equals a tidy little package. Definitely in line sonically with the rest of the Sony lineup, which means, surprisingly good. I mean, it’s Sony, right? Yeah. “Just because they can” indeed. Whatever the reason for it, I think it’s a welcome addition to the segment. Good on ya, Sony. Matched here with a 250Wpc Hegel H300 integrated ($5,500) and a Hegel CDP4A CD player ($4,000). A Rega P3 and Manley Labs Steelhead phono preamp were also in the rack, but I didn’t get a chance to hear those. Nordost connected everything, including Blue Heaven LS signal and power cables, a Qb8 distribution system ($1,399) festooned with two QV2 AC Line Harmonizers ($350 each), and a QX4 Electro-Magnetic Field Stabilizer ($2699) that sat in the rack.

 

Ty of Tyler Acoustics was showing off something new – the Highland H3 loudspeakers ($8,500/pair). These are a real departure for Ty. Banished from the baffle were any sign of the pro-audio drivers in his famous Decade loudspeakers. Here, in the Highland, was a full panel of Scanspeak drivers, finished off with a beryllium tweeter. I was stunned! The sound was faster and more detailed than I’ve heard from a Tyler design – he’s on to something here. Specs put the H3 at 28Hz-40k, a sensitivity of 90dB/wm, and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. They’re big; expect to need friends to move the 140lb cabinets around. An eclectic collection of gear filled the rack, including a Transrotor turntable ($11k) with an SME 309 tonearm ($2,900) and a Clearaudio Mystro cartridge ($1,200). A BAT VK-P5 phono stage was connected to a Krell KRC3 preamp ($3,500) and a Conrad-Johnson ET-250 amplifier drove the speakers. An Oppo BDP-105 ($1,199) and an Olive 4HD Music Server ($2,900) did duty for sources. Over $10k of Silnote Audio signal and power cables held the gear together.

A pair of Focal Scala Utopia ($32k) caused my head to whip around. Surprisingly big if not monstrously so, the Scala are 92dB/wm at 8ohms, and with that beryllium tweeter, it can reach up to 40kHz and down to 38Hz on the other end. That latter bit was heartily enjoyed in the demo room, featuring REX II electronics from BAT, including the REX II Reference Linestage ($25k) and a pair of the REX Power II monoblocks ($19,900). The rack was stuffed — starting from the bottom, I saw a reference pairing of the Shunyata Typhon/Triton line conditioner ($10k for both; $5k each), an AVID Pulsare II phono stage ($6,995), an AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable ($24,995k) with an SME V tonearm and a Lyra Kleos phono cartridge, and an Esoteric K-05 SACD/DAC ($8,299). I got treated to vinyl while I was in the room and I was a little bit gobsmacked. Really nice sound in there. I really wanted to take it with me, and it when they said “sure” is when I realized I said that out loud. Whoops. Heh heh. Hmm. Anyway, yes, power and drive seem to be the “thing” in the Utopia lineup.

Speaking of Focal, there was another demo on the lobby level that I seem to have left out, so lemme inject that here. Paired with the new dual-chassis Pass Labs XS-300 mono amplifiers ($85k/pair) were the colossal Focal Grande Utopia ($190k/pair). This is a monster loudspeaker. The digital path to the Pass Labs XP-30 preamplifier ($16,500) was a Playback Designs MPS-5 ($17k). A huge Clearaudio turntable with a Graham tonearm and a Goldfinger Statement cartridge, massaged by a Pass Labs XP-25 phono preamp, provided the analog entertainment and my introduction to Hyperion Knight playing Stravinsky’s Petrouchka on the Wilson Audio pressing. Dynamic? Ha. While 20th Century classical music is really not my cuppa, I have to say, the sound quality and wild dynamics of this recording were absolutely stunning. As in, “I’ve been hit in the face with a two-by-four and cannot move”. Incredible.

Have you seen the KEF demo where the sit a quarter on its side on top of the speaker and ask you to pick some music for playback that would knock it over? I’ve seen it about eight times now and that damn coin has yet to so much as twitch. I was pretty much convinced that they’d super-glued the darn thing, so now I just walk in a flick that bugger into next week as a matter of course. Played here with a rack full of Simaudio Moon gear (380 DAC, 360 CD, 400M monoblock amps), the big KEF Blades were set up on the short wall in this rather modest room, yet they sounded fully on-song. Interesting! Imaging and bass, in a challenging room? Well, yes, actually. They sounded better here than in any room in recent memory. I got so excited that I was randomly sharing this with folks I nearly ran over in the hallway, lugging my camera bag around. Bam! “Sorry about that knee-cap, dude, hey, have you heard the Blades?” Helpful. That’s me.

In the next room, I found another set of KEF loudspeakers, from the Q-Series, fronted by Audio Electronics by Cary Audio. AudiogoN is the exclusive online retailer for the new direct-to-consumer brand, an interesting move for Cary Audio, and a model more manufacturers seem to be exploring. Here, I found a Hercules amplifier ($1,895), good for 30wpc of ultra linear power from a quartet of EL34 tubes, a Constellation preamp ($1,495), and a Lightning DAC ($1,295). A suite of upgrades for each product is available to satisfy your inner tweaker. At a glance (and a surreptitious attempt at a squat-lift), these products are robust — and feature some great specs and quality parts (even prior to stepping on to the upgrade path), at prices that are only possible due to the path to market. An experiment, currently in progress.

I’ve never heard of Van L loudspeakers before, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would have given the unassuming-looking Silhouette ($3,995) more than a passing glance if Dan Wright of ModWright hadn’t forced me to sit still long enough to listen to them. A time-aligned, transmission-line, cabinet with a wood cone woofer. Not wood as in “paper-pulp”, but actually carved out of solid wood. The tweeters were offset and the speakers were set so that the tweeters were on the inside. All that’s well and good, but what’s weird (as in “unusual” and also as in “good”), is something they’re calling “ambient recovery technology”. It’s bit to explain, but the upshot is fairly simple – the speakers use secondary voice coils and an additional speaker-to-speaker connection to create a much wider and better defined sound stage, with a bigger “sweet spot”, while maintaining an extraordinary stereo image all across those seating positions. It’s a neat trick. ModWright gear in the rack included an LS-100 Tube Preamplifier ($3,500), a KWI-200 integrated amplifier with DAC and phono stage ($6,500), and a heavily modified Oppo BDP-105, now with an external tube rectified and regulated power supply and a tube-governed analog output stage ($1,199 for the player, mods are an additional $2,300). Dynamic Design provided all of the signal cables, power cables and a prototype Opto-Signal AC Conditioner ($1,800 for 8 outlets). I did ask Dan the “what’s next” question, to which he replied, “a ModWright DAC”. “Rrrreeeeaaallly,” said I, “tell me more …”, to which he simply winked, grinned, and vanished directly into thin air. I hate that Cheshire Cat trick. 

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