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AXPONA 2013 – Part 4

For a vendor, an audio show is an expensive thing. There’s several thousand dollars they put out for the demo space, there’s the shipping and handling, the room and board, and the opportunity costs associated with doing the show and not doing something else. It’s not insignificant—and this is repeated for every show they do. If you see anyone on “the circuit” more than once in a year and you know they’re laying out serious cash. And that’s just one of the reasons why I feel bad for not taking a few minutes to at least acknowledge their investment in a show report. In some ways, it’s the least I can do. That said, I still don’t always make it through the list. Perhaps there are too many rooms, or there are too many people, or I’m just too lazy—take your pick. But the upshot is that I feel guilty about missing rooms. So, apologies to the Transmission Audio, Blue Circle, Sonus Faber and ARC, April Music, Classic Audio, Linn Audio, Bigston, Don Keele, and any other room I might have been unable to spend time in. Mea culpa.

In his coverage, Robert Harley talked about the two Promusica rooms featuring Dynaudio/Naim combos. As he mentioned, these rooms sounded remarkable—but I was struck with how remarkably similar they were. Which makes sense – you know, family resemblances and all that, but to pick one out, the sound coming from the larger Confidence C-2 Signature (starting at $13,500) was extraordinary. See Robert’s comments for more details.

Rega is celebrating their 40th birthday this year, a birthday I remember with some fondness, and I for one am happy that Rega is making us all a gift of their new RP-8 ($3,490, including arm and Exact cartridge). The design is minimalist and modern—and altogether sexy. Played through a Rega Brio R integrated amp ($895), and Rega RS3 floor-standing speakers ($1,395/pair), the sound was far better than the price tag suggests. Affordable audio rules!

I thought the made-in-Ohio JansZen ZA2.1 ESL loudspeakers ($7,495/pair) each with their own Bryston Power Pac 250 amp ($2,350) bolted to their tail, were really interesting. A sealed enclosure with dual 7” drivers crossed over at 500Hz, with a dual ESL panel for the rest of the band, the configuration is a “controlled dispersion” arrangement with rather limited horizontal and vertical dispersion. Settling down into the listening position was like sitting in the optometrist’s chair when the “right” prescription finally clicks into the machine he’s got you peering through. And—snap. Suddenly, the sound was fast, punchy, and detailed. The made-in-Toronto exaSound DAC does have a built-in digital volume control, so that explains its use here as a preamp. The e20 ($2,495) is capable of 32bit/384kHz and double-DSD resolution/sampling over USB—and it has a headphone output.

The Leonardo Model 8 loudspeaker ($65k/pair) uses a push-pull ribbon-planar arrangement to move the air. It’s neat. And it was set up here with no toe-in and only about a foot off the sidewall. Not what you’d think would be an ideal setup, would you? Well, it was working! The speakers were paired with some truly posh-looking Art Deco styled 50TNT 50wpc monoblocks from Audio Power Labs ($47,500/pair). Laufer Teknik’s Memory Player 64 music server was used as a DAC and preamp ($17,500 base price) and Kaplan power cords with High Fidelity Cables CT-1 Ultimate signal cables rounded out the setup. A happy discovery, this room; the sound was extremely clear and coherent. I went in with a smile and left with a grin….

When I walked into the Music Hall demo room, Roy Hall was pouring drinks and talking smack, so feeling full of myself, I knew I was in the right place for an attitude adjustment. Being press, I was promptly demoted to He Who Aspires To Pond Scum, and while I was shown about the place, thoughts of “long, shallow money trenches” kept bouncing around my bat-addled brain. Roy was showing off a pile of new, reasonably priced, bits, including the new Ikura turntable ($TBD, will ship with tonearm and cart) with a white plinth and a Music Hall cork mat. Marimba bookshelf speakers ($349/pair) were plopped on stands, bracketing a rack filled with a Creek Evo 50a integrated amp ($1,195), an outboard Creek OBH-15Mk2 phono pre ($599) and a Music Hall DAC 15.2 ($299). The music was turned companionably low for the late afternoon crowd, so I didn’t get to make much of it, but Roy did offer me a shot, and when he didn’t immediate reach for his concealed carry, I considered it something of a victory.

 

Audioengine has been cranking out some extraordinary desktop audio products for forever (okay, maybe not forever), and they’re still my default recommendation for anyone looking to bootstrap their computer into 21st century audio. The A2+ ($249/pair) is their latest in microaudio. It includes an integrated DAC with a volume control—all you need to add is the computer! They’re tiny, too—you can stick ‘em right in the briefcase, so no worries about your fellow cube-rats walking off with ‘em. Should be available soon.

D&M were on hand to show off some new bits from the audio mothership, including the really hot looking Marantz NA-11S1 network audio player ($3,500) from the refreshed “Reference” line. While I miss the champagne-colored chassis that marked that line, the new streamer has big chunky buttons and weighs more than my dog. Pandora, Spotify and SiriusXM are handled directly from the Internet, while computers can be attached directly via USB or remotely via Ethernet (Bluetooth and Wi-Fi require add-ons). According to the folks manning the room, the NA-11S1 has pretty much the same guts as the their flagship SACD player (SA-11S3, also $3,500), minus the transport of course. I asked when or if Marantz actually plans to ship a single box with the transport and all the fancy networking features that the streamer has, but I only got a shrug. Oh well. Shipping on the streamer begins soon.

To hear the Forum Folk tell it, Salk Sound and AVA never get “mainstream” coverage; covering it here will likely annoy a great many folks. I like that. I got to hear both the Song Tower ($3,495) and the Soundscape 8 ($7,995) at AXPONA, and not surprisingly, I was quite taken with the latter, which featured a slightly offset RAAL tweeter, an Accuton mid-range driver and a pile of 8” drivers. Big, powerful sound in a suboptimal setup, and on balance, it was really quite good. Audio by Van Alstine gear filled out the audio rack, including a FETValve hybrid DAC ($2,499), with an Oppo player and a Salk StreamPlayer feeding it. A FET Valve hybrid preamplifier ($2,499), Transcendence 8+ vacuum tube preamp ($1,299), an ABX switcher (a remotely switchable comparison unit with support for up to 2 pre, 2 power amps, 3 sets of speakers with or without subwoofers with 1/10th dB volume matching and a “double blind test mode” — $1,500), a Synergy 450 ($1,999) for 220wpc, a pair of FET Valve 600R amplifiers ($3,499), filled the lower half. A Humdinger (10amps, $125), used to remove DC-offset from the AC line, was wired inline, behind the rack.

The Monitor 2 from Soundfield Audio ($1,800/pair) was another pleasant surprise for me, and AJ was beaming the entire time we cranked through an impromtu tour of 80s and 90s rock, settling on some Alice in Chains and just going to town. The new Monitor 2 features all-new drivers for AJ, a horn-loaded compression mid-range driver, a conventional bass driver and a little-bitty super-tweeter, working in concert to create perfect waves of measured flatness across the band. I’d love to hear it in more congenial environs, with some serious room treatments, as the Monitor 2 was certainly lighting up the room. More info coming soon as AJ finalizes the package. MG Audio Designs awesome new, huge, flat, yes-it-really-is-a-ribbon Planus III speaker cables sprang out the back of the Belles Audio Power Modules amplifier.

The Harbeth 30.1 ($5,995/pair) loudspeakers are simply lovely, both in looks and sound, here driven by Rogue Audio’s new Sphinx ($1,295). I should have known better, but I was taken aback. This was a very nice combo! A ClearAudio Performance DC turntable ($3,000 with the Verify carbon fiber tonearm) was connected to a Rogue Ares phono preamp ($1,995). Earlier (and later in the show), the Ares connected to a reference Hera preamplifier ($8,995) and a pair of M-180 monoblocks ($5,995), but on my tour through, the Sphinx was standing in for those. As for the sound, I sat down with an amiable Mark O’Brien, and was completely fooled—I could have sworn it was the reference gear playing. The Sphinx is 100wpc tube-hybrid Class-D amp and very definitely worth a look.

Newcomer Sonic Hemisphere had a pair of their loudspeakers on display, the Fidelity One ($5,750/pair), a 3-way/6ohm floor-standing model, and the Fidelity Monitor ($1,925/pair), a stand-mounted 2-way. I was quite taken with the former, and stopped by several times to hear the big guy get handled by the pair of Clayton Audio monoblocks. Great first offering, here!

 

I found the Blue Smoke room to be deeply satisfying, but I wasn’t expecting it to. First, the TAD CR-1 loudspeakers are not known for being kind or forgiving, so seeing them paired with some large Parasound monoblock amplifiers, I fully expected to back out of the room as fast as I’d bulldozed my way in. Not that the Parasound amps are bad, not at all, just not what I’d pair with those TADs in, like, a bazillion years. The secret to the setup, according to Ron Laporte, was in the unassuming server feeding the MSB Platinum Diamond DAC IV (with Power Base) in the rig. The server was almost invisible to my jaded eye as it looks like just about every other $1,000 off-the-shelf media server I’ve come across in the last six months. The interesting bits are all on the inside, of course, but amounted to a custom “software pipeline” written and developed exclusively by Blue Smoke, leveraging the innards of Windows and tweaking them beyond any recognition—and completely impenetrable—to that original operating system. The result? The best media server software available today, they say. Curiously, the team is completely agnostic to the actual playback software used—it just doesn’t matter anymore, they seemed to say, once the back-end has been sorted out. Anyway, this means that you can use JRiver and a room correction set of templates to customize your experience, or whatever tickles your fancy. The only really different bit, at least that yielded itself to my powers of perception, was the I2S interface proprietary to the MSB line of DACs. Said I, “Ah-ha!” The Black Box II is currently in prototype, but should be available shortly. Expected retail is $8,000. I know, that’s a stunning amount of money for what looks and sounds like a DIY server, but all I can say is this—whatever they’re doing, whether it’s the “jitter-free” I2S or the impenetrable audio software—it was working a treat. This was one of the very best sounds at AXPONA.

Convergent Audio Technology makes the biggest, baddest, tube amps on the market. Says me, yes, but then, this is me writing, so there. Anyway, the JL5 Triode Stereo Amplifier ($12k) was announced back at CES, and it’s arrival marks the shift at CAT to the new KT120 power tube. Shown here with the Django XL loudspeakers from Marten Designs ($15,000/pair), the still-in-a-prototype-chassis JL5 derived from its big brother, the JL2, the sound was slammin’. A CAT SL-1 Renaissance tube preamplifier (with phono—$10k) was connected to a Townshend Rock 7 turntable with DC motor ($5,100 for both) with Helius Omega tonearm ($5,100) and Brinkmann Pi cartridge ($2,700). I heard the digital side, coming from an Esoteric K-01 SACD/DAC ($19,500) with G0rb clock ($17,000). The newly revived Magnan Cables provided the signal and power cables. Marten distributor Dan Meinwald, there representing his dealer Chicago’s Kiyomi Audio, scared the crap out of everyone in the room by tilting the Townshend Seismic Stand (~$3,500) back and forth. Dude. Stop that. Seriously.

The second Kiyomi Audio room featured the CAT JL2 Mark 3 ($22k), the top of the line preamp, the CAT Legend ($20k, with phono), an Acoustic Signature Thunder turntable ($13,500) with a Funk FXR 12” tonearm ($3,100) and a Van Den Hul Colibri cartridge ($7,000). It must have been the timing, because I missed that excellent analog system and instead caught the Esoteric P03 transport ($13k) playing into a prototype non-oversampling tube DAC from Stealth ($TBD, but preliminary pricing puts it at $24k) featuring Western Electric 417A on the output stage. The Verity Audio Amadis ($30,000) loudspeakers sounded superb, and as good as I’ve ever heard them sound. Of note were the helium-filled Stealth Sakra and Dream cables crossing the floor. Yes, I said “helium filled”. I have no idea why. But I do know that they look uncomfortably like alien life forms sent here to strangle me in my sleep. Eek.

The Beauty of Sound/KT Audio Imports collaboration room had a tremendous display, with more glass and chrome than I’m used to seeing in one place. I was mesmerized by all the reflections. The Triangle Art turntables, including the Reference ($16,500) and the Signature ($12,500), are big hunks of liquid metal. The Ikeda IT407CR1 12” tonearm ($6,500) and Ikeda Kai moving coil cartridge ($10k), were feeding signals into a Tube Guru ECC 808 phono preamp ($4,400), in turn connected to electronics from NAT Audio, including a Magnetostat “Reference Vacuum Tube Line Stage” ($17,490) and a pair of Magma monoblocks ($44,990/pair). That latter features a stunning-looking 450 vacuum tube, good for 160wpc of single-ended, Class-A power. Phobos loudspeakers from Eventus Audio ($19,500), here in complementary silver finish, made all the music. And sweet music it was. Kaplan Cables, a Slagle Step-Up transformer, and a Pi Audio uberBUSS rounded out the system.

Scaena brought the magic and the music with their reference/10th anniversary edition “Silver Ghost” loudspeaker system ($153k). Audio Research’s  Reference products were matched to the Vivaldi digital system from dCS, and the result was electrifying. This is one setup that would definitely benefit a bouncer as some guy from The Absolute Sound kept hogging up the sweet spot. Sheesh. Anyway, I mention it because while the sound off-axis was still quite transparent, true holography is reserved for the center seat. A stunning-looking speaker, the Silver Ghost is, not surprisingly, mirrored, and while easier to photograph than the pearlescent finish on the “regular” Scaena loudspeakers, these guys clearly are messing with me.

The last “big surprise” of AXPONA came from the jokers over at Peachtree Audio. David Solomon looked on bemusedly while Jon Derda seemingly veered off script suddenly, magically producing a small tabletop box about this size and shape of Sonos satellite loudspeaker. He set this down on a side table, talking about a new Peachtree venture they’re calling “deepblue”. The speaker system, still awaiting its last aesthetic tweaks before an announcement later this year, is very compact and is completely active. An analog input was promptly wired to a laptop via a Dragonfly DAC from Audioquest, and the little deepblue system suddenly pounded out some shockingly deep bass. Jon, his roguish grin appearing like a rabbit out of a hat, turned the bass both up and down—yes, there are contour filters available to tune the box to your particular setup. Sweet! And the sound? It beats the snot out of the tabletop systems I’ve heard lately. And then Jon yanked the analog cord out. That sneak had been playing the entire time via Bluetooth to the integral DAC in the unit. The name suddenly makes sense now, eh? The final shock? The target price is $399. I’m still flabbergasted. Expect to hear a lot more in the coming months.

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