AXPONA 2014: Loudspeakers and Electronics Under $15k

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers
AXPONA 2014: Loudspeakers and Electronics Under $15k

The newly revamped AXPONA was definitely a mixed bag of emotions for attendees and exhibitors alike. As Jonathan Valin and Steven Stone have reported, the new location at the Westin O’Hare was a sonic obstacle course for exhibitors, but at the same time a major upgrade over the previous digs. Small rooms plagued full-range floorstanders with overloaded bass, and the unfamiliar territory left many exhibitors scrambling to tweak, adjust, tweak, and adjust some more. At the same time, those same exhibitors were happy about the new location, the new layout, and the expanded show format. The best part of the show: I met four young siblings who attended AXPONA 2014 off their own accord and purchased their first turntables—kudos to the organizers for attracting younger audiences. The worst part of the show: somebody grabbed my Ludovico Einaudi CD while I was in the Benchmark room—if you arrived home and found an unfamiliar CD in your goody bag, I’d really appreciate its safe return. Otherwise, AXPONA was a blast, and from what I could tell the attendance was large, diverse, and happy to roam the halls in search of great sound.

Top Five Systems

Madison Fielding Planter Speaker
Is that a…planter box? Yep. But the Madison Fielding Flagstone Planter Speaker ($3200/pr) is also an outdoor, weatherproof speaker. You can actually plant some pretty flowers in this speaker (there is a drain) and enjoy really great tunes at the same time. And yes, it sounds good, too. I couldn’t believe that these very unique speakers produced such a convincing soundstage, one with solid imaging and low-end extension down to 35Hz. They will by no means compete with a full-range tower in overall presentation, but I’m sure many audiophiles would like to enjoy music in the backyard without sacrificing soundstage or aesthetics. Driven by a Parasound Halo A21 amp, the Flagstone Planter Speaker put out lots of quality sound, and not just the kind of background music produced by most outdoor speakers. What’s not to love about audiophile-quality music in the great outdoors?

Endeavor Audio E3
You might not know Endeavor Audio, but you should. The E3 floorstanders ($6995/pr) are perfect for the all-around music lover, and excel at general reproduction without being confined to any particular genre. The E3s produce a surprisingly wide and deep soundstage, and sacrifice little in terms of imaging. The low end was a little overloaded at times, but the tiny rooms were to blame; I have the E3s in my home system right now and boominess isn’t a problem. The front end and electronics definitely helped, though they were way out of my price category: YFS Ref-3 music server ($15.5k), EMMLabs DAC2x ($15.5k), Constellation Virgo II preamp ($25k), and Constellation Centaur amp ($27k).

Daedalus Argos Version 2
Daedalus is doing something right with their Argos V2 ($12,950/pr) floorstanders, which dig down to 28Hz, are 97dB, and produce a sound unlike any box speakers I’ve heard in this price range. Their lush, seductive presentation wasn’t just a result of the (almost) all-tube electronics from ModWright, but also due to their hardwood cabinet. Issues with wood-cabinet resonances aside, these speakers are truly musical, with a very wide soundstage and great imaging found in more expensive and analytical speakers. Some might find the sound a bit too laid back for certain genres, but the rich tonality was more pronounced due in part to the electronics: A modified Oppo BDP-105D with an all-tube analog stage and external tube power supply ($2500, mod only) was fed into a new ModWright Elyse DAC (price TBD), the dual-chassis, dual-mono LS 36.5 DM preamp ($9995), and KWA 150 Signature Edition hybrid amp ($8495). WyWires connected everything, and Daedalus provided their own custom rack.

Salk Soundscape 8
Jim Salk and Frank Van Alstine joined forces to produce some of the best mid-priced sound at the show. The Salk Soundscape 8 floorstanders ($7995/pr) are beautiful throughout the highs thanks to a RAAL ribbon tweeter, and two 8-inch woofers and two 12-inch passive radiators help to achieve a very low 25Hz. Van Alstine electronics included the Fet Valve Hybrid DAC ($1899), Fet Valve CF tube preamp ($1899), and the Fet Valve 600R hybrid power amp ($3199), which outputs a very robust 300W. Imaging seemed to be pulled to the left a bit, but that was most likely due to the proximity of the side-by-side demo with Salk’s new Exotica 3 ($12k), which features servo-controlled 12-inch active radiators and great low-end drive. I preferred the Soundscape 8 to the new Exotica 3, at least in terms of overall sonic presentation—especially in the mids and highs. The Exotica 3 dominated in low-end damping, finesse, and convincing reproduction of the electric bass in Zero 7’s “Summersault,” but I’d personally want to own the Soundscape 8 and save the $4k for other components. Frank Van Alstine’s gear is a heck of a bargain and represents that old-school passion when high-end audio was something built in a garage. What I mean by that is he will fix minor equipment problems for free, will upgrade any older models to the latest design, and only charges for the upgrades you really want. Base models can be enhanced with little upgrades; add a front-panel push-button power switch, silver faceplate, and LED indicator lights to your power amp for $300, for example. This allows the budget-conscious audiophile to prioritize sound quality first, and upgrade features as money permits.

Zu Audio Druid
The guys at Zu Audio were showing off their extremely sensitive Druid loudspeaker ($5200), which has a 101dB rating at 16 ohms nominal and sounded pretty great with the Peachtree Nova125 integrated. Fronted by a vintage turntable and Jasmine Audio Phono 2 ($700), this system offered sweet soundstaging and above-average imaging on my vinyl copy of Buena Vista Social Club Live at Carnegie Hall. Even though the Druids are rated down to 30Hz, low-end extension was a mix between a little thin and a little boomy, which was somewhat confusing—again, room issues plagued AXPONA. Besides the slight bass fluctuations, the Druids sounded great, and were a treat to listen to.


Lawrence Audio Violin
In the Audio Archon room, the Lawrence Audio Violin ($7500) was paired with Australia’s Melody AN211 integrated SET amp ($5700), MG Audio cables, and a very beautiful Krolo Design rack. The Lawrence Audio Violin is the younger sibling to the larger Cello, but has many sonic similarities and styling for less than half the price. Driven by the 16W, AN211 (which, as its name suggests, uses 211 power tubes), the Violins really shined when we played a few jazz standards.

Merrill Audio Veritas Monoblocks
Though paired with the gargantuan $40k four-way Sadurni Acoustics Staccato horn “system” mentioned in Jonathan Valin’s show report, the Veritas monoblocks come in at a “more affordable” $12k for a pair. Each monoblock features a great-sounding amalgamation of Stillpoints Ulramini riser footers, Synergistic Research tunnel fuse, Cardas billet copper speaker posts, a custom power cord by Triode Wire, and are fully balanced differential Class D amps capable of 400W into 8 ohms and up to 1,200W into 2 ohms. This system, fronted by a Meitner MA-1 DAC ($7500) and Miracle Audio Divinitive XR preamp ($5100)—which, I will admit, I’ve never seen or heard of until this show—had the deepest soundstage at AXPONA, extremely low noise floor, and incredible dynamics. If only they could have had a much larger room to stretch out, the 110dB Sadurni Staccatos could have really let loose. I didn’t have a chance to listen to the vintage Sony APR 5002 reel-to-reel deck, but I’d love to pair this system with something from United Home Audio. Speaker cables and interconnects were proprietary from Merrill Audio, and ran $1150 each.

Purity Audio, Hegel, and Kingsound
Kingsound was showing off their King III electrostatic loudspeakers ($14,995) paired with the Purity Audio Reference balanced, transformer coupled linestage preamp ($10,995), Purity Audio Harmonia 300B tube source buffer stage ($5,500), and Hegel H30 350W power amp ($15k). Fronted by the new M2Tech DSD DAC ($1699) and connected with Dana cables, this system screamed classic electrostat transparency and finesse. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to play my reference material due to an in-progress sale (which says a lot about the quality of the speakers), but the King III electrostats were sublime, and as JV noted suffered little from the room, unlike some of their neighbors.

Jolida Luxor Electronics
In the second room with the MBL 116Fs and United Home Audio Phase11S-PB tape deck ($26k with external power supply), Jolida made a serious showing—after they dialed in the room. Though on Friday and most of Saturday the phase was off and the sound wasn’t quite right, by Sunday this system shined. It featured the Jolida Luxor VT dual-mono preamp ($6k) and four Luxor VTM 100 Monoblocks ($7500 each) using the new KT150 output tube, which had absolutely no issues driving the MBLs. I find that the 116Fs tend to be pretty bright, so when Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood was cued on the UHA deck, I was both ecstatic and nervous about how SRV’s piercing guitar would sound. Generally, SRV can be pretty overwhelming when listening at loud volumes for even short periods of time. (My first memory of this was during one of his concerts in Austin when I was a kid, just a few months before he died.) I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tubed Luxor amps mellowed everything enough to keep the brightness at bay, and the taut, punchy bass that reel-to-reel is so famous for was stunning. Even though the individual amps and preamps are under the $15k category price point, the overall cost of this system makes it a little too expensive to place in the top five.

Other Notables

The Sonist Audio Recital 3 ($1895) bookshelf speakers were incredible, and offered amazing low-end extension despite their 45Hz bottom. They reminded me of some of Raidho’s really amazing mini monitors that have such great bass response, except—of course—not quite the speaker. Nearfield listening produced an incredibly detailed soundstage. At 92dB and wired with sister company Snake River, the Recital 3s would have easily made my Top Five, except for concerns with availability and distribution.

As Steven Stone mentioned, the Emerald Physics CS3 MK2 and DSP2.4 crossover/equalizer ($3500) was a very great sounding speaker indeed, though its low end was aided thanks to the REL T9 300W powered subwoofer ($1200). I found the soundstage to be crammed a little too much down the center, but the imaging was great when simpler solo piano was played. Paired with the new Emerald Physics 100.2 100W digital amp ($1600), this system is very affordable and would be great for fans of jazz, solo instrumental, or solo vocal.

The Spatial Hologram M2 “boxless dynamic speaker” ($1995) sounded particularly good with the Prism Sound Lyra DAC/preamp ($2300) and two Red Dragon 500W Class D mono blocks ($800 each) connected by Spatial proprietary wiring. The sound of these speakers is quite unique, and the boxless design gives everything a lighter, more airy touch. Bass was a little thin, yet the control of the Class D made up for the lack of extension. Benchmark entered the world of speakers with their new SMS1 bookshelf speakers ($2450), which were impressive in both soundstaging and imaging, but lacked in the bass department. Great clarity on solo piano and vocals. One of the great pleasures on the bottom floor—besides the expensive rooms—was the Tyler Acoustics room which featured two great speakers, including the Insight ($5500) in “green tiger maple.” Aesthetically, these speakers aren’t my cup of tea, but their sound quality, imaging, and 30Hz depth made up for their “unique” styling. Fronted by an older VPI turntable with Grado Platinum cartridge, Rogue Audio phono, and Rogue Audio Magnum integrated ($2500), Buena Vista sounded shockingly good with tight low-end majesty. The big problem is that you will need to go to an audio show in order to hear these, as everything is factory direct. Worth putting on your bucket list, though.

Audioengine killed it once again with their A2+ ($249) and A5+ ($399) powered speakers, which are the best deal in high-end audio speakers, and are a must have for anyone looking for great sound with not a lot of space.

Best Sound (Cost no Object): The Hanson Audio room with Clearaudio, Plinius, Octave, and nearfield listening with the Magico S3s. First time I’ve heard them nearfield, and it was spectacular, with soundstage and imaging I could reach out and grab.

Best Sound (For the Money): The Audioengine A5+ wins in this category. Like the smaller A2+ desktop speakers, the A5+ is an incredible bargain, and features everything you need to have great sound with little setup and a tight budget.

Most Significant Product Introduction: The VPI Nomad turntable, which features a built-in phonostage, headphone amp, plus a pre-mounted Ortofon 2M Red cartridge for $995. It’s a game changer.

Most Significant Trend: The increasing awareness of the importance of high-quality music among the general public. It’s a trend that will sustain the high-end industry well into the future.

Most Coveted Product: I dream of one day having the UHA Phase 11S reel-to-reel deck in my listening room. Nothing beats those tapes.