AXPONA 2014: Loudspeakers and Electronics Under $15k—Part 2
In an effort to dig a little deeper into the world of loudspeakers and electronics under $15,000 at AXPONA 2014, I wanted to follow up my standard-length report with a second report that shed a little more light on the matter. There were a lot of really great systems at AXPONA 2014 that I didn’t have room to cover, so let’s consider this an addendum to my initial report. As everyone who was there has already mentioned, room acoustics were a free-for-all that could go either way, both good and bad. But, I feel that a professional reviewer should have the ability to discern—for the most part—what is room resonance, and what is poor design. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we as consumers don’t have the luxury to buy multiple systems, take them home, and attempt to determine whether that system is a good match for our room or not. I know that I personally want to purchase a system that will sound good in most rooms, not just a few. What happens if I move? I’d sure hate to have a loudspeaker and components that perform well only under ideal room conditions.
Benchmark SMS1, Benchmark AHB Amp, and DAC2
Benchmark has long been known for their really superb, pretty affordable prosumer electronics and DACs, but at AXPONA they were showing off their foray into loudspeakers. The Benchmark SMS1 ($2450/pr) stand-mounted loudspeakers were certainly an impressive debut, with a really sweet midrange and top end that shined when I played alt-classical composer Ludovico Einaudi’s latest In a Time Lapse. His solo piano work is hauntingly beautiful, but it’s the track “Experience” that really shined on the Benchmark SMS1s. Listening was nearfield, and even though I missed a little bit of the low-end oompf that larger systems convey, the SMS1s traveled down to a respectable 44Hz and provided a refined soundstage that was plenty wide, though maybe a little lacking in depth. Then again, they are stand mounted, small, affordable, and shouldn’t be compared to a $100k system in a large room—of course the soundstage depth is going to be better with those.
Fronting the system was, of course, a Benchmark DAC2 ($1995) and powering everything was the new-to-me Benchmark AHB2 ($2995), which is named after founder Allen H. Burdick—though ironically this amp is also a Class A/B and Class H amp. Class H employs an infinitely variable supply rail, while the output stage operates at maximum efficiency at all times. Class H has the advantage (like Class G, which is a somewhat interchangeable term among manufacturers) of less electromagnetic interference, which effect Class D designs. The AHB2 outputs a respectable 100W into 8 ohms and can be bridged mono for 340W. Because the dynamic range is almost 130dB, the AHB2 is somewhat quieter than other amps, and this was noticeable throughout my listening of solo piano, and piano accompanied by violin and cello. Again, for small rooms and nearfield listening, this is a superb system for $7500.
Aerial Acoustics and Musical Design
Another really great affordable system was the Aerial Acoustics 5b stand-mounted loudspeakers ($2500). These speakers were extremely musical, with a sweet mid/treble range and great soundstaging. Imaging was a little skewed, but my brain might have been making comparisons with some full-range floorstanders in the previous room. Fronted by an Exemplar 105 universal player ($5k), Musical Design Chameleon Elite preamp ($2500), Musical Design T-100 Elite MkII 100W hybrid amp ($2200), a REL sub ($1500), a rack from Elevated Audio, and cables/conditioning from Mosaic and Shunyata, this system was highly rewarding and made me want to listen to music, which is the point of a stereo system. I didn’t have a chance to listen to the system without the REL sub, so I can’t comment too much on low-end extension, but overall the room was less boomy than others (powered subs tend to help with control of room modes). This is another system for those who have a small room and listen nearfield, which is great for that solo piano, solo vocal, or other less demanding music. Audio Bunker did a good job setting everything up, and I was impressed by the overall presentation.
Audioengine A5+ Powered Stand-Mount Speakers
I’ve been a happy camper for the last four months with the Audioengine A2+ powered desktop speakers ($249), which are simply amazing little creatures that fill my workspace with sweet music and are actually worthy of being called a high-end product. The big brothers of the A2+ speakers are the A5+ ($399), which offer more power (50W versus the A2+ 15W) lower frequency response, and much better imaging and soundstaging. These are speakers that you can listen to in a normal nearfield setup and be blown away by what you get for $399. They have a built-in USB DAC input (limited to 48/16, though), RCA and mini-jack inputs, and are everything you need to get rockin’ in no time. Great for a dorm room, the bedroom, the workshop, or anywhere else you need powered speakers and great sound. Low-end extension is respectable and will provide plenty of oompf for what you are actually paying (come on, they are $399!), and are truly commendable for the amount of quality sound they produce.
Red Dragon Audio Monoblocks
Alongside the Spatial Hologram M2 ($1995), Red Dragon Audio was showing off its M500 MkII Class D monoblock amps ($799 each) that shell out 500W into 4 ohms. Now, call me crazy, but pairing 500W monoblock amps with a speaker rated at 100dB sensitivity seems…crazy! But I kind of like crazy, and the system sounded really good for all its excessive power. This is just me, but if I were building a system and had a budget (isn’t that basically everyone?), I would spend more of my money on front end and speakers, buy a pair of these, and then upgrade down the road. Heck, you may even like them enough to keep them around forever. Fronted by a Prism Sound Lyra 1 DAC/pre ($2300), and connected with Spatial proprietary wiring that ran about $450, this system sets you back a less than $6400. In the world of high-end audio that’s a steal, especially for the sound quality.
JansZen teamed up with exaSound in room 454 to produce some really wonderful sound from the electrostatic hybrid zA2.1 ($8750), which was reviewed by Robert E. Greene in issue 239 (also available online). Now, just because a company is a pioneer and invents one of the most important technologies in high-end audio—namely Arthur Janszen, who invented the electrostatic speaker—doesn’t mean they always continue to do great things, but David Janszen (Arthur’s son) has carried on his father’s legacy and makes a great speaker. I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to it at home, but at AXPONA the speakers sounded really great, with a lithe blissfulness that comes from electrostats. The beauty of these speakers is that, unlike other really large electrostats, rear wall reflections don’t play a role (AKA they aren’t dipole), and you can put them right up against the back wall. They are also somewhat diminutive at 38-inches tall, though definitely not in sound quality, which makes for easy integration in a main living area. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a dedicated listening room, so the fact that these speakers can “disappear” into the everyday hustle and bustle that is the contemporary American living room means bonus points for significant other approval. Now, I feel like I’m parroting the JansZen literature, but these speakers really are highly precise and wide in the soundstage department, while simultaneously remaining faithful in the image department. For some people, electrostats are the only real “hi-fi” speaker, but the lack of low-end extension is a major sacrifice. Enter the hybrid. The zA2.1 scrapes its way down to 30Hz, which should be plenty for all but the most demanding of listeners. Powered by the Van Alstine Fet Valve 600R 300W hybrid power amp ($3199) and fronted with the exaSound e22 DSD DAC ($3500), this system sparkled with electrostat clarity, and avoided (most) of the top-end brightness. Oh, and guess what, room acoustics weren’t an issue, one of the rarities of this show.
MBL C51 Integrated Amp
Whether you like to write MBL or be cool German schikimicki and write mbl, the C51 integrated amp ($11k) from one of Germany’s (and the world’s) finest hi-fi manufacturers is one sweet piece of equipment. I had ample opportunity to listen to it and the 116F Radialstrahlers during the Montreal Audio Show, and let me tell you, it packs a serious Faustschlag. Unfortunately, it was on static display at AXPONA in favor of mbl’s (MBL?) monoblocks, but it’s a work of art, both in sound quality and styling. With five RCA inputs and one XLR (with an option for a second), and a beefy 180W per channel, this integrated will drive just about any speaker with ease and grace. And, if you decide you need something really beefy, the integrated has outputs for an external amp, so it provides the flexibility of future upgrade (and will function just fine as a preamp). Do yourself a favor and listen to it at a show near you.
DeVore Orangutan O/96 and Resolution Audio
DeVore was showcasing their Orangutan speakers ($12k) in conjunction with Resolution Audio’s supremely cool looking Cantata Music Center ($4k) and equally cool Cantata C50 Amp ($6895). The Orangutan is a pretty sensitive 96dB speaker, so don’t make any monkey jokes (yes, I know an Orangutan is not a monkey, so no hate mail). When I listened to these speakers playing Zero 7’s “Summersault,” I wasn’t bothered by the “room slap” that Steven Stone talked about in his report, though I definitely know where he’s coming from. DeVore probably could have done a better job with acoustic treatment, but it wasn’t an issue during my listening. In fact, I really liked the Orangutans, especially their 25Hz low end. The electric bass on “Summersault” was really great, taut, and stayed precise in a sweet soundstage. DeVore’s room was larger than a lot of rooms at AXPONA, so this helped them to spread out and sound better. The Orangutan O/96s are 10 ohm nominal, so some of my favorite amps might not play as nice with them (damping factors and such), but lower powered tube amps probably would really enjoy these. Overall, great imaging, superb soundstage that was both deep and wide and somewhat tall, and great musicality.
Others to Know
Even though I was covering Loudspeakers and Electronics under $15k, a cable company and a rack company deserve some special love. Verastarr makes some really amazing cables, including their pure copper foil Grand Illusion ($1998) power cable and silver foil Grand Illusion Signature power cable ($3899 6ft), as well as their foil Grand Illusion bi-wire speaker cables ($2598) and interconnects ($1399-$1750). I know that these are somewhat pricy, but these cables have to be the most flexible in the industry. You can actually bend them in half, fold them at 90-degree angles, and snake them around just about anything. And they sounded amazing in the Vapor/Lampizator/Purity room. If you’ve ever struggled with super thick, inflexible cables in your system (haven’t we all?), these are like a dream come true. Superb build quality, sound quality, and aesthetics make these cables a definite audition for anyone looking in this range.
Krolodesign is building some of the most beautiful and functional racks around, and more and more exhibitors seem to be using them, which is a good sign for them. The TOMO audio rack comes in wood or aluminum, and prices vary depending on all the options, but if you need to upgrade that plywood and cinder block rack you cobbled together back in your bachelor days, check out the wares at Krolodesign. Expect to pay around $6k, but it’s money well spent, especially if you are a vinyl fan and need something to handle resonances and vibration. If you’ve spent hard-earned money on your system and are using some rinky dink rack to hold it perilously together, invest in something quality—it will make a huge difference in sound quality.
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