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AXPONA 2017: Analog Sources and Electronics under $15k

AXPONA 2017: Analog Sources and Electronics under $15k

This was the fourth (and final) year for AXPONA being held at The Westin Hotel in Rosemont, IL, right next to O’Hare airport. While this is the last exhibit at this location, it’s not the last AXPONA. Since the show must go on, next year will see a bigger and newer location (the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel and Convention Center) 15 minutes away from O’Hare in Schaumburg, IL. This last year at the Westin seemed to be the best year at this location. The wares appeared to be displayed well and the sound was better than previous years as the hosts of each room seemed to have gotten better at setting up these now-familiar room layouts.

Armed with a bag of 20 LPs, a ¼” 15ips second-generation mastertape of Crazy Joe’s The Doctor Is In! album, and a ¼” 15ips compilation tape filled with direct copies of my vinyl front-end, I started visiting rooms from Day One until the bell rang ending the show on Sunday afternoon. As usual, if I missed the room of some new offerings, I apologize—there’s just one Andre with two categories to cover in an entire show.

Most Significant Analog

Mara Machines MCI JH110 HiFi 1/4″ 2-Track
On display in the Paragon Audio room was the Mara Machines MCI JH110 HiFi 1/4″ 2-Track ($7000) tape deck restored by Mara Machines. The deck has rebuilt capstan motors and roller guides, relapped record and erase heads, a new Flux Magnetics repro head, six-month warranty, lifetime support, user guide DVD, and support communication via Skype if necessary. The deck can record and play back at speeds of 7.5ips or 15ips using the CCIR/IEC or NAB eq, or at 30ips using the AES eq. The MCI JH110 HiFi is set in a vertical cabinet of birch or maple that measures 20.5″w x 16″d x 25″h. The external power supply is set in a cabinet 20.5″w x 10″d x 8.75″h. The model listened to in the Paragon Audio room has a second Flux Magnetic repro head wired for external repro electronics ($1000). This particular option allows the use of both internal reproduce electronics and external repro electronics simultaneously. Using the external repro outputs feeding a Doshi Audio V3.0 tape preamplifier, I listened to the second-generation mastertape of Crazy Joe’s The Doctor Is In! in addition to my direct copy compilation tape of LPs from my vinyl front-end. In both cases, the playback from the tape was open and detailed with a purity that was an easy listen. The system, overall, gave more attention to the midrange on up the frequency spectrum while keeping some balance in the lower frequencies. The rest of the signal chain consisted of a Doshi Audio V3.0 preamplifier and V3.0 Jhor Mono amplifiers driving Wilson Audio Yvette loudspeakers. The components were connected with Transparent cabling and rested on Harmonic Resolution Systems racks, bases, and amp stands.

Gamut D3i Dual Mono Preamp R2R Board
Sitting next to a fully restored Studer B62 1/4” reel-to-reel tape deck was the Gamut D3i ($8490) with the newly introduced optional R2R board ($1990). This repro board is now a choice for the D3i’s optional card slot. If selected, the dealer is trained in how to calibrate the card for the tape deck the owner will be using. The tape deck must have the repro heads wired for external access, therefore bypassing all the internal reproduce electronics in the tape deck. The Studer B62 next to the Gamut D3i was configured to have its repro head wired out for the D3i’s R2R card. The D3i was connected to Gamut’s M250i mono amplifiers driving the RS7i loudspeakers. All speaker, interconnect, and power cabling was Gamut. In this system, I listened to four tracks from The Doctor is In! ¼” 15ips tape. Each track played with a level of clarity that has come to be expected from this excellent recording. In the Gamut setup, the performance sounded big and full with some emphasis in the lower registers sometimes excited by room anomalies. Overall, the sound was very good from this optional R2R board.

Bergmann Galder Turntable and Odin Tonearm
Sutherland Phono Blocks and KC Vibe Phonostages
Phasemation PP2000

In one room, there was a quintet of new or newly introduced products for AXPONA. The Bergmann Galder Turntable with vacuum hold-down and air-bearing platter and Odin air-bearing tonearm ($34,000) has a black-anodized, die-cast-aluminum plinth with provisions to hold up to four ’arms. The motor housing is said to be separated from the plinth but there appears to be a beam under the plinth that spans both housings to support the three feet under the combo. Connected to the Odin ‘arm was Phasemation’s flagship (formerly Phasetech) PP2000 MC cartridge ($6000) with DLC body, 0.3mV output, and 3um x 30um stylus. The phonostage was the Sutherland Phono Blocks with new layout/updates derived from the Argentum phonostage. Finally, on static display was the new KC Vibe ($895) phonostage that is the replacement for the discontinued PH3D. The KC Vibe uses an external 48-volt power supply that is said to have plenty of margin for filtering and isolation, while the audio circuits use +/-15 volts to allow unrestrained excursions. The KC Vibe is designed to be on all of the time so it is always warmed up and ready to go.

Auspicious Debuts Analog

Oracle Origine
Oracle Audio Technologies
introduced a turnkey turntable package ($2000) that includes the Origine turntable, Origine uni-pivot tonearm, and the Ortofon 2m Blue cartridge. The combo is assembled at the factory, as ordered and set up with Dr. Feickert’s Adjust+ cartridge alignment software so the user can unpack the unit and play records without having to install a cartridge. The tonearm has a sliding weight on the cartridge side of the armtube that Oracle says allows the tonearm to have variable effective mass to aide cartridge-matching to tonearm. The plinth (black or white) allows for multiple single-insert color options as well as a multi-insert option. Playing my Chris Isaak LP produced a bright, and light sound with a bit of sibilance coming from the speakers. The same sound characteristic was noticed other LPs played through the system.

Clearaudio Charisma V2
The Clearaudio Charisma V2 ($2000) moving-magnet cartridge made its U.S. debut at AXPONA. Housed in an ebony wood body, the Charisma V2 features 3.2mV output, a boron cantilever, and a Gyger S line-contact stylus. I listened to the Charisma V2 in two setups at AXPONA and thought the sound was a more refined version of what I typically hear from a moving-magnet cartridge.

United Home Audio Ultima2
The United Home Audio Ultima2 ($22,000) tape deck with OPS-DC ($6000) power supply was used with MBL’s Noble Line electronics and 101E MkII speaker system (listed below). The Ultima2 features an updated Class A output stage with new voltage regulators, filter capacitors on every gain and eq stage, new toroidal transformers, and a CNC-machined aluminum head block cover. I listened to both my Crazy Joe tape and my direct copies of the output of my vinyl front-end. In both cases this system sounded huge with good imaging given the work put into setting up the room. The overall sound was more bottom-up than the other tape-based playback systems listened to over the duration of the show. As a result, perceived dynamic power and output level seemed to be the system strengths.

Most Significant Electronics under $15k

ModWright Ambros One and Ambros A30 Mono Blocks
ModWright Industries
has introduced an upscale class of tube electronics featuring the Ambros One preamplifier ($TBD, but less than $15k), and the Ambros A30 monoblocks ($14,995/pr.). Externally, these components feature dovetail-joined hardwood and billet-aluminum enclosures. As seen in the picture, the look is eye-catching. The One is a dual-mono design including dual power supplies (with tube rectifiers), transformer-coupled inputs and outputs, and fully balanced Class A circuits with no negative feedback. The zero-negative-feedback, 30Wpc, Class A A30 monoblocks are point-to-point wired, with single triode input, parallel single-ended pentode output tubes, and hand-wound SE output transformers. I listened to this system sourced from a VPI Aries ’table with JMW 12 ’arm ($10,000), Dynavector XX2 MkII cartridge, sitting on a Dadalus Audio DiD turntable platform ($390 and up) and sourcing Daedalus Audio’s new Apollo speakers ($14,250). The stands and isolation devices were also from Deadalus Audio while all wiring was a variety of offerings from WyWires. Listening to a few tracks from Chris Isaak produced a big sound that was rich, warm, and dynamic.

The NR-7CD ($3999) network CD receiver is one of a growing trend of DAC/streamers gaining preamplifier and amplifier functionality. Built in the same factory as the Esoteric line of electronics, the receiver is equipped to handle digital input from USB (for storage), optical, coax, and LAN via Ethernet connection. Formats include DSD (DSF, DSDIFF) up to 5.6Mhz and PCM (including FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, MP3, AAC) up to 384kHz/32-bit. The NR-7CD also receives TIDAL and Qobuz (subscriptions required) and has a free iOS/Android based control application called TEAC HR Streamer. The internal CD transport is engineered by TEAC. The unit has dual AK4490 DACs for each channel, Bluetooth, OpenHome for NAS access, RCA line input, headphone output, and 110Wpc (4 ohms) output power. A demo CD played back on the system produced a very believable and spacious piano as recorded in the acoustic space of a church.

AVM Audio Ovation CS 8.2
AVM Audio
showed its Ovation CS 8.2 ($12,995) CD receiver with 500Wpc Class D amplification, TIDAL and Qobuz streaming, a 803 triode-tube linestage, quad DACs (capable of 384kHz and DSD128), CD transport, Class A headphone amp, FM tuner, and control app access via iOS/Android. The CS 8.2 also comes with an RC 3 remote control and an option to purchase a RC 9 color-display remote. Through an all-AVM system the host played the late Radka Toneff singing “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.” Toneff’s voice was clear and sweet with just a touch of coolness.

Audia Flight FLS4 Amplifier
The new Audia Flight FLS4 ($8995) amplifier was coupled to an FL2 integrated amplifier (used as a preamp) while powering Verity Audio Finn ($6995) speakers. The analog front-end was the newly shown AnalogueWorks TT Two. On playback of a Chris Isaak LP, the sound was mostly focused on the midrange.

Pass Labs XA25 Amplifier
On static display was Pass Labs’ new XA25 single-ended 25Wpc (50Wpc into 4 ohms) Class A amplifier featuring two (700W-capable) transistors per channel in a push-pull arrangement. Unfortunately, there was no XA25 to be found in an active system at AXPONA.

Auspicious Debuts Electronics under $15k

Atoll Integrated IN300
The Atoll Integrated IN300 ($4295) was a new product showing for AXPONA. The integrated amplifier features five RCA inputs (one can be an optional phonostage), an RCA bypass input, and one XLR input. Additional features include digital interfaces for coax x2, optical x2, USB (PCM 384kHz/32-bit and DSD64/128). The DACs are dual AKM AK4490 configured as one DAC per channel. The output power is 150Wpc. Listening to my Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass LP on a Clearaudio ’table and the ATOHM GT 2.0 HD loudspeakers linked by Transparent cabling produced good dynamics on vocals and guitar. A song from Count Basie’s 88 Basie Street digitally sourced from the NAD M50.2 digital music player sounded good with somewhat more modest dynamics than expected.

New Audio Frontiers
Another first for AXPONA was High Water Sound’s showing of the New Audio Frontiers electronics. The Ultimate 211 SE Stereo Amplifier ($13,500), Stradivari Line Stage ($10,000) and Stradivari Phono phonostage ($11,500) with separate power supply. The TW-Acustic Black Knight with TW 10.5 ’arm supporting an Ortofon MC Windfeld cartridge provided the resting place for my LPs while the Horning Hybrid Systems Aristotle Ellipse speakers filled the room with sound. Tying everything together were Furutech cables with Vibex power products. Playing “‘Round Midnight” performed by Ray Brown and Monty Alexander had Brown’s bass humming and solid sounding, but slightly wooly (due to the room), with reasonably good dynamics. The piano, as captured by my notes, was realistic sounding.

Emotiva XPA Gen3
Reminding me of the Theta Dreadnaught amplifiers with modular construction, Emotiva introduces the XPA Gen3 Modular Amplifier System to AXPONA 2017. The amplifier allows the user to purchase the number of amplification channels needed and add more if necessary in the future (up to seven slots total). Each mono module is capable of 300W RMS output that scales in total power based on the number of channels added to the XPA Gen3. For instance: according to Emotiva’s website, two 300-watt mono modules will retain the 300Wpc rating while seven channels will drop to 200Wpc when all channels are driven into 8 ohms according to Emotiva’s website.

Wyred 4 Sound SX-1000R
The SX-1000R monoblock amplifiers ($1799/ea.) from Wyred 4 Sound were part of a system consisting of the company’s DAC-2v2SE 10th anniversary Limited Edition DAC ($4499), sourced by a CD player’s coax output. The Crescendo transmission-line loudspeaker ($22,000) and cables from Acoustic Zen completed the system. Listening to a few sample tracks provided by the room hosts showed the speaker to sound warm, full, and inviting. The system as a whole was one you could listen to all day long. Outside of a room-induced bass bump, the sound was pretty good.

didn’t stop with the NR-7CD mentioned above. It also introduced the AI-503 ($999) integrated stereo amplifier with USB DAC at this year’s AXPONA. The AI-503 features the same dual AK4490 DACs, USB DAC input (with up to DSD128 and PCM 384kHz/32-bit), 22Wpc of ICEpower-module amplification, Bluetooth wireless streaming support, headphone amplifier, and a few other features.

MBL N11 Preamplifier
From the Noble Line of electronics, MBL’s N11 ($14,600) stereo preamplifier had its first public showing at this year’s AXPONA. The N11 provided the link between the MBL N31 DAC and four N15 mono power amplifiers driving the MBL 101E Mk II speakers. An additional source was the Untied Home Audio Ultima2 ($22,000) tape deck with external OPS-DC ($6000) power supply. There was no additional information available for the N11 at the time of this writing. As mentioned in the analog section of this report, the sound of the system was huge.

In Other News

Acoustic Sounds (Analogue Productions Ultra Tape) joins Elusive Disc (Fone, Groove Note, and Opus3), The Tape Project, along with a number of other commercial ¼” two-track tape suppliers in offering high-quality reel-to-reel tapes. The first four tapes in the 12-tape series are Janis Ian Breaking Silence, Ben Webster Gentle Ben, Rickie Lee Jones It’s Like This, and Hugh Masekela Hope. The first two Analogue Productions Ultra Tapes from the RCA catalog (Scheherazade and Pines of Rome & Fountains of Rome) were released during AXPONA and with some new tapes sold at the event. While this is a niche-within-a-niche market, high-quality tape transfers can give those with the equipment and who desire a close experience to the music that was originally recorded on this format.

Best of Show:

Best Sound (cost no object): Joseph Audio Perspective Speakers ($13,000), Jeff Rowland Daemon integrated amp ($38,000), Technics RS1500 tape deck, Doshi tape preamp ($16,000), Cardas cabling and Modulum racks played my ¼” tapes with resolution, balance, and a togetherness that was delightful.

Best Sound (for the money): TEAC NR-7CD ($3999) with Elac Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 ($1500) in satin black color produced fundamentally good sound at a reasonable price in a compact mostly all-in-one front-end. For analog vinyl, add a turntable and phonostage.

Most Significant Product Introduction: Original (or close to) reel-to-reel mastertape copies from Analogue Productions Ultra Tape. Adding another supplier provides this niche-within-a-niche market more choices of high-quality music originally recorded on this format.

Most Significant Trend: More mid-to-high-end all-in-one receivers with digital/streaming capabilities are showing up more often at audio shows. In the past, many were digital front ends that needed an amplifier (or preamp for additional analog inputs) to complete the electronics of a sound system.

Most Coveted Product: The Tidal Akira. I’d be curious to see how it compares to my memory of the Gauder Akustik Berlina RC 9, which uses a pure diamond tweeter and pure diamond midrange from the same supplier as Tidal.

By Andre Jennings

My professional career has spanned 30+ years in electronics engineering. Some of the interesting products I’ve been involved with include Cellular Digital Packet Data modems, automotive ignition-interlock systems, military force protection/communications systems, and thrust-vector controls for space launch vehicles.

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