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AXPONA 2019: Analog Sources

AXPONA 2019: Analog Sources

Following on the heels of last year’s success, AXPONA 2019 was even more upbeat and enjoyable for showgoers and exhibitors alike. The available space was expanded to accommodate more offerings and, as a result, the attendees had more options for listening, looking, and shopping. Due to the size of the show and a second coverage area assignment, there are new products (such as the items in the Expo Hall) that are not covered in this report because of time constraints. Frankly, there were more items than one individual could cover in the analog offerings alone.


One of the more interesting turntables shown at AXPONA was the Swiss-made DeBaer Saphir ($57,000) with reference power supply and the DeBaer 9-inch Onyx tonearm ($19,500) with VTA adjustment. The Saphir has an interesting approach to ’table isolation. Without getting too deep into the design, the Saphir sports a magnetically decoupled oil bearing and has several isolated decoupling points on the bearing, plinth, armboard, and platter (upper and lower parts). The Onyx ’arm also has a unique Teflon and carbon-fiber tensioned-armtube designed to keep tonearm resonances at bay while providing a firmly coupled platform for the mounted cartridge.

Tein Audio showed the TT5 turntable (in an eye-catching glossy bright red) that features a three-motor drive system with adjustable torque. The TT5 has three torque settings, a suspension system, a Delrin platter, a belt-tensioning adjustment, and processor speed control. The companion Viros tonearm is a uni-pivot design with a carbon-fiber armtube and sapphire bearing, magnetic anti-skate/azimuth adjustment, and vdH silver tonearm wire. The Taiwanese ’arm hosting a vdH Crimson Black cartridge sounded alright in-system with the exception of a bit of brightness on the single music track listened to.

The new TW-Acustic GT2 turntable ($10,000) with 12-inch tonearm looked the part of form fits function. This new ’table has dual armboards, a built-into-the-plinth motor controller with front-mounted buttons, and a fluid-damped Delrin/bronze-topped platter. Sonically, the GT2 (hosting an Ortofon Windfeld Ti cartridge, feeding New Audio Frontiers electronics, Hørning speakers, and TEO cables) produced Joni Mitchell’s vocals on “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” smoothly and purely with a good rendition of percussion and overall dynamics.

EAT showed its Forte Leather Edition turntable in gloss black with a new, large, high-inertia platter ($10,495) and a new F-Note 12-inch tonearm ($7995). The high-mass platter is a 50-pound aluminum/brass assembly with vinyl top surface featuring a larger bearing and nanotechnology coating for low friction. The F-Note ’arm has all the expected adjustments necessary for a cartridge in addition to a laser imbedded in the base to assist with VTA. Visually, the ’table is appealing. Sonically, I was unable to assess the sound, as I only heard an East Wind LP (played by the room attendant), which was presented in decent sonic proportion.

AVM displayed three new turntables: the Rotation R 2.3 ($4990), Rotation R 5.3 ($8990) and the Rotation R 5.3 Cellini ($11,990). The R2.3 has a 9-inch ’arm, a composite/aluminum plinth, and a dimmable/switchable platter light. The R 5.3 has similar features with a bigger plinth, 10-inch ’arm, and servo-controlled speed operation. The R 5.3 Cellini is a special chrome-coated edition of the ’table.

Fern & Roby Audio had the updated Tredegar turntable with a Schröder Reference SQ ’arm ($21,500 for the pairing) on display. An update for the Tredegar features algorithm-based speed control that provides more stability and a wider range of functionality to deal with different belt materials or drive system irregularities that may show up in practical application.

Additional turntables spotted at AXPONA 2019 included a new Technics SL-1500C ($1199) single-rotor coreless turntable, the Luxman PD-151 ($3895) belt-drive turntable with Jelco ’arm and optional hinged dust cover, the VPI HW-40 40th anniversary turntable with tonearm ($15,000) previously introduced at Capital Audiofest last year, and three TechDAS models (Air Force 1 Premium, Air Force 3 Premium, and Air Force 5).

Durand Tonearms introduced the 10.35-inch Tosca tonearm ($14,950) that features a gimbal design with 6-point isolation, stainless construction, a tungsten counterweight assembly, a magnesium (nickel-plated) removable headshell, a damped carbon-fiber armwand, integrated DIN connection for tonearm cables, and VTA/anti-skate adjustments. Azimuth can be adjusted via the offset headshell in the plane of the cantilever.

One of the new phonostages was a small unit from M2Tech called the NASH ($1500). The unit features an mm and mc input as well as a line input along with preamp functionality. The all-FET discrete input stage and passive RIAA circuit has remote control and an android-iOS app in development.

Jeff Rowland Design Group introduced the new Conductor phonostage ($8500 as configured) that features up to four independently active inputs (three mc and one mm) for optimized gain, and loading with options for custom-made transformer types, balanced or RCA inputs (mc only—mm is RCA), options for additional EQ curves, a rumble filter, a selection of function buttons on the front panel, dual external power supplies, and a provided reverse-RIAA network device to assist with break-in.

VTL showed the latest updates to the TP-6.5 phonostage, now called the TP-6.5 Series II Signature Phonostage. The new TP-6.5 Series II gains a shunt-regulated power supply, an active mc gain stage, and new gel-capacitor technology for greatly higher energy storage to power the internal circuitry. Sonically, I couldn’t put my finger on the improvements due to the Stenheim Alumine Five speakers being new and it being the early listening session on the opening day of the show. As a result, both my Joni Mitchell and Basie LPs had additional bite on vocals and instruments. Knowing what the original TP-6.5 sounded like at RMAF last fall (real good), I suspect the system hadn’t hit its stride when I visited.

Haniwa Audio showed a pairing of new and established components for this year’s show. The HCTR-CO cartridge ($12,500), a new turntable called The Player with a ViV Labs Rigid Float/Ha ’arm ($15,000) and the HEQA03 phono equalizer ($12,500). The entire system can be purchased for $37,000. The Haniwa system (cartridge and phonostage) are based on using the very low impedance HCTR-CO cartridge (0.2 ohms and 0.1μH) to feed HEQA03 transimpedance (current-mode) phonostage to generate fine detail and low-noise signals pulled from the LP. While the front-end equipment mentioned seems interesting, I couldn’t sonically evaluate them alone as the character of the amplifier and speakers were unknown.

Musical Surroundings (in conjunction with Quintessence Audio and Paragon Sight And Sound) showed a trio of new Clearaudio products. The first of the new products is the Clearaudio Concept Active Turntable ($2400–$4600, depending on the Concept ’table selected). The new Concept Active adds a built-in headphone amplifier and phonostage—both devices can be bypassed for use in a more elaborate system. The Concept Active uses Class A circuitry and a discrete JFET design without negative feedback, with the user’s choice of the cartridges (mm and mc) and tonearms available for all Clearaudio Concept ’tables. The other two new offerings from Clearaudio were the Jubilee MM cartridge ($900) and the Jubilee MC cartridge ($6000). The new Jubilee MM has a body made from Panzerholz wood, an elliptical stylus, and an aluminum cantilever. The Jubilee MC uses the same Panzerholz wood but with the Clearaudio resonance-controlled, multi-finger-ring, metal mounting plate, the patented symmetrical mc generator used in the upper-end of Clearaudio’s cartridge line, a Gyger S stylus, and a boron cantilever. Rounding out the analog offerings from Musical Surroundings was DS Audio’s newest, and most affordable DS E1 optical phono cartridge ($1250) and DS E1 Equalizer for optical phono cartridge. The New DS E1 reduces cost by using aluminum for body material as well for the cantilever. The stylus is elliptical, and channel separation is 24dB. The sound created in a system consisting of the DS E1 system, AMG ’table, and Moon amplification driving Sonus faber Amati speakers was pretty good on Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones album save for a slight amount of sibilance added to Paul’s voice on “Train in the Distance.”

Schiit Audio had a low-priced ’table prototype called the SOL ($699) on display that is supposed to be available later in the year. PS Audio showed a prototype phonostage slated for their Stellar product line ($2,000 est.) that will also be available later in the year.

Good Sound:

The DeBear Saphir turntable and Onyx tonearm were shown in a room hosted by Musical Artisans and CH Precision. Naturally, the electronics were all CH Precision. The speakers were Rockport’s $62,000 Cygnus. The cartridge was the Top Wing Suzaku Red Sparrow ($16,500) and cables were from Argento. Listening to Joni Mitchell’s Mingus album revealed a good soundstage but a slight bit of thinness on Joni’s voice and Jaco’s bass. Since I’ve heard Cygnus sound full in those areas before and CH can be a bit to the lighter side of neutral (depending on configuration), I’m unsure of the cause—other than some reports mentioning the Top Wing cartridge having less fullness in the lower spectrum than other cartridge offerings. Nonetheless, I’d welcome the opportunity to spend more time with the DeBaer Saphir and Onyx to find out more about their capabilities as a vinyl playback source component. (I also wouldn’t mind a very brief audition of the Top Wing cartridge.)

Vandersteen Audio and Channel D teamed up again at this year’s AXPONA to produce, on the last day, in the final hour, the best sound I’d heard from an analog (to-digital-to-analog) source during my limited listening over the show. The system included the full Vandersteen System Nine (Model Seven Mk II loudspeaker, with bedrock integrated plinth, M7-HPA liquid-cooled high-pass amplifier, and Sub Nine stereo subwoofers), Lynx Hilo A-to-D-to-A converter, Seta L20 phonostage (or Lino C 2.0 transimpedance phonostage—review forthcoming in a future issue of TAS), Brinkmann ’table/’arm, and a Lyra cartridge. Prior to things opening up and sounding like I know Vandersteen speakers can sound, the music (sourced from stored digital files, I believe) was just a bit flat and similar to how the system sounded at AXPONA last year. The moment Dr. Rob Robinson (from Channel D) started playing vinyl on the Brinkmann Spyder in real-time, the system opened up and breathed life into the music in terms of three-dimensional space, air around the instruments, dynamic shadings, and a level of purely natural coherence that precious few of the available multiway speakers on the market can produce. This was a fitting and much needed, mentally calming, experience at the end of a long three days of walking, writing, listening, and participating in AXPONA 2019. I’ve listened to Vandersteen speakers countless times covering these shows but have never given them a Best of Show nod. That’s about to change…

AJ’s Analog Best Of Show:
Best Sound (cost no object):
The Channel D and Vandersteen system mentioned above
Best Sound (for the money): DS Audio DS E1 system
Most Significant Product Introduction: DS Audio DS E1 system
Most Important Trend: Lower priced, but better quality, analog front-end offerings

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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