AXPONA 2022 | Robert Harley on Digital Sources and Electronics
Five Most Significant Product Introductions
Gryphon Commander Preamplifier and Apex Power Amplifier
I’ll start with the biggest and the baddest electronics at the show: the all-new Gryphon Commander preamplifier and Apex power amplifier. This pair is a take-no-prisoners approach to amplification. For example, the Commander preamplifier’s outboard power supply weighs 84 pounds. The unit is a true dual-mono configuration with zero global feedback, dual-differential Class A operation, Mundorf caps—the list goes on and on. The massive Apex power amplifier can be purchased as a stereo unit or a pair of monoblocks. The Apex delivers its full rated output power in Class A, with the stereo model producing 210Wpc into 8 ohms and nearly doubling its output power as the impedance is halved, all the way down to 1 ohm. The amplifier boasts a whopping one Farad (1,000,000of reservoir capacitance. The industrial design and metalwork are stunning. The preamplifier sells for $63,000, and the amplifier is $99,000 for the stereo unit and $198,000 for a pair of monoblocks.
Lumin U2 Mini
Music server specialist Lumin gave us an advance look at the U2-Mini streamer. The U2-Mini is small in size but big in capabilities, including native support for Tidal, MQA, Qobuz, Tunin Radio, and Roon. The U2 Mini can upsample and downsample PCM and DSD up to DSD512 and PCM 768 and send that signal to your DAC on one of five outputs. Significantly, the unit has Leedh digital volume control, a very advanced new technology that provides digital-domain attention without loss of resolution (watch this space for an in-depth look at Leedh in an upcoming issue). $2400.
dCS Vivaldi Apex
Retailer Quintessence Audio demonstrated the new dCS Vivaldi Apex, a major upgrade of the company’s proprietary Ring DAC technology and flagship DAC. Apex is a hardware and software refinement of the Ring DAC, along with a new analog output stage. The Apex upgrade will be integral to new models, and owners of existing Vivaldi and Rossini system can upgrade to Apex. Although impossible to isolate the performance of one component under show conditions, the exhibit with the Vivaldi Apex at the front end of a chain with Wilson Alexx V loudspeakers sounded superb.
Germany’s Theory + Application Elektroakustik (T+A) showed its new 200 Series electronics. Housed in elegant, compact chassis, the 200 Series includes the DAC 200 preamplifier/DAC ($6900), the A 200 power amplifier ($4900), and the MP 200 multi-source streamer and CD player ($5700). All three units feature trickle-down technology from T+A’s more expensive products—dual-mono design and fully discrete and balanced circuitry in the preamplifier, for example. The power amplifier delivers 200Wpc into 8 ohms. The 200 Series products’ compact size makes them ideal for listeners in smaller spaces, or just those who don’t want large boxes of electronics in their home but refuse to sacrifice performance. The three products join the existing HA 200 headphone amplifier in the series.
Aurender introduced a new flagship music server positioned above the vaunted W20SE that I reviewed in Issue 325. The N30SA is housed in two chassis—a first for Aurender. The two-chassis design lowers noise by segregating the power supply, LCD display driver, hard drive, system control, and other noisy circuitry from the audio electronics, which are housed in the second chassis. The chassis top and bottom plates are thicker to provide additional isolation. Also, the two chassis can be positioned on different shelves for even greater isolation. The N30SA includes an internal fixed 8TB SSD with a rear-panel slot for a 2.5** HDD or SDD storage expansion. The N30SA incorporates all the standard Aurender features, such as MQA decoding (optional in-app purchase), remote support, the excellent Conductor music-management app, and the super-capacitor-based UPS. Price: $24,000.
PrimaLuna gave a preview of its upcoming all-tube EVO 100-11 phonostage (June deliveries). The EVO 100-11 features not just tube regulation, but also tube rectification. The company says using tubes instead of diodes to convert AC from the wall outlet into DC reduces radiated noise inside the chassis. The circuit is built around four 12AX7 tubes, with an additional pair of 6922s that can be engaged for the extra gain required by moving-coil cartridges. Six gain settings are provided (three mm, three mc) via a front-panel knob. Price: $3695
The French electronics manufacturer JMF Audio made its U.S. debut—37 years after the company was founded. JMF electronics are widely used in recording studios, particularly in Europe, and now the company has U.S. distribution through Audio Skies. JMF demonstrated its HQS 6002 dual-mono power amplifier ($39,000), PRS 1.5 dual-mono preamp ($34,000), with the Ideon Audio Absolute digital stack that I reviewed in the May/June issue, and Stealth cabling. The system drove Vivid Giya G1 S speakers to good effect, producing the best sound I’ve heard from this loudspeaker.
Audio Skies also showed a new Ideon DAC, the IΩN. The $17,900 DAC is a scaled-down version of the Absolute reference products and is available with full-function preamplifier capabilities for $22,000.
Luxman showed two new products in my categories, the M-10X power amplifier and the L-507Z integrated amplifier. The new flagship M-10X ($19,995) outputs 150Wpc and doubles that figure into 4 ohms. It can also be used as a monoblock for 300Wpc into 8 ohms. It is reportedly stable into 1 ohm. A pair of the M-10Xs, part of an all-Luxman system with the new D-10X CD/SACD player or PD-151 MkII turntable fitted with a Luxman LMC-5 cartridge, sounded fabulous driving Magico M6 loudspeakers in a large room. This demo showed that the Luxman electronics and sources are fully at home when partnered with a reference-level loudspeaker.
In a more modest demo, the Luxman L-507Z integrated amp was shown to good effect driving Harbeth SHL5plus HD speakers in one of the rooms of Chicago-area retailer Glenn Poore Audio. The $8995 L-507Z outputs 110Wpc and features a newly designed “LIFES feedback engine” that will be used throughout Luxman’s new Z line of products. Also newly designed for the Z series is an electronically controlled 88-step attenuator. In addition to traditional needle-style power-output meters, the L-507Z sports a seven-segment LED power indicator. The styling is traditional Luxman—elegant, clean, and with plenty of front-panel features including tone and balance controls. The L-507Z offers preamp out/power-amp-in jacks for use as either a preamplifier or a power amplifier, along with an integral phono section that can accommodate mm and mc cartridges. The L-507Z unit weighs a hefty 56 pounds and will begin shipping in June.
Tube and turntable specialist Triangle Art demonstrated its P200 phonostage as part of a complete system of electronics and gorgeous turntables. Made in California, the $15,000 Triangle Art P200 uses passive RIAA equalization between two tube gain stages. The system included the company’s M100 Class A, direct-heated-triode KT120 monoblocks and its L200 linestage. Watch for a review of the P200 by our tube maven Dick Olsher.
Wolf Audio Systems showed the Red Wolf 2SX music server with integral CD ripping. The Red Wolf 2SX can accommodate two-channel DSD1024 or multichannel DSD256, along with other formats. The open system allows the user to choose the music-management software, including Roon, J.River, Amarra, etc. Much attention was paid to improving sound quality, including Stillpoints isolation inside the chassis. Price: $16,500
Easily the most beautiful-looking digital product at AXPONA was the DreamPlay X CD/SACD transport with upsampling streamer from France’s Metronome. The DreamPlay X’s industrial design is drop-dead gorgeous, and the round touchscreen interface is visually stunning and intuitive to use. That’s just the start: the DreamPlay X aims for state-of-the-art sound quality with design features such as an outboard power supply that’s the size and weight (65 pounds) of a power amplifier. Price: $68,800. A version with an integral DAC and Leedh volume control is available for $79,000. The DreamPlay X was part of one of the show’s best-sounding systems in the Wynn Audio room, featuring the Metronome AQWO CD player (used as a DAC driven by the DreamPlay X), the new Karan Acoustics electronics (see below), Thales turntable, and Vimberg Mino D speakers in a custom lime-green paint.
The new Karan Acoustics electronics looked and sounded beautiful in the Wynn Audio exhibit. The system included the two-chassis LINEa preamplifier ($41,000), part of Karan Acoustics’ new Master Collection to commemorate the company’s 30th anniversary. The LINEa drove a pair of POWERa monoblocks ($106,000), also part of the Master Collection. The POWERa is rated at a whopping 2100W. Both products are supplied with CenterStage integral isolation feet from Critical Mass Systems. Cables were all Crystal Cable Art Series.
In Other News
HiFi Rose, the Korean company that made a splash with its first audio product, the outstanding RS150b network player, dramatically changed course with its RA180 integrated amplifier. Rather than sporting an advanced touchscreen interface like that on the RS150b, the $7495 RA180 features a steampunk-inspired front panel replete with a round volume control that turns an elaborate geared mechanism visible through a transparent front-panel window. Volume and source selection are adjustable by remote control; the motorized volume and source-selector switches rotate in response to remote commands. The unit incorporates four separate amplifiers, each delivering 200W of Class D power with a 50kHz bandwidth. HiFi Rose is distributed in the U.S. by MoFi Distribution.
Viola Audio Laboratories showed the new Cadence power amplifier. Rated at 200W into 8 ohms and 400W into 4, the Cadence represents the latest design from industry veteran Paul Jayson. Viola has a low marketing profile in the U.S., but its products deserve more attention than they receive. Jayson began his career at Mark Levinson Audio Systems in the 1970s and was the Managing Engineer at Mark Levinson’s Cello Music & Film. Jayson has contributed to several legendary products, including the MLAS ML-2, ML-7, and Cello Audio Palette and Audio Suite. The $35,000 Cadence looks and sounds like it could be a lot of amplifier for the price. Paired with the Viola Sonata preamplifier ($33,800) and demonstrated with the beautiful new Stillpoints equipment stand driving Rockport Atria II speakers with a Wolf music server at the front end, the system brought out the Atria II’s best qualities: smooth tonal balance, spacious soundstage, and beautiful rendering of instrumental textures.
Mola-Mola demonstrated their Kula modular integrated amplifier. The 150Wpc amplifier can double its output power into 4 ohms. The highly configurable Kula can be purchased as an integrated amp or with optional phono and DAC sections. The DAC is identical to that in Mola Mola’s highly regarded stand-alone Tambaqui DAC, which is a Roon endpoint. Price: $15,550, with the DAC section adding $8000 and the phonostage adding $3000.
Music-server-maker Innuos showed the Next-Gen Power Supply Upgrade for its outstanding Statement server. The massive supply features four times the capacitance of the standard supply, Mundorf caps, a huge choke, and new rectifiers. The supply is mounted on Innuos’ new Adaptive Vibration Control platform made from Panzerholz wood and a compliant gel. In addition to the main-supply upgrade, local power-supply components have been upgraded, including a high-current source for the CPU and rail filtering with Audio Note KAISEI capacitors. Innuos will begin accepting units for upgrade at the factory in June. The company demonstrated the Next-Gen Power Supply Upgrade driving a pair of YG Acoustics Vantage Live active loudspeakers.
Pro-Ject introduced two new phonostages with balanced inputs and outputs. A phono cartridge creates an inherently balanced signal (technically, it’s a “floating differential” signal because it’s not referenced to ground) so it makes sense to amplify its output with balanced circuitry and realize the lower noise and inherently greater gain (6dB) of balanced electronics. The Pro-Ject Phono Box DS3B ($799) has a five-pin input jack for balanced connection to select Pro-Ject turntables along with RCA and XLR input and output jacks. The all-discrete circuit is fully balanced from input to output, and the unit offers extensive cartridge loading and gain settings (40dB–65dB). The $499 S3B also offers the five-pin input jack and balanced outputs, but the circuit not fully balanced, instead converting the incoming balanced signal to single-ended and then back to balanced at the outputs with a phase splitter.
Best Sound (cost no object): The Scaena loudspeaker produced a stunningly realistic sense of presence; the MBL 101 E MK II and 126 were outstanding, but the $13k 126 was mind-blowingly great for the size and price; Magico M6 driven by the new Luxman M-10X amplifier and all-Luxman system; Goebel Divin Marquis driven by CH Precision 10 Series and Wadax digital source.
Best Sound (for the money): Rega has bundled their Io integrated amp (30Wpc) with a Planar 1 turntable and Kyte speakers, complete with cables, for $2195. The system delivered the essence of the music and, for a young person, is infinitely better than listening to compressed digital through earbuds. For the digital enthusiast, Cabasse’s Pearl Keshi three-piece integrated system with baseball-sized speakers and spherical subwoofer sounded far better (and bigger) than its $3000 price would suggest.
Most Significant Product Introduction: YG Acoustics Peaks Series of loudspeakers bring YG’s machined diaphragms and other technologies to a lower-priced line.
Most Significant Trend: Unfortunately, the most significant trend at this show was exhibitors playing music at earsplitting levels in room after room.
Most Coveted Products: Metronome DreamPlay X CD/SACD transport/upsampling streamer; Gryphon Commander preamplifier and Apex power amplifier.
Best Demo: Okay, I added this category so that I could mention the demonstration by retailer JS Audio of the original Wilson WAMM from 1981, serial number 001. JS Audio acquired this pair from their owner, refurbished them, and brought them to the show. I had never heard this legendary speaker and was beyond thrilled to see them and listen to music through them—something I thought I would never be able to do. One of the most iconic products in audio history was brought to life for all to enjoy. Thank you, JS Audio.
By Robert Harley
My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.More articles from this editor
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