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AXPONA 2024: Robert Harley on Electronics

RH-4 BAT VK-85

This year’s AXPONA broke all records for attendance, number of exhibitors, and diversity of attendees. The official attendance figure was 10,391, a 14% increase over the previous year. Showgoers came from 42 states and 31 countries to see and hear 202 exhibit rooms at the Schaumburg Renaissance hotel. The vibe among exhibitors and attendees was upbeat and vibrant.

AXPONA has become an important venue for introducing new products, even though the show takes place less than a month before the Munich show. This year was no exception in the electronics category, with several important debuts of preamplifiers, power amplifiers, integrated amps, and phonostages. Let’s dive in.

Five Most Significant Introductions

RH-1 Soulution

Soulution 3 Series Electronics

The Swiss company known for their innovative and terrific-sounding electronics has brought its technology and aesthetic to all-new versions of their entry-level 3 Series (entry-level for Soulution). There are five products in the range, the 331 integrated amplifier, 326 preamplifier, 312 stereo amplifier, 350 phonostage, and 360 DAC. The preamp and integrated amp accept optional phono and DAC boards, and the phonostage accepts only the output from moving-coil cartridges.

The new series benefits from trickle-down technology from the company’s vaunted 5 Series and 7 Series, along with recent advances made to those lines (see Jonathan Valin’s review of the 727 preamplifier in Issue 345.) In fact, the new 3 Series looks, on paper, to significantly outperform its predecessors. The 312 amplifier ($28,975) and 331 integrated amplifier ($32,975) have much greater power reserves, thanks in large part to their four newly designed switch-mode power supplies. Equipped with a whopping 160,000µf of filter capacitance, the supplies can deliver 4200VA of peak power for five seconds. This translates to 120Wpc into 8 ohms, 240Wpc into 4 ohms, and 480Wpc into 2 ohms. This ability to double the output power as the impedance is halved is a hallmark of an amplifier that can drive difficult loads with ease and maintain its dynamic impact, as well as sound like a more powerful amplifier than its 8-ohm rating suggests. In addition, the output stage is heavily biased into Class A operation. The input and driver stages have a bandwidth of 2MHz to reduce phase shifts in the audioband.

The 326 preamp ($21,475) offers two XLR inputs and two RCA inputs and can accept optional phono and DAC boards ($4275 and $7225, respectively). It also features wideband circuitry (>2MHz). The 331 integrated amplifier combines the circuitry of the 326 preamp and 312 power amplifier in one chassis. A 331 integrated amp fully loaded with the DAC and phono boards can serve as a complete one-chassis system—just add speakers.

The 350 phonostage ($21,975) offers a fixed gain of 60dB, a figure that increases to 66dB from the balanced outputs. The circuitry features 2MHz bandwidth with very low noise. Finally, the 360 DAC ($24,975) offers four digital inputs (SPDIF, AES/EBU, USB, Network). All incoming signals are upsampled by DSP to the DXD format (384kHz/32-bit) and converted to analog with two mono DACs per channel. The DAC chip’s integral digital filtering is bypassed in favor of custom filtering. Volume control is realized with the innovative LEEDH system, which provides digital-domain attenuation without a sonic penalty. I’ve evaluated LEEDH (in another product) and found it to be transparent—a first for a digital-domain volume control. Watch for our review of the Soulution 3 Series components in an upcoming issue.

RH-2 Vandersteen

Vandersteen L5-ACC Linestage Preamplifier

A preamplifier from Vandersteen? After 47 years building loudspeakers, why would Vandersteen make a preamplifier? The answer is that this is the preamp that Richard Vandersteen wants for his own system but isn’t available on the market. So, he created a preamp with several unique features and thought other listeners would want those features as well. The result is the L5-ACC, with “ACC” an initialism for “Audio Control Center.” The L5-ACC offers features not normally found on a preamp—features that are implemented in a novel way.

First are the bass and treble controls, realized not by switching in an equalization circuit but by using relays to add circuitry in parallel to the signal path. The result is tone controls with no sonic penalty. Sensibly, the controls have limited range—just enough to nudge a system or a particular recording in the right tonal direction. The bass control offers boost of +2dB, +4dB, +6dB, and cut of –3dB, and the treble control offers +1dB, +2dB, –1dB and –2dB adjustment, all in discrete steps rather than being continuously variable as with most tone controls. Any combination of settings can be stored in one of three presets, accessible on the remote control. The presets are handy for creating your own loudness-compensation circuit for low-level listening or adding a bit of bass boost to some older records, for examples.

A feature not found on modern preamps, but that Vandersteen thought useful, is a mono-blend circuit to reduce the “ping-pong” mixes prevalent in the early days of stereo recording—drums 100% in the right channel and the lead instrument 100% in the left channel, for example The mono-blend circuit reduces that exaggerated stereo effect and is selectable on the L5-ACC remote control in four steps including full mono. Finally, the L5-ACC incorporates a matrix that takes out-of-phase information from each channel, inverts it, and mixes it back in on the theory that this out-of-phase information restores the natural ambience encoded in the recordings. It’s like the “Hafler Hookup” popular in the 1970s but without rear speakers. The L5-ACC will begin shipping in Q4 this year with a price of $15,000. Vandersteen created a great-sounding room with the L5-ACC, Audio Research electronics, AudioQuest cables and power conditioning, and his own excellent Kento Carbon loudspeakers. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard bad sound in a Vandersteen show demo.

RH-3 BAT REX

Balanced Audio Technology VK-85 Preamplifier and REX 300 Power Amplifier

Balanced Audio Technology (BAT), the company that made its name with tube electronics, introduced two new solid-state products at this AXPONA. As befitting the company’s name and design philosophy, the two products are fully balanced designs.

The VK-85 preamp ($12,500) incorporates improved versions of many of BAT’s established technologies including the “SuperPak Quattro” power supply, “Shunt Volume Control,” and “Uni-Stage Design.” This latter term describes the VK-85’s circuit topology that uses only a single gain stage. Preamplifiers typically have an input buffer, gain stage, and output buffer. The VK-85 also features no feedback, no coupling capacitors, and a transformer-buffered output. The output transformer is an all-new premium design. Also, only N-channel MOSFETs are used, rather than the typical N-channel and P-channel pairs. The innovative volume control imposes only a single Vishay bulk-foil resistor in the signal path, providing 140 steps of 0.5dB each.

RH-4 BAT VK-85

The REX 300 ($15k) is essentially the flagship REX 500 amplifier with a smaller output stage and power supply for those who don’t need the REX’s whopping 1000W of power (4 ohms). Rated at 200Wpc in the stereo version, the REX 300 features the same split-power-supply topology as its big brother. The fully balanced circuit has only two gain stages with no global feedback. Like the VK-85 and REX 500, the 300 is based on N-channel MOSFETs. The amplifier can double its power into 4 ohms and can be configured as a monoblock. You can start with a stereo unit and if you want more power later, buy a second REX 300, and send your first one back to the factory to have it converted to mono operation. BAT showed the interiors of the products, which appear to have exceptional build-quality.

RH-5 Chord

Chord Electronics Ultima Integrated Amplifier

England’s Chord Electronics were featured in three rooms this year, with the new Ultima integrated amplifier making its debut in the room of U.S. distributor Sound Organisation. The first new integrated amplifier from Chord in seven years, the Ultima is a serious piece of engineering and industrial design. The 125Wpc Ultima features Chord’s dual-feed-forward error-correction technology along with the kind of robust power supply for which the company is famous. The build-quality is outstanding, with a chassis machined from solid aluminum billet, a 28mm-thick front panel, and a round power button dominating the front panel’s center that illuminates in different colors to show the input selected. The two other knobs, for volume and balance, are also illuminated. The whole effect is stunning. The Ultima will be priced at $11,250 when it begins shipping in September.

Cambridge Audio CXA-81 Mk.II Integrated Amplifier

Cambridge Audio has updated its wildly popular CXA-81 integrated with a new ESS DAC and upgraded components. The redesign to Mk.II status was inspired by the new ESS ES9018K2M Sabre32 DAC, a chip that offers excellent technical performance. Cambridge has married this new DAC to the classic combination of Class AB amplification and a large power supply featuring an oversized toroidal transformer. The unit outputs 80Wpc and is said to be able to drive low-impedance speakers. Connectivity includes Bluetooth aptX HD, coaxial, TosLink, and USB digital inputs along with balanced and unbalanced analog inputs. Other features include headphone and subwoofer outputs along with a preamp-out pair for driving an outboard power amplifier. The Roon Tested CXA-81 Mk.II is a natural partner for the company’s recently introduced CXN network player and CXC disc transport. The unit begins shipping in May with a U.S. retail price of $1199.

Auspicious Debuts

Goldmund’s new Telos 800 stereo amplifier is the new entry into Goldmund’s amplifier line, delivering 300Wpc into 8 ohms and featuring a low noise floor and robust power reserves. The 126-pound amplifier features a 3200VA transformer. The company is short on specifics but watch for a review soon. Price: $89,000.

Goldmund also debuted the Telos 690 integrated amplifier. The Swiss company, founded in 1978, married extensive digital and analog connectivity with a robust 250Wpc (320Wpc into 4 ohms) power-amplifier section. Five unbalanced analog inputs are provided along with TosLink, SPDIF, and USB digital inputs. Price: $35,000.

RH-6 T+A

T+A introduced a compelling all-in-one unit that combines power amplification, full preamp functions, streaming, and even an optional phono input. The R 2500 R Multi-Source Receiver outputs 140Wpc into 8 ohms, 250Wpc into 4, and is designed and built in Germany. In a departure from some of T+A’s more recent integrated products, the R 2500 R features a Class AB output stage that is heavily biased into Class A operation. The power supply is a switch-mode type. Connectivity options abound, including Bluetooth, AirPlay, Internet Radio, HDMI, CD, and FM radio. Available in silver or black, the R 2500 R will sell for $18,880 when it begins shipping in Q2.

RH-7 Zesto

Zesto Audio showed its new lower-priced Andros Spirit phonostage. Using circuitry from the acclaimed Andros, the Spirit attempts to deliver much of Andros’ qualities in a lower-priced product, largely through eschewing the elaborate (and beautiful) chassis work of the company’s top items. The Andros Spirit is the first product in the company’s more affordable Spirit Series. The all-tube circuitry is built around four 12AX7 tubes. It can be ordered as moving-magnet-only or moving-magnet and moving-coil ($2997 and $3997, respectively). The mc version incorporates a step-up transformer, thus the price differential. Moving-coil cartridge loading can be adjusted on the fly with no clicks or pops. Gain is 48dB (mm) or 64dB (mc). The Andros Spirit was on static display, but the full Andros phonostage was part of a superb-sounding system with the company’s Eros 500 monoblocks and Tidal Piano loudspeakers, all wired with Cardas cable and on a Stillpoints rack. (See Wayne Garcia’s review of the Eros 500 in Issue 349).

RH-8 AGD

AGD Productions, the company that makes a switching-amplifier module inside what looks like a vacuum tube, showed the new AGD Solo monoblock amp. The company’s claim to fame is the use of gallium-nitride switching transistors in place of conventional silicon transistors, which the company says are better suited to a switching output stage. Company founder and designer Alberto Guerra previously worked in semiconductor design, specifically in the development of gallium-nitride transistors. The AGD Solo can deliver a whopping 550W into 4 ohms and has a peak current output of 50A. The products are sold directly to consumers. Price: $23,500 per pair.

RH-9 Electrocompaniet

The Norwegian company Electrocompaniet celebrated its 50th anniversary with a new flagship amplifier, the AW 800M Nemo 2. Rated at 800W into 8 ohms (1500W into 4), the AW 800 Nemo 2 is the most powerful amplifier in the company’s history. The amplifier is also available in a stereo version that outputs 300W into 8 ohms and 600W into 4. The stereo amplifier can also operate in bi-amplification mode. As you would expect from these power ratings, the power supply is massive, featuring 210,000µf of filter capacitance and dual toroidal transformers. The amplifier is a complete redesign and upgrade of all circuits of the company’s AW 600, the previous flagship. The AW 800M Nemo 2 sports the traditional Electrocompaniet look that has characterized the company’s products for decades. Price: $22,500 each.

RH’s Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object)

The sound in the Wynn Audio room was superb, with the modest-sized Vimberg Mino loudspeaker doing an amazing job filling the large space of one of the giant downstairs rooms. The system was driven by Karan Acoustics amplification, with a Thiele TT-01 turntable (set up by Mr. Thiele himself) or Kalista DreamPlay DAC as the source, with wiring by Fono Acoustica.

Stenheim Reference Ultime Two SX loudspeakers on the new Stenheim Reference Platforms driven by four VTL MB-185 III Signature power amplifiers equipped with EL34 output tubes, dCS Rossini DAC and Rossini Clock at the front end, connected with Nordost cables, Nordost power conditioning, and just about every Nordost accessory and tweak imaginable. The expert set up by Stirling Trayle didn’t hurt.

Best Sound (for the money)

Morel’s Avyra floorstander delivered full dynamic range and bass extension in a $2k-per-pair speaker. Everyone in the room was floored by the price-to-performance ratio. The new MoFi SourcePoint floorstander at $5k was clearly an overachiever, sounding like it should cost much more. Finally, the Magnepan MG1.7X ($5k), a new hot-rodded version of this venerable speaker, had it all over the box speakers in transparency and imaging, driven by a Luxman integrated amp in the room of Glenn Poor’s Audio Video.

Most Significant Product Introduction

Soulution 3 Series of electronics. This new power amp, preamp, integrated amp, phonostage, and DAC look to be significantly upgraded over their already superlative predecessors. Although not inexpensive, they promise to bring the fabulous musical qualities of Soulution electronics to a wider audience.

Most Significant Trend

The explosive growth of AXPONA, along with more women and young people at the show. This was a huge, and hugely successful, show. It bodes well for high-end audio.

Most Coveted Product

Analog Audio Design TP-1000 open-reel tape machine (along with a library of tapes). This newly built machine incorporates features never before seen in a reel-to-reel player, and according to Jonathan Valin, sounds terrific.

Tags: AMPLIFIER AXPONA ELECTRONICS PREAMPLIFIER SHOW REPORT

Robert Harley

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.

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