Not since 1994, when the Summer CES stopped camping out yearly along Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, has the Windy City played annual host to a large high-end audio show. That situation will certainly change after this past weekend’s AXPONA Chicago 2013.
Held on March 8-10 in the Doubletree By Hilton O’Hare hotel, the first Chi-town Audio Expo North America was by anyone’s reckoning a smashing success. There were quite literally thousands of attendees (more traffic, AXPONA organizers claim, than at any U.S. show outside of CES), scores of exhibits on five hotel floors, and enough very good sound to make the event non-stop fun even for a jaded old reviewer like me. I will definitely be coming back, along with the four thousand (and climbing) high-end-audio-starved Chicagoans who braved the dreary March weather. (Manufacturers and exhibitors take note!)
Usually in a show report I take you on the same journey that I make, going room to room as I listen to expensive loudspeakers. But in this blog, I’m only going to touch on the highlights of the show. It’s not that I didn’t travel from room to room with my briefcase full of blues—it’s just that we (Robert and I) weren’t sure whether this inaugural event would justify CES-style in-depth coverage. Next year, we’ll know better.
As is the case with most audio shows, the large meeting rooms on the ground floor and the mezzanine of the Doubletree housed many of the biggest and most elaborate systems, like the giant Focal Grand Utopia EMs (which, driven by Pass Labs electronics, showed better here than at any other trade show I’ve attended), Sonus faber Amati Anniversarios (ditto, driven by ARC), and Venture Grand Ultimate Mk IIs. Rather surprisingly, all three powerhouses sounded quite marvelous and majestic (a first, in my show experience). Of course, big speakers with big woofers or multiple subs (the Sonus fabers were paired with four of ’em) will always have issues in the bass, even in (or maybe that should be especially in) huge untreated conference rooms. Here, for whatever reason, those issues were relatively minor. A little overall darkness and bottom-end thickness aside, each of the Big Boys had the kind of granitic solidity from the bass through the power range and into the mids, on, say, The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense or the great RTI repressing (not the hideous Speakers Corner one) of Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues [Columbia}, that makes both singer and band sound as rich, exciting, and powerful as they did in life (and I’ve heard both of them in concert). There was even a notable debut in the ultra-high-end ranks—Albert von Schweikert’s $140k seven-driver, ribbon/cone hybrid VR100 XS, paired with two of Albert’s Shockwave subwoofers and bi-amped by Kronzilla tubes on top and Channel Islands Class D on the subs (see photo above). Though the subs were turned up a bit much on Day One, by Day Two the speaker was sounding quite robust, full-bodied, and beautiful. Best of show contenders for sure.
The speakers in the converted hotel rooms on the seventh, eighth, and ninth floor fared uniformly well sonically. Even speakers that had been slightly disappointing at previous shows—like the Wisdom I75 planar-magnetics, the Harbeth 30.1s cones-in-a-box, the Verity Amadis W/ps driven by Convergent Audio Technology electronics, the concentric-driver KEF Blade, or the true ribbon Scaena iso-linear line sources (though the Scaenas could’ve used more distance between their subwoofers and the main towers)—seemed to get their mojo back in Chicago, while the usual suspects—such as the mbl 101s driven (of course) by MBL electronics or the marvelous TAD CR1s driven by Parasound electronics—were their superb selves. (More on the mbls in a moment). Even some of the oddities—such as the strange and very promising Newform Research LineSource Reference, which suspends a long cylindrical ribbon directly in front of about twelve dynamic mid/woofs—were excellent sounding (see photo above).
As good as all these speakers were—and they were superior—four exhibits struck me as exceptional: the TAD Reference 1s driven by Lamm electronics (and sourced by United Home Audio’s UHA-HQ Phase 11 reel-to-reel tape deck), the YG Acoustics Carmels driven by Veloce electronics, the Audio Physic Virgo 25s driven by Trigon, and, well, we’ll get to the fourth in a moment.
The TAD Ref 1s are one of the great loudspeakers—and almost always impressive at shows. Here, playing back Jonathan Horwich’s 15ips, two-track tapes of Chicagoland jazz combos—they were awesome. Nothing else I’ve heard in the high end combines the sheer grip and wallop of these superb transducers.
The dainty two-way floorstanding Carmels simply made the best impression of any YG speaker since the giant Sonjas at CES—wonderful integration of drivers, wonderful tone color, seemingly unrestricted dynamics (which wasn’t always the case with smaller YGs), super resolution (a house specialty), a thoroughgoing disappearing act, and an impression of deep-going bass that belied their size and form factor.
Though the Audio Physic Virgo 25 multiway floorstanders have always sounded terrific (at least as Reinhard Goerner sets them up), here they came within a hair (as did the other two top contenders) of winning my Best of Show award. In spite of their demure size the Virgo 25s seemingly lack for nothing in frequency response, tone color, resolution, and dynamic range—plus they soundstage like the dickens.
My fourth pick for exceptional sound happens to be a speaker from a company that, in the past, hasn’t overly impressed me—TIDAL (see the photo at the start of this blog). Maybe it was the Vitus electronics or maybe it was David White’s expert setup or maybe it was that Chicago mojo, but here the gorgeous two-and-a-half-way Piano Diaceras, with their black Accuton ceramic mid/woofs and black Accuton diamond tweeter, were downright breathtaking—incredibly high in resolution, incredibly subtle and powerful in dynamics (sensational on a cello and piano sonata), incredibly gorgeous in tone color, and very realistic. Though their three rivals were also outstanding (as were the Big Boys on the bottom floors), the TIDALs simply won my heart—and my Best of Show award.
Having said this, the Best Source of the show wasn’t in the TIDAL room. As Robert will tell you (and as I’ve already written about—see http://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/united-home-audios-new-tape-deck-and-next-gen-reel-to-reel-tapes/), Greg Beron’s 15ips, two-track United Home Audio UHA-HQ Phase 11 tape deck—which was found in a surprising number of rooms at this show—simply cannot be touched by vinyl or digital sources, no matter how good or how self-proclaimedly “HD” they are.
On Saturday night, after hours, Robert got to experience what I’d already heard—a dub of the mastertape of Sgt Pepper, here played back via Beron’s masterpiece on mbl 101 E Mk II and MBL electronics. Folks, there are bound to be naysayers out there, who not having had this experience will think I’m just an old Luddite going nuts about a technology that time has long since passed by. But trust me (please): There is nothing more astonishing and satisfying and downright thrilling than hearing a great piece of music in a less-than-great recording transformed into a you-are-there-in-the-studio sonic experience of the very first order. This is what Beron’s tape machine (and other reel-to-reels) is capable of with Sgt Pepper (or any mastertape).
Those of you interested in seeing larger photographs of all of the products mentioned in this blog (and many, many others), go to http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p800121917.
Best of Show System: TIDAL Audio Piano Diacera Speakers ($37,690 in Midnight Gloss Black finish); Vitus RD-100 DAC ($14,000), Vitus RS-100 Stereo Amp ($13,500); Purist Audio Design Corvus Cables; Aurender S10 Music Server ($6990); StillPoints Rack
Best Source: United Home Audio UHA-HQ Phase 11 two-track, 15ips tape deck ($17,000-$22,000)
Best Introduction: Von Schweikert VR100 XS ($140,000)
Most Interesting Product: Newform Research LineSource Reference