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AXPONA Chicago 2015: Affordable Speakers, Headphones, and Lifestyle Components

AXPONA Chicago 2015: Affordable Speakers, Headphones, and Lifestyle Components

Look out big boys, here come the little guys! In my bailiwick of assigned show categories, AXPONA 2015 delivered a broad spectrum of—even a preponderance of—smaller manufacturers building out quality products for relatively affordable prices.

I was often reminded that good things can come in small package, from little loudspeakers that pack a punch to petite portable tube amps for headphones. Speaking of which, AXPONA also demonstrated the continuing popularity of headphones and countless can accessories with an entire area of the lobby devoted to this segment.

And who knew that exploring the halls, floors, and rooms at the Westin O’Hare would yield so many unexpected audiophile treasures from the delightful to the just plain strange? In particular, some lifestyle and even vintage products were a hoot. (See the Odds and Ends section.)          

Although I had not attended AXPONA before, this wasn’t my first rodeo…or uh, audio show. So I knew to bring along a few of my favorite recordings for some listening—LPs this time. I toted those suckers around all day the Friday, but to no avail: Only went to one room that had a turntable in the system. So on Saturday, I decided to ditch the albums in my room and return to any interesting demo setups on the odd chance they had turntables. As fate would have it, every room I visited that day had a ’table up and running. Oh well. I did get to do a bit of vinyl listening (not to mention purchasing) in the end.

On the plus side, public attendance was reportedly up 20 percent, which is good news for all involved. On the downside, for whatever reasons, I felt an unusually long time passed before I landed in a room that really blew me away, or even gave me goosebumps. They seemed woefully few and far between. Still, it was a rather friendly show—in every sense of the word—and there was a lot to love, musically, aesthetically, and personally.

Five Most Significant Exhibits

Woo Audio
When I first entered the Woo Audio room, I admit I was initially attracted—like a moth to a flame—to the glowingly unique looks of the little headphone and desktop tube amplifiers. In addition to the aptly named (a witty play on President Jack Wu’s name) company’s aesthetics that sit squarely in between classic (tubes, natch) and modern (sleek form factor), I was even more struck by how wonderful they sounded. Three of the Woo models that I test-drove were pleasing to the eyes and ears—and I easily could have spent even more time in the room—but I’d say the two most significant included a diminutive prototype of a portable headphone tube amp/DAC, tentatively named the WA8 TransPortable, and the popular WA7d “Fireflies” desktop tube amp/DAC combo.

If you’re a tube fan and wish you could take that sound quality on the road, Woo’s (trans)portable headphone tube amp/DAC could be the ticket. Tiny yet rather hefty, the prototype, now in its second incarnation, previously appeared at Can Jam in SoCal and received positive public feedback on its sound. The idea is to offer the quality tube sound you know and love from home in a portable package. The TransPortable is a battery-powered unit slightly bigger than an old-school transistor radio (6″ x 4″ x 1″) and it’s pure tube. Product specialist Michael Liang told me the look has not been finalized yet, which is a good thing (as it now appears rather boxy and utilitarian), and that they might switch the DAC chip (now a TI one). Using a first-generation iPad (into a 32-bit internal DAC) and Odyssey LCD 3 headphones, I listened to a Red Book version of Sara Bereilles’ rendition of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and it sounded pretty golden: warm, open, and fluid. Price is still TBD, but will be in the $1500 range.

As for already-in-market products, there’s been plenty of buzz around the compact WA7d “Fireflies” headphone amp/DAC that boasts a slick, tubes-in-a-cube design with a 2″-thick clear-glass top (which doesn’t fog up) and either a black or silver anodized aluminum base. This pure Class A headphone tube amp/DAC combo features 32-bit/192kHz USB DAC and comes with either a WA7p solid-state power supply ($999) or a WA7tp vacuum tube power supply upgrade ($1600). The petite, yet powerful high-performance amp is designed to drive demanding audiophile headphones, or simply to be used as a standalone DAC capable of up to 32-bit/192k sampling rates. A pair of 6C45 tubes serves as both driver and power source. The amp has a single-ended topology, with transformer-coupled outputs and, to enhance data integrity, it’s built without semiconductors in the amplification path. As for the sound? Let’s just say I had never gotten goosebumps listening to headphones before—and from a non-hi-res digital track on a MacBook Air, no less. Woo, woo, indeed!

Magnepan 3.7i with exaSound and Pass Labs
Prior to entering this room, I’d begun to feel that an awful lot was starting to sound similar from one stop to the next. Then my spirits were lifted by the astonishingly beautiful and thrillingly realistic soundwaves emanating from the Magnepan 3.7i speakers. In a near-perfect balance of sonic verisimilitude with just the right amount of warmth and spacious sweetness, the combination of components here seemed to be a sonic match made in heaven: the exaSound e12 DAC—a new product introduction with DSD 256—along with the debut of the newly upgraded e22 Mk. II DAC, and Pass Labs’ X250.8 solid-state stereo amplifier ($9600). In spite of having heard Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue countless times, it seldom before sounded like this: incredibly detailed and articulate bass; full, open trumpet that soared.

In addition to its wonderful sound, this system was also noteworthy for the rather affordable pricing, with the new e12 retailing for $1999, and the e22 Mk. II for $3499. (The internal parts of these two are identical; the main difference is the addition of input and output options.) And the Maggies come in at $5495, but certainly exceed their price range for stellar sound.

Vanatoo Transparent One Loudspeakers
Given my assigned categories for this show, I’d be remiss not to include these little (and I do mean little: 6 1/2″ x 10″ x 8 1/8″) desktop “sleeper” gems. Billed as “elegant, compact, and affordable,” these powered speakers just might be as good as it gets for audiophile pocket change: $499 (black paint) or $549 (cherry veneer) including shipping (U.S.). The Vanatoo Transparent One boasts an integrated 60Wpc Class D amp and automated sensing inputs for analog, USB digital, TosLink, and coaxial—plus bass/treble controls and a left-right switch for more flexible positioning. But what’s really unexpected (apart from the price) is how low in frequency these little guys go, reportedly dropping down to about 48Hz (without a subwoofer). To achieve better range in such a small box, Vanatoo (not to be confused with Vindaloo) has licensed patented XBL technology for a woofer that has a long throw, resulting in a beefier low end as well as a cleaner, more controlled midrange. Want still more low-end? A built-in DSP is programmed to know when a sub is plugged in and acts as a high-pass filter to keep the mid/bass driver only running midrange. These Vanatoos offered good sound on a budget for minimal footprint and maximum flexibility in room placement and more.

This was simply a great-sounding, well-balanced room…with CDs playing, no less. In addition to spectacular sonics (and attractive aesthetics—the speakers is available in four different glossy wood finishes), AcousticZen is also noteworthy for managing to incorporate an impressive degree of precision technology into speakers that sound like they should cost a whole lot more. This time, the overachievers were the Crescendo Mk. II models ($18k)—three-way floorstanders that almost seemed to vanish—driven by the subtle warmth of tube electronics from Triode Corporation of Japan, specifically, the TRX-1 preamp ($3500) and TRX-M845 monoblocks ($25k) paired with the TRV-CD5SE CD player ($3200).

The Quad Returns
The welcome return of Quad to the U.S. market (after several years of absence) is big news, especially at a show that seemed light on debuts and new introductions—at least within my assigned categories. The esteemed folks at MoFi Distribution have acquired distribution honors, and demo’d the ESL-2912s with BAT Rex 2 electronics, an Avid Pulsare II phonostage, and an Avid Acutus Reference turntable, SME 309 tonearm, and Koetsu Black cartridge (Koetsu is now also distributed by MoFi Distribution).

In spite of some boomy bass bleeding through an adjacent room’s walls, these great electrostats were a pleasure to listen to, from transient attack through decay, and made fine work of the expressive range and sweet subtleties of Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite on RCA LP, for one example. Although this showing didn’t exactly mark the Return of the Killer Quads—due to room issues that were not the fault of the speakers—seeing and hearing these classic ’stats was a true delight.

Other Notables and Debuts

Monitor Gold Series loudspeakers

A rare show debut (at least in my category) is Janszen’s latest zA2.1A-HP, an active, electrostatic-hybrid floorstanding loudspeaker that includes two long-throw woofers and two ’stat panels for more muscle behind the sound and enhanced staging, in addition to built-in bi-amplification that offers some eq. The Janszen’s clean, graphic-looking enclosure is available in four solid hardwoods. Emerald PhysicsEP-2.3 controlled-directivity loudspeakers (starting at $1200) boast a unique form factor that allows for open-baffle dispersion for greater dimensionality. This three-way, four-driver, bi-amplified dipole design is also available in a broad range of customized finishes from automotive tri-coats to faux wood (prices vary), so the wife/partner acceptance factor may well be enhanced. Speaking of which, Monitor Audio displayed its latest sleek Gold lineup of speakers. I listened to the Gold 300s, majestic three-way floorstanders ($5500; $6395 for gloss ebony) which claim a rather impressive 30Hz–60kHz frequency response. And, indeed, the low end was surprisingly substantial on the Holly Cole digital track I requested. The Gold 300s’ rich, full impression was appealing. Other noteworthy rooms with outstanding sound quality (in my designated arena of loudspeakers under $20k) included: the Salk/Val Alstine suite, full of astounding attack, imaging, and resolution with Salk Soundscape 8 speakers ($7995); the ATC Tower SCM40 passive loudspeakers ($7000), which delivered big, full sound with revealing transparency and featured a midrange driver offering a broader-than-normal range; and the Sony SS-NA2ES three-way floorstanders ($10k), an exciting release from the Japanese giant that offered outstanding precision and more.

If you’re an audiophile who’s just starting out (and/or are on a budget) and looking for a basic, but not basic-sounding, system, Odyssey is worth a look (and a listen). The maker’s Kismet Beryllium loudspeakers ($4200), Candela preamp ($1600), and Khartago monoblocks ($1995) sounded pretty darned good—and belied their price points—just $6900 for the lot. In electrostat land, the KingSound Prince III two-way, full-range electrostatic loudspeakers ($9995) offered gorgeous detail with extremely spacious and open soundstaging, along with some “current” safety enhancements designed to prevent shocks in case kids or dogs knock over these 36-pound panels. For one, the stators are charged by a three-amp, 12-volt power supply, so there’s no lethal voltage. They’re also UT-approved and fully (and conveniently) serviceable: All seven framed panels can be switched out for repair or replacement.

On the headphones front, KingSound also demo’d its KS-H3 full-range, electrostatic cans in a unique A/B testing format that allowed you to compare tube vs. solid-state desktop headphone amps. You simply put on the incredibly light (as in one pound) KingSound ’phones and plug them into either the M-10 solid-state amplifier ($1250 for the H3 combo) or the M-20 OTL tube amplifier ($2150 with H3). Though the tubes offered extra richness, both amps had such a big, full, open sound and such detailed imaging they hardly sounded like headphones—and they’re so compact, you might decide you like it both ways. Elsewhere in the EarExpo room, the extremely lightweight, Oppo PM-3 planar-magnetic headphones offered high sensitivity—handy to use with, say, your iPhone—and great value for the sound quality ($399 – take that, Beats!). In addition to cool-looking denim cases, prototypes were on display in a couple of new colors: red, and blue with white accents. Finally, the Oppos might be the first cans I’ve tried that fit me perfectly. They were paired with the elegant, little HA-2 portable headphone amp/DAC ($299) with a rechargeable battery that supports 384kHz PCM and DSD 256. In room 341, I happened upon some Ultrasone headphones from Germany that feature patented S-Logic natural surround-sound technology, which allows soundwaves to enter your ears from various angles/directions (rather than a more direct path) to help reduce listening fatigue. In other personal audio, Astell&Kern displayed a new stainless-steel version of its top-of-the-line AK240 portable powerhouse of a Dual DAC music player with native DSD playback and a whopping total memory capacity of up to 384GB. While I loved the ergonomics/hand feel of this pocket-sized thing, I wondered if lefties would like it as much with the corners designed as they are.

Odds and Ends

If you want what must be the best-sounding loudspeakers built to withstand the outdoor elements, check out Madison Fielding’s Flagstone PlanterSpeakers. The name is self-explanatory: These are fully weatherized 24″ x 24″ x 24″ outdoor planters with removable Smart Pots that fully conceal three-way loudspeakers that offer fairly deep bass and decently high output levels inside them. Amazingly enough, the planters sounded pretty good—and reportedly will do so even under snow! If you don’t care for the UV-rated, industrial-grade poly-resin finish (available in black, gray, or customized color options), Madison Fielding had a prototype of a forthcoming model made of stacked slats of real teak.

First there was Meret Oppenheim’s Surrealist fur on the teacup. Then there were Revox loudspeakers covered in cowhide (which I spotted in a recent catalog). Now there are MoooMats (yes, with three “o”s)—turntable platter covers made of specially treated, genuine Brazilian cowhide, backed with a thin layer of cork neoprene, that promise to dampen vibration, reduce static, and improve sound ($75). Each one is, naturally, one-of-a-kind, and when you order online you can choose the exact one you want. Vegan audiophiles beware…

Retro gear, particularly from the 60s and 70s continues to be a hot ticket. (Maybe Mad Men has played a role?) Reflecting this trend at AXPONA were offerings such as Sounds Classic (in the Marketplace area), an outfit that buys, sells, and trades on high-quality vintage stereo equipment. Need repair or restoration? It does that, too. I also happened upon a handful of vintage hi-fi components for sale here and there—including a Marantz turntable and amp from the 1970s—in Room 341, a space shared by several myriad vendors. Taking things a step further in the Don Draper direction, if you’re in the market for stylish storage for your vinyl or hi-fi gear, Chicago-based Brokenpress Design + Fabrication creates custom cabinets designed in mid-century-modern styles with that purpose in mind.

After show hours, a handful of “well-connected” (or branché) AXPONA attendees and exhibitors hung out in either of two MBL/United Home Audio rooms enjoying demos of the superb-sounding MBL 111F omnidirectional loudspeakers pumping out larger-than-life songs from fun mastertape mixes (sourced from dubs of safety masters) of everything from St. Pepper’s to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and played back to the max on the magnificent United Home Audio Phase 12 OPS reel-to-reel tape deck. Sure, there were some room issues (and a bit of overbearing bass), but who cared? This combo made for a visceral, full-tilt thrill ride of a listening experience.

Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object): The Magico M Project loudspeakers ($129k) were spectacular on Friday (but not as much on Sunday for mysterious reasons. Like a game of Clue, it seems someone did something somewhere in the chain.)

Best Sound (for the money): Paired with the upgraded exaSound e22 Mk. II DAC and Pass Labs’ X250.8 amps, the Maggie 3.7i’s stole the show. Simply put, they are priced at $5495, but sound like a million bucks.

Most Significant Product Introduction: Tiniest tube amp ever? Woo Audio has just introduced a petite prototype of a headphone tube amp/DAC, for now dubbed the WA8 TransPortable. As a curiosity, will it fly like Woo’s Fireflies?

Most Significant Trend: A tie between vintage/retro-styled gear that lives on and the craze for cans and their related accoutrements.

Most Coveted Product: Woo Audio WA7d “Fireflies” headphone amp/DAC with tube power upgrade. Mated with Sennheiser HD800 headphones playing “Comfortably Numb” (not even a favorite tune of mine), this cute cube delivered pure tube pleasure.

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