The 2023 AXPONA Show: Andre Jennings on Analog and Digital Sources
2023 AXPONA broke records with over 9000 attendees, 200 rooms, 500+ brands, and multiple product introductions. Additionally, I noticed an increased diversity of showgoers in the number of women, younger aged audiophile/audio curious folks, and people of color. The show organizers are moving in the right direction by expanding the pool of attendees, which I’m sure added to the 20% increase in attendance this year. With 200 rooms to see, there is no way I could manage to visit them all. The items that I was aware of, from contacts or press releases received, had a fair shot of being visited. If I missed several, which I’m sure I did given the size of the show, I offer my apologies. Let’s look at some of the new product introductions I found.
DS Audio Grand Master EX cartridge
Improving on the Grand Master, the Grand Master EX ($22,500) adds a unified one-piece diamond cantilever/stylus. That’s right, the micro-ridge stylus and the 0.22mm cantilever are one continuous diamond cut, without the usual bonding required for almost all other cartridges. This benefits the cartridge with greater structural stability, more accurate transmission of groove modulation as well as more precise alignment of stylus to cantilever since it is a one-piece diamond. Paired with the Grand Master EQ (optical cartridge equalizer), Clearaudio Ref Jubilee ’table with Universal 9” tonearm ($30,000), D’Agostino Momentum HD preamp ($42,500) and M400 MvX amps ($79,950), and Wilson Alexx V speakers ($145,000) connected with Transparent cables, with all components sitting on Bassocontinuo Revolution X racks, the sound was much improved. Playing Lady Blackbird’s “Blackbird” track from the Black Acid Soul LP revealed good vocals, clean and clear bass, drums, and piano. Save for a bit of bass bloat (due to room issues) and a slight breakup at one point on a vocal crescendo, the system produced enjoyable sound. Look for a review of the Grand Master EX in a future issue.
exaSound s82 Mark II Streaming DAC and Roon Server
The exaSound s82 Mark II Streaming DAC and Roon Server ($7599) was paired with the VAC Master preamplifier ($38,000) and Master 300 amplifier ($42,000), and Gershman Acoustics Studio XdB speakers with integrated bass-trap stand ($12,000) and Cardas cables. On an “Autumn Leaves” track, the sound was clean on vocals with subjectively quick and nimble bass. The s82 Mark II features the ES9038PRO DAC (DSD512, DXD up to 352.8kHz, PCM and MQA to 384kHz), independent single-ended and balanced output stages, headphone amplifier, internal volume control, asynchronous USB streaming, galvanic isolation, low-jitter signal paths, selectable reconstruction filters, dual external power supplies, and an Intel i5 powered Roon server module with additional server support for UPnP, HQPlayer, AirPlay, Bluetooth, Tidal, Qobuz, and YouTube. The s82 Mark II offers a complete all-in-one Server, streamer, and DAC solution with a high-quality headphone amplifier.
Kalista DreamPlay Twenty-Twenty turntable and DreamPlay XC CD/SACD Player/DAC
The Kalista DreamPlay Twenty-Twenty ’table ($54,000) and XC CD/SACD player/DAC ($79,000) were paired with a full set of Karan Acoustics electronics: LINEa preamplifier with external power supply ($41,000), PHONOa phono preamplifier with external power supply ($38,000), and POWERa mono power amplifiers ($106,000). The speakers were the very same Vimberg Tonda Ds I reviewed in the pages of TAS in Issue 320. Connecting the system were Crystal Cable Art Series’ Van Gogh and Da Vinci lines. Additional grounding was tied to the system using the Entreq Olympus Infinity Ten ground box ($12,000). The DreamPlay XC features CD/SACD transport, native DSD up to 256, PCM, DXD up to 384kHz, Ethernet and Wi-Fi streaming, Ethernet, coax, I2S, and USB inputs, AES/EBU outputs, a built-in DreamPlay XC D/A converter, RCA and XLR analog outputs, and an external power supply. Unfortunately, the Twenty-Twenty turntable section of Kalista’s website was unavailable for specification retrieval at the time of this writing. Using either Kalista source (analog or digital), the sound exiting the Tonda D was excellent whether playing classical music via silver disc or spinning vinyl playing Lady Blackbird. The soundstage was expansive, the presentation had truthful clarity, and instrument/vocal timbres were spot on and as realistic as I remember the speakers sounding during my review.
Innous Pulsar Network Music Player
The Innous Pulsar Network Music Player ($6899) was introduced at this show. Paired with a Magico A5, a Vinni Rossi BRAMA integrated amplifier, an MSB Premier DAC, a PS Audio P15, and Kimber Kable cables. The Pulsar features a bead-blasted anodized aluminum chassis, 300VA toroidal transformer, internal PhoenixUSB Lite reclocker, optimized USB output, and dual, independent CX voltage-regulator modules. Brief listening in the above configuration yielded a total system sound that was light and crisp in timbre.
Oracle Reference 1 Tonearm
The Oracle Delphi Reference ’table ($13,920) hosted the Reference 1 tonearm ($6000) and Lyra Atlas Lambda cartridge ($11,995). This combination was paired with the VAC Statement Phono ($80,000), VAC Statement Linestage ($80,000), and VAC Statement 452 amplifiers ($75,000 each), driving Acora Acoustics VRC speakers in Pearl Granite ($218,000 est.). All cables were sourced from Cardas. The digital front-end contained the Aurender N30SA ($25,000), Aurender MC20 ($30,000), Lampizator Horizon DAC ($50,000), and Oracle CD 2000 MK IV ($13,500). The Reference 1 tonearm is a 4-bearing design that features VTA, anti-skate, and azimuth adjustments, a silicone trough for ’arm damping, a carbon-fiber armtube, 20g effective mass, an end-of-record auto-armlift, 223mm pivot-to-spindle distance, and an effective length of 240.3mm. In-room sound was very good to excellent depending on the music tracks played. Considering the giant room size, this system did surprisingly well.
VPI Avenger Direct Turntable
The VPI Avenger Direct ’table ($36,000) hosting a Lyra Etna (non-lambda, $8995) was paired with the VTL Signature Phonostage ($15,000), VTL Line Preamplifier Series III ($35,000), VTL MB-450 Series III Signature mono amps ($30,000 pair), and the Stenheim Reference Ultime Two ($155,000) connected with a full loom of top Nordost products (cables, power, isolation devices, network switch, etc.). The other source in this system was the dCS Rossini Apex DAC ($32,800) with Rossini Master Clock ($10,850): which sounded very good playing a live BSO performance of Shostakovich’s 11th symphony. Vinyl playback was top-notch with the system playing Lady Blackbird, Duke Ellington’s Jazz Violin Sessions, and the excellent Rossini L’Italiana in Algeri sinfonia.
Lumin showed three new products: the U2 Network Music Transport ($5000), T3 ($4990) streamer/renderer/DAC, and the U1-X Network Music Transport. A few of the U2 and Y3’s features include an all-new processor, dedicated USB output, linear power supply, fiber network input, DSD512 and PCM 768kHz playback, MQA decoding, and LEEDH volume control. The U1-X combines the features of the U1 digital transport with the X-1 power supply that is said to yield improved sound staging, detail, warmth, and overall presence. The system was paired with the Lumin XAMP ($13,990) and a suite of Matthew Bond cables.
SME 60 Turntable
The SME 60 was shown for the first time at AXPONA 2023, although already reviewed by Michael Fremer in Issue 333. Most of the features are covered in that review. The SME 60 with VA Series tonearm is a work of engineering precision and creativity geared towards improving on SME’s legacy designs. Based on all indications presented during an explanation of the design, the product is a success. Listening to the SME 60 with VA ’arm in a system with AVM 8.3 Phono ($13,995), AVM 8.3 preamp ($18,385), AVM 8.3 amplifiers ($44,995/pr.), and Canton Reference 3K loudspeakers ($13,995) connected with Kubala-Sosna cables, showed the analog front-end to be quiet and controlled while tracing the groove with ease.
SonoruS ATR10 mkII Tape Deck
Scott Walker Audio showed the new SonoruS ATR10 mkII tape player ($32,500). This unit is a plug-and-play, turnkey reel-to-reel tape deck. After the original ATR10 was introduced over a decade ago, the new mkII model features updated electronics and redesigned mechanical parts. The output features tube playback electronics that are said to produce excellent “dynamic range and low bass authority with minimum coloration.” Other features include the compact chassis of the ATR10 mkII, DC Coupled Stabilized Loop Gain Technology, regulated tape tension of supply reel and take-up reel, 7.5ips and 15ips speed selection, IEC and NAB EQ, captive NAB spindles, motor-assisted fast breaking, library wind, and optical leader tape detection. In system, the ATR10 mkII was feeding the VAC Master Preamp ($30,000), VAC Master 300 iQ amplifiers ($42,000 ea.), and Von Schweikert Ultra 7 loudspeakers with Shockwave V-12XS subwoofer ($16,500) connected with Masterbuilt Ultra cables. Brief listening to the ATR10 mkII playing SonoruS Holographic Imaging tapes showed promising performance. I would like to explore this tape machine’s performance further.
Other turntable debuts include: The AMG Giro MkII, Technics 1500C White ($1299), and Luxman’s PD-191A ($12,495). Bel Canto premiered the BLACK DAC System ($40,000) that includes three analog inputs with one being an mm/mc phonostage. The new and improved Spin-Clean record washer ($79) with snap-in roller, wedge-fit brushes, and easy clean basin was also shown.
In Other News
Axiss Audio introduced a new version of the Yuki AP-01 turntable ($TBD) from Japan. This unique-looking, all-metal turntable was on display the first day of the show. I managed to get a picture of it but didn’t listen to it on that day. When I returned, the Yuki AP-01 was on static display without a cartridge. Unfortunately, that meant no listening to it or observing its operation. However, there was something else of interest in this room. That item was the Gauder Akustik DARC 200 loudspeakers ($149,000). Being familiar with Gauder Akustik’s Berlina RC 9, which I reviewed in April of 2016 (TAS 262), I was intrigued with the DARC 200. The speaker takes the Berlina rib construction to new heights with the implementation of aluminum instead of a dense fiber material. In addition, the crossovers and drivers are new and have been improved over the years. The speaker features some adjustability in terms of linear bass output level and selective boost/cut between 30Hz–60Hz (typical problem areas for many rooms). Driven by a full suite of Accuphase electronics or alternately a full suite of Soulution electronics and sourced by a Transrotor TT with Airtight Opus 1 cartridge, the DARC 200 speakers sounded very promising and easily showed the subjective user-preference-based difference between the two sets of electronics: one leaning towards rich and warm while the other being quicker and having slightly more perceived low-level resolution. The performance was enjoyable enough to foresee a review of a DARC loudspeaker in the near future.
Belgium based company, AM Belgium nv, has been in business since 1969. The company has in-house capability to make repro and record tape heads for professional and commercial tape decks. For certain models of the tape heads that AM Belgium stocks, the customer can order the proper alternative head in a single quantity. For alternative replacement heads that are not stocked, the minimum order varies from 5 to 10 heads depending on whether the company has the replacement head design from a previous order or it is a new replacement head design. AM Belgium also offers relapping and reconditioning services.
AJ’s Analog Best of Show
Best Sound (cost-no-object): A tie. The Wynn Audio room with Vimberg Tonda D/Karan Acoustics phono, preamp, amp, Kalista digital source and turntable with Xquisite cartridge, and Crystal Cable Da Vinci wiring, and the Stenheim Reference Ultime Two with VTL phono, preamp, amplifiers, dCS DAC, and VPI turntable with Lyra cartridge.
Best Sound (for-the-money): The complete Yamaha Flagship HiFi Series 5000 system. While the cost was higher than some lower-priced offerings at the show, this was the best sounding system at the lowest cost that I heard.
Most Significant Product Introduction: The new and improved Spin-Clean Record Washer kit for new and budding vinyl playback audiophiles to start cleaning their records.
Most Significant Trend: Diversity at AXPONA 2023. I saw more youngsters, women, and people of color than at previous shows. The show organizers are expanding their reach. This is a good thing for the industry and our hobby.
Most Coveted Product(s): Gauder Akustik DARC 200 loudspeakers, SonoruS ATR10 mkII tape player, and Kalista DreamPlay XC SACD/CD Player/DAC.
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.More articles from this editor
Read Next From ShowSee all
Capital Audio Fest 2023 | Day 2 Show Report
- Nov 17, 2023
Capital Audio Fest 2023 | Day 1 Show Report
- Nov 16, 2023