The 2023 AXPONA Show: Robert Harley on Electronics
- by Robert Harley
- Apr 20th, 2023
This AXPONA was easily the most upbeat, best organized, and well attended show outside Munich. But what really made this year’s event so heartening was the diversity of the attendees. The halls and exhibit rooms were packed with young people and couples looking for new ways to explore music. Fortunately, this show had plenty of affordable products for them to see and hear, and with features and capabilities targeting how they want to access music.
Here are my picks of the most interesting new electronics at the show.
5 Most Significant New Products
PrimaLuna EVO 100 Phonostage
PrimaLuna, the company known for delivering amazing value and high build-quality, has introduced a “swing-for-the-fences,” all-tube phonostage with the EVO 100. Nearly all tube phonostages employ a step-up transformer or transistor gain stage at the input before the tube stage to keep noise levels low. Realizing 65dB or more of gain with just tubes can result in a poor signal-to-noise ratio. PrimaLuna has addressed this challenge with a massive all-tube power supply that uses a pair of EL34s, a tube usually found in a power-amplifier output stage. The EVO 100’s tube complement includes four 12AX7s in the front end, a 6922 for additional moving-coil gain, and a pair of 5AR4 tubes as rectifiers. The EVO 100 offers three gain settings (52dB, 56dB, 60dB). The first production units just started shipping from distributor/retailer Upscale Audio. Price: $3695.
Aesthetix Pallena Preamplifier and Dione Power Amplifier
Aesthetix has a long history of making exceptionally musical products, a tradition continued in the new Pallena preamp and Dione power amp. The Pallena is a fully balanced tube preamp with a switched-resistor volume control based on that of the Calypso preamp. A great feature is the ability to customize the Pallena to your needs or add capability later. Specifically, you can add an optional phono module with gain and loading adjustments. These adjustments can be made from the front panel or remote control. A second module adds digital-to-analog conversion that supports up to 384kHz/24-bit PCM and DSD64 and DSD128. The Pallena comes standard with a headphone amplifier, or you can opt for a fully discrete differential-input headphone amp. The modules are $1250 each.
The matching Dione power amplifier is a hybrid design with a tube gain stage and solid-stage output stage. The amplifier features zero feedback and has differential balanced-bridged circuitry through the output stage. All inputs are offered on both unbalanced and balanced jacks. The power transformers are, unusually, wound in-house. Power output is rated at 160Wpc into 8 ohms and 320Wpc into 4 ohms.
The Pallena and Dione are priced at $6500 each and are a step up from the spectacularly great Aesthetix Mimas integrated amplifier that is Neil Gader’s reference.
Cabasse Abyss Amplifier
One of the most remarkable demos at this AXPONA wasn’t with one of the show’s biggest systems, but with one of its smallest. French speaker maker Cabasse showed its Abyss “High-Resolution Connected Active Amplifier,” a 120Wpc integrated amplifier with built-in streaming. What’s special about the Abyss is the DSP processing inside that can greatly improve the sound of any speaker, most dramatically with models from Cabasse. The DSP allows you to tell the system where your loudspeakers are positioned relative to room boundaries and the DSP will adjust the frequency response for smoother bass. You can also adjust the tonal balance with the integral tilt controls. But here’s the best part: When used with a passive Cabasse speaker, the amplifier will engage a DSP program specific to that speaker to smooth out response. The frequency profiles of a wide range of Cabasse speakers are programmed into the Abyss; you just select which one to engage. The DSP filter has 30 bands, allowing for very precise adjustment. Non-Cabasse speakers benefit from a generic DSP algorithm. In addition, the Abyss has a patented processing algorithm called Dynamic Fidelity Enhancer (DFE) that analyzes the signal’s dynamics and level in real time and modifies the signal to restore the music’s dynamics and bass extension at low listening levels. Price: $1795.
Naim NSC 222 Streaming Preamplifier, NAP 250 Power Amplifier, and NPX 300 Power Supply
Naim showed the new 200-Series, comprising the NSC 222 streaming preamplifier, NAP 250 power amplifier, and NPX 300 power supply. The NSC 222 features Naim’s own streaming engine that supports every streaming platform, Internet Radio, UPnP servers, and is also Roon Ready. A front-panel display shows the album art. The new preamp is controlled by the Naim App, which also provides multi-room control over all the Naim components on the network. A high-quality headphone amplifier, inherited from the excellent Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, is included. Price: $8999.
The NAP 250 power amplifier carries the model designation of an iconic Naim amplifier launched in 1975. This new sixth-generation model is, of course, significantly updated with the latest technology and design. It benefits from some circuitry developed for Naim’s quarter-million-dollar Statement power amplifier, including discrete power-supply regulation and the identical transistors in the output stage. The NAP 250 outputs 100Wpc. Price: $8999.
Finally, the NPX 300 power supply continues a long-held Naim tradition of providing an upgrade path through a very high-quality power supply in a separate chassis. The NPX is designed to improve the performance of the NPX 222 by delivering exceptionally clean DC power to the streaming preamplifier. Price: $8999. I’ve heard several demonstrations of Naim’s outboard power supplies, and the improvement in sound quality was significant each time. The three units in the 200-Series share identical styling for a unified look. They are also housed in beautifully machined aluminum chassis with exceptional build-quality.
Balanced Audio Technology VK-80t
MoFi Distribution showed the new all-tube BAT VK-80t power amplifier to celebrate BAT’s 25th anniversary. The VK-80t outputs 60Wpc from the high-current 6C33C-B output tube, the same tube found in BAT’s flagship REX 3 power amplifier. This tube has a greater current capacity that the 6550 found in many amplifiers. The input stage is built around a 6H30 “SuperTube.” This new BAT can be operated as a stereo amplifier or a 120W monoblock. An auto-bias circuit simplifies ownership. Available in black or silver. Deliveries of the $9995 unit begin in Q2.
Air Tight ATC-7 Line Control Amplifier
The venerable Japanese artisanal manufacturer debuted its reference linestage, the ATC-7 Line Control Amplifier. In development since 2018, the ATC-7 is Air Tight’s statement in linestages. The all-tube unit features three unbalanced and two balanced inputs, two pairs of 12AX7s, two pairs of 12AU7s, and a highly advanced new volume control along with an innovative power supply. The styling harkens back to classic products of the past, with large front-panel knobs rather than a digital display. Much attention was paid to the look and tactile feel of the knobs; Air Tight wanted to bring back the joy of hands-on involvement in operating an audio system in this age of touchscreens. In that spirit, the ATC-7 includes four separate adjustments for tonal balance, two for “Presence” and two marked “Bass Compensator.” These allow you to dial in the sound to your particularly loudspeakers, room, and taste. The balance control is a pair of knobs (one for each channel) marked “Gain Trim.” As with all Air Tight products, the ATC-7 is built by hand to the highest standard.
Technics SU-GX70X Streaming Integrated Amplifier
Technics’ new SU-GX70X streaming amplifier is packed with a host of advanced features. The amplifier is digital, meaning it keeps digital input signals in the digital domain all the way through the amplifier. Digital-to-analog conversion occurs as part of the switching output stage. The unit outputs 40Wpc into 8 ohms and 80Wpc into 4. It features Technics’ LAPC processing that “looks” at the characteristics of the speaker the amplifier is driving and processes the signal to better match the amplifier to the loudspeaker load. The SU-GX70X has two line inputs, mm phono, networking, Internet Radio, FM radio, Bluetooth, and every streaming service you can imagine. It also does DSD up to 5.6MHz. An HDMI input is included with Audio Return Channel (ARC) for easy integration with a TV. You can control the unit via the front panel, remote control, or app. Price: $1999, with availability beginning in late July.
AVM CS 5.3 and CS 30.3 All-in-One, and PAS Preamplifier
Udo Besser of Germany’s AVM was on hand to show me the company’s new CS 5.3 all-in-one unit. The CS 5.3 is a network streaming amplifier with every streaming function imaginable, HDMI input for integrating with a TV, a phonostage with adjustable loading and gain, and a whopping 330Wpc of Class D output power. The CS 5.3 can be ordered as a hybrid unit with a tube input stage at $12,800, or with a solid-state input at $10,000.
If you don’t need that much power, consider the new CS 30.3 all-in-one, part of the new 30.3 line that brings AVM’s technology and build-quality to a lower price tier. The $5000 CS 30.3 is fully loaded functionally but offers 125Wpc of output power. The 30.3 series comes with the same beautifully machined aluminum remote control as AVM’s top models.
If you already have a power amplifier and want to add more features to your system, AVM showed the PAS preamplifier, which is essentially a CS 5.3 without the power amplification stage. Price: $8000 with tube input stage.
All the AVM products are offered in black, silver, and chrome finishes, the latter carrying a small upcharge. Commendably, AVM has written its own streaming engine software and invested considerably in creating a control app. I saw a demo of the app and was greatly impressed by its power, visual elegance, and ease of use. The app has an ingenious graphic display for multi-room control of an AVM system with multiple components throughout the home.
Rotel Michi Series 2 Integrated Amplifiers and Preamplifier
After a long quiet spell, Rotel introduced three ambitious products in the upscale Michi Series. The first of two integrated amplifiers is the Michi X3 Series 2. The X3 features more than 90 component upgrades, ESS ES9028PRO DACs, and reengineered power supplies. This powerhouse delivers 350Wpc into four ohms and includes a full complement of analog and digital inputs, as well as an mm phonostage.
If you want even more power, the Michi X5 Series 2 will provide 600Wpc into 4 ohms thanks in part to dual, in-house-manufactured, shielded, low-noise toroidal transformers. The X5 also benefits from component upgrades and includes selectable mm or mc phono input.
Finally, the Michi P5 Series 2 preamplifier features the ESS SABRE DAC adapted to “mono” mode for enhanced performance. It offers a full suite of analog and digital inputs along with MQA decoding, DSD up to 4x, and mm and mc phono inputs. The X3 Series 2 is priced at $5799; the X5 is $7999; and the P5 is $4599. Availability begins in April.
WestminsterLab REI Class A Monoblock Amplifier and Quest Preamplifier
I saw and heard an ambitious new power amplifier and preamplifier from a company new to me, Hong Kong-based WestminsterLab. The compact amplifier, called the REI, operates in Class A to deliver 100W; yet, the amplifier ran cool to the touch thanks to the VARI-BIAS technology and heatsink design. The amplifier can double its output power as the impedance is halved, all the way down to 2 ohms. The direct-coupled, no-global-feedback circuitry is fully discrete and realized with hand-matched components. The REI can be bridged for 400W. The minimalist industrial design is unusual and beautiful, realized with CNC-machined aluminum and carbon fiber. The matching Quest preamplifier is equally tweaky, with a dual-mono fully balanced design and a discrete stepped attenuator. Prices: $32,900 per pair for the REI, and $25,100 for the Quest preamplifier. WestminsterLabs products are distributed by HearThis in Newport Beach, California.
SoTM sPQ-100 Phonostage
Korea’s SoTM, maker of dozens of high-tech digital components for network streaming, introduced its first phonostage, the sPQ-100. Housed in SoTM’s familiar wedge-shaped chassis, the sPQ-100 offers banks of DIP switches for fine adjustments of the equalization curve. One position on each switch is marked “RIAA” for setting the unit to correctly equalize for the worldwide standard. No pricing was announced, but the sPQ-100 is expected to sell for about $800 plus the cost of one of the outboard power supplies offered by SoTM.
Mola Mola Lupe Phonostage and Perca Stereo Amplifier
The acclaimed phonostage built into Mola Mola’s Makua preamplifier has now been turned into a stand-alone unit with its own power supply. The new Lupe features three single-ended inputs and one balanced input, balanced and single-ended output, and a subsonic filter, all housed in a half-sized chassis. Unusually, the mm and mc stages are completely separate; in most phonostages the mc signal simply goes through an additional gain stage. Any of the four inputs can be routed to the output to accommodate turntables with multiple tonearms. Price: $9850.
Mola Mola also showed a new stereo power amplifier, the Perca. It delivers 150Wpc into 8 ohms and can double that rating into four ohms. Price: $9850.
Leak Stereo 230 Integrated Amplifier
Talk about a legendary name from the past. Leak showed, through its U.S. distributor MoFi Distribution, the new Stereo 230 integrated amp. The unit features mid-century-modern styling along with a new DAC section that provides full MQA decoding, DSD512, and decoding of any PCM signal. An HDMI input with Audio Return Channel (ARC) allows the 230 to reproduce television sound. An mm phonostage and dedicated headphone amplifier are included. The 230 is Roon tested, but certification is pending. Power output is 75Wpc into 8 ohms, and 110Wpc into 4 ohms. Price: $1695
Robert Harley’s Best of Show
Best Sound (cost no object)
I’ll name three systems, in no particular order.
Axiss Audio’s demo of the Gauder Akustik DARC 200 loudspeaker driven by Soulution electronics with a Transrotor turntable and Air Tight Opus One cartridge. Spectacular dynamics, hard-hitting bass, quick, clean, non-fatiguing, and just plain musical.
The Acora Acoustics VRC loudspeaker ($218,000) driven by VAC Statement electronics sourced by an Oracle Delphi Reference turntable and cabled with Cardas throughout. The sense of presence and immediacy was stunning, as was the huge three-dimensional soundstage.
MBL’s recently upgraded 101 Mk.II loudspeaker driven by all-MBL front end and electronics delivered the usual dose of MBL virtues—a stunning sense of lifelike presence, top-to-bottom coherence, huge soundstage, and tremendous bass extension and impact. Because of the 101’s omnidirectional nature every seat in the house was in the sweet spot.
Best Sound (for the money)
The Cabasse Rialto active loudspeaker. This small cube combines a concentric forward-facing driver with a rear-firing woofer, integral amplification, streaming, and even DSP room correction. You’ve heard the expression, “Just add speakers.” The Realto is, “Just add music.” The sound was stunningly great for $4000 a pair. As a showgoer said, “It’s scary good.” I couldn’t agree more.
Most Significant Product Introduction
Magico S3. This new $45k speaker brings the sonic qualities of Magico’s flagship products to its less costly models. I would have thought I was listening to one of Magico’s M-Series speakers.
Most Significant Trend
Great improvements in app-based user interfaces. Once crude and clumsy, the best interfaces are rapidly becoming slick and powerful. Examples: Server-maker Innuos’ spectacular custom music-management system and AVM’s app control of its all-in-one systems with multiroom capability. That kind of software development is extremely expensive but delivers a superior customer experience.
Most Coveted Product
The Hill Plasmatronics plasma tweeter. Dr. Alan Hill, the physicist who invented the plasma tweeter 40 years ago, was on hand to witness the first public display of his driver in four decades. The plasma driver, which has no diaphragm and thus no moving mass, was paired with an Eminent Technology LFT-8c, crossed over at 1kHz. The sound was incredibly lifelike and effortless—the most natural and realistic reproduction of upper-midrange and treble I’ve ever heard. Thanks to Tony Salsich, Joe Galanti, and Ron Hoering for spending the time, effort, and expense to showcase this remarkable technology and landmark piece of high-end history.
Tags: AMPLIFIER AXPONA ELECTRONICS PREAMPLIFIER SHOW SOLID-STATE TUBED
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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