Editor’s Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, our AXPONA coverage arrived at about the same time we were coming in to land in Munich for the High-End show there. Our coverage of Munich will roll out over the next few days. Our apologies for any confusion caused.
Steve Davis was smiling. The doors had just opened on his latest AXPONA (Audio Expo of North America) in Chicago and the registration desk was mobbed. 83 degrees Fahrenheit on a sunny spring morning and thousands of audio enthusiasts were going indoors to spend a part of their weekend listening to a record 400 exhibitors. How many people? Nearly 6000 over the three-day event, an increase of 16% over the previous year’s show! They came to browse and to experience the 111 rooms of gear featuring over 70 new product releases starting with the new Wilson Audio ALEXX speakers coming in at $109,000 USD. The show also featured several live concerts, the Ear Gear headphone expo, several technology seminars and a Marketplace where you could browse hundreds of vinyl albums, CD’s and SACD’s. If you are in any way into audio, there was something for you to enjoy. As the sole representative for HiFi+ I am going to highlight several rooms that I found particularly interesting throughout the weekend.
Jeff Wells builds fantastic amps. His Headtrip headphone amp is one of the very best Solid State amps available and his Innamorata flagship amp ($15,000 USD Located elsewhere at Axpona) is an exceptional performer. Located in the Sherman room Jeff set up shop with his new Majestic integrated amplifier ($3,499 USD) and a yet to be named brand new 3-way speaker from Salk ($2,895 USD). Sourcing was the Salk Streamplayer Generation II Mini ($1,195 USD) a Lampizator Amber DSD/PCM DAC ($2,300 USD) connected with Dana Cables ($395 – $1,300 USD) and Gingko Audio’s Platformula rack ($1950 USD) and Semi cloud ($169). The sound was effortless and engaging even though the new Salk speakers had exactly 2 hours of break in when I sat down. This was a truly high value room!
The MBL room was the top of the food chain room at Axpona for sheer scale. The total value coming in somewhere just north or $750,000 USD (Speakers and amps alone were $475,000) Also included were the 6010D Pre-amp, a 1611 DAC and the 1621 CD Transport. A United Home Audio ¼” reel to reel tape deck also provided source material. Cables were supplied by Wireworld, Shun Mook and Siltech. At an after-hours party Friday night, they put on a tape of Kenny Loggins and his band playing at an outdoor venue. The scale and dimensionality of the soundstage was immersive and breathtaking. This was a stadium experience writ large!
NAIM brought the big toys utilizing their Statement S1 Preamp & S1 Mono Amps ($270,000 USD) as well as their NDS Network player ($13,000 USD), UnitiServe SSD Hard Disk Player/Ripper/Server ($4,600 USD), 555 PS Power Supply for the NDS ($11,500 USD), Lumina interconnects ($3,200 USD) Lumina speaker wire ($1,000 per meter) supplying the imposing Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers ($82,000 USD) Throwing on some Led Zeppelin I had the band in life sized glory all to myself. If you have the room (and the bank account) the staging was impressive!
The Marketplace area offered many companies showing their latest in a booth style environment. Bill Hutchins from LKV Research brought his Veros One Phono Pre ($6,500 USD). Fully balanced, dual mono, fully differential and Zero feedback, it offers an incredible array of loading options. Bill will set it for you if you tell him your cartridge. If you are not familiar with LKV Research let this be an introduction to a significant player in the Phono Pre market.
Three years in the making the new Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse transportable tube based Headphone Amp/DAC brings Woo Audio’s class leading tube headphone tech to a portable form. The WA8 can drive most any headphone and has between four and seven hours of battery life depending on volume. Available in Gold ($1,899 USD), Black or Silver ($1,799 USD). I have listened to the entire Woo Audio lineup with many different headphones and this device upholds their high standards in an amazingly small form factor.
Dan D’Agostino and Bill McKiegan were showing off the new Progression Mono amps which produce 800W into 8 Ohms ($39,000 a pair USD) with Paragon Sight and Sound. They were paired with a Momentum Preamp ($35,000 USD) and the Momentum Phono Pre ($28,000 USD). Also on hand was a dCS Rossini CD player ($28, 499 USD). Turntable was a Brinkmann Audio Spyder with PI cartridge ($19,980 USD). The entire system was being powered by the Stromtank ($30,000 USD) battery powered power system created by Wolfgang Meletzky of MBL fame. The Stromtank is so formidable it can run this system for several hours without recharging. Pure regulated power for your high end system. It was a wonderful presentation throwing a wide accurate soundstage.
A big thank you to Johan Coorg, Dipin Sehdev and the good folks at KEF for hosting the Friday pre show media breakfast! This was followed by a terrific demonstration of several lust worthy KEF speakers including the KEF Blade Two Snow White: $24,999.99, KEF Reference 1 Piano Black: $7,999.99, KEF LS50 Racing Red: $1,499.99, KEF M100: $149.99, KEF M400: $249.99, KEF M500: $299.99, KEF Muo: $349.99, KEF Egg: $499.99 all powered by the Parasound JC2 pre-amp: $4500, Parasound JC1 Mono Blocks x 2: $4500.00/ea and sourced by the Chord Mojo Dac: $600 connected with Various Straightwire Cable. All prices in USD. I was unable to fit the LS50’s in my suitcase. Next time I need a bigger bag! The racing red with black drivers was a hit on the visual scale as were the incredible Blade 2’s.
The Ear Gear Expo is now at the capacity of the large room it has been occupying for the last three years. Several new to Axpona vendors were in attendance including the extraordinary Cavalli Audio from Austin Texas. Cavalli is one of the premier Headphone amplifier companies in the world. Founded by head engineer Alex Cavalli, they were showing their entire lineup from the Liquid Carbon ($799 USD) up to their prototype EL34 based Liquid Tungston ($5999 estimated) A variety of class leading headphones were on hand for your demoing pleasure. If you are a headphone fan or considering them along-side your two channel rig, Cavalli is one of the top companies to consider.
MrSpeakers is becoming one of the top high end headphone companies in the world. Dan Clark’s current lineup of the Ether (open $1,499 USD) and Ether C (Closed $1,499 USD) Planar Magnetic headphones are exceptional. Dan was showing the prototypes of his new Ether Electrostatic headphones (Price TBD) paired with Cavalli Audio’s Solid State and Tube based Electrostatic headphone amps the Liquid Lightning SS and Liquid Lightning Tube. DAC’s on hand included the Schiit Yggdrasil and Questyle CAS192D as well as the full Questyle rack with the CMA800R reviewed recently in HiFi+ by Alan Sircom. Exceptional sound at what is now a mid-range price for high-end headphones.
Ken Ball brought a wide array of top flight headphone gear. On hand was his new flagship Universal In-Ear Monitor, the Andromeda ($1099 USD) and new Nova ($499 USD) along with the entire lineup of his Campfire Audio IEM’s. Also in the booth was the Mountaintop headphone amp, the Studio Six SET headphone amp. ($3900 USD and my personal tube headphone reference amplifier) The Studio Six is an heirloom quality build utilizing one 6SN7, two 6V6’s, two OB2’s and a 5U4G. it is a tube rollers delight and a sonic triumph. Ken also had on hand his excellent Continental Dual Mono portable DAC/Amp featuring 6111 tubes, a Wolfson 4791 DAC. If you are an on the go audiophile this is one of the best of its genre.
I kept coming back to this room as the sound was just “Right” Dan Wright of ModWright had a pair of his KWA 150SE Solid State power amps in mono mode ($8995 USD Each) hooked up to his flagship LS 36.5 DM Linestage and separate power supply ($9995 USD) Sourced from his Elyse All tube transformer coupled including a tube rectified power supply DAC ($6,900 USD). Discs were being played on an Oppo Digital 105D with the ModWright modification ($1,200 for the 105D + $2,495 for mods). Triangle Arts Tom Vu brought his show stopping Signature Turntable ($15,995 USD) with an Osiris 12” tonearm ($5,800 USD) and an Apollo moving coil cartridge ($8,000 USD). The Eggleston Works Andra III speakers ($28,000) were a perfect complement to room. Skogrand Beethoven Cables were the icing on this sonic cake with everything placed upon Massif Audio Design’s rack, amp platforms and risers ($2800, $500 and $300 USD) This room is one of my Best of show sound rooms.
Bricasti was showing off their TOTL M1 SE DAC ($10,000 USD) and their M28 solid state mono block amps ($15,000 each USD) along with a new Limited Edition gold version of the M1 SE ($15,000 USD). The surprise was a new Digital/Analog DAC/Linestage the M12 ($15,995) that allows for Digital to always stay digital and analog stay analog within a single machined aluminium chassis. Tidal Audio Piano Diacera Speakers, Oyaide Cables and StillPoints Ultra isolators completed a system that was immediately engaging. The sense of detail without edginess and precision placement was exceptionally tuneful. The Tidal speakers paired very well with the Bricasti electronics. The new M12 when released, will be a strong contender in the competitive high end linestage space.
AURALiC has offered some of my favorite digital products. From their highly regarded Vega DAC to their Merak 400W Class D Mono block amps. They began to offer streaming audio with the Aries Wireless streaming bridge a little over a year ago. Now we have their first combination DAC/Streaming device the Altair ($1,899 USD) AURALiC is anticipating a June delivery date on this new device slotted in between the Aries and the Vega for price and performance. Offering 15 input sources and able to play Quad Rate DSD/DXD through your home WiFi network the Altair is fully Tidal and Roon ready. And….For those of you who have been asking for something other than silver from AURALiC, it comes in black!
Trade shows…You want to listen to music right? Stuff you know and not the usual show stuff. Welcome to the most accommodating room at Axpona! Vinnie Rossi will patiently let you queue up whatever you ask for via Tidal. Or you can bring your favorite album and play it on the Acoustic Signature Thunder Turntable ($10,995 USD) with the 12” Signature Twelve TA-500 arm ($6,495) You can even listen on the new Harbeth flagship 40.2’s ($14,795 USD) or the Super HL5 Plus ($6,995 USD depending on finish). Either way you get your sound via his newest gem of an integrated the LIO DHT. DHT for Directly Heated Triode. A new class-A, OTL, Zero Feedback and convertible Triode linestage that is switchable and compatible with 2A3/45, 300B, PX4/PX25, 101D/205D and SV811/SV575 triode families of tubes. Seen here running a pair of SV811’s and using the 25 wpc amp module the completely configurable LIO is an astonishing work of engineering. It can be a Linestage only, a headphone amp, an integrated amp and it can include MM and MC phono cartridge loading. Maxxed out at $10,470 it is a device you can grow with by starting with the basics and adding on easy to install modules as your budget grows. By the way, it is super capacitor driven too. No fancy cables needed. The power from the wall feeds two banks of capacitors, one feeding the unit and the other charging so the current is always perfect. This room was the second of my Best of show rooms. The LIO and Harbeth combination is pure magic.
Philip O’Hanlon, Luxman’s US importer teamed up with Mobile Fidelity, VPI, Shunyata, Balanced Audio technology and REL to showcase a wonderful system. The EQ-500 is Luxman’s new flagship phono pre ($7,490 USD). It was paired with a VPI Avenger turntable fully decked out with multiple arms ($21,000) and a Koetsu Blue Lace Onyx Platinum low output moving coil cartridge ($14,995 USD). Quality sourcing needs quality LS and amp so we add the BAT VK53SE Linestage ($14,995 USD) and a VK255SE Stereo amplifier ($8,995 USD) to pair with the Vandersteen Treo CT Speakers ($7,990 USD). The system was showing off a number of pristine vinyl pressings courtesy of the MoFi team. Philip also provided his latest Demo CD (number 18!) with a wonderfully diverse selection of tunes to show off some systems capabilities. Mat Weisfeld from VPI was also on hand to walk us through the intricacies of his newest flagship multi arm VPI Avenger turntable.
My third top sounding room was in many ways one of the most unassuming. Wei Chang has been impressing the audio world for some time with his Mythology M1 monitors. ($14,995 USD with the super tweeters) They are topped with the superb Sopranino electrostatic super tweeters that project to an amazing 40kHz. The sense of openness you get from the higher harmonics is astounding. The low end is also more than expected from this typically sized stand mount. Paired with Questyle 200 Wpc Class D (Wireless FCC certified 5Ghz!!) monoblocks and sourced from the Questyle wireless preamp and a Questyle QP1r handheld portable Digital Audio Player (DAP $899 USD) the entire system comes in under $20,000 USD. It is a killer system and will not require a massive living room. Alan reviewed the M1 Mythologies in issue 125 and while they do require some time with positioning the results are well worth the time.
One of the highlights of Axpona was a major new Midwest product release from Wilson Audio. David Wilson walked us through the development process of their new ALEXX Loudspeakers ($109,000 USD) What struck me about the presentation was the thoroughness of the process leading to the release of the ALEXX. The speakers design team was led in total by Daryl Wilson, David’s son. Wilson Audio is regarded as one of the premier US made speaker companies and it was evident why after sitting in on this discussion. Wilson was presenting with their Chicago dealer Paragon Sight and Sound. Paragon was represented by President Larry Marcus. Larry described the other gear being used for this premier. Electronics were Doshi Audio 3.0 Linestage ($16,995), Doshi Audio 3.0 Phonostage ($16,995 USD). Doshi Audio 3.0 Tape Stage (16,995 USD) and a pair of Doshi Audio Jhor Mono amps ($29,995 per pair USD) Tape playback via a Studer A807. Digital via dCS Vivaldi Digital system, ($108,996 USD et al)
A Brinkmann Audio Balance turntable ($27,490 USD) with a Koetsu Azule Platinum cartridge ($10,995 USD) with transparent Opus cabling and power conditioning ($208,360 USD) and HRS Isolation system ($28,175 USD). This brought the system price in total to $573,996 USD not counting the Studer tape player. Let’s round up to an even $600,000 USD. For that you got a powerful presentation that was a bit laid low by the hotel conference room that it was in. I would love to hear the system in a properly set up room. As it was the ALEXX still impressed and I am intrigued by the Doshi Audio tube gear. Larry Marcus said he has had great success with his clients who have enjoyed Doshi Audio electronics for many years. Nick Doshi was on hand and he was enthusiastic and helpful with the questions around his gear.
Alon Wolf was demonstrating his newly upgraded S5 MII speakers ($42,750 USD with upgraded paint) They were running off an impressive pair of CAT Black Path Statement tube monoblock amps ($120,000 USD) and CAT SL-1 Legend tube Preamplifier with Phono ($30,000) the CAT Black Path Statement Monoblocks each sported 16 KT150’s! The room also was using a Sony KPR 5003 Reel to Reel tape player with external power supply, something that was found all over Axpona for source material. Chad Kassem with Acoustics Sounds was in evidence throughout the show supplying those master tapes. I love Magico speakers. They image like crazy and their tech is incredible. Graphene and Nanotech for speaker cones! Nobel Prize to living room in a little over a decade. A couple of friends have the new S5 MK II’s and they swear by them. For me, a full room (Packed actually!) and unfamiliar music make it hard to form a reasonable opinion. Here’s to getting another more solitary opportunity soon. My thanks to Alon for a cordial conversation and gracious hospitality. The gear looked amazing.
There are many companies that create the entire sonic chain in house. GamuT is one of my favorites. In spite of a room that had walls acting as huge bass loading devices Benno and Michael Vamos of Audio Skies, the US Distributor, were able to bring most of the room under heel and present a spectacular soundstage using their RS7 speakers ($39,000 USD) set up with their M250i monoblock amps ($26,000 USD per pair) the D3i Dual Mono Preamp ($8995 USD) and their CD3 Compact Disc player. Turntable was a Pear Audio Blue Kid Thomas with their Cornet 2 tonearm. Big speakers are not fans of small rooms or lots of glass. However, in spite of these challenges this was a terrific sounding room. Once again GamuT brought the quality.
A final run down to the Ear Gear Expo uncovered a couple of last minute gems. First, Bruce Ball from Questyle Audio mentioned they are now the US distributor for Meze 99 headphones. At $290 USD from your local dealer they are a steal. BTW, they are $349 USD on line. You get a better price from brick and mortar!
Zach Mehrbach from Chicago’s own ZMFheadphones.com has built a terrific headphone business with his special modifications to the venerable Fostex headphone driver. His exceptionally well made custom wood cup headphones run from $479 to $899 USD. ZMF is also releasing a new headphone amp. Stay tuned to ZMF for further details!
I know I have left out some terrific gear. It is hard to cover a show this large as a one-man band. However, the rooms I was able to get time in were a delight. This is the best sounding show overall I have been to and the upbeat mood of both the attendees and the manufacturers made the show a true highlight of the year. And while the ultra-high end continues to amaze by raising the sonic bar every year most of us can sleep well knowing we can get significant value as demonstrated from my final room.
Andrew Jones probably needs no introduction to HiFi+ readers. His career at KEF and TAD over nearly 40 years is legend. Now at ELAC he is bringing his incredible resume and skill set to everyone. Speakers that were outstanding and room filling for under $499 USD a pair. Even under $200 USD a pair! I heard his speakers with Peachtree’s Nova 150 and with Audio Alchemy’s incredible stack. Fantastic. So while I am thrilled with the gear we all dream about, I am also satisfied that we do not have to ascend those heights after our friends go home and we are left to ourselves with a cold one and the music.
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