Rather than offer our usual and typically quite elaborate show reports, the Hi-Fi+ team this year decided to take a simpler, less-is-more, freeform approach to our coverage of AXPONA 2018, which was held April 13th – 15th, in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois.
Here are my choices, some of which are shaped in part by the fact that I serve not only as Editorial Director for Hi-Fi+ magazine, but also as Editor of Ultimate Headphone Guide.
Ten Interesting New Audio Products
Audio Research Corporation Reference 160M monoblock amplifiers
The Reference 160M (M for Monoblock) valve-powered amplifier is ARC’s newest Reference-series amplifier and arguably the firm’s best effort yet. The Ref 160 uses a quartet of KT150 power output valves, driven by a pair of 6H30 gain stage valves. The amp is capable of 140 watts of power output from 20Hz – 20kHz, and offers switchable triode and ultra-linear output modes. What is more, the amp is visually stunning with a large valve-viewing window inset within the faceplate. Interesting, the amp’s fast-response power meter is projected as a glowing ‘ghost image’ that can be seen within the window. The price: $30,000/pair.
CTM (Clear Tune Monitors) DaVinci IX universal fit earphones
The Florida-based firm Clear Tune Monitors (or CTM, for short) introduced two ultra high-end universal fit earphones at AXPONA: the DaVinci IX ($2,000) and the DaVinci X ($2,400), where the Roman numerals indicate the numbers of balanced armature-type drivers incorporated in the respective models. The IX features a four-way crossover, while the X features a five-way crossover. Both models use what CTM terms “Wave Integrating Sonic Element” technology. On the basis of a brief listen, I found the IX particularly appealing owing to a sound offering exceptional midrange transparency and good, natural tonal balance. These models will be a force to be reckoned with in the ultra high-end in-ear marketplace.
Denafrips R2R DACs
Denafrips is a six year-old Chinese company that specialises in building high performance DACs based on R2R “ladder DAC” technologies—technologies many regard as the optimal way to achieve the highest levels of sound quality. There are presently four Denafrips models: the Ares, Pontus, Venus, and the flagship Terminator (which sells for about $4,600). All models in the family show great promise, but a brief listen to a headphone system fed by the Terminator convinced me that the top model is worth it if you can afford the entry price. As a rule, Denafrips DACs strive for a sound that combines high resolution with uncanny smoothness.
DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4 room correction/DAC/preamp/headphone amp
Perhaps the most versatile electronics component I saw at AXPONA was the DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4 room correction/DAC/preamp/headphone amp, which sells for $4,000. The X4 combines a very good DAC, a superb DSP-driven room correction system, a full featured preamp (with three analogue inputs and six digital inputs), and a more than competent headphone amp—all in one nice neat package that comes complete with a requisite room measurement microphone and mic stand. One enthusiastic DSPeaker dealer told us that while the X4 may not have the absolute best DAC in its price class, its room correction features are so effective and yield such dramatic sonic benefits that they more than offset any shortcomings in the DAC, per se.
JansZen Lotus hybrid electrostatic/dynamic headphone
David Janszen of JansZen loudspeaker fame has now developed an impressive new hybrid dynamic/electrostatic headphone called the Lotus that—get this—can be driven by convention headphone amplifiers! Janszen achieve this result by fitting the Lotus with an on board, rechargeable, 0.5aH battery-powered biasing circuit that is capable of more than two weeks (!) of playing time per charge. The basic concept for this headphone, much like the late, lamented ENIGMAcoustic Dharma is for a comparatively large dynamic driver to handle the bass workload while a smaller electrostatic driver handles midrange and high frequencies. Best of all, JansZen has done a really good job with seamless driver integration. Projected pricing will be around $1,200.
LB Acoustics MySphere 3.1/3.2 headphones
If you polled a group of veteran headphone enthusiasts and ask them what now-discontinued headphone they most wish could be brought back to the market, my educated guess is that many would name the legendary AKG K1000 headphones. Well, the good news is that the very team than initially created the K1000 has now launched a new firm called LB Acoustics whose first two products—the MySphere 3.1 and 3.2 headphones—represent a serious attempt at creating an updated and improved K1000. The 3.1 and 3.2 are essentially similar, but optimized for different types of amplifiers (depending on the amplifier’s drive capabilities, etc.). The MySphere models sell for $4,000 and are ones to watch. The headphones emphasize an open, airy, transparent presentation more so than throbbing, over blown bass.
MrSpeakers Voce electrostatic headphones
MrSpeakers president and chief of product design Dan Clark has been working for well over a year to develop a world-class electrostatic headphone whose name—now that the unit is in production—is the Voce. The Voce uses an unusually large diameter diaphragm and is remarkably light; it also comes in a striking presentation/display case with an internal stand, a clear swing open doors with subtle cut-out to allow the signal cables to pass through. Most importantly, the Voce strives for (and achieves) a sound that is highly transparent yet that is smooth and never ‘glassy sounding’ or brittle, and that delivers astoundingly powerful and articulate bass. Many listeners feel the Voce is the finest electrostatic headphone yet produced.
PranaFidelity Bhava loudspeakers
The Colorado-based firm PranaFidelity is the brainchild of Steven Norber, who was one of the founding partners of Edge Electronics. PranaFidelity not only makes its own preamps and power amps, by also offers a range of loudspeakers including the stand mount Bhava and the floorstanding Vaya. The Bhava is essentially an update on an earlier Pranfidelity design called the Fifty90. I have heard the Bhava on one other occasion and then as well as at AXPONA I was struck by the monitor’s essentially full-range presentation and by the hearty, well-balanced, and dynamically alive character of its sound.
Sonner Audio Legato Duo loudspeakers
As you might expect, audio journalists compare notes with one another at audio shows and one name that kept cropping up in such discussions was Sonner Audio. The New Hampshire-based firm is a relative newcomer on the high(er) end loudspeaker scene, but what many listeners discovered is that Sonner speakers possess a certain sonic je ne sais quoi that sets them apart from other in their size/price class. In particular, Sonner’s flagship Legato Duo floorstanders ($8,500/pair) caught my ears by delivering exceptionally wide, deep, and well-focused soundstages that were truly impressive.
Woo Audio 3ES electrostatic headphone amplifier
For many years Woo Audio’s WES electrostatic headphone amplifier was considered a benchmark product, but the new 3ES has taken significant sonic steps forward from the classic WES design. Like the WES, the 3ES is a two chassis design, with valve circuitry found in the upper chassis and a pair of electrostatic (Stax Pro specification) headphone outputs and power supply circuitry in the bottom chassis. The upper chassis is designed to “dock” with the lower chassis via a proprietary coupler. The “3” in the 3ES’ name stands for the four 300B output valves used in the design, as fed by a pair of 6SN7 driver valves. The standard 3ES will sell for $8,999, but Woo will also offer a special up-specification Elite version of the amplifier that will sell for between $15,000 and $16,000.
Five Great Sounding Systems
AURALiC/YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2 system
We at Hi-Fi+were thoroughly impressed when AURALiC’s new VEGA G2-series DAC arrived for review, but AXPON marked our first opportunity to hear the entire AURALiC G2 electronics suite in action. The suite is comprised of the VEGA G2 wireless streaming bridge, the VEGA G2 DAC/preamp, and the LIO G2 clock. Completing the picture were six AURALiC MERAK monoblock amplifiers that were being used to tri-amplify a pair of superb YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2 floorstanding speakers. The result was a system that offered everything we have ever loved about the AURALiC/YG Acoustics sound, but turned up to an altogether higher performance level. The system proved superb at musical information retrieval, yet it was not painfully analytical. On the contrary, it pulled listeners into the music like a sci-fi tractor beam, which is a good thing.
Gayle Sanders EIKON system
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve experienced an audio brand debut as impressive as the AXPONA launch of Gayle Sanders EIKON system. Unlike most manufacturers, EIKON does not offer individual components, but rather a complete, turnkey system comprising a Bohmer Acoustics-design EIKONtroller digital preamp/DSP engine/electronic crossover/DAC running a pair of self-powered, quad-amplified, four-driver EIKON loudspeakers. The system comes complete with everything you need except analogue or digital sources, including the EIKONtroller, a room/speaker measurement mic, a pair of self-amplified loudspeakers, and necessary system cables—all for a reasonably sane $25,000. The system uses advanced Wavelet analysis not only to perform room correction, but also to make time-based adjustments to speaker phase alignment and in-room power response. The result is a system that can dial itself in in almost any listening space and that consistently delivers clear, powerful, expressive full-range sound with dynamite sound staging.
While purists might complain that the system doesn’t quite capture the outermost Nth degrees of audio purity and nuance, the fact is for most listeners the EIKON system will be one of the best real-world systems they’ve ever heard, and one that works with—not against—the spaces it is placed within.
Magico A3/Dan D’Agostino/Hegel/Naim system
If you had told me a few years ago that Magico would one day produce a sophisticated floorstanding loudspeaker that could and would sell for under $10,000, I’d have fallen on the floor laughing hysterically. But lo, the day is at hand and the speaker is Magico’s impressive new A3 model. At AXPONA, the A3 was being driven by Dan D’Agostino electronics fed by Hegel and Naim digital components and it sounded flat out marvellous. The first and most enduring impression is that the A3 gives up little if anything to its bigger and far more costly brethren in terms of resolution, focus, and overall neutrality of tonal balance. In short, despite its comparatively modest price, the A3 is every inch a ‘real’ Magico, as this system convincingly demonstrated.
Jeremy Bryan of MBL North America has turned trade show audio system set-up into an art form, as this year’s MBL room at AXPONA clear demonstrated. At the heart of the system were a pair of MBL’s large Radialstrahler 101e MkII loudspeakers, powered by a suite of MBL electronics and fed, at times, by a beautifully equipped TechDAS turntable. One criticism some audio mavens direct at omnidirectional loudspeaker is their ostensible lack of imaging focus and precision, but in the AXPONA system the 101e MkII’s sounded extremely well-focused and yet spacious and full-bodied—all at the same time. In fact, I felt the system showed the 101e MkII’s many strengths more effectively than almost any prior MBL demonstration had done. With good reason, many listeners described the MBL room as a good place to go experience the audio equivalent of “shock and awe”.
Sonner Audio/Abbingdon Music Research/Luxman/Nordost system
Above, we described some of the strengths of Sonner Audio’s new Legato Duo loudspeakers, but the practical reality is that loudspeakers are only as good as the systems that drive them. In Sonner Audio’s case, the demonstration turned out to be very, very good, comprising a Luxman L509X integrated amplifier, an Abbingdon Music Research DP-777 SE DAC, and Nordost Tyr 2 interconnects and Heimdall 2 speaker cables. Importantly, the components harmonised beautifully, in large part because they each tend to place a premium on well-rounded musicality as over and against producing
Best Sound of the Show
YG Acoustics/Audionet/Kronos/Kubala Sosna system
AXPONA 2018 marked the North American trade show debut of YG Acoustics’ vaunted Sonja XV Junior loudspeaker system, which is a (slightly) downsized version of the larger Sonja XV. The demonstration system was configured by the veteran high-end dealer/distributor Bill Parish of GTT Audio.
The Sonja XV Junior is geared for use in mid-sized rooms rather than the extremely large spaces for which the full-size Sonja XV is best suited. Powering the Sonja XVs were the flagship Audionet Stern preamplifier and a pair of Heisenberg monoblock amplifiers. Source components included an Audionet Planck CD player/DAC (fed by an Ampere power supply), an Audionet DNC streaming DAC with EPS G2 power supply, an Audionet PAM G2 phono stage with EPX power supply, and a phono system consisting of a Kronos Limted Edition turntable and Black Beauty tonearm, a Kronos SCPS 1 power supply, and an AirTight Opus 1 phono cartridge. Tying everything together was a complete loom of Kubala Sosna Realization-series cables. True, almost everything about this system is a bit (OK, more than a bit) “over the top”, but I felt the resulting sound more than justified the effort.
Stated simply, this system got more things sonically right—very right—than any other I heard at AXPONA. Your last name might need to be Gates in order to afford this system, but the sonic results are sublime.