Well, I made it to Chicago for this year’s installment of the Audio Expo North America a/k/a “AXPONA”. This will be my first time at this show which claims to be the largest high-end audio show in North America. There will be over 150 demo rooms. They also have the “Ear Gear Expo” and a “Marketplace” where you can buy CD’s, LP’s, SACD’s, accessories, etc.
The show is being staged at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center in Schaumburg, IL just outside Chicago.
I am very much looking forward to the demos, new product launches, live music, and evening dining experiences. Keep an eye out for my reports both here and on the Secrets main site – www.hometheaterhifi.com
Check out this neat stack from ifi. It’s a Pro iCan headphone amp ($1,799), a Pro iESL power supply ($1,499), a Pro iDSD up-sampling DAC ($2,499), and the Pro iRack supports for micro-vibration control. Pure and sweet high end all the way.
I was really impressed with this new and very cool product from ifi. It’s the xDSD portable DAC/amp with Bluetooth ($399). It handles signals up to DSD512 or PCM768. Better yet, it is MQA ready! It also has dsp toggles for 3D and XBass. It sounded very impressive on a few tunes I auditioned. Look for a full review on the Secrets main site in a few months.
AURALiC has three systems set up in one of the large listening rooms on the first floor of the convention center.
The big system featured the Aries G2 and the Vega G2. Speakers are the YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2’s that we’re being tri amped with six AURALiC Merak mono block amplifiers. Also in play was the Leo GX master clock.
Voices and sax were played back with just the right amount of natural dynamics and timbre. The bass was solid if not a touch reticent in this very large space. All in all, the sound was extremely impressive especially on a Tony Bennet and Lady Gaga duet.
Here is a shot of the ALTAIR system that AURALiC was also demoing in the big room. Pictured are the ALTAIR wireless streaming DAC ($1,899) and a pair of the MERAK 400 watt monoblocks ($2,499 each) which were driving a pair of Ryan R620 floorstanding speakers (not shown) ($3,500). The power amplifiers are undergoing an update and will be on the market in the near future. I would like to review these when they are in production.
This system also impressed with sound quality way beyond its price point. Excellent reproduction in all areas of performance, to be exact.
I took a quick selfie of yours truly while enjoying the amazing performance of the PSB M4U 8’s.
I am totally in love with the noise cancelling and dsp built in. I spent quite a bit of time visiting with Paul Barton who walked me through all the cutting-edge technologies packed into these headphones. PSB thought of everything.
These phones even made a coherent and musical production out of Tidal streamed on my smartphone and played back via Bluetooth. It was quite honestly remarkable how good that sounded!
I also took a few minutes to audition these wireless Bluetooth in ear monitors from PSB. The M4U TW1’s have an MSRP of $149.
I found them to be very comfortable, light weight and they wrap around the pinnae which helps keep them secure.
They are controlled via the capacitive buttons on the back of each ear bud. The controls are very intuitive and involve a series of taps or holds for whatever you are doing.
It has a built in mic and long play rechargeable batteries. They are also water resistant.
The sound was better than I expected in the noisy ballroom. I have personally requested a pair of these for a full review and hope to get them for evaluation very soon.
This is the AR AR-M200 high resolution media player with two-way Bluetooth capability. In receiver mode, it receives a Bluetooth signal from a smartphone and plays it back over its premium DACs to your headphones.
The unit comes with 32 GB of internal memory, expandable via a Micro SDXC slot. It handles DSD, WAV, ALAC, and FLAC.
The amplification is Class A and the battery life is up to 7-1/2 hours.
I auditioned this over AR’s new hybrid AR-E10 ear buds. The clean, tight, and extended bass stood out as a major plus as did the delicacy and clarity in the upper ranges.
HiFi Man had their new Shangri-La jr ($8,000) at the show. This is a slightly scaled down version of their flagship electrostatic headphones.
I have requested a review unit of this which is expected to ship in the next two months.
It sounded really groovy listening to a high resolution file of Mark Knopfler’s “Shangri-La” because of course!
Auralic Aries G2 wireless streaming transporter. Review by Yongki Go coming soon!
Paul, Peter and Jim discussing the PSB M4U 8
Book and Interview by Carlo Lo Raso coming soon!
Cambridge Audio showing off The Edge Series
Andrew Jones showing the ELAC Debut 2.0 series. Review by Carlo Lo Raso coming soon!
EAT B-sharp turntable. Review coming!
Legacy Audio Valors were being demoed using Raven Audio amplification.
These speakers have three tweeters in a coincident array, three internally powered mids, and powered subs with dual passive radiators with extremely long throw. They were set up in a very large room that is a portion of a parsed off ballroom. It has very high ceilings. Few speakers could sound at once as dynamic and intimate in this space as the Legacy Valors.
Legacy tends to play music I am not familiar with but always entertains. What is definitely true of their demo material is that it heavily features natural, un-amplified instruments. This is a great test as you can really evaluate the naturalness of the sound relative to your own past listening experiences. I score the Legacy Valors A+, Summa Cum Laude!
BTW, I will be getting a Legacy Foundation subwoofer for a complete review very soon. This sub has dual long-throw 12″ active drivers and dual 12″ passive radiators and a 1,000 watt IcePower internal amplifier!
Emotiva had a large suite at the show making a strong showing. They had one room with a two channel set up and then another room with a full blown Dolby Atmos surround set up that used all the available channels of their flagship ssp to include four massive subwoofers!
But their newest launch is this tidy little executive stack. On top is the $699 DC-2 DAC. It handles signals up to 32 bit and 384 kHz with DSD supported. It has volume control and balanced outputs.
Below that is the SP-1 which is an analog switch (3 line level inputs plus an MM/MC input with flexible loading capability).
On the bottom are a pair of Class D 150 wpc monoblocks, the PA-1 ($299 each).
This little stack would be great in an office, bedroom or a dorm room. Look for these components to become available this summer.
This is the right way to set up your Emotiva gear!!
This room was sponsored by a local high end dealer and featured a number of cutting edge pieces from Harman Luxury Group.
We listened to the large floorstanders. They are the Revel PerformaBE F228BE’s ($10,000 per pair). They were being driven by the Mark Levinson No585 integrated amp ($12,000). The source was a an AURALiC ARIES G2 streamer ($3,900).
Revel always has a great sounding room and excellent demos. I particularly appreciate that they employ an eclectic mix of styles from jazz to electronica and every where in between. That gives show goers a taste of the system’s prowess with their favorite genre.
The Mark Levinson No515 turntable was on display in the MusicDirect room.
This is the Pass Labs an First Watt Room. Though First Watt announced a new amplifier right before the show, they did not have a working prototype on display as the design is being refined to the nth degree before final release.
We did, however get to experience this nifty system instead.
The full -range speakers with whizzer cones were the Cube Audio Bliss/Magus Driver $9,895). Pass Labs XP-25 phono preamp ($11,500). Pass Labs XP-20 preamp ($9,500). The First Watt F7 power amp ($3,000). Sources were a Denon DP80 turntable and a Technics 1500 tape transport with Bottlehead mods.
Though not inexpensive, this qualifies as a minimalist system in my book. The sound was pretty full range though the speakers could not reproduce low bass and they were indeed mid forward. They played Allison Kraus and the strings leapt from the drivers. Voices were spot on to what I remember when seeing her live. This was an excellent sounding room.
Volti Audio and Border Patrol always stage some of my favorite rooms at the high end shows.
Of course the audio was lively, dynamic and just plain fun. True to the horn loading to be sure and you also always get low distortion with these well designed horn drivers.
Border Patrol amplifiers are also beautifully designed and executed which adds to the holographic imagery and pitch perfect reproduction.
The speakers here were the Volti Rivals ($7,900 – $8,400 depending on finish). They claim 100dB efficiency and 32 Hz – 20 kHz range.
Amplification was via the Border Patrol P21EXD ($13,150 – $16,000 depending on options). This amp is 20 wpc 300B push-pull ended amplifiers with advanced circuitry. DAC was a Border Patrol DAC SE ($995 – $1,850 depending on options).
The room next door to the Elac Debut 2.0 room was a bit more sedate. Here is where they were demoing a new series of Elac Alchemy products being presented by none other than Peter Madnick.
Shown here were the following – Alchemy Series DDP-2 Pre-Amp/DAC $2499.98, Alchemy Series DPA-2 Stereo Amplifier $1499.98, Alchemy Series PPA-2 Phono Pre-amp $999.98, Miracord 90 Turntable $2499.98, Soundsmith Zephyr MIMC Cartridge $1699.99, Adante AS-61 Stand Mount Speakers $2499.98 Pair, Adante Speaker Stands $599.98 Pair, Discovery Music Server DS-S101-G $1099.98, 512 Engineering Marutani Symmetrical Transformer $22,000, 512 Engineering Marutani 4 Cables, and SolidSteel S2-4 Rack $399.98.
I had time to enjoy this demo and the sound was powerful, full-range, dynamic and detailed. This was a fine sounding system in almost every respect that is worthy of a thorough evaluation before you make any buying decision.
Here is a long shot of Andrew Jones giving a rundown on the new Elac Debut 2.0 speakers. These super affordable and high performance speakers are coming to market to a lot of fanfare. I haven’t been able to get into the room either of the first two days. I mean, there are lines out the door and down the hall!
In this picture (sorry for the grain), Mr. Jones was describing the DB62-BK’s which can be had for just $299.98 a pair. When paired with the Elac integrated amplifier, you can calibrate the system using the mic on your smart phone! I will give these a listen tomorrow.
Here is an array of gear from Black Ice Audio. In play was the Black Ice Fusion F 159 Phono preamp ($1,499), Black Ice F 360 Tube preamplifier, Black Ice Fusion F35P 60 wpc power amp ($1,999), Black Ice Fusion DSD DAC with WiFi ($799), four Salk Song3 Encore speakers ($5,895/pr standard finish), and a VPI Scout turntable.
The system included a matrix surround processor with four channels of full range surround similar to the old AudioPulse system from the 70’s and early 80’s.
They were playing the Doobie Brothers which drew me in. They also played a native quadraphonic track. The processing took place in the the analog domain. Compared to matrixing using a typical ssp, I felt the sound was more coherent through the room and far more musical than the norm. It was a quite enjoyable effect.
I door crashed GoldenEar before the show started on Day 2.
Though GoldenEar announced their new point source in-wall speakers just before the show, they were not being shown but instead we were treated to an incredible demo of the Triton Reference speakers.
Source was a McIntosh SACD player player driving a Prima Luna tube amp.
This set up really highlighted the sensitivity of these speakers as they put out a big and bold sound in a fairly large room.
These speakers are only $8,499 per pair and are true full-range speakers. Neil Young live recording of Old Man was nothing short of goose bump raising territory. There are no weaknesses in these speakers’ performance envelope. This is the pinnacle of performance from high fidelity speakers at an affordable price.
Bryston was demoing an active Mini T system that involved speakers sans crossovers. The system uses an active dividing network, the BAC-1 ($3,495) which fed signals to a multi-channel amp, the 24B Cubed 6-channel amp ($10,995 est). This amp delivers 300 watts to each woofer and 75 watts each to the mids and tweeters. The crossover has dsp with a 10-channel parametric eq for tuning the bass.
This topology concept is a brilliant idea and the results are there for all to hear.
What I heard was a very transparent mid range and extended highs. Bass was solid and low distortion. This is a very impressive system that comes with a 20-year warranty. And the thing with Bryston is that they will be around 20 years from now to honor that commitment. I enjoyed every minute listening to this system.
Cambridge Audio is stepping up their high end game with the launch of their new Edge series of separates.
They feature short signal paths and that shakes out to only 14 components in the signal path inside the Edge W power amp (with the capacitors removes altogether)! The amp topology is a Class XA.
I also included shots of the various close ups of the circuit boards and transformer. This was a very nice demo.
The Edge W amp (erp $3,000) is rated at 100 wpc into 8 ohms and doubles to 200 wpc into 4 ohms. Distortion is less than 0.02% at full power.
The pre amp/streamer is the Edge NQ (erp $4,000). It includes Cambridge Audio’s proprietary StreamMagic platform.
Expected ship date for the line is June 2018
I am just going to leave these pictures right here.
Legacy and Raven Audio
McIntosh C20. Can you guess the year that this was built?
Sonus faber listening room
One major story of this year’s show was the announcement that Gayle Sanders, the founder of Martin Logan, was coming out of retirement with a big and bold product launch under a new brand known as “Gayle Sanders Eikon”. Here are a couple of shots of Gayle as he was discussing the Image1 speakers and the Eikontrol preamp/controller.
I could write a book about this system but don’t have the space right here so a brief summary ensues. What this system boils down to is a three-way four-driver active loudspeaker with 400 watts to each driver. The tweeters are very small folded ribbons that are positioned very close to the top of the cabinet with a midrange driver very closely spaced under the tweeter.
The dual woofers are positioned at the bottom with one firing out of the front and the other firing out of the back. I did not fully understand how he set them up but their claim is that the bass is actually directed to the front and back and the loading/phasing creates side nulls to reduce room interactions.
The speakers connect to the Eikontrol controller with four balanced XLR’s per channel. The Eikontrol is based on the Wavelet processor made famous by Legacy Audio in their Aeris speakers. This controller cleans up and eliminates a lot of the bad room effects that otherwise muddy the sound.
Like a lot of audiophiles, we spent more time talking about it than listening. (This was even more so because Gayle and his entire team are a crew of excitable, happy people.) But when we did listen, I was pretty much floored by what I heard. In many ways, this system is capable of bringing you as close to the live performance as anything I have heard in all my years. I will be quite interested to get my hands on a review system when they become available. The whole system, speakers, amps and controller are priced at $24,500.
I am currently in the process of reviewing the Technics Grand Class SU-G30 integrated amplifier and the ST-G30 music server. As I said in my preview, these are a couple of truly remarkable products.
This year, Technics has been getting even more attention on the release of some brand new direct drive turntables. The two models are the SP-10R ($9,999.99) and the SL-1000R ($17,999.99). I am not sure if it is apparent but these are some seriously well made products.
Also on tap in this room were the SE-R1 Power Amplifier ($16,999.99), the SU-R1 Network Player and Preamp ($8,999) and a pair of the gorgeous SB-R1E speakers ($13,499.50/each).
We auditioned a little classic vinyl while I was in the room (Robert Plant and Jimmy Page). The sound was vibrant and dynamic. As with all their new offerings, these products are set to impress. And they have the look of greatness.
Here was another great sounding room with a system comprising EAT analog, Audio Physic Speakers, and McIntosh amplification. I have not heard the EAT tables before this show but I was eager to check them out at this, the first chance I’ve gotten.
The system pictured included the EAT C-Sharp Turntable with a 10″ tonearm and Ortofon Quintet Black cartridge ($3,495), EAT E Glo S Hybrid Tube phono stage ($2,995), a pair of Audio Physic Avantis in the premium rosewood high gloss finish ($8,495), McIntosh MC 252 hybrid tube integrated amplifier($3,500), and the McIntosh MCD 550 SACD/CD player ($6,500).
I loved the sound of this system. It was very revealing and with lots of space between the instruments. Excellent imaging was also a strength of this. All in all, the thought that comes to mind is “musical”.
Look for a review of the PrismSound Callia DAC on the Secrets main site soon. Chris Groppi is wrapping up a very thorough evaluation of this excellent little product.
Sound Organisation had a delightful demo showcasing their Rega turntables and cartridges. What they did is to play the same song on each of their three tables so you could hear for yourself the performance increase when you move up the line.
Pictured from left to right is a Rega P1 ($475) with a Carbon cartrdige, a Rega P3 ($945) with an Elys 2 cartridge, and finally a Rega P6 ($1,595) with and Exact cartridge. They mated the tables with the cartridges that they are most likely to be ordered with. This was all played through a Rega electronics an the incredible standmounted Acoustic Energy speakers.
The improvement from one table to next higher model was immediately discerned and could be heard in every aspect of the music – bass extension, transparency, high frequency air, and palpability in the midrange. In short, each upgrade was a more musical presentation over all than the lesser one.
Paradigm and Martin Logan both have typically great sounding set ups at audio shows like Axpona. Here they are paired with an Anthem pre and power amp along with a stack of McIntosh gear. Speakers shown are the Paradigm Persona 5F’s (inner pair) and the Martin Logan Expressions.
We listened to the Expressions in the demo I experienced. Despite this being something of a modest system with respect to all the crazy high end equipment people bring to this type of audio show, the sound I heard was among the best rooms I heard in all of Day 2 at the show. This system was correctly set up and dialed in which created a very transparent soundscape with realistic timbre and a high, wide stage.
Western Electric had a working prototype of a new tube integrated amplifier. It is on the top of the rack shown here but that is a mock up case. The real case will have a cleaner industrial design and a very slick brushed nickel finish.
The model number is 91E and the amp will be Class A2 parallel feed current source topology with a pair of 300B’s doing the heavy lifting to bring about a 21 watt per channel power rating. It also features no negative feedback. It will have processor controlled auto bias. MM/MC phono stage included.
Naturally, this amp demonstrated a very warm palette with that luscious, hard-to-forget tube sound. This too was a strong product launch of an amp that will probably be turning heads and ears in the coming months.
There are always some cost-no-object systems at audio shows. Some of these may be considered “holy grail” type of set ups. To that end, I present the Paraagon Sight and Sound room.
Equipment on tap: Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF Speakers ($209,000/pr.), D’Agostino Momentum Preamp ($35,000), D’Agostino Momentum Phono Stage ($28,000), D’Agostino Momentum Mono Amplifiers ($65,000/pr.), dCS Vicaldi Digital System (many pieces and many more $), and a Clear Audio Master Innovation Turntable with TT1-M1 tonearm, Olympus Stand with a Goldfinger Cartridge ($82,000). Stands by HRS with cabling courtesy of Transparent.
This was a large room with maybe 30 – 40 people enjoying the demo. One thing they were doing was an A/B comparison of straight digital files and then the same track after being encoded with MQA enhancements . Let’s say there were 40 people in the room and 39 of us heard the benefits of MQA and then there was that one guy if you know what I mean.
Be that as it may, I encourage everybody to check out this type of system whether they can afford it or not. It is always useful to get a grasp on what is the pinnacle of audio reproduction so you can assess the quality of your own rig. It puts everything in perspective. And it might make you appreciate the point of diminishing returns and how much more you need to spend in order to approach (but never achieve) perfection.