On Saturday night, after a long day of listening, writing, and chatting, I couldn’t force myself to enjoy another dinner or even have a beer. Things come to a dull end where all systems sound the same, I forget what it is I’m supposed to be listening for, I can’t give the exhibitors and attendees the attention they deserve. So, instead of pushing myself further, I decided to head back to my room and post a few blog entries before packing my bags and going to bed. Earlier in the day, I had already begun to regret my decision to leave the show on Sunday morning: There were rooms I hadn’t visited, people I hadn’t met, songs and stories I hadn’t heard, and now I had run out of time. Nevertheless, as I succumbed to sleep, I could hear myself singing...
Definitely one of my two best sounds at Axpona, along with the BAT-Scaena room, was the Orion 4 dipole speaker (from $14,750/pair with analog line-level crossover), designed by Siegfried Linkwitz and with custom enclosures made by Wood Artistry. Quad-amped with two Bryston 9B four-channel amplifiers, a Pass Labs preamp, and a Marantz CD player, the "William Tell" section from Shostakovich's Symphony 15 had superb dynamic range, with a "quiet" quality that seemed like there was a lower level of spurious behavior from the room. This allowed a wealth of detail to be perceived even when the music was itself quiet.
Each Orion 4 weighs 85 lbs and uses five SEAS drive-units: two soft-dome tweeters, a magnesium-cone midrange unit, and two long-throw 10" woofers especially developed by SEAS for the open-baffle loading used by Linkwitz. The crossover frequencies are 90Hz and 1440Hz and the tweeters, the midrange unit, and each woofer are driven independently, though the woofers can be paralleled to allow tri-amping if only six amplifier channels are available.
Though I have shown in the photo the prototype of the new BAT P1 phono cartridge, developed by Peter Lederman but with a feature unique to BAT that is said to reduce stylus jitter, the star of this large room was the pair of Scaena line-source speakers ($66,000/system) that were driven by BAT's new Rex tubed amplifier ($15,000, used here bridged for mono) but also proved unphotographable (at least by me). (You can find Jason Serinus' photo of the speaker at the 2010 Axpona here.)
The rest of the system included a Silver Circle Pure Audio 5.0 AC conditioner, Kubula-Sosna Master Reference cables, Critical Mass Systems stands, BAT VK-P10 phono preamp, BAT Rex line stage, Scaena subwoofers, and a Spiral Groove SG-2 turntable and Centroid tonearm. Listening to Marc Cohn's "Riding on a Ghost Train" and Miles Davis's "So What" from LP, it was though I were hearing these familiar pieces for the first time. There was a stability to the high frequencies, a clarity to the midrange, a depth to the low frequencies, that thrilled.
Although this photograph doesn’t express much of the equipment in Jeffrey Catalano’s High Water Sound suite, it does give some sense of the room’s vibe: warm, relaxed, soothing, effortless, lit with gold.
I smiled when I saw the great stacks of vinyl propped up against the room’s side wallfar more vinyl than can possibly be played during a 3-day event, one might think; but, if anyone could get through all of those sides, it would be Jeffrey Catalano.
I’ll happily confess now that I failed to do my job while in this room. I saw Catalano sitting there in the front row, looking forward, contemplating the music, and I thought about going up to him, asking him for details on the systemWhat are we listening to? What’s new?but there was something so right about the scene, about the sound, about the moment, that I just couldn’t bring myself to cause a disruption. I’m sorry.
The system, Catalano later shared with me via e-mail:
Pretty freaking drained at the end of a very long Saturday, I walked into the Capitol Ballroom and was surprised to see a live bandfrom outside the room, I had wondered if the music was being produced by some very fine hi-fi that I had somehow missed. (Funny, huh?)
Even more surprising was to see John Atkinson on stage, playing a smoking blues riff on the fretless bass. Joining JA were John Yurick on piano, Spiral Groove’s Allen Perkins on drums, and show organizer Steve Davis on guitar and vox.
After a few rocking numbers, Balanced Audio Technology’s Geoff Poor strolled up to the mic and let loose a few jazz standards. “This next song requires some audience participation,” Poor said. “It requires you to drink.”
Ready for a beer, JA gave way to Dean Peer on bass, and the band continued to rock and sway, providing the perfect nightcap to a long day.
One of the things I like about audio Shows is when they have a full program of fringe events. The 2011 Axpona continued this tradition. Not only did Michael Fremer demonstrate how to set up turntables and Dean Peer talk about his experiences as a recording musician, but Channel D's Rob Robinson shows Showgoers how to rip their LPs to their PCs, author Jim Smith explained how to get better sound from your system, Mark Waldrep of AIX Records demonstrated HD music in full surround with 3D video, Enjoy the Music's Steve Rochlin gave talks on the state of the industry, I explained how I measure loudspeakers and what the measurements mean, and Rives Audio's Richard Bird, shown here in action, talked about how best to cope with the acoustics of the listening room. Good, essential stuff.
I wasn't surprised to see that Channel D was featuring Joseph Audio Pulsar two-way stand-mount speakers ($7000/pair) in their room. My experience of the Pulsar at Shows is that it offers more bass than you'd expect from its size, with an uncolored, naturally balanced midrange. But I was surprised that it was Jeff Joseph himself, seen here seated at the computer, who was demonstrating Channel D's Pure Music program. (Channel D's Rob Robinson, who was doing the dems of the Pure Vinyl LP-"ripping" program, can be seen standing second from the left.) The rest of the system in this room included. . .
The Kingsound full-range electrostatics have been hits of recent Shows. At Axpona, Roger DuNaier was demming the latest version of the King II ($11,500/pair), which was driven by VAC's Statement tube amplification via Cardas Clear cable to great effect on Jane Monheit's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Her voice had that palpable presence that you only seem to get with panel speakers. I photographed Roger with the rear of the speaker, so you can see the King II's field-serviceable modular construction. There are seven full-range modules and three narrower tweeter modules and the corssover and HT supply is now housed in a separate enclosure, connected with industrial-quality, secure connectors.
Legacy's large Whisper speakers ($20,900/pair with digital-domain crossover and four channels of ICE-Power amplification for the woofers) had been one of my best sounds of the 2010 Axpona in Florida. However, the Whisper hadn't sounded as good as I was anticipating at this year's Montreal Show, where they were being demmed in too small a room and loading up the room with low frequencies as a result, even with room correction applied and the speaker's unique woofer alignment. At the 2011 Axpona, the Whisper, seen here with designer Bill Dudleston who is showing off one of the speaker's dual-woofer cardioid bass sections, the company had the opposite problem, witht he speakers being demmed in an enormous, live-sounding room. Even so, driven by Coda CX amplifiers, a Coda CL preamplifier, and an Ayon tubed CD player, the Whispers almost managed to fill that room with high-quality sound.
Sonist's Randy Bankert was about to grab some lunch when I stopped by his room on the last day of the Show, but he graciously stayed on to explain what was new about the Concerto 4 speaker ($5895/pair). Art Dudley had reviewed the earler Concerto 3 a couple of years back and described it as coming close "to being the one true, affordable, all-around satisfying choice among the SET-friendly loudspeakers with which I'm familiar." I had found some cabinet resonant problems, however, which Randy had fixed by the time I auditioned the Concerto 3 at the 2010 Axpoina in Jacksonville. The new speaker uses two paper-cone woofers rather than one with the same ribbon tweeter and solid poplar front baffle, and boasts a claimed 97dB sensitivity. This allowed the Concerto 4 to fill the Atlanta room (sensibly treated with Real Traps) with sound with just 5Wpc from the EL84-fitted Glow Audio Amp One ($648). Source was a Cary CAD306 SACD player.
Although in many ways Atlanta's Sheraton Downtown was ideally suited for an audio showmany large rooms; high ceilingsits rambling layout mean that some rooms were hard to find. I wouldn't have come across the second-floor room being shared by Carnegie Acoustics and Leon Speakers if I hadn't bumped into Danny Richie (pictured with the CST2 speaker) in an adjacent corridor. Carnegie had sensibly treated their space with room treatments; the sound of the CST2, which combines eight 5.25" Vipacor-cone woofers with a 1"-by-3" Mylar-fim planar tweeter, driven by a VAC amplifier and a Mach 2-modded Mac mini feeding a Tranquility DAC, was impressively neutral and fullrange on Patrica Barber's "A Test of Honey" from Cafe Blue.
The Smyth SVS Realiser A8 system is a revolutionary product, found Kalman Rubinson in his November 2010 "Music in the Round" column. After the listener has the sound field produced by his system at the entrance to his ear canals analyzed with tiny probe microphones, the Realiser synthesizes that soundfield with Stax electrostatic headphones. The effect is though the listener was not using headphones but listening to his system; and unlike conventional headphone listening, the perceived sound is outside the head and if the listener turns his head, the sound remains centered. Even in surround.
At Axpona, Smyth were subjecting listeners first to a 5.1 system, then calibrating the Realiser for each listener, then allowing them to switch between the real thing and the version produced by the headphones. Everyone I spoke to, including Ivy Johnson shown in the photo, thought the effect amazingly lifelike; my regret was that I did not have time to experience it for myself.
Loudspeakers from Kentucky-based Tyler Acoustics have created a bit of a buzz on the Internet, but Axpona was my first opportunity take a serious listen to them. The lastest version of the Taylo Reference System shown in the photo ($4800/pair) combines a 6" magnesium-cone midrange unit from SEAS with a 1" soft-dome tweeter from Scanspeak and a 15" woofer from Eminence in a sealed enclosure. Crossover frequencies are 150Hz and 2kHz. The system featured a Basis turntable, Krell CD player, Sutherland phono preamp, and Rogue preamp and monoblocks, wired with DH Labs cables.
Michael Fremer raved, raved about the Soundsmith SG-200 strain-gauge phono cartridge system in the March issue. "The SG-200 is a unique game-changing product," he wrote, so I made sure I checked it out at Axpona. In a system featuring Soundsmith's own HE150 MOSFETamplifiers and Dragonfly two-way standmounts ($1500/pair), the strain-gauge cartridge, mounted in a Schröder Reference tonearm on a VPI turntable, breathed new life into Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," with a clean, open sound and excellent upper-bass clarity. When Mikey write that the SG-200 was "as addicting as its proponents say," my experience at Axpona convinced me he was correct.