When Steve Davis told me that people were hungry for an audio show in Chicago, he wasn’t kidding. What Davis believes to be over 4000 attendees2000 tickets had been sold before the Show openedvisited over the course of three days, March 810. They mobbed many of the rooms on Saturday and actually managing to keep things lively in most of the rooms I visited on the 8th floor on Sunday. And that was with people having to choose among 90 exhibit rooms, a bunch of table displays, an art show, multiple seminars, and lively marketplace that together extended over five floors of the Doubletree in Rosemont (Ground, mezzanine, and all of floors 7, 8, and 9) near O’Hare Airport. (My thanks to John Atkinson for standing outside in the pouring rain to get the photograph of the hotel.)
I don’t know what the sound was like at Chicago’s last consumer audio show, sponsored by Stereophile, which took place in the Palmer House Hilton in the Loop in 1999, but at the Doubletree, a large number of dealers and manufacturers managed to produce good to excellent sound within the confines of hotel rooms that they had never before exhibited in.
When I win the PowerBall and retire, I am going to have MBL North America's Jeremy Bryan on call as my set-up man. At show after show, Jeremy has demonstrated that he can tame the most recalcitrant, obdurately obstinate room acoustics problems, using whatever tools he can find, to allow his system to shine its brightest. When I went into the larger of MBL's two rooms in the Doubletree, it was apparent that he had worked his magic. But what I didn't know that throughout the show, snow melting on the hotel's roof was causing a stream of water running down the wall of the room behind the drapes. (I was impressed by the system's liquid-sounding midrange, however!!)
You can always count on Doug White, owner of The Voice That Is in Newtown, PA, to provide excellent sound and an attractive display. At AXPONA, he came through in spades, rendering John Atkinson's recording of male ensemble Cantus singing Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque with extreme beauty. The system did equally well on Rimsky-Korsakov's well-worn Dance of the Tumblers, producing superb sound and nice depth. Lacking only were the ultimate transparency and room-filling soundstage that I encountered in far too few rooms at AXPONA.
I had been looking forward to auditioning the 10th Anniversary Edition of Scaena's Silver Ghost speakers at the 2013 CES, but as I reported, there was a curious lack of recorded ambience. The Silver Ghosts, which cost $153,000/system with two active subwoofers, sounded much better at AXPONA, driven by Audio Research amplification. The front end was the new dCS Vivaldi rig and cabling was all Silversmith Audio Palladium. A duet between a woman singer and a double bass on the old Gloria Gaynor hit "I Will Survive" was absolutely convincing in its tonality and musicalitywith plenty of recorded ambience!
If you value smoothness and liquidity, the eye-catching system from Beauty of Sound and KT Audio Imports was to fall in love with. Playing Aaron Neville's aptly named LP Warm Your Heart, the sound was so warm, sweet and mellow, and the presentation so beautiful and spacious, that it was a challenge not to feel as though I had died and gone to heaven.
Chicago retailer Pro Musica, led by recording engineer Ken Christianson, had two rooms at AXPONA. The first featured a system built around Dynaudio's Confidence C2 Signature loudspeakers ($13,500/pair in standard Mk.II finishes; $15,000/pair in Signature finish). The electronics were a Naim NAP 300 amplifier with 300PS power supply ($11,495), Naim 282 preamp with NAPSC2 ($6795), Naim SuperCap2 DR preamp power supply ($6595), Naim UnityServe SSD server ($3045), Naim NDS streaming player ($10,995) with Naim 555PS DR power supply ($9645). Speaker cable was Naim NACA5 ($15/foot) and the equipment rack was the Quadraspire EVO (6 shelf, $1200).
In Pro Musica's second room, Dynaudio's Confidence C1 Signature speakers ($8500/pair in Signature finish, $7700/pair in standard Mk.II finish) were driven by Naim's SuperUniti integrated streaming amplifier ($6000), hooked up with Naim NACA5 speaker cable ($15/foot). I listend again to some of Ken Christianson's recordings on the Naim label, including a Schubert Symphony 5 performed by Iona Brown leading the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Sonics, music, balance, communicationI wanted for nothing.
Lowther-America showcased their prototype, 98dB-sensitive speakers. Aimed at the DIYer, but potentially available in finished form, the open-baffle design uses a Lowther PM5a, Rythmic subwoofer with dedicated servo amplifier, and SLS ribbon tweeter crossed over at 11kHz (DIY parts cost approx. $4500, custom-built approx. $12,000).
Walter Schofield had lots to smile about besides his new trim and fit look. The great buy Wharfedale Jade 5 loudspeakers ($3199/pair), fed by an Avid Ingenium turntable with Pro-Ject arm ($1750) and Ortofon 2M Black cartridge ($719), Avid phono preamplifier ($7000), Marantz SA-15 SACD player ($2000), Marantz 150Wpc integrated amplifier ($2500), Audioquest Columbia interconnects, and PS Audio power stripthere was more, but I can't decipher my notesproduced a really nice midrange on Madeleine Peyroux's "Dance Me to the End of Love." The sound may have been euphonic, but it was also euphoric; the music swung so compellingly that I couldn't stop tapping my foot.
In Room 806, one word said it all: Rega. Demming the Rega RP8 turntable with Rega Exact 2 cartridge ($3400), Rega Apollo R CD player ($1095), Rega Brio R integrated amp with phono stage ($895), and Rega RS3 floor-standing speakers ($1395/pair), the nattily bow-tied Barnaby Fry of The Sound Organisation was having a ball playing Johnny Adams' From the Heart. The system did best on Adams' voicethe voice was greatbut when the blues artist sang, "I can't control the vibrations," I'm afraid he was talking about the limitations of the system's bottom reach and bass control. (For starters, I don't believe power conditioning or special equipment supports were in use.) But on voice and piano, Rega x 4 = very nice.
As Halie Loren sang her distinctly un-Peggy Lee version of "Fever," I reflected on how much I love the color and warm of Unison Research electronics. The internal glow of the sound, and the sweetness of the electric keyboard, especially stood out. Yummy.
In the second room sponsored by Arnold Martinez' newly opened Tweak Studio (located in Chicago's Hyatt Downtown) and Colleen Cardas Imports, a SOTA turntable, curiously unidentified on the room's equipment list, and unidentified cartridge and tonearm, were making lovely sound with three products from PureAudio. Designed by Ross Stevens and Gary Morrison, formerly of Plinius, the redundantly titled PureAudio dual-mono vinyl phono preamplifier ($4500) joined PureAudio's dual-mono Control preamplifier ($9500) and Reference 65Wpc class-A monoblock amplifiers ($15,500) to drive My Audio Design 1920S loudspeakers ($3800/pair).
I first heard the dipole Orion 4 speakers ($14,750/pair with Analog Signal Processor), designed by Siegfried Linkwitz and manufactured by Wood Artistry of Healdsburg, California, at the 2011 AXPONA in Atlanta, where they were one of the best-sounding rooms at the Show. They were in too large a room in Chicago, but still managed to sound clean and natural, with a full range of frequencies, driven by Pass Labs amplification with DH Labs cabling. I refer you to me 2011 report for details on the speaker's design but new at Chicago was a refined version of the Analog Signal Processor, with closer-tolerance crossover components, and an amplifier/processor that obviates the need to drive the Orions with 6 or 8 amplifier channels and the resulting confusion of cables.
The Chicago Show was my second opportunity to hear the unique circular-arc line array speakers designed by legendary audio engineer Don Keele, who was for many years the speaker reviewer at the long-gone Audio magazine. The 5'-tall CBT36 covers a 36° vertical arc, and with its 72 ¾" tweeters and 18 3.5" midrange units, all sourced from Dayton, projects a tailored wavefront that both allows for a very wide sweet spot from where a stereo image can be perceived and doesn't fall off with distance in the usual manner. The speakers used a DEQX digital crossover and were being driven by an Acurus amplifier. They were operating down to 45Hz, below which a subwoofer took over.