More Saturday Fun at AXPONA from Herb

I hope you can sense how much I enjoy attending audio festivals like this excellent AXPONA 2016. My pleasure stems, not from the gear—the gear is just boxes of stuff. What I like are the people and the adventure. Audio shows are tribal gatherings and, when they are going strong, they can become musical hoedowns. At every one of these tribal gatherings you can find Peter McGrath and Wilson Audio Specialties making the biggest campfire and singing the best songs. Why? Because they can. Decades of experience have made Wilson demos the Big Event—and this year's version, presented by dealer Paragon Sight and Sound, may have been the best ever. They introduced the new Wilson Alexx speaker ($109,000/pair). Was it amazing? Of course it was. It was powered by a range of Doshi Audio tube electronics which appeared to do their jobs on some newer, higher level than I am used to. Cabling was by Transparent. But for me, what made the Wilson bonfire so big and exciting was the demonstration from tribal shaman Peter McGrath.

Mr. McGrath started by playing an LP on a Brinkman Balance turntable with a top-level Koetsu cartridge: it made life feel wonderful. Then he played a Beethoven Trio recording (digital file) via the four-box dCS Vivaldi DAC: Holy Moses, was that a joy. After the Vivaldi ascension, Peter took us down low with some 16' pipe organ notes via a Studer A807 open-reel mastering deck (with Doshi electronics). Then he played a CD—which was not shamed at all by its fearsome source companions. In closing, Peter smiled and played another black disc on the Brinkman.

Folks, this is why I love audiofests. Where on this sacred earth can you experience a direct comparison of the best of the best audio sources: master tape, LPs, hi-rez files, and CD . . . played via Doshi electronics on a loudspeaker fashioned by a tribal leader like Wilson Audio Specialties? This was a genuine audio-musical hoedown. And you know what? I thought each source had it virtues and none obviously dominated.

As a cub reporter my warmest sentiments often run in favor of home-grown local start ups like Dan Cheever's Sonnare out of Salem, MA. Cheever's latest product, the Emotion, a directly-heated triode, single-ended headphone amplifier ($1795), uses the venerable Soviet 4P1L directly-heated pentode tube wired in triode. This tube is famous for its linearity and low distortion. And it is built like a tank, with a red star on its side. The Emotion also uses a 7N7; which is electrically very similar to another esteemed tube: the RCA/GE 6SN7GT low-mu triode.

While looking all shiny and high-tech industrial, the Emotion via the HiFiMAN HE-1000 headphones ($2999) and Bricasti Design M1 DAC ($8995) sang like a nightingale and resolved the bottom octaves in a most authoritative manner. The Emotion made every song feel whole, highly resolved. and musically complete. While I have used the world-class HE-1000s with a variety of excellent amplifiers this brief audition suggested: the Sonnare Emotion may have been the most enjoyable of all.

Moving from small and local to big and global, I bowed and smiled as I entered the bright shiny world of the new Technics Audio. Of course I had to touch and venerate the new SL-1200GAE ($4000)—the 50th Anniversary Edition of Technics renowned classic. This new '1200 resembles the old '1200 in only the most superficial manner. Technics invented the direct-drive record player, and now, they have re-invented it: by developing a new non-cogging "coreless" motor and a new ultra-precision motor control technology. The platter is an impressive, brass, aluminum, and dense rubber sandwich. The turntable is scheduled to appear early this summer—but I got to hear it now!

The shiny SL1200GAE was outfitted with an Ortofon 2M Black moving-magnet cartridge and driving the same SU-C700 integrated amp ($1500) and SB-C700 loudspeakers ($1700) I reviewed. I only listened a little but the sound was flower-petal smooth and surprisingly understated.

As part of their exciting attempt to re-introduce themselves on the world hi-fi scene, Technics has created a complete range of originally conceived, great-sounding, new products; each designed to capture a different segment of the rapidly evolving home audio market.

Besides the SL1200GAE, Technics introduced the stylish, and fully digital, Network Audio Amplifier SU-G30 ($4000) which processes all types of signal sources from Legacy to 384kHz/32-bit and DSD at 11.2MHz. The St-G30 Music Server ($5300) and, the amazing-sounding desktop "Ottava" SC-C500 all-in-one hifi system (above, $2500 complete). A word to the wise: keep your eyes and ears on the new Technics gear.

Norman Steinke of Rutherford Audio is surely one of the nicest, classiest fellows to ever grace an audio show marketplace. His company imports and distributes many of Europe's best audio brands including Burmester loudspeakers and electronics; Roksan, Vertere Acoustics, and Thorens turntables; Acoustical Systems, Vertere, Scheu Analogue, and Roksan tonearms, as well as Roksan, Scheu Analogue, and (American made) Soundsmith cartridges. I was fiddling with (and admiring) the Acoustical Systems The SMARTractor Phono Alignment Tool/Cartridge Protractor when I looked up, I was totally surprised—there Norman was, all smiling and happy.

I told Norman how flat-out cool that glass magnifier on the SMARTtractor was. For me, the hardest part of cartridge alignment is getting the stylus-cantilever assembly to be perfectly aligned with the lines on my alignment guide. I use multiple magnifiers and a carefully-positioned flashlight, and I still never feel I have achieved perfection. One look (without a flashlight) and I knew: this SMARTtractor ($599) device was the secret weapon for a "perfect," fine-tuned cartridge alignment.

As I chatted with Mr. Steinke, I kept staring at the handsome mahogany-finished Thorens TD206 (also available in Macassar) at $1499. Norman pointed out, "it features a suspended motor to isolate vibrations from traveling through the base and up the spindle and interfering with the sound." For me, the TD206's best feature was the azimuth adjustment on the arm.

I have always loved classic Thorens turntables, but today, it is the fully-automatic TD240-2 ($1199) that captures my imagination. Besides looking expensive, the TD240-2 will let me listen to records late at night when my hand is less steady and I might fall asleep before the side finishes. (It will also let my friends play records safely while I am in the kitchen.) Automatic can be cool . . .

In his report from the 2013 Capital Audiofest on AnalogPlanet.com, Michael Fremer described (with a better photo and greater detail) the virtues of David Ratcliff's "Ultrasonic V8" record cleaning machine, but this was my first encounter with Mr. Ratcliff (a wild and genuinely fun guy) and his stainless-steel, retro-punk, ultrasonic record-cleaning machine. The Ultrasonic V8 ($1495) was designed to be a more practical and much lower cost alternative to the acclaimed AudioDesk Vinyl Cleaner ($3799); which cleans only one record at a time. Mr. Ratcliff calls his creation a "V8" because it can ultrasonically clean 8 records (16 sides) in 8 minutes! It is completely easy and straightforward to use and appears to do a perfect job. After 8 minutes, your black discs are clean but not yet dry. The user now has two alternatives: put them in a dish rack to dry; or simply drop the wet 8-record skewer into Ultrasonic Records motorized fan air dryer called the "Dryer Cube" (optional). You can buy the V8 and Dryer Cube together for $2190.