Their chassis designed by Robbii Wesson, responsible for some beautiful cover illustrations for The Absolute Sound in the 1980s, the Aragon amplifiers were as beautiful to look at as they were to listen to. In Artisan Electronics Group's room at Axpona, the fairly new owner of Aragon, Indy Audio Labs, who bought the brand from Klipsch in 2009, were showing off the Aragon 8008, a software-upgradable, 200Wpc amplifier ($4399) with its ethernet-based control and status monitoring. Speakers were the glass-enclosure French Waterfall Victoria Evos ($7000/pair); source was an Oppo Blu-ray player used as a DAC with an Aragon preamp. Jamie Cullum's "High & Dry" sounded dynamic with neutral tonal colors.
The night before AXPONA's official opening, people mobbed the reception for press and exhibitors. As audiophiles chattered, drank, and ate awaythe food was a major notch above the oft-mediocre, and the bartenders quite busyChicago's Deep Blue Organ Trio turned up the heat. With Bobby Broom on guitar, Chris Foreman on organ and Greg Rockingham on drums, the heat was certainly welcome, given the freezing temperatures outside.
Ever since encountering the wonderful sound of Nightingale electronics, manufactured by Simetel of Rome (as in Italy), at the first AXPONA show in Jacksonville, I've looked forward to another visit with their Lancaster, PA-based USA representative, Valentina Ross. Her set-up of Nightingale Concentus open-baffle CTR-02 loudspeakers ($9750/pair), Onda 90 monoblock amplifiers ($12,450/pair), PTS-03 preamplifier ($9750), CR-1600 line conditioner ($3960), and unnamed source and cablingher assistants, who handed me literature, spoke little Englishwas one of the most attractive at the show, and the sound remarkably open and spacious.
My first visit at AXPONA was to the large ground-floor room where AIX Records' Mark Waldrep (pictured) was playing back some of his superb-sounding multichannel recordings from Blu-ray, complete with hi-def video.
Roger DuNaier of KingSound had plenty of reason to smile. His King III full-range electrostatic loudspeakers ($12,000/pair) were sounding the best I've ever heard them. That means the music they produced sounded exceptionally smooth, warm, relaxed and inviting. How Roger managed this on the Mezzanine of the Doubletree, where rooms had a 10' air space above the ceiling that sucked the life of most active systems on the floor, is no mean feat.
Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports, whose eye and ear for the esoteric has brought any number of superb brands to our sonic shores, is now importing Hartvig turntables from Denmark (base model $13,500). Available in multiple finishes and woodsBrian made it sound as though you could get almost anything your heart desiresthe table has a special bearing, housed inside the platter, which is precision machined by the designer. The passive display left me actively longing to hear the baby in action. Newport Beach in June, perhaps, or the California Audio Show in Burlingame in August?
"Do you hear that difference?" asked Shunyata's Grant Samuelson. Indeed I did. Grant was playing a track from singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne on Focal speakers and had replaced the Marantz amplifier's and disc player's stock AC cords with Shunyata cords; the voice and instruments became slightly better differentiated from one another. Then,instead of plugging the AC cords straight into the wall, he plugged them into a Shunyata Hydra distribution box. There was a further improvement in the same direction. Finally Grant removed the German-made Stillpoints wideband acoustic absorbers from the room's sidewalls. He didn't need to play any music, the sound of his speaking voice acquiring a distinct "honk."
There is something about the sound of open-reel tape that doesn't translate either to CD or to LP," I thought as I sat listing to Jackson Browne's "Rosie (you wear my ring)" from a 15ips Tape Project tape in the room shared by United Home Audio and Jolida. With MBL's floorstanding 116 omnidirectional speakers driven by Jolida's new Luxor 100W tube monoblocks ($12,000/pair) and Luxor dual-mono preamplifier (price still to be decided) sitting on Critical Mass Systems racks, and the tape played on one of UHA's extensively modified Tascam decks, there was an unforgettable, fleshed-out palpability to the presentation.
Handsome Vapor Audio Cirrus Black loudspeakers ($3995/pair)I don't have a clue as to why speakers of blond wood are named "black," unless it’s a Harry Potter referencemated with exotically named Arte Forma Due Volta monoblock amplifiers ($5500/pair) and Thalia preamplifier ($2250), a B.M.C. DAC1 ($5690), Antipodes DV2 music server ($3299), Antipodes Reference speaker cables ($2200/set) and interconnects ($1900), Balanced Power Technologies PC-9LN power cables ($499) and BP-3.5 power conditioner ($2399), and ATS Acoustics room treatments to produce sound that I found nicely illumined, albeit a little hard and unyielding. The system may not have penetrated to the heart of the music, but the sound was very attractive, solid, and well-controlled.
This modest system in the April Music room actually sounded like music. Solus 2-way speakers (sorry, didn't note the price) were being driven by the new Stello S100 50Wpc power amplifier ($1200) and Stello HP100 D/A preamplifier/headphone amplifier, all wired with Verastarr cables. The Stello components are nicely finished and use enclosures manufactured in California, though final assembly is in Korea. Only disappointment was that the HP100 uses the Burr-Brown PCM2705 USB audio chip, which is limited to 16-bit data with a sample rate up to 48kHz and operates in the less-than-optimal adaptive mode.
Audio Note UK's David Cope always does good dems at shows, and AXPONA was no exception. With the K/SPe two-way, sealed-box speakers ($3700/pair plus $650/pair for stands) placed in the room corners, and driven by the OTO SE Signature parallel singled-ended integrated amplifier ($5500; $6300 with phono stage), Lukas Foss's Time Cycle, a 1960s recording from Leonard Bernstein conducing the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, sounded rich yet detailed, with percussion instruments nicely delineated in space. David then played a familiar CD, Cantus singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," which I had recorded 10 years ago. This revealed the system to sound a little too lush and warm, but who could complain about that!
Audioengine's small powered speakers have become my go-to recommendations for desktop situations; I bought a pair of the Audioengine 2s for use with the flat-screen HDTV in our kitchen, where they do a great job. The 2s ($199/pair) are the small white speakers in the center of my photograph; flanking them are the Audioengine 5+ speakers ($399/pair). Source was a MacBook Pro feeding the speakers 24/96 audio via the 24-bit capable Audioengine D2 streaming wireless interface/DAC ($599/set), which my colleague Michael Lavorgna enthusiastically reviewed in February 2012.
It's not just the first audio show in Chicago in 14 years, since Stereophile's Hi-Fi ’99 at the Palmer House. It's also the first in a millennium where computer audio is changing every aspect of the music and audio industries.
Nor is it a minor effort. AXPONA Chicago, which runs March 810 on five floors of the Doubletree by Hilton O'Hare Airport, promises 90 separate exhibit rooms, 74 table displays in approximately 30 different booths presenting 100 or so brands, and equipment from over 400 manufacturers. Dealers exhibiting number 26, with 15 from Chicago, and others from New York, California, Florida, and other states. That's a lot of show.
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.
Don't let appearances fool you. Those pipes you see in the photo are actually Bigston single-driver loudspeakers with built-in amplifiers. Designed in Japan and manufactured in Elk Grove Village, IL, the Bigston speaker systems have been designed to give an accurate representation of a soundfield as recorded at a live performance. The smallest of the lot, the Light ($300/pair with 3Wpc amplification), is designed specifically for use with laptops etc., and comes complete with a travel case.