I loved the TAD Compact Reference CR1 speakers when I reviewed them in January 2012. And I am also a fan of the Parasound Halo JC1 monoblock amplifier. But when I walked into the Blue Smoke room at AXPONA and saw the latter driving the former, I was a little taken aback as this is not a combination I would have thought worked well together, both speakers and amplifiers tending toward the lean and clean side of things. But only a fool would allow his expectations to affect what he heard and the sound in the room was superb: clean, yes, but not lean; a rich, extended low end but without bass boom; and a wealth of detail with the feeling of anything being spotlit. The MSB Diamond DAC 4 with Femto Clock, the Argento cables, and the Bag End Electronic Bass Traps must have had something to do with the great sound, of course, but the source, Blue Smoke's new Black Box II (to be priced around $8000 when available) must have been the key.
Gingko Audio, known for its isolation platforms and turntable covers, has recently begun marketing DanaCable. Gingko's Doug Williamson was happy to show me samples. Manufactured In Colorado Springs, the cables range in price from the Deluxe Line Onyx ($395/1m pair unbalanced interconnects) to the Reference Line Diamond ($1100/1m pair unbalanced interconnects, add $300 for balanced). The company also manufactures speaker cables and digital cables. "They sound better in room 926," Williamson quipped.
The boys from Illinois in the Sonic Hemisphere room were in high sales mode, as in talk loud over the music. Playing their larger Fidelity One 3-way loudspeakers ($5750/pair) with an Oppo CD player, Nottingham turntable, K&K phono preamp, Carey pre-amp, and Clayton Audio ampmodels and prices not supplied - the sound was a little shouty, and distant at lower volumes. Offered a "female vocal"don't you love that term, "female vocal"?it's as generic as an offer of "red wine" without the vintageI enjoyed the nice midrange on a track by jazz artist Anne Bisson. The bass boomed, but not to the extent it boomed in some rooms. Not auditioned was the 2-way Fidelity Monitor ($1925/pair).
According to Michael Goodman and Stacie Romashchenko, hands down the sweetest non-couple I encountered at AXPONA, CEntrance's business is upgrading computer audio sound. To that end, the team were showing CEntrance's premium DAC, headphone, speakers, and other components. Goodies include the CEntrance DACport, a portable 24/96 USB DAC and headphone amplifier ($299); the DACport LX ($249.95), a portable 24/96 USB DAC with line-level output; the DACmini; and DACmini PX ($999.95), an all-in-one 24/192 USB DAC, headphone amp and speaker amp. New to the list of products is the HiFi-M8 (699), a portable DAC/amp with internal battery that streams music from either your iPhone or laptop to headphones.
What else might you expect to hear on Classic Audio Hartsfield field-coil driver loudspeakers ($59,950/pair) than Classic Records' 45 rpm pressing of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington? Despite bass problems stemming from the 10' black hole above the room, the music sounded quite wonderful...until we got to the first track on Patricia Barber's new CD, Smash. There, her voice sounded great but the bass was impossible. Doing their best were Atma-Sphere's MP-1Mk.3.2 preamp with phono ($12,100) and MA-1.5 Novacron power amplifier ($12,000/pair), mated with the Tri-Planar Ultimate 12 turntable with what I think was a Technics SP10 Mk.II arm and either a van den Hul III Gold or Koetsu Jade cartridge.
Together with Chicago retailer Holm Audio, Nordost was conducting one of its ever-popular cable and support demos. Taking over where the now retired Lars Christensen left off, Nordost Eastern Regional Sales Jefe Steve Greene let folks hear differences between Blue Heaven, Red Dawn LS, Heimdall 2, and Frey 2 interconnects, speaker cables and power cords by calling into play a Hegel H300 250Wpc integrated amp with built-in DAC ($5500), Hegel CDP4A CD player ($4000), Sony's new SS-NA2ES loudspeakers ($10,000/pair), and, from Nordost, a QB8 distribution bar ($1399.99), two QV2 AC Line Harmonizers ($350 each), and a QX4 Electro-Magnetic Field Stabilizer ($2699.99). Nordost's three levels of equipment support Sort Kones were also compared.
My drop-dead favorite sound of the showI hesitate to call it "Best of Show," since I heard nothing on the ground and 9th floors, and only half the rooms on the 8thfilled the large corner room on the 7th floor co-sponsored by Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) and Music Direct. There, on the physical level, I encountered, as sources, an Esoteric K-05 SACD/CD player & Reference DAC ($8299) and Avid Acutus Reference SP turntable ($25,000) with Avid Pulsare II phono stage ($7000). Both fed a top-of-the-line BAT REX II preamplifier ($25,000) and BAT REX II monoblock amplifiers ($40,000/pair), which sang through Focal Scala Utopia loudspeakers ($30,000/pair). The component list, handwritten in my notepad by BAT's Geoff Poor, also includes Shunyata Triton and Typhon power ($10,000), but I don't see them listed on their website.
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.
MA's Todd Garfinkle always makes good music at shows and Axpona was no exception. Todd was driving a Primare PRE32 preamp and Primare A363 power amp with single- and double-rate DSD master files, played back from his Korg recorder. Speakers were the two-way Elac BS244s, which combine an AMT tweeter with a dimpled metal-cone woofer. Piano and drums had excellent jump factor combined with clarity and accurate midrange tonality, despite the modest-looking, table-top set-up.
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.
That is not a feeble attempt at a joke; it really is how Mr. Freud forced this Contributing Editor to slip on the word “editors.” Perhaps I was thinking of The Absolute Sound Executive Editor Jonathan Valin, who not only pulled a no-show for the Friday and Saturday afternoon 90-minute Editors panelspre-show promotion and the show guide had advertised his participation, with Robert Harleybut also attempted to erase from history, in his online AXPONA report, the rather significant fact that the last major audio show in Chicago was not the 1994 Consumer Electronics Show, as he claims, but rather in 1999, when the Stereophile show came to the Windy City. Is such competitiveness really necessary, given how different the two magazines are?
The moderator for both panels was the extremely articulate and informed Bes Nievera of Music Direct and also a host on Chicago area public radio station WDCB, who just happens to be a long-time audiophile. Panelists included (leftright), from TAS, Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley; from DaGoGo.com, Senior Editor Ed Momkus; from Stereophile and an embarrassingly long list of other publications, Contributing Ediot Jason Victor Serinus, and Stereophile’s Editor-in-Chief John Atkinson.
"Updating of a legend..." read the one-sheet in Barrington retailer Essential Audio's room. It was referring to the Transmission Audio M1i speaker, a much-evolved descendant of the Red Rose Music R3 loudspeaker designed by Bo Bengtsson that Michael Fremer favorably reviewed for Stereophile back in May 2001. The M1i combines a dipole quad-ribbon tweeter with an aperiodically damped 5" woofer and costs $4500/pair.
My first opportunity to hear the exaSound e20 DSD/DXD/PCM DAC ($2500) did not disappoint. The company that self-effacingly identifies itself as "exaSound," with a small "e," played along with surprisingly extended Janszen 2A2.1 electrostatic loudspeakers ($7495/pair),, which are reputedly flat to 40Hz, and the Bryston Power Pac 250 amp ($2350) to deliver a beautiful smooth, wide soundstage on a DSD recording from Channel Classics.
Musical Surroundings, the distributor whose headquarters are in my notoriously crime-ridden town of Oakland, had multiple presences at AXPONA. One was on the mezzanine, where Mike Fajen was touting the pairing of the Fosgate Signature headphone amp ($1500) with Musical Surroundings' new MYDAC II ($1200). To these ears, the pairing is felicitous. Heard through revealing Sennheiser HD 800 headphones, the sound was exceptionally nice, warm, and lovely.
As in other shows, the Chicago AXPONA devoted a ballroom to the software vendors who feed our passion for music. Even before the show officially opened on Friday, a healthy crowd was browsing Music Direct's, Elusive Disc's, and Acoustic Sounds' racks'o'vinyl while Josh Bizar, Director of Sales and Marketing for Music Direct and Mobile Fidelity, acknowledges the camera.