I was familiar with the $4000/pair Penaudio Charisma speakers in the May Audio room, but the well-finished and equally well-sounding electronics driving them were from an English company I had never heard of, Chapter Electronics. Making its US debut at Axpona, Chapter, I was told, features designs from Duncan Shrimpton, an engineer who used to work for Chord. The Sonnet S CD player ($9000) is a top-loading design with a volume control to allow direct connection to an amplifier and both S/PDIF and USB inputs for streaming audio from other sources. The matching Précis 250S integrated amplifier ($11,995) offers 250Wpc into 8 ohms from a class-D output stage. The illuminated knobs on both products can be dimmed or even have their colors changed.
At last, after 16 years, the South East has again hosted an audio show of considerable merit. Even more significant than the number of attendees, which according to many seasoned observers exceeded attendees at the first Rocky Mountain Audio Fest six years ago, the first of what will hopefully be many Axponas connected dealers, distributors, and manufacturers with music lovers in deep and satisfying ways.
Since the first Show in which I was involved in the organization (the 1981 Hi-Fi News Show at London's Heathrow Airport), I have arranged a program of seminars where Showgoers can be entertained and also learn more about the theoretical aspects of audio. Axpona was no exception, and for the very first seminar after the Show opened on Friday afternoon, my guests were Mark Waldrep of AIX and iTrax.com (left) and legendary mastering engineer Bob Katz, of Chesky fame and many others (right). We spent 75 minutes talking about the advent of the computer as a high-end audio source, the sonic advantages of high-resolution audio, and the sonic limitations of lossy compression. My thanks to Mark and Bob for taking part, and also to Michael Fremer, Jason Serinus, Jim Smith, John MacDonald, Dick Diamond, and Bill Dudleston for giving up some of their time at Axpona to talk to Showgoers at these seminars.
Did Koetsu USA's room have the best sound at the show? It's hard to tell. Since my goal was to cover every single room at Axpona without playing slam, bam, thank you ma'am, I intentionally skipped set-ups John intended to cover. Those included some of the big players: YG Acoustics/Krell, Acapella/Einstein, the huge Legacy speakers, Belles/Advanced, and Mark Waldrep's huge, powerful AIX surround set-up with its five Thiel CS3.7s, two Thiel subs, four or more Boulder amps, DH Labs cabling, and Oppo player. Unfortunately, I also skipped the Ayon Audio exhibit, which I thought John was covering because it shared a room with Legacy.
Stereophile senior editor Michael Fremer hosted two turntable set-up seminars at Axpona, explaining how to optimally install and set-up a phono cartridge and tonearm for lowest distortion and best sound. He did a great job of demystifying an arcane subject; for those who couldn't attend Axpona, you can see an expanded version of the seminar on his DVD 21st Century Vinyl, available from this website.
Stereophile Shows in the past always had full programs of live music, to allow Showgoers to recalibrate their ears. While Axpona had a live concert Friday night featuring Steve Davies on guitar and vocals and John Yurick on keyboards, with me guesting on bass, this was for exhibitors and press only. Fortunately, John Yurick performed live on piano in the hotel's lobby during Show hours, offering up some excellent jazz standards.
At the other end of the large room shared by Definitive Electronics and Michael Chafee Enterprises from the Genelec-based surround system that Jason blogged about, renowned mastering engineer Bob Katz was playing 24-bit/96kHz files handpicked from his portfolio. Speakers were the superb Revel Ultima Salon2s driven by a solid-state Balanced Audio Technology power amp, hooked up with Nordost cabling.
In the aptly titled Navigator Room, Fernando Cruze of cruzeFIRST Audio of Miami had quite a stunning display of gear imported by Chris Sommovigo of Atlanta. At its head was the fabled Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn LP system ($150,000), equipped with a Lyra Titian I cartridge ($5800) and Chris' own tonearm cable. Sending its signal via the two-chassis Audio Premier Quattro preamp ($15,000) and Belles SA-500 stereo amplifier ($9000) to the Lansche 4.1 loudspeakers ($55,595/pair) with their plasma tweeter, 25Hzצ150kHz capability and extreme 99dB sensitivity, the system also benefited from two Tri-Point power conditioners, the Troy ($12,000) and Spartan ($35,000) and a full complement of Stereolab cables (loudspeaker, $3750/2.5m, interconnect, $3500/1m). If you can say that all in one breath, and pay for it without blinking your eyes, more power to you.
Mistral, a registered trademark in the UK and China, is a Chinese company, based near Canton, that began marketing its audio products overseas in 2002. According to their PR, they are recognized "all over the world for creativity, reliability and credibility." Judging from the rest of their written copy, they must believe that their credibility is so strong that they can dispense with the services of a bilingual writer with a firm command of English grammar.
I had respected more than loved the Legacy speakers I have heard in the past, but without a doubt one of the best two-channel sounds I heard at Axpona was provided by the giant Helix loudspeaker, shown here with Legacy founder/designer Bill Dudleston. Front-end at the Show was an Ayon CD player, and the speaker's crossover is implemented in the digital domain using FIR filters and 24-bit DACs and the six channels of amplification were provided by two three-channel McIntosh MC303 amplifiers. The speaker is actually a four-way; there is a rear-facing 15" subwoofer driven by twin ICE-Power class-D modules. The front-facing, open-baffleloaded upper woofers are actually backed up by second units, which, as with a twin-diaphragm microphone, gives a cardioid directional pattern, allowing a more optimal match with the room's acoustics than with a conventional omnidirectional bass unit. Completing the drive-unit complement, twin silk-dome tweeters are arranged side-by-side and are flanked by four midrange units. Considering what you get, the price of the Helix is a not-unreasonable $46,000/system, including the DSP/DAC crossover unit.
Jim Smith, author of Get Better Sound, spent a full hour discussing a host of topics from his book. Among the subjects he was prepared to cover were optimal use of subwoofers, loudspeaker set-up, multi-channel system requirements, room acoustics and treatments, system enhancements, bi-amping, and analog vs digital. In the brief time I spent in the room, questions were lively and plentiful. One in particular, on compression in modern pop recordings, harked back to John Atkinson's recent "As We See It" and his Rocky Mountain Audio Fest presentations on the subject.
After much too long a hiatus, Stereophile again pierced the digital shield with the return of its “Meet the Editors” panel. Although a poorly publicized schedule shift from Friday to Saturday afternoon diminished attendance in the seminar room, those present asked about everything from Stereophile's influence on the High End and integrity amongst audiophile publications to our favorite rooms at the show. While an objective report is impossible as far as I know, there are no prices on our heads that we can listit's fair to say that attendees got a pretty good sense of who we are as both dedicated listener/reviewer/critics and as human beings. Seen in the photo are (left to right): senior editor Michael Fremer, editor John Atkinson, and yours truly.
As you will see from the forthcoming May issue of Stereophile, modern horn speakers don't suffer from the colorations and idiosyncrasies that plagued the genre in earlier decades. Such was the case in the room shared by Aaudio Imports and Sanibel, FL retailer Lee Island Audio. The German Acapella High Violoncello II speakers ($80,500/pair) with their ionic tweeters, driven by Einstein The Turntable's Choice phono preamp ($9,800), Einstein The Tube Mk.2 balanced line stage ($18,400), and a pair of Einstein The Final Cut tubed OTL monoblocks ($34,900/pair), connected with Stage III interconnects, speaker cables, and AC power cords, produced a seamless soundstage and a smoothly coherent tonal picture. With the LP of Rickie Lee Jones singing "Chuck E's in Love," played on a Galibier Stevio turntable ($15,000) fitted with a Triplanar Mk.VII tonearm and a Dynavector XV1s phono cartridge ($5250), the sound was one of the best I heard at Axpona. I have asked Aaudio Imports' Brian Ackerman for review samples of the Acapella speakers.
"Reference Audio on a Budget" was the tagline for the exhibit from Darren and Bonnie Censullo's Avatar Acoustics of Fayetteville, GA. Most important, the room featured two world premieres. First was a product you're sure to hear more about, the Axis Voicebox S loudspeaker ($3000/pair). A 5 ohm, 83dB sensitive model with a frequency response of 45Hz20kHz ±3dB, this little baby was paired with Abbingdon Music Research's AMR AM 777 60Wpc hybrid integrated amplifier ($4500), AMR CD-777 player ($4500), Dr. Feickert Analogue Woodpecker turntable ($4995) with DFA 10.5 tonearm ($1000), AMR PH-77 phono preamp ($11,995, and soon to be reviewed by Michael Fremer)), and DFA premium tonearm cable ($600). Throw in $11,265 worth of cabling and power distribution from Acoustic System International and Avatar Acoustics, including the world premier of the Avatar Acoustics Mach 4 Power Distributor ($1800 with power cable), and $10,240 worth of Acoustic System International Resonators, and your hypothetical budget would top $50,000.
Jason already blogged about the sound from the big rig in the Cary Audio room, which was being run by Florida retailer Let There Be Sound. I had enjoyed the sound of Ry Cooder's classic Jazz from LP in that room Saturday night after the Show closed, as well as a CD-R of songs from the Who's Tommy, burned from an acetate of the master by Mikey Fremer using his awesome Continuum record player. But Sunday morning, LTBS's Oswaldo Martinez was playing Rebecca Pidgeon's classic "Spanish Harlem" from CD on a system featuring the 5Wpc Cary Exciter integrated amplifier driving these beautifully finished single-driver bookshelf speakers, the Sur. Pidgeon's voice sounded smooth and natural, the double-bass accompaniment evenly balanced and more extended in the lows than I was anticipating, though when a Showgoer asked for The Doors' "Waiting for the Sun" to be played, the electric guitar sounded a little peaky in the mid-treble. To be priced at $2000/pair, the Sur features a port-loaded, full-range Fostex drive-unit and will only be available from LTBS.