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.
I almost missed the Nightingale display. The first time I tried to enter the room, there were so many people involved in post-listening conversation that I skipped it. Happily, the Axpona organizers alerted me to my omission, enabling me to leave the show on a high note. And once I took a listen, I understood why people were spending so much time discussing what they heard.
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.
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.
"If you've ever wondered what the future of recorded music is going to sound (and look) like, you should be sure to check out the AIX Records demonstration in the Port Ballroom," said the AIX/iTrax.com ad in the Axpona show guide. I started my Show itinerary by visiting this room, and in some ways, nothing I subsequently heard at Axpona matched it. Mark Waldrep was demonstrating his surround recordings in full 24/96 resolution from Blu-ray, played on an Oppo player, with five Thiel CS3.7 speakers and two Thiel subs driven by Boulder preamps and amps via DH Labs cabling. The AIX recordings I auditioned ranged from solo guitar and piano to full big band, and all were enveloping in a manner I have never experienced on even the best two-channel system. Adding to the experience was true High-Definition (1080p) video projection using a very bright, sharp projector from Wolf (distributed in the US by Sumiko). Mark always shoots HD video at his sessions, and he also provides a unique choice in that the listener can choose between audience and stage perpectives. I had assumed that most people would prefer the audience perspective, with the ambience at the rear as at a concert hall, rather than the stage perspective, where the listener is surrounded by the musicians. Mark corrected me: the feedback he gets back from AIX customers indicates that the full immersive experience is what people prefer.
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.
As I entered Jeffrey Catalano's High Water Sound exhibit, I was immediately taken by the beauty of Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man (Cisco LP re-issue). Listening to a recording of the music of Heinrich Biber further underscored the beauty of this system's midrange. Heard were the turntable owned by the First Chair violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic, the TW Acustic BlackNight ($40,000) with TW 10.5 tonearm ($5500) and Dynavector XV1T cartridge ($9000), TW Acustic Raven phonostage ($9000), Thöress linestage ($8000), Thöress 300B 6W monoblocks ($10,000), Horning Aristotle 98dB-sensitive loudspeakers ($15,000) with Zigma Ultimate Plus Lowther DX65 drive-units, Stealth cables, and Silent Running Audio Equipment rack ($12,000).
Don't even think about the juxtaposition of so-called "modern art" with the kitsch figurines of Nipper and the parrot. Instead gaze upon the Classic Audio T1.3 Reference loudspeakers ($36,500), shown here with Classic's John Wolff. The T1.3 uses two 15" woofers , a TAD compression-loaded tweeter, and the jewel of the design, a 4" compression-loaded midrange dome feeding a Tractrix-flare horn designed by Bruce Edgar. All the drive-units are energized by field-coil magnets rather than permanent magnets. The rest of the system comprised Atma-Sphere MA-60 MUIII monoblocks ($6800), an Atma-Sphere MP-1 preamp ($12,100), Esoteric DU-50 CD player, Kuzma Reference table ($8900), TriPlanar arm ($4850), Van den Hul The Grasshopper cartridge, 59-cent hook-up wire, and my feeble attempts to decipher illegible handwriting. (So much for the "You don't have a sheet listing your products; you do the writing while I listen" approach). Playing the same Mahler as auditioned in the fabulous Koetsu USA room, this system certainly nailed the sound of the cymbals.
One of several low-cost, high quality exhibits at Axpona came from Jaton. Based in Fremont, CA, Jaton sources its speaker components from Germany and other parts of Europe, but assembles them in China. It amps, which include 14 Mundorf caps in the amp proper and four more in the power sector, are assembled in Fremont. Everything is designed by the company's unnamed and extremely secretive CEO, who only began to enter the high-end market a few years ago.
As I walked into the Emotiva room, a blast from the distant past greeted me with a smile. It was the Eagles, live, welcoming me to Hotel California. Resisting the temptation to declare, "But I've just come from there," I instead noted the solidity of the bass line, the powerful slam, and the sonic warmth that really did feel like a welcome. "Welcome to Emotiva land," the system seemed to sing.
Audio Plus Services, Toronto, distributes a luscious batch of products that includes Pathos, Focal, Cambridge Audio, MicroMega, Crystal cable, Siltech cable, and Solid Tech racks. At Axpona, throwing aesthetics to the dogs in an attempt to tame the room, APS's Ian McArthur sent files wirelessly from his Macbook Pro or a PC running the Airfoil utility via the MicroMega WM-10 Airstream wireless receiver ($1595) to the Pathos TT Anniversary 35W class-A hybrid integrated amp ($7695) and Focal-JM Lab Electra 1028BE loudspeakers ($8495/pair). Cabling was Crystal Cable Reference for both interconnect ($2400/1m) and speaker cable ($7500/3m), and the industrial-look rack was Solid Tech ROS Reference 3 ($1495). The Airstream basically incorporates a self-configuring WiFi router to feed audio data (limited to Red Book at present) to its DAC. Although use of iTunes as the media server, without benefit of either the Amarra or Channel D's Pure Music interfaces, undoubtedly contributed to a lack of transparency, cellos sounded extremely deep and solid, and Marta Gomez's debut CD on Chesky (played directly from the computer's CD drive without benefit of burning) was rewardingly crisp and extremely fast.
To anyone who has committed my blogs to memory, or treated them with the same reverence as passages from the Bible, my love for mbl speakers and electronics will come as no surprise. Listens at CES 2010, RMAF 2009, and CES 2009 left me in awe. If only the newest mbl speakers on the market had been on active rather than static display, I expect I'd be waxing ecstatic once again.
One of the things I love about Shows like Axpona is the chance to hang out with Stereophile's readers, like Ed Lippman and his son Ross. "Can you publish our photo in the magazine?” asked Ed. So here they are. Ed’s on the right and Ross (who wrote an Axpona report for Audio Asylum) is on the left.
Although I didn't get a chance to audition themRoy Hall tried to ply me and just about everyone present with Scotch or something to get me to linger, but this extremely moderate drinker decided I could do a better job if I didn't stumble from room to room, dragging cables behind meI was quite intrigued by the AktiMate Mini ($695/pair) in the Music Hall room. This Australian baby, engineered by folks from Creek Audio and Epos, is an active speaker, similar to the popular AudioEngines, and the master unit is equipped with an iPod dock as well as stereo RCA phono and mini-jack inputs. There is even an RCA stereo out to enable connection to a subwoofer, as well as a volume remote.
Roy Hall's Music Hall was showing several nifty little systems. Making its official debut as well as show debut, the Creek Audio Evolution 5350 Integrated amplifier ($1795), which has been around for perhaps a decade in various proven incarnations, was sending its 120Wpcs into 8 ohms signal from the Creek Destiny CD player ($2495) into the handsomely slim (were we all only as. . .) Epos M22i loudspeakers ($2599/pair). This system was uncompromising in its portrayal of brash rock as exactly that. No euphonic roll-off or soft-pedaling allowed! Switch to the Oscar Peterson Trio, and you'll hear a very different, sweet sound on piano and bass.