So here we are on Saturday night, Rob Robinson of Channel D, Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio, and myself of something or other, chilling in the ridiculously oversized chairs in the Omni Jacksonville's lobby near the elevators, awaiting the arrival of Rob's wife Claudia so we can all head out to Thai dinner, when Jacksonville Symphony French horn player Aaron Brask, aka "Last Horn," appears out of nowhere and on your mark-get set-go begins telling us how absolutely, positively, and totally stoked he is that we have brought all these high-end audio exhibits to Jacksonville. It seems that, given that artist Brask is unable to talk while his embouchure is otherwise occupied with his instrument's mouthpiece, the boy has seized the opportunity to gush, and I mean gush, over his chance to finally hear the equipment, big and small, that he had been reading about and lusting after for all these years.
Strange that I, who often blogs about cables and lives may 40 minutes from JIB-Germany's US headquarters in Fremont, CA, has yet to meet them anywhere but at shows. Certainly the company's oxygen-free copper cabling, which has been available for two years, looks promising in passive display mode, and sounded good in a diminutive Napa Valley Acoustics system. Certainly JIB's literature, which touts cables for hi-fi and home cinema, is beautifully put together. Belle Tsai (pictured) tells me that cables range in price from $200$1000, depending upon model number. The company even sells earbuds. Gotta try some of these babies sometime.
You can usually count on former airline pilot Darren Censullo of Fayetteville, GA to put together an exhibit that sounds as good as it looks. Impeccably displayed, although in light that barely revealed their true Tuscan leather exteriors and aluminum front baffles, the beautiful Rosso Fiorentino Sienna loudspeakers from Italy ($24,995/pair) shared the ambience with the Dr. Feickert Analogue Firebird turntable ($12,995) and Analogue DFA 12.0 tonearm ($1495 with table); AMR (Abbingdon Music Research) CD-77.1 CD player ($10,995), PH-77 phono preamp ($11,995) AM-77.1 integrated amp in mono vertical biamp mode ($9995), and DP-777 DAC ($4995); AMI-HIFI HDR Mini Server Version music player ($2995), Monk Audio phono preamp ($3495), a host of Acoustic System International Resonators ($250$2850 each) and LiveLine cabling ($995$2100), as well as the company's 3-shelf equipment rack ($3500) and Top Line feet ($750/set); and Avatar Acoustics' own Mach 4 Power Distributor w/captive ASI power cord ($1995) and Afterburner 8 wall outlet ($80).
I fell in love with Todd Garfinkle's oft-exotic, ambience-rich, superbly recorded gems on MA Recordings years ago, and have always looked forward to seeing him displaying his latest discs at shows. Now relocated from Japan to Los Angeles, Todd has found an ideal show partner in Chris Sommovigo. Chris, importer of Michael Fremer's reference Continuum Caliburn turntable and designer of the once heralded Illuminati digital cable, currently resides in Atlanta, where he engages in mischief and distributes a host of components, including his own Black Cat Morpheus! cabling, under the umbrella, "The Signal Collection."
The view from the 16th floor of the Omni Jacksonville may look a bit bleak, but AXPONA was anything but. Initial disappointment at the number of exhibits, which diminished to 28 or so when three parties who had contracted for multiple rooms were forced to cancel due to illness, was replaced by delight as I kept encountering enthusiastic attendees hungry for good sound.
Talks with several exhibitors, including Dick Diamond of YG Acoustics and Rob Robinson of Channel D, revealed their delight at meeting a goodly number of knowledgeable audiophiles who were as educated and committed as they were eager to explore. Hey, Jacksonville may not have a reputation as a capital of cultural sophistication, but I could play Schubert and Mahler as well as Rosa Passos and Charles Lloyd without everyone running for cover.
Alan Eichenbaum and Sunny Umrao's Scaena room was one of four that vied for my personal Best of Show. It certainly competed with MBL's for most expensive set-up at AXPONA. At its center stood the Scaena Spiritus 3.4 loudspeaker system ($110,000). Each tower contains 12 midranges and seven ribbon tweeters. Bass at 100Hz and below was handled by the four massive 18" subs that looked as though they could pacify an advancing army with their slam. (You should have heard the bass drum on Mahler's Symphony No.2; it had the most convincing weight, focus, and up against the wall impact I've ever heard from my Channel Classics hybrid SACD).
Although Misty Ellis' atmospherically lit room was a challenge to photograph, the sound this company from Columbus, OH put together from a big-bucks system headed by the Audio Power Labs 833TNT 200W transformer-coupled monoblocks ($175,000/pair), Tidal Audio Contriva Diacera SE floorstanding speakers ($58,190/pair in piano black, $64,190/pair in African Pyramid Mahogany as shown), and Laufer Teknik The Memory Player 64 ($24,600) was as tantalizing and satisfying as its visuals. Initially marred by an exaggerated midrange and treble resonances, everything improved immensely when Tidal dealer Doug White, the extremely conscious proprietor of The Voice That Is in Newtown Square (Philadelphia), PA, removed the preamp responsible for the imbalance.
Having enthusedgushed, reallyover the Orion-4s ($15,510/pair in this iteration with active crossover, Bibinga wood and Ebony trim) when I first heard them at Burning Amp 2010, then again at Burning Amp 2011 (as reported in the January 2012 issue of Stereophile), I was happy to encounter them once more in Jacksonville. It was no surprise to find them doing an absolutely wonderful job of capturing the correct sound of a piano, and bringing lovely depth to a recording of Mozart's Piano Sonata in D Major, K.576. They did an equally fine job in showcasing the beauty of a quartet performing music by Lera Auerbach.
Silnote Audio Cables of Boones Mill, VA, a company new to me, was making an all-out effort to bring attention to its line. Paired with Tyler Acoustics D-20 loudspeakers ($10,500/pair), an Olive 4HD music server, Musical Fidelity DAC, Rogue Magnum tube amp, and Rogue phono stagethere must have been a turntable and cartridge, but I failed to write it downSilnote's Master Series Orion M-1 interconnects ($3100/pair), speaker cables ($4700/pair), and power cables ($1800 each) were helping deliver solid sound.
"We initially meant our self-powered speakers for the computer market, and never thought you guys from Stereophile would take us seriously," Audioengine's Brett Bargenquast told me in a particularly candid moment. "Then Bob Reina's review of the A2s helped launch us."
It sure did. Bob's glowing review even convinced me to get a pair of Audioengine 5s for my iMac. Years later, they remain in use, making the husband's cheapo TV in the cottage sound far better than it should.
Hardly 90 seconds into the demo, the earthquake hit. No, not one caused by God and nature, or the vibrational residue from a huge subwoofer in the room above or below. Rather, this earthquake was courtesy of the huge industrial washing machine located directly below Soundsmith's fourth floor exhibit. And we are not talking minor stuff here, folks. Everything was shaking badly, including the sign on the wall, and it went on for several minutes.
Headlined by Aerial Acoustics' Model 7T loudspeaker ($10,000/pair, to be reviewed in the May 2012 issue of Stereophile) and Audio Research's Ref 5 SE preamp ($12,900), Ref 150 amplifier ($12,900), and DAC 8 ($5000), the system from Audible Images of Melbourne, FL delivered very clear, warm (rather than neutral), and crisp sound from a Japanese compilation Three Blind Mice. "Excellent," I wrote in my notes. Undoubtedly the Krell Model 505 CD player ($10,000), and Transparent Audio's Reference XL speaker wire, Reference interconnects, Power Ix, and Power link power cords had something to do with it.
At the prompting of John Atkinson, yours truly organized and moderated a non-denominational four person "Meet and Ask the Writers" panel on Saturday afternoon. Joining me, on the left of the photo) were (leftright) A. Colin Flood of Enjoy the Music.com, Ray(mond) Seda of Dagogo.com, and Neil Gader of The Absolute Sound. Because the panel was sandwiched into the seminar schedule last minute, we only had 45 minutes to dialog without mikes over music not exactly wafting through the air walls. (A big thanks to Part Time Audiophile for his selfless photographic assistance and positive energy. Much appreciated by all.)
Read to the end, folks, because this one has a happy ending. In their extremely popular roomI couldn't get in the door the first time I triedRob Robinson of Channel D and Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio were attempting to dem computer audio done right. I say, "attempting" because, despite the unquestionable excellence of Joseph Audio Pulsar loudspeakers ($7500/pair, to be reviewed in the June issue of Stereophile), which I have enjoyed at multiple audio shows, and Channel D's Pure Vinyl high-res digital transcription/editing/playback software ($299) and Pure Music Digital Music Player ($129), the 24/192 files I heard when I first entered had a most unpleasant hard edge to them.
Sometimes a system touches your heart when you least expect it. There I was in Reinhard Goerner's Goerner Communication room (Montréal) when, all of a sudden, the warmth and beauty of Joni Mitchell's voice on a vinyl pressing of "I Could Drink a Case of You" had me half qvelling. (Hey, it's Yiddish. I don't know how to spell it; I only know how it feels).