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.
The folks from Happy Sounds of Japan were doing everything in their power to tame reflections in their room. Here's the left side of the room; the right was just as interesting. I can't recall if they also requested some of the room treatment from ATS Acoustics that AXPONA made available to anyone who requested it.
Happy Sounds? Jacintha didn't seem to be laughing her way through "Light My Fire," but the sound was definitely pleasingly smooth and solid, if a bit dry and with a grayish background. The intriguing-looking speakers were Newform Research's No Holds Barred Coaxial Ribbon LineSource ($11,400/pair). Claimed to be "the first in the world to implement a coaxial ribbon linesource configuration," they contain high-impedance, wide-dispersion, monopole ribbons.
The room sponsored by Newform Research itself, as opposed to the adjacent Happy Sounds room that was dominated by Newform Research speakers (see below), was built around Newform Research's triple-stacked LineSource Monitors ($6800). Although less expensive that the No Hold Barred Coaxial Ribbon LineSource speakers, less brought more, in the way of a really nice, solid presentation that was a delight to listen to in the sweet spot. I don't know what was playingthere was a lot of activity in the room, and the hosts were quite busybut I do know that the remaining equipment in the $9800 system included the Onkyo TX-SR 818 receiver ($1300), four Atak Sub 12s / Crown 1000w amplifier combos ($1680), and a Sony Blu-ray player ($129). Also shown, but not playing when I entered, are Newform Research's Ribbon Pyramid speakers ($2720/pair).
Money may not be able to buy you love, but the money New Jersey's GTT Audio & Video invested in quality equipment helped create a different world of sonic refinement than I encountered in most rooms. Listening to a track from Ben Webster's Ben's Blues, I marveled at the beautiful warmth, natural sound of cymbals and piano, and most of all, at the stunning depiction of Webster's saxophone that left me feeling as though I had dived right into the center of the instrument. What luscious sound!
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.
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!
UK company Icon Audio was a new name to me, but as Adrian Fearey explained to me, they manufacture a wide range of tube gear. Adrian was demming the FRm2 floorstanding speaker, which uses a single 8" driver and has a claimed sensitivity of 96dB/W/m! US distribution is apparently by Music Direct.
Jeffrey Catalano of Manhattan retailer High Water Sound missed his vocationhe should have been a DJ, as listening to his choice of music is always a Show highlight for me. As I entered Jeffrey was playing the old Stones song "Wild Horses" but it didn't sound like the version I knew from the band's Sticky Fingers album. Yes it was Mick Jagger singing, but the backing was more like a demo. Jeffrey showed me the LP cover: The Rolling StonesStripped. It went on my must-buy list.
"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.
Playback of DSD files from a computer via USB is a hot topic right now, but at AXPONA Mytek upped the ante by playing 5.1 multichannel DSD files, using three of the preamp version of their Stereo192 DSD-DACs ($1595 each)linked together, with the files played with J River Media Center. The system included five of the Sony SS-AR2 speakers that I had liked so much in my review last September, driven by Pass Labs amplifiers, with Sony's new SA-NA9ES subwoofer fleshing out the bottom octaves. Not that the system needed a subwooferwith multichannel playback, the low-frequency "room gain" is greater than it is with two-channel.
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.
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.
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.