The mighty Focal Grand Utopia EM loudspeakers ($190,000/pair), which use field-coil energized woofers, took pride of place in one of the two big rooms on the Doubletree's ground floor sponsored by Chicagoland dealer Quintessence. Driven by two-chassis Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks with Kubala-Sosna cabling throughout the system, both the 1950s Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges collaboration "Back to Back" and the Reference Recordings Rutter Requiem were reproduced with a stunning combination of vocal purity and instrumental majesty. Source was a file fed by USB to a Playback Designs player/DAC.
Chicagoland dealer Quintessence devoted a large ground-floor room to the Fine Sounds groups of companiesSonus Faber, Audio Research, Wadia, and Sumko/RELalong with the superb racks from Harmonic Resolution Systems and a Clearaudio/Benz Micro LP player. A pair of the Sonus Faber Amati Futura speakers that I reviewed in May 2012 ($36,000/pair) was being vertically bi-amped with two tubed Audio Research Ref250 monoblocks driving the midrange/tweeter sections and two solid-state Audio Research DS450M monoblocks for the woofers. No fewer than four REL powered subwoofers were handling the low bass. Preamp was the Audio Research Ref5 SE that Brian Damkroger and Bob Reina raved about in Stereophile.
Look out Audiogon. Your latest competition in the online marketplace department, AudioMart, launched this week. The company's Mark Mawhinney, who owns a retail store and is also responsible for the Spin-Clean Record Washer, says AudioMart lists both used and new equipment. "It's quicker, faster, more socially integrated, and much more mobile friendly," he proclaims. "Images are posted for free, and we're offering free dealer storefronts through September 1."
Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports, whose eye and ear for the esoteric has brought any number of superb brands to our sonic shores, is now importing Hartvig turntables from Denmark (base model $13,500). Available in multiple finishes and woodsBrian made it sound as though you could get almost anything your heart desiresthe table has a special bearing, housed inside the platter, which is precision machined by the designer. The passive display left me actively longing to hear the baby in action. Newport Beach in June, perhaps, or the California Audio Show in Burlingame in August?
Sandwiched between rooms, apart from the other tables on the mezzanine, Miko Krolo of Canada displayed his new line of attractive equipment racks and supports. By heart an audiophile, and by trade a designer of residential interiors, Krolo began his company just one year ago. On view were the Krolo Design Tomo Audio Rack ($33004300, depending upon number of shelves) and Krolo Enhancers equipment supports ($260/set of three). The racks include solid aluminum rods and stainless steel supportsI hope I have that rightand shelves float on cones.
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.
Although Soundsmith brought to Chicago the very same system it exhibited at RMAF in Denver last October, there was nothing has-been about the sound. In fact, sonics that I often find enticingly romantic, as on the slightly warm side, this time sounded far more neutral, yet infused with the glow that makes Peter Ledermann's cartridges and electronics so special.
Given the number of loudspeakers in the relatively small room, I was amazed that two corner traps, combined with intelligent speaker placement that began at 8am, could result in such well-controlled bass. But on the Channel Classics native DSD/hybrid SACD of the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Mahler's Symphony 2, the opening movement exhibited ideal control on the low end as well as natural warmth. I kept waiting for the booming, but it never came. What a great end to my first long day at AXPONA Chicago, 2013.
Gary Kumpf did a whole lot of talking between selections, but nonetheless I managed to be blown away by the sound of the no-pun-intended McAire ($3000). This one-piece unit, complete with built-in speakers and a downward firing woofer, offered superb stereo imaging as it projected an amazing amount of impressive sound well into the room. Compatible with all existing digital technologies, it seems like a fantastic buy for the price.
For every reason under the sun, the big system from HiFi Imports of Colorado Springs should have sounded spectacular. Alas, given the 10' air space above the ceilings of most of the big conference rooms on the Doubletree's mezzanine, the law of the day was, the bigger they are, the farther they fall.
Ever since encountering the wonderful sound of Nightingale electronics, manufactured by Simetel of Rome (as in Italy), at the first AXPONA show in Jacksonville, I've looked forward to another visit with their Lancaster, PA-based USA representative, Valentina Ross. Her set-up of Nightingale Concentus open-baffle CTR-02 loudspeakers ($9750/pair), Onda 90 monoblock amplifiers ($12,450/pair), PTS-03 preamplifier ($9750), CR-1600 line conditioner ($3960), and unnamed source and cablingher assistants, who handed me literature, spoke little Englishwas one of the most attractive at the show, and the sound remarkably open and spacious.
For many of us, the luscious equipment combo from Rochester, NY-based Your Final System would make our lives complete. I certainly wouldn't kick it out of bed, metaphorically speaking, though I don't know how the spouse and two dogs might react to all of this in the living room, let alone the bedroom. Pause for breath as you take a look at the line-up below, then grab a calculator and add it all together. I would, but my hands are too shaky from typing everything up.
Here we go: Your Final System HD Ref 3 Limited Edition Music Server System ($14,500), EMM Labs DAC 2X ($15,000), Purity Audio Ultra GT preamplifier ($53,000), bi-amplification of upper frequencies by KR Amplifiers SXi Mk.II integrated ($21,000) and lower frequencies by Channel Island Audio D200 Mk.II monoblocks ($3500/pair), Von Schweikert Audio VR-100XS "Universe" System with towers and two EX V15 subwoofers ($140,000), four additional EX V15 subwoofers ($10,000 each), MasterBuilt Signature Series speaker cables ($7500/pair), MasterBuilt Signature Series interconnects ($3600/pair) and power cables ($6200 each) and dual-headed powered USB cables ($4000), GIK Diffusers ($350 each), ASC Tube Traps ($450 each), ATS Acoustic Bass Traps ($150 each), ATS Acoustic Studio Stackers ($200 each), and a mere $37,000 worth of Critical Mass Systems equipment racks and stands.
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.
This modest system in the April Music room actually sounded like music. Solus 2-way speakers (sorry, didn't note the price) were being driven by the new Stello S100 50Wpc power amplifier ($1200) and Stello HP100 D/A preamplifier/headphone amplifier, all wired with Verastarr cables. The Stello components are nicely finished and use enclosures manufactured in California, though final assembly is in Korea. Only disappointment was that the HP100 uses the Burr-Brown PCM2705 USB audio chip, which is limited to 16-bit data with a sample rate up to 48kHz and operates in the less-than-optimal adaptive mode.
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.