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.
"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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
"That's a familiar sound," I thought as I entered the 5th-floor suite shared by YG Acoustics and Krell. It was the classic Show dem record from the early 1980s, James Newton Howard & Friends on Sheffield Lab. The speakers were the YG Anat Reference II Studios ($70,000/system), which differ from the Anat Reference II Professional reviewed by Wes Phillips a year ago in not having the powered subwoofer modules. The room was problematic at low frequencieseither there was an upper-bass suckout or there was too much upper bassand YG's Dick Diamond had spent long hours optimizing the sound on set-up day, but the effort was obviously worth it.
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.
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.
Speaker designer Bill Roberts talks so fast, I could only write down every third word as he explained the design principles behind the Advanced Transduction Directorate loudspeaker. A four-piece, three-way system with an outboard crossover and line-loaded woofers, the 600lb Directorate has a very high claimed sensitivity of 96dB/W/m and bass extension of 3dB at 14Hz. Price is $30,000/system in light-oak veneer, or $25,000/system unfinished, as shown in the photo. With left and right speakers each driven by a 125Wpc Power Modules Belles 150A Reference stereo power amplifier ($2300), and a front end of CD files played with Sony Sound Forge running on a PC sent as digital audio to a Belles DAC and the new tubed Belles 22A preamplifier ($2500), the sound, even in an acoustically challenged room, had superb balance, dynamics, and transparency.
"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.
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.
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.
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.