When Steve Davis told me that people were hungry for an audio show in Chicago, he wasn’t kidding. What Davis believes to be over 4000 attendees2000 tickets had been sold before the Show openedvisited over the course of three days, March 810. They mobbed many of the rooms on Saturday and actually managing to keep things lively in most of the rooms I visited on the 8th floor on Sunday. And that was with people having to choose among 90 exhibit rooms, a bunch of table displays, an art show, multiple seminars, and lively marketplace that together extended over five floors of the Doubletree in Rosemont (Ground, mezzanine, and all of floors 7, 8, and 9) near O’Hare Airport. (My thanks to John Atkinson for standing outside in the pouring rain to get the photograph of the hotel.)
I don’t know what the sound was like at Chicago’s last consumer audio show, sponsored by Stereophile, which took place in the Palmer House Hilton in the Loop in 1999, but at the Doubletree, a large number of dealers and manufacturers managed to produce good to excellent sound within the confines of hotel rooms that they had never before exhibited in.
You can always count on Doug White, owner of The Voice That Is in Newtown, PA, to provide excellent sound and an attractive display. At AXPONA, he came through in spades, rendering John Atkinson's recording of male ensemble Cantus singing Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque with extreme beauty. The system did equally well on Rimsky-Korsakov's well-worn Dance of the Tumblers, producing superb sound and nice depth. Lacking only were the ultimate transparency and room-filling soundstage that I encountered in far too few rooms at AXPONA.
If you value smoothness and liquidity, the eye-catching system from Beauty of Sound and KT Audio Imports was to fall in love with. Playing Aaron Neville's aptly named LP Warm Your Heart, the sound was so warm, sweet and mellow, and the presentation so beautiful and spacious, that it was a challenge not to feel as though I had died and gone to heaven.
Lowther-America showcased their prototype, 98dB-sensitive speakers. Aimed at the DIYer, but potentially available in finished form, the open-baffle design uses a Lowther PM5a, Rythmic subwoofer with dedicated servo amplifier, and SLS ribbon tweeter crossed over at 11kHz (DIY parts cost approx. $4500, custom-built approx. $12,000).
Walter Schofield had lots to smile about besides his new trim and fit look. The great buy Wharfedale Jade 5 loudspeakers ($3199/pair), fed by an Avid Ingenium turntable with Pro-Ject arm ($1750) and Ortofon 2M Black cartridge ($719), Avid phono preamplifier ($7000), Marantz SA-15 SACD player ($2000), Marantz 150Wpc integrated amplifier ($2500), Audioquest Columbia interconnects, and PS Audio power stripthere was more, but I can't decipher my notesproduced a really nice midrange on Madeleine Peyroux's "Dance Me to the End of Love." The sound may have been euphonic, but it was also euphoric; the music swung so compellingly that I couldn't stop tapping my foot.
In Room 806, one word said it all: Rega. Demming the Rega RP8 turntable with Rega Exact 2 cartridge ($3400), Rega Apollo R CD player ($1095), Rega Brio R integrated amp with phono stage ($895), and Rega RS3 floor-standing speakers ($1395/pair), the nattily bow-tied Barnaby Fry of The Sound Organisation was having a ball playing Johnny Adams' From the Heart. The system did best on Adams' voicethe voice was greatbut when the blues artist sang, "I can't control the vibrations," I'm afraid he was talking about the limitations of the system's bottom reach and bass control. (For starters, I don't believe power conditioning or special equipment supports were in use.) But on voice and piano, Rega x 4 = very nice.
As Halie Loren sang her distinctly un-Peggy Lee version of "Fever," I reflected on how much I love the color and warm of Unison Research electronics. The internal glow of the sound, and the sweetness of the electric keyboard, especially stood out. Yummy.
In the second room sponsored by Arnold Martinez' newly opened Tweak Studio (located in Chicago's Hyatt Downtown) and Colleen Cardas Imports, a SOTA turntable, curiously unidentified on the room's equipment list, and unidentified cartridge and tonearm, were making lovely sound with three products from PureAudio. Designed by Ross Stevens and Gary Morrison, formerly of Plinius, the redundantly titled PureAudio dual-mono vinyl phono preamplifier ($4500) joined PureAudio's dual-mono Control preamplifier ($9500) and Reference 65Wpc class-A monoblock amplifiers ($15,500) to drive My Audio Design 1920S loudspeakers ($3800/pair).
Bob Walters of the Bay Area Audiophile Society often refers to Jim Salk's loudspeakers as one of the best buys in high-end audio. Certainly I have never heard them sound better in a show context. Using an AVA ABX switch ($1499), Salk Audio switched between three of its speakers: Salk Silk Bookshelf ($3499/pair), Salk Supercharged SongTowers ($3495/pair), and, the largest Salk SoundScape 8s ($7995/pair). The 8 uses the same RAAL ribbon tweeter, Accuton midrange, and 12" passive radiators as in the two larger SoundScape models (not shown), albeit with two 8" drivers.
Both at and post-show, Buffer (aka L. Langdon Ergmann, Jr.) was charmingly apologetic. Having read my "As We See It," "There's No Business without Show Business," in the April issue of Stereophile just hours before I walked into his Laufer Teknik room, he knew that his inability to supply a list of components and prices, add a track to his Memory Player from one of my six USB sticks, or even tell me what music was playing on his own music server (as in "We don't have an internet connection, so we can't identify the track") had left him a prime candidate for the Duncecap Dealer of the Day award.