I could have kicked myself. At the 2010 CES, as much as I wanted to hear and blog about the eye-catching and ultra-expensive The LARS 1 36W monoblocks ($90,000/pair), I couldn't find the room. So when the CBO/founder of Engstrom , Timo Engström (second from right in my photo), emailed to say he'd be displaying at Axpona, I assured him that if I didn't get to his room this time around, I deserved to be shot.
As much as I enjoyed many of the systems I auditioned on the first day of the show, the one that seduced me the most was assembled by Doug White's The Voice That Is of Newtown Square, PA. Powered by Vitus (pronounced VEE-toos) Audio SM-010 25W class-A monoblocks ($49,500/pair), and connected by Argento Audio FLOW power cords ($3100/2m), interconnects ($4100/m with RCAs), Master Reference interconnects ($8900/1m RCA), and Master Reference speaker cable ($24,500/2m), the dCS Puccini SACD/CD player ($17,999) with U-Clock ($4999) and Tidal Audio Piano Cera speakers ($28,400/pair in midnight black lacquer, or $36,3000 in Ebony Macassar) were producing the warmest and most beautiful midrange I had heard so far. In fact, as it turned out, it was the warmest and most seductive midrange I heard on the first two days of the show.
Michael Chafee, a Saratoga-based dealer, consultant, and system tuner, was still in the process of fine-tuning his 7.1 surround setup when I paid a visit. Standing next to the Genelec HT210B loudspeaker ($3739 each) that served front left and right channel honors, Chafee's intriguing system also utilized Genelec HT208 surround loudspeakers ($2859 each) and HTS4 subs ($4729 each), Simaudio Moon CP8 processor ($20,000), a Lexicon RT20 CD player ($5000), and Nordost Heimdahl cabling.
As I entered a large room filled with May Audio's CDs and LPs, the dynamic duo of Jay Paul Apodaca (right) and Carlos Peniche (left) was dashing between two impressive systems set up at the other end. I was quite impressed with the large and exciting soundstage thrown by the setup whose power came from a Mastersound Evolution 845 integrated amp ($15,000). This pure class-A, 50Wpc amp uses two 845 tubes per side. For the uninitiated, and that includes me, the Italian Mastersound company first began manufacturing transformers 50 years ago.
Madisound, a speaker kit company based in Madison, Wisconsin, demmed a full range of loudspeakers that starts with the recession-buster RB3 ($445/pair). Playing at the time I visited was the astounding for the price Zaph Audio floorstander (with the black face$1559). Equipped with two Scanspeak drivers, and powered by the Fountek Altitude 3500 23Wpc integrated amp ($1350), the system delivered impressively smooth, full-range sound on a stellar Chesky CD from vocalist Rosa Passos and bassist Ron Carter.
Talk about an eye (and ear) catcher. Dominating the Wyndham’s Rope roomall the conference rooms have cute nautical namesand set up by Bill Gibson of Jacksonville-based House of Stereo, loomed Audience's ClairAudient LSA 16+16 line source loudspeaker ($54,000/pair). A one-way bi-pole, it uses an identical array of 16 Audience A3-S 3" drivers in the front and back, and boasts an impressive 99dB sensitivity. With its line-source array, it should image well anywhere in the room, and can be driven to a continuous and deafening 129dB.
Just two months ago at CES, I enthused over the potential excellence of King Sound's China-made Kingsound The King full-range electrostatic loudspeaker ($8500/pair). But as much as VAC's Royal power supplies ($1300/pair), Phi 200 monoblocks ($9900/each), and Signature Mk IIa preamplifier with phono stage and external power supply ($18,000); Accuphase's DP-85 SACD player' and the VPI's Classic turntable equipped with Michael Fremer's fave Ortofon MC-90A cartridge were supplying superior sound, the system planned for Axpona was originally held back by junky interconnects and speaker cables. Cardas to the rescue. Thanks to Cardas Clear speaker cables ($3726/2m pair), Clear Beyond speaker cables ($7452/2m pair), and Clear interconnects ($1840/m for single-ended, $2140 for balanced), the system sounded simply wonderful. I was equally impressed with the sound of my SACD of Mahler Symphony No.2 and an LP of Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. Quad lovers owe these babies a listen, adds John Atkinson, who was equally taken by the sound of this system.
Channel D's Stereophile-recommended Pure Vinyl ($229) is a Macintosh-based music server program that is equipped for both archiving and playback of vinyl recordings at 192kHz/24 bits). One very cool feature allows you to "drag the needle" across the archived record to whatever groove you choose, in much the same way that you can skip ahead on a digital music file by dragging the cursor. What's extra fun is that your computer screen shows a simulated LP and arm, allowing you to drag the needle back and forth without scratching a thing.
...what happens to all those bed frames and mattresses that are removed from hotel suites in order to make room for exhibits? Here' a shot of the Wyndham Riverwalk Hotel mattress mortuary, which ordinarily serves as a convention meeting place. Missing is the mattress from Robert Robinson's Channel D. He chose to retain the mattress to tame highs bouncing from the side wall of the cozy second-floor hotel room.
Axpona's marketing director Steve Davis is also a singer and guitarist who performs locally in The Difference/Mumbleypeg, a North Florida-based rock band. Aware of the importance of the live reference, Davis arranged several live "reference" performances throughout the show. As well as The Difference/Mumbleypeg, Axpona showcased the talents of pianist John Yurick, veteran bass guitarist John Atkinson, and Mikhail Levitsky's Levitsky Violin Orchestra. Here's a photo of Davis rehearsing with his band for a performance that was recorded by Mark Waldrep of AIX Records.