AXPONA's Day 2 Kept on Going

Given how many great systems—that's great, not good—I had already encountered in the perpetually pale yellow, beige, and brown rooms on the Westin's 12th, 5th, and 3rd floors, the big question was, would the rest of the 3rd floor, and the other floors I would head to in the day and a half remaining, deliver as many delights? After all, given the variables of hotel room acoustics, noisy and sometimes unreliable power sources, and electronics and cabling whose sound changes as they settle in, it was a near miracle to happen upon as many superb sounding rooms as I had in such a short time period. Would my streak of good fortune continue?

Okay, that does sound a bit melodramatic, or like a come on for the next installment of "A Brighter Day." But let's face it. Unless one has multiple opportunities to revel in great sound at an audio show, going room-to-room becomes a bit like channel surfing. At a certain point, you begin to ask, "What's the point?"

Using Vivid loudspeakers, Richard Rogers of Shunyata and Bruce Jacobs of Stillpoints conducted a very convincing demo in which they began with stock power cables and no room treatment. First, they switched from stock power cables to Shunyata's Venom digital power cable ($395) and Venom High Current power cable ($295). Next, they added Stillpoints Ultra 6 equipment supports under equipment where there had been no supports before.

Finally, they added at least six Stillpoints Aperture acoustic panels to the sidewalls and horribly reflective glass windows behind the speakers. Each change elicited more depth, air, believable timbres, midrange, bass, vibrancy and substantiality to the sound. The changes were cumulative. As the ameliorations were removed, the system returned to its original mono-dimensional, cardboard cut-out, distinctly hifi-ish state.

I entered the extremely large room from HiFi Imports, which was dominated by Polymer Audio's MKS-X loudspeakers ($68,000/pair). The handsome MKS-X has a new crossover, new 5" mid-bass driver with a composite cone made from an alloy designed to emulate the stiffness of diamond, and new side wings. It also has a 0.75" pure-diamond tweeter and 2.1" pure-diamond midrange. Most important, it claims a faster response, sensitivity of 92dB, and impressive in room frequency response of 30Hz—70kHz ±3dB.

Allied with a Weiss Man301 Music Archive network player (without DAC $9083, with DAC $12,262), Thrax Dionysos line level preamplifier ($21,500), Thrax Maximinus 32/384 DAC ($33,000), new Thrax Teres transformer-coupled 250W/8ohm battery biased hybrid power amplifier, and Enklein cables and powercords, the Polymer Audio MKS-X loudspeakers projected a huge, ear-opening soundstage with great depth. On top of that, the notable air around Rachel Podger's baroque violin on Channel Classics' new SACD of Vivaldi's L'Estro Armonico immediately seized attention.

Alas, the speakers suffered from the same pronounced midrange over-emphasis that I have encountered on other occasions. Everything from violin to harpsichord was surrounded by a distinctly artificial midrange halo that robbed music of sparkle and life. Nor did my beloved recording of Sarah Vaughan and the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" escape a similar fate as Podger and Vivaldi. Which is not to say that the midrange wasn't beautiful in and of itself. It's just that there was far much of it, and in places where it should have naturally and gracefully ceded to other tonalities.

MG P4 Ag speaker cables and interconnects anchored a system that also included Lawrence Violin SE speakers, a new Concert Fidelity integrated amplifier, Weiss Music Server, Concert Fidelity DAC, Krolo stands, and Krolo Music Enhancers. There was too much talking to allow serious evaluation, but what I could catch between words sounded rather sharp and monotone.

Why do exhibitors insist on leaving out bowls of candy for visitors who inevitably make a racket unwrapping the stuff and then playing with the wrappers whenever the music gets softer? Strike a blow against diabetes and sonic pollution, folks, and leave the crap at home.

Be that as it may, the combination of the South Korean-made Auranote Version 2 all-in-one high end receiver ($2750), which even includes a tuner, and French Davis Acoustics Olympia One loudspeakers ($2500/pair) in the April Music room produced some really nice sound for a little system. The depiction of an unidentified female vocalist was very clean and enjoyable. Despite a bit of wiriness and ringing on Murray Perahia's piano, there was something compelling about this system that suggests, at low volume at least, it could please many an audiophile.

I was excited to begin my tour of the 4th floor with a visit to the room dominated by Endeavor Audio's enthusiastically received and newly tweaked E-5 reference loudspeakers ($35,000/pair) and Constellation Audio's equally lauded Inspiration Series Mono 1.0 amplifiers ($10,000/each) and Inspiration Series preamp 1.0 ($9000). Add in the YFS-Your Final System Ref-3 digital file transport ($15,500), EMM Labs' DAC2X DSD DAC ($15,500), and Master Built audio cables, and it was a potential knockout system.

Without question, the combo exhibited absolute control—no mean feat—and a fine midrange. But its dismaying metallic top was a puzzlement. Certainly it wasn't due to the Constellation electronics, which I've heard at many shows. Nor, having heard the components from the other companies before, did I suspect that any of them were the cause.

Because I knew Constellation's Peter Madnick (of Audio Alchemy fame) and Irv Gross, as well as Endeavor's Leif Swanson, I felt free to ask them what was up. Eventually they explained that they had made a hard choice between using Master Built's Ultra interconnect, which was in the system when I entered, and Master Built's flatter but mellower-sounding Signature interconnect between the preamp and DAC. Once we switched to the Signature, the system's midrange came into balance with everything above and below it, timbres sounded extremely natural, bass was tight and deep, and colors were plentiful and true. If excerpts from Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat and a cut by Jacintha sounded wonderful, Ray Brown and Laurindo Almeida's "Round About Midnight" was graced by a superb midrange and great bottom end. We had moved from disappointment to delight with a single cable change.

Swanson says that the E-5's cabinet is composed of a costly, near zero-resonance cellulose composite, sourced from Teragram, that costs him $1000 for a 4x8 sheet. The company claims its material has greater comprehensive strength than concrete, and a tensile strength-to-weight ratio several times greater than solid aluminum.

Lots of lovely timbres and an extremely pleasant if ultimately toned down presentation distinguished a system that included the premiere of Playback Designs' IPS-3 firmware-upgradable, all-in-one integrated amp+DSD DAC ($13,000), Aria Audio Server ($7999) and new Aria-Mini Audio Server ($3800); Lumin S-1 Audio streamer (12,500), Lumin T-1 audio streamer ($5000), and Lumin L-1 media server library; M2 Tech Marley preamp ($1699), M2 Tech Young DSD/DXD/PCM DAC/preamp ($1699), and M2 Tech Van der Graff power supply ($1199); and first US showing of the Apertura-Kayla loudspeakers ($13,000).

The attentive reader will realize that all of that stuff could not possibly have been active at the same time. The apologetic writer will acknowledge that he did not look at the equipment sheet after it was handed to him, and thus failed to ask which components were playing. Regardless, what he did notice with pleasure was how well the system depicted the soprano performing on a Channel Classics recording of music by Pergolesi.

I expected no less than excellent sound from the system assembled by GTT Audio, since excellence has always been the company's bottom line. Once the volume was turned up a bit, and grayness disappeared, colors and clarity on a recording of a boy soprano, another of the Meditation from Massenet's Thaïs, and a third from 88 Basin Street all impressed with their beautiful timbres, solid bass, and true-to-life impact.

"Great color on piano, trumpet sounds very right with sufficient bite yet no artificial harshness, and the horns blare wonderfully," I wrote in my notes of a system that began with a Kronos limited edition Pro turntable ($38,000) with new motor stack and 12" Black Beauty tonearm ($8500) [cartridge not indicated]; Audionet's PAM G2 phonostage ($20,200), PRE G2 preamp ($23,350) and MAX monoblock amplifiers ($30,500/pair); and Kubala•Sosna Xpander ($4800), and ended with YG Acoustics' Carmel 2 loudspeakers ($24,500/pair).

When I entered the exaSound room, the exaSound e22 Mk.II DAC ($3499), a 32-bit device that can play DSD 256 as well as DXD (384/24 PCM), was making extremely fine music from a recording of a boy soprano singing a tune that I've sung to countless editors present and past, Mozart's "Vorrei spiegarvi, O Dio!" (Let me explain, oh God). In addition, the system, which also included Magnepan 3.7I loudspeakers ($5495/pair) and Pass Labs X250.8 200W monoblock amplifiers ($9600), depicted percussion wonderfully on a violin and tabla track from one of the company's collaborations with Yarlung Records, Suryodaya.

Midway in his demonstration, George Klissarov (Mr. exaSound) held up the e12 DAC ($1999). After explaining that the e12 was designed to extract the e22 Mk.II DAC's sound from a smaller and less costly unit, he began to play a piece of music. After switching between DACs after about 10 seconds of music, he asked me if I could discern any difference between the two units. When I replied that the more costly e22 Mk.II sounded fuller, he declared that impossible. It seems the differences between the two units have to do solely with presence or absence of headphone amp and balanced outputs; boards, parts, and everything except cabinet dimensions are the same.

I could protest that the piece of music was classical, and that it grew more complex and dense after the first 10 seconds, which made the test invalid. I could also protest that even if the music had been consistent in instrumentation and volume, the experiment was flawed because the snippet of music was too short, and there was no final switch back to the original unit. Or I could just throw up my hands and write, "Busted." Of course, if I really did throw up my hands, I could hardly write "Busted" or anything else. But you get the point or, at least, Klissarov's.

One of the most revealing demos of AXPONA/AudioCon 2015 was sponsored in two adjacent rooms by Bart Andeer's Resolution Acoustics. In one room that had no room treatment, an excellent system that included Sonus Faber Stradivari loudspeakers, Pass Labs electronics, Meitner MA-1 DAC, and a Mac mini played a piece of music. In the next room, complete with room treatment custom designed and placed by Andeer, the exact same equipment in the exact same location played the same piece of music via a signal split at a Pass Labs XP-30 preamplifier.

I had expected greater bass control in the treated room. What I did not expect was how much richer, fuller, focused, and more refined the music sounded, top to bottom. Even the highs were rounder and more colorful. I've never experienced a more convincing demonstration of what optimally chosen and judiciously positioned room treatment can do.

Andeer, who launched his company at AXPONA, is going public after spending five years mastering his craft. A former ship captain and Marine Engineer, he will work remotely, choosing appropriate room treatment for clients who send him photos and room dimensions. He is also available to fly to the client's home afterwards for fine-tuning.

In a system assembled by Joseph Audio Video of Chicago that included the new Mark Levinson No.52 preamp ($30,000) and No.53 mono blocks ($50,000/pair), as well as Dynaudio Evidence Platinum loudspeakers ($85,000/pair), we used intriguing-looking Argento Flow Master Reference cabling (well over $70,000 including power cables and the $11,400 Argento Flow Power Distribution Center) as we switched between a discontinued Levinson No.512 CD player ($15,000) and T+A's far more up-to-date PDP 3000 HV CD-SACD player with PCM-DSD DAC ($19,000).

Listening to selections that included pianist Earl Wild with orchestra, baroque violinist Rachel Podger and period instrument ensemble playing Vivaldi, and pianist Murray Perahia playing Handel, I found the Levinson softer and darker on top, with a fine midrange and bottom end. The T+A was airier on top—there was more shimmer, but also more of a leading edge to high notes, which in this room was somewhat of a mixed bag—but lacked the Levinson's solidly fleshed out bottom end. Each emphasized different elements of the picture. What I wanted was the best of both. But that would have to wait for the final day of the show, where it was delivered in spades, and in far more than one room.

corrective_unconscious's picture

Tabla track?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you. We'll change table to tabla.

I now write for the Seattle Times. Can you believe that auto-correct even altered the email address at which readers can reach me? Grrr...

corrective_unconscious's picture

I knew it was auto-corrupt the moment I saw it.

Anton's picture

Your coverage is much appreciated.

jfaris's picture

Jason - spot on about the coverage. I was at Axpona on Saturday and also found the Resolution Acoustics room to be excellent. I like how Mr. Andeer's products address some of the very low frequencies, which have been a real problem in my room. He even showed me an analysis of the two rooms at Axpona. What a difference their treatments made. I will definitely be giving him a call.

As for the Polymer room, I couldn't agree more. Something seemed fake about the sound, definitely not natural and I just couldn't put my finger on it, but your term of artificial sounding was it!

I really liked that Constellation room as well. I think those were their lower model amps and they sounded great.

Great job!


CraigS720's picture

Jason - Thanks for the coverage. Not a big deal, but for anyone looking for the superlative Sarah Vaughn recording of Send in the Clowns it was with the Count Basie Orchestra, not Duke Ellington.


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you. The clown has been delivered, without the assistance of either Duke Ellington or Count Basie.

Pardon me while my dogs take me outside to poop out whatever is left of my brain...

GaryRR's picture

Jason, your coverage of the Musical Surroundings room left me and my friends certain that you must be absolutely deaf. Otherwise if that is not the case, then there is an even bigger problem.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent coverage, as always, JVS-

I liked the fact that you took time to write about the ML No. 512 vs T+A spinners. I, too, would like to audition those Argento cables/cords.

Finally, when evaluating these rooms (especially if you are on-assignment as a reviewer) if the extraneous noise prohibits your listening pleasure, you may "firmly" ask those individuals to leave!

audiodoctornj's picture

I read your review of the Polymer/Thrax/Enklein room with complete disbelief.

I had nearly the same system setup in my shop, with the only difference being a different Dac, and I have never in over 25 years of doing this for a living have heard such a natural midrange, with such a high degree of resolution in my life!

The MKX-S use the finest and quite frankly, the most expensive midrange and tweeter drivers in the world, in a 400lb cabinet that just doesn't resonate at all!

I looked over the room and I spied what might be causing the problem you have perceived, and it might be just plain slap echo, or room overload in those frequencies, on those particular recordings.

In my shop I use Echo buster panels, Shakti Holographs, and Acoustic System Resonators to tune my listening room. The end result of the Polymers with the Thrax electronics, which are really remarkable, is a mind blowing and very natural sound, with a degree of realism that is spooky.

So Jason if you want to visit me in my shop in NJ, I would love to see if after you hear this same system setup, in a good listening room if you have the same feeling I am willing to bet you will be pretty blown away by just how real the Polymers can sound in a real listening environment.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Didn't they teach you anything? Only Yul Brynner is allowed to use the word "puzzlement".

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Dear Sir,

Must I really shave my head, fold my arms, and stride around with chest bare in order to use the word?


Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...for his style. During an interview with Johnny Carson, Yul explained his consistent black wardrobe thus, (if memory serves correctly):

Most people waste 10% of their mental energy worrying about what to wear when, and where to buy it at what price. Yul only bought black suits, black shirts and black shoes from the best Hollywood tailor in an hour once a year. He wore exactly the same thing every day and was never under or over dressed. He consequently had 10% more mental energy to devote to important stuff like art, fine food and wine. Perhaps the same theory explains his bald head.

Now if we could only apply this same principle to gear v.s. music.

steveburwell's picture

Indeed a strange assessment since the speaker is criticized precisely for what is normally its greatest strength - the purity and accuracy of its midrange due to the use of a diamond midrange driver indicating potential room issues or problems elsewhere in the system. It is my understanding that no other midrange driver can match the performance of this diamond unit. I attended AXPONA last year and this was the most talked about product with unbelievable sound. Could not attend this year but would love to get feedback from others. Anyone else hear this room?

audiodoctornj's picture

Mr. Burwell, you assessments on the midrange of the Polymer is spot on they do have incredible midrange accuracy. I have never heard a human voice sound so real from any other speaker system I ever had in my room.

As I just mentioned I had almost the exact same setup in my shop with the only difference being a treated room and a different dac, and a different server, and the sound I was getting out of the Polymer's was incredible.

There is a realism in the sound of the Polymers that it is very hard to emulate, but as I surmised this is an untreated room and perhaps the combination of these incredibly resolving speakers with Mr. Serinius musical selections and this rooms acoustics gave these results.

I would invite anyone who is one the East Coast to hear them in my room and judge for themselves, in a totally different real world environment.

Hgabriel's picture

The answer is simple. Polymer speakers are owned by the likes of Eric Clapton, Andrea Bocelli, and George Walker. They must obviously like this midrange halo effect.

Dale Harder's picture

Hi Jason,
Thanks for stopping in on Friday 24th at AXPONA, Rm 508 and posting our picture. We wish you had been able to stop back and see us before the end of the show. (I know you were run quite ragged) Once our systems had warmed up and we removed some of the lower quality recordings which unfortunately you experienced, we definitely had some epiphany moments. Fortunately, a couple other reviewers experienced this. Our products are quite brutal and will easily reveal poor quality recordings and or equipment. Please keep an open mind on our offerings.
Kindest regards,
Dale Harder
HHR Exotic Speakers

johnwilk's picture

Last year I loved the Polymers. This year I found them unbearable and fled the room, horrible drilling treble. At the same price (way beyond my means) the Raidho D3s were far superior in every way.

GaryRR's picture

There are two major problems with these speakers. One is that they are so damn expensive and the other is that they are freakishly heavy. Otherwise I would have taken them home a long time ago.

audiodoctornj's picture

Dear Gary

The Polymers are expensive but are priced very reasonably considering that each midrange driver costs $10k each! Each tweeter $3k! so in a single pair of speakers you have $26k in just four drivers, and that is not including the lower midrange driver, and the two woofers, the extremely complex and inert cabinet, and the crossover components all silver wiring, and silver binding posts.

These are extremely expensive speakers to build and cost much more to make than any comparable Wilson, YG, Raidho, or Magico product. The weight is difficult. It took four people to carry them into my listening room.

I find itvery interesting that so many people are hearing completely different things: Mr.Serinius finds the midrange too pronounced, one gentleman finds the treble too hot, while the Absolute Sounds' reviewer was very impressed with the sound of this room, as well as Peter Brunninger of AV Showrooms.

I would sum it up this way, the Polymers are scary high in resolution, and more finicky in setup due to this fact, they will show you whatever you are putting through them, if the recording has flaws you will absolutely hear those flaws!

When I got in my pair I tried several great sets of electronics with them. I was running the Devialet 400 watt monos to great effect on the Kef Blades but not so on the Polymers, I tried the CJ Art and GAT, which sounded very good and then I tried the Thrax and it was magic. Do I think they are perfect, no but they still sound closer to live music, then any other speaker I have ever heard, and I have heard all the major contenders.

corrective_unconscious's picture

But if the Polymer Audio's MKS-X loudspeakers cost $68,000/pair, and the cost of _just_ the midranges and tweeters in a pair comes to $26,000, then I'd say some miracle has happened, or more likely, a confusion somewhere.

But hey, this post will be yet another opportunity for you to invite readers to your retail business.

newby15's picture

I've got no dog in this fight, but I attended the show looking for my next pair of statement speakers. I'm frankly stunned at the criticisms of both too much midrange and too hot treble. I found them incredibly lifelike (I went on Sunday afternoon) and--here's the kicker--they made even random audience CDs sound incredible. For example, one guy played a live rock concert CD (not esp. well recorded) and it sounded like...a concert in front of us. Fabulous sound from hirez and even from plain ol' CD, in a non-treated hotel room--a winner in my book. Anyway, I found it and the Muraudio room to be among best of show. [FWIW, on Sunday MBL played a mastertape of a female jazz singer...while she sang live in between the 116F speakers. Folks, that was spooky real, not to mention an extremely gutsy move. If you hear anyone claim this room didn't sound natural (at least on female voice) that person is a confirmed hifi nerd.]