AXPONA's Major Start

The doors of the 2017 AXPONA—taking place this weekend at the Westin O'Hare in Rosemont, close to Chicago's O'Hare airport—had opened but 15 minutes when yours truly (far left) joined (L–R) joined Steve Guttenberg (The Audiophiliac blog for CNET.com/ Stereophile), panel moderator Chris Martens (Hi-Fi+), Conor Cawley (Tech.co), Steve Rochlin (Enjoythemusic.com), and an audience of at least 50–60 people to discuss "What does 2017 mean for audio?" I didn't know what to expect, or what to discuss besides the resurgence of vinyl and the promise of better sound through MQA. But thanks to excellent questions from Chris and attendees, and some truly stimulating contributions from my fellow panel members, I think some major ground was covered.

Steve G. felt that the most exciting and important trends of 2017 are the surfacing of high-end audio products in non-audio stores, where sales people and customers are on an equal plane of knowledge; the marketing of better audio as a lifestyle product in said stores; and the availability of excellent sounding yet affordable earbuds from Audeze and other companies. Steve R. seconded Steve G.'s train of thought by extolling the wonderful variety of high-performance audio gear selling for under $1500. Both SR and I embraced MQA as a major game-changer that offers better sound quality in a manner that mp3 users can embrace.

Chris sang the praises of affordable ELAC loudspeakers, as well as other products that make high-level audio excellence available to budget and space-conscious college students. "Excellence for all" was his rallying cry, as he noted that the widespread acceptance of streaming, along with the availability of full CD resolution (as well as "Tidal Masters"/MQA) sound on Tidal, is a manifestation of the intersection of convenience and quality. On the other end of the cost spectrum, he said that he has also been bowled over the by the excellence of the top-of-the-line YG Acoustics Sonja XV and Wilson Audio Master Chronosonic WAMM loudspeakers.

Conor's big thing was Bluetooth and wireless audio. He even singled out a Bluewave product that can convert existing headphones into Bluetooth headphones. While Steve G. noted that Bluetooth is currently "better for convenience than sound," both men acknowledged that future implementation of new Bluetooth technology may change this.

One of the chief promoters of hi-rez audio, Marc Finer of the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG), had set up a modest "Stream the Studio" table outside one of the dining areas on the first floor of the Westin O'Hare. Dedicated to informing young people of the benefits of hi-rez, Finer was unfortunately one hallway over from the EarGear Expo where a large number of younger audiophiles were congregating. When I asked why he had not been located closer to the action, the answer was both simple and definitive: the fire marshal had laid down the law about what could and could not be set up where. Hopefully Marc was able to ignite passion for better sounding audio, regardless of location.

Imposing, eh? Welcome to the first showing of Scaena Soho loudspeakers ($56,000/pair), whose subwoofers are integrated into the loudspeaker array as their base. Their ability to reveal the quietest of intimacies within a soundstage notable for its spaciousness and depth was due, in no small part, to an all-PS Audio array that included the recently introduced DirectStream Memory Player ($6000). Complete with a CD/SACD transport developed by Oppo, the Memory Player can also play USB sticks and output pure, raw DSD to the PS Audio DirectStream DAC ($6000) via HDMI and I2S. (The DirectStream Memory will downsample DSD to 88.2k PCM when sending it to other DACs.) It can even do multichannel with three DirectStream DACs.

"We're all about DSD," said retail sales manager Duncan Taylor as he explained that other components included two PS Audio P10 power plants ($5000 each), two BHK Signature 300 power amplifiers ($7500 each), a BHK Signature preamp ($6000), and Fin Art Co of Denver racks.

By the time I reached the big partitioned room that housed no fewer than three Legacy sound systems, it had become clear that there were a lot of people in attendance on the first day of AXPONA 2017. Indeed, six hours later, when I was in my last room of the day, I realized that I was never the only visitor in any room I entered, and that quite a few had nary an empty seat in the house. Given that attendees were spread over eight floors, multiple eating areas, a seminar room, and a large marketplace and Ear Expo, that makes for impressive attendance on traditionally "slow" Friday.

Given that my focus was almost exclusively on new products—I confess that I occasionally crossed the line when there was something I was dying to hear—I went right to the system that included the world premiere of Legacy's powered Calibre XD three-way monitors ($6780/pair). These speakers have as their essential mate the Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover/room correction system ($4950). Although the system was overdriven, and my seat far too close for proper focus, I nonetheless noted the strength of the midrange. Bill Dudleston, founder of Legacy, explained that the Wavelet's DSP helps achieve greater low-frequency extension, while its crossover time-aligns tweeter and woofer.

Key to the impressively neutral and liquid sound of the imposing Von Schweikert Audio Ultra 11 loudspeakers ($295,000/pair) were VAC's Statement 450 iQ monoblock power amplifiers ($120,000/pair), Statement phono stage ($80,000), and Statement line stage ($75,000). With enough ASC Tube Traps ($26,000 total) to trap an elephant, and a Von Schweikert Shockwave V12 subwoofer ($11,500/each) playing out of phase in an attempt to further reduce bass in a room desperately in need of room correction, the sound on Lyn Stanley's latest LP, The Moonlight Sessions Vol. I, was natural and gorgeous. There was a special breathability to the sound, for which the Kronos Pro turntable ($38,000) with SCPS-1 power supply ($13,500), Andre Theriault Black Beauty tonearm ($8500), and ZYX Audio Ultimate 4D cartridge ($4400), along with Exoteryc and Aire Platform racks and platforms and MasterBuilt Audio Ultra Line cabling also deserve credit. No, the bass wasn't totally in control, but the system made beautiful and involving sound regardless. Of course, the gifted Ms. Stanley and her outstanding Bernie Grundman-mastered recording share more than a bit of the responsibility for the room's success.

It took me a little time to figure out what was what in the Mojo Audio room, but eventually it became clear (I hope) that the new Dééjà Vu PCM/DSD music server (starting at $3499.95) and Mystique v3 DAC (starting at $4999.95)—the black boxes on the rack—together with an Illuminati 2 power supply, were paired with an Exit Level Anapurna tube headphone preamp and various headphones. I was dying to hear the new Focals, but before I could even listen to two notes, I was told in no uncertain terms that they were not musical, and that I had to listen to the HiFiMan HE1000 V2 cans instead. There was no point insisting that I was eager and willing to learn for myself, given commentary so absolute, and so absolutely insistent.

Try as I did to take in what I could, I have never found myself able to listen over headphones in noisy spaces. Taking a rain check on further enlightenment, I retreated to the vast unknown, aka the next room.

COMMENTS
low2midhifi's picture

I encourage all interested to attend the show. It was on about a par with last year, excellent.

The show is obviously gaining in importance. One development that I saw was a larger presence of manufacturer's representatives from Europe, Scandinavian nations in particular. Asia has always had its manufacturer representatives in attendance. I even saw some official attendees sporting badges from a South American nation. It all made the show more interesting.

Here are my recommendations from day 1:

1. Park at the CTA lot if you are driving. Just be careful, because they are installing a new payment system and you may not get out--and will have to back up an try again--if you go to the wrong gate when leaving. It's $7.00 per day. Axpona got discounted parking at the Westin, but I prefer the short stroll from the CTA lot.

2. Go early if you want to go to Starbuck's. There was a line of at least 10 people at Starbuck's, all day long it seemed.

Beyond that, here are my show-related favorites from Day 1:

Lower Level:

Directors A & B - Kef: Kef has a interesting active-speaker-cum-ecosystem version of the LS-50. Johan Coorg is engaging and entertaining as always. I am glad he made it again.

Third Floor:

316 - Aurender/GamuT: I enjoyed listening to the GaumT stand-mount speakers. They are best when you are in the front row for a nearfield experience. There was a very friendly guy manning the room who had an interesting collection of music. He played Max Richter tracks yesterday. A quick note on the GaumT speakers and stands. They were made with freshly harvested Birch it seemed. They sounded great and were definitely the "best smelling" speakers in the show.

Fourth Floor:

412 - Hegel: The Hegel system sounded great. They are launching their new Rost component with Kef Blades. The Blades were played at a modest volume and did not overpower the regular-sized room. There was a very friendly Norwegian gentleman on hand who played some interesting Norwegian music.

414 Auralic/YG: Stop by this room. The gentlemen in the room handed the iPad over to attendees to select their own tracks to play through YG Carmel speakers. Never miss a room where you are allowed to play the music.

426 - Joseph Audio/Jeff Rowland: This pairing presented reel-to-reel once again. The Perspective speaker played the music. The room had a great reel-to-reel version of Fritz Reiner's 1960-61 Scheherazade RCA recording with the CSO. Friendly people were manning the room.

Fifth Floor:

526 - Vandersteen: Vandersteen had its floor standers in a smaller room this year. I don't recall if they were the Treo or Quatro models. Good track selection and reasonable volume levels allowed the large speakers to meld well with a regular-sized room.

536-538 - Audioconsultants: Chicagoans and Midwesterners will welcome the long-awaited debut/"spring seminar" of this retailer at Axpona. A Chicago-based event now feels more complete with this exhibitor on hand. Their products sounded great, too.

Sixth Floor:

614 - Canton/Esoteric: Canton is a strangely underground brand in the US, though not in Europe. The debut of Canton's References series, albeit in a tucked away kind of low-keyed room, was another welcome addition to Axpona. The Esoteric gentleman was one of the few exhibitors doing what seemed to be a CD-exclusive presentation. He had a great presentation, and it was nice to see some sliver discs spinning.

626 - Raidho/Next Level Hi Fi: This local retailer had an interesting presentation from a manufacturer's representative. They played some incredibly large-sounding, but diminutive, Raidho stand-mounters. This room was packed to overflowing yesterday. Expect a wait to get in today, but don't miss this room.

642 - Magico: People are free to espouse divergent views. But for me, the Magico S3 Mk II speakers were the standout, "best in show" speakers. These speakers seem to improve each year; refinements and an ever more natural sound emanate from these material-science heavy transducers. The room is tucked-away near the stairwell at the end of the hallway. Don't miss this room.

Final Note: The show directory is kind of confusing this year. You may expect something in a room, only not to find it. Conversely, ancillary components are omitted in some cases. Peek into each room, there might be something that is not on the directory.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Please introduce yourself. Jana and I are both around, as is Michael Fremer, with me starting shortly on the 4th floor and working my way up from there. Jana and I together are trying to cover all the premieres, which number well over 60!

The same goes for other Stereophile readers. I've met a few of you so far, which has been really lovely. I'd love to meet more of you.

jason

low2midhifi's picture

Thanks for reading my comments. Unfortunately, weekend errands made Axpona 2017 a one-day affair for me. I'll look out for you guys next year. You and Jana enjoy the show and Chicago. Make sure you don't miss Todd's M-A Records table this year; he's his smiling self as always. See you in Schaumburg next year!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks for this. I've asked Todd to remember to get me files so I can consider reviewing one of his new albums for Stereophile. I once invited him to my house in East Oakland to do a demo for what was then the Bay Area Audiophile Society. I won't be covering the Marketplace, but I do hope for another opportunity to cover his work.

I sure hope we're both alive and kicking, so we can meet next year.

avanti1960's picture

i attended michael's turntable seminar and it was outstanding!
we'll have to see you next year as well.

donlin's picture

The discussion about audio in 2017 was one of the best I've listened to. it went beyond the usual course these seem to take. Especially appreciated Steve Guttenberg's response to the guy who asked about room treatment...."consider headphones". Couldn't agree more. After spending a long time in the ear gear expo, many of the speaker systems sounded sluggish and resonant. Harbeth was fantastic though as usual.

John Atkinson's picture
Michael Bishop emailed us to let us know that, regarding Lyn Stanley's "Moonlight Sessions" preview in the Von Schweikert/VAC room: "Yes, Bernie [Grundman] did a wonderful job in mastering the project but so did Al Schmitt and Steve Genewick who had recorded the tracks, and the mix was performed entirely by Yours Truly. Bernie barely had to touch the dials from what I was told. The quality of 'breathability' in the recording was entirely a product of the mix and my utilization of Five/Four's Reveal-SDM process."
es347's picture

I was in the room at the same time you were Jason in fact sitting right in front of you and heard no bass issues, in fact I was impressed with the tonality and tautness of the lower registers. I found the sound cohesive and the soundstage was huge...goosebump huge. Later in the day (Friday) we heard tracks from the TT, RtoR and the digital server...all equally impressive. The 11 Ultras are an incredible achievment IMO and the opinion of many others who visited the room..

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

that the sound was better in your row than in mine. When I can, and there's space, I ask exhibitors which is the best row to sit in. That was not possible in this case, given how crowded the ground floor room was.

As I trust is clear from my copy, I do not write reviews at audio shows; I write reports of my experience. Anyone who claims that listening to equipment in a hotel room makes one qualified to write a review is writing fiction.

I'm glad you had the opportunity to spend a long time in the room, that you enjoyed the sound, and that you were able to spot me sitting directly behind you. Are you in some way connected to the manufacturers or exhibitors?

es347's picture

..just another crazy in this nutty hobby

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The pursuit can be nutty, the goal as sensible as can be. Better sound for great music can be a life changer. I appreciate your input.

Mojo Audio's picture

Hi Jason,

I'm sorry if I confused or offended you in any way, but WyWires, MrSpeakers, and HiFiMan paid to be co-exhibitors in our room.

We were exhibiting the system you photographed with MrSpeakers Ether Flows and HiFiMan HE-1000v2 headphones both with WyWires new Platinum headphone cables.

I'm sure you can understand that it would not have been fair to the companies that paid to exhibit their headphones and cables with us to allow a professional reviewer such as yourself to audition or photograph our room with headphones and cables from another company.

You just happen to walk in at the exact same moment that we were attempting to politely usher out the only attendee all week end who insisted on listening to his personal headphones and upgraded headphone cable. I can see why you got caught up in his enthusiasm.

But you caught me a bit flat footed. Obviously my communication skills were lacking since I could not manage to convey to you that we had co-exhibitors for headphones and cables that wanted you to photograph their products as well as ours.

Hopefully at some future show you'll have a chance to audition our room under optimal conditions. We would be happy to give you a private quiet audition before or after show hours as we did with several other members of the press.

Benjamin Zwickel
Owner, Mojo Audio

Allen Fant's picture

Always good to see Steven Rochlin (Audio Pimp) on deck.

readargos's picture

I'm beginning to think we're on the cusp of a new renaissance in traditional hi-fi. Like the vinyl revival a few years ago, it is slowly building up steam. I attended a demo recently, in a public venue at no charge, that was put on by a dealer to showcase wares not widely available in the area. I was surprised by the attendance, as well as seeing many women and couples under-30 at the show, actively listening and making music requests. I'm not sure what is the driver of the trend, what is stimulating the interest, whether it's a spillover of the growing vinyl revival, the increasing cachet of higher-cost headphones, or some other factor, but something seems to be inspiring people to search out better sound and a listening experience that more closely approximates a live acoustic concert in the home. It may be that hi-fi will become cool, and aspirational, again. Steve G.'s mention of hi-fi products appearing for sale in non-tradtional places like department stores aligns with aspirational hi-fi and hi-fi as lifestyle products.

I feel we are also seeing a rise in the traditional audio dealer, those who are adapting and engaging the customers, providing solutions to needs and desires, and not the stereotypical snooty, aloof dealer who only caters to deep wallets and only deigns to commune with those who are already initiated members of the high-end audiophile fold. I think the proliferation of, and growing attendence at certain regional audio shows, at least in the U.S., underscores the trend.

Of course, the market is adapting by providing integrated solutions to consumer demand for quality, but assembling a component system need not be hit-and-miss if the traditional dealers can return to offering value as a service and cultivating repeat business and word-of-mouth business, rather than merely serving as product vendors.

It is still too early to tell, but one may hope.