Jana's Day Two, Part One: In Pursuit of the Affordable at AXPONA

The first of two Auralic-sponsored systems I encountered featured an Auralic Polaris wireless streaming amplifier ($3800), Ryan R630 speakers ($5000/pair), and AudioQuest cables—the idea being to present a minimalist, all-in-one, hassle-free setup that still offers high value and high performance.

In the room next door, Auralic featured a system at a higher price point than the above, including the Auralic Altair wireless streaming DAC ($1900), an Auralic Taurus preamplifier (discontinued), Auralic Merak 400W monoblocks ($5000/pair), YG Acoustics Carmel 2 speakers ($24,300), and Kubala-Sosna cables. We listened to "Hey Now" by London Grammar and "Riverside" by Agnes Obel—both female vocal tracks. The bass extension on "Hey Now" really caught my attention, and, overall, the system really enhanced the cinematic feel of both tracks, leaving me feeling haunted. This room seemed busier than their all-in-one, minimalist room. But such is to be expected at a hi-fi show.

In the entryway to one of their rooms, Auralic had a static display of upcoming, second-generation versions of their Altair and Vega DACs. It was all a bit secretive, and I was told that not much information can be provided at this time. Both products are slated to premiere in May at the Munich show.

The High Fidelity Services system featured Verity Audio Finn speakers ($6995), an Audia Flight FL2 integrated amplifier functioning as a preamp ($5295), and an Audia Flight FLS4 power amplifier ($8995). The source was an AnalogueWorks TT Two turntable featuring an SME 309 tonearm ($5595) with an Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge ($2729), playing through an Audia Flight FL Phono phono preamp ($5995), with Vibex power cables and Signal Projects interconnects and speaker cables throughout. The Audia Flight FLS4 and AnalogueWorks TT Two were both debuting at Axpona.

The lighting in this room was perfect—the right mixture of dark and light, with a warm, welcoming sort of ambience. Saturday being Earth Day, I took notice from afar that the two palm tree plants in the corner looked quite healthy—something that can't be said for every room at the show. (Tsk tsk!) There was a good amount of seating (I really don't like when exhibitors have only 3 seats!), and they were kind enough to lay out a thick stack of price sheets.

I entered this room two separate times, hoping to listen to music and experience the system, but had no luck—which is a shame, because it looked beautiful. During my second visit, I managed to hear the end of an orchestral track and learn about the product premieres mentioned above—but my time with the gentleman manning the room kept getting cut short. Almost comically. I very much wanted to hear the system, so I waited a full non-music-playing fifteen minutes before I realized that I was running low on time and had to move on. How did the system sound? Dunno. Looked good, though.

After hours, when I described to industry friends this curious experience (which, to be clear, was not unique to this room or this show), they all asked variations on: "Well, did you walk in and boldly introduce yourself as Jana from Stereophile?" No. It was nearly impossible to get anyone's attention. But should I have had to? Should it matter who I am, what I do? A low-budget showgoer should be treated the same as a high-rolling potential customer, as a fellow exhibitor, as a fellow manufacturer, as a competitor, as a new audiophile, as the most WAF-y wife of all wives, as a writer from a new, unknown hi-fi site…and as Jana, a person who happens to also be a writer for Stereophile.

Let's be fair. Perhaps I caught them at a bad time. Twice. Which is possible. Perhaps music didn't play for fifteen minutes, not because of a system failure, but by choice. Which happens. Perhaps I wasn't bold enough. I definitely wasn't. But my point is: should it matter?

At RMAF 2016, I visited a poorly manned, poorly set up, poorly explained affordable-gear showroom that featured a system including (a then prototype of) the Audioengine HD3 loudspeakers ($399/pair). At the time, I wrote that I wasn't that impressed and that I wasn't so sure I'd recommend them to a friend.

I've changed my mind.

Upon listening to a production model of the HD3s at Axpona, I am quite pleased by the sound of these tiny little boxes. My perspective on affordability and what's available in the wireless category at the various price points has changed. For God's sake, they're $400 powered speakers with 2.75" Kevlar woofers, 0.75" silk-dome tweeters, and real wood veneers, designed for USB input and Bluetooth aptx connectivity. Let's be realistic. They're not going to blow you away, they're not going to compare to your affordable hi-fi or even your pro-audio monitors paired with audio interfaces. But they're not supposed to. They're in an entirely different category. And I can't think of a single other pair of speakers at this price point that sounds this good and has wireless compatibility.

I asked Audioengine's Gavin Fish about the receptiveness of audiophiles to Audioengine and the HD3s. His reply: "In the beginning, with Audioengine, the traditional audiophile audience had a hard time understanding who we were. But now these ten, twelve years later, we're a known factor. We're very well accepted amongst audiophiles."

Allen Fant's picture

I would have liked the Verity Audio/Audia Flight room- Jana.

MilesFerg's picture

I know you said the detail on Auralic's next generation DACs was hush-hush, but did they give any indication on whether they will be including MQA? I'm looking to upgrade streamer/DAC in the not so distant future, but am waiting for more MQA equipped gear to come out.