Jason's Discoveries at AXPONA's End

The most astounding and baffling system I encountered at AXPONA—I'm not sure which of those descriptors should come first—was in the Raidho/Aavik room, which used Ansuz cabling to join Danish-made Raidho Acoustics D-1.1 Black speakers ($23,000/pair) with sister-company Aavik Acoustics' C-300 control amplifier (preamp) with two phono stages ($42,000) and brand new M-300 300W class-A mono power amplifier ($48,000). At first, I was completely wowed by the sound. Over and over, I scribbled the word "marvelous" to describe the ear-opening ambience, spatiality, height and warmth on an unfamiliar track by Norwegian singer Mari Boine. (Thanks to Lars Christensen for always introducing me to new music.)

It did not take long before I realized that the effects I was hearing were totally artificial. Absolutely hypnotic, yes, but far too warm and sweet, and projected in hyper-Space-Age fashion. To test things out, I offered two of my own CDs. First, on Beverly Sills' transcendent performance of Richard Strauss' "Breit über mein haupt," I heard a significant amount of distortion that I know for certain is not on the recording. (My husband and I play this song a lot for guests to share our love of Sills' artistry.)

Switching gears entirely, I asked for a movement from Lou Harrison's pungent and percussive Violin Concerto. The spacey presentation and speed of attack were mesmerizing, but the sound was so sweet that Tim Fain's violin, which has far more body, weight, and undertones than the Raidho/Aavik/Ansuz system delivered, sounded nothing like itself. (I've assessed Fain's sound in my reference system using three different amps, and compared it to the sound of another, far sweeter toned violinist who recorded the same music. I even listened to it in the big Tidal-based system from The Voice That Is, where it sounded completely different than in this room.)

Where did this leave me? a) Wondering if some of the space-age presentation was due to the system's concave backdrop. (I did not ask if performed more than decorative functions.) b) So far out in an alternate sonic reality that it took me two rooms before I could fully adjust to more natural sound. I am not exaggerating.

If you've read the blog above, you can begin to imagine that I was having a hard time coming back down to Earth and settling into the sound in the Zesto Audio room. Certainly there was believable body to the sound, and a fair amount of speed. But when I listened to a bit of the LP version of the new Bach Trio recording from Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer—review of the hi-rez file version coming—I was puzzled by the balance. Ma's cello virtually overpowered the other instruments, which it does not do on either the Tidal stream (with and without MQA) or the hi-rez files that I've auditioned at home on both my reference and far more modest desktop systems. Some of the cello sounds were also a bit muddy. In all respects, the voice of Nat King Cole, which Carolyn and George Counnas play frequently for visitors, fared better.

Heard were some fairly new tube electronics from Zesto—their Andros Téssera phono stage ($12,000), Leto 1.5 preamp ($7500), and Eros 300 class-A monoblocks ($19,900/pair)—plus Marten Coltrane Tenor speakers ($80,000/pair), and Merrill Williams Audio Real 101.2 turntable ($7200) with two Tri-Planar U2 (classic 10") tonearms ($7200 each), Benz Micro Gullwing SLR MC cartridge ($3600), and, although I don't think it was playing, Ortofon Cadenza mono MC cartridge ($1280). Stillpoints provided the ESS42-26-5 rack ($10,000) and, under the amps, Ultra 6 feet ($899 each), and Cardas Audio the Clear Beyond cabling.

I'm not trying to mimic Yul Brynner here, but the sound in the Esoteric room is, to these ears, often a puzzlement. I know the equipment is excellent, but often, the sound is either too ringing and bright (the pairing with Cabasse loudspeakers comes to mind) or, in this case, with Canton Reference 3K speakers ($15,600/pair), too flat.

The room showcased the North American debut of three Esoteric Grandioso models: The Esoteric Grandioso K1 SACD/CD player / DAC ($27,000), G1 Master Clock ($22,000), and F1 integrated amplifier ($27,000). In a room treated by Auralex Acoustics, everything was wired by AudioQuest, with the Esoteric Grandioso components supported by Grand Prix Audio racks (which I have in my reference system). Whatever was playing first sounded mellow, smooth, and inviting, but a bit toned down on top. My Mason Bates San Francisco Symphony SACD exhibited impressive depth, but its combination of symphonic instruments and computer-generated sounds ultimately sounded too flat. There's a triangle in the movement I offered up—silly music, I admit, but really well recorded, by Jack Vad—which should have resonated in space, but was instead devoid of ring.

I regret that my time in the Daedalus Audio/ModWright Instruments/WyWires room was so short, and that I didn't cover the Lower Level Banks room that joined some of the same gear with Skogrand cables. But Dan Wright of ModWright urged me to blog their fifth-floor room instead—the Lower Level rooms in the Westin are hardly ideal for sound—and the first I could get there was close to closing time.

What greeted me were neutral timbres, a toned-down top, a rather flat sounding midrange that was over-dominant, and some serious bass resonance issues in one spectrum. Things sounded better on the lower level. Auditioned, briefly, were the new Daedalus Apollo 96dB sensitive floorstanding speakers ($14,250/pair introductory price), Daedalus DiD isolation devices ($160/each), and Did turntable platform ($390 and up) under a VPI Aries turntable w/JMW 12 arm ($10,000) with unidentified cartridge; ModWright's new Ambrose One class-A reference tube preamp ($TBD), new Ambrose A 30 EL-34 based monoblocks ($14,995/pair), PH 150 tube phono stage ($7900), tube modified Marantz SA8005 SACD ($2495 for the mod), and tube modified Oppo Sonica DAC/streamer ($2495 for the mod); and WyWires new MacMini hi-rez power cord ($299), plus other WyWires cabling, as well as a WyWires/Daedalus Power Broker AC distributor ($2495). Room treatment was GIK Acoustics Alpha Series.

OMG. 10 minutes to show's close. Head to Arturo Manzano's Axiss Audio room for the pairing of WireWorld cabling with a new Piega loudspeaker, only to discover that the room had closed early. No time for that new turntable on the next floor, which I'll bet Mikey covered for Analog Planet. On what floor was that guy who, as I was walking into another room on my list, yelled out that he had a premiere as well…?

Jason, your inner dialogue is sounding like one of those young, hormonal-crazed Valley Girls in a best-forgotten teenage flick. Thank God no one is listening.

Thus it went, when I spied "Conrad-Johnson Classic 62 SE" on my list. "Gosh, I haven't covered C-J equipment in awhile," said self to self in tones that had thankfully dropped several octaves. Off to room 526, where the Conrad-Johnson Classic Sixty-Two SE power amp ($5750, if I read the exhibitor's scribble correctly) and ET5 preamp ($10,000) mated with Vandersteen Trio floorstanding loudspeakers ($6900/pair) and 2Wq sub ($1650), Oppo Sonica DAC ($799), Auranas SRV music server player ($3000), and AudioQuest Niagara 5000 noise-dissipation system and Diamond Wind cabling. Alas, the sound felt abnormally distant, with some ringing on top. It may have been totally the product of stress, but the sound didn't come quite together for me. I'm sorry I couldn't spend more time with the folks in the room.

It was after 4pm. People were already scurrying back and forth in the hallway, wheeling and carrying boxes, searching for packing tape, and pushing elevator buttons with looks that mixed relief with panic. In my mind, there was only one thought: Jana, where are you? He who usually does no more than sip a bit of wine from his husband's glass, and who hasn't touched the stuff in days save for a quick taste from a plastic cup in the Transparent/Wilson room, needs an entire glass of wine all for himself. Jana, where are you? It's time to unwind and compare notes. This man needs you!

And so…on to the wrap.

Mike Houstina's picture

I heard the same out of this world recording that you heard and was blown away. The best. Now you tell me it is possibly a mirage. Noooooooo. I loved Modwright/Daedalus. Both rooms. If your blogging is done I would like to know why Salk speakers don't get more publicity? Their speakers really are special.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I have no absolute answer about Salk. The root of the lack of PR perhaps lies with the company itself, which may not have either a dedicated publicist nor a "grow bigger" marketing strategy. A company that enables you to follow your build online does not seem to be a big one, and may not wish to grow.

naperaudio's picture

First of all, GREAT SHOW COVERAGE! AXPONA is terrific but I don't know how you make it through 3 days. I love the music, rooms and gear but 5-6 hours is about it for me. The Magico S3 Mk 2 room really blew me away.

Secondly, I'm a Wine Consultant in Chicago (good job, right?!) so next year drop me a short reminder and I'll bring a nice bottle for you to unwind with after a long day of reviewing (guaranteed to be better than any glass at the bar!).

Keep up the great work!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you so much for your offer. Alas, give me more than a glass and a half, and things get a little stupid. Plus, I usually have to work and pack after the show. I think you and I will have to recruit some others to make sure all those grapes have not died in vain.

You can find my personal address through my website. Do write me. And thanks again. Short of a proposal of marriage (which would be wasted on this married man) or an offer to include me in your will, this is one of the sweetest things that has ever happened to me post show.


dalethorn's picture

((Group hug))

Anon2's picture

I got two pairs of Canton Ergo 32DCs stand-mounts in a deal-of-a-lifetime liquidation sale (below cost, as I found out later) about a decade and a half ago.

New Cantons have a bite at first; I found this in the room. Whereas you found them too laid back. Audio is all about perception in the end, I guess.

What I have found with my Cantons--which I would not give up for anything now--is that they need pairing with a more laid-back amplifier, and a long time to season. I use my Cantons with the discreet amplification of an Arcam FMJ A18 integrated amp. I enjoy the sound.

Some piano recordings have a bit of an upper midrange bite on my Cantons. However, having attended many piano recitals in Orchestra Hall Chicago, I found that such a bite can emanate from a Steinway, from the hands of world-renown pianists, in a decent floor seat, in the excellent but absolutely not best-in-class Orchestra Hall.

The upper midrange bite of Cantons is particularly evident on piano recordings from the Hyperion label. Some of this could also be the less-than-optimal placement into which I am constrained. Still, Cantons have great bass response, and a pretty natural, neutral sound overall with most recordings after a long break-in.

I bought some B&W 685s, thinking that they would surpass the Cantons. They did not. I kept the B&Ws for the bedroom; the Cantons remain as my main listening speakers.

People should look on eBay for used Canton Ergo 32DCs or 302s; there are probably steals to be had. These speakers were (with the exception of the Wilson Duette, or a limited edition Dynaudio) kind of the last-of-the-Mohicans for 8" woofers on a stand-mount speaker. 6.5" or, in the best case, 7" is pretty much the name of the game for mid-woofers on stand-mount speakers today.

Cantons also employ interesting material science for their driver spider frames. Canton uses polycarbonate, instead of steel or aluminum, for their driver spider frames. They also have this double-wave surround, even on the modestly-priced models.

It seems, though perhaps by my good luck, that the Arcam-Canton pairing has found merit from professionals, and favorable reviews in this publication, from your 2014 CES report.

Please read on. It would have been interesting to lug the 2017 Axpona Canton References to the Audioconsultants room to pair them up with the Arcam amplification that they had on hand.


Thanks for hitting the rooms that I recommended.

bierfeldt's picture

Maybe your experience at this show might finally lead Stereophile to review a pair of Raidho speakers. They are spectacular and it seems bizarre that you guys have opted against reviewing them when dealers and consumers love them.

They have a different sound profile but different isn't always bad and offering an expert review with comparisons to some common references like B&W, Kef, Wilson, Dynaudio, or Magico would be helpful.

Staxguy's picture

Great tweeter, and great finish on the Raidho cabinetry. Poor internal bracing and isolation. Almost world... but I have no ... class!

Likely will buy two sets. Can not decide which.

Staxguy's picture

What's this? Three slide projectures? What about one Avic and two Krell momentums? Terrible colour choice on the Raido vs wood but someone may have this on their kitchens and desire a match.

Forgive me for using projecture vs projector, but I just figured out how we criticize what we do.

Must be a great sounding but poor looking, imo, combination!

rhoering's picture

Hi Jason,

We appreciate your comments and the time you spent with us at the show.

For AXPONA 2018 we will do a better job with our setup and room prep. BTW our room will be 1515.

Best regards,

Ron Hoering