The Axpona 2022 full show report is here — and covered by Doug Moore!
It feels like it has been a long time since I have been able to be around like-minded people. People also have this addiction to all things music and audio. It has been long enough that I started to think I was alone in this world. A world that others don’t understand. It amazes me what people spend on an exotic car, a boat, or a plane. Then they will look at us like we are crazy to spend 10k on speakers.
Well, we exist and there are a few times a year that all of us “crazy” audio people get together. Axpona just so happens to be one of the largest gatherings in North America for such people. My wife and I attended, and this is my journey through the event and a highlight reel of the products and rooms that impressed me most. It would be impossible to talk about every room without drawing it out into a novel, so I will hit on either the products or rooms that delivered sound worthy of mention or technology to advance this hobby.
I am going to start with the large cost no object rooms because these rooms represent what most people can’t fit in their house or their budget. They are truly dream systems that have super high price tags. But every time I see these systems it seems some of them are put together quite well and are most impressive! If you have the means and room, go ahead and look for a potential next piece of gear. If you don’t have the room or like most of us the budget, then just read away to see what these companies are capable of when the budget is no concern!
One of my favorite systems that had a combination of proper setup, sound quality, and technology was the Acora Acoustics room. This room had the SRC-2 loudspeakers which are US$37,000/pair featuring Scan-Speak Illuminator drivers in a handmade graphite enclosure. This speaker was probably the best I have ever heard with the Illuminator drivers. They had very good driver integration, no cabinet issues, and great imaging and sound staging within the limits of a non-treated room. The coolest thing about this room was the United Home Audio Superdeck reel to reel tape deck. I got to hear this in action and the results were nothing short of amazing!
The rest of the system included the VAC Statement phono preamp at US$80,000, the Statement Line Preamp at US$80,000, and 2 Statement 452 monoblocs at US$150,000 for the pair. The DAC being used was a Lampizator Horizon at US$49,000. This DAC was much bigger in person than it looks online like many of Lampi’s DACS are. The turntable being used was a TW-Acustic Black Night at US45,000. I got to hear this system with all the formats listed above and each one brought beautiful music to the table and nothing else.
Another great system at the show was the MBL room. This room had the fabulous MBL 101 MK II at US$84.500. These speakers employ radial emitters or “radialstrahlers” which allow this speaker to be as close to Omni-directional as any of today’s speakers, which help these speakers do their incredible disappearing act. The other components were the MBL 9011 Monoblocks at US$120,000/pair. MBL 6010D preamplifier US$30,000, 1611 F DAC at US$32,500 and CD transport US$31,500.
This system produced the best vocals at the show IMHO. They played Jose James Lovely Day from Blue Note which I have heard many times before but this time the vocals hung mid-air between the speakers producing some of the most convincing imaging and staging I have ever heard. The detail in the voices was also top-notch…
In my first day report, I had mentioned Klipsch’s new Jubilee US$35,000 speaker being shown. This system is powered by all Rotel Michii components. (to be reviewed shortly by Sound Advocate).
I had mentioned in my previous update that it was like being at a concert. This being true it had both the good and the bad with a concert setting. This system had effortless dynamics which Klipsch is known for, the overall sound balance was good but like a concert imaging and soundstage were almost nonexistent. They played songs from Tool’s 10,000 days album. I have heard this whole album many times over the years on many different systems and know what the album should sound like. Maynard’s vocals were not imaged correctly and the drums sounded like they were on the same plane as the rest of the instruments. A flat wall of sound. People that care more about room pressurization and dynamics might be quite happy here.
The GTT audio room was quite the treat. They featured the YG Acoustics Summit at US$25,000/pair. They are one of the entry-level options in the Peaks line from YG Acoustics. I know you will read this and say this is entry-level!! Well, to put it into perspective the Reference line goes from a 2-way small tower at over US$25,000 to their Sanja XV’s at over US$260,000. The Summit speakers in this room were powered by the Audionet Humboldt Integrated Amplifier US$58,750.
I have read about this amplifier but have never seen it in person and it is much larger in the flesh than what I imagined it would be. But at 460 watts into 2 at 4 ohms, it is not your normal integrated.
The Humboldt is beautifully built and sounded wonderful with the YG Summits. This room was a special treat because they had one of my favorite DACS in the system. The Mola Mola Tambaqui US$13,500. While this DAC is not cheap it also competes sonically with much higher priced units out there and it sounded wonderful in this system. Playing Finks Trouble’s What Your In, the YG Summits sounded dynamic and engaging. The soundstage was large and deep, the imaging spot on with good instrument separation and position.
The Magico/Constellation Audio room was also something special. They were displaying the Magico A5 US$25,000/pair which is the flagship of their A series. The Magico’s were driven by the Constellation Taurus power amplifier US$29,000 and Pictor Linestage US$24,500. Using an Aurender A20 US$15,000 streamer DAC. This system had the blackest background I heard at the show and showed me once again just how clean and musically accurate Constellation’s products are.
The Pass Labs room was a highlight of the show because of two reasons. They had the “Beast of 1,000 J-Fets” which is a custom-built amplifier from Nelson Pass which there are only 3 in existence. And the other special thing is that the Cube Audio Nenuphar BASiS Speakers US$26,900 were some of the best full-range driver speakers I have ever heard. The speakers had a full response with a good treble for a full-range driver. Of course, with no crossover except for the subwoofers built into the speakers, the music just flowed out of these speakers. Their imaging and sound staging was impressive. I got to talk to Kent English at length about Pass labs and all things audio which was an added treat.
In addition to the most “endearing” Harbeth XD LINE, (the C7-3eXd soon to be reviewed here at Sound Advocate) and Neat Loudspeakers, FIDELIS, was demonstrating the award winning companies that are MAKING THEIR USA DEBUT at AXPONA 2022! Lab12 Tube Electronics, Audio Analogue Solid State Electronics and Heretic Loudspeakers from Canada, courtesy of CEO Walter Swanborn.
Lab12 gear from Greece Made their Debut but a the surprise from Fidelis and the Lab12 room was revelatory because of a particular loudspeaker called Heretic.
Heretic Loudspeaker Company features two models, the A612 and the A614. Heretic, which is located in Montreal, has taken those basic Altec designs and updated them with a compression tweeter mounted inside a huge driver. The A612 (prices start at $6.500 pr USD) are quite heavy and can go down to 35 Hz, plus or minus 6 dB.
Borresen/Aavik Audio had two rooms that were notable for sound. The Borresen 02 Silver Supremes US$88,000 were one of their smaller towers and were in a smaller room being driven by Aavik electronics (review here forthcoming of their 250 integrated amplifier) The woofers being only 4.5 inches they had slam and went way lower in the bass than I was expecting them to.
Their woofers use a proprietary iron-free magnet system. The planar ribbon tweeter was detailed and dynamic as well. The only issue with this room was that the midrange was a little aggressive but it could have been the small room they were in. The imaging and soundstage were impressive for the room.
The other Boerresen room was on the bottom floor and had The Borresen 01 Silver Supreme loudspeakers for US$60,500. They were being driven by the Aavik C-580 Preamplifier for US$30,000, the P-580 amplifier for US$30,000, and the S-580 streamer for US$25,200. This system proved that small stand-mount speakers can have more than enough bass slam and depth for most people if built right. These speakers had excellent imaging and soundstage and showed what the Boerresen speakers can do if you give them the room to do it. I know a lot of you are saying that is a hell of a lot of pay for stand mount speakers but for apartment dwellers or people with limited space the Borresens give you a true reference sound at a smaller size.
Stenheim Audio had 3 rooms at the show. One of them I loved one I liked, and one that did not impress me. I will start with the one that did not impress me. In a very large room on the main floor, they had the Stenheim Reference Ultime Two for US$153,000. They were being driven by the VTL S-400 Reference stereo US$37,500/each, they were running in mono configuration, VTL TL7.5 Reference Series II Preamp US$30,000. The source was the Wadax Reference DAC US$145,000 and the streamer US$59,000. If you have never seen this DAC before it is quite the experience. This machine looks like something out of a spaceship!
While this system had its merits it was not working in the room as I had hoped. But the Wadax DAC Reference DAC was used in another system that I loved and will discuss in this report.
Moving on to the system I liked. They had the Stenheim Alumine 5 Speakers US$60,000/pair and Engstrom tube electronics. The system had a warm and inviting sound and detail. My favorite of the Stenheim loudspeakers was the Alumine 3 US$33,900 system.
This loudspeaker was driven by Nagra Classic Line electronics. Nagra Classic Amp US$18,500/each. Their Classic Preamp US$18,900, Classic DAC US$67,500. The complete system had a sound that to my ears was some of, if not the best at the show.
The Alumine 3’s just did everything — right-incorporating all pulp cone woofers, midrange, and a soft dome tweeter (I tend to like a well-designed paper cone driver), They had good tight detailed bass with no bloat. A midrange to die for that had all the detail and musical goodness with no edge or etch to the sound. The treble was inviting and detailed. The speakers did a disappearing act that few at the show did. They just gave me the musicians in the room where they were supposed to be. Very, very good indeed!
The Gobel Audio room was another one of the cost no object rooms that impressed me. Like the large Stenheim room, they used the very expensive and alien-looking Wadax DAC and streamer and all CH Precision electronics. This system sounded well balanced and had some of the better soundstage and imaging of the show. I do think a lot of this had to do with the depth of the room because the soundstage depth was deep! There were a few sound issues with the all-glass side wall but overall good showing.
WILSON and QUINTESSENCE
Wilson Audio always has a large showing at these shows and this one was no different. They had two rooms in this show. The Quintessence Audio room showcased the Large Wilson Audio Alexx V speakers for US$135,000/pair or US151,000 in the finish at the show. Amplification was provided by Audio Research 160M Mono amplifiers at US$34,000/pair and Reference 10 Line Stage at US$33,000, Reference 10 Phono at US$18,000. The Turntable was the Clearaudio Master Innovation Wood with their linear tonearm US$62,000 and the Goldfinger Statement Moving Coil Cartridge US$17,500. The digital source was provided by the new DCS Vivaldi Apex DAC/Cock/Upsampler system US$90,000. This DAC setup is using DCS’s brand new Ring DAC board.
This system just took over the room with effortless dynamics and power. The bass stayed tight and had slam. The midrange and treble were detailed but smooth and sound staging and imaging were great. This was my favorite of the two Wilson systems at the show and is the only one I thought sounded right to me.
While I was checking out the Klipsch room my wife Amy came into the room and said, “you have to see this”, she took me down the hall and I went into a large room and saw some of the larger more exotic speakers at the show. The Estelon Forza loudspeakers US$160,000/pair (The YB mk.2 will be reviewed by Sound Advocate soon) were large but beautiful looking speakers IMHO. Being driven by the brand new Krell KSA-i400 amplifier US$35,000 and Krell Illusion Preamplifier US$22,000. The digital source was an Innuos Statement Server US$15,000 and MSB Reference DAC US$50,000.
ESTELON and KRELL
The sound from this system had the quintessential Krell Slam in the bass. The KSA-i400 is a 160lb behemoth that will double its power into every impedance drop. The Estelon Forza’a had a gliding smoothness to them that seemed to allow endless listening pleasure. They were playing Dire Straits You and Your Friends at one point and the bass line just rocked the room! The guitars were detailed and showed every tonal detail. The treble was detailed but had a smoothness to it that was mesmerizing. The overall soundstage and imaging were very impressive for a room of this size and the quick setup these people had to do.
Wynn audio had a room that initially impressed with the Vimberg Mino speakers US$42,000/pair being driven by all Karan Acoustics electronics from Serbia. The digital front end was by Kalista Audio. The standout in the equipment for this room was the Entrec wooden grounding unit. Entrec is a Swedish company that has laid the groundwork for earth grounding being used in high-end audio. It took me a minute to figure out what it was and only knew once I went around the back of it and saw all the connections.
DOWN TO EARTH PRICING DEMONSTRATIONS
Now to bring things a little more down-to-earth and more realistic price-wise, I will be discussing the rooms with systems in price ranges that more of us audiophiles might be able to afford. I am going to cover systems that offered a sound that approached or sometimes sounded better than the big boys.
It is no secret that I have a love for open baffle speakers, if you give them enough room and set them up correctly, they can make some of the best music you will hear! I have owned them since 2015 and have loved every minute. They just seem to be able to get a fast and natural bass response that box speakers in the same price ranges just can’t give. I happen to own Spatial Audio speakers and they were at the show showcasing their new X4 open baffle speakers for US$7,500.
These speakers differ from the other X series speakers in that they are passive and do not have a subwoofer amplifier for their bass section. I talked at length with Clayton Shaw from Spatial Audio about this and he told me that the X4’a were more for the larger solid-state, or tube amplifier systems with the power to drive the whole speaker, while his X3, X5 speakers were more for people with flea watt or SET tube amplifiers so they can get their tube sound and have a powerful bass with a powered bass section.
The speakers were being driven by wonderful Linear Tube Audio (LTA) Z40+ tube integrated amplifier US$7650. They also had their ZOTL Ultralinear+ integrated amplifier on hand US$7650 but both days, I heard the Spatials, they were being driven by the Z40+.
For source duties, there was the fantastic Holo Audio May DAC for US$5598. This system had excellent soundstage, imaging and the music just flowed. The bass hit deep and had one of the most natural-sounding presentations of the show. If I were to ever change from my beloved Pass Labs amplifier, LTA amplifiers would be one brand I would look hard at. They just love the Spatial audio speakers. Priced with the Anti-Cables interconnects and speaker wires this whole system runs around US$20,000 and, in my opinion, can hang with most if not all the systems there if musical accuracy and real-life instrument presentation are your focus.
VOLTI AUDIO/BORDERPATROL/TRIODE WIRE LABS.
Another great room in the more down-to-earth domain was the Volti Audio/BorderPatrol/Triode Wire Labs room. Volti Audio usually makes speakers of much larger size and price like the Vittora. Greg Roberts From Volti displayed his most affordable effort to date with his Razz Speaker US$5,900/pair. BorderPatrol, Volti and Triode Wire Labs have a close relationship with each other as they seem to be a great match. In this system, there is a Border Patrol S20 EXD parallel single-ended 300B amplifier for US$19,000 and Border Patrol DAC SE-i USB for US$1,525 (Review forthcoming). The excellent Interconnects, USB cables, Ethernet cable and Power Cords are all from Triode Wire Labs. Details here www.triodewirelabs.com
The music source was from the Innuos ZenithMusicServer US$4,699 and Innuos PhoenixUSB Reclocker US$3,499.
I talked to Gary Dews from Border Patrol for quite a while on the first day of Axpona. Intrigued by all things DAC design I wanted to know more about the DAC SE-1 and its Phillips TDA1543 R2R DAC chip and how this chip managed to put out enough voltage in this DAC that there is no need for any buffer or output section! Stay tuned to The Sound Advocate as Howard has a review sample of this very DAC in his setup and will be writing a review in the next week!
The system sounded great and left a lasting impression on me. I have not heard Volti’s larger designs, but this speaker had all the dynamics and slam one would need in a room this size. The soundstage and imaging were great, music just flowed from this system.
AUDIO NOTE (UK)
Audio Note equipment and its legendary guru Peter Qvortrup have always intrigued me. They make everything from speakers, amps, preamps, cd players, and the wires to connect all of it and usually range in price up to $200,000! However, In their room at this year’s Axpona, Peter was featuring their musical Ambassador Vincent Belanger. He is a professional Cello player and takes his Cello to every show to compare his sound to the system. Unfortunately, I was not able to be in the room for his performance but what I did get was a very musical performance from the system.
The speakers were Audio Notes AN-E-D Hemp US$6,400, (watch for the AN/ED review next week!) their Integrated amplifier COBRA US$5450, and their CDT1 CD Transport/DAC US$4,950, TT Two Turntable US$4,280, Phonostage R Zero US$2,000, and IQ3 Phono Cartridge US$1,250. All cabling was Audio Note as well. Audio Note speakers always through me off because of their design.
The cabinet and drivers look simple enough, but they are purposefully designed for corner placement. And the AN-E-D’s sounded great placed there. The cabinets are also designed like a musical instrument in that cabinet vibrations are a key to their performance. Their Hemp cones seemed to be an upgrade from their basic AN-E speakers and gave the room the warm but dynamic presence Audio Note is known For. Now Vincent is not bashful and cranks the tunes when he needs to show what an Audio Note setup can do. It always surprises me how Audio Note’s speakers can image and soundstage the way they do being set up against the wall in the corner. This seems to go against any other speaker’s setup routine except for some of the large horn systems out there but it works. This room impressed!
While all these audio systems impressed me, I need to make mention some of the other vendors at the show that either impressed me with their product line or the science behind it.
Iconoclast is a company based in Seattle that is a high-end brand for Belden cable. Belden has been in the cable business for over a hundred years. They started their journey into the audio cable market with Blue Jeans Cables in 2002. Later, they wanted to bring some of Belden’s quality cables to the market because they thought they would be a good performance/price ratio for audiophiles. As good of a cable as they are, the Blue Jeans Cables are made to fit within a certain price category.
Engineer Galen Gareis, being a Belden engineer and audiophile, knew he could improve the performance and make a cable truly for the high-end market. His cables have faithful, reliable scientific principles behind them, and he has measurements that can back this up. (Although this will ultimately have no consequence on the resultant sound quality, ed.)
I have used Blue Jeans cables in the past and knew that they were built well and sounded good for their price, so I was intrigued when I saw they had a booth at the show. After talking to Galen and Product Specialist Jeff Mueller about the science of these cables I had them send me a pair of their top-of-the-line Iconoclast Silver Plater Tough Pitch Copper cables and a new product that they are coming out with to connect subwoofers which I am currently reviewing and will be releasing shortly!
Darlington Labs had a booth at the show as well. They specialize in phono preamplifiers. These products are small-scale and are priced between US189.00 and US$599.00. What impressed me with them is that the head of engineering Keith Richardson was eager to show me what made his products different from an already crowded segment of the phono preamp market.
His affordable products only use J-Fets in a zero-negative feedback design with no opamps in the signal path. Keith says that makes his designs perform well above their price while still being affordable. I will be contacting him for a review sample shortly but I do like their simple cabinet design, small form factor (because not every component needs to take up the whole rack!), their use of discrete J-Fets, and zero-negative feedback.
While I could go on eternally about all the things I saw at the show, I must stop at some point. My wife and I had a great time, met some wonderful people, and this show gives me hope that this hobby still has a large community. A community that will press on into the next great inventions that hopefully will take us to the next level in the pursuit of a live musical event in our homes. Happy listening!
WHERE the MUSIC BEAT meets the AUDIOPHILE ELITE !
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