Axpona 2024 Show Coverage and Sound Impressions

The Axpona 2024 Show Coverage was another exciting event year for the Hi End Audio World!

I can’t believe I am saying this, but it has been another year in the audio world. When 2023 wrapped up, I felt like the year was just starting. I was still thinking about Axpona 2023 and my excellent time when I got the emails for this year’s event.

In everyday life, talking about audio probably gets annoying to the people around me who have no interest in the subject. Family and friends look at me in bewilderment, seeing how much of my time and money I spend on home music reproduction. But as soon as I walk into the doors of the Renaissance Schaumburg hotel, audio nerds surround me!

These people get it, and as soon as I enter the hotel doors, I feel it. I am no longer considered an odd duck for my obsession with sound. Rooms and hallways are full of people looking for the sound that speaks to them. This report will focus on the rooms offering new and exciting products and the rooms I felt offered the most realistic experience and value.

Before I get to the rooms and products that impressed me at the show, I would like to discuss something that seemed to be a theme this year. BASS. I am with many others out there that the bass quality of a system can make or break the experience. If the bass is tight, fast, and, most importantly, natural and complements the rest of the audio band, the experience can be transcendent. The realism is ruined if the bass is bloated, peaky, and out of place with the midrange and treble.

Unfortunately, many of the rooms this year suffered from out-of-shape bass. I do understand that the hotel room systems are set up in one night and are not a good representation of the best these products can do. But quite a few of these companies have been doing shows for years and should have had a game plan together for the best results.

Yet here I am, starting my report with a statement about bass quality in many rooms. I get it; it’s hard to travel with that much gear, move it into these rooms, and set it up as quickly as they need to. So, the brands set things up for more bass at the expense of bass quality or system balance. I think having less bass is better than lousy bass, but I am not selling speakers. I think there needs to be more care taken or at least an attempt by companies to improve the bass in these rooms! Now that I have said my piece, the show shall continue.

One of the brands that continues to blow me away every year is Stenheim. One of these systems was the flagship Reference Ultime Two SX($186,500) being driven by a stack of VTL gear, The TL 7.5 series III preamp($35,000), two sets of the MB185 Series III Monoblocks($27,000 pair), digital was being delivered via the dCS Apex DAC($32,800) and Rossini Master Clock($10,850). Analog came from the VPI Titan Direct($60,000) turntable, VTL TP 6.5 Series II($15,000) phono preamp, and all Nordost cabling in the room. The sound was big and realistic, delivering the passionate intent of the artists, which made me want to stay in the room longer.

Axpona 2024 Show Coverage

Stenheim Speakers were used in two other rooms that I visited as well. The Stenheim Alumine 3 SE($43,250.00) was being driven by an all Dartzeel system comprising a CTH-8550 MKII  ($41,800) integrated amplifier in preamp mode driving a NHB-108 Model 2 power amplifier($65,000). The LHC-208 streamer DAC provided digital($32,000). Kubala Sosna provided cabling for the system.

This system had a beautiful blend of detail, dynamics, smoothness, and all-day listenability. I did not want to leave this room! The second photo is another pair of the Stenheim Alumine 3 SE powered by the JMF Audio HQS 6002 power amplifier($42,000) with the PR 1.5 preamp($36,000). Digital came from the Ideon Absolute Epsilon DAC Meta($49,900), Ideon Audio Absolute Time Signature V($22,000), and Ideon Audio Absolute Stream Music Server($19,900). This system impressed me as well and showed that Steheim’s great speakers are adaptable to many different types of front-end gear. While I hate to pick a favorite, the Stenheim/Dartzeel system had me glued to my seat.

Axpona 2024 Show Coverage

Rolling things back to the more sanely priced products, MoFi and Andrew Jones have brought their A game with their new floorstanding speaker, the Sourcepoint 888 floorstanding-speakers-pair ($5,000).

These speakers were in several systems at the show, and each one proved that you don’t have to spend vehicle-sized prices to get great sound. The system above was Andrew Jones’s central system for demoing his new speakers. The setup consisted of the HiFI Rose RA180($6,9995) and the RS150B($4,995).

This system had a big bass that was both tight and controlled, letting Andrew juice these speakers. Anyone who says that Andrew Jones-designed speakers can’t jam hasn’t heard them when he controls the volume. Playing many demo tracks showcasing their ability, I was very impressed with these speakers.

Axpona 2024 Show Coverage

Another room where the MoFi Sourcepoint 888 was able to show more than its worth was the BAT room, with the BAT REX-300 power amplifier ($15,000) and VK-85 preamp($12,500). Vinyl playback was provided by the new MoFi Masterdeck Turntable($5,995). This system proved that the Sourcepoint 888 had scalability and allowed me to hear what the BAT gear provided to the speakers. The sound was smooth and musical and provided all the detail I could ask for. Imaging and sound staging were excellent, and the setup and room did not show the bass issues that plagued some of the other rooms.

Axpona 2024 Show Coverage

The Maco/ViaBlue room was quite an impressive setup. The room itself had a relaxed vibe to it. They had the Macaria open baffle speakers with the Granite baffles playing center-stage and looked good doing it. I love open baffle speakers if done right; these have many qualities I look for. There is a wide soundstage, excellent imaging, and a natural room-filling experience that reminds me more of real music being played than most other designs. The bass was strong and much better controlled than many of the rooms. It was one of two rooms with full-range driver speakers that impressed me.

Front-end equipment was a Trafomatic EOS+ amplifier($10,900) and Lara two chassis preamplifier($11,100). Digital music was being served by the Grimm Audio MU2 streamer($18,100) with the fabulous Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC($13,500). ViaBlue did cabling, and Tonnen Sound did sound treatment.

I was impressed with the sound from the Pass Labs XP-12 Preamp ($6,100) and XP-17 Phono Preamp($4,500) in the Refined Audio room. The fabulous First Watt SIT-4($5,000) handled power amplifier duties. With the TW Acustic Raven GT2 turntable($12,500) with the Schroeder Reference SQ Tonearm($9,975) and Keotsu Rosewood Signature cartridge(No Longer Made). This drove the Cube Audio Nenuphar Mini speakers($12,500) and speaker cables provided by Silversmith Fidelium ($995).

This was the second system with full-range drivers that impressed me. The system was musical sounding and natural. I don’t know if full-range drivers are improving or my tastes are changing, but these full-rangers impressed me this year. This was another room I could have just hung out in all day, enjoying all the analog goodness!

But this room had a surprise! Before I left, I was asked if I liked headphones. I replied yes and was guided to a closet-type room connected to the main room. In this room was an amplifier that looked both like something I had never seen.This made sense after I was told that Refined Audio and Nelson Pass were working on a high-end headphone amplifier based on or similar to the beast of a thousand J-Fets.

Axpona 2024 Show Coverage

I was so excited to see Nelson working on headphone amplifier designs that I was definitely in when asked if I wanted a listen. The sound was magic through a pair of Stax headphones, with a sense of scale and effortlessness that I loved. Refined said that if everything works out, a Nelson Pass-designed headphone amp should be on the market by the end of the year.

Axpona 2024 Show Coverage

The folks at GTT Audio are always great to see at the shows. Their room had the Vivid Audio Giya G1 Spirit($105,550) being driven by the Audionet Stern Preamp($48,950) and the Heisenberg Monoblock Amplifiers($105,000 pr). Digital was from the Grimm MU1 Streamer($12,500) and Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC($13,500). The cables were Kabala Sosna. This room impressed me with its sheer scale and effortlessness. Music just filled the room.

Axpona 2024 Show Coverage

For the last few years, I have mentioned the Bending Wave Audio room in every report for a good reason: the sound. This year’s system consists of the large Gobel Divine Noblesse Speakers ($250,000), which were driven by the Riviera APL01SE preamp($46,995) and AFM100SE Class A power amplifier($82,800). Digital was presented by the Wadax Atlantis Reference DAC($166,420) and Atlantis Reference Streamer($68,800). The cabling was also from Gobel.

Not only was this system very imposing in the room, but it also presented the music in a sublime effortlessness. Dynamics were not an issue for this system as it had it in spades. The imaging and soundstage were excellent for a hotel room, and the detail was superb.

Bringing things back under the clouds, I was walking through the hallway and heard a demo of a 27Hz tone being played. It was clean and loud! It was hard to believe when I walked in and saw these very diminutive floorstanding speakers. Morel is a speaker driver company in Israel that has been on the scene for years. They have made speaker drivers for OEMs and the DIY crowd but have recently decided to enter the home audio speaker space.

The speakers they presented were the Avyra 633 ($1,999); that is right, 2k for floor-standing speakers that in-room presented excellent bass capability. The speakers kept their composure while producing high SPLs as well. Being driven by the excellent Hegel H390($6,500), the system produced excellent imaging and soundstage for a show system and had a musical, smooth sound that kept me in the seat.

This is impressive for a system that costs less than some of the cables in the rooms mentioned above and gives me hope that Hi-Fi audio doesn’t just turn into a rich person’s sport! Many people at the show heard these and thought they could buy them and ride off into the sunset and be done! That’s quite the praise.

One of the most engaging sounds at the show was in the Devore Fidelity room. He had his O/Bronze speakers($30,000) driven by the new Devore Fidelity Komuro K300S power amplifier($20,000). The preamplifier in this room was one of my personal favorites, the Mola Mola Makua ($23,700), with its high-tech phono stage card that allows you to control tuning from a smartphone.

Vinyl playback was from the EMT 928 II turntable w 909 Hi tonearm and Pure Black MC for stereo($17,995). AudioQuest cables were used throughout the system. I will say this now: this system was probably the most musically rewarding at the show. John Devore is very knowledgeable about music, and his song choices show his dedication to music. This room was fun and a history lesson on music as he played some stuff I had never heard in its original pressing. Very impressive sound and vibe.

Axpona 2024 Show Coverage

The Wells Audio/TAD room was another great-sounding room. There were 3 TAD rooms at the show, and one showed its own branded electronics, but the Wells Audio room sounded the best to me. I think the smaller TAD Evolution Two($20,500) speakers worked better in the room sizes the systems were in. The Wells audio Cipher Level 2 DAC ($13,000), the Commander Level 1 preamp ($3,999), and the Innamorata II power amplifier($15,000). This system had the detail and control the TAD is known for and some of the better imaging and sound staging of the show. Oh, and the bass was tight and not overdone!

Axpona 2024 Show Coverage

Even though I thought the speakers were too much for the room, I had to show the gorgeous TAD Grand Evolution One speaker($65,000) being driven by the TAD C600 Preamp w/separate PSU($32,000), D1000TX SACD/DAC($21,000), and TAD M700S power amplifier($65,000 pair), cables were all TAD. Wolf Audio Systems Alpha 3SX Audio Server($9,500 – $13,000) provided the digital music. This system had great detail and was musical. The speakers were a tad too much for the room, as the bass seemed a little overdone. But in a larger room, this system would be sublime!

Dynaudio showed off their Confidence 60 ($50,000) in one of the large floor-level rooms, which was one of my wife’s favorite rooms. She is very sensitive to peaks and fatigue; this system had none. Octave Audio powered the Dynaudio’s with their new MRE 220 SE mono amplifiers($28,500) and HP 700 SE preamp($24,450 as configured). A Moon North 791 DAC/streamer($16,000) and Grimm Audio MU-1($12,500) handled the digital audio. The system had good dynamics and a fatigue-free all-day listenability, the hallmark of Dynaudio speakers. The fact that the bass was very tight and controlled and filled the huge room this system was in was impressive.

Dynaudio also showcased some of its new finish options, which, I have to say, were impressive and gave its speakers a much more upscale look.

The Sound Organisation set up a small-room system with the flagship Rega NAIA turntable ($16,995 with Aphelion 2 cartridge). The table was the star of the show and drew all the attention. It was gorgeous with its titanium tonearm and lightweight carbon fiber plinth. While I did not get to listen to the system, I was able to check out the table fully, and anyone looking for a table in this price class needs to check out the NAIA!

The Alta Audio/Infigo room was sounding great this year. The new flagship Aphrodite speaker($50,000) was driven by the Infigo Method 3 Mono Block amplifiers($55,000) and Method 7 preamp($20,000). Digital was delivered by the Infigo Method 4 DAC($35,000). The Turntable was the VPI Avenger Direct($36,000), a great-looking table, and the cartridge was the Van den Hul Frog Gold($3,620). All of the cables were in Infigo as well. The sound was very musical and provided very good realism.

The speakers, while large, seemed to handle being put in this small room much better than some of the other large speaker systems at the show. The Infigo amplifiers have always impressed me with their smart controlled sliding bias system, allowing for class-A operation at all but the loudest volumes.

While at the show, I happened to go into the Ear Gear space to check it out. I do not use headphones as my main music source, but sometimes headphones are the better choice, and I like to keep up with all things audio.

While at the Upscale Audio booth, I listened to a pair of Sennheiser HD 660S2($399.95) driven by the Pathos Aurium headphone amplifier($1,795). While these are not considered high-end headphones compared to some multi-thousand-dollar offerings today, the 660S2 sounded fabulous with the Pathos. One of the folks from Upscale told me this pairing was one of his favorites, and I can see why. It offered much of the detail and musical enjoyment of the big players at a more affordable price.

While the ZMF headphones booth was just too busy for decent photos while I was there, I have to give a shout-out to the staff, as they were very nice and answered all of my questions. They allowed me to listen to their Atrium headphones($2,499), and I was immediately impressed with the sound. It was a sublime mixture of smoothness and natural tone. The emotional connection to the music is what captivated me. And the amplifier being used was the affordable JDS Labs Element MKII($449). While this DAC/Amp is affordable, it offered great value as it drove the Atriums with ease and allowed me to hear what they could do.

On Sunday, right before I was leaving to head home, I looked into an office and noticed audio products in there that I did not know were at the show. One of the Audio Technica Reps told me that his listening appointment had not shown up, and if I wanted to, I could have a listened to their brand new flagship headphone amplifier, the HPA-KG NARU($108,000).

While I am not in the market for a headphone amp over 100k, I figured I should give it a go since you never know when you will get the chance again. The headphones were the companion AW-KG NARU($4,200), and they were beautiful in their build quality and design. They sounded great and had plenty of tight, clean, dynamic bass, and the midrange was to die for. It was something to remember for sure. But honestly, I think for me and my money, I would go for the ZMF Atriums and JDS Labs Element and call it a day!!

Another Great Year!

Axpona 2024 was another great year with some of the best audio gear in the world. I was impressed with many of the things I saw and heard, and while I could not mention everything without writing a whole book on the subject, I gave a highlight reel to the weekend experience.

WHERE the MUSIC BEAT meets the AUDIOPHILE ELITE !

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