AXPONA 2014: Sweet Home Chicago

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Part-Time Audiophile

How hot was the gear at the 2014 Audio Expo of North America? So hot a fire alarm briefly cleared the four show floors of Chicago’s Westin O’Hare midway through day two [yes, that really happened, for the second year in a row. -- ed.].

OK, so I’m no David Letterman. I’m no John Atkinson or Art Dudley, either, but that didn’t stop me from trying stubbornly to audition as much equipment as humanly possible, take a few photos and generally strain to keep up with Part-Time Audiophile publisher Scot Hull, who was posting like mad from the show (and still is) and who also can eat a meal in about 12 seconds. I mean, this guy inhales food faster than my Jack Russell terrier, Oscar, when a squirrel is chattering outside. I understand, Scot; so many rigs, so little time ….

Overall, AXPONA 2014 was a blast. Three days of music, equipment and friends old and new. And, let’s face it, unless you live in one of about three cities in the U.S., this is the only way audio nutjobs like us are going to hear much of the cool stuff we read and dream about.

A few big names were conspicuously AWOL, but in general most of the major players – and some talented newcomers – were on hand. And rather than coming off as the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest warmed over, AXPONA’s organizers crafted an event that offered some unique features.

As a rookie foot soldier for Part-Time Audiophile, I did my best to approach each encampment stealthily, extract as much information as I could and then report back to headquarters. Here’s a recap of my mission:

Above it all

Quintessence Audio and Musical Surroundings made the biggest splash at the show by turning much of the 12th floor of the Westin into their own private penthouse and showroom. Four systems were on display, ranging from merely phenomenal to jaw-dropping.

Starting with the former was a rig featuring Magico S3 speakers ($22,600), driven by Pass Labs XA 100.5 monoblocks (16,500 a pair), a Pass Labs XP 30 line stage ($16,500) and an Aesthetix Romulus DAC and CD player ($7,000). Spinning vinyl was a Clearaudio Ovation turntable ($5,350), outfitted with the new AMG 9W2 tonearm ($3,500), AMG Teatro moving coal cartridge ($2,000, also new) and Musical Surroundings Nova II phono stage ($1,200).

The Magico S3s, the transducer of choice in a few other rooms, sounded terrific. Call me crazy, but if I had my choice of Magico models right now, this is the one I’d grab. The S3s had all the precise imaging and enormous soundstaging of Magico’s bigger – and much more expensive models – but with an added touch of warmth. Rock drums, especially, had an authoritative boom, while guitars were tactile without being harsh. Sometimes it takes decades of development for speaker companies to reach just the right mix of cabinet design, drivers, wiring, crossovers and tweaking to produce, well, magic. With the S3, Magico is living up to its name.

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Nearby, the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum loudspeakers ($85,000) were the center of a system driven by a rack of Simaudio products, including the 850P line stage ($28,000), 850M monoblocks ($42,000 a pair), 750D DAC and CD player ($13,000) and 810LP phono stage ($12,000). The turntable was another Clearaudio model, the Innovation Wood, with the company’s Universal 9-inch tonearm ($15,000) and Stradivari V2 moving coil cartridge ($3,750).

The Dynaudios offered their trademark blend of dynamics and resolution, and played quite loudly, without being aggressive. The Simaudio gear proved to be a great match, providing the best bass performance I’ve heard from these speakers as well as excellent vocal definition.

The third Quintessence/Musical Surroundings room featured the Focal Stella Utopia Em loudspeakers, fed by Aesthetix gear, including the Callisto Eclipse (where do they get these names?) preamp ($19,500), Atlas mono amplifiers ($16,000 a pair), the new Romulus Signature DAC/CD player ($10,000) and Eclipse phono stage ($15,500). The turntable was the drop-dead gorgeous Clearaudio Master Innovation Wood in piano black ($29,400), literally put on a pedestal by the Clearaudio Olympus stand, also in the same gleaming black ($13,400).

Every time I hear a Focal model this far up the line, I wonder why more high-end speakers don’t sound this way. Absolutely nothing is lacking. The Stella Utopias produce a palpable illusion of musical instruments playing in a room, with bass that’s both tight and deep, a realistic reproduction of both male and female voices and a treble that’s almost without peer. For anyone with the price of admission, this should be one of your short-list speakers.

Speaking of great speakers – and chunks of change – I didn’t have to walk far to see another of the world’s best. The fourth Quintessence/Musical Surroundings room was a dark, atmospheric den that had tiny accent lights illuminating the front panels of the rarely-seen Sonus Faber Aida loudspeakers ($120,000 a pair).

The Sonus Fabers were powered by a stellar rig made up of Audio Research electronics, including the Ref 5SE line stage ($13,000), DS450M power amps in a fancy vertical biamp configuration ($24,000 for two pairs), Ref CD9 DAC and CD player ($13,000) and 2SE phono stage (again, $13,000 – must be AR’s lucky number). Handling vinyl was the mighty AMG Vella 12 turntable with 12J2 tonearm ($16,500), outfitted with a Benz Micro Gullwing moving coil cartridge ($3,000).

The sound through the Sonus Faber Aidas was luscious — as creamy as a chocolate shake, but with detail in spades. How Sonus Faber accomplishes this feat is beyond me, But the result is definitely a very alluring sound that they have all to themselves right now.

After a long plane ride and hectic day running from room to room, I settled into a front seat and began to listen to a languid saxophone ballad being spun on the AMG. It actually sounded like a human’s breath being shaped by vibrating wood and curved brass. As I marveled at the horn’s tone through the Aidas, as well as the shimmering drums and rounded, moaning upright bass, I closed my eyes and could feel myself in a New York nightclub, circa 1950. My entire body relaxed, and my chin sunk into my chest. A minute or two later, my head jerked up as I realized I’d started to snore. I quickly glanced around, embarrassed, but everyone mercifully pretended not to notice. Really, in hindsight it was the highest compliment I could have paid. The Aidas took me to a place no other speaker did during the show.

It was hard to leave the Aidas, but I was on a mission, so forward I went.

Panels, panels everywhere

AXPONA turned out to be a pretty good showcase for the latest thinking in electrostatic speakers. The basic design, which uses an electrical charge to vibrate a sheet of plastic to make sound, has been around for more than 80 years and was popularized by Britain’s Peter Walker with the venerable Quad ESL.

In the decades since, many designers have attempted to improve on the idea, with varying levels of success. The payoff to electrostatic technology, when done right, is a midrange to die for, coupled with a very listenable overall sound. Challenges have included bass performance, dynamics and difficulty maintaining composure at high volume levels. Oh yeah, some models also are prone to throw off sparks, and not just when you’re playing a Jimi Hendrix album.

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SoundLab is one of the longer-running names in the electrostatic game, but it has been quite a while since I’ve seen its speakers in a traditional two-channel display at a show. Barrington, Ill.-based retailer Essential Audio remedied that by hauling in a pair of SoundLab’s finest, the aptly-named Majestic 845 ($35,840). These speakers are HUGE — 
94 inches tall and 39¾ inches wide, but only 8¼ inches deep. Believe it or not, there’s a 9-foot-tall model as well.

I test-drove the SoundLabs with one of my CDs of choice for AXPONA, my trusty remastered import copy of Roxy Music’s “Avalon.” The title track, which opens with a repeating percussion pattern, followed by bass, guitar and synthesizer, can in about 20 seconds allow me to check off three boxes on my evaluation sheet. The offhand entrance of Brian Ferry, in his most suave, half-sedated, lounge-crooner mode, checks off the fourth box.

Through the SoundLabs, Ferry sounded like he was right in front of me, tie undone, drink in hand. Phil Manzanera’s guitar and Andy Mackay’s horn were well-defined, but as the track intensified with the background singers coming in there was a touch of congestion. I suspect it was a room issue, since I’ve heard the SoundLabs perform better carefully set up at Essential owner Brian Walsh’s home/showroom.

Elsewhere, a designer with a famous name was carrying on the family tradition. David Janszen, son of electrostatic pioneer Arthur Janszen, was showing the flagship JansZen zA2.1 ($8,750) and the smaller zA1.1 ($4,495).

Both models demonstrate a much different approach than that taken by SoundLab. The zA2.1 is a compact floorstander only 38 inches high. David Janszen makes up for the small radiating surface of his electrostatic panel by flanking it with two cone woofers. The sound featured excellent pace and a solid bottom end, with female voices especially well rendered. The zA1.1’s were even more impressive for their size – just 17 inches tall. Indeed, switching back and forth showed the little brothers didn’t give up much at reasonable volume levels.

David JansZen let slip to me that he’s working on a larger model with multiple panels. It may not be out for a year or more, though. This is definitely a company to watch.

In the corner of the lower level of the Westin, another electrostatic company was turning heads. Tosca Audio was showing the Kingsound King III full-size panels ($14,995) and Princess II ($1,600) bookshelf model.

Boz Scaggs’ smoky, resonant voice sounded especially lifelike through the big Kings, while Diana Krall and her piano were seductive on the smaller Princess. Although the Kingsound models feature flat panels, they didn’t seem to suffer from the head-in-vice sweet spot bugaboo that sometimes can hamper these designs. And, just as amazing was the bass performance on the tiny Princess models. Rated down to 45 hertz, the Princess had no trouble producing the bouncing into to Krall’s “All or Nothing at All.” (For a report on the equally impressive Kingsound headphones, read Scot Hull’s post from the show.)

Finally, a couple of the coolest-looking rooms at AXPONA were outfitted by Audio Video Interiors of Chicago with Martin-Logan electrostatics. Visitors to its suites at the end of a long hallway were met by an attractive greeter and sent to a doorway adorned with hanging beads. Inside were glowing lava lamps, illuminating a crazy system that featured a McIntosh surround processor and five-channel amp driving five Martin-Logan Montis speakers ($10,000 a pair). No little center channel here.

Even the Audio Video folks couldn’t stop laughing maniacally at what they had created. “We wanted to do something totally insane,” one rep told me. Mission accomplished, guys. The sound? I was having way too much fun to take notes, but I remember it being generally crisp, if a little overcooked at the volume selected.

If that was the ultimate man-cave, next door Audio Video settled down and played it straight with the Martin-Logan CLX full-range electrostatics ($25,000), supported by twin M-L subwoofers. They were fed by bridged McIntosh 275 tube amps. The glow of those tubes was almost as mesmerizing as the lava lamps, and the sound – at least from the lower midrange to the lower treble – was intoxicating, The very bottom and high-end of this setup weren’t bad, either, with custom-made crossovers doing a fine job of integrating the panels with the subs.

On the way out, I even was offered a shot glass (empty, alas) as a souvenir by the comely greeter. Now, there’s a retailer that knows how to party!

All aglow

One growing trend in recent years has been the rebirth of tubes. At AXPONA, I would hazard a guess that glass filaments may have outnumbered transistors. It seemed like, especially for the young start-up guys, the glow was the way to go.

Take Nick Doshi. I first met this friendly engineer at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where he was showing a prototype of his Doshi Audio 3.0 monoblocks in the Paragon Sight and Sound room. I had never heard the Wilson Audio Alexia speakers sound so refined and seductive.

At AXPONA, Doshi was using the same amps – now available through Paragon at $26,999 – to drive Wilson Sasha Series IIs ($30,900), with the same result. Controlled by the Doshi 3.0 preamp ($15,995), the Sashas offered exceptional resolution, with almost unmatched solidity and space between the instruments. The monoblocks use a push-pull arrangement to produce 160 watts a side. Everything was tied together with Transparent Reference XL cable, one of my faves, which I’m sure added to the overall clarity and smoothness of the system.

Doshi stunned those of us lucky enough to walk in at the right time by playing “Never Going Back Again” from Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” via a Studer A80 RC Mark II reel-to-reek deck (a MasterCard piece – priceless) and a Doshi 3.0 tape stage ($16,995).

Lindsey Buckingham’s precise, finger-picked attack was so clearly rendered it was almost like you had your ear to the guitar’s soundhole. It also was fascinating to be able to track how carefully the singer modulated his voice from verse to chorus. It is a track I thought I’d heard to death, but through the Doshi-Wilson combo it was like I was listening to it for the first time. Apparently, Doshi did some work for a FM engineer, and got a dub of the master. Sweet! Hey Nick, can I send you couple of blank MFSL CD-Rs? And, can you send the 3.0s for review? Or, maybe, forever?

Also packing a wallop were the huge Octave Jubilee tube amps ($70,000), fed by a matching preamp ($38,000) in the Hanson Audio Video LLC room. Rated at 250 watts into 4 ohms, the monoblocks took complete control of the Magico S3s, producing a startlingly deep soundstage.

Reach out with your feelings

A room where the force was particularly strong was the basement hideout of high-end’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, Robert Lee of Acoustic Zen. No matter what troubles with electrical power, challenges with reflective surfaces or unending bass blasts from nearby Imperial forces, Lee consistently gets my vote for the best sound at these shows.

It’s not a Jedi mind trick, either. Lee just builds some of the best damn speakers in the world, period. I’m convinced that if he hyped his speakers as being made from genetically engineered wood, with driver cones crafted from the skin of the rare Australian marsh frog, all cryogenically treated under a full moon, he’d probably be hailed as a genius and could command $200,000 a pair for his flagship model. As it is, he just quietly crafts and exhibits a refreshingly limited line of innovative, well-engineered and attractively priced loudspeakers that all sound terrific.

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Lee uses conventional materials for his speaker cones and ribbon tweeter, but the secret to making them sound so good may be the application of underhung voice coils in his designs. It would take me too long to describe here, but just take my word that this concept diminishes distortion to almost negligible levels and helps produce some of the flattest frequency response plots in the business. That may sound like a lot of technobabble, but the upshot is a line of speakers that produce the clearest, most lifelike music you’re likely to hear in any planetary system. Lee humbly showed me pictures of Mike Garson’s house, where his strikingly beautiful Acoustic Zen speakers sit proudly next to a piano owned by the musician who played on many of David Bowie’s hits.

At the show, Lee was highlighting his middle-of-the-line Crescendo ($18,000). No matter what I threw at it — Roxy, Mark Knopfler, Cowboy Junkies, Johnny Johnson, chamber music – the Crescendos left my mouth agape. I want a pair, plain and simple. Lee also hinted he might display his statement Maestros ($30,000), at another show later this year, so perhaps I need to check on that second mortgage. But, nutty as it sounds, I think either pair is a bargain. Did I mention they are beautiful, too?

Lee’s designs were powered, as usual, by some great tube gear from Japan’s Triode Corp., including the new TRX-2 remote preamp ($5,000 with nifty four-band equalizer), TRX-M845 monoblocks ($22,500) and the TRV-CD4SE upsampling CD player ($2,400). The amps, in particular, are to die for. Importer Twin Audio Video’s Santy Oropel is a very patient man, and I listened so long in this room I’m surprised he didn’t present me with a bill.

Blow your horn

Another room producing good sound was put together by Sonist. This Idaho-based company makes some of the best bang-for-buck speakers out there, especially for single-ended tube fans, but tends to fly under the radar. The company is under new ownership since the passing of founder Randy Bankert, a truly nice man and committed audio enthusiast that I had the pleasure of having dinner with at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2012.

Jonny Wilson, who bought the company, has been busy tweaking the existing line of horn-accented speakers and developing new products. He’s upgraded the internal wiring in the floorstanding Concerto 3 ($2,395) and Concerto 4 ($5,895). These stunning speakers would embarrass much of the competition in their price range, with precise imaging, impressive detail and a keen sense of pace. Equally impressive was the debut of the first Wilson-developed model, the bookshelf Recital II (1,895), which, based on my show demo, would be among my top three choices for an office system or smaller room. More fun stuff is in the development stage, Wilson said.

For something completely different, I went for a listen in the Merrill Audio room where the company’s solid-state, class D (!) Veritas monoblocks ($12,000) were driving the massive Sadurni Acoustics Staccato speakers ($40,000). The Staccatos, painted bright red just in case you might not notice them otherwise, produced a sound so lifelike on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “The Sky Is Crying” that for a moment I considered taking out the credit card and testing my wife’s love. Now, that’s what the high-end is supposed to do!

Big versus small

Across the hall was another stalwart from the more-is-more camp, John Wolff of Classic Audio Loudspeakers. It took one of the biggest rooms of the show to hold his remake of the famous JBL Hartsfield and another monstrous speaker of his own design, this one with a huge Altec-inspired horn. Both were $36,500 each, plus chiropractor fees if you’re crazy enough to attempt to move them yourself. These speakers took me back to my high school rock-and-roll days like no others at AXPONA, with bass you felt as much as heard, unrestrained dynamics and a slightly forward midrange that nicely served male vocalists. Steely Dan’s “My Rival” sounded better than anywhere else I demoed it, with throbbing organ and wonderfully crunchy rhythm guitar from the overlooked Denny Dias.

Switching from the enormous to the ear-sized, I ended the show by sampling the latest in headphones. I was most impressed by a relative newcomer, ZMF. The company was debuting its ZMF x Vibro, a collaboration with Vibro Labs. The ‘phones feature closed, solid wood enclosures available, as ZMF co-owner Zach Mehrbach enthusiastically put it, “in any freakin’ color you want.” You want to see the grain? Pick your stain and varnish. Want to match your Blu Hera Metallic Lamborghini? ZMF can do that, too.

None of that would matter, of course, if they didn’t sound good. And they did sound good, great, in fact. ZMF has built these ‘phones around a Fostex T-50 orthodynamic driver, which is a square speaker that Mehrbach says offers a more delicate sound for comfortable extended listening. In an unusual tweak, he also offers a choice of various types of cable wire, including high-purity copper, silver-coated copper and military-grade pure silver. You can even specify braided or not, with the wire hand-twisted by the firm’s 49 percent owner, Mehrbach’s charming wife, Bevin.

I tried ZMFs with both versions of the copper wire (which also features neato mini XLR plugs to connect to the cans) and was captivated by the relaxed, yet detailed sound. Listening to an iPod-stored track of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” it was easy to follow each singer’s voice as they harmonized. The overdubbed guitar and bass has good dynamics as well, giving these headphones an addictive quality. The super-soft, premium leather cushions topped off what was a very impressive product. For $699 to $799 depending on finish and wire, the ZMF x Vibro headphones might have you neglecting your beloved floorstanders.

That’s just hitting the highlights of the gear I had time to see and the rooms from which I could still read my notes, scribbled in the dark, a few days later. For everyone I missed, I’ll try to stop in at the next show; that is, if Scot gives me the thumbs up.

AXPONA 2014

Best show sound: (Tie) Acoustic Zen/Triode Corp and Sonus Faber Aida/Audio Research.

“Wow” moment: Sadurni Acoustics Staccato horns playing “Guantanamara.”

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about” moment: Steely Dan in the room, lifesize, with Classic Audio Loudspeakers’ JBL Hartsfield remakes.

Legend sighting: (Aside from Michael Fremer, who was everywhere) Dan D’Agostino cuing up a track in the Paragon Audio room that featured his awesome, steampunk-channeling Master Audio Systems electronics.

Best hotel delivery: Giordano’s pizza. Hey, it’s Chicago, you gotta go deep-dish.

About the Author

johnstancavageJohn Stancavage first became fascinated with hi-fi at the age of five when his dad and a family friend built matching console stereos in the garage. He remembers asking what “bass” was, pronouncing the word like the fish, shortly before getting his hand slapped away from the gleaming, gold-plated control knob.

At age 12, he proudly received his first stereo system, an AM/FM/8-track “quadraphonic” unit made by a sewing machine company. This started him on a relentless upgrade path, leading to equipment by Technics, Yamaha, Marantz and, as an adult, his first separates from NAD and then Krell and Mark Levinson.

The hobby took hold to such an extent that he began visiting many out-of-state dealers and audio shows. Luckily, he has managed to remain married to his patient first wife, who supports his obsession up to the point where she has to leave the spa to pick him up from some four-hour demo during what is supposed to be vacation time.

His day job as a newspaper journalist has allowed him to interview many of his musical heroes, ranging from B.B. King to Yo La Tengo.

He is pretty sure of two things: Los Lobos is the best band in the world and it is impossible for any pair of speakers to be too large.

8 comments

  • Wow, what an impressive education about the diverse sound-making technologies, interweaved with sounds and images strung into lyrically, visual moments. John’s honesty, playing throughout, encourages an easy entrance into an exclusive world of power amps, monoblocks and channels, even though forbiddingly expensive and exotic. Enjoyed hearing John’s music, words, right to the very last silent period. A very well composed article, tapped in techn time!

  • This article was a lot of fun to read, even for someone who isn’t a savvy audiophile. Great job covering the event and mixing the right amount of details and humor! Very well-written!

  • Melissa Carlson

    Love this article!! So well-written I felt I was there and could even hear the music!

  • Great article. Fun for those of us who weren’t able to make it to the show to read all the details. Hope to see more from this new writer.

  • Whos is in the photo at the top? Bobby Broom?

    • John Stancavage

      Yes, good guess! Broom played a great set at AXPONA Saturday that kicked off shortly before the fire alarm. Unfazed, he and his trio kept smokin’ themselves. Broom has a special audiophile recording called “My Shining Hour” coming out in August on the International Phonograph label. JS

  • +1 on the ZMF x Vibro headphones. I walked away from the show with a pair and am absolutely loving them. Also +1 on the Los Lobos comment in your bio!

  • When are you getting to the Italian beef, Chicago dog, and deep dish pizza reviews?