AXPONA 2016: Best Sound, Best Products, and Audiophile tribes in Beat City

“Beat city now, now… beat, beat… beat city…”


We all belong to, or identify with one whether we know it or not.

Some of us are very cognizant of our tribe, and let our freak flag fly. Others are more guarded about it, solitary even, not sure where they belong – or if they belong – to one.

But, if you’ve ever been out in the dark night of a social deep-freeze for long, tending a little audiophile fire to keep yourself warm, and suddenly look up from the small circle of light thrown by the glowing 300B tubes, and realize there are other faces huddled around in the darkness near you – friendly faces – it’s a revelation of sorts. At least it was for me.

Coming out of the darkness of audiophile isolation.

axponaI’m a journalist by trade, and have been for almost 20 years now. A fact that caught me off guard the other day when I realized how long I’ve been earning a living writing, photographing, and making videos of the peculiarities of life that inhabit daily newspapers. I had a passion for journalism when I’d started out, and passionate people attract like-minded individuals, and as a group of twenty-somethings we worked hard at bringing the news to the masses, and pouring beer down our necks with abandon. But I’m much older now, and while I still enjoy pouring beer (and Japanese whiskey) down my neck, I don’t have that same passion for news, or the type of journalism I’d been practicing, the way I used to. But, I’d found what I was still passionate about was music, and finding the means to reproduce music in a way that made my hair stand up on end, and my skin dimple with goosebumps. Hearing the music that broke me apart, and then put me back together again after a great listening session.

We’re all looking for something. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate at Millennium Park in Chicago.

This passion for music, and my ability to string words together in a way that doesn’t put a reader off, has led me to the pages at Part-Time Audiophile, and more to a long-winded point, Chicago for AXPONA this past April, where I came to grips with the idea that I had found a new tribe to run with, and I was having fun again. This was my first AXPONA show, and first time in Chicago, and I had an absolute blast; the city, the people, the sights, the restaurants, the bars – the show itself – it all added up to a trip I’ll never forget. Oh, and the incredible gear on hand at the Westin O’Hare, let’s talk about that.

The Ortofon A95 LOMC cartridge was an analog highlight, and this was my favorite gear photo I took from AXPONA.

There were some real sonic standouts at Chicago for me, and because we all hear differently, and there is no right way to hear or enjoy music, what I thought were the rooms that spoke to my bent of enjoying music, might not be yours. You dig?

I’ll touch on “Best Room,” “Best Sound,” and “Best Product,” but in a way that reflects what I thoroughly enjoyed the most, piqued my interest the most, and caused me further pause to question some lingering high-fidelity preconceptions I held.

Wei Chang of ENIGMAcoustics.

Best Sound

ENIGMAcoustics and Questyle

BestInShow2015v1The amplification wars that have been waging behind the scenes, as far as most consumers are concerned, spilled out into the halls of the O’Hare for me as I went from room to room, and heard Class-D, and Class-A battle for sonic supremacy, and more importantly for many manufacturers, market share. ENIGMAcoustics and Questyle Audio were paired up at AXPONA, and impressed the hell out of me with their handling of big, ballsy dynamic swings, thunderous taught bass, a huge breadth, and width to soundstaging, sweet high-frequency tone, and a jammy, organic midrange. All praise, and phrasing I usually reserve for analog rigs being fed by valves, or one other name on the Class-D scene: Devialet. And yet this room featured a digital audio player (DAP), connected to a transmitter feeding Class-D mono blocks 16/44 files via dedicated 5 Ghz wireless bandwidth.

The ENIGMAcoustics Sopranino Super Tweeter.

A far cry from the T’nT (turntables & tubes) I usually lean on for sonic bliss. Coincidentally (because of a review of the CTH-8550 integrated amplifier), I’d done a recent Q&A with darTZeel wunderkind Hervé Delétraz, and asked him about circuit topology, because I was feeling giddy about my Class(A) allegiance. So here’s a relevant excerpt from that Q&A:

RA: I’ve heard some tremendously musical solid-state amplifiers of late, in both Class-A, Class-A/B, and Class-D. What is your take on the current state of solid-state amplification now, and moving forward?

HD: “As I like to say, I think we may be able to design an amplifier where the sound would be independent from being Class-A, A/B, D, or even transistor or tube. The main reason these designs have particular sonic signatures depends more on the designers themselves than the operating class or technology used. I  said “the main reason”, since there are some basic differences you can’t escape. If I will have some time one day, I will try to build different classes of amps that sound the same… just half kidding!”

If you’ve got as many audio engineers working on Class-D amplification as I think there are right now, I don’t think Delétraz’s statement is far off. I think we may soon hear amplification where the sonic signature is independent of circuit topology.

Vincent Bélanger blowing minds aplenty with Audio Note UK

Best Room

Audio Note UK

BestInShow2015v1David Cope of Audio Note UK is not a man to trifle with, but once you know him, you realize he is as funny about hi-fi, and music as he is serious about it. David knows great music when he hears it, which is why the brilliant cellist Vincent Bélanger has been tirelessly playing alongside recordings of himself being played back through Audio Note UK gear at audio shows all around the world for the last year or so. Cope was showing off a lot of prototype kit in Chicago, including the new Cobra EL34-based integrated amplifier/DAC, the TT-3 turntable, and the AZ Two D loudspeakers, but as he always does, Bélanger stole the room with his performances. You really have to hear this live/playback performance to be able to fathom how deep this amp/DAC/speaker match-up plumbs the depths of mutli-note bass, the hyper-realism of the soundstaging, the utterly convincing tonality, and the fact that sometimes if you close your eyes, it actually sounds, and feels like three or four living, breathing cellists in the room at the same time. You get that fuuuck me vibe, and almost go on the nod. David is apparently closing this chapter in his professional career of demonstrating, and representing Audio Note UK this fall, and he will be sorely missed on the show circuit because of these outrageously brilliant rooms he’s been pulling off for years.

Best New Product(s)

I’m including two new products that debuted at AXPONA 2016 for my picks, the first is the Vinnie Rossi LIO  integrated amplifier, and the second is the Audio Note UK TT-3.

LIO with Directly-Heated Triode (DHT) line stage that is compatible with 2A3, 300B and SV811 triode valves (to name but a few).

BestInShow2015v1The LIO is a Class-A, ultracapacitor-powered, OTL (Output Transformer-Less) zero feedback pre-amp, with a Directly-Heated Triode (DHT) line stage, a MOSFET integrated-amplifier for power duties (as well as Class-A, zero-feedback JFET phono stage with  MC step-up transformers, and DSD/PCM 32-bit/384 DAC duties), to the tune of 25 w/pc into 8 Ohms, and runs a cool $10, 470 USD. Video on the new LIO HERE. Rossi’s modular approach to building amplifiers, and pre-amplifiers is one he has honed over several years of tireless, hands-on research & development, and it shows both in the design, construction, and the sound capabilities his gear possesses. This is an amplifier of truly emotional engagement, with a staggering array of performance versatility, which I think anyone who is serious about a single-box solution for true high-end audio should consider. Full stop.

Vinnie Rossi is all smiles, as he should be.

The Audio Note TT-3 is a product which AN UK Capo di tutt’i capi Peter Qvortrup has been working to bring to market for a number of years. It’s the culmination of much of the company’s considerable engineering prowess that graces their flagship TT-3 Reference, but at roughly 1/15th the price ($10,000 USD estimated price with Arm Three).

Audio Note UK TT-3 turntable, with Arm Three.

When I wrote about the TT-3 after first hearing it in Chicago, I said “One of the most instantly recognizable attributes of this new turntable was, in my opinion, its ability to produce perfect, and rock-solid pitch regardless of what was being played on it.” It is that trait, I believe, that will continue to separate AN UK ‘tables from a very competitive pack. The TT-3, the TT-2 DeLuxe, and the older Voyd-based models all share this same ‘massive torque for speed stability’ approach (which carries up the line to its ultimate conclusion in the TT-3 Reference). But, ultimately, it is the intense musicality the newest AN UK ‘table is capable of delivering on all types of music that make it a true standout in my opinion.

Honorable Mentions

Several rooms deserve Honorable Mention, but I’m going to finish up with two, the Lakeview Audio room that Kris Kosiba put together, and the Highwater Sound room put together as always, by Jeffrey Catalano. I can’t thank these two gentleman enough for their efforts at creating such engaging, synergistic, and above all musical environments.

The Miyabi Fuuga LOMC cartridge in the Lakeview Audio room.
The TW-Acustic SE turntable in the Highwater Sound room.

I had such an amazing time at AXPONA, I’d like to thank all the wonderful people who raised a glass with me over the weekend there, and helped open my eyes to this new tribe I feel I can now count myself part of. Cheers to ubër-talented scribe Brian Hunter from Audio Head, my publisher Scot Hull, Brannon Mason of Noble Audio, and Norbert Schmied from Mobile Fidelity.

Until next year Chi-town…

About Rafe Arnott 389 Articles
Editor of InnerFidelity and AudioStream


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