AXPONA 2017: Putting eyeballs and eardrums on the latest gear

If high-end audio manufacturers harbor many serious concerns about the state of the industry, you wouldn’t know it from the long list of new products that went on display Friday at AXPONA in Chicago.

The annual, three-day Audio Expo North America kicked off with crowded elevators, congested hallways and more than 400 exhibitors seeking to catch the ears of the stereo-minded.

Indeed, after a hectic eight hours of AXPONA Day 1, I was exhausted, but also convinced there’s plenty of life left in this hobby.

Lou Hinkley of Daedalus Audio, a friendly guy who’s always eager to share his interesting ideas on speaker design, showed me a new model that’s a bit different than his existing line.

The Apollo ($14,250) is a full-range floorstander with a sensitivity of 96 decibels. The speaker sports a new 10-inch woofer Hinkley developed and has a cleverly shaped cabinet that minimizes 90-degree angles.

Hinkley previously had built 8-inch woofers, but said he’d been thinking about a bigger cone for a while.

“In the professional world, 10-inch speakers are popular with guitar players. They have a magic,” Hinkley told me.

The speakers were playing on some new ModWright Instruments models.

Owner Dan Wright’s new tube preamp is called the Ambrose One (price TBA). It is fully balanced in and out, and runs in Class A. The unit also features what is becoming a ModWright trademark on its upper-end gear: beautiful wood trim.

The same look is seen on ModWright’s new Ambrose A30 monoblocks. The EL34 tube-based units output 30 watts of Class A power and are single-ended.

Together, the Daedalus-ModWright combo demonstrated a lush, wide dynamic range and full, articulate bass on a cut from a vinyl copy of Steely Dan’s “Gaucho.”

Another company enhancing its line was Mark Levinson. The brand, part of Harman International, showed its No. 523 preamp ($15,000) and No. 526 preamp/DAC ($20,000). ML also teased a look at its first turntable, the No. 515 ($10,000 without cartridge, or $12,500 with an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze).

The turntable was developed jointly with VPIs Mat Weisfeld. Release date is said to be “soon” — possibly in several months, according to Victor Gazarek of Indianapolis, Indiana, dealer Audio Solutions. AS partnered with Levinson to bring the No. 515 to AXPONA.

Levinson also was showing its No. 519 media player ($20,000). It features a DAC, CD transport, streaming, network playback and a nifty circuit that seeks to improve the sound of MP3 files. I first saw this unit last year, and it’s been near the top of my lotto-winning list ever since.

Another new digital product — one that’s somewhat more affordable — was the Aurender A10 ($5,500), which I heard feeding Merrill Audio electronics in the latter company’s room. The unit is designed to serve as an all-in-one music server, streamer and preamp with an MQA-certified DAC. It has Aurender’s Conductor music-management system and 4TB of internal storage.

The Chicago show also made it clear that there still is audio innovation taking place all over the globe.

Hingham, Mass.-based importer High Fidelity Services was demoing a new stereo amplifier from Italy’s Audia Flight. The FLS4 ($8,995) outputs 200 watts per channel into 8 ohms and can generate 900 watts into 2 ohms.

The amp displayed clarity, good soundstaging and impressive dynamics on an audition of a soundboard recording of Suzanne Vega performing “Luka” at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

The computer-housed digital track was fed into an Audia Flight FL2 integrated amp — used as a preamp — and emerged from a pair of Verity Audio Finn speakers. The Finns ($6,995) also were making their North American debut.

In addition, High Fidelity Services displayed an enhanced version of the diminutive Iota Alpha from Teesdale, England-based Neat Acoustics. These cute little transducers have fascinated me since I saw — and heard — them at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

The Iota is just short of 18 inches tall, but is designed to be a floor-standing speaker. The cabinet is internally split into two chambers. The upper half is sealed and contains a 2-inch EMIT planar magnetic tweeter and a 4-inch mid/bass unit. In an unusual move, the front baffle is angled sharply for dispersion. The bottom chamber contains a downward-firing 5.25-inch woofer.

The improved Alpha includes special feet that widen its footprint and provide stability. The grill also has been improved.
The little Alphas threw a big image — one that seemed to have a particularly wide sweet spot — and there was an overall sense of ease that was addictive.

In addition to all the new gear at AXPONA, there were seminars running much of the day. I attended a talk by jazz singer Lyn Stanley, who described how she makes high-resolution recordings.

She brought a test pressing to the show of her soon-to-be-released album “The Moonlight Sessions Vol. 1.” Stanley worked with famed engineer Al Schmitt and mastering legend Bernie Grundman to create a state-of-the-art audiophile recording. Vinyl copies will be produced through the one-step process (see my previous story) for maximum fidelity.

“You are going to be blown away,” she told the crowd.

Check back for more AXPONA reports as the Part-Time Audiophile team ignores sleep and tries to avoid misadventures. We’ll be filing reports frequently over the coming days and weeks.

AXPONA coverage generously provided by NOBLE AUDIO.

About John Stancavage 196 Articles
Contributing Editor for Part-Time Audiophile