AXPONA 2017: Rafe’s highlights, sounds, thoughts, and wrap-up

Australia’s Redgum RGi35ENR amplifier sets the bar high for solid state on a budget.

To say that AXPONA 2017 was anything but a success from the standpoint of exhibitors, attendees or the media covering the show in Chicago would be disingenuous. It was a well-oiled machine from start to finish, with a great vibe, an easy-to-navigate venue in the Westin O’Hare, and easy to set up, well-known rooms for those coming back doing the demos.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable show with exposure to some truly outstanding rooms whose sound was immaculately dialled-in, and played to the components’ strengths within a synergistic system. The key to great sound at AXPONA (as with all shows in my estimation), is creating/curating a sound system that features gear that plays sympathetically to each link in the signal chain.

Best sound on a budget:

Axis Voicebox S monitor. Big sound, small package.

One of the most outstanding examples of this approach in Chicago was the uniquely-designed, and supremely musical Redgum Audio RGi35ENR 65-watt integrated amplifier ($2,500 USD, $3,370 CAN) paired with Axis Voicebox S mini-monitors (also $2,500 USD, $3,370 CAN) being fed by a laptop through a Redgum prototype DAC8 ($800 USD, $1,100 CAN approximate MSRP) that Colleen Cardas Imports was exhibiting.

This was a real bang-for-the-buck system offering up plenty of detail, resolution, oomph, musicality, and true-to-life timbre. It was just downright enjoyable to listen to. A real no-frills system with the emphasis on ease of use, and the music, I’d love to hear this combo paired with a budget-friendly turntable such as an entry-level Pro-Ject or Rega that would have your digital, and analog bases covered proving you don’t need to break the bank to get great sound.

Most enjoyable room:

Jeffrey Catalano keeps the music playing. Superbly.

Now, I know that I’ve written about Jeffery Catalano from Highwater Sound a few times from various shows that I’ve covered the past few years (and this AXPONA), but I have to give him another mention here because not only is he a stalwart on the show scene, he always just nails his component choices to work together with a musical effortlessness that you’ve got to hear to truly appreciate the depth of the art he’s expressing through sound.

Hörning Hybrid loudspeakers.

As I wrote recently, this time in Chicago was no different, and I probably spent more time in Catalano’s room listening than any other. I’m not going into depth about the system, because I did that already here. But I will say that if you ever get a chance to attend a show where Catalano is presenting a system, put aside a good chunk of time to spend with him in his room. You will be better in your life for doing it.

AXPONA 2017 coverage proudly brought to you by Noble Audio.

Best new product:

Fern & Roby Tredegar turntable.

There’s always something new coming to market in the audiophile world, and the trade shows are usually where they get their first exposure to the high-fidelity press, and consumer public. Chicago saw a number of new products, and upgrades to existing gear, but the piece of kit that impacted me the most personally was the Fern & Roby Tredegar turntable.

Custom Soundsmith Magnolia cartridge on Tredegar ‘table.

This is a traditional record player in many senses, yet a radical departure in others. It looks like a normal ‘table, which is comforting since many newer designs take a more radical visual presentation based on their engineering approaches to gleaning signals from vinyl grooves. But on closer inspection one realizes the entire plinth is 70 pounds of cast iron, and the platter is a 35-pound machined cast bronze – hardly your father’s record player from an engineering standpoint, but visually all the cues are there for warm, fuzzy, analog thoughts. Fitted with a Schröder tonearm, and a custom Soundsmith cartridge, this was a revelatory analog experience. Read my initial impressions, and watch the video about the ‘table here.

Best Sound of the show, cost no object:

Tidal Audio Akira loudspeakers.

Doug White of The Voice That Is, and his Tidal Audio system at AXPONA left a big impression on everyone who spent time in his room, and heard the system he had carefully curated for Chicago. Featuring a full Tidal suite of electronics, cabling, and loudspeakers with a TW Acustic analog front end, this was the two-channel room to beat at the Westin O’Hare.

Blackness dominates.

I wrote about the sound, and did a video with White on the system here. While this room was north of $500,000 USD ($672,000 CAN) it showcased the capabilities of a manufacturer whose obsession with quality in design, materials, circuit concept, fit, finish, and musicality borders on the religious. I was certainly not alone in my appreciation for White’s room, with numerous audiophile press outlets heaping praise on this room’s emotional connection to the music.

It’s hard to believe that another AXPONA has come, and gone so quickly but the relentless march of audio trade shows continues unabated this year with my return from Munich this past Thursday only allowing me six days between travel for the next appointment on the show tour this year: The Los Angeles Audio Show from June 2~4. California, here I come.

–Rafe Arnott