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AXPONA 2017: Lee’s Best of Show

This year’s AXPONA was the second one I attended and I thought it was a very well produced event.  Many manufacturers were represented and attendance appeared very healthy.  And there is no shortage of good out-of-the-hotel dining experiences in Chicago.  I am looking forward to the next one.

Our colleague John Stancavage has griped about he absence of CDs and I must agree.  I may be a bit biased about this format since I have been collecting them since they came out in 1982.  DACs and CD players in general seem to just now be hitting their stride in terms of ease of use and sound quality.  And as a reviewer/collector, I do like to bring a CD to play.  I guess the convenience of an iPad-controlled collection of music files makes the demo session a lot easier.  Still, it would be nice to have a CD playback option.

There were a number of standout rooms at all price levels, so allow me to review a few highlights.

Best Sound: Cost No Object

Von Schweikert and VAC Reference.  These $318K loudspeakers (with the subwoofers) were in a challenging room but sounded amazing with very few problem areas.  The presence and dynamic range of these Ultra 11 speakers was just lifelike and natural to my ears.  Backed up by good sources like the Kronos turntable and a great tapedeck from J-Corder, the music sounded wonderful and the demos from Lynn Stanley were terrific.



Best Sound: Upper Range

Wilson Audio had an excellent show with some incredible bass from the Wilson Alexx and the D’Agostino doubled up mono-block amps, but what got my attention was the smoothness of the Wilson Yvette and the Doshi vacuum tube gear.  Nick Doshi was playing Yello’s “Call It Love” on a tape deck with his marvelous tape pres and the sound was dynamics, detailed, and musical.  The Yvettes produce voluminous, tight bass that is well integrated into the whole speaker.  Midrange was to-die-for.

Best Midrange System

Sonus Faber Venere S and McIntosh. Somewhat overlooked at the other side of Audio Video Interiors room given that the terrific Martin-Logan flagship Neolith speakers were on display, was this more modest Italian speaker that really matched up well with it’s in-family (both are owned by World of McIntosh) McIntosh Labs electronics consisting of the MC-2600 preamp and the MC-452 amplifier.  Natural sound and exceptional build quality throughout.

Best Affordable Audio

This is a total no-brainer decision: ELAC Adante monitors at $2,500 a pair with Audio Alchemy electronics. It’s easy to be a listener in a room where Andrew Jones is doing the demo as he always has some interesting choices.  But people would not stay as long as they did if the sound was not effortless.  These monitors are natural and have the bass output of a tower speakers.  Another great product from ELAC and I hope I have soon an opportunity to review a pair.

Best in Personal Audio

I’ve written quite a bit about the Sonoma M1 system but I still get chills thinking about the playback of Showbiz Kids on the Sonoma headphones.  Gus Skinas, David Kawakami, Dr. Demery and the cast at Warwick have created truly something special. Bringing along a studio tape deck ensured everyone got to hear what these amazing cans are capable of.

Most Ubiquitous Product at AXPONA

Some products are so good and so reliable, several manufacturers want to use them.  On this category, I am awarding a “Tie.”  1. VPI turntables and Nick Doshi‘s tape pre.  I think Mat said he was pushing upwards of 30 tables on live or static display at AXPONA.  These tables are a favorite of mine since I use a VPI Scoutmaster at home and am very familiar with the sound quality. It’s soon time for me to re-up with VPI and I enjoyed listening to many systems with the Prime, Prime Signature and Avenger in action. Mat Weisfeld was running around like crazy setting up most of them-a big job!  2. Nick Doshi’s pre was in some very nice tape-based systems and it sounded sublime.  As we are seeing a mini tape renaissance, further evidenced by showings at the LAAS, Nick’s new tape pre was as beautiful to look at with the visible vacuum tubes as it was to listen to.  I’m trying real hard not to get sucked into another music format but Nick Doshi’s demos (I came back to his room twice) are intriguing as to what the possibilities of tape could be.  Well done VPI and Doshi Audio.  When your peers select your work over and over, it tells you how great your products truly are.

Best Demonstration

This was a tough choice, given the Alexx and Adante demos, but ultimately I have to go to Synergistic Research‘s Ted Denney’s demonstration of his UEF devices.  Ted had a Best of Show contending system of Magico speakers and Constellation electronics that offered a high resolving sound that made it quite easy to hear the improvements from his sometimes odd but highly effective products.  In particular, his new Black Boxes were quite noticeable in controlling the bass in the small room.  The demo begins with all black boxes in place and the sound is nice and coherent.  Each black box is roughly the size of a square 8″ by 8″ box with small speaker-like grills sitting on three tall spikes.  Ted removes each of three boxes one by one and it’s quite noticeable how the soundstage gets smaller and there is a more veiled sound.  Ted starts adding the three boxes in, one at a time.  The sound gets more coherent and open sounding.  By the end of the demo the sound is fully together and natural.

Best Music

Three-way tie.  1. Intervention Records‘ new Flying Burrito Brothers LP.  Shane Buettner and Kevin Gray simply don’t know how to do bad work.  2. Lynn Stanley‘s Moonlight Sessions: Volume One.  Sounded so natural on the Ultra 11s.  Of course, Bernie Grundman was involved on the mastering side and Lynn always has the best musicians and producers.  3. MA Recordings‘ Todd Garfinkle is now pressing LPs of his stellar recordings.  Sera Una Noche and several other titles are available so far and we analog fans are richer for it.


Best Paparazzi

Our own Eric Franklin Shook was roaming around with a mandate for “street photography”.  Eric got some great shots and it was good to spend time with him at the show.  Maybe selecting one of our own team is cheating a bit but he’s a fine addition to the PTA staff. You can see some of Eric’s stuff here, here and here.

This was an excellent show.  Many thanks to JD Events for putting it on and the many Chicago retailers and manufacturers that made it fun for consumers and industry alike.