AXPONA 2018: Lee’s Best of Show

I was really burned out from a long work week at nearby Northwestern University.  I was so looking forward to AXPONA as the medicine to my working man blues.  The only thing stopping me was insane traffic between Evanston and Schaumburg where the new hotel venue was. This was post-apocalyptic Atlanta traffic.  But finally we arrived and it was worth the hassle. AXPONA was really superb this year.  The Renaissance Center staff was friendly and the venue was beautiful.  Very spacious, it took getting used to but the second floor had lots of conversation pits and the food was generally good.  The weather was horrible, truly “Chiberia” as Scot Hull put it, but maybe that have drove more people to the show. AXPONA has always been a busy show but it felt extra special this weekend.  If you could not make it this year, I have some thoughts on the show highlights.

Best Sound Systems

  • Wilson Audio XLFs with D’Agostino Momentum amps. Ooh boy, this system sounded fantastic! Add in Peter McGrath’s recordings of great classical performances and magic! Nice job Paragon and Bill McKiegen for this reference room.
  • New on the U.S. scene but 14 years old in Germany was the Gobel Aeon system. A new square panel of Gobel invention was creating a purity of tone and outright clarity that was creating peace in my ears. Combined with the stellar CH Precision gear and Gobel cables and you have a recipe for success for Elliott Goldman, their new Florida distributor.  Congratulations Oliver and Elliott.
  • Wilson Audio Sasha 2s with Nick Doshi’s electronics continue to impress. Two nice additions were lobbed into the contender ring for AXPONA, a new $3,500 headphone amp and a $17,000 stereo amplifier.  The headphone amp is spectacular with the Focal Utopia cans but I was not prepared for the Sasha 2 dynamics in the room next door.  Nick’s stereo amp and the Wilsons were a match made in heaven for a rather large room.  Add in Nick’s rolling perfection Studer A810 and tape preamp and wowzers. I went to this room three times.
  • Rune Skov was in typically rare form in the Raidho room with the 4.1s. Driven by Chord Electronics and the incredible DAVE – BluSpec stack and magic rolls forth on digital.  But what got me going was a direct disc from an SME Model 10 into Chord’s $3K phono preamp which really looks like it should cost $8K.  Glenn Miller big band?  Hell yes!  Deep, wide soundstage and dynamics out the wip-wad. Bravo.
  • The Audio Company yet again teamed up with Von Schweikert and VAC.  By the way, are there nicer people than Keith Sequerra, Damon Von Schweikert and Kevin Hayes in audio?  You want dynamics from the Ultra 11s.  No problem.  Have a seat and enjoy the ride.  We played an old favorite (thanks Leif Swanson!), Royal Ballet from the new AP reissue on the Kronos table through a bevy of gorgeous VAC gear and it was magical.  I’ve never heard this classic Ansermet performance sound better than it.  A genuine achievement in sight and sound. Special thanks to Leif for his hospitality. A friendly room from friendly vendors and a friendly dealer in Marietta, Georgia.  I cannot think of a better representation of the South.
  • One of the coolest folks I met at the show was Quintessance dealer Dave Weintraub.  Every room they had offered up great sound but the new Audio Research eye candy Ref 160M monoblocks combined with a stunning dark metallic Alexia 2 from Wilson brought me back some five times! Garth Leerer was spinning some tremendous performances on analog and the dynamic cuts really demonstrated the astounding speed and explosiveness that the Alexias can bring.
  • Tidal Piano G2 – I finally got to spend some quality time with Doug White and learn some details on the Tidal manufacturing process. Doug has been making me jealous with his golf outing photos on facebook but what really made me jealous was a Porsche video of a trip he took when he went to Cologne, Germany to see the factory.  Doug showed videos of the manufacturing process and it was very, very impressive. The sound in Doug’s room this year (like most years) was also impressive.  Thanks Doug.
  • Sonus Faber Aida II and Audio Research Ref750. This was another terrific effort by Quintessance with the ginormous Ref 750, er space heaters, and an Italian beauty. Dynamics out the hoo-hah as Bob Levi might say and a beautiful liquid midrange.

Personality of the Week

  • Besflores Nievera: While waiting on the shuttle from the Wyndham Garden, Bes and Rob LoVerde (yes, the almost famous Mobile Fidelity engineer) asked me to join them and AVM guy Peder Beckman for a Filipino breakfast downtown at Uncle Mike’s, a true cultural experience downtown. Bes is loved by all and is present everywhere it seems. MusicDirect could not have a better ambassador. Keep on, keeping on Bes!

Best New Products

  • Gobel Aeon – I was very impressed with this new speaker which uses “bending wave” technology. It had a purity and ease that is uncommon. I will soon travel to Florida and get the “down low” on Elliot’s new venture. Stay tuned.
  • Benchmark’s HP4 headphone amplifier. Terrific amplification using THX 888 technology, but what’s new is a new direction for Benchmark LCD screen. The personal audio crowd is going to love this.
  • HiFiMan Sundara – an early version impressed me at RMAF but the new version is even better.
  • PS Audio Sprout 100 – the latest creation from Scott McGowan, this is a total remake of the original Sprout, now with even more functionality and the same stunning milled aluminum and wood top beauty. No doubt PS Audio has another hit on their hands.
  • PS Audio Stellar power regeneration unit. I was intrigued by this as it seems to bring the power conditioning of the bigger products down to a more affordable level.Could be just the thing for someone with lots of sources to power.
  • VPI Fatboy tonearm. Another revision from Mat Weisfeld, better known as Shyla’s dad, brings a stunning new counterweight design and a more sculpted design.  I cannot wait to have a turntable that I can try this on.  The Avenger sounded amazing in the Gershman room!
  • Vinnie Rossi Statement Mono Blocks – these sounded great on the Harbeth speakers.  I want to hear these again!

Best Paparazzi

  • Eric Shook gave me endless grief at the show but he was pretty funny about it. Between him and Scot calling fictional 7 am “team meetings”, I had to be on the lookout for pranks all weekend.

Best Tourists

  • The New York Wrecking Crew: John Atkinson, Herb Reichert, Jana Dagdagan, Steve Guttenberg, PR extraordinaire Adam Sohmer and the funny Michael Trei. I am proud to call these folks friends as they consistently break New York stereotypes by being kind, funny, and all-around great people to hang out with. Every time I see Steve and Michael, they have a funny observation about something.  I wish I could have spent more time with them.

Best Part-Time Audiophile Trend

  • Real-time show reports. It’s a lot more work but typing when you are “fresh” from the experience makes one recall more details than otherwise. More importantly, it gives our readers an instant connection to the show. The trick, of course, is to get it done BEFORE going out for drinks.

Best Male Facial Hair

  • This is a toss-up between PTA’s Rafe Arnott and PS Audio’s Scott McGowan. Movember arrived early.

Summing Up

For my money, this show and the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest are the cream of the crop for U.S. audio shows.  These regional shows continue to offer the best way to mingle with friends and survey a wide variety of the latest gear.  If you can plan in advance and lock in affordable airfare, I highly recommend a trip to Chicago or Denver or both.  It’s just a fun way to meet new people and hear great sound.  The new Chicago hotel is excellent and the show is very well run.  Many thanks to the AXPONA team for another spectacular show!