CHICAGO (PTA) — Despite the sometimes overwhelming size that shows like AXPONA 2019 portray, for me this exhibition still represents the largest collection of small businesses I have ever seen under one roof. Most of the exhibitors are indeed “mom-and-pop shops”. Most of these audio companies have only five to seven key employees, and often with a single figurehead wearing five of the most crucial hats within that company. Those being: the money, the designer, the face, the communicator, and the boss. Be these high-end wares and what they are, this is still a small-family-business expo. I say all of this, as a reminder. For as the shows grow bigger these facts will always remain about our industry, its people, and its key players. Act accordingly.
The Best of The Show
For one man to capture the entirety of a show the size of AXPONA 2019 is impossible. Even with a staff of five on hand this year, developing a consensus among the writers proves a challenge. That said, I bring to you one man’s perspective. Of the forty exhibit rooms and booths I covered, these were the standouts. Enjoy!
Most Intriguing Product: Vinnie Rossi Stiletto Loudspeaker
Vinnie Rossi debuts his new Stiletto 15 open-baffle speaker that does so well to find the absolute truth in the music, that each recording we demonstrated with carried along with it the recording engineer’s unique personality. Vinnie’s new Stiletto 15 loudspeaker gets out of the way, imparting nothing of itself in coloration. It delivers stunning levels of detail from top to bottom. For a first foray into loudspeakers, Vinnie certainly has come in like a seasoned professional. Triode Wire Labs and Stillpoints carry the extra level of refinement.
While in the room’s center seat, I did experiment with changing seat positions to help replicate near-field and mid-field listening. In both instances, I enjoyed what I heard and felt that bass loading was quite linear even with changing my fore and aft positions. Everything I’ve come to love about open-baffle designs was present in the new Stiletto — and this isn’t even the complete production ready package. More work is scheduled to refine the new speaker both sonically and aesthetically, which bodes well for anyone who was impressed like I was at the show.
Best Value Room: KLH, Rogers High Fidelity
Of the new KLH’s twelve in-room loudspeaker models in the product line-up, two were on active display at AXPONA. The new Kendall, a three-way tower loudspeaker — and the new Albany, a two-way monitor loudspeaker. As a nod to the KLH brand’s history, each is named after a street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the birthplace of KLH. Each was finished in a real-wood veneer as standard. Kevlar mid-bass and mid-range drivers abound, with anodized aluminum tweeters rounding out the top-end. Unheard of is a ten-year warranty on all of their passive loudspeakers. That is an insane amount of security for such a painless investment.
The Kendall tower loudspeaker garnered the most of my attention as it was able to flex all of it’s best attributes with such capable amplification. Bass was deep, solid, tight, and not overblown. Mid-range had a bloom and tone that definitely exceeded the thirteen-hundred dollar asking price. Top-end was a little hot, but that’s to be expected as the loudspeaker line-up is not just geared for two-channel listening, but home theater as well. I could even see myself enacting the often forbidden use of tone controls to tame the top-end during more critical listening.
Best Debut Product: Magnepan LRS
On the surface, it might seem that the Magnepan LRS (Little Ribbon Speaker) is a direct replacement for the MMG. In one small sense, it is. In many larger senses, it is not. Where the MMG was a sample taken from the bottom of what Magneplanars can do. The new LRS is a sample taken from the top of what Magneplanars can do. What Magnepan has done with the new LRS is give anyone — anywhere — a chance to experience the true high-end sound of Magneplanar speakers, in-home on their own equipment.
The new Magnepan LRS sounds more like what you would expect to hear from a Magnepan model 3.7i or 20.7, or even 30.7 loudspeakers. The LRS did everything your audiophile mind can dream of: power, speed, transients, tones, immediacy, decay, detail, imaging, neutrality, refinement, dynamics. The only thing the new LRS didn’t do was tuck me in and kiss me goodnight. Everything I heard in the LRS was a more complete and telling appetizer of what the top-of-the-line Magnepan models have to offer.
Best Small Speaker System: Dynaudio Confidence 20 (The Audio Surgeon)
Many things came to realization about Dr. Collen’s room at the show. For one, the system seemed to use the short wall better than anyone else at the show. Again, this comes from system setup experience, of which Andy has plenty of. But secondly, it has to do with the Dynaudio Confidence 20, which was the star (piece of equipment) of my time spent in the Audio Surgeon room.
Along with the fact that Andy and I are both insane. Or maybe better yet, we speak the common language of the asylum. We both found the Dynaudio Confidence 20 to be that outstanding value, that even at the show produces the musical vernacular within the same scope and albeit “confidence” of many full-range speakers at the show, well into the $40K-60K price range. Only to those involuntarily committed to this hobby, would we begin to explore a near $13K reference level stand-mount monitor as a supreme bargain. But to us, that is exactly what the Dynaudio Confidence 20 is.
Best Large Speaker System: T+A Electroakustik, Lone Star Audio
The T+A Elektroakustik Solitaire CWT 100 40th Anniversary Editions, a line-array design loudspeaker with a design technology that T+A calls “cylinder wave transducer”, all underpinned with four eight-inch woofers on each cabinet. Four woofers are easier to count than all of the drivers on the front baffle of the speaker, but know they are many. Including the electrostatic tweeter.
The whole T+A Elektroakustik system, when coming together is magically very analog. Giving myself over to the system, I was seduced by the Solitaire loudspeaker’s gut rattling bass. Soundstage tall as it is wide. Drum speed and attack of snares are superior. Human voice would be characterized as slightly lean, with ribs showing. Detail and structure of vocals were offered up by the pound, with a little bit of the “chesty” flesh we associated with larger speakers not as much present. Some might even say, this was due to a lack of boominess in the mid-bass, which in the end would be a welcomed characteristic. So much of this speakers sound was down right perfect, even the slightest smudge on the lens became a personal nitpick, so disregard anything I have to say that might seem negative.
Best Headphone Experience: Weiss Engineering, The Voice That Is!
At AXPONA 2019, Daniel Weiss was showing two Roon-ready DAC models the DAC501 and DAC502. The differences are that the DAC502 is larger and includes a four-pin headphone output, but internally the two are the same. Each has a built in DSP chip, allowing the DACs to peform many DSP related tasks like equalization, room EQ, and finally headphone processing. The last of which I demoed — and boy was it was glorious.
Giving a listen to sample tracks on the smaller DAC501’s headphone output, each tracked issued a direct A-to-B comparison between different headphone processing algorithms. I was able to compare the industry standard for recorded music playback over headphones, versus what is possible with DSP headphone processing. The headphone processing takes everything I hate about headphone listening and fixes those problems. The processing added proper sound-staging where it was missing, and gave an overall more accurate rendition of what a live performance sounds like. Gone was the “inside my head” sensation that feels foreign to me. With different DSP profiles I was able to experience music in simulated venues. Each having their own size and reverberations. The Crossfeed processing is a must have. The simulated room acoustics was neat, and helped with certain types of music seem more real, especially classical. Do I need the room acoustics? That depends on the recording. The Crossfeed DSP is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in headphones.
Best Exhibitors: Zesto Audio, Marten, Merrill-Williams, Cardas
Some rooms do everything right. The lighting, the mood, the sound, the music selection, and the personalities. A perennial favourite of many — duly worthy of the acclaim — the team that is George and Carolyn Counnas of Zesto Audio are no strangers to the awards podium, so why not have them back for another round.
Zesto and the rest of the players were exhibiting one of the best examples of true high-fidelity at the show. Everything you would demand as necessary in a critical listening experience, had it’s box firmly checked off. The new Andros Deluxe Phonostage was exhibiting ultimate control of noise and detail, while in chorus with the Merrill-Williams table, Tri-Planar tonearm, and Benz Micro cartridge. The Marten loudspeakers really found the Goldilocks zone for my tastes. That zone between ultimate resolution and endless hours of fun. Everything was just right.
Best New Song: “I’m A Girl You Can Hold IRL” by ML Buch
This song is extremely hard to find. It may even be a prototype.