Man oh man, I knew it was going to be tough to pick out the Top Rooms at AXPONA 2023. It reminds me of one of those cooking competition shows on the Food Network where the judges, before picking the winner, have to mention how agonizing it was to choose and how close the competition really was. You say that because it’s the nice thing to say and you don’t want to humiliate a losing contestant, but in this case I’m genuinely fretting about the exquisite rooms that won’t make my Top Ten.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
I’ll say it once more–picking the top rooms at AXPONA is difficult because, on the average, this was one of the best-sounding high-end audio shows I’ve attended. This is cause for celebration, not another reason to wring my hands about stepping on toes. So if I don’t mention a particular room, chances are I didn’t even go inside because AXPONA 2023 was monstrously huge. Don’t be offended–see you next time.
But I’m forging ahead, listing my top rooms at AXPONA 2023, throwing caution into the gale force wind by not naming 50 high-end audio systems to this list. NOTE: I’m mentioning both the name of the exhibitors and the lone product (or products) that elevated the room into the stratosphere. In no particular order:
I’ll call this room first among equals. That’s because I felt like the new Børresen M3 loudspeakers ($280,000/pr USD) took me further down the road to sonic perfection than any other room at the show. The combination of utter clarity and unrestrained dynamics astonished me–these are perhaps the most confident transducers I’ve heard. I won’t say they’re the finest speakers ever made, because I have no idea, and also because Audio Group Denmark is already working on the Børresen M6 so I’ll probably need to change my tune once that happens. That’s the biggest reason for not calling something the “best.”
It helped that Audio Group Denmark also brought their finest from the Aavik and Ansuz marques. We’re talking the flagship Aavik P-880 class A power amplifier and the C-880 preamplifier, at $70,000 apiece, the flagship S-580 streamer and all sort of cables and power distribution from Ansuz’s Gold Signature series. This is Audio Group Denmark’s statement system right now, and it was extraordinary. Of course it’s one of the top rooms at AXPONA. It’s one of my top rooms for all time.
This system won Best of Show at FLAX 2023 in February, and they might have been just as impressive in Chicago if not more so. The Chocolate Chip Trip Champions were able to recreate a perfect and believable soundstage in the room whether they were placed up against the wall or brought far out into the room, which is something I haven’t heard often in my travels. Each time, drummer Danny Carey remained in place, in front of the listener, seemingly anchored to the deepest part of foundation of the building no matter where the speakers were placed. That impressed the heck out of me. I don’t know if I’ve heard that trick before.
This was also one of the top rooms at AXPONA for the simple reason that Val Cora always makes a valiant effort to play the best music for show attendees. There’s never a high-end audio show with an Acora room where I don’t discover something new and incredible, music-wise. You get a lot of points for that alone in the world of high-end audio.
This was a pared-down version of the one million dollar plus system VSA and VAC usually brings to one of the big rooms downstairs, because this was a system designed for a much smaller room. In addition, what made this VSA room sound as brilliant as ever was the addition of reel-to-reel as a source–in my opinion this source qualified the system as one of the top rooms at AXPONA 2023. That seemed to accentuate the astounding dynamic reach of this system.
I’ve discussed this with Damon Von Schweikert and Leif Swenson in the past, that there’s a perfect VSA speaker for every room and it’s not necessarily the model you want to buy to impress all your audio buddies. VSA will look at the listening room before a purchase is made, and then tell you which speaker is optimized for the space. I’ve noticed this as well, that smaller VSA/VAC systems in smaller rooms are usually just as impressive as the Big System/Big Room exhibits. That’s why this system, with the Ultra 7s, is easily one of the top rooms at AXPONA.
The Rethm room might have enjoyed the most favorable buzz as one of the top rooms at AXPONA 2023–at least a dozen people asked if I had been in there because they had been so surprised by the sheer beauty of Jacob George’s designs. Jacob earns extra credit for designing a relaxing and beautiful room to match his Rethm Maarga loudspeakers, and playing the type of music that propagated this feeling of wonder and serenity.
There’s a lot going on in the design of these speakers–isobaric woofers, a powered subwoofer and a full-range driver. That could be the recipe for sonic chaos, but these are lovely and charming and pure loudspeakers, especially when mated to Phasemation power amps, Audio Research amplification and an Aurender digital source. Yet the sound was simple, honest and remarkably lovable.
Why do I always include the Joseph Audio, Doshi Audio, Cardas Audio, J. Sikora and Aurender room in all my Best of Shows? Team Joseph Audio, as I now call them, earned their way onto my list of top rooms at AXPONA 2023 simply because they know what they are doing. Every show, great sound. They seem to conquer all obstacles and deliver the sound that I love, every single time.
At AXPONA 2023, however, more than one person suggested that this might have been their finest room ever. I concur. I’m not sure if it was just that Renaissance Schaumburg magic everyone seemed to unlock this year, or if it was just the fact that Jeff Joseph has been winning Best Sound of Show awards since the 1990s. But if you want to learn how to master an exhibit room inside a hotel, start spying on Team Joseph Audio.
I gave the Vinnie Rossi Brama integrated amplifier and the Qln Signature monitors a Best in Show award last year, and I haven’t heard the Brama since. I even reviewed the QLN Signature Monitors and declared them Product of the Year for 2022, an award that might have been once again shared with the Brama if I’d been able to review them as a set. But the logistics of equipment reviewing are often more complex than I predict. Still, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Brama lifted this system into the pantheon of best rooms at AXPONA.
The obvious difference, of course, is the lack of Qln speakers in this room. The Qln Prestige Threes were next door, in the Well Pleased Audio Vida room sounding fabulous as usual. Instead the Brama was paired with the Rockport Atria IIs for a sound that didn’t have as much warmth as those giant Swedish monitors, but offered a bit more detail. But the Brama has a pair of 300Bs hidden deep inside the chassis, and it’s impossible to go too far in the wrong sonic direction when those things are glowing. This was still a room for the ages.
This room easily qualifies as one of the top rooms at AXPONA 2023 because the sonics stood out from the rest of the show. I visited this room to hear the Ferrum Audio Wandla DAC since I have a review sample coming to me. Yes, it sounded amazing for less than $3K and I’m excited about taking a listen. However, my attention was drawn to the speakers in the room, the Marten Mingus Quintet IIIs. I’ve reviewed Marten before and I think they design truly wonderful speakers, but these Mingus Quintets had a sound that was bigger and more relaxed than anything else I heard in Chicago.
I know, a speaker that costs $75,000/pair better sound good. But transducers at this price level are as common as houseflies in August, so you still need to win me over with a sound that’s unique while still hewing to fidelity. These Martens possess that, and this is the speaker I’d want to hear again if I had to pick just one.
Here’s the reason why I love loudspeakers from Credo of Switzerland so much. Michael Kraske didn’t invent “the small speaker that sounds like a large speaker,” but he has mastered it at a level that’s rare–even today when everyone can seemingly accomplish this goal. Here I am at AXPONA 2023, listening to this very familiar system that is flanked by the giant Credo Cinema LTM array speakers, which cost $200,000/pair. I took notes, made my brilliant assessment of the sound, and instantly ranked it as one of the top rooms at AXPONA 2023.
Turns out, I was tricked. The smaller black towers in the photos next to the Cinemas–the $17K/pair Credo EV1202 Reference speakers–were actually playing. I totally suspected it when I first walked into the room, but I told myself no, these were the huge array speakers. I’ve heard them many times. I know this sound. I was highly impressed when I reviewed the tiny EV 350 Reference monitors last year, which cost less than $7K, for the same reason. They sound much bigger than they look. But this was even more impressive to my ears. I am humbled, yet happy, to have listened to this system and all its wonderful ingredients. But those EV1202s are just crazy good.
All roads seemed to lead me to this specific system, one of the top rooms at AXPONA 2023. The Harbeth 40.3s are one of my favorite loudspeaker designs of all time. Ideon Audio is some of the best digital gear I’ve reviewed. I’ve heard JMF in depth twice in the last year and both times considered it to be the best-sounding solid state amplification I’ve heard. Put it all together, and of course it sounded amazing.
I was also intrigued that this room was a partnership between two of my favorite distributors, Audio Skies and Fidelis. I bought a Pear Audio Blue Kid Howard turntable from Audio Skies. I’ll probably buy some Lab12 amplification from Fidelis before all is said and done. I know this sound, but sitting in this room it was even better than I expected. I wanted to spend more time in this room. I wanted to camp out in it. If that doesn’t qualify this system as one of the top rooms at AXPONA, I’ve lost my way.
This wasn’t one of the top rooms at AXPONA–the LampizatOr Horizon DAC, instead, was part of many of the best-sounding systems at the show. I’m not just pointing this out because I keep forgetting to mention the digital sources in the rooms I cover–I think that has to do with getting into products such as DACs and streamers and servers and ethernet switches very recently.
But look at all the rooms where the LampizatOr Horizon was used, including both the Acora Acoustics VRC-1 room and all the Von Schweikert rooms. I tend to dig systems that use the $49,000 Horizon DAC, but I don’t give the LampizatOr nearly enough credit. I aim to change that.
Best Sound of Show, AXPONA 2023
You might have already noticed the top room at AXPONA that I loved more than the others. It has to be the Audio Group Denmark room with the Børresen M3 loudspeakers. I tend to think of this hobby as a journey. You walk down this path, getting closer and closer to your destination–where you’ll ultimately find the hi-fi that will keep you deliriously happy for the rest of your life.
This system took me further down this path than I’ve ever been before. I witnessed a level of performance that I hadn’t encountered. I heard things–or the lack of things such as noise or distortion–that were new and exciting. Also, it’s downright generous for this company to circle back and create a new entry-level division, Axxess, that bring their unique engineering to a much wider audience. That, in my opinion, deserves a round of applause.
If you would like to hear even more coverage from AXPONA 2023, check out our recap report and highlights from our audiophile-oriented show The Occasional Podcast. You can stream the episode direct from the embed below, or from your favorite podcast platform including iTunes, Android, Google, Deezer, Spotify, iHeartRadio and more.
Also don’t forget to check out our collaboration to commemorate the event with our solid bronze record weight available only for a limited run. This 800 grams of solid bronze features the PTA roundel on the top with also acts as a 45 adapter. You can purchase direct from the PTA Approved Store here on the site.