David Blumenstein, Hifi Pig’s US correspondent, visited the recent Axpona (Audio Expo North America) 2017 show and writes about his experience here. Sadly his camera equipment failed in transit and so we’ve used library pictures to whet your appetite. 

HiFi shows by their nature are an animal unto themselves and AXPONA is no different. If one is not battling Chicago’s elements: weather, then it is room acoustics. Hotel rooms are simply not optimal surroundings for the reproduction of sound. Such being the case, I cannot see myself awarding any exhibitor an award for Best Sound, but rather bestow upon them the title of Best Room Tune.

It’s not just about the sound, or the gear, but rather the experience, much like it should be in one’s own listening environment. If you don’t like where you are, if you’re not comfortable in your surroundings, your perspective shall be directly effected. My plan was to start from the top floor on Friday and work my down to the lower lobby exhibits, visiting as many as humanly possible by end of show Saturday. Sunday would be the day to come back to the exhibitors’ rooms which struck a chord, evoked a positive response.

Lesson learned. There is music and then there is audiophile music and the latter, in most cases by no fault of the artist, can grow not only tedious but become so common as to be cliché. Am speaking of those artists and recording which we hear over and over and over at shows. My favorite band of all time is Steely Dan. When I lived in New York City, I would camp out at the Beacon Theater, and in my younger years followed them up and down the Eastern sea coast attending numerous shows. Now, it’s all I can do not to visibly bristle at the all too familiar sounds emanating from hotel rooms.

Systems at shows should be put to the test with music demonstrating full dynamic range and not just vocals, guitar strings and that which is labeled audiophile. I had to walk out of some rooms because if the rooms themselves weren’t dead acoustically the music wasn’t helping matters, showing no signs of life. Yes, I did bring some of my own music, and some of the exhibitors themselves were/are really open to hearing something new and different, but sadly a good number of attendees are not that open minded. And herein lies the rub. If designers and manufacturers are taking cues from the audiophile community, show attendees all over the world, it may very well be why we hear not see less innovation. This is not me simply splitting hairs, but rather highlighting that the relationship between advances in physical aesthetics and sound quality are not in linear proportion.

I found myself coming back to one room each and everyday. And it was in the Burwell Speakers/Rogers Electronics room that I would consistently find my AXPONA mojo. Contrary to popular, erroneous opinion the combination of horns and tubes can really rock the house. The music played at sometimes was politically incorrect, but at all times it was balls to the wall funk. Listening to Corduroy, The Brand New Heavies, Swoop Unit … put both the assembled gear and attendees to the test. Gordon of Burwell and Robert of Rogers made people feel at ease. Room 518 was in full stereo absent of any stereotypes and for this is accorded Hifi Pig’s highest AXPONA 2017 show honor.

While gear can be stratospheric in its pricing, and its value can be debated well after the show has moved on, I did notice a trend in more economical and integrated products and product lines. The Auralic Polaris in Room 415 left a lasting impression. It is a Chinese Swiss Army knife of sorts, sporting a 120 wpc amplifier, wireless capabilities, DSD 256/PCM 384 DAC, 2 analog inputs, MM phono stage and a drive bay for a SSD hard drive. The stock Polaris will cost $3800, fitted with a 1 TB SSD drive will bring it up to $4000. For those looking for a stylish minimalist solution without having to sacrifice functionality and quality, Auralic’s Polaris delivers. I had to revisit the room and sit down with their US National Sales Manager and one of their engineers to confirm that everything on their printed spec sheet was actually in the box.

 

It is true. You heard it here first :)  The world is experiencing a vinyl renaissance in the midst of all things digital. As record collections grow and technology progresses, there is more and more talk of archiving recordings accompanied by grousing about the inherent crackling, hisses and pops carried over in digital transfers. Grouse no more and say welcome to SweetVinyl’s SugarCube SC-2, a hi-res all-in-one vinyl digital recording and playback platform. I wasn’t sure what to think of this until I was given a real-time demonstration; hearing the actual vinyl playback, the noise that was removed and finally the end product: a clean, rich 24/192 FLAC file. The SC-2 outputs to PCM, WAV, AIFF, FLAC and ALAC as well. Listening in real-time made me appreciate this even more as I have attempted to archive my own records, to nowhere near the quality of the SugarCube SC-2. Anyone who is serious about their record collection and has recordings which are bound for no other format and out of print, should seriously consider this equipment.

 

Rooms are overrated. Who says they have to have four walls, or any walls for that matter? Art Powers of Madison Fielding has taken this to the extreme with his line of PlanterSpeakers. These need to be seen first and then heard. These are speakers designed for the outdoors and can be used as actual planters for flowers, plants, bushes, etc … They look amazing, in particular the slatted Piermont design, and they sound better than some traditional indoor speakers. Each speaker features a custom designed, soft breathable planter bag from SmartPot TM, if you were wondering how plants in soil can co-exist with speakers and safely drain. Now you know. I don’t have a backyard, patio, or balcony and yet I want a pair of Piermonts pictured directly below:

DACs to the right of me, DACs to the left of me, and in the midst of them all, I was eager to find ones that stood out from the crowd for any number of reasons:

soekris ENGINEERING from Denmark were showing their top of the line DAC 1541 retailing at USD 1190/EUR 1110. Now that alone would be enough to stop you in your tracks, but wait it is also a headphone amplifier, and it is DSD/PCM capable, AND it makes use of soekris’ own proprietary discrete R-2R DAC module Built upon the soekris R-2R Sign Magnitude core, the 1541 is decked out with discrete high performance power supplies and zero feedback output buffers. Now this truly is different. The company’s color scheme may take some getting used to as it is based on a rather specific shade of military green.

MYTEK straight outta Brooklyn via Poland with their new BROOKLYN DAC . HEADPHONE . PREAMPLIFIER. As I’ve been known to travel across continents with my gear I welcome the worldwide power supply. The new DAC is a reference USB model with MQA decoder, 384k PCM/DSD 256, headphone amplifier and phono analog preamplifier. Upon connecting it to a VPI turntable and Audioquest NightHawk headphones (more about those later) you can’t blame for me for forgetting that that MYTEK’s BROOKLYN is first and foremost a DAC.

EXOGAL’s aim is that their products be out of the galaxy, and their chosen company name serves as a constant reminder. The engineering and design team maintain a pedigree in the annals of audio. The COMET design uses separate DACs for each of the outputs allowing for control of not only the overall output volume, but also the balance and relative level to the main volume for each output in 0.5dB increments. The main outputs use a Texas Instruments PCM4104. This is a quad 24bit DAC that drives the main balanced and unbalanced outputs.The headphone output uses a Texas Instruments PCM5122. All of the digital signal processing is done in a custom designed FPGA.

exaSound e32 is a product I know all to well, having just reviewed it for Hifi Pig earlier this year, and being a proud owner of its predecessor the e22 for a number of years. The e32 improvements are in its implementation of the new ESS 9208S PRO chipset and its proprietary drivers. The ability to take advantage of both Core Audio and ASIO while connected to an Apple Mac Mini is a Godsend and a rarity. exaSound build and design quality are to be emulated.

 

Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2v2SE 10th Anniversary Limited Edition. A DAC celebrating 10 year anniversary is quite and achievement. Had Wyred 4 Sound sported a worldwide power supply when I was in the market for one 5 years ago, my personal DAC history would have been quite different.

As mentioned earlier, awarding best sound to a show room is fraught with peril, and more often than not it comes down to the speakers. Am not a fan of delineating gear hierarchically by class, much rather do it on my own terms, hence NF, non-fatiguing, speakers. I want to admire a speaker because it does not monopolize the conversation, it does not make itself heard above the music.

In no particular order:

Joseph Audio Perspective floor standers let me close my eyes, clear my head and just listen before the start of new show day. They simply let the music be, after a while you know they’re there but they don’t scream for your attention.

Acoustic Zen Crescendo floor standers, well balanced, well matched with Wyred 4 Sound, and up to the challenge of YELLO.

Salk Song3 floor standers make you scratch your head on a number of counts:

  1. they sound natural and full bodied
  2. they come in any number of customized finishes
  3. they cost less than $4,000

To look at them and to listen to them makes point #3 all the more remarkable

Poseidon floor standers are a pleasure to have in the room just on their own. The detail and craftsmanship of the woodwork is something to behold. Matched with ModWright electronics, VPI turntable, and Skogrand cables made it really hard to want to leave the lower lobby exhibit area.

Burwell & Son Homage: Mother of Burl floorstanding horn speakers. Burl walnut cabinet, Black burl walnut horn, Altec woofer, JBL LE-85, JBL 2445. I list this because now because once you see a photo or better yet experience them experience them in person, the list is meaningless. You, like I, will be transfixed.

Honorable Mentions: 

Goldmund Logos Anatta wireless speakers look and sound better than any speaker of this genre have a right so to do. Museum quality in appearance, this is NOT what the WLANA folks had in mind when they dreamed up WIFI.

Volya Bouquet and No Limits speakers are beyond eye-catching. The Bouquet cabinet hollowed out with no speaker components is a work of art in itself. The No Limits which I heard at the show are simply imposing, and it’s no lie the range of these speakers is damn near limitless.

Like snakes on a plane, cables were everywhere and there were two manufacturers which stood out in my mind:

WyWires cables employs a method of consultation prior to order placement. One can debate the subjective benefits of one cable over another, but being able to put in words, what characteristics one is looking for in a cable and have that cable designed and delivered is a new one on me. Speaking with Alex Sventitsky, WyWires CEO, I immediately grasped his level of commitment and

wondered, just how many other audio manufacturers could/would/should employ this concept

Skogrand cables are works of art. They are museum quality and they’re the cables you don’t want to hide behind racks of gear, or inside walls. Their new entry level Vivaldi line of interconnects ($750 US/2m length) and  speaker cables ($850 US/3m length) are a relative bargain in comparison to their upper echelon products. The silk sleeves are something else.

Naming your company is sorta kinda like naming your kid.   Schiit goes on to adopt the stratagem that the best defense is a great offense, so all their products are given names that not only sound tough but are hard to pronounce. It’s this irreverence which not only make them scarily popular abroad but at the show as well. It is a zero-sum approach, which means, much like Marmite, you either love them or hate them. There is no middle ground.

Schiit’s followers are both legion and loyal. Sidebar chats with those visiting the rooms was enlightening:

  • Fair number brought friends along to show them how it was possible for products to be made in the USA and still be relatively affordable.
  • Others envisioned the product line as a collection, and were telling me how they were looking to complete the set. I never heard that term being used in terms of hifi gear.
  • One in particular was so happy to see Schiit gear paired with as set of floor standing Salk speakers, made in the USA, priced under $4K that he was intent on mimicking the set up at home.

You know what they about making assumptions, and while I did not make an ass of myself, it was rather funny. For the longest time I connected the name NOLA with New Orleans, Louisiana and was in for a bit of a shock when I learned the company’s location and etymology. Based on Long Island, NY it all became when I spoke to the family behind the speakers. Given NOLA’s product naming, one could surmise that its patriarch is a boxing fan.

I know NOLA for its Boxer series, so their KO2 floor stander maintains that consistency. The number of midrange drivers, eight of them in all, sporting carbon fiber, and Kapton, not Krypton voice coils, offered up a sound that truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

Neat Acoustics is a brand I am all too familiar from living in the UK. While extremely popular over there I was surprised to see Neat’s Iota Alpha speakers at the show. That being said I’m seeing a lot more British product making its way across the pond recently.

The Brits are famous for the phrase punching above their weight, and with that they really do pack a punch. At a height of 17.6″ and width of 7.8″ they perform like speakers at least double their size.

Cambridge Audio, yet another British brand not so well known in the colonies, is one of those archetypal UK brands resuscitated by Julian Richer of Richer Sounds fame, a chain of moderately priced hifi shops dotting the British landscape.

Stunned doesn’t begin to describe how I was not only their presence but their sponsorship of the AXPONA media/press room at the show. The timing is indeed interesting, what with Brexit and all. With the success of the Richer Sounds shop in Great Britain, I wondered out loud in the presence of a Cambridge Audio representative if there were plans to open stores in the United States, but much like Francis Ewan Urquhart, Ian Richardson’s character in Michael Dobbs’ original House of Cards, she could not possibly comment.

Klaus Bunge of Odyssey, given his physical stature, can be imposing to some, but don’t let that diminish in anyway what a transplanted German based in Indianapolis, Indiana has been able to accomplish.  Upon hearing his gear, the room was set way too dark to see any of it, I would be prepared to pay 3 times what he’s charging for his products. As Klaus puts it on his literature ‘JUST A FRICKIN’ AWESOME BANG-FOR-THE-BUCK’ 

Seriously folks, at relatively budget prices, Klaus has made the seemingly impossible, possible. 

Mea Culpa. I am NOT a headphone person. Never have been, wasn’t planning on being one, and then… I found myself engrossed in a chat with Jessa Zapor of Audioquest’s Nighthawk design team. Jessa’s knowledge, passion and eloquence on the subject of the headphones’ particulars impressed me no end.

Yes, the headphones are sustainable, immersive, make use of 3D printing, but I was not prepared to be schooled on BioMimetics. The notion of biomimicry, in this case butterfly wings, never wold I have thought in my wildest. You owe it to yourselves to visit the Audioquest NightHawk website and read up on this.

Finally I made it over to Audioquest’s exhibit in the AXPONA Marketplace, tried them on and listened and listened and …. Some time later I made it back to Jessa and expressed not only my satisfaction with the headphones but my curiosity as to just how long headphone cables could be. My neighbors have yet to complain about my music, but with these, there’s even less chance of that.

Fern & Roby are not names which tripping fall off the tongue. Until the show, I had no idea they were in anyway related to the audio world. Visiting their website adds to the confusion. Apart from turntable design, Fern & Roby also design furniture and hardwares. The tables are truly well designed, as evidenced by the Montrose below.

The jury remains out. Time will tell. With so many new contenders entering the turntable fray, it is not just the look, feel and design but the reliability, dependability and customer service as well.

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