AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: An Outsider Looks In

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by Josh Emmons

My tastes in music are discouragingly popular. I crave ABA structures, uplifting hooks, and transportive bridges. I am inspired by key changes. My first cassette tape was Different Light. My first CD? Cosmic Thing. All of which is to say, I’m not a big fan of jazz.

I mean, I’m not a philistine. I live in Chicago. I go to the Green Mill. And I am always, always amazed and awed by what transpires there. It is something that is almost wholly unlike what I think of as jazz. It’s warm. Inviting. Surprising. A living, breathing, enveloping, harmonious spectacle.

I don’t like jazz. But it turns out I love the experience of jazz.

I can easily sum up the thoughts of an outsider first walking the halls of AXPONA with a simple quote I’m sure we’ve all heard too often.

“You paid how much for a cable?”

To those of us not in the hi-fi world, the great lengths (and expense) the community goes to in pursuit of ever diminishing returns seem ridiculous on the face of it. After all, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the Bangles on my cold-war-era Realistic tape deck from RadioShack. And we’ve all heard the story about how a professor somewhere swapped coat hangers in for I-don’t-know-what and so it’s all just a little silly, yes?

Walking from room to room, I would occasionally justify what I was seeing with my own patronizing little placations. “We all value different things,” I’d say. “They clearly think it’s worth the price or they wouldn’t have paid it.” That kind of “cast the first stone” stuff that makes me feel superior for not judging people I’ve judged.

ANUK-0790Then I was sitting in the Audio Note room because a man named Charles King had brought a collection of reel-to-reel tapes to the show. He queued up a first-generation recording of the Chuck Israels Orchestra playing some small club somewhere, and I was back in the Green Mill.

It was so subtly mic’d, the tape so fresh, the system so well tuned… The performance simply came alive, sprung fully-formed from the speakers right there in the hotel room. Not just the horns or the bass but the clink of forks on dishes and glasses being tipped and the small “hmms” and “ahhs” of the crowd over the combined murmur of a hundred half-whispered dinnertime nothings.

This was’t jazz. It was the experience of jazz.

And all I could do is ask myself “Why?” over and over. Why had David Cope amassed and transported over $80k worth of gear to a hotel in Chicago? Why had he spent days adjusting it? Why had someone taken such care in preserving this performance? Why had Charlie King collected these tapes? Why, in heaven’s name, had he brought them with him here to the show?

And then I looked around the little hotel room at AXPONA and recognized for the first time something that always set the experience of the Green Mill apart from jazz, somehow, in my mind. I was sharing it.

Music is the most subversive form of sound.

When listening to most sound, our brain remains firmly in the driver’s seat. We might hear a shout and redirect our attention. Or a siren and change our direction. Or an argument and concede our opinion. But these are all well-reasoned responses. They’re all routed through our brains.

Music doesn’t talk to our brains. It talks to our glands. It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth; the minor fall, the major lift. And we shudder with the sudden flood of endorphins that pound our bloodstream without so much as a by-your-leave to our brains. Music is fundamentally magical-seductive-holy-seditious-terrifying. And it’s the audiophile that traffics in this good.

And of course we don’t need it to be “high fidelity” to be any of these things. How many children have been comforted by a roughly hummed lullaby? How many revolutions carried on a whistle and a drum?

But when we share music, we’re not just sharing a tune. We’re releasing emotion in viral form ready to infect the world. It can be jazz, or it can be the experience of jazz.

The experience of music, in my humble opinion, is the business that audiophiles are in. 

I’ll see you next year.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Grant Fidelity and PureAudioProject

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It’s not often that seeing a vendor at an audio show warms my heart, but seeing that Grant Fidelity is still kicking makes me incredibly happy. Watching Rachel Grant bounce her company back onto the industry map is one of the feel-good stories of the year.

Not that I’d be nice about it if her room sucked, mind you. Business is business. Fortunately, the room shared by Grant Fidelity and the PureAudioProject was about as far from sucking as it’s possible to get for under ten grand total.

Starting with the competent Yulong Sabre DA8 dsd-capable DAC ($1199) and 25 watt, Psvane TS845 integrated amplifier ($3550), the Grant Fidelity supplied electronics offered supple musicality and holographic midrange. The open-baffle, 92db sensitive, PureAduioPoject Trio15B ($3,500) opened that holography up well past the back wall of the room. This was a massive dose of audiophile trickery on the cheap, with an added dose of straight, no-chaser, not-audiophile-at-all musicality. It was definitely one of the best realized budget systems at the show.

I also got to look at, but not hear, the Trio10AMT ($3,999), a smaller speaker for those allergic to whizzer cones. If it can beat the sound of the Trio15 (not easy), it may be the go-to for a killer introduction to what a refined high-efficiency speaker can do.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Gingko, Wells, LampizatOr, Dana Cable

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I’ve been hanging out in Gingko Audio rooms at shows since about 2006, and I’ve heard at least umpteen-dozen of their show setups since then. I almost always dig them. I dug them back when they were fashioning cardboard tubes into Tubulus Speakers. I dug them when they were hooking accelerometers up to audio gadgets to sell vibration control gear. And I’ve seriously, seriously, dug them since they upped their game with the ClaraVu 7 Mk 3 speaker ($8,995 per pair).

This room? I’m going to say that this was their best yet.

Part of that was obviously the LampizatOr Big 7 DAC ($13,500) that fronted the system. Part of that was almost certainly the Wells Audio Innamorata Signature amplifier ($15,000) that powered the top half of the speakers. The folks at Gingko would tell me that a big part of it was the full loom of Dana Cable that tied everything together (just over $12,000, if memory serves).

But, really, it was all about how good Barbara Hendricks & the Magnus Lindgren Quartet sounded with “Trouble in Mind” from Barbara Sings the Blues. Barbara Hendricks isn’t all that young anymore, but her voice has aged into something close to an ideal huskiness for this album. There may have been a touch too much romantic breathiness in this system’s presentation, but that was hardly unwelcome. The real star, surprisingly, wasn’t the glorious presence that the system gave to Hendricks’ voice (I’m past being pleasantly surprised by the LampizatOr dacs), but the perfect scale, perfect timing, and superb control displayed with Mathias Algotsson’s piano. This was the kind of piano that I expect to hear from a big stat, not from a small column festooned with mismatched drivers.

This was, to my taste, a brilliantly matched and implemented system.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Classic Audio, Atma-Sphere, Purist Audio Design

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Scot Hull likes to accuse me of being too negative. I keep trying to tell him that I’m not negative, it’s just that people keep shoving half-empty glasses at me. He tells me that I should try to concentrate on what I like. I tell him that I really like complaining. That’s usually about when he hangs up the phone in disgust. You have to admit, though, that complaining can be a lot of fun. That’s one of the hidden joys of audio. Since everything is a compromise, you can always, by definition, find something to complain about. Sure, complaining isn’t much of a hobby, but, sometimes, it’s just about the only fun I get in a day.

Which is why I have it in for these guys. They make it almost impossible to complain.

Let’s ignore the Classic Audio T-1.5 speaker. We’ve all seen show reports with it, and, frankly, those of us who write show reports have all heard it. It’s lovable, it’s excellent, and it’s $73,000. Yes, I want a pair. Yes, so do you. We’re going to skip it.

Let’s move on to a much rarer treat, the Classic Audio Hartsfield Reproduction ($72,000). For starters, I think we can all agree that nothing should be allowed to look that good. Certainly nothing that looks that good should be loaded with enough field-coil drivers to peg the audiophile lustometer. Never, under any circumstances, should something that cool and lust-worthy ever — EVER! — be played for a guy who likes to complain.

If you’re going to break those rules, you most definitely shouldn’t power those speakers with a custom pair of Atma-Sphere Novacrons ($19,200) featuring a quad of 7241 tubes each and kicking out 100 watts per channel. “I’m not selling you the tubes, and I’m not going to warranty the tubes,” says Ralph Karsten. “If you want ’em, you’re on your own.” Definitely don’t front the system with a discontinued Stahl-Tek DAC and a loaded Atma-Sphere MP-1 (just over $20k with options). You probably don’t want to wire the whole thing together with close to $40k of Purist Audio Design cables, come to think of it. Whatever you do, don’t hand your tablet over to some complaining jackass who’s going to dig Basie’s “The Daly Jump” right out from under the seat cushions of your playlist, because the first thing that jackass is going to say is “these aren’t audiophile speakers.”

Because they’re not. They are in no way audiophile speakers. Are you looking for a razor-sharp soundstage? Go look somewhere else. Are you looking for a heightened sense of detail? Go look somewhere else. Look fast, though, because a couple of minutes listening to this system is enough to tell you that audiophile speakers are just plain wrong.

Soundstage? Who cares about that crap when a big band is, as far as you can tell, jumping up and down on your lungs from right over there? Heightened detail? Who cares about that when actual detail is so obviously sufficient. Dynamics? Take your puny, little, drivers and go play with your other toys. This kind of stuff will rewire you. You’ll need to have entirely new standards.

In fact, systems like this are exactly what complaining is meant for. You have to dig to find complaints. You’re not looking to talk about the system’s strengths, because that’s just going to take too long. You’re looking to put your finger on weaknesses just so you can figure out if it falls short. Not even “how.” If.

I think I’d enjoy listening to this system long enough to be able to really complain about it. That seems like a pretty good goal. I know for sure that I haven’t listened long enough to be anywhere close to reaching it.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Brokenpress Design+Fabrication

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Not everything at an audio show has to sound good. That makes sense. If we were honest with each other, we’d admit that this “it’s all about the music” line of bull we peddle each other is complete nonsense. It’s not all about the music. It’s just as much about enjoying our stuff. Listening to it, touching it, and, yes, looking at it are all important.

Meet Brokenpress Design+Fabrication, a Chicago house specializing in bespoke interpretations of Mid-Century Modern styles. Or, as I like to think of it, simple stuff that looks good.

For what it’s worth: this stuff looks really good.

Jennifer Bakija hung out with a bunch of Brokenpress’s MCM consoles and answered questions all weekend. The biggest question in front of her, “do you ship to Oregon,” had a great answer. “We’re just ready to start shipping nationwide,” she told me. “We wanted to make sure that we could pack this stuff well enough to survive.” According to the listings on the Etsy shop, it’s also priced to be a bargain in audiophile terms.

Hey, you need a place to put your stereo, right? It might as well look good.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Gibson Les Paul Reference Monitors

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by Josh Emmons

Here’s the thing, Gibson and I got off on the wrong foot.

I have many more fingers in the guitar world than the audio enthusiast one. And there is, perhaps, no guitar “look” more iconic than a Les Paul with maple flametop, cherry sunburst, and that signature off-white binding.

Releasing speakers with these exact distinctive features and the Les Paul name smacks of a scheme to make quick money off aging and nostalgic rockers. It has all the brand-authenticity of Pac-Man Cereal. When I see Gibson is showing off the Les Paul Reference Monitors at AXPONA, I don’t even want to visit the room. My mind’s already made up.

Two things convince me to change it. First, remembering Gibson’s purchase of KRK, maker of some of my favorite monitors of all time. Second, the steady stream of impressive buzz and word-of-mouth coming from the room.

So visit the room I did. And I’m glad, because, if you’ll forgive the guitar pun, I’ve changed my tune.

The Gibson Les Paul Reference Monitors come in three sizes and three finishes. The LP4 has a 4″ woofer, the LP6, a 6″, and the LP8, an 8″. The finishes are cherry, tobacco burst, and cherry burst, the three most popular finishes of the Les Paul guitar.

These speakers are very good, but they’re not magic. The LP4, with its tiny 4″ woofer, grows distinctly distorted when wrestling heavy bass. And even when not distorting, it starts to feel a little crowded when something even mildly rockin’ is played. I suspect they’re intended for computer use, and would likely perform dutifully for desktop listening.

The 6″ LP6 opens this right up, handling bass with ease and bringing some real clarity to the upper-mids. Near as I can tell, tweeters are identical across the line, but with the extra depth below them, the highs on the LP6 have room to shine.

Frankly, the LP6 is what I would consider entry-level for anyone who’s not just buying a Les-Paul-themed conversation starter for their desk. I half-suspect Gibson feels the same, and that the existence of the 4″ is a little contextual pricing strategy at work.

The LP8’s sound is gorgeous and wide open, taking full advantage of that large 8″ woofer to pack extra space into the sound. At louder volumes I really start to feel the physicality and power behind it. But for all its punch, it’s still a monitor. It’s expected to have balanced response and I would say it holds up its end of that deal with aplomb. It really is an exceptional 2-way. Detailed and clear mids and lows, and happy highs. I would hold it up against any bookshelfs present at AXPONA today.

Which is an interesting position for Gibson to be in. At $2,000 for the pair I’d say, in the high-end audio market, the LP8 is successfully competing with speakers twice its price. More so, when I consider that the extent of the front-end in the Gibson room is a Tascam DA-3000 playing through a channel switcher.

But in the world of studio monitors, that price is steep. The top-of-the-line 8″ KRK I spoke so highly of in the opening is $1,200/pair. And yet, it has a face only a mother could love. It’s not the sort of thing I’d want on display in my living room.

And so, unexpectedly, I come back to the signature maple-top burst Gibson has put forward as the face of its Les Paul monitors. It’s a classic in the guitar world for a reason; namely, it’s beautiful. If that beauty speaks to you, I really love these speakers. I think you’ll be quite happy with them.

If, on the other hand, you feel as one show-goer does, that “They look like something you’d get at HotTopic,” I might hold off. For all the beauty and craftsmanship on display, reducing the signature style of a Les Paul guitar down to the rounded-rectangle shape of a smartphone app is a little cloying. And there are better deals to be had if you’re going to cover with a paper bag, anyway.

For my part? I’m crossing my fingers that Gibson releases a line inspired by the SG.

Prices

  • Les Paul Reference Monitor LP4: $599/ea.
  • Les Paul Reference Monitor LP6: $799/ea.
  • Les Paul Reference Monitor LP8: $999/ea.

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AXPONA 2015: Audio Note UK

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I’ve started to worry that I’m becoming one of those guys who plays favorites with a brand.

It’s not about the ad money, because Audio Note sure as heck doesn’t advertise. It’s not about the comfortable rooms, because the company in question doesn’t exactly lay out the barcalounger and beer keg for visitors. It’s not even because I always enjoy the chance to shoot the breeze and trade music tips with David Cope. It’s really just because Audio Note, in show after show over the last three years, has been consistently, dependably, listenable. Audio Note has slowly become one of those brands that come up every time I think it’s time to pack in the reviewing gig and retire to my nice, well-built, enjoyable stereo.

This time promised to be special. A short conversation on Facebook let me know that David was driving to the show. David is so cursed by the freight gods that my usual question is “what got banged up in shipping this time?” Since he was driving himself, he planned to carry the exhibit gear in his car. This meant that he was bringing pricier components than he’d usually trust to the tender mercies of Team Brown.

The pricier gear in question included the Jinro Shochu “fully balanced single ended” amplifier ($31,000), the loaded, Level 4, M6 preamp ($20,500), a CDT Three/II disc spinner ($11,775), a DAC 3.1/II ($9,900), a pair of E/SPe HE speakers (the cheapest component in the room at $9,600 per pair), some speaker stands that felt like they were filled with spent uranium, and, just to screw with expectations, an equipment rack.

Now… I have a pedantic nit to pick before we get started. Audio Note’s definition of “fully balanced” as applied to the Jinro Shochu is not a definition I recognize. Yes, it sports a transformer input, a transformer coupled interstage, and an output transformer. Andy Grove and Peter Qvortup have made an argument that those transformers make it “fully balanced.” I disagree. I’d make the argument that anything that’s only amplifying one phase of a signal referenced to ground is, by definition, a single ended amplifier.

Hey, I warned you that I was going to be pedantic.

I wanted to bring this up because this kind of pedantic nitpicking is exactly the kind of gobshite behavior that will distract people from noticing that the Jinro Shochu is one hell of an amp. That input transformer is going to murder your ground loops and line noise. That interstage transformer is going to give your driver stage serious oomph without coloration. All that iron is going to help lock down the current loops inside the amp. You’re going to wind up with a dead silent, Nimitz Class monstrosity that pumps out all of twenty, clean, tone-monster watts with all micro-detail and small timing perfection that draw people to SETs in the first place.

I say it’s a single ended amplifier, but I wouldn’t care if Audio Note wanted to call it a Triple Balanced Steam Powered Amplicator. They can call it whatever they want as long as they keep producing the things. Anyone who has an issue with their naming conventions is free to take it up with the Audio Note mothership. I officially do not care. The amp seems awesome.

How do I know it seems awesome?

Because I started listening to the system on Thursday night. David Cope was one of the industry folks kind enough to give Josh an introduction to listening to gear at shows. He hadn’t quite finished placing the speakers (they only look like they get dropped carelessly into the corners), but, when we asked him to demonstrate what “overpowering the room” sounded like, the system wouldn’t do it. It loaded the room too perfectly. The system overpowered our ears, to be sure. We happily drove the speakers into distortion and the amp into clipping, sure. But, even out there on the ragged edge, there was no real loss of control. The recovery from clipping was basically instantaneous, and the sheer volume involved in driving the amp to clipping in that 400 square foot space was not a volume you’re likely to want to hit without ear protection.

The amp is a total monster.

Still, I walked away feeling that the system was just a little too warm and fuzzy. That was a completely irrational feeling, of course. We’d listened to nothing familiar to me. I think it was the soundtrack to the movie Glory for crying out loud. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it before. Warm and fuzzy? That was probably the Thursday night beer talking. I stopped back in a few times over the weekend, when David wasn’t playing the system loud enough to make the walls flap, and I didn’t hear anything warm and fuzzy.

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But the real action came on Saturday evening, when Charles King brought his battery-powered Cellovox (a Stellavox with his own Cello electronics) tape deck to bear on the system with a first generation tape of the Chuck Israels Orchestra playing in Portland.

The first thing you need to understand is this: if you haven’t gone to hear the Chuck Israels Orchestra blow the back out of the bar, you’re missing out on one of the finest experiences Portland has to offer. The second thing you need to understand, though, is that the next best thing to hanging on to your drink so the horns don’t blow it into your lap is getting to hear that tape in the Audio Note room. The system may have fallen a wee bit short of the maximum SPL of the live band (thank God), and it may have lost a little bit of weight on the bottom of Chuck’s bass compared to sitting in the front row at (the late, lamented) Ivories, but it sounded, both in SPL and in weight, damn near as real as sitting at one of the middle-of-the-house tables. That is what a stereo is meant to do.

Forget specs. Forget pedantic nomenclature arguments. I’m playing favorites because I’ve started to count on Audio Note to provide a reality check at these shows.

To be honest, I’m enjoying every minute of it.

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AXPONA 2015: Fidelis Home Audio, Vinnie Rossi and Harbeth

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Let’s just say that New Hampshire’s Fidelis Home Audio shared a room with the legend, Vinnie Rossi.

I wanted to start out with that third-grade book report opening to throw you folks off the scent. “Shared a room with,” doesn’t really give you the proper sense of “spent a weekend blowing minds.”

Front and center was a fairly well loaded version of Vinnie Rossi’s LIO (too many pricing options to quote) amp, dac, can amp, preamp, phono amp, desert topping, floorwax, and all-around, supercapacitor-charged miracle product. Sources were either a laptop or an Acoustic Signature Manfred MKII ($3,800) with a Soundsmith Sussurro cartridge ($4,900). Speakers were a glorious pair of Harbeth Super HL5+ ($6,800+ depending on veneer).

I’ve never heard a small Harbeth sound like this. It was direct, controlled, and forceful — more Monitor 40 territory than HL5 territory. Some Lucinda Williams sounded properly like Lucinda Williams, with just the right undercurrent of gravel in her voice rather than the usual, overly attractive audio-show presentation. A Katie Melua record on deck was captivating enough that I left the room fairly sure that she she would soon curse the next decade of Audio Shows the way that Diana Krall cursed the last decade. It just sounded too good, too tactile, too real.

From a pair of Harbeths. In a hotel room. That never happens.

Vinnie Rossi’s LIO is, at the very least, a career defining product. It’s going to take a while to fully assess the impact it’s going to have.

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AXPONA 2015: Essential Audio with AudioKinesis, Atma-Sphere, Exogal, Aurender, Kuzma

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by Josh Emmons

I’m sitting in the Essential Audio room, notepad open, pen in hand. Eyes unfocused, listening intently. But writing nothing.

And I should be writing something. It’s my job to write something. But I’m not hearing anything. Well, okay, that’s obviously untrue. I’m hearing some fantastic music. But it’s not my job to talk about music. I’m supposed to talk about how the music sounds. And I just can’t figure it out. So I’m going to talk about The Matrix.

Do you remember that moment when Agent Smith reveals to a drugged Morpheus how the first version of the Matrix failed horribly? It was designed to be a perfect paradise, but our human brains rejected it as obviously unreal. Without little imperfections to hang on to, our consciousness had no way to relate to what we were experiencing.

As I’ve made much hay from already, this is my first hi-fi show. And as such, I rarely know going into a room what I’m supposed to be listening for. So I sit in the sweet spot, close my eyes, and listen for imperfection.

Once my ears catch it, I can tease it out. Does it reoccur? What is that, a frequency thing? Or something with the timber of the treble, maybe something resonating? Is it too bright? Is it the amp? The cables?

So I sit in the Essential Audio room, and I’m hearing nothing. And I’m writing nothing. And my overall impression is, “This sounds okay.”

This is how we end up with Beats headphones, loudness wars, saturated TVs, and Pepsi ever winning the Pepsi Challenge. If we aren’t given imperfections we have no way to differentiate our experiences from “normal”. If it’s not deeper, louder, brighter, or sweeter, it’s “okay”.

Consider that, by definition, the more natural something is, the less remarkable we find it. And so it is with the Essential Audio room. It is not okay. It is exceptionally okay. Surpassingly normal. It is incredibly, unbelievably natural.

And why? At least part of credit lies at the feet of the AudioKinesis Zephrin 46. I mean literally at its feet. If you haven’t seen a 46 before its rear drivers are mounted in its feet pointing up to provide what AudioKinesis calls Late Ceiling Splash.

After learning about LCS, I expected to hear a slight echo or even subtle chorus-like sound from the Zephrin. But that’s not at all how it works. I would say the effect is completely transparent, but for how life-like the system sounds. Its front-facing beryllium compression driver probably doesn’t hurt in this respect, either.

Still, if you’re building your sound up with late reflections and reverberant fields, you want your source saturated with as much depth and space as possible. That’s the job of the twin Atma-Sphere M-60 monoblocks. They’re huge, have VUs, and are full of tubes. Hand wired, fully point-to-point, and continuously refined for over three decades, these amps are the undisputed heavyweight champs of OTL.

These are fed with signal decoded by Exogal‘s Comet Plus DAC. Here’s the thing to know about Exogal, these guys know their DSP. They cut their teeth in other industries like wireless broadband, GPS, image processing and more before bringing it all back to the PCM decoding scene. This DAC does magical D to A in ways never before seen in the hi-fi community.

All this resting on a very handsome rack from Teo Audio that, at first, looks like it’s molded out of some sort of injected insulation material, but upon closer inspection is actually metallic. I have no idea what they did to aerate metal and cast it into shelves, but the look is striking.

So when it comes down to it the Essential Audio recipe for a shockingly natural sounding system is pretty unnatural sounding. Whip some metal up into foam. Take signal processing technology from cell phones, use it to decode bits that get piped through an amp that’s completely omitted the transformer from its output stage to drive a pair of “Z” shaped speakers that have two-thirds of their cones pointing at the ceiling.

The result is remarkably unremarkable. Unnaturally natural. Indescribable only in as much as there’s nothing to describe that’s not the thing being described. If you’re ever in the Illinois area, you simply have to stop by Essential Audio for a personal audition.

It’s then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

Prices

  • Aurender N100 Music Player: $2,499
  • Aurender X100L Music Player: $3,499
  • Exogal Comet Plus DAC: $3,000
  • Atma-Sphere UV-1 pre with low ourput MC photo section: $2,900
  • Atma-Sphere M-60 MkIII.2 amp with copper foil V-Cap options: $7,700/pr.
  • AudioKinesis Zephrin 46 loudspeakers: $4,900/pr., beryllium compression drivers: $1,000/pr., Automotive paint finish: $1,000/pr.
  • Kuzma Stabi SD Turntable: $2,550, Stogi S CS tonearm: $1,425, Stogi S 12 VTA tonetarm: $3,150, CAR-40 cartridge: $1,195
  • Clarity Cable Vortex power cords: $750/ea. Power Distributors: $1,200/ea., Organic USB, 1.5m: $1,000, Organic Speaker Cables, 8ft.: $3,750/pr.
  • Teo Audio Equipment Rack: $7,500
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AXPONA 2015: ModWright, Daedalus, WyWires

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ModWright, Daedalus, and WyWires have become something close to the Three Stooges over the last few years. They keep hanging out with each other, they keep showing minor variations on a theme, and they keep being surprisingly successful at it. Most of the time, honestly, I don’t feel that their show performance comes close to living up to their potential. I’ve actually wondered if they needed a break from each other.

Wondering that was just stupid. What they clearly needed was to be locked in a very small room together for a few days. The system here at AXPONA was, no lie, the best I’d heard from them.

Starting off with the new, new, new, 97db sensitive, Poseidon V.2 speakers from Daedalus Audio (starting at $16,450 in cherry), you could tell that things were different. Lou Hinkley not only melded his drivers more tightly together than I’ve heard from anything other than his wee, little Athena speaker, but he’s changed to a new woofer that (he claims) has lowered the distortion by some absurdly significant amount. The result? That occasionally cloying sweetness on the bottom end of most Daedalus speakers has been replaced with something that’s tight, articulate, and color free.

Dan Wright of ModWright was showing off a production version of his Elyse DAC ($6900), a transformer coupled box that immediately reminded me of the (much pricier) Sonus Veritas DAC from a few years ago. This was digital sound that didn’t drive me out of the room immediately. This was, shockingly, digital sound that I found immediately welcoming.

ModWright also had their now PH 150 transformer coupled phono stage ($7895) on hand. Unfortunately, they didn’t have their deck dialed in until Sunday morning. A quick visit at the end of the weekend made it clear that this phono stage should probably be considered a bargain.

Everything was, of course, wired by WyWires. This brought some non-wiring advantages with it thanks to Alex Sventitsky’s obsessive tweaking. Over the course of the weekend, he made the turntable sound great. He harped on room setup until Friday’s excellent system in a perfectly treated room had morphed into Sunday’s infinitely better system positioned completely differently in a completely untreated room.

I was pretty sure that the sound on Friday was good enough to be my favorite for the weekend. Coming back to find it so improved on Sunday was like a getting a Christmas present in April. If I’d been half smart, I would have spent my entire weekend here instead of wandering aimlessly between rooms. It was just that good.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Tannoy, Tannoy, Tannoy

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Let me start by reminding you that I have a Tannoy problem. I like to tell myself I manage it pretty well. I should probably go to meetings, really. The biggest problem with being a Tannerd is knowing that I almost never see them at shows.

But, wonder of wonders, AXPONA had Tannoy listed three times in the program. Three times. That’s almost as many Tannoys as I have at home! I spent Thursday night bouncing around like a kid waiting for Santa Claus.

Going from room to room, though, reminded me that there’s a reason I don’t see Tannoy at more shows, and that reason is that it’s really hard to pull of a mind-blowing exhibit with their stuff.

The three rooms here? They all came within spitting distance of greatness.

Holm Audio

First up was dealer Holm Audio, with a system very close to my home rig. Ferrite Tannoys and Manleys? This should be a gimme. In fact, it was remarkably close. Heck, I usually find the shown Tannoy DC10Ti (about $10k per pair) to be too fat on the bottom. A dynamic monster, but tuned for rocking-out fun instead of anal-retentive accuracy. In a genius move, the dealer paired them with Manley Mahi Mahis, which I generally find too lean with most Tannoys. In short, the system’s tone was nearly perfect. A full stack of Manley electronics sat behind the amp/speaker pair and fed into the lithe, muscular presentation, while a Sony server handled the digital duties.

Unfortunately, the DC10Ti sounded new — tight, uncomfortable, new-shoes new — and nothing can help a Tannoy that fresh out of the box. The tweeter hadn’t yet gentled down, and the Mahi Mahis were stretching to keep the speakers under control. As a repeat customer of Tannoy Buyer’s Remorse, I’d guess that if you gave the room another six months to break in (seriously) it would be a contender for “Best in Show.” As new as everything was, though, the sound was just too hard.

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D Digital

Next up came another dealer, D Digital, with a system defined by the alnico Tannoy DC10a (about $15k per pair), the best looking of Tannoy’s microdynamic mavens. Anchored in one corner by a REL Gibraltar G1, and fronted by a Prima Luna electronics, the sound here suffered from a different problem. The Prima Lunas always seem to specialize in warm bombast, and, with the added thickener of the G1, the over-friendly sound here proved to be a bit slow and short of definition. It was enticing (as enticing as possible, anyway) with Stevie Ray Vaughn, but not quite game enough to deal with Perfume’s “Lazer Beam.” Call the sound too soft and sweet.

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Holm & Music Hall

The last system, presented by Holm Audio and Music Hall, featured the more pedestrian, metal coned, Tannoy Revolution XT 8F speakers ($2,600 per pair) being pushed around by Creek‘s new, Evolution 100a ($2,200) integrated amp. Sources were either Creek’s Evolution 50CD ($1,500) or a Music Hall MMF-5.1 LE turntable ($995). It was an impeccably balanced system that, within its obvious size limits, could make either the perfect intro to Hi-Fi or the perfect exit plan from the Hi-Fi merry-go-round. Not too hard, not to soft, not too mean, not too sweet. It was, in every way, just right.

Which makes Roy Hall the Baby Bear in this story. Do you think he’ll mind being called that?

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: AURALiC

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by Josh Emmons

I’m a Mac guy. It’s not a lifestyle thing for me or anything, but when browsing consumer electronics, I’m drawn to aluminum and glass. Clean edges. Sharp, minimal design.

Knowing this about me, it won’t surprise you to learn I find AURALiC‘s Vega the best damn looking DAC out there right now. I know it’s not just a pretty face. I know it’s got serious brains, too (a multi-core ARM9, in fact). And I know it’s capable of decoding pretty much all PCM in addition to DSD (up to 2x). But it’s the look I keep coming back to.

But here’s the situation. You have a gorgeous DAC like the Vega, but more and more of your collection is living on your NAS. Or maybe one of these new-fangled “streaming services” the kids are always jawing on about. Maybe you’ve installed gigabit WiFi in your home and are thinking to yourself, “Wait, shouldn’t this be wide enough to stream DSD, now?”

Maybe. But there’s a missing piece between the wireless cloud and your DAC. And AURALiC aims to fill it with the Aries. It’s a streaming “bridge” with 802.11ac and gigabit ethernet inputs that let you reach out into the network and stream data from there to your DAC.

The “network”, in this case, can be your own NAS or a lossless streaming service like Tidal, Qobuz or WiMP. The “data” is the standard 44.1–384/16–32 PCM formats, or DSD (2.8 and 5.6MHz). The connection to your DAC can be via USB 2.0, AES/EBU, Coaxial, or TOSLINK, and the DAC itself can be, well, anything.

AURALiC is quite adamant on this last point. Of course they’d like it if you paired an Aries up with one of their Vegas. But it was built to work well with any DAC not just their own. The Aries truly is meant to “bridge”, not just “extend” or “add-on”.

This shows through in its design. The Aries breaks from traditional AURALiC “aluminum block” stylings, opting instead for clamshell-like top and bottom-panels, each with a pleasing wave in their shape. The effect is very modern, if not quite as minimal their other products. At least one goal of this design, AURALiC tells me, is to make the Aries capable of blending with a wide array of gear in a variety of styles.

But it could have its downsides. For example, that arched top makes the Aries much less stackable than its box-shaped brethren. On the other hand, you don’t want a lot of (electrically) noisy metal sitting on top of a device trying to pull down 1,300Mbps of data over wireless, so maybe this is intentional.

Still, the Aries (thankfully!) inherits the Vega’s striking display, and will still look at home on top of a stack of AURALiC gear. Interestingly, there seems to be no way to control the Aries from that beautiful display. For that you’ll have to use the included remote or the (continually improving) Lightning DS app (currently iPad only).

Another nice trait inherited from the Vega is its apparent agnosticism when it comes to how you get what music where. For example, in addition to the headline “lossless streaming” features noted above, you also can attach USB drives to the Aries to play music from physical storage. While not “streaming” from a purist point of view, this is certainly handy. And speaking as a Mac fan, I appreciate that the Aries supports AirPlay, letting me shoot music to it from my iOS and OS X devices.

DLNA and uPnP are also supported. And while I have no direct experience with OpenHome, I’m hearing more and more about it. It’s inclusion is definitely forward thinking and welcome.

In fact, in the end, “bridge” is probably the wrong way to describe the Aries. A bridge starts from a anchored foundation and extends to a known, stable location. The Aries connects the shifting ether of the cloud to unknown decoders via any combination of over a dozen protocols and ports. It’s more swiss army knife than bridge. And in our current, quickly evolving media landscape, that is a very valuable thing to have.

Prices

  • AURALiC Taurus: $1,899
  • AURALiC Vega: $3,499
  • AURALiC Aries LE: $999
  • AURALiC Aries (upgraded clocks and PSU): $1,599

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: High Fidelity Services with Verity, Audia Flight, TW-Acustic

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Let’s be clear: Jeff Catalano is banned — BANNED! — from getting mentioned for “best in show” for at least a year. We’re just going to have to give him a Grand Master Lifetime Achievement in Audio Badassery award and walk away. He’s in his own category from now on. This isn’t just about his usual gear, either. He teamed up with Paul Manos of High Fidelity Services in Chicago for a system that was a change of pace from the familiar tubes’n’horns.

Paul’s lines did the heavy lifting. Solid state Audia Flight electronics (a $65,000 pair of Strumento No.8 amps and a $17,500 Strumento No.1 preamplifier) pushed some Verity Amadis S speakers ($34,000) for a more modern take on HiFi than Jeff’s usual gear. Jeff provided the sources, with a Miyajima Madake ($5,900) mounted on the familiar, white TW-Acustic turntable and tonearm. A production example of TW-Acustic’s new, adjustable eq, solid state phono stage ($17,500) handled the preamp duties.

And how was it?

I could tell you that it was tight, fast, and exciting. Or I could repeat that Jeff Catalano is banned — BANNED! — from getting mentioned for “best in show” for at least a year.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: KEF, Parasound

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My number one, must see stop on the tour was the basement room shared by KEF and Parasound. I wasn’t curious about the Reference line (I tend to agree with Kirsten’s impressions), and I didn’t much care about the LS50 unless the new color scheme made it sound worse (it didn’t). I was interested in Blade Two, the scaled down, marked down, $24,000 version of the Blade that is supposed to be friendlier to small rooms.

The original Blade has been one of my favorite speakers since Steven Monte let me listen to his demo pair back in 2012. The sound of Monty Alexander coming out of Blades powered by 805 triodes still haunts me.

But the buzz around the Internet water cooler was that Blade Two might actually be better, in some cases, than its big brother.

From what I could tell from this exhibit, I’d put my money on the buzz being right.

I walked in, pre-show, to find the KEF crew jigging around to some decent Irish Trad. A few minutes later, and I was hip deep in the Beatles, Neil Young, and the Mekons. Twenty minutes after that, and I was convinced that Blade Two is much more to my taste than its big brother. It doesn’t seem to have the same capacity for bombast that Blade does, but the drivers are (if you can imagine it) even more tightly integrated than the first Blade. My memory may be bad, but I’d venture that treble seemed just a touch less prominent, just a touch more natural than that of the original Blade (which isn’t exactly a slouch in that department).

If there was one shortcoming, it was bass. Bass was more than good enough for Rock’n’Roll (and more than good enough to remove the need for a morning coffee), but I got the feeling that I might not want to push too much bottom-octave action at the speakers without some subwoofer assistance. In a room less cavernous than this basement ballroom, I might not even feel the need for subs.

If my morning listening was any indicator, KEF’s winning streak seems likely to continue for a good while.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: The Voice That Is, with TIDAL, Bricasti, Aurender, Purist Audio Design, Silver Circle

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Doug White of The Voice That Is built a gorgeous system around the TIDAL Contriva GS speakers ($69,690 as shown), easily the best looking speakers at the show. Note that this speaker is also a complete reworking of the Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers. From TIDAL:

The all new successor of the worldwide praised TIDAL Contriva Diacera SE (2007-2014). We did not let things as they were, all is completely new with the Contriva G2. Like with iconic design classics improving does not mean changing. It means making dimensions and proportions better while strictly continuing and following the generic and unique design of it. So we made the Contriva G2 45mm less tall, 5mm less wide and we gave it 3° degree more slope to give it a more dynamic and elegant look while improving also the sonic dispersion of it.

The cabinet is made out of TIRADUR, TIDAL’s proprietary cabinet material for this 102 Kg beauty. Also we equipped it with all new BCC drivers, a complete new x-over design, an all new terminal with TIDAL’s completely new pure silver binding posts. The result is the very best midsize speaker we ever built.

The source was a Bricasti M1 ($8,995) fed by an Aurender W20 ($17,600).

Amplification also came from TIDAL, with the unbelievable, three chassis, Presencio Preamplifier ($77,990) feeding a pair of Impulse monoblocks ($64,990 per pair).

Everything was wired together with Purist Audio Design cables, and everything was sitting on Stillpoints. Power distribution came from the massive Silver Circle Tchaik 6.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Endeavor Audio, Constellation, Your Final System and EMM Labs

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by Joshua Emmons

I listen to headphones mostly because I live in an apartment with absurdly thin floors and anxious neighbors. Still, by my reasoning, it’s easier to get good sound out of tiny drivers an inch from my ears than loudspeakers. Separation is never a concern. All those fiddly crossover calculations go away. Resonance isn’t really a thing. And you never get a “bad room”.

But Endeavor Audio doesn’t care about “easy”. They care about perfection. And I swear to Crom they’ve found it with the E-5.

Some gear makes me want to buy new cables, some makes me want to buy new amps. The Endeavor room makes me want to buy a new house so I can ditch my headphones and bask in this sound again.

Down in Front

The Endeavor room is clearly not buying into the whole wood-grain-and-exposed-tubes kind of audiophile experience. The design of everything can be safely described as “understated”, but this is most true of the massive twin Constellation monoblocks driving the system.

Constellation Audio‘s solid-state Inspiration MONO 1.0 amps have plenty of grunt to them, pumping 400w / channel with impressive clarity. But they definitely put the “block” in “monoblock”, looking like nothing so much as large, smooth, cinder bricks. This minimalist aesthetic would be out-of-place in a lot of rooms, but their no-nonsense presentation fits right in here.

The Inspiration Premp 1.0 breaks from this look just enough to allow for a small touchscreen and two dignified knobs on the front panel. And with the clever Constellation Direct interconnect, the pre can interface directly with the amps, skipping their input stages. Fewer stages is a Good Thing.

But I have to give special consideration to the preamp’s remote. Given the remote is, 99% of the time, the only part of the system I actually interact with, I can’t overstate the importance of making it solid, weighty and, well, expensive feeling. This one feels as if it’s milled from a single billet of aluminum. Constellation’s hit it out of the park.

The E-5

Endeavor’s E-5 is certainly tall, but its front face is unexpectedly narrow giving the entire enclosure a stately, columnesque appearance. And what better way to fill your column than with 7 drivers split 3 ways? The E-5 easily hangs 4 woofers, 2 mids, and a beryllium tweeter in a svelte, modern-looking package.

Much of this modern look is owed to the “resin-impregnated fibrous composite” used for the cabinet’s construction. I have no idea what that is, but as I discuss later, it certainly cuts down on resonance. The E-5 clearly believes form should follow function. That it also looks good doing it is bonus.

The Sound

My first few goes with the E-5s are pretty standard show listening. Some classical. Some jazz. Some Madonna thrown in for color. Served up by the intuitive Digital File Transport by Your Final System, it all sounds full. Enveloping even. But it isn’t until I hear a favorite Bad Religion tune, with its exquisitely mic’d drums that are all but drown out by punk guitar thrashing, that I realize how quick and dexterous this system really is.

A lot of rooms at AXPONA reduce Bad Religion to a Michael Bay flick. It’s 3:18 of loud explosions and spectacle. The Endeavor system turns it into Spielberg. Nothing collides. Nothing shakes. I’m able to hear exactly what I’m listening for and to know the part it plays in shaping the music. It is absolutely rad.

Highly encouraged by this, I break out the big guns: Perfume’s Laser Beam. It’s digital synthetica taken to the kinds of extremes only Japan takes things. An incredibly intricate, violently compressed, all-over-the-spectrum romp that has toppled many a room before this.

The experience of listening to it on the E-5s is damn near synesthetic. I felt like David Bowman entering the stargate. The fidelity with which Endeavor’s system allows me to peer into the infinite complexities streaming at me… It’s all swirling light and color, 100% engrossing, completely flawless.

I can’t put it any more simply: this is the best this music has ever sounded. On anything ever. Full stop.

Hard Work

How did they do it? Did they discover some new driver technology? An innovative cabinet shape? A novel way to encode sound?

No. They did it by taking the measurements, solving the math, and doing the work. I got the chance to hear this room late Thursday night, and while I liked what I heard, Leif Swanson of Endeavor wasn’t satisfied. He complained about a “wall of sound” and immediately started tweaking, knowing exactly what to look for. Knowing what he wanted to change.

I would have left well enough alone. But I’m not obsessed. I’m not a crazy man driven to strive for a perfection most would say is unobtainable. I have neither the passion or the skills to entertain that sort of quixotic quest.

But Leif does. And the result is beyond a doubt the best room I heard at AXPONA.

Prices

  • Endeavor Audio E-5 Reference Loudspeaker: $35,000
  • Constellation Audio Inspiration Mono 1.0 Amp: $10,000
  • Constellation Audio Inspiration Preamp 1.0: $9,000
  • Your Final System Ref-3 Digital File Transport: $15,500
  • EMM Labs DAC2X DSD DAC: $15,500

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Mo-Fi Blue

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by Joshua Emmons

So many things about the Mo-Fi Blue seem obvious in hindsight. For example, instead of hanging headphones from hooks, maybe they should stand on their own? And, I mean, powered speakers and monitors have been around forever. Why aren’t powered cans a thing? And while we’re on the subject, why don’t all headphones have independent double-wishbone suspension?

Blue is a trailblazer in all this and more. The question is, how does it all come together in their first entry into the headphone market.

The Amp

On some level doesn’t it just make sense that a microphone maker would be good at headphone design? They’re essentially the same thing from the standpoint of making bits of film dance in a tiny electro-magnetic field, after all. And Blue’s been at the top of that game for two decades now.

Except, as sterling as their reputation for mics is, they’re not really known for their mic pre-s. And as nice as the Mo-Fi is, I don’t really know if I’m sold on its built-in amp.

It sounds good, and it definitely boosts listening levels beyond anything I can hear with passive headphones alone. With the MoFi in “passthrough” mode, plugged directly into my iPhone, I had to crank the phone’s gain to around 75% to get a listenable level on the show floor. Turning on the amp let me drop the gain to around 33% while keeping the volume more or less constant.

The amp also has a third mode called “on+”. This engages the amp and boosts bass. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s really something to be able to dynamically turn your headphones into a pair of Beats (and, maybe more importantly, to be able to turn them back again).

The problem for me is that the headphones sound good even without the amp. And using the amp means remembering to charge the amp (via standard micro USB). Given I often forget to feed myself, I’m not confident the amp will every be available to me should I choose to use it. Thus I wonder if I wouldn’t prefer the reduction in weight and cost of an ampless variation.

The Suspension

You know this just from looking at it, but the Mo-Fi feels unlike any other headphone you’ve ever had on your head. Its ingenious headband is literally inspired by the suspension of Formula One race cars, and just as shocks and struts serve to keep their tires glued to the road, the Mo-Fi’s suspension keeps its pads gripping your face.

The isolation this provides is astonishing. And the articulation is such that, if I want to play DJ and expose an ear, I simply slide a cup down. When I wear them around my neck, and get that “strangled by pads” feeling, I just extend the cups out. Everything still grips. Everything stays in place. It’s really something you have to (and should!) try to get a feel for.

But the grip is also the Mo-Fi’s fatal flaw. It feels pretty snug. At first, this is warm and reassuring like a hug. But over hours of listening, I can imagine even my narrow head starting to ache. There’s a tension control on the band, but with it turned all the way down the squeeze is still apparent. This is probably great news for active people who have trouble keeping headphones on their heads. But to a delicate sloth like me, it’s a bit much.

Wrap up

The Blue rep at the table assures me that the Mo-Fi is just the first in a line of headphones from Blue. And it’s worth keeping in mind that, as a first effort, the Mo-Fi shows a heck of a lot of promise.

As a proof of concept, I think “powered headphones” are an idea whose time has come. And the Mo-Fi’s headband suspension is simply amazing. It just needs a little refinement to be a total game changer. All and all, I like the Mo-Fi okay and really like where it’s going.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Emerald Physics

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It’s hard not to be a big fan of what Emerald Physics is trying to do. Big coaxes? Big woofers? An amp on every driver? Digital crossovers customized to work in your specific room? Open baffle loading to really use that room right? If they can pull it off, it’s a game changer.

If they can pull it off.

Let’s start off with the basics. Sources here were either a W4S MS-1 music server ($2,000) or a Marantz CD-5004 ($349 when availible). Both fed into a DSPeaker Anti-Mode Dual Core 2.0 ($1200) that wrangled dac and preamp duties while also twiddling the room correction bits. A quick shot of EP front-man, Mark Schifter’s laptop gave a good estimate of how effective that twiddling was. Westin room problems? Smashed with a digital hammer.

From there, the analog signal fed into the ADC input of an Emerald Physics DSP 2.4 crossover per side ($850 each, included with a speaker), which split analog out into one amp channel per driver. A PS Audio Bascom King Signature amplifier ($7,500) drove the midrange cones, while Emerald Physics own EP100.2SE Class D stereo amps ($2200 each) drove everything else in the EP-2.3 speakers ($7,795 as shown).

At this point, I’m only willing to kinda-sorta-maybe say that Emerald Physics pulled it off. If the promise is a powerful, impressive, dynamic sound that works in your room, they’re there. If the promise is universal appeal, they’re not quite ready for prime time. The most noticeable issue is that the amps still bring their own flavor to the table. Please understand: I have an almost visceral reaction to most Class D amps, and their trademarked steely precision was fully in evidence here. My biggest regret was that I didn’t hear this system with the PS Audio amp pushing the compression drivers. That’s just about the only reason to complain, mind you. Since I actually get paid to obsess about how amps sound, I’m actually grateful that I’m not yet wholly obsolete.

After all, what else could you complain about? Was the sound too lean? You can probably fix that with a new filter. Were the mids given short shrift? New filter. Are you stone deaf in the treble? New filter. The setup in this room is too much of a chameleon for a quick visit to even approach getting a handle on it. Was I listening to what it could do, or was I listening to one guy’s preferred sound? The answer: neither. I was too busy listening to the future.

This isn’t a stereo so much as a stereo toolkit that can be customized to your tastes. I figure there are a lot of people looking for exactly what this offers.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Shall We Dance, on the Floor, in the Round? Muraudio Causes a Scene

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By John Stancavage

Every year there seems to be no lack of new ideas in the high-end audio industry. Many, though, are variations on a theme or sketchy tweaks. Rarely is a product truly reimagined from the ground up.

One exception is Muraudio’s relatively new line of speakers. The units feature an electrostatic element that takes over from conventional woofers at 450 hz.

So what, you might be thinking. There are plenty of hybrid electrostatics out there, including Martin-Logan and Jantzen.

Yes, but Canada-based Muraudio curves its electrostatic panels.

Big deal, you might answer. So do Sound Lab and the afore-mentioned Martin-Logan.

Yes, true again. But while those manufacturers manage about a 30-degree bend, Muraudio curves its ESL midrange-tweeter unit in every direction — 360 degrees horizontal and 16 degrees vertical.

“Try imagining a huge grape with the top and bottom cut off. That’s the shape of our panel,” company founder and chief technical officer Murray Harman told me during a demo at AXPONA 2015.

You can quickly run into problems when you start bending electrostatic panels, which are essentially very thin, coated sheets of Mylar. Martin-Logan and Sound Lab address these issues in different ways, but Harman faced even bigger hurdles.

“We had to find a film that could be stretched and maintain its sound, for one thing,” he said.

Another was figuring out how to electrify the ELS panel. Conventional speakers might distort if a design is substandard. ESLs tend to spark and even catch fire.

Harman solved that problem, too. Then he turned to the other not-so-easy challenge of building a bass unit that not only could keep up with the ESL panel speed-wise, but one that also could match its 360 degree dispersion. He overcame that hurdle by using three 25 mm aluminum cones, all sealed in their own aluminum enclosure and firing in different directions.

Altogether, it took Harman 13 painstaking years to engineer his dream speaker. Now they are being sent to customers (Muraudio is selling direct and also lining up dealers), but the same detail-oriented approach is being used in manufacturing as it was in development. Painting alone involves 18 layers and three days of work.

On a crisp Saturday in Chicago, I battled a few thousand other audio nuts to hear a pair in gleaming piano black making an astonishingly great sound in a large, basement room at the Westin Hotel O’Hare.

Harmon was using a rack of Simaudio reference gear and Nordost cable to power his Domain Omni PX1 loudspeakers ($63,000 a pair). As you might imagine, these speakers need not only juice from the wall, but high current from the amps, as the sensitivity is only 82 decibels. Harman, however, wanted to assure me — and potential buyers — that the PX1s were not as fussy about power as that number might suggest. The Moon amps were rated at 350 watts, but he insisted such brute force isn’t necessary.

“You can drive them with a 100-watt receiver if you want,” Harman said. “It wouldn’t sound as good as the Moons, but it would work.”
Donald Fagen’s excellent third solo album, Morph the Cat, began playing as I moved instinctively to the center chair. The tale of a supernatural feline kicks off with a typically (for Fagen) jazzy, funky rhythm and builds into a refined, hook-filled, jazz-pop concoction that wouldn’t have been out-of-place on Steely Dan’s Gaucho.

Bass response was deep, tuneful and showed good pace, easily keeping up with the ESL panels. And, those panels … “wow” isn’t strong enough a word for my reaction on hearing the PX1s for the first time.

The PX1s brought me closer into the studio than almost any other speaker I’ve heard. I felt like I was on the other side of the mike during a band rehearsal, bathed in the direct sound of Fagan’s voice, but also enveloped by the other instruments and the room’s reverberation. You might think that the 360 degree radiating angle of the ESL panel would create too many reflections and muddy the sound, but a nifty internal filter that kills the back wave ensures that you would think wrong. Instead, Fagen’s lead vocal was focused and dead center in the mix, and I easily could identify his own background vocals from the other singers on the track.

ESL designs also are known for rolling off the top end slightly, but again the Muraudios refused to fit into stereotypes. The speakers, rated at 20hz – 22khz, produced extended highs without any brightness. You just kind of soaked up the music, making the overall rig the kind you want to keep turning up louder and louder.

Still to come was maybe the PX1s best trick. Seeing I was sitting, by habit, in the conventional sweet spot between the speakers, I was encouraged by Harman to move around. The first thing I did, while still seated, was slump down and then sit up as tall as possible. No change in sound. Then I learned left and right. Ditto. Finally, I physically got up and roamed the room. Incredibly, you could walk far off-axis and not suffer from too much change in the presentation.

“I wanted to design these speakers so you could recline on the sofa or sit up, walk around, whatever, and not need to have your head locked in a vise,” Harman said.

Mission accomplished. There are surprisingly quite a few speakers that exceed $50,000 a pair these days. But few have the engineering accomplishments of the Muraudio PX1s, let alone the combination of focused, yet wide-dispersion sound. These speakers, in fact, would be my top choice when I sell my company and cash out. Of course, I guess that means I better get busy and start that company in the first place. If you are not so patient, I’d be prepared to at least consider dumping the BMW lease or getting a second mortgage. The PX1s are that good.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Goerner Communications with Audio Physic, Funk, Grandinote

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It’s not all that often you get to throw around a phrase like “surprisingly rewarding,” but Goerner Communication’s exhibit in one of the small rooms on the fifth floor was, in every way, surprisingly rewarding.

For one thing, Reinhard Goerner was off eating lunch when I walked in. For another thing, the Audio Physic Avantera speakers ($28,000) had been unplugged. For another thing, the analog front end with a Funk Vector V turntable and FX-III tonearm ($5,300 total), London Jubilee cartridge ($3,000) and Grandinote Celio phono stage ($8,750) were sitting idle. And, as the last blow to my expectations, Redbook Mark Knopfler was playing.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I enjoy Mark Knopfler as much as the next pudgy, sweating, middle-aged audiophile enjoys Mark Knopfler. Next to “Hotel California,” though, Knopfler and the Dire Straits are the go-to theme music for pudgy, sweating, middle-aged audiophiles at audio shows. After a while, it just sort of fades into the background. Just walking down the hallways, I must have heard Mark Knopfler at least fifty times that day.

“Sailing to Philadelphia?” Fine. Go. Leave already. I’m begging you. “The Man’s Too Strong?” If only he’d just beat you to a pulp and make you stop. “Telegraph Road?” Well… I guess we all have our weaknesses.

The reduced system on offer featured the Grandinote Volta music server ($12,000), the Grandinote Shinai integrated amp ($16,000) the apartment-sized Audio Physic Classic 30 speakers ($8,000), and the kind of engrossing articulation that drew me in and made me listen to all fourteen minutes of “Telegraph Road” before wondering why it had ended so soon — despite the fact that I was supposed to be covering the rest of the audio show.

If that’s not “surprisingly rewarding,” really I don’t know what is.

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