Chicago AXPONA 2018
AXPONA Audio Expo North America
April 13 – 15, 2018
For the past couple of years, getting to Axpona via car has been a relatively straight-forward and mildly pleasant/relaxing experience. Total drive time from Minneapolis to the Chicagoland metro is approximately 6½ hours of uncomplicated highway driving. However, although my initial drive getting there was completely uneventful – my drive back to Minnesota on Sunday was anything but that. In fact – with the wicked unpredicted snow storm that hit the area, my drive home was definitely a challenge as I was witness to lousy weather and difficult road conditions. At one point, my wife and I had counted no less than fifteen to twenty semi-trailer trucks completely off the highway down in deep trenches of snow. Along with that, an equal number of cars had also met their fate with similar positioning but sometime hugged up against one another in various forms and conditions. Highway patrol and a series of tow trucks were in evidence for most of my trip home. Upon arrival and as I approached my driveway – there it was, a completely unplowed scene with somewhere near 18 inches of snow. Getting into the garage required a bit of hot rod style maneuvering and hot rod style but I somehow managed to get the job done. Wasn’t pretty but effective none-the-less.
Anyway, so much for that, here’s the really good news. By all accounts, Axpona 2018 was a very successful event. Perhaps not perfect in every sense of the word but definitely a significant change and improvement over previous years shows. Clearly – the venue was a significant departure and overall, provided a very different type of setting for the attendees and exhibitors alike. For sure – things were spread out much more than before and with an noticeable increase in the number of exhibit spaces, this presented a real challenge to anyone attempting to catch a glimpse, or serious listen, in the many different exhibits. Listening spaces included rooms that went from quite small to moderate to very large and with acoustics varying considerably.
Arriving early Friday morning, and specifically to attend the special Media breakfast, including brief overview and tour of the facilities – obviously there were no lines at that time. However the registration desks and ticket sales, including appropriate staff were in place and appeared more than ready to deal with the incoming rush of attendees who would soon be arriving. . Crowd flow later was very brisk and the show was soon underway.
At this point, I teamed up with my StereoTimes colleague and fellow reviewer Mike Girardi to map out a strategy for covering the show. For Mike, this was his very first high-end audio show so rather than any sort of “divide and conquer” approach – we agreed to conduct joint visits to as many exhibits as we could and share our thoughts and opinions. Also, from time to time, we went our separate ways to explore various exhibits but always reconnected to compare notes and share our observations. After a quick scan of the Show Directory, we both agreed that attempting to do any sort of “Best of Show” might not be the best approach. Part of this rationale seemed completely justified especially after visiting several exhibits and recognizing the wide disparity of room sizes with various acoustic issues encountered. By that time – I had also heard a fair amount of feedback from several exhibitors regarding the issues they were facing in the size, dimension and configuration of the various rooms. One thing in particular became quickly obvious – many of the rooms had floor-to-ceiling columns, at the end between the windows, and that were hollow. This presented a variety of issues in terms of controlling the bass so a number of work-arounds were employed but also with varying degrees of success.
Also of note, as Mike and I explored the many different exhibits, there were quite a few setups including all the way from basic to very sophisticated analog rigs including turntable/tonearm combos as well as impressive reel-to-reel tape machines. Along with these front-end configurations – there were also a fair number of specialty recordings used for played purposes including LP’s and tapes. The Marketplace on the main floor was a good resource for sourcing some of these items but clearly for many of the better recordings, pricing of these items was noticeably higher as well.
This was my (Mike Girardi) first audio show, AXPONA, held at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel and Convention Center, in Schaumburg, IL. The 2018 show featured over 160 plus listening rooms, many static audio displays, and the Marketplace. The show was well attended given how crowded the elevators and listening room were on Friday and Saturday. In addition to many listening rooms, there was expert talks, seminars, live performances, and after hour free shows that included a multimedia presentation titled “An Evening with David Bowie”, presented by Vanity Crush and the Delmark Records, “Blues Revue”, featuring the Corey Dennison Band. Happens chance, this was an excellent audio show for my first.
Audio Union International exhibit including Thrax Audio loudspeakers (i.e., Lyra $19,600 pr. and Basus Motional Feedback Bass System $40,600 pr.) plus electronics (i.e., Ares preamp w/DAC and Phono $15,000, along with their newest product Spartus mono amplifiers $78,000 – sporting six 300B tubes). Enklein cables used throughout the system. Large room with beautiful tonality, very open/spacious sound.
AURALiC with YG Acoustics. AURALiC Aries G2 Wireless Streaming Transporter ($3899), AURALiC Vega2 Streaming DAC ($5699), AURALiC Leo GX Reference Master Clock (pending MSRP), AURALiC Merak monoblock power amplifiers ($2,499 ea.), YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2 loudspeakers ($76,800), and cables by Kubala-Sosna and AudioQuest. When I was in this room, there was an acoustic guitar playing jazz music that sounded highly detailed yet grain free. This was an example of digital done right.
Luxman Corporation (Japan) and Triangle Speakers (French) joined forces for a very impressive exhibit including both an active listening room and adjoining room with static display of various electronics and speakers. In the main listening room, the system consisted of the tall attractive Triangle Magellan Grand Concert speakers ($70,000), Luxman C-900u control pre-amp ($14,995), Luxman M-900u stereo power amp ($14,995), Luxman D-08u SACD player ($14,995), Luxman PD-171A belt-drive turntable with custom tonearm ($6,995), Luxman EQ-500 vacuum tube phono equalizer amp ($6,495) Melco N1ZH600/V2 music server ($4,999) and Luxman 15000 series cables (RCA, XLR and speaker cables – $1,095 and $3,95 respectively). This was a big system in a fairly modest-sized room but it worked quite well indeed. The speakers and Luxman electronics mated superbly and the sound was excellent on both large-scale symphonic music as well as jazz that provided solid, tight, articulate bass along with superb rhythm and pace. The sound for different styles of music was also open and clear. Definitely an impressive demo featuring a largish speaker that also managed to position itself with a relatively small foot print.
In the room with the static display of electronics (Luxman) and speakers (Triangle), there was a very upbeat mood and very engaging conversations including Jeff Sigmund, President/CEO Luxman USA. Jeff spoke very enthusiastically about the company’s newer series of electronics and how their continuing product development closely follows their long-standing legacy for providing true fidelity and musicality with more attention paid to sound than simply addressing specs and measurements. Also, of note – Luxman has nowentered into the design, development and production of cables, specifically interconnects and speaker, to mate with their electronics.
In terms of the loudspeakers in this particular room, on display were samples of Triangle’s Signature and Espirit EZ line. In conversation with Hugo Decelle, general manager of Triangle and Frank Gazzo, U.S. national sales, an overall description of these lesser-priced, high-quality and high performance loudspeakers will carry on the tradition of musical excellence and greater accessibility to a broad range of music lovers. By the way – big kudos to Hugo for providing some absolutely outstanding wine samples during their evening reception.
Zesto Audio room. Marten Django L Black loudspeakers ($10,000), Stillpoints racks and feet under power amps ($10,000 and $899 each), and Fono Acustica cabling. Zesto Audio featured the Merrill Williams Audio REAL 101.3 turntable with a Tri-Planar arm (, Benz Micro and Ortofon cartridges. Zesto Andros Tessera phono stage ($12,000) Zesto Allasso Step Up Transformer ($2,995), Leto 1.5 preamplifier ($7,500), and Eros 300 monoblock amplifiers ($19,900). I always wanted to listen to a Zesto component based system. Beautiful tube sound! And I had an unrelated ac power system question that Geroge Connnas was gracious enough to address.
Another very interesting trend that I noticed this year, seemingly more so this year than at previous Axpona shows, was the presence of several speaker manufacturers. Companies such as YG, Tidal and Wilson clearly made their presence known and seemed to be a major factor to a number of very good sounding exhibits. In fact, one of my very first exhibits visited was the Bel Canto exhibit featuring their newer Black EX series of electronics. The overall sound in this exhibit possessed a very organic, warm and highly textured sound with wonderful clarity. Additionally the sound was very natural, clean, clear and very musically engaging. Listening to some wonderful classic Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Steely Dan (i.e., MQA) as well as other intriguing musical selections made for a convincing demonstration that made you want to listen for an extended period of time and simply let the music flow.
These newer Bel Canto products incorporate not only trickle-down technologies from their top of the line and highly regarded Black Series but also have expanded the range of innovative features and functionality. (Note: this newer functionality is being offered as an upgrade for the company’s Black Series The system on display (insert photo #4 & #5) included the Bel Canto Black EX DAC/Control Preamp, $13,990 mated to the EX Black Dual Mono Amplifier, $11,990. According to literature provided by the company, the preamp is based around Bel Canto’s High Dynamic Resolution Core (HDRII) and high-speed Asynchronous Multi-input Processor Platform (AMIP). This unit is quite versatile and provides the ability to stream music through Ethernet or USB including a full suite of digital and line level inputs, sub output and MM/MC software controlled phono stage. Features included in the preamp also include software controlled trim, bass EQ and subwoofer filter management. Roon-ready or DNLA control with Bel Canto iOS SEEK App to stream Tidal/MQA, Qobuz or your personal library. The Black EX mono amplifier is a high performance dual mono power amplifier conservatively rated at 350/700 watts and includes the company’s proprietary Single Stage High Current Amplifier (SSHA) input and gain stages. Additional features include a gain control switch to address loudspeakers, advanced power filtration, standby control from the front panel. WBT Next Gen clutched speaker outputs are provided to enhance the mechanical connection for ultimate performance. Loudspeakers in this exhibit were the wonderfully music Tidal Piano Diacera G2’s (diamond tweeter) in high gloss Black. $39,900. Cabling and AC filtration was provided by the highly acclaimed AudioQuest Niagara 7000 along with the company’s top line Dragon series high current power cords (amplifier), Tornado high current power cable (DAC), Redwood speaker cables and Vodka Ethernet cable. The equipment stand was the HRS RXR 3V / RS-1921 series shelf (21” W x19” d).
Another show exhibit that provided excellent sound was hosted by Doug White owner of The Voice That Is and promoter for the wonderful Tidal speakers and electronics. In typical fashion, Doug always manages to set up this system to extract the best possible sound despite whatever room conditions exist. In his exhibit this year – he had on display a pair of absolutely gorgeous looking Tidal Piano G2 speakers in the company’s optional upscale Macassar veneer ($42,900). For electronics the following complement of Tidal products were in place: Tidal Audio Preos preamplifier ($32,900), Impulse dual mono amplifier $35,200) and Tidal Reference cables (price varies per type) Additionally the wonderful TW Acustic Raven AC-1 turntable ($15,500) with 10.5 tonearm ($5,500) and Transfiguration Proteus cartridge ($6,000) handled analog playback chores. For digital, the Antipodes DX Music Server ($7,700) was put into service including the Dynamic Design Neutron SW16 digital power cord ($7,500 1 meter, $9,000, 2 meters). All equipment was placed on the StillPoints ESS Rack. Aperture panels and isolators were also included to address various room anomalies. In terms of sound in this exhibit, highly musical – clear, open, dynamic, unrestricted and highly detailed. This was complemented with a nicely textured, organic feel and solid impact extending through the bass and well into the midrange frequencies. Whether analog or digital playback in this exhibit – this was definitely a place where you could come, sit back, relax and just let the music soak into your soul. Bottom-line, the system in this room looked good, sounded excellent and certainly something to savor.
Tom U’s Triangleart exhibit featured 3-way Eggleston Works Viginti speakers ($40,000) driven by Triangle Reference preamp ($19,000), Reference amplifier ($20,000), fed by Master Reference turntable ($40,000), tonearm ($6,800) and wired with TA RHEA Reference interconnects, power cords and speaker cables. Sound in this exhibit was very impressive. Listening to jazz recordings (via Brubeck LP), the bass was noticeably solid with excellent definition and impact, piano had a nice organic/textured quality and cymbals were crystal clear. Excellent dynamics overall with a very open soundstage easily revealing the hall ambiance.
Stereo Times Masthead
Frank Alles, Mike Girardi, Key Kim, Russell Lichter, Terry London, Moreno Mitchell, Paul Szabady, Bill Wells, Mike Wright, Stephen Yan, and Rob Dockery
David Abramson, Tim Barrall, Dave Allison, Ron Cook, Lewis Dardick, Dan Secula, Don Shaulis, Greg Simmons, Eric Teh, Greg Voth, Richard Willie, Ed Van Winkle, and Rob Dockery
Carlos Sanchez, John Jonczyk, John Sprung and Russell Lichter
Site Management Clement Perry
Ad Designer: Martin Perry