Prior to my journey to Chicago Schaumburg for AXPONA 2019 my show experience was limited to Capital Audio Fest—a much smaller show. As someone who has, on occasion, been accused of being ambitious, I wasn’t about to let that stop me. My show strategy was to blitz every room that had something of interest and poke my head in the rest. In the end that was nearly every room! To my credit I largely achieved this goal, but it was exhausting. The downside to this approach is that I never spent much time in any one room. What follows are but a few of the highlights of my whirlwind tour. Apologies for the poor photos; the camera phone didn’t cut it.
Some of My Favorite Things
The first room of the show turned out to be a memorable one! The AURALiC digital frontend feeding the YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2 speakers ($76,800/pair) produced a wide soundstage with a rock-solid center image suspended between the two speakers. The sound was at once detailed and non-fatiguing—not an easy feat!
Vinnie Rossi dropped a bombshell the week leading up to AXPONA: he would be showing his new speaker, the Stiletto 15 ($19,995/pair). What!? I was excited to hear this out-of-the-box open-baffle speaker (pun intended). Technically only the woofer is open baffle; the midrange and tweeter are in a separate sealed enclosure that sits atop the woofer cabinet. The design is striking and, unlike most box speakers, could comfortably fit into the décor of a real-world living space. Other colors will be offered, but the details are yet to be determined. Despite sporting a 15” woofer the Stilettos are very compact and won’t dominate a room. The speakers were driven by Vinnie’s L2 Signature preamp ($16,995) and monoblocks ($15,995/pair). The speakers were placed on the long wall, wide apart with considerable toe-in.
The resulting sound was lovely—smooth, detailed, expansive soundstage, and bass that felt just right. Vinnie credits the open-baffle design for how nicely the 15” woofer coupled to the relatively small hotel room. The Stiletto 15 is a fun speaker, and I wouldn’t mind spending more quality time getting to know it.
Retailer Tenacious Sound was showing two EgglestonWorks speakers: the Nico EVO bookshelf ($4,295) and the Kiva floorstander ($14,995). The Nico EVOs were driven by a Primare I35 integrated ($6,499) and the Kivas were driven by the CODA Technologies CSiB v2 integrated ($6,200). The Wolf Audio Systems Luna Music Server ($3,600) was streaming music to the TAD DA1000 DAC ($13,995). Audience SX and Ohno cables tied everything together. The photo above was taken on the first day when only the Nico EVO was being played. I stopped back on the second day so I could hear the Kivas (the positions of the speakers were swapped). The Kivas are a relatively large speaker, and they play like one. That also means that they need some space. While they sounded very good, I suspect they would really come into their own in a larger room.
Rainbow Audio, a US distributor of Italian brands, was still dialing in placement of Marco Serri Design’s Gran Torino speakers ($14,995) when I visited their room. These 3.5-way speakers have a 1” soft dome tweeter, two 6.7” midrange drivers with different roll-off points, and a side-firing 10.5” woofer that’s front-ported. The blue metallic fleck finish is called “Deep Cosmic Blue” (also available in “Starry Garnet Red”). Angstrom Audiolab’s Stella line of components was on display, but I’m not sure whether the integrated amp or the preamp/stereo amp combo was driving the speakers. Either way, 100W of pure class A power was on tap.
The sound of the Jeff Rowland Design Group room was smooth. Were it not so busy I could have tarried here for some time soaking in the beauty that was emanating from the Vivid Audio KAYA 90 speakers ($26,000). The Rowland gear consisted of their Model 625 S2 Stereo Amplifier ($15,900), Corus Preamplifier ($14,900), Conductor Phono Preamplifier ($8,500-$13,600), and Aeric DAC ($9,800).
This was my first time hearing MBL equipment, and the experience did not disappoint! Being an omnidirectional speaker I was expecting a large sound field, which I got, but I was impressed that the speakers imaged as well as they did. The bass was strong and tuneful without being boomy like many of the other rooms. This was one of the best-sounding rooms at the show. The all-MBL system was comprised of the 101E Mk.2 loudspeakers ($70,500/pair), 4x N15 monoblock amplifiers ($35,600/pair), N11 preamplifier ($14,600), and the Noble Line N31 CD player/DAC ($15,400).
The Gayle Sanders’ Eikon Audio Image1 speaker system (their emphasis) was on my short list heading into AXPONA. The $25,000 system includes a preamp processor that performs Wavelet room correction, digital crossover, and D-to-A conversion that sends four XLR cables to each of the speakers’ built-in amplifiers (one per driver). Given how progressive this product is I’m surprised Eikon isn’t using some kind of bundled, proprietary cable to cut down on the rats nest of wires running to each speaker (don’t forget about the power cable!). Nits aside, the speakers produced prodigious bass, especially given their compact footprint. No doubt the Wavelet room correction was doing its best to keep them from overloading the room. The Image1 is an impressive system that needs only a source to be a complete audio system.
In the Audio Note room they were debuting their new TT3 turntable (€ 8500 without arm), but it wasn’t the star. Presenter Vincent Bélanger, a cellist on Audio Note’s label, was. Vincent was DJ-ing his own music, which is beautiful, and I’m told that he also performed for attendees. Unfortunately, I missed out on that experience.
Daedalus, Linear Tube Audio, and WyWires—I’ve heard this combo before and the result was the same: sweet music that instantly drew me in. That might not seem impressive, but at a show where you’re constantly moving from room to room it’s easy to become aurally fatigued. This room was a respite.
Here’s something you don’t see very often: a 5-channel Magnepan music system. ExaSound was showing off their Gamma Music Server ($2,500) feeding their e38 Mark II 8-channel DAC ($3,999). This was one of the more interesting demos of the show.
By day Aaron manages a design, development, and marketing company that makes the web a better place to shop, one ecommerce site at a time. By night he enjoys listening to music with his very supportive and enthusiastic audiophile wife.