Chicago’s annual audio show, now the biggest hi-fi gathering in North America, relocated to a new venue for 2018 and Trevor Butler went Stateside to find out how the move went down with audiophiles. Rather amusingly referred to by some of my BBC friends as ‘the one-ten volt show’, Axpona is an acronym for Audio Expo North America and has its roots in the old Summer CES event. It’s now boasting the largest turnout of hi-fi brands with well over 160 exhibits and listening rooms along with a further 80 booths. The three-day show provided the perfect opportunity for virtually every dealer in Illinois to participate along with importers, distributors and manufactures.
The modern, if slightly soulless, Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Centre hosted the biggest consumer audio show seen in the US for quite some time. Event Director Liz Miller was rightly proud as she hosted the media for a breakfast on the first morning and led a tour of the facility.
A comprehensive report on every exhibit is totally impractical, not least because many (if not most) of the new products unveiled will also be at Munich High End for Editor Kennedy to report. Instead, here is a very personal review of the equipment and people I found most interesting in Chicago, one way and another, plus the rooms which gave me the greatest listening pleasure. Best wine award has to go to Triangle, the French speaker firm, who also happen to own three vineyards. Despite that, Hugo Decelle’s heart remains in hi-fi so the brand continues apace and has created a dedicated US wing. See part 2 in the coming week for more from Axpona.
It was the first time we had met, we calculated, since the Heathrow Penta show of 1992, and Gayle Sanders is just as I remember him. The founder of Martin Logan, he retired from the industry in 2005 after 30 years at the head of the electrostatics giant to explore other avenues but found he could just not stay away from hi-fi. Now back with not only a new brand but a new concept, he used Chicago for the world launch of something rather exciting – Eikon. Worthy of an entire feature article, his new venture begins with a digital active loudspeaker system featuring the elegant Image 1 transducer with its waveguide-loaded AMT tweeter with 5-inch mid plus a pair of 8-inch woofers (one front, one back) with an onboard Class-D amplifier module for each driver. The real magic, though, is in the accompanying Eikontrol [get the pun?] DSP unit with wavelet analysis rather than the more usual FFT techniques.
The combination came about after four-years of development thanks to the improvements in DSP technology. Offering a complete package combining DAC, preamp, active speakers, room tuning and virtually limitless EQ, the units are hand-built in Connecticut and feature the incredible talents of digital guru Bernt Böhmer of Böhmer Audio of Sweden who has maximised the advantages of wavelet signal processing to control and eliminate “destructive energy”. Just add a digital or analogue source of choice, or stream, and benefit from easy control with smartphone, tablet or computer from this $24,500 package.
I had a sneak preview, and the sonic capabilities are obviously phenomenal. This could be the beginning of the future of home audio such was the success of the demonstration. Lows were extended yet controlled, the soundstage larger than life, definition superb and vocals as lifelike as one could demand begin both natural and tonally accurate. I can’t wait for UK distribution. To say that everything else on show was rather tame by comparison would be unfair, if not that far from the truth. Gayle’s done it again by all accounts.
There are horns a plenty in Chicago I discover, and some wooden horns. But, then there are Burwell & Son’s wooden horns from San Francisco. Wow! Interesting because they are so sustainable: constructed using recycled timber (here both birch and burr walnut looking gorgeous) and reclaimed drive units (in this case from Altec) by proprietor Gordon Burwell who is one of the industry’s larger-than-life characters. I was drawn from the corridor by Madeline Peyroux’s ‘Careless Love’ on LP powered by the new Rogers PA-1A phono preamp (with adjustable loading) and matching power units. Made by hand in New York, this company has no connection with the Chinese loudspeaker producer which took over the British speaker brand. The warm and involving, almost enveloping sound was just addictive. It was clear that a lot of time had been taken to ensure this system was on-song. I found myself here for far longer than the ten minutes I had allocated for each room.
There was a Swedish twist in a fabulous-sounding room on the top floor of the hotel’s tower block in the shape of two-and-a-half-way Larsen 8 loudspeakers which are designed to be space-saving by standing against the wall. The room was packed and visitors appeared to enjoy the open sound and delicate vocals of Linda Ronstadt’s ‘What’s New’ accompanied by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra on vinyl generating an impressive 3D soundstage and serious deep bass down to a quoted 23Hz. The positioning and angle of the Scan-Speak drive units (operating in separate chambers) is unique and flanked by absorptive materials. A light-polymer membrane tweeter from the same manufacturer is aided by a stainless steel plate and managed to create a delicious top-end. The source was a Peter Mezek Pear Audio turntable from Slovenia with the brand’s Blue Reference electronics, complete with wood-effect fascia panels to round-off one of the most pleasant experiences of the Show.
Also with a rooftop view was the Alexander Suite which featured exquisite little Italian Lignea stand-mount speakers offering curves-a-plenty in a $6,000 package which was rather musical and most enjoyable thanks to sensible selection of jazz in the form of ‘Handel Goes Wild’ on CD. These alternated with the much larger and considerably more expensive Piega MLS (Master Line Source) 2s at $88,000 a pair and proved, to my ears, less convincing in the confines of a hotel suite. An Accuphase integrated and Resolution Audio CD source were pressed into service here.
Having heard the mighty Avant Garde horn array at a succession of shows around the globe recently, in Chicago the set-up was rather different. Elsewhere they are positioned in enormous, vacuous spaces and operate almost as sound-reinforcement units to give a wow factor to a large audience. At Axpona the listeners were virtually in the nearfield and enjoyed a more delicate, refined performance from these $150,000 greats finished in a stunning metallic light amber bronze. A far cry from the garish orange or red which are the usual option for on-the-road demonstrations. Interesting to see how this model can be used in a completely different way for such a different effect. I loved it!
Along the corridor I found what I considered the Bargain of the Show – the line-source LFT-8b panels from Eminent Technology. At $2,500 a pair they are an absolute steel, sounding so delicate and detailed as they did when fed a live recording of Tchaikovsky from the Israeli PO’s first performance in Moscow. The Auranas room featured Conrad Johnson electronics alongside their own new product, a 2TB music storage system and the first in what’s set to be a new line-up of products by this Chicago software house led by maths graduate Ron Hoering. The key, I am told, is in the assurance of digital storage relying on a variety of backup strategies, both local and remote, as well as integrity scans to ensure that stored music remains intact.
The first of several open-reel recorders I saw pressed into service was a totally re-conditioned Mara Labs JH110. Hardly recognisable apart from the logo and outer case, the works have been completely replaced and an extra, fourth replay head added. Played into a pair of Joseph Audio Pearl 3 floor-standers, the result was spectacular. With tweeter and midrange housed in separate enclosure, they are isolated from the twin aluminium-cone woofers beneath. I discover that a field array of tiny yet powerful magnets are spaced around the edge of the tweeter’s voice coil which allows the area behind the dome to be clear of anything reflective. The 25Hz bass extension was certainly believable as my insides resonated during a memorable performance from an 10-inch NAB spool.
On the road it’s great to meet real enthusiasts and Denver’s Steven Norber, founder and designer of Prana Fidelity products, fits the bill perfectly. He clearly had a strong local following from his days at EDGE Electronics; the room was packed and he greeted his supporters warmly. He waxed enthusiastically about his creations, and was proud to demonstrate the smaller, stand-mount Bhara ($4950) which is being added to the range, and larger floor-standing Vayu. In their pillar box red they were dominating the small room My preference in these conditions was for the Bhara which proved itself a competent design where special attention had been paid to the bass loading by using angled rear panels to minimise standing waves. The twin 6-inch woofers were adequate to capture meaningful LF and coupled well with the 1.2-inch soft-dome tweeter to produce some detailed and transparent top-end. I’ve no doubt we will be hearing more from Steve.
An enormous space, enough for two football pitches, housed some 80 stalls, mainly devoted to smaller items including a vast array of headphones, accessories, software (both analogue and digital). I was persuaded to try the KSE1500 in-ear electrostatic from Shure. The £2,999 unit comes complete with amp and DAC but need either a digital or analogue source and I attached my iPhone before twiddling the four-band parametric equaliser. Here is a product that was eight-years in development (the lengthy R&D partly justifying the price) and it’s a technology which Shure say they will develop, so we can expect to see more-affordable models in the line-up.
The vast open space afforded by the indoor arena was clearly a mecca for many while my highlight in Expo Hall was from Serbian manufacturer I have been following with interest. The newly-launched valve Auris Headonia is the latest product in an increasing range and described as a supreme headphone amplifier capable of driving two pairs at once. Beautifully styled, it has independent impedance selectors to cater for a wide range of headphones.
Making the journey from Hillsborough, New Jersey was Amped America’s boss Boris Meltsner. He’d brought his latest electronics to use alongside a $7,500 Triarco Art turntable – and pretty good they sounded too. The new stereo AMP2400 power amp is capable of 400W/ch of Class D with both XLR and phono inputs offered. There was decent weight to the sound while transient response appeared excellent with plenty of attack and decent timing from Supertramp ‘live’. The unit is solidly made and is aimed not only at hi-fi users but also home theatre installations, multi-room and surround-sound set-ups. Best of all, it’s designed and assembled in the USA, comes with a two-year warranty and adapts to different mains voltages.
Every so often at shows it is the sound which draws the visitor to the room – this in contrast to well-known show phenomenon of a sound driving one away. Even from the corridor it was clear that the Gauder Akustik Berlina RC7 with optional diamond tweeter (the German brand formerly known as Isophon) was on good form. Melodic even. Driven by Western Electric’s literally-glowing 91E tube amp, the sound was as enjoyable as you can get. This Class A single-ended 300B triode design, with zero negative feedback, created a warm, involving sound. The mighty speakers are unusual in form with almost wing-shaped cabinets comprised of ribbed layers sandwiched with silicone dampening. Great engineering producing a moreish sound.