It had been quite a number of years since I had attended an audio show, and I had declined a number of invitations over the past number of years to attend shows due conflicts with my day gig. When it was announced that Stereophile was sponsoring the AXPONA audio show in Jacksonville, Florida, just two and a half hours north of my Orlando home, I decided to jump in my virtually brand new 2009 Ice Blue Hyundai Accent GS and go on a short day long excursion. My wife Leslie decided to come along as well.
We got a rather late start as we were both running on little sleep: I had spent the previous afternoon in the dentist's chair having a root canal, and Leslie had taught a class the night before. When I awoke early Friday morning, I nearly threw in the towel and went back to bed. Then I remembered that I had promised my Editor that I would attend, so I grabbed a Mountain Dew from the refrigerator and washed down a couple of Tylenol, dragged myself to the shower, dressed and finally got out the door. We arrived in Jacksonville around 11 AM, concerned because I had only 2 hours to scope things out before the crowds arrived. I had already missed three precious hours that were devoted to the media. I need not have worried: Roy Hall of Music Hall put it best: "How did you ever get in here past all the crowds?" he dryly joked. A word of advice for those planning to attend a show: if you want to avoid the crowds (and we certainly did) go on a weekday: most people are at work.
My report will not list everything I saw and heard: rather I will use this space to highlight the best of what I heard, at least under show conditions. Shows are great for getting an idea of what may deserve further investigation but are not a good place for critical listening. That said, most rooms sounded better than I expected, and a few were stellar. Only a couple of rooms were really bad, and it had nothing to do with the cost of the gear, the two rooms (that shall remain unnamed) had gear on both sides of the economic spectrum, from very inexpensive (less than $1500 for a system) to quite expensive (six figures.)
Before we move on to the gear, I do feel the need to comment on one thing- musical choices -- while I was treated to Pink Floyd, Thomas Dolby, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Janis Ian, Natalie Merchant and Buena Vista Social Club, this was by far the minority. By the end of the day if I had heard just one more piece of jazz, I feared that I would either a) go find a sharp object to use to slit my wrists or b) go find the nearest stairwell and throw myself down the stairs. I heard one attendee complain of "audio overload"- I think it may have been "jazz overload." I left more than one room without introducing myself or taking notes because the demos (all jazz) were Dullsville. Want to get younger people involved? Tone down the jazz. Vendors should play what people want to hear, not what they think "shows off" their gear. It doesn't "show off" anything: it turns some people off instead- hardly the point of a show. Vendors need to play to their audience, and I will wager a guess that jazz is relevant to only a small percentage of attendees. Please do not misinterpret my comments. I do not dislike jazz. I just do not want to hear all jazz, all the time.
Speaking of gear, I saw very few CD/SACD players in use. Most rooms were using some sort of computer-based audio setup, a huge shift in only a few years. I estimate that approximately half of the systems were sporting a vinyl rig of some sort, ranging anywhere from modest to amazing.
The show was spread out over three floors, but only the bottom floor was filled with exhibitors: the two remaining floors above were sparsely populated. The first room I checked out was Channel D, showing their Pure Vinyl software for Mac OSX, which I reviewed for our March edition. I would also like to take the opportunity to apologize publicly for not using the "correct" associated gear (i.e. upsampling DAC) to review the software. Apparently I upset at least one reader. What I tried to convey (and obviously failed to do so) is that Pure Vinyl makes a drastic improvement in playback realism regardless of the associated equipment- something that the software designer Rob Robinson obviously understands as well. Vinyl was played using their Seta Model L Phono Stage ($3799 pictured above) to feed a RMEFireface 400 (Street Price approximately $1100) and on to the Mac Mini (this looks like the "perfect" setup- far different from what I used in my review, but the performance wasn't that much different, at least when playing back computer files, as opposed to playing vinyl.) From there he used a combination of Parasound Halo (and using Dr. Robinson's words) "ancient Hafler" amplification to give really good sound with a pair of passive subwoofers and stand mounted monitors. The crossover is built into the Pure Vinyl software itself, which is quite an achievement for only $229. And for those who are really watching their pennies, there is the newly introduced Pure Music (a stripped down playback only program) for only $99.
Do you remember being in school and having some type of "what doesn't fit" puzzle? Here's one for you: out of the following, what does not fit? Jumbo shrimp, military intelligence, sport Yugo, and good sounding iPod speakers? Until this show I would have said they were all oxymorons. Then I heard the AktiMate Mini ($700/pair pictured above) designed by Mike Creek and imported by Music Hall. Good sounding iPod speakers do exist after all. The Minis, available in several finishes include a top mounted iPod dock and sounded surprisingly good. They appear to be a great alternative for a music lover that desires something simpler than a traditional audio system, and it would also make a great second (or third) setup as well.
Also shown, but not connected, was the Music Hall 2.1 LE turntable ($499 including Goldring cartridge). As an aside, one of my local record haunts (Park Avenue CDs in Winter Park, Florida) keeps a 2.1 LE right by the cash register with a sign on it that says it is "the least expensive good turntable for those who really love their vinyl" (emphasis theirs). Also available for demo were Creek electronics, Epos speakers (Leslie loved the finish on these) and an upscale Music Hall turntable. Roy has promised a review sample of the latest Creek Evolution 5350 integrated amplifier ($1795) when a few more arrive Stateside from the U.K.
A funny thing happened when I introduced myself to Roy Hall- another gentleman was in the room and turned to introduce himself to me. It turns out that Mark Mawhinney, manufacturer of the Spin Clean Record Washer had decided to take a break from the cold Pittsburg weather. He told me that since no less than three reviews of the Spin Clean hit nearly simultaneously (Enjoy the Music.com was the first) he was backordered nearly 2000 units, due to an issue with the Pennsylvania supplier of the bright yellow plastic washing vat. It turns out that the owner had passed away, and the staff was having difficulty fulfilling orders in a timely fashion, resulting in a change of suppliers. The backorder situation should be straightened out in short order.
I paid a visit to Peter Ledermann, President of Sound Smith. While no stranger to vinyl lovers- he is one of the only (if not the only) cartridge re-builders in the United States, many may not be aware that he manufactures amplifiers, preamplifiers and speakers in addition to his own line of cartridges. Using a VPI HRX turntable ($12,500) equipped with both VPI and Shroeder arms, it was easy to compare both the Strain Gauge SG200 phono cartridge ($5500) to his new "conventional" phono cartridge, the low output Suussuro($4500) which, like the SG200, features adjustable SRA (Stylus Rank Angle) and azimuth at the cartridge itself. I am not sure which one of Peter's creations most impressed me, but his diminutive Dragonfly stand mounted 2 way speakers were certainly memorable, at a very reasonable $1500 for the pair. The electronics and turntable are pictured above. The cartridge mounted on the rear arm (the Shroeder) is the Strain Gauge SG200.
Audio Plus Services had a very clean display consisting of a MacBook feeding a Micromega AirStream. ($1495) Downstream from the AirStream (ahem) the signal went to the 35 watt per channel hybrid Pathos TT Anniversary integrated amplifier ($7695) and on to the Focal Electro 1020 BE loudspeakers ($8495 per pair). The sound quality was glorious, even under show conditions. The AirStream was quite cool- think if it as an Apple Airport Express on steroids- it basically does the same thing as the AE, but with much higher quality parts, and is 24 bit/96 kHz capable.
Glow Audio had two of their diminutive amplifiers available for demo connected to the exquisitely built Sonist Loudspeakers, hand made one pair at a time in Studio City CA. I was especially interested to hear the 5 watt per channel Glow Audio Amp One ($648), which was the recipient of a coveted Enjoy the Music.com Blue Note Award. It is always interesting to hear what another reviewer deems the "cream of the crop." And get it I did. I was also shown their new, as yet unnamed amplifier, which Glow Audio President Patrick Tang tells me will, like the Amp One, feature a built in USB DAC, but will put out 7 watts per channel using the dual envelope 832 tube. It will not be available internet direct- for this one you will have to schlep down to a dealer. Although a traditional dealer network is involved, the price is projected to be according to Patrick, "under $900."
Amplifiers don't run on their own, but both the Sonist Recital 3 ($1195 to 2195 depending on finish) as well as the Concerto 3 ($2995 to $4195 depending on finish) sounded fantastic mated to the Glow Audio units, and although I vastly preferred the Concerto 3s for their extended bass response (and higher efficiency) Sonist President Randy Bankert stated that the Recital 3 had "eighty percent of the performance for less than half the price." Speaking of price, I liked that the there was a wide range of prices within the same model to make the speakers more affordable to price conscious buyers. That said, once buyers see the top finish offerings, I believe many will be swayed to part with the extra cash.
Speaking of extra cash, if you have $48,000 lying around you might not go far wrong should you decide to spend it on a pair of Legacy Helix loudspeakers, which sounded tremendous fed by an Alon CD player and preamplifier connected to a pair of McIntosh 3 channel amplifiers. Imposing they are, but they are beautifully finished. The manufacturer states that the frequency response is 16 Hz to 30 kHz and no subwoofer required. Leslie's comment was "When you go, we can bury you in one." Ok by me and almost as good as Willie the Wimp and his Cadillac coffin!
I try to be objective, but deep down I really wanted to dislike the YG Acoustics/ Krell room. There is no such thing as a "best" speaker, but YG Acoustics has declared their speakers exactly that. It couldn't be so. It just couldn't. Are they the best speakers ever? I don't know, but I would rate them in my top 10. There is no denying that the build quality is, well, there is no word I can think of to convey how good the build quality is. And the sound was every bit as good as the build quality. The Anat Reference Studio ($70,000 per pair) was driven by the 400 watt per channel Krell 402 power amplifier ($18,000) fed by a stack of Krell electronics. Between the amplifiers in the speakers themselves, and the 402, we are talking 800 watts per side. There were some serious SPLs going as we jammed to tracks from Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick- witnessed by the fact that as I put my hand on the rear wall of the room, the wall was positively pulsating. Yet when I put my hand on the speaker, there was zero vibration, none, nada, zip. Seriously. Sound wise, I had no idea it was that loud- it was that effortless. I may run an all tube system at home, but if I ever won the Powerball.... I can dream, can't I?
Overall, I wish there had been more participants, and hopefully, there were more attendees over the weekend. There was a nice mix of affordable gear and statement systems. And although it may seem especially crass to display six figure systems in these trying economic times, it is nice to see and hear what manufacturers can do given an unlimited budget. There will always be those with tons of cash. Or maybe a buyer, after hearing a statement product, may buy a lower model from the same manufacturer.
I feared that after being exposed to some of the systems that I would be less than thrilled with my personal system. Fortunately, that was not the case as just like vacation I can visit, but I cannot stay. And to that that my system at home has one big bonus in that I have not listened to one single note of jazz since the show.