AXPONA 2019 Show Report -- Audio Expo North America
AXPONA 2019: Monstrous Fun in the Windy City
This sonics were remarkable right from the first needle drop on a UK Vertigo pressing of Dire Straits 1979 sophomore release, Communique. Revealing remarkable clarity and focus, the warmth and texture of Knopfler's vibrant string tone, including its naturally trailing decay, was superb. Instrumental individuality was exceptional.
The bite and bluster of horns, as well as their timbre and texture from the opening of the Chesky Scheherazade reissue was chilling. Further, the way the system rendered delicacy with strings, the space of the recording, and its ability to resolve fine detail, were all highly engaging. Bass was just a bit light in impact and overall definition, and staging was a tad foreshortened, but both minor deficits were most likely room related.
434 – Raidho
Benno knows I'm an LP guy, so when I walked in, it was vinyl all the way, using the new VPI 40th Anniversary HP-40 turntable with their Fatboy Anniversary arm ($15,000), fitted with an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze cartridge ($2,100).
As an aside here, Mat Weisfeld of VPI was one of the busier men at this show, as VPI had more than sixteen, that's right, I said over sixteen, VPI turntables running at this show. In fact, as part of their AXPONA promotion they had distributed VPI Bingo cards to show goers with the first sixteen (they realized they missed some after the show was up and running) of their ‘tables listed on a four-by-four Bingo styled card, naming the company showing it and their room number. If the card-holder traveled to every one of those rooms, getting every space on the card "punched," they earned a Medal entitling them to a nice discount on the purchase of their choice of VPI table. What a clever, and effective, marketing tool!
Chord electronics comprised the rest of the system in 434, starting with the Chord Symphonic Phono Stage ($4,495). While we played only LPs while I was in the room, digital playback was handled by the Chord DAVE DAC ($11,500) and Chord Blu MKII CD Transport with MScaler ($10,800).
The Chord CPA 5000 Preamplifier ($17,900) handed off to a pair of Chord SPM 1400 MKII Monoblocks ($27,700/pr.), which drove the new Raidho TD 4.2 loudspeakers ($126,000 Black/$147,000 Walnut), which were making their World Primer at this event. All cabling was GamuT Reference Series, including the speaker cables ($5,800/3M), interconnects ($2,990/1M), and power cables ($4,290/2M).
The new TD4.2 incorporates a myriad of enhancements. Adding the coating of the elemental metal tantalum to the already excellent diamond-impregnated drivers (hence, the TD model number) yields an even stiffer, five-layer, cone with even greater inner damping. The motor upgrades include stronger magnets, an improved voice-coil, and a new SD cap. In fact, the new motor is so different that Raidho has applied for a patent. The tweeter has also seen a serious redesign, including a much more powerful magnetic/motor system. Finally, an enclosure tuning approach, much like that employed in the Zodiac, has been adapted for cabinet damping of the TD4.2, resulting in both deeper extension and a more natural overall presentation.
While I've always appreciated the degree of transparency and clarity the Raidho products delivered, they seemed to have a slightly dark balance and were slightly analytical for my tastes. The TD4.2 delivered everything we threw at it with in an overwhelming neutral, hauntingly natural, and still remarkably transparent manner. This system offered frighteningly realistic texture to voices, with a sense of both space and body that was chillingly credible, with instruments recreated in remarkably realistic size, texture, and tone. And for a speaker with such a narrow footprint, it created a sense of dynamism you would not necessarily expect at first encounter. Microdynamic expressiveness was stellar, approaching the best I've yet heard. My hat is off to Benno, Raidho, and Dantax for a job well done!
388 – Esoteric
The system also included the Esoteric N-03T Network Audio Transport ($11,000), and the Esoteric Grandioso G1 Rubidium Master Clock ($26,000). The linestage was the Esoteric Grandioso C1, which in turn fed the Esoteric Grandioso S1 stereo amplifier ($27,000), rated at 150 Wpc into 8 Ohms. Speakers were the over-achieving Avantgarde Uno XD (32,000/pr.), all cabling was from AudioQuest, and all room treatment, courtesy of Auralex.
Everyone who knows me knows I'm an analog guy, including Scott Sefton, Esoteric's National Sales Manager. However, Scott knows of both my ultimate desire to be format agnostic, and of my affinity for the Esoteric sonic signature. He had made a point to reach out to me before AXPONA to alert me to this new product introduction, and as such, there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity to hear the first upgrades to the Esoteric flagship digital playback products in nearly a decade.
Those who remember the dawn of "Perfect Sound Forever," will likely recall that the very first DACs were not Integrated into chips, but were built using discreet resister "ladders." In fact, some of the subjectively best sounding Digital to Analog Converters over the years have been of that ilk, not based on chipsets from the likes of Sabre or AKM.
The new P1X uses an entirely new transport, improving on Esoteric's Vibration-Free Rigid Disc-Clamping System, implementing an entirely new mechanism, with a much wider and lower center of gravity, leverages their own digital signal transmission interface utilizing HDMI cables, uses a multilayer, dual-chassis construction with a semi floating top panel, employs four independent toroidal power supply transformers and low-feedback DC regulators, and uses electric double-layer super capacitors.
The D1X employs what Esoteric has labeled the Master Sound Discrete DAC, with 64-bit resolution, supporting playback of 22.5MHz DSD, 768kHz PCM audio, and MQA, with all processing handled by Esoteric's own programmable FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array), and using their discrete resister "ladder" circuit design, as well as leveraging all the electronic and mechanical advantages used on the P1X.
During the demo, Scott played a number of optical discs for me, both Redbook CD and SACD, and I was also able to hear some of my own reference digital files. What I heard portrayed from these new Esoteric flagship components in this system was perhaps the single most accurate and musically engaging digital playback I've yet heard. Playing "Underture" from the Who's Tommy SACD revealed instrumental individuality and microdynamic shadings I've never heard expressed from that disc prior.
With this system, I heard the most refined, articulate, resolving, transparent, harmonically complete, spatially accurate, natural sounding digital playback, complete with texture, bloom, and timbral accuracy, in a manner that set a new personal milestone for me. This system rendered the most amazing sense of space, complex tonal density, and air in a way that I have rarely, if ever, heard from a digital rig. In short, my time in the Esoteric room here at AXPONA proved to be the most engagingly musical digital playback I have had the pleasure to experience.
First up was the Kronos Reference Phono Stage ($45,000), a newly completed assault on the State-Of-The-Art reference tubed phono stage is the result of a three-year collaboration project with Greece's TruLife Audio electronics team. The Phono is the final piece of the system that Louis calls the Complete Analog Solution, which includes the Kronos Pro turntable, ($42,000), the Kronos Black Beauty tonearm with carbon fiber Armboard ($12,375), the Kronos SCPS 1 Power Supply ($15,000), with all Kronos upgraded Reference Umbilical Cables ($5,400). The only thing missing was the purpose-built stand that supports the entire solution.
Next up, the new Mola Mola Tabaqui DAC ($13,400) from Bruno Putzeys. Paired with an Auralic Aries G2 Streamer ($4,000), this was one MIGHTY impressive sounding digital front end. That seemed to be a theme for me at this event. I found it to encroach on analog in several ways, most notably, its ability to render open and focused space and air, nicely dense texture, and vivid tone. I'm looking forward to getting a chance to spend more time with this DAC.
Amplification was from Germany's Audionet, with their astounding flagship Stern preamplifier ($45,000), and Heisenberg monoblocks ($105,000/pr.), driving the third product making its premier showing here, the new YG Acoustics Vantage Loudspeaker ($32,800/pr.), while all cabling was the from the Kubala-Sosna flagship Realization series.
A compact three-way floor stander, occupying the position between the Carmel 2 and Hailey 2, it naturally incorporates key YG Acoustics technologies. This speaker is somewhat unique to me in that it is the first product released of late not to bear the name of one of founder Yoav Giva's family members.
While this room didn't quite reach the absolute heights of last year's performance when showing with the nearly six-times-more-expensive YG Acoustics Sonja XV Jr. ($189,600), it was still astonishing and deserving of being categorized among the very best presentations at the show. And as stunning as the analog playback was, I was really taken with how neutral and warm digital playback was with the new Tabaqui DAC.
The immediacy, resolution, and transparency to the sources, as well as the natural, honest sense of body and space, were all there, with just the slightest diminishment of power, impact, and scale. Yet everything I heard on this system had an unmistakable clarity, accuracy, offered with insightful focus, revealing resolution, and splendid bloom. An utterly remarkable accomplishment for a system anchored by a $33,000 loudspeaker!