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AXPONA 2018 Show Report By Enjoy the Music.com
AXPONA 2018 Show Report -- Audio Expo North America

AXPONA 2018 EarGear Expo Show Report
Personal audio products that impressed at AXPONA's EarGear Expo 2018.
AXPONA 2018 Show Report By Dave Hanson


Perfect Seal Laboratories
There were in-ear monitors aplenty for the pro audio attendees at AXPONA 2018. Among them was Perfect Seal Laboratories, a mostly musician-focused custom in-ear manufacturer from Wichita, Kansas. They brought a robust lineup of CIEMs ranging from about $300 to nearly $1,500, and I got a chance to sit down and sample a few different models.



As an audiophile, I was a little lukewarm on some of the models, which were clearly built to emphasize certain frequencies for musicians on stage. The monitor that really stuck out to me was the flagship Deca ($1,450). It was by far the most neutral and resolving IEM I tried from their lineup, with great tonal balance across the entire frequency spectrum, fantastic separation and detail, and very natural an realistic timbre. I think this is definitely one that could be enjoyed by audio professionals and audiophiles alike.


Schiit Audio
Few, if any manufacturers in the audiophile hobby understand market forces better than Schiit Audio. They always seem to be a step ahead of the game and ready to pop in with the right product for the right moment.  Consolidated amp/DAC combos have been rising in popularity over separates and the momentum behind multi-bit DACs is at an all time high, so how about putting it all together in a couple neat little packages?



Enter the solid state Jotunheim Multibit ($399) and tube hybrid Lyr 3 Multibit ($499). Both of these amp/DAC combos can be ordered with your choice of a multi-bit DAC card (+$200), 4490 DAC (+$100), phono preamp (+$100), or as a standalone amplifier.

But the differences don't end there. Lyr 3 introduces two new technologies: Coherence and Continuity, eliminating the need for inter-stage coupling capacitors and providing constant transconductance in the output stage. Lyr 3 also ditches the the pair of 6922 tubes used in the first 2 generations of Lyr, substituting in a single 6SN7 – a nice move from both sonic and budgetary standpoints.

I gave both amplifiers a listen and enjoyed what I heard. Both were a little warmer and more forgiving than what I normally expect from Schiit's gear. The Lyr 3 had a nice dose of wetness and liquidity without smoothing over the dynamics like the Lyr 1 or veering a little too dry like Lyr 2. Jotunheim Multibit also packed a pretty solid dynamic punch. While I wasn't able to compare it head-to-head with the 4490 version, it seemed a little bit warmer than I remember too. From what I can tell, it seems like the multi-bit DAC cards offer a very nice compliment to both amplifiers.


This has been a big year for Sennheiser, who has, in the time since last AXPONA, launched updates of two legendary headphones with the HD 820 S ($2,399) and HD 660 S ($499). The HD 800 has been my personal reference headphone for several years, so I was interested to get some time with the new closed version, the HD 820 S.



I found the HD 820 S to be very similar to the popular HD 800 S with a very slightly warmer tilt. Bass response was a little more robust and the treble was also a bit less splashy relative to the HD 800 S. I was surprised to find that the soundstage and imaging on the HD 820 S were very close to its open counterpart, projecting the wide-open feel the 800 series is known for.


The HD 660 S is an update of the classic HD 650 and a nice improvement overall to my ears (read our full review of the Sennheiser HD 660 S over-ear headphones here). While the frequency balance is essentially the same, but the HD 660 S seems a little faster in decay relative to the occasional sluggishness of the HD 650. The HD 660 S also just feels a little airier overall without straying too far from the HD 650's classic dense presentation.


Shure always makes a showing at their hometown audio extravaganza, and this year was no different. One headphone from their lineup I've been meaning to spend more time with is their open back SRH1840 ($499). The sound was immediately likeable. Spacious with just a little hint of warmth – a very enjoyable headphone to listen to.



Of course, Shure also sports one of the very best earphones on the market today with their flagship IEM, KSE1500 ($2,999). This is a full system, complete with the IEM, electrostatic amplifier and a DAC. The one weak point of this system is the DAC, which isn't quite up to par with the rest of it. However, we got a little bit of good news after the show that Shure will be introducing the KSE1200 ($1,999), which is essentially the KSE1500 without the DAC. This is a nice option to have, and for a lot of audiophiles, I think it will make the Shure electrostatic IEMs a much more intriguing option.


Speaking of electrostatic headphones, Stax is celebrating their 80th anniversary this year, and they are releasing a number of limited edition products to celebrate the occasion.



The SR-L300 Limited ($720) will be a tempting option for people who are lucky enough to get an opportunity to pick one up, as there are only 800 units available. This limited edition set of earspeakers combines the drivers from the SR-L700 ($1,425), pads from the SR-L500 ($720) and the body of the SR-L300 ($420) into a single package that sounds pretty close to the SR-L700 at about half the price.

Stax has also released an 80th Anniversary edition amplifier, the SRM-353XBK ($990) in a limited run of 300 units. I heard these limited edition pieces together, and the sound was absolutely spectacular. Wide-open, effortless, transparent and detailed as the day is long. This is, without question, an end-game electrostatic rig, and for the price, it's an absolute steal. If I had the cash to swing it, I would have bought it on the spot.


Wells Audio
Wells Audio makes some of my favorite amplifiers, for both headphones and two-channel stereo. The tone is rich and natural, and they all seem to have a sort of rhythmic tactility to them that makes you want to dance whenever you listen to them. The Wells Milo Enjoy the Music.com reviewed ($1,699) even took home our Blue Note award last year as one of our favorite pieces of gear.



Now Jeff Wells has taken the Milo design to the extreme, pairing down his flagship Headtrip Reference ($14,999) to its most essential basics to create the Milo Reference ($4,999). This ultra-powerful amplifier offers truckloads of deep resolution to milk the absolute best out of hard-to-drive planars and high impedance dynamics. I got a chance to hear it with a number of great headphones including the ZMF Auteur, Abyss AB-1266 and HiFiMAN HE1000, and it absolutely rocked with all of them, putting you right there with the musicians. It's definitely another level of transparency, and it gets you very close to the Headtrip ($7,000) sonically for about $2,000 less, and does it in a smaller footprint.


Woo Audio
Woo Audio shared a nice private room upstairs with MrSpeakers, complete with a bar and actual sunlight from actual windows. It was a nice break from the show floor, and it's always a treat to sit back and enjoy the buffet of good sound from Woo's lovely tube amps and their collection of ultra high-end headphones.



The flagship WA-33 ($7,999) is far and away one of my favorite amplifiers, particularly when it's paired with the HiFiMAN Susvara ($5,999) or the Abyss AB-1266 Phi ($5,495). It's sound is completely unrestrained, with wide-open dynamics and an airy, extended soundscape that doesn't seem to have any borders. It is simply one of the most transparent amplifiers on the planet today.



Woo has also taken some of these ideas and used them to create an electrostatic counterpart to the WA-33: the new Woo Audio 3ES ($7,649). I got a chance to listen to the 3ES with the venerable Stax SR-009 ($3,799) and the sound was elegant and effortless. The SR-009 occasionally has the tendency to be a bit too far forward in it's approach, and the 3ES was able to balance it out perfectly, giving it the hint of warm naturalness it needed. Very, very well done!


AXPONA wouldn't be complete without Chicago's own ZMF in the house. Zach Mehrbach and co have been touring the audio show circuit hard, showcasing their new flagship Auteur I reviewed ($1,599), which is easily one of our favorite headphones to come out this year. The Auteur is pleasantly neutral with excellent depth layering and extremely satisfying dynamic impact. It's a great all-rounder that absolutely rocks with anything you throw at it.



ZMF also gave a little sneak peek at their new line of cables, the 7N OCC Auteur 2K Copper cable ($299) and the ZMF Silver Michanikos ($199). Both cables are absolutely lovely in their construction, hand braided to match the hand-crafted heirloom quality of the wooden headphones they are made for.


Final Thoughts
Holy smokes, what a show! And that was only a small sampling of all the many, many products on hand at the EarGear Expo.

I would say the biggest surprise that stood out to me was the JVC Exofield demo, which was able to fool my ears into thinking I was listening to speakers in the room. The technology around digital signal processing from custom HRTF measurements is truly fascinating and is beginning to really gain some steam now with products like JVC Exofield and the Smith Realizer A16. Even some of the less customized DSP technology like that of the Audeze Mobius is really captivating and immersive. I hope this technology really starts to take off and become attainable on a widespread basis in the coming years.

I was also really impressed by the excellent spread of high-end IEMs out there now. Both the audiophile and pro audio markets are really saturated with good options, especially if you've got a little money to spend.

We've got our hands on several of the products mentioned in this report and we have many more on the way, so stay tuned for a deeper dive on some of our favorites from AXPONA 2018 in our upcoming reviews!



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