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AXPONA 2019 Show Report By Enjoy the Music.com

AXPONA 2019 Show Report -- Audio Expo North America
AXPONA 2019 Coverage By Rick Becker -- Part 7


  After finishing the third floor on Sunday morning I retreated to my Tracker in the parking lot for my usual lunch consisting of fine road food washed down with sparkling Mt. Dew from a freshly opened bottle. With snow coming down at a steady pace, I was glad I arrived early enough to get a parking space closer to the door.


The Big Rooms, 1st Floor
Starting at the boardrooms by the main hotel entrance, I first encountered Wilson Audio speakers driven by the new large ARC (Audio Research Corporation) REF160M monoblocks ($30k/pr) in the Knowledge Room. This was the first of three rooms in this cluster hosted by Quintessence Audio of Morton Grove, about 15 miles north of downtown Chicago. Racks and amp stands were by Critical Mass Systems and competed with the amps themselves on the basis of industrial beauty. dCS provided the digital front end with items from their new series while AMG turntable and Clearaudio cartridge were involved in the analog front ends.




Kubala-Sosna supplied the cabling. The price of the monoblocks is indicative of the rest of the room, which sounded good jamming with a live recording of electric blues during the brief time I spent here but I was more drawn into the music in their following two rooms.



The second boardroom hosted by Quintessence Audio was next door in the Perfection where Sonus Faber Amati Tradition speakers ($29,900) were driven by Moon electronics. (850P preamp $35k, 760a monoblocks $16k/pr, 780 V2 Streaming DAC $15k, and an 820@ power supply $8k.). I had poked my head into this room at the end of the day on Friday or Saturday and mentioned the aluminum tower next to the AMG Giro 5th turntable with Turbo arm ($13,500) fitted with DS Audio's new E1 optical phono cartridge system ($2750). The tower spews out "fancy air" to eliminate static above the LP. Formal introduction followed in Munich. Cables, again, were by Kubala-Sosna and were undoubtedly upper-end lines, although they also make a number of less expensive series. This room was more inviting for me than the previous Quintessence Audio room.




The third room hosted by Quintessence Audio was the Connection boardroom where Sonus Fabers flagship Aida speakers were driven by the 1.5kW McIntosh monoblocks, fortified by a complete McIntosh rig. In my view, Quintessence put on a Good/Better/Best presentation at AXPONA, and this room was the best. The Aida speakers conceal a suspended rod/weight for canceling low frequency vibrations. The back spine of the speaker houses not only thin vertical ports, but also mid and high frequency drivers that can be adjusted for volume and the soundstage depth they create with three knobs. Expensive? Yes, but also the finest design and craftsmanship that is at the top, but not over the top. From Italy, as you might expect and the result was another of the Best Rooms at the show.



In the lobby area formed by the boardrooms was another set of Sonus Faber speakers from their Reference Series, IL Cremonese, driven by yet another pair of 1.5kw McIntosh monoblocks and a rack full of their gear topped off with their MT10 turntable system with the blue dial indicating the speed of the belt driven platter. In addition to the four forward facing drivers on the speakers were a pair of bass drivers (or passive radiators?) on a rearward facing façade to augment the bass.



Paragon Sight & Sound out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, filled the Imagination boardroom with a red theme extending from the Clearaudio turntable to the Rogers High Fidelity integrated amp on through to the Wilson Audio speakers. (Clearaudio Ovation with 9" arm and custom finish, $11k; Clearaudio Talisman V2 cartridge, $2k; Rogers KWm 88 Corona integrated amp, $14k; Rogers PA2 phono stage, $7300; Wilson Alexia 2 speakers w/upgraded finish, $59,900.) I was not impressed by this rig on Friday when I drifted in after the show had closed, but by Sunday it had improved considerably... or perhaps it was just the music being played was better this day.





In the hall between the Imagination room just visited and the final boardroom in the cluster I encounter Peter McGrath who typically sets up Wilson speakers at major shows and he invited me into the Innovation boardroom, also hosted by Paragon Sight & Sound. Here, was an entirely different story with Wilson Audio Alexx towers ($109k) supplemented with a pair of Subsonic bass towers ($75k) featuring three 12" woofers each. After a female vocalist recording, Peter played some of his own masterful recordings of solo piano, organ music recorded in a cathedral and men's chorale music. The music was effortless and revealing of the venues due in part to the unrestricted contributions of the Subsonic bass towers. Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems provided pre and power amplification, the latter with both a Relentless Monoblock ($250k/pr) and a Progression Mono amplifier ($38k/pr) offering 1500 and 500 Watts each, respectively.

A Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable ($54k) with a Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge ($16k) was present, but the music I heard was digitally sourced through the new dCS Vivaldi One with a special nickel finish ($92k) and dCS Master Clock ($15k) front end. Unlike some much larger rooms that I have yet to come to, the rig here sounded "right sized" for the room and was one of the few Very Best Rooms at the show. Roughly speaking, the system cost $800k, plus almost $125k worth of Transparent Reference cables and power conditioner. When you're spending this kind of money, factor in a bit more to have Peter McGrath and crew set it up for you or you will be wasting more than you care to know. The audience (and these were not people who seemed to be coming and going very readily) were extremely attentive to the music, which tells you a lot.



Along the exterior wall of the Innovation boardroom was a row of Clearaudio turntables. Normally my eye would have seen this lineup as a great photo op. Maybe I was tired, or maybe the shot was too clinched, but I did zero in on the one turntable that had this interesting record clamp combining aluminum and plywood comprised of about eighteen layers. (I had the advantage of blowing up the original photo to count them.) Their logo with the (R) registered on top was a fine touch. Clearaudio also makes a phono cartridge using this high-density plywood for the body. Life is in the details and in this hobby, everything matters.




Moving on down the hall at the small Inspiration boardroom I encountered Sandy Gross, mastermind of the highly acclaimed and successful Golden Ear Technology speaker line busy texting during a lull in his room. His Triton One.R speakers ($6k) were driven by the new Prima Luna EVOseries of tube gear in their North American premier. The McIntosh piece shown here is their MT500 SACD/CD transport (only). Continuing to the right are PrimaLuna's Evolution Series Evo 400 monoblock ($9398/pr), Evo 100 Tube DAC (Yes, tube!), and Evo 400 preamp ($4499). The older Dialogue and Prologue series are being phased out, if you haven't heard already, and replaced by the Evolution line that contains multiple models in each category (except DAC) covering a variety of price points. (The EVO 400 series is the most expensive.)

AudioQuest provided the cable loom in this room hosted by Saturday Audio Exchange on the north side of Chicago, about three blocks in off the lake. This was a nice presentation of appropriately priced gear, but I recall once hearing the top Triton speaker driven by much more expensive components, and the speaker rose to the occasion, showing its true value. The Beach Boys singing "In My Room" made me realize I was already a third of the way to California.



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