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AXPONA 2019 Show Report By Enjoy the Music.com

AXPONA Ear Gear Expo 2019 Show Report
Hi-Fi headgear blows through the Windy City.
AXPONA 2019 Show Report By Dave Hanson



  The 2019 AXPONA Ear Gear Expo brought a lot of familiar faces for the high-end personal audio community in a quieter listening environment than recent years. After years in the marketplace area, the Ear Gear Expo was moved one room over with a divider wall splitting it off from the market.

On the plus side, this made demo'ing gear a bit easier than it has been in past years, due to a significant reduction in ambient noise. On the downside, people seemed to have a little trouble actually finding the Expo, and traffic seemed to be significantly reduced from years past.



Nevertheless, the show was filled with plenty of new and still-developing products, so without further ado, let's get to it!




Schiit Audio
One of the most interesting new personal audio product launches at the show didn't even happen inside the Ear Gear Expo, it was actually up on the second floor, where Schiit Audio was launching their first turntable Sol ($599). Schiit is absolutely dominant in the personal audio market when it comes to the popularity of their amps and DACs, but this is the first fully analogue source component the company has created since their inception in 2010.



Sol requires a bit of assembly and doesn't include a cartridge, but it is quite beautiful with industrial DIY kind of hipster chic. Listening through an all-Schiit setup on a nice set of Saulk speakers, this sound was detailed and crispy, as Schiit gear tends to be. These guys really do a great job with source components, so I'm really interested to hear more out of this new piece. Given Schiit's enormous brand following and Sol's accessible price point, I wouldn't be surprised to see Sol bring a number of personal audio enthusiasts into the light of vinyl.



Down in the Ear Gear Expo, Schiit was showcasing their new flagship Ragnarok 2 amplifier ($1,499). The design has evolved a little and now includes heatsinks on each side of the amp, so you won't be able to fry an egg on this one like you could on Rag 1.

Like Ragnarok 1 it has gobs of power for headphones and can pump out 100W at 4 ohms to drive speakers, as well. The sound runs a little on the bright side, but also offers very crisp, clear bass with good body. Instrument separation was particularly strong. Not the most forgiving amp in the world, but honest. In my opinion, it's going to do its best paired with warmer headphones at low to moderate volumes, where it will bring forth details other amps may not without the need to crank it up.



Dr. Fang Bian has been pouring R&D efforts into HiFiMAN's electrostatic offerings over the past couple of years and the efforts really show. Starting with the Shangri-La (system $50,000, headphone $18,000) the company pushed the boundaries of their capabilities, but the fruits of their labor have really shown in the trickle down to other products. The excellent Shangri-La Jr. (system $8,000, headphone $4,000) offers a slightly warmer flavor with nearly as much detail. Comparing the two on the Shangri-La Jr.'s amplifier, I actually found myself preferring the tonal balance and sweetness of the Jr. to its much more expensive big brother, even if it had a tiny smidge less detail.



The HiFiMAN Jade II debuted at RMAF 2018 and has now just hit the market (system $2,499, headphone $1,399), and fits very nicely within the lineup. It doesn't quite possess the extreme detail of the Shangri-La series, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better all-around package at Jade II's extremely competitive price. The sound is on the warm and relaxed side for an electrostatic, but it definitely possesses a good bit of dynamic pop and it's quite satisfying with pop and electronic tracks.


Moving to HiFiMAN's planar lineup, the company debuted a prototype of the all new Ananda BT ($1,199). The headphone connects wirelessly to your mobile device using the HiFiMAN App, which allows audio bit rates up to 24-bit/96kHz over Bluetooth. Like the wired version, Ananda BT had a warm, relaxed sound that was great for all-purpose listening. Not my favorite for rock and metal genres, but absolutely fantastic for jazz and vocals.



Romanian sensations Meze were on hand, and while we've covered their flagship Empyrean in a few show reports now, it's worth revisiting their easily overlooked newly-launching flagship IEM Rai Penta ($1,099).



Rai Penta is starting to trickle out into other parts of the world, but is yet to begin shipping to the United States. This piece is truly something special and will be an interesting challenger for the ever-popular Campfire Andromeda as a neutral-ish all-rounder around $1,000.

The Rai Penta is super sweet and balanced across the board, melding seamlessly with any genre you throw at it. This is an end-game IEM with both intimacy and presence in spades. Delicate details keep the integrity of their delicacy without being shoved in your face it is like the sonic equivalent to an extremely expensive chocolate truffle. Nothing about it offends, from the sleek ergonomics to the to the musical presentation, which is so nuanced, layered and refined. It's just an unbelievable all-rounder through and through, and we can't wait to get our hands on one for a review.



While they've been a stalwart in the speaker world for 40 years now, Focal really burst onto the personal audio scene in the summer of 2016 with the release of their flagship Utopia ($3,999). With planar magnetic and electrostatic headphones completely dominating the flagship scene at that time, history has shown us that this was a bit of a watershed moment in the return of the dynamic driver among the very top tier of headphones.



Nearly three years have passed since then, and the Utopia is as popular as ever. Now Focal has launched a new closed counterpart for fans of the Utopia sound in the Stellia ($2,999).

This was my first time getting a hands-on demo with Stellia, which uses ultra-detailed beryllium drivers like the Utopia. The sound between the headphones was definitely similar, with Stellia having a little edge in terms of bass quantity and Utopia having an edge in refinement. Stellia had an extra touch of brightness/sharpness to it that Utopia didn't, thanks to the closed shell, which may annoy some people who have a warmer preference or listen at louder volumes. But as far as detail goes, I'm not sure there is another closed headphone that can touch it.



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