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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



Empire Ears 
Sitting next to ZMF was Atlanta-based IEM specialists, Empire Ears. While I gave a rundown of their X Series IEMs in my report for CanJam Socal 2018, I hadn't spent a lot of time with the EP Series, geared toward audio professionals.



The one that really stood out to me here was the flagship Phantom ($1,799). This five-driver IEM has two for the highs, one for the mids and two for the lows, with a five-way synX crossover. The sound was pretty neutral-ish with a very punchy low end. Really good balance and easy to like. A great high-end all rounder.



JH Audio
While JH Audio didn't launch any new IEMs at AXPONA 2019, refinement has been the name of the game of late for them. They've added new signature designs, leather cases and cable wraps to their menu, and their in-ears feature new slimmer profiles and newly angled canal tips.



The difference in comfort was extremely noticeable. I immediately felt it was a more comfortable and natural fit. Their old designs used to stick way out of my ears and had a tendency to try and fall out due to the angle and weight. This was much more secure.

JH is also using new four-pin cables with a twist-on locking mechanism that helps prevent some common breakdown that has historically occurred with the two pin connectors and keeps the IEMs from falling off cable. The new cable comes with in line bass attenuators that let you dial in up to +12dB of bass. I dialed in just a tiny extra bit of bass on Layla ($2,725) and loved it.


The folks from iBasso rarely attend CanJams, so I was happy and surprised to see them with a double-wide booth at AXPONA. The much-beloved brand was debuting an upgrade to their flagship DX200 DAP with the all new DX220 ($899).



The DX220 offers several upgrades, and running the two DAPs next to each other the 220 really shines over the 200. The DX220 runs on pure Mango, and is much smoother than the Android DX200. The OS is an immediate improvement and the sound was a bit better too.

Like the DX200, the DX220 has an interchangeable amplifier section, allowing you to play with the sound signature and output options based on your amp choice.



Staying with the digital audio players, I made my way over to the Astell&Kern area, where I gave another listen to the fabulous SP1000M ($2,399). This is one of my favorite DAPs out there, as it hits all the sweet spots between form factor, features, sound and user interface.



The Astell&Kern UI is just at another level relative to everyone else, their players are so sleek and easy to use. Of course, all of that goodness comes at a price, and the A&K players are indeed a pretty penny. But there is good news: A&K and iRiver recently teamed with the Japanese company Groovers to launch the new Activo brand at a more accessible price point.

Their first product, the Activo CT10 ($299) was available for demo at the A&K both, and I have to say, I liked it quite a bit! The player had the fantastic A&K UI and pretty decent sound, along with digital and analog outs. The design might not be for everyone at first glance, but for $300 it's a very robust, easy-to-use and dynamic little player.



Linear Tube Audio
The folks at Linear Tube Audio brought one of the most interesting products of the show in the Z10E, but both units seemed to be malfunctioning. The Z10E ($6,950) is a do-it-all, ultra-endgame amplifier that can drive regular headphones, electrostatic headphones and speakers from a single unit.



This is a monster amplifier and I've heard good things about early prototypes, but both units sounded pretty "off" to me and the one that was being hosted at the MrSpeakers table was decommissioned on day 1. Unfortunately the one at LTA's table sounded a little screwy as well. I hope they can get that sorted out.



Auris Audio makes some of the world's most beautiful tube amps. I ran down most of their lineup in my CanJam RMAF 2018 Show Report, but since then, they have delivered a new DAC/amplifier called Euterpe ($1,699).



This artfully designed piece serves as a headphone stand, as well, with the DAC and amp sandwiched between two pieces of wood. It's an interesting and unique design for sure, but it's also one serious piece of equipment. It easily drove a HiFiMAN HE1000, with one good clean watt of power.

I was not even a little bit surprised by the price tag on this one. It looks and sounds every bit like a $1,699 amp, but it doesn't bat way above its price point either. Still, I dig the Auris aesthetic, especially when it comes to their larger amps.



Ayre was tucked away in the back corner, but brought a very nice new piece in the EX8 ($4950-$5950 based on options). This elegant DAC offers a built-in headphone amplifier, allowing you to tap the purest sonics right at the source.



This new piece utilizes Ayre's well-known filters and Diamond output stage, and is and all discrete design built from carefully selected parts. It is very obvious these guys care a lot about their work.

The EX8's sound was clean and punchy and it really lit up the Audeze LCD-XC, which isn't the easiest headphone to drive well. Dynamics were explosive and I found myself absolutely jamming out to a drum solo while I was demo'ing the device. A very nice new piece.



Manley Labs
Manley Labs was on hand with their absolutely phenomenal Absolute headphone amplifier ($4,500). This amp is one of the coolest designs around, doubling as a headphone stand and offering switchable SET and Push-Pull modes, adjustable negative feedback, adjustable output impedance, mono mode, EQ and more.



The Absolute will drive most any headphone, with about 1W of pure, clean power –  having no trouble with high impedance cans like ZMFs or somewhat hard-to-drive planars like the HiFiMAN HE1000.



This is an amplifier everybody should try at least once. The feeling of switching from push-pull mode to set and cranking the feedback knob to hear it turn into a totally different amp is a fascinating and joyful experience.



Woo Audio
Making my way up into the tower, I paid a visit to Woo Audio's private room. The WA11 Topaz ($1,399) is Woo Audio's first solid-state DAC/Amp and the production units are now shipping.



The final is just as impressive as the pre-production unit was, albeit with a number of aesthetic refinements. The WA11 is fully balanced and quite powerful. I demo'ed it with a HiFiMAN Susvara at RMAF and it sounded very good, though it couldn't get past moderate volumes. Using a Focal Utopia at AXPONA, I had much more headroom to play, and the WA11 made it sound very good.

The WA11 sits comfortably in the "Transportable" category being a little big for standard portable use like the bus or the subway, but if you're able to settle in somewhere for a bit – like the office, or even a plane ride, it would be a nice option with very little to no compromise relative to a full-blown desktop audio setup.



The last product I want to feature isn't a personal audio product at all, but a killer all-in-one two-channel system. I feel for some people in the personal audio hobby, two-channel can be a little intimidating, and the idea of building a whole new system can be overwhelming.



I always love to swing by the ELAC room in the tower at AXPONA. Top man Andrew Jones is a great storyteller, and always brings a system that provides ridiculously great bang for the buck. This year, they brought the new ELAC NAVIS ARF-51 floorstanding speakers ($4,000/pr). These absolutely blew me away, and as an all-in-one system, the amplification is built right in. You can stream music right to them or connect a DAC and/or preamp of your own.

A product like this gave me a lot of pause, given the popularity of headphones and amplifiers around that same $4,000 price point. While some people have limiting factors that make speakers a strict no-go, others simply haven't dabbled in that direction, and these deliver a lot of joy for that same price.

The Navis offered a ton of deep, deep details and rich, accurate timbre. The bass delivery here was also absolutely top notch, and when Andrew Jones popped on some EDM, the room was absolutely shaking from the massive low end. If you've been thinking about dabbling in two-channel land, but have been intimidated by the thought of building a system and the cost of entry, you might want to give these a look, because they will really knock your socks off for the same price as top-of-the-line headphone gear. Just a little food for thought.



Final Thoughts
Well this year's AXPONA 2019 Ear Gear Expo wasn't quite as insane as years past, it was nice to actually have a manageable room volume and enough time to actually listen to the gear.

There were a lot of highlights, and almost all of them stemmed from improvements to existing products. The new Stax SR-009S had me slack-jawed – with just a few minor tweaks, it was so much more enjoyable than the original. The new MrSpeakers pads put a couple of fantastic twists on the headphone – I liked both better than the stock pads. The new limited edition ZMF Zircote, Bubinga and Burled Camphor might be the most beautiful headphones I've ever seen. Even the little tweaks JH Audio made to their IEMs offered a significant improvement in comfort and everyday usability.



But it didn't end there several new pieces from Focal, iBasso, HiFiMAN, HeadAmp and Schiit were all iterative evolutions of existing products. It just goes to show, the release of a product isn't where the innovation should end. These companies all released fantastic new pieces because they refused to sit on their laurels. I applaud that.



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