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AXPONA 2010 -- Audio Expo North America
Audio Expo North America
A Skeptic's First Audio Show
Part Two of Two
Report By A. Colin Flood

In a room that tweaking audiophiles have to love, Madisound paired a Harmon Kardon CD player with a Fountek Altitude 3500 integrated tube amp ($1500 and 32-watts per channel) to drive a very nice sounding pair of Zaph Audio ZRT towers. Very good sound for the money. The speaker kits are available for $1559 complete with cabinets or $999 for crossovers and drivers only.


The joint Cable Research Lab and Cary set-up enticed me with Dave Brubeck's classic jazz tunes. Using Cary CAD 211 Founders Edition 300B tubes as drivers and 845 tubes for output, the $20,000 amplifiers gave drums on the System Audio Explorers ($6000) plenty of dynamics. The gleaming turntable is an Acoustic Solid Royal ($18,000) with Shelter harmony cartridge ($5300) and $750 Regarb 300 Hot Rod tone arm. This slick looking system also sounded competent with a variety of different music types.


The open baffle (in a covered walnut frame) Concentus CTR 2 loudspeakers may look unassuming, like tall classic Quad speakers, but they were immediately noticeable for their natural sound and wide soundstage. Nightingale showed off their new Onda 50-watt amplifiers with 7581A tubes for $9,700. Enjoy the Music.com editor Steven R. Rochlin was impressed with the Concentus CTR 2 loudspeaker, you can see his review at this link.


Mediocre Equipment
There were a few rooms where the sound did not grab me on my brief walks by. This could be for several reasons, not the least of which is the poor acoustics of small rooms. The only expensive set-up that never sounded especially great whenever I walked by was the Legacy and Ayon racks.There were several systems on chrome wire racks in their large room. Hate to say it, but their room treatment was not the best for showing off their majestic loudspeakers. This is a particular shame because their massive systems personify machismo more than almost any other loudspeaker design. I would love to do a serious audition of their big bold babies, but I simply do not have the space for them.


I understand something about the need for extremely solid equipment and loudspeaker stands, such as the ones I suggest here, so it wasn't really Joseph Lavrenick's fault that I did not quite get what how his Critical Mass System's Platinum racks and stands actually work and sound so good. They don't float sensitive equipment to isolate it, like Gingko's balls do. His Web site says his immovable black racks are "actually 13 disparate energy conversion materials in overlapping frequency absorbing bandwidths sequenced between 3 discrete substrates forming a 16-part plate. The result is a unified mass that; "synchs up" with the component to drain energy, adds a final barrier to vibration coming up from the floor and, resists energy transfer from the air in the listening room... The resting area of the isolation system is designed to convert airborne energy to heat in a broad bandwidth including frequencies most common to the excitation of speaker cabinets and wooden and concrete structures.  In addition to this, the resting area is designed to convert its own excitations to heat; it is self-sinking. As a result of this design feature, Critical Mass Systems drain energy from electronic components placed upon the resting area."


Awkward Geeks
Okay I didn't actually talk to any socially awkward geeks. Not that audio doesn't have a few, but they must all be engineers slaving away in messy back rooms. The gentlemen I met at this show were all unfailingly polite and informative. Okay, so I didn't challenge anybody to serious arguments on audio principles, but nonetheless everybody I met was friendly and helpful. Yes, there are quite a few eccentrics in audio. Many of us take the road less traveled. But expressive individuality aside, the odd duck was not socially awkward.

I did run into quite a few foreigners representing equipment who I did not understand. So yes, there are few excellent sounding rooms that do not have a description of their equipment here because I could not understand their representatives or they didn't have spec sheet. I guess if the world is getting flatter, I might have to learn another language, probably Chinese.


Show Girls
In a hobby absolutely dominated by men (more women watch NASCAR; the handful of women in attendance seemed to accompanying spouses). So I certainly expected a few obsequious vendors pandering to prurient interests with nubile and salacious hotties. But no! Not one. No buxom blonds dressed in CDs (as one vendor had at a very popular Information Technology booth). No scantily clad ingénues. More is the pity. Don't they know sex sells? I definitely would have stopped by any booth low enough to employ such a despicable technique to get my attention. Sorry, guys, no bouncing booth babes.

Photos of Cristy Canyon wearing nothing (NWS) standing next to Klipsch speakers are here and here.


All Things Digital
Surprisingly, all things were not digital at AXPONA. Despite the growing evidence to the contrary, with iPods and smart phones selling like crazy (17% of users listen to music on their smart phones), in this rarified world one exhibit after another used big, beautiful turntables and tone arms as their primary music source. CDs and DACs were ever-present of course, and many vendors had uncompressed iPod sources, but in this world where quality of music reproduction is the only end that justifies any means, technology as ancient as vinyl records and mechanical turntables still reigned supreme.

Since I had a lanyard, a name tag and a legal pad, several people asked me for the location of Emotiva showroom. They had two. One was a sumptuous wall of glowing blue moons; another was a large screen home theater. Except for AIX's large projection screen and surround sound set-up, this was the only other HT display there. The sound room had Emotiva's USP-1 ($399) preamp, ERC-1 player ($399), XPA-1 amplifier ($999) with ERT-8.3 ($1598) loudspeakers. This was a very competent sounding combination at everyman prices.


All Things Analogue
Instead, one room after another had gorgeous looking turntables. I should have been more authoritative and asked the reps to turn up the lights so I could get more turntable pictures. There were some beauties. A few of those chrome monsters looked like I should take them for an iron butt motorcycle ride.


Looks aside, the room I spent the most time in listening to vinyl was Lee Island Audio's horn display. For two reasons:

1) They coupled Acapella's High Violoncello II horns, with ion plasma tweeters ($80,500) to Einstein's tube CD player, phono stage, preamplifier and Final Cut MK60 OTL ($34,900) amplifiers. The turntable was their Gagliber Stelvio ($15,000), with new Durand Talea tonearm ($6500) and Dynvector XV1s cartridge.

2) Every time I came to spend time there, they were playing artists I love: Rickie Lee Jones (reviewed here), Paul Simon and Joan Armatrading.


The $250,000 result was seemingly flawless sound, nothing especially striking, just the usual wide sound stage, smooth vocal range and clarity typical of horns; very easy listening. The ion tweeter extends to 40 kHz, so far beyond human hearing that it hardly seems necessary. High voltage within the tweeter recreates a constant arc. You see this as a bright, glowing eye in the depths of the tweeter horn. The eye oscillates with the time of the music. It reproduces sound without a membrane! There is no cone. The result however is near flawless upper end reproduction.

A few systems sounded especially noteworthy sound merely by walking in their room. A really exceptionally sounding system was Soundsmith. Peter Leiderman's own HE- 2006 MOSFET amplifier (320-watts into 8 Ohms and retails at $42,500) made a small pair of Firefly Monarch classic two-way bookshelf loudspeakers ($2000) sound much larger than their size. Matching Soundsmith's unique look was their Strain Gauge phono cartridge and pre-amplifier system. A few brief visits to this room confirmed that it had excellent vocals, though without the crisp highs and bloated bass of bigger systems. Instead, the mid-range was rich, lush and intoxicating. I regret not spending more time in this room, but it was always busy.


Worth The Weekend
So audio skeptic, was it worth the long drive and weekend to hear systems that you will never afford unless your first novel sells a million copies? As Curley Howard of the Three Stooges said, "Why certainly!" It was wonderful to hear how incredibly wonderful audio reproduction can be. It was illuminating to hear how musical small inexpensive systems can be. It was nice to spend an entire weekend talking and learning about audio. I think 2010 was a good start for an annual south-eastern event. I hope AXPONA occurs near me again next year. I will certainly go again. In fact, I am angling for sponsors for me to cover the upcoming German and Rocky Mountain shows. 


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