AXPONA 2024, Part Two: Audio in Abundance

AXPONA 2024, Part Two: Audio in Abundance

Written by Frank Doris

As I noted in Part One of my show report (Issue 206), AXPONA 2024 has grown to be a comprehensive, well-attended, sprawling audio gear fest featuring a who’s who of manufacturers. I counted more than 310 brands in the AXPONA 2024 show directory, from 432evo to Zesto Audio. This has become a must-attend US show for the industry, and if you want to get a deep immersion in the specialty audio world, you’ll certainly get it here.

The usual caveats: I don’t make definitive judgments about sound at shows, but that said, if I think a room has standout sound, I’ll be impressed and mention it. It’s become physically impossible for any single journalist, or maybe even team, to cover the show, so please don’t look at this write-up as a “best in show” but rather a bunch of stuff I found interesting (and I missed a lot of new product debuts that I really wish I’d seen and heard). Forgive me if some of the following descriptions sound a little rushed. Although I realized even before the show began that it would be impossible to cover everything, there were times, especially on Sunday afternoon, when I was rushing around.

I didn’t ask the prices of gear until after I had listened, in a perhaps-feeble attempt to not pre-judge components based on price.

And while I’m an inveterate gearhead, more and more, these shows are about meeting friends in the industry than drooling over the latest driver or DAC. For most of us in the industry, we only get to see each other at shows, and even then, the chaos factor means that you always miss someone you really wanted to see, so when I do encounter my audio pals at these shows, it’s a really special thing.

On with the show…

Last year I was highly impressed by the sound of the Linkwitz LX521 loudspeakers, their reference model. This 4-way six-driver system features an open-baffle design for the midrange and tweeter drivers, and a woofer that operates into a uniquely-designed enclosure. This year I was perhaps even more impressed, thanks to a seminar and demonstration in the Linkwitz room that was given by Jamie Howarth, head of Plangent Processes. The Plangent Processes system corrects for the wow and flutter present in the master tape of a recording, to provide speed stabilization. The result is not subtle. As Joni Mitchell said, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Jamie started his demo by playing the intro to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” a song most of us have heard countless times. The distorted electric guitar wash that starts the song sounded a little “phasey” and the sound changed as the long intro note was held. When he played the Plangent-treated track, the guitar sound became solid and unchanging. So, that kind of gave us a taste of what would happen when Phil Collins came in with That Famous Drum Break – except the effect was far more dramatic than anticipated. Unprocessed, the drums had that bombastic gated thud that defined the sound of 1980s drum production – but with the Plangent applied, the already-big-sounding drum set became utterly immense, and the drums now sounded like they had a physical roundness to them in a vast sonic space. As the Linkwitz LX521 speakers have astonishing dynamic capability, this was quite the demo. Amazing.

The Plangent effect was equally effective and impressive, perhaps even more so, on Frank Sinatra’s voice on “Moonlight In Vermont” from the Come Fly With Me album. As Jamie pointed out, it’s not simply a matter of fixing speed variations that you might not notice – the entire rhythm and swing of the music became tighter and more propulsive, and the nuances of Sinatra’s phrasing and timing revealed the emotion of his singing. The Plangent effect was also striking on cymbals, which were transformed from sizzly washes to almost-tangible-metal instruments with distinct tonalities.

I plan on interviewing Jamie Howarth in a future issue but for now suffice it to say that the Plangent Processes system works – to a remarkable degree. I wish you could have been at that demo.

I can get more excited by hearing about affordable tweaks and products than I do about encountering state-of-the-art products. So when the esteemed cable designer Galen Gareis of Iconoclast Cable by Belden told me I should try the AudioQuest Jitterbug FMJ, I bought a couple soon after returning from the show. The device is a USB data and noise filter that goes between the USB output of a computer and the input of a DAC. You can also plug more than one JitterBug FMJ into multiple USB ports for further noise reduction. In my main system, using a Mac laptop playing Qobuz, the effect was immediate and obvious – vocals and instruments sounded purer, with more body and clarity, and the soundspace expanded. I know it sounds like a cliché, but the sound was more “musical” and less “hi-fi,” and what could be a better improvement than that? For me, it’s a completely unambiguous no-brainer, especially at a retail price of $69.95 with return privileges.

I thought the Aries Cerat Aurora loudspeakers sounded as stunning as they looked, and they’re among the most distinctively striking designs I’ve ever seen. The front of the speakers has a swirl shape, said to eliminate diffraction problems. The Aurora ($150,000/pair) features a custom midrange compression driver that covers 280 to 3,000 Hz, a purpose-designed dipole horn-loaded ribbon tweeter, and a unique bass loading design that takes a four-driver open baffle and folds it back on itself. The crossover can be tailored in the analog domain using an app.



The Aries Cerat speakers have an unmistakably distinctive design.


Disclaimer: I occasionally do some PR for Audience. That said, their compact 1+1 speakers (8 by 9.75 by 9) more than filled the Glenn Poor’s Audio Video room; in fact, more than one person wondered if a subwoofer was connected (it wasn’t). I hadn’t had the opportunity to hear these outside of a desktop environment, so it reminded me of yet another truism: sometimes small speakers can sound surprisingly big, especially if you don’t need to listen at Voice of the Theatre levels, or demand room-rattling bass.

The lesson was also brought home by the Falcon Acoustics 2024 limited edition BBC LS3/5A ($4,530 - $5,268/pair depending on finish; optional stands are available at $655/pair). I have always loved the sound of the classic LS3/5A, in whatever iteration I’ve heard – they simply sound like music – and this particular UK-made version also has the old-school look, with English Burr Elm wood veneer (other finishes are available) and circa 1975 vintage Tygan grille cloth! The internals feature pair-matched drivers that are exclusively made by Falcon, and top-quality internal parts. They’re strictly limited production – as Falcon’s Jerry Bloomfield told me, once they’re gone, they’re gone. The company also showed models from their new M Series, which range from $3,565 to $32,885 per pair.



Classic design elegance: the Falcon Acoustics 2024 limited edition BBC LS3/5A, next to the larger M Series M30.


VTL, Stenheim and Nordost have partnered at AXPONA to create all-out systems, showcased in large ballrooms. Last year I thought their room sounded impressive. This year, it sounded exceptional. I went up to VTL’s Luke Manley and said, “what did you change?” It sounds noticeably better than last year. He informed me that they were using amps with EL84 power tubes – two pairs of MB-185 Series III Signature monoblocks ($27,000/pair), and that the Stenheim Alumine Reference Ultime Two SX speakers had been upgraded with the new Reference Platform stands, which made a significant difference. (Pricing for the speakers and Reference Platform is $186,500.)

The rest of the system consisted of the VTL TP-6.5 Series II Signature Phono Preamplifier ($15,000, TL-7.5 Series III Reference Line Preamplifier ($35,000), dCS digital electronics ($32,800 for the Rossini Apex DAC and $10,850 for the Rossini Master Clock), a VPI Titan Direct turntable ($60,000) and Lyra Etna cartridge ($8,995), plus about $169,000 worth of Nordost cables, power products, and accessories.

Well then, Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother sounded absolutely epic, delivering a vast, panoramic sound that filled the big exhibit room effortlessly. In contrast, “The Girl from Ipanema” from the Getz/Gilberto album was warm and inviting. If first-time showgoers might have been wondering what all the fuss about high-end audio was about (or had no idea that some of the gear could be so costly), this room gave them an education.

Another no-holds-barred exhibit was the Bending Wave room, featuring an absolute mega-system with the Göbel Divin Noblesse speakers ($250,000/pair, complemented by $48,150 worth of cables and accessories), the Riviera Audio Laboratories APL01SE special edition preamp ($46,995) and AFM100SE Class A mono amps ($82,800/pair), a complete suite of Wadax Atlantis Reference digital playback gear ($333,220), Nordost Q base power distribution and a QCore 1 grounding box ($21,000 total), and thousands worth of Massif Audio Design Dogma racks and Carbide isolation footers.

I confess, I had a good time in the room last year, but was a little underwhelmed. This year, I was bowled over. Bending Wave proprietor Elliot Goldman told me it was because of three reasons: one, that because of logistical headaches and pre-show exhaustion last year, they hadn’t had enough time to tweak the setup before the 2023 show started; two that they were using the Riviera electronics, and three, the system was tuned by Wadax’s Brandon Lauer. The proof was in the pudding – the Divin Noblesse sounded the best I’d ever heard them, by far – clear, detailed, tonally inviting, and either massive or intimate in scale depending on the recording. A live recording of Japanese pianist Ai Kuwabara called SAW, featuring Steve Gadd on drums and Will Lee on bass was utterly mind-blowing. I mean, fantastic, the kind of listening experience that reminds those of us in high-end audio why we’re doing this. Another audio lesson learned: the system costs something around $800,000, but you can’t just knee-jerk dismiss such expensive systems as decadent excess, in a kind of reverse prejudice – not when they sound this good.



Brandon Lauer of Wadax shows off the fruits of his labors in the Bending Wave suite.


But as experienced audiophiles know, good sound doesn’t have to come with a Lamborghini price tag (and some people don’t have the room for or don’t want a mega system). Case in point: the American Audio and Video room, which featured a compact, elegant-looking system with Mission 770 2-way stand-mount speakers (an update of the, as Mission is not shy to call it, “iconic” 770 of yore), and Audiolab 9000 Series electronics including their new 9000N streamer at $3,499. The other Audiolab components in the system included the 9000A integrated amp ($2,999), 9000CDT CD transport ($1,499), DC Block mains filter ($499), and a Dual CD 529 fully automatic turntable ($1,199). Big news for Mission aficionados – the 770 is now being built in the UK again under the direction of veteran speaker designer Peter Comeau, at a price of $5,000/pair including stands. Sara Bareilles’s version of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” sounded simply gorgeous.

One of the most revered names in speaker design is Lowther, a British company that has been around since 1932 and introduced their first speaker, the Domestic Corner Horn. At AXPONA, among other models they featured the Edilia, a dual-driver hybrid quarter-wave Voigt horn design featuring the company’s 8-inch PM7A alnico full-range driver, paired with an 8-inch “modified DX2 tapped bass driver” in a crossover-less configuration. Sorry, I didn’t note the electronics and other speaker model numbers, as it was at the end of the day when I visited the Fidelity Imports room and was a little rushed – until the speakers started playing. I forgot about the fact that I was supposed to be a journalist and simply basked in the pure, coherent, inviting sound of the Edilia, a warm and wonderful way to end a hectic day.



Close-up of the Lowther Edilia midrange driver.


Lowther has some distinct design philosophies that don’t travel the same path as other manufacturers, from their unique ridged paper cone material where the ridges act as a crossover, to their angled-up driver in their vintage Dual-Position Acousta speaker, which could be positioned with the driver facing either forward or backward, which looks like it shouldn’t work, but does. I noted to Martin Thornton, managing director of Lowther, that the company has its devoted fans…as well as its skeptics who debate Lowther’s design philosophies. His reply was, “stop arguing about it and just listen!”

ESD Acoustic never fails to get attention at shows, and it’s not hard to literally see why – their system, shown in conjunction with electronics company Auralic, was without question the most over-the-top, outrageous assemblage of components and loudspeakers at the show, by a galactically large margin, with a four-million-dollar price tag, and that is not a typo. It drew a lot of attention, and one showgoer asked me, “what is that? I don’t even know what I’m looking at!” The system contained dozens of boxes of electronics sprawled out over a huge footprint, immense multi-way field-coil loudspeakers, and a CD player that looks like an ancient artifact. The sound? When I was there, they were blasting it at rock-concert-PA volume, so I really couldn’t judge, although it reproduced a symphony orchestra track with lifelike scale, because, although I’m exaggerating a little, the system seemed almost as wide across as an actual symphony orchestra.



The no-holds-barred ESD/Auralic system.


I’ve never heard anything but good sound from a Gershman Acoustics room, and AXPONA 2024 was no exception. The company was exhibiting their Grand Avant Garde loudspeaker ($18,000/pair), which now must be considered a modern classic, considering it’s celebrating its 30th anniversary. The 3-1/2-way floorstanding tower features a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter, 5.25-inch carbon fiber midrange driver, and 8-inch dual-coil aluminum woofer, and its slotted removeable grille provides a distinctive design touch.

The associated equipment included a Pass Labs INT-250 integrated amplifier ($12,600) and XP-17 phono stage ($4,500), VPI Prime Signature turntable ($8,000 and sorry, I didn’t note the cartridge), and was wired with Cardas Clear Beyond cable. A live version of Bob James’s “Feel Like Making Love” sounded remarkably close to being there as it was performed. I noted that the exhibit didn’t have a lot of room treatment or tweaks, and Ofra Gershman responded that if the setup is good, you don’t need room treatment. The two-way floorstanding Gershman Studio XdB loudspeaker was also in the house ($12,000/pair), but I didn’t get to hear it.

I popped into the AGD Productions room and got another chance to hear their unique electronics, which use gallium-arsenide transistors instead of other types, or vacuum tubes, though the transistors are housed in very tube-like-looking glass. As president Alberto Guerra once told me, part of the reason he did that was to attract attention, but the whole thing would just be a novelty if the gear didn’t sound good, which it most assuredly does. The sound was warm, rich, full of body, and, my notes say “pretty,” which is a good thing for the solo piano track I heard, which was presented with plenty of texture and character. The AGD room featured more than a dozen components, including the Solo limited-edition and Gran Vivace MK III monoblock amplifiers ($23,500/pair and $19,000/pair respectively), ALTO line and phono preamp ($5,000), the Andante PRE-DAC streamer with phono stage, the compact Audion MKIII mono power amp ($7,850/pair) and many others.

Lumin presented a full line of network music players, an amplifier, a combination music server and network switch, and other products, which were featured in a number of rooms. Heard through DeVore Fidelity O/baby speakers in one room, guitarist Grant Green’s “Green With Envy” sounded warm and full of presence, as his big-body acoustic/electric guitar should.



The Lumin room offered a wide range of digital playback components and electronics, heard through DeVore O/baby speakers.


The DeVore Fidelity room that featured the new O’bronze full-range floorstanding loudspeaker ($30,000/pair) sounded excellent, one of the number of exhibits at the show that sounded more like music than “hi-fi.” The superb associated equipment undoubtedly had a lot to do with that, including a Komuro Amplifier Company K300S direct-coupled single-ended 300B-based amplifier ($20,000), Mola Mola Makua preamp ($23,700 with DAC and phono modules), EMT 928 II turntable with 909 tonearm and Pure Black cartridge ($17,995), AudioQuest cable, and other gear.

Another disclaimer: I used to do PR for Kanto. That said, they really do have a knack for making really good-sounding affordable compact powered speakers, and the new REN system is no exception. It features a 1-inch silk-dome tweeter, 5-25-inch aluminum concave-cone woofer, and 100 watts RMS of built-in amplification. The REN will be available for $599 in July in a choice of five colors including very cool matte cream and matte orange.



Orange is the new black, especially if it's the Kanto REN. You can get it in black also.


Distributor Musical Surroundings displayed the new Clearaudio Master Jubilee turntable and Unity tonearm ($60,000). This limited-edition model celebrates the company’s 45th anniversary, and includes the Professional Power linear power supply, Statement record clamp, and Outer Limit peripheral ring clamp. In addition to a number of other turntables and products, Musical Surroundings showcased the new DS Audio E3 optical cartridge system ($2,750), which includes the E3 optical cartridge and matching equalizer. I didn’t get to hear this, but another (more expensive) DS Audio system absolutely wowed me in the Wolf Audio Systems room, as per Part One of my show report. I am extremely intrigued by these optical phono playback systems.



The Clearaudio Master Jubilee turntable, number 33 of 45!


The Acora Acoustics/Valve Amplification Company (VAC) room was dazzling – literally, as the former was displaying their GEM-SRB loudspeaker and companion Bedrock subwoofer with unbelievably gorgeous-looking internal LED illumination ($85,000 for the paired set; standard finishes are available for less). The effect was striking. The speakers and subs were mated with the VAC Master Line Stage ($30,000), a pair of Essence 80 iQ monoblocks ($9,990/each), and Master iQ Musicbloc amp ($42,000), with a Linn Klimax streamer/DAC as the source ($45,000).



Shine on brightly: the Acora Acoustics GEM-SRB loudspeaker and Bedrock subwoofer in special illuminated finishes.


It all sounded exceptionally clear and detailed…and that was their smaller system. The big, and I mean big rig featured Acora’s VRC-1 speakers in an equally gorgeous, if not glowing Sunset Fire wood finish (base price, $218,000/pair), with amplification by VAC including Master 300 iQ Musicbloc amplifiers ($42,000/each) and a Statement line stage and phono stage ($82,000 each), plus an SAT XD1 record player system with CF1-09Ti arm ($307,500), Lyra Atlas phono cartridge (13,195), an Aurender N30SA digital source ($25,000), and a LampizatOr Poseidon DAC (€23,000), along with around $30,000 worth of Cardas Clear Beyond cabling and Acora equipment racks. The system sounded big but I’ll demur from making any definitive comments as I listened during one of Greg Weaver’s extremely informative and fun listening sessions in a packed house which made it impossible for me to get a prime listening seat, and it was after a couple of beers and an exhausting day. (Alcohol rolls off your ability to hear highs, and exhaustion your ability to think coherently.) I will say that Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s first album sounded massive.

British loudspeaker company ATC celebrated their 50th anniversary in the Lone Mountain Audio room with their limited edition SCM20ASL active loudspeakers, in a special blue lacquer finish with a complementing royal blue Napa leather front baffle, and the matching C4 SUB MK2 subwoofer. The 2-way SCM20ASL incorporates ATC’s proprietary 6-inch Super Linear woofer/midrange and 1-inch dual-suspension tweeter, with 250 watts total of bi-amped internal power, and an active crossover. Pricing is $13,999/pair for the SCM20ASL and $9,999 for the C1 SUB MK2, with production limited to 150 pairs and 20 each, respectively.

A second ATC system featured the SCM50ASL active floorstanding loudspeakers ($21,999/pair) and CDA2MK2 CD/preamp/DAC ($4,999). All models including the CDA2MK2 are built in the UK. The sound I heard from both systems was impressive, with excellent tonal balance, presence, and detail, and a sense of effortlessness and ease even at louder volumes.



Leland Leard, the author, and the ATC crew cutting it up at the Lone Mountain Audio exhibit.


Luxman debuted their first-ever network transport, the NT-07 ($7,495). It plays back stored and streamed music via Ethernet, USB or HDMI, and connects to a DAC for playback. It supports a dizzying array of digital formats including DSD and MQA, and like other Luxman components, has an elegant, minimalist look. The company also previewed its upcoming E-07 phono preamp (price and availability to be determined).

Rhythm Distribution offered an interesting display of up-to-the-second and retro-flavored components. Goldmund showed its new Telos 690 integrated amplifier ($36,000), powering the new Tannoy Stirling III LZ Special Edition floorstanding loudspeakers ($12,500) and add-on Tannoy SuperTweeter GR ($2,195/pair). Vinyl was playing courtesy of the new Garrard 301 Advanced turntable, said to be the highest-performance Garrard ever built. It’s $54,900 with an SME Series V tonearm installed, and was mated with a $9,999 Ortofon Diamond cartridge. Unfortunately, I got to the room at the end of the show and didn’t get to hear this setup, which also included a Lumin X1 network player ($13,990).

I was able to hear the new Goldmund Asteria active/wireless speakers, which at $95,000 a pair, during an all-too-brief listen sounded impressive. The Asteria incorporates Goldmund's proprietary Proteus LS technology and 24-bit/96 kHz DSP, and whatever it is, it sure isn't your everyday wireless. The other components in the display were hidden, giving listeners an idea of what an unobtrusive high-end audio system could look like.



Wireless wizardry: The new Goldmund Asteria loudspeaker system.


AXPONA 2024 also featured more than 25 seminars, and I attended two that I intend to write about in depth in a future issue: the one given by Jamie Howarth of Plangent Processes I mentioned earlier, and another panel called “Second Time Around: The World of Reissuing and Remastering” featuring Michael Fremer (Tracking, The Absolute Sound), Shane Buettner (Intervention Records), Abey Fonn (Impex Records, Elusive Disc), Chad Kassem (Acoustic Sounds), and Julia Miller (Delmark Records). It revealed a wealth of information. Stay tuned, as they say.



In the cage: tube protection doesn't necessarily have to look like industrial grating, as this Master Sound Evo 300B amp attests, seen at the MoFi Distribution booth.



These Duet 15 open-baffle speakers from Pure Audio project sounded superb. The company's speakers have a modular approach, allowing customers to tailor the drivers and cabinetry to their preferences.



I can't ever walk past this Western Electric 91E integrated amp ($15,000) without stopping to admire its retro-modern design.



RTM (which stands for Recording the Masters) offered high-quality blank tape and all kinds of accessories for reel-to-reel and cassette aficionados.


Header image: Dali exhibited their Epikore 11 loudspeakers near the lobby of the Renaissance Schaumburg hotel where AXPONA 2024 was held, a smart placement that enabled hundreds of people to hear the system.

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