Part One of this report appeared in Issue 162. To recap my usual caveats: it was impossible to cover everything even in three days. I never make definitive judgments about sound at shows. If I hear something I like, great; if not, I know it’s tough to get good, let alone optimal sound at these events. I’m not going to go into chapter and verse about every product spec (and I managed to miss some prices and model numbers, mea culpa); links to products and manufacturers are provided with more information.
This installment will be on the shorter side and there will be a longer Part Three conclusion in Issue 164.
On with the show:
MoFi Distribution (part of Mobile Fidelity) had three rooms packed with gear – no surprise, considering the extent of their product catalog. Just a small sampling: Balanced Audio Technology (tube electronics), Dr. Feickert Analogue (beautifully-made turntables including the $7,495 Blackbird on exhibit; I think these don’t get the attention they deserve), Falcon Acoustics (makers of the classic LS3/5a BBC-designed monitors, $3,295 – $3,495/pair, which I could happily live with forever after were I forced to choose one small speaker to ride out into the sunset with), Koetsu cartridges, QUAD, Piega, and Wharfedale loudspeakers, Whest Audio phono preamplifiers, and a lot more.
Two things struck me the most: first, the Fender-branded Fender x MoFi PrecisionDeck turntable ($3,495), replete with a gorgeous, classic three-tone sunburst guitar finish. Talk about smart cross-marketing. I was told the first run sold out almost immediately. Secondly, the Manger Audio P2 floorstanding speakers ($21,995/pair). The Manger Sound Transducer is a proprietary driver which utilizes the principle of bending waves, where high frequencies propagate from the center of the driver, and the frequencies the driver produces get lower towards the edge. Ever since I first heard a Manger driver 30-odd years ago, I have been impressed by the rightness of its sound, and the P2 emphatically confirmed this impression.
Once again proving that you can’t make definitive sonic judgments at shows, I had heard EMM Labs electronics and Credo Audio speakers at a previous show and, though they could play remarkably loud and clear, they didn’t blow my mind. At AXPONA, they did. By chance, they happened to be playing the same electronic dance music track I’d heard before, only this time the sound was warm, rich, and spacious. And did I mention loud? The bass extension was almost scary. You’d expect to hear nasty distortion – or the sound of drivers blowing – at such volume levels, but this system simply sailed through everything. The room also included a VPI turntable with DS Audio optical cartridges, and van den Hul cartridges.
Disclaimer: Roy Hall is a friend and a Copper contributor. Now that that’s out of the way, I have to say that the Music Hall Audio/AMPED America/Acoustique Quality/Pangea (equipment racks) and Spin-Clean (you can guess) room had excellent sound. One system featured the recently-introduced Music Hall Stealth direct-drive turntable ($1,649), which comes with a pre-mounted Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge, and plays 33-1/3, 45 and yes, 78 rpm records. The system included AMPED electronics and Acoustique Quality Canto 5 loudspeakers. Not only did this system sound musical and detailed, it made me realize something so obvious I should have thought of it 40 years earlier: you know an unfamiliar system is good when you can tell who the artist is who you’re hearing. Sounds like a given, right? Not always. On this system, when I heard an unfamiliar track by a familiar singer, I immediately knew who it was. On other systems, not so much.
The AMPED electronics also once again proved that, at this point in the audio technology game, any prejudices one may have about Class D amplification should be thrown out the window. If the point hadn’t been hammered home to me with the AMPED gear (AMP 2250 250 watt-per-channel stereo amp, $3,500 and the new AAP-1 preamplifier, $3,000), the Atma-Sphere Class D monoblock amplifier removed any trace of a shred of a speck of a doubt. It was especially surprising to encounter this diminutive 100 WPC unit in light of the fact that the company has been known for statement-quality tube electronics for more than 35 years. But here was this unassuming little amp just singing smoothly in a modest system, with a you-are-there quality to the music. My apologies for not taking notes on the rest of the system, which was not listed in the show directory.
I’m continually heartened by the seemingly never-ending developments in record-playback technology. Just how much is really in those vinyl record grooves anyway? According to someone who didn’t want to be named, there may be even more to be heard, thanks to a potential advancement they wouldn’t give any details about. In the here and now, among the smorgasbord of turntables, arms, cartridges and accessories, the new Radial Audio Stealth One linear tracking tonearm caught my attention. The arm uses optoelectronic tracking of the stylus position to maintain a 90-degree position and eliminate any skating forces. According to engineer Dean Slindee, he had the ideas for producing it 30 years ago but had to wait until now for the necessary tech to become available. The arm retails for $4,500 and comes with a T-square alignment tool.
Bucking trends has always been…well, something of an audiophile trend. And to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of CD are greatly exaggerated. The McIntosh Group/Pro-Ject introduced not one, but two new CD players. According to the Group’s Jeff Coates, this enables Pro-Ject to now offer every type of source component. All products are made in Europe, including their very cool phono stage that has infinitely variable cartridge loading for precise fine-tuning, and which can accommodate two turntables.
It’s an old salesperson’s trick: any system can be made to sound “better” if played loud. There was a lot of loud music to be heard at AXPONA. At one point an exhibitor warned me, “They’re about to play Nine Inch Nails and they like to listen loud!” Well, that wouldn’t have fazed me in the least (maybe I would have countered with some Meshuggah) but I appreciated the heads up. It’s quite another thing for a system to sound good at lower volumes. A few exhibitors took this strength-in-subtlety approach, including Luxman. They played a selection of music at quieter levels, a welcome respite during a frantic show. The sound was exceptionally pure, and when I mentioned that to Luxman’s John Pravel, he responded that there are no odd-order harmonics in nature, and audio equipment shouldn’t have them either!
At first, I thought the room was a little bass-shy until I listened more carefully and realized my ears had become skewed by the bass bombast of a couple of rooms I’d visited just before. (I have a sound level meter app on my phone, but remind me to spring for a spectrum analyzer phone app one of these days.) Luxman showed a bunch of new gear, all beautifully minimalist and elegant in design, including the M-10X mono/stereo power amp (from 150 to 600 watts into 8 ohms depending on configuration, $19,995), D-10X SACD player with MQA and USB DSD ($16,995), PD-151 MKII turntable ($6,490) and LMC-5 cartridge ($2,695), along with the C-900u preamp ($15,995) and E-250 phono preamp ($2,395). All of this was heard through Magico M6 loudspeakers ($185,000/pair).
Header image: Credo Audio loudspeakers and EMM Labs electronics. Photos courtesy of the author.