AXPONA 2016 Highlights

Rudy

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Audio eXPO North America

I am doing a more formal series of posts on some of these items on a sister site of ours, but thought I'd leave a few teasers here. I am not going to report on everything I saw at the show, as there were over 100 rooms and hundreds of products, but will point out a few interesting things and some favorites of mine.

I got to see the new Technics SL1200 turntable, caught up with turntable guru Michael Fremer (of Analog Planet) after his turntable setup seminar, listened to speaker designer/engineer Andrew Jones run down the upcoming Uni-Fi line of ELAC speakers (which I've recommended here before, based on their highly affordable Debut series speakers), and left the marketplace area with only moderate damage to the wallet. (Who needs food, anyway? :D )

The show is held yearly in the Chicago area. This year it was at the Westin O'Hare in Rosemont, IL, and runs for three days in mid-April. Unlike the CES, this show is open to the public.
 

Rudy

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One of my favorite rooms at the show was run by ProMusica, an audio shop in suburban Chicago. They had what turned out to be my favorite "box" speakers at the show: the ProAc Response D48R. Single ribbon tweeter flanked by a pair of 6½" woofers that put out suprisingly deep and clean bass. A lot of the music was acoustically recorded jazz--the rep had brought music he had recorded for the Naim Jazz label (which has featured such musicians as Charlie Haden, Paul Wertico and other known names). I also heard some Bill Evans.

Electronics were by VTL (Vacuum Tube Logic) out of California, a spinoff of Manley Labs. The VTL power amp has the ability to run the output tubes in two modes--a tetrode mode which is faster and more precise, and triode mode which is more lush and "tube-like", running at about half the power of tetrode mode. I can't afford a newer one (obviously :laugh: ), but I am watching for an older model since they are very fairly priced. It was nice to finally hear one in person.

Sorry for the dimly lit photos, but many of these rooms have subdued lighting and I didn't want to bother anyone with the flash. Considering how low the lighting level was, the camera did an incredible job.

In the 2nd photo, the VTL S200 power amp is to the left of the equipment rack.

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A catalog photo:

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Rudy

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One surprising trend: music streamers. Consider there were over 100 rooms at the show, and I probably visited at least half of them. I can count on one hand how many rooms had CDs/SACDs on hand--I think it was three, certainly no more than four. All digital is now played back through music players that used built-in disk drives, drives attached via USB, or a network box. A few rooms were even streaming via Tidal. Selecting tunes is now done via a tablet. It is a great setup to demo the equipment in the rooms (it saves having to haul boxes of music along with the equipment), but the big picture here is that physical digital discs are pretty much on the way out, and disc players are being supplanted by digital players. It only makes sense, since better playback sources are coming along (like high-res files), so digital data cannot fit on a CD-sized carrier anymore. DVD-Audio never really caught on, and only SACD really seems to be hanging on as a niche format.

It didn't surprise me to see the media players, but what did surprise me is that every room playing back demo music digitally was using one.
 

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I am a fan of the designs of Nelson Pass, so it was no surprise that one of my favorite rooms was up on the 12th floor, a pair of monoblock Pass Labs power amps powering a pair of Focal speakers.

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The turntable in the room was made by one of my favorite companies, Clearaudio. This is their forthcoming Performance DC Wood model, but I'm not sure which tonearm model it was.

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There was also a Performance DC down in the manufacturers showplace down off the main lobby, sporting the TT5 linear tracking arm. A linear tracking arm glides sideways across the beam; it replicates the movement of the cutting head used when a lacquer master is cut on a lathe. Pivoted arms only track accurately at two points through their arc of travel, so the linear tracker does have the advantage there...but not in price. :wink:

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Rudy

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This was spotted in the manufacturers showplace. Most turntables today are belt drive, with direct drive still hanging on as well. In the earlier days, though, a rim drive (where a rubber tire is wedged between the rim of the platter and the motor shaft) was used in record changers since it provided the torque to operate all the mechanisms. They were also known to have a lot of rumble. However, there were professional models that were used in commercial applications (such as broadcasting).

One of those was the legendary Garrard 301. There is a cottage industry around salvaging those old 301s, completely refurbishing the mechanicals, and adding new materials for the platter and mounting them on a stable base. Here is one such creation, featuring a copper-faced platter and two tonearms. No, I did not touch. :D I need to check my notes as to which company's product this is. (I have been battling some nasty sinus/bronchial infection, so I did not have very good memory retention!)

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Rudy

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I saw a surprising demonstration in one of the Nordöst rooms. Had I not heard it for myself, I wouldn't have believed it.

In this room, they were demonstrating different tweaks and changes to a system. There was one demonstration Sunday I skipped (I couldn't hear very well at that point) comparing different USB cable, where they would swap different cables into the system.

For our Friday demonstration, we were shown some Sort Kone™ isolating cones. They are machined out of metal, and the floating metal piece inside rests on a single ceramic ball, which "sinks" the energy.

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We were told, "Here, this will freak you out." My buddies sat in the front row, and I stood in the back. I didn't expect to hear anything.

The test? They had a power strip on the floor. A high quality power strip, but really no different other than having some of the Nordöst power conditioners plugged into two of the outlets of it. No biggie. The power strip sat on top of three of these cones. He chose a passage from an electronica/industrial song, since it had a lot of high frequency energy and dynamics. He paused and reset the track to the beginning, picked up the power strip, placed it on the floor and replayed the track.

I saw my buddies look at each other...like, what the heck?? I could hear something also. He then put the power strip back onto the cones, and replayed the same section again, and the sound was back to its original form.

On our way out of the room, we compared our thoughts--we agreed the music without the cones sounded a bit duller, and that it lost some of the dynamics. Whatever happened, it changed the sound slightly. I never thought I could hear any such difference. That is what surprised me.

I had intended to buy some isolation cones from Music Direct anyway, but nothing like what these cost. (They had a show special of $67 each.) There is no doubt, however, that isolating the components and even power strips can make a subtle difference.
 

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The room with one of the biggest buzzes was the ELAC room. Andrew Jones was in attendance, showing off the new Uni-Fi series of speakers, phase two of their revival of their speaker business. The UB5 bookshelf speaker, the UF5 tower, and UC5 center channel. The Uni-Fi is a step up from the Debut line, which has already been having rave reviews (much like the speakers Jones designed during his time at Pioneer). They were only doing a demo with the UB5, and it was incredible. Jones is quite an entertaining fellow as well, so we had to wait maybe 10 or so minutes before seats would free up to give these a listen.

The basic idea is that the top "driver" is actually a midrange with what is called a "concentric" tweeter--in essence, the tweeter unit is built right into the center of the midrange driver. Concentric drivers are known to sound accurate because the sound originates from one point source. The bass driver and the ported cabinet are remarkable with the amount of clean bass they put out. You won't mistake them for a large floor-standing speaker but on the other hand, these little 5-1/2" woofers give pretty much a full range sound except for maybe the lowest octave or so. (I've heard larger speakers that don't put out this quantity and quality of bass.) The port fires to the rear, and one electronic track he played often would make the hotel room's curtains blow around from the breeze! While the UF5 towers weren't being demonstrated, they are a taller version of the UF5 with three woofers instead of one. The UC5 has two woofers flanking the concentric mid/tweeter.

The UB5 will run $499 for the pair; the UF5 tower will be $499 each. The UC5 center channel will run $349. These will be available on April 30 (about a week and a half from now).

ELAC room, with VP of engineering/designer Andrew Jones looking for another track to demo for us...

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From left to right--a pair of the B5 bookshelf speakers (from the Debut line, which also sound really nice at $229/pair!), the UC5, and the UF5.

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Rudy

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A couple of unusual speakers...

Andrew Jones worked for KEF Loudspeakers in the UK through the 80s and 90s. While he has long departed, KEF is still very much in the speaker business. Here is their flagship, the KEF Blade. One of the nicer sounding systems at the show.

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What is an "Open Baffle" speaker? This is a speaker that has no enclosure behind it. I can't say I cared for the sound of these, but they are made by Emerald Physics. Here is a front and side view...

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DIY speaker builders are very familiar with a little company from Madison, Wisconsin: Madisound Speaker Components. In addition to hosting a "beer and cheese" party Saturday night, they brought along a selection of drivers, and a couple of home-brew systems. Yes, you are seeing it correctly! The system on the right (of which you see the left speaker) has a woofer mounted on top of a PVC pipe, and a small full-range driver for the mids and highs. The system on the left is another open baffle design, like the Emerald Physics above.

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Rudy

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Horn speakers are still alive and well. Nobody from Klipsch put in an appearance, but Volti Audio was showing off their horn system. While the style looks derived from the Klipsch LaScala, it is a wider-range design and was smoother sounding than other horns I've heard. Amplification courtesy of Border Patrol.

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Here was an odd looking speaker, this one having horn-driven mids and highs. I did not catch the brand, as it was uncomfortably loud and quite frankly, didn't sound all that good. Keep in mind, though, that every exhibitor here has to deal with the terrible acoustics of what is basically an emptied hotel room. Many brought room treatments to tame the sound, and some put more effort into it than others.

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Rudy

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One of my favorite-sounding turntables at the show. The Kronos Pro. It eliminates vibration by having a second counter-rotating platter beneath the first. (Sort of how a counterbalance shaft in an engine reduces vibrations.) I don't recall which jazz LP they were playing, but it was some late 60s RCA release, and it played from a dead quiet background, with only the occasional very minor "tick."

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Rudy

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And when you need your turntable set up, who ya gonna call? Michael Fremer! He held two turntable setup seminars. Here he is, setting the overhang on an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, on a VPI turntable (loaned by Music Direct). The first 20 minutes or so was a comedy of errors--they provided screws that were too long for the cartridge, and Mat Weisfeld (who took over running VPI when his father, Harry, retired) was running back and forth bringing different screws to find some that fit.

Bad photo, really--it looks like he's exorcising demons. :laugh:


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Rudy

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The marketplace. The large table to the right was Acoustic Sounds, and to the left was Music Direct. There are a couple dozen vendors here, with anything from accessories, interconnects and turntables (SOTA set up a table) to music. Music Direct had some of their overstock Mobile Fidelity titles on vinyl and SACD for only $15, normally $30+. Other titles were $5 off. Accessories were also discounted by as much as 50%, like the isolating cones I bought. Elusive Disc was to the left of Music Direct, and they were clearing out overstock on a 2-LP 45RPM ORG Records version of the RCA Living Stereo album Tabasco! by Rosemary Clooney and Perez Prado.

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Assorted accessories at Music Direct:

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Rudy

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That linear tracking arm got my attention. Not that I could ever afford one though. :D
That was a really poor photo of one. Technics actually made a cheap linear tracker in the 80s--it reminded me of one of those record players for little kids where you closed the lid to play the record. :laugh: Thing is, by then many of their "consumer" turntables had become quite flimsy.

Here is a better photo of a different make: a Bergmann. I think it is sporting an Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge. (This was in the same room as the white horn-loaded speaker above.) In this example, the arm moves laterally on a cushion of air, so there is almost no friction as it moves across the record.

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Some of the linear tracking arms have used electric servo motors to move the arm across. Revox made one, and Bang & Olufsen had a couple of stylish models in their day.

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The Bang & Olufsen used a second arm to detect where the grooves were spaced, so the arm could know how far it had to move once it got to that section of the record.

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Bobberman

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I Love those turntables i saw the KEF speakers i currently use a pair of KEF bookshelf speakers for my home stereo which i bought back in 2009 and they sound excellent. Great pics and info Rudy. Its very educational. Thanks for sharing.
 

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KEF has been around for around 50 years now, if I'm not mistaken. I remember liking some of their systems in the 1980s when I visited the audio stores frequently. Those Blade speakers really do sound nice--they have a natural, easygoing sound that still has enough detail so that the music does not sound muddy.
 

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My favorite sound at the show had to be this new speaker line from Martin Logan: the Renaissance. This is the top model in the series, but they are going to be introducing smaller versions of this over the coming year.

A little background. Yes, you can see through the speaker. This is an electrostatic speaker. The bottom section of this system has two 12" bass drivers (one fires forward, the other to the back), and has response up to 300Hz. They are powered by internal 500 watt Class D amplifiers. From 300Hz and up, the electrostatic panel takes over.
The panel uses a sheet of Mylar, only about 6 micrometers thick, covered with a conductive coating. This sheet is energized with about 3,000 volts. The audio signal is fed to the perforated metal panels, passing through a step-up transformer. When the front panel is fed a positive signal, the rear is fed the opposite--a negative signal. This polarity difference causes the Mylar sheet to vibrate back and forth.

It has two advantages--the Mylar is so light weight that it can respond to signals faster than typical cone or dome speakers, and, there is no box behind the panel to color the sound. (It is a dipolar speaker, in that it radiates sound both front and rear.) Room placement can be tricky, and it is very revealing of the electronics powering it. But the sound it creates is worth the extra effort. I've liked "stats" since 1987, when I first heard their CLS-II model. I have an early 90s model, the Sequel II, in my system (currently being refurbished).

They provide a better explanation here: ESL 101: Electrostatic Theory and MartinLogan Speakers »

I visited this room three times. On my first visit, where I sat for a small part of the demo, we were treated to a visit by company co-founder Gayle Sanders. ("Martin" is his middle name, and his design partner's name was Ron Logan Sutherland.) The speakers are driven here by the legendary McIntosh Labs electronics, which you can tell from the popular blue power meter on the front. The power amp shown is the MC-1.2kw monoblock, putting out 1,200 watts. The right channel's monoblock is to the right of the preamp and music streamer.

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Electrostatic speakers are nothing new--the design actually dates back to the 1920s!
 

DeeInKY

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Does the Mylar ever dry out? Are there special placement requirements like "out of direct sunlight?"
 

Rudy

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The Mylar itself stays intact, but the coating on it can get weaker over time. And that's only on the older panels. The panels they make today are good for a lifetime. The Mylar is the "crinkly" plastic, like you'd find on gift wrapping, only it's a fraction of the thickness.
 

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There was also a Performance DC down in the manufacturers showplace down off the main lobby, sporting the TT5 linear tracking arm. A linear tracking arm glides sideways across the beam; it replicates the movement of the cutting head used when a lacquer master is cut on a lathe. Pivoted arms only track accurately at two points through their arc of travel, so the linear tracker does have the advantage there...but not in price. :wink:

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That might be the Tracer arm--I'm checking on its proper name. The Performance DC I spotted on the 12th floor (also pictured above) used the Magnify pivoted arm.
 

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Well, here it is--the Technics SL1200GAE everyone has been waiting for. A few months back, Technics announced that the list price would be $4,000. "AE" is for Anniversary Edition. It is not so much a re-introduction of the 1200 as it is pretty much a ground-up rebuild of it, using premium parts and unusual materials. They aren't going after the DJ market here--this is aimed squarely at the audiophile market, where they compete with the likes of VPI, Pro-Ject, Clearaudio, Rega, etc. in the same price range.

Fans of the 1200 complained the price was way too high but guess what? Technics announced 300 units for sale in Japan, and they were sold out in 30 minutes.

First run of new Technics SL-1200 sells out in under 30 minutes »

How did it sound? Let me way that the pitch was very stable. The problem was that they 1) used a cartridge I despise (the Ortofon 2M Black), and 2) in addition to being a poor tracker, they had it badly aligned, so it was a double-whammy--there was a lot of sibilance on the track they played. They did themselves no favors here. We left the demo after about five minutes, disappointed with what we were hearing. I did give the 'table a close inspection, and the build quality is immaculate. I'd love to hear it with a better quality, properly aligned cartridge. A good moving coil, or even a wood-bodied Grado Statement, would have done wonders for the demo.

What bothered me, also, was how they were presenting Technics. They are going for the high-end market, and as you can see in this photo, they had their other components on display. They had a second display down in the Marketplace, and part of the attraction was having a couple of younger millenial types hosting their table, along with two 20-something "babes" in skin-tight clothing. Not that I minded the eye candy (being totally honest :D ), but...really, Technics? If you're going to try to appeal to the higher-end market, don't insult your potential customers. Save that marketing for the beer-swilling crowd, thank you.



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ELAC used to make good, "tank"-built, idler drive TT's under the names "MIRACORD" or "BENJAMIN". They were, certainly, (still) more heavy in weight than; the latter-era Garrards and Duals.
 

Rudy

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I'm waiting for news on AXPONA 2017--tickets are on sale Dec. 1. I may stay closer to the Westin this time.

I didn't see this at the 2016 show, but these are some amps I'd like to hear. These are the M-125 monoblocks from VTA (Vacuum Tube Audio), aka Tubes 4 HiFi. They came to fame originally for a modified circuit board for the popular Dynaco ST-70 tube amplifier, and the business has grown to where they now offer not only their own replica ST-70 amp, they also have the ST-120 (a more powerful version of the ST-70 built on the same basic circuitry). They have a replica Dynaco Mk. III monoblock amp, as well as the M-125 (pictured here) putting out nominally 125 watts each, again based on the ST-70 circuitry. Dynaco was a popular brand back in the day, and offered their products primarily in kit form, with the option to buy them assembled. VTA does the same. The power tubes in the M-125 are the 6550 series, so you can use the 6550, KT-88, KT-90 or KT-120 in these. I know a few who own these and really like them.

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Rudy

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We will be attending AXPONA 2017 in April, and "Insta-blogging" it on Instagram at @rekkidcollector and likely, posting about it on a sister site.
 

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