Audiophiles from all over the southeast, as well as many from the far reaches of the nation, were granted a ticket to audiophile heaven at the Axpona audio show at the Omni Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida. While mainly a regional audiophile show, a number of true heavyweight AV manufacturers came to show their wares here in Florida. The Omni Hotel opened up the large rooms of its first and second floor for demos, while even more demos could be heard on the fourth and fifth floors. Interestingly, source components ranged from very high-end turntables to computer audio and everything in between. There was a wide range of loudspeakers, from actively crossed over tri-amplified transducers to fully integrated systems capable of being streamed to directly over Bluetooth. No matter what your audio fetish, Axpona had something for you.
The Omni Hotel is located directly across the street from the Jacksonville Auditorium, home to Jacksonville's own symphony orchestra. Axpona offered deeply discounted tickets to attendees and, while I wasn't able to make the symphony, I heard from trusted sources that the performance of Beethoven's Seventh was fantastic. Nothing beats live music to calibrate your ears for a day of serious, sit-down listening, which was much of the buzz at the show. Kudos to those at Axpona, who put this all-important two and two together.
Sound quality at shows can be difficult to get dialed in the way one would at home or at a dealership. Having the time to find the sweet spot for placement isn't something that can often be done in a hotel room within the available setup time. Moreover, hotel rooms aren't designed with RPG treatments in the walls, so audio manufacturers are forced to make the most of the cards that they are dealt. Some fine-tuned the main configuration of their rooms, while others tried flipping speaker locations from the long walls to the short wall. Most were just trying to deal with bass issues. I can say that I heard nearly every room twice (if not sometimes more) and, as the weekend progressed, the sound got better and better.
Audible Images of Melbourne, Florida had two rooms offering a high-end two-channel setup that consisted of Audio Research's new Ref 5 SE preamp, Ref 150 amp and DAC 8, as well as a Krell Cipher SACD player running through Aerial's new 7t speakers with all-Transparent Audio cabling. This was possibly the most tight and controlled bass that I heard at the show. It also was very familiar, as the ARC-Krell electronics combo is what I invested in for my reference music system at home. I definitely could see why HomeTheaterReview.com's Jim Swantko is such a fan of Aerial speakers, as they made a smooth, engaging sound on the Krell-ARC-Transparent rig.
Audible Image's second room was in one of the larger suites on the second floor. It was a refreshingly all-out assault on multi-channel audio. The Krell Cipher made another appearance, as well as my former reference Krell's Evo 707 AV Preamp and Evo 403e and 402e amplifiers for powering the five MartinLogan CLX's, each with their own MartinLogan Depth subwoofers and a pair of MartinLogan Descent subwoofers for the "point one" channel, entirely wired with Transparent cabling and power conditioning. The larger room was playing everything from SACD to two-channel reel-to-reel from the Tape Project. Sunday afternoon, I was lucky enough to catch Krell's own Bill McKiegan running the demos of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in 5.1 on the recently released SACD. Bill wasn't afraid to show the power of his amps. The room was rocking and sounded riveting
AAIX Records was showing off their new 3D Blu-ray music with a full Bowers & Wilkins speaker system powered by Bryston electronics and fronted by an Oppo BDP-95. A JVC D-ILA projector was also in effect. I'll admit, I am not a fan of 3D, but the music in the AIX room was just fantastic. The sound was open and spacious and well-balanced around the room. They are making some of the most important recordings going today in terms of cutting-edge audio and video experiences. Perhaps it's my glasses, my eyes or something else - I just can't get into 3D, but I don't care, as I am glad that I know about AIX. You should know about AIX, too, as I guarantee that it will blow your mind 7.1 different HD ways.
Audio Power Labs and Tidal Speakers
Audio Power Labs brought their ultra-exclusive $175,000 per pair mono block tube amplifiers to Axpona to be mated to the Tidal Contriva Diacera SE speakers and fed by a Memory disc player. I remember when these amps first appeared at CES in 2010 and were shown with low-cost Vandersteen speakers. That demo was not very good, as nobody in their right mind would pair $2,000 per pair Vandersteens with $150,000 (yes, they've raised the price) tube mono blocks. At Axpona, Audio Power Labs showed a drastic improvement, not just since that CES demo, but over the time the show went on. Their sound got better and better. The Tidal Speakers match was a vast upgrade for APL without question. Let it be known that, despite the price increase, Audio Power Labs has sold three pairs of their mono blocks (yes, six amps total), which you can either be scared by or want to use as motivation to place your order, because who knows when the next price increase is coming? All joking aside, they were making a fine sound.
Audiophile importer Darren Censullo put together an exceptional system at Axpona 2012. This consisted of a full AMR (Abingdon Music Research) system with their CD-77.1 tubed CD player and a pair of integrated amps in a vertical bi-amp mode of the Rosso Fiorentino Sienna loudspeakers and a Dr. Feickert Analog turntable made simply sublime sounds. With all those tubes glowing, the room sounded smooth and sultry, yet packed dynamics and control. The AMR CD-77.1 is likely one of the finest CD players made at any price. I simply loved the sound of this room and kept coming back to hear it again and again, like a kid going to his favorite ride at Disney World.
Bob Carver LLC
Legendary audiophile designer Bob Carver had a new speaker system in the Amazing Line Source speakers. While boasting an off-the-charts 97 dB efficiency, Bob had them bi-amped with two pairs of his new Black Beauty 305-watt mono block tube amps using the AMR CD-777.1 as a source, plus a Purity Audio Ultra preamp and a Sunfire subwoofer. The sound was lively and dynamic, with a wondrous midrange that made vocals absolutely enticing. Needless to say, Carver's speakers had plenty of power for dynamics and, with all those drivers, had a very easy presentation to them.
MBL was showing in one of the larger rooms with two complete audiophile systems. One the rooms included MBL's reference products, including the MBL 101 Mk IIs. The German audiophiles also showed a second system to run their smaller speakers, with both using Wireworld Platinum Eclipse cables. Despite stopping in the room several times over the two days, I never got to hear the smaller system. MBL 101 demos ranged refreshingly from Norah Jones to Metallica, with the big MBLs displaying huge dynamics and control at even insanely high listening levels. The entire system was stunningly finished in high gloss white, which took its industrial design out of the norm of black rectangles. For this, MBL deserves recognition.
Read more about the Axpona show on Page 2.
House of Stereo
House of Stereo was showing in one of the large rooms on the first floor, running a full Ayre system for the Kef's Blade speaker. Despite top-tier electronics, I sadly wasn't very impressed with how the Blades sounded. They were flat and uninvolving to my ears in that room. I was much more impressed with the Kef R700 at almost a tenth of the price. The R700s gave surprising bass for such inexpensive speakers ($3,250) and were livelier each time I heard them. Make a note: to go hear them at your local dealer if they are demonstrating the R700s, as they are pretty special.
YG Acoustics was showing both their Carmel and Anat 3 Signature speakers, powered by a pair of Krell Evo 402es in vertical bi-amp mode. The sound was excellent, thanks to the DCS stack and Veloce battery-powered tube preamp, all wired with Kubala-Sosna cables. The Carmels lacked the bass to play rock at any decent level and the room had far too much bass with the Anat 3s but, overall, it was one of the best demos that I've heard from these speakers at a show. The little Carmels played with amazing imaging and surprising depth of bass on more typical audiophile tracks, while the Anat 3 Signatures threw a giant soundstage in the fairly small room. Compared to the noisy YG demos on the bottom floor at the Venetian at past CES shows, the YGs sounded better in Jacksonville than Vegas.
Another interesting find at Axpona was Soundfield Audio. Hailing from my home town of Tampa, Florida, this audiophile speaker system is based on German pro series drivers, a 12-inch main/tweeter housed in a single box and an 18-inch subwoofer in another box with a short stand between the two. This system had some solid and accurate bass, as well as very good coherence. I made it back to this room a number of times, but never heard the smaller speakers. I suspect I will soon when I get back to Tampa, as they are worth the time to seek out a demo.
The single coolest thing at the Axpona 2012 show was being shown by Smyth Research, a German company that had a little $2,910 box, which is somewhat tough to describe. The box first calibrates to whatever system you want to use it on with in-ear microphones. It then can output the sound almost exactly as you hear it through headphones of your choice. I tried the demo and was rather impressed how well it could recreate the different speakers, both in sonics and in placement. A head-positioning attachment can be used, so that when you turn your head, the speakers seem to stay in place. This is tough to imagine, but for the demo, they were using a pair of Stax SR-507 ear speakers that allow you to hear what is going on in the room, as well as what is run through the headphones. When they first played back the speakers in succession, I was floored how well they positioned them and how, when I turned my head, they stayed in place. This system can remember several settings and can upload others from a flash memory card, allowing you to virtually hear almost any system. This was truly amazing.