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Audio Expo North America (AXPONA) 2016 Show Report


Entryway to Chicago’s Westin O’Hare...



The view of Rosemont from our 9th floor room...


Reporting from the beautiful Westin O'Hare in Rosemont, Illinois for HomeTheaterShack.com, equipment reviewers Dennis Young (Tesseract) - right - and Wayne Myers (AudiocRaver) - left - are on the scene bringing you highlights from the show. This year Home Theater Shack is bringing you in-depth APXONA coverage in collaboration with AV Science, and working with us will be Senior Writer Mark Henninger (Dub King) - center - from the AVS Forum (master thread found here). Join us to vicariously experience the finest audio equipment this side of Alpha Centauri, maybe in the entire galaxy!
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Directory Of Exhibitors Visited:
Adam Professional Audio
AudioKinesis
Campfire Audio
Channel Islands Audio
Chord Electronic
Classic Audio Loudspeakers
Dirac Research
Dolby
Dynaudio
Dynaudio
ELAC
Emotiva
ENIGMAcoustics
Essential Audio
Focal
GIK Acoustics
Hanson Home Theater, Hi-Fi Audio, Home Automation
JBL
JRiver
KEF
Legacy Audio
Madisound
Mark Levinson
MartinLogan
MBL
McIntosh
MrSpeakers Headphones
Nordost Audio Cables
Octave Audio
Odyssey Audio
Parasound
PlanterSpeakers
Seaton Sound
Sennheiser
SMT of Sweden
Sony
Straight Wire
VAC - Valve Amplification Company
Vapor Audio
Von Schweikert Audio
Wilson Audio
 

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Just arrived at the hotel, getting ready to hit the floor in a few to get my bearings. It's my first time visiting AXPONA and I'm excited about what I'm going to hear this weekend as I attend demos with Wayne and Dennis.
 
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After arriving at the show, I grabbed some coffee and joined AVS Senior Writer, Mark Henninger[/URL]. The first room we hit together featured the Focal Sopra No. 2, a $14,000 floorstander from this company headquartered in Saint-Etienne, France.

With the song "Lush Life" by Linda Ronstadt, sweet female vocals reached out and grabbed me, pulling me into my chair, eyes riveted forward, looking toward the source of the sound as I seated myself.

Little Sonny “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” displayed good depth, with images located behind the speaker plane, but midbass was a bit woolly, highs just a bit bright, possibly attributes of the recording. I do find Focal loudspeakers tend to have more energy in the upper frequencies, an quality that many find pleasing. Choices are good. Mark observed "..the demo I attended did nothing to change my feeling that the brand’s speakers are a bit bright for my taste", a viewpoint that mirrored mine.

Overall, it was a good start for the show and whetted my appetite for more.

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I must admit to being a huge fan of folded ribbon drivers. Adam Professional Audio seems to also be big fans.

Listening to Chris Brown "Zero", The Adam Active Pencil TMM ($7000/pair) had a lively upper balance, versus the more laid back, dual folded ribbon Column Passive loudspeaker. Ellie Goulding's "On My Mind" revealed a surprising bass capability that had Mark and I looking at each other in amazement. AVS Senior Writer Mark Henninger states "The Pencil ($7000/pair) had that tight, revealing, neutral character that is often associated with active studio monitors. Despite the limitations of the room, the speakers imaged well and sounded neutral."

The Column Passive (also $7000/pair) was my favorite of the two. The 6" wide (unfolded) midrange takes over at 800 Hz, leaving the dual 7 1/2" woofers to handle the bass, with the bottom woofer covering only 150 Hz on down. The 4" wide (also when unfolded) ribbon has duty above 2800 Hz, completing this wonderful 3 1/2 way loudspeaker.


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Of interest to surround sound enthusiasts, but not auditioned, are GTC SUB and Center MK3 Passive.


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Hanson Home Theater, Hi-Fi Audio, Home Automation - Room 646





Dynaudio Confidence C1 Platinum 2-way speakers, l listening first to a guitar track that gave the impression that the bottom end was not well supported , but the next track showed that not to be true at all. The little woofers can push some serious air. Simple is the first word that comes to mind about the overall sound, but more than that, honest at the same time.

Melody Gardot's voice can challenge a speaker's imaging capability, but the C1 handled it without losing track of what she was singing and how to represent her. Radiohead, Pact Like Sardines, let the C1 show their imaging capability and did manage to show the lower bass registers were slightly under-represented. The Pyramid Song's cymbals imaged perfectly and sounded simple and honest. The soundstage was immense and beautiful. The C1 is a favorite Dynaudio model for me.

National Anthem, Radiohead, again superb imaging and soundstage from the C1. Tonality that is honest enough to make George Washington blush.

At one time I wondered how a 2-way speaker could justify being as expensive as the C1 price tag, at $8750 per pair. Then heard I the C1, and it made perfect sense.

Supporting Equipment:
Octave Audio V80 SE Integrated Amp: $10,900
Nordost Audio Valhalla 2 AC, Cables, Interconnects, package retail approx $46,000

 

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Their banner says, 'You say "Control Freak" like it's a bad thing'. Controlling room acoustics is what GIK Acoustics is all about.

Brian Pape and I agreed that for pinpoint imaging, absorption on the front wall is the way to go. GIK offers such a broad variety of options, it is hard to keep up with. But Brian knows the line well and is an excellent guide when it comes to figuring out and setting up room treatment.'

As a testament, Brian/GIK helped set up at least one excellent room at the show (there may have been others), which we visited, the Odyssey Audio room, which in my assessment, was the best Soundstage and Imaging Room for AXPONA 2016.

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Emotiva had their full complement of electronics, loudspeakers and monitors available to view, with a couple of demonstrations going on in a large conference room, divided into three parts.

I took a few moments to listen to their theater setup in the back, sans video, playing Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" in Dirac Research corrected surround. The effect was unlike that which I have ever heard before, so big and spacious was the sound, the center channel seemed to extend all the way to the left/right speakers with no audible '"holes" in the soundfield, a Dirac hallmark and powerful demonstration of it's ability to coalesce multi-channel sound, wiping away the audio equipment and room and seemingly transporting the listener to the event.

XMC-1 photo by Mark Henninger
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I stood next to Mark and had a listen as he inquired about one of his many interests, music production. I want a pair of Stealth 8 for computer monitors as a result, they are really just a do-everything-all-in-one type of monitor. Mark states: "I was immediately drawn to the active Airmotiv and Stealth 8 ($750/each) speaker demo. I’m a big fan of powered monitors and have often wondered what the Stealth 8 was capable of. My first encounter did not disappoint, I heard eminently competent speakers that did not need a subwoofer to tackle bass-heavy music like Daft Punk’s “Doin’ It Right.”
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Wayne's Comments

The Emotiva exhibit occupied one of the larger rooms at AXPONA, and they showcased all their product lines, including their powered monitors, which I have worked with and are gaining a footing in the studio industry as a real value in clean-sounding, flexible, near-field monitors. They also displayed their new line of DACs (I will be reviewing one soon).

Emotiva introduced two new lines of speakers for home theater, one powered and the other passive. Both make use of the folded-ribbon tweeter, the standard for all their speaker lines, a favorite tweeter type for me because of its low distortion, smooth response, and even dispersion pattern. I spent some time with the passive setup and enjoyed their performance. Emotiva has established itself solidly in the high-value and great-sound category of audio gear for home and home theater and two-channel.

We got a very good look at the insides of the XMC-1 preamp/processor with Dirac Live and the XPA Gen 3 7-channel power amp, and a great explanation of the flexibility and upgrade paths for both products. Options exist or are in the wings for a variety of channel types and power level and processing options, with ATMOS on the horizon. Emotiva’s strategy is to partner with customers and make those purchases upgradable for many years to come. "Rethink High End," is the company's motto. You can barely hear a product or category name that their products occupy, without doing exactly that. "This is the way it should be done," you find yourself thinking very quickly when looking at their product lines.

Their theater room, with Polk and SVS speakers and Dirac Live correction, allowed them to show their processing and amplification chops,

All product final build and test is done at their facility in Tennessee.
 

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PlanterSpeakers outdoor weatherproof potted plant loudspeakers.

Smaller inside loudspeakers are the Flagstone ($3500), Outside speakers are made from Reclaimed Wood (as yet unnamed, new model pricing is $5000).

Lots of fun to look at and listen too, great for the patio!


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Legacy Audio








The Legacy V System, driven by Raven Audio Elite Series tube amps, gave the impression that moving air efficiently and accurately is super easy. The sweet spot was very tight, but setup issues in a hotel display room can give a manufacturer fits, so that can certainly vary.

Lyn Stanley's vocals from her Interludes album sounded superb and alive. Oscar Peterson's piano sparkled, although I almost enjoyed the sounds of his band mates' instruments more.

Three additional complete systems were on display and listening rotation.
 

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I only had a short amount of time to spend with the Classic Audio Loudspeakers, and after hearing them numerous times, this audition cemented my previously established preference of the T1.5 Reference as my favorite dynamic coil speaker. Playing Kenny Burrell "Satin Doll" on vinyl, horn players located hard left and right, nice and brassy, trap kit located toward the back wall right where you would expect. There is a lot to be said for horns and field effect coils.

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Naim Audio/Dynaudio, Streeter room on the Lower Level

Dynaudio Coincidence Evidence Platinum, $85,000 per pair





These blew me away the first time I heard them at AXPONA 2014, and again today. Perfection, was what my ears said then. It is hard to think of a better qualifier.

Radiohead again, hey I like 'em. Morning Mr. Magpie, and Wolf at the Door. Impact, dynamics, full range, flawless delivery. The symmetrical configuration helps eliminate activation of room modes. That helps them feel incredibly quick and complete and accurate.

I could listen to these all day.
 

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Nils Lofgren Band "Bass and Drum Intro" this complex percussion piece was dissected and laid out by the Von Schweikert Audio VR-55 Aktive ($60,000), each instrument retaining it's identity, no one piece overshadowing or speaking over the other.

VAC Signature 200 stereo amps ($14,000 each) were bridged mono for this system. Each amp send the signal onto the towers, but the VR-55 Aktive has a Channel Islands plate amp powering the woofer's, retaining the "flavor" of the VAC amps.

V-12 Shockwave subwoofers ($11,500 each) fill in the back of the room with out of phase sound to help control stand waves, a variable control allowing room specific tailoring.

Old standby demo, Eagles "Hotel California" live showcased the detail this recording is known for, fidelity is through the roof. I would enjoy a system of this caliber in my home very much. Aided by SMT of Sweden room treatments, everything in this room gelled completely.


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ELAC Uni-Fi B5

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ELAC B4 Debut

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A bit more clarity with the first pair, the ELAC Uni-Fi B5, just a more polished sound all around. Bass was uncompressed even though the driver was stroking it's heart out.

The ELAC B4 Debut playing a few minutes of the same Deadmau5 track revealed the same crisp mids and highs with slightly more compression in the bass.

88 Count Basie had a truly surprising width of soundstage, with appropriate sized images placed on that stage. Horns had almost the right amount of bite, just a little light, possibly due to room or recording. Our AVS companion, Mark Henninger, notes "Since we’re talking $180/pair bookshelf speakers, that’s not faint praise."

Showing but not playing was the ELAC Debut DA-101EQ integrated ($599), with brand new B.A.S.H. amp technology and 100 watts per side. With an auto blending feature, nearfield measurements are taken for the sub and then the mains to set crossover FR, then a far field measurement finalizes the steps to EQ the room. Bluetooth enabled, two analog, two optical, one coaxial, one USB synchronous inputs, this is a very versatile integrated amplifier.


Wayne's Comments:

The tiny ELAC speakers defy logic. They sound so much nicer than they deserve to, according to the price, anyway. Their modest appearance can easily fool you, with a sonics to appearance ratio that makes them a steal.
 

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Enigma Acoustics, with an electrostatic top end

Wow, I like the top end from these speakers. In many ways sounds like a panel, only without the panel. Careful integration is key (when is it not?).

Cymbals sound honest and never harsh








Speaker cables as wide as a tire, flat and wide. Do they help? Don't know. As a system, it sounded pretty nice.
 

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The LampizatOr room showcases Vapor Audio's newly improved Derecho, in conjunction with Audio Bunker and Verastarr. Santana track, organ mid song was recessed about 2 ft. back, with a nice, reedy sound. Washboard and stick placed outside to the left and well behind the left speaker. The SS&I properties of this loudspeaker are exceptional, wider than the placement and deeper than the back wall.


Cabinets are the typical bomb shelter type construction one gets with Vapor Audio. The midrange has been modified by cutting slots into the cone and filling it with a doping material, lending a more relaxed sound that better matches the qualities of the RAAL 70-20XR ribbon tweeter. The ported woofers bring up the bottom end, no bloat and overhang here, just a smooth blend with the other transducers, crossover points are indistinguishable, each of the drivers have no voice of their own that speaks over the others.

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Revisiting the Cirrus, I am completely enamoured just as I was the first time. Every track I listened to kept me riveted to my chair, Dead Can Dance, Frank Sinatra, whatever... any genre, any pace, fast or slow, I stayed long after I should have been moving on.


Pictured is Cirrus pair, center is the Arcus, with a proprientary transmission line bass bin on the far right.


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Wayne's Comments:

I enjoyed the Derecho, but the Cirrus was what I wanted to hear, hoping to confirm earlier (last summer) impressions that they are a monstrously engaging speaker. I was not disappointed. To put it simply, the Cirrus is the most engaging, most nearly perfect speaker I have heard yet at under $20,000 or so. They are at the top of my Gotta Have A Pair list.
 

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MartinLogan Renaissance, $25,000 per pair, 15-inch wide panels, dual powered woofers per speaker. I am home. The entire mid- and high-end is so relaxed. Bass, of course, is solid and goes deep. But it is the electrostatic panels that work magic.

We did not have the opportunity, but there is little doubt that the McIntosh powered ML's could rip flesh from bone if needed. They love to play nice, too, and clean, clear, detailed subtleties pour from them. Bells, tambourines, cymbals, all so crystal clean on a Duke Ellington track. The Velvet Underground track provided vocals that were warm and true.



They are really pushing the stronger bass capability of their newer models. In the next year they intend to replace most current models with new ones. Wider & taller panels and dual powered woofers will be the norm.

Nine Inch Nails made the ears perk up and pay attention. Yes, the Renaissance can rip flesh. Lovely, in a Nine-Inch-Nails-MartinLogan kind of way.


Dennis' impressions - The Martin Logan Renaissance really move some air! The McIntosh mono block amplifiers back the ML loudspeakers with ease, just loafing along, marking off around 120 watts of the 4.8 kw meter.

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Mark Levinson/JBL

Alan Parsons Test Disc, Track 23, plucked bass was tuneful, but the image was so big it was almost indistinct. A following drum solo track confirmed this phenomenon.

David Runyon "Four Wild Horses" featured the lead singer off to the left, easy to locate but sounding like he was 4 ft. wide. I moved back a row, keeping a centrally located seating position, which improved the SS&I considerably, but never really brought the type of focus that I like to hear. I have heard the Everest a few times before, enough to know that the room was dominating the sound and better can be wrung out of this system.

AVS Senior Writer Mark Henninger also found: "Moving back one row helped a little, at least vocals were rendered in the center of the soundstage but not to proper scale. The third row offered an additional (but slight) improvement in soundstage over the second row, but the system simply would not coalesce the way I’ve heard in the past. Granted these are not nearfield monitors, but I’ve certainly heard them image better in the past."

To their credit, the JBLs did disappear, no sound seemed to come directly out of them, only from in between and behind. A victim of show conditions, I suspect.

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Klaus Bunge's Odyssey Audio room is always a treat. Klaus often manages to steal the show by showing that great-sounding gear can be very economical.





Odyssey supplies integrated amps and separates, and 2-way floorstanding speakers that sound WAY more expensive than they are. At $2,000 to $3000 per pair, you will think they are many times the price by the way they perform. Klaus uses Beryllium dome tweeters. I am becoming less and less a fan of metal dome tweeters, you seem to almost always be able to hear them "at work," but the right Beryllium dome can be the exception to that rule, in my opinion, and Klaus definitely picks the right one. His designs sound wonderfully transparent.

Klaus also knows how to set up a room at an audio show. This year he gave us the most expansive soundstage, absolutely wall-bursting, with precise imaging, a room I just wanted to stay in and have fun with. Odyssey Audio's room this year is definitely THE SOUNDSTAGE AND IMAGING ROOM OF THE YEAR for AXPONA 2016.


Dennis' impressions - What else can be said about Klaus' room? Likely to be the best bang for the buck at any show he attends. When you are ready to step away from budget brands into the high end, Odyssey Audio shines an affordable light on the upgrade path...

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...even when it is lights out, volume UP.

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Paragon Sight and Sound featured the Wilson Audio Alexx speakers, at $109,000 per pair, a 4-way design, being debuted at the show. A "D'apolito-like" design where the two mids are different sizes, the concept is quite unique. Their ability to provide honest, live-sounding tonality on sax and horns is excellent. Deep bass extension, clear highs, even handling of instruments and voices, they do it all so well.

Vocals from the Beauty And The Beast theme song were accurate and intimately present.

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Roger Waters, from Amused To Death, it's A Miracle, another example of vocals that could not be better presented, very present, almost bigger than life, yet still so honest, with such detail. I got chills on this track, first time at the show.

Beethoven and Dvorgiac tracks were great examples of how well the Wilsons can handle any kind of music with grace, accuracy, and power. all at once. From pianissimo to double forte, they remain truthful and do it all with ease.
 

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KEF Reference 1, Parasound JC1 and JC2, Macbook Pro, JRIVER Media Center software, Chord Electronic MoJo DAC and Straight Wire cabling.

Pat Methane - Long port swap, bass was tight and tuneful. Short port, midbass became more prominent, taking attention away from the lowest frequencies. Definitely preferred the long port with this song, in this room, where I was sitting.

Long port rolls off at a more gentle rate, the short port rolls of more sharply, accentuating the midbass and working better in rooms with lots of room gain down low.. Neither choice is "right", it is purely preference. Ports are slighted canted to prevent any build up of standing waves inside enclosure from exiting, a smart move!

Enough about the bass. Playing the Roxanne Original Mix, the mids and highs tonality stood out, but it was the SS&I that demanded the most attention. The stage was deep, but what really made me sit up and take notice was the width of the stage, extending well beyond the boundaries of the left and right placement of the KEFs.
 

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