The Argos had a gorgeous finish. Many of the speakers already mentioned did as well, but the Argos finish really stood out of the crowd.
Imaging and soundstage were very good. The bass was exceptionally deep and powerful, and the standup bass notes on Reasons Why were very even and well defined, not the least bit boomy.
I simply loved the high end, very crisp, smooth, and even, and very clean.
Sometimes it is difficult to describe just what it is about a speaker that grabs you. The Argos definitely grabbed me, and I noted that they were among the more engaging speakers at the show. I will definitely be watching for opportunities to hear more of them in the future. Very nice.
I am hereby proclaiming the "Vapor Audio Rule." The "Vapor Audio Rule" goes like this: Never, ever pass up a chance to listen to a pair of Vapor Audio speakers. We spent a lot of time in their room at RMAF last fall and I gave the Derecho speakers a good audition at AXPONA, plus I have heard two of their bookshelf models while in the review process by Dennis Young (Tesseract), and I have never heard one of their models yet that I did not like very much.
The Derecho first impressed me as having exceptionally smooth response throughout their range. The deep bass was smooth and quick, punchy with good definition. The RAAL tweeter provided a lovely high end, as smooth as... butter? water? light? honey? mercury? I gave up searching for the best descriptor. It was smoooooth. The overall sound was supremely well integrated, so together, exceptionally quick and responsive.
The design and finish were also standouts at the show, simply beautiful.
At this point of the show I had been favoring the $15k to $30k price range as containing my favorite models. The Vapor Derecho easily performed in the same league as those higher-priced favorites. To anyone thinking they needed to spend $10,000 or more for great speakers, I would have to say, "You gotta check out the Vapor Audio line first." I do not know how they do it, but they never fail to knock the sonic ball right out of the park. Go Derercho!
And a fun finish for day two, auditioning a pair of singing plant stands. No, it was not a scene from The Three Amigos (Steve Martin confronting a singing bush), it was actual planters with speakers built in. And they sounded GREAT! Certainly the best sounding plant stands I have ever heard! OK, the only ones so far, but still...
They were serious planters, with a drain and a removable dirt bag. And they sounded as good as some of the $5k and up serious speakers I had heard. The soundstage was fair, all coming from down at ankle level, and imaging was a little soft but was very stable. Fidelity and clarity were very impressive.
I put on my test tracks and imagined hearing Ain't It A Shame and Reasons Why out on the rear patio in the sunshine with cardinals and robins chirping and that squirrel chattering up in the big tree in the middle of the yard while grilling for friends (me, not the squirrel, although grilling the squirrel has come to mind - kidding!). The result was much better than I would have expected for outdoor sound: fun, accurate, lively, tight, responsive. We cranked up Porcupine Tree's Shallow and it simply rocked!
And they are built to last. The inventor has had his prototypes sitting outdoors for 10 years through Vermont winters and they have yet to exhibit any degradation in sound quality. The company recently received the second unit sold back for repair: a weed whacker cut a speaker cable.
A downward-firing woofer and side-mounted mid and tweeter drivers handle 150 W RMS. Construction is industrial grade poly resin. No back yard listening area should be without them.
Polymer Audio Research specializes in "exploring the very edge of the art" of speaker design "at the limits of current technology" (from their web site). Their use of composite materials, optimized cone geometries, metal alloys for cabinets, shapes for diffraction control -- all are intended to minimize the various types of distortion that speakers can produce. And all this is done without regard for cost.
They did disappear nicely in the room, with a large, spacious soundstage and imaging that was pretty good, although not very precise. The high end was clean and provided lots of detail. Drums and xylophone had excellent impact, and a saxophone sounded quite natural.
But the on-axis frequency response was bothersome to me, with a hole in the upper-midrange and some rouighness higher up. Overall, they did not impress me the way they should have, given the price and the touted technology benefits.
I almost walked right by the Audio Note room, but something drew me in, and I am glad it did. I lost track of the number of "rules of convention" that were broken in that room. Yet the sound was simply delightful.
The J/D speakers (sorry, I was so distracted I forgot to snap photos) were pushed clear into the corners of the room (where they were designed to go). Cabinet materials, rather than being heavily braced, were designed to resonate at frequencies to complement driver characteristics. Conventional design wisdom was flaunted at every turn.
The little two-way J/D's played an orchestral piece that contained deep bass that was smooth, powerful, and natural. The soundstage and imaging, to my surprise given the placement, were both very good. A deep soundstage with speakers that close to the wall seems almost an impossibility, yet there it was. Tonal balance was accurate and clarity and definition were excellent. I laughed out loud more than once at how well the J/D's performed. They were a wonderful surprise and are well worth a listen - but be ready to relax and break some rules to get them sounding their best.
SoundLAB makes huge, full-range electrostatics. I expected to be highly impressed by the sound, but was not.
They allowed me to play my test tracks. I turned up Ain't It A Shame to a nice listening level, around 80 dB average SPL or so, and heard distortion. The exhibitor told me it was too loud, so I turned it back down. Perhaps the show setup was intended for lower volumes, perhaps the Majestic 945's were underpowered for what I wanted to hear. I will give the speakers the benefit of the doubt and let the perceived deficiency lay upon the exhibitors.
Imaging and soundstage were best about four rows back in the VERY large room. The imaging was pinpoint sharp, but the soundstage never became natural and relaxed for me.
They did put out some deep bass notes with no apparent strain. High frequencies were rough and overall quite subdued. There was a nice sense of detail and definition on mandolin, guitar, and banjo on Ode To A Butterfly.
The experience left me thinking - and hoping - the speakers were capable of so much more.
I met Larry Pattie of Mancave Metal while setup was going on Thursday night. Larry clearly does what he loves and loves what he does - customizing hot rods and building high-end audio speakers. His 230 lb. (each) Raptor 1.0 speakers are bad-looking beasts that sound great!
Larry turned to Legacy Audio for drivers, crossover design, and cabinet tuning. How can you go wrong there? The result was the most unique product at the show, from my perspective. They sounded excellent, with smooth response across all ranges, powerful, well-defined bass, crisp highs, exactly what you would expect from a Legacy design. They might not fit with just ANY decor, but then again, the listener who buys a pair of Raptor 1.0 speakers will likely be someone who has their own way of decorating a listening room.
And about the time one started thinking he would need to cash in a couple of gold bars to buy a nice-sounding pair of speakers, he might walk into the madisound room, where they were featuring a folded horn kit with full-range 4-inch Fostex driver for $329 per pair. All the materials appeared first-rate, the wood pieces CNC-cut from Baltic Birch. Design details included chamfering of the through hole for the driver to promote optimal air flow.
They sounded pretty decent. The response was far from flat, but what do you expect? A DIY hobby-type looking for a fun weekend project might put them in a guest room or sun porch as is, or if more seriously minded might apply a little custom EQ and end up with a very pleasing result - responsive, nice soundstage and imaging when properly placed - not for high-volume applications, of course.
In my experience, the madisound room is not to be missed at these shows. Seeing and hearing their offerings is like getting a refreshing drink of spring water after trying exotic beverages all day.
Yes, I pretty much had to use a bigger font to begin my description of the Monitor Audio speakers, and it applies to both models. Each completely disappeared in the room, with crystal-sharp imaging and a broad, wide-open, completely natural soundstage.
The two models sounded extremely similar. The extended bass response was the only significant giveaway for the larger Silver 10's - the GX50's were not lacking in the category, though. Bass was even, deep, smooth, and well-defined for both models. Highs were extended and smooth and very clean. Acoustical instruments, vocals, synthesizers, percussion - it was like Monitor Audio had written the book on how to reproduce them all in the most accurate manner. Nothing was left out - they could do everything. And, by the way, they make all their own drivers. And, by the way, look at the prices.
A couple of minutes into my first test track with the Silver 10's, I stopped taking notes. Sorry, I could only sit and listen. It was simply a wonderful listening experience.
It was very hard to leave this room. The Monitor Audio speakers were accurate, engaging, fun, and difficult to stop thinking about.
After being knocked for a loop in the Monitor Audio room, I walked into the Wharfdale room with its little Jade 1 Bookshelf pair and was knocked over again. The imaging and soundstage were so well-defined, wide-open, and completely natural that I had to proclaim them the "Soundstage Value of the Show," the least expensive speaker I heard that simply engulfed the room in music.
Wharfdale, the 2nd oldest speaker manufacturer in the world, makes every component that goes into their speakers, right down to screws and nuts, we were told. The Jade 1's seemed to put everything into the room. The sense of detail really caught my attention, like being brought into the inner soul of a sound while it was still its natural distance away. The tonal balance for all instruments and vocals was right on. I loved the string sounds on an orchestral piece that was played. "Balance" seemed a word that applied in almost every way to the sonics of the Jade 1's. And extremely clean. The spaces between the sounds in the soundstage were completely empty. Overall, the Jade 1 bookshelves were a delight.
I suppose everyone but me knew that McIntosh makes speakers, as they have done for a long time. Somehow I did not receive the memo about it, although they have not been hiding the fact - a little research turns up numerous examples from over the years, many of them HUGE (how could I have missed them?). Live and learn.
The XR100 design seems to suggest bone-crushing power and finesse at the same time. The four-way system contains four woofers, eight mid-drivers, two mid-tweeters, and one super-tweeter. So many aspects of the sonics were downright impressive - they disappeared into the room nicely, response was smooth (the highs a little bright, but smooth), tonal balance was good, mids and highs were very clean - yet the XR100's did not grab me in any particular way.
The all-McIntosh system included their MEN220 ROOMPERFECT Room Correction system, based on Lyngdorf technology. I have already mentioned that in every room where room correction was being shown, I found it more a hindrance than a boon, with setup approach assumed to be the cause, not the technology. Such was the case with the XR100's. The "corrected" soundstage was unnatural and distracting to my ear. I will hope that under different circumstances I might have more good to say about both the XR100 speakers and the ROOMPERFECT correction technology.
Vienna Acoustics' new Imperial Liszt, in brief: Totally Natural. They easily disappeared in the room, presented an open soundstage, and every vibration that emanated from them sounded as natural as it could be.
I like that the concentric mid/tweeter on top of the tower could pivot left and right relative to the tower's cabinet. Soundstage and image optimization is probably immensely simplified by the one feature alone.
Audio Physic's Avanterat speakers, in brief: No Comment. Meaning I could think of nothing to say about them. It was almost the end of the third and final day of the show, and I had checked out of my room and was towing my minimalist-sized suitcase with me around the exposition floors, and it was getting to be q bit of a pain thinking of things to say and writing them down in my notebook. But what I meant by the "no comment" comment was that the Avanterat speakers, like the Vienna Acoustic speakers in the previous room, sounded so natural that there was simply nothing to say about them - a silent compliment. Had I been fresher, I might have been able to go into more detail about them, but as it was, the silent compliment accurately stated the easy, natural, listenable nature of the Avanterat speakers.
I spent about 15 minutes in the Seaton Sound room while the Movie How To Train Your Dragon played on the full-surround system with the big screen at the front of the room (it was dark, so no photos). It made me wish I had carved out time to watch the entire movie on that setup.
During action scenes, the combination of impact and fidelity that the system delivered gave me chills. I had reviewed Mark Seaton's Catalyst 8C speakers previously, but had not heard a complete surround setup with the 12C's as fronts and Mark's Submersive subwoofers handling the bone-shaking frequencies. All I can say is: I have heard a few pretty nice home theater systems, but none with the impact AND fidelity of that Seaton Sound system. It was awesome!
First of all, thanks to Sadurni Acoustics for extending AXPONA for me. I walked into the room just minutes before the official end of exhibition time, but received close to half an hour of focused attention, which included ripping my test track CD into their playback laptop so I could hear my tracks on their system.
As you can see, the horns were beautifully finished, and to me were visually the most intriguing and arresting speaker system at AXPONA. Soundstage and imaging were not impressive, although, to be fair, they had already taken down most of the acoustical treatments they had put up for the show, so I was not hearing the system at its best. The depth of the soundstage was very nice.
Some of the standup bass notes on Reasons Why and Ode To A Butterfly were boomy and uneven. I honestly did not know what to expect from horns of that type and size for bass smoothness, but what I heard was uneven. The fiddle's tone was scrumptious. And the horns were like giant detail drills when it came to opening up the inner detail of instruments and vocals, especially subtleties like guitar and mandolin picking and strumming. Compared to what one hears on typical cone- type speakers, the detail and dynamics simply leaped out of those horns at you - the effect was almost bewildering at first, like something must be wrong. On the contrary, with those big horns, that something was oh-so-right. The plucking of the standup bass took on an entirely different nature over the horns. Those thick strings being slapped and plucked almost felt like they were slapping me. The available dynamic range was a real attention getter.
A horn system like the Sadurni might not be for everyone, but for the lover of inner detail and dynamic range, it could be a real treat.
The kind folks at MBL went way above and beyond the call of duty for my benefit. By the time I was done in their room, AXPONA had been extended by almost an hour. And I was so glad it had been, because the MBL listening experience was truly a unique one.
At the heart of the experience was the Radialstrahler 116 F speaker with omnidirectional midrange and tweeter drivers. Always interested in unique driver technologies, I was so absorbed in hearing how the omni drivers affected imaging and soundstage that I ended up listening to most of my dozen test tracks on the MBL system.
The drivers are spherical, with overlapping "petals," like flower petals, that allow the entire sphere to expand and contract. The design was patented in 1962 and it took six years to produce a working model that performed well sonically.
The tonal balance through the mids and highs was strong but even, very clean and easy. At one point I noted the sound was bright but not bright. I expected the uniqueness of the technology to have some sound of its own, some imperfection in the way it performed that would stand out and give it away as interesting but flawed. I heard nothing of the kind. The drivers were quick, delivered percussive sounds with impact.
Imaging and soundstage were... different. In a good way. The imaging was very sharp for some instruments and somewhat larger for others, but was always very solid and stable, never smearing or wandering. I liked it. The soundstage was... I can only say different again. It almost seemed more authentic in a way, like it was a real soundstage and other speakers only faked a soundstage.
Before getting to my tracks, a couple of tracks from Michael Jackson's Thriller were played, and it was like hearing them for the first time. The soundstage was open and lifelike, the nature of the recordings seemed to be opened up, expanded, given a new dimension for the listener to experience.
Radiohead's Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box contains a challenging "instant on" electronic kick drum sound that takes a very quick woofer to keep up with. The 116 F did not seem to have the speediness at the low end that they did at the mids and highs, and that sound was a bit sluggish. But the width and depth of the soundstage was excellent, open and airy.
The acoustical instruments on Ode to a Butterfly and Reasons Why all sounded tonally accurate, lively, dynamic. Vocals on those tracks and on Ain't It A Shame were smooth and natural, every delicate nuance revealed. The opening muted guitar strum on Vision of a Kiss was nicely punchy, as was the bass guitar. Don't Know Why was delivered with delicacy, the big drum at the beginning of Chant had tight impact, the guitars on Fête d'Adieu and Shallow were crunchy and powerful. The 116 F had no trouble playing loudly and cleanly, the soundstage stayed uncluttered at all volume levels. Finishing up with Radiohead's The National Anthem, the jazz instruments got a bit thick and the soundstage closed in, but that was more the recording than the speakers - the 116 F were able to resolve all those instruments well without them turning mushy.
Through those tracks and others, the soundstage was spacious, natural, and almost lifelike, filling the front of the room and beyond.
The Radialstrahler 116 F were a great finishing act for AXPONA.
Based on what I heard at AXPONA, if I had to set some groupings - based on MSRP per pair and performance - they would look something like this:
$1,000 to $5,000 / pr - terrific values - affordable speakers that a very picky listener could be happy with.
$5,000 to $15,000 / pr - top performers - sonics get knocked right out of the ball park.
$15,000 - $30,000 / pr - save up and buy a pair to keep for life - performance close enough to perfection that one would be silly to think of it as otherwise.
above $30,000 / pr - dream on - pure perfection at prices very few could ever afford.
In each of these categories, there were exceptions to this grouping logic:
Models that seemed to leap forward into the next higher category with no logical regard for cost/price - Monitor Audio, Daedalus Audio, and Vapor Audio come to mind.
Models that had no business in that grouping in the first place... they shall remain nameless.
Below the $15,000 / pr mark, one could generally see how a given model got to its MSRP point. Above the $15,000 / pr mark, it was not so clear, and there were a few head-scratchers. But that is nothing new to to the world of high-end anything, where higher prices and mystery seem to go hand in hand.
And now I am going to risk getting in trouble and name my personal favorite speaker in each category. Please remember that under different listening conditions any one of these could have been altogether different, and some of them were very close calls: