AXPONA 2019 was easily the best US audio show in recent memory. I'm not basing this off of any stats, only the feeling I got from walking the show for three days, talking to everyone, and listening to some really great systems.
I started walking the show a bit before the opening bell on Friday. I stopped to see Amadeus Meitner at the EMM Labs room because it was already open and reproducing really good sound. Also, I wanted to let Amadeus know that the EMM DV2 DAC with volume control I just placed in my own system for review sounds excellent. I look forward to publishing that review before the Munich show, at which EMM will display a new digital product I hope to receive in the near future. Hint, it isn't a DAC.
I heard several rooms full of really good sound this year. It seems like only short time ago I wrote about not finding anything good at AXPONA. Times change, people change, components change and exhibitors learn how to squeeze the best sound from their rooms. This includes using the right size speakers and components to match rather than stuffing flagship products, too large for all but a ballroom, into a small hotel room.
My top three rooms at this year's show all featured systems that paired with the room exceptionally well and were setup by the exhibitors with care and precision. I congratulate those involved in putting the rooms together for doing it right.
3. Constellation, MartinLogan, AURALiC, Cardas
This room sounded very good on several different types of recordings. The Doug Macleod track I'll Be Walking On, heard in the video below, is as high resolution as they get. I was surprised to hear so much detail and air in this recording given the circumstances. I hate to say it but in my experience exhibiters using MartinLogan based systems at trade shows usually struggle to show people just how good the speakers and connected components really are. This wasn't the case at AXPONA 2019. The speed and liquidity of the electrostatic panels, being driven by the single Constellation stereo amp, was truly delightful.
Amplifier: Constellation Audio Inspiration Stereo 1.0 ($11,000)
Preamplifier: Constellation Audio Inspiration PreAmp 1.0 ($9,900)
Phono Stage: Constellation Audio Andromeda ($18,000) with DC filter ($5,000)
Speakers: MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A ($15,000)
Digital to Digital Converter: AURALiC ARIES G2 ($4,000)
Digital to Analog Converter: AURALiC VEGA G2 ($6,000)
Turntable: Continuum Audio Labs Obsidian ($35,000), Viper tonearm ($10,000), Ortofon A-95 cartridge ($6,000)
2. Vinnie Rossi, Triode Wire Labs
Vinnie Rossi's room was the surprise of the show. Vinnie always has good sound, usually showing with Harbeth speakers and a gregarious demeanor. At AXPONA I ran into several people who implored me to spend some time listening to Vinnie's new Stiletto loudspeakers. I immediately though to myself, HiFi needs another speaker like a hole in the head. I was very skeptical and I told Vinnie that after my extended listening session.
Using the ultra high end equipment rack from Amazon.com ($20) to rest his L2 series components and Triode Wire Labs to connect everything, Vinnie has pulled off something pretty special with his Stiletto speakers. The speakers feature an open baffle 15" woofer design for the bottom end and a sealed cabinet for the mid and top frequency drivers. The two pieces are completely separate in a WATT/Puppy fashion.
Listening to this system was so pleasurable. I requested several songs as show-goers came and went. I felt the need to stay and listen. It was so relaxing and effortless. One of my go-to tracks this year was Don't Take Your one From Me off go John Coltrane's album Standard Coltrane. The sound was almost ethereal as Coltrane's sax oozed from the left channel and Jimmy Cobb's drum kit and Red Garland's piano sprinkled around the right. As one person left the room he said something to the effect of, great song selection. I take zero credit for this man's enjoyment. It was all Coltrane and Rossi.
Vinnie played a Natalie Merchant track for me and I immediately got goosebumps. The richness in her voice came through this system, in a terrible sonic environment, wonderfully. Half-way through the track I had to let Vinnie know this was something special.
I asked Vinnie to put on the track Xanny from Billie Eilish's new album released in March of this year. This track has mix of what I'll call somewhat traditional bass and electronic bass. In most room at the show this track exposed the horrible room modes and bass humps. Through Vinnie's system the bass was big and tight, but without any trade show boom. Vinnie explained that this was a product of the open baffle 15" woofer design of the Stiletto loudspeaker. Based on this experience, and knowing many people around the world have rooms that can easily be overloaded with bass due to small size, I think the Stiletto speakers offer a very compelling value proposition.
Nice work Vinnie.
Amplifier: Vinnie Rossi L2 Signature Monoblocks ($16,000)
Preamplifier: Vinnie Rossi L2 Signature ($17,000)
Speakers: Vinnie Rossi Stiletto 15 (preproduction, available this summer, roughly $20,000)
Music Server: MacBook
Digital to Analog Converter: Vinnie Rossi L2 DAC module in the preamplifier ($3,500)
Rack: Amazon.com ($20)
1. Avantgarde, Esoteric, Transparent, Harmonic Resolution Systems
The Avantgarde Duo Mezzo XD based system was unequivocally my Best of Show. It was absolutely captivating. I heard the system as I walked into the room, but passed by to listen to the Avantgarde Zero TA speakers in another room because I couldn't get a seat or good standing position. I could immediately tell the big system was operating on all cylinders as I inched my way though those listening.
After thoroughly enjoying the Avantgarde Zero TA based system, I was told the team was ready to play my beloved Coltrane track I used throughout this show. I found a seat on the edge of the couch for the start of the song, but by the end I was sitting dead center. Perhaps the gentleman who gave up his center seat need to use the restroom because the sound was so spectacular. There's no way anyone without some sort of issue was going to leave part way through this demonstration. It was too good, too captivating.
From the opening notes of Coltrane's sax I was transported to Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack, New Jersey studio in 1958. This doesn't happen at trade shows. The environment is too crowded and too noisy, or I'm stuck listening to a 32 bit / 384 kHz recording of snapping sticks. Not so with Avantgarde at AXPONA 2019. I heard every genre of music and each was equally compelling in its own right. Sure I didn't care for some of the tracks but I could hear why others weren't leaving their seats.
When I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan and Coltrane I couldn't leave. The sound was just too good. Dynamic as one can imagine, these horns laid the delicacy of each note right out in front of the listeners. The large room was filled with music that seemed to come from a live band on stage, rather than a tweeter, midrange, and bass woofer like most rooms.
After this experience, I am 100% considering replacing my TAD Compact Reference speakers with horns from Avantgarde. That's no joke.
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo Mezzo XD ($60,500)
Amplifier: Esoteric Grandioso F1 ($31,000)
SACD Player: Esoteric Grandioso K1 ($31,000)
Music Server / DAC: Esoteric N-01 ($21,000)
Clock: Esoteric G01X ($21,000)
Stands / Racks: Harmonic Resolution Systems
Above is the Avantgarde Zero TA based system that was also very good.
P.S. There was one more system that really impressed me at AXPONA. It was a headphone system. I can't give this system, a rating because it isn't officially being released until the Munich show in May. However, we've been given an exclusive to post video of the system Tuesday. What I heard was possibly the best headphone system I've ever heard. It isn't cheap (over $20,000) but the best things in life are either free or well over what most of us can afford. Look for more on Tuesday.