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Positive Feedback ISSUE 66
march/april 2013


The Audio Circular: Number Four in a Series of Parallel Narratives
by Gary L. Beard

The Audio Expo North America Chicago 2013: An Audio Show Journal

Like many of you, my life is constantly in fast forward; not the one arrow 2X speed mind you, but the full-throttle 5 arrow speeding through life's commercials in 2 seconds Fast Forward. I can't tell you how many times I've told PFO Editor Dave Clark that "This year Dave, I'm gonna make it…" But I never did. It was only a week before the show that I finally made the decision to drive north to Rosemont, Illinois—a mere 4-1/2 hours by car from my home in Bloomington, Indiana—to attend my first audio show. I left my house at 5 am on Saturday for the trek north on I65. Along the way, I survived dumping tea on my favorite Crossroads of America Records tee shirt and by necessity, had to blow through the last unmanned toll basket because I ran out of quarters. (Yes, Illinois, you've got your money now.) By 10 o' clock that same morning I lost my audio show virginity to the lovely AXPONA at the Doubletree by Hilton O'Hare hotel.

My wife knows it too.

The Doubletree Hotel by Hilton O'Hare Lobby and a static display of Man Cave Metal Loudspeakers welcomed AXPONA 2013 Show-goers. (All bad photography by G. Beard)

I have been writing for Positive Feedback Online since 2002. I suppose I will always consider myself a wannabe audio journalist, but the fact is I have written numerous articles over those 11 years, most of them worth reading. And while the amount of gear I have experienced pales to those of most established PFO writers; I have had some very nice gear in my home. So while my audio education is an ongoing, ever-changing, living breathing beastie, I still had one big gaping hole in my audio writer's resume`: (No) show experience. Thankfully, the Chicago show has now checked that off the To-Do list. I suppose it should be obvious that I was excited to see, meet, listen and generally cavort with like-minded individuals. And that I did!

I wasn't able to make the Friday press day, so my time was limited to Saturday and most of Sunday. Among Saturday's highlights was the false(?) fire alarm that brought Chicago's finest out in droves; fire trucks, emergency vehicles and police cars filled the street as the rooms closed up and attendees' milled about the entry and across the street at the Embassy suites. It was quite a scene. There was a rumor that a tube amp blew up, but I never heard that story confirmed.

While standing outside awaiting the all-clear signal, I spotted Mytek's Chebon Littlefield and president Michal Jurewicz taking it all in from the street. I wonder what sirens sound like in Surround DSD?

As the excitement waned and a comfortable feeling returned, I hastily walked for the elevators to get a jump to the 9th floor. Instead of waiting in line for a lift, I spent a nice 10 minutes in the Blue Smoke (ha!) Entertainment Systems room listening to ELO's Mr. Blue Sky through the stand mounted TAD speakers Nice.

Argento Audio silver cables, Bag End, Harmonic Resolutions Systems, and TAD in Room 838

It wasn't Wrigley Field but I coulda used a 7th Inning Stretch...

As with any completely new experience, it is a sure bet that there will be things I wish I had done differently and others I wish would never end; and that is certainly the case with my day and a half at AXPONA. I should have never dragged my backpack in, or wore a heavy shirt. It was very hot in some of the rooms and a shoulder bag just made for a bitch to navigate the crowds and gear. I ditched both by late Saturday. I should have kept hydrated and had a snack or two too, as I was totally spent by Saturday's 6pm close. I didn't make it to every room either. Because I had never heard the likes of MBL and Scaena, I sought out these mega-systems so I would finally have firsthand knowledge of these incredible, but off-the-charts expensive cosmos of high-end audio. That time was well spent of course and I enjoyed every minute, but time flies at an audio show and I just didn't have enough to see it all. That was a damn shame. Oh and next time I'll bring a real camera. My little pocket-rocket Nikon was easy to carry, but--in reviewer speak now--not exactly the last word in photographic resolution. [Insert smiley here!]

So Wadia Think?

Overall, my general impressions of the Chicago show were, in order:

1) It was a bit overwhelming.

2) It was a little underwhelming.

Another thing I quickly realized, I need to bring some of my own tunes next time because I was unfamiliar with most of the music. Yes, I do like and listen to Classical and small combo Jazz, but I am most intimately familiar with blues, rock, folk, funk, and fusion recordings. To me, there were many rooms that sounded bright and extremely "hi-fi". (Hey Gary, you dumbass, it's a high fidelity show!) AND A FEW ROOMS WERE REALLY LOUD—too loud for me—and I like Rush! There were of course rooms/setups that I felt were really good in spite of being in hotel sized spaces. In general, I did not care as much for the big multi-way speakers in small rooms as I did the more simple configurations and stand mounts. There were exceptions, but most of them sounded a little hot and discombobulated to me. The following pictorial is of rooms that... well okay, rooms I remembered to photograph and that had that little something that I liked.

This Scaena System Line Array driven by massive Audio Research amps was eye-poppingly interesting. The image density and depth were quite impressive and they weren't playing small combo jazz either! The room featured Critical Mass systems, Silver Circle Audio and Kronos Audio.

The Voice That Is room featured Vitus Audio and Tidal. Very nice sound here. Lionel Loueke was awesome!

Modwright electronics and Van L speakers.

Music Direct Room with AVID, BAT and I believe Focal Speakers. Fun room, listened to the Stones "Stripped"!

The Electron Room: King Sound Performance, Bob Carver Amps and Purity Audio Designs. Very nice and intimate.

CEntrance's Michael Goodman with their Audiophile Desktop system. These guys are a value play. Check them out if you need music at your desk! Michael, send me something new and cool to write about!

Sumiko was showing a new Pro-ject modular system. For some reason I never asked to listen, but I was taken by the look of this gear. The Stream Box DSA—Streaming audio with 50 watt amp built-in $1499. There was also a phono amp, headphone amps and an Ipod dock. All reasonably affordable by audiophile standards. I hope to write about one or more of these products in the coming year.

Beautiful and great sounding Legacy speakers in the Legacy/Morrow Audio room.

Classic Audio Reproductions and Atmosphere amps.

The small YG Acoustics speakers (Carmel, I believe) were sounding very good in the GTT Audio/Video room with Veloce and Kubala-Sosna. This was one of my favorite rooms.

Cary Audio's new affordable Audio Electronics Hercules Amp. EL-34 Tube goodness! I will be looking into this one soon. Sounded good through some small KEF floorstanders.

The Soundsmith room. My favorite vinyl room and one of my overall favorites at AXPONA. The itty-bitty monitor speakers kicked ass with 440watts and a String Gauge/VPI front end! Approximately $24k not including the awesome VPI table. If I had reams of pristinely fine vinyl I could see (or hear) myself with this gear. Thank you Mr. Ledermann for spending a few minutes of your day enlightening me.

Nice sound in the April Music room. The Dynaudio Stand mounts sounded very open and immediate. Great value here too.

Musical Surroundings' Michael Fajen with a nice comparison of the Senn HD800 and Audeze LC3 headphones. The new Fosgate all-tube headphone amp and Michael Yee MYDACII as well as a vinyl rig were used to feed the head tunes. I've got to latch on to this gear for an article. Very nice sounding stuff!

Beautiful handmade gear in the Bogdan Audio room. Sounded good too.

The KT Audio Imports room featuring Beauty of Sound, Eventus Audio, NAT (cool tubes man!), Ikeda Sound Labs and Triangle Art Turntables was a very good sounding room. I really enjoyed the presentation of the Eventus Phobos speakers. The elbow is actually a new space age sound absorption material. (Ah come on! I'm having a blast!)

The Audio Power Labs room. Laufer Teknik, Memory 64 player and Hi Fidelity cables. It was impossible for me to take a picture that would do this room justice. The Leonardo speakers sounded wonderful.

The Lowther America/Tape Project room with First Watt amplification. I'd love to hear some variation of the Lowther's in my own room.

Sonic Hemispheres room. Nice sound with the great Clayton amps. Nice guys too.

Van Alstine and Salk room. While there seemed to be some room issues here, this system sounded very good to my ears.

The handmade goodness of Blue Circle Audio's Gilbert Yeung!

mbl Reference Line. Freakin' awesome looking gear. I mean come on, even the most jaded audiophile has to admit this stuff turns the crank. It wasn't the greatest room perhaps, but it still sounded great to yours truly.

Purity Audio Designs, Daedalus Audio speakers and Playback Designs.

Small Elac monitors in Todd Garfinkle's MA Recordings Room. Simple. Nice. Relaxed.

St..St...St...Studio! Studio Electric. Beautiful and very nice sounding room.

Headphones and Stereo192 DSD DACs in the Mytek room. The Stereo 192 does sound good through headphones. I am listening to it right now through mine!

The Icon Audio Room. Very well priced gear that sounded very nice from my vantage point. This room was always busy when I came, but I heard enough to know I'd like to write about some of this gear!

The new Music Hall Ikura turntable (Price $TBD) and Creek gear. Roy Hall was in attendance and showed me several new audio toys and accessories, all with a high bang for the buck.

The Sony SS AR2 speakers and Pass Labs amps in the Mytek room. The room was set up for 5.0 surround sound with Pass and Lipinski amps and three Mytek Stereo 192 DSD DACs were used to play back DSD surround sound. I was in this room several times. It didn't grab me at first, but the Sony speakers just started sounding very right to me after a while. Great music, not too loud and nice guys too. I learned a lot. Thank you Michal and Chebon.

Format Wars! Vinyl, 24/192, and Spotify! Peachtree Audio's young guns will help bring new people into our hobby!

In addition to the Innamorata Amplifier ($6k) shown here, the International Phonograph, Inc room featured TAD floor standers, Lamm electronics and terrific local jazz combo recorded direct to a Tascam Reel to Reel. Really nice!

The Von Schweikert Room: Master-Built, Your Final System, KR and the VR-100XS Speakers

After listening to the Von Schweikert room for the third time in two days, I had the pleasure to speak with Mr. Von Schweikert as he stood in the hall with another show attendee. I introduced myself and asked him a couple of questions. The other gentleman excused himself and began to walk away causing an apology from me as I realized I may have intruded on a conversation. No, the show-goer insisted, as if I had not interrupted anything of import. With that, Albert introduced the gentleman as the new owner of the VR-100XS speakers on display! Taken back a bit, I shook this lucky fellow's hand and congratulated him on his good fortune. Without hesitation, he smiled broadly and extended the invitation to come and hear them in his home! Sir, I thank you. I may just take you up on it someday. Mr. Von Schweikert has agreed to let me play with the new entry level VR-22 speakers. I'm stoked!

"A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step" (Lao-tzu, sometime after 604 B.C)

While Saturday had its good and not-so good moments, I was definitely feeling more confident on Sunday. The damn DST time change and one hour difference from my home to Chicago made for a challenging Sunday morning, but without friends at the show (sniff-sniff) to coerce me to do the stupid-dance in the city, I didn't see the clock turn past 10pm the night before. Well rested, I moped about the lobby waiting on the starting bell to ring. It was about that time that I ran into a Steven Rochlin of Enjoy the Music. Steven was suffering from a Saturday of illness, not a night of revelry, but he looked ready and able to me. I had corresponded with him over the years and we talked for a few minutes before he shot off for the elevator to begin his own report. Throughout the morning I observed him covering rooms with the precision of a Ferrari driver. As we passed in the corridor, I not-so-jokingly remarked that it appeared he had done this before. He responded that yes, he had perfected the art over the course of 120 shows (paraphrasing). Throughout the weekend I introduced myself to several notable writers and industry professionals that could say the same thing, if not more. No wonder I felt a bit challenged by the atmosphere. But you know what? Every person who has attended 120 plus high end audio shows had to start with number one. That is a BIG #1 for yours truly!

Press is a Tough Gig No Matter What You Think

As I sat on a couch in the lobby Saturday evening, chatting with Myles Astor of PFO and Adam LaBarge of Dagogo, Adam was already processing pictures and Myles was, well, relaxed. I was sure of one thing. Their show reports would be posted before mine. One thing I wasn't confident of: I was completely unsure if my experiences were in any way, shape or form in the realm of theirs. I openly admit it; as a first-timer, I felt/feel just a bit sheepish making comments regarding the relative "goodness" of a demo room. Most of the other reviewer/writers have heard many of these systems in different rooms and know their strengths and weaknesses. But hey, opinions are like audio systems: Everybody ought to believe theirs is worthy of praise, if not the most wonderful on the planet. I have opinions, right or wrong and while I am going to try my best not to shoot myself in the foot and make (too many) statements that I can't back up, here goes nutin'...

My favorite rooms/gear of the show:

Cost No Object Love:

If I Could Afford It...

The Von Schweikert Room

If I Could Afford It And All My Vinyl Wasn't Scratched:

The Soundsmith Room

My Favorite Moment:

Listening To Rush's Freewill In The MBL Reference Line Room. Rock My World MBL!!

My Second Favorite Moment:

Eva Cassidy Singing Fields Of Gold Through The Small YG Speakers. Mesmerizing!

Yummy Goodies:

The Leonardo Speakers Were Very Nice.

The Tidal Speakers Were Really Good.

The HT Demo In The AIX Records Room Was Cool.

The Hornings were big and expansive.

Sonus Faber. This room sounded very lush and huge, BUT I'D HAVE TURNED IT DOWN! It was too dark for me to get a good photo.

They Grew On Me and Now I want them #1:

The Sony SS-AR speakers in the Mytek room. I'd call them sneaky good. I'd buy them but I'm 20 grand short.

They Grew On Me and Now I want them #2:

The Fosgate Headphone Amp and Audeze LC3 headphones (and/or Senn HD800 headphones). Maybe Musical Surroundings will send them to me for a while. Guys? Come on send 'em! You know you want to!

The Last Hurrah Or Have I Just Begun?

The show was very busy and somewhat chaotic on Saturday and while I had a good plan, I missed rooms that I had really wanted to visit—Herron, Acoustic Zen, Decibel Audio (Harbeth & Rogue Audio), and Rethm among others. I had them on my go-to list, but it was all a blur and I didn't realize I had missed them until it was too late. Gentlemen, next time you'll see me. I promise. As Sunday wound down and my first show came to a close, I felt relieved and invigorated and exhausted. I had seen, fondled and listened to some of the world's finest audio equipment; and while doing so, had met and talked with some of the world's leading authorities on high fidelity audio systems. It was a great weekend. The first of many I hope.

As I walked from the Doubletree into the parking garage and up the stairwell to pay my parking fee, a confused looking gentleman asked me in a thick accent where the parking pay-on-foot machine was located. He apologized for his English, stating, "I am from Poland." As we walked together to pay our "fare" share, I asked him if he enjoyed the show. Grinning from ear to ear he replied, "Oh yes, it was my dream!" Yes my European friend, it was indeed, but rest easy and dream no longer of this show, only about the next!

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, here I come!