High End 2015

High End 2015: Pendulumic

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HE15_Logo_GB_01It happens periodically, where there will be this groundswell of resentment over pricing in high-end audio. As if the wallet of any individual were what was driving the price of any particular product. Instead of looking at it and saying “That’s not for me”, there are those that take it personally, as if “it really was for me, if it weren’t for all those greedy bastards!”

For those folks especially, the headphone-based high-end is a really nifty place to explore.

Take Pendulumic, for example.

Their top-of-the-range Stance S1+ is $199. That’s not pocket change, but it’s pretty damn affordable. It’s also wireless, featuring the latest aptX “wideband” Bluetooth protocol (and Bluetooth 4.0 and A2DP), and a 30 hour playtime. They’re built well, sound great, and look ma, no wires! Wait — just ran out of juice? Aww, too bad — just add a wire, and you’re back in business. The design folds flat, and has an option for AAA batteries to back up the on-board rechargeable. Pretty nifty.

Sonically, the Stance S1+ appears to carry more of a pro-audio voicing, which is fine, but they aren’t going to be knocking out any of the $1,000+ headphones anytime soon. That’s also beside the point. They’re not $1,000. And for their wireless competitors, I think these are definitely in the game.

Looking forward to seeing more from Pendulumic.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: An Outsider Looks In

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by Josh Emmons

My tastes in music are discouragingly popular. I crave ABA structures, uplifting hooks, and transportive bridges. I am inspired by key changes. My first cassette tape was Different Light. My first CD? Cosmic Thing. All of which is to say, I’m not a big fan of jazz.

I mean, I’m not a philistine. I live in Chicago. I go to the Green Mill. And I am always, always amazed and awed by what transpires there. It is something that is almost wholly unlike what I think of as jazz. It’s warm. Inviting. Surprising. A living, breathing, enveloping, harmonious spectacle.

I don’t like jazz. But it turns out I love the experience of jazz.

I can easily sum up the thoughts of an outsider first walking the halls of AXPONA with a simple quote I’m sure we’ve all heard too often.

“You paid how much for a cable?”

To those of us not in the hi-fi world, the great lengths (and expense) the community goes to in pursuit of ever diminishing returns seem ridiculous on the face of it. After all, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the Bangles on my cold-war-era Realistic tape deck from RadioShack. And we’ve all heard the story about how a professor somewhere swapped coat hangers in for I-don’t-know-what and so it’s all just a little silly, yes?

Walking from room to room, I would occasionally justify what I was seeing with my own patronizing little placations. “We all value different things,” I’d say. “They clearly think it’s worth the price or they wouldn’t have paid it.” That kind of “cast the first stone” stuff that makes me feel superior for not judging people I’ve judged.

ANUK-0790Then I was sitting in the Audio Note room because a man named Charles King had brought a collection of reel-to-reel tapes to the show. He queued up a first-generation recording of the Chuck Israels Orchestra playing some small club somewhere, and I was back in the Green Mill.

It was so subtly mic’d, the tape so fresh, the system so well tuned… The performance simply came alive, sprung fully-formed from the speakers right there in the hotel room. Not just the horns or the bass but the clink of forks on dishes and glasses being tipped and the small “hmms” and “ahhs” of the crowd over the combined murmur of a hundred half-whispered dinnertime nothings.

This was’t jazz. It was the experience of jazz.

And all I could do is ask myself “Why?” over and over. Why had David Cope amassed and transported over $80k worth of gear to a hotel in Chicago? Why had he spent days adjusting it? Why had someone taken such care in preserving this performance? Why had Charlie King collected these tapes? Why, in heaven’s name, had he brought them with him here to the show?

And then I looked around the little hotel room at AXPONA and recognized for the first time something that always set the experience of the Green Mill apart from jazz, somehow, in my mind. I was sharing it.

Music is the most subversive form of sound.

When listening to most sound, our brain remains firmly in the driver’s seat. We might hear a shout and redirect our attention. Or a siren and change our direction. Or an argument and concede our opinion. But these are all well-reasoned responses. They’re all routed through our brains.

Music doesn’t talk to our brains. It talks to our glands. It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth; the minor fall, the major lift. And we shudder with the sudden flood of endorphins that pound our bloodstream without so much as a by-your-leave to our brains. Music is fundamentally magical-seductive-holy-seditious-terrifying. And it’s the audiophile that traffics in this good.

And of course we don’t need it to be “high fidelity” to be any of these things. How many children have been comforted by a roughly hummed lullaby? How many revolutions carried on a whistle and a drum?

But when we share music, we’re not just sharing a tune. We’re releasing emotion in viral form ready to infect the world. It can be jazz, or it can be the experience of jazz.

The experience of music, in my humble opinion, is the business that audiophiles are in. 

I’ll see you next year.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Grant Fidelity and PureAudioProject

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It’s not often that seeing a vendor at an audio show warms my heart, but seeing that Grant Fidelity is still kicking makes me incredibly happy. Watching Rachel Grant bounce her company back onto the industry map is one of the feel-good stories of the year.

Not that I’d be nice about it if her room sucked, mind you. Business is business. Fortunately, the room shared by Grant Fidelity and the PureAudioProject was about as far from sucking as it’s possible to get for under ten grand total.

Starting with the competent Yulong Sabre DA8 dsd-capable DAC ($1199) and 25 watt, Psvane TS845 integrated amplifier ($3550), the Grant Fidelity supplied electronics offered supple musicality and holographic midrange. The open-baffle, 92db sensitive, PureAduioPoject Trio15B ($3,500) opened that holography up well past the back wall of the room. This was a massive dose of audiophile trickery on the cheap, with an added dose of straight, no-chaser, not-audiophile-at-all musicality. It was definitely one of the best realized budget systems at the show.

I also got to look at, but not hear, the Trio10AMT ($3,999), a smaller speaker for those allergic to whizzer cones. If it can beat the sound of the Trio15 (not easy), it may be the go-to for a killer introduction to what a refined high-efficiency speaker can do.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Gibson Les Paul Reference Monitors

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by Josh Emmons

Here’s the thing, Gibson and I got off on the wrong foot.

I have many more fingers in the guitar world than the audio enthusiast one. And there is, perhaps, no guitar “look” more iconic than a Les Paul with maple flametop, cherry sunburst, and that signature off-white binding.

Releasing speakers with these exact distinctive features and the Les Paul name smacks of a scheme to make quick money off aging and nostalgic rockers. It has all the brand-authenticity of Pac-Man Cereal. When I see Gibson is showing off the Les Paul Reference Monitors at AXPONA, I don’t even want to visit the room. My mind’s already made up.

Two things convince me to change it. First, remembering Gibson’s purchase of KRK, maker of some of my favorite monitors of all time. Second, the steady stream of impressive buzz and word-of-mouth coming from the room.

So visit the room I did. And I’m glad, because, if you’ll forgive the guitar pun, I’ve changed my tune.

The Gibson Les Paul Reference Monitors come in three sizes and three finishes. The LP4 has a 4″ woofer, the LP6, a 6″, and the LP8, an 8″. The finishes are cherry, tobacco burst, and cherry burst, the three most popular finishes of the Les Paul guitar.

These speakers are very good, but they’re not magic. The LP4, with its tiny 4″ woofer, grows distinctly distorted when wrestling heavy bass. And even when not distorting, it starts to feel a little crowded when something even mildly rockin’ is played. I suspect they’re intended for computer use, and would likely perform dutifully for desktop listening.

The 6″ LP6 opens this right up, handling bass with ease and bringing some real clarity to the upper-mids. Near as I can tell, tweeters are identical across the line, but with the extra depth below them, the highs on the LP6 have room to shine.

Frankly, the LP6 is what I would consider entry-level for anyone who’s not just buying a Les-Paul-themed conversation starter for their desk. I half-suspect Gibson feels the same, and that the existence of the 4″ is a little contextual pricing strategy at work.

The LP8’s sound is gorgeous and wide open, taking full advantage of that large 8″ woofer to pack extra space into the sound. At louder volumes I really start to feel the physicality and power behind it. But for all its punch, it’s still a monitor. It’s expected to have balanced response and I would say it holds up its end of that deal with aplomb. It really is an exceptional 2-way. Detailed and clear mids and lows, and happy highs. I would hold it up against any bookshelfs present at AXPONA today.

Which is an interesting position for Gibson to be in. At $2,000 for the pair I’d say, in the high-end audio market, the LP8 is successfully competing with speakers twice its price. More so, when I consider that the extent of the front-end in the Gibson room is a Tascam DA-3000 playing through a channel switcher.

But in the world of studio monitors, that price is steep. The top-of-the-line 8″ KRK I spoke so highly of in the opening is $1,200/pair. And yet, it has a face only a mother could love. It’s not the sort of thing I’d want on display in my living room.

And so, unexpectedly, I come back to the signature maple-top burst Gibson has put forward as the face of its Les Paul monitors. It’s a classic in the guitar world for a reason; namely, it’s beautiful. If that beauty speaks to you, I really love these speakers. I think you’ll be quite happy with them.

If, on the other hand, you feel as one show-goer does, that “They look like something you’d get at HotTopic,” I might hold off. For all the beauty and craftsmanship on display, reducing the signature style of a Les Paul guitar down to the rounded-rectangle shape of a smartphone app is a little cloying. And there are better deals to be had if you’re going to cover with a paper bag, anyway.

For my part? I’m crossing my fingers that Gibson releases a line inspired by the SG.

Prices

  • Les Paul Reference Monitor LP4: $599/ea.
  • Les Paul Reference Monitor LP6: $799/ea.
  • Les Paul Reference Monitor LP8: $999/ea.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Essential Audio with AudioKinesis, Atma-Sphere, Exogal, Aurender, Kuzma

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by Josh Emmons

I’m sitting in the Essential Audio room, notepad open, pen in hand. Eyes unfocused, listening intently. But writing nothing.

And I should be writing something. It’s my job to write something. But I’m not hearing anything. Well, okay, that’s obviously untrue. I’m hearing some fantastic music. But it’s not my job to talk about music. I’m supposed to talk about how the music sounds. And I just can’t figure it out. So I’m going to talk about The Matrix.

Do you remember that moment when Agent Smith reveals to a drugged Morpheus how the first version of the Matrix failed horribly? It was designed to be a perfect paradise, but our human brains rejected it as obviously unreal. Without little imperfections to hang on to, our consciousness had no way to relate to what we were experiencing.

As I’ve made much hay from already, this is my first hi-fi show. And as such, I rarely know going into a room what I’m supposed to be listening for. So I sit in the sweet spot, close my eyes, and listen for imperfection.

Once my ears catch it, I can tease it out. Does it reoccur? What is that, a frequency thing? Or something with the timber of the treble, maybe something resonating? Is it too bright? Is it the amp? The cables?

So I sit in the Essential Audio room, and I’m hearing nothing. And I’m writing nothing. And my overall impression is, “This sounds okay.”

This is how we end up with Beats headphones, loudness wars, saturated TVs, and Pepsi ever winning the Pepsi Challenge. If we aren’t given imperfections we have no way to differentiate our experiences from “normal”. If it’s not deeper, louder, brighter, or sweeter, it’s “okay”.

Consider that, by definition, the more natural something is, the less remarkable we find it. And so it is with the Essential Audio room. It is not okay. It is exceptionally okay. Surpassingly normal. It is incredibly, unbelievably natural.

And why? At least part of credit lies at the feet of the AudioKinesis Zephrin 46. I mean literally at its feet. If you haven’t seen a 46 before its rear drivers are mounted in its feet pointing up to provide what AudioKinesis calls Late Ceiling Splash.

After learning about LCS, I expected to hear a slight echo or even subtle chorus-like sound from the Zephrin. But that’s not at all how it works. I would say the effect is completely transparent, but for how life-like the system sounds. Its front-facing beryllium compression driver probably doesn’t hurt in this respect, either.

Still, if you’re building your sound up with late reflections and reverberant fields, you want your source saturated with as much depth and space as possible. That’s the job of the twin Atma-Sphere M-60 monoblocks. They’re huge, have VUs, and are full of tubes. Hand wired, fully point-to-point, and continuously refined for over three decades, these amps are the undisputed heavyweight champs of OTL.

These are fed with signal decoded by Exogal‘s Comet Plus DAC. Here’s the thing to know about Exogal, these guys know their DSP. They cut their teeth in other industries like wireless broadband, GPS, image processing and more before bringing it all back to the PCM decoding scene. This DAC does magical D to A in ways never before seen in the hi-fi community.

All this resting on a very handsome rack from Teo Audio that, at first, looks like it’s molded out of some sort of injected insulation material, but upon closer inspection is actually metallic. I have no idea what they did to aerate metal and cast it into shelves, but the look is striking.

So when it comes down to it the Essential Audio recipe for a shockingly natural sounding system is pretty unnatural sounding. Whip some metal up into foam. Take signal processing technology from cell phones, use it to decode bits that get piped through an amp that’s completely omitted the transformer from its output stage to drive a pair of “Z” shaped speakers that have two-thirds of their cones pointing at the ceiling.

The result is remarkably unremarkable. Unnaturally natural. Indescribable only in as much as there’s nothing to describe that’s not the thing being described. If you’re ever in the Illinois area, you simply have to stop by Essential Audio for a personal audition.

It’s then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

Prices

  • Aurender N100 Music Player: $2,499
  • Aurender X100L Music Player: $3,499
  • Exogal Comet Plus DAC: $3,000
  • Atma-Sphere UV-1 pre with low ourput MC photo section: $2,900
  • Atma-Sphere M-60 MkIII.2 amp with copper foil V-Cap options: $7,700/pr.
  • AudioKinesis Zephrin 46 loudspeakers: $4,900/pr., beryllium compression drivers: $1,000/pr., Automotive paint finish: $1,000/pr.
  • Kuzma Stabi SD Turntable: $2,550, Stogi S CS tonearm: $1,425, Stogi S 12 VTA tonetarm: $3,150, CAR-40 cartridge: $1,195
  • Clarity Cable Vortex power cords: $750/ea. Power Distributors: $1,200/ea., Organic USB, 1.5m: $1,000, Organic Speaker Cables, 8ft.: $3,750/pr.
  • Teo Audio Equipment Rack: $7,500
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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: AURALiC

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by Josh Emmons

I’m a Mac guy. It’s not a lifestyle thing for me or anything, but when browsing consumer electronics, I’m drawn to aluminum and glass. Clean edges. Sharp, minimal design.

Knowing this about me, it won’t surprise you to learn I find AURALiC‘s Vega the best damn looking DAC out there right now. I know it’s not just a pretty face. I know it’s got serious brains, too (a multi-core ARM9, in fact). And I know it’s capable of decoding pretty much all PCM in addition to DSD (up to 2x). But it’s the look I keep coming back to.

But here’s the situation. You have a gorgeous DAC like the Vega, but more and more of your collection is living on your NAS. Or maybe one of these new-fangled “streaming services” the kids are always jawing on about. Maybe you’ve installed gigabit WiFi in your home and are thinking to yourself, “Wait, shouldn’t this be wide enough to stream DSD, now?”

Maybe. But there’s a missing piece between the wireless cloud and your DAC. And AURALiC aims to fill it with the Aries. It’s a streaming “bridge” with 802.11ac and gigabit ethernet inputs that let you reach out into the network and stream data from there to your DAC.

The “network”, in this case, can be your own NAS or a lossless streaming service like Tidal, Qobuz or WiMP. The “data” is the standard 44.1–384/16–32 PCM formats, or DSD (2.8 and 5.6MHz). The connection to your DAC can be via USB 2.0, AES/EBU, Coaxial, or TOSLINK, and the DAC itself can be, well, anything.

AURALiC is quite adamant on this last point. Of course they’d like it if you paired an Aries up with one of their Vegas. But it was built to work well with any DAC not just their own. The Aries truly is meant to “bridge”, not just “extend” or “add-on”.

This shows through in its design. The Aries breaks from traditional AURALiC “aluminum block” stylings, opting instead for clamshell-like top and bottom-panels, each with a pleasing wave in their shape. The effect is very modern, if not quite as minimal their other products. At least one goal of this design, AURALiC tells me, is to make the Aries capable of blending with a wide array of gear in a variety of styles.

But it could have its downsides. For example, that arched top makes the Aries much less stackable than its box-shaped brethren. On the other hand, you don’t want a lot of (electrically) noisy metal sitting on top of a device trying to pull down 1,300Mbps of data over wireless, so maybe this is intentional.

Still, the Aries (thankfully!) inherits the Vega’s striking display, and will still look at home on top of a stack of AURALiC gear. Interestingly, there seems to be no way to control the Aries from that beautiful display. For that you’ll have to use the included remote or the (continually improving) Lightning DS app (currently iPad only).

Another nice trait inherited from the Vega is its apparent agnosticism when it comes to how you get what music where. For example, in addition to the headline “lossless streaming” features noted above, you also can attach USB drives to the Aries to play music from physical storage. While not “streaming” from a purist point of view, this is certainly handy. And speaking as a Mac fan, I appreciate that the Aries supports AirPlay, letting me shoot music to it from my iOS and OS X devices.

DLNA and uPnP are also supported. And while I have no direct experience with OpenHome, I’m hearing more and more about it. It’s inclusion is definitely forward thinking and welcome.

In fact, in the end, “bridge” is probably the wrong way to describe the Aries. A bridge starts from a anchored foundation and extends to a known, stable location. The Aries connects the shifting ether of the cloud to unknown decoders via any combination of over a dozen protocols and ports. It’s more swiss army knife than bridge. And in our current, quickly evolving media landscape, that is a very valuable thing to have.

Prices

  • AURALiC Taurus: $1,899
  • AURALiC Vega: $3,499
  • AURALiC Aries LE: $999
  • AURALiC Aries (upgraded clocks and PSU): $1,599

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High End 2015

High End 2015: Pre-Show with AURALiC

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HE15_Logo_GB_01I’ve heard all manner of horror stories. High-End is huge. Jammed with people. I’d never cover it all, especially if I had to wait in lines. So, natch, I collected my badge early. Unlike CES, however, the goon squad was not present day-before, so wandering the pre-completed show floor was as simple as doing.

One of the things I found, that day-before, was a new streamer from AURALiC.

Xuanqian Wang, AURALiC’s head wizard, laughed and shook his head. “You can’t talk about this until Thursday!” I assured him that I was nowhere near that organized, upon which he then sent me the press release that he planned to bomb out at some point over the weekend. I’ve included it here. Highlights: unlike the Aries Streamer, the Mini is actually a DAC too. And the price? $399 US. Shazam. Availability will be this summer. Darko has much more over at Digital Audio Review.

Munich HIGHEND show, 14th May 2015 – AURALiC launches ARIES MINI, a new member of its lightning product line. ARIES MINI is a wireless streaming node designed for your existing audio system connection. It enables your home stereo with wireless high-resolution streaming capability at an affordable price.

ARIES MINI shares all existing software and hardware functions of our original popular streaming bridge: ARIES, which launched last year on the HighEnd Munich show. In additional, ARIES MINI has a pair of high quality analog output powered by ESS Sabre DAC chip: ES9018K2M. The built-in storage slot accepts any 2.5-inch hard drive or solid- state drive, which can be used to build your personal music library.

ARIES MINI can stream high-resolution music extremely fast over WiFi signal at virtually any sampling rate, even for the latest Quad-Rate DSD and DXD. It is powered by AURALiC’s proprietary Tesla hardware platform including a Quad-Core ARM Coretex-A9 processor running at 1GHz, 512MB DDR3 onboard memory and 4GB internal data storage. The Tesla platform has a calculation ability of 25,000 MIPS, more than enough

to decode a vast spectrum of audio formats, including AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DIFF, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV and WMA.

‘We are trying to create something that is affordable for most music lover, not just audiophile,’ said Xuanqian Wang, the CEO of AURALiC. ‘ARIES MINI is exactly the right product for anyone who is eager to experience the wireless high-resolution streaming technology but don’t want to spend a lot of budget on a dedicate DSD DAC or a NAS drive. It is the real DSD streamer for everyone.’

Through Lightning DS, AURALiC’s control software, ARIES MINI can stream music stored on network attached storage, USB disk and optional internal storage. It also supports TIDAL, Qobuz and WiMP lossless streaming services. The other streaming sources are vTuner Internet Radio, AirPlay from Apple devices and Songcast for Windows and Mac system.

The input of ARIES MINI includes Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac dual-band WiFi, USB input and optional internal storage such as 2.5’ hard disk or solid-state drive. The outputs are USB audio that is compatible with DACs, which do not required drive to work on Mac system. The digital audio outputs include Coaxial and Toslink with maximum supported sampling rate up to 24Bit/192k. The single-ended analog output drive by internal DAC supports all sampling rate up to Quad-Rate DSD and DXD.

The dimension of ARIES MINI is 13.5*13.5*2.8cm (W*D*H), weight at about 800 grams depends on different internal storage options. It is available in two colours: white and black.

AURALiC and its Europe partners are accepting pre-order right now. The company will start shipping these pre-orders by the end of July in Europe first. The Retail price of ARIES MINI is EUR 459 or USD 399 in U.S.

ARIES MINI Specifications

Streaming Services

  • Local uPnP/DLNA library content
  • TIDAL, Qobuz and WiMP online streaming vTuner Internet Radio
  • AirPlay and Songcast
  • USB and internal hard drive files

Supported File Types: AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DIFF, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV and WMA

Sampling Rates: PCM in 44.1Khz – 384Khz at 16 – 32bits DSD64, DSD128, DSD256

Processor: 1GHz Quad-Core ARM cortex A9 512MB DDR3 SDRAM

Memory: 512MB DDR3 SDRAM

Data Storage: 4GB MLC SSD

Built-In DAC: ESS Sabre ES9018K2M

Inputs:

  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 2.4/5GHz 802.11ac dual-band WiFi External USB storage
  • Optional Internal Storage

Digital Outputs: USB Audio Class 2 Coaxial, TOSLINK

Analog Outputs: Single-ended RCA

Dimensions: Weight: 13.5cm x 13.5cm x2.8cm (W x L x H) About 800g

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Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015

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High End 2015

High End 2015: A Part-Timer Wanders Munich

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HE15_Logo_GB_01I speak German kind of like Dana Carvey speaks Schwarzenegger. It’s not exactly … correct. There’s this whole “lack of semantic content” problem, you see. That said, I’ve very enthusiastic.

Happily for me, Bavarians are as well.

What they’re not, however, is particularly specific. Taxi stands that are “on the other side” (of a building, road, whatever) are in fact about 1/2 mile away. Signs pointing out bathrooms don’t necessarily correlate with actual bathrooms. It’s just a sign that points to another sign that points to the path that eventually leads to … another sign. It’s like a Treasure Hunt. Fun, fun!

Another curious (related) fact — Bavarians love signs. They’re cryptic. They’re cute. They’re everywhere. I’m pretty convinced they mean absolutely nothing.

Anyway, when I was told that the BMW Museum, a must-see stop on my pre-High End experience in Munich, was “over there” and easily within walking distance, I must have given the impression of physical fitness. I’m not sure how. But nonetheless, I was encouraged to hoof it from my hotel. Yes, on foot. After all, I imagine now, reasoning backwards, it was a lovely not-rainy spring day.

And it was. Lovely that is.

As for me, I was 10 feet tall and filled with sand. The phrase “jet lagged” is really not adequate to describe how “thick” I’d been since I’d stepped off the plane at München airport.

It was about the 1 mile mark on my bold 10am journey that I, gamely attempting to fight through to the ever-so-distant evening when I could plant my face into a pillow and achieve a coma, arrived at the conclusion that something, perhaps, was amiss.

My problems were multi-fold. The first, not surprisingly, is that I’m an idiot. I didn’t adequately research … well … anything. I just sorta showed up. I was told about the various things to do “in the area” and semi-randomly picked out the BMW Museum as something that might be interesting to my likely-to-be-sleep-befuddled head. If I’d been paying attention, I would have noted that the distance from my hotel to the museum was over 2 miles. Not a horrible stretch, by any means, certainly do-able, but not exactly one I would normally have attempted willy-nilly. I mean, not without planning. Not without an intermission, say.

My second problem was “internet access”. I have become dependent on high-bandwidth connectivity. This is not surprising, perhaps, except to me when suddenly not having it made the lack rather glaring. But … it’s not like Munich isn’t wired to the gills. It is. It’s just that I have a US-based phone. I did make the call to AT&T and paid the exorbitant one-month-long “program” fee to include international rates for the duration of my trip. My phone worked. My data access on my iPhone was intact. It was just way more expensive. So, I was attempting to not use it. Like some kind of shaking-hand junkie, I was nervously not-checking my phone, weather conditions, or … Google Maps.

I gave in at some point (with altogether disconcerting rush of pleasure — I’m such an addict). Discovered my error (wow, that is far away) and quickly found an intermediary cafe. Reaching that cafe, enjoying a shady seat that overlooked a park, while sipping from a monstrously huge bowl of coffee. Things became much more tractable. Colors seeped back into the world.

I might have smiled. I’m pretty sure it was not allowed, this being Germany and all, yet I did it anyway. Yes, it was shaping up to be a damn fine European day.

For the record, the BMW Museum is interesting. If you’re a petrol-head (that’s the Euro-term for “car enthusiast”, apparently). I’m not, not exactly, but I certainly do love me some BMW. Seems, however, that my taste in BMW tends to run to “vintage”, but that’s quite alright. I really do not need another car right now. I’ve enclosed a few pics.

More kaffee, a tasty treat, and some toys for the kids later, I decided to not risk what looked like “arriving weather” and hooked a taxi back to the M.O.C. to see what I could find. More on that next.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Endeavor Audio, Constellation, Your Final System and EMM Labs

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by Joshua Emmons

I listen to headphones mostly because I live in an apartment with absurdly thin floors and anxious neighbors. Still, by my reasoning, it’s easier to get good sound out of tiny drivers an inch from my ears than loudspeakers. Separation is never a concern. All those fiddly crossover calculations go away. Resonance isn’t really a thing. And you never get a “bad room”.

But Endeavor Audio doesn’t care about “easy”. They care about perfection. And I swear to Crom they’ve found it with the E-5.

Some gear makes me want to buy new cables, some makes me want to buy new amps. The Endeavor room makes me want to buy a new house so I can ditch my headphones and bask in this sound again.

Down in Front

The Endeavor room is clearly not buying into the whole wood-grain-and-exposed-tubes kind of audiophile experience. The design of everything can be safely described as “understated”, but this is most true of the massive twin Constellation monoblocks driving the system.

Constellation Audio‘s solid-state Inspiration MONO 1.0 amps have plenty of grunt to them, pumping 400w / channel with impressive clarity. But they definitely put the “block” in “monoblock”, looking like nothing so much as large, smooth, cinder bricks. This minimalist aesthetic would be out-of-place in a lot of rooms, but their no-nonsense presentation fits right in here.

The Inspiration Premp 1.0 breaks from this look just enough to allow for a small touchscreen and two dignified knobs on the front panel. And with the clever Constellation Direct interconnect, the pre can interface directly with the amps, skipping their input stages. Fewer stages is a Good Thing.

But I have to give special consideration to the preamp’s remote. Given the remote is, 99% of the time, the only part of the system I actually interact with, I can’t overstate the importance of making it solid, weighty and, well, expensive feeling. This one feels as if it’s milled from a single billet of aluminum. Constellation’s hit it out of the park.

The E-5

Endeavor’s E-5 is certainly tall, but its front face is unexpectedly narrow giving the entire enclosure a stately, columnesque appearance. And what better way to fill your column than with 7 drivers split 3 ways? The E-5 easily hangs 4 woofers, 2 mids, and a beryllium tweeter in a svelte, modern-looking package.

Much of this modern look is owed to the “resin-impregnated fibrous composite” used for the cabinet’s construction. I have no idea what that is, but as I discuss later, it certainly cuts down on resonance. The E-5 clearly believes form should follow function. That it also looks good doing it is bonus.

The Sound

My first few goes with the E-5s are pretty standard show listening. Some classical. Some jazz. Some Madonna thrown in for color. Served up by the intuitive Digital File Transport by Your Final System, it all sounds full. Enveloping even. But it isn’t until I hear a favorite Bad Religion tune, with its exquisitely mic’d drums that are all but drown out by punk guitar thrashing, that I realize how quick and dexterous this system really is.

A lot of rooms at AXPONA reduce Bad Religion to a Michael Bay flick. It’s 3:18 of loud explosions and spectacle. The Endeavor system turns it into Spielberg. Nothing collides. Nothing shakes. I’m able to hear exactly what I’m listening for and to know the part it plays in shaping the music. It is absolutely rad.

Highly encouraged by this, I break out the big guns: Perfume’s Laser Beam. It’s digital synthetica taken to the kinds of extremes only Japan takes things. An incredibly intricate, violently compressed, all-over-the-spectrum romp that has toppled many a room before this.

The experience of listening to it on the E-5s is damn near synesthetic. I felt like David Bowman entering the stargate. The fidelity with which Endeavor’s system allows me to peer into the infinite complexities streaming at me… It’s all swirling light and color, 100% engrossing, completely flawless.

I can’t put it any more simply: this is the best this music has ever sounded. On anything ever. Full stop.

Hard Work

How did they do it? Did they discover some new driver technology? An innovative cabinet shape? A novel way to encode sound?

No. They did it by taking the measurements, solving the math, and doing the work. I got the chance to hear this room late Thursday night, and while I liked what I heard, Leif Swanson of Endeavor wasn’t satisfied. He complained about a “wall of sound” and immediately started tweaking, knowing exactly what to look for. Knowing what he wanted to change.

I would have left well enough alone. But I’m not obsessed. I’m not a crazy man driven to strive for a perfection most would say is unobtainable. I have neither the passion or the skills to entertain that sort of quixotic quest.

But Leif does. And the result is beyond a doubt the best room I heard at AXPONA.

Prices

  • Endeavor Audio E-5 Reference Loudspeaker: $35,000
  • Constellation Audio Inspiration Mono 1.0 Amp: $10,000
  • Constellation Audio Inspiration Preamp 1.0: $9,000
  • Your Final System Ref-3 Digital File Transport: $15,500
  • EMM Labs DAC2X DSD DAC: $15,500

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Mo-Fi Blue

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by Joshua Emmons

So many things about the Mo-Fi Blue seem obvious in hindsight. For example, instead of hanging headphones from hooks, maybe they should stand on their own? And, I mean, powered speakers and monitors have been around forever. Why aren’t powered cans a thing? And while we’re on the subject, why don’t all headphones have independent double-wishbone suspension?

Blue is a trailblazer in all this and more. The question is, how does it all come together in their first entry into the headphone market.

The Amp

On some level doesn’t it just make sense that a microphone maker would be good at headphone design? They’re essentially the same thing from the standpoint of making bits of film dance in a tiny electro-magnetic field, after all. And Blue’s been at the top of that game for two decades now.

Except, as sterling as their reputation for mics is, they’re not really known for their mic pre-s. And as nice as the Mo-Fi is, I don’t really know if I’m sold on its built-in amp.

It sounds good, and it definitely boosts listening levels beyond anything I can hear with passive headphones alone. With the MoFi in “passthrough” mode, plugged directly into my iPhone, I had to crank the phone’s gain to around 75% to get a listenable level on the show floor. Turning on the amp let me drop the gain to around 33% while keeping the volume more or less constant.

The amp also has a third mode called “on+”. This engages the amp and boosts bass. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s really something to be able to dynamically turn your headphones into a pair of Beats (and, maybe more importantly, to be able to turn them back again).

The problem for me is that the headphones sound good even without the amp. And using the amp means remembering to charge the amp (via standard micro USB). Given I often forget to feed myself, I’m not confident the amp will every be available to me should I choose to use it. Thus I wonder if I wouldn’t prefer the reduction in weight and cost of an ampless variation.

The Suspension

You know this just from looking at it, but the Mo-Fi feels unlike any other headphone you’ve ever had on your head. Its ingenious headband is literally inspired by the suspension of Formula One race cars, and just as shocks and struts serve to keep their tires glued to the road, the Mo-Fi’s suspension keeps its pads gripping your face.

The isolation this provides is astonishing. And the articulation is such that, if I want to play DJ and expose an ear, I simply slide a cup down. When I wear them around my neck, and get that “strangled by pads” feeling, I just extend the cups out. Everything still grips. Everything stays in place. It’s really something you have to (and should!) try to get a feel for.

But the grip is also the Mo-Fi’s fatal flaw. It feels pretty snug. At first, this is warm and reassuring like a hug. But over hours of listening, I can imagine even my narrow head starting to ache. There’s a tension control on the band, but with it turned all the way down the squeeze is still apparent. This is probably great news for active people who have trouble keeping headphones on their heads. But to a delicate sloth like me, it’s a bit much.

Wrap up

The Blue rep at the table assures me that the Mo-Fi is just the first in a line of headphones from Blue. And it’s worth keeping in mind that, as a first effort, the Mo-Fi shows a heck of a lot of promise.

As a proof of concept, I think “powered headphones” are an idea whose time has come. And the Mo-Fi’s headband suspension is simply amazing. It just needs a little refinement to be a total game changer. All and all, I like the Mo-Fi okay and really like where it’s going.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Shall We Dance, on the Floor, in the Round? Muraudio Causes a Scene

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By John Stancavage

Every year there seems to be no lack of new ideas in the high-end audio industry. Many, though, are variations on a theme or sketchy tweaks. Rarely is a product truly reimagined from the ground up.

One exception is Muraudio’s relatively new line of speakers. The units feature an electrostatic element that takes over from conventional woofers at 450 hz.

So what, you might be thinking. There are plenty of hybrid electrostatics out there, including Martin-Logan and Jantzen.

Yes, but Canada-based Muraudio curves its electrostatic panels.

Big deal, you might answer. So do Sound Lab and the afore-mentioned Martin-Logan.

Yes, true again. But while those manufacturers manage about a 30-degree bend, Muraudio curves its ESL midrange-tweeter unit in every direction — 360 degrees horizontal and 16 degrees vertical.

“Try imagining a huge grape with the top and bottom cut off. That’s the shape of our panel,” company founder and chief technical officer Murray Harman told me during a demo at AXPONA 2015.

You can quickly run into problems when you start bending electrostatic panels, which are essentially very thin, coated sheets of Mylar. Martin-Logan and Sound Lab address these issues in different ways, but Harman faced even bigger hurdles.

“We had to find a film that could be stretched and maintain its sound, for one thing,” he said.

Another was figuring out how to electrify the ELS panel. Conventional speakers might distort if a design is substandard. ESLs tend to spark and even catch fire.

Harman solved that problem, too. Then he turned to the other not-so-easy challenge of building a bass unit that not only could keep up with the ESL panel speed-wise, but one that also could match its 360 degree dispersion. He overcame that hurdle by using three 25 mm aluminum cones, all sealed in their own aluminum enclosure and firing in different directions.

Altogether, it took Harman 13 painstaking years to engineer his dream speaker. Now they are being sent to customers (Muraudio is selling direct and also lining up dealers), but the same detail-oriented approach is being used in manufacturing as it was in development. Painting alone involves 18 layers and three days of work.

On a crisp Saturday in Chicago, I battled a few thousand other audio nuts to hear a pair in gleaming piano black making an astonishingly great sound in a large, basement room at the Westin Hotel O’Hare.

Harmon was using a rack of Simaudio reference gear and Nordost cable to power his Domain Omni PX1 loudspeakers ($63,000 a pair). As you might imagine, these speakers need not only juice from the wall, but high current from the amps, as the sensitivity is only 82 decibels. Harman, however, wanted to assure me — and potential buyers — that the PX1s were not as fussy about power as that number might suggest. The Moon amps were rated at 350 watts, but he insisted such brute force isn’t necessary.

“You can drive them with a 100-watt receiver if you want,” Harman said. “It wouldn’t sound as good as the Moons, but it would work.”
Donald Fagen’s excellent third solo album, Morph the Cat, began playing as I moved instinctively to the center chair. The tale of a supernatural feline kicks off with a typically (for Fagen) jazzy, funky rhythm and builds into a refined, hook-filled, jazz-pop concoction that wouldn’t have been out-of-place on Steely Dan’s Gaucho.

Bass response was deep, tuneful and showed good pace, easily keeping up with the ESL panels. And, those panels … “wow” isn’t strong enough a word for my reaction on hearing the PX1s for the first time.

The PX1s brought me closer into the studio than almost any other speaker I’ve heard. I felt like I was on the other side of the mike during a band rehearsal, bathed in the direct sound of Fagan’s voice, but also enveloped by the other instruments and the room’s reverberation. You might think that the 360 degree radiating angle of the ESL panel would create too many reflections and muddy the sound, but a nifty internal filter that kills the back wave ensures that you would think wrong. Instead, Fagen’s lead vocal was focused and dead center in the mix, and I easily could identify his own background vocals from the other singers on the track.

ESL designs also are known for rolling off the top end slightly, but again the Muraudios refused to fit into stereotypes. The speakers, rated at 20hz – 22khz, produced extended highs without any brightness. You just kind of soaked up the music, making the overall rig the kind you want to keep turning up louder and louder.

Still to come was maybe the PX1s best trick. Seeing I was sitting, by habit, in the conventional sweet spot between the speakers, I was encouraged by Harman to move around. The first thing I did, while still seated, was slump down and then sit up as tall as possible. No change in sound. Then I learned left and right. Ditto. Finally, I physically got up and roamed the room. Incredibly, you could walk far off-axis and not suffer from too much change in the presentation.

“I wanted to design these speakers so you could recline on the sofa or sit up, walk around, whatever, and not need to have your head locked in a vise,” Harman said.

Mission accomplished. There are surprisingly quite a few speakers that exceed $50,000 a pair these days. But few have the engineering accomplishments of the Muraudio PX1s, let alone the combination of focused, yet wide-dispersion sound. These speakers, in fact, would be my top choice when I sell my company and cash out. Of course, I guess that means I better get busy and start that company in the first place. If you are not so patient, I’d be prepared to at least consider dumping the BMW lease or getting a second mortgage. The PX1s are that good.

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High End 2015

High End 2015: Opens Friday

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HE15_Logo_GB_01By Panagiotis Karavitis 

That time of the year has come. No, not spring break but the High End 2015 show is about to open its gates in Munich. Which coming to think of it is very similar to an audiophile spring break after all.

No, no Teens Gone Wild and most of the action takes place during daytime, but still, this is the most fun place to be for an audiophile in May. I will not go into details and technicalities, if you are reading this, then you probably already know that Munich rose to be the king of audio shows for quite some time now. Just about everybody who is someone in the audio industry” meets in Munich and takes a close look and a thorough listen to the things to come, whether these are the latest digital marvels, classic turntables or horn loaded speakers. The fact that close to one thousand (1,000!) brands will be showing their gear, or that I have friends flying all the way from Australia, Japan and the States for this four-day marathon, kind of says it all.

Speaking of which, this year I will not be doing all the heavy lifting alone (like last year, an experience I would rather forget as I had to buy me a new pair of legs after covering the hundreds of rooms and immense halls all by myself).

[ … Insert 1950s horror-movie squeaky violins … ]

You guessed it. Scot is flying in for the show!

Scot has covered more shows than anybody else I know; as a matter of fact I am firmly convinced that when he enters the classic venues in Las Vegas, Chicago or Washington DC even the ficus plants in the lobby salute him. I even doubt they start the shows in the first place without him.

But when it comes to Munich, he is a total n00b. So, for the last few weeks I took the liberty of scheduling 3,157 appointments, 2,368 room auditions, 4,319 press only events and 200 gallons of beer for each of us. This is going to be an epic show.

We still have not decided who’s doing what (which means that I will be keeping the best rooms for me and leave Scot do his PR stuff and maybe cover some of the nasty less mind-blowing ones). We were also discussing the possibility to do some combined auditions; that is, to describe how we both heard the same room sitting one next to the other and without sneaking a peek into our respective notes.

You know who you have to trust if our opinions differ, don’t you?

So buckle up ladies and gentleman, The Audio Travelers are heading for Munich and the High End 2015 — show starts May 14th!

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Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Quintessence Audio and Musical Surroundings

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By John Stancavage

Longtime Chicago dealer Quintessence Audio knows how to make a statement. The first thing visitors to AXPONA 2015 saw, smack in front of the Westin Hotel O’Hare’s luggage dropoff zone, was the retailer’s 1956 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. The company also combined with Musical Surroundings to rent a large chunk of the 12th floor where the two parked an assortment of equally luxurious audio equipment.

One of the three rooms outfitted by the companies was packed with just-released gear that would make even a Rolls owner salivate. Heading the list was a pair of Magico’s newest speakers, the Q7 MKIIs ($229,000 a pair). They were connected to recently introduced equipment from Aesthetix, including the Rhea Eclipse phono preamplifier ($13,000) and Romulus Eclipse DAC/CD player ($13,000). Amplifiers were the Aesthetics Atlas monoblocks, ($16,000 a pair), and preamp was the Pass Labs ES ($38,000).

Also on hand was the Magico Q Sub 18 powered subwoofer ($35,000) and Clearaudio Statement V2 turntable with TT1 tonearm and Goldfinger Statement cartridge ($200,000 combined). The rack was from Harmonic Resolution Systems and cable was Kubala-Sosna Elation.
The Magico Q7s delivered an impressive sound, with their strongest points being an eerily accurate presentation of image height, considerable bass slam and good reproduction of male voices.

Nearby in another room, the two companies were showing a more affordable, but hardly cheap, system featuring Dynaudio Evidence C1 Platinum loudspeakers ($8,750). Another Harmonic Resolution Systems rack held an assortment of Simaudio gear, including the 610LP phono stage ($7,500), 650D DAC and CD player ($8,000), 740P preamplifier ($9,500) and 820S external power supply ($8,000). The turntable was AMG’s Giro with 9W2 tonearm ($10,000) and Teatro MC phono cartridge ($2,750). Cable was Kubala-Sosna Emotion.

Through the Simaudio gear, the Dynaudios offered their familiar blend of detail, liveliness and solid bottom end, making them a good fit for the smaller space. When I was there, the speakers were playing “In the Gallery,” from the first Dire Straits album. With the C1s, Mark Knopfler’s solo was awe-inspiring, while Pick Withers’ touch and sense of rhythm made him sound more like the jazz drummer he was at heart.

(For a review of the third Musical Surroundings/Quintessance room, see my Audio Traveler report titled “Searching for Sonus Faber.”)

Overall, these two companies offered three no-lose choices for musical nirvana. Oh, and the Rolls-Royce parked outside? It’s for sale, too. So, no matter what you want to drive, some of the world’s finest loudspeakers or most coveted cars, you’re covered.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: JBL, Mark Levinson Define Legendary

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By John Stancavage

If you look at all the automobiles in production today, it’s hard to find many models that are very close to what they were 20 or even 30 years ago. Volkswagen’s Beetle is one classic that has been updated internally but is little changed on the outside, while Ford’s Mustang and Chevy’s Camaro also hark strongly back to yesteryear.

The audio world has a few more timeless classics. Variations on the old Marantz 7C preamp and 8B tube amp can be bought today, for example, while McIntosh’s MC275 amp has needed only a few engineering upgrades.

In the speaker market, every boomer who as a near-penniless kid lusted over the sound of some huge JBL speakers now can fulfill that old dream. The company is tapping this nostalgia by showing more at audio shows in recent years, typically paired from electronics with another name that may not be quite as old, but is no less legendary, Mark Levinson. Both now are owned by the same parent, Harman International.

It’s been a tough few decades for speaker makers, especially those that were known best for their sizable statement models. The home theater craze threatened to vanquish two-channel sound in favor of speakers selected more for their ability to be sunk smoothly into walls and ceilings than for their sound quality. Big speaker cabinets used to be a prestige thing for audio fans, then suddenly small was in.

Today, JBL makes in-wall speakers. But it bravely has decided to damn the torpedoes and get back to its roots with some good, old-fashioned monster transducers. At AXPONA 2015, the brand was displaying two of its top offerings, the Everest DD67000 (now in V2 form, $74,000 a pair). The 300-pound behemoths each feature dual 15-inch woofers, a 4-inch beryllium midrange (up from 3 inches in the previous DD66000 model) and a 1-inch beryllium tweeter. While the beryllium material and some of the innards are relatively new, the exterior cabinet and horn system dates back to the company’s glory days.

Also following in the family tradition was a pair of K2 speakers ($44,000), which could be described as a baby brother to the Everest — it’s just a baby that weighs 180 pounds. It shares its bigger sibling’s horn-loaded midrange and tweeter, but gets by on only one 15-inch woofer.

Powering these two monster loudspeakers were equally formidable amps from Mark Levinson, the No. 53 monoblocks ($49,000 a pair), controlled by Mark Levinson’s newest preamp, the two-chassis No. 52 ($30,000). The company has been introducing increasingly stratospheric-priced equipment in recent years, but at AXPONA it also debuted its new integrated 200-watt amp/preamp/DAC, which was priced at $12,000.

When I visited, JBL reps were playing the big Everest speakers on the big Levinson monoblocks. Whether blasting the feedback-heavy roar of Stevie Ray Vaughan or the more subtle bent notes of Mark Knopfler, the system bright a live PA sound to the material — a little brash, with plenty of bass and powerful transients. This isn’t surprising, considering the company’s frequent use in the pro world.

Such massive speakers may not be everyone’s cup of tea these days, but for those who prefer their whisky straight and rock and roll unpolished, JBL certainly would be happy to bring the party to your house.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Sonus Faber

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By John Stancavage

What is tall, stealthy, prefers the cover of darkness, makes incredible sounds and is rarely seen in the wild?

If you guessed a certain bipedal hominoid that’s the subject of so many current cable TV shows, well, nice try. But in the crowded urban environment of AXPONA 2015 in Chicago, such creatures were a no-show.

What was lurking in the darkness of the highest-altitude terrain, though, was something almost as elusive: A pair of Sonus Faber Lillium loudspeakers ($70,000 a pair).

On the 12th floor of the Westin Hotel O’Hare, Quintessence Audio and Musical Surroundings teamed up to showcase an amazing “best of the best” selection of gear.

One of the three rooms the retailers outfitted was particularly dim, with only the most minimal accent lighting. On one end, lurking in the blackness, was the Lilliums, while slightly higher-output lighting revealed a side-wall rack consisting of an Audio Research GS preamplifier ($15,000), Audio Research GS-150 stereo amplifier ($20,000) and Audio Research REF CD9 DAC.CD player ($13,000).

Also invited on this expedition was an AMG Viella Cherry turntable with 12-inch tonearm ($17,500) and DS Audio DS-W1 “Nightrider” optical cartridge system ($8,500). Support was provided by a Harmonic Resolution Systems SXR rack, with Kubala-Sosna Elation cables.

I always feel lucky to register a confirmed sighting of the larger, higher-end Sonus Faber speakers. The company makes so many models at so many price points that it seems many of its dealers just stick with the lower-cost stuff (none of which you still would exactly call cheap).

Sonus Faber has staked out its own niche in the market, one that may not be to everyone’s liking. If you prefer audio fireworks, dynamic bombast or sharply etched highs, then these are not the speakers for you. If, on the other hand, you appreciate a more refined presentation — a creamy texture that doesn’t draw attention to the transducers, but which also creates a strong emotional connection to those with the time to listen closely and reflect on the program material, then there’s not much competition out there outside of a few electrostatics.

All Sonus Faber speakers have these qualities. What you get as you move up the line is an increasing amount of detail and resolution. The ability of the company’s engineers to do this, and not overwhelm the trademark liquidity and ease of the brand, is truly remarkable.

As I was admiring the Lilliums, an impeccably finished, 3.5-way floorstander, Illinois Jacquet’s Swing’s the Thing began playing on vinyl. There in the darkness, I could almost swear the bandleader was huddled in the corner, leaning over his horn and producing some of the most beautiful notes and tuneful honks imaginable. The room may have been dark, but the Sonus Fabers illuminated the composition, bringing Jacquet to life in a way that’s rare even in the high-end.

That was followed by a Beatles track, also on vinyl, that proved the Lilliums could rock and roll, too, when called upon. You could easily separate John Lennon’s voice from Paul McCartney’s on the harmonies, and to hear each trying to outdo the other was thrilling.

Undoubtedly contributing to the smooth sound was the DS Audio cartridge, an innovative optical design that I first saw demonstrated at the Rocky Mountain Audio Show. The cartridge, which comes with its own phono preamp, seems to produce very polished images, with a surprising ability to convey the music rather than every click and pop. When I first saw the DS “Nightrider” in the system, I wondered if its presentation might be too much of a good thing with the Lilliums, but instead they turned out to be a fine match.

As for me, alone, loaded down with gear and getting hungry, just like the Discovery Channel’s “Survivorman,” it was time to move on. I was leaving the darkness, but taking with me what I hoped was non-blurry, conclusive photographic proof of the Lilliums, and I’d also had another sighting of the equally rare DS Audio cartridge. All in the same day! It was only Friday in my weekend-long quest and I already was one happy Audio Traveler.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Wells Audio

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By Josh Emmons

Truth be told, I am not deep enough into this whole high-end audio game to reliably tease out attributes from the front-end of a system. Yet even I have two things I can say without hesitation about Wells Audio‘s headphone amps: they’re punchy as hell, and I can’t believe they’re not tubes.

The Headtrip is an absolute beast, effortlessly driving some HE-560s through all sorts of dynamic wonderlands with the quick tightness I expect of solid-state amps. But its the fullness of tone and especially rich bass that truly set it apart.

Which is not to give short shrift to the Enigma, because to my (admittedly imprecise) ears, it has pretty much all the character of its older brother. If I had to try to pin it down (and seeing as you’re reading this, I suppose I do), I’d say the Headtrip’s sound is a bit more refined than the Enigma. But given its $3,300 discount, the Enigma is one hell of a deal.

For me, though, the more interesting thing at play here with Wells Audio is the business model. Something that, frankly, isn’t always of primary concern to audiophiles or the companies that serve them.

Jeff Wells says the next flagship product he’d like to add to his lineup is a preamp. But instead, we see the Enigma, a repurposing of the Headtrip design with some economical tweaks. After a few more tweaks, Jeff hopes to release an integrated based on it. After that, maybe an entry-level headphone amp.

All of this building off of work originally done to make the Headtrip — which is, itself, a scaled down Innamorata. Wells Audio uses every piece of the buffalo, leaving nothing on the table, taking nothing for granted.

This thoughtful, considered economy is the mark of a great engineer. And great engineering is apparent in everything Wells Audio makes. Even to my novice ears.

Prices

  • Wells Audio Headtrip: $7,000
  • Wells Audio Enigma: $3,699

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Astell Kern goes Solid Steel

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By Josh Emmons

In 2006, Sprint/Nextel aired a commercial during the Super Bowl presenting their rugged phone as a “crime deterrent”. The joke was, if someone tried to steal your wallet, just throw your phone at them.

If you tried this with an Astell&Kern AK240, you would be brought up on homicide charges.

I don’t really get the AK240. It’s a truly massive player. It’s almost the size and weight of the origial 2001 iPod, its design aesthetic might best be described as Kryptonian, the 2.5mm balanced jack is wonky, and for a portable that specializes in playing large, high-resolution files, the decision to include 128Gb microSD over (up to) 512Gb standard SD cards baffles me.

But if I didn’t get the AK240, I’m downright bewildered by the AK240SS. Swapping out aluminum for stainless steel adds 50% more weight to the already heavy 240, pushing the player over the line from “massive” into “inconvenient to carry”. I asked why stainless steel was chosen, given it’s one of those metals usually used for bridges or watches and not much in between. Astell & Kern’s answer was straight-forward. “It sounds the best.”

A&K said they knew they wanted to do a special edition in a high-end metal, and they experimented with quite a few different combinations. What they found was stainless steel actually had less noise because it could use the entire frame as ground.

So, yeah. I don’t get the AK240. But I get why so many people do.

It’s exactly this top-of-the-line, fanatical devotion to any measurable increase in audio quality that has won the 240 so many fans. Its dual DAC balanced output, broad support for native DSD, and TOSLINK optical out are just a few examples of features included solely because they’re the sort of thing the best PMP in the world ought to have, so tradeoffs be damned.

And whether or not I’d want to lug one around with me, I’d never argue the AK240’s build quality is anything short of stupendous. From the detailing of the volume pot to the bizarrely delightful carbon fiber inlay of the back panel, these are some of the best put-together pieces of consumer electronics money can buy. The AK240SS continues that in this grand tradition. Fit and finish is superb and, if anything, tolerances have decreased with the move to stainless steel. Impressive work all around.

The software of the AK240SS seems largely unchanged, but that’s probably a good thing. The process of finding, playing, and rearranging music on A&K devices is a pretty well-honed affair at this point. And all indications are any updates coming down the pike will arrive on the stainless edition at the same time as its aluminum siblings. So, again, good stuff.

Still, am I ready to trade in my iPhone for an AK240SS? No. But I can understand why someone would.

Prices

  • AK240: $2,499
  • AK240SS: $2,999

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Calyx Audio

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by Joshua Emmons

Calyx Audio is a South Korean manufacturer that produces an array of digital processors and amps for home audio enthusiasts. But at AXPONA, they were all about portables.

Calyx M

The Calyx M is an Android-based audio player by Calyx Audio. In my short time playing with it, it definitely feels more “Android-y” than many of the high-end audio players I’ve used. It seems clear that Calyx has chosen to build on top of the OS’s solid foundation, leaving the low-level stuff to Android while concentrating on the part of the interface that really matters to audio enthusiasts: managing music. Finding, creating, and rearranging playlists on the M is a comparatively straightforward affair.

Calyx Audio is perhaps best known for their DACs, and this heritage shows with the M. It plays just about every digital format I can think of. AIF, FLAC, WAV, AAC, OGG, DFF/DSF, DXD… Oh yeah, and MP3. All this at 16/24/32bit at pretty much everything from 44.1–384kHz. You can also use the device as a stand-alone DAC for whatever computer it’s plugged in to via USB, which is a handy feature.

It’s internal 64Gb of storage doesn’t sound like a lot for high-resolution audio, but it can be expanded with SD cards. It has one standard and one micro SD port, and if you have a ton of music, you can fill both for an official total of 448Gb of music on the go.

The design of the M is pretty standard. It’s a rectangle of glass surrounded by aluminum. In this case, the aluminum is anodized with Calyx’s signature brown; a fairly neutral choice. It has an odd-looking plastic “chin” emblazoned with its signature “M” that seems to have no purpose other than to give your thumb something to rest on, but that’s hardly a deal breaker.

More concerning is that it’s thicker (0.58″) and heavier (0.5lbs) than I’d like — essentially twice as thick and heavy as an iPhone 5. I imagine most of that extra space is given over to battery, but even so the M only ekes out 4-5 hours of continuous play time. Calyx representatives tell me that it charges via micro USB in about 3 hours.

And you can’t talk about the M without mentioning its innovative volume fader. It is, certainly, a creative alternative to including a pot. And without a doubt a welcome improvement over a discrete up/down clicker. But it does seem prone to being jostled in a pocket, not ideal for your volume. Is there any way to lock down the volume?

It turns out the fader is really just a magnet that sticks in the groove milled into the side of the case. So you can actually remove it all together just by pulling it off! There’s an option in the settings menu that lets you toggle on-screen controls for volume if you decide you really don’t want to mess with the cool magnetic volume dingus.

Calyx PaT

Which is all very nice. But still, the majority of the world thinks their highly compressed Spotify streams played on bargain basement cell phones sounds just fine, thank you. Even some of us with hifi leanings prefer the convenience of our iPhones over the hassle (and expense!) of buying a dedicated high-end player. Are we doomed to a life of music decoded by a 2¢ DAC?

Not if Calyx has anything to say about it. Meet PaT. It’s a handy and, if I may say so, adorable little DAC for mobile devices. It draws power from your phone’s USB (you need the inaptly-named “Camera Connection Kit” to attach it to an iPhone), so all you need to do is plug it in and go.

Unlike the M, PaT only plays PCM up to 16bit/48kHz. No DSD support or a comprehensive list of sampling rates. Rather, the Calyx representative told me, PaT’s meant to be cheap and simple. A gateway drug for non-audiophiles into the high-end audio world.

Given it’s cuteness, this seems a solid plan. At only $99 a pop I think we can all think of people who we’d like to give the gift of a decent DAC.

Prices

  • Calyx M: $999
  • Calyx PaT: $99

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Noble Audio

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by Joshua Emmons

I don’t envy Noble Audio in their crusade to convert the world to IEMs. First, people intuitively believe big sound comes from big drivers, and unless you’re doing it wrong, IEMs will always be physically diminutive in size. Then, a quick informal survey of my IEM-hating friends shows discomfort as being their number-one turn off. How can you spread the good word if you can’t even get people to try them on? Finally, many (myself most definitely included) find things you stick in your ear about as appealing to handle (or even talk about) as items wedged between your toes on a hot, sweaty day.

That’s a lot of obstacles for Noble to overcome. Lucky for all of us, they have a plan.

Science

How do you make a small device make a big sound? Part of the solution is to bring it as close to the ear as possible, of course. But once you’re in the ear, it’s also necessary to understand how the ear works — not just how something sounds, but how it sounds to the ear. And for that you’re going to want an audiologist. Hopefully with a background in hearing aids. Which thankfully Noble has.

Their innovative designs cram up to ten (!) drivers into a small IEM with 4-way crossover. This dedicates drivers to lows, mids, highs, and ultra-highs, and I can say first-hand that the result is detailed, expressive, and, thanks to their audiological wizardry, larger than life. The lows are full and lush, the highs clear and ringing. I literally can’t believe I’m not wearing full-sized cans.

I want more.

Custom

But if you have weirdly-shaped ears like mine, it doesn’t matter how good IEMs sound if you can only wear them for short bursts without pain. This is where the custom fit Noble is famous for comes into play.

When you order a pair of Noble’s custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs), you actually visit an audiologist and have them inject your ear canal with silicon to create an impression. Not unlike impressions of your teeth made at the dentist, these molds can be used to craft form-fitting prosthetics that rest naturally along your body without tugging, pulling, or digging in to the delicate bits.

But this process is, for obvious reasons, hard to demo. Sure, I’ve found any number of deliriously happy testimonials from converts on the usual message boards, but the thought of shelling out $400–$1600 for IEMs that I’m not sure will feel right is still daunting to me.

Noble has two points to offer up as encouragement. First, if I find my CIEMs to be uncomfortable, I can send them back within 30 days for a free refit. Second, if I decide I just don’t like them at all, I can always sell them.

“How?” I ask. “They’d be custom molded to fit my individual ears!” Well, it turns out Noble also offers an “Ownership Transfer Program”. If I sell my CIEMs to someone else (or buy some from someone else, used), they can be sent to Noble with new impressions and be refit for a nominal $250 fee.

Material

One advantage of a custom fit is you can get good in-ear isolation without using one of those silicone “christmas tree” tips that seem specifically designed to scoop out ear wax and make me vomit.

So let’s talk about that elephant in the room for a moment: I think ears, as a concept, are gross. Things that go in-ears and come out again are super-extra-ultra-gross. Little black plastic things that collect wax in their seams then sit in a case where dust and hair and bugs get stuck until they get shoved into and out of ears again? I’m beyond the capacity for speech.

But Noble’s CIEMs aren’t like that. First, they’re like little seamless acrylic sculptures. When I ask how to clean them, I’m essentially told, “Wipe them with a wetnap.” If I’m going to put something in my ear, I want to be smooth, polished, and easily disinfectable.

Then secondly, and perhaps more importantly, these things are beautiful. Not “modern industrial design” beautiful, either. I mean, like, “amazing custom works of art” beautiful.

Again, this is to demo because Noble doesn’t bring many CIEMs with them to their table. But if you browse even a little of their online “lookbook” you’ll know what I mean. Noble’s taken an object I frankly find slightly repulsive and turned it into, no joke, an object of desire.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s way more incredible than packing 10 drivers into an IEM.

Wireless

So I’m clearly sold, but there’s actually a final conundrum for me. Now that I’m convinced I need to toss my earbuds for a pair of CIEMs, a lot of my bud-friendly devices — particularly wearables like the Apple Watch — are moving bluetooth-only.

It shouldn’t surprise me at this point that Noble has thought of this and has an answer. It’s called the BTS and it’s shipping this month.

With the BTS, Noble is adopting a modular solution to wireless. It essentially allows you to add bluetooth to any of their IEMs — or anything with a standard headphone jack, for that matter.

It’s a tiny (about the size of two Tootsie Rolls) clip-on bluetooth dongle with a mic and transport buttons included. Plug your headphones in, pair it to your device, and you’re ready to rock out while you work out.

It’s a marvelous little dongle that pairs easily with my watch, and sounds great over the Noble 5s I’m testing. At $99, it’s a no-brainer if you’re looking to take your IEMs wireless.

Prices

  • Noble 3/3C: $350/$450
  • Noble 4/4C: $450/$699
  • Noble 5/5C: $650/$950
  • Noble 6/6C: $999/$1,099
  • Noble 8C: $1,299
  • Noble K10: $1,599
  • Noble BTS: $99

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Woo Audio

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by Joshua Emmons

If you walk into a room at AXPONA, and it’s noticeably 3–4 degrees warmer than the hallway, you know it’s chock full of really tasty amplifiers. So it is with Woo Audio: headphone amps with cheerfully glowing tubes every which way you look. Some modern. Some unabashedly retro. But all delivering a sonic warmth to match the heat they’re pumping out into Woo’s small space on the Weston’s lower level.

WES

I’m here to listen to the Stax 009 paired with Woo’s WES front-end. It’s a fully balanced OTL that, I’m told, is a several solid steps up from what you’d get from Stax, itself.

No arguments here. This is my first experience with electrostatics and I have to admit I’m rather at a loss for words. The detail present would be mind-blowing if it weren’t so natural. A better adjective might be “transportive”.

Listening to Todd Garfinkle’s exquisite work with his label MA Recordings, for example, I’m hearing classical piano. But I perceive not just a collection of notes woven into a song, but also the squeak of the pedals, the syncopated thump of the hammers. My ears open to the piano as a machine — an instrument set to the work of producing sound — not just the sounds themselves. It is an incredibly holistic experience.

But at easily 2–4 times the cost of a stock Stax amplifier, I’d have to expect the WES would be pretty darn good. Honestly, I fear the craftsmanship on display is wasted on me, a newcomer not really certain what he’s listening for. Regardless, I’m grateful to be afforded the opportunity.

The WA7 Fireflies

The WA7 is a sight to behold. If you think you might be in the market for a headphone amp for your workspace, and you want to impress your coworkers, this is your pick. There’s something about exposed tubes that makes even hardened tech enthusiasts a little weak at the knees. And the Firefly’s clever glass protector does an amazing job of showing them off in their fullest, providing all the protection of a cage without the gothic sensibilities.

So now you’ve got your silky smooth sound, but do you find the warm, rosy glow of two valves under load just isn’t cutting it for you? Why not pair your amp up with the WA7tp, a matching tube-based PSU that duplicates the WA7’s aesthetic down to the tiniest detail? Double your glow, double your fun.

I should also note the WA7 comes in a WA7d flavor that includes a TOSLINK connector in addition to USB. I thought this a little strange until I remembered the growing number of media streaming pucks plugged into my TV (not even counting the video game consoles that can double as media servers). This is a welcome addition that I’d find many uses for.

The Future

Woo’s (as of yet unnamed?) prototype portable DAC/amp combo unit is also out and available for play. If you think portable amp is synonymous with solid-state, Woo is out to change your mind. This is a battery-powered tube amp about the size (and weight) of a brick. Seriously, “portable” in this instance should be thought of in the same light as how the Apple IIc was, technically, portable. It’s not for throwing in your bag during a trip to the mall, but I can imagine compelling use cases around hotel stays, layovers at airports, or even short flights (though FAA regulations may have a thing or two to say about that).

The (still non-finalized) design is classy and elegant. It’s less WA6 and more WA7 filtered through an old Braun transistor radio. It has a pleasingly large pot for volume and, true to Woo fashion, a large glass window showing off its tubes (though I’m told the window may or may not stay depending on concerns over fragility).

And its sounds is lightyears beyond any other portable amp I’ve tried. I’m using it to drive a pair of Audeze LCD-3s, and for my money, it sounds very close to a WA6. The Woo representative very carefully points out several times that this is a prototype model, and that any number of things like the tubes, the battery life (which is currently around 3 hours), or really anything about the amp could change at any time. But were they to ship what they have now, I’d say it’s a winner.

Prices

  • WES: $4,990
  • WA7 Fireflies: $999
  • WA7d (optical TOSLINK): $1,199
  • WA7tp (tube power): $399

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