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


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.


  • 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
RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Audiokinesis splashes ceiling, room, with colorful sound


Logo - Blue VectorThe PTA team, such as it is, tends to bend each others ears as we nurse our morning hangovers. What’s good? What’s bad? Does anyone have any spare antacids? Is there more coffee? Please, God, let someone find more coffee. There’s never enough coffee.

Sunday morning’s kibitzing was a prelude to our day of fun. We’d taken pictures, we’d taken notes, and now it was time for all of us to leave our assigned territories and go have fun as simple attendees. The first question out of my mouth was, “How were Duke’s speakers?”

… [crickets] ….

Nobody had heard them. Nobody. They’d been completely forgotten, off in their (apparently hard to find) well-marked room in the most trafficked area of the show. Where everyone passed their door at least twice. Because reasons.

I did mention that there’s never enough coffee, right?

This lapse is utterly comical. Duke LeJeune and James Romeyn are two of the nicest guys you could meet. I developed a sincere interest in their speakers at this year’s Newport show, and I was eager to hear them again. Now, thanks to the embarrassing side effects of a critical caffeine deficiency, I was in the lucky position of getting paid to hear them again. That’s what we like to call a win.

The Audiokinesis¬†Zepherin 46 speakers ($4500) again anchored the room. The rest of the system was quite different. A Parasound CD1 spun discs while a Modwright Elyse dac ($7000) crunched bits. Duke’s longtime crush, the Atma-Sphere S30, was paired with Ralph Karsten’s new toy, the anti-bling, baby-blue, single ended only, Ultra Violet preamp ($1900 line only up to $2400 a phono pre that can handle low output MC). The LCS (late ceiling splash) bits were left on during our visit, and both bass ports on the main speaker were well bunged for room tuning. The sound was again dynamic, full, and well lit. The tweeter may have been a little spitty, but the balance remained natural. Image stability was simply off the charts, with the entire room presenting a very solid sense of space. These have to be the most intriguing little speakers in the price range. They’re just so lovably weird.

Excitingly, Lori LeJeune, was hanging out in the foyer to tell us that Duke and James have been working to make the LCS arrangement available independently of AK’s speakers. I have my doubts about how that will meld with any random speaker box, but I’m starting to learn that Audiokinesis is at it’s best when the guys are out working their deep magic on the fringes. I can’t wait to hear it.