This year, JD Events, the producers of the ever-popular Audio Expo North America (AXPONA), teamed-up with Left Field Media (who co-created New York Comic Con) to produce AXPONA Presents Audio Con, a buffed-up celebration of high end music recording technology and high fidelity systems. Held the weekend of April 24-26, over 100 rooms enticed with sleek steel, machined aluminum, exotic woods, and enchanting sound, capped off by live performances each day.
There was so much to see and hear — and nearly all of it mesmerizing.
Just Charge My Room
It’s 6:30 PM on Friday, and I’m waiting in the lobby to see if I can get into the Patricia Barber Quartet performance at 8:00; I didn’t purchase a concert ticket and I’m informed that my press pass won’t automatically get me in. They’ll let me know if they can to squeeze me in, but it’s looking doubtful.
I hop on the elevator to the fifth floor and head to Room 504 to hear the LampizatOr Big 7 DAC, a vacuum tube based digital to analog converter (which processes and converts digital source material to analog for playback on audio systems) made in Warsaw, Poland that retails for $10,500. Along with several of their other DACs, it has received accolades in the press and generated a cult-like following.
I am especially interested, as I own a LampizatOr Amber DAC Plus that sells for roughly a quarter of the Big 7’s price and am curious to hear the differences. Pulling up a seat, I am immediately impressed with the detail and nuance enveloping the room. Mind you, the Amber sounds great, but this takes it up several couple notches!
Welcome to the big leagues.
It’s close to 7:00 with three sales people looking to leave, and I am the only visitor in the room. “We charge money to listen,” a middle-aged Oriental man needles.
“Just charge it to my room — Room 504!” I respond. They laugh. Heading out the door, I wish I could have charged a purchase of the Big 7 to their suite!
Taking the elevator down to the first floor, I flip through the AXPONA program and spot a seminar that interests me.
To Infinity — or DSD — and Beyond
I take a seat in a seminar entitled DSD and Beyond in the packed Seminar Room. As it has been widely advertised, Direct-Stream Digital (DSD) a system originally created for Super Audio CD (SACD), runs anywhere from 64 times the sample rate of a CD to 128 times faster, and for some, the ability to get their favorite artists’ works on ultra-high resolution downloads is intoxicating. However, the grey haired presenter, who’s wearing a pinstriped Oxford shirt and khakis cautions that much of it is a mirage. In fact, he asserts in professorial tones that much of what is parlayed as DSD is originally sourced from CD level recordings. He explains that you can resample those sources as fast as you want, but they’re still CD quality recordings at best. It’s the same old axiom: Garbage in, garbage out. What you need to do, he says as he walks about the front of the room, is to find out how the source material is originally recorded, sliced and diced. Don’t just buy something because it has the label, DSD on it. There are some who truly produce excellent high resolution recordings, but you have to do your homework. Towards that end, he suggests we all go to JUSTLISTEN.NATIVEDSD.COM and compare various levels of DSD recordings (i.e., DSD 64, DSD 128 and DSD 256).
It all sounds compelling, but I must go. Making my way down a crowded corridor of ticket holders, I wait behind a velvet rope barrier. The doors open and to my pleasant surprise, with upwards of 400 standing guests, there is still room for me! But, I am informed, I cannot take photos of the performance. So, I snap a few photos before the show starts, pull out my legal pad and start scribbling notes.
A Barber Chops Quartet
Patricia Barber is renowned for a couple CDs (Cafe Blue (2011) and Modern Cool (2013)) that purr over reference systems in audio salons worldwide, calling to mind a 1960s Beatnik singer-poet on piano – miked a touch heavy on reverb with a solid jazz rhythm section backing her.
Her first song kicks off with Jon Deitmeyer's meandering, slowly building drum solo. Patrick Mulcahy's upright, acoustic bass joins in at the two minute mark, and Barber's piano kicks in some 30 seconds later, adding structure – even more so when John Kregor's spare electric guitar joins the fray. Her tasty comping swells to a smart, sophisticated lead, and the whole song morphs into a lively, Pat Metheny-Lyle Mays-like composition, with the bass serving as counterpoint to her piano.
Then, it's Kregor's turn: building from a minimalist succession of fades, his guitar shifts to more complex, finger picking riffs. Cheers erupt.
Mulcahy's upright acoustic bass takes over and, as he climaxes, Barber shouts, “Oh!” (or was that “Fo”?); the drum rims work and high hat comp tastily. Barber's piano re-emerges, wrapping up the tune in down tempo. The crowd applauds.
Barber's second selection kicks off with eery, sparse vocalese, somewhat along the lines of “La da da-da da...hmm hmm...la da da da da daaaah,” (but cooler), dolloped over simple comping, tapping piano strokes that emerge into a more recognizable, mournful song as the bass, drums and guitar drop in. Guitar notes float lightly like fluffy cumulus clouds overhead, while the drums and piano anchor the melody. However, those clouds gradually take on weight and complexity, like a storm brewing, then erupting with thunderous, slamming drums. The climax, then denouement – with piano and lilting, feathery vocalese again: “Ooh-ooh ahhhh-ahhh ohhh, oohh”. It's a Bic lighter moment; inside every one of us, we are lofting lit Bic lighters overhead (except for the guy behind me in a corner, who fell asleep with his chin in his palm).
Her third entree, a tongue in cheek, mid-tempo percussive, funky jazz-blues song kicks off with Mulcahy's masterful bass riffs and packs biting, sarcastic lyrics, as follows: “Your passport's been extended to next week...you've overstayed your welcome...you've got to go home!” and “You've got a special flair/for broken love affairs – you've got to go home!”
She laughs out loud as Kregor indulges us in a playful guitar romp that morphs into a much more complex solo undergirded by frenetic drums -- to the wild applause of the crowd.
In contrast, her fourth selection is a light-hearted, candle-lit ballad, featuring a more restrained and better defined melody. Pithy but biting lyrics abound: “You're a never-care, polar bear...You're the Tower of Piza...a total wreck, a flop” -- “You're a democrat!” (laughter erupts)... “You're the drama when Obama won't stop!”
Barber takes a request on her fifth song, “Silent Partner”, a sultry tune effusing at once profound and nonsensical lyrics dripping with innuendo, like, “Psychologically speaking, if student can teach and the teacher can learn...then, teacher, I want you tonight,” and “guilt, like garlic, needs to saute...I could eat your words.”
Her eighth entree, “If I were Blue” makes references to the visual arts, as in the following passages: “If I were blue like a David Hockney pool...like Edward Hoppers sea,” and “If I were like Goya in the studio...the thick of night absence is dulled.” It's heady, it's clever, and it's entertaining, toe tapping – perhaps, more aptly, finger-snapping fun.
She wraps up with a song from one of her audiophile albums (I believe it was “Touch of Trash”). It epitomizes her lyric in that it's very introspective – and narcissistic -- playing off a soothing, atmospheric guitar solo, with her piano and drums holding tempo.
Drums build to a crescendo, then post-climax, drop back to a more contemplative cadence as she sings, then hums and does light vocalese (“ooh—ooh ohhh!”).
The crowd applauds, the emcee announces that she will be signing her SACD afterwards in the foyer and, like that, it’s over.
Lukasz Ficus, founder and owner of LampizatOr (which has several rooms at the show), is effusive in his assessment of Barber: she sings, writes her own lyrics and directs a band — “She is a true artist!”
He writes afterwards on Facebook, “I was in the elevator with her and (hadn’t) recognized her face, and after the concert SHE told me she heard that I do amazing things - she overheard someone in the elevator talking about me ! I was so shocked nearly got heart attack.”
I pull up a chair at a table supplied with a bank of computers in the lobby and post up a review of Particia Barber’s performance and, afterwards, recognize Steven Hill, founder and owner of Straight Wire, checking his emails across the table.
“Imagine that!” he says. It’s a little after 11:00 PM and he’s looking a bit dragged out with the shredded remnants of a cigar hanging from his mouth and an HD Tracks baseball cap coifing his head. We had an interview scheduled for Saturday, so we touched base for about 20 minutes and, realizing that it was 11:30 PM, I said goodbye and drove home for the night.
Toting my camera bag and coat, I enter the Westin O’Hare a little after 10:30 the next morning. The hallways are crowded and buzzing with conversation. I spot Lukasz Ficus seated off to the side on a couch. He’s speaking into his cellphone in Polish. “It’s my wife,” he says, cupping his hand over the phone.
Later when he’s free, he tells me that when I’m ready to upgrade from my Amber, he can sell me the Lite 7 DAC, a stripped down version of their Big 7 that, at almost half the cost at $5,250, “sounds very similar.” It’s compelling, but I tell him I’ll have to get back to him on that!
I snake my way through the crowds at The Ear Expo, now packed, as principals hawk their wares and patrons try on high end headphones and listen to a conflagration of devices — headphone amplifiers, music servers, DACs, and even vinyl.
I sit down at The Audio Consultants display and don a pair of Audeze LCD 3 headphones ($1,500) that cradle my ears with the gentleness that one would use in holding a baby chick. They’re linked to an Ayre Codex DAC ($1,750). The sound is very pure and unaffected, calling to mind something that their rep, John Fehr, had said previously about Ayre DACs: “They sound like nothing.” It was simply glorious music playing through. I could now see why so many audiophiles love headphones.
“It’s a really nice sounding system, and it’s very versatile,” Fehr shares, adding that with the Codex, “you can use it as a headphone amp; it has analog and balanced outputs, and you can use it as a stand alone DAC or preamp/DAC.”
A man scarcely looking a day over 22 pitches a sleek and shimmery Mytek Manhattan headphone amplifier, and preamp, ($4,995) with its top removed, revealing an impressive array of capacitors and other parts. He boasts that it up-samples any digital signal to DSD 256 and includes a world-class chip set and Femto clock. My curiosity’s piqued, as I’d enjoyed auditioning their Mytek Digital Stereo 192-DSD DAC a couple years back. However, I have a lot of ground to cover, so I move on.
Straight Wired for Sound
I head down to the lower level’s State Room to meet up with Hill, who’s still sporting that “HD Tracks” baseball cap, but now he’s wearing a gray cashmere jacket and crisp khakis. A bundle of energy, he assists in rocking and rotating a KEF Ref 5 speaker ($18,000) weighing — the emcee announces — 136 lbs. into optimum position, as demarcated by thin strips of black tape. The sound is amazing as Johan — a KEF rep with whom he shares the room — demos their various speakers to some 50-plus enthusiasts.
Like many here, Hill started his company in his garage, braiding cables with a former partner in 1984. The partner is long gone, but in 2015, Straight Wire’s business is booming.
“We have a diverse line of over 80 cables – so no particular cable comprises such a significant share of our sales,” he says. “Over 70% of our cables are made in USA. Virtually all IC (interconnect) and SC (speaker cables). Our top shelf cables offer great engineering, materials, build qualities and sonic attributes – that are fairly priced. We base all pricing on cost plus and, with over 30 years expertise, value engineering.”
One of their new products is their “USBF,” a high end USB 2.0 cable that retails at $160. It has discrete filter circuits for both power and data signals which, their literature says, “greatly reduce noise and data errors that come from most notebook computers and most USB source devices.” It also features compressed, silver plated conductors to enhance the accuracy of their signal.
Hill asks me if I’ve been up to the 12th and fourth floors, as some of the most impressive displays are on those floors. I take his word for it and hop on the elevator.
Speakers — and DACs — to Die For
To say that it’s a treasure trove of good music and sound reproduction is an understatement. As I make the rounds, I find myself especially impressed with the Magico Q7 Mk II ($229,000), the Martin Logan Neoliths ($80,000), and the Endeavor Audio E-5 ($30,000) speakers. And on the first floor, I witness jazz vocalist Lyn Stanley sing along with one of her recordings over a pair of futuristic Scaena stacked elliptical stainless steel pod speakers (I never got the price).
I chuckle as I recall a patron’s comments on the way in: “I love coming here to listen to equipment I can’t afford — if I came home with some of this exotic gear, my wife wouldn’t let me in the door!”
I speak with Moon Audio’s Costa Koulisakis, who tells me that the system that’s wowing me is “made up of amplifiers, preamplifiers and source components from our upscale Evolution product range. In detail, we have the Evolution 650D DAC, the Evolution 610 LB Phono Stage, the Evolution 868 multichannel amplifier and the Evolution 820S outboard power supply. The combined price of all the electronics is approximately $35,000.” The speakers are the Dynaudio Confidence C-1 ($8,000), the latest incarnation of that loudspeaker — small mini monitor, six inch woofer, dome tweeter in a typical inverted configuration that’s typical of many Dynaudio designs. It’s a small mini-monitor but with a huge sound.”
Later on the first floor, I am handed a bag of popcorn and ushered into the darkened Seaton Sound room, where shots ring out and tires squeal with frightening realism. Their $22,000 speakers deliver punch and vivacity to action films and concert footage projected onto a huge projection screen. Pitted up against Sony Theaters, it’s no contest — Seaton wins by TKO!
And in the Higgins Room, the Vapor Sound Perfect Storm speakers ($26,995) sound resolute, lush and intoxicatingly vivid. They’re driven by the LampizatOr Golden Gate DAC ($15,400). Imagine that! Fred Ainsley, the North American distributor for LampizatOr, greets me warmly, explaining that this room highlights their new flagship, the Golden Gate DAC. “That’s a DHT output stage directly heated triode, a DAC that actually uses 300Bs, 6a3s, 101Ds, 2a3s, 45s, 201s, 301s," he says. “It’s a very versatile Single Ended Triode tube lover's 'fantasy DAC', essentially! We’re listening to DSD in the room right now, which has a lot of people excited and is drawing a pretty good crowd! So far, it’s been pretty successful. We’re very happy with that."
“I was not in the audio business before LampizatOr; I have a full-time job as an attorney,” he shares. “And this was the first piece of audio equipment that pulled me in to the point that I actually wanted to invest my career time into it. This is something that has pulled me in! The stars kind of aligned the right way and I decided to run with this.”
I want to hear the EA-5 speakers again, which are in Your Final System’s room. They were particularly balanced, clear and stunning to my ear. Last year, I was greatly impressed with their EMM Labs DAC 2X ($15,000) and Endeavor Audio E-3 speakers ($7,000). However, at the moment, I find myself, along with YFS partner Kevin O’Brien and another presenter, locked out of the room, as a writer for Stereophile magazine insists on evaluating the system undisturbed by the riffraff. Nonplussed, the effervescent O’Brien fills me in on the latest.
“We’re basically showing our HD-Ref 3, a Windows-based server, as well as our Mac Mini Modified Server, and we’re showing with the new Constellation Inspiration monoblocks and preamp, as well as the brand new Endeavor Audio E-5 Flagship speaker.”
The EA-5 is “essentially stacking two E-3s on top of one another, so you’re getting all the same benefits that you get from the E-3,” he quips, “It’s kind of like an E-3 on steroids essentially!”
On their EMM DAC 2X, he says, “We just upgraded the firmware to the latest update, and that just took it over the top for us, so we’re nothing but happy!” He’s giddy.
“We just came out with the new Mac Mini Power Supply with Dual Rail,” he effuses. “So, we’ve got both a five volt and 12 volt rail in the same chassis. It’s nice, and our price just plummeted on that, so that means a lot more people can get into that line. It’s right around a thousand dollars.”
My curiosity sated, I'm ready to go. Like a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, there’s only so much I can take in. It has been a wondrous visit.
As I reflect on the show, I recall something that Steven Hill said: “These days, I’m a big fan of all the headphone rooms because we’re going to have to capture the younger market first through the headphones.” This is significant, as I notice that a large number of the attendees fall within the 30s to 50s demographic.
“If they can experience good quality sound on that level, when they’re ready and able, they will move on to more standard high end components, such as high quality integrated amps, speakers, source material,” he notes with that cigar chomping smile, “and hopefully, a few high-end cables.”
May it be so.