You’ll never mistake the exotic gear here for that sold at big box stores – nor its purveyors, for that matter. Most are engineers and/or entrepreneurs with their own boutique home audio businesses.
Take for example Lukasz Fikus, 51, an electrical engineer and owner of Lampizator, whose popular digital to analog converters exude vacuum tubes and produce a robust and shimmery, detailed sound. Unlike many vendors sporting ties and jackets or business casual, the slender, stubbly bearded man from Warsaw, Poland wears a black, button-down shirt hanging over blue jeans and, following a Patricia Barber concert at the Green Mill on Monday and an exhibit at the High End Show held in Munich a week later, he is attempting a cross-Atlantic voyage aboard a 44-foot sailboat.
“I see a lot of improvement in terms of sound quality,” he says of this year’s edition of AXPONA. “I think that many companies learned the lesson from a couple years ago and focus on sound much more than the presentation or the look of equipment.”
In general, music emanating from the rooms and displays throughout are marvelous. Major differences in performance often boil down to cost. For instance, a $1,500 speaker in a $10,000 system wouldn’t be expected to perform on the level of a six, ten or $20,000 pair of speakers ensconced in reference separates costing tens of thousands. At the same time, I hear $8,000 and $25,000 speakers performing on a par with speakers approaching $60,000 - $100,000 here. Sometimes, quality is not proportional to price, but more an issue of branding, marketing, and perceived value. That said, in my experience, the differences between comparable products are often a matter of degree – and its interpretation a matter of taste. Like wine aficionados, some prefer a drier, more nuanced presentation (as in French reds), while others prefer a bolder, lusher palate (as typical with California varietals). Some prefer vinyl records, while others prefer reel-to-reel tape, CDs, or other physical media, while others yet favor streaming or other digital storage and delivery. Then, there are the endless accessories – isolation devices, sound absorbing and refracting panels, cables, record cleaners, power conditioners and more.
On Saturday morning one such purveyor, Steven Hill, CEO of Straight Wire, Inc. (makers of premium speaker and audio cables), introduces me to Dan D’Agostino, the acclaimed founder of Krell (famed for their amplifiers) and owner of Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems. “Now, this is the man you want to talk to,” Hill says. However, D’Agostino excuses himself and one of his associates joins Hill and me in a cynical conversation on American politics.
Later, I listen to Fred Ainsley and Robert Reich, partners in Lampizator North America, talk about tube rolling (swapping out vacuum tubes to tweak performance).
I interview Lukasz Fikus out front and, after viewing dozens of rooms, I meet up with an acquaintance, Ron (whom I’d met on an audiophile page on Facebook) and his wife, Janine, who reminds him that he’s not getting this ultra-expensive optical reading turntable he’s obsessing over after I mention my wife’s similar misgivings. We all laugh. Yes, ours is an expensive addiction!
Earlier, they had shown his brother-in-law around to look at potential stereo upgrades. I converse with Lyn Stanley (a jazz vocalist who has sold some reference level recordings and sings later in one of the rooms) while standing in line at the Starbucks storefront off the main lobby. I promise to catch her show but arrive two hours late.
“You call someone and promise to be there in five minutes, but people keep stopping you to chat along the way, and pretty soon, a half hour has passed,” Fred Ainsley offers. That, and there’s simply so much to see.
Some highlights of this year’s AXPONA include:
- The Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems display, which featured their sweet sounding Momentum preamplifier ($35,000) mated with a pair of powerful D’Augostino Progression monoblock amplifiers ($38,000 for the pair) driving a pair of Wilson Audio Alexa speakers ($52,000 a pair).
- A Sony reel-to-reel tape player driving a pair of Magico S5 Mk II speakers ($38,000) which sounded simply spectacular and were one of my favorites.
- The Scaena La Maitresse Ultime speaker system ($125,000) with an array of tiny speaker components and several subwoofers were eerily real in their realism.
- The Von Schweikert VR-55 Aktive speakers ($60,000), which I noted presented Eva Cassidy with well-voiced acoustic and electric guitars, a well articulated piano with air around the notes exquisitely accurate. They showed with Blue Smoke Audio Entertainment Systems, an audio dealer based out of Deerfield, Illinois, which recently became an authorized dealer for Von Schweikert Audio.
- The Endeavor Audio E-3 Mk II speakers ($8,000), recently acquired by Von Schweikert Audio, remain one of my favorite speakers for the money, with a terrific balance of detail, depth and bass response.
- The Lampizator Komputer music server ($6,000) linked to the Lampizator Golden Gate DAC ($15,500), paired with Vapor Audio’s Derecho speakers ($9,995 a pair) were exquisite.
- The PlanterSpeakers by Madison Fielding display in the lobby featured several speakers embedded in outdoor planters ranging from $1,499 to $6,495 a pair. Situated in a square surround-sound style, they sound pretty good — especially considering that they are fed by a modest amplifier/preamp/ in a molded rack case.
- The Legends of High End Audio seminar, featuring the likes of Dan D’Agostino, Valve Amplification Company’s Kevin Hayes, and Van Alstine’s Frank Van Alstine share their thoughts on their experiences in starting up, running and making audio history with their companies. Unfortunately, PS Audio's Paul McGowan, who writes a blog I like and is one of their listed speakers, cannot attend, as his flight is cancelled from Colorado. The Absolute Sound's Jim Hannon moderates.
- The AXPONA Marketplace, which featured merchants selling assorted vinyl, SACD and accessories.
- The Ear Gear Expo, which showcased a potpourri of high end headphone and their supporting systems. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but nevertheless I found it fascinating.
- The ginormous Martin Logan Renaissance ESL 15, a hybrid electrostatic - and active woofer speakers, featuring two 12 inch drivers and 500 watt class D amplifiers driving them ($24,995 a pair). Theirs were a very smooth and powerful delivery.
- The AMG Viella V12 Turntable ($17,500) featuring the DS Audio Master1 Optical Cartridge ($20,0000) that Ron was so enamored over. Whereas I'm not as much into vinyl, it was pretty impressive.
An After Hours Listening Session
That evening, I have dinner and drinks with Hill, who drives over an hour to my house to hear my two channel stereo system (an old Toshiba laptop acting as server, linked to a Lampizator Lite 7 DAC, a passive preamp, an old Mark Levinson amp and a vintage pair of Von Schweikert speakers using Straight Wire cables throughout). He moves my wife’s coffee table aside (reflection issues), plops on our ottoman, positions it optimally, and takes in a succession of rock, jazz, and classical music, listening closely to the timbre of the instruments and vocals, as well as the decay of – and space between – notes. To my relief, he pronounces that I not only have an excellent system, but also a great listening room; the fireplace to the right largely diffuses sound wave reflections on that side of the room and an opening on the left side dissipates them on the other. “I wouldn’t b***s*** you,” he assures. I am elated.
That Sunday at the conclusion of AXPONA, I purchase the demo Lampizator DSD Komputer music server, which is actually a prototype of their final version that they've been using at shows, from Lukasz, himself (like some others, he sells it at a discount to avoid paying shipping on his return flight). It’s an amazing deal that I cannot pass up. My wife gives me the green light and I'm sold!
Clearly, the opportunity to hear firsthand so much great audio equipment at one locale cannot be overstated. However, the magic of AXPONA is also about a sense of camaraderie – a shared passion – the opportunity to rub shoulders with other audiophiles and these makers of audio nirvana, as well as purchase discounted floor models at the shows end. Who wouldn’t give up a sunny day for that?