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High-end audio extravaganza rocks Chicago

The Audiophiliac lends an ear to the goings on at Axpona.

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Steve Guttenberg
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1 of 19 Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Avantgarde Acoustic Trio Classico XD speakers

The Audio Expo North America (Axpona) 2018 high-end extravaganza was held last weekend, April 13, 14, and 15 at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center near Chicago, and it was a really big show. The sprawling event hosted 165 rooms packed with the world's best audio. Indeed, a feast for the eyes and ears. I had nowhere near enough time to check out everything, but here's a sampler of the high points. 

Avantgarde Acoustic's room-filling speaker system and subwoofers were much too large for the small hotel room, but the message came through loud and clear, the Trio Classico XD can deliver dynamics with startling power, and still sound natural with solo acoustic guitar. 

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Clearaudio Concept turntable

This custom finished turntable really caught my eye, Concept prices start at $1,600.

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Woo Audio 3ES headphone amplifier

The Woo Audio 3ES amplifier isn't for "normal" headphones, Woo makes a bunch of amps that do that, the 3ES amp makes the magic happen with electrostatic headphones. The 3ES is pictured here with a Stax SR009 electrostatic headphone, the amp is made in New York City and retails for $8,999. 

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Magico A3 speakers

These slender towers made a huge impression on me, review to come. $9,800 per pair.

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Dan D’Agostino Progression power amplifier

Dan D'Agostino is an American designer who made a big splash in the 1980s with his high-end audio company Krell, and he's upped the ante with his current namesake amps. The Progression Stereo amp sells for $22,000.

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Harbeth M40.2 40th Anniversary speaker

Here's a rather large, three-way "bookshelf" speaker that serves equally well as a studio monitor, or in sophisticated audiophile systems. They're $17,990 per pair. 

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Harbeth P3ESR 40th Anniversary speaker

This little two-way maintained a remarkable amount of the larger Harbeth 40.2's sound character. The P3ESR has a near cult following among audiophiles for a good reason, it's simply one of the most listenable little speakers on the planet. They retail for $2,890 per pair.

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Vinnie Rossi LIO preamplifier

I listened to the Harbeth speakers teamed with Vinnie Rossi electronics, including this remarkable LIO preamplifier. LIO prices start at $4,480. 

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MySphere 3.2 headphones

This headphone looks and sounds like no other, and since the drivers are in front, not facing in towards the ear the MySphere 3.2 sounds more open and spacious than nearly any other headphone, regardless of price. This one's $4,000.

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Magnepan 3.7i panel speaker

This 71 inch tall but less than 2 inches thick panel speaker is hyper transparent, and they easily projected a massive stereo sound stage. The 3.7i is made in the USA, and they sell for $5,995 per pair.

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Alta Audio Lo speaker

Lo and behold, this little bookshelf speaker may look understated, but the sound was anything but. Lo has a 2-inch ribbon tweeter, and a 7-inch woofer mounted in a substantially constructed rosewood cabinet. $3,495 per pair. 

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Continuum Audio Labs Obsidian turntable

The Obsidian is a turntable like a Lamborghini Aventador S is a car. I watched as the Obsidian was uncrated and setup, and the sheer quality of the base, platter, and Viper tonearm were beyond reproach. As ultra high-end turntables go the Obsidian is surprisingly compact, it retails for $35,000, the Viper tonearm adds an extra $10,000.

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Western Electric 300B vacuum tube

Introduced in 1938 the 300B is still the holy grail for many tube loving audiophiles. Now back in production in the USA the new Western Electric 300B will retail for $1,495 each. 

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Volti Audio Rival speakers

You crave hot-blooded, slam-you-back-in-your-seat dynamic punch, combined with stellar tonality? The Volti Rival horn speaker is the one to get. Hand crafted in the USA, they're $8,400 per pair.

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Stenheim Alumine Five speakers

The Stenheim Alumine Five loudspeakers checked all the boxes for audiophiles with deep pockets, stunning build quality, sound was delicious, highly refined, vivid, and above all musical. They're $59,750 per pair.

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Bricasti Design Platinum Series M21 digital converter

Bricasti Design caters to the pro market and audiophiles, their Platinum Series M21 digital converter is for the latter group. It's unusually versatile and can switch between a delta sigma or ladder DAC for PCM conversion, and direct DSD. 

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Linn LP12 turntable

The classic 1970s audiophile turntable has remained in production and revised again and again over the years. Plenty of audiophiles still swear by the LP12, prices start at $4,600.

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Nagra HD preamp

Swiss precision build and sound quality par excellence, as it should be for $59,500!

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Gamut RS7i speakers

I've long been a fan of Gamut's smaller RS3i stand mount speaker, but this RS7i tower's combination of power, dynamics, focused imaging, and sweet tonality made for some of the very best sound at Axpona. Gamut products are all made in Denmark, these speakers retail for $39,990 per pair.

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