AXPONA 2018: Checking Out The Big Show In Chicago (Elac, Hsu Research, Vanatoo)

The Audio Expo North America, better known as AXPONA, kicked off this past weekend in its new digs at the Renaissance Hotel & Convention Center in Schaumburg Illinois. The organizers moved it to a new location this year because it was getting kinda cramped over at the Westin in Rosemont, and the Renaissance with its many ballrooms and what must be a million hotel rooms would allow the show to spread its wings a bit.

It was a good thing too, because there was a massive turnout, especially on Saturday. I passed thru listening room after listening room jam-packed with people marveling at the handiwork of hi-fi architects. It was nice to see that the hi-fi hobby was alive and well.

With my emphasis on the more accessible end of the audiophile equipment spectrum, it was also nice to see a lot of manufacturers reaching out to those looking for an affordable entry-level system or those who just don’t have a bunch of discretionary income to throw at this stuff.

For example, Andrew Jones, who has wowed many reviewers and consumers over the years with his budget speaker lines, continued that trend with his new Elac Debut 2.0 line. I began Saturday’s tour lined up in the hallway waiting for Andrew to demo his new $300 Debut B6.2 standmount speakers, and I wasn’t disappointed when I heard them.

Andrew Jones and his Debut B6.2 speakers

He paired the 6.2’s with an ELAC EA SERIES integrated amplifier that lists for $700, and the pair sounded really good together making an intriguing setup for $1000. Regarding the speakers, Jones talked about how he read the reviews for the first Debut series and took some of the criticism to heart when he created the sequel. For example, he discussed how he added bracing to the new models to cut down on the vibration and cabinet coloration than many pointed out in the originals.

Jones played a wide variety of music through the B6.2 and they did a great job with all the genres he threw at them. They provided a crisp, wide presentation, with awesome imaging for the price point. If you have a tight budget these are a great starting point in your search for new speakers. They will make many people very happy.

Dr. Hsu of Hsu Research showing off his $1200 speaker combo

Another designer showing off some great sounding speakers at a very attractive price point was Dr. Hsu of HSU Research. While HSU Research is known for excellent subwoofers, they also make nice standmount speakers, and on Saturday he demoed a 2-way bookshelf model with a coaxial driver arrangement (CCB-8), paired up with one of their subs ( VTF-MK2) for $1200. They were hooked up to an older model AV Reciever, which stood in stark contrast to the thousands of dollars of electronics most of the other rooms were using. Regardless of what most would call mediocre amplification, I must say the combo sounded really good, with a really sweet midrange and nice soundstage. Definitely worth an audition.

Gary and Rick of Vanatoo also had an impressive demo in their room on the fourth floor, where they displayed their well-built and highly acclaimed active speakers. This was my first time hearing their Transparent Zero ($359), which has collected a bunch of accolades in the past year, and I was quickly able to see why.

Gary of Vanatoo with the Transparent Zero and Transparent One Encore

For such a small speaker, especially one with its own internal amplification, it was amazing to hear how it filled the room with detailed audiophile quality sound. Gary also demonstrated how smart these little speakers were by plugging in a $100 Polk Audio subwoofer into the RCA sub out on the back of one, and showing how the Zero automatically pushed the low frequencies out to the sub while limiting itself to the reproduction of the mid and high frequencies. For anyone who has tried to integrate a sub into a two-channel system, they know nice this feature is.

Close-Up of The Vanatoo Transparent Zero (r) and Transparent Zero Encore (l)

He also displayed the new version of their popular (and currently sold out!) Transparent One speaker, called the Transparent One Encore, which is due out this summer. It has the same technology as the Zero, but with a larger metal woofer which allows for a fuller sound. I liked the sound of the bigger model even more than its little brother. I also like that both models have a bunch of inputs like USB, Optical, as well as analog, so they can hook up to many different sources.  If you’re looking for a simple, elegant, hi-fi solution that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, then check these guys out.

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