A Different Lock at Axpona 2018 and a new Personal Reference Audio System.


Well-Known Member
May 25, 2010
Jersey Shore- waterside
I just got back from two days at Axpona 2018. I went there with two missions: 1) expand two new relationships with Damon Von Schweikert and Leif Swanson, and 2) to try to determine my next speaker and possibly new electronics to take me to the next audio another level. While I instinctively knew I would achieve these two goals, I tried to approach the weekend with minimal thinking and projecting about my upcoming and hopefully fun experience. I needed this show to be fun and productive, while trying to compensate for the acoustic problems of the venues and cutting through the huge pile of BS and snake oil that permeates much of high end audio today.

What happened to me this weekend was much more and quite different than how a typical audio show impacts me. Most shows are about learning the equipment and plotting one’s next equipment move. Having just had cancer surgery in 11/2017, and apparently dodging the metastasis bullet, I do not think that this highly different impact of Axpona was a coincidence, but rather another HUGE step in my lifelong love of audio and a huge evolutionary leap in how I am likely to use audio to relax for the rest of my life.

In order to best understand the impact of Axpona 2018, I need to give you a bit of my personal audio history and the role it has played in my life to date. I hope you will not skip this part because I suspect that many who have made it thus far have their own similar story and I am trying to write this so that you will feel what I felt as I went through the weekend, which is why this past week was one of the most “up” weeks I have felt since being diagnosed with Ca.

Since age 7 I have loved going to these shows because of new and exciting things with electronics and audio. Unfortunately, with repetition each year was still fun but less rewarding and new, to the point that my desire to attend has dropped to almost nothing.

I had never been to Axpona, and quite honestly did not really understand what the show is about. I knew I needed new speakers so I could get rid of my subwoofers and benefit from speaker designer and engineer input top to bottom. In essence I was willing to cede that a talented and passionate speaker designer has a better chance of getting it right than me, the periodic audio fanatic , who can obtain some degree of audio greatness with the core help of a competent and even better, a creative speaker designer. As simple as it seems, there are not many of those designers around because most are limited by corporate objectives.
I somehow decided that I was willing to spend a reasonably large amount of money, on my next move because if I changed speakers, I would also probably need to change electronics and cables, but did not want to majorly exceed my limit. With that first substantial injection of funds, I had to complete all aspects of the transition, without those pesky, cable and footer, etc. additions that cost so much. Fortunately ,I already own a lot of fairly high end equipment that would be replaced, generating some unknown amount of funds on Audiogon to offset/augment the financial infusion.

I had already been to Steve Williams’ about a month earlier for phase one of my search. On the home front I worked in my free time to work out the kinks of my low frequency feedback to my turntable, which I have written about extensively on WBF. I had just made a very sizeable investment into my analog arm of my system to finally get it right and be done, if possible. I was trying to make a Triangle Art Reference SE and Rockport Sirius 6000 straight tracking air bearing arm work well together. The logic was the 275 pound turntable with what many consider the best arm ever made would produce the best, or near to it, possible in analog playback. Since I was on a roll I bought a second ZYX Cartridge from Mehran at Sorasound. I had a Universe Premium, which is incredible, but had a chance to buy one of the then only 6 new top of the line ZYX cartridges, the Universe Optimum. Let’s just say the overall project has been a huge physics challenge, that is making progressively more amazing sound with every additional hour. Oh yeah, I forgot one add-on, a 30x20 vibraplane.

Where it Began
I went to my first hi fi show in the mid-fifties in San Francisco. I was about 7 then. My father had already wet my taste for hifi and electronics. I sat eagerly by his side as he constructed an Eico integrated amplifier and about 4 months later an Eico FM tuner. I do not remember if my father ever commented on his excitement of constructing and then enjoying, but I could feel the vibration and was pretty sure I was built of the same DNA. I also remember eagerly waiting to hear the sound. We had just moved into a new and custom designed house, where my father worked with the architect to frame a space high on the wall that would have a Stevens 12” coax speaker for the dining room and living room. We went to the show to see if a different speaker should be considered for the place of honor in the living room wall.

The thrill from this experience burned a path through my brain that set my audio objectives for the rest of my life. In the ensuing 55 years playing in this space, I have had a number of thrill blips with new major acquisitions, but only a few that generated major excitement that was transfixing and life path changing, like the SF HiFi show as a 7 year-old. One was hearing Magneplanars in Jonas Miller Radio in Beverly Hills in 1975, and then developing a very close personal relationship with Jonas, much like a second father. His store was the high-end audio clubhouse for Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, LA and Pacific Palisades. This enabled me to hang with the LA elite and famous into high end audio. The thrill from this experience lasted the three years I did my psychiatry residency in LA. This enabled me to also have an incredible relationship with a knowledgeable and kind man, Jonas, something I probably always desired to be part of my audio experience, considering how it started.

Amongst the people I met along the way was Jon Iverson, a brilliant, possibly crazy electronics engineer who loved audio, and famously disappeared with many theories about his demise. My friend Marty, from the forum, and I had the opportunity to visit Jon Iverson at his lab in 1976 and hear his fabled Force Field Speakers that could also vaporize large insects and possible be a small prototype weapon. Most did not believe the force field actually existed, but believe me, it did. It produced an excitement that altered my audio path. In the ensuing, 40 years, relatively little has moved me like these experiences, maybe with the exception of custom building my audio room as a true live end dead end room with the live end made up of 5 tons of rock on the front wall to serve as a huge diffusor behind the various dipoles I owned during the next almost 20 years. Unfortunately, divorce ate that room in the first bite of alimony, but that is the reason I am building 14 years later.

My attitude about going to Axpona, was “how bad can it be. I’ll be away in Chicago at an audio show. Hopefully, I will form some new friendships.” Hopefully, somehow it will have a positive influence on what might be one of my last audio transitions so that I can spend more time listening and less time seeking perfection.

My adventure began as soon as I landed at O’Hare. Leif Swanson picked me up at the airport, even though he was needed in the Von Schweikert Room. While we had talked on the phone a number of times about possible VS models for me, we had never met.

It was weird that we both felt so comfortable with each other so fast. After a short drive we were at the convention center in Schaumberg. The Von Schweikert room was the latest combined effort between Von Schweikurt demonstrating their 7 foot tall, $295,000 flagship, the Ultra 11, which has been winning “best of show awards” for more than the past year; VAC tube electronics showcasing four of their tubed 450 watt Statement 450’s, their tubed Statement Preamp and Statement Phono. Plugged into the VAC Phono was a Custom Kronos Pro with the latest power supply, Black Beauty tonearm and the new top of the line Airtight cartridge. The digital arm was all Esoteric. All cabling was from MasterBuilt, distributed by VSA.

When I first walked into the room, the speakers where immediately imposing, even in their huge room 60’ long and ceilings 15’ high. The speakers were an automotive color between deep blue and royal blue. The cabinet narrows around the two tweeters and ribbon tweeter on the front baffle, giving the speaker a slight resemblance to a Modigliani woman. The VAC gear was initially visually overwhelming because there was so much of it in the front end and between the speakers.

As I put my first foot-steps in the room I could feel the Ultra 11’s power, but the driver integration was off and somewhat smudgy. During the 8-10 hours of listening I did in the VSA room that day (I stayed in the VSA/VAC room on Saturday because I was lost in one amazing and quite exciting conversation after another with Damon, Leif and Kevin Hayes of VAC). I could hear a progressive driver cohesion with the Ultra 11, that rapidly entered into the realm of magical, however there were still aspects that were more pronounced than others, which were shifting frequencies for the next hour or so and then the sound and drivers became cohesive. At this point the bass was totally believable bottom to top with major strength and speed throughout the spectrum and no discernable cross over points. There is no doubt that MasterBuilt cables take a very long time (months) to find their best and there were so many feet of newly constructed cables that they were still finding their way with moments of brilliance alternating with disjointed moments.

The rest of Saturday was spent talking to Leif, Damon and Kevin as the music played on in the background. Then Nick, founder and leader of MasterBuilt showed up unannounced. For some reason he and I began excitedly talking about audio in general and MasterBuilt in particular. Nick was so honest I felt that I had an unspoken responsibility to protect much of what he shared with me and thus will not elaborate at all in this post. Having had some experience working with the aerospace industry, I had enough information to conclude that Nick is the real deal, which helped push me to decide on what I thought would be my next speaker--- the yet to be released next addition to the VSA Ultra Line (MasterBuilt internal wiring and crazy expensive capacitors that were critical to the Ultra 11 crossover) the Ultra 55 based on an aktiv version of the VR 55, an allegedly wonderful speaker even before the Ultra transformation. Only one pair had been made and they were for Kevin Hayes of VAC, who could not stop talking about his excitement of receiving them in the next several weeks. He also turned me onto a custom color that he chose (an auto metal flake crimson that is very appealing) and has sparked great interest within me as the possible color for my new speakers, at that time the Ultra 55’s.

We went to several of the high end Chicago dealer rooms for a quick listen to Sonus Faber’s new flagship, Wilson XLF, Sabrina’s and Alexia 2’s largely driven by ARC with the XLF driven by D’Agostino Momentum 400 monobloc’s. Despite having read and heard rave reviews by others, I felt that the sound was very system sounding and not real or accurate, making my listening sessions very short because I wanted to get back to the Ultra 11’s powered by VAC which were well on the way to becoming my new reference system.

I finally met Joe Lavernick of CMS and Center Stage Footers, which I helped beta and absolutely love, and had spoken with a number of times, but never met. Both he and his wife Joy were a true pleasure to speak with, adding to my group of new found friends. I got so lost speaking with him that the dinner group had to send Leif to retrieve me, which was not easy because at this point I was having so much fun that my feet were well off the ground. On to what was sure to be a fun dinner before the evening private listening session. I already knew that Axpona 2018 was and would continue to be the fourth amazing and life changing audio experience in my life. What I did not realize was the full nature and magnitude of what my fourth brush with “audio amazing” would mean and how it would impact me.

As was the case throughout the day, Leif had reserved a space opposite him for me at the group dinner table. He was treating me like royalty while trying to work the show. When he would get pulled away, Damon or Kevin, even Nick would magically show up to start another new and amazing conversation, that was also promoting bonding amongst all of us, including me. It was at this time a new character to me, Greg Weaver, joined the group. Although we had never met, Greg is a well-known player in the high end world because he reviews for a number of journals including TAS. He was sitting next to Leif and could not stop talking about his VSA VK-55’s which he bought after reviewing them. He was also talking in a beyond excited manner about Ultra 9’s which he was scheduled to receive for review in the next several weeks. He would also be the musical source for the private listening session in the VSA/VAC room several hours later.

Around 8:30 we returned to the VSA/VAC room where it was a completely different experience when the doors opened than it was when I heard the Ultra 11, VAC , Kronos, Esoteric system for the first time 9 hours earlier. Now the speakers sounded much more cohesive and quite believable most of the time because there were still small periodic alterations in the sound. The private listening session lasted till about midnight, with a never-ending selection of very interested guests, many of whom I was able to speak with thanks to Damon, Leif and Kevin. With Leif’s encouragement I took the center seat in front since I do not like any physical obstacles to my listening. After each of Greg Weaver’s tour de force of auditory experiences, people clapped, made a wide assortment of “amazing” comments, because quite simply that was the caliber of the sound. My favorite cut was a 12” dance record of David Bowie singing the theme from the Cat People movie. If you find one and buy it and do not like it I will buy it from you if I have not yet found one!!!!

Not missing a beat, Damon and Leif drove the core group back to their respective hotels, and then picked me up Sunday morning so we could get Leif some “proper” Starbucks at a corporate store and not a hotel franchise. The tone of the conversation at Starbuck’s provided ample evidence that they were enjoying our interactions as much as I was. The interactions with Damon, Leif, Kevin and Nick from MasterBuilt were the best part of the trip, even better than listening to the $1.5 million system.

When we arrived at the convention center, a quick listening session showed that the system had improved overnight as expected. I then set out to walk the show which was larger than any high end audio component of a CES that I had been to in the previous 15 years.

As I walked around, I was rapidly reminded of the underbelly of high end audio—all of the snake oil salespeople and the incredible percentage of “I can and have sold anything because I am a sales person.” I cannot emphasize how negatively this impacts the core fiber of the overall industry. It is hard to love the current industry the way you did when you were 7.


It is possible to have a network of friends who are wonderful human beings and share many of your values, even if they smoke???? It helps if everyone in the group has a reason for being there and a passion for music reproduction. If the ego’s are reasonably balanced and eager to learn and offer highly polished and necessary skills to advance in any desired dimension, then I feel that this is a group I want to be part of. In fact, it sounds almost too good to be true for this enthusiast who is trying his best to live a sound life full of excitement and happiness.

After going through the larger convention center exhibits that mattered to me (at most 8), I went to the top of the hotel and began to work my way down, circling around a large atrium open to the lobby. I believe it was 6 or 7 floors with many exhibits on each floor (25-30). For the most part the sound was nothing special, and in some cases unlistenable. I was not surprised because I knew of the acoustical aspects of the room that Leif and Damon struggled with and heard a number of people talk about the poor quality of sound.

Part of what was most interesting was that as I walked around the floors overlooking the hotel’s center atrium, I could feel that I was going through an audio transformation, that this just might be my last transition and therefore I should do it right??? I have certainly used that logic many times before, but this time it felt more realistic, achievable and an end state that I believe I would love. When I stuck my head into a room, I did not need more than 10-30 seconds to know if there was anything worth my attention. in most rooms. Unfortunately, to my taste, maybe one in 3-4 were worthy of more careful listening and evaluation. Most were me too and sounded the same.

Kevin Hayes had shared with me which rooms had VAC equipment and his thoughts about each. Kevin is a man who is quiet and chooses his words carefully, but clearly has a genuine love of the sound and music. He is the epitome of a gentleman and absolutely has spent a lot of time thinking about what really matters? I am pretty sure that Kevin would prefer silence to taking an undeserved swing at a competitor. YET, each of the rooms with his equipment in them were amongst the best sound of the rooms at their respective levels. I could hear the VAC family resemblance, which I was coming to like very much, despite having given them very little thought prior to the show.

Having a reference level Spectral DMC 30SV and a Spectral DMA 300RS, not to mention full looms of MIT reference level cables, speaker wire, contemplating shifting to MasterBuilt Ultra speaker wire and interconnects, not to mention AC cords, as well all VAC electronics, is a fundamental personality switch for my system. I originally went down the Spectral road, because it is excellent equipment, but a bit analytic, probably due to its speed, and thus felt like I needed more tube influence, despite having tried to add a tube influence through an ARC REF CD-9 which I use as a spinner/DAC, and a Lamm single chassis phono stage.

The VAC equipment brings forth the luscious tube sound, without bringing forward the romance that comes with LAMM, especially the SET models. I thought that what I wanted was the Lamm hybrid sound because it can drive Alexia’s and maybe VSA speakers better than the SET’s. As luscious as the Lamm sound is, it is not accurate and that would bother me. I had not worked that out, but was considering Lamm Hybrid Monoblocs and the Spectral preamp for speed.

Well no more. The VAC’s are in another class, albeit the Statements 450 and Statement Pre amp and phono are out of my reach, for now at least. However, Kevin and Leif have assured me that I will be extremely happy with a pair of IQ M200’s and the Master Line Stage and Phono preamp. I must say that the sonic signature of the VAC really appeals to me because you clearly hear the fundamental tube influence, but it is not in your face like the Lamm can be at times.

The VAC’s have the force and the signature (I hope because all I have heard are the Statements) that I love and I think compliments the VSA Ultra 11 and Ultra 9, since they are sonically essentially the same. If that is not true, then I fear to contemplate the resolution of that problem!!

As my head was starting to get the drift of what was going on inside of me, I felt an emotional freedom that I had not felt since before my cancer workup and surgery. And to add to everything, I was meeting really nice people that I just seem to naturally like. Of course, great thanks to Steve Williams who has facilitated many of the relationships mentioned in this piece and showed me nothing but warmth and help.

Back to walking the floors----- most of the rooms did not appeal to my snobbish tastes that now define where I live in the land of audio. I will always prefer good sound to expensive pieces. While there were many moderate to expensive pieces, most did not offer good sound.

One of the rooms that I was quite interested in was the Martin Logan room demonstrating their new hybrid Renaissance 15a (powered by a huge Constellation Stereo amp) since I had owned many different Martin Logan speakers and am quite familiar with the sound of ML screens and their cross-over to their cone woofers. While I truly believe that this model is the far and away the best hybrid speaker they have ever made, I could not get over how slow it sounded—clearly slower than the Ultra 11, which I thought was not possible because of the lightness of screen diaphragms. I am quite sure that the Renaissance is a wonderful speaker with a very fast screen. The Ultra 11 is just that much faster!!!!

I also liked the Triangle Arts room because Tom Vu is a wonderful and kind man who happens to build great sounding turntables and other audio equipment. He is also the man who built my new turntable (Reference SE). His analog rig sounded amongst the best I heard at the show, maybe even better than the Kronos Pro. Mine sounds better to my taste probably because I have a Rockport Sirius straight-tracking air bearing tonearm and new top of the line ZYX Ultimate Optimum. AvanteGarde 3 was also sounding quite good, but then they should because they are full range horns and move a ton of air. There were others including seeing people from the past like Gayle Sanders of ML fame.

Although I had already stated that I would get the Ultra 55 speakers and was willing to give a substantial down payment, and it felt so right. Oh, if there was only a way to get the Ultra 9’s because of all of the rear controls, especially that woofer. For me to work out Ultra 9’s and VAC electronics, I would have to make a commitment unlike I have ever made in my life, short of buying a house. For me to do this at this time in my life, I would have to feel very confident overall so that this would not become a source of worry.

The Decision
Axpona 2018 was the most extraordinary audio show I have ever been to, not just because I heard an amazing system and am purchasing a pair of speakers beyond, my wildest dreams, ever. However, the best part of the weekend is the total weekend experience, especially the people I met and am sure will become close friends. Not only am I getting a speaker that I have never heard, but know what they will sound like since they are literally half of the Ultra 11’s, my new reference and dream, but I am also going to get VAC electronics, which I came to absolutely love, and MasterBuilt cables in key locations as I fill in the cracks (I told you that there are always those things that fill in the cracks), except this is very expensive putty.

There is another and even more important benefit, I have started what I believe will be very valuable friendships with Leif Swanson, Damon Von Schweikert, Kevin Hayes and Nick from MasterBuilt. Each of these people are clearly special people who live outside the box and still highly value integrity, passion and judgement. With people like Damon and Leif at VSA, Kevin at VAC, and Nick at MasterBuilt it is exciting to believe in nothing but continual improvement in the pursuit of a good life.

Sell the following:
Vivid G’3 Black
Two JL F-113’s
Spectral DMC 30SV
Spectral DMA 300 RS
Three MIT MAX SHD RCA interconnects
MIT Digital Coax
MIT HD90 Rev 2 Biwire
VPI Aries 3D Turntable with Nordost wiring
Pass XP-15 Phono
LAMM LP-2.1 Phono stage
Shunyata Triton 2
Shunyata Anaconda 2 meter RCA to RCA interconnects

Von Schweikert Ultra 9’s, possibly same color as Kevins
2 VAC IQM200
VAC Master Line Stage and Phono Stage
MasterBuilt Cables and Wires

Having trouble getting several pictures to post that accompany this thread. Also how do you edit title errors?
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Well-Known Member
Jun 13, 2013
E. England
Happy to hear of your positive medical outcome.

I never thought going to a show could be QUITE so life changing .

Can you reveal what this commitment is “unlike any” you’ve made in yr life?

There had been a few times I considered taking out a major loan/extending my mortgage to fund, but pulled back from.

the sound of Tao

Well-Known Member
Jul 18, 2014
Many thanks Russ for this great read. A fantastic bit of storytelling and a super happy ending as well... not to mention a seriously fabulous system on its way.

Congratulations on all of it. Hope it brings you much happiness and good health.

best wishes


WBF Founding Member
Apr 21, 2010
Manila, Philippines
There's a saying we have here when one decides to swing for the fences. One Time, Big Time!

Congratulations! :D

Rodney Gold

Jan 29, 2014
Cape Town South Africa
You only live once .... so go for it!!!!!

I can identify as I had a quad bypass and 2 back operations in the last year or so (and have mild parkinsons and diabetes) .. these conditions and my physical capabilities made me decide to go "all in" on my system and room and enjoy the results as long as I can do so .. Im 60 and think I will be lucky to reach 70.
I had quite a few yank v8's i sold to finance the system.. I could no longer get thrills from them and parlayed them into something that amazes me for hours...


VIP/Donor & WBF Founding Member
May 6, 2010
Boston, MA
Russ, really sorry for your illness, and thanks for the rest of the update!


Well-Known Member
Apr 20, 2010
United States
Great read. My biggest surprise is that even though we have known each other for 50 years, I never knew the story of your first electronic show at age 7 (I first thought it was a misprint), or the role your Dad had in cultivating your love for the hobby. It makes me wonder- how many of us had Dad's that provided similar inspiration? I'll bet we're not unique . For me, it was my Dad's mid 1960's system that he saved for an eternity to buy- a pair of JBL 100s, a Fisher 500 receiver, a Dual turntable and a Stanton cartridge. Looking forward to hearing your new system. Enjoy!


Oct 26, 2015
Eastern WA
There had been a few times I considered taking out a major loan/extending my mortgage to fund, but pulled back from.

Now that's dangerous... Better off learning to DIY so you don't ruin yourself trying to upgrade.

While I'd never get this excited over a VAC preamp, I suppose this is one hell of a testimonial to what people think about VSA's new speakers. This is however a very drastic measure because Russ was talking about wanting better sound, and never really let anyone try to figure out what he was wanting so they could help him get there... then boom, this comes along. I guess the answers were found.

My only question is, have you been to DDK's? That would be a trip to a polar opposite experience I think that would be worth doing before you start hemorrhaging money.

Ron Resnick

Site Co-Owner, Administrator
Jan 25, 2015
Beverly Hills, CA
Thank you very much for chronicling your life’s journey in audio, and for your tour of AXPONA.

You have decided on what is truly a dream audio system, and one which I am certain will give you musical pleasure for the rest of your life! Congratulations! :D

And you are right: Albert, Lief, Damon and Kevin are wonderful!

Believe High Fidelity

[Industry Expert]
Nov 19, 2015
Hutto TX
Thank you for sharing Russ. I really enjoy reading about a journey that doesn't end in I just bought some gear and then magically everything is wonderful. The fact that you went to the show with a mission and that the boys at VSA and VAC were able to accomodate and provide an excellent level of service (and time to help make it special) is the way it should be. I had the pleasure of meeting them as well at Axpona and they are a dream team. Congrats again!
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Bruce B

WBF Founding Member, Pro Audio Production Member
Apr 26, 2010
Snohomish, WA
Russ... I so much enjoyed reading about your adventures in audio through the years. You are great writer and the few minutes that it took to read this was well worth it. Congrats on the new outlook!


Well-Known Member
Jun 7, 2010
I have both VAC (phi beta 110 integrated) and Von Schweikert(VR-9 mk II) products. Both Kevin Hayes and Albert Von Schweikert are first class individuals. I’m on year #12 of my system and I still enjoy listening to it each day. I hope you enjoy yours as much as I enjoy mine.

Full disclosure:
I haven’t heard Jack’s new system so my views may change:confused:

Steve Williams

Site Founder, Site Owner, Administrator
I have both VAC (phi beta 110 integrated) and Von Schweikert(VR-9 mk II) products. Both Kevin Hayes and Albert Von Schweikert are first class individuals. I’m on year #12 of my system and I still enjoy listening to it each day. I hope you enjoy yours as much as I enjoy mine.

Full disclosure:
I haven’t heard Jack’s new system so my views may change:confused:

not really full but almost as you then have to hear Jimmy's system. I must admit that hearing the Ultra 11 many times over from factory to audio shows, it is very special and I am betting that Jack has taken a giant step closer to Jim's system


Well-Known Member
Apr 20, 2010
United States
not really full but almost as you then have to hear Jimmy's system. I must admit that hearing the Ultra 11 many times over from factory to audio shows, it is very special and I am betting that Jack has taken a giant step closer to Jim's system

Three Amigo Roadtrip! Phillippines!!


WBF Founding Member
Apr 21, 2010
Manila, Philippines

Leif S

Industry Expert
Feb 14, 2015

Steve Williams

Site Founder, Site Owner, Administrator
Ideal time would be right after the Hong Kong Audio Show

I'm in if Russ and Marty want to ride

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