I’ve been a fan of Audio Research for a while.  It started back around 1990 with a trip to Lyric Hifi in New York City where I was lucky enough to find the legendary Mike Kay.  We got along very well and he was determined to show me what high end audio could do.  We wound up listening to his Infinity IRS V setup but wound up in a more affordable room with Magnepan IIIa speakers and Audio Research gear.  I bought the IIIas but could not yet swing the ARC gear.  Later when I moved to Atlanta in the mid-90s, I purchased an Audio Research LS-3 preamp and VT-100 power amp from my friend Ed Scruggs.  I loved the sound of both products but what impressed me most was Audio Research’s customer service.  In the 90s, one of the knobs got a bit loose and I had to send it in for service to Minnesota.  They not only fixed the knob but did a few extra things including a parts upgrade or two, a not uncommon thing at ARC.

Fast forward many years and I am still enjoying the VT-100 but we’ve done quasi-official “pirate modifications” like adding KT-120s and Mundorf Evo capacitors. It sounds amazing.  On the preamp side, I have moved up to the Ref 5SE which I enjoy very much and I’ve also added a Ref Phono 2. I suppose next up will be the Ref 6 and Ref Phono 3. It never ends, does it? 🙂

And miraculously, I finally pulled the trigger on some new speakers, the Wilson Audio Alexia 2s, a few days before Axpona kicked off. But the amplifier I have probably needs to be stepped up a bit.  I wondered what I should use for the Alexia 2s.  At the same time, I started seeing a couple of photos here and there of these new Audio Research Ref160M monoblock amplifiers and heard they would be shown with the Alexias at Axpona. Aha! This would be a great way to hear the combination.

Chicago area dealer Quintessence Audio was on point with this pairing on the first floor in a central area that was eargasm heaven with a strong Wilson showing by Midwest dealer Paragon with D’Agostino amps driving Wilson XLFs and Nick Doshi working his magic on Wilson Sasha 2s which I wrote about earlier.  But naturally I was most interested in the Alexia 2s.  I had just spent a bunch of money on mine.  I was nervous and excited at the same time. Holy cow, I thought to myself: did I make the best decision ever or did I make an expensive mistake? I’d never spent that much money on speakers before. What would I hear at Axpona? Would my VT-100 drive the speakers? Which bank would I rob if I liked the Ref160Ms? I mean, really, who has any money left after a Wilson purchase?

My first of four trips to the room answered the questions immediately. The Alexia 2 and Ref160Ms sounded spectacular. Dynamic, full of resolution, but overall supremely musical. Piano sounded like piano. Saxophone felt alive and present in the room. But perhaps classical was the icing on the cake. Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings was playing great albums on his AMG turntable and there was a truly dynamic track and the Alexias handled it effortlessly. This room was one of my favorites of all of Axpona. I came back three more times and spent quite a bit of time each visit.  That’s really the best compliment you can give a manufacturer or dealer-spending time at their room.  But I was a bit biased, understandably, due to my excitement over the same speaker purchase. My anxiety about the purchase evaporated as I heard this magnificent system that Dave Weintraub and gang put together for the show. It was very impressive.

But what about the Ref 160Ms? Why did they sound so transparent? I found the transparency a notch above any Audio Research gear I had heard before.

The answer would come a little when talking to both Dave Gordon and Aldo Filippelli. While the styling cues of Livio Cucuzza’s new design (ala GS150) are in place, the circuit design arrived via the notes of the late Ward Fiebiger.  These notes that were fed into a 3D autocad system for the Ref160M design. So I think it is pretty cool that the spirit of Ward lives on in this product. However, existing engineering staff found a way to eliminate 30% of the parts in the design.  Better yet Warren Gehl was able to take those savings and buy better parts.  Warren is always testing for better sounding parts and now he had the ability to upgrade to some that were previously cost-prohibitive. So that explains the improved sound quality. Better still, this amp has sophisticated auto-biasing of the vacuum tubes so maintenance should be quite easy. However, the best feature of this amp may be the supercool meters sandwiched between two planes of acrylic, allowing a view of the four KT-150 tubes in the background in a stylish “V” formation. We are seeing more meters invade the ARC stable but this one is the most gorgeous meter displays I have seen in all of audio land.

AXPONA 2018 Coverage brought to you by Zesto Audio

Later in the show, I wound up grabbing dinner with Bes Nievera and Eric Shook with a whole cast of characters that included Quintessence Audio’s Dave Weintraub and his girlfriend.  I wound up next to him and had a great conversation about his philosophy of customer service and what he is trying to do at Quintessence. It quickly became clear that Dave believes in delivering a premium experience beyond just selling the best brands.  Interestingly Dave’s background includes training automotive sales staff to take care of Bentley customers. This seems a perfect background for a dealer selling luxury audio products.  I asked Dave a series of questions about his experience as a high end audio dealer.

Dave, what makes Quintessence Audio different?

Quintessence Audio being in business 41 years is because of a very unique position. We are purely a 2 channel HiFi store, and there aren’t many of us out there. We get courted by almost every manufacturer out there to carry their products. We entertain any of them to let us audition their products. We (Mick Patrick and I) all take time to independently review the item in a controlled environment with gear we are intimately familiar with then sit down and discuss our findings together. We then make a decision if it is a fit for our store and most importantly will it serve our clients needs. We hang our hats on proven top quality and ultra reliable gear, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

What is your view of selling high end audio?

Nothing a HiFi dealer sells anyone needs, we sell pure wants.  We can only help you make your own decision we can not make that decision for you.  That, no matter at what price point, is what true luxury is about.

But how do you provide great customer service after the sale?

The answer is only “Yes”, there is no “No”.  Only the customer can say No.  Anything can be had, done, or achieved as long as someone is willing to pay for it.  To achieve the highest level of customer satisfaction you must always greatly surpass any imaginable expectation a client could imagine.

This certainly sounds like someone who can provide the level of experience that a buyer of Audio Research and Wilson components wants.  It also sounds like they have some intuition on what makes a great system.  They definitely demonstrated this at Axpona.  Garth, Dave, and team: thanks for one of the best rooms at the show!