AXPONA 2014: Wrap Up

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Mancave Metal

Chicago in April is a capricious time to visit, but while we all got a bit damp here and there, at least this year we didn’t have to dump into the street while we all waited for the fire department. That is, we were able to stay inside for this year’s test of the Emergency Broadcast System. That’s good, right?

This is my fourth-straight AXPONA, and I think it’s safe to say that the show is firmly on the map. Chicago turnout was robust and relatively steady, aside from the tsunami that Saturday tends to bring.

This year’s offering had a few new permutations, so let’s start there.

The first thing that caught my eye and imagination was the Silent Disco. Well, it wasn’t exactly silent, all the music was pumped over the available sets of wireless headphones. I think this was a great idea, hampered by the daytime show hours — if this had been kicked off, with tasty adult beverages, right at 6pm on Saturday, it could have seen decent turnout.

The other thing was a bit better attended, but I think, was far more profound — the Auction. Hosted by AudiogoN, the Auction struck me as a fantastic way for dealers and manufacturers to actually make money at the audio show. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, the single most common objection I’ve heard from would-be exhibitors — where’s all the money? Manu rooms will offer some kind of show-discount, usually on in-room gear, as a way to defray return shipping costs. Dealers may use their audio-show demo room as an impromptu sales floor, stuffing side tables with temptingly priced displays. But what if they all used the Auction, instead? Show-goers can submit their bids throughout the weekend, with the actual auction happening sometime on the last day. Like most auctions, you could slip a do-not-sell-below clause in so no one loses money they weren’t intending to and if this feature were advertised properly, it could be the best-attended and most-attractive feature of the audio show. Dealers, and direct-to-customer manufacturers, could offer discounts for pre-orders on new products, existing products or overstock. Got concerns with dealers selling across assigned territories or manufacturers cutting dealers out? Create a deal-registration system and credit everyone fairly. Not simple, but totally do-able.

Also at AXPONA this year were the usual live music offerings — always welcomed — with a full set of seminars to explore if your head was too full of musical demos. Yours Truly got his turn with the mic, hosting a seminar on headphonesStereophile‘s Michael Fremer hosted his iconic turntable setup seminar, the editors of some of the top shelf magazines were on hand and ready to be grilled by their readership, Pono CEO John Hamm stood up and attempted to make the case for taking high-resolution audio to the masses, The Absolute Sound‘s Robert Harley was signing his new book, Illustrated History of High-End AudioVolume One: Loudspeakers, and EnjoyTheMusic.TV‘s host Steven Rochlin pretty much streamed the whole damn thing, live.

My favorite part of the show probably wasn’t even at the show, but engaging with all the extra bits around it. That is, I think the people of audio’s high-end are just as fascinating as the gear they make and sell. I’ve said it before (and I suspect this is going to become something of a mantra), but I think audio shows are a rolling community party. And, to be quite pointed, shouldn’t audiophiles be getting in as many parties as possible? It’s not like we’re getting any younger! Being an audio nerd is a burden, and at an audio show, this is a burden shared. Finding a concentration of others that share our affliction interests almost makes it seem as if we were normal! Almost. My favorite burden-sharing moment came at one of the swankier steak joints in the area, punctuated with whiskey sours, a bottle of wine, a spontaneous Skype call to Digital Audio Review‘s John Darkø, some of the most spectacularly prepared pan-seared steak I’ve had in recent memory, and a random bout of cake-painting from a particularly inspired artist. The videos will be held to extort the guilty.

Okay, so let’s talk about the gear.

My Favorite Stuff

I kinda hate doing a “Best In Show” as it’s pretty hard to lift out specific things for performance acclaim in a setup that’s completely unfamiliar, but whatever. You asked!

  1. Endeavor Audio with YFS and Constellation Audio: I thought this room sounded fantastic. Right from the first listen. Hours before the show started as I was jolted out of a deep sleep. Where I was being chased by scantily clad green-skinned but otherwise completely human-looking alien women bent on my … err … destruction? Yeah, let’s stick with that. Anyway, when I finally was able to make my way over to the room to find out why someone was playing Chris Jones on infinite repeat, Endeavor’s Leif Swanson walked me through the particulars. Great sound and well done.
  2. TIDAL Audio with Bricasti and Silver Circle: Quite simply, this was Summit-Fi sound at prices that make the reasonable scratch their head at systems costing many multiples. Not cheap, no sir, but definitely in the “why spend more?” category. Best bass I’ve heard out of the little TIDAL speakers, with the hallmark delicacy and holography I expected out of the brand, the Bricasti gear just took everything to 11.
  3. Zu Audio with Peachtree Audio: This was my vote for “real world” pricing with cost-no-object sound quality. I really dug it. Sure, $7,500 isn’t cheap for a digital system with speakers, but “cheap” isn’t the goal. If I was to sketch an “aspirational” system for “most folks”, it would like this. Stylish, powerful, with elegant and powerful sound, I was completely taken aback — I had no idea either brand was hitting at this level.
  4. Best New Product — VPI Nomad. This thing is not a compromise product. A capable vinyl spinner, the inclusion of a headphone amplifier is just brilliant. I want to get one for my twins. They’re seven. Which brings up the only flaw I saw — only one ¼” jack! Well, that is what they make splitters for. Anyway, great execution — and I’m seriously looking forward to seeing one of these in person.

In closing, I just wanted to say thanks to Joelle Coretti and Steve Davis for all their help. The show was, to all reports, well attended and aside from the fire drill (!), the show came off without a hitch, at least as far as I could tell. My terrifically formal and scientific survey of random folks walking past me at various points during the weekend seemed to agree that a good time was had by all. Looking forward to next year!

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The magnificent crew — without them, all would have been lost

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Steve Davis and his lovely wife!

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Pono CEO John Hamm telling audiophiles to chill

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The Absolute Sound staff — Jon Valin, Jim Hannon, Steven Stone and Robert Harley

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Volti Audio’s Greg Roberts holding up Harley’s new _Illustrated_Guide_ to a completely random page

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Industry legends Bill Leebens and Kathy Gornik

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EnjoyTheMusic.TV host Steven Rochlin getting ready to interview Jonny Wilson of Sonist on the live stream coverage

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Dean Peer performed live all weekend long

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Music Direct’s Bes Flores posing with a VPI Nomad

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Merrill Audio’s Merrill Wettasinghe bringing the hammer of Thor (and a new amplifier)

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HiFi+ Editor Chris Martens

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Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound setting up a TW turntable

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Victoria and Bill Dudleston of Legacy Audio

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DeVore Fidelity’s John DeVore getting cuddly

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Peachtree Audio’s Jonathan Derda

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“Which headphone is right for you?” panel: Chris Martens (HiFi+), Scott Houston (Sennheiser), Brannan Mason (Noble Audio), Scot Hull (Part-Time Audiophile), Kevin Glendinning (JH Audio)

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Endeavor Audio Engineering’s Leif Swanson rocking a sweet shirt

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Audio-Head’s Brian Hunter chillin’ at the Ear Gear Expo

2 comments

  • GEEZ, the legacy of high end audio are a bunch of old farts sitting in darkened rooms spinning LPs? How utterly depressing.
    A dying industry with the exception of head fi. I see Chris Martens is a fan, a smart boy, but he too is an old fart; Fremer is spinning his wheels, the Absolute Sound staff look like they’re standing on banana peels, and at least the Pono may appeal to a younger set.

    Expect CHANGE, for there’s little HOPE.

    • Rand,

      Up yur dosage.