AXPONA 2016: “This stuff costs how much? No f@!#ing way!”


axponaWhen I attend audio shows these days, I spend a lot of time riding elevators.

This year at AXPONA in the Westin O’Hare in Chicago, where more than 400 exhibitors were scattered across eight floors, it felt like I was in the lifts as much as the listening rooms.

Finding myself tightly wedged in with a group of audiophiles (“C’mon, we have room for one more!”), I often would turn my press badge around and just be a fly on the wall.

What did I hear most often? For some reason, AXPONA 2016 was the show that many attendees could not stop ranting about the price tags they were seeing. I’m not sure if this trend was a reflection of the current state of the economy and job market, an indicator that the three-day event (which reported record attendance of 6,000 people) drew some music fans who haven’t been out in awhile, or whether there is truly some runaway price escalation going on.

Indeed, as I rode those elevators, I heard protests like:

  • “A half-million dollars for a system? That’s insane!”
  • “Those speakers cost more than my (pick one: car, kid’s college fund, house, first divorce).”
  • “You don’t need to pay that. My friend has a system that cost a lot less. But it has the ‘concert’ button. You push that and it makes the song sound live.”

The moaning didn’t stop after April 15-17 in Chicago, either. As the Part-Time Audiophile team continued to post our evaluations of various demos, a good number of the comments we attracted expressed concern about pricing.

Since I’ve been back home, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about high-end audio and this issue. Here are some of my thoughts:

  1. High-priced equipment always has been a part of the hobby. It’s just a matter of degrees. When I first got hooked on music and gear in the 1970s, a friend and I practically lived at several local stereo retailers. We’d ask to hear Marantz electronics hooked up to huge Klipsch horns, fed by an Akai reel-to-reel or a Thorens turntable. We couldn’t afford any of that stuff — we wound up getting department store systems — but we loved hearing what the best at the time sounded like.
  2. It’s true that the price difference between modest gear and the state of the art has increased. In my youth, if my dad wanted to stretch his budget a bit, he probably could have bought the Marantz-Klipsch system. But he was a child of the Depression and not inclined to do such things. Today, the average middle-income consumer (if, indeed, very many of those still exist) would not in the same way be able to stretch and buy, say, MBL’s $263,000-a-pair X-Treme speakers and $300,000 in associated electronics. Or, even many of the $100,000-plus systems that were ubiquitous in Chicago.
  3. Why does it cost so much? Are audio companies just ripping us off? John Wolff, owner of Classic Audio Loudspeakers, shared a cogent opinion with me during the show. Back in the day, companies like Marantz and JBL were multinational conglomerates that sold millions of pieces worldwide, he noted. They had huge economies of scale on their side. Wolff, in contrast, today builds his versions of venerable JBL and Altec designs by hand in Michigan. He also does all the R&D himself. Little of what goes into a $70,000-a-pair Classic Audio model is off the shelf. And his beautiful cabinets are made by woodworking artisans he trusts. “There (used to be) just a few small boutique shops,” Wolff said. “Today, the audio industry is almost all boutique firms — like me.”
  4. You (mostly) get what you pay for. During AXPONA 2016, David Wilson of renowned speaker manufacturer Wilson Audio introduced his new Alexx, a large floorstander that’s just one model down from his statement transducer. The Alexx costs $109,000 a pair. It was primarily designed by his son, Daryl, and is built by hand in his Provo, Utah, factory. He employs about 50 people there and believes in paying good wages and offering full benefits. Along with investing in his people — American workers — he also has bought state-of the art testing and production gear, such as a paint booth that delivers automobile-quality finishes. Could Wilson fire everybody, ship production to China and order his Lamborghini tomorrow? Sure he could. But he has immense pride in his family business and the fact he can keep it based here in the U.S. As a result, there’s no cost-cutting. He takes his costs, adds on a measure of profit, and you get what you get. At the same time, he recognizes his larger creations are not for everyone and his line includes products like the Sabrina, a small, $15,000 floorstander that brings some of the Wilson sound down to a more affordable level. Is 15 large just spare change? No, but when you consider value for the dollar and that you’re supporting a family-owned company and U.S. labor, a case can be made for stretching a bit, I think.
  5. Art means different things to different people. Many of the high-end products today are like Wilson or Wolff’s speakers — handmade works of art. Each person will have a different opinion on the perceived value of that art. I have a relative, for example, who is a professional painter. She often shows her originals — large works that take her many hours and which she prices in the thousands of dollars. Many times at these exhibits, people will ooh and ahh over the paintings, and then buy a small $100 print. Once in a while someone takes home the real thing. For the latter buyer, the rarity and emotional impact of the originals — as well as the respect for the talent and amount of work involved — justifies the purchase and results in pride of ownership.

So, I guess what I’m saying here is I understand why costs are rising in audio. But before you fire off a message containing various creative descriptions of my obviously demented character, let me stress that just because I can imagine the reasoning it does not mean I approve of the trend, support it or am happy about it. Believe me, there’s nothing that impresses me like a boutique firm in this day and age that can find a way to produce affordable products that sound good.

And, one trend that may be getting lost here is that there is more and more gear appearing that offers very impressive performance for the money. As Part-Time Audiophile publisher/editor Scot Hull recently noted, Class D amplifiers, for example, are rapidly improving to the point where a $2,000 model can seriously threaten both solid state and tube gear costing much, much more. Class D got a bad rap when it was introduced, but if you haven’t listened to the latest models, you don’t know what you’re missing. (Also, see my review of the Class D Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks in the archives. The Thors wound up replacing a megawatt, big-name amp in my reference system.)

AXPONA-ELAC-AudioAlchemy-01660Speaker technology also is improving. Budget models I heard at the show from companies like KEF and Salk were wonderful performers, and the Esteemed Editor can’t stop raving about the $499-a-pair ELAC Uni-Fi UB5.

DACs are another area seeing more budget models. Sub-$1,000 converters do a much better job than models of yesteryear at that price point. And vinyl-ripping and playback software by companies like Channel D costs just a few hundred dollars.

If you still are not sure about investing in a high-end system yet, check out a good pair of headphones. There’s a startling number out there now, and sound and comfort never have been better. You might even decide to upgrade to a separate amp for your new cans.

Overall, I think music lovers should not get thrown too much by the mega-priced gear out there. It exists for a purpose and a certain market niche. Even if you don’t want to — or can’t — seriously consider buying it, you still might listen to it just to train your ears. I used to go to a retailer who, when I was buying a $2,000 pair of speakers, would insist I listen to them on his $100,000-plus reference system. “I just want you to hear what even a speaker at this price is capable of,” he would say. Then, he would let me take the speakers home and try them on my more modest system.

AXPONA coverage brought to you by Underwood HiFi, Exogal and Emerald Physics

If budget gear is your thing, don’t fret. There’s still a lot of affordable stuff making its way to the market. You might need to spend some time and energy hunting for it, though. Hopefully, the staff at Part-Time Audiophile can help steer you in the right direction.

We’ll continue to report on the big toys as well. (After all, when I go to the annual car show in my hometown, I still head straight for the 1963 split-window Corvette, brand-new Porsche 911 or electric BMW i8 on display before I slink off to the more realistic new Hondas). Yes, the former are outrageous. They also are thrilling. So is buying a Questyle, Audio Alchemy or Merrill amp — or even a BMW 3 series — that punches far above its weight.

Heck, the product I most want to get in my listening room for review after AXPONA 2016 is the new Black Ice/Jolida preamp, a $999 tubed unit with tone controls and a Jim Fosgate-designed, four-channel output circuit. Quad? Am I a few RCA plugs short of an interconnect? Nope, I don’t think so. It sounds like fun, which is just what I want from this hobby.

Hope to see you at the next show.