My first AXPONA was five years ago in Atlanta. It was about as far from 2016 as you can get. Then, there was something like 20 rooms. Five years later, and the difference is almost unbelievable. Chicago was over 5 times that big. It was yuuuuge. And stuffed. And full of folks. And and and. This? This was a completely different show. In the best possible way.
The “audio show” is a weird thing. There are, admittedly, lots of ways to do one; after attending a few dozen of them, I’ve some thoughts about what a “good one” might look like. Putting that aside for now, I think AXPONA is definitely on the right track. In fact, the trajectory that AXPONA seems to be on (at least here in the US) is the show to beat. The question is, can anyone do it? And what would that even look like? Good questions — and ones I suspect we’ll keep coming back to in the years to come — but if you have suggestions, feel free to fold them into the Comments Section, below.
Best In Show
Best in Show is a weird little category, and one I know many folks have trouble with. There is a long-standing argument that the “good sound” and “audio show” are mutually exclusive — a stand that is not only patently false, but blatantly insulting to those that, despite the odds, actually manage the feat of excellence.
That said, the negative nancies do have a point — the in-show-sound is entirely artificial. One, what you hear at a show is likely not what you’d hear anywhere else. At a show, we really ought to take it as read that great gear may sound like crap for reasons completely beyond the ability of the gear to overcome. Two, and relatedly, what you’re hearing at a show, in many important ways, has more to do with the skill of the setup team than the gear itself. It’s worth keeping in mind that, in real life, a “high-end audio rig” is rarely assembled like an episode of Restaurant: Impossible or Iron Chef America (entertaining as that might be), but it’s still very true that setup requires strong kung fu — which is why, at least in my humble opinion, we need quality audio dealers and why trolling audio forums is terrible way to shop. But I digress….
The fact is, at every audio show I’ve ever been to, there have been some truly stand-out experiences. This award is my attempt to recognize those successes.
Best Room: Volti/BorderPatrol/TWL
This isn’t the first time I’ve been molecularly disassembled by this particular combination, but here at AXPONA, one of the most exciting rooms was also one of the least traveled. But this year’s Volti Audio demo, backed by BorderPatrol and Triode Wire Labs, was just devastatingly effective. This was a big room, well set up, and filled with shocking great sound. For me, no other room even came close.
What killed me was the wall-of-sound effect. Writers — and readers — get wrapped around the axle when it comes to soundstage. Specifically, around depth. That’s cool, for sure. We hear/write less about width, but it’s a crucial aspect to reproduction, especially with big venues. But then there’s height. Not every recording is an intimate setting with a solo singer, singing a capella. Picture an orchestra, for example. Or a Grateful Dead concert. Those imply size. And seeing that soundstage lift — where appropriate — is awesome. When you find it, when you hear it, it’s all the difference between “the performers, live in my room” and “you, live at the performance”.
This room was a stunner. Again.
Best Room: Runners Up
- GamuT: My favorite cost-no-object room at AXPONA, and no, it wasn’t the most expensive — not by a looooong shot. Besides, “Lobster Chair”? Oh yes, come to Papa.
- Joseph Audio/Jeff Rowland: Jeff Joseph is a room setup wizard, and one of the cleverest loudspeaker designers in decades. Shown here with Jeff Rowland and some crazy-good tapes from Acoustic Sounds, this room was one of the best outings I’ve heard.
- Sonist/Triode: I’ve always been a fan of the Sonist line, and you can color me tickled that Jonny Wilson is keeping the flame alive. Some fantastic value here — super quality sound with an aspirational price tag, sure, but one that won’t ravage the kids’ college funds (too badly).
- Spatial Audio/Red Dragon: One of the best rooms overall, and delightfully, one of the most affordable.
- Vapor Audio/LampizatOr: Fan-favorite Vapor Audio delivered. Nicely done.
Best New Product
- ELAC Uni-Fi UB5/UF5: Andrew Jones has been on something of a tear lately, burning through audiophile preconceptions about value. His latest, the step up line from last year’s award-winning Debut Series, the Uni-Fi series is a sonic stunner. The bookshelf Uni-Fi UB5 ($499/pair) is a concentric driver 3-way, and completely knocked my hair back. But my money is on the Uni-Fi UF5 floor-stander ($998/pair), which I’m expecting will completely reset my whole price-performance curve.
- Bricasti Design M12: the new DAC is not just a DAC — it’s a full-on preamplifier. That is, it has a completely analog ladder-based attenuator, and a set of analog inputs that can bypass the DAC section completely. Why? Well, because everything isn’t always digital — “some people” have analog issues. Still. I know, right? But anyway. That DAC path has been tweaked — just like the Special Edition M1 DAC. And more. There is a new path for DSD decoding — and believe me, it’s a game changer for Bricasti.
- LampizatOr DAC (shown at AXPONA with Vapor Audio): I’ve been a fan of the Lampi brand for some years, but things lately are … different. The Golden Gate (€13,000) may well be the best digital sound coming or going these days. I want a Lampi! Again. Sheesh.