Chicago’s AXPONA kicks off busy year for U.S. audio shows

By John Stancavage

With brick-and-mortar audio shops increasingly few and far between, high-end shows have seen tremendous growth in recent years. But are we on the verge of having too much of a good thing?

AXPONA, April 21-23 in Chicago, kicks off what looks to be the busiest season ever for the U.S. stereo exhibit circuit. After AXPONA, there is a mere six weeks until the next big event, the Los Angeles Audio Show, June 2-4. And, get this: The latter gathering is just one of three slated for California in a four-month period.

Then, you add to that the longest-running show on the circuit, early-October’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (this year coming only a few short weeks after the third California exhibit) and several other sizable fall events. By any measure, that’s a jam-packed calendar for what’s become a niche market that many hobbyists worry is shrinking.

“It’s very strange. From 2010 until now, the shows were more spaced out. It’s the first time I’ve seen it like this,” said Constantine Soo, director of the California Audio Show, scheduled for July 28-30 in the San Francisco bay area.

Soo operated his show over that period, with the exception of 2016. He took that year off, but is returning for 2017. Contributing to the logjam in California is the addition of a new event, the aforementioned Los Angeles Audio Show. It grabbed the time slot occupied last year by T.H.E. Show in Newport, and is run by a former T.H.E. staffer.

T.H.E. Show, meanwhile, still exists and is moving to Sept. 21-24 in Anaheim, near Disneyland.

Whew! Would a flow chart help?

On one hand, it’s exciting to see so many show organizers optimistic enough about the state of the industry to boldly press forward with their events. And it’s a boon for many audiophiles who likely can find at least one show within reasonable distance of their abode.

On the other hand, the growth in the number of shows and the bunching of dates creates issues for exhibitors and fans. Some high-end businesses — looking at costs and staff time concerns — may have to decide on show A, B, C and D, but not E or F. And hobbyists who have several favorite shows could find them too close together.

“The market will decide who the winners and losers are,” said William Kanner, an industry veteran who’s handling public relations for the Los Angeles Audio Show.

Kanner said last year’s T.H.E. Show in Newport effectively turned into two unconnected events in 2017 following the death of T.H.E. founder Richard Beers.

“That created a void, and more than one set of show personnel saw the same opportunity and began exploring possibilities,” Kanner said.

Marine Presson, who ran T.H.E. Show last year, joined with the Orion Group to help create the Los Angeles Audio Show. T.H.E. president Maurice Jung, meanwhile, moved T.H.E. Show to late September. The latter show’s uncomfortably close date to RMAF’s Oct. 6-8 reportedly was an unintentional scheduling issue.

While there might seem to be concerns about the prospect of so many shows and their timing, there is one inescapable and positive fact — most of these events have been hugely successful in the past few years.

Exhibits like AXPONA and T.H.E. Show have enjoyed tremendous growth. They’ve benefited both from the decline of January’s traditional Consumer Electronics Show as a vehicle for high-end audio and the pent-up desire of audiophiles to find somewhere to audition the impressive amount of new gear appearing on the market each year.

Audio shows make it possible for fans to hear more gear in a long weekend than they’d otherwise be able to seek out in a decade. And the major events facilitate meeting like-minded hobbyists as well as the equipment designers themselves. Where else are you going to talk tweeters with Dave Wilson or record-pressing techniques with Chad Kassem?

Maybe the most attractive benefit — one that could easily justify your admission fee, plane ticket and hotel costs — is that many exhibitors are especially motivated to sell you something that weekend.

In an industry that often only grudgingly allows small discounts, more significant markdowns are common at shows. And if you’re prepared late Sunday during a show weekend to offer to save the manufacturer the trouble of dragging a unit back to headquarters, look out — you may faint at the deal.

So, let’s hope 2017 is a good year for all the event organizers. These things, after all, are a heck of a lot of fun. Maybe for 2018, though, they all can exchange some emails about those dates.

Meanwhile, here’s a closer look at some of the major U.S. shows this year.

AXPONA (Audio Expo North America)

April 21-23, Westin O’Hare, Chicago

Intensive marketing, detail-oriented management and a willingness to try new things have made this event one of the fastest-growing.

Last year, AXPONA drew 6,000 audiophiles — a very healthy number for a three-day show. Ticket sales this year are tracking ahead of that, said event director Liz Miller.

“We want to grow as large as we can,” she said. “We consider this a national show.”

As far as equipment, there shouldn’t be too many names absent. AXPONA will feature 400 exhibitors spread throughout 140 listening rooms. More than 20 products are scheduled to make their debut.

In addition, the Chicago show will offer live music, including concerts by major blues artists, a large marketplace section for record sellers and numerous seminars conducted by industry leaders, audio journalists and artists such as jazz singer Lyn Stanley.

AXPONA has been on quite a roll — so much so that show-runner JD Events recently announced the gathering is moving to larger quarters in 2018. The Renaissance Schaumberg Hotel and Convention Center will provide more exhibit and sleeping rooms, and offer the potential for AXPONA to become the largest U.S. show, said Joel Davis, CEO of JD Events.

“We believe the future is bright for the high-end industry,” Davis said.

Los Angeles Audio Show

June 2-4, Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel

This brand-new show promises to be one of the biggest of the year. More than 10,000 audiophiles are expected, and that number could swell much higher, event planners say.

The Sheraton, which completed a $40 million renovation in 2016, is said to be able to accommodate such crowds. Its restaurant alone can hold 500.

LAAS anticipates having 115 exhibit rooms. There will be three large ballrooms holding massive displays from Sony and Harman International, as well as several home-theater installations.

“We’ll also have 35 headphone exhibitors in the lobby and a ‘Headgear Extreme’ section with five companies bringing their ultimate models,” said show director Marine Presson.

California Audio Show

July 28-30, Hilton Oakland International Airport

After taking a year off, CAS is bravely plunging back into the crowded 2017 show circuit, but director Constantine Soo thinks he has a strategy to compete with the mega-events.

“This show has always been embraced by the more exotic brands — big and small,” he said.

With about 45 listening rooms, attendees will have the opportunity to chat at length with some relatively new entrepreneurs as well as representatives from established firms.

Also, while listening hours at most shows typically are 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., Soo will encourage exhibitors to keep their doors open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Soo also plans to have a classical group on hand playing pop tunes and an awards program with attendees voting on their favorite gear.

T.H.E. Show

Sept. 21-24, Hilton Anaheim

What arguably was the largest audio show in North America in 2016 promises to try to expand on that success. Organizers say they anticipate more than 200 sound rooms, 40 additional breakout rooms and two master ballrooms.

The hotel also is massive, with two outdoor venues, five restaurants and onsite or nearby parking that can accommodate 8,200 vehicles.

T.H.E. Show, as it did last year in Newport, will go beyond equipment to offer live entertainment from national artists, a luxury auto show, and a wine and cigar area.

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

Oct. 6-8, Denver Marriott Tech Center, Colorado: The oldest active major nationwide show (now in its 14th year), RMAF also has the reputation for being the friendliest.

Last year, there were some grumbles as the Marriott was undergoing a major renovation that clumped the audio at one end. But 2017 promises to return the event to a freshly updated venue.

RMAF believes in focusing on gear and recorded music. No associated luxury items or other diversions. Typically, the show has attracted most of the big names, as well as the smaller ones. Together with its central location, RMAF is a strong choice for hard-core hobbyists as well as neophytes.

This statue fell on, and killed the artist while it was being erected. Coincidence?

Capital Audiofest

Nov. 3-5, Hilton Hotel, Rockville, Maryland

After attracting 2,000 visitors in 2016, the Capital Audiofest will add such enhancements as additional large and smaller exhibits, an expanded Marketplace/CanMania area, and a larger block of show-rate lodging.

New York Audio Show

Nov. 10-12, Park Lane Hotel, Central Park South

Noting the proliferation of audio shows, NYAS operator the Chester Group is offering express shipping directly to the show venue for exhibitors at Capital Audiofest. The New York show also scheduled its event on Veteran’s Day weekend to make it easier for hobbyists to attend.