AXPONA 2019 was a high-end audio show that had a little more meaning for me than usual, probably since the last show I did as an exhibitor was AXPONA 2016. I remember enjoying the 630 mile drive between Rochester and Chicago three years ago, along lakes Ontario and Erie, through states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. This time was a little tougher than usual since I had just returned from Hawaii the day before, thanks to Hawaiian Airlines’ new eleven-hour non-stop flight from Honolulu to JFK. I got home, went to bed, woke up, and drove to Chicago the next day. Then, after three wonderful days of AXPONA, I drove back Sunday night and narrowly avoided the big snowstorm that grounded so many outgoing flights. For all of you who thought I was crazy for driving to Chicago and back instead of flying, I was snoozing in my own comfortable bed long before any of you.
AXPONA 2019, to put it succinctly, was one of the best shows I’ve attended. It was big enough, but not too big, and full of surprises. The rooms at the Renaissance generally sounded really nice, and bad-sounding rooms were rare. Many exhibitors commented on how smoothly everything went, and how the show organizers did a fantastic job. “I never even talked to anyone from the show,” one manufacturer told me. “That’s the way I like it. That means everything is how it’s supposed to be.”
Has AXPONA become the premiere high-end audio show in North America? It certainly saunters down the street like it is.
Best Personal Anecdote of AXPONA 2019
I haven’t seen Positive Feedback‘s David Robinson in person since we smoked a few cigars together at AXPONA 2016, just about fifty feet from where the most notorious fist-fight in high-end audio show history was taking place inside the hotel. (Some of you know what I’m talking about.) I finally did see David in one of the hallways of the Renaissance and followed him into the Playback Designs room. I sat in the seat right behind David–he still hadn’t noticed me–and I listened to him speak with PD’s Andreas Koch for a good fifteen minutes while I listened to music. (As an introvert I was just waiting for my moment to say something, as usual.) Finally, Mr. Koch turned to me and asked if I would like to hear anything special. “I’m just waiting for this guy to shut up,” I replied, motioning to David.
Oh my. The silence of the next few moments was unexpected. David just sat there, not moving, while Andreas appeared nervous. Then David leaned forward and turned around very, very slowly. The rage in his eyes was unmistakable. Then he saw it was me, and he started laughing. Whew, I thought. I came this far from getting into the second most notorious fist-fight in high-end audio show history.
Show tip: don’t mess with David Robinson. He’ll take you down.
Best Unexpected Last-Minute Meeting of AXPONA 2019
I was all set. My luggage was all packed in my SUV, the snow was starting to fall heavily and I knew I had to head back east as soon as possible. I only had one last thing to do, something I try to do at every high-end audio show I attend–buy an LP in the marketplace. This year I had trouble making a choice–everyone was raving about the new MoFi pressing of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Texas Flood, but I balked at the $120 price tag. In my best PeeWee Herman voice: “Stevie Ray, I like you. LIKE.”
Anyway, I was walking through the main floor of the show and heard someone call my name. It was Chris Sommovigo of Black Cat Cable, who was sitting in one of the booths with another gentleman. He gave me one of his cool tote bags. All the cool people at the show had one, and then he insisted on taking my picture, which he did. I then noticed all of the LPs and CDs on display on the table, and I sort of mumbled something like “So, what do we have here?” The other man behind the table approached me and started discussing each album.
Most of the titles appeared to be from Todd Garfinkle’s MA Recordings. I’ve owned a few on CD over the years and have used them as demo discs–most notably Calamus and The Immigrant’s Dilemma. That’s when I stopped and looked at this man and said, “Are you Todd Garfinkle?”
“Why yes, I am!” he said, and we chatted for quite a while–even as the snow started to pile up outside. It reminded me of the time I was at the Beverly Center shopping with an old girlfriend and I noticed a very tall woman with her back to us. I said, “Look how tall she is. That’s Geena Davis tall.” (I had a big crush on Geena Davis in those days.) Well, the woman heard me and turned around, and of course it was Geena Davis. And she smiled at me. Anyway, I wound up purchasing a gorgeous 45rpm pressing of Sera una Noche, MA Recordings’ 1998 release of Argentinian folk music, which I first heard in the Fern & Roby room at the Capital Audiofest.
Best Sound at AXPONA 2019
Brian Hunter asked for my five top picks for great sound at AXPONA 2019 for The Occasional Podcast, and I’m sticking with them. I’m not ranking these in order since I loved all these rooms, but there is a first among equals that I’ll save for last.
First, I have to mention the folks at VAC and Von Schweikert Audio for another amazing room. I pretty much declared them Best Sound of Show at both RMAF 2018 and CAF 2018, and the only reason I’m not giving them the Triple Crown is because I spent far too little time in their room this time around — which is not their fault. As I told Brian, it seems kind of silly not to include them because they are setting the bar for every single exhibitor at high-end audio shows. This room, with the incredible Ultra 11 loudspeakers ($300,000/pair) and a full complement of VAC amplification (even more than $300,000) is the stuff of dreams–unless you get off your butt and start attending these shows.
Next, I have to give Jonathan Derda of MoFi Distribution some credit for introducing me to a pair of $1600/pair loudspeakers that upended my feelings about affordable hi-fi–the Wharfedale Linton Heritage 85th Anniversary loudspeakers. These are the speakers I would have killed for twenty years ago when I was a journeyman audiophile and wanted great, classic British monitor sound for a reasonable price. Driven by the Quad Artere Solus integrated amp/DAC/CD transport, the Lintons reminded me of why I got into audio in the first place–for the love of the music, and also the joy of having the best hi-fi system on the block.
I’ve been obsessing about Fern & Roby lately. From their Raven single-driver loudspeakers to their unique line of turntables to their choice of Linear Tube Audio to complete the system, I’m digging how they achieve an almost bespoke quality to their products, and how they have preserved an artisan aesthetic in an industry increasingly energized by streaming, DACs and all-in-one solutions. The Fern & Roby gear looks like nothing else and sounds like nothing else–in high-end audio that can be a bad thing, but in this case it’s a bold, confident approach for knowledgeable audiophiles who couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks. I loved spending time in this room.
“I knew nothing about these two brands before I walked into the room. I stayed in that room for quite a while. Came back once or twice. Just to hear it again.” That’s what I told Brian Hunter about the McGary Audio and Salk Sound room. This was one of those instances where I wanted to check out a brand that has been favorably reviewed here at Part-Time Audiophile, and walked away think “Wow! Why don’t I know about these guys?” The added plus to this room? This was Big System sound for Medium System price.
Best Sound of Show
There was a room back in Chicago that spoke to me. It said, “Here is your system, the one that was made specifically for you and your audio tastes. It offers tons of features and flexibility, it looks great, and it has the sound you’ve always loved, a mix between the refinement of British hi-fi and a dynamic range that makes the Himalayas look like another bumpy, pothole-ridden street in downtown Rochester.” In fact, here’s what I said about the speakers in this room: “They sound like a mix between the Harbeth 40.2s, with that open, relaxed demeanor, and the Volti Audio Rivals, with that panoramic soundstage and incredible dynamics.”
The Harbeths might have been a hint: I’m talking about Vinnie Rossi’s room where he was showing his new loudspeakers, the Stilettos ($19,995/pair) with his flagship L2 preamplifier and monoblock amplifiers. Vinnie loves Harbeths as much as I do, but he wanted to develop a speaker that has all the delicacy and realism of the 40s with a pure, deep bass that gives you goosebumps. I sat in Vinnie’s room for a while and I simple couldn’t think of anything else I wanted in a system. The Stilettos were still in prototype form, but I’m not sure what else can be improved. I can’t wait to hear them again.
That’s a wrap for AXPONA, and a great kick-off for my 2019 high-end audio show season. Next up, Munich. This will be my first time ever in Europe, so I’m both excited and nervous. Wir sehen uns dann!
(Photo credits: Chris Sommovigo, Scot Hull, Vinnie Rossi, Marc Phillips, and Lee Shelly)