I'm not sure what came over me last Wednesday night, but I got the sudden urge to go to Axpona. Perhaps it was my executive decision to bail on the Consumer Technology Show (yes, I know it's technically still called the Consumer Electronics Show, but I sure as hell don't consider it to be an electronics show anymore--at least not an audio electronics show). As the publisher of HomeTheaterReview.com, my problem with "CES" is that there are barely any specialty audio/video companies still exhibiting the show--especially new ones that I might want to meet. The growing list of audiophile-oriented shows around the country has eaten up some of the budget that specialty audio companies used to spend in Las Vegas during the first week of January. Axpona is one of these audiophile-oriented shows, one that I have never attended. So, I booked a 33-hour trip to Chicago and headed off to LAX.
Located west of O'Hare Airport in Schaumburg, the show venue is quite nice, and I say that as a guy who spent a lot of time researching venues for a specialty AV show I considered hosting in Los Angeles. Let me tell you, it's no small feat to find a really nice hotel willing to host this type of event. The Axpona people found a new, open-concept location at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center that, despite the downright foul weather, worked great. There were plenty of audio rooms on the first floor that were, in most cases, downright huge. You could hear reference Audio Research gear powering flagship Sonus faber speakers (which sounded excellent, even when playing vinyl--despite teasing HD audio buffs like me with a dCS front end lying in wait right there in the rack). Big Wilsons (like XLFs and Alexas), Magicos, YGs, and more were waiting to provide you with some large-scale audio enjoyment. I got to hear one of my current favorite speakers, the GoldenEar Triton Reference ($8,500/pair, shown above), mated with some McIntosh electronics, and they sounded really good, as always.
I only had a few hours to spend at the show on Saturday, so please understand that there was logistically no way to actually see and hear everything on display. I took the gravity strategy, riding the packed elevators to the 16th floor and working my way down, floor by floor, until I had to leave to catch my flight. Especially considering my earlier comments about bailing on CES after 24 years, I loved seeing many industry friends like Sandy Gross and Jack Shafton from GoldenEar, Devin Zell from MartinLogan, Dwight Sakuma from MarkAudio, Dave Gordon from Audio Research, and Bill McKiegan from Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems (Dan wasn't there, as Arizona is much more suitable in terms of weather this time of year). Most of all I was psyched to see my buddy Gayle Sanders, the founder of MartinLogan, who has returned to the audiophile scene after a too-long absence. We talked about his new, sleek $25,000 Eikon speakers (shown right).
Regarding the show coverage you're about to read, I am writing this James Joyce, stream-of-consciousness style (okay, I will use punctuation only to make Adrienne happy as she tries to edit this news piece). I'm sure I missed a lot of cool stuff worth covering; feel free to send complaints to [email protected], and Adrienne promises to answer all of the hate mail on my behalf. Or better yet, if you attended the show, why don't you comment below on the cool stuff you saw that we might have missed?
Thoughts from Axpona 2018
• The demo music I heard was greatly improved and much more relevant than I've heard at audiophile shows in years past. Companies are thankfully getting the point that obscure audiophile music isn't isn't the only way to sell this stuff. McIntosh Group deserves major kudos for rocking War's "Cisco Kid" through $59,000 Wilson Alexas and a tasty pile of Audio Research electronics. McIntosh Group also demoed fantastic-sounding Paul Simon music on its big Sonus faber speakers and reference Audio Research mono blocks (shown below) in an adjacent room. Other lust-worthy Sonus faber speakers outside of the demo rooms were playing Soundgarden--and loudly.
Later in the day, I got drawn into a PMC speaker room playing Danzig at appropriately loud levels, through small floorstanding speakers that were rocking bass so good that I was looking for a sub (and there amazingly wasn't one). All in all, I heard more good music than bad. Good work, fellas!
• In advertising, we talk about demographics using industry jargon that sounds a lot like the guy at Best Buy reading off surround sound features from a $500 AV receiver box. One of the key ones is "male-female split," meaning how many men versus women were in attendance. I'd roughly estimate the split to be 98/2, male to female. I did see some women at the show, but overall Axpona is the same audiophile swordfight that you'd expect.
Sandy Gross, Jack Shafton, and I also pontificated about the median age of the attendees; Sandy estimated that it was about 50 years old. I respectfully disagree and would guess it was north of 60. Not surprisingly, the youngest demographic was located in the very well done, two-story headphone lounge. The room was too loud, due to all those open-back headphones playing, but at least I saw some younger people in there, rocking music through computers powered by high-end DAC/preamps like the one from EMM Labs (a personal favorite).
My only complaint about this area was that all of the headphones were wired. Really, guys? Apple sold 78,000,000 iPhone 7s in Q1 of 2017 (and that doesn't include every other device that connects via Bluetooth). Talk about a new audiophile market. Overall, I found a lot of really cool stuff to play with in this lounge, and there was a full bar--smart planning, Axpona. This was a major step up over other shows' headphone tents.
One last thought about demographics: I did see some actual kids at the show, trailing behind their dad or with their entire family. I've never seen this at an audio show, but I was happy to see the youngsters rocking out and checking out all of the cool gear.
• As I mentioned before, MartinLogan cofounder Gayle Sanders is back with a new speaker company called Eikon. These speakers are slick, lifestyle-oriented, and expensive ($25,000). Even with two active demos playing the same speakers, there was a meaningful line to get in and hear the latest from Gayle.
• I got to hear the Texton Impact Monitors that Terry just reviewed here on HomeTheaterReview.com, powered by Parasound electronics (shown below). I understand that some people are wary of the over-the-top praise that Eric Alexander's speakers get, specifically that patented tweeter array, but MAN did those speakers sound good. So open. So dynamic.
• The room that was the most packed belonged to Dr. Hsu and Hsu Research. It was also one of the few rooms that featured video to go along with the audio (other than Sony's room with a 4K display). Many audiophiles still shy away from subs, but not Dr. Hsu--and the result was fantastic, especially in such a small space. If you've never looked into Hsu Research products, they have some of the best, highest value subs out there (and some cool speakers, too). People were getting it, big time.
• MarkAudio was making really good sound with its colorful, dynamic, and wonderfully imaging speakers. We've reviewed a bunch of the company's products, and so far every reviewer has loved them. Me too.
• Sonos competitor Riva Audio was doing an avant-garde demo of one little speaker placed up on a stand. This rock-and-roll company dares to do things differently and promises to bring audiophile sound to the Sonos-like form-factor.
• One new company (at least for me) called Ryan Audio (from Riverside, California) demoed a $4,000 pair of relatively small audiophile speakers. The speakers sit on big, bulky stands, which limits their visual appeal, but they sounded very good. They remind me of what THIEL used to do with its small speakers that were a bit too too big for bookshelf speakers but sounded pretty good. The Ryan speakers sounded much better. Much more dynamic.
• One design trend that I loved was the use of killer-looking faceplaces on audiophile gear. If you're telling me that the way your product looks isn't at least somewhat important when you're dropping thousands upon thousands of dollars, then you're not being fully honest. Audio Research had some new meters that looked fantastic:
I didn't see a lot of Pass Labs at Axpona (a personal favorite of mine), but its new meters are super-cool, as well. Technics was making very good sound with its killer-looking retro receiver (shown below), in a room that also had a lineup of retro turntables and forward-thinking digital products.
• I heard a Stevie Ray Vaughn demo through the new $15,000 MartinLogan ESLs that Brian Kahn reviewed, and it was pretty chilling. What was notable for me was that the demo sounded nearly as good when I was standing up as it did when I was sitting down. That didn't used to be the case with the older ESL designs. Bravo, MartinLogan.
• I found a new company that I've never seen before called Innuos that we will look into more. They have a Good-Better-Best (and limited edition) series of badass Roon-controlled music players with bit-perfect output, TIDAL streaming, and big, optical internal disc drives to rip your silver disc collection. Read the comments on last week's article about OPPO winding down its product manufacturing, and you will see that there are plenty of people who still haven't ripped their music (yes, Terry London, I am talking about you), and they really need to. Starting at $1,199, the Zen server offers a robust set of features that some of the bigger guys lack, including a custom app to manage every part of your music collection (many machines require that you use a computer of some sort).
• I saw Aurender products in many rooms and want to take a deeper look at what this company is doing. They seem to offer very cool, very good-sounding music streamers/servers/DACs.
• It was good to see Krell with an active demo, using some bespoke Walsh-tweeter speakers that looked very "midwest" in design, with a wood finish. The sound was sweet.
• A new company from Europe called Merging Technologies makes a higher-end series of DAC/preamp/streamer/servers that are priced in the $10,000-and-up range and rock a Roon interface. They looked fantastic and were mated with some European active audiophile speakers that I had never heard of before--but they were getting the job done. We are going to look more into these guys in the future.
• Harman had some JBL horn speakers mated with Mark Levinson electronics. They were playing around with vinyl, since Mark Levinson now has a turntable (believe it or not). Their room was packed when I swung by, which is a good thing. I want to hear that $20,000 DAC/preamp that Ben Shyman just reviewed for us, but this wasn't the time to start asking for a special setup.
• Magico teamed up with Constellation Audio, demoing components that are priced more than our bodies chopped up and sold to science. It was a huge room and sounded good. What seemed to be missing was the understanding that people who can afford a Magico/Constellation system don't have rooms with piles of gear set up between the speakers. I confess, they lost me in the pitch when they started pushing the use of five "bass-eating" passive devices from Synergistic Research, which looked like the receptacles that you throw your tees into on the golf course and made up about 1/10,000 the volume of the room. ASC's tube traps are so ugly that they likely would get you divorced if you plunked them in your room (sorry, Steven Stone, but I've heard from Suzanne about your next audio room:). In the real world, there are products like RPG's "Modex Plates" that really do eat standing bass waves but hide in the stud-bay of your walls when permanently installed. I would have used those, hidden by a wall of rented plants on the front wall, to make the room look a little more like a room and less a recording studio--but I digress.
• There was strong dealer support for the show, which was great. Many manufacturers won't do a show without dealers to help, as it takes a tremendous amount of labor stretched over an entire weekend. I heard one consumer walk up to a music server guy and ask, "How can I just buy this thing?" The rep pointed him down the hall to his distributor. I would have taken his credit card right there on the spot, but it was a good sign that people were buying stuff. Some of the rooms were smartly overt about the fact that the gear on display was for sale. If you attend one of these shows and have the urge to buy something, I encourage you to ask the people in the room. They often would rather sell it to you directly or through the local dealer just to save having to ship the unit back to the factory after the show. It never hurts to ask.
In the end, I'm glad that I made the effort to make the trip from Los Angeles to Chicago for Axpona 2018. The show is very much an audiophile show, but it has picked up much of the momentum that CES once had in the specialty audio category. Think of it as a super-huge audio store in business for a weekend; you can hear so much gear in one place that you can't help but to be a more informed consumer by the time you leave--and that is a very good thing. I'm definitely going to bring more of my staff to Axpona next year.