CES is officially dead for audiophiles, leaving AXPONA (Audio Expo North America), a regional audio show in Chicago, to pick up some of the pre-Munich excitement for dealers and audiophiles here in the United States. Staged in a modern, well-equipped hotel and convention center near O'Hare airport, AXPONA, now in its tenth year, offered many of the same perks in 2019 as the show did in 2018, as well as some increasing views of the future that some traditional audiophiles will scoff at but we are applauding.
Disclaimer: I was not able to see every room at the show, nor should this article be considered full show coverage. Inevitably, someone will send me hate mail that I didn't cover the "XYZ Audio room" and really missed out. I am sure they are right, but that isn't the point of this article. This article is about things I saw, trends that were present, and the overall state of the audiophile business/hobby. If you must please send hate mail (if you must) to [email protected].
Price Is an Object at AXPONA
Using gravity to my advantage, I started my whirlwind Friday with a quick elevator to the sixteenth and top floor at AXPONA and worked my way down to the bigger convention center rooms on the bottom two floors via the easily accessible stairwells. There was a lot to see on each floor, thankfully. One trend that I noticed quickly at AXPONA 2019 was the staggeringly high prices of many of the products in the rooms on display. I saw an Italian speaker company making "next level" Magnepan-style flat speakers. Knowing HomeTheaterReview.com video editor, Andrew Robinson, would be way into these transducers, I stopped in to get the lowdown. The tall but narrow Italian speakers retail for $15,000 per pair. Wow. And they weren't the only room rocking beyond-aspirational audiophile products. I know audiophile shows cater to Baby Boomer men who are pretty far along in the hobby, but some of these rooms were way out there. And I'm not talking about the large scale, reference rooms downstairs. $10,000 plus amps, preamps, and streamers were not hard to find at this year's AXPONA.
Two specific exceptions included a room from SVS with one of their small subwoofers and some modest bookshelf speakers that sounded very good and could be afforded by people that don't own a C-corp and/or have enough "flow-through income" (Trump so-called "tax cut" jokes - too soon?) to pay for it. Another example of good sound on a budget was the ELAC room, which also had a pair of fantastic and dynamic bookshelf speakers priced well below $1,000 per pair. GoldenEar's Triton One.Rs for just under $6,000 per pair also were notable performers considering the modest room and the attainable price. Audiophile record producer and home theater designer to the stars Joseph Cali (my former boss at Cello back in the 1990s) was playing his wife Lori Lieberman's new album in the GoldenEar room. The clean recording caught everyone's attention, as the instrumentation was silky, with Lori's voice sounding sultry through a vintage Neumann tube mic. Even Joe said couldn't believe how good the GoldenEars sounded for the price.
Everything Old Is New Again?
One of the early rooms that I stumbled upon had an electronics company showing their goods on a pair of fully restored Quad Electrostatic Speakers built in 1958 (they weren't called ESL 57s at that early date). The owner had a lot of pride in ownership and was showing off that these audiophile classics "have a lot of bass," which is relative, especially compared to today's speakers, but they were doing their best while allowing audiophiles a view into what the state of the art was back when the art first began. That was pretty cool.
Harman showed their very popular redesigned version of the JBL L100 speakers that Andrew Robinson reviewed a few weeks ago. These are fully redesigned versions of the legendary L100 for a little over $4,000 per pair, and they still have all of the retro look of a Maxell print ad, but performance that can keep up with today's better speakers. We are working on doing a shoot-out between a fully restored pair of original L100s and the new JBL ones in the coming months, which will shine some interesting light on the flawed argument of "my 1970s system sounds better than your modern system."
The Only Wireless Products You Could Find Were iPhones and iPads
There were a lot of headphones at AXPONA. I spent some time with a few pricey Woo Audio systems that sounded absolutely tasty, complete with large form factor tube amps, smaller but high end purpose-built DACs, and absolutely fantastic sounding over-the-ear, cost-no-object wired headphones.
Seemingly, the audiophile headphone industry hasn't gotten the memo that most of the modern components that you would plug your headphones into simply don't have headphone jacks anymore. You only have to try good wireless headphones once and you are hooked to the freedom.
Nobody's Audio Room Is This Large (Or Looks Like This)
One of the big advantages of AXPONA in its current location is that there are a good number of very large audio rooms that allow demonstration of some of the most grandiose music playback systems with outright monstrous speakers. And while it is cool to audition big Wilsons, Sonus fabers, Magicos, Focals, and other sought-after reference speakers, the simple fact is that few (if any) audiophiles will have rooms this large in their actual homes. Reference audiophile speakers tend to sound better when placed 10 feet from the back wall and 15 feet from the sidewalls, with 1,000-plus watts per channel of power and big, well-tuned subwoofers. But how many of us really have rooms that accommodate such systems? If you live on Park Avenue in New York, Trousdale Estates in Beverly Hills, or nearly anywhere in the city limits of San Francisco, the per-square-foot price of the room (not the whole house) before you invest in room acoustics and/or one single audiophile component would cost over $1,000,000. That's well beyond the reach of one-percenters like me, thus there was a lot of energy going into marketing reference audiophile systems to the one-tenth of one percent of earners and above. They should have parked a Gulfstream G-650 in the parking lot to tour, as these rooms appeal to the same level of eight and nine figure net worth individuals.
With that said, the performance of these systems was absolutely mind-blowing in some cases. Dude, seriously, the Focal Grand Utopia BEs are to die for. Powered with reference level Naim Audio electronics in a ballroom that was less than perfect, this system sounded, well, more like perfect. If I had the room and the money, these speakers would be on my short list.
D'agostino's Relentless $250,000 per pair monoblocks on big Wilsons sounded as good as you would have expected, which is insanely good. Audio Research on Wilson Sashas caught my attention as they did last year. I like tubes like Justice Kavanaugh likes beer. There were more than one room with Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond speakers that sounded really good. That's no surprise, but I was glad to get to hear them in such big rooms and with lots of room to breathe. Big Sonus faber speakers are always a treat to hear and they impressed as they did last year at AXPONA. MartinLogan co-founder, Gayle Sanders, was at the show with his powered audiophile speakers called Eikon Audio, and the new speakers were in a very sexy finish and sounded very good considering their small footprint. There was a lot to dig in terms of plain and simple audiophile performance at the show. I am sure I am missing quite a bit.
The Only Living Female Audiophile?
I have been involved in this hobby professionally since 1990 and have sold millions of dollars' worth of gear, attended nearly every meaningful audiophile show and received tens of thousands of reader emails, but I think this past weekend marks the first time I've ever interacted with a female audiophile. She lives in Orange County, California, having recently moved from the Pacific Northwest. She flew to Chicago to go shopping for a somewhat affordable audiophile streamer to replace her trusty WADIA Compact Disc transport. Smart lady, as most of us have come to accept that silver discs are pretty much dead. When I told some of my clients about my new friend, a few told me of a mysterious woman named "Mary," who in the past bought a bunch of really expensive gear from many of the top companies. So perhaps there are two audiophile women out there? Or even three?! Go figure.
One interesting and encouraging trend I saw was Gen X audiophiles bringing their kids along to AXPONA. Why not? I got started in this hobby by being dragged to the stereo store and it was lots of fun. Kids like music. They like spending time with their dads, too. Learning about art and music isn't just fun, it can be educational. Give a kid an iPad with Tidal on it plugged into a nice audiophile music playback system and let them go crazy. There is a lot to learn from the wealth of information on the metadata on today's best HD streaming systems. This is "screen time" (using a hot parenting term here) that is more valuable than many others, right?
New Products and New Companies
This year, there seemed to be more new product from new companies than I remember from last year. Although not a completely new company, Vivid Audio, a high-end speaker company from Bowers & Wilkins' famed former designer Laurence Dickie, had their new Kaya speakers on display. These $27,000 lightweight, aluminum-chassis, reference-level speakers were imaging like mad on Jeff Rowland electronics on the top floor of Axpona. They aim to take on the likes of Wilson Sashas, Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond, and others in that price category. Stay tuned for a review of the Kaya 45s soon at HomeTheaterReview.com.
There were a number of other newcomers to AXPONA. Another high-end player that is more established in the UK is Computer Audio Design. Their $10,000-plus-per components will have steep competition in the U.S. market, but they sounded very good in their hotel suite and have a fit and finish that looked the part for a truly high end system.
Although Steven Stone reviewed their classy "Flow" headphones (perhaps the only wireless cans I saw at the show) Cleer Audio also had some unique, forward thinking products more in the Sonos space than audiophile products.
Streamers Are Growing in Popularity
Is it possible that audiophiles are finally getting the message about vinyl? Unlikely, but there were more and more streamers, end points, and other useful goodies at AXPONA that show the audiophile community a path to a disc-less future, which is coming soon to a two-channel system near you. Simply put, without Oppo players that play legacy HD audio discs, there really isn't any point to spinning any disc going forward. CDs can easily be ripped. DVD-Audio legacy discs are not impossible to rip. There is a firm called Golden Ear Digital (I know, confusing) in Denver that can rip your SACDs so that you can clear your audio room of those bulky jewel cases. Factor in Tidal and Qobuz and you've got pretty much all of the music you ever could want to listen to with the most amazing metadata and full cover flow art work for $20 and $30 per month, as well as access to a growing amount of the music in better-than-CD resolutions. These are exciting times for audiophiles. Or at least they should be.
Nearly No Video, No Video Games, and Almost No Surround Sound
I think I saw one room with a video projector and Dr. Hsu had a 5.1 system rocking his new prototype reference sub, but there was close to zero home theater at AXPONA. I guess it is an audiophile-only show, but they could appeal to a much more wide audience and have the types of rooms that would be excellent for home theater if they did such an outreach.
The video game industry does more sales than all of Hollywood and the music business combined these days. Fortnite does $250,000,000 per month in sales as a "freemium" video game that appeals to Generation Z. That's one title. One fourth of a billion in sales per month. They appeal to a younger and tech savvy audience, but you couldn't find anything to do with video games or video in general at AXPONA, sadly. Could good audio pair with said entertainment? Could this be the future of audio or at least a part of it? One would think so. Perhaps, next year will be different?
AXPONA Versus Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
Simply put, AXPONA is a bigger, slicker event with much better event management than the other big stateside audiophile show. The venue is far nicer than the historical digs of RMAF. Rocky Mountain is leaving the Denver Tech Center for swankier digs that are thankfully much closer to the DIA airport. We will see this fall if RMAF will keep up in the audiophile arms race in terms of location. Both AXPONA and RMAF have good airport access now that allows audiophiles from around the country and even much of the world easy access to the show. Personally, I came from Los Angeles and made a full turn around in 30 hours thanks to AXPONA's proximity to O'Hare and the wide variety of flights from Chicago to Los Angeles.
In the end, the death of CES for audiophiles has made AXPONA a much-needed warm up to the too-far-away-for-me Munich show, which is considered by most to be the world's best and grandest audiophile show. 14.5 hours on a plane and business class seats costing $6,500 (the last time I checked) makes Munich just too far to go to hear high-end audio. But AXPONA has a lot of high-end sizzle and the show was well managed. I will likely be back next year to see what's new and trending in 2020.
• Random Thoughts and Observations From Axpona 2018 at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• What the Death of CES Can Teach the AV Enthusiast at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Chasing the Holy Grail of Audio at HomeTheaterReview.com.