It has been a long time since I rock and rolled… and I think thousands of others at AXPONA 2023 felt the same way. For the past few years, real-world fears of COVID-19 made it unreasonable to for most of us to get together in the same place, at least not with the level of freedom we were comfortable with and the confidence that we weren’t going to end up deathly ill. Today, while COVID-19 isn’t gone, most smart people have gotten themselves vaccinated while the virus has thankfully morphed into something a little less deadly, even if it is easier to catch. That means we get to have a large-scale audio show with lots and lots of exhibits and even more audiophiles hungry to hear some great sound. And in Mid-April 2023, just a few minutes away from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, that’s exactly what happened. And it was a blast.
Here are some of the things that caught my eye at AXPONA. This is by no means a complete show report, but rather the highlights of my experience.
No. 1: AXPONA 2023 Was a Very Well-Run Show
Congratulations to the promoters for putting together a strong show with a lot of new details that made a big difference. For example, having a number of express elevators to the top floors allowed lazy-ass audiophiles (a category I fall into) to use gravity to get from the top floors down to the next exhibit floors without stress. Although a simple detail, the promotors converted one of the unused rooms into a public bathroom for the show. This keeps people with raging prostates from having to jump on an elevator more than they need while allowing others to wash their hands, which is a great way to check the spread of disease.
Other little details that mattered were the foam rings installed on the hotel room doors, which kept them from slamming loudly and disrupting someone’s listening experience. Improvements for next year might include arranging a few trendy and/or healthy food trucks to park outside, as the hotel’s restaurant and to-go options were rocking 45-minute-plus lines at peak times. Doubling the number of shuttles from the nearby overflow hotel (where you want to stay for less noise and grief) would have saved me $150 in short Uber rides. The rooms were fantastic at the Hyatt Regency and amazingly well priced, so it is hard to complain, but next year, two or three more shuttles would go a long way to getting even more audio enthusiasts to the audiophile action even more easily.
No. 2: There Was a Serious Lack of Relevant Music Being Played…
I’ve written a more in-depth article on this topic, but too many companies were playing oddball audiophile music that no one could relate to. This practice must stop. Nobody cares how good your Indonesian Gamelan demo sounds when they can’t reasonably relate to the music or have a clue what it’s supposed to sound like on a reference system. Whomever is in charge of Sonus faber’s room does a great job of picking more mainstream music ( and they also had their $140,000 reference speakers on tasty Boulder electronics and a pricey Clear Audio turntable). The audiophile hobby comes across snobby and this is part of the problem. If we want to reach younger audiences, we must at least meet them halfway on the music. We might look to the “RIAA Platinum Record” standard, meaning if the album (or song) hasn’t sold 1,000,000 units in the United States then perhaps it is too obscure for most of the people to musically engage with. There are so many types of music and artists that fit this bill that make music that is exquisitely recorded. Things like a remastered Bob Markey album come to mind. The newest Metallica album, Hardwired To Self-Destruct has a great demo track on it called “Atlas Rise.” An Evening With Silk Sonic featuring Bruno Mars, Andersen Pak, and Blaster-of-the-Universe Bootsy Collins is the best album (recording and performance) that I’ve heard in 10 years. There are countless other options, but playing obscure jazz and any classical speaks to audiences that are respectively one and two percent of the American population, and that’s just too obscure.
No. 3: I Saw Some Younger People…
I saw fathers with sons and daughters walking the halls. I asked to take photos when I could, just to prove the FutureAudiophile.com concept is alive and well in 2023 with hope for the future. I also saw somewhat younger wives accompany their audiophile husbands to AXPONA. I had a pretty interesting conversation with one wife who was stylishly sporting a Louis Vuitton bag. I asked her about her value proposition on bags/shoes versus audio and it resulted in some good laughs as well as comparisons between the master-craftswomen who need 30 years’ experience to make a Hermes Kelly bag and how that isn’t all that different than the 30 plus years’ experience that goes into say a Linn LP-12 turntable or a Dan D’Agostino amplifier.
At one point in the show, I ran into two very young couples who were willing to talk with me. They were 22-year-old engineering students from Iowa who paid their own way (and they are still somewhat starving students) to hear some audio. They were passionate about the hobby – especially amplifier and speaker design. They have limited means to spend on audio and were way into Chi-Fi audiophile gear because they can actually afford it. One showed me his Chi-Fi headphones in his backpack. Two of the 22-year-olds were female! Things are changing in the audiophile hobby and for the better – this is irrefutable proof even though we have a long way to go to cultivate a new generation of audiophiles. As one savvy industry executive said to me at AXPONA, “any kid with a pair of earbuds is a potential audiophile,” and he’s right. The r/audiophile subreddit has slightly under 2,000,000 members, and that’s a pure audiophile conversation being had online.
No. 4: The Price Deltas Are Getting Enormous
The good news about the best-sounding rooms was that many sounded really fantastic, and that isn’t always the case in a noisy, often-cramped hotel. Shows are a hard place to make great sound, and audiophiles need to take that into consideration when listening at an audiophile event. We should be looking for leads of gear that we like and not to draw hard conclusions about other products that might not sound that great on that day or in that specific room.
What I found at AXPONA 2023, though, was that some products that were just sort of pricey sounded every bit as good as ones that were bat-shit-crazy expensive. For example: Pass Labs were playing an old Oppo disc player into their integrated amp and some $5,000 GoldenEar speakers. All-in, the system cost about $10,000. If you ask 1,000 people at The Mall of the Americas if that’s an expensive stereo, 975 of them would say, “yes.” But by audiophile standards, $10k is pretty affordable for such an outrageously awesome sounding audiophile system. Younger audiophiles tell us over and over that the number one issue for them isn’t the love of music or passion for technology, but rather value, value, value. Some of the products I saw on display were so far past the point of diminishing returns, though, that they almost seemed like a parody of conspicuous consumption.
No. 5: Speaking of Audiophile Values… I Saw Some Good Ones
Unlike other audiophiles shows I’ve attended in recent years, the focus at AXPONA was not solely on these “estate” or “Oligarch audio,” a term coined by our own Steven Stone. I fell in love with an Innuos streamer that starts at about $1,500 but can be reasonably upgraded with a larger or a solid-state hard drive, which doesn’t provide a performance benefit as the machine plays music from RAM, not the disc. SSD drives are of value here for reliability, which is perhaps just as important for performance when it comes to housing your ripped digital music collection. Technics has a $2,000 integrated amp that I was all over for a FutureAudiophile.com review, as it has literally everything in one box for two grand. HDMI inputs in an integrated amp? Check. 80-watt amp, Roon end point, all sorts of inputs and outputs. Technics also had an affordable turntable that will ship in a month or so along with the integrated amp, and this deck looked cool. Music Hall delivered on some very affordable products, including a new $600 Compact Disc player that Andrew Dewhirst already has in for review. There were so many other audiophile value plays at AXPONA 2023 that I can’t make a complete list, but I will report that it is a good trend.
I got a chance to hear the SVS Prime Wireless Pro speakers ($899) (buy at Amazon) again, and it was nice to hear them in a more traditional setup, as I reviewed them (coming very soon) as nearfield monitors. SVS showed them with an SVS Micro-3000 sub $899 (buy at Amazon) and they were making some really good sound from a small, active speaker system. SVS also plays good music and always deliver value. The company has more followers on Facebook (600,000) than pretty much every other audiophile company combined. Wanna know their special sauce? Their CEO will tell you that it is performance and value. They also sell more gear to Zoomers and Millennials than older audiophiles, proving the demand for value from younger audiophiles.
No. 6: Class D Amps Are Going High End
My new favorite audiophile company is Amped America. Their founder, Boris, is (and very much sounds) Russian, but has lived here in the United States for 30 years now. He wants to do an ice-cold shot of vodka with you before talking audio and who am I to say no? (Even if it is 10:30 in the morning and the next AA meeting is hours away.) Michael Zisserson has reviewed the company’s $5,000 AMP 2400 digital amp , so keep an eye out for that, coming soon.
Here’s the main thing you need to know about the AMP 2400 and any other number of high-end switching amps I saw and heard at the show: Forget your old ideas about how Class D amps are cold and lame. They are absolutely not that anymore. The hard-to-get and expensive-when-you-get-them Pascal Chips are what Jeff Rowland uses is their $30,000 Class D amps. Amped delivers a much more pedestrian-looking version of said modern amp design for a fraction of the price, and it is audiophile gold. It isn’t fancy externally but it can drive the hell out of even the most difficult speaker while retaining air, control, and finesse.
GaN (Gallium Nitride) amp technology was on display from Palos Verdes -based AGD Productions. This new amplifier design is also a switching amp (don’t call them digital amps) that creates even more power, run with even less heat, and sound like audiophile heaven. AGD’s designer has made his amps expose the chip in a glass tube as to bring a familiar form factor to audiophiles even if the technology is nothing like a vacuum tube. Definitive Technology is using GaN technology to power the subs in their new $5,000 flagship bi-polar speakers that just came to market. We have one of the $5,000 AGD Production amps coming in for review and we are pretty excited about this technology, as it has a best-of-both-worlds value proposition for those looking for more from a new audiophile-grade power amp.
No. 7: I Didn’t Know I Wanted a Reel-to-Reel Player, But I Do…
In the Amped America and Music Hall room, they had a few restored and spruced-up Pioneer reel-to-reel machines that I was drooling over. I saw a few in other rooms too. T+A’s CEO, Dave Nauber, might have left his at home, but he’s a big enthusiast of the technology and has some really cool one-off-the-master tapes in his collection. I don’t think that I want to play a reel-to-reel as much as I want to look at one as audiophile sculpture (add a Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck and a Cello Audio Palette to that list too). While we were at AXPONA, I kept saying to Paul Wilson and Andrew Dewhirst, who also attended the show with me, that “there is no music on reel-to-reel” as a way of convincing myself out of buying a restored reel-to-reel. Less than a week later, I was in Ogden, Utah, with Ray Kimber of Kimber Kable, taking a tour of his man cave, and he had literally hundreds of albums on various sizes of reel-to-reel tape. My argument just got crushed. Ray also has my Nak tape deck in storage. I feel an American Pickers-like negotiation coming on where I keep offering more and more money to try to pluck that gem from his impressive collection of audiophile barn finds.
No. 8: I Thought I Knew What Steampunk Meant…
Earlier, I mentioned that we had a great stay at the Hyatt Regency nearby. No audiophile noise and great customer service for $129 per night (show rate). The first night, I was at the hotel before Paul and Andrew arrived and I came down to the bar to grab something to eat before the kitchen closed. While waiting for my food, a woman bellied up to the bar who was dressed to the absolute nines. She was wearing a homemade, ultra-colorful dress with a corset tied tightly. Her hairdo was over-the-top with a vividly died bun to the side. I asked her politely what was the occasion and she replied that she was at a steampunk convention. The word steampunk is often used to describe the industrial design language that Dan D’Agostino uses for his tasty amps, which have copper accents as well as huge, goggle-like round gauges.
What I learned from this fine woman was that steampunk is all that and much more. It is a celebration of all things 19th century. Rube Goldberg Machine-looking stuff. There’s a Victorian flare to their hobby but also a strong superhero element, I learned while at AXPONA. These people were attending a weekend-long event that celebrates all of this and more, and boy howdy do these people know how to dress.
There were whole Steampunk families there. There were people dressed up as steampunk Santas, Steampunk train engineers, Steampunk fairies, elves, and so on. One young woman had what I thought was the best audiophile upgrade I’ve ever seen, as she had extended her ears to hear more audio. Actually, no, she was just dressed as a steampunk fairy-elf, but I couldn’t help but to think that she should take the shuttle over to AXPONA and demo a few $20,000 audiophile preamps. My first steampunk friend at the bar asked me a very heart-warming question: “Do you know what nearly all of us Steampunks have in common?” Not a clue, but do tell… “We are all very happy in our lives.”
Wow. In a world filled with young people who are ravaged by anxiety, stress, and depression, this was a revelation and maybe an inspiration. Good for them. All of them.
So, What Impressed Me Most?
I wish I booked another day at the show. I just had too much to do in terms of selling ads and making friends to be able to hear everything I wanted to hear. I won’t make that mistake again next year.
I loved the Borensen speakers on the high floor, as my friend from Part-Time Audiophile turned me on to these speakers, but they are insanely expensive. I was even more impressed by the $14,000 speakers from YG Acoustics and their $7,000 subwoofer. They sounded every bit as good as speakers costing many times more. The subwoofer was perfectly setup in a tiny-but-well-treated hotel room. We need these in for review, and don’t call me crazy for saying that they are a value.
Bricasti is always a treat to hear. Stenheim speakers are something thar I’ve been hearing and seeing more and more of. They are big, boxy, and crazy expensive but they don’t sound boxy whatsoever. They are awesome. I liked what Klipsch was doing with their retro speakers for cheap. I had fun with Kimber Kable’s speaker cable A/B test (I liked the $350 ones as much as the $3,500 ones…). Linn had a powerful statement in their room with some new speakers. Oh man, there was so much to like. I could put 30 more things down if I wanted to blow my word budget.
In the end, AXPONA has picked up the slack left by the end of the big fall audiophile show, formerly known as Rocky Mountain Audiofest. The other big audiophile show is only a month away, in Munich. It is a long way for me and impossibly expensive to make happy, and God knows that I’ve been trying to find creative ways to use copious amounts of points, miles, and/or any other currency I can find to get to Germany. It isn’t likely to happen this year, sadly, as I have too much domestic travel to do to keep the FutureAudiophile.com party going and growing. That only makes AXPONA that much more important to the growth and success of the hobby, and they delivered on that challenge.
Question for you, dear reader: if another show were to fill the fall slot of RMAF in a place like Denver or maybe even Los Angeles, would you go? Comment below.