Axpona 2018, Chicago, Schaumburg, IL
Another year, another show. At least that’s the prevailing theorem making the current show circus news. Not quite.
Axpona 2018 seemed to have broken several records it would appear. According to Stereophile’s Jason Victor Serinus’ show report recap, JD Events cataloged a total of 8134 tickets sold which was a plus of 21% YoY, with a total of – whopper alert – 165 exhibitors making their rounds around the newly sourced venue, Schaumburg’s Renaissance hotel and Convention Center. Indeed, over the past few years I’ve heard here and there that Axpona was quickly establishing itself as the defacto North American premier HiFi show, a mini-Munich some even called it. Though that is perhaps somewhat of a stretch, I felt it necessary, nay, urgently important to make my way out to Chicago for Axpona 2018.
In fairness to Axpona, one did immediately notice a certain level of experience and organization prowess gracing the show. Clearly labeled signage, friendly staff, all spoke of a genuinely well-planned event. The show essentially took over much of the Renaissance hotel space and parts of the Convention Center with the latter being a short dash away from the main hotel exhibits. A centrally located bar with grub food and drinks served as a congested meeting spot throughout the day; strategically located snack places for quick grabs certainly helped adding some fuel to your day’s work, though obviously those nick-knack stands were far from the generally well received comfort food the bar served. Frankly, I, for one, was grateful that $22 chicken sandwiches simply didn’t exist at Axpona, instead, one found decent grub for around the $10 mark. Who knows, maybe next year they’ll add quick serve espresso bars on every floor or at least some sort of refreshment opportunity along those lines.
In other news, let’s face it, the real news, there appeared no shortage of seeing and hearing at Axpona 2018. Even as most of the press had the usual wranglings about this that and the other – hey, it is a hotel based HiFi show after all – I took a distinctly different look to the show’s exhibitors. Based on my recent articles around the certain state of the union, I felt this show was exactly what a HiFi show for those already initiated ought to be: well organized, with lots of toys to see and hear; a market place full of even more toys than fit under Trump Plaza’s annual Christmas tree. What was missing – through no fault of this show really – was the certain level of exclusiveness, true high-end feel that say Pebble Beach’s Concourse d’Elegance has to offer. Particularly the aforementioned market place had a bit too much in the way of grown men wearing white lab coats, presumably to come off more scientific when pitching their various gizmos, gadgets and Gaudi apparatuses. Fair enough, they ought to be able to sell their stuff too I say.
Contrasting the oversized behemoth rooms were the small-ish hotel rooms and suites on the Renaissance side. Given the issues that hotel rooms bring about, from shady power to unfamiliar settings, I was positively surprised at how well some rooms sounded. From Andreas Koch’s latest Playback Designs offer in form of the Dream series MPS-8 and its various iterations, YG’s Carmel speakers driven by Playback Design’s IPS 3 integrate amplifier/DAC combo, the sound was smooth, lively, dynamic and downright gorgeous sounding. Featuring Lynn Stanley in person and on premium digital, both co-hosts managed to elicit excitement, fun and a generally positive vibe. Several times during the show’s many trips up and down the elevators, I heard people comment on how great this room sounded. Well done!
Another standout room was GTTs grand suite featuring YG’s latest Sonja XV Junior speakers, AudioNet’s Stern and Heisenberg pre- and power combo all leashed together via Kubala-Sosna’s exquisite Realization line of cables (side note: I have been using Kubala-Sosna’s Elation! cables these past few months and am frankly so giddy over these that in a first for me, I will be penning a preview for the complete loom of Elation! shortly). Source was a fully tricked out Kronos deck which, when playing Carmen’s Overture on RCA, produced such utterly fantastic sound that I wished I could have sat there all day. Extended, dynamic, panoramic, the shear depth and scale of the recording seemed to find no bounds. A definite highlight of the show.
Einstein, no stranger to outstanding shows, cleared the hurdles yet again and equally managed to also raise their bars higher still, however difficult it may be for others to follow. A far smaller suite compared to GTT’s, Einstein never the less managed to elicit similar levels of grandeur and excitement. Celebrating now 30 years in business (!), Einstein used the Axpona show to launch three critical new components: first up was their all new and rather legitimate looking and indeed very fine sounding turntable, aptly named The Record Player. Unique to this turntable are the platter’s pulley with built in bearing to remove nasty cogging effects right at the source, namely the motor. A precision machined aluminum bar connects the substantial bearing to the deck’s arm board, providing additional levels of stiffness for this critical junction. Completing the second announcement was the launch of the 12” version of The Tonearm, a follow-up to the acclaimed 9” version, which was announced last year. Lastly, perhaps most surprisingly, Einstein also announced a late pre-production prototype of an all new current source MC phono stage. In typical Einstein fashion, good simply isn’t good enough, thus this little guy is housed in a machined aluminum enclosure in full dual-mono configuration and outboard dual mono power supply. An auto-tuning current sensing circuit, the total price for this will be around $2900 USD. Can you say wow? Sonically, this room proved quite amazing, even as I am the owner of practically every piece of gear Einstein makes and thus intimately familiar with its sonic footprint. Add to that Volker Bohlmeier‘s terrific music selection – Talking Heads‘ live album Stop Making Sense was in very heavy rotation – and you have a receipt for musical perfection, at a show no less.
Finally, no show would be complete without more than a mention of Wilson Audio‘s legendary show appearances and demos, courtesy of the brand‘s ultimate debonair gentleman, Peter McGrath, maestro extraordinaire. Showcasing his absolutely fabulous recordings of exquisite classical music, each of the Wilson rooms proved uniquely experiential in their own right. No matter if Sasha 2, XLF or Alexia Series II were playing, the sound was uniquely Wilson, uniquely present and uniquely grand. That each of these setups differed rather greatly from one to the next, with Dan D’Agostino’s Momentum series powering the mighty XLFs, to Audio Research’s latest amps driving Alexia Series II, neither fact would ultimately sway from the sublime experience these rooms offered. No matter the source – analog, digital, or tape – these Axpona demos uniquely identified the at times – show times! amazing – Wilson sound.
With other brands like Auralic, Woo Audio, PS Audio, Gryphon, also making their various debuts, as a one man show, there simply isn’t enough time to see all that you wanted to see. Pit stops at Technics, to visit front man Bill Voss, delivered the goods and then some. To say that the all new for 2018 SP-10R and SL-1000R are smashing sales records would be an understatement; when you consider that these are premium offerings at premium prices ($10k and $18k USD, respectively) these stats seem that much more positively impressive. Elsewhere at the show Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds fame, previewed the new UHQR Jimi Hendrix release on his company’s latest premium clarity vinyl formula. That – at $100 – these super premium titles will sell out fast (the Mono version already has!) is a given. The sound, mastered by Bernie Grundman himself, is sublime, to die for. Prepare for some major magic coming to your own personal show room later this summer.
All in, Axpona proved giant and superbly organized at that. With most rooms already being booked, 2019’s show looks to be even bigger, better and more giant. To the team at JD Events a congratulatory note is due. Well done and we can’t wait to be back!