Axpona 2019, Renaissance Hotel, Schaumburg, Illinois
Hard to believe that we are well into 2019s HiFi show circus with this year’s Axpona kicking off the starting bells at Schaumburg’s Renaissance hotel and convention center.
Even as last year was my first formal year covering the show, Axpona has in fact been on a roll these past few years. Recalling the earlier days of the show, I was often told “must visit” “need to see” “A+”, all arguments taken at their face value meant only one thing: this is a happening show. As such, 2019 really proved no different from the previous year: a hustling, bustling, dare I say quintessential show for all audio manufacturers and audio mavens alike. The venue, as they say, is spot on, about as perfect a hotel venue as I’ve ever seen for a HiFi show. Spacious, open, with lots of meeting spaces, coffee and refreshment shops strategically placed throughout the hallways on the lower lobby all helped create a warm and inviting space to show off your latest wares, conduct business and socialize.
Over 200 rooms stretched across most of the hotel’s floors plus far larger and more splurging ballrooms stretching from the hotel to the convention center offered just about anything your HiFi heart’s desired. From small time to big time, the show really presented itself well and on point as America’s de facto premier HiFi show. In fact, I would say that Axpona could well be on its way to offering up a genuine, made in USA alternative for the mighty Munich show taking place barely a month later across the big pond. The only issue marring the event’s overall tranquility, is really the logistical nightmare for companies planning to attend both shows: taking apart large showrooms, shipping equipment to and from Axpona, only to turn it all back around and ship your precious HiFi to Europe is a daunting task, no matter the logistical expertise available in today’s global business environment.
But back to Axpona. My focus this year was more video coverage, which proved far more challenging than first anticipated. Armed with my iPhone Xs, a Moment anamorphic lens and a mini-pod, I was a walking one-man show, attempting to capture different angles, views and other interesting bits n’ bobs as I visited rooms. That said, I simply ran out of time and really covered only a handful of sonic collections, though I managed to butt my head into many more rooms for quick listening sessions, conversation and other such pleasantries. Leaving photobombs and general photography to Ingo Schulz, by day 3 of the show, I thusly had assembled a quick list of who’s who.
In no particular order, PS Audio was on hand to show off their all new AN-3 loudspeakers, though still in pre-production stage. Delightful, open, airy and generally speaking fantastic sounding, AN-3 ought to offer a solid pair of speakers for the $10-15k projected price range. PS Audio also soft launched their all new, state of the art, assault on all things holy in digital, Obsidian double-box DAC, which Ted Smith of PS Audio claims was developed without any financial or production shackles. Rumored to sell for around $25k, this definitely ought to be an interesting design to look out for. Bending Wave USA, Göbel audio’s US distributor had a fantastic showing, with a full set of CH Precision components, an Air Force One deck and Göbel’s Divin Noblesse reference speaker system. Unlike their Epoque series of speakers, built for ultimate retrieval of detail and nuance, Göbel’s Divin series is more of a musically oriented speaker design, built for volume, density and powerhouse sound. Having had the opportunity to connect with Oliver Göbel during a vivid 1:1 conversation, it appears that his company is on to something, as both speaker lines are able to peacefully coexist and deliver the same Göbel quality to different parts of the audio spectrum. The sound I heard at the show, in a room that wasn’t optimal with large glass windows stretching the far side of the left channel, was none the less superb, full of power, energy and plenty of detail. With the CH amplifier barely going past an indicated 60w of output power, these speakers filled a rather large room quite nicely with plenty of great music courtesy of Qobuz and analog.
Next, I played DJ at my “house” sound friends, EINSTEIN, who now – finally – have a US distributor and ambassador, Fidelis AV. In combination with Fidelis AV’s newly launched Stenheim Alumine 3 speakers, the sound of the all EINSTEIN system was familiar, in part because it is my reference gear at home and because EINSTEIN always manage to squeeze optimal performance from generally questionable showroom conditions. Dynamic, explosive and otherwise quite musical, the system proved a definite highlight of the show. As a bonus, Walter Swanbon, proprietor of Fidelis, managed to get not only Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds to play original vs. reissue comparisons, but also fellow scribe and vinyl king Michael Fremer. The ongoing, long standing joke with both is that they always end-up costing me more money than I was expecting to spend, firstly with Chad’s incredible all-analog reissues, second, with Fremer’s genuine great taste in music.
A few rooms over and down, I visited Playback Designs, where, with help from Verity speakers, Andreas Koch managed to get fantastic sound from his new Dream series DAC/CD/SACD/Streamer combo, the MPS-8. Having purchased one myself at the beginning of the year, I am obviously quite smitten with the sound. Andreas, no stranger to digital, has indeed managed to squeeze out even more performance from this latest Dream series, a remarkable feat given that his previous MPS-5 was the de facto reigning king of DSD conversion for many years. Here, Andreas played various high-quality DSD, double and quad DSD recordings which, with help of the Verity speaker system sounded very natural, open and generally lifelike. Next up was a visit to Bill Voss, Technics USA’s one-man show master. It’s no secret that Technics is on a roll and in fact has had a meteoric rise back to the top of HiFi. Starting with the SL-1200G and GR turntable models some years back, followed up with the SL-1000R and SP-10R reference level decks and most recently the SL-1500C and SL-1200MK7 models, it’s definitely vinyl revival time at Technics and for good reason. Each of the models are ground up new designs, with only the looks resembling decks from their success of decades past. Running a pair of Harbeth speakers, the Technics room sounded full, rich and very musical indeed. No matter the source, though preferably analog, Bill and team did a fine job and will no doubt make yet another splash at Axpona 2020.
Elsewhere at Axpona, I ran into Nate of Acoustic Sounds, who – for years – has been one of my most trusted curators for all things vinyl. “I have a surprise for you” was the cryptic comment he said in passing, urging me to add another quick pitstop at the Acoustic Sounds booth. Much to my surprise indeed, Nate handed me a copy of Acoustic Sounds long awaited first UHQR title, awesome Jimi Hendrix’ Axis: Bold As Love. Each UHQR title is hand pressed (!) on clear vinyl, based on a formula Acoustic Sounds has been working on for some time. The packaging – no doubt drawing comparisons to MoFi’s famed 1-step series – is truly luxe and first rate premium, in my opinion edging out the MoFi series by a few tenth’s of seconds in racing terms. Having used that title in various rooms, the results were quite positively astounding and drawing many more questions than I was prepared to answer or for that matter even knew how to answer. It would appear that Chad Kassem has yet another winner on hand with this UHQR series – can’t wait to see and hear what’s coming next. Back from a multi-year stint in Japan, Chris Sommovigo, pal and all-out audio maven, was offering up several cues as to his next projects with his company, Black Cat Cables. Chris, no stranger to HiFi, courtesy of several past and rather prominent endeavors (former US distributor for Continuum and many more), has steadily made Black Cat Cable his one and true love. Original design geometries, all handmade, have quickly enabled a sort of “black” market for his wares. For true cognoscenti, his cables deliver the goods, no others will do. Clever as he is devilishly full of wit, for Axpona, he up-ended all competitors with a neat little trick. A custom made, heavy luxe felt record tote, with the Black Cat Cable logo prominently displayed on one side, caught the eyes of many an attendee. I can personally attest that I must have been asked a good fifty times where one may obtain this “gorgeous” looking record tote. Clever marketing indeed.
In a nutshell, Axpona 2019 was rather much like Axpona the year prior. Extremely well organized, professionally run, it is de facto the high-end HiFi show for the US market, dare I say, “our” version of Munich, minus the Bratwurst, Kartofell, Bier and Schweinshax’n. That said, one can only assume that Axpona 2020, will be better still, perhaps with a bit more of this and less of that. People make the show and here Axpona delivered in spades. Personally, what I would like to see a bit more of is a clearer distinction between Mid-fi and HiFi. Which brings us back to square one that I so often discuss: what exactly is HiFi these days and who is it for? No doubt questions to ponder. To everyone who made Axpona 2019 possible: hats off – great job. Next stop? THE Show, Long Beach, California in early June. Let the races begin!