Axpona Chicago… a whirlwind of sights and of course sounds. Held at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel and Convention Center April 22-24. The event definitely was a hit even if you judged by the number of attendees alone. From the moment we arrived at 10AM sharp Friday morning, the halls were buzzing with audiophiles hungry for gear. With 10 floors and over 120 rooms and two exhibit halls, in two days, we managed to step into almost every room. Unfortunately, we were so eager to hear as much as possible, we missed every one of the over 19 seminars and master classes. To truly give this show what it deserved, it would take a week. We had two days. Yes we were drinking from a firehose.
With so many rooms, I admit I had audiophile ADD. I was not alone. The feeling of audiophile eagerness was palpable. I wanted to sample them all, but if I walked in and they weren’t playing something I liked, or it was overly crowded, I’d walk out. Unfortunate but true, the musical choice really does matter, and that first impression can be a killer. So, to all those rooms that I passed over because of less than stellar musical selections, I apologize. Typical of an audio show, you will hear Leonard Cohen, Diana Krall, SRV’s “Tin Pan Alley” and of course “Hotel California” so many times you want to puke. It is good to compare with reference songs, but I also like to hear new things. I also like when someone dares to play something other than standards. Of course, some music will not really showcase the system well, but at least gives a break of the monotony of constant “audiophile” music. I wandered into one room, and they were playing Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz”, not exactly a hifi song, but it was fun.
A few of the new to us tracks/albums we heard and will be purchasing:
Petra Magoni & Ferruccio Spinetti “I Will Survive” and “Roxanne” from Musica Nuda (great upright bass and vocals).
The King Singers “Good Vibrations” from cappella (acapella vocals as you could guess)
Shiny Toy Guns “Major Tom”
So let’s talk a little bit about sources. Streaming was the preferred choice and that’s always challenging given that everyone is streaming on the same network so typically a risky choice imo unless you bring your own library (and it better be a good one). The best rooms control their musical choices and in fact have a set playlist. If you stray, you risk turning people off and throwing shade on an otherwise wonderful rig. There were of course some stunning turntables as usual and a decent amount of vinyl but the biggest and maybe not biggest surprise was the lack of CD players. There seems to be a new crop of streamers in every flavor and price point. The one we heard most about was the Hifi Rose. Seems like something we should be sampling with the group so we can all hear what all the fuss is about. I’m really a vinyl and CD person. Leslie leans towards digital so this review is more focused on speakers and amps and less about digital devices.
I took many notes, but can’t really report on all rooms of course, and prices you can look up. Hey, I’m not getting paid for this, I don’t write for Stereophile or Absolute Sound so give me a break. There were some I wanted to come back to for deeper listening but didn’t have time. So you can’t take my opinions as a definitive verdict, but more of a quick impression (kinda like Tinder but with hi end audio). Some rooms did comparative demos, like in the Scott Walker/Synergistic demo room where you had to stay for a while to understand the Ted Denney demonstration (the Magico’s did sound quite nice in there).
So anyhow, I’ll give a brief overview of some of the standouts and not so standout rooms. To be honest, most sounded pretty good, some too bright, some too boomy etc. There was only one that sounded really bad and I don’t want to put anyone down, so I’ll just say it looked like an inverted laundry basket and sounded like a vintage AM radio.
The first room we went to was Saturday Audio Exchange with Parasound amps, Golden Ear Speakers and Marantz Ruby CD player which Phil swears by and loves. This was one of the only CD players we heard. We heard both the BRX stand mount speakers with sub and the large Triton reference partially powered by Parasound JC2’s. They both sounded great and certainly a great value. In the afterhours, Phil busted out the Infected Mushroom for me, and the system shined.
On the vintage cool front, there was a large room with the original Wilson WAMM’s set up and playing. I have to admit they didn’t sound very good by today’s standards, but it could have been the vintage music (Chicago, Jim Croce, etc.) I did like the old advertisements they had on the wall. Wilson was well represented at the show and sounding sweet as ever.
Andrew Jones’ new gig that we’ve never heard of (jk) Mofi had four rooms and they all sounded splendid. One of the four Mofi rooms had Wharfedale Speakers stacked like old Advents, powered by Bat amps and playing a Mofi Fender turntable. We heard a Macklemore track, “Moped” and Leonard Cohen “Slow”, sounded great especially with all four speakers playing. In a word, the room rocked. Piega speakers were featured in the other rooms, and all sounded good, but I especially liked the absolutely beautiful Hifi Rose integrated amp. It’s hard to describe the various features that this equipment has but you really just need to take a look. For example, the volume control has a steampunk look and the remote physically turns the knob/gear. On top of this, the price point is in the affordable category for the sound quality.
Andrew Jones made his big announcement and was in attendance proudly sporting a black Mofi tee. He didn’t debut anything yet but things are in the works. Interestingly, Elac’s room was sandwiched between the many Mofi’s … We met the new designer Oleg, super nice guy with quite a pedigree, designing for Paradigm and others. Looking forward to new things from him, though I’m still a huge fan of all of Andrew’s of course. And the Elac room was no slouch either.
We heard the vintage looking, but not vintage sounding Tannoy Kensington Gr’s with Zesto amps and a Dr. Feickert turntable. They played some LA4 and some Ray Brown trio. Sounded wonderfully real. I’m a believer. I always liked Zesto products, so I did expect it to be good and I was not disappointed.
On the all in one home theatre front which is really underrepresented at this show, there was a large Focal room with a sectioned off area with a Dolby Atmos system. We heard an Atmos mix of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry” which blew us away. Hadn’t heard Atmos mixed music before. Hard to beat a plug and play atmos pre, decoder, amp, etc. at a not too hefty price.
So don’t you just love oddities. There were quite a few that seemed to push the boundaries of “spousal acceptance factor”. Some pretty, some not (see accompanying pics). There was a huge Avant Garde system in one room that definitely needed a bigger room. Unfortunately, we missed the smaller system in an adjoining room that I was told sounded great. I’m not a huge fan of “horny” speakers but they can sound good. Another highly unusual system was the Aries Cerat, speakers and amps. Very strange, but oddly beautiful looking and sounding. The Bayz Audio tubular speakers sounded remarkably musical for their unusual form factor. Very open and omni with reasonable bass and depth despite small drivers.
The MBL room sounded fantastic both the large 101’s and the smaller one’s in the other room. Rep, Jeremy is always great at setup (maybe it’s the plants?). Probably best of show. After hours we went to the local dealer to hear the Extremes and they were as stated…Extreme and amazing!
On the budget side was a number of great bang for buck speakers. The small Valorem speakers sounded great. We heard a system with Polk’s powered by Denon that sounded excellent. We heard the small floor standing Maggie’s at the Magna Risers stand and even in that crowded huge room you could tell they sounded exceptional (for a $750 setup), but you would want to pair them with a sub. The tiny Vanatoo’s sounded amazing. Both the larger and smaller Mon speakers with aluminum cabinets sounded fantastic. Monitor Audio mini monitors sounded great.
Other cool things… some DIY booths and rooms like Hypex, Parts Express and LInkwitz. Linkwitz had one built up that sounded great. There were many turntables budget and beautiful works of art like the Triangle Art decks. Records, CD’s and more headphones and headphone amps than you could count. Other table speakers (I really like speakers) included various Sonus Faber, Cabasse, Muraidio, Janzen, Big Estelon’s that I thought sounded great, but Leslie thought were a bit dry. Spatial Audio is out with a new model that was also a crowd pleaser. I wanted to go back to many, but we ran out of time.
So much good stuff. We did catch a live show. Toronto Cannon, local blues guitarist. I thought he was fantastic, just ripping on his Les Paul Goldtop. Great voice, very humorous original songs about lost loves and other interesting topics, superb entertainer. The food in the restaurant at the event was good too and not overpriced. This was a terrific show overall and we look forward to future Axpona’s. The Chicago weather as usual provided cold, warm, sunny and rainy days so a little something for all wardrobes. Thanks to all organizers, the hotel and the manufactures, dealers and attendees! Hifi is Back!