Axpona, Chicago, 2015
At the end of April each year is the Axpona Hifi Show in Chicago. Open to the public, I encourage everyone to go some year if they can. There's always something to hear, both good and, unfortunately, bad. I'm still trying to process some of what I saw and heard. Rather than give you a show report or play by play, I'll spare you that, for there are many such reports online, both well done and clueless. What I will say is this:
- Every room we went in that was using digital as a source was instantly recognizable as such. Now remember, I'm not anti-digital, although I'm still constantly asked why my focus overall is on analog only. Well, go to a show. You'll hear it right off. It's not an issue of price, it's an issue of musicality. Do remember, though, the Haven's source first rule: so if digital is your only source, then go for it, BIG! Don't ask me, it's not my specialty. It's out there, like anything in a pasture- you'll step in it soon enough.
- There are some extremely nice people in the hifi biz.
- There are a lot of people trying to make money in hifi.
- There is more gear now than ever before, which makes it crazy to decipher it all, both for a dealer and a hobbyist.
- There are so many expensive products out, and products in general, that are merely adequate or downright fail as musical devices. There are also many inexpensive products that do the same. Why are there fewer middle ground pieces that make music?
Many of those that miss the mark are made or distributed by some of the nice people, so I won't list any here. It is stupefying to walk into some of these rooms and know the costs and see the serious faces like this is great music making. I'm still pondering this. I'm also pondering hobbyists in general. Gives me a good space to eye you up, so to speak. Why some walk into a room that I love, and sit for a sec, and leave, and others come and immediately start tapping their foot. Or the reverse, where we (my listening panel) can't wait to get out of a room, and others are mesmerized. Clearly someone is wrong. It's got to be more than mere personal preference. Ponder ponder I go...that's what riding mowers are for, apparently....
Two of my favorite rooms I'll mention briefly- the Audio Note room and the Volti speaker room. The Volti room was very cohesive and big sounding, using Border Patrol gear and Well Tempered Lab/Dynavector analog. Affordable overall and engaging. The Audio Note was especially interesting to me, for last year's show was my first experience with an all AN system, which I had been wanting to hear for years, and came away extremely disappointed. It was using a lesser grade speaker in the multitude of grades you can order a speaker in, and the whole system was maybe $27k. This year had a better speaker, for a whopping $80k worth of gear, and it was wonderful. Yet, what made me smile most, as my cd of Ellington was spinning away, was that here at the Haven I've assembled musicality at least equal to or surpassing with DeVore loudspeakers driven by Line Magnetic amps, for far far less. Far! That same feel, engagement. Come out for a listen.
I was pleased to see quite a variety of people at the show, and lots of women, not just spouses, who seem to come just to rub their man's backs, heads, whatever while he's listening. But actual hobbyists! Carrying records! A very healthy trend. Welcome aboard, ladies, and come on out to see me. Oh wait, one just did, all the way from KC. Great visit. Thanks!
So it seems if you can sidestep all the manure out there - you know, as those neighbors say- you can find real gear that plays real music. It always isn't easy, and reviews these days are far from accurate, with everyone under the sun getting into it. One has to go out and learn, listen and learn. Don't take their words for it, not even mine. Go, and come, listen.
One quick snarky story aside- sorry, it wouldn't be me if I didn't. On Saturday we stumbled into the Zu speaker room on the basement level, and they are known for tasteful fun. Decent sound this time, not their best, for the room was huge, and so was the speaker spread, yet it did allow one to basically get the sound of their speakers. So while we sat there far in the back listening so the singer didn't sound the size of an elephant, in walks a gentlemen of the audio press, to examine said system/room.
As I observed him, I noticed this....he was a rather rotund chap, with clothes that didn't fit well, looking rather disheveled, camera and camera bag draped around him, notepad in hand, glasses continually sliding down his nose, baseball cap brim knocking into things as he leaned over everything for a closer look. In between note taking he was also busy munching on a big bag of snacks. He looked very much like Dom DeLuise made up for a comedy sketch about chasing butterflies....So after some interrogation of one of the Zu guys who was spinning records, he finally sits down in the front row to write even more copious notes and have a listen. I watched his head go back and forth, up and down, trying to focus on the sonics he was hearing. And after a brief time, with yet more pamphlets in hand, he was off down the hall to investigate more gear. Now I have no idea who he was of the audio press. Certainly not Michael Fremer, that dapper man of hifi. I keep wondering about him, my Dom DeLuise reviewer of some audio club or press. Perhaps he knows music, knows what it takes to put together a system that can make music. Perhaps he's clueless, like someone who thinks Bonanza makes a great steak. Or not that he's clueless ( snarky, I know) maybe he's never heard the qualities of a good system before, hence doesn't have the basic knowledge to write about or put together one. Or maybe he's like Fremer, who gets some things right and some wrong, just like the rest of us. Maybe if I had taken him to a room I deemed great, like the Audio Note or Volti, or even the MBL/United Home Audio open reel room (that's sort of cheating, nothing beats master tapes) and listened with him, I would have known whether he was clued in or whether I needed to take him to Gibson's SteakHouse down the road and show him what a good steak is all about, and then begin my stereo tutelage.
Which comes to my final point and rumination about Axpona and Hifi in general.....where is the learning coming from?
Why are there so many listeners and semi-reviewers and forum bloggers who think they know music reproduction yet don't? Why is there so much bad gear out there? At both the cheap and pricey levels?
I recently had a very eager new hobbyist come to the Haven who asked something rarely heard....how do I become a better listener? That's very far from the "I know what this recording is supposed to sound like", like they were in the studio at the time of the recording. So another point to ponder, with my overall answer being you listen with people who know how to listen. Even in that you can find a wide variation. After a while, however, you'll begin to notice the commonality in what is believed to be the real, the proper reproduction of music thru a system, and at any price point. When one gets to that point all else pales. That's what I've done since I was a kid, it seems to be true for every listener, dealer, distributor,and designer I know that I think has ears to hear the real. We've listened with people who knew.
And as in my reviewer gentlemen above, maybe he had it, maybe he didn't. It appeared he didn't. Yet look at it this way, one can also learn from those that can't.
If I ever get off the lawnmower I'll be posting photos of some new products here at Stereo Haven....stay tuned....