Audio Shows 101: What to Expect As A First-Timer

A guide for newbies to make the most of the audio show experience.

Since audio shows have been sidelined for the year, I felt it might be a good time to offer some of our readers an overview of a typical show, and what to expect from one. After all, they’ll return someday. There are common misconceptions about these shows, which I hope to dismiss by pointing out the many reasons I attend.

Roll back the calendar to the early 2010s. One of my pals in Chicago was telling us about the audio show he had attended. In subsequent years, he would pester me about attending this show (AXPONA) since I live less than five hours away—an easy drive. In 2016, it was time. I made a reservation at a hotel about ten minutes away from the Westin O’Hare where AXPONA was being held, purchased a three-day pass online, and attended the show.

This wasn’t my first trip to an audio show, but it had been almost four decades since I had attended anything similar. As a teenager, my father had learned of a show near where we lived, and we went.  I can’t remember the exact year, but I bought a half-speed mastered copy of John Klemmer’s Touch from a little upstart audiophile label named Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. The following year, a similar show took place downtown at Cobo Hall, our local convention center (now TCF Center). Following that, no other shows came up on our radar.

We did, however, make yearly visits to the Detroit Auto Show and upon experiencing AXPONA for the first time, the show environment felt familiar enough to me that I didn’t feel out of place. Despite the difference in products, the shows do share some similarities – bright lights and shiny things, large gatherings of enthusiasts, hopeful sales representatives making a pitch, even the lukewarm overpriced convention food and drink.

Since then I have made a point to visit AXPONA every year (this year excepted). It has grown to become one of the country’s major audio shows and is the only one that caters to our part of the US. Prior to our current travel restrictions, I also had plans to attend this year.

Many audio enthusiasts are indifferent to these shows or, for whatever reason, are against them, especially those people who have never attended one! I felt it would give an interesting perspective to tell everyone why I like to attend, and to note that I get a lot more out of these shows than looking at expensive shiny things! I am not a full-blown “industry insider,” so I approach a show differently than someone who attends multiple shows per year.

Expect to see a lot of rooms, like this Luxman Audio display. Photo by Harris Fogel, New York Audio Show, November 2019.

Reasons for Attending

First, why go? One factor is that AXPONA is the only major show that takes place within driving distance for me. But the bigger picture is that an audio show gives me the opportunity to experience brands I would otherwise never have a chance to see. Throughout the 1980s, a buddy and I used to travel up Woodward Ave. and visit the four audio stores located among Royal Oak and Birmingham, Michigan, stopping at a record store or two along the way. We’d get a good idea of what was new and exciting and became familiar with many of the brands available. Today, there are fewer retail stores, spread much farther apart and carrying fewer brands. An audio show replaces those lost experiences with brands I can only read about otherwise.

Second, I go to audition specific brands and models. I may read about a component that interests me, and in many cases will be able to hear it, or a similar model, at the show. If not, I still have the opportunity to speak with company representatives or in some cases, the company owner(s) or founder(s), some of whom are legendary. I tend to buy most of my components used, but a favorable impression at the show will inform future purchases, and I may end up buying that model years down the road. Some manufacturers’ products also have a “sound” to them, and an audition of their current lineup helps me get a feel for that.

Some of the exhibit rooms are large, like this one featuring VAC, Von Schweikert and Esoteric at Capital Audio Fest 2019.

I realize that many audiophiles complain about the sound of the rooms at the shows. They are correct – the sound can be variable. Some rooms are poorly set up, while other manufacturers pay much more attention to the inflexibilities of the room and apply room treatment and other techniques so they don’t sound quite as bad. I don’t go to a show to judge ultimate sound quality. Instead, I can get a feel for some of the equipment’s finer qualities, which is sometimes enough to motivate me to seek out a proper audition.

The third reason I attend is to get ideas to bring home and apply to my own system. If an accessory or interconnects make an impression on me, for instance, I might investigate a similar improvement at home. Even such details as room treatments and speaker placement are not lost on me – there is nothing so challenging as properly setting up a room at an audio show, and very few of us have dedicated rooms at home for listening, so seeing how other people do it is enlightening.

A fourth reason is to attend the lectures and demonstrations. While many don’t interest me, I do earmark some of them to visit if they are helpful or feature an industry figure I am interested in learning more about. One of the most informative lectures I attended was a seminar on room treatment by Bob Hodas of Bob Hodas Acoustic Analysis – it taught me a few new concepts and reinforced those I already practiced.

A fifth reason to attend an audio show, and the highlight for some, is the vendor marketplace. Many audiophile and used-vinyl dealers set up areas where attendees can browse and purchase recordings. Others sell accessories like cables and interconnects, isolation devices, vinyl cleaning systems, room treatments, and even furniture. A few vendors sell at full list price, but others will often offer a show discount and will extend that discount to online orders placed during a time period after the show ends.

The Marketplace at a recent AXPONA. Photo by Rudy Radelic.

Outside the marketplace, some of the manufacturers will have show specials, and a few of them sell off their demo components at a discount so they do not have to haul or ship them back home. Even if it appears nothing is on sale, ask! It might be a good way to break the ice and make yourself a sweet deal on something new for your system. Budget some extra funds if you are looking for a new component. Even if you don’t find something to bring home, if you can get a good deal at the show and leave a deposit to get your order in, you are ahead of the game.

Finally, an audio show is all about the networking, one of the most important parts for me. I like making contact with industry members. I also enjoy the company and camaraderie of friends and other audiophiles, especially those I may have only known before as a screen name on an internet forum.  In addition to my Chicago pals (and a few others who might find their way to Chicago), members of our local audio club and their friends attend AXPONA. We often go out to dinner after the show or will hang out in one of the exhibit rooms if they stay open after official show hours (often loosely enforced if at all). If there is a live performance we are interested in, we might attend that. At most audio shows, some rooms host after-hours listening parties (which I unfortunately have missed). Rumor has it that the cocktail lounges at the hotels stay active into the wee hours of the morning, with the libations pouring freely. [These rumors are correct. – Ed.]

A Few More Thoughts

One thing that bothers some audiophiles is the cost of the equipment. They feel that since just about everything is out of their reach financially, why bother going to a show to listen to components they can never afford? However, they just might be missing out on the benefits I have listed. Browsing manufacturers’ websites and scouring US Audio Mart and Audiogon might be something they can do on their computers, but they miss out on socializing and interacting with others. Our hobbies are very personal to us, and we approach the idea of being audiophiles in many ways; yet it’s helpful to all of us if we congregate and share our experiences.

The Haniwa booth at the New York Audio Show, November 2019.

Should you bring a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend or significant other to the show? You may be smitten with them, but make sure they are smitten with your music and your hobby before bringing them along. It is not hard for a companion to get bored on a trip like this. Maybe an hour or two is fascinating for them, but three long days can be a bit much. If it’s a big city like Chicago, sure, maybe they’ll tag along so they can explore the city while we audiophiles spend time at the show.

I would also offer similar advice for bringing older children with you. If they have an interest in music and a curiosity about how music is reproduced, by all means bring them. Seeing and hearing so many good systems might spark their own interest in this hobby and break the habit of using earbuds and smartphones for music listening. If they take interest in the headphone gear (and most shows have dedicated exhibit areas for headphones), leave them there for a while to explore the many products available. And again, if they want to spend one day at the show and the rest of the time exploring the surrounding city, let them do it. But contrary to the stereotypes, these shows are not exclusively the domain of aging, greying middle-aged men. I have increasingly seen younger attendees at AXPONA in the few years I have attended. [I’ve seen this at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF), Capital Audio Fest, CanJam and other shows as well – Ed.]

Most audio shows have an area dedicated to headphones. Photo by Rudy Radelic.

Are accommodations expensive? On average, I would say they are affordable, in the sense that a nice, clean hotel room probably starts at around $100 per night (Manhattan excluded!), most of those having a complimentary breakfast included. There may be rooms available where the show is held, but they usually get booked up first by the exhibitors with maybe a small amount left over. If you are lucky enough to find one, expect to pay a hefty premium over the rooms at surrounding hotels. For AXPONA, there are enough hotels nearby in Schaumburg to find something affordable and within walking distance. At RMAF, you can find something a mile or two away.

To make the most of your time, plan ahead. Get there an hour before the show opens on the first day, in order to get your ticket, wristband and/or badge. Use your program and prioritize what you want to see. Make note of any seminars or product demonstrations and plan your schedule around them. If you want time in a less-crowded room, try to plan your visits to those rooms earlier or later in the day.  For lunch, plan on mediocre, overpriced hotel restaurant or convention center food. Some prefer to eat off-premises, but that eats up a lot of time and I feel that I can eat out 365 days of the year, but can only attend an audio show for only a couple of days per year. I’ll suffer the culinary delights of convention food, thank you.

It goes without saying that you should dress appropriately. Not necessarily business casual, but showing up in a tank top, cut-off shorts and flip-flops is not conducive to having your peers and especially the company representatives take you seriously. But also, dress appropriately for the city itself. It could be hot or cold outside (welcome to March in Chicago – I’ve seen everything from 82 degrees to a snowstorm on the show weekend), but the rooms themselves are going to be quite warm considering the equipment and amount of people inside. Most importantly, wear some comfortable walking shoes.  If you attend a show for the entire weekend, you will be walking the hallways for miles, taking the stairs instead of the crowded elevators, or standing in busy demo rooms.

But most of all, have fun! That’s what it is all about. Enjoy the music, revel in the sound, socialize, and make the most of a show made just for us – the audiophiles of the world.