Another 2024 AXPONA Report: Shattered Goals and Aimless Wandering?

Another 2024 AXPONA Report: Shattered Goals and Aimless Wandering?

Written by Rudy Radelic

Let’s admit this right up front: AXPONA is a ginormous, mahoosive audio show. Some of us simultaneously look forward to the event as much as we dread it. My weary bones at the end of Saturday reminded me of two things – one, I’m over the idea of taking the stairs for a while and two, I ain’t no spring chicken! I did appreciate the free cardio workout, however!

Part of the problem is the venue. Elevators? Sure, they have elevators. Only, the wait during peak times can be as much as 20 minutes to get from one of the two main floors to the upper floors of the Renaissance Schaumburg. Six elevators aren’t enough, and the situation was made worse by two that were operating erratically. I never once saw the “Express” elevator. Does it even exist? Did it launch itself out of the roof of the Renaissance Schaumburg in Willie Wonka fashion?



The hotel was big. This is just a fraction of it.


So that left the stairways. From the time I arrived in mid-afternoon Friday until I left Sunday around 1:30 p.m., I only took the elevator twice. (And the second elevator was one of the malfunctioning lifts, and we had to disembark and take the next one, as it froze in place with its controls not responding.) All the rest of my travels throughout the show, bottom to top and back, were via stairs.

When attempting to cover a show as part of the media, though, that approach doesn’t often work, and I found myself retracing my steps a few times as I went back to a presentation in a room, or realized I’d missed a poorly-marked room that I had wanted to see.

But, I made it through. I got home Sunday evening, took my vitamins, and realized that I came up somewhat empty-handed for a project I had proposed to tackle for this show report. Otherwise, I still took notes of systems I heard that are well worth mentioning.

I made my annual stop at Butcher Block Acoustics and noticed that the three-shelf version of their RigidRack had apparently grown taller. Was it just me? Had I grown shorter? Not at all! New to their product offerings, the RigidRack Plus is a version of the rack with taller spacing between shelves – four additional inches on the bottom shelf for taller amplifiers, and two additional inches on the shelf above it. The four-shelf version has similarly been “stretched.” (They do not offer custom sizes, but they now offer standard and “plus” legs with different shelf spacing.)

As with all Butcher Block Acoustics products, the woodworking and finishing is top notch, the racks sturdy, and while the prices seem a little steep, it’s no different from other fine furnishings available today. (Point of reference – the wooden Amish tables in our living room have risen about 50 percent in price over the past three years. Just the wood itself has gotten expensive!)



Butcher Block Acoustics offered an expanded selection (literally) of equipment racks.


Elsewhere in the Exhibition Hall, more record vendors set up shop this year, including some independent used record dealers as well as the usual audiophile store appearances. I escaped their clutches mostly unscathed (especially the UHQRs and OneSteps – we shouldn’t be normalizing $100+ records), but could not resist finally adding both of Kevin Gray’s Cohearant Records releases to my collection (Kirsten Edkins’ Shapes & Sound, and Anthony Wilson’s Hackensack West). The Analogue Productions Greatest Hits by War came home with me as well, as did a couple of picks from one of the used record stores, Picture Sleeve 45s (below), who came up from Plano, Texas with an impressive selection of titles.



There were many records for sale at the show.


A seemingly endless array of rooms awaited, as did the similarly endless flights of stairs. I tackled a few of the lower floors after my late arrival on Friday afternoon. (Thank you, Chicago traffic and road construction.) For 2024, I was going to attempt to assemble a budget system of components I could audition in person at the show. Unfortunately, anything lower-budget was most often sitting on the sidelines as display units, which meant I couldn’t audition them. But I still heard systems that impressed me.

Surprisingly, one of them was Yamaha, a name that has been around for more than a century. They were running a demo of their NS-800A bookshelf speakers when I visited the room, and was pleasantly surprised by how little coloration there was throughout the frequency range.  (One interesting feature is that the woofer cones were made partially of wood reclaimed from their piano manufacturing division.) Despite missing the lowest octave of music, the rest was nicely balanced and imaged well. They would be too pricey for a budget system (they retail for $2,400/pair), but would hold their own with other speakers their size in that price range.



Part of Yamaha's extensive display.


They powered the system with their R-N2000A network receiver, which offered an AM/FM tuner (a novelty these days!) and streaming capabilities. While the model on demo was again too much for a budget system, the smaller brother R-N600A lists for $900, with 105 watts per channel, and would be a solid basis for a system with its tuner, streaming features, and phono input.

The other half of Yamaha’s suite offered a timeline exhibit with some of their products over the past several decades. The earliest on display was the Yamaha Hi-Fi Player, from 1954. How times have changed!



The Yamaha Hi-Fi Player from 1954.


Two surprises awaited me in the Morel room. Morel is an Israeli speaker manufacturer, whose name I recognized both from the speaker components they sell at Madisound, and from the world of automotive sound. (I have two pairs of Morel speakers in my daily driver’s sound system.) Morel was using this year’s AXPONA to reintroduce themselves to the home speaker market and I have to say that the Avyra 633 towers they had on demo were quite impressive for their size, with a weight to the lower frequencies that was full, yet not at all boomy. List price for the pair is $2,000. (See the header image for this article.) 

Off to the side of the room were a smaller set of bookshelf speakers with matching stands, the Avyra 622. As their drivers are similar, I would feel as though they would provide the same engaging sound of the towers, yet only lack in the low frequencies. The speakers are $1,200 for the pair, with an extra $300 for the matching stands. The Avyra series also offers a center channel and three subwoofer choices, and is their entry-level home speaker series.



The Morel Avyra 622 bookshelf speakers, complete with matching stands.


The second surprise in the room was something smaller and self-powered. Morel offers a Bluetooth speaker, the BIGGIE, for $299 each. If you buy a pair, they will connect as a stereo pair and for under $600, you can own a very convincing portable sound system to take with you. Unlike most mass-market Bluetooth speakers, these have a very neutral tonal quality and a soundstage you won’t get with other portables. Each speaker is powered by two Class D amplifiers – 45 watts for the woofer, and 15 watts for the tweeter. Battery life is up to 20 hours with volume at 50 percent. It measures a diminutive 7 x 7 x 4.5 inches and is available in nine colors (the Oak Wood version is pictured below).


Here's the small but impressive Morel BIGGIE portable speaker system.


I will admit I’m not a fan of horn-loaded speakers, having heard way too many that were too “clumsy” sounding in the bass, too colored in the high end and often, just too damned loud. Yet with Klipsch offering us a chance to hear their Cornwall IV (from their Heritage series), I felt like I should stop in and revisit a speaker I hadn’t heard in decades. The Cornwall IVs sounded much better than I remembered them, with a smoothness to the highs I wasn’t expecting. I was very surprised at first to hear some really low, deep bass, only to realize they had paired it with a gigantic subwoofer off to the side. (You can see the massive driver just off the right edge of the photo.) With the lowest octaves finally filled in, the system in the room provided a very pleasant listening experience.  The Unison Research Simply 845 integrated amplifier was a perfect pairing for this system.



Still going strong after decades: the Klipsch Cornwall IV loudspeakers. 


Avantgarde Acoustics also demonstrated a horn-based speaker in their suite – the MEZZO G3. This setup provided a very nicely balanced and clean sound characteristic and was probably the least “horn-tinted” sound I heard at the show.  I only poked my head in for a few moments but enjoyed my time in the room. The MEZZO G3s feature a horn midrange and tweeter, crossing over at 170 Hz to a powered subwoofer unit. Time alignment of the horns’ drivers keeps the drivers on the same axis, something that some other horn-speaker manufacturers neglect to address. This provided the coherency and pinpoint imaging these speakers are capable of.



The Avantgarde MEZZO G3 horn loudspeaker system.


One system that polarized many attendees I spoke with this year was a $4 million system, the Dragon System by ESD Acoustic, that featured massive horn speakers and a wall of electronics (many of them low-powered tube amplifiers). I will say to its credit that it…played loudly. It was so loud that I took the following photo three feet beyond the doors to the room, as I wasn’t going to risk aggravating my tinnitus further. It was a curiosity…and I’ll leave it at that.



You want big sound? The ESD and Auralic system certainly fit the bill.


After my years of being around audiophile equipment, including my own, I’ve come to the realization that the speakers which sound most lifelike to me are those that are planar speakers, or variations thereof. Electrostatics and Magnepans are the obvious examples, but speakers with ribbon tweeters and midranges will always get my attention and more often than not, have the tonal characteristics I’m familiar with and prefer for their uncolored and accurate presentation, and quick response.

British loudspeaker manufacturer Wharfedale has been around since 1932, and coming across a pair of their Elysian 4 speakers in the Vinyl Sound room was a welcome surprise. I found them to have not only the sweet, uncolored highs that I appreciate (thanks to their ribbon tweeter), but the tonal balance was spot-on as well. I had a seat too far off-axis so I stayed in the room for a handful of selections. These sell for a buck under $10K per pair.



Here are Wharfedale's Elysian 4 loudspeakers.


One of the more interesting speaker designs I discovered was from Treehaus Audiolab. Their speakers use a full-range field coil driver, along with a 15-inch DSP-controlled woofer and a Fostex super tweeter, all on an open baffle. The woodworking on this model (the Phantom of Luxury) was eye-catching and quite impressive. (I believe they call this style “Walnut Cookies.”) Treehaus has a system approach as the field coil driver requires a separate power supply, so they offer their companion tube power amplifiers and preamplifier for the speakers. Unfortunately the room was too crowded to get a proper audition and I didn’t get a chance to revisit later in the day.



"Organic" is a word thrown around frequently in audio circles, but the Treehaus Audiolab system truly lived up to the name.


I didn’t get much of a chance to listen to the newest Andrew Jones speakers either (the MoFi SourcePoint 888 – the room was just too packed to get into, each time I tried). But one of the companies he worked for in the past, TAD, was represented in the room hosted by electronics manufacturer Wells Audio. I spent an engaging few moments in their room enjoying both the sound of their equipment, as well as the unique physical design of their handcrafted components. Meters seem to be the “thing” this year, and theirs had the appearance of a fine watch being surrounded by a gold bezel. Their Commander Level I preamp, Innamorata II power amp, and Looking Glass II power conditioner were adorned with meters, while the Cipher Level II DAC did without.



The Wells Audio room was a feast for the eyes and ears.


One final highlight of AXPONA was hearing the excellent sound in the Linkwitz Audio room, as it provided the perfect environment for listening to one selection each from the two recordings released by Kevin Gray’s Cohearant Records label, presented by the man himself. I got to chat with Kevin for a moment prior to the invitation-only presentation, and it was very interesting to hear how he assembled his all-tube recording chain, from the microphones to the cutting head, over the course of 15 years. His recording studio is actually the living room of his house, having realized the dimensions of the room were acoustically ideal. This is nothing new, as Rudy Van Gelder began recording in his parents’ living room in Hackensack, New Jersey, which is the inspiration for Kevin’s studio being nicknamed Hackensack West.



The Linkwitz Audio room hosted a number of well-attended seminars.


The Linkwitz LX521 systems in the suite were based on three drivers in an infinite baffle array, placed on a sub-bass unit whose design decouples the outer wooden “shell” from the main enclosure. It was an open, natural sound, all the more enhanced by the sound quality of Kevin’s recordings. While Cohearent’s sound has all the liquidity and lushness that goes with vacuum tubes, the electronics, modern-day recording tape, and other advancements in the ensuing decades contribute to a clean, modern sound that is rare among studios today. Kevin Gray has a winner on his hands with these recordings, and I hope he can find time out of his busy schedule to do more of these.



The Linkwitz LX521 system has an unmistakable design.


For those interested, the two albums used for the demo were Kirsten Edkins’ Shapes & Sound, and Anthony Wilson’s Hackensack West. They are available at the usual online audio stores, and distribution is being handled by Mike Esposito of The ‘In’ Groove in Phoenix, Arizona so they may be available at your local record store soon, if not already.

Any complaints about the show overall? Beyond the venue-specific issues, only two. First, some rooms were just way too loud. I don’t know of anyone who listens at high levels at home, and for those of us suffering from tinnitus, all the loudness does is aggravate it. The other complaint – please play music that more of us are familiar with. I realize that a manufacturer needs a core library of songs to show off the best of their equipment (and those are helpful), but we also would like to hear at least a little of the music we actually play at home. I’ll be honest: I’m more attracted to a mediocre system playing music I like, vs. an accurate and expensive system playing music I can’t stand.

Looking back at the show, it has become the largest audio show in North America, and every year it seems to be even bigger than the last. There is only so much a person can see at these shows. Thankfully I won’t do anything silly like proclaim a “Best of Show” award on any single room, as that is a highly subjective and rather pointless accolade. But I’ve pointed out some rooms that I personally enjoyed (and one that left me underwhelmed). I also missed a handful of exhibitors who chose not to attend AXPONA this year.

Seeing the status quo of today’s audiophile offerings, and meeting up with many friends and acquaintances made over the years makes the show a worthwhile visit. Thankfully I’m only five hours away via a handful of Interstate highways, and I consider myself to be fortunate to be conveniently located so close to a major audio show like AXPONA. So barring any major catastrophes in life (deafness, blindness, loss of my Wyndham Rewards points), I will be back at the show in 2025, ready for another round of the latest audio equipment…and lots of cardio!


All images courtesy of the author.

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