Editor’s Note: You might have noticed that some of our show reports happen some time after the shows occur. This is because of a variety of factors – it takes time to collate all the notes and photos, our writers are busy and don’t do this full-time – and your undemanding editor doesn’t ask that they stay up all night to work on their show reports. Also, the shows have become too big for any one person to cover, so it can be informative to get different perspectives even after the fact.
After a hiatus caused by the pandemic (including a last-minute cancellation in 2021) AXPONA returned to great fanfare in 2022. The show was a hit with the industry and audiophiles alike, undoubtedly driven by pent-up demand from the cancellations in 2020 and 2021, the lack of audio shows in general, and high-end audio’s now-nearly-complete exit from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I was not at AXPONA 2022, but with the great energy coming out of last year’s show and a bit of prodding from my colleagues I made arrangements to attend this year. I headed into Chicago with a lot of anticipation, and realized how much I had come to miss the high-end exhibits at CES. Here’s a selection of the products I saw, with more to come in a future issue.
Focal Bathys Headphones
My AXPONA audio experience started before I even got on the airplane, because I now have a great high-end traveling companion in the new Focal Bathys headphones. Focal is well-known for their wired headphones, specifically their open-back models, and the Bathys is their foray into noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones. They are designed with audiophiles in mind, with high-quality DACs and amplification built-in, and my favorite feature is the USB-C connector that functions as both a digital input and charging port. This is perfect for my iPad Pro’s USB-C port, providing a clean digital signal for the Bathys to work its magic. The only weak link is if you want to use the 3.5mm connection, which converts the incoming analog signal to digital and is the lowest quality of the three available connections (the others being the USB-C port and Bluetooth). This is less than ideal if, for example, you want to listen to an in-flight entertainment system, but they still sound fine in this mode. This is an audiophile’s digital headphone, and at $799 they are relatively affordable for a Focal product. If you travel with a digital device and take your sound quality seriously, these headphones are a great option.
The Focal Bathys headphones offer high-end sound.
NAD C 3050 LE Integrated Amplifier and PSB Passif 50
When you attend an audio show you see a lot of signs and banners. One of the first ones I saw was for the new NAD C 3050 LE integrated amplifier, a throwback design celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary. The external design brings back memories of the earliest NAD products such as the classic 3020 amplifier, products that have been seared into the collective consciousness of audiophiles for decades. Though it features power meters and the “New Acoustic Dimension” logo in the company’s old font, the internals are decidedly different from the high-headroom Class AB NAD integrated amplifiers of years past.
The C 3050 LE features what NAD calls its HybridDigital UcD (Class D) amplifier technology, Dirac Live room correction, aptX HD Bluetooth, a separate subwoofer output, and an HDMI input among many other features. I heard it powering PSB Passif 50 speakers ($2,499 per pair), another heritage-inspired product celebrating PSB’s 50 years. The sound from the combo was very good and provides modern functionality with vintage style. At $1,899 the C 3050 LE is priced a bit on the high side, but when you consider the internals it is completely different from the simple, great sounding, affordable audiophile products that put NAD on the map. I can’t help but wonder if I am not the only one among audiophiles who would have preferred a re-release of the classic 3030 or 3020 amplifiers at a price under $500 as an anniversary celebration, rather than another digital product. The market is already saturated with them and the old, simple ways often sound best and are the most satisfying to work with.
The NAD C 3050 LE: old logo, new design.
The PSB Passif 50 celebrates the company's 50th anniversary.
Saturday Audio Exchange and Bluesound
The C 3050LE and Passif 50 were on display in a room shared with Chicago retailer Saturday Audio Exchange, which displayed a variety of Bluesound audio streamers and other products. They were also doing a lively business selling accessories and used records.
The Bluesound Powernode Edge wireless streaming amplifier. A sign of the times: note the QR code on the fact card; these codes were prevalent throughout the show for providing product information.
McIntosh had an extremely impressive display out in the open on the first floor, with a system priced well into six figures. They demonstrated orchestral music to the crowd and the system did a convincing job recreating it. Given the size and the power of the speakers it understandably could recreate such power and impact, but it also reproduced subtle details extremely well. If you have the room, money and a penchant for classical music, this could well be worth it. I only heard classical music reproduced through the McIntosh system so I cannot comment on how it performs with smaller groups, solo vocalists or popular music.
You want big meters? McIntosh has 'em!
Not far from the McIntosh display were tables holding Audio Research I/50 integrated amplifiers in a variety of appealing colors. Starting at $5,500, the I/50 features slots for two plug-in modules: a DAC and a phono preamp. I have not heard this amplifier, but reviews have been very positive and it provides a reasonably-priced entry into the world of high-end tube amplification, handmade in the USA by a storied manufacturer with a great deal of vacuum tube experience. More Audio Research gear could be heard in one of Chicagoland dealer Quintessence Audio’s rooms, along with Clearaudio turntables, Sonus Faber speakers, and other gear. These products need no introduction and like much of what I saw at the show, are meant for the well-heeled, although the highly-rated Clearaudio Concept AiR turntable/arm combination is reasonably priced at $2,500.
It comes in colors: the Audio Research I/50 integrated amplifier.
T+A had a very impressive demo room loaded with beautiful gear built to the highest standards. T+A is a German manufacturer, with T+A standing for Theory and Application. The room was too busy and the equipment too diverse to do a deep dive into what was there. If you would like to learn more I suggest checking out the T+A website, https://www.ta-hifi.de/en/.
T+A's exhibit featured a wide range of their strikingly-designed product line, all built to impeccable standards.
Soul to Sole Audio
Found in the same room and also extremely enticing were the Soul to Sole record browsers and storage racks. I saw these beautiful racks in many demo rooms throughout the show and soon may be buying one for myself. The company also makes speaker stands.
The Soul to Sole record browsers are enough to make even the most hardened digiphile want to start an LP collection.
Also ubiquitous through the show was the Pangea Audio Vulcan audio rack. I use these racks for my own systems because they are sturdy, simple, functional, look great and sell for under $200. Someone did an excellent job of product placement in getting these in so many demo rooms.
AXPONA’S Expo Hall was on the main floor of the show and featured an array of companies displaying their products, with some offering on-site specials. Among the many exhibitors was Keith Monks. Their compact record cleaning machine uses a vacuum wand to clean the grooves as the wand passes over it. It resembles the iconic Keith Monks machine in its operation, though no string is involved (other models use a thread between the cleaning nozzle and the record being cleaned).
The Keith Monks Prodigy record cleaning machine in action.
There’s always an element of fun at AXPONA, whether it’s the ability to experience the vast range of gear on display, the live music concerts, the wide selection of new and used vinyl, or the chance to win some great gear. Emotiva had a large corner room for displaying their electronics and speakers, and their giveaway raffle held Saturday afternoon was a huge hit as always. Greeting a large and enthusiastic crowd, Emotiva president Dan Laufman called out numbers to award Emotiva headphones, audio components, speakers, and gift certificates to those with the winning numbers. You had to be present to win and several ticket holders missed their chance, including the holder of the first number drawn for the grand prize, a $1,999 Emotiva MR-1 11.2-channel home theater receiver. It definitely pays to be there!
Kind of blue: Emotiva shows off some of their floorstanding tower speakers.
Header image: one of the Quintessence Audio rooms. All images courtesy of the author.