Above: The PS Audio crew and friends (from front left around the table): Mike Bechtel, Cindi Bechtel, Jay Jay French, Chris Brunhaver, Aaron Marrs, James Herod, Jim Laib (doing his impersonation of the Flash), Chris Harden, Scott McGowan, Terri McGowan (partially hidden), Paul McGowan, Frank Doris, Rudy Radelic, Jessica Carson (Octave Records).
While I don't know how many readers of my columns regularly go to high-end hi-fi shows, I can say that this year's AXPONA was an eye opener for me in ways that I didn't anticipate when I decided to go.
Full disclosure: I had credentials for the event from two companies: PS Audio (thank you Paul McGowan and his entire hard-working PS Audio staff) and Magico (thank you Alon Wolf and Peter Mackay). I own equipment and speakers from both companies.
I wanted to go to AXPONA this year, first and foremost, as the last show I attended was pre-COVID and I wanted to get out there again to see old friends in the industry and see and hear what the latest toys were like.
I started going to hi-fi shows in 1978 when such a thing was still relatively new. I would go to the old Statler Hilton hotel on Seventh Avenue in New York CIty and roam room to room with what seemed like thousands of audio fans. The show was called the New York Hi-Fi Stereo Music Show in those days.
Some of the exhibitors, to name a few, back then included Kenwood, Onkyo, Technics, Tandberg, Bose, Dynaco, Dahlquist, Nakamichi, Ohm, Advent, Koss, Hafler, Luxman, Sennheiser, Phase Linear, SAE, Revox, Acoustic Research (AR), Pickering, Audio-Technica, Advent, JBL, and Altec Lansing.
To the best of my memory, the gear on display did not cost “sticker shock” money (unless one had absolutely no idea how much a nice 2-channel stereo system would cost). The point is that an investment of $2,500 – $5,000 (Today’s equivalent, about 15 to 20K) got you a really good stereo.
I remember thinking that I could buy most of what I saw at that show, and at no point did I think that any of the gear was insanely overpriced.
In those days there also was no high-end cable industry.
No rack systems, record washing machines, not many accessories to speak of except for items like the Dust Bug or Discwasher record brushes. There were reel-to-reel machines, and you could buy outboard Dolby noise reduction units for them.
Phono cartridges topped out at about $175.00.
The rooms were always packed and the sound was erratic, but it didn't matter because you just wanted to drool over the hardware.
A Revox A700 reel-to-reel was about $1,600 back then and if you were in the music/studio business, that was certainly an obtainable object.
I hadn't gone to many shows from that point onward, as I was always traveling, but over the past 10 years I had started going to some of the smaller New York shows again.
In 2019 I was convinced by Ken Kessler and several other Munich audio show veterans to attend the Munich HIGH END show.
The Munich show was huge, packed, and as I walked through the front door, I was met by the first display:
it was by Acoustic Signature, who had their top-of-the-line Invictus turntable (as well as their entire lineup of tables, arms and cartridges), placed right up front. The table, priced at about 150K, made me realize I wasn't in Kansas anymore!
On exhibit at AXPONA 2023: the Acoustic Signature Montana Neo turntable.
Interestingly, as crazy as that was, after not too long a stroll down an aisle, I came across the very large Pro-Ject/ E.A.T. (European Audio Team) display which had dozens of affordable (yes, that is a relative term in this hobby…LOL) turntable options. The way the show was laid out, it just didn't quite hit me that most of the gear was unobtainable, at least not at first. As one meandered into all the separate halls, you came across the big toys, but it all seemed somewhat “normal.”
That brings me to AXPONA.
At first my thoughts were that I would simply just report on certain displays and gear.
I would keep it all neutral.
I couldn't know what the respective rooms would sound like or how all of the associated gear would function. For PS Audio, their gear and room display was totally from the company except for the cables. Speaker companies, such as Magico, partner with a host of different companies and that can become an issue of synergy as it relates to the products being demoed.
You really can't, for example, show off a $2,500 speaker with $150,000 worth of electronics. Well, you could, and probably make the speakers sound as good as they could possibly sound, but trying to explain that exercise is just not worth the time.
To that point, I did just that in my listening room for about six months when my apartment was being remodeled and was in between having new reference loudspeakers.
I had my front end (approximately 130K of electronics, cables and power conditioners) connected to a pair of $599 retail speakers.
My wife told me that it was the best my room had ever sounded!
I loved attending Munich and had planned to go again this May, but I had to attend a family wedding and I decided to attend AXPONA. I got to Chicago a day early, went to the Renaissance in Schaumburg where AXPONA was held, and had the pleasure of watching two rooms being set up.
There usually is some griping at shows about how many of the rooms sound bad. That is understandable, as these rooms, whether large or small, are either meeting rooms or hotel rooms and suites and none of them are designed for music reproduction. It takes a lot of work to get them prepped for a show.
I watched Peter Mackay work to get the Magico S5 Mk II loudspeakers optimized in both a large conference room and a smaller hotel suite. The large room was partnered with all-Luxman products and the smaller room with Convergent Audio Technology (CAT) electronics and other gear.
Getting big rooms right is the biggest challenge as far as I can tell.
PS Audio also had a large room. In both the PS Audio and CAT rooms, the rooms were acoustically “shortened” by either large dividers or baffles. In both cases, the effect of the room acoustics was curtailed, which gave the gear a much better chance to sound good. I also watched how long it took the PS Audio crew to get their room together.
I want to be clear about these observations. These were really good-sounding rooms, as were many others. There also were poor-sounding rooms, mostly the large ones.
I found that many of the smaller rooms had appropriately-sized speakers and electronics that really showed off the gear. Smaller rooms are so much easier to control.
The choice of music was mostly from streaming devices. There were a lot of turntables on hand but it probably became much easier for the exhibitors to just pick streaming tracks (Qobuz was a sponsor, hence all streaming was through Qobuz) and let them play. It also allowed listeners to request their favorite tracks, which I suppose was both a blessing and a curse for the manufacturers, who usually like to control all aspects of a demo.
What was my takeaway?
After three full days of walkthrough it became clear that our “little” hobby’ has reached an economic strata that few could ever have imagined would happen.
The Clearaudio Statement V2 turntable.
Whereas in the ’70s I believe that 95 percent of the displayed gear was reasonably obtainable, at the AXPONA show it looked to me like 95 percent of the gear was not. The show has become, in my opinion, an aspirational display of the mostly unobtainable.
Someone is buying this stuff, right? Of course! But I think most of those people do not go to hi-fi shows.
I met one of the biggest TechDAS turntable dealers in the country, who has sold several TechDAS Air Force Zero ’tables (500K without tone arms, 550K with the titanium platter), and he had just installed a system that listed for…SEVEN MILLION DOLLARS!
But for the most part, those buyers do not go to these shows. I think most of the people (and by the way, the show seemed packed) seemed like tire kickers.
Yes, they may read the magazines, but how were they reacting to the price sheets that were displayed outside of the listening rooms that told you what you were about to see and hear and how much the stuff cost?
In one room they were demoing the following:
- Wilson Audio Alexia 5 loudspeaker, $67,000 ($79,500 in the special finish shown)
- Clearaudio Innovation Wood turntable, $20,000
- Turntable stand for above, $16,000
- Hana Umami Blue moving-coil cartridge, $2,500
- DCS Rossini Apex DAC, $32,800, plus DCS clock, $10,850
- Audio Research line stage, phono stage and power amps, $108,000
- Kubala-Sosna cables, $88,000
- Ultra Q equipment rack, $23,335
Total list for the room: $380,985.
And this was not the most expensive room. There were exhibits with well over one million dollars of equipment.
How many audiophiles have systems that are even five percent of that?
When my friends ask me how this stuff sounds, I say, “It sounds good!”
Because it does sound good, but when there are now monoblock amplifiers that cost more than 100K per pair and are considered appropriate for your home audio system, then we have reached another level of crazy.
I call these purchases the “I am not married!” systems.
The rear panel of the mighty Gryphon Apex amplifier. Talk about dual-mono: note the dual power switches and power cord receptacles.
Most of the turntables I saw on display (the show has become so big it’s impossible for one person to cover it all even in three days) were priced at or near the “budget” number of $10,000, although I saw a Clearaudio Statement V2 for around 300K and an SME 60th Anniversary for $73,000. Yes, some tables in the $10,000 - $13,000 range (the Thorens TD125 direct-drive, the Luxman PD-191A) had hard-wired arms, but some didn’t, and one would have to factor in that additional cost (say at least 2K) and you would probably be spending let’s say $2,000 on a cartridge and another 3K on interconnects and power cords and at another 3 to 5K on a phono stage…well you see where this is going.
Luxman's PD-191A turntable.
The SME Model 60 turntable, celebrating the company's diamond anniversary.
The Pure Fidelity Harmony, another turntable with striking visual appeal.
In the Nordost room, with four VTL (Vacuum Tube Logic) monoblocks, I took a peek behind the amps. From what I could surmise, I was looking at about $300,000 of Odin 2 speaker cables and interconnects on the floor.
That just about says it all.
In almost every Letters to the Editor section in Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, someone is canceling their subscription because the reviewed gear is way out of the reader’s price range. One can, after walking around AXPONA, sympathize with these comments.
As someone who has been in this game for 50 years as both a consumer as well as a salesman, I'm shocked – but I can also put together great entire systems for $10,000 (about $2,500 in 1979 money).
They should think about demoing that level of gear in several rooms.
Was there a “budget” room at the show?
There was a very big room dedicated to records and gear, which was full of vinyl from Music Direct, Acoustic Sounds, Elusive Disc and others, and also on exhibit were lower-priced turntables, music streamers and other gear, along with a lot of record cleaning machines, racks, and accessories.
You need to give people hope!
Having said all of this, I can tell you that the two rooms I spent the most time in, PS Audio and Magico/Luxman, sounded excellent and the listeners all seemed very impressed with what they heard, as I expected they would.
The Magico/Luxman room.
You want monoblocks? We got 'em! The VTL/Stenheim/Nordost room.
If you believe that inflation is the culprit for today’s prices…well, even if you consider that the dollar is worth about four times more now than it was in 1979, it's not about inflation.
90 percent of the companies that displayed gear in 1979 at the New York Audio Show are no longer in business.
I just want to say at this point that current inexpensive systems (let’s say under 10K all-in) by a number of well-known manufacturers can sound fantastic, because lots of the crazy expensive technology of yesterday can be had for bargain prices today, proving it does trickle down…if you know where to look.
I wonder who of all the companies I saw at the show will still be around in 2060, and, more importantly, how will we be listening to music then?
The beauty, I guess, is not knowing, although like college tuition, the cost of reaching audio nirvana (to some folks) continues to soar, unabated.
The many seminars at AXPONA 2023 were informative and well-attended.
All photos courtesy of the author except for the header image, courtesy of Stephen Alexander.