The AXPONA Jacksonville Experience
The view from the 16th floor of the Omni Jacksonville may look a bit bleak, but AXPONA was anything but. Initial disappointment at the number of exhibits, which diminished to 28 or so when three parties who had contracted for multiple rooms were forced to cancel due to illness, was replaced by delight as I kept encountering enthusiastic attendees hungry for good sound.
Talks with several exhibitors, including Dick Diamond of YG Acoustics and Rob Robinson of Channel D, revealed their delight at meeting a goodly number of knowledgeable audiophiles who were as educated and committed as they were eager to explore. Hey, Jacksonville may not have a reputation as a capital of cultural sophistication, but I could play Schubert and Mahler as well as Rosa Passos and Charles Lloyd without everyone running for cover.
To these eyes, this AXPONA was far more organized than the first AXPONA two years ago. Signage was good, the show booklet accurate, and things seemed to flow. The hotel was goodexcellent service, nice workout area, many large air-walled exhibit rooms, fair sized rooms and bigger corner suites, a restaurant with good food and drink and other restaurants nearbyand the staff as friendly as that at the Denver Marriott Tech Center used by the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Internet, too, was fast and reliable. Overcast did in Florida's fabled sunshine, but it sure didn't affect the sound. And proximity to the Jacksonville Symphony's live reference across the street, and the laid back feel of the waterfront and environs, were other distinct pluses.
Of course, every hotel brings to exhibitors a unique host of acoustic problems. Several exhibitors resorted to the old mattresses behind drapes trick, while one in particular, Alan Eichenbaum of Scaena, went crazy trying to locate the source of the buzz in his air-walled conference room until he noticed that he had the one and only suite in which the Omni was experimenting with LED overhead lighting. Guess who turned what off in a flash. (A word to the wiseinstall at your own risk.) Exhibitors who didn't have a clue about room acoustics and equipment set-up paid for it, while a surprising large number achieved far better sound than you'd expect from a new-to-everyone hotel venue.
When I visited a small number of rooms at CES this year, I more than once encountered sound that was so off that I found myself resorting to the word "fraud." There were no frauds at AXPONA Jacksonville. Some systems were more neutral sounding than others, but everything I heard reflected a designer's educated understanding of the natural sound of instruments rather than a synthetic, studio-contrived concoction of same.
As you read through these show blogs, you'll discover that five rooms vied for personal "Best of Show." In the end, perhaps because MBL North America's Jeremy Bryan had the advantage of working with a closed system of components that were designed to work in synergy, the Palmetto Leaf goes to the sound of his fabulous Reference Line Combination D array ($259,700 plus cabling). I hate to confess to lust, but there you have it. What especially blew me away was how good MBL North America's far less expensive Corona Line Combination B ($39,000 plus cabling) sounded.
Runners up for "Best" were, in this order, Scaena, Audio Power Labs, and, in a curious tie, the completely different-sounding rooms of YG Acoustics and Avatar Acoustics. Note that the last two occupied smaller hotel rooms on the 4th and 5th floors, which affected the quality of the sound they could achieve. Blogs on these five rooms are especially lengthy and detailed, so I hope you'll give them a read. Check out as well blogs on several far lower priced systems that were a delight to encounter. I'm sure the French Horn Guy, AXPONA's unofficial mascot, would want you to.
On a personal note, I am grateful to return to blogging for Stereophile after a year's hiatus. I was apprehensive at the prospect of covering a Show in three days, and relieved to discover that cancellations had made my job far more manageable. It also made possible, for the first time in my blogging history, the ability to revisit rooms that had made significant changes to their sound, or that I wanted to spend more time in. That luxury also makes me far more confident that my reports are accurate, if ultimately relative to the iffy hotel environment.
I'm hardly a big drinkerJohn Atkinson frequently joshes that my expenses claim for gallons of spring water usually tops that for alcoholbut I raise the proverbial glass, filled with whatever works for whatever path or step you're on, to this industry. Many of us have been at it for a long timecertainly far longer than I have. Yet I don't think I encountered a single exhibitor whose choice of equipment or music didn't reflect a deep love for this hobby. Yes, there was an over-reliance on female vocals and classical warhorses, but there was also a lot of new jazz and even stuff farther out. And, imagine this, I didn't hear a single track by Diana Krall! For that, and a whole lot more, I give thanks.
Thank you for listening.