It's Showtime!

Photo: Jason Victor Serinus

Though I'm writing this in early March, this As We See It column will be published in the May issue, which is the issue that will go to AXPONA, America's largest audio show, held each non-pandemic year at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center near Chicago. This year's show takes place Friday–Sunday, April 12–14. The show opens each day at 10am and closes at 6pm Friday and Saturday; Sunday's closing time is 4pm. If you're going to the show, don't forget to stop by the Stereophile booth, Location 9213 in the exhibit hall.

According to the show website, this should be the biggest AXPONA ever, with more than 600 brands represented in 200 rooms. There's a headphone show ("Ear Gear Experience") and a record fair. Many folks from the industry will be making presentations, on topics including electronic design, acoustics, vinyl setup, pressing vinyl records, and much else. Absolutely not to be missed: "The Steve and Herb Show," featuring Audiophiliac Steve Guttenberg and Stereophile's own Herb Reichert, Saturday at 1pm in Schaumburg East.

At a show like AXPONA, the real attraction is those 200 listening rooms, where every year, quite a few companies demonstrate new products. It's early still as I write this, but I asked the show organizers to send me a list of product debuts, and they were able to send a few. T+A will debut the Criterion S 230 loudspeaker; see the related item in Industry Update. Phillips Design, which I know mainly for the omnidirectional OH-16, is launching a new model called the Diamond, said to be a highly customizable true-dipole, open-baffle speaker with built-in amplification and DSP, made from "premium hardwoods." A possible match: VPE Electrodynamics is introducing the Model 2 DSP Dipole woofer, intended to match the dipole radiation pattern of planar loudspeakers.

The digital wizards at Grimm Audio are launching the MU2—Stereophile review forthcoming—which combines a Roon server with what sounds like a very innovative DAC and an analog preamplifier: Just add amplification and a pair of speakers (or perhaps a pair of Grimm's own active digital monitors) and you're ready to make music.

If you're presenting at the show, you really should read "Showing Your Best," a Re-Tales column from the April issue by Jason Victor Serinus and me offering tips on putting your best foot forward at an audio show. Light your system well for photography (not from behind). Remember to bring your dusting cloth and use it frequently.

Photo: John Atkinson

Another piece of advice we gave in that column was to play real music—to resist the temptation to play the same old standards and hi-fi novelty tunes. There's a deep, radical principle behind this suggestion, although it's also kind of obvious: The point of a really good hi-fi system is not to show it off to your friends and neighbors (though there's no harm in that) but to convey music's emotion as directly and powerfully as possible. To show that your system is capable of that, skip the sound-effects tracks and songs so deeply familiar they provoke some of us to flee, hands over ears.

Not that you shouldn't play something familiar. When I sent a query to several veteran show attendees, Rob Schryer responded, "I like the idea of exhibitors playing music that more visitors are familiar with and have a sonic baseline for." Excellent point. Rob recommends Pink Floyd—but maybe not the Pink Floyd you're thinking of. Rob suggests Echoes (The Best of Pink Floyd). "The album has many of Pink Floyd's signature tunes, but what's fun about this collection is its sound quality—it was the best I'd heard these songs from any of the many earlier editions I'd heard them on, CD or LP: great tone, dynamics, spatial effects, deep bass, clean highs, solid images with air around them, etc."

Rogier van Bakel recommended a song that, though obscure, has been heard at hi-fi shows before. He calls "The Incredibles" by Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band "a witty, exciting big-band orchestral piece." It's from the album The Gordian Knot, released in 2019 and available on LP, CD, and streaming. It's eight minutes long; you decide whether to play the whole thing. Rogier also recommended "Chorale" by Philip Glass, performed by Slagwerk Den Haag, off Vitreous Body: "It's an all-acoustic percussion piece, incredibly well recorded."

Compared to that, my own suggestion is a little bit boring, the sort of thing one often hears at audio shows because it's good. Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else is an all-time classic jazz album—one of a handful of albums that almost everyone knows at least a little bit, up there with Kind of Blue, Take Five, and The Blues and the Abstract Truth. It's great jazz that's easy to listen to—and, with the caveat that I've never heard a pristine original, I've never heard it sound better than it does on the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Ultradisc One-Step pressing. If your room has an analog source and you don't have this album, run over to the record fair. Assuming it hasn't sold out by showtime, I'll suggest they bring some extra copies. There's also a hybrid SACD.

Jason Victor Serinus loves classical music and opera more than many people love life. What I love is his first suggestion. "If you dare play something mono from 1944, tenor Jussi Björling's incomparable rendition of Puccini's 'Nessun dorma' (from Turandot) brought down the house at a recent meeting of Pittsburgh Opera and Symphony professionals." Can your demo system put across the emotion of an 80-year-old album?

Jason, who was apparently fixated on "Nessun dorma," continued. "If you must have stereo, opt for Luciano Pavarotti's 1972 rendition from the complete recording of Turandot conducted by Zubin Mehta.

"If you want to hold them for 10 minutes or longer, play Maria Callas's superbly recorded 1958 rendition of the sleepwalking scene from Verdi's Macbeth, conducted by Nicola Rescigno. The 24/96 remastering from 2023 will send chills up their spines, and the soundstaging is superb.

"Want something gorgeous and French? Cue up Véronique Gens singing Guillaume Lekeu's 'Nocturne' with chamber orchestra accompaniment." Who doesn't want something gorgeous and French?

Glotz's picture

It's going to be soooooo good!

Glotz's picture

The Vandersteen Control Amp preamp... at $16K. Heard a demo locally with this unit in tow and it is sublime!

It has a few interesting features not normally found in preamps, but I will leave the mystery for those that search it out. Ultra Fidelis will be showing it.

And I really would like Stereophile to cover Bacc4Mac if possible. I would think there would be a demo of it this year to justify some show coverage at the very least.

Ortofan's picture

... would you rather have - solid-state or tube?

Glotz's picture

and at AXPONA in the Ultra Fidelis room. At the dealer, he used the Audio Research Ref 160 monos with Aurender front end, clock, etc. and Vandersteen Quatro CT's. So I can't really say what role the tubes were playing, but it was sublime. Soundstage and depth of field that went into the street behind the building wall. I would take a tube preamp if I had my druthers as I already own the Benchmark HPA4 preamp/headphone amp.

The Vandy preamp also has a unique circuit that can change the sound of certain recordings but I didn't have a chance to demo it. Apparently it only works for certain recordings and I need to learn more about it.

I did get to talk to Richard Vandersteen at the show in the Ultra Fi room and he was such a nice guy!

George S's picture

God...last years..hear one note run from from room moment was Tin Pan Alley from Stevie Ray Vaughn.

I mean its some blues with soul. Muddy Waters. Lightnin' Hopkins. Buddy Guy. Howlin' Wolf.

Chicago is the home of Wax Trax Records....Play something fun from that era. My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, early Ministry, Front 242. Front Line Assembly, etc.... Hell, pull out some Smashing Pumpkins, some house music.

Just screw audiophile chestnuts. if you want to have fun with your room. I think there was one room last year (upscale audio perhaps) that was having fun...Playing recent'ish vinyl through some Tannoys as I recall.

Glotz's picture

But I agree with you 100%. The Clearaudio / Sonus Faber room did ask me what I wanted to hear and Beth Hart's Zep cover was pretty good!

Julie Mullins's picture

Chicago is the home of Wax Trax Records....Play something fun from that era. My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, early Ministry, Front 242. Front Line Assembly, etc...

Yes, there's lots of cool, heavy stuff from that Wax Trax era! Maybe I'll pull out and bring my Meat Beat Manifesto album on Wax Trax.

JohnnyThunder2.0's picture

stereo separation, deep bass response and transparency way better than anything by Diana Krall or Eric Clapton! I love your comment! (PS - one of the best shows of my later years was MLwtTKK opening for Ministry at the House of Blues (in LA, not Chicago...)

George S's picture

I agree!

Their Live album from I think 1998 or so "Re-Boot" is such a great live well recorded. I like it on my sub-sub-sub-sub Megabuck system (still McIntosh and I've spent a good chunk of change), but I'd LOVE to hear THAT played say in AvantGarde's room! (they are always nice people in my experience)..or whatever completely over the top system Quintessence puts together this year..I usually prefer their "side" room where they put in Wilson's. The other room I have heard way too much beaming, gotten attitude from hosts, or the music just wasn't interesting.

And fun note, Front 242 is on their final tour this year, closing out their U.S. leg in Chicago, where they got their start with Wax Trax. Find tickets somewhere if you can, because they still put on one hell of a show.

xtcfan80's picture

Jim...Just got my new Stereophile today...Soooo glad you again tried to remind presentors to play some real music, not the same old audiophile stuff. YEAH!!!!

xtcfan80's picture

Year after year at RMAF the Zu room was so great for music and sound. It was like you were in the room of the coolest kid in the dorm.

Herb Reichert's picture

more like xtcfan80 said:

"It was like you were in the room of the coolest kid in the dorm."

Devon Turnbul (Ojas) is a good example of this coolest kid in the dorm approach.

I went to Axpona and paid special attention to how differenty each room presented recordings (i.e how they played records). Noting what kinds of sophistications (or lack of) the dj/presenter brought to the art of playing records for strangers. Surprising visitors with cool records was what I loved most when I was a presenter at audio shows. I am wondering now, who were the master audio presenters of our past?


Anton's picture

Who knew Kurt Cobain would be anticipating current Hi Fi Shows 30 years later!