AXPONA 2023 was Cool Like Jules

The Stereophile crew at AXPONA 2023, minus Herb Reichert (L–R): Jason Victor Serinus, Rogier van Bakel, Michael Trei, Jim Austin, Ken Micallef. Photo by David James Bellecci-Serinus.

At AXPONA 2023, I saw teenage besties cruising rooms together. I saw fashion-conscious 20-somethings listening in sweet spots, and young parents with younger children. Yeah, there were a few gray boomers like me, but only a couple were wearing Hawaiian shirts. AXPONA 2023 vibed like a tribal conference at a sacred pilgrimage site, and I've never enjoyed an audio show this much before.

I attended AXPONA this year not to write room reports or shore up industry connections. I went to find readers' faces that I might remember as I sit at home alone writing in my cubby, as I am doing now.

When I've covered shows in the past, I've always been in a hurry, stressed out, sleep-deprived, undernourished, bouncing room to room gathering data and impressions. If a reader approached me in the hall, I was forced to keep it short and keep moving. That's a bummer for the reader and a bigger bummer for me. Who knows? We might've become friends.

Audio oldsters are always complaining: "How we gonna recruit young audiophiles before we kick it?" I always tell them, "Hey man, that's easy: You've got to make audio cool again." Judging by the gear and people I saw at this year's AXPONA, our audiophile hobby is a lot younger, hipper, and more diverse—gear-wise and people-wise—than it was when I last attended in 2019.

In the 1950s, our emerging hobby was spearheaded by DIY audiophiles who fashioned speakers from plans in magazines using their new Sears Roebuck table saws. These were war veteran fathers with their first important jobs and young families to support. They needed a hands-on hobby to relax their minds.

In the '60s, audiophiles got Playboy-ed out as audio swung into full bachelor-pad style. Jazz records became a marker of good taste. College professors entered the hobby in droves. Stoned teens bought more records than their parents had.

Audio got young again in the '70s, when a different group of war vets came home with Japanese receivers and started building peacetime families. As their jobs got traction, this evolved into enthusiasm for what Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound dubbed "high-end" audio. Owning really expensive gear became fashionable. Higher prices incentivized innovation and engineering diversity. High-end gear sold mainly on the virtue of its sound quality. For a short time during the '80s, dealers, manufacturers, and their customers were all about the same "boomer" age range: 30–45. Stoned teens kept buying records.

Then digital hit and dragged exotic connoisseur audio into the gutter of everything-sounds-the-same boringness. Expensive, Koetsu-level audio lost a lot of its cachet. Bits and jitter replaced rosewood and silver. I don't care how you tart them up; bits and jitter have zero glamor factor. Throughout the '90s, a handful of adventurous manufacturers countered gray pedestrianism with glowing triode tubes, but their efforts were marginalized. By 2000, cool was scarce and discredited.

When home theater appeared, hipsters fled. Youngish, middle-class families with school-age children became the dominant demographic. It didn't stick: Few of these suburban folk became as passionate about sound quality as those Golden Age boomers, many of whom are still passionate now, 50 years into the hobby.

Meanwhile, urban hipsters threw DJ parties on their roofs and around bonfires in their backyards, buying mixers and Technics 1200s two at a time, and if they could afford them, a pair of stylish vintage speakers like Yamaha NS-1000s, Klipsch Heresies, or pro-style JBL monitors. This stuff played loud, had feel-good sonics, and looked retro-cool.

Ever since headphones got hip (around 2010) and turntables became scorching-hot, I've watched mainstream audio slowly become cool again. In my building in Bed-Stuy, at least two single, 20-something women have turntables. They buy more used records than I do. My 20-something neighbor Peter looks like Timothée Chalamet and has the cutest girlfriend anywhere. When not streaming video on laptops, they play blues, including Peter's favorite, R.L. Burnside, on an all-tube vintage system Peter found in his dad's garage and restored using YouTube videos for guidance. Peter's a polymath fix-it guy, but he'd never heard of Stereophile or The Absolute Sound. When I told him about AXPONA, he said he had family in Chicago and would love to go next year. I promised to take him to CanJam New York in February.

At this year's AXPONA, almost every room had a turntable plus a couple of nattily-dressed 20-somethings, a 30-something family guy, and at least two too-chatty seniors like me. I saw fewer class-D amps and more 300B amps. New CD players popped up in the strangest places. I saw surprising numbers of new-design, old-school–looking, wide-baffle three-way speakers. Startup manufacturers showed new horns, line arrays, and panel speakers. There wasn't much boring stuff. I'm pretty sure all it takes to attract awake young minds is intriguing, pilgrimage-worthy gear with at least some cool factor.

But I have to pray these newcomer audiophiles are listening in more diverse ways. To their own kinds of music. That they already know the purpose of a better sound system is to make their music more fun and exciting to listen to.

I say this because music-wise, AXPONA '23 was as retardataire as every audio show that preceded it. I had Friday night dinner with my old pal Wendell Diller of Magnepan, and he said, "I've been exhibiting at audio shows for 50 years! And the main thing I've learned is how much audiophiles prefer music where never more than two instruments are playing at the same time."

Wendell's words stuck in my head all day Saturday and Sunday, and dang me if most rooms weren't playing that simple Time Out jazzy stuff. In one good-sounding room, I asked for music with "More pizzazz! More instruments! Maybe a big orchestra?" The guy with the iPad put on a jazz sextet and walked out.

As I followed him into the hall, these words came to me, spoken by the coolest character ever, Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction:

"Nobody's gonna hurt anybody. We're gonna be like three little Fonzies here. And what's Fonzie like? Come on Yolanda, what's Fonzie like?"

"He's ... cool."

AXPONA '23 was cool like Jules.

Anton's picture

Thanks for all your great show coverage(s).

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

We wisely posed for the photo on the first morning of AXPONA.


JRT's picture

The before and after photos comparison might have been amusing.

Kidding aside, sincere thanks to all.

Dennis in NJ's picture

Thanks to all of you for the great coverage of AXPONA 2023! It was a great read and a very good second to not being able to attend. I don't say thanks often enough, this is long overdue to the Stereophile staff.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Greatly appreciated,
jason on behalf of moi