AXPONA 2024 in the Rear View

Photo: John Atkinson

If buying a hi-fi product from an internet retailer is like an arranged marriage, a hi-fi show is like speed dating. Not everyone, I realize, approaches hi-fi shows (or speed dating, for that matter) the same way, and anyway, the analogy between hi-fi and dating is far from perfect. Speed dating is how this year's AXPONA, America's biggest hi-fi show, held at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center (above) near Chicago in April, often felt to me as I moved from room to room. Every new system I heard had the potential to become a long-term relationship. Could I live with this one forever?

It may seem strange to be so passionate about something as pedestrian as consumer electronics—to equate commerce to romantic relationships—but to me, that kind of affection is the essence of our hobby. I would not want to own a system I didn't love.

Whether you truly buy this or not—but especially if you do—anticipating a long-term relationship is a good way to approach a hi-fi show. It focuses the ear and mind on what really matters—to you. You're not judging ultimate quality, checking off qualities on a list. You're judging the possibility of pleasure plus compatibility: "She may not be classically beautiful; I just love her laugh."

Some romantic notions should surely be cast aside. My wife auditioned me for eight years before we got married, as I auditioned her, and we are still together. But does our success in love mean that it was meant to be? To believe so is to close your mind. While there are certain qualities I would always want in a partner, I could be happy with others, with very different qualities—or at least I think I could.

If you approach every room as a possible long-term commitment, a show can be exhausting. Add to that the responsibilities of being Stereophile's editor—magazine production must continue as I scout new musical partners—and there's a limit to how many rooms I can visit over the course of a show. Among those rooms I made it to—perhaps 15% of the total—I did not encounter a system that set me searching for a Las Vegas–style wedding chapel, but I did encounter several that would warrant further investigation if I were on the market—and if cost were no object.

What did I hear at AXPONA that qualified? A big room hosted by Aldo Filippelli, proprietor of high-end distributor Luxury Audio Group, featured a pair of Estelon Forza loudspeakers in a gorgeous finish (called Violet Night, which I first read as Violent Night). Amplification was a pair of Vitus Audio SM-103 Mk.II monoblocks; in fact, all the electronics were by Vitus, except for the music server, which was an Innuos Statement. Cabling was from Crystal Cable's Art Da Vinci series, except for the power cords, which were Crystal Cable Infinity, in a worldwide debut.

This big system could massage your body with air on EDM music, but it also impressed with subtlety. Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man is an obvious (which is to say, not so interesting) choice for a hi-fi demo, but the version played here was conducted by Bernstein, not by some no-name conductor on a hi-fi label. The scale and foundation were sturdy and large; I heard a whole concert hall. You'd need a big budget and a big room to pull this off at home.

The big room hosted by Rutherford Audio employed a brand I'd never heard, Britain's Stratton Acoustics. Two Stratton models alternated; the most notable to me were the big, wide Elypsis 1512s. Electronics were by Accustic Arts (Mono VI amplifiers; Tube Pre V preamplifier, the Power V integrated) and an Antipodes Oladra server. The room held turntables from Acoustic Signature (the Montana Neo) and Vertere (the RG-1), which alternated. As Saturday drew to a close, I chose an early pressing of Deep Purple's Machine Head from a batch of LPs and requested "Smoke on the Water." Sitting in the front row, the pressure I felt on my chest could have pushed a good-sized sailboat along Lake Geneva, let alone dissipate some smoke. This system, too, would require a big budget and room.

For the second straight year, the system with big Stenheim Ultime Two SX speakers, now with their new Reference platforms, biwired with four VTL MB-185 Series II Signature monoblocks, sounded superb. The preamp was also VTL, and the digital source was a dCS Rossini APEX DAC/Clock. Several fine LPs were spun—by Bea Lamm, always a treat—on a VPI Titan Direct 'table with a Lyra Etna λ Lambda cartridge. This was another big system, in a big room, that was capable of warm, imtimate sounds and music.

At a more suitable domestic scale, I very much enjoyed the Bel Canto room with that company's "Black" amplification system, YG Peaks Ascent speakers, and a Pure Fidelity Harmony turntable. Cabling was Cardas Clear Beyond. Though hardly inexpensive, this system would work well in a modest-sized room—indeed it did work in a regular hotel room. The Bel Canto system digitizes all its inputs, including phono (though RIAA correction is in the analog domain), yet the character of the LP playback was retained. Listening was relaxing and enjoyable.

Also worth a mention: the Harmonia Distribution rooms, particularly the one with Fyne Audio's F703SP loudspeakers—a compromise between that company's old-school aesthetics and approach and something a bit more modern: Fyne's big coaxial driver in a beautiful wood cabinet with a modern teardrop-tower shape. With PrimaLuna's new hybrid integrated amplifier, this system offered the woody warmth of those traditional wood-furniture loudspeaker designs but without the image diffuseness some such systems display. Warm and pleasant but also incisive.

Photo: Jason Victor Serinus

Please don't mistake this for a best-of-show report, since, as I already wrote, I heard only a fraction of the systems on active display at the show. How could anyone hear everything? Spending a mere 10 minutes in each room, it would have taken just shy of 34 hours—more hours than the show was open—not counting time spent waiting for the elevator, and you'd miss the Exhibition Hall and the Ear Gear Experience, not to mention lunch. The message I'd like to convey is, if you have a chance to visit a show like AXPONA, you should do it, even if it requires a drive or getting on a plane. Then ask yourself, in every room, if you could live with the sound long-term. A committed approach can be exhausting, but it will pay you back eventually in emotional involvement in the music.

cognoscente's picture

"If buying a hi-fi product from an internet retailer is like an arranged marriage."

Remarkably, arranged or rational marriages generally work better and last longer (usually "until death do them part") than so-called love marriages. Love is a snapshot / impulse, an emotion, an image / wishful assumption of someone that is rarely correct (and of course, after all, you hardly know the other person when you meet) and therefore often falls apart afterwards and turns into disappointment and ultimately contempt.

Anyway, buying hi-fi online can work very well, my entire set was put together and purchased this way (with many thanks to Stereophile). You have to know exactly what you want / are looking for, invest a lot of time in research and read / understand reviews very well (what can be read between the lines). The advantage of buying online is that everything is available for the best price and not is limited to the nearby local physical dealer's range (which is often limited to certain and only a few distributors to achieve the mandatory turnover they ask).

Jewbacca's picture

My wife and I are coming up on 30 years this summer. We had an arranged marriage, which is not at all what people think. More like analog online dating, I think. And yes, you meet and have a polite date or two before you mutually agree on things.

Same with buying online. I live hundreds of miles away from a decent store. So, while I do visit showrooms, I depend on expert reviews, telephone calls, and a return policy, if it came to that (it never has). I've built a great system.

ok's picture

1. cheap stuff: specifications, measurements, reviews, online order.
2. expensive stuff: specifications, measurements, reviews, personal audition, manufacturer background, brick and mortar trusty retailer.
In choosing a romantic partner I usually skip the "reviews" part.

supamark's picture

But is Hi-fi News no longer publishing, no longer part of AVTech, or just no longer updating the website? The last post was two weeks ago.

John Atkinson's picture
supamark wrote:
But is Hi-fi News no longer publishing, no longer part of AVTech, or just no longer updating the website? The last post was two weeks ago.

Hi-Fi News is still an AVTech magazine and the other AVTech websites are being regularly updated. I suspect that editor Paul Miller is still sorting out logistical issues specific to Hi-Fi News that are related to ertswhile webmaster Jon Iverson's retirement on May 31.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile
Part-time "webmonkey,"

Glotz's picture

It was a wonderful show and every room I visited was a complete blast! Great systems and great people showing them. What more could you ask for? What else can anyone do to make it greater (other than advertise more)? Even beer drinking to Metal was there!

How 'bout discounts for 1st timers/audio noobs? 'Couples Discount'? (Not sure how that would work but...)

Thanks for the great coverage again this year and I feel for the staff that have to run to almost every room like it's a weekend marathon!

I didn't get to meet any of my fav writers, but ah well, some year.

teched58's picture

Draws me into the article. It kinda reminds me of the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals.

John Atkinson's picture
teched58 wrote:
Draws me into the article.

Thank you. I was walking across the parking lot at the end of the 2018 AXPONA when I turned and saw the Renaissance Hotel silhouetted against the dusk sky. Had to take a photo!

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Glotz's picture

How is your perspective up so high? It looks like drone-height.

John Atkinson's picture
Glotz wrote:
How is your perspective up so high? It looks like drone-height.

IIRC, I was standing on the overpass at the far end of the parking lot.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Glotz's picture

Makes sense and indeed, a great photo! Thanks.