Five Things I Learned At Hi-Fi Shows

"I hope you're decompressing from AXPONA," I recently wrote to a frazzled-looking friend I'd met at this greatest of North American hi-fi shows. Google's spellcheck offered to change decompressing to decomposing. I declined, though it's true that such expos can be grueling—just not grueling enough to stay away.

In these observations about high-end audio shows, fondness is foremost, but a few dark side notes will slip in.

1. Everybody There Is Crazy—In A Good Way.
In the real world, do people slap you on the back when they learn that you're about to spend the equivalent of a Tesla on a hi-fi system? Unlikely. They may slap you across the face instead, trying to bring you back to your senses.

One of the rewards of being at audio shows is that you're surrounded by like-minded people. (My wife calls them enablers.) The vibe is heightened, with a strong sense of camaraderie. That we all understand each other is rewarding, even intoxicating. I suppose this is no different from a furries convention, although audiophiles have better-sounding music and fewer fleas (footnote 1). Probably.

2. Hi-Fi Shows Are a Welcome Respite from Politics and Other Problems.
I've seen a grand total of one overtly political T-shirt at the audio shows I've attended. If I read the situation correctly, that gentleman wasn't endearing himself even to visitors who agreed with his candidate of choice. When we have audio on the brain, politics are a no-no. For a few days, the most divisive topic we face is whether we really want to listen to "Hotel California" for the 3127th time. (Maybe we are all just prisoners here, of our own device.)

3. Discovering New Recordings Is The Sweetest Bonus Benefit.
Hi-fi systems need well-recorded music the way fire needs oxygen. As you emerge from one room and jump into another, then another, three things happen, music-wise. You repeatedly hear audiophile chestnuts you're too familiar with. You remind yourself that this isn't entirely bad: Knowing a recording like the back of your hand helps you assess the system in the room.

But the main musical benefit of audio shows is a bevy of unknown-to-you tracks that grab you and won't let go. I've come home from every show with a list of more than a dozen gorgeous songs—let's not call them test tracks—that I'd never heard before. I'm grateful.

(On the other hand, to be honest, I'm a little weirded out that entire genres are missing at most shows: bluegrass, reggae, ska, R&B, metal, rap, and classic country, to name a few.)

Sometimes you get to return the favor. As you respond to exhibitors' invitations to suggest demo music you'd like to hear (long live Qobuz and Tidal!), you can share some of your own favorites with the people in the room. I've turned showgoers on to Paquito D'Rivera's "Habanera," Gordon Goodwin's "The Incredibles," Post Malone's "Stay," and more. That makes me happy enough that I don't mind hearing Nils Lofgren's "Keith Don't Go" and London Grammar's "Hey Now" half a dozen times in one day.

4. Endgame Gear Never Is.
"Did you hear anything you'd like to buy?," a friend who'd stayed at home texted me during a show. I shook my head in disbelief. "Does the Tin Man have a sheet-metal c**k?" I texted back—a funny vulgarism from Trailer Park Boys, a show we both sometimes reference.

Whenever I hear or see fellow audiophiles declare that they've achieved an "endgame" setup, I'm happy for them, but I'd also put good money on their systems undergoing additional changes in the not-too-distant future. Most of us want better, even best; long-term satisfaction is elusive. Audio shows bring us face to face—ear to rig—with dozens of distinctive, superlative speakers and components. If coveting is a sin, every visitor to AXPONA and High End Munich is going to hell.

5. We Prize Realistic-Sounding Music, Not Realistic Prices.
This is a corollary to the previous point. If you don't have oil-sheikh money, the prices of much showcase gear are prohibitive. True, at every audio expo, I'm struck by how much quality can be extracted from modestly priced setups. But state-of-the-art systems I covet and daydream about? Those often cost $100,000, $200,000, or even more.

It's a hotly debated topic among audio writers as well as other showgoers: "Affordable gear is getting lost amongst all of the audio porn with six-figure price tags," one colleague commented at a recent hi-fi show. Another believes that at shows, there's "too much bling" and no focus at all on affordable systems that could grow the hi-fi hobby and make it a bigger tent.

I've sung that gospel myself on occasion. But I'm also with Stereophile writer Julie Mullins, who says she loves seeing and hearing "the widest variety of hi-fi gear anywhere, across all categories, especially the most unusual and exotic." I hope we can at least agree that the pursuit of perfection isn't gauche or foolish or disreputable. I find it thrilling that some audio designers and manufacturers aim for the most ambitious goals, damn the torpedoes (and our wallets).

And let's not forget that it is, after all, a show. I've never been to a car show, but do you reckon that its attendees are turned off by too many Benzes, Bentleys, and Bugattis? Would they rather gawk at Ford Fiestas and Fiat 500s?

Not me.

Footnote 1: If you don't know about furries, consider yourself lucky.

Glotz's picture

Like an auto show, this is the time and place to see and hear equipment that pushes the envelope of performance (and price). I welcome it.

Hearing new recordings from time to time is a boon as well, though many rooms need to mix it up with more varied styles of non-audiophile music offerings.

But the most important takeaway for me is the newly-invigorated passion I walk away with when it comes to my system. Some systems may make me jealous of the state of the art, or of a dynamic loudspeaker while use planars.

But if one is roughly satisfied with their system, I feel it returns us to our music world with a newfound jolt of energy- and the appreciation for the chance to hear equipment and systems from around the entire planet to inspire us.

It also helps me to dwell on what can improve in my system and propels the pursuit for analysis for weeks or months to come. And it frequently moves me to improve elements or aspects of my system in a really positive way, while continually teaching me of the why and how.

The experience every year is irreplaceable!

PS- Experiencing seminars and talks from manufacturers and magazine editors and writers is another huge plus.

Anton's picture

One thing I have consistently noted from shows is that once I get home and turn on my usual rig, I am reminded that all that glitters is not gold.

Usually, the first listening session at home after a show is very affirming!


Running show tunes is tough: on the one hand, exhibitors face some expectation to play the tried and true audiophile recordings, because visitors have those recordings in their minds as references of comparison. On the other hand, exhibitors face the 'here we are now, entertain us' crowd expecting exhibitors to fill the niche good record stores used to fill. It can be a tightrope.


I love seeing exhibitors of nose-bleed type gear answer the question "How much?"

I feel a bit sympathetic when I see their look of slight embarrassment/hesitation as they answer, or hear an answer like, "About 150."


There are vast numbers of terrific humans in this hobby, and it's great to be at a show and be able to start up great conversations with complete strangers...or share the joy of running into a previous acquaintance. Our shared hobby is great fertile ground for friendships.


I accidentally fell into a flury of furries once when I was staying at a hotel where they happened to be holding a convention.

I learned two things:

1) A gathering of flurries, the plural term for the group, is called a "Drama."

2) "Spay or neuter" is a great motto for more than just pets.

jimtavegia's picture

Over a decade + ago I use to go to some shows, but stopped. It just seems like was not always the best place to hear demos of gear, but it may be that shows have gotten much better in this regard as noted in reviewer reports.

The idea of seeing a lot of gear in one place in a short amount of time seem like a good idea, but it was often over-load, but you did get to talk to some great people about a nice hobby and to manufacturers about why they do what they do.

I am beginning to see why the prices are where they are mostly due to who is buying the most gear and it is in the higher price offerings where there is money to be spent by those folks who have it to spend. The pandemic has changed much in our world and much of that is what we spend our money on, and for many it is now streaming through the gear they already own.

I am to the point that when something doesn't measure well and costs a lot, that does bother me, but that is for their customers to decide that value, not me.

I am now on a music buying kick and music reviews and what I hear about that is worth searching for. I have probably bought more music in CDs and some LPs this year that in the past 3 combined. This will continue as I am happy with the 4 headphone systems I have, but will buy a new set of bookshelf speakers by year's end.

It was also with great sadness to learn about the passing of one of my favorite artists of all time, the late, great Tony Bennett. Anthony Benedetto was one of a kind and born at the right time for him to be able to display his great gift of delivering a great song to the max. He was always true to himself, his audience, and most of all the compositions. He will surely be missed by most of us. I don't know if anyone will come along to top his talent and artistry. His The Art Of Excellence and Bill Evans recordings are my personal FAVs. R.I.P.

barfle's picture

As a lifelong gearhead, there are two types of car shows. One is more of an art exhibit, where people show off their custom work. The other is where manufacturers show off their latest creations FOR SALE, and their goal is to entice buyers, no matter their budget. I don’t see that the Ford and Kia level brands are showing at audio shows very much. I do see that “High End” is prominent at a lot of shows, though. Yeah, electroporn is fun, but I really don’t understand why I see so little gear I (or almost everyone else) can afford.