2016 AXPONA CHICAGO AUDIO SHOW
If you're not familiar with what an audio show is like and what it's like to cover one, this is the Westin O'Hare hotel in Chicago. Now imagine taking all the furniture out of 300 to 400 rooms and replacing it with high-end stereo systems from hundreds of designers/manufacturers/distributors from around the world as well as several local dealers.
Our job is to go into a room, find out what's in there and if there is anything new and exciting worth mentioning to our readers and then talk to the persons who are there to hawk their products, get details, specs, prices, features, try to discern the marketing hype from the reality in what they say, gather brochures and business cards, take copious notes and attempt to get great pictures in positions and lighting conditions that are abysmal, and then - maybe - even get to listen to as much worthwhile gear as possible. Then, if it's deemed worthy, seek out the person who is responsible for scheduling reviews and make those arrangements. Oh yeah, all the while negotiating the hoards of other people who pack the rooms and hallways.
Then go to the next room and repeat, quickly, over and over for 4 days.
Speaking of prioritizing, this year we adoptedfor a different strategy. We would walk in a room, find the head guy and ask if they were debuting anything at the show this year. Many of them said "No, but…" and would then proceed to direct us to something that came out six months or a year ago. We'd just say thanks and move on to the next room. If they said yes, we'd take pictures, pick up brochures and take notes while they gave us their spiel.
From there, we picked the best overall, best value and most innovative and most interesting gear
to present to you. By the time we are done, we think you will find here the most info, best pictures and most comprehensive show report anywhere.
IMPORTANT NOTE: When we make comments regarding how something sounded, keep in mind that these are just impressions, NOT reviews. Show conditions are are usually abysmal for judging anything, but after you've been to dozens of them and thousands of rooms over 13 years, you do get a sense for some things. In addition, exhibitors are constantly tweaking their systems during the show, so if we hear something on one day, chances are good that it's going to sound significantly different the next day. Just keep that in mind.
A. Attendance. All four days were crowded and what's more, the overall spirt was way up from years past. People were excited.
The best audio show in years.
B. MQA. That's a new music file format that is truly revolutionary - a game changer.
MQA stands for MASTER QUALITY AUTHENTICATED. Master Quality means the actual quality of the original recording
whether digital or analog. AUTHENTICATED signifies that the actual person responsible for the recording has signed off that the MQA
file SOUNDS identical to his master. But, the MQA file is much SMALLER than a 24-bit or DSD file, making it easier to decode, stream and store without the artifacts that other lossless files and processing contribute. Like I said, revolutionary. Better sound, smaller files.
Like all new formats, the issue is availability and viability. There are several sources of MQA files, but not many and not many recordings, much like early CDs when they came out. Then, will it catch on. While MQAs will play like regular files at slightly better than CD quality, to get the full quality you must have a decoder, either software or hardware. Mytek has in their $2,000 Manhattan DAC while Pioneer and Onkyo each showed portable players that are MQA compliant.
(Pioneer and Onkyo home stereo are both owned by the same parent company).
There was a lot of buzz going on at the show about MQA, so we will see.
C. Headphones, headphone amps, cables and accessories are the faster growing segment of the audio industry.
Once again, there was a headfi show within Axpona with hundreds of products; a whole different world,
while headphone gear was also present in many of the stereo gear rooms. We dig into how and why
"portable audio" has exploded in the last few years with interviews of the leaders.
D. Value. People are more and more eschewing the ultra-luxury products, even the wealthy, and are looking
for bang-for-the-buck gear. One veteran retailer told me, "At this show, there will be between three and five people
looking to spend $100,000 plus. The rest are looking for value, whether be in higher priced stuff or the entry level."
THE BIGGEST BUZZ
That brings us to what was DEFINATLY the biggest buzz at the show. And that would be....
and the new UB5
After stints with Pioneer, designing $80,000 TAD speakers as well as $129 little Pioneer boxes,
Andrew is now with Elac, designing small, very inexpensive speakers like the
ELAC B5 Debut Series 5.25" Bookshelf Speakers for $229 per PAIR and the B6 Debut F5 Tower Speakers
at $280 EACH. Both sound much better than his previous Pioneer boxes,
but also surpass most all other contenders at several times the price.
His room was always packed with people waiting outside to hear not only those, but his newest creation,
the UB5 to be released April 30th for $499/pr.
The "U" designation stands for "Unify", signifying the use of a concentric midrange/tweeter driver, much like his TAD,
making it a true 3-way design.
How did it sound? Using entry level AudioAlchemy gear to drive them, they sounded more than satisfying on any level
and simply astounding for $500/pr. Much more refinement, detail and air. He played a Deadmou5 dance track with ultra-low bass and rocked the room. A true Stereomojo "Stereo For Cheap Bastards" category standout. We will be getting a pair for review soon.
And then there's this:
In a private interview, I asked Andrew if he had considered making a
powered version of the ELAC's. He smiled discreetly and replied in his Brit accent, "Interesting you should ask, James. I have that under development now." I can't say any more about it just yet, but stay tuned.
Perhaps one of the biggest announcements at the show was that
Stereomojo Owner/publisher/Editor James Darby (that would be me) let it be known that
he and Linda had sold their 25 year old, very successful Private Wealth Management Firm as well as their office building
and are officially retired from the financial industry.
That means that we now have much more time to focus on Stereomojo.
In another private interview with myself, I said, "With the focus on value in high-end audio, the timing couldn't be better".