My first Axpona experience, April 22, 2017.
I’ve attended dozens of avsforum g2g’s, and hosted a few as well. I’ve always enjoyed these g2g’s in the hobby and the events have shifted focus through many different things – from audiophile two channel meets, to blind amp, subwoofer, and speaker shootouts. They have been organic, and enthusiast led. Ironically, until Axpona, I’ve never actually attended a professional/commercial audio expo. @Randy Bessinger
and I have had fun together in the past attending a few g2g/meets in different states, and we enjoy each other’s company for the travel time as well – so when he asked if I was interested in Axpona, I agreed it would be a good opportunity to attend my first expo. I’m glad I went, it was enjoyable, and I’d recommend it highly to other enthusiasts who have never been.
There is a little something for everyone at Axpona. Super high end gear with speakers costing up to $300,000 a pair, a whole ballroom full of headphones, another for vinyl and tapes, several more for home theater rooms, and many other rooms showcasing everything from speakers, to acoustic treatments, to virgin snake oil. There are over 700 vendors worth of audio gear.
Also interesting was that there were a LOT of big name audio engineers walking around Axpona. We saw the proprietors for many big audio shops (Emotiva, Salk, Wilson Audio, etc), as well as some highly-regarded speaker designers like Andrew Jones, Dr HSU, Don Keele, etc.
Prepping for the event, I highlighted on my vendor list only about 1/10 of the vendors/room numbers as the only ones I had previously heard of, and quickly realized I’m a greenhorn to this hobby for knowing so few industry audio players. My initial main goals were to hear the rooms for Seaton Sound, JTR Speakers, HSU, JBL, Emotiva, Wharfedale, Sennheiser, and Salk sound – primarily because I am most familiar with those brands. I planned to attend a Smyth demonstration on the Realizer A16 as prompted by Randy, and perhaps a couple of the seminars and figured that would pretty much be a full day. I ended up hitting these rooms, and more, and enjoyed meeting up with the Chicago avsforum group. It was an exciting, full day. I'll relay here some of the most memorable things.
I even bought a pair of speakers on site, the Epique CBT24K, authored by Don Keele. I purchased them to play around with a two channel setup. The speakers arrived just today from Parts-Express. Now I need to figure out how I’m going to finish them, since I bought the kit which is just MDF. I created a thread to solicit ideas here:
Ideas to finish MDF? - purchased Epique CBT24K
How(why?) did I end up buying speakers at the show?
Ultimately, I thought they were unique enough in person at the Axpona show that I wanted to demo them more -- and... they buffaloed me. When Randy and I first walked up to the Parts-Express booth they were playing and were staged in front of a bunch of other speakers. I walked up to the Epique Line Array speaker – to within about a foot, and I returned to Randy and said darn the line arrays weren't the ones playing, because the sound didn't seem to be coming from the speaker. Randy went up to the speaker and put his ear right on one of the 24 drivers and said yes, it is the speaker playing. I went back up, parroted putting my ear to one of the speakers and sure enough the line array is what was playing. I couldn't pinpoint the sound. It was coming from everywhere. It was like all the speakers behind the line array were playing – in fact I had been still trying to figure out which speaker was playing until that moment. As you walked in front of the CBT Line Arrays it sounded the same no matter where you were. It was odd, and impressive.
In a sense, I bought them because they fooled me. I want to better understand how they work. It’s a bit silly because I couldn't get a gauge of the sound quality there at the show --- there was too much noise because the Parts-Express booth was in an open area. So I relied on the Parts-Express guys telling me how great they were. Several of them said they had bought them for home use and listened to them for hours and hours without any fatigue and to great enjoyment. One of the managers there said he had been given the task to come up with the playlist for the speakers and he thought it would only take about 30 minutes. 5 hours later he said he was still listening to them because he was just enjoying himself so much. He ended up buying a pair himself. Soooo, we'll see if I feel the same way or not with some time into ownership – after I get a chance to put them together. I'm a bit nervous of the concept there is there is no sweet spot with these speakers. That's both good and bad I suppose -- we'll see how it plays out in my room. Supposedly, if you are between 1" and 10' the sound is supposed to be remarkably similar in frequency response and SPL anywhere within the listening area of the speaker --- that seemed to be true to my ears. Anyway, intriguing enough for me to purchase them to learn/play more. Don Keele himself was there, and speaking with people, while I was auditioning them. I know of Don, but did not introduce myself – those well-known audio engineers sometimes had lines of people waiting to say hi and shake their hands. It's like meeting audio celebrities in the trade.
One of the first rooms we visited was the Seaton Sound ballroom. It was super impressive! Mark had an amazing ultra high end Sony projector set up, and huge high quality acoustic transparent screen, and the room was the size of a true theater. He had eight of his new 18” subs playing in two vertical stacks of four and they didn’t disappoint me! The Seaton 12C fronts (L/C/R) and Spark surround sound speakers made for an amazing theatrical, and concert music performance demonstration. In a few of the movie scenes I jumped because of the excellent dynamics (even in that huge room). @FOH
, was there holding an SPL meter in the main listening positions, and it was registering upwards towards 120dB in that giant ballroom --- and still perfectly clean!
I loved the Sting concert clip I heard, it sounded great -- and the grand experience further cemented my understanding of why Seaton Sound has the sterling reputation it does. The sound was phenomenal, and without flaw
. It was this and the JTR room that were my favorite ‘speaker’ demonstrations of the day. They were both able to elicit emotional response!!! ---- and what more can you ask for from your audio system?
The JTR room was phenomenal! Seven JTR 215RT, a ultra high end JVC projector, the new Seymour 4K acoustic transparent material - all excellent! The orchestra clip of the Star-Spangled Banner very nearly reduced me to tears -- I'm not exaggerating. I truly choked up, and my chest heaved while breathing like a little child that can't stop crying. Unrestrained emotions (and Patriotic feelings) flooded through my body. The audience, and I, literally started clapping at the end of that Star-Spangled Banner demo clip. I overheard the guy sitting next to me say to his significant other, 'Get up, let's get out of here --- we need to go before I do something rash and buy these things'
--- and they got up and left. I jokingly said to @desertdome
, after hearing that demo session, that he should just play that Star-Spangled Banner clip for every demo group the rest of the day -- as I felt fairly confident that every time that demo clip played Jeff would sell another set of 215RT speakers. I heard people in the halls throughout the day talking about the JTR and Seaton rooms in a positive light --- that tells you quite a bit.
Smyth Realizer A16
Randy told me I needed to try this, otherwise I would have missed it. And I'd not believe it was effective -- except I heard it with my own ears. It’s a technology that records binaurally your existing (or anyone’s) surround sound system, including immersive audio setups, by placing microphones in your ear canal. It then is able to playback the audio through a pair of neutral headphones (like the Stax headphone or the Sennheiser HD800) to a level of accuracy where you can’t tell if you are listening to the headphones, or the true 7.1.4 system (supports up to 9.1.6). Yeah right you say.
Well you're wrong. IT DOES. It was probably my single favorite technology demonstration of the show. It’s unbelievable! When you take the headphones off, they've rigged it up so the speakers play, when you put the headphones back on the speakers quit and the headphone is all that plays. Its instant. You can switch back and forth at your leisure. You cannot tell the difference. They played Atmos clips of the Dolby Demonstration disks (that I'm very familiar with), and the sound was identical, the placement was identical, the technology was so good it was eerie. I couldn’t understand how it worked. The technician there did a great job of explaining it in layman’s terms. Basically – by capturing the sound using mics in your ear, the mics can hear how you hear. Apparently directional audio (how we hear directional queues) introduces pretty typical peaks and valleys in the frequency response, that our brains learn to interpret as directional ques. Simply EQ’ing those peaks and valleys onto the base signal allow the directional information to be interpreted by our brains. The actual speaker system they used had identical 7.1.4 active Yamaha Studio Monitors. When you put the headphones on they playback like the 7.1.4 system and you’d absolutely swear you didn’t have headphones on and the Yamahas in their physical positions were playing. I’m not crazy. It works, and it works so well --- if anything I thought the headphones sounded more realistic for speaker placement than the actual monitors playing.
You can hear overhead sounds EXACTLY as they sound in your room -- all four overhead - distinct!!! Even cooler – you can record any room – then the A16 lays your unique ear "fingerprint" over the top of the room’s FR capture and you can have Atmos for any studio, or home theater room in the world --- and it sounds exactly as if you were there – in the center seat - because they add your unique Ear FR on top of the standard studio FR, distance, and SPL mapping. To take it one step further, the system has head tracking so even if you turn your head the left or right, up or down, the virtual speaker stays in the same place --- just as it would if you weren’t wearing headphones. It’s so impressive a technology it’s absolutely ridiculous! I can’t praise it enough. I caught myself thinking – this is so incredibly complicated for someone to figure out --- and truly make work – it’s literally like rocket science genius level!!! The fact a device this capable can be had at $1700 pre-order price baffles my mind. I'm truly considering ordering one, and Randy already did! Watch this video on the homepage -- and realize this technology works better than you could ever imagine. You have to experience it to believe it!
I was really impressed with the Emotiva room. They know how to showcase product. Many of their amps, AVRs, and pre-pros had the covers removed, and replaced with plexiglass, with LEDs showcasing the craftsmanship of their products. I’m not believer that amps matter for the types of speakers (high sensitivity) I listen to --- having blind tested myself on several occasions with precise setup attention to detail – but I can appreciate a pride in craftsmanship that is apparent on the internals of the Emotiva products. They have a high degree of quality, and yet maintain a blue-collar price structure. In their demo room they were playing a full 7.1.4 setup that surprised me at how good it sounded. They played a DTS-X demo disk track called Cymatics that was nothing short of excellent! Dan L. was there himself walking around and talking to customers. It was a neat room.
It was at this point I encountered something I question --- in that room I overheard one auditioning guest say this ‘there are only a few good audio vendors at Apxona this year, and this is one of them, most of the gear here is garbage. I was just in the room next door, the one with the big subwoofers, and it was terrible. So bad I had to leave, it’s not worth your time to go there’
. I was reflecting on someone saying that to someone else at the show and it made no sense to me. On either side of Emotiva was either JTR Speakers, which had no traditional sub, and Legacy audio which I wouldn’t think that comment could be directed towards either. The observation of that comment made me wonder if some of the bigger vendors might hire people to pretend to be customers to praise their product, or disparage others. I’d like to believe that wasn’t the case, but I can’t figure out where that comment would come from --- in that room –- in that boisterous context without the comment being outright fraudulent. I didn’t hear a bad system at Axpona all day. Maybe they existed, but they didn’t exist in the dozens of rooms I visited --- and MOST certainly the bad rooms weren't on either side of the Emotiva room.
JBL had the Everest system playing. I understand it’s like $70,000 a pair. It didn’t sound any better or any worse than the other high end two channel stuff I listened to through the day. The Everest speakers seemed to be more a bit more pronounced in the lower octaves and mid bass than the more typical two channel system sound of the day - or maybe it was just the couple tracks we heard through them. Throatier? Thicker?
The Salk room was overwhelmed by the club music coming from the room next door when I went in to demo their speakers. Unfortunately, I could hardly hear the classical music that was playing from the speakers. It’s a shame because the Salk sound is generally nice and smooth, and I've enjoyed listening to them in the past at various g2gs. The veneer and cosmetics did not disappoint – as one would expect from Salk speaker known for their outstanding aesthetics.
The HSU room was demoing a new pair of the $699 a pair coax design speakers with a yellow cone. I wasn’t in the sweet spot so I can’t comment very specifically – I was standing against the wall in the corner, but it was a privilege to meet Mr. HSU. He’s been a long-time asset to this community and I thanked him for bringing quality audio to the masses at affordable prices. His VTF-15H probably kicked off my deep subwoofer dive and keen interest into this hobby.
Andrews Jones was presenting on his speaker design in the Elac room. Pretty cool to meet these different legends of audio. The speaker sounded good, but again I was off-angle in the corner of the room and so no serious listening impressions can be given. His current speaker used a passive radiator to help eliminate distortion.
I pretty much skipped the tape and vinyl room, we walked through it, but didn’t doddle --- to be frank, I don’t care lick for it, and think it pretty much represents nostalgia interests only. I remember at a @dlbeck
meet where we compared the Adele CD vs. the Adele vinyl on a decently well reviewed/mid end turntable and the CD was so much better than the vinyl – I couldn’t even understand why people mess with vinyl at all. Ah well – different strokes…..
There was a lot of snake oil nonsense there too. Cables cables cables. Trestles for cables. 2 aught wire on trestles plugged into a standard 15 amp outlet in the hotel wall. (with 200' of 12 gauge romex behind it connecting to the sub panel). That's just silly.
As I walked by one headphone stand the proprietor was calling people over to hear the difference between the stock audiophile headphone cable and his aftermarket super cable of whatever naming scheme. “Two identical amps, Two identical headphones, the only difference was the cable --- come and hear the difference”. I shook my head in disbelief.
The rest of the day was filled with various room demos and equipment, most of which I hadn’t heard of before, or thought represented outrageously foolish amounts of money to spend on a hobby. $100K on speakers? How about $300K? I guess in some ways it’s all relative to your income – but in other ways it’s not. There is DEFINITELY a level of diminishing returns --- and I subjectively think I’ve already found my way onto that scale. I came home and listened to my all Mackie C200 7.1.4 setup, and didn’t feel I’m missing that much from the best I heard at Axpona. I’m comfortable with my gear, immediately after hearing gear in a room that costs upwards of a million bucks --- and that suits me just fine. I’m a practical person. I like practical things. Even if I was a multi-millionaire I wouldn’t buy a Ferrari, or a mansion. It’s just not me – so I can’t associate with the need to buy a $100,000 pair of speakers. Frankly when you get right down to it --- I’d love to audition those most expensive “status” speakers in a blind test against something competently designed at 1/50 the cost and see how many of those owners could even tell the difference.
Personally speaking, I’d have a heck of a time differentiating between the various flavors of solid two channel offerings I heard at Axpona. In fact, I'd call it impossible unless you were able to A/B in the speaker pairs in the same room at the same volume side by side. As it is, they are brief demos, with noisy backgrounds and high noise floors, crowded demo rooms, with different source material, and varied seating, differing treatments, varied SPL levels etc etc etc... ---- -GOOD LUCK.
A few misses ---
I wanted to hear the live blues concert with JTR speakers, but had to fly out before it got started. I bet that was an a blast!
There was plenty of stuff I would have liked to see, and hundreds of rooms I didn't get to check out, but didn’t have time in my single day trip. I’d like to go back in the future. It was great fun to catch up with some friendly faces from previous g2gs. I enjoyed the opportunity. Thanks for the invite Randy. Good to see the rest of you guys up there, and meet some new friends.
I'll try to post some pictures to this thread tomorrow.
In the meantime, here's a little video montage of some of the highlights for me.