Chicago Sunny Times – Axpona 2015
This issue of Ted’s Corner will be slightly more brief due to the simple fact we wanted to get it out for Friday’s newsletter and include our impressions of the Axpona Show that took place last weekend.
This is the third annual Chicago-based audio show, and I have attended each one. However, this time my perspective was broadened by the fact that I was also attending as a show participant and Industry attendee, rather than as a simple humble audiophile. 🙂 What made my participant category so interesting was the fact that I had our NativeDSD (and Channel Classics) founder, Jared Sacks, in tow. Somehow he had convinced me to join him in presenting a Friday morning “DSD and Beyond” seminar in the Westin’s 200 seat auditorium.
First, the Show in general. These audio shows can be a great opportunity for audio lovers in the area to come and interact with the leading audio manufacturers and regional audio dealers, attend a few educational seminar tracks, and maybe even hear a decent room or two of pre-arranged setups (source, amps, speakers). I say “room or two” because if one attends these shows to hear incredible audiophile-quality reproduction then he/she will likely be woefully disappointed. These are hotel rooms, mostly untreated, and set up a whole one day prior to the show’s opening. You’ll be lucky to find, among the seven full floors of systems, a couple of good enough sounding rooms to write home (or in a Corner named after you) about.
But… the networking, drinking…, socializing, trend watching, hearing new music, and overall understanding of where the audio world is leaning? Those are invaluable benefits of good audio shows… and this Axpona was a very good audio show.
Jared and I had two agendas: 1) educate the Industry on what we were trying to do in DSD, and 2) to see and feel the trends in audio, especially DSD, directly from the myriad of Industry leaders present. If we could also have some personal fun getting to hear a few rooms and some new music… so be it.
Friday’s DSD seminar had a very nice turnout, the auditorium populated by roughly 150 attendees. Jared and I spent the 45 allotted minutes talking about where NativeDSD came from, what our plans were for the coming year (new labels, etc.) and where the DSD recording industry is going. As in any burgeoning sector, there seems to be an arms race among DSD-capable equipment manufacturers to out-feature one another (that feature being bit-rate), leading to a legitimate consumer concern of “when will it stop”. Is DSD256 the perfect high water mark, or are we going to see DSD4096 in three years?
I took an audience survey (both with a raise of hands as well as sidebar conversations during the rest of the Show) and it was clear that most were currently using computer-based servers (about evenly spread amongst Windows and Mac, with a few Linux thrown in), owned, or were on the cusp of owning, a DSD-capable DAC, and were getting more and more comfortable with the software players ability to make computer audio quite friendly.
My biggest take aways on Agenda item One: I was ecstatic that the median age of those interested in DSD has plummeted down considerably. I’ve often wondered why AARP does not set up a booth at these shows, but my take on Axpona was that there were hundreds of attendees that were clearly in the 30-40 year old bracket…a sign that the audio industry is not going the way of either pension money at one end, or the $2 earbud at the other.
My second biggest take-away? I personally loved meeting so many folks from my two most-visited internet forums, ComputerAudiophile dot com, and Audio Circle dot com. I am not being overly dramatic when I say that I have made life-long friendships that started as internet ones, and the dozens I met in Chicago, face-to-face, for the first time (after communicating with them facelessly over the years) means I may have a few more to add to that humbling list.
With regard to our meeting DSD-oriented Industry manufacturers? It is a great sign that Axpona has become a leading audio show when the principals of the most innovative audio manufacturers around the world get on a plane and represent their companies in person (as opposed to being simply a dealer show). We had the pleasure of visiting with folks like US-based Brian Zolner (Bricasti Design), and Canada’s George Klissarov (exaSound) all the way to China-based Xuanqian Wang (Auralic), and many more. Their plans range from pushing the envelope on new DSD-based AD conversion ideas to introducing sub-$400 streamer/dac combinations for the new economy. It is an exciting time.
Trends? Now that DSD-capable consumer equipment has been out there for 3+ years, the next level of innovation is trickle down feature sets in sub-$2k systems. Another great trend is using the home’s existing ethernet (wired or wifi) to push audio to all parts of the listening environment. This means not only streaming internet radio or paid streaming services (Tidal, Spotify), but also delivering high resolution audio (up to DSD256) to single box spouse-friendly devices, devoid of any Windows or Mac general use computer equipment cluttering up the living room. These are called ethernet renderers, and you’ll see many more of them in the coming year.
As far as rooms visited? Well, I actually found at least four rooms I could easily listen to for hours on end, let alone want as my own system. My favorite room had to be the Bricasti/Tidal speaker room. It’s noise floor (thanks to the M1 DAC and M28 amplifiers) was non-existent, and it mined low frequency detail that was mind-boggling. Hearing Jared’s session file from his soon-to-be-released Mahler 9 was quite an amazing listen, full of emotion and detail.
Other rooms I would love to bring home to introduce to the parents? Ryan speakers ($5k floor standers from California) sounded like $20k speakers, throwing a beautiful soundstage with a fullr ack of Auralic gear. Vinnie Rossi’s modular Lio system (in this case his fully tweaked out integrated amp Lio config) was being transmitted through the always-inviting Harbeth stand mounted HL5 plus. Vinnie is one of the good guys, and this room was one of the best ones. Also, a small regional upstart company called Sony was showing their flagship (and now 3 year old) SS-AR1 speaker setup, using the DSD-capable HAPz1 player/server. This ain’t your father’s Sony! The sound is spectacularly good.
Other rooms that always seem to go the extra distance to create great sound included local dealer Mike Kay’s Audio Archon room (Lawrence Audio Violin SE speakers, prototype world premier of Concert Fidelity’s 300B-based integrated amp, Weiss music server, MG Audio cabling) and the only multichannel setup I attended, George’s always welcoming exaSound room (e12 and e28 DSD-capable dacs, Magnepan 3.7i and .7i 4.0 speakers, Pass Labs amplification).
I have to say one semi-final thing: I am not sure what some of the industry magazine reviewers were listening to, but I could not disagree more with their findings that the large Magico 12th floor room, or the innovative 360-degree round electrostatic Muradio rooms were best of show. I found those rooms to be unlistenable. This is no besmerching of Magico or Muradio as speaker sets, as much as the overall results of the room sound. Magico, for example, is clearly a world class transducer, but the Chicago Westin 12th floor was not a great example of their potential IMHO.
Jared’s take aways? “It never ceases to amaze me the passion from the manufacturers about their boxes. Whatever part of the audio signal path, these people are a dedicated bunch all looking for the ‘sweet spot’ in audio land. Problem is that in audio, all listening is virtual. You can’t see it, smell it or taste it. So with only your audio senses to go on what sounds ‘good’ can vary greatly among ‘audiophiles’”. Jared was quite pleased to see the excitement in this hobby.
I had a great time hanging with Jared, listening to music, meeting new people and finally putting a face to people I had long-standing long-distance relationships with…and seeing that the world of DSD is indeed sunny and well on its way to being a great platform for high quality music for years to come. And I will do my best to make sure DSD4096 does not become reality. But DSD256? Damn, it sounds good. 🙂