In the audiophile world of hi-fi products that can cost thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions, young folk are like unicorns. Or maybe baby unicorns. Even professional musicians still locked into teenage angst or twentysomething ennui you’ll often find with low-cost DIY setups, Bandcamp pages, and Soundcloud links. In short, being an audiophile is expensive, and so usually the preserve of an older clientele.
As What Hi-Fi?’s U.S. staff writer and resident 26-year-old unicorn-baby audiophile, hi-fi shows are something of a different ballgame for me. I’ve covered consumer tech and gaming for nearly a decade, traveling to conventions, reporting on the latest announcements from the biggest companies, and even flying across the world to hear about what could be the Next Big Thing, but you haven’t been able to catch me at shows like High End Munich or NAMM. Until now.
This year I headed to the
sunny hot, wet Chicago suburb of Schaumberg, Illinois for 2022’s Audio Expo North America, or AXPONA for short, to get the lowdown on what it’s like inside a hi-fi show. You can read my AXPONA show report to hear all about the highlights of the show, but read on for an account of an inaugural hi-fi journey into the world of audiophile events.
Cons, crowds, and COVID-19
I cut my teeth going to gaming conventions, especially PAX East held in my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. A decade ago, these shows weren’t that big. Sure, they attracted thousands, but they were for the super-fan. The ultra nerd. The kind of people who watch three-hour-long video essays on video games they’ll never play. Fast forward just a few years, and the same shows have gone mainstream with hundreds of people queuing for every panel; an expo hall so densely packed that moving fifty feet could take fifteen minutes; and even an expansion into four full days of events instead of the traditional three.
A hi-fi convention set years into the Coronavirus pandemic is a very different experience and, in the case of AXPONA, at a very different scale. If you wanted to see a talk, you could walk in when it started and find a seat in the front row. You didn’t have to bring a pair of binoculars to see the other end of the expo hall or worry about spending thirty minutes lost just walking around a convention center the size of a few city blocks. It’s a far cry from CES or even High End Munich, but that being said, the attendance was impressive - clearly, people have missed the chance to indulge in their passion and hear some great audio products. So, it was great to see the show so busy.
Over 150 exhibitors came to AXPONA, and popular demos saw people stuffed into tiny hotel rooms too small for the massive crowds. Elevators would be so full that con-goers would acknowledge the ironic tension of being packed together like sardines during a pandemic, joking this was the next superspreader event. Talk to the folk at the con, though, and it was clear that people were still being safe, with many happily pronouncing their full vaccination status.
Nonetheless, for a hi-fi show so well-attended, my sense of cognitive dissonance around traveling through airports, hotels, bars, and convention centers as reports on the news of COVID outbreaks flashed on TV screens persisted throughout the event. But as a young, healthy, vaccinated person, I was thankful for the privilege to be able to travel with a feeling of relative safety.
And after years of isolation and endless Zoom meetings, having a beer with fellow music nerds from around the world felt warm, special and safe. After all, when you find yourself in times of struggle, mother Mary may not always come to you, but you can always listen to The Beatles and feel alright.
The sky-high cost of hi-fi
AXPONA isn’t a pure hi-fi convention - there’s a real focus on musicians. So there was an even spread of consumer-focused hi-fi gear alongside more niche instruments and gear for music-makers and professionals in the recording industry.
I had a blast talking to Dave Malekpour (of Technical Audio Devices and Augspurger) about the clarity and precision of TAD’s $70,000 reference speakers while comparing them with the exciting musicality of Augspurger’s premium monitors used by the likes of Jay-Z and Snoop Dog in their studios. But I also had a ton of fun seeing family-run businesses, like Geshelli Labs or Perfect Vinyl Forever, offering products and services that any hi-fi fan can reasonably afford.
While SVS’ upcoming Sonos-style all-in-one wireless speaker might not sound anywhere near as precise, textured, and spacious as Klipsch’s $35,000 Jubilee speakers hooked up to over $100,000 of cables, at $800 for a pair anybody can enjoy great sound quality with an uncomplicated setup. Bridging the gap between not just the pro audio scene and the hi-fi world but between high-end hi-fi and something your average music fan might pick up is what AXPONA is all about.
And there was a welcoming, friendly atmosphere across all spectrums of the industry at the show. It doesn't matter how deep your well of technical knowledge goes or if you’re old enough to have a profound nostalgic connection to vinyl, if you appreciate good sound and are nerdy enough to want to talk about whether or not a particular bass sweep felt muddy, you’ll fit right in.
Hi-fi people are some of the nicest people
I mentioned how I’ve spent a good deal of time working in games, whether it’s as media or in the actual gaming industry itself. And when you work in games in the modern day, you quickly realize that you’re swimming in a shark tank. In 2021, video games made more money than music and movies combined. In no uncertain terms, gaming is now the predominant form of entertainment on Earth.
Unsurprisingly, there’s an unbelievable amount of money flowing through that industry. Developers are looking to cut the best deals they can via a traditional publisher, courting VCs in Silicon Valley, or crowdfunding themselves and hoping to actually deliver a product. Meanwhile, the biggest gaming sites compete doggedly with each other to get the best interviews, latest insider information, and ultimately, exclusives.
This doesn’t mean people in video games suck, they don’t. It does mean, though, that it’s a fast-paced, hard-nosed business where you can get left behind in the blink of an eye, and it can feel like you have to work tirelessly just to keep up. Accordingly, some people can be brusque and distant, constantly keeping their eyes on the prize, too busy to kick back, have a beer, and talk about their shared passion which brought them to the industry in the first place.
I am happy to report the hi-fi world, based on AXPONA, doesn’t seem like this at all. Sure, everyone is working hard and, like so many industries, it can be a tough market - certainly now with so much competition for people’s time from other forms of entertainment, not least from the aforementioned gaming world. But from the PR folks I met around the show to the interested and excitable exhibitors demoing products they genuinely love to even the wizened panelists who’ve been going to these shows for decades, almost everyone at the show was a total sweetheart. Sure, there’s the occasional curmudgeon offended by the idea something could possibly be better than his personal favorite product, but these were few and far between.
Stay gold, AXPONA
I’m a hi-fi and AV outsider in a lot of ways. Sure, I’ve got a 7.1 surround system far, far too big for my tiny studio apartment and a few pairs of really nice headphones, but I’m the outlier amongst my peers: my generation exchanged an obsession with stereos for the simplicity of Bluetooth speakers; we traded impassioned arguments on the merits of analog audio vs digital sound for Spotify Premium subscriptions.
I don’t fit into those boxes myself, not personally and not as a journalist, but I’ve often been left feeling either like the boomer amidst the zoomers, rolling my eyes at lossy formats and streaming altogether, or the naive simpleton who ought to just buy five-dollar earbuds from the corner shop and call it a day. At AXPONA, I felt like I fit right in, finding kinship amongst my audio nerd peers and hopefully inspiring the older folk at the con by demonstrating that hi-fi isn’t just for a particular age group.
Now, this outsider looking back at his very first hi-fi convention has only got one thing to say: stay gold, AXPONA. And see you next year.