The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXVIX: High-End Audio Shows and You
If you've been following the Vinyl Anachronist columns I've been writing for almost 22 years, you'll know I spend an inordinate amount of time at high-end audio shows. My first one was way back in 1992, when I attended the Stereophile Show in Los Angeles. It was an illuminating experience--not only did I get to hear all of the hi-fi products I'd only read about in the audio magazines, but I got to meet many of the lauded members of the audiophile press and get their takes on the industry. Most importantly, I met the man who would become my dealer and mentor over the years, Gene Rubin. I wound up purchasing a pair of Spendor S20 loudspeakers from him just a few weeks later, and my real high-end audio journey began.
From 1998 on, I started attending show as a member of the press--based solely on the fact that I wrote this column for Perfect Sound Forever. That allowed me even more access to what was going on in the hobby that I loved. In 2011 I started going to these shows as an exhibitor, representing my distribution and importer business. That gave me a completely different take on these shows from the business end of things. For the next seven years, I went to dozens and dozens of shows, with only one reservation--I was stuck in my room for the entire show and didn't get to hear all of the other products that were making their debuts to the public. Plus, loading up heavy amps and speakers and display materials and driving long distances was tough, tough work and I'm getting too old for that shit. All I need now is a suitcase and a camera.
Just last year, I returned as a member of the press, and once again I got to see the shows from the same perspective as show-goers. An important part of my job as Managing Editor at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional magazine has been attending as many of these shows as I can, visiting almost every room and then writing about it. It's my dream job.
What's so special about going to these shows as just an audiophile, music lover, or what have you? For years, I've heard a common complaint of budding audiophiles, that there are no high-end audio dealers where they live. They simply don't have ôseat time" with the brands they've been reading about, and some of them buy audio components sight unseen--and more importantly, unheard--which is a terrible way to pursue this hobby. The high-end audio shows allow the average person to sit down and listen, a vital first step in creating an audio system that will improve the quality of their lives.
Put simply, attending and exhibiting at these shows was my favorite part of the job. First, the high-end audio industry is close-knit and these events allowed me to hang out with my friends and have fun and party after-hours. But the real reason is hearing all that gear, beautifully presented, and learning what I wanted in terms of sound--all at a relatively low price- most of these shows charge just $20 or $25, often for a full three or four day pass.
Many audiophiles balk at the idea of these shows. For many of them, high-end audio shows are merely an opportunity to see how expensive some of this gear can be--even though budget gear is often the ôstar" at these events. I think that's the wrong way to look at it. For example, my good friends at Von Schweikert Audio, Damon Von Schweikert and Leif Swanson, build exhibits around magnificent systems that often venture into the seven-figure range. They'll feature their $300,000 speakers, along with $500,000 worth of amps and $200,000 worth of cabling, to show what is possible in this hobby. You can spend time with these life-changing systems and lament how the average person could never afford anything close to these systems, but that's missing the point completely. Damon and Leif are actually allowing anyone who's paid the price of admission to spend as much time as they want listening and enjoying and having their favorite music played for them. This is a gift.
At this point there are many high-end audio shows held all over the country, as well as the rest of the world, and hopefully one is close to where you live. Here are the ones worth checking out.
The two top speaker models from Wilson Audio at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. One retails for $329,000/pair, and the other slight more than twice that.
Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. This show, held in Denver in October (although this year it was held in early September, a one-time anomaly) has been going on for almost as I've been writing this column. For many years this was everyone's favorite show--the mood was friendly and accommodating, and all of the major manufacturers love to exhibit there. First of all, it's in Colorado, so read into that whatever you will (it ain't called the Mile High City for nothing). Second, everyone loves to go to RMAF. It's fun. It's informative. Going to RMAF isn't a chore. It's a vacation. And did I mention it's in Colorado? You can get more information at https://www.audiofest.net/.
AXPONA. This show, held in Chicago in April, started off as sort of a road show--they held it in places like Atlanta and Jacksonville and wherever audiophiles showed an interest. A few years ago it settled in Chicago, which was a great decision since Chicago hadn't hosted a show since the Consumer Electronics Show's summer get-together was cancelled many years ago. Something like 15 years went by without an event, so when AXPONA (which stands for Audio Expo North America) arrived, the crowds were wild. Over the last few years, AXPONA has turned into one of the best-attended and well-run shows on the circuit. Check out http://www.axpona.com/ for the next show.
Dr. Kirmuss demonstrating his revolutionary new record cleaning machine at T.H.E. Show in Long Beach this June.
T.H.E. Show. This show has struggled a bit since founder Richard Beers passed away a few years ago, and the venue and timing has changed repeatedly with the new ownership. It used to be a side-event along with the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every January, but eventually it became a stand-alone Southern California show held in June. For many years, it was held in Newport Beach, California, and it was well-liked since everyone wants to go to Newport in June. This year it was held in lovely Long Beach, California, which at first was met with skepticism (where's the beach?), but it appears to have captured its former glory and is well worth attending. Find out more at https://thehomeentertainmentshow.com/.
Florida Audio Expo. This show, held in the Tampa Bay area, made its debut just last year and the word was that it was a huge success. I didn't get to go last year, which was a bummer since I was looking to escape the Upstate New York winters in February, but I'm definitely going this year. The Florida Audio Expo is such a good idea for a couple of reasons. It's Florida in February, for starters, and there are plenty of both audiophiles and high-end audio dealers in the Sunshine State. You can learn more at https://floridaaudioexpo.com/.
Capital Audiofest. This show, held in the Washington DC area in November, started off as a small, intimate show. As an exhibitor I never attended, mostly because of the show's reputation for being a small, intimate show, but I attended last year for the first time and found it to be just as exciting and dynamic as all the other shows. Plus, I can drive there in just a few hours if I want. I'm making this an annual pilgrimage because it was so enjoyable. Check out http://capitalaudiofest.com/ for more information.
There are plenty of those smaller shows that might be worth your time, such as the California Audio Show sponsored by Dagogo in the Bay Area every August, or the DIY-heavy Lone Star Audio Fest in Dallas every May, and assorted shows in New York City that occur in late autumn. I even attended the Rochester Audio Fest last year, which was only a single hotel ballroom filled with gear from a local dealer (that was still enjoyable, and it was free, plus I also got to meet legendary amp designer Dave Belles, who lives in the same town as I do).
High End 2019 in Munich--I finally get to see the Unison Research Absolute 845 amp in person. I represented the brand for eight years but was never able to bring one of these $50,000 monsters into the States.
Tidal Audio speakers at Munich. These German speakers are some of the finest in the world.
If you're more adventurous, there are multiple international shows that are worth your time if you have the means. Both Montreal and Toronto host shows during the year (I've been to the Toronto show, called TAVES, and it was a lot of fun), and word is that the new show in Warsaw is amazing (can I convince my magazine to send me there this year?). There are also incredible shows in Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Milan. But perhaps the biggest show of them all is High End in Munich. I had the good fortune to attend back in May, and it might have been the greatest show I've attended. For years, the big show was the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, but they gradually phased out high-end audio and everyone got the hint and stopped going. Munich is now The Place to Be.
In the Soundsmith room in Munich. Soundsmith makes wonderful audio equipment and is located near me in New York.
A rare system, again in Munich, consisting of from Audio Note Kondo equipment. Here's a system well into the seven-figure range.
If you take my advice and visit one of these shows, you might even catch me wandering the halls in a daze, awkwardly dragging my camera and notepad from exhibit room to exhibit room. For years, the highlight of these shows for me was when I was approached by a show attendee who told me how they've followed my Vinyl Anachronist columns all these years. So if you see me--and my name on my badge-- feel free to come up to me and tell me you read this column. You might even catch me in a talkative mood, and I'll give you some of the industry scoops I used to treasure all those many years ago.
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