Hi-Fi Show Report: AXPONA

April 30, 2024
5 mins read

OWEN HARRIS moseyed along to the largest hi-fi show in the USA and instead of just taking in endless rooms of product took time out to attend a selection of seminars.


AXPONA 2024 – Marriott Renaissance Hotel, Schaumburg IL, USA – 12-14 April 2024

Day 1: Fri 12th April

AXPONA (Audio Expo North America) is the largest hi-fi show in the US, drawing almost 10,000 attendees, exhibitors, and press for three days every April to the Marriott Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center, in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. I’ve been twice before but was especially looking forward to this year’s event to scope out possible upgrades in the near future for a basement audio room.

Once checked in on Friday morning, I headed up to the darTZeel listening Room 1210 (most hotel rooms are repurposed for the weekend) to check out Jerome Sabbagh on saxophone playing along to backing tracks from his all-analogue albums. Sabbagh, Paris-born but now residing in New York, has just launched an all-analogue label, Analog Tone Factory. Some might remember that he spent time in NZ in the late ‘90s playing with the likes of Mark de-Clive Lowe, Nathan Haines and Greg Tuohey, who plays on Sabbagh’s 2018 album No Filter. It was an all-too-brief performance, whetting my appetite for his forthcoming album Heart, featuring the legendary Al Foster (Miles Davis, Blue Mitchell, and many more) on percussion.

Given I’m currently planning an audio area in a new-to-me basement, my first seminar at AXPONA this year, Design And Construction Of A Dedicated Audiophile Listening Room, was of particular interest. It focused on an actual buildout case study with the architect, acoustician, and project manager on the panel. Materials, sizing, and listening position were all key factors, but it really comes down to how extreme you want to go, with best practices that apply regardless. A rug here, a panel there, can make all the difference.

Tracking Angle and Absolute Sound contributor Michael Fremer’s World-Famous Turntable Set-up Seminar is a must-see for those not familiar with or wary of messing with your turntable’s available tweaks for the best possible sound out of your cartridge. Fremer starts with screwing an Audio-Technica cart to the VPI turntable headshell, using small pliers to carefully attach the four wires to the back of the cart, then sets the VTF (Vertical Tracking Force) using a digital scale. From there it’s a series of steps, using alignment protractors – in this case the WallyTractor – digital microscopes, and skating-force weights to optimally position the cart to the selected alignment (Löfgren B), azimuth, and VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle) as best you can with the turntable adjustments and tools at your disposal. As with any live demo there’s a wildcard element, and Fremer is a pro at humorous narration when something doesn’t quite go to plan. Again, it can make all the difference to understand, check, adjust then sit back and enjoy. Speaking of hearing, a fellow Kiwi, Scott from Christchurch, overheard me talking with Fremer and introduced himself. He’d come from NZ with his wife for AXPONA and some sightseeing, and it was great to meet him on the day.

Our man Owen with turntable expert Michael Fremer.

My next seminar, Tape: The Once And Future Medium? was again of great interest, as I’ve Akai GX-635 and Pioneer RT-707 decks, and a decent collection of pre-recorded tapes alongside ones my Dad and I made from the ‘60s through the ‘90s. The panel included, amongst others, Chad Kassem (Analogue Productions/Acoustic Sounds), Andre Jennings (The Absolute Sound) and Jerome Sabbagh, who sells 10”/15ips tapes of his albums via his new label.

Demand for recordings on reel tape is up, but blank tape is harder than ever to secure, limited to perhaps individual manufacturers in France, the US, and China, who provide tape based on classic formulations from BASF, Ampex and others. All acknowledged the cost and scarcity of new releases and decks as a barrier to entry, but also that 7” 7.5ips tapes were more likely to be bought due to the comparatively larger amount of older decks in homes, many of which will only play the smaller reels. Analogue Productions tapes start around USD$450, and Sabbaghs sell for USD$525, or well over NZD$700, while new reel decks are anywhere upwards of USD$10,000. Kassem closed out by stating that they’d had stock of Norah Jones’ debut Come Away With Me on tape for around four years, then when finally sold-out folks would come crying for another run, the moral of the story being – like any limited audiophile run – get in while you can, folks!

My experience and experimentation with cartridges has been pretty limited until recent years, mostly due to budget and going with what’s provided with a particular deck – a newer Goldring on my Linn Axis, an Ortofon 2M on a Pro-Ject Debut – but since investing in and restoring a 1960s Garrard 301 idler turntable, complete with a heavy Baltic birch plinth, I’ve acquired an Ortofon 12” tonearm with suitable Ortofon SPU (Stereo Pick-Up) 1E with elliptical stylus, and delved deeper.

Leif Johannsen, Chief Officer Acoustics and Research at Ortofon in Denmark, was on hand describing not only how to select a suitable Ortofon cartridge for your needs (and budget!), but also some of the technology included in specific carts. For example, SLM (Selective Laser Melting) allows a cart body to be built from the ground up by melting alloy powder, FSE (Field Stabilising Element) and WRD (Wide Range Damping) work to minimize electrical eddy field interference and vibration, combining to help get the most electrical signal out of the grooves and keep it as pure as possible. Some of these carts are pushing USD$10,000, but aspects of the tech permeate down to lesser-priced but still great-sounding models.

Browsing the Atlantic 75 and Steely Dan UHQR reissues at the Acoustic Sounds area in the large expo hall, I spied owner Chad Kassem, and engaged him in a discussion about those reissue programmes, the scarcity of 7” reel releases, and – of most interest to him! – New Zealand, as the aforementioned fellow Kiwi Scott was known to Chad, who wondered if we knew each other. I said not from home, but we had met earlier in the day at Fremer’s session. Kassem then introduced me to a couple of gents who were deep in conversation, as the daughter of one was currently working as an oenologist at Mt Difficulty in the Otago region. Said chap’s name was Don MacInnes, the owner of RTI (Record Technology Incorporated), one of the premiere US pressing plants most vinyl buyers likely have product from. Small world!

Walking around the spacious expo hall before heading out for the day, I took in an RTM Tapes session, which was more about playback of tape at 15ips via a PA than a seminar, but enjoyable nonetheless, and also came across the VK Music stand, with a multitude of tube preamp and amplifiers. Victor Kung, from Canada, had prominently displayed a Stereophile magazine with Herb Reichert’s review of the SunValley SV-EQ1616D Phono Equaliser.

My booth visit happened to coincide with Reichert’s, so chatted briefly with both Herb & Victor before moving on to the Kirmuss Audio booth. Charles Kirmuss himself was demonstrating his Ultrasonic record cleaner by taking punters’ eye glasses and running them through the machine’s bath by hand, where I could clearly see the cloud of particulate coming off my specs. I’ve enjoyed good results with my Pro-Ject V-CS vacuum cleaner over a couple of thousand records – a pandemic project – but would consider augmenting this with an Ultrasonic cleaner in the future.

RTM Tapes.

My last stop for opening day was the WallyTools booth. Michael Fremer is an advocate and uses both the WallyTractor and WallySkater in his Turntable Setup Seminar, and has written often about them. Wally Malewicz himself sadly passed away a few years ago, but his former production assistant JR Boisclair, alongside Wally’s son, has continued to evolve the product line geared around optimizing your turntable setup. WallyTools also provide a comprehensive cartridge analysis service, reporting on your stylus’ actual VTA and azimuth, with shims to correct, to provide accurate alignment of carts.

With Day 1 of AXPONA under my belt, it was time to head back to my hotel then enjoy a bison burger and local sour at a nearby brewpub, and look forward to Day 2’s sessions.

+ Guest columnist Owen Harris is a Midwest-based expat Kiwi whose life revolves around the important things in life: music and good sounds.




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