Notes From a Disconnected Axpona
This is not a show report.
I'm well aware that show reports are great click bait and drive a large amount of traffic, but I'm just not feeling it right now. I've been dreading writing something about Axpona all week. Not because I didn't have a good time at the show. I've been hesitant because I had a really good time at the show and it didn't revolve around 99.9% of the rooms and equipment on display. Writing show reports with sonic assessments and pretty equipment pictures doesn't excite me (for the most part). Noisy hotel rooms and really bad acoustics don't lead to good conditions for listening to music and assessing equipment. Kid yourself all you want, I'm just stating the facts. Some rooms at the show were a breath of fresh air, where sonic assessments were possible. I'll get to those in a bit. What I really want to discuss is a huge disconnect between consumers and "the industry."
First, a little background. At 5:30 PM on the first day of the show, I ran into CA contributor ted_b. He mentioned that a group of people from the CA community were meeting in the bar and he invited me to attend. Of course I was all in. This is the best part of my job, meeting the people with which I have so much in common and those who make this job possible. Over the course of an hour we all struggled to get words in because there was so much to discuss. I felt like these guys were friends I hadn't seen in twenty years.
We discussed a couple rooms that were enjoyable and a couple components on our recommended lists. However, for much of the conversation we all talked about music. And here's the disconnect, nobody talked about Diana Krall, Rebecca Pidgeon, or the latest quad DSD or 24/384 recording of a guy beating tree trunks with Japanese urushi drumsticks. If you like that stuff, I'm very happy for you because you'll be in heaven at a HiFi show. We all talked about music made by the likes of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Blind faith, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, and Prince. I have to ask, why is it that none of these artists graced a single playlist in any of the rooms in which I visited?
Talk about disconnect. Not only did our group of people enjoy "real" music rather than stereotypical audiophile crap, so did many of the people I talked to within the industry. I can't count how many times I've been told by people putting on demonstrations, that they'd rather stick pencils in their necks than listen to Hugh Masekela one more time. Here's a tip - STOP PLAYING IT!
Why does the industry cater to one segment of consumers, to the detriment of all others? HiFi is a small niche. Within this niche is another niche of people who like traditional audiophile music. As an industry we cater to to that niche within a niche, yet we complain about not attracting more civilians to our hobby. Hello! When is the last time you visited an unpleasant place and thought, "I should go back there again." An audio show where people bring significant others and children, should be about reaching out, not fighting over the last members of a dying breed (literally).
After the second day of the show, I met up with a longtime member of the CA community, who was actually in attendance at the Computer Audiophile Symposium at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA back in 2009. It was great to talk with him about the show and all things HiFi. It was interesting to hear his opinion about entering the rooms and listening to whatever music was playing. He is a shy guy and didn't feel comfortable asking for specific music. Some of us who have been to way too many HiFi shows are totally fine with playing our own music, but I don't think we are in the majority. Why does the industry make people feel that playing Beyonce at a HiFi show is sacrilegious? I told this member of the CA community that I played Beyonce's Formation in the Quintessence Audio room on the 12th floor, and he sounded excited but a little sad that he missed it or couldn't do so himself.
Another item we discussed is value in HiFi and the prices of equipment. Neither of us have an issue with high priced equipment or even stratospherically priced equipment. Manufacturers only build what customers want and if customers can afford it, that's excellent. Heck, I wish I could afford more of the stuff about which I write. I relayed a story about the time I was fresh out of college in the late 1990s and saw/heard a pair of B&W Nautilus 802 loudspeakers at a local dealer for the first time. The speakers were $8,000. I was an aspirational buyer at the time, with a job that didn't put me in the top tax bracket. I started putting money away and months later I purchased a pair of the 802s. I remember it like yesterday.
Sure $8,000 is a lot of money, but it was an obtainable amount for a guy working in IT right out of college (without kids or a house payment). Without objective data to support my opinion, I expressed that I thought much of HiFi was beyond the reach of aspirational buyers today. After the conversation I pulled up an inflation calculator to compare what the adjusted price of the 802 speakers would be in today's dollars and the current retail price. I realized this wasn't a longitudinal study and was full of irregularities, but it would give me one data point. I believe I bought the speakers in 1999 for $8,000. In today's dollars that would be $11,727 according to this calculator. The MSRP of a new pair of B&W 802 D3 loudspeakers in 2017 is $22,000. I have a hard time believing that a version of me, fresh out of college today, could even be an aspirational buyer of the B&W 802s.
Our discussion also touched on value. Value is a tough one because it's so subjective. A value for me isn't a value for my neighbor. However, this doesn't mean the subject is off limits. I don't mind spending a lot of money on something if there is perceived value. Streaming a couple movies on a private jet over the Atlantic ocean for $10,000 in data charges has no value to me (true story, not my money). Spending the same amount of money to put local storage of movies in that same jet has much more value. Ten grand is pocket change to some people, but those people don't like to waste money any more than me.
The $2,299 Schiit Audio Yggdrasil doesn't cost a lot of money for many people in this hobby, but it's more money that most civilians have in the bank. By most standards it's expensive, but I also consider it an incredible value. On the other hand, there are components and speakers that combine to make systems at or above $1,000,000. I completely understand the cost of goods made in small quantities, and the value of exclusivity etc... but comparing all the items one million dollars could purchase, makes me struggle to find value in a $1,000,000 audio system. A couple houses, a few Ferraris, a few outstanding college educations, etc... I would probably be much more inclined to see value in such an expensive audio system if I heard a demonstration and it was the best system I'd ever heard. Not the best system by 90%, but just the best system period. Even if it was only 5% better than a much cheaper system. At Axpona, there were some systems that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I won't judge them based on the terrible show conditions, but based on my experience I can say there is little value in these systems as a whole.
Another disconnect I ran into at the show involved me sitting through 30 minutes of misinformation from a manufacturer. I entered his room, interested in a new product. There were other people listening to music and asking questions when I entered. I quietly sat on the side and listened to the conversations until I was asked a specific question, to which I gave an honest answer. The manufacturer was going on and on about how USB is the worst interface and he couldn't even listen to music through USB. Then he started in with DSD versus PCM and how one was clearly superior. Then he honestly told people that Tidal compressed the dynamic range of music more than the CD of the same music. As if someone at Tidal remastered millions of albums, but was able to somehow keep them bit-identical to the CD versions (I've tested this). This guy wasn't talking about data compression and FLAC, he was talking about dynamic range compression. I know this because he later went into data compression and why it's also the devil.
The bottom line is this, we had one guy telling people everything they are doing is wrong. Not only this, but he was using alternative facts to justify his statements. I don't care if he isn't a fan of USB interfaces. I do care that he was spewing misinformation to people who will spread that misinformation and cause others to waste money on needless upgrades and very possibly get turned off of this hobby eventually because of this crap. Misinformation isn't a successful longterm strategy.
In this same room, I had a writer from another publication engage me in a conversation about MQA. I don't remember who he was or what publication he wrote for and chances are good he has no idea who I am or what publication for which I write. No biggie. Anyway, this guy was 100% certain that MQA was first decoded by the USB interface, in addition to other things. I tried to provide some information about how MQA works and that USB has nothing to do with MQA, but he wasn't hearing any of it. In his mind he was right and he was there to spread the word. It was awkward in that room. Between the main conversations and my side conversation, I was turned off. Things like this don't happen in every room, but they happen more often that most people could imagine. It's things like this that are draining and they get old. This was an audio show. A pinnacle of HiFi performance where people from the area gather once per year to hear and see the best in the world, and talk amongst like-minded individuals. We should stop complaining about flaws in technologies such as USB, as if all other technologies are flawless, or the difficulty of computer networking, and start leading as an industry. Give people what they pay for and show them how to get the best out of any technology. Right now, I'm willing to bet the local Best Buy offers a better experience than Axpona and many HiFi shops. Networking and computers aren't the antithesis of audio and music reproduction. They aren't rocket science either. In 30 minutes the kid at best buy could have someone setup with a working wireless network and an audio system. It may not be the best, but it's better than the system the HiFi industry complains about and pushes away as if it's leprosy. OK, that was a little side rant that could the subject of an entire editorial, but I'll save it for another day.
Let's talk about the good times at Axpona. First and foremost, I enjoyed the Quintessence Audio room on the 12th floor (straight off the elevators), more than all other rooms combined. The room featured Dynaudio Contour 60 loudspeakers and a serious stack of Moon by Simaudio components. The digital source was an Aurender. The team at Quintessence really setup the room well, enabling people to hear the system more than the acoustics of the room. One afternoon the guys in the room let me control the playlist for what seemed like an hour. I kept queuing up tracks and listening like I was at home. Playing all my favorite music. Sure, a few people walked in and were scared off by Iggy Azalea's latest single Mo Bounce, but I would have been scared off by their Nils Lofgren albums had the situation been reversed. I played everything from Pearl Jam to Peter, Paul and Mary. I really liked how everything sounded in this room. The Moon gear was wonderful as usual. I really think the Dynaudio Contour 60 loudspeakers offer a great value and should have a long life for the company. Yes they are $10,000, but the equivalent speakers from other brands are double that price.
Imagine if civilian show-goers could have had the same fun experience that I had in the Quintessence room rather than disturbing the peace by walking in on a 32/768 kHz rendition of Kazakhstan Wind Chimes being listened to by some reviewer who has been in the business since I was nine years old, who expects the world to stop when he is listening. This isn't far from what I experienced at Axpona. A reviewer asked if anyone could name the music he played and some guy said, "that wasn't music!" He was right, it was a bunch of banging on things in high resolution. If people like that stuff, no worries. It's just not the kind of stuff that the people I know like and it's certainly not the kind of stuff that will attract anyone to this hobby.
Another room I really enjoyed featured Doshi analog components, dCS digital components, and Wilson Audio Yvette loudspeakers with Transparent cabling throughout. The system was setup well, even though the room was less than ideal. Nick Doshi was playing some jazz through the dCS gear, and I was mesmerized. I have no clue what album it was or even who the artist was, but I sat there enjoying the whole thing. It was an old school jazz club recording with stand-up bass and drums and improvisation. Great stuff. I remember listening and thinking that I needed to consider Doshi components and the Yvette loudspeakers in my system (the dCS is already here). That's how powerful good music is on a good system. I really hope civilians had the same experience in that room. After several minutes of the great jazz album, another guy working the room said he had some Donal Fagan queued up. I couldn't help but to speak up to say I was completely satisfied with the current track and that I'd heard Donald Fagan about 1000 times at shows in the past. Thus, I'd rather not hear Morph the Cat again. Anyway, this room was a blast that made me rethink my current system.
I'm not holier than thou. I don't care why you are into this hobby. For music, for gear, or to spend all the money you inherited or married into, is of no concern to me. I honestly really don't care. I'm the most nonjudgemental person you'll ever meet. If you like HiFi because it looks cool and impresses your friends, I am honestly happy because it's making you happy. This editorial wasn't meant as an indictment on the motives of my fellow audiophiles. Rather, it was to express a little frustration about a big disconnect in the industry. Axpona wasn't the cause and wasn't the first place I witnessed this disconnect. It just sparked me to write this editorial. Perhaps the time spent with a few really smart guys in the industry sparked me to write this as well. There are a few guys in the industry who aren't clinging to the old way of doing business and who have great vision for the future. These guys inspired me at Axpona and made me realize this wonderful hobby will survive, but not in its current form.
People in the industry should ask themselves if they are having fun at these audio shows. The chances are high that the answer would be no. If they aren't having fun, how do they expect potential customers to have fun? As an industry, can we cater to more demographics than those on deck for the nursing home? That's not a slight against older people. I tell my five year old daughter all the time that older people are the best because they have so much experience and so many good stories from which she can learn. As an industry, can we cater to the music lover who is capable of talking about music with other people over a few beers at the bar, in addition to the guy with literally 10 CDs (5 of them different versions of Jazz at the Pawnshop)?
Let's close the gap between HiFi and everyone else on the planet. Music is a universal language that brings people together, unless it has been outlawed by those who see its power to change the world.
P.S. After writing this I questioned whether it should be published. I don't want to be seen as just another guy in the industry ranting about the industry. The industry is full of blowhards who do a great job of this already. Hopefully others will see at least a tiny bit of value in this editorial or at least get some enjoyment out of it or make a connection with some of my experiences. Please remember. I'm in this for the long haul. It's a marathon, not a sprint. I'm not the Minister of Information. I'm here for you, you aren't here for me.21