Show Report: AXPONA 2014 - Headphones, etc.

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Show Report: AXPONA 2014 - Headphones, etc.

I spent this past weekend serving as the Hi-Fi+ emissary to the AXPONA 2014 show, held in the Westin O’hare Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, USA. For those of you not familiar with the show, let me begin by mentioning that AXPONA is an acronym that stands for Audio Expo North America. As such, the ambitious event occupies most of the available meeting spaces on the ground floor and on a lower level floor of the hotel, with many more demonstration rooms filling three of the hotel’s upper floors.

Unlike the CES or Munich High-End shows, and more like the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, AXPONA is more of an enthusiast-centric than business-to-business-centric event, which works out beautifully for the serious (and passionate) listeners in attendance. The tradition at AXPONA is for many, though not all, demonstration rooms to be operated under the auspices of various local and regional high-end audio dealers and distributors, who are often ably assisted by manufacturers’ representative who provide assistance with set-up, room-tuning, and product adjustments, etc. The net effect, then, is much like visiting one’s favourite audio dealers or distributors, but on a special occasion where there are lots of factory trained product experts on hand to answer questions and provide insights.

No great audio show would be complete without live music and AXPONA did not disappoint. In particular, I was taken with a series of roughly hour-long mini-concerts given by the extraordinary virtuoso bass guitarist Dean Peer and his long-time musical collaborator percussionist Bret Mann. Peer and Mann’s set often featured music drawn from some of Peer’s earlier recordings (most notably the audiophile favourite Airborne), while also taking time to introduce some all-new material not yet captured on recordings. The new material, I must say, proved even more expansive, innovative, and both melodically and rhythmically adventurous than anything I have heard from Peer and Mann in the past. Their performances were breathtaking and reminded me of why I ever got involved in hi-fi in the first place.

AXPONA also features a seminar series and I am pleased to say that I, along with moderator Scot Hull of Part-Time Audiophile, Kevin Glendenning of JH Audio, Brannan Mason of Noble Audio, and Scott Houston of Sennheiser, took part in panel discussion and Q&A session on the topic, “What is the Right Headphone for You?” Audience members posed some great questions and I can only hope they enjoyed and benefitted from the session as much as I did as a participant.

As often happens with me, I returned from the show with far more information (with illustration photos to match) than could possible fit in a single show report. So, to impose some order on what could otherwise be chaos, I’m going to focus Part 1 of this report on Headphones, Earphones, Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors, and related electronics. As always, my apologies in advance to any manufacturers whose worthy products I inadvertently fail to mention.

Headphones, Earphones, Custom IEMs, and Related Electronics

Allnic Audio

Allnic Audio electronics are highly prized by top-tier valve-amplification connoisseurs, though the firm’s products have typically been targeted toward those seeking to assemble very high-performance speaker-based systems—until now. At AXPONA, Allnic showed not one but two very high performance valve-powered headphone amplifiers: the HPA3000, which is a class A single-ended triode desing ($3,800), and the impressive HPA5000, which is—get this—an output transformer-less amplifier whose tube complement includes 2 x 6AN8s, 2 x E180CCs, and 4 x 7233’s ($5,500). Based on a brief listen, both showed great promise—perhaps most expecially the HPA-5000.