The ATA show might be the worst place in the world to test bows. I hate to start with such a caveat, but there it is. The show floor is loud, clanging with distractions, and all the bows are set up differently, most notably with varying draw weights, somewhere between 50 and 60 so anyone can shoot them. It’s a mess.

And yet, there is much to glean. I just returned from show, held in Nashville earlier this week, and had a chance to look at and shoot pretty much all the new bows in one place. And while there was no way for me to fairly compare or rank the various models here, I was able to get a solid first impression. What’s more, having thoroughly tested all the flagship bows from last year, I could quickly see if and how each company stepped up their game for 2014.

And now, with that sweeping qualification aside, here are my first impressions of this year’s new compound bows.

Bear Archery Agenda 6

Specs: 32-inch axle-to-axle; 6-inch brace height; 3.9 pounds; 350 IBO

Last year Bear surprised us with their first pure speed bow, the 350-IBO Motive 6, which did well in our Best-of-the-Best testing–and I (as just one of four testers) thought it should have done a little better than it did. Well, the Agenda is basically the Motive with a new riser and improved cable guard and string suppressors.

Hits: Very fast and yet quite pleasant to shoot. Quiet. And Bear now makes it easier than ever to remove the rubber grip if you don’t like it. While a lot of folks felt that the Motive was ugly, the consensus at the show seemed to be that the new riser makes for a much better-looking bow. Even Danny Hinton, last year’s tester who called the Motive “the ugliest girl at the prom” says the Agenda is significantly purdier.

Misses: Nothing major. The back wall isn’t quite concrete, but it’s a fairly smooth overall shooter for a speed bow.

What Else You Should Know: If you favor smoothness over speed, you need to check out Bear’s new single-cam Venue. It’s a little over 32 inches long, 7-inch brace height, 4 pounds, and has a 330 IBO. It’s fast enough and a joy to shoot–a nice all around hunting model. One friend and colleague called it his favorite of the show.

MSRP: $899;

Bowtech RPM 360

Specs: 31-inch axle-to-axle; 6-inch brace height; 4.4 pounds; 360 IBO
Last year, Bowtech throttled back in the IBO race to produce the smooth-shooting and very accurate (for me, at least) Experience, which won our 2013 Best of the Best Award for bows. So it was time to jump back onto the gas pedal. The RPM 360 is a speed bow with several major new technologies, the most apparent of which is the trapezoidal I-beam riser, designed to handle lots of energy with minimal torque.

Hits: Crazy fast–the fastest Bowtech has ever produced and the second fastest bow I shot at the show. Rock-solid and built to last. For so fast a bow, the valley is manageable.

Misses: I’m not crazy about the new grip. I loved the feel of the old one and am sorry to see it go.

What Else You Should Know: Bowtech also has a new, high-end carbon-riser bow, the Carbon OverDrive, so named because unlike the Carbon Knight that received a good deal of buzz in the fall, this one features the OverDrive Binary cam system. It’s the same system that was on the Destroyer, a bow I really liked. It’s just 3.3 pounds and has an IBO of 342.

MSRP: $999;

Elite Energy 32

Specs: 31.75-inch axle-to-axle; 7-inch brace height; 4.3 pounds; 335 IBO

What always stands out with Elite bows in general is how pleasant they are to shoot. We absolutely gushed about last year’s Hunter in this regard. But it was slow. Too slow to rank it among the very top bows. The Energy is significantly faster at 335. The company had to update the cams and strengthen the riser to pull it off, but, based on the little bit of shooting one is able to do at ATA, pull it off they have.

Hits: Great valley and back wall. Dead in the hand. Again, a very pleasant shooting experience, and yet more speed.

Misses: It’s still not as fast as many other flagships. Some reputable folks at the show complained about the draw cycle, but I thought it was okay.

What Else You Should Know: It comes in a 35-inch version, which makes the draw cycle a bit smoother and may help long-range accuracy a bit. But for hunting, I’d get this one.

MSRP: $899:

Hoyt Faktor Turbo

Specs: 33-inch axle-to-axle; 6-inch brace height; 4.0 pounds; 340 IBO

Last year’s aluminum Spyder Turbo took third place overall in our Best of the Best testing, and it was the top-ranking speed bow. (You may think that a 340-IBO bow doesn’t quite deserve the “speed bow” tag, but that rating was conservative; it lit up the chronograph.) This year’s version, the Faktor Turbo, has the same (probably conservative) IBO rating and yet a new cam designed for a smoother draw. Is it smoother? As I say in the vid, that’s pretty much impossible to evaluate at the show. Basically, it feels a lot like last year’s Spyder Turbo, which we really liked, except it’s 1 inch shorter and .4 pounds lighter.

Hits: Fast and smooth. What more do you want?
Misses:** That back wall is still a bit spongy. But only a bit.

What Else You Should Know: The carbon-riser version of this bow is the Carbon Spyder Turbo, which is very much like the Faktor Turbo, but .2 pounds lighter. I screwed up the end of this video, referring to the Carbon Spyder Turbo while showing you the Faktor. What I was trying to say is: Personally, for that much extra cash, I’d get the Faktor.

MSRP: $949;

Obsession Evolution

Specs: 32-inch axle-to-axle; 6-inch brace height; 4.1 pounds; 353 IBO

Of all the bows at the show, this one surprised and impressed me most. This company debuted only a few years ago–yet another up-and-comer spearheaded by the wildly talented Kevin Strother. The 2014 ATA show was Obsession’s coming out party, and the pretty young thing, all dressed up for the occasion, is their flagship bow, the Evolution. I’ll stress again that the show floor is not a place to evaluate bows, but based only on the half a dozen shots I took, I’m not sure I’ve ever shot a bow this fast that was this pleasant to shoot. I can’t wait to shoot it for real.

Hits: An unbelievable valley for such a fast bow. It’s also seems to be pretty quiet and dead in the hand.

Misses: Nothing to speak of yet. But I’m sure I’ll find something once I get to do some in-depth testing.
What Else You Should Know:** One good way to judge which bows are generating buzz at the ATA show is to just visually measure the lines at the shooting stations. Bowtech’s was the busiest of all. They’ve been on quite a roll, and folks want to see what’s next. But the Obsession booth was a clear runner-up. This from a company most guys had never heard of.

MSRP: $899;

Prime Alloy

Specs: 33.25-inch axle-to-axle; 6.75-inch brace height; 4.2 pounds; 335 IBO

Here’s what I said last year about Prime’s 2013 flagship, the Impact: “This would be one hell of a bow if it wasn’t such a club.” Well, the Alloy, which shoots very much like the Impact but is a little shorter and significantly lighter, is not a club. As so therefore, it is a hell of bow. Of course, the other companies have stepped up their game, too. But this is a major improvement in my opinion.

Hits: Smooth draw cycle, good valley, great back wall, and smooth shooting. Last year, all of our tester shot the Prime bow well, and there’s no reason to think the Alloy wouldn’t be just as accurate.

Misses: It doesn’t really blow you away in any one regard, especially speed. But then again, a good hunting bow doesn’t really have to.

What Else You Should Know: If you go to your dealer, take the Alloy off the rack, and don’t like the way it feels, just ask the shop pro to remove the grip. Then see what you think. To me, it makes the bow feel much more trim and sprightly.

MSRP: Starting at $999:

PSE X-Force Full Throttle

Specs: 33.25-inch axle-to-axle; 5.25-inch brace height; 4.1 pounds; 370 IBO

This, as I say in the video, is the fastest hunting bow ever made. So while the DNA SP (see below) is PSE’s new flagship intended for the majority of shooters, the Full Throttle generated a lot more buzz at the show. Like all the X-Force bows since the original model began the latest round of speeds wars, this is an impressive machine–precisely engineered, solidly built, and I suspect, very accurate. It all boils down to this: Can you handle it?

Hits: Outrageous speed. It seemed pretty quiet and vibration free for so fast a bow.

Misses: Zero valley–although I don’t know that you can really call this a miss. It’s simply the way these bows are designed. You are either used to it and don’t mind, or you hate it.

What Else You Should Know: The Full Throttle is for the speed freaks. They’ll love it. But most shooters should look at the new DNA SP. When we tested last year’s DNA, it lost points because it, too, had no valley. The SP, which stands for Smooth Pull, addresses that. At 345, you only loose 7 fps from last year’s DNA, but this one is definitely easier to shoot. And at $899, it’s priced on the low end of the new flagships.

MSRP: $1,099;

Strother Vital

Specs: 32-inch axle-to-axle; 7-inch brace height; 4 pounds; 335 IBO
Like most of Strother’s recent offerings, the Vital strikes me as a heck of good all-around hunting bow. This year’s flagship has a new limb pocket designed to add strength and integrity and a new cam system. But from what I could tell, it shoots much like last year’s flagship, which a good thing. This is also a sharp-looking bow. The riser is simple and classy with a nice fit and finish.

Hits: Very nice draw cycle, good valley, decent speed, smooth shooting.

Misses: As I say in the video, there isn’t much that’s negative to say. The one at the show seemed a little louder than other bows–but that doesn’t mean much.

What Else You Should Know: The Vital I shot at the show was totally bare, whereas many other models there had stabilizers or dampeners, which, of course, could account for whatever extra noise I heard.

MSRP: $899;