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AXPONA 2022 | Loudspeakers $30k and Up

AXPONA 2022 | Loudspeakers $30k and Up

After three years of self-imposed exile, it felt distinctly odd to go to a trade show—my first since Munich High End 2019. Being surrounded by thousands of people, most of them complete strangers, was both invigorating and unsettling—invigorating because it was something like a return to normal life, unsettling because so many show attendees were behaving as if COVID were ancient history. Which, of course, it isn’t.

While the circumstances were decidedly different, some things hadn’t changed a bit. Statement loudspeakers were still being parked in ballrooms so large that even full symphony orchestras would have had trouble filling them with high-quality sound, while others were crammed into hotel rooms so small that Bluetooth speakers would have been overkill. Clothes may or may not make the man, but hotel rooms certainly make (and unmake) the loudspeaker.

So…keeping in mind that any number of perfectly wonderful transducers didn’t show their best because of the outsized digs they were booked into, let’s take a tour of the ultra-high-end loudspeakers at this year’s AXPONA. As usual, my apologies in advance to manufacturers whose rooms I missed (like the Magico M6 and Focal rooms) or whose specs I’ve garbled. I’m just one guy with a suitcase full of blues (and N95 masks). I try to get things right, but I’m human, and I’m bound to mess up now and again.



In the huge Schaumburg F ballroom, Stenheim was demo’ing its five-foot-tall, 550+-pound, $155k Reference Ultime Two—a five-driver (two 12” woofers, two 6½” mids, and a single 1” tweeter in a quasi-D’Appolito array), aluminum-bodied floorstander, driven by VTL electronics and sourced by Wadax digital and VPI analog. Having considerable hands-on experience with Stenheim’s smaller Alumine Five SEs, I can assure you that this Swiss company makes superb loudspeakers, but nothing short of a row of giant megaphones could’ve allowed the Ultime Twos to fill a room the size of this one with sound. Bass was deep but soft in definition—not outright boomy but not as defined as I’m used to from the little Stens. Though ambience retrieval was excellent, tone color gorgeous on piano and voice (particularly on vinyl, less so on Wadax digital), and overall sonics improved by Day Three, this still was not the world-class showing that the Stenheims are capable of.

In the equally spacious Schaumburg G ballroom, some truly dedicated audiophiles were showing the original Wilson WAMM (serial No 1!), which they somehow managed to purchase from its current owner. Eq’d and driven by D’Agostino electronics, this concatenation of ESR tweeters and Braun mini-monitors and farchachdat subwoofers produced a big sound that was, once again, not the last word in bass definition but quite beautiful in midband timbre with excellent depth.

In Schaumburg H, ATC was demo’ing its powered, $42k SCM100ASLT three-ways (25mm neodymium tweeter, 150mm soft-dome midrange, 314mm woofer), sourced by Auralic digital. Here was yet another excellent speaker struggling against a too-big room and losing the battle. With less definition (indeed, a little boom) in the bass and swimmier ambience than what I’m used to on familiar cuts, the sound was disappointing.

Burmester demo’d its $175k, aluminum-bodied BC150 three-way floorstander with AMT tweeter, 18cm midrange, and 32cm side-mounted woofer. Driven by Burmester’s own chrome-plated electronics and sources (including a turntable!), the BC150 was good on LP, with better definition on starting transients in the midrange and treble than some of its large-room competition (probably because of that AMT ribbon). Nonetheless, it was still “swallowed up” by the huge space it was parked in.

The $35k Klipsch Heritage Jubilee—a gigantic, two-way horn speaker (said to be Paul Kilpsch’s last design)—was also being shown in one of the Schaumburg ballrooms, driven by Rotel’s Mischi electronics. Though surprisingly free of horn colorations, the Heritage Jubilee was so large, cumbrous, and old-fashioned-looking that I had trouble imagining who its potential buyers would be.

In another Schaumburg ballroom, Estelon showed its five-and-a-half-foot tall, drop-dead gorgeous, four-way (two 11” Accuton aluminum-sandwich woofers, one 8” Accuton aluminum-sandwich mid/woof, one 7” Accuton ceramic midrange, and one 1” Accuton diamond tweeter), $160k Forza floorstander, driven by Krell electronics and sourced by MSB digital. Here was another loudspeaker manufacturer capable of world-class sonics, but in this huge room, the lower octaves, though deep reaching, were lumped up and boomy in the midbass, The result? Yet another great loudspeaker undone by an untenable room. (On Day Three most of the room settling-in/location problems were ameliorated, and the sound was quite a bit more like what I’m used to from Estelon. Transient response was superb, staging very deep, tonality good despite a little suckout in the lower mids, and bass under better control. Still, this was nowhere near the presentation that a world-class speaker like the Forza is capable of.)


B&W’s strikingly attractive, $26k 802 D4 four-driver, three-way (1” diamond-cone tweeter, 6” midrange, two 8” woofers) floorstander, driven by McIntosh electronics, was yet another victim of the room it was ensconced in. Here, once more, the sound of the loudspeaker was simply swallowed up by the room. In this case, it wasn’t just room size that caused problems; there was also no backwall. As a result, bass was poorly defined.


We now come to the opposite problem—a truly great loudspeaker that was booked into a room that was too small for it to strut its stuff. The three-way, four-driver, high-sensitivity $72k Stenheim Alumine 5 SE floorstander, driven by 300B Angstrom tubes, offered up few of the incredible virtues I hear from these superb transducers in my home. Alas, the narrow confines, closer seating, absence of rearwall support, and consistently too-loud playback levels made the small room ring on super-loud transients. Too bad. This was a misleadingly poor showing for one of the world’s greatest dynamic loudspeakers.


Credo Audio of Switzerland was showing its $170k, multi-way LTM line-source speakers, driven by EMM Labs electronics and sourced by Meitner and VPI. Although I tend to like line-source radiators, this one was a bit too much on the thin and insubstantial side. Things like The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” just sounded gutless.

Malbork Warsaw Loudspeakers intro’d a $65k, enclosureless three-way with four free-standing polypropylene, crimped aluminum, and neodymium ribbon drivers. Driven by a Moon amplifier, this striking-looking floorstander was another victim of room size. In this case, the space was simply too small, so that on something like Dire Straits’ “Private Investigations” the bass was way too heavy, overloading the room. Despite its interesting appearance, the Malobrk did not make a coherent sound.



The $140k Sonus faber Aida II was being shown with DS Audio analog and Boulder electronics and digital. Here, at last, was a sound that was much closer to full range under full control, with terrific transient response, superb midrange definition, and only a little midbass boost. Bottom-up in balance with just a glimmer of brightness in the upper mids, the Aida was still quite a bit better than everything else I’d heard thus far at AXPONA.

The $39k, four-driver (two 8” woofers, one 7” midrange, and one 1” dome tweeter), three-way Wilson Sasha DAW driven by Mytek electronics was also pretty darn good, with a very smooth, solid, musical sound from top to bottom. Though there was a glint of upper-midrange brightness here, too (just as in the Sonus faber room), this was another speaker that made me feel better about risking COVID to attend a trade show.

The $200k Avantgarde Trio G3 three-way spherical horn system, updated with new-gen Evolution AA drivers, mated to Avantgarde’s new SpaceHorn subs, powered by integral Avantgarde iTRON current-drive amplifiers, and sourced by dCS digital, offered up tremendously fast, hard-hitting, detailed, uniform sonics top to bottom. Despite a little brightness because I was sitting so close to them in a small room, they were very rich in tone color and incredibly powerful on transients. The G3s may have been too aggressive in this smallish space, but they still impressed.

The $88k, two-and-a-half-way, three-driver (two iron-free mid/basses, one planar ribbon tweeter) Børresen 02 Silver Supreme driven sourced by Aavik electronics made some of the better sound I’ve heard from Børresens at a trade show. Very well controlled, they were dark in color and powerful in dynamics, with tight imaging, good depth, and excellent width in a smallish space. Despite a bit of upper-midrange aggressiveness, this was an excellent showing.

The $37k, two-and-a-half-way, three-driver (two 7” paper-cone mid/basses and one 1” beryllium dome tweeter), granite-bodied Acora Acoustics SRC-2 loudspeaker, driven by VAC and sourced by Ultimate Home Audio’s SuperDeck and TWAcustic’s Black Knight turntable offered up beautiful, bottom-up tonality, fine inner detail, and good bass (albeit with the usual touch of room-boom). Since the Acoras weren’t toed in at all, focus at centerstage wasn’t great; nor was soundstage depth, although stage width was good. Once again, the speakers were parked in a very large room, so they did pretty damn well considering what they were up against. On something like “Chelsea Bridge” from Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster, they sounded much richer, fuller, and bloomier than something like the ultra-precise Von Schweikerts, but also brighter, less controlled, and less focused, with a little thudding on bass fiddle and a bit of a roll on top. This was good performance, but I have the feeling (from reading Andy Quint’s reviews and show reports) that the SRC-2 could have done quite a bit better in a better room.

The $180k, multiway (three front-facing 9” ceramic woofers, one front-facing 7” ceramic midrange, one front-facing beryllium tweeter, and one front-facing ribbon supertweeter, augmented by one rear-facing ribbon supertweeter and one rear-facing magnesium horn-loaded tweeter) Von Schweikert Ultra 7 driven by VAC electronics and sourced by a Kronos turntable was very good in a huge room, which was odd because the Ultra 7 is relatively small compared to VS’ usual big-room offerings. Despite its diminutive size, its sound was not swallowed up by the room—tremendous transient response, very good bass overall with just the slightest touch of room boom on things like lower-octave piano, neutral tonality minus a bit of power-range suckout that slightly leaned out timbre. The Ultra 7’s very good performance came as a pleasant surprise to me given some past disappointment with VSes under show conditions.

Looking a bit like something the Borg might have invented, the $105k Aries Cerat passive/active Aurora Reference three-way, horn-loaded floorstanders with ribbon tweeters were driven by Aries Cerat electronics and digital sources. In a very small room, this strange cubical horn speaker was surprisingly free of horn colorations. Indeed, it was very rich, present, and neutrally balanced. Though I was sitting too close to hear them at their best, I liked the Auroras—a lot. In fact, I thought they were the most interesting and novel new speaker at the show.

As long as were on the subject of horn loudspeakers, Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound was showing the $45k Cessaro Opus One two-way horn with beryllium and alnico compression drivers, driven by TW Acustic electronics and sourced by TW Acustic’s new Raven LS turntable. The Opus Ones had really excellent transient response (naturally), but nice tone color, too, and phenomenal inner detail. Surprisingly boom-free in a smallish room though a bit elevated (as horns tend to be) in the presence and brilliance ranges, the Opi were very realistic, despite any touches of horn edge. Horn loudspeakers have tended to get short shrift in this magazine, which is a pity, because at their best (as they came close to being here) they do certain things better than any other type of transducer.


Part of Tidal’s more affordable line of loudspeakers, the Vimberg Mino D $57k three-way with diamond tweeter and ceramic drivers was being driven by Karan Acoustics electronics. Very neutral to lean in tonal balance (but not at all bright), the Mino D had good bass with just a tiny trace of boom, otherwise superb definition and transient response, and terrific almost microscopic resolution on upper-octave piano, cymbal, drum, shakers, without a hint of aggressiveness. Definitely, one of the better sounds at the show.


The gigantic, $86k, multiway (ten driver), wavelet-dsp’d, self-powered (save for the treble) Legacy Audio Valor loudspeakers took me by surprise, as I’d never really like the digitalesque Legacy sound in the past. Bottom-up in balance in a huge space but gorgeous in tone color, nonetheless, with stingingly powerful attacks on blues guitar and vocals, the Valor was one (large) speaker system that wasn’t overwhelmed by the enormous volume of the ballroom it was sitting in. Indeed (and despite the slight darkness of its timbre and stinging sharpness of its attacks), this was the best I’ve heard a Legacy Audio speaker sound at a show.


Rockport was showing its $37,892 Atria three-way, driven by Viola electronics and sourced by a Bricasti DAC. As is always the case with Andy Payor’s speaker, the Atrias had a lovely, robust sound, good staging (in a small room), and very nice, largish (life-sized not hi-fi super-focused) imaging. Though I was sitting a little too close to take their full measure, this was still one of the better presentations at the show.



As in the past, the $48k, two-way (electrostatic-like membrane tweeter, Egyptian papyrus cone woofer), carbon-fiber-bodied, Steam Punk-looking Bayz Courante were doing their marvelous omni-thing, driven by an Esoteric DAC and a Pillium amp and preamp. In a much smaller room, the sound was quite wonderful—like all radials, a little less focused at stage center than direct radiators, but so open and natural than all else was forgiven.

Vivid Audio’s gorgeous, $86k, four-way, five-driver (26mm metal-dome tweeter, 50mm metal dome midrange, 125mm carbon/alloy lower midrange, two 225mm alloy woofers) G1 Spirit floorstanders, driven by JMF electronics and sourced by an Ideon Audio Absolute DAC, offered the most natural-sounding vocals I’d heard thus far at AXPONA. Very spacious and boxlessly open, the G1s were not pinpoint imagers, but their timbre was exceptionally lifelike. Quite impressively musical and realistic.

On the fourteenth floor, Denmark’s Raidho was showing its svelte, $117k, three-way, five-driver (one ribbon tweeter, two 5” tantalum/diamond midranges, and two 8” tantalum/diamond woofers in a quasi-D’Appolito array) TD3.8 floorstander. Driven by a Margules tube amp, sourced by Aurender, cabled by RSX, the TD3.8 made a sound that was as gorgeous as its looks, without a trace of aggressiveness or honk or the other usual problems of a small room. A little dark in overall balance, but robust and lifelike on voice, guitar, drum, you name it, the Raidho TD3.8 was one of the first speakers I marked as a BOS (Best of Show) contender.

Speaking of which, the giant $90k Gobel Divin Marquis three-ways (12” woofer, 8” midrange, improved AMT tweeter) driven by CH Precision electronics and sourced by Wadax also made a very natural sound—neutral and deep-reaching, with a little added edge on trumpet in this glazed (all-windowed-in) space but with exceptional color and body. The Divin Marquis was simply outstandingly realistic and gutsy on something like James Carter’s sax. One of the better—perhaps the best—sounds I’d heard thus far from a really big loudspeaker.

The multiway (12 midranges and 8 ribbon tweeters is an iso-linear array couple with a powered bipole woofer in an outboard aluminum base) Scaena Model 3.1 loudspeaker, sourced by dCS digital and driven by High Fidelity Cables MA-1 monoblocks, has a history of showing well, even in large rooms like the one it was ensconced in at AXPONA. Here it made yet another very good, very full-range presentation, with some of the openness of MBLs and Maggies and a smooth, warm tonal balance, minus a very slight, room-induced bass boom on several cuts. Though not as magically lifelike as I once heard it sound years back, the Scaena is still a superb loudspeaker system, prettier sounding in Chicago than it was realistic, but very pretty, nonetheless. A BOS contender.


The three-way, multi-driver (two 23cm woofers, two 15cm midranges, and a single 28mm Esotar tweeter in a quasi-D’Appolito array), $50k Dynaudio Confidence 60, driven by Octave Jubilee electronics, sourced by a Brinkmann Balance turntable with an EMT cart, and wired with Matthew Bond cables, was another pleasant sonic surprise. Dark in balance (again) in a huge room (but not swallowed up by the giant space), it had excellent depth and natural focus on male voice, excellent (darkish) timbre on instrumentals like “Take 5,” excellent natural detail without any emphasis on starting transient (a la the Valors). Another lovely surprise and another contender for BOS.

The $30k Cabasse Pearl Pelegrina’s powered, dsp’d, tri-coaxial concentric—the “eyeball” speaker—sounded quite excellent in Chicago, generating very good bass in a small room and, of course, demonstrating extraordinary coherence from top to bottom. Though imaging was not laser-focused at center stage, the Cabasses, like the Rockport Atrias, were more lifelike than hi-fi in their presentation. This is a uniquely great loudspeaker.


Driven and sourced by MSB and wired with Synergistic Research’s super SRX cables, Magico’s superb, $76,500, three-way, four-driver (one 1” diamond-coated beryllium tweeter, one 6” graphene midrange, two 7” graphene woofers), aluminum/carbon-fiber-enclosed M2 floorstanders were wonderful. With gorgeous timbre, tube-like bloom in the bass (which went quite surprisingly deep), and excellent imaging and staging, there was nothing about this BOS-contender that I didn’t like, except for the slightest bit of aggressiveness on trumpet at very loud volumes (but that was because the system was being played too loud in a tiny room). Magico makes great loudspeakers. It’s that simple.

The four-way, $84,500 MBL 101 E MK II Radialstrahler omni, driven by MBL’s own phenomenal Reference Line 9011 monoblocks and sourced by MBL digital, was simply terrific—as usual. How terrific? On Sonny Boy Williamson’s “The Sky Is Crying” (a track I must have heard a hundred times, on analog and digital) Williamson’s gravelly voice was the most natural and realistic I’ve heard it sound—so freed up from cones-in-a-box cabinet-noise, containment, and beaminess, so freestandingly three-dimensional, so natural in tone color, so present! These classic omnis were just “not there” in a way that nothing else at this show could match. If you’re looking for the opposite of hi-fi—for a facsimile of the real deal—I’m not sure where you’ll find better.


Best Sound of Show

MBL 101 E MK II, with the Magico M2, Vivid Audio G1 Spirit, Scaena Model 3.1, and the Cabasse Pearl Pelegrina close seconds.


Best Introduction

Aries Cerat Aurora Reference


By Jonathan Valin

I’ve been a creative writer for most of life. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I wrote eleven novels and many stories—some of which were nominated for (and won) prizes, one of which was made into a not-very-good movie by Paramount, and all of which are still available hardbound and via download on Amazon. At the same time I taught creative writing at a couple of universities and worked brief stints in Hollywood. It looked as if teaching and writing more novels, stories, reviews, and scripts was going to be my life. Then HP called me up out of the blue, and everything changed. I’ve told this story several times, but it’s worth repeating because the second half of my life hinged on it. I’d been an audiophile since I was in my mid-teens, and did all the things a young audiophile did back then, buying what I could afford (mainly on the used market), hanging with audiophile friends almost exclusively, and poring over J. Gordon Holt’s Stereophile and Harry Pearson’s Absolute Sound. Come the early 90s, I took a year and a half off from writing my next novel and, music lover that I was, researched and wrote a book (now out of print) about my favorite classical records on the RCA label. Somehow Harry found out about that book (The RCA Bible), got my phone number (which was unlisted, so to this day I don’t know how he unearthed it), and called. Since I’d been reading him since I was a kid, I was shocked. “I feel like I’m talking to God,” I told him. “No,” said he, in that deep rumbling voice of his, “God is talking to you.” I laughed, of course. But in a way it worked out to be true, since from almost that moment forward I’ve devoted my life to writing about audio and music—first for Harry at TAS, then for Fi (the magazine I founded alongside Wayne Garcia), and in the new millennium at TAS again, when HP hired me back after Fi folded. It’s been an odd and, for the most part, serendipitous career, in which things have simply come my way, like Harry’s phone call, without me planning for them. For better and worse I’ve just gone with them on instinct and my talent to spin words, which is as close to being musical as I come.

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