AXPONA Chicago 2015: Loudspeakers $20k and Up

Show report
AXPONA Chicago 2015: Loudspeakers $20k and Up

I have some good news and some bad about this year’s AXPONA, held in late April at the Westin O’Hare in Chi-town. The good news is that the 2015 show was considerably bigger and better attended (visitors up 20% according to the show’s organizers) than last year’s. Also good was the number of more reasonably priced systems being displayed. Generally, I have my hands full at trade shows, covering loudspeakers priced at $20k and above. While there was certainly a fair number of these in Chicago, there was also an equally fair number of speakers priced well below the stratosphere (among which, BTW, was my pick for Best of Show).

Now for the bad news: The sound was…well, not terrible exactly, but mediocre at best (with a smaller-than-usual number of exceptions). I believe I voiced the same complaint last year about the Westin O’Hare, whose rooms simply don’t sound very good (especially in comparison to the very good sounding rooms at AXPONA Chicago’s original, but considerably less capacious venue, the Doubletree). As a result, with one exception I heard nothing that screamed: “You’ve got to review me!”

That said I did get to hear several interesting speakers I’ve not heard before, and to revisit several old favorites. So…on with the show (report).

Five Most Significant Exhibits

Magico Q7 MkII
Magico’s flagship dynamic floorstander, the massive, aluminum-enclosed, five-driver, four-way $229k Q7 MkII—updated with parts (Mundorf MCap Supreme Evo capacitors), drivers (28mm diamond-coated beryllium tweeter and 6" graphene midrange), and technologies developed for Magico’s M Project loudspeaker—made its U.S. debut in Chicago in the Musical Surroundings suite on the twelfth floor, driven by Aesthetix electronics and sourced by Clearaudio’s humongous Statement turntable (equipped with Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge).

On Day One of the show (Friday), the Q7 MkII was paired with Magico’s enormous $36k QSub-18—a 570-pound, aluminum-boxed bruiser with dual 18" drivers that Magico claims is capable of 136dB SPLs down to 15Hz! Apparently what the QSub-18 was not capable of—at least in the Westin O’Hare’s lousy rooms—was a seamless blend with the Q7 MkIIs, as there was obvious suckout in the upper bass and power range on the great RCA/Decca recording Witches Brew, leaving the upper mids and treble way too “exposed.”

However, on my return visit to the room on Day Two (Saturday) the problems in the upper bass and lower mids had been almost completely cured, apparently by removing the QSub-18 (which had been set up via long-distance data transfer and phone conversations—not the best way to do such a thing) from the system and the room. The sonic improvements were night-and-day dramatic, as the Q7 Mk II now sounded superb, with terrific color power range weight and midrange resolution. Oh, there may still have been a little too much upper-mid and treble range energy, but on the basis of my own experience with Magico’s genuinely superb new tweeter and midrange driver I’d be willing to bet the farm that this was a room or ancillary-related issue, as the new Magico diamond/beryllium tweeter is anything but bright. Although it is hard to describe and easy to hear, these new Magicos (Q7 MkII and M Project) start and stop with a speed I’ve simply never heard before from any other transducers (i.e., without the usual smearing and ringing). Something is very right about these drivers, crossovers, and enclosures. Our Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley will be reviewing the Q7 MkII in the near future.

Sonus faber Lilium
The Fine Sounds Group was showing Sonus faber’s new seven-driver (1" soft-dome tweeter, 7" midrange, three 7" mid/bass, and two 10" woofers, one of them a passive radiator), four-way, $70k Lilium floorstander. Said to amalgamate technologies from Sonus’ flagship Aida and its gorgeous-sounding stand-mount Ex3ma, the Lilium, driven by ARC’s GS Series electronics, sounded quite a bit faster and higher in resolution than other Sonus faber multiway floorstanders I’ve heard. Neutral in balance, it too suffered a bit from a touch of room-induced aggressiveness in the upper mids and treble (though it was not as edgy as the Magico Q7 MkII was with the QSub-18 in the system). On “Slow” from Leonard Cohen’s wonderful new LP Popular Problems, the Lilium was quick, clear, and lifelike, delivering just a little less warmth and color in the brass, a slightly narrower soundstage, and a bit leaner bass than what I’m used to. Still and all, a very nice showing for Sf (and ARC).

Raidho D-3
The Danish loudspeaker manufacturer Raidho, makers of my reference D-5 loudspeakers, showed a reformulated version of its three-way, five-driver, $66k D-3 floorstander, which uses the same sealed-ribbon tweet, diamond-cone midrange, and diamond-cone bass drivers as the D-5. Driven by Aavik Acoustics U-300 integrated amplifier (a joint project of Raidho and Ansuz Acoustics), the D-3 appears to be yet another superb transducer from the fertile brain of Raidho’s Michael Borresen. With gorgeous tone color top to bottom, what I consider to be the best treble (because the best tweeter) of any speaker out there, surprisingly good but still overfull (as usual) bass, and the dense lower-midrange color, weight, and solidity that makes all Raidhos so beautiful, realistic, and powerful sounding, the D-3 was impossible not to like on any of the music I heard it play back.

Muraudio Domain Omni PX1
As was the case at CES, this extremely ingenious, omnidirectional electrostatic hybrid from Muraudio sounded terrific, even well off-axis. The $63k Domain Omni PX1 combines three 120-degree-curved electrostatic panels (for a full 360-degree dispersion) with three aluminum-cone woofers, also distributed at 120-degree intervals around a sealed, curvaceous aluminum enclosure. Driven by Moon electronics, the Domain Omni PX1 had the same wonderfully open sound it had in Vegas, replete with ’stat quickness, resolution, and sheer loveliness of timbre. The PX1 may have just the slightest bit of cone-bass slowness or discontinuity vis-à-vis the electrostatic panel, but if does (and I’m not sure it does) it is very hard to detect, bespeaking the superb engineering that has gone into this remarkable creation. Our Robert E. Greene and Paul Seydor will be reviewing the PX1 in the not-too-distant future.

MartinLogan Neolith
This huge, $85k hybrid from MartinLogan combines a curved ESL panel (essentially a CLX) with a 12" front-firing and a 15" rear-firing cone woofer for what is, far and away, the best ’stat/cone hybrid ML has ever made. Of course, I’ve never been a fan of ML’s hybrids (although I’ve been a huge fan, and owner, of its full-range ’stats), but the Neolith is the exception. Equipped with an adjustable crossover that has been painstakingly designed to allow for the use of your own amplifiers (the Neolith’s bass drivers are not powered by the usual built-in Class D amps) and for the listening distance at which you sit, the Neolith is far more of a piece far than any previous ML hybrid. As was the case with the Muraudio, there may be a slight difference in transient-speed, tone color, and resolution between the electrostatic panel and the cone drivers, but the “seam” didn’t bother me the way it has in the past. Driven by McIntosh electronics, I thought the Neoliths were superb—and another engineering triumph.

Auspicious Debuts

Superstore Hanson Audio of Dayton, Ohio, somehow got its hands on one of the rarest of avis—the five-driver, four-way, aluminum-and-carbon-fiber enclosed $129k Magico M Project loudspeaker, of which only fifty were made (and none yet shown in the U.S.). The audio equivalent of the concept cars that get displayed at automotive trade events, the M Project is the most advanced, highest-fidelity speaker that Magico can currently make, incorporating all sorts of new technologies (for which see the Q7 MkII) that will be migrated into future Magicos. Driven by Octave electronics from Germany and sourced by a Clearaudio ’table and Goldfinger Statement cartridge, the M Project showed extremely well on Day One of AXPONA, sounding absolutely fabulous on the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances LP that I brought with me to Chicago. This is a speaker capable of breathtaking density of tone color, definition, speed, and power, with the same ability to stop and start on a dime that makes the Q7 MkII so remarkably blur-free. The M Project would’ve been a shoe-in for Best of Show if someone—don’t know who—had left well enough alone. But…someone didn’t. Changes to the setup made the speaker leaner and brighter on Day Three, when I returned for a last listen, than it had been on Day One. Nonetheless, I know what this M Pro is capable of, as I have a pair in my listening room, and on Friday, when it showed about 70% of what it is capable of doing, it was one of the best sounds at the Westin.

The French company Cabasse, famous for its eyeball-shaped coincident-driver loudspeakers, debuted its Cyclopean flagship, the $200k, four-way La Sphere, driven by Esoteric electronics. Remarkable looking and unusually open and coherent sounding, La Sphere had the pinpoint imaging, large deep airy soundstage, and very quick transient response that you would expect from an entirely coaxial loudspeaker, perhaps the only transducer that can lay technical claim to being a true point source. Initially a bit “top-down” sounding, with a slight upper-mid emphasis, the Cabasse subsequently filled in very nicely on the bass passages of Boulez’s rendition of The Firebird, making for a very pleasant presentation.

Old pal Doug White of The Voice That Is debuted the $69.7k, four-driver (black ceramic cone and diamond tweeter), three-way Tidal Audio Contriva G2 loudspeaker, driven by Tidal’s own Presencio preamp and Impulse monoblocks (also debuts). Like all Tidals, the G2 was very delicate, quick, and unusually spacious sounding, with pinpoint imaging. An extremely neutral, transparent, full-range loudspeaker with excellent bass extension and no added port bump, it sounded terrific on flamenco guitar and voice.

In another debut, Endeavor Audio Engineering intro’d its seven-driver (one beryllium-dome tweeter, two Kevlar-cone midranges, and four anodized aluminum woofers), three-way $35k E-5 transmission line/ported floorstander. This MTM design with “cellular matrix” resin-impregnated cabinet apparently needs a bit of distance to cohere. Up close I thought it was too lean in balance, but further back it transformed itself into a thing of beauty, with dense, rich tonality, superb focus, and very high resolution. Driven by Constellation Inspiration electronics and at the right listening spot, the E-5s were Best of Show contenders. (BTW, the beryllium tweeter was extremely well implemented.)

In Other News

JBL demo’d its new Everest DD6700 three-way horn-loaded loudspeaker with Mark Levinson electronics, making an extremely coherent, beautiful, and Best of Show-worthy sound—this is a great horn speaker. The $60k, three-way Kaiser Kawereo Classic, driven by Goldmund electronics, were neutral, fast, and powerful despite a bit of room-induced tubbiness in the bass. Audio Physic’s $28k Avantera+ multiway floorstander, driven by Grandinote electronics, made its usual outstanding showing (gorgeous string tone and excellent detail on the Masquerade Suite), thanks to importer Reinhard Goerner, than whom few are better at show setup. Dynaudio’s $24k Confidence Platinum C4 three-way floorstander, driven by a Plinius Hiato integrated and sourced by a Clearaudio Ovation ’table and Benz Gullwing cartridge, produced a very detailed sound, a little dry and lacking in ambience but otherwise quite neutral and pleasant. MBL showed its $42k 111F four-way with radial tweeter and midrange and side-firing mid/bass and woofers, driven by MBL’s 9008A amp and classic 6010D preamp and, as is always the case with Jeremy Bryan’s rooms, produced its usual dark, wonderfully expansive, uniquely immersive, incredibly musical and pleasant sound. Robert Lee of Acoustic Zen demo’d his $18k, five-driver, three-way Crescendo MkII transmission-line floorstander, the original version of which our Dick Olsher raved about in TAS; driven by Triode Japan electronics, the Crescendo made a lively, well-balanced, high-resolution sound that I found quite beguiling.

The fact that Wilson Audio’s four-driver, four-way $55.8k Alexia  floorstander (with articulating aspherical-propagation-delay cabinetry) sounded Best of Show-worthy was no surprise. Driven by superb D’Agostino electronics, the Alexia had gorgeous color, lifelike presence (with no edge), terrific midbass weight and slam, and terrific ambience retrieval. Just wonderful on cello, doublebass, kickdrum, strings, and voice!

Also no surprise was YG Acoustics superb showing of the Carmel 2 two-way floorstander. Once again this speaker, expertly set up by Bill Parish of GTT Audio, made a Best of AXPONA-worthy showing. Although image size and ultimate extension were somewhat reduced (this is a two-way, after all), the speaker, driven by Audionet electronics and sourced by a Kronos turntable, was otherwise flawless.

Powered by Ralph Karsten’s Atma-Sphere electronics, Classic Audio Speakers $73k T1.5 three-way horns made the best sound I’ve ever heard from these speakers—open, detailed, solid down into the 50s, with no horn aggressiveness or cupped-hands coloration. It just goes to show what a difference a large, open room makes. Between these beauties and the terrific JBLs, this was a good show for horns.

Dynaudio’s huge $85k Evidence Platinum multiway floorstanders, driven by Mark Levinson electronics, delivered a really authoritative sound, with excellent density of tone color and resolution.

In a fascinating demo, two pairs of Sonus faber Stradivari, both driven by identical Pass Labs amps and both sourced simultaneously from the same server/DAC, were set up in adjoining identical rooms, only one room was untreated and the other was, with wall and corner treatments designed by Bart Andeer, founder of a new company called Resolution Acoustic. Andeer is a genuinely interesting fellow, a ship captain and marine engineer with a lifelong interest in hi-fi and acoustics. As you might expect, in the Andeer-treated room (see photo above) the Strads sounded considerably better damped and more neutral, with far more ambience retrieval and soundstage space.

Sony showed its outstanding, four-driver, three-way, $27k SS-AR1 floorstanders, driven by Hegel electronics and sourced by Sony’s own HAP-Z1ES server/player. The sound was very clean, warm, extremely detailed, and lifelike. Superb on Christian McBride’s fiddle from top to bottom with only the slightest bit of room-induced fat, superb transients, and rich realistic tone color, the Sony was equally impressive on a Jacintha cut, with very good focus and  natural warmth on her voice. The SS-AR1s are perhaps just a shade recessive in the presence and brilliance range, but I'm used to that from my Raidho D-5s, and I like it. An excellent showing.

Finally Polymer Audio Research showed its long-awaited, five-driver, four-way, aluminum-enclosed $68k MKS-X floorstander, driven by Thrax electronics. Polymer has changed its woofers to a stiffer lighter material and made a couple of crossover changes that, together, have alleviated the slightly lightweight sound of the earlier iterations of the MKS-X without touching the speaker’s astonishing transparency. The new MKS-X has a much richer, fuller balance—really filled out in the power range—with the same resolution, lightning transients, vast soundstage, and disappearing act that made the original such an ear-opener.

Best Sound (cost-no-object): Magnepan 3.7i driven by Pass Labs and sourced by exaSound. The most natural and realistic sound at the show. Runner-up: King Sound Prince III, which was just so dang beautiful and natural driven by the KR Audio tubes.

Best Sound (for the money): Magnepan 3.7i driven by Pass Labs and sourced by exaSound. The most natural and realistic sound at the show. 

Most Significant Product Introduction: Magico Q7 MkII.

Most Significant Trend: That I survived yet another trade show.

Most Coveted Product: Magnepan 3.7i.

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