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AXPONA 2019: Loudspeakers $20k and Up

AXPONA 2019: Loudspeakers $20k and Up

Sonically AXPONA 2019 was a 180-degree change from the last trade show I attended, in Denver. Where RMAF was a nearly uniform disaster, AXPONA was a nearly uniform success. Oh, next to nothing sounded spine-tinglingly realistic at the Chicago show, so if you were an “absolute sound” kind of listener you might’ve been slightly let down. On the other hand, if the drama, detail, and color of music were your first priorities (i.e., if you were an “as you like it” or “musicality-first” kind of listener) AXPONA would have proved a consistent delight. 

Nothing is perfect, of course. Many of the smallish Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel rooms made for darker, less expansive soundstaging, and sometimes added a slight megaphonic “push” to the mids, as if instruments were being funneled toward stage center. But the effect was seldom marked enough to ruin the presentation. On the whole, speakers sounded beautiful in timbre and exciting in dynamics, regardless of staging. Before launching into my report, I should note that the show was simply too big for me to cover in its entirety. My sincerest apologies, in advance, to those manufacturers whose products I missed. It wasn’t for want of trying, believe me. 

The Best

The $58.9k four-driver, three-way Stenheim Alumine Five (two 10” woofers, 6.5” neodymium midrange, and neodymium tweeter in a massive aluminum cabinet), driven by VTL and sourced by VPI/Lyra, was real good on The Band Last Waltz LPs I brought to Chicago, with superb staging, imaging, tone, dynamics and bass. It was quite good on my Pretenders LP, too, with unusually good expressiveness on Chrissie Hynde’s vocals. The Alumine Five may have reduced image height some and was a bit bottom-up in balance, but it showed none of the flashes of brightness or of megaphoning that I heard so often with other displays. Simply an excellent balance of all criteria, and excellent sound. 

The $60k three-way (25mm tweeter, 170mm midrange, 300mm woofer), spherically horn-loaded Avantgarde Acoustic Duo Mezzo XD, driven by Avantgarde electronics in a digital-only system, was the best hybrid Avantgarde loudspeaker I’ve heard at a trade show—terrific on voice, drum, and bass (nice deep growl on Fender guitar), with no audible shoutiness or edginess on transients, and a really superb blend of its integral, powered, dynamic woofer.

Driven by the company’s own Emperor electronics,German Physiks’ $37,250 Borderlands loudspeaker, with omnidirectional DDD driver (crossing over to a down-firing 12” cone at 190Hz) in an elaborately braced hexagonal cabinet, sounded very open and quite delicate without any thinness or vaporousness. Closer to realistic than most of the other stuff I heard in Chicago, the Borderland was excellent on a Louis Armstrong CD. Excellent all around (so to speak)!

YG Acoustics’ loudspeakers were being widely shown at AXPONA, but the marque’s three-way, three-driver, two-box Hailey 2.2 (BilletCore woofer and mid/woof and BilletDome tweeter in two interlocking aluminum enclosures) driven by a D’Agostino phonostage and Linnenberg amplification and sourced by a Bergmann turntable was the best YG setup at the show. The Hailey 2.2 generated phenomenal dynamics on a Count Basie LP, with a terrific bottom octave, great density of tone color, and horripilating dynamic impact! Combining utter control and definition with granitic power from top to bottom, the Hailey was superb.

Driven by CH Precision electronics, Goebel’s gigantic $220k three-way, five-driver Divin Noblesse (two 12” long-throw woofers, two 8” “bending-wave” midranges, and one AMT tweeter with massive aluminum waveguide, all housed in an acoustically optimized, constrained-layer-damped, 580-pound enclosure) was just terrific everywhere but the bottommost bass, where it was a tiny bit soft and recessed. Not quite what I’m used to at home but very close, the Divin resolved incredible detail on my PPM and The Band LPs.

The $25k, five-driver Piega Coax 711 (two 220mm UHQD woofers, two 220mm UHQD passive radiators, and one C211 coaxial mid/tweet ribbon), driven by superb Air Tight electronics and sourced by a Reed turntable with the new Air Tight Coda cartridge, sounded wonderful—rich beautiful timbre, superb resolution of detail on voice and guitar, and terrific dynamics on brass, winds, and drum. Low bass was also quite good, though not as big and robust as that of the Magico M2. 

Speaking of which, Magico premiered its $63.5k three-way, four-driver M2 floorstander (1” tweeter, 6” graphene-carbon midrange, and two 7” graphene-carbon woofers in an aerodynamic carbon-fiber and aluminum chassis), driven by CH Precision electronics, sourced by an MSB DAC, and wired with Synergistic Research cable. This all-digital system was simply outstanding—fast, full-range, and detailed, with tremendous density of tone color, making for the best first-day demo in Magico history, and the most significant debut at AXPONA 2019. 

Perpetual best of show contenders, the $70.5k four-way, omnidirectional MBL 101 Es, driven by MBL electronics and sourced by a TechDAS 3 turntable with Koetsu Coralstone cartridge was almost as good in timbre, dynamics, and resolution as the Goebel Divin Oblesse, and in dimensionality better, for a lot less dough. This unique “Radialstrahler” loudspeaker is an enduring classic if there ever was one, surviving (indeed, triumphing over) contender after contender with its richly colored, high-resolution, high-energy, three-dimensional sound. 

Although the “room” they were in was unconventional (not a room, at all, in fact—just an atrium with open sides and a jerrybuilt plywood “backwall”), Magico’s $172k three-way, five-driver M6, bolstered by a pair of Q-Sub-18s and driven by D’Agostino electronics, sounded surprisingly good in such a big unenclosed space. In fact, they sounded great—open, beautiful in timbre, fast, detailed, and (naturally) very deep-reaching in the bass.

The Rest

The $37.9k four-driver, three-way Wilson Sasha DAW (two 8” woofers, 7” midrange, and 1” dome tweeter in a vented enclosure made of Wilson X and S material) was driven by Audio Research 160M and Ref 10 phonostage and sourced by an AMG turntable. In spite of somewhat anemic bass from the DAWs, the ARC amps and preamps managed to inject a touch of life and air in the midband that no other marque at this, on the whole, very good-sounding show rivaled. I heard the same breath of life from the Sonus faber speakers at RMAF when they were driven by ARC’s 160Ms. And though the Wilson Sashas may not have been the overall best sound, thanks to ARC they were unequaled in lifelikeness in the midrange.

The huge, $300k, fourteen-driver Von Schweikert Ultra 11 multiway, driven by top-line VAC electronics, sourced alternately by a TechDAS Air Force One turntable and Esoteric digital, and wired with Masterbuilt cables was, like its littler brother, the $200k Ultra 9, a bit bright and ceramicky on strings in their upper octaves (and through the treble in general) but quite detailed and otherwise robust in timbre over the midrange and power range, and big and powerful (though occasionally a bit tubby) on the very bottom, with a soundstage the size of the Ritz. I came back to hear the Ultra 11s on several occasions, simply because or their room-filling majesty (and they were seated in a big room) on my Band LP.

Michael Børresen, the designer who originally put Raidho on the high-end map, introduced his new seven-driver, three-way Børresen 05 floorstander, driven by Michael’s Aavik electronics and wired with his Ansuz cable. Though the 05s suffered from a bit of bass boom in the smallish AXPONA hotel room in which they were ensconced, everything else about them was flawless. Superb saxophone with lots on energy, presence, and fine detail; very good piano and voice, too. Among other things, this is a low-noise speaker, due in part to Børresen’s newly developed, iron-free magnet system. The 05 is one of the products at AXPONA I would like to review.

Bayz Audio introduced its flagship, omnidirectional, $97.1k Counterpoint with unique vibrating-cylinder BRS mid/tweeter and twin carbon-fiber-tube-loaded 9½” woofers. Driven and sourced by CH Precision, the Counterpoints were a little aggressive when I was sitting close off-axis, but very detailed, solid, and robust in color. Darkish but good. 

In a digital-only room,the €97k Gryphon Trident 2 semi-active (woofers only) seven-driver, D’Appolito floorstander, driven and sourced by a Gryphon Mephisto stereo amp, Pandora preamp, and new Ethos CD player/DAC, made a very good showing. Though a jazz recording sounded bright off-axis (where I was sitting) on upper-octave piano, the speaker’s low end was exceptionally clean, full, deep, and well defined on piano and standup bass, and its midrange had superb (albeit darkish) color and detail on sax, outstanding hard-transient response, and very high resolution. All in all, the Trident 2 was great hi-fi (exciting, detailed, beautiful), though not particularly realistic, which was sort of the story of the show. 

The $42k three-way, four-driver Magico S5 Mk II (1” diamond-coated beryllium dome tweeter, 6” graphene midrange, and two 10” woofers in a convex extruded-aluminum enclosure) driven by CAT electronics sounded detailed, rich in color, and present on my Band Last Waltz LP, with good air around Robbie Robertson’s guitar and Garth Hudson’s organ. Though soundstaging was a bit constrained by the smallish room, this was still a fine showing.

Driven by New Audio Frontiers SET 211 electronics and sourced by a TW Acustics turntable and tonearm, Hørning’s $28k, three-way, back-horn-loaded Hybrid Eufrodite (6.5” Lowther wideband driver, Hørning low-mass cone tweeter, and Hørning low-bass drive unit in Hørning’s Double A symmetric quarter-wave cabinet) sounded a little bass-heavy and hollow on Julie Mullins’ Souixsie and the Banshees LP, but gave me goosebumps on The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket”! This was a colorful, excitingly dynamic hi-fi presentation, even if it wasn’t (once again) particularly realistic.

The new $122k, seven-driver, D’Appolito Raidho 4.2 three-way, driven by Chord electronics and wired by Gamut, seems to have solved the 4.1’s bass issues. This tall, svelte floorstander certainly sounded less boomy at AXPONA than it has in the past, and of course its mids (now generated by tantalum drivers) and highs (from a redesigned ribbon with new magnet system) remained superb. 

YG Acoustics introduced its $32.8k Vantage three-way, three-driver floorstanders at AXPONA. Driven by Audionet electronics and a Kronos Reference phonostage, sourced by a Kronos Pro turntable with Air Tight Opus One cartridge, and wired with Kubala Sosna Sensation cable, the new Vantage was lively, fairly neutral (a tad bottom-up in balance), and very quick and detailed on The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” with excellent air and imaging and a superior disappearing act. Its bottom octaves were a little curtailed compared to the more expensive Hailey 2.2, though the sense of tight (perhaps too tight) control that I noted with the Hailey 2.2 was just as marked. 

Lumenwhite showed its $49k three-way, five-driver Kyara floorstander, driven and sourced by Ayon. Not quite as robust or as defined and powerful in the low bass as the Magico M2, it was otherwise quite similar—big soundstage, excellent depth, high resolution, gorgeous color. 

Haniwa’s $25k HSP01 stand-mounted speaker (comprising a single 3½” custom-made aluminum driver, DSP’d and powered by an included, dedicated Haniwa HDSaQ1 amplifier) sounded amazingly full-range, quite beautiful and lively. A little curtailed on top, it still offered a strong dose of point-source magic in imaging and coherence.

B&W’s 802D four-driver floorstander, mated with B&W’s tiny outboard matching subs (crossed over at 32Hz) and driven by McIntosh electronics, sounded quite lovely, with rich tonality and very nice focus, depth, and detail. A good showing.

Driven by Rowland electronics, Vivid Audio’s three-way, four-driver Kaya 45 (26mm tapered-tube-loaded alloy dome tweeter, 100mm tapered-tube-loaded alloy cone midrange, two 125mm alloy cone woofers in Vivid’s gorgeous, aerodynamic, glass-reinforced, Soric-cored enclosure), had a pleasant but darkish balance, with excellent transient response on piano, and excellent midbass on plucked fiddle, snare, and kickdrum. Though it was hard to tell about imaging and staging from where I was sitting, this was otherwise a very good sound.

Rockport’s $62.5k four-driver, three-way Cygnus driven by CH Precision electronics and sourced by a DeBaer Saphir turntable with DeBaer Onyx ’arm had nice delicacy of detail in spite of a bit of the same megaphonic presence-range “push” I heard in other AXPONA rooms.

Eikon showed its $25k DSP’d, internally amplified, three-way loudspeaker. This was my first listen to the “all-in-one” Eikon, and the sound was quite surprisingly lovely, smooth, and full at lower volumes on digital sources.

In Ted Denney’s Synergistic Research room, my reference three-way, five-driver Magico M3s (1” diamond-coated beryllium dome tweeter, 6” graphene midrange, and three 7” graphene-carbon woofers in a sealed carbon-fiber and aluminum enclosure) were being driven by Gryphon electronics and sourced alternately by an Acoustic Signature turntable and a United Home Audio tape deck. The sound was immensely spacious and quite beautiful in timbre, but the abundance of Denney’s room treatments (which I use and like) on occasion seemed to blunt attacks, smear inner detail, and soften focus. The result, depending on the music, was a mixed bag—sometimes great, sometimes lax and muddy.

Through the $57.9k Wilson Alexia Series 2 four way, four-driver floorstander (1” silk-dome tweeter, 7” cellulose/paper-pulp-composite midrange, 8” paper-pulp woofer, and 10” paper-pulp subwoofer in a vented and ported enclosure) driven by Rogers electronics, Ricki Lee Jones sounded piercing. On my Band LP, “The Shape I’m In” was not as exciting as I’ve often heard it sound, with the woofers seemingly masking the mids.

Driven by VAC electronics, sourced by TW Acoustics ’table, and cabled by Cardas, the $28k Acora Acoustics SRC-1two-way floorstander (1” Scan-Speak soft-dome ring-radiator tweeter and 7” Scan-Speak paper-cone mid/woof in a ported, 3cm-thick granite cabinet) sounded dark, hooded, and hornlike on my test cuts.

In the Zanden Audio room, the $23k GT Audio Works GTA3R planars (72” x 10” full-range planar-magnetic driver and 72” x ½” ribbon tweeter), buttressed by a pair of tall, optional Sound Insight OB active subwoofers, powered by superb Zanden electronics, and sourced by a Kronos turntable, generated a big three-dimensional soundfield. Though the speaker had a touch of life thanks to its dimensionality and transient snap, it was also markedly phasey. Frankly, I don’t think the system was set up properly.

The three-way, three-driver Rockport Atria II (9” carbon-fiber sandwich woofer, 6” carbon-fiber-sandwich midrange, and 1” waveguide-mounted beryllium dome tweeter in a triple-laminated, constrained-layer-damped enclosure with a 4”-thick front panel and 2½” thick side panels) was being driven by Viola electronics and sourced by a Tien urntable from Taiwan. In the tiny room in which the Atria II was ensconced it sounded, alas, bright and a mite shriekish on my Band LP, with everything projected forward and crowded toward the middle of the soundstage, and no deep bass underpinning.

JV’s Best of Show

Best Sound of Show (price notwithstanding): This is a tough one, given that most of the contenders competed on a fairly even footing. So I’m going to declare a tie among the Stenheim Alumine Five, the YG Hailey 2.2,  the MBL 101 E, the Goebel Divin Noblesse, the Magico M2, the Magico M6, the Avantgarde Duo Mezzo XD, the German Physiks Borderlands, and the Piega Coax 711.

Best Sound of Show (for the money): I didn’t get to hear the new $695 Maggies (that’s how busy I was), which reputedly were terrific, but in my category the Eikon and the Haniwa were pretty darn appealing.

Best Introduction: The Magico M2.

Biggest Trend: Vinyl almost everywhere.


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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