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AXPONA 2022 | Loudspeakers under $25K

AXPONA 2022 | Loudspeakers under $25K

What was suggested with an aura of giddy hopefulness at Capitol Audio Fest last fall and at the Florida Audio Expo in February of this year, was now experienced with a much higher level of confidence at AXPONA 2022. For all audiophile constituencies—manufacturers, importers and distributors, dealers, journalists, and, most critically, consumers—there was a strong sense that we’d collectively weathered the storm.

The industry’s robust health appeared to have inspired several international manufacturers, as well as new domestic companies, to make the investment in a trip to Chicago. They brought with them many smaller, stand-mounted loudspeakers, expensive ones that involved little in the way of compromise when it came to their performance. There was an uptick in the prevalence of active loudspeakers and, increasingly, aesthetics didn’t necessarily take a back seat to sonics. At these prices, why should they?

Most Significant Introductions

Alta Audio Adam ($15000)

Alta Audio, of Huntington, New York, clearly believes in their new Adam floorstander—they were playing in four rooms at AXPONA 2022. The 96-pound loudspeaker employs a 5¾** ribbon tweeter, a 6** wideband midrange, and a proprietary variant of a transmission line to assure articulate bass from a single 8¾** woofer. The Adams’ front baffle is made from a multilayered, multi-density material of the company’s invention called DampHard, which the manufacturer claims allows for a reduction in the amount of internal padding needed inside the box. Piano bass was taut and deep with my new favorite chamber music recording, clarinetist Anthony McGill accompanied by Gloria Chien in the two Brahms Clarinet Sonatas on the Cedille label. The scaling of the two instruments was exactly right.

PSB Synchrony T600 ($7995)

On both of my visits to the ground floor Innovation Room of the Schaumburg Convention Center, I just missed Paul Barton, who reportedly spent much of the weekend there schmoozing with showgoers and playing music at enthusiastic levels through his two newest creations, the PSB T600 tower and the mighty B600 bookshelf model noted below. With modest NAD electronics behind them in the audio chain, the five-driver T600s reproduced large-scale music with authority and an ease of presentation that pulled a listener in, whether the music was loud or soft. The 5¼** midrange drivers and 6½** woofers feature woven carbon-fiber cones; the top end is handled by a titanium dome. IsoAcoustics footers are integral to the T600’s outrigger base—to route mechanical energy away from the speaker. As with previous PSB speakers, port plugs are provided to modify LF output as necessary.

YG Acoustics Summit ($25,000)

As aficionados of top-performing loudspeakers are aware, Yoav Geva sold the company he founded to a private equity group five years ago and left altogether in the summer of 2020. YG speakers are now designed in England by Cambridge Acoustic Services, whose chief designer is Dr. Matthew Webster. The new “Peaks” series—six models with mountain-y names—are attracting considerable attention because they incorporate some of the no-compromise aspects of other established YG products into a less stratospherically priced speaker. The top of the Peaks line is the YG Acoustics Summit. The 7** midrange and 10.25** bass drivers are machined from solid blocks of aluminum and the tweeter is YG’s BilletDome design. Though the front baffle is fabricated from aluminum, the remainder of the enclosure is made from inch-thick resin fiber. Watch for a review (from me) of the bigger of the two Peaks stand-mounts, the Tor, before years end.

Valorem Audio Somnium ($8400)

Dusan Plavsa is a Chicago-area dealer and custom installer who will tell you that he’s “been building speakers my entire adult life.” As the pandemic stretched on, Plavsa found himself with “time on my hands” and concluded the time was right to have a go at designing a line of audiophile loudspeakers. His brand is Valorem, from the Latin for “valor,” and there are three models, all bookshelf/stand-mount designs. Plavsa sells only direct-to-consumers, the idea being to keep shipping costs down both for himself and for a purchaser who decides to return the speaker during the 30-day trial period. Without a dealer or distributor, you get a lot of speaker for your $8400: They are beautifully constructed with a choice of exotic woods and leather accents, and the sound is quite good. Playing my well-worn copy of the Haitink/Concertgebouw Shostakovich Symphony No. 15, I was rewarded with excellent orchestral detail and front-to-back layering, naturally textured mass string sound, and a symphonic climax that crested gracefully.

Wilson Benesch Discovery 3z ($24,500)

The latest iteration of this modest 2.5-way design is a real powerhouse. There are four drivers within the diminutive 12-liter enclosure, including two downward-firing woofers operating in an isobaric configuration. The cabinet, of course, is carbon fiber, a monocoque construction that WB says has damping capabilities that are “orders of magnitude” beyond previous versions. The rock-solid imaging, exquisite instrumental detail, and satisfying bass drum thud in evidence with the Shostakovich recording seemed to be ample evidence for the manufacturer’s claims of exceptional cabinet rigidity and smooth driver integration.

Auspicious Debuts

QLN Signature 5 ($18,000)

Hailing from Sweden and powered at AXPONA by Vinnie Rossi’s very fine Brama integrated amplifier, the QLN Signature 5 is an exceptionally deep stand-mount speaker, with a 20-liter internal volume that’s responsible for considerable low-frequency output. The cabinet is fabricated from Qboard, a proprietary sandwich material with a viscoelastic damping layer. According to Rossi, who presided over the demonstration I heard, that is what’s responsible for the fact that one “hears very little box.” Instrumental detail and dynamic gradation were effectively rendered.

Aretai Contra 100S ($7500)

A first-time AXPONA exhibitor from Latvia, Aretai’s 2.5-way, sealed-box Contra 100S deploys a second 6** woofer in a “push-push” configuration. The manufacturer’s claim that there’s meaningful LF output down to 30Hz seemed quite believable when I listened to challenging material. The crossover has been designed for coherent off-axis performance, and a proprietary filter attenuates the midbass, which tends to bloat in a portless design.

Acoustique Quality Contour 5 ($6000)

Another central European visitor, this one from the Czech Republic. The designer, Vladimir Sapara, was on hand to explain that the Acoustique Quality Contour 5’s extremely rigid cabinet was made from plywood shaped under high pressure. The two bass drivers work into the same internal volume; the box is ported to the front. Voices and instrumental sonorities were richly characterized, and the speakers were obviously “fast”—the attack of a piano note was seamlessly attached to the body of the tone and vocal sibilants didn’t stick out.

Mon Acoustic SuperMon Isobaric ($25,000)

This Korean loudspeaker is heavier than it looks. The enclosure is made from aluminum, and with the included stand it weighs in at about 140 pounds. The SuperMon (ouch!) is a two-way design, but, as the name implies, there’s another driver hidden inside—an Eton woofer positioned behind the Audiotechnology 6A7 mid/woofer visible to the outside world. A historically informed Beethoven recording chosen by the company representative manifested realistic period instrument string textures; solo jazz bass had tons of dynamic immediacy.

Heretic A 612 (TBD est. $6500–$10,000)

Built in Montréal, the Heretic A612 was reverse engineered from the Altec 612 utility cabinet popular in British recording studios in the 1960s; to make the point, there was on hand a framed black-and-white photo of George Martin at work with Paul and Ringo at EMI, with an Altec 612 in evidence. A 1** compression driver is mounted coaxially with a 12** woofer; there is an option to get the speaker with an “upgraded” crossover with high-gauge air-core inductors and Mundorf capacitors. The speaker is easy to drive, with a sensitivity of 97dB and a nominal 8-ohm load. I was impressed by the loudspeaker’s focused and detailed sound, not necessarily expected from a product so retro in appearance.

KMD Orchestalls 500RT and Orchestalls 600RT ($8000/$15,000)

Certainly, this was one of the oddest-looking products encountered at AXPONA 2022 but once I’d had a listen, these Korean speakers could not simply be written off with a smirk. KMD has an audio division but also manufactures air filters and—believe it or not—equipment for processing mushrooms. Have a look at the photo. All the drivers can move in several planes—up and down, forward and back, via adjustments to the angle the module makes with the floor. Carefully calibrated in a small hotel room, the sound was big and coherent, with articulate bass and a seamless integration of the drivers. Their appearance may give your 4-year-old nightmares, but they really do sound pretty good.

In Other News

I encountered some old friends that had been updated. Not new, but perhaps worth another look. First, is the Linkwitz LX521 ($19,900 or $22,900, depending on finish). Siegfried Linkwitz was, of course, half of the engineering team responsible for the Linkwitz-Riley filter. In later years, he was a fixture at audio shows, compellingly demonstrating his loudspeaker to many who may not have been aware of his “foundational” contribution to audio science. When Linkwitz passed away in 2018, the group he left behind remained active, and the speaker now has an analog crossover (instead of the digital network in place when the founder was in charge), and different drivers are now being utilized. The latest update to the JansZen Audio Carmelita A8, to SE status, allows a listener to choose between a “you are there” sonic perspective and a “they are here” alternative. There’s a third amplifier in the active loudspeaker, as well as three full-range 3.5** drivers, active from 200Hz up—one on each side of the speaker and one firing to the rear. Select one pre-set, and you get direct sound only. With two others, the additional drivers will add sound to potentially increase the sense of occasion that many recordings lack. Finally, Legacy has introduced an active version of the Signature SE floorstander called the Signature SD ($10,800). 650 watts per tower of Class D amplification are provided.

Lastly, I’ll mention three relative bargains I came across in my travels. The DALI Oberon 9 ($2500) is what the Danish manufacturer has referred to as its “North American speaker”—this muscular four-driver design won’t be afraid of any source material sent its way. The Mon SuperMon Mini ($2000) handles some surprisingly dynamic material at a fraction of the price (and size) of its big brother detailed above. The PSB Synchrony B600 ($2499)—the “B” is for bookshelf—was a source of amazement to several listeners hanging out late on Saturday afternoon. I’d asked for the title track from Gordon Goodwin’s Act Your Age, featuring electric bassist Nathan East, that, needless to say, has a lot of LF information. They couldn’t believe that the two nearby subwoofers had been turned off at my request. I’ll also report my own amazement with a new product from Devialet, the Dionne soundbar ($2400). The speaker, which can be mounted either horizontally or vertically, has 24 Class D amplifiers (950 watts total RMS) and 24 drivers. With Dolby Atmos source material, the height effect was quite remarkable.

Andrew Quint’s Best of AXPONA 2022

Best Sound (cost no object)

The Audio Company room: Von Schweikert Audio/VAC/Esoteric/Masterbuilt

There are three major variables that determine an exhibitor’s success at an audio show: the product, the room, and the skill of the exhibitor with his presentation. Honestly, at any decent-sized show there are a dozen systems or products that could win this category, and it would probably be politic for me to pick somebody different at each event. But show after show, Leif Swanson and Damon von Schweikert get all three of the above factors right. They’ve won before and they’ll probably win again.

Best Sound (for the money)

Valorem Somnium loudspeaker

A very good $15000 loudspeaker for $8400—and you can return it for up to 30 days if you don’t like it. A no-brainer.

Most Significant Product Introduction

YG Acoustics Summit loudspeaker

So much of what’s special about this elite manufacturer’s products has made it into the new Peaks line. This ought to open up the potential for owning an example of the brand to many more audiophiles.

Most Significant Trend

Sons coming into the business

Daughters, too. It’s important that a successful company not disappear (or get bought by a faceless corporate entity) when the founder decides to pack it in. Beyond Daryl Wilson and Damon von Schweikert, I learned of four more sons working for the brands their fathers were associated with and, presumably, bringing an up-to-date sensibility to this wonderful hobby.

Most Coveted Product

BACCH Laboratories 3D Sound

Dr. Edgar Choueiri, a physics professor at Princeton University has developed a technology that takes a stereo signal and turns it into a convincing three-dimensional experience—one that seems to approximate the discreet multichannel version, based on a 20-minute audition with a familiar recording. I’ll be getting the device to try out more extensively, and I can hardly wait.



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