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The 2023 AXPONA Show: Jonathan Valin on Speakers $30k and Up

Scaena 12

Judging by the number of displays and attendees, I’d call AXPONA 2023 a roaring success—not quite Munich High End level, especially in the way of new product introductions, but approaching it. Almost everyone in the industry was there, including a bunch of folks (e.g., Cyrill Hammer of Soulution, Gabi Rijnveld of Crystal Cable, Jack Miura of Air Tight, Franc Kuzma of Kuzma Ltd., Roland Gauder of Gauder Akustik, et al.) who don’t often come to regional U.S. shows. But AXPONA has grown beyond a regional show. It is now the closest thing we have to a CES-level high-end-audio event.

Happily, the sound at this year’s AXPONA was, for the most part, also a success. Of course, the Schaumburg Renaissance’s small hotel rooms and large convention-center halls had their peculiarities, but at least the colorations were consistent. Many speakers (not all, by any means) struggled a bit in the upper midrange and the low end. Very few screamed or boomed at you, as almost everything does in those awful glass-walled cubicles at Munich’s MOC, but in the Renaissance hotel rooms there was a slight tendency to room-induced brightness and lumpy midbass. The huge convention halls had their own set of sonic issues, chief among which was the trouble many speakers (even many large speakers) had simply filling those cavernous spaces with sound. Without much if any room support, the presentations could tend toward the anechoic, which is to say that natural tonal warmth was sometimes (not always) diminished.

Nonetheless, as I said, this was mostly a good-sounding—in some cases, a very good-sounding—show. It was also, as I’ve noted, a large show. Which means that, in spite of my best efforts, I undoubtedly missed some of the demos on the Renaissance’s 11 floors of hotel rooms and convention halls. I probably got pricing and nomenclature wrong in a few cases, too. My apologies in advance to those folks I missed and to those whose names, details, and/or price tags I screwed up. (You try taking extensive notes on a tiny iPhone keyboard and see how well you do.) As I’ve written many times in the past, I’m just one guy with a briefcase full of blues, jazz, and classical LPs. So, show some sympathy (as Mick once said about a very different character).

Gauder Acoustic Reference 200

I’m going to organize this report by floor, starting at the top (16), where Dr. Roland Gauder of Gauder Akustik introduced his four-driver, three-way, $149k DARC 200, driven by a complete suite of Soulution Series 7 electronics and sourced by a Soulution 760 DAC (one of my references) and an exotic Yukiseimitsu Audio AP-01 turntable. As it turned out, this room was a delightful surprise, as the DARC 200s were not equipped with Accuton ceramic woofers, as has been the case with the Gauder speakers I’ve heard in the past, but with aluminum-sandwich ones (the midrange, I believe, remains ceramic and the tweeter diamond). The characteristic ribs of the handsome chassis have also been changed to solid aluminum, with intermediate dampers between each rib. The sonic result of these changes to drivers and enclosures couldn’t have been more positive. Gauders have never lacked for detail, but in tone color they’ve tended toward the lean, cool, antiseptic side. Not the DARCs! The sound was extremely rich, smooth, dark, lovely, and listenable. And tremendously dynamic. It was just a matter of luck, but this very first room turned out to be a potential candidate for Best of Show.

Franco Serblin Ktema

Next door, AXISS Audio (now under Cliff Duffey’s able management) was showing the five-driver, four-way, $40k Franco Serblin Ktêma floorstander, driven and sourced by Air Tight wonderful electronics. Brighter, more present, and more immediate than the Gauder in the midrange and treble, the Ktêma was still rich and full in color with exceptional reproduction of standup bass. My notes read: “Very damn good, again!”

Vivid Giya G2

I next visited GTT Audio’s room, where Bill Parish was showing the five-driver, four-way, $68k Vivid Audio Giya G2 Series 2s. I’ve heard and liked various iterations of this uniquely shaped (to my eye, attractively so) loudspeaker several times, here and abroad, so I was expecting good things. What I got was a mite disappointing. Driven by Audionet electronics and cabled by Kubala-Sosna, the Giya was a bit brighter, thinner, and more aggressive than the Gauder or the Serblin in the mids and the treble and also less well-defined in the bass (though the speakers had phenomenal impact on “The Great Gate of Kiev”). These room-induced issues made the presentation good but not Best of Show-worthy.

Von Schweikert Ultra 7

Next up were the multi-driver, five-way, $180k Von Schweikert Ultra 7s, powered by WestminsterLab electronics, sourced by a Lampizator DAC and Aurender server, and cabled by Masterbuilt. Although I haven’t always cottoned to the Von Ses’ sound in the huge ballrooms where they are usually shown, this time around, in a small room, I thought they were very nice. Lovely, lively (just a touch bright and aggressive on guitars), and well-balanced, they excelled on Dire Straits and other music.

Borresen Silver Supreme

Børresen Acoustics was showing its $61k (yes, you read that right), stand-mounted 01 Silver Supreme two-way, driven (of course) by Aavik electronics and cabled with Ansuz wire. I’ve been a fan of Michael Børresen’s ribbon/cone two-ways since his Raidho days, so I was very much looking forward to hearing his new two-way references with elaborate cryo treatments and inductance-reducing solid-silver pole rings. Alas, the room did not serve the 01 as well as it might have. Oh, the sound was plenty nice (Michael’s two-ways are always special), but the almost complete absence of low bass and a bit of graininess and brightness in mids and treble made the presentation less outstanding than it should’ve been for 61g’s.

Bayz

The $160k, two-way Bayz Audio Counterpoint 2.0 omni with carbon-fiber chassis was being driven by VAC electronics. Though oddly discontinuous in the bass and a little bright on woodwinds, it was, nonetheless, fast and open everywhere else, with very good depth and free-floating images. An interesting loudspeaker.

Goebel Divin Noblesse

We now move to the 15th floor, where the huge, five-driver, $250k Göbel Divin Noblesse was being driven by four ARC amps, sourced by Wadax, and cabled by Göbel. A bit bright on top-octave piano, it was very full in the midband octaves, very present and forward on brass and winds, excellent on male voice, and a little laidback on drums and double bass. (I thought it could have used subs.) Good but a mite condensed and aggressive in this smaller space, the Goebel was pleasant to listen to but not a Best of Show contender.

MBL 101 MkII

We come now to one of my favorite loudspeakers, the four-driver, four-way, $91,000 MBL 101E MkII omni, driven and sourced (as usual) by MBL’s own outstanding electronics. A few issues ago, one of my colleagues remarked that (until the show he was then reporting on) he’d never heard the MBLs sound good. Well, all I can say is maybe he should consult an audiologist. This is and has always been a great loudspeaker. Grainless and natural with surprisingly good bass extension in a smaller room and simply remarkable spaciousness, it sounded superb on “People Get Ready” and other soul, rock, and jazz cuts. Yeah, it was a bit dark in color in this space and a tiny bit bright in the treble, but it was also exceedingly lovely and lifelike. It was the first speaker I found myself tapping my foot to, which says something very good about its PRAT. Another Best of Show contender.

Grimm

Next up was the powered (by built-in Class D amps), DSP’d, $40k Grimm Audio LS1 two-way with subwoofer. Like almost everything at this show, the Grimm was a little bright in the upper mids. That aside, it was quite good sounding, with a very nice blend with its subwoofer. The soundstage on a Melody Gardot cut was enormous, and the timbre and focus of her voice were quite lifelike. While I wouldn’t call the LS1 a Best of Show, it came close, which is a first in my experience for a powered, DSP’d speaker.

Magico S3

Another old favorite of mine, Magico, showed its new, three-way, $45k S3 floorstander, driven by Convergent Audio Technology electronics, sourced by Wadax and an Antipodes Audio streamer, and cabled by Stealth and Veda. Put simply, the S3 was a knockout. It had extremely deep-reaching bass (measurably flat down to 20Hz), which was a surprise in these small rooms from 9″ drivers, rich tonality top to bottom, very solid imaging, and exceptional detail. (It was just wonderful on male vocals from the Blind Boys of Alabama.) While it didn’t image outside its (aluminum) boxes and was limited in depth, it was still a surefire BOS contender—and another triumph for Alon and Yair.

Rockport

On to the 14th floor, where another old favorite, Rockport, was showing its $37k Atria II, driven by Vinnie Rossi electronics and sourced by MSB (another of my references). This was a very sweet, neutral-sounding transducer—neither overly dark in the bass and midrange nor megaphonic in the upper mids. Because of its refreshing transparency and freedom from coloration, it was immediately another of my Best of Show candidates.

We’ll skip the 13th floor (Marriott did) and move on to the 12th, where I came across a French planar speaker, the $50k Dyptique Refrence, driven by Audia Flight electronics and sourced by a Michell turntable (with DS Audio cartridge). Nowadays, coming across a new planar loudspeaker at a trade show is a rarity (although AXPONA boasted several such introductions, one of which, as you will see, was extraordinary). Though not BOS material, the Dyptique was still special—unusually neutral and realistic. Maybe just a little thin in color, it was, nonetheless, one of a small handful of speakers vying for “Best Intro.”

Vandersteen

Once again, an old favorite, Vandersteen, showed its five-driver, three-way $41.7k Kento Carbon floorstander, driven by an ARC preamp and Vandersteen’s own amps, and sourced by an ARC DAC 9. As usual, the Kento made a rich lovely sound. Despite being a little lumped up in the bass due to the room, it was great on trumpet, sax, flute, and trombone.

Acora Quartz SRC-1

The two-driver, two-way, $35k Acora Acoustics SRC-1 in a quartz enclosure was driven by ampsandsound and VAC electronics and sourced by an SW1X DAC and a TW Acustik turntable. Unfortunately, the SRC-1 was very bright when I came into the room; to make matters worse, the bass was also poorly controlled. When I returned on Day Three, these problems were toned down, though SRC-1 was still a little bright and spare and poorly defined in the bottom octaves. The speaker was also being played too loud for such a tiny room.

Marten Mingus

The five-driver (a mix of ceramic and aluminum cones), three-way $75k Marten Mingus Quintet 2 floorstander was being driven by Jadis electronics. A little “ceramic-sounding,” which is to say clean, fast, detailed, and lean, the Mingus had a consistent sonic balance from top to bottom (no low-end darkness or lumpiness). Overall, it was on the dry side.

We now move to Floor 7, as 8, 9, 10, and 11 were reserved for guests. where the first thing I came across was the $75k Magico M2, driven by Constellation electronics and sourced by Aurender. This is a speaker I have loved since it was introduced, and AXPONA didn’t upset the applecart (to mix metaphors). While not as rich in color as the phenomenal new S3, the M2 is more delicate and detailed, though nowhere near as deep-reaching. On Rhiannon Giddens’ “Do Right” and Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” it sounded more like a ’stat than the S3 does. A borderline-BOS showing.

TAD ME1

The two-way, three-driver (woofer and concentric mid/tweet) $33.5k TAD ME1 stand-mount was powered and sourced by TAD’s own electronics and cabled by Wireworld. Though soft in the lower octaves, it was otherwise quite appealing on a Stevie Ray Vaughan cut.

The $49k Arion Audio Apollo 9 open-baffle line array with integrated sub was a bit one-noteish in the bottom octaves but very open and rich in color on sax, guitar, and other instruments. Lively, with good wide staging, its chief weakness was the sub—not so much the blend as the extension. Still, this was a nice sound.

Orchestralls

The undisputed winner of oddest loudspeaker at AXPONA was the $49k Orchestalls KMD 700R—a weird, multi-box, cone loudspeaker in which each of the boxes is individually articulated via the arms of a large adjustable stand. The funny part was that it actually sounded very good—amazingly coherent considering the number of cones and boxes in play. Rich, expansive, and full range with fairly flat and well-defined bass in a tiny room, it was high among the most interesting intros at this (or any) show.

Raidho

The five-driver, ribbon-tweetered, quasi-D’Appolito, $70k Raidho TD 3.2, driven by Burmester electronics, sourced by a Vertere ’table, and wired by RSX, was outstanding on my Fabulous Basso D2D LP, absolutely superb on Li-Paz’s voice. It may not have been as full and rich on piano as the very best systems, but it came close. A superior loudspeaker.

Stenheim Alumine 3 SE

The $43.2k Stenheim Alumine 3 SE, powered by Nagra electronics and sourced by Nagra digital and Baer analog showed quite well on Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To the End Of Love.” Really quite beautiful sounding, the 3 SE is very much like my reference Stenheim 5 SE, only not as deep reaching. Even though the bottom couple octaves were not being reproduced, there were no other weaknesses I could detect and plenty of strengths. Another close-to-Best-of-Show performance.

Clarisys Minuet with Constellation

We come now to the most delightful surprise of the show—another full-range planar loudspeaker, this one from Switzerland and Vietnam (yup, it’s built in Vietnam), the $36k Clarisys Minuet. This handsome, extremely sturdy, and seemingly well-made loudspeaker was being shown in two rooms, the first where it was driven and sourced by Hegel electronics, the second (pictured here) by Constellation electronics. Its performance in both rooms was simply superb—super-depth, super-separation, super-speed, and quite deep, decently well-defined bass. Above all else, the Clarisys sounded more like the real thing in the midband than just about anything else at a very good and competitive show. Happily, the Minuet is also relatively easy to drive (with a sensitivity of 88dB), unlike the Apogee ribbons of old, to which it bears a passing resemblance and may in fact be partly modeled on. Obviously, the Clarisys is a Best of Show finalist.

Wilson Benesch Resolution 3 Zero

Wilson Benesch was showing its multiway, biocomposite-enclosed, isobaric-woofered, $102k Resolution 3Zero floorstander. Like previous WBs, the 3Zero is neutral in an almost colorless way. This is great for transparency and resolution, not so hot for timbre. Fast, defined, and a little antiseptic, it is very full range, but bring your scarf and mittens because it is also very chilly.

My pal Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound offered up a $65k Cessaro Horn Acoustics Opus horn speaker with Opus subs, driven by exotic TWAcustik Raven electronics and sourced by TWAcustik’s gorgeous Raven LS-3 Copper turntable. This was a horn system that didn’t sound like horns—or, at least, didn’t have their typical problems. Very much of a piece, very full range, and very rich and natural in timbre—with no cupped hands coloration—the Opuses made Ornette’s plastic sax, Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet, Ed Blackwell’s drumkit, and Charlie Haden’s bass sound “there.” It was also great on Li-Paz’s basso and Rozsnyai’s concert grand. This terrific horn system was also a BOS finalist.

Alta Audio was showing its five-driver, quasi-D’Appolito $40k Titanium II Hestia floorstander, driven by Infigo Audio Class A electronics. Neutral in timbre, the Hestia made for a pleasant listen.

Magico’s superb M2 made a second appearance in MSB’s room, where it was being powered by MSB’s 500 Series amplifiers and sourced by MSB digital (including its wonderful new Digital Director controller). As in the Constellation room, the M2s showed extremely well, sounding unusually liquid, almost gentle, and three-dimensional with MSB electronics.

Tidal showed its $75k Contriva G2—a four-driver, three-and-a-halfway floorstander with black ceramic mid and bass drivers, a diamond tweeter, and Tidal’s Tiradur enclosure. Driven and sourced by Tidal’s own electronics and wired with Signal Project cables, it made a good showing on Rhiannon Giddens’ “Do Right,” reproducing her voice with considerable delicacy and lovely timbre. Though a little thin in the bass, it managed to do well by Low Cut Connie, too.

Borresen M3

Børresen Acoustics debuted its new flagship, five-driver, 2½-way, ribbon/cone, $280k M-3 floorstander, driven by Aavik’s new 880 Class A pre and power amp and wired with Ansuz’s finest cables. I didn’t know the Scandinavian music that was being played, but the timbre was dark and beautiful with breathy texture, solid imaging, and delicate decay. Bass went very deep with superb attack and sustain—showing much better linearity and control than past Raidhos and Børresens. Indeed, this was the best bass I’ve heard from one of Michael’s large speakers. That and the gorgeous naturalness of the mids and treble made the M-3 a Best of Show contender.

We come now—and at last—to the first-floor rooms, many of which were quite large.

Estelon Extreme II

First up was Estelon’s gorgeous, five-driver, $259k Extreme Mk II, with height-adjustabile upper module and a new tweeter that can be repositioned electronically for best phase response. Driven and sourced by Vitus electronics and wired with Crystal Cable Da Vinci, the Extreme was seated in a huge room that didn’t allow it to show its best. Despite a little ceramic leanness on voices (like Diana Krall’s), it still had enough body to make performers almost visible and was a paragon of openness, with a superb disappearing act.

Estelon XB

Estelon was also showing its wonderful $58k XB Diamond Mk II three-way, powered and sourced by Soulution Series 5 electronics with wiring and room/equipment treatments by Synergistic Research. With dense, gorgeous tone color and fabulous dynamics, this was a Best of Show contender from the first cut I listened to. It’s a pity that its big brother didn’t get the room (and Ted Denny’s room/equipment treatments) that the XB enjoyed.

Stenheim Reference 2

As has often been the case at shows past, the huge, five-driver, three-way, D’Appolito configured, $155k Stenheim Reference Ultime 2, driven by four VTL amps and preamp and cabled by Nordost, was a story of two days. On Day One, when it hadn’t yet settled in, it was good but not great on Ornette’s This Is Our Music and Li-Paz’s Fabulous Basso LPs. On the third day, it was a true contender—simply marvelous on Rhiannon Giddens, Sinematic, Doug MacLeod, Hans Theessink, et al. Imaging was superb, tone color was rich and lifelike, bass was sensational, and the system was audibly transparent to miking and engineering. All in all, it was like a jumbo Alumine 5 SE—and, of course, a Best of Show contender.

Acora VRC-1

The $220k, granite-bodied, multi-driver Acora Acoustics VRC-1 was another two-day affair. Driven by VAC electronics, the speaker was a mite sedate on Day One on the crisply plucked guitars of Saturday Night in San Francisco. The VRC-1 also had limited soundstage depth, though stage width was excellent. My Fabulous Basso LP was quite good, though Li-Paz sounded a bit more like a baritone than a basso, and the bass of Rozsnyai’s piano sounded lumped up. On Day Three, after the speakers had settled in (which must’ve tested the Renaissance Schaumburg’s flooring) and the prime listening seat had been moved much closer to the Acoras, the sound was improved in presence. Soundstage depth was still limited, and there was still a bit of a hump in the 50–80Hz range. On the Li-Paz D2D LP, for example, the piano was a little loose on the bottom and not as rich in midband harmonics as it might have been. However, Li-Paz sounded more like a basso, and the overall presentation was quite lifelike.

Vimberg D

Wynn Audio was showing the $70k Vimberg Tonda D three-way floorstanders, driven by Karan electronics, sourced by a Kalista CD player/DAC, and wired with Crystal’s Da Vinci cable. Though a little digital sounding overall, the Vimberg was also extremely clear and neutral, making for a pleasant, if slightly analytic listen.

Dynaudio Confidence 50

The five-driver, D’Appolito-configured, $33.5k Dynaudio Confidence 50 floorstander, driven by Octave monoblocks and sourced by a Sim Audio 780D DAC, was surprisingly sweet, delicate, and natural in timbre on digital. Among the best affordable cone loudspeakers in my bailiwick, the Confidence 50 was extraordinarily natural on voice. Very close to a BOS finalist.

Scaena 12

Finally, the multi-driver, line-array, $106k Scaena 12s with four dipole woofers per side sounded just a bit dated. The woofers didn’t go very deep (e.g., on the bass and synth of The Black Keys “Shine A Light” from Let’s Rock); nor did they blend seamlessly, slightly fudging the mids, reducing transparency, and darkening tone color.

 

JV’s Best of Show

A tie! Though different in sound and technology, the Clarisys Minuet planar, the MBL 101E MkII omnis, the Magico S3 dynamics, and the Rockport Atria II dynamics all managed the trick of making musicians almost visible—and making music of all types a sonic delight. (Note that the Stenheim Reference Ultime 2, the Borresen Acoustics 03, and the Gauder Acoustic DARC 200 were close runners-up.)

 

JV’s Best Introduction

Magico S3.

Tags: AXPONA FLOORSTANDING LOUDSPEAKER SHOW STAND-MOUNT

Jonathan Valin

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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