Axpona 2019 report - So many toys, so little time!

So many toys, so little time! Our senior contributing writer Richard Weiner reflects on his two days at  Axpona 2019. As always, his views are quite different from the usual write-ups. 


My first room display at AXPONA 2019 could have been my last.

Destination Audio, my friend Joe Jurzec promised, was as good as its name: a series of products intended to stop our neurotic search for improvements. Get the horn-loaded Vista speaker, a pair of the company’s Type 45 or Type 50 tube amps, one of their tube preamps, and climb off the merry-go-round of tiny steps forward and back. Quit worrying about the newest, most exotic, or novel twist of audio engineering. Settle down and enjoy your music collection. 

At this year’s AXPONA, Destination brought a new, smaller speaker, the NiKA. In this context, smaller is a comparative term. NiKA is an imposing four feet tall, two feet wide and two feet deep. There’s a 16” cone woofer in a ported box (the Vista has two, in a horn-loaded enclosure), a big metal horn loading the midrange driver, and a smaller treble horn. It’s finished handsomely, but the NiKA will not be confused with a lifestyle cube you conceal on the ceiling. Oh, and while it’s the company’s smaller speaker offering, it costs $29,000. 

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (Ozawa/Chicago, Sony 69100) would be perfect to rattle the hotel room’s walls, right? I had it in my bag.

But I know Sam Wisniewski, who designed NiKA. He’s from Warsaw, and he loves Chopin. And who should play it but Artur Rubinstein? I passed over a set of the Nocturnes (EMI 64933). 

We often forget that a concert grand piano is nine feet long and weighs a half ton. If you walk down the halls at a hifi show, you hear attempts to reproduce the sound of this instrument coming from book-sized speakers. The little boxes give cues, and your mind provides the body and heft of the real thing.

The Destination NiKA gave me Rubinstein, his Steinway and Chopin, all more authentically than I had heard it at any other show, and perhaps anywhere else. I didn’t have to imagine the size of the instrument, or its tonality. Rubinstein’s precise keyboard work was conveyed as it was recorded. 

This was one of those musical experiences that don’t come along very often. I caught Sam’s eye to show how impressed I was, and he made a gesture on his forearm: the performance was giving him goosebumps. 

NiKA looks like this:

I heard other speakers this big elsewhere at the show. They all cost more, but none was as coherent from top to bottom, and none even came close to this level of musical satisfaction.

II. Daedalus Loudspeakers Never Have a Bad Show

Just down the hall from Destination Audio was one of the Daedalus Loudspeakers room. Daedalus is interesting because it builds high-sensitivity (96 dB) systems without using horns. This means that you can consider low-powered tube amps. If tonal purity is your goal but a monster like the NiKA won’t fit in your room (or it would create a domestic crisis), you should consider the Apollo 11.

The Apollo 11’s bandwidth is almost flat (+/- 2 dB) from 27 to 20 kiloHerz, and its impedance is almost flat around 6 Ohms. A small tube amp couldn’t ask for a more comfortable load. 

I’ve heard Daedalus speakers at other shows, and they always sound good. When other companies complain of hotel room acoustics, the Daedalus signature remains clear and authoritative. Lou Hinkley manages this without ribbon/beryllium/plasma tweeters or machined aluminum woofers. You can drive them with any amplifier I know of.

Besides their sound, Daedalus speakers look fabulous: handmade of solid woods with gorgeous finishes. These are speakers you buy for the rest of your life.

III. My First Encounter With Sonner Audio 

Sonner Audio’s Allegro Unum is a small box speaker which surprised me. Gunny Surya, the speaker’s designer, had a copy of Carlos Paita conducting Mahler’s Symphony I (Royal Philharmonic, Lodia 776 ), and he cued up the third movement. 

I could hear into the performance as though the score lay open before me: the “Bruder Jakob” theme, was introduced by double bass, then picked up by bassoon, tube, and the entire orchestra. The klezmer ensemble – cymbal, bass drum, oboes, clarinets and trumpets – followed. Next, Mahler introduced material from “Wayfarer Songs”, and finally stacked all three themes together. Mahler’s plan, to oppose sobriety with giddiness had never been more clear.

The surprising part was that during this movement, I raised my left hand to show the tempo while I gestured for different musicians to enter, rise and fall away with my right. That’s how engaging the Allegro Unum is. 

That speaker is in my living room right now, and a review will appear. For now, suffice to say that it’s a wonderful small speaker.

IV. The Banality of Good

Not so long ago, I’d poke my head into some display rooms and just as quickly duck out. The designer would stand at the controls expecting praise for his creation. I’d nod my head politely and leave.

Those days are past. Maybe it’s improved design software, but a truly bad loudspeaker is hard to find these days. 

I shouldn’t complain, but strolling the hotel hallways no longer rewards the listener with speakers that rise far above the competition. I spent the rest of Saturday and much of Sunday thinking of the three systems I’ve mentioned.

V. Off-road Experience

After Saturday’s show, Joe Jurzec invited me to his home. His audio system uses a server feeding a Purity preamp, to a pair of Finale 300B SET monoblocks, and then over to Klipsch Cornwall III. The Cornwall III is the latest iteration of a 1959 design, with a 15 inch woofer in a ported enclosure, and horn-loaded midrange and tweeters, the same idea as the Destination NiKA.

The sound was spacious, detailed and engaging. In many ways Joe’s personal system was better than a lot of what I heard at the show, and a whole lot better than Cornwalls sound at my local Klipsch dealer. 

I could have listened until morning, but I had another day of listening to pretty-good, unexceptional systems ahead of me.

VI. Destination Two

Over dinner on Saturday night, I heard about a closed display. The room was not listed in the show directory, and only people with press passes would be admitted. Okay, I was interested. 

After hours of listening to unobjectionable and unremarkable exhibits, I found my way to a room at the end of a corridor. Sitting guard at the door was Galina, wife of Magnepan sales director Wendell Diller. 

I showed my press pass and was approved – for a fifteen-minute audition. 

This new Maggie, the LRS ( looks like every other speaker from White Bear Lake, Minnesota: a flat, rectangular panel. 

It’s shorter than the .7 model, and incorporates technology from the company’s upper-level products. Diller intends the LRS as an “appetizer,” a taste of what the 1.7i all the way to 30.7 sound like. As your resources change, you would move up but stay with the brand.

How did the LRS sound? In a word, terrific. In a few words: sound was wide and deep, bass extended to the 50 Hz range, transient response was quick. Most importantly, it had tonal purity that very few other speakers at the show could approach. And the price? Even by Magnepan’s stingy standards, more than a bargain: $650. 

Did I have any reservations? The LRS needs room. It was at least six feet away from the back wall. It needs an amplifier capable of delivering lots of current. In this demonstration, that was supplied by an amplifier designed by Magnepan. That’s not for sale, at least not yet. 

I left the room and thought: this is the best inexpensive loudspeaker since the Larger Advent forty years ago. 

And then I thought: what if the LRS is the destination? It does nearly everything you want a speaker to do, and you can still pay your mortgage, buy new tires, and go on vacation. 

No, you won’t awe your friends with how much money you spent on speakers, but you will astonish them with how great your system sounds, and how you found the best value in hifi.