The Axpona (Audio Expo North America) high-end audio show came to New York on Friday and Saturday. It was a fairly small affair, but I managed to find more than a few astounding sound demos. The most amazing of all came from a tiny S-Series subwoofer-satellite system from Steinway Lyngdorf, which produced an audiophile-grade, lifestyle-oriented system. "Lifestyle" audio is usually synonymous with mediocre sound, but this very small system produced extremely good sound. The S-Series speakers may be just 10.2 inches high, 7.8 inches wide, and 3.1 inches deep, but they (and their matching subwoofers) generated the sort of sound I'd expect to hear from full-size tower speakers. If I hadn't heard the demo, I wouldn't have believed it was possible to get this level of sound quality from speakers as small and unobtrusive as these. The system includes amplifiers and employs Lyngdorf's proprietary RoomPerfect digital signal-processing technologies. The $22,100 system's build quality and construction are superb.
As for the best sounds heard at the show, they came from much more expensive systems. The MBL 101E MK II speakers ($70,000 a pair) are true omnidirectional designs that project sound in a 360-degree radiation pattern. I listened to The Who's "Tommy" album on the MBLs, and they not only reproduced the sound of the band, the speakers also conjured the complete studio space that Townshend and company were playing in. I've heard a lot of very expensive speakers, but the MBLs' sound is a very different trip. They aren't the only omnidirectional speakers, but the MBLs are easily the best omnidirectional speakers in the world. You don't sense the sound is actually coming from the speaker; the music appears between the speakers.
The TAD Compact Reference One speakers ($35,000 a pair) tied with the MBL speakers for best sound at the show. OK, they're not all that compact, but the 100-pound, 24-inch tall speakers produce truly awesome slam-your-butt-into-the-chair dynamic punch; the tightest, best-defined bass; and absolutely transparent sound. I'm rarely blown away by sound demonstrations, but this one totally knocked me out. TAD was using its own electronics to power the system.
Next, Joseph Audio's Pulsar speakers ($7,000 a pair) were making all the right moves. It's a small, stand-mounted design but definitely doesn't need a sub to make bass. I heard techno, organ recitals, and acoustic jazz all sounding really nice. The Nightingale Concentus flat-panel speakers and tube amplifiers were also making fine sounds at the show.
Finally, Napa Acoustic had its tube amp, CD player, and speaker system up and running, and it was the best-sounding budget gear at Axpona NYC.