Audio Note AX-Two Standmount Loudspeakers Review
This small, quirky standmount loudspeaker beguiles Chris Frankland…
AX-Two Standmount Loudspeakers
Audio Note is best known for its esoteric, high-end products – with CD players and power amplifiers costing more than most people ever spend on a car – but it also sells far more modestly priced designs for those on stricter budgets. One such example is the AX-Two which dates back to the late nineteen nineties when the company needed speakers for its entry-level Zero system. It has remained in continuous production for around fifteen years and is now made in the same factory in Austria that the company uses for its other loudspeakers.
During this time, Audio Note found that Scanspeak had binned the tooling for the original drive units, so new tooling had to be produced at the company's expense. Along with costs going through the roof in terms of raw materials, components and shipping, the speaker has become considerably more expensive of late. All the same, its modest price hardly seems unreasonable given how much many of its competitors sell for now…
So what goes into the latest AX-Two? Audio Note's speaker guru Andy Whittle has strong views on what should and should not be done when it comes to design. This company goes its own way and can never be accused of being a follower of fashion. For a start, it specifies 18mm high-density chipboard for the cabinets, not MDF, as is the norm these days. Why? Because chipboard has a high Q and stores less energy, it gives the speaker a quicker sound, with less colouration and more natural bass. The internal walls are also undamped, although there is a small amount of acoustic wool inside the reflex-loaded cabinet – which also has a balancing veneer on the inside of the panels. The speaker is offered in a choice of walnut or black ash real wood veneers. Vital statistics are 376x230x220mm [HxWxD] and 7kg.
In a brief chat with Audio Note founder Peter Qvortrup, he revealed that the cabinets are hand-assembled rather than being folded and glued by an automatic machine. He confides that this allows for more control over how much glue is used, and they have found that if too much glue is used, it adversely affects sound quality. The people who make them for Audio Note also used to make certain parts for Bösendorfer pianos…
The newly-tooled drivers may be based on stock Scanspeak originals, but they are custom-made to Audio Note's specifications. For example, the 20mm polyamide tweeter uses a different diaphragm material, and Audio Note has stipulated that the ferrofluid should be removed. A better grade of ferrite in the magnet system than would have been offered off-the-shelf is also specified.
The 150mm paper cone woofer is also undoped, as Qvortrup explained to me that leaving off the doping opens up the sound significantly. It also has a foam surrounds as opposed to rubber. The two units crossover at 2.5kHz, and the circuit uses high-quality electrolytic capacitors and wire-wound resistors, hard-wired on the back of the terminal assembly on the rear of the cabinet. The woofer is rolled off at 12dB/octave, while the tweeter uses a slope of 18dB/octave. A nominal impedance of 6 ohms is quoted, with sensitivity put at a healthy 89dB. Power handling is said to be 100W RMS, and frequency response is 55Hz to 23kHz.
In my room, I used the AX-Two very successfully on robust Kudos stands that put the speaker just over 24 inches off the floor. Regarding positioning, I know my room well and have found the sweet spot that virtually always works, and the AX-Twos were no exception. They came beautifully on song a fair distance from the rear and side walls. Audio Note's prescribed running-in period is 100 hours.
Audio Note speakers will, of course, work perfectly well with solid-state amplifiers, and I did hook up the excellent Atoll IN300 integrated for a quick blast, but the AX-Two's high efficiency made me want to try tubes, too. So I also fired up an 8W (300B) single-ended Audio Note Tonmeister integrated amp, which has been a permanent resident in my home system for some time now. I also had the excellent Leben CS300XS to hand, a 15W push-pull design using EL84 valves and much more affordable. My vinyl source was an Audio Note TT3 turntable with PSU-3 power supply, with Arm2 and Io1 cartridge through an AN-S9 transformer, and CDs were spun on an Audio Note CDT-Five with DAC5 Special.
The AX-Two impresses instantly with its insightful, dynamic and suitably raunchy portrayal of music. With All I See Is You from saxophonist Dave Koz's superb Saxophonic album on CD, the tenor sax was beautifully rendered, this speaker deftly capturing the fluidity of his playing and how each note was shaped. The trumpet part was well separated, and the bass line was articulate and tuneful with good weight. Drums, too, drove the track along well, and the rhythmic impetus of the music was well handled. All of which made for a crisp, pacy and expressive loudspeaker that's lots of fun to listen to.
Indeed, this little Audio Note speaker is all about capturing the emotional impact of the music. One of my favourite vocalists is Luther Vandross, and his outstanding Give Me The Reason album has a track called So Amazing, showcasing the fantastic range and power of his voice. With the AX-Two, his dulcet tones were delivered in the proverbial velvet glove, imparting the emotional impact of his vocals without getting shouty when he really went for it. Marcus Miller's gorgeous bass line was tuneful and tight but lacking some of the oomph you'd get with a bigger cabinet. All the same, it still had great weight and at least allowed the lower notes to be followed. This speaker also conveyed the other layers of instrumentation well, with good percussion and drum control. All in all, a moving rendition!
This speaker really seems to love vinyl. Firing up my turntable, I cued up Dark Night of the Soul from Van Morrison's Three Chords and The Truth album. Again the Audio Note lucidly communicated the character, nuance and amazing power of the vocals. The Ax-Two's treble performance is very good indeed, with cymbals and drums sounding nicely detailed and delicate. However, this doesn't come at the expense of the midband and bottom end, as Stephen Fearing's Red Lights in the Rain from The Secret of Climbing demonstrated. Although this track is basically just vocals and guitar playing, it still made quite an impact; the power of the guitar was clear to hear, and the vocals really hit the spot.
Finally, I had to try something by one of my favourite jazzers, Ben Sidran, and what better than It Didn't All Come True from his amazing Bop City album? This is a fantastically dynamic recording, and the AX-Two convincingly reproduced the explosive power of the drums and the impressive range of his vocals. Also, every twist and turn of his piano playing was well conveyed – alongside the remarkable drum and bass guitar work which really flew along. As the old saying goes, “It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing”, and this track really gripped me and took me to a special place. That's the essence of this loudspeaker, then – it's as much of a music fan as anyone who's reading this!
The AX-Two may be small, but it has a surprisingly large sound that propagates well to deliver a real sense of presence. It can also deftly convey the dynamics and instrumental layers of a recording and ensure that it all keeps moving with great rhythmic integrity. Its inherent quality is such that it can be used with any high-quality amplifier. Still, its natural partner is a serious valve amplifier such as Audio Note's own OTO or Meishu, the excellent Rogers E20a II or the modestly priced Leben CS300X. Indeed, in terms of musicality, this little speaker is among the strongest contenders at its price point – so I do not hesitate to recommend it as an essential audition.
One of StereoNET’s most experienced reviewers, Chris has written for a multitude of hi-fi magazines, from Hi-Fi Answers and Hi-Fi Sound, to The Flat Response and Hi-Fi Review. A regular concert-goer, his quest continues to find hi-fi that gets as close as possible to conveying the raw emotion of live music.
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