Axiom Audio’s M-series loudspeakers have won accolades from reviewers and audio enthusiasts for over a decade for their great sound and, by the standards of high-end audio, reasonable prices. While the M models have been steadily upgraded -- the current editions are “v3” -- the basic design remains essentially unchanged except for a new addition to the line, the M100.
The recently introduced LFR1100 ($3760 USD per pair in standard finish) is not an M-series model and is a significant departure from Axiom’s earlier designs. In fact, it’s the sole member of a new category of speakers on their website: Omnidirectional. In addition to its omnidirectional radiation pattern, the LFR1100 has digital signal processing (DSP) circuitry that’s housed in an external case, to be inserted in the audio chain between the preamplifier outputs and power-amp inputs. A speaker with an omnidirectional radiation pattern might seem a radical change for a manufacturer that has previously produced only direct-radiating designs -- but Axiom’s new chief designer, Andrew Welker, used to work at Audio Products International (API), where he designed many bipolar and Omnipolar loudspeakers, including the Mirage OMD-28. When he reviewed it in 2007, Doug Schneider described the OMD-28 as “one of the best bargains in high-end audio today.”
I have owned and reviewed several pairs of bipolar and Mirage Omnipolar loudspeakers, the former primarily from Definitive Technology, and have enjoyed their spacious sound. I looked forward to hearing how Axiom’s innovative new design would sound in my system.
A new axiom to ponder
The LFR1100 measures 47.5”H x 9.25”W x 17”D, weighs 66 pounds, and is very solidly built. Because it’s relatively narrow for its height, outriggers are provided that can be outfitted with spikes or rubber feet. The cabinet tapers slightly from front to back, and the rear baffle is angled slightly outward to ensure that it’s not parallel to the front baffle. The absence of internal parallel surfaces should reduce the creation of standing waves inside the LFR1100’s cabinet.
The LFR1100 looks a little like a taller version of Axiom’s M80 v3, with an additional woofer -- and, from the front, looks identical to the new M100. It’s much more than that. Technically, it’s a bipolar design with the same midrange-tweeter driver complement on the front and rear baffles: two 1” titanium-dome tweeters and two 5.25” aluminum-cone midrange drivers, enclosed in their own subenclosures. Also on the front baffle are three 6.5” aluminum-cone woofers -- a new design used exclusively in the LFR1100 and M100. Compared to Axiom’s earlier 6.5” woofer, the new one has a larger voice-coil and motor structure; this, combined with a new rubber surround, makes possible greater linear excursion and increased output. All told, the LFR1100 has 11 drivers and a claimed impedance of 4 ohms. The LFR1100 also has three of Axiom’s Vortex ports, which have a ribbed surface to reduce the noise of air turbulence: one at the base of the front baffle, and two more about a third of the way from the bottom of the rear baffle, above the two sets of binding posts, both of which must be used.
In having both forward- and rear-firing drivers, the LFR1100 is like most other bipolar speakers. But as far as I know, it is unique in having an external digital signal processor. According to Welker, in typical bipolar speakers, the cancellation of midrange frequencies caused by the interaction of the opposed drivers is almost impossible to get around in any practical way with traditional crossover components. He says that this cancellation can result in coloration of the critical midrange frequencies and a loss of image focus. By using DSP to split the signal being sent to the front and rear drivers, and primarily to alter the amplitude response of certain frequencies, Welker claims that the LFR1100 counteracts bipolar speakers’ midrange anomalies in a way not previously possible.
Because the DSP splits the signal between each speaker’s front and rear driver arrays, there are two sets of binding posts on the rear panel: one pair for the front drivers, the other for the rear drivers. Thus, a stereo pair of LFR1100s requires four channels of amplification. Welker admits that requiring biamplification may be an inconvenience, but says it was necessary to implement the DSP and to achieve the LFR1100’s level of performance. The system includes a high-quality integrated codec/DSP engine from Analog Devices whose analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters both run at 24-bit/96kHz, and a sizable toroidal transformer. The DSP circuitry is housed in a black case of heavy-gauge steel with a thick aluminum faceplate similar to that of Axiom’s ADA amplifiers, but about half their height. The case measures 17.75”W x 3.5”H x 16.75”D and weighs 27 pounds.
Although I was impressed by the LFR1100’s innovative engineering and design, I was a little less enthused with its looks. My review samples were finished in a real-wood veneer of matte Black Oak; Boston Cherry is also available at the base price (other finishes, including custom finishes, are available at additional cost). Although of high quality, the Black Oak looked relatively plain. Some might find that the LFR1100’s many angles and drivers give it an impressively aggressive appearance, but I would have preferred a smoother, more contemporary look with fewer exposed bolts and visible edges of drivers. On the plus side, the multipart, magnetically attached grilles can be individually removed to expose any combination of the treble, midrange, and bass drivers. I did all of my listening with the grilles off. Axiom provides a five-year warranty for both speakers and electronics.
Like other bipolar and dipolar speakers that I’ve recently had in my system, the Axiom LFR1100 benefited from having some space around them. There is a perception that the radiation patterns of bipoles and dipoles make them difficult to place in a room, but that hasn’t been my experience, and I didn’t find the Axioms too hard to position for optimal imaging and bass response. They ended up about 8’ apart and angled slightly inward toward the listening position, about 3’ from the sidewalls, and 4’ from the front wall. Although I didn’t use the LFR1100s as part of a surround-sound array, anyone who buys a pair should be aware that the DSP box can be upgraded with an additional channel of DSP to match either an Axiom VP160 or VP180 center-channel speaker.
I used an Oppo BDP-105 universal Blu-ray player as a digital source and preamplifier, connected to a four-channel version of the Axiom ADA-1500 power amplifier, which is claimed to deliver 375W of continuous power into 4-ohm loads, all channels driven. The ADA-1500 is the larger sibling of Axiom’s ADA-1000 multichannel amplifier, which I recently reviewed. In addition to playing optical discs, the Oppo BDP-105 received USB digital audio signals from my Acer Aspire One notebook computer. And because the LFR1100’s DSP box requires additional cabling, I pressed into service some Nordost Super Flatline speaker cables and AudioMagic Xstream interconnects that I had on hand. This was in addition to my usual complement of Analysis Plus and AudioQuest cabling, ESP power cords, and Blue Circle Audio and Zero Surge power conditioners.
The first thing that was apparent about the sound of the LFR1100 was its seemingly limitless dynamics and ability to play loudly with no hint of strain. I’ve had several speakers in my system that I’ve described as having exceptional power-handling characteristics, but the LFR1100 was the best in that regard by a wide margin. It could coast along at volume levels that, with most speakers of its size and price, would have had me worrying about damaging the drivers. But remember, the LFR1100 has 11 drivers among which to distribute its output. Still, getting this sort of sound requires a stout amp. With Axiom’s ADA-1000 amplifier, rated to deliver 250Wpc into 4 ohms, the LFR1100s had plenty of kick, but the amp could still be pushed to its limits. Driven by the more powerful ADA-1500 (375Wpc into 4 ohms), the speakers could produce greater volume levels than I had the courage to play. But my timidity was probably misguided -- even at these insane levels, the sound was still crystal clear, without any of the compression or harshness associated with driving speakers past their limits.
When I listened to ZZ Top’s Eliminator (24-bit/192kHz FLAC, Warner Bros./HDtracks) at sustained sound-pressure levels of over 100dB, as measured at the listening position with my trusty RadioShack SPL meter, I heard no smearing of image lines, and little or no compression. Although this isn’t exactly the most transparent recording, the hi-hat was easily discernible among the bass lines, and Billy Gibbons’s boogie-woogie guitar riffs totally . . . boogied. Even at such extreme volumes, the drums and guitar in “Gimme All Your Lovin’” remained taut and completely controlled. The LFR1100 was capable of playing scary-loud without distortion while delivering very low, punchy bass.
One of my favorite recordings by Hans Zimmer -- his Middle East-influenced score for the film Black Hawk Down (16/44.1 FLAC, Universal) -- has acoustic instruments mixed with electronica. Through the LFR1100, Rachid Taha’s voice in “Barra Barra” was set well behind the speakers, enveloped by a wide soundstage that it shared with deep percussion and beautifully recorded stringed instruments, such as the exotic saz and gimbri. The intricate mix of traditional instruments and synthesizer was re-created with a crystalline quality that was especially engaging. Tracks scored for orchestra had a massive sense of scale I hadn’t previously experienced in my system. In the gently swaying melody of “Leave No Man Behind,” there was a truth of timbre to the string section, which filled the entire soundstage. There was a pristine quality to the sound as each note of the piano, surrounded by strings, was carefully laid out in front of me. And when the strings surged to powerful peaks, there was no lack of power or dynamics.
In addition to its prodigious output, the LFR1100 was able to place images with amazing depth on a very large soundstage. While image specificity was not the Axioms’ strongest point, image outlines were still quite well defined, and I got a good sense of each individual instrument or voice in a particular recording. Even at extremely high volumes, there was no breakdown in the LFR1100s’ imaging capabilities. My only criticism would be that the center image could occasionally be a little too big, most noticeably with voices. This was somewhat program dependent, and I didn’t find it too distracting because the overall soundstage was so big.
When I swapped out the Axioms for the bipolar Definitive Technology BP-8080ST SuperTowers ($2998/pair), the soundstage now extended slightly farther beyond the speakers’ outer sidewalls, but individual images were more restricted to the center or to the extreme left or right, with less interfill. The Definitives had a clarity similar to that of the Axioms, but their less contiguous soundstage resulted in some less distinct placement of the percussion in “Englishman in New York,” from Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984-1994 (16/44.1 FLAC, Universal). The DefTechs could also play nearly as loudly as the Axioms but required less power to do so, presumably due to their powered subwoofer sections. They could be driven quite nicely by the lower-powered ADA-1000 amplifier -- unlike the Axiom, they didn’t require the additional power of the ADA-1500 to sound their best. Although the Axioms went very deep, with their three 6.5” woofers per side, the Definitives could reach just a bit further down in the low end, which gave the timpani in Sting’s “Russians” a greater feeling of grandeur. The Axiom countered with a tighter, more responsive grip on the bass, resulting in better rhythm and pace in Daft Punk’s disco-themed Random Access Memories (24/88.2 FLAC, Columbia/Édition Studio Masters).
The more conventional, direct-radiating KEF R900 ($4999.98/pair) could not play as loudly as the Axiom -- or the Definitive, for that matter -- but forged ahead of its competitors with an incredibly clean, smooth midrange, and highs that were equally impressive. The voices of Denez Prigent and Lisa Gerrard in “Gortoz a Ran -- J’attends,” from Black Hawk Down, were stunningly clear. The bittersweet emotion of the Celtic lyrics were reproduced with a silky smoothness uncommon in speakers at any price. The Axiom’s midrange was free of grain, and there was still much to admire about its sound, but it couldn’t match the KEF’s pristine mids and highs. Until the KEF came along, I’d heard this type of exceptional midrange clarity from only one other reasonably priced speaker: the PSB Imagine Mini ($760/pair), my former reference in that regard. The R900 did lack some of the LFR1100’s bite and effortless dynamics. The electric guitar in ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” didn’t have the same growl, and the kick drum lacked the fast, punch-in-the-guts quality I’d become accustomed to with the Axiom. Although the R900 is a wonderfully refined speaker, it sounded a little polite in comparison with the LFR1100.
Axiom Audio’s innovative engineering and first-rate implementation in the LFR1100, including the use of 11 biamped drivers and DSP, have taken bipolar loudspeakers to the next level. Considering the quality of the cabinet and finish, and the fact that it includes a solidly built, outboard digital signal processor, the LFR1100 seems a bargain at its base price of $3760/pair.
Granted, it takes a little extra effort to set up this trio of components and their cables, and the LFR1100s do require extra power-amp channels for biamplification. However, their big, open sound, exceptional clarity, and massive dynamics are astonishing for a speaker of this size and price, and are worth the effort. In fact, once you experience the LFR1100’s intoxicatingly clean, powerful sound, you may find it hard to live without. I know I did.
. . . Roger Kanno
Axiom Audio LFR1100 Loudspeakers
Price: $3760 USD per pair in standard finishes.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor (nontransferable).
Dwight, Ontario P0A 1H0
Phone: (866) 244-8796