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AX-2 Signature loudspeakers
as reviewed by Gary Beard
When I was a young boy, I fell in love with a black-as-night Jaguar XKE. The XKE seemed to evoke a pleasurable response from nearly everyone who laid eyes on its sleek form. It seems to me that another English manufacturer, Audio Note, builds audio components that elicit the same type of emotional response from audiophiles. I had not heard any AN gear until recently, so the opportunity to hear a pair of their lowest-priced speakers made me quite happy. The Audio Note AX-2 Signature loudspeakers are a refined version of the AX-2 bookshelf monitors, and while not inexpensive at $1000 per pair, they are among the least costly Audio Note products.
Cosmetically, the Signatures differ only slightly from the $600/pair AX-2s. The 2s have chipboard enclosures covered in wood-look vinyl, and their cabinets have recessed front and back panels, while the 2 Signatures have all-birch plywood cabinets with wood veneer and smooth front and back panels without obvious seams. The AX-2s are available in beech, cherry, rosewood, and black ash vinyl, while the Signatures' veneer choices are beech, cherry, and maple. Like the entry-level AX-2s, the Signatures are relatively small (15 x 9 x 9.25 inches with grilles), rear-ported, two-way bass-reflex speakers featuring .75-inch soft-dome tweeters and 5-inch woofers. Their rated sensitivity is 90dB/watt/meter. The rear of each speaker has two pairs of high-quality gold-plated five-way binding posts. The gold-plated jumpers provided are removable for bi-wiring.
The components used for this review consisted of a Music Hall MMF-9 and George Wright WPP100C phono stage for vinyl playback and a Pioneer 578A universal disc player and Squeezebox2 wireless music server feeding an Audio Note 1.1x Mk II DAC or a Birdland Odeon-Ag DAC for digital duties. Amplification was provided by a Blue Circle CS integrated, a Red Wine Audio Clari-T-Amp, a 5-watt Almarro A205A tube integrated, an 18-watt Almarro A318A tube integrated, or a Fi-Xi 2A3 tube integrated. Speaker cables were Kimber 4TC and interconnects were Kimber Silver Streak and Final Labs Speed. The plethora of amplifiers gave me the opportunity to hear how speakers respond to different designs, which proved to be enlightening.
The AX-2 Signatures won't win any awards for techno-wizardry or outlandish design. They strike me as plain vanilla in a market full of more flavors than Baskin-Robbins. Consumers might have trouble telling them apart from generic $199 big-box speakers. They seem to be well constructed, but in my opinion Audio Note needs to rethink their packaging. The review pair was new, but the beech veneer had numerous scrapes from being butted together in the box. A few of the tiny plastic nubs that attach the grille covers were broken. A little well-thought-out padding is all that would be needed to protect these British jewels during shipping.
While the AX-2s may not make a visual impression, the sum of the seemingly-simple Audio Note parts added up to a musical equation. My main reason for wanting to review the AX-2 Signatures was their reported corner-friendliness. New listening arrangements at the Beard household require speakers that sound good in the corners—real-world placement issues for many music lovers. I felt that if the AX-2 Signatures were indeed corner-lovers, they might be perfect for a high-end computer music setup, so that is where they settled after a 100-hour break-in period.
It didn't take long to realize how well the Audio Notes performed in the near-field configuration of the computer setup. Driven by the Blue Circle CS, they had excellent imaging and sounded very good in a small space. They have very good bass response for such small speakers—nicely defined and very tuneful without a hint of one-notedness—but they have a very sharp roll-off, as in, "Where'd that bass drum go?" That's fine with me, as I can fill in the bottom with a sub. While the AX-2s do not seem to be quite as extended in the treble as some speakers, I liked their top-end performance. There was a short bout of tizziness during break-in, but the AX-2s eventually produced smooth and believable high frequencies.
While the AX-2s sounded very good with the fifty warm solid-state watts of the Blue Circle CS, I noticed a polite sameness about the sound that gave me a somewhat negative impression. I decided the speakers needed a different amp, and knowing from David Cope of Triode & Co., the U.S. distributor of Audio Note, that the Signatures loved tubes, I hooked them up to the overachieving five watts of the Almarro A205A. The difference was immediately noticeable—not night and day, just a solid improvement. The soundstage widened, the music became more dimensional, and the bass deepened. This combination proved to be transparent, punchy, and extended, showing off a liveliness that sounded very very good in the small room.
I moved the little Audio Notes to the short wall of my 19 x 12-foot living room and set them on some inexpensive Atlantic speaker stands about two feet from the back wall and three feet from the side walls. The speakers sounded altogether different in the bigger space, and it was immediately clear that the more traditional placement of the speakers did not allow them to sound their best. After moving them into every conceivable position, I simply pushed them all the way back into the corners of the room. What a difference! Not only was there an immediate gain in depth of bass, but the frequency response was more balanced and the drivers more integrated, imparting a coherence that had not previously shown itself in the larger room. While the Almarro A205A did an admirable job of driving them, its five watts were not enough to satisfy at high volume. Tonality suffered from a slight nasal honkiness on wind instruments. Red Wine Audio's Clari-T-Amp fared a bit better, driving the Audio Notes with authority in the larger space, but failed to control the AX-2s' woofers, and the sound reverted to the boring politeness that I heard with the Blue Circle amp. The sound was good, but it never got my juices flowing.
The Blue Circle and Red Wine amps are both fine performers, but they simply did not mate well with the AX-2s, so I set out to find an amplifier that would give these English imports a sound more in line with the British Invasion than afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace. I found it in the Almarro A318A. Its eighteen watts of single-ended triode glory provided deep, warm bass and a smooth yet slightly rolled off treble that woke the Audio Notes from their stodgy slumber. With the speakers in the corners and toed in to cross in front of my listening position, the slightly forward presentation had reasonable depth and a huge soundstage. The speakers absolutely disappeared unless I was listening to an older stereo recording with obvious right/left channels. The higher power of the A318A gave the Audio Notes additional heft. Gone was any hint of nasality or tizzy treble, and while tonal accuracy suffered a smidge, the A318A had a richness that was missing with the other amps. The lower octaves sounded rounder and fuller, with a much more dynamic presentation. There was less pinpoint imaging than that provided by the other amplifiers, but it was more than made up for by an enormous, seamless soundstage. One of the AX-2 Signatures' greatest strengths is their rhythmic nature. They are fast, dynamic speakers that love source material like Reggae or Latin-inspired music. Cymbals, bells, drums, congas, and similar instruments are especially well treated by the Signatures, and I really enjoyed their clear and clean recreation of vocals.
I didn't really think the Signatures would make the grade until I heard them with the Almarro A318A. I thought that there were too many other less costly speakers that sounded better. The Signatures' little brothers, the AX-2s, were nearly as good at not quite half the price, only lacking a tiny bit of additional refinement and bass articulation. Yes, the AX-2 Signatures sounded good with all of the partnering amps, but there was something missing with most of them. The Signatures were more finicky about amplification than, say, the Nola Minis, and while there was no question that the A318A brought the speakers to life, the best sound I heard from the Audio Notes was afforded by a mere 3.5 triode watts playing vinyl. I would never recommend that you partner these speakers with a 2A3 tube amp, as there was simply not enough volume to live with that combination for the long term, but when I introduced my new Fi-Xi integrated amplifier to the AX-2 Signatures, the two fell for each other. Music flowed in an organic fashion that made listening at low volumes a joy. All the things I liked about the AX-2s became better. They imaged almost as well as my dearly-departed Merlin TSM-MMs, the best imagers I've heard, and their ability to resolve fine detail was just about perfect for reasonably priced speakers.
In my opinion, the best word to describe the sound of the Audio Note AX-2 Signatures is "balance." From top to bottom, these little speakers never give any reason to single out a specific area for comment, and that is a very good thing. The Signatures have a smooth, easygoing nature, yet are still fast and dynamic. They are not spectacular speakers. They just play music, and do it very well. In a larger room, I am sure most listeners would want a subwoofer to gain the bottom octaves. After numerous crossover level and location adjustments, my REL Strata III integrated very well. The AX-2s do require the right amplifier to wake them from a black British Taxi predictability and give them a little Mini-Cooper zing. In my experience, that means a well-designed vacuum tube amp with reasonable power.
Once I found the magic formula, I really enjoyed the Audio Note AX-2 Signatures. They won't grab you with flashy looks or hi-fi gymnastics. Instead, they have a classic bookshelf look and pleasurable sound. The $1K-and-under category is laden with many excellent speakers. I have only heard a few of them, but keeping the aforementioned caveats in mind, the Audio Note AX-2 Signatures are speakers you should have on your audition list. Gary Beard