Canadian loudspeaker and electronics manufacturer Axiom Audio is celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. Located in Dwight, Muskoka, Ontario, the company offers a range of wired and wireless speakers, systems and amplifiers. Double-blind listening and omnidirectional radiating patterns are key elements of Axiom’s design approach.
We asked Sound Advice columnist Don Lindich to interview founder and president Ian Colquhoun and R&D manager Andrew Welker and ask about Axiom’s past, present and future.
Don Lindich: This year Axiom Audio celebrated its 40th anniversary. That’s quite a milestone for any company. Ian, what can you tell us about Axiom’s beginnings?
Ian Colquhoun: I started Axiom right after leaving university. I had already been building speakers in my neighbor’s garage for a number of years starting in high school, so the passion was already there. Before Axiom was one year old, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Dr. Floyd Toole [an expert in the field of sound reproduction, acoustics and loudspeaker design – Ed.] who was conducting in-depth research into psychoacoustics as it related to speaker performance at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa, Canada. This changed Axiom forever.
The garage where Ian Colquhoun built his first pair of loudspeakers.
At the core of the research was the double-blind listening test, which allowed measurements taken in an anechoic chamber to be correlated with listener preference in an unbiased test environment. The double-blind loudspeaker testing resulted in very consistent scores that related to the measurements across all listeners. It should be noted that if the same tests were conducted sighted, then the results tended to be skewed towards price, brand, and size; [and] not just [correlated to] the measurements like the double-blind test results.
The NRC laboratory was available to rent, so all Axiom product designs could be done in this state-of-the-art facility. But [we benefited from] far more than this, as I had access to all the research Floyd was doing, in real time, and got to participate in the double-blind listening tests he was doing and make samples that would aid in the research. This went on for 11 years until Floyd left the NRC to join Harman.
Ian Colquhoun at the NRC, circa 1982.
After this we went on to build our own laboratory at the Axiom factory in Canada. The laboratory included a full-sized anechoic chamber and a 100-foot bass measurement tower. The bass tower was built so that we could accurately calibrate our anechoic chamber below 80Hz. The height allows us to measure down to 10Hz with no reflections, so it is anechoic without being in a chamber. We also built a “torture chamber” for testing speaker power handling, double-blind listening test facilities, and a full electronics lab. We have continued our research at Axiom, based on what was learned from my 11 years at the NRC, to this day.
DL: How would you describe your design philosophy and what principles do you adhere to when you develop new products?
IC: At the core of the Axiom design philosophy is the double-blind listening test results. Products must score high in their respective categories or they get kicked back to the lab, or to the curb. This relentless focus on performance over appearance has resulted in some comments that our products do not necessarily look “exotic” enough, but our thinking is that there are lots of exotic looking products on the market to choose from. Axiom stands for performance.
Because we make all our products to order at our factory in Canada, we can really customize the speakers for our customers. We do custom paint, custom stains, custom speaker depths when that is required for a particular installation, and even a custom amplifier that literally goes to 11 for Spinal Tap fans. It’s very satisfying to connect with our customers in this way – we become part of their home theater or stereo installation journey.
All of Axiom’s drivers are built in-house at our factory in Canada. While we source most of the components offshore, all are designed and built to our specifications. A good example would be our current tweeter where the faceplate contouring and horn loading was designed, prototyped, and then die-cast tooled for us. The titanium dome shape, surround, and voice coil were all built to our detailed requirements.
All of our woofers and midrange drivers use anodized aluminum cones for linear behavior within their operating regions, and most importantly for superior power handling. One area that we are very proud of is that our loudspeakers can take a beating without failure. Loudspeakers should not “break” just because you have a party and crank up the music! By assembling our drive units ourselves, we are able to control every aspect of production and subject each unit to state-of-the-art testing, ensuring each loudspeaker is a close match to our design reference.
DL: Your omnidirectional speakers have received much acclaim from those who have heard them. Functionally they operate quite differently from the traditional definition of an “omnidirectional speaker” that simply radiates sound in all directions. They utilize forward- and rear-facing drivers. How did you come up with the concept and what kind of challenges did you face developing the speakers? [The company also makes conventional forward-radiating models as well as in-wall, in-ceiling and other types, and subwoofers – Ed.]
IC: When Axiom first got into designing omnidirectional speakers, we had a huge leg up. Prior to joining Axiom, Andrew was the lead designer for [Canadian loudspeaker company] Mirage for 13 years. As a result, he already knew everything there was to know about omnidirectional design. In many ways [when we started doing omni speakers] I felt like that little kid again back when I first arrived at the NRC. This was exciting stuff.
Andrew had always wanted to try using DSP [digital signal processing] to have finite control over the front and rear radiating sections of an omnidirectional speaker. This is how our original model LFR1100 was born. And now I am addicted to designing omnidirectional speakers. For an omnidirectional speaker the entire relationship between the on-axis, listening window, and sound power curves [the sound that a speaker produces at all angles] has to be rethought. Figuring this relationship out took endless months, years really, of measurements and double-blind listening tests.
Andrew Welker and the LFR1100 at a recent Son et Image show in Montreal.
DL: In a relatively short period of time, Axiom has evolved from a traditional manufacturer of bookshelf speakers, tower speakers, home theater speakers and subwoofers to a full-line electronics manufacturer offering amplifiers, wireless speakers, soundbars, and single-piece sound systems like the AxiomAir Series. Without telling any secrets about future plans, do you see yourself expanding into additional product categories?
IC: The move into electronics and writing DSP code began with our subwoofers. We were just not happy with what could be purchased in off-the-shelf subwoofer amplifiers. So about 20 years ago we decided that we would start designing and manufacturing these ourselves. Over the years, and exponentially since Andrew joined, we have developed a full line of electronics products. About seven years ago, we decided it would be a good plan to start developing wireless products that actually sounded good. This is when AxiomAir was born. We have lots of software-related plans right now for the AxiomAir wireless platform, and since the AxiomAir software is user-updatable, current owners can expect lots of cool updates in the months ahead.
AxiomAir Force 3 wireless speaker.
DL: Andrew, you have worked as an engineer for several well-known audio manufacturers. What attracted you to join the team at Axiom Audio?
AW: I began my career at API (Audio Products International), the parent company of the Energy, Mirage, Sound Dynamics, and Athena loudspeaker brands in late 1997. I was fortunate to work for a great company with a talented group of people, including Ian Paisley, one of the best loudspeaker designers in the industry. The Klipsch loudspeaker group acquired API in 2006 and closed Canadian manufacturing operations soon afterwards, leaving only a small design and administration team. That ended in 2008 and I found myself out of work for the first time since high school. I considered options outside of audio, but I had the desire to keep pushing loudspeaker design and began discussions with a number of companies worldwide.
I knew of Axiom and Ian Colquhoun, often driving by the factory when visiting Algonquin Park, and asked Doug Schneider (owner and editor of Soundstage.com) to put us in touch. The rest, as they say, is history. It was important to me that Axiom’s involvement with the NRC philosophically matched my own ideas about loudspeaker engineering, and it’s amazing that I’ve been able to work with the two Ian’s who learned alongside Dr. Floyd Toole. Axiom also manufactures their products in-house which is becoming a rarity in this industry.
The fourth addition to the Axiom factory, circa 1997.
DL: You’ve been selling direct for a while. Can you comment on that?
IC: We started selling direct in 2000. At first we weren’t sure anyone would buy speakers without listening to them first, but it turns out that people were already doing that in stores anyway – or listening to them in environments that weren’t at all like their home environments.
We offered a 30-day in-home trial, generous return subsidies, and really active message board forums where you could ask other people for advice on what products to try and how to tweak your setup. We have over 15,000 members and thousands of threads that cover just about anything you can think of. That, coupled with staffing our telephone lines with experts from the industry really helped people get over the hump of not being comfortable buying online. The vibrant community has [even] met up in small groups all across the US and a couple of times at our factory in Dwight.
DL: Ian and Andrew, answering independently, of all the products you have developed of which one are you the proudest?
IC: I think the LFR1100 active omnidirectional floorstanding speaker. This was a complex design. The goal was to make the listening window and sound power curves match exactly. In a conventional front-firing speaker we know that a listening window and sound power that have similar linearity, except with a downward tilt to the sound power, results in a speaker that will win double-blind listening tests. With an omnidirectional speaker we had the ability to make these two curves identical, both in linearity and tilt. The result is a scary level of realism. I think we have achieved a totally new level of speaker performance.
LFR1100 frequency response: listening window and total radiated sound power.
AW: I’m going to cheat here and mention two products, the Mirage OMD-28 surround speaker system [an omnidirectional floorstanding speaker, not a surround-sound home theater setup – Ed.] and the Axiom LFR1100. The OMD-28 was my first complete from the ground-up loudspeaker. It was designed in 2007. I had a hand in every aspect of the product; from the cabinet, to mechanical design, to the drive units and their motor systems, cone and dome profiles, driver surrounds and crossover topology. It was a massive undertaking, and it took my patented Omnipolar technology to the limit.
Omnipolar technology consists of a midrange or mid-woofer on a specifically angled baffle with a reflective housing above it, also at an angle. At the top of that reflector housing is an up-firing tweeter with another angled reflector above it. The result is a loudspeaker with omnidirectional characteristics at mid and high frequencies, but with an energy bias that is skewed towards the front of the loudspeaker. This creates an omnidirectional soundstage with tighter image focus.
To this day I still have customers getting in touch to ask advice or talk about the OMD-28. The LFR1100 is the other design that I am most proud of because it fulfilled a desire that I had had for over a decade: to take the best performance aspects of a bipolar/omnidirectional design and combine that with the image focus and detail of an excellent forward-radiating design. It took the power of modern digital signal processing to achieve, but the LFR1100 is capable of performance that I never felt would be possible from an omnidirectional loudspeaker.
DL: Anything else to add?
IC: One of the greatest pleasures of having customers for 40 years is seeing their systems evolve over the years. We have a Wall of Fame on our website with pictures dating right back to the 1980s, and we still receive trade-ins from the 1980s and 1990s which we keep in our own Axiom museum. It’s such a gratifying part of being around so long. If anyone is visiting Algonquin Park post-pandemic, we’d love to meet you and give you a factory tour.
2885 Highway 60
LFR1100 loudspeakers in rosewood.