The Canadian company Axiom Audio has established itself as a mainstream loudspeaker brand, and over the years has greatly expanded its product line to cover all facets of audio, including computer speakers, in-wall and in-ceiling and center speakers, omnidirectional speakers with sophisticated DSP modules, and power amplifiers. Now Axiom ventures into wireless speakers with the AxiomAir N3 ($799 USD). As with many of their other designs, Axiom’s take on this hotly competitive market segment is innovative and unique, promises better sound quality than typical Bluetooth speakers, and great value.
Most wireless speakers that I’ve seen are small, cheap, single-driver devices. If, like me, you’re turned off by this, the AxiomAir N3 should be a pleasant surprise -- it’s a hefty (16 pounds), quality product (19.5”W x 10.25”H) -- about the height of a small bookshelf speaker. Viewed from above, it has a long oval shape, and it’s deeper at the base (9”) than at the top (6.75”). Axiom designed the AxiomAir N3 for durability and portability -- when I lifted it up by the handle built into its back, it felt like one solid piece. The top panel is wood, the back is plastic, and the grille and bottom panel are metal.
The standard finishes are all black or all white, but there are many options. You can customize the body and top to your heart’s content, using the Custom Color button on the AxiomAir N3’s webpage. It’s like ordering a Porsche 911 Carrera -- you can even custom-match a paint sample that you supply to Axiom, or match your walls ($100). If that’s not enough, you can also select the type of paint, from eggshell to high gloss. For the top plate, you can select among six real-wood finishes ($80, or $106.25 for Rosewood) and a number of stains.
Other options: a 9-hour battery ($99), an 18-hour battery ($198), or none; a Karaoke or Meeting Room microphone input ($199); a laser-engraved top ($115); and a custom rear-panel label (free). Select all of these options and the AxiomAir N3’s price nearly doubles, from $799 to $1616.25. My review sample was all black with walnut top plate, the extended battery, and microphone input.
Although the AxiomAir N3 supports Bluetooth, Axiom recommends using Wi-Fi -- a good decision, in my opinion. Bluetooth can go as high as 24-bit/96kHz resolution with aptX Lossless, but few devices use that codec -- most Bluetooth connections are equivalent to MP3 resolution. Wi-Fi is universally compatible, and the highest resolution currently streamable via Wi-Fi is 24/192. Although the AxiomAir N3 is primarily a wireless device, behind a narrow flip-down panel on the front of its base are -- in addition to buttons for On/Off and Volume, and an analog input -- four USB Type-A jacks and an Ethernet port. The USB ports let you play music loaded on flash drives, and the Ethernet port gives you a wired connection in case your wireless network isn’t robust enough for hi-rez streaming. Around back are one or two mike inputs (depending if you have the additional mike input option), another analog input, and a subwoofer output.
A 2x75W class-D amplifier inside the AxiomAir N3 powers two sets of speaker drivers in a true stereo configuration -- unusual in a single-box, tabletop wireless system. The drivers will be familiar to Axiom speaker owners: a 1” titanium-dome tweeter in each of the front panel’s two top corners, and, at the center of the front panel, two 6.5” aluminum-cone woofers. As SoundStage! Network contributor Roger Kanno remarked, “It’s like a pair of Axiom M3 speakers in one cabinet.”
The brain of the AxiomAir N3 is a Raspberry Pi loaded with proprietary software (my review sample had v.1.097). I applaud Axiom for using this tiny computer -- I use two of them in my systems, to stream music via my network. Like my own streamers, the N3 can receive 24/192 files wirelessly via a Wi-Fi network, something that many of the wireless audio products I’ve used have found difficult to do.
The AxiomAir N3 is compatible with the three most popular operating systems -- iOS, Android, and Windows -- and I found it easy to set up with any of them: You just let the Axiom access your Wi-Fi network, then control it using Axiom’s app (with an Android device), or from your Web browser (Windows or iOS). To connect an iPhone directly to the AxiomAir N3, turn on Wi-Fi, then select AxiomAir in AirPlay. The best way to use the N3 is with third-party music-player software, such as Bubble UPnP (Android). This lets you create playlists, and sidesteps the hassle of constantly having to select individual tracks. With Bubble UPnP I was able to easily locate the music on my NAS drive and play it back through the AxiomAir N3, which showed up in the app as one of my renderers.
I tend to listen to music straight from my NAS, but within Axiom’s app you can select other sources, such as Internet Radio or music from a USB drive; Axiom tells me that playback from other sources is in the works. The N3 also has a Sleep function: It can be set to turn itself off at a specified time, then wake itself -- and you -- with an alarm. The Karaoke function can also be controlled with Axiom’s app. As the AxiomAir N3 is essentially controlled by a computer, it’s best to turn on the N3 with its front-panel On button, and turn it off with the Axiom app or the Web browser home page.
To critically evaluate the AxiomAir N3, I found it best to listen in the nearfield. I set the Axiom on a shelf above my computer workstation, which placed the tweeters 1’ above my ears and some 3’ away. In this location, the gentle curve of the N3’s front panel, coupled with the tweeter locations, gave me real stereo separation. When I listened to “The Peppery Man,” from Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Nonesuch), the N3 did justice to the deep, deep bass voice of Isaac Freeman, of the Fairfield Four. With the AxiomAir N3’s specified frequency response going down to 60Hz, I was able to appreciate his rich, soulful voice. At the beginning of the song, I could hear the slide guitar in the left speaker, Freeman in the right, and Merchant eventually entered at center stage -- all beautifully imaged through the AxiomAir N3. Unlike freestanding speakers, the Axiom provided a soundstage of little depth, but the fact that it was able to convincingly sort out the rest of the stage was remarkable.
The AxiomAir N3 had no problem wirelessly streaming 24/192 files. When I listened to “Wherever I Go,” from Mark Knopfler’s Tracker (24/192 FLAC, Verve/HDtracks), there were no dropouts or stuttering -- problems I’ve had with rival wireless systems. This duet with singer Ruth Moody sounded warm through the N3, with Nigel Hitchcock’s signature sax emphasizing the poignancy of the lyric. The N3’s bass response presented the weight of Knopfler’s voice, which came through with clarity and presence -- and it got the midrange right, reproducing Moody’s voice with a similar richness and fullness of tonality as Knopfler’s.
In terms of dynamics, the AxiomAir N3 didn’t disappoint. Axiom’s founder, Ian Colquhoun, likes bass and likes it loud, and these qualities were indeed possible with the N3. I played the title track of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (16/44.1 FLAC, Atlantic) and cranked the Axiom to about 90% of its maximum volume. The N3 filled my 700-square-foot living room and kitchen with electric guitars and kick drums with no audible distortion -- or, I should say, no added audible distortion. Its enclosure didn’t rattle or move -- it felt solid and inert to the touch even as it reproduced this raucous music. Compared to a full-range system, the N3 of course lacked a touch of bass oomph, but given its small size, it more than held its own with most music. If you were to plug one of Axiom’s well-respected subwoofers into the N3’s subwoofer output, I think the result might satisfy your inner Angus Young.
What sets the AxiomAir N3 apart is its optional 18-hour battery, which makes it far more versatile than your typical tabletop wireless speaker. Although I didn’t have the N3 in the warmer months, I remember a summer visit to my sister’s cottage: We had a bonfire down by the beach, and my niece had paired her iPhone to a little JBL Bluetooth speaker. It was great to have music outside -- and I can’t help thinking that the AxiomAir N3 would have provided a much better experience, with far deeper bass and airier highs.
Axiom Audio’s AxiomAir N3 is a fantastic tabletop Wi-Fi loudspeaker that exceeded my expectations for a one-box powered stereo speaker. With two pairs of drivers and 150W of total power, the compact AxiomAir N3 has more than enough punch to satisfy those looking for real hi-fi sound but who don’t want separates. In fact, that’s what distinguishes the AxiomAir N3: The potency of its sound is far beyond what most portables can muster, and approaches that of a compact system of stereo separates. If you’re looking for a small yet powerful music system for streaming tunes, look no further than the AxiomAir N3 -- you won’t be disappointed.
. . . Vince Hanada
- Integrated amplifier -- NuPrime IDA-16
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology BP8060ST, Wharfedale Diamond 220
- Sources -- Netgear Readynas Duo V2 network storage, Raspberry Pi2 with Moode music player
- Cables -- Analysis Plus Blue Oval in-wall speaker cable and Super Sub interconnects
Axiom Audio AxiomAir N3 Wi-Fi Loudspeaker
Price: $799 to $1616.25 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Dwight, Ontario P0A 1H0
Phone: (888) 352-9466, (705) 635-2222
Fax: (705) 635-1972