Dear reader, if you find it upsetting that the best system at an audio show sells for $558,200, as is the case with the MBL Radialstrahler 101 X-treme, then I suggest you stop reading now.

Cool, I’m glad you are still here. I just got back from AXPONA 2016 in Chicago and have dozens of systems to write up. However, I figured it was worth starting off with the system that set the standard for 2-channel audio reproduction: The MBL Reference Line Combination D featuring the 2800 lb 101 X-treme speakers ($263,000) as well as four monstrous MBL 9011 pure mono balanced amps ($53,000 each), a model 1621 A CD transport ($28,000), a model 1611 F D/A converter ($28,700) and a model 6010 D preamp ($26,500) . With a price tag north of a half million bucks, it was the very essence of a cost-no-object super-system and truly sounded phenomenal.

MBL's imposing and radical Radialstrahler X-treme 101 speakers.
MBL’s speakers are instantly recognizable due to the unique design of its Radialstrahler drivers, which directly radiate sound in a 360-degree pattern. The X-treme speaker system rests at the top of MBLs unapologetically high-end offerings and combine twin towers of 12” subs with the almost alien-looking speakers.

Because Radialstrahler speakers are truly omnidirectional, treating a room to get great sound is crucial. Between the enormous 22 Hz helmholtz resonators in the front corners (hidden by a curtain) and the 50 Hz resonators lining the walls, room modes were very effectively attended to with passive absorption. Room treatments were supplied by SMT Sweden and installed by Accurate Construction Chicago .
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I loved every minute I was in the room with MBL's cost-no-object supersystem.
If you have read my past criticism of high-end audio bling, you might wonder why I was so enamored of the MBL system. One thing to know is it's the first time I've been truly impressed by MBL speakers. The superior performance of this system was immediately obvious relative to the rest of what I heard at the show. There are numerous factors that surely contributed to that result such as the use of acoustical treatments and the fact the X-treme 101s include enough subwoofers (a dozen 12-inchers) to satisfy the most addicted bassaholic.

I auditioned the AXPONA MBL supersystem with Dennis Young from Home Theater Shack. We wound up spending a lot more time in the room than we had planned. He noted that "Once I took command of the sweet spot chair, everything snapped into sharp focus. Most definitely a one person listening window, but oh, what a large, clean window it was." I totally agree, appreciating the true performance of the speakers requires attentive listening from the sweet spot.

Dead Can Dance’s "Yulunga (Spirit Dance)" from the album Into the Labyrinth is a great test track for any system thanks to its production values. The fidelity the MBL rig achieved was complete and seamless from top to bottom. Folks who say subwoofers don’t belong in 2-channel audiophile systems would surely change their minds after hearing the 101 X-tremes.

I’m not one to listen to the United States Navy Band's recordings but "Liberty Fanfare" from Victory at Sea (a 1:1 transfer from a studio master) on reel-to-reel tape—played back through a bespoke United Home Audio Phase12 ($24,000)—possessed bass slam that was tremendously visceral. Dennis said "The kettle drum was powerful, a wow moment. The weight was surprising—even knowing it was coming—and instilled a sense of shock and awe."

United Home Audio Phase12 reel-to-reel.
By the time "With a Little Help From My Friends" played toward the end of our room visit, Dennis and I had already agreed the MBL Reference represented the best sound at the show. It was truly something special to hear The Beatles sound so transparent.

As much as I’d love to dwell on this system in this post, just as I did with the real system at the show, the unobtanium nature of such a lofty price tag makes it more of a curiosity than a potential purchase. But, since the very essence of high-end audio is to achieve elevated performance regardless of cost, it's great to hear a system that actually pulls it off. Just remember that room treatments and subwoofers were a significant part of the audio equation and that (perhaps) you too can achieve superlative performance for a substantially lower cost.

Click here to check out more reports from AXPONA 2016.