On September 18, I hopped in my car and drove just over 200 miles, from Ottawa to the headquarters of Axiom Audio, for their 35th-anniversary celebration. I’d first made the trip 15 years before, for Axiom’s 20th-anniversary bash, not long after I’d “discovered” this hi-fi company. I’d heard about them, but had never listened to or even seen any of their products.
It was also in 2000 that I was first enchanted by Axiom’s location: in Dwight, in the District of Muskoka, in central Ontario. Muskoka has established itself as a high-end destination for summer vacationers and those with a few million to spend on a lavish lakefront home with breathtaking scenery, and celebrity sightings are increasingly common. Shania Twain owned a home there for years, as did Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. Cindy Crawford made the news this year when she spilled the beans in Vogue about the summer home she and her family have there. Supposedly, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks also have places in Muskoka -- which Americans are now, apparently, calling “the Hamptons of the North.”
I doubt anyone was calling it that in 1980, when Ian Colquhoun founded Axiom Audio in Muskoka, which then was still quite isolated. I’d lived in Canada my entire life and hadn’t heard of it. Nor did Colquhoun buy the plots of land for Axiom and his home because he foresaw the celebrity- and vacationer-driven increases in property values; Axiom has been and, he says, always will be in Muskoka, because it’s where he grew up, and where he wanted to pursue his passion of making better-sounding speakers.
Just up the road from Colquhoun’s home is Lumina Resort, where he worked in his teens and in his college years, and that’s where Axiom held the main party for their 35th. To imagine Lumina, remember the resort that Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were grinding away at throughout Dirty Dancing, but with a lower-key (read: Canadian) feel. The event was mostly open to consumers, as Axiom sells factory direct.
I have no idea what Axiom Audio looked like in 1980, but I remember how it was in 2000. Today, it’s not much different. The large factory, off Highway 60, looks almost identical, and Colquhoun himself looks more or less the same, just a little older. He still owns 100% of his company, a rarity nowadays -- most old-school brands, in Canada and elsewhere, have been sold by their founders. In fact, Axiom’s legal name is Colquhoun Audio Laboratories Limited LC.
Colquhoun can also party like he could 15 years ago -- and, no doubt, like he could well before then, from what I’ve learned of his Lumina days. Parties are a crucial element of the Axiom lifestyle: they’re held frequently throughout the summer, usually on a dock or at a lodge, with a live band. The main entertainment at this bash was a newly formed rock band headed by Colquhoun’s longtime friend Stephen Stanley, best known for his participation in the Canadian alt-rock group The Lowest of the Low, which formed in 1991. Colquhoun oversaw the sound system -- which, of course, was stacked with Axiom speakers.
Axiom’s Millennia speakers, introduced at the turn of the millennium, have since evolved into the current v4 models, but also look pretty much the same as they did then. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a familiar look means that consumers can readily identify the brand’s products. In addition, once I got to know Colquhoun, I learned that what he’s most interested in is perfecting the technical aspects of a speaker’s design -- for him, a speaker’s appearance runs a distant second. This is why, at the 35th-anniversary party, he chaired a roundtable discussion in which Axiom enthusiasts discussed the technicalities of speaker design -- but not how speakers look. On the other hand, 15 years is too long for anything. Heck, I’ve had shirts in my closet that were in perfect shape, but that I’ve thrown out because they’re just too old. I hope that a facelift of their entire speaker line is a priority for 2016. (Hint.)
Yet not everything is the same. A few years ago, Colquhoun dropped about a half a million bucks on an anechoic chamber -- the same model as the one at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) -- so they could better refine their designs, further improve quality control, and spend far less time traveling back and forth to the NRC. This is a big plus for Axiom -- only a handful of hi-fi companies in North America have their own anechoic chambers. Recently, Colquhoun bought a new CNC machine for cutting metal parts for their AxiomAir all-in-one wireless sound system, which sports entirely new industrial design, and likely paves the way for future Axiom Audio products -- technically and, perhaps, visually.
Since 2000, Colquhoun has taken some other actions that I believe are the most substantial changes he’s made in his company. Several years ago, he hired Andrew Welker (above) to head up acoustic and electronics design. Welker began his design career in the late 1990s, at Mirage, where he produced some groundbreaking products such as Mirage’s Omnipolar technology, which featured a unique spin on speakers that radiated sound through 360 degrees. Mirage’s parent company, Audio Products International, was eventually sold to the Klipsch Group, for which Welker then worked for a while. But he tired of the corporate atmosphere and wanted to get back to his roots, working for a company where he could have a direct hand in the design and manufacture of everything. That’s how he ended up at Axiom, designing not only speakers, but amplifiers and digital crossovers as well.
The other big change Colquhoun has made is Axiom’s alliance with Bryston, the well-known Canadian maker of electronics, whose origins precede Axiom’s. (Bryston was founded in the 1960s, but didn’t get into audio electronics until the ’70s.) A few years ago, when Bryston decided to make speakers, they knew they didn’t have the resources or in-house expertise to fully design and manufacture what they envisioned -- and that Axiom did. The companies collaborate on the design of Bryston’s speakers, and Axiom does the actual manufacturing, from start to finish, in their Muskoka factory. According to both parties, the partnership has been an unqualified success, and Bryston’s speaker line continues to expand. No surprise, then, to see Bryston’s James Tanner at Axiom’s anniversary party.
Founder-owned and -operated, 35 years of success and stability, strong technical proficiency and resources, excellent manufacturing capabilities, a successful industry partnership -- these days, Axiom Audio has plenty to crow about, and a strong future. But at the party, I learned that bragging about past or future accomplishments isn’t what Ian Colquhoun is about. Instead, he’s all about doing what he’s dedicated his working life to -- making better-sounding speakers, and now electronics -- through the company he owns, in the place he most loves.
. . . Doug Schneider