Component Reviews, Part 1 of 3
Published on May 1, 2004
Axiom 7.1 HT Speaker System
SRP: $2980/set (as tested)
|Axiom Canada Inc.
Hwy 60, Dwight
Ontario, Canada P0A1H0
System tested consisted of: 1 pr of M60ti tower speakers, 1 EP350 12” powered subwoofer, 1 VP150 center speaker, 2 pr of QS8 quadpolar surround speakers, and 2 pr of matching QSS stands (for the surrounds). VP100 was also tested as an alternate, smaller center channel option. All models (excluding subwoofer) use 5-way binding posts and include a wrench to tighten them down. 5-year warranty of speakers, 1 year on subwoofer. Multiple finish options—see website (above) for more details.
Front speaker testing: Panamax 5100 line conditioner, Arcam CD73t CD player, Arcam A80 Integrated Amplifier, Linn Axis Turntable with Basik arm and LK9 Cartridge, Audioquest Type 2 speaker cable, Audioquest King Cobra interconnect, Paradigm Monitor 9 v.3 ($900 pr) speakers for comparison.
Center channel comparison: Smart Devices Garbage Collector line conditioner, Philips CDC-935 (as transport), Meridian 568 Preamplifier, Mark Levinson No. 29 power amplifier, Discovery digital cable, DeCorp flat wire speaker cable, Audioquest Lapis balanced interconnect, Axiom QSS stands.
Subwoofer testing: Marantz DV8400 universal player, Rotel RSP-1098 surround processor, Aragon 2007 power amplifier, miscellaneous speakers (as fronts for matching), Linn, Monster, Audioquest interconnect, Audioquest Diamondback subwoofer cable.
Full system testing: Smart Devices Garbage collector line conditioner, Philips CDC-935 (as transport), self-made Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC), Meridian 568 preamplifier, Mark Levinson No. 29 power amplifier, Sunfire Cinema Grand II 5-channel power amplifier, Discovery digital cable, Audioquest VSD-2 digital cable, Audioquest Lapis balanced and unbalanced cables, Music Metre interconnects, DeCorp and Monster speaker wire, self-made coaxial style sub cable.
All the speakers I received came in the Maple finish (that actually looked white washed). Had I to do it over, I would have chosen the Mansfield Beech or the Boston Cherry. You can get a sample (or even a custom finish) for a modest charge that will prevent any mistakes.
Front speakers: I opened the front speakers first and played music through them for a week or two to break-in. I noticed a sonic difference within the first five hours of playback, but I didn’t do any critical listening at that time. The speakers are fairly heavy, but you can tell where the bracing is by using the knuckle test. Rapping on the top and the middle of the side produced a noticeably different sound than in other places along the cabinet. Surely compromises need to be made given the modest price of the speaker system—I waited until later to determine how much this affected their sound. The speaker is pretty big and is ported in three different places. As expected, it was fairly sensitive and had no trouble playing loud. Like all of the models tested, the two sides of the cabinet are not parallel which should give performance advantages. The speakers come with spikes although I initially just set them on the carpet for the break-in period. The system is a 3-way with dual 6.5” aluminum woofers, a 5.25” aluminum midrange, and a 1” titanium tweeter. Each speaker measures 37.5” x 9.25” x 15” HxWxD, and is 47 pounds each. $800 pr.
Center speakers: I connected both center speakers to the front channels of another system to break them in. Initially, I was planning to get the VP100 center speaker (that is included in the Epic 60 Home Theater system that is pre-packaged by Axiom), but Alan Lofft recommended the larger model based on the size of my room. My hesitation about the larger model related to the dual tweeter placement—that is, on opposite sides of the speaker. This goes contrary to what I would expect to see in a correctly-designed speaker, but Alan was nice enough to send me both models to compare. That is what I did later in the review. Both speakers have their drivers arrayed horizontally. The VP100 has dual 5.25” aluminum woofers, a 1” titanium tweeter, measures 7.5” x 17” x 7.5” HxWxD, and weighs 11 pounds. $220 ea. The VP150 has 3 5.25” aluminum woofers, 2 1” titanium tweeters, measures 7.5” x 26.5” x 7.5” HxWxD, and weighs 17 pounds. $350 ea. The top of the center speakers slopes down towards the back duplicating the non-parallel walled design of the front speakers, and also allows either speaker to be positioned upside down if any upward angle is needed for non-optimum, low-height placement.
Subwoofer: I ran bass frequencies through the subwoofer for a day and a half at fairly high levels. The cabinet construction was not much different from the front speakers, although the cabinet seemed a bit more solid. It stands taller than most subwoofers, so it will look different if it were lined up with a row of subs. The manual for the subwoofer was a bit more detailed in terms of setup than the manuals that came with the other speakers in the system. It suggests the method that involves placing the sub at the listening position and finding the best sound in the room and then reversing the subwoofer location. The issue I have is under the section labeled “CONNECTIONS (Home Theater Setup).” The manual states that if you use an audio/video receiver that you set the channel sizing to “small” in every location (with no mention to the actual size of the speakers). This might be the correct setting in a THX system, but would undermine any advantage of using a full-range speaker like the M60ti speakers in the front location (or anywhere else). Alternately, you could leave the front speakers set to large (in my case of using full-range fronts), or do this in the stereo mode, so that you would still get the bass coming out of the front speakers in this mode. I always advocate trying both settings to determine which works best in a particular system. Setting the crossover of the fronts to 80 Hz and above does help eliminate problems with standing waves in a room, so it may provide the smoothest bass response anyway. The 12” aluminum cone subwoofer has a 200 watt amplifier, measures 20.25” x 15” x 16” HxWxD, and weighs 39 pounds. $620 ea.
Surround Speakers: The surround speakers are a little different than models I’ve come into contact with. They are shaped like many dipole and bipole surrounds, but only have tweeters on the side. The woofers are located on top and bottom, and the specially designed stand allows the woofer to fire downward unimpeded. When I opened the box for the first surround, I was surprised at how small it was, and I made a note to make sure it could handle good amounts of power. The QS8 is Axiom’s best surround model. The surrounds come with a T-bracket that allows direct mounting to the wall. I received two sets of stands, so opted for this setup. There is a back plate that comes with each stand that (once the existing wall brackets are removed) screws into each speaker. This raises the bottom of the speaker approximately 37” off the ground. The QS8 has two 5.25” aluminum woofers, two 1” titanium tweeters, measures 8.25” x 11” x 6” HxWxD, and they weigh eight pounds a piece. A small plastic wrench is included to tighten the binding posts and two rubber pads help when installing the speaker on the wall. I utilized two identical sets in a 7.1 configuration with one set directly to the side of the listening area and another spaced out against the back wall. The manual that comes with the QS8 gives suggestions on placement and I noted that while referring to 6.1 and 7.1 states “You will experience a modest improvement in envelopment; on the other hand, you may not notice any difference.” $470 pr.
Surround Stands: The matching stands for the surround speakers are made of fiberboard and are wrapped in a black vinyl. The small maple-colored surrounds (the color I was sent) looked a bit odd on top of the black stands, so you should probably take color more into consideration when using the stands. The stands were more than solid enough for the surrounds once the back plate was attached to the posts. There is no top plate, so I doubt you could use these stands with any other speakers. The stands come complete with all the tools you’ll need for assembly. They also have a .5 inch hole in the back of each post that will allow speaker wire to be routed to the bottom of the stand. They measure 36” x 12.5” x 13” HxWxD, and weigh 12 pounds each. Assembly did not take very long although you have to be sure to match the angle of the post with the base plate! $135 pr.
After individual testing of the front speakers, center channels, and subwoofer was completed, all the speakers were tested in a full 7.1 surround system.
Note: Since Axiom does not work through a conventional dealer network, the online/on-phone assistance/service becomes much more important. The company offers both an email address and an 800 number to assist customers with questions regarding products (and audio/video in general).
Listening Part I – Front Speaker Comparison Testing
I chose to use a set of Paradigm Monitor 9 v.3 speakers (with which I’m fairly familiar) to test against the Axiom M60ti tower speakers. The Paradigms have a slightly bigger cabinet that is box shaped and are within $100 of the price of the Axioms. I used the same cabling and hooked the speakers to the second set of outputs on the Arcam integrated amplifier. Aside from having to readjust levels, this allowed for a rather quick switch back and forth between the two speakers.
I began with an electronic track, track 8, “Hyper-Gamma-Spaces,” from Alan Parson’s Project Pyramid CD. The soundstage presented by the Paradigm speakers extended beyond the edge of where the speakers were positioned. The keyboard had a slight edge, and some of the sound was slightly in front of the plane of the speaker system. The chorus has a nice ethereal quality, and overall the sound was vibrant. Bass was good, though not the most prominent component in the mix. The Axiom speakers were less sensitive than the Paradigms, so I made adjustments to volume to correct for these differences (the Arcam has a numerical indicator for volume). The Axiom had a softened high frequency response in comparison with the Paradigms, and although the midrange was not as hard sounding as with the Paradigm, there seemed to be a sacrifice in definition—also described in my notes as relaxed/depressed. There was an ease to the M60ti that should help tame bright/harsh/cheap electronics. The difference in high frequency response/extension gave the speaker a smoother quality that would probably be a benefit with some overly aggressive movie soundtracks as well.
Next was “Shiny Stockings” by Clark Terry, track 2 from a trumpet compilation called Jazz Trumpet – Trumpeter’s Holiday (Koch 3-220502). This track has some serious stand up bass that would test any speaker in addition to some fine horn playing. With the Axioms the horn was diffuse, spread out, and hovering around the center of the soundstage. With the Paradigms the horn was more focused and fixed in position—almost like the difference you hear by turning speakers away from the center, or if there are too many reflections off the side walls. The Paradigms sounded less ‘phase-y’ and gave me the impression of a more accurate soundstage portrayal. The extra high frequency response offered by the Paradigms made there seem to be more air around the horn, and gave the feeling of a greater sense of space. The Axioms did not offer quite as clearly a defined spatial presentation, and sounds like Terry’s breathing as well as transients were harder to hear. The horn had a slight sweetened quality on the Axioms.
I switched over to vinyl and put on band 3, “Across The Universe,” from The Beatles Let It Be (Stereo PCS 7096). The Paradigm speakers emphasized the surface noise that was present on this record, while it wasn’t as bad with the Axioms. When switching between the two speaker sets, the Axioms had a distinctively duller sound due to the difference in output in the upper ranges. It was a trade-off between sense of air and extension and a decidedly softer presentation. Another example of this was noticeable with band 2, side 2, “All At Once,” from Whitney Houston’s self-titled LP Whitney Houston. Whitney’s voice was rich and sounded good, but the bass is punchy but not and has a cloudy quality to it. The altered high frequency response made the sound seem congested even though it wasn’t on the Paradigms. (Note: On this cut, the sound wasn’t fabulous on the Paradigms either, but it did sound more like I thought it should.)
Listening Part II – Comparison between the VP100 and VP150 center channels
**As I mentioned before, I originally requested the VP100 center because I was worried about the positioning of the tweeters on the VP150. My listening tests put my concerns to rest. The VP150 is a better speaker and is recommended to anyone who can deal with its larger size.
Rather than hook the center channels up to the center output, I hooked them up to the front channel and switched back and forth on music. See listening impressions on surround material later in the review for my impressions with movies. I positioned the speakers on the QSS stands and sat about 5-6 feet away from both. I also got up and walked from side to side to listen to off-axis response, and to listen for any strangeness from the VP150’s tweeter design. Both speakers are meant for horizontal placement, although it would be possible to stand them up vertically—I didn’t try this.
I began the comparison with track 1, “Mining For Gold,” from The Trinity Sessions by the Cowboy Junkies. Right away the VP150 sounded like it had more output (which is not entirely surprising). I took out my SPL meter and sure enough, there was a difference of a few dB (with the larger speaker being louder). Again, I had to adjust level to try to get an equal volume level. I was worried about strange combing effects from having the two tweeters separated on the baffle of the VP150, but if anything, it improved the horizontal dispersion of the tweeter. Even without the level difference, the VP150 had more high frequency (possibly because of the second tweeter) as well as more low frequency (due to the extra drivers and larger cabinet no doubt). The VP100 would be fine for smaller systems, but I would encourage the use of the VP150 if the space and budget were not a concern.
Next I listened to track 2, “Dedicated To You,” from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. The horn wasn’t as vibrant as I remembered, but everything sounded fine. I listened again by moving from side to side on both speakers and there didn’t seem to be any weird phasing or huge tonal shifts on the larger speaker. In my notes I wrote “more noticeable high frequency, and low frequency” in regards to the VP150.
Just for the heck of it I pulled out the Stereophile Test CD #2 and ran some pink noise through the speakers. With the smaller speaker, there was an even reduction in high frequency energy from the center moving out from side to side. With the larger speaker this was the case as well, but there was a slight increase when right in front of the speaker’s tweeters on either side and then down again to the outside of the speaker. I doubt this would be noticeable at all in a typical listening environment (where you would hardly be walking around the room and trying to watch a film at the same time)! I did some more investigation and put on track 2, “All Soul,” from Hubert Laws’ The Laws of Jazz. There was a very slight difference in sound while moving horizontally across the front of the VP150, but it was only noticeable with the background noise on the CD, and NOT with the actual music. To be clear, in normal listening I do not consider this anything to be concerned about.
To test the power handling of the speakers, I chose track 1, “The Urban Theme,” from Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. The VP100 sounds like a smaller speaker in direct comparison with the VP150. There was considerably more output and greater extension in the bass from the VP150. When the volume got louder there was less strain from the VP150, although the VP100 never sounded like it was being pushed beyond its limits. Again, the vote was for the larger center.
Listening Part III – EP350 Subwoofer
Subwoofers seem to be one of the hardest speakers to set up properly. If you aren’t very critical, then you can turn a couple controls, make a couple of connections and viola! But proper balance, good matching, and even response in the room are an entirely different matter. I spent about an hour positioning the Axiom subwoofer for the initial testing after the break-in period. I used music and the bass test tones from the Cara Test CD **********. I set phase and used the crossover control on the subwoofer at first. For the final testing, I opted to use the electronic crossover in the Rotel and Meridian processors (as most consumers would) and left the crossover on the subwoofer turned all the way up. In the first room (about 15’ x 17’), I had modest output at 25 Hz, good output at 32 Hz, and a lot of output at 34 and 37 Hz. Most of the output of the subwoofer (in that room) was concentrated between the low 30s and high 40s. With the crossover set at 90 Hz, the subwoofer came in strong at about 70 Hz and below. There was some suckout at 50 Hz, which seemed room related and didn’t impact the sound with the music listening all too much.
I did some more setup with track 27 on The Ultimate Demonstration Disc by Chesky Records. This test is designed to test for bass resonance. Track 3, “Kick Your Game,” from TLC’s CrazySexyCool album was one of the discs I used to break-in the sub and also test for some fairly high power mid-bass output. Another disc I used was The Best of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Track 2, “Fantasy,” has a fairly repetitive bass line that is good for setting up subwoofer level. Once I felt I had the subwoofer dialed in, I listened critically.
An old favorite is track 6 from The Sheffield Drum and Track Record CD. I switched the Rotel processor to small front speakers, and let the preamplifier direct all the bass to the subwoofer. The sound was very impressive. The bass went deep and handled the high volume level extremely well. Control was good, without too much overhang, although there appeared to be a slight lag with some of the low bass. It may have just been an increase in output that drew my attention to it more than the rest of the bass range. A reduction in level on the subwoofer eliminated this feeling, but also detracted from a proper blend throughout the frequency range.
Another disc with pounding bass almost the entire way through is Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. I put on track 3, “In The Closet.” My impression was the subwoofer didn’t got quite as deep as with some of the much bigger subwoofers I’ve heard, although given the price the Axiom was hard to fault. I’m always willing to sacrifice a little depth for quality. Listen from 2:15 on and check out the quantity of bass.
To test the limits of output in the low frequency range I used two discs: the Telarc recording of the 1812 Overture (CD-80041), and DTS Sampler #4, the Sheryl Crow excerpt. I listened from 14:30 on with the first cut on the Telarc disc (the “1812” Overture—the other two tracks are something else). With the main speakers going it was hard to hear any distress in the woofer due to the volume of all the other upper range sounds. This was the case with the Sheryl Crow cut too. However, with the main amplifier turned off, I could clearly hear the woofer bottoming out severely on the 1812 cut, and occasionally with the Crow excerpt. Two walls of the room were shaking and vibrating with the classical piece. With the Sheryl Crow cut not only were three walls rattling, but also the equipment cabinet was making noise, and the ceiling was vibrating too. That’s some serious bass!!!
Listening Part IV – Complete surround system
When I finally got the system all together and balanced, I put on track 1, “Surround Madness v5.1.03” from Telarc’s 5.1 DTS Surround Sampler. My concerns about the size and design of the surround speakers were eliminated. I had the surrounds set for small size in the setup up for the surround processor, but with the subwoofer properly set up, I was not aware of any limitations in frequency range. To further hone in on their sound, I turned the front speakers off and listened solely to the back four speakers. Listening with four surround speakers is a different experience than with two. When images are meant to come from one side in the rear, often the image will be positioned between the surround and rear speaker much like a center image between the left and right speakers. The four speakers created an extended sense of space that completely filled the back of the listening room.
One of my favorite discs lately is the multichannel version of America’s Homecoming. On the first track, “Ventura Highway,” there is lot of voice and guitar in the back channels. The quality of the mix is excellent, and the guitar sound in the surrounds was great. The sound was more spread out than in the (software) review system used for this disc. The extra two speakers did not bother me, and I think that many would view it as an enhancement. This was the same with track 12, a “nearly unplugged” version of “Waiting For A Girl Like You” from the DVDA 4, by Foreigner. I was very satisfied with the surrounds even though at first they seemed a bit pricey for their size. As a whole, the system blended fairly well, although the surrounds seemed to have a bit more high frequency output than the center and the front speakers. Most people who purchase a system in pieces start with the front speakers and add the center and surrounds in the future. You would not want to get a different brand of center speaker under any circumstance, but I could see people adding the Axiom surround speakers to other systems. Ideally, you want a matched system, but we all know that not everyone has the budget or is otherwise inclined to do so (for space or aesthetic reasons often enough).
The Matrix Revolutions DVD is one of the many discs I listened to during my review time with the Axiom speaker system. There was a great sense of surround envelopment that is no doubt due to a proper mastering job. The Axiom system handily reproduced the effects and main action with no trouble. Even with high volume levels, I never felt the sound was irritating, harsh, or distracting. All in all, it made listening to the movie an easy experience even if watching it wasn’t!
Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets is a disc I can watch over and over, and in this case I used chapter 5—a scene in a book shop with many different characters speaking—to evaluate the center channel in the system. The quality of the voice is good and makes it easy to distinguish between different characters. Many of my comments about the sound of the front speakers (excepting the bass) also apply to the sound of the center. It matched well with the front speakers unlike some systems I’ve heard that have different sized speakers across the front. Power handling was good and the VP150 clearly had an advantage in this area over smaller-sized speakers.
I listened to a few different chapters of Woman On Top. A large content of the soundtrack includes well-recorded Brazilian jazz. It is a treat to listen to and the Axiom system did a good job of presenting it. I chose chapter 3 from Days of Thunder to listen to the blend between the front and rear speakers. The scene includes Cold Trickle (Tom Cruise) driving around a racetrack while sound goes all around the listener—no big complaints.
I was very excited to finally get my hands on an Axiom speaker system. The buzz on the Internet was huge, and it wasn’t like I could go to a local dealer or show and check them out. There are many tremendous values available in speakers these days with just as many dogs. Although Axiom has access to the same technical information related to psychoacoustics that other Canadian companies do, in many ways their designs are unique. A speaker system choice can be very personal, so auditioning is highly recommended. Being a mail order direct dealer, Axiom makes this possible by way of a 30-day money back guarantee—your only cost is the return freight.
Normally, when I think of buying an expensive product through mail order, I associate my purchase with a monetary savings in comparison to a locally available product, or the possibility of obtaining a better product for the same money. In the case of the Axiom speaker system, I could not establish this relationship. In my listening, I was very happy with the performance offered by the EP-350 subwoofer and the QS-4 surround speakers given their price, although there was no significant advantage in performance or price over similar products to which I compared them. The subwoofer offered bass capabilities that would compete favorably with high quality brands that have been around for years. The VP-150 center channel was well matched with the M60ti front speakers, but the compromise towards softened high frequencies give me some pause.
If you are looking for (front) speakers to mate well with a bright-sounding set of electronics or have an overly reverberant listening room, then the Axiom speakers will be a good match. For those looking for the most resolution their system has to offer, you might consider investigating some other speaker options as well.
– Brian Bloom