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August 1, 2002

 

Axiom Audio Epic Grand Master Home-Theater Speaker System

If there's any real difference between the world of audio when I was a pup and now, it would have to be in the realm of affordable loudspeakers. In the old days, if you had a good ear, but not much money, you were almost forced to build your own speakers. Besides, even the best speakers you could buy were horribly colored compared to live music.

These days, you'd have to go out of your way to hear a really bad-sounding loudspeaker (or else duck into one of those single-brand stores at the mall whose brand name rhymes with "no highs, no lows"). Plus, you'd be hard-pressed to buy the raw drivers for as little as some companies are selling their fully assembled loudspeakers.

And that's a good thing, too, when it comes to home theater. Now we're talking about, not two, but five loudspeakers -- plus a subwoofer. Of course, in the early days of HT, some of the mass-market manufacturers decided that most people were going to try to pay the same amount for the whole HT speaker system that they would have previously dedicated to a stereo pair, so those companies flooded the market with "complete" speaker systems that sounded like five transistor radios, with a table radio for the bass.

These cynically marketed underachievers probably did more to turn people off home theater than Jack Valenti has in his whole career.

Fortunately, there are also a lot of audio manufacturers that take pride in what they do. Even better, there are a few that take great pride in surpassing your expectations, overwhelming you with the quality and affordability of their offerings. Axiom Audio, for example.

Axiom offers its Epic Grand Master home-theater speaker system -- that's right: front left and right channels, a center speaker, two surrounds, and a subwoofer -- for the barely credible price of $1510 (and the system price even discounts Axiom's already more-than-reasonable individual speaker prices)!

But there's more. It's scary good.

We carry within us the wonders we seek without us

Axiom, based in Dwight, Ontario, has been around almost 20 years. The firm's founder, Ian Colquhoun, is best known for his pioneering work on loudspeaker design at Canada's National Research Council lab under the direction of Dr. Floyd Toole. There's now an entire generation of Canadian speaker designers who have come of age using the NRC, but Colquhoun was there at the creation. Axiom, unlike some of the huge Canadian speaker builders, however, has remained low-key -- some might actually say invisible. But thanks to the Internet and a growing collection of rave reviews, the company is becoming better known among discerning audiophiles and home-theater buffs. Axiom now manufactures almost 20 models, as well as a lineup of audio and speaker stands.

The Epic Grand Master system consists of a pair of Millennia M22Ti SE stand-mounted two-way loudspeakers ($400/pair), a VP100 center-channel speaker ($220/ea), a pair of QS8 "quadpolar" surrounds ($470/pair), and an EP175 self-powered subwoofer ($500/ea). The system's individual components all share certain attributes, so we'll discuss those details before describing the specific speakers themselves.

All of the Epic Grand Master speakers employ 1" titanium tweeters and 5.5" aluminum midrange/woofers (actually, the EP175 has neither, boasting a 10" aluminum driver instead). Metal drivers are used because they are intrinsically rigid while remaining light, and therefore capable of moving quickly and uniformly. Titanium offers the added advantage of rapid heat dissipation, so it’s a fine material for tweeters, which build up a lot of heat as they vibrate at high frequencies. All of the speakers have magnetic shielding, so they can be placed close to your television monitor without distorting its image or color values. All of the speaker cabinets are constructed so their side walls are not parallel to one another -- Axiom calls this "Anti-Standing-Wave" construction because (all together now) it minimizes internal standing waves. They all have gold-plated five-way binding posts. They are all clad in functional, but certainly far-from-sumptuous, vinyl veneer (available in black oak, maple, and cherry).

The M22Tis and EP175 also share "Vortex porting," which is a plastic collar that smoothes the air flow at the port entrances. This certainly seems effective, as I never heard any port chuffing, even at high volume levels, but I have to say that the Vortex ports have a disturbingly puckered, organic look to them. Good thing they're out of sight on the rear of the 22s and under the subwoofer's grille.

The Millennia M22Tis are tall (19.7"H by 7.7"W by 8.5"D) stand-mounted two-way, three-driver loudspeakers. Each sports a single 1" tweeter and two of the 5.5" midrange/woofers. The speaker's side walls taper back from the broad front panel to a narrower rear panel -- seen from above, it resembles a truncated wedge.

The VP100 is built to rest on either of its wide panels and sports two of the 5.5" midrange/woofers with a single 1" tweeter resting between them. The implementation of the "Anti-Standing-Wave" cabinet asymmetry is particularly clever -- while one of the wide panels is at right angles to the face and rear panel, the other rakes back from the 7.5" front panel toward the 6" rear panel. This not only minimizes internal cabinet standing waves, it offers two distinct mounting options. Set the speaker on the surface at right angles to the front and rear and it fires straight ahead; set it on the raked surface and the speaker's face slants upward -- perfect for mounting beneath a monitor or screen aimed at ear height.

The QS8s aren't just clever, they're brilliant. They are designed to be wall-mounted (hardware is included) or stand-mounted on their dedicated stands ($139/pair). The QS8 is an oddly shaped box -- seen from above it resembles a rectangle with two diagonally opposing corners lopped off. The two tweeters reside in those sloping walls -- one firing toward the front of the room, the other firing toward the rear. Set into the top and bottom of the speaker (see why you can't just set them on top of something?) are the 5.5" drivers. Think about it -- you've got four drivers firing in four different directions. That's about as diffuse as surrounds get.

Additionally, these l'il guys (8.25" by 11" by 6") feel like bricks -- at 11 pounds each, they weigh almost as much as the much larger M22Tis.

The EP175 has a 10" aluminum driver and an internal 175W amplifier. It comes with all the standard amenities: variable low-pass filter, a variable phase switch, level control, and line-level input.

Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe

As impressive as the Epic Grand Master system sounds, I was initially a tad dubious about how much enjoyment it was going to offer, following, as it did, on the heels of the Thiel PowerPoints, which cost $1300 each, and the superb Polk LSi15-based system, which costs about twice as much as the Axioms.

And, I must confess, the transition was not a painless one. The Axioms definitely have a break-in period during which the tweeter seems quite rough and the woofers seem decidedly lightweight. But over time that began to change, and it wasn't long before I began to notice how much I was enjoying films and music through the system.

That pleasure was every bit as great as with the two preceding systems, although, of course, the sound was not identical. The Polk system was robust, full-bodied, and va-va-vivid. In comparison, the Epic Grand Master system was leaner and less Technicolor. Some listeners may find this a more accurate sound -- I myself am not sure that's the case. It's just a different take on reality, sort of like the difference between two film stocks -- Agfa's reds might be deeper than Kodak's, but the relative values across the full spectrum remain the same. Both look (sound) real, but they don't look (sound) the same.

Keeping in mind that I used the Polk LSi7s rather than Polk's dipole surrounds, the Axiom QS8s actually did a better job of presenting a diffuse, all-encompassing surround field.

The differences between the Thiel PowerPoint system and the Epic Grand Master system were less dramatic. The Thiels are hard to beat when it comes to enveloping a listener in a seamless surround environment, but the Axioms come awfully close. As with the Polks, the Thiels seemed to have a richer tonal palette and a wider dynamic range, but it was a question of degree, not day and night.

I think the EP175 subwoofer requires a word of explanation. One result of the trend toward louder and more "exciting" soundtracks has been the dramatic increase in deep bass energy we have come to expect from them. Most subs sold these days are aimed solidly at the home-theater market and concentrate on delivering that extreme LF punch. The old audio ideal of a subwoofer unobtrusively adding spatial information to a recording without calling attention to itself seems to have fallen off the map.

The EP175, compared to many contemporary HT subs, seems a tad lightweight. Its 9dB down point is given as 22Hz, but I'm sure that's in the ideal room, in the single best position, and with a tail wind. I suspect 30Hz is more like it.

So, if dino footsteps are your thing, or Saturn V takeoffs, or underwater depth charges, you can buy more boom from another subwoofer. But you might be making a mistake.

The EP175 is fast and tuneful and very, very clean. If you take the time to set it up optimally with the M22Ti SEs, the results are astonishingly transparent and musical. That $900 speaker system will give you bass down 30Hz and a seamless, thrillingly musical soundstage. If your HT system has to perform double duty and play your music as well as your films, you could do a lot worse than the EP175. In fact, you'd have to spend a lot more money to do better.

No cure for this sort of madness, though a legacy from a rich relative [can] work wonders

Even in most films, you'll never feel at a loss with the EP175. I watched Black Hawk Down, for instance, and never thought the helicopters or RPG explosions lacked body. This is a relentlessly loud movie, filled with every variety of ordinance, explosion, and environmental effect imaginable and the Epic Grand Master hammered me repeatedly with realistically overwhelming sound. But it wasn't simply loud, it was real.

The Last Waltz was quite simply gorgeous -- not merely the László Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond cinematography, which is luscious, but musically as well. The Axioms are musical superstars and I thrilled to Muddy Waters' searing "Mannish Boy" and Dylan's cocky "Baby Let Me Follow You Down." One of the daffiest moments in rock'n'roll history has to be Neil Young turning in a sensitive, sublimely beautiful "Helpless," sporting a cocaine booger that looked big enough to eat the stage.

The front line of the M22Tis and VP100 was seamless in its presentation of primary sound material. The VP100's woofer/tweeter/woofer layout was responsible for some mild lobing if I changed position from one side of the room to the other, but mild is the keyword -- I've certainly heard worse from far more expensive center-channels. The VP100 was articulate and clear and delivered dialogue comprehensibly, even when layered with other conversations, as in the new release of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or surrounded by ordinance, as in Black Hawk Down.

But mamma! The QS8s are astonishing. Period. No qualifiers are needed -- not for the money or of their type or considering. I have simply never had a surround speaker that better lived up to the surround paradigm. In fact, the QS8s did such a full-bodied, completely immersive job of distributing Black Hawk Down's soundscape all around me, that I spent a certain portion of the movie keeping my head down in response to the metal I heard flying around.

For example, there's a great scene where Spc. Grimes (Ewan McGregor) asks Spc. Waddell (Ian Virgo) why he's not shooting back at the Somalis. "We're not being shot at yet!"

"How can you tell?"

"A hiss means it's close. If you hear a pop, then (bullets hiss over his head) -- now they're shooting at us!" I'd already hit the deck -- I wasn't taking any chances!

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard . . .

The entire Axiom Epic Grand Master home-theater speaker system is extremely impressive. At a price-point that most companies would consider entry level, Axiom has delivered a system that lets you experience the full-bodied sound and subtle nuances that only well-to-do home-theater buffs used to be privy to.

Compared to cost-no-object speaker systems, the Epic Grand Master actually acquits itself pretty well. The M22Tis may lack that effortless sweetness of the truly expensive soft-dome tweeters used in the top-tier offerings, but they also have a frank tell-it-like-it-is honesty that may be more accurate.

And compared to expensive, more powerful, HT-designed subwoofers, the EP175 may lack a little heft and slam. But its musical performance -- as opposed to special-effects delivery -- is exemplary. If I had to make a choice, I know which way I'd go.

But as ready as it is to be compared with the best systems available, the Axiom Epic Grand Master is not a cost-no-object speaker system. It costs a smidge over $1500 -- and that's almost miraculous. If you're looking for a sound system at any price, you should hear the Epic Grand Master before you audition anything that costs more. You might be able to buy a much bigger television than you've been budgeting for.

Ain't the modern world wonderful?

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhometheater.com

Axiom Audio Epic Grand Master Home-Theater Speaker System
Price: $1510 USD (system price)
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Axiom Audio
Highway #60
Dwight, ON, Canada P0A 1H0
Phone: (705) 635-2222
Fax: (705) 635-1972

Website: www.axiomaudio.com 


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