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A lot of my time spent with the M80s involved trying to answer the question, "what won't these speakers do that much more expensive speakers will?" When listening to the M80s, it can be an awfully difficult question to answer. The ear has a strong tendency to forgive what they don't do in favor of what they do so well - even when you make an effort to do otherwise. Sometimes substituting another speaker for the Axioms is the only way to bring such details to light.

Bringing in the excellent Gallo Ref 3.1s did shed some of that light. And things didn't always go as expected. For instance, the Axioms bettered the little Gallos in the area of bass depth and power. On both Green Day's American Idiot [Reprise 48777-2] and Bowling for Soup's Drunk Enough To Dance [Silvertone Records 01241-41819-2], the Axioms gave me an extra degree of bass foundation and power that better energized the room. Overall the perceptible articulation was slightly better with the Gallos but when it comes to rocking the house, the Axioms were the speaker to beat.

Through the midrange, there are small perceptible and important differences that are very real yet hard to describe. We're talking intangibles and an elevated level of sophistication. These are the traits that separate even the very good speakers from the great. Most often, they separate the fairly expensive from the very expensive. One of these areas is ultimate transparency. What really sets a great speaker apart from the Axioms is the feeling that there are no speakers in the room. I'm not talking about the ability of a speaker to sonically disappear, leaving the illusion of a soundstage behind. The Axioms do that very well.

I'm talking about the sense that there are no speakers in the room, just music. It's the sense that you're not listening to reproduced music but to the original performance. It's the awareness that what you are hearing is reproduced with such elegance and ease that one isn't cognizant of the system at all. Try as I might, I just couldn't forget that there were two speakers in my room.

But -- and this is a huge but -- that what separates the M80s from truly great (and much more expensive) speakers comes down to such an arcane characteristic, is truly amazing and a great tribute to the Axioms. Unlike every other speaker in its class with which I have experience, its not about what the M80s do that tips you off that they are not megabuck speakers. It's what they don't do.

With every other speaker in this class I've heard, you can instantly point to a brittle, excessive or muted treble; mushy bass; or a highly colored midrange (often all of the above) for a tip-off that you're listening to a large floorstanding speaker for less than $1,500. Not only do none of these traits exist here but even the experienced listener must get pretty esoteric to come up with something to criticize.

I know I'm going to get a lot of letters asking me to compare the M80s to the ACI Sapphire XL, a stand-mounted speaker at $1,500 a pair. The first thing you need to know is that the Sapphire now sells for $1,700 in its high-gloss finish. So while finish and solidity of construction goes to the ACI, the price consideration goes to the Axiom, particularly when you throw in the price of stands the XLs requires. The ACIs can't produce bass with the same degree of ease and heft of the Axioms though the ACIs are slightly more sophisticated throughout the mids and treble. The ball is back in the Axiom court with its easy 95dB rating, making the Axioms compatible with a much wider range of amplifiers.

The obvious conclusion is that for those on a budget, the Axiom M80 v2 is one heckuva find and a great inexpensive speaker. For a truly paltry sum of $1,300 (yes, only $1,300 - I've verified it twice now and still can't get over it), you get a pair of neutral towers with excellent bass, a clear and open midrange and a remarkably civilized treble that is neither too forward nor reticent. Throw in the kind of easy load that makes them an excellent match with a wide variety of tube and solid state amplifiers and the M80s may warrant this year's most universal recommendation.

The EPI600 subwoofer
I have no idea why Axiom consented to sending me the Epicenter EP600 subwoofer alongside the M80s. In my modestly sized room, I'm sure they knew that the M80 v2 wouldn't need the aid of such a monster subwoofer. Monster sub? Well, yes. The subwoofer is taller than the M80s, themselves not pint-sized speakers. At almost 45 inches tall, the 104 lbs subwoofer is 15 inches wide and 17 inches deep. It's one of the very largest subwoofers I've ever seen. Where currently produced subwoofers are concerned, I only know Thiel's SS4 to be larger - and that costs over five times what the Axiom does. The company rates the 600 down to 19Hz within 1.5dB. Anechoically. To 17Hz in-room. Relax the tolerance to +3/-9dB and you're talking 15Hz! In-room usable bass response to 15Hz from a subwoofer costing less than $2K, with 122 dB of output at an unspecified frequency via the included 600-watt amplifier? Well, I still have no idea why Axiom consented to send me one but I sure didn't want to miss out hearing it.

Construction wise, the Epicenter EP600 is very similar to the M80s. Both arrived in a matched vinyl Rosewood and the sub is of the same non-parallel trapezoidal geometry. About midway up the front of the sub is the 12-inch aluminum woofer with 3" voice coil, directly below that the largest bass port I've ever seen. The EP600 also comes configured such that you can set it up on end (as pictured) or on its side for floor placement. Just order the one you like. Around back is one of the more comprehensive subwoofer control panels I've seen. Axiom claims that their amplifier is unique in several respects.

First, the amplifier, while digital, utilizes an analog power supply. Digital amplifiers have long been used in subwoofers because of their efficiency. However, Axiom finds that digital amplifiers, once exhausted, sport very limited headroom and clip badly. Axiom claims that their digital amplifier with analog power supply produces an efficient amplifier with ample headroom. Axiom also turns to DSP technology to properly control and sharpen the 600's performance. Axiom's website is very short on explanation as to how their DSP works but claims that the chip provides a digital roadmap for the amp by which it monitors (and then corrects) various parameters of performance to control linearity and keep the EP600 performing within specification. As always, the proof is in the pudding.

If' you're looking to EQ your bass, the Axiom has you covered in a different though very useful way. In an effort to better mate LF response to differently sized rooms, it features a "trim adjustment". Those who inhabit smaller rooms know that that they can overload with deep bass. Owners of large rooms know that more energy is required to fully pressurize their spaces. They will want to set the trim adjustment to "flat" in which case the EP600 will strive to produce ruler-flat in-room response. Owners of
very small rooms will want to use the "full" setting, which boosts the signal above ca. 33 Hz relative to the lowest bass. This way you're assured of getting maximum impact from the mid-to-upper bass without overloading your room with infrasonics. Those with average rooms will check out the "half" setting. It boosts the same frequencies to a lesser extent. Even in my larger family room, I found "half" to work very well.

I earlier alluded to the fact that I was grateful that the M80s were full-range enough to not require a subwoofer. Here's what happened. Upon receipt of the Axiom system, I placed the speakers approximately where most speakers end up in my listening room. Almost immediately behind the right speaker went the EP600. Things proceeded fairly well throughout the initial listening session. Nothing was broken in and I had yet to achieve a good subwoofer/speaker transition but I heard enough to know that this was going to be one potent combo. Eventually I turned off the music.

Now ... have you ever heard the pounding pandemonium created by a washing machine in its spin-cycle when its load isn't equally distributed within? The machine will rock back and forth out of kilter and it's a fairly obnoxious affair. Well, upon silencing the music, that's what was went down in the house. The walls started shaking and everything hanging on them began to rattle violently. I shouted to my wife in the next room and closer than I to the laundry room, asking her what was happening. She yelled back: "It's probably that subwoofer!" I yelled back, "It's not the subwoofer!" I was certain it wasn't because it wasn't making any sounds. As I jumped up from my desk to run upstairs and see whether the girls were responsible, I happened to place
my hand on the EP600 as I passed by. Well, it was vibrating like hell. Horrors of horrors, I knew I was going to have to admit to my wife that she was right. It was the subwoofer.

Making a long story short, I came to realize -- and had it verified by Axiom -- that if the subwoofer is placed too close to the speakers without a signal running through the system, the speakers and the subwoofer become... um, bored. They start talking to each other. I'm not sure who starts the conversation but the speaker talks to the sub, which responds in kind. As with any feedback loop, voices raise and eventually, it becomes an extremely loud conversation at an extremely low frequency. This electronic feedback conversation was notable in that it occurred at so low a frequency as to be inaudible. But it was reproduced with enough raw power to rattle the hell out of my room. It was at this point that I knew this thing was going to be fun! But I was going to have to send the speakers and sub to neutral corners.

Unfortunately and in my modestly sized room, I was unable to separate either speaker from the subwoofer by more than three feet. Successfully employing the subwoofer in this room was not to be. Axiom reports that this is only an issue with the M80s and smaller models with less bass output don't interact in the same way. So things were about to get tougher on the EP600 for the next few months. How so?

In the family room, I decided to mate (as best I could) the extremely large EP600 with the tiny Gallo A'Diva micros. This should have been a very difficult task for the 600. Mating such a large and powerful sub with such a small and fast midrange driver could have been problematic. With the M80s, I likely wouldn't have asked the 600 to reproduce anything above 40Hz. But on the Gallos, I was going to ask it to do 95Hz and keep pace with the Gallos.

Remarkably, it worked. One of the 600's first tasks was to fill in the bottom two octaves on M. Knight Shyamalan's The Village. What makes this movie so cool is that even after you are hipped to Shyamalan's inevitable plot twist, it's the unbelievably effective musical score that keeps the viewer on edge no matter how many times you've seen the movie. And it's the music score that is such a wonderful test for the EPI 600. It was during the woods scene in particular that I really noticed the sense of power and ease conveyed by the 600. Numerous bass effects shook the room with little effect on the ears. This is in contrast to some smaller woofers that in order to achieve room-shaking power must be turned up to such an extent that when the walls are finally flexing, you feel as though your eardrums were imploding. No such thing with the Axiom. You don't have to overdo the bass just to ensure that it'll shake things up when it's supposed to.

If you'll forgive the excursion through video fanfare, there were two other movies I watched just to get a handle on the EP600. The lobby shootout scene from Matrix is always telling. It's a very complex point in the soundtrack that strives to achieve a balance between all the various forms of gunfire, the destruction of the lobby itself and the bass-rich musical score. As I'd discovered in the past, most subs can shake the room but many systems can't maintain the clarity of that music track. It gets lost in the mayhem. The M80/EP 600 combination maintained it superbly.

Another movie I tried was U-571 just to hear the depth charges. This movie also confirmed something that I first noticed on The Village. The EP600 has the ability to energize the room with dramatic effect without fatiguing
the ears. You feel the effects almost more than you hear them. This unburdens the ear of dealing with the bass drone some subwoofers produce. I'm not sure if the drone is due to distortion. In any case, the 600 is easier on the ears than a lot of smaller subwoofers and it telegraphs a sense of ease that lesser subs can't match.

Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD may be about guitars but one of the reasons I love it is because they didn't forget about the rest of the instruments. For instance, there are more guitarists than drummers because several of the drummers play with several of the artists/bands. What all the drummers have in common is that they are exceptional drummers of high energy. Ditto for the bass players. All the drums and basses are very well recorded and prominent in the mix. It's an excellent overall recording. For these reasons the DVD makes a great demo disc for evaluating bass performance of speakers and subwoofers. Take, for instance, Robert Cray's "Time Takes Two". Cray is one of the cleanest guitarists around. Between his immaculate playing, the crisp recording and the simple arrangement of the song, there's no place for a slow or sloppy bass line to hide.

(Note: if you have the DVD, don't miss the editing glitch where Cray starts the song with a Sunburst Stratocaster and finishes on a blue one!). Or check out David Hidalgo's "Neighborhood" and let that first strike at the kick drum plant you back in your seat! Eric Johnson's "Dessert Rose" will seal the deal on the EP600 if it hadn't already. All these cuts feature powerful bass lines immaculately presented without bloat, blur or overhang. For pure fun, try Eagle's Farewell 1 Tour and cue up "Dirty Laundry" with its overbearing synthetic bass lines and see what a big sub like the Axiom can do.

And don't be shy about crossing over whatever speakers you are using at 85Hz or so and let the EP600 carry the load. The larger your speakers, the more robustly they can produce down to 85Hz for a perfect hand-off to the EP600. This sub doesn't just play loud and deep bass effects, it plays music - and it doesn't break the bank to boot. I don't know what else one can expect in or around its meager price point or even for a lot more.

The Axiom EP600 subwoofer is a rare example of the subwoofer breed. It's big but it's quick. It goes really deep but maintains its musical integrity at higher frequency than most people will need it to go, meaning that it's equally at home in both music and home theater systems. Its only drawback is its size but hey, physics are physics. Sometimes there's no bucking the rules. I wish it didn't cost more than the M80 v2 loudspeakers but I'll not make a big deal about that lest Axiom raise the price of the speakers. In any case, at Axiom's asking price of $1,780, it's a bargain. And when combined with the M80s for stereo in a very large room or for home theater, it's an outright steal. On its own or as part of an Axiom system, the EP600 too gets an enthusiastic recommendation. When taken in its entirety -- features, performance and prixe --, I don't know if it even has any competition. If that isn't axiomatic, I don't know what is.
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