Real wood? Nope. Real wood veneer? Nope. Real good imitation of cherry wood rendered in vinyl and subtly blended inks? You got it!
Almost everyone who sees the Athena speakers goes through something like this. People love wood, but in its integral state it is not necessary for good sound. Mind you, wood that's been pulverized, glued, compressed, and prayed over as medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is a staple of the speaker-building industry. The Athena speakers contain no wood still bound together by lignin, but they do have lots of MDF -- and thank heavens. It's a vital part of these fine speakers.
Want to be a speaker engineer? The Athena line gives you the chance to mix and match speakers and subwoofers. For this review, I chose the S2/P2 combination. This means you buy a pair of S2 speakers and then purchase one or two of the P2 powered subwoofers. For symmetry and for stereo balance, I reviewed a two-subs system. The concept is complex in its design, but very easy to use -- the speaker and sub lock together to form, from appearances and in use, a single floorstanding speaker. Anyone who has fussed with a separate subwoofer and satellite speakers will appreciate the beauty of this system. However, the P2 can be used with lower-powered receivers and satellite speakers from other companies; the subs control panel allows setting cut off and level for any combination of satellites.
Both S2 speaker and P2 sub are built of MDF and covered with a single sheet of woody lookalike vinyl wrap. Having toured the API plant, I have seen just how precisely the cabinets are cut and folded -- a near-continuous piece of MDF is turned into the pieces of a speaker cabinet and then "veneered" in vinyl. The S2 features a convex front panel of molded black plastic that houses a 1" Teteron dome tweeter that crosses over to a 6.5" woofer at 2kHz; both drivers are magnetically shielded. The tweeter is a good example of how cost control and good engineering combine for performance: Teteron is a synthetic that has the acoustic properties of silk. Performance is up, costs down. The P2's control panel and bass port, both of which you can hide behind a black grille, give extra range to the 8" floor-firing, magnetically shielded woofer, which is powered by a 100W MOSFET amplifier with auto on/off circuitry. Quoted frequency response of the combination is 25Hz-20kHz, and sensitivity is 93dB/W/m.
The S2 and P2 come with what Athena calls speaker "rails." These are interlocking metal strips that provide both a physical and electrical connection between the speaker and subwoofer. When you use either the speaker or subwoofer independently, API provides a pair of plastic covers for the rails. When you dock the S2 on top of the P2, creating a speaker that measures 40"H x 9 1/2"W x 12 3/4"D and weighing 47 pounds, there are only two settings to worry about to blend the subwoofer with the main speaker. One is a switch labeled "S2/S3," which allows you to choose the speaker with which the subwoofer will be used, and the other is the volume control. If the matching Athena speakers are used, they are run full range, with the subwoofer filling in the very lowest bass. To use the P2 as a separate subwoofer with other speakers, you can control the roll-off frequency and volume. A neat package!
Listening to the S2 alone, which I did both in my home and at the National Research Council in Ottawa, taught me a great deal about sound and music. In our blind-listening tests, Doug, Marc, and I consistently rated the S2 above the other speakers in the test. It deserved the recognition, although I have to say that all the speakers we listened to were good. But I greatly enjoyed listening to the Athena combination at home. When I first received the speakers and subs, they required some break-in -- they seemed dry-sounding, even a little harsh. But the more I used them, the better they sounded. Once they were fully broken in, they provided pleasing two-channel sound with driving bass.
These speakers fall into a category of what I think of as surprise speakers. I have noticed that really good audio equipment has a big surprise factor. By that I mean you are playing a familiar piece of music and suddenly the sound startles you. It could be a fully detailed bass note, a clearly defined, delicately nuanced run of piano notes, or a silvery sheen to your favorite romantic-singers voice.
My first experience like this occurred while listening to one of my favorite CDs, Joe Hendersons Lush Life [Verve 314-511-779-2]. If you would like to fall in love quickly with the Athena speakers, play "Isfahan." I just threw the disc on one noon hour, expecting nothing special, but the S2/P2s suddenly leapt in to the surprise-speaker category. About two bars into the piece, the subwoofer came in with Christian McBrides bass to give the sax a rich musical foundation -- enough to make me pause and really lose myself in the performers artistry. Fascinated, and questioning my response to these two-piece boxes, I listened to Gary Peacocks December Poems [ECM 1-1119], a used LP I bought about a year ago. (Buy any ECM vinyl you can find; it features the label's usual exceptional recording quality plus the depth, musicality and detail of vinyl.) With the Athena combination, Peacock's bass viol has the power you would expect from good full-range speakers, and it maintained clarity and detail while providing great imaging. Garbareks sax wailed beautifully above Peacocks creative bass lines -- an advantage of the lack of any roll-off in the upper or lower registers.
I then played "The Hidden Camera" (Photek, aka Richard Parkes, Modus Operandi [Virgin Records QEDLP1 LC3098]), a drum-and-bass electronic piece that exploits the S2/P2 combination fully. The textures of electronic sounds are a big part of what makes "Camera" so compelling, and the Athenas frequency reach, up and down, gave me shivers with the forcefulness of the presentation and the speakers ability to display depth, which I never expected from either the speakers or the music.
But can the speakers maintain their composure and allure and represent the human voice with subtlety and a touch of magic? John Lee Hookers "Tupelo," from the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival (The Folk Lore of John Lee Hooker [Vee-Jay SR 1033]), provided the answer. Hooker talks, rather than sings, much of this piece, accompanied by his guitar and a rhythm section of acoustic bass and drums. It is a good test, along with Hookers guitar and rhythm section, of immediacy and the speakers ability to bring forward the delicacies of texture and intermingling of steel and voice. The Athenas succeeded beautifully with this piece: steel was steel, and Hookers voice drew me in -- just the way I would expect this story of natural catastrophe to do.
The S2/P2s give a great accounting the contrasts to be found on Lauryn Hills The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, [Ruffhouse/Columbia CK 69035]. Not only do the Athenas generate lots of excitement with the opening school bell and the great bass thump "Lost Ones" starts with, they also reveal the tenderness of Hills song for her daughter, "To Zion," and the memory trip of "Every Ghetto, Every City." TLCs "Kick Your Game," on their 1994 album CrazySexyCool [LaFace 26009] will give you a kick as well if the volume control is anywhere above about 20 percent of maximum. And one of my favorites, C+C Music Factorys Gonna Make You Sweat [Columbia CK 47093], sounds better through these speakers than through most others I have heard. The fact is, if you were ever tempted to dismiss the Athenas as just for the home-theater or headbanger crowds, you would miss the whole point of such versatile gear: These are visceral, tough speakers when called upon to be so, but they are also subtly musical and given to grace under any kind of musical pressure -- symphony hall or garage rock.
Do these speakers have any failings? If I had to find fault, I would say that I remained aware throughout most of my listening that I was listening to speakers. The Athenas did not consistently disappear the way some speakers do. But for $1125, they come closer to disappearing than anything else you are likely to find in this part of the store. What you are listening to is a speaker that attempts to provide $3000 performance in an $1125 package. But what makes these speakers so fascinating is that they often convince you they are $3000 speakers.
Even in that most difficult area of reproduction, the classical symphony orchestra these speakers succeed. The string section of the Chicago Symphony in Johann Strauss Jr.s "Vienna Blood" (Strauss Waltzes, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Orchestra, [RCA Victor Red Seal LSC-2500]) emerges with fullness and warmth, a surprise coming from speakers that can also thunder. At the same time, the tympani and bass drum in "Thunder and Lightning Polka" have great slam and texture. Sometimes theres nothing like a little boot in the bass! On the other hand, while the stereo separation of the orchestra was reasonable (percussion at the left, brass on the right), the imaging of the orchestra and the separation of the instruments was not as well done as I have heard -- with speakers costing three times as much. The coherence seemed less than it should be. The definition of the orchestral instruments was not enough to separate them out, as one would expect. The fullness and richness of the whole orchestra sound was there, but not the resolution and detail.
I thought at first that this was just my ears or the recording, but it also emerged when I listened to the Beethoven violin concerto. This CD, featuring violinist Hilary Hahn with David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony orchestra [Sony Classical SK 60584], is a fine disc, with its well-recorded orchestra and Hahns shimmering, fluid tone. The S2/P2s reproduced Hahns violin movingly, but the tutti passages did not emerge with their musical and tonal complexity perfectly intact. The orchestra came across more as a wall of sound -- there seemed to be a need for more air around the instruments. On the other hand, Paul Bleys solo piano on the vinyl version of Open, to love [ECM, 1023 ST] came across as forward, but with a natural, deep piano sound. And Myra Melfords piano on "Like Rain Whispers Mist" (Myra Melfords Crush, Dance Beyond the Color [Arabesque Recordings AJ0147]) was immediate and rich. The Athenas brought her piano and the cymbal to life, giving them the immediacy and impact they deserve.
At about the time I was testing the Athena speakers, I also had on hand the Reference 3A MM De Capo speakers. These are very fine speakers, with a coherent, natural sound. Some might say that the S2/P2 combo is not as refined a high-end product by comparison. It does not have the fancy finish of the De Capos, nor does it have the woven carbon woofer, nor the audiophile cachet that comes with Reference 3A. However, keep in mind that the De Capos cost more than twice as much as the S2/P2 combination.
In terms of sound, the two are very different, and here is where you realize the foolishness of trying to say one speaker is better than another. Both speakers provided me with a great deal of enjoyment, but for different reasons. The De Capos do not rock the way the Athena speakers do, but they present a more refined, more coherent sound. Their imaging is great. But I enjoyed the S2/P2s just as much on my personal enjoyment scale. Their sound grabs your attention in a way that the De Capos cannot, and their bass has some real drive to it. And despite these qualities, they never lose their good manners and become tiring.
I heard many of the same records and CDs with both these speakers. For example, Stuart Duncans fiddle on the Dolly Parton CD The Grass is Blue [Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-3900] comes through with full texture and presence on the De Capos. It still has great power to move you through the Athenas, but the real excitement starts when the whole band kicks in and Dolly Partons voice fills the room. Then the extra bass extension and the slightly forward sound of the S2/P2 rewards you greatly, and the whole experience becomes visceral and moving.
Similarly, I noted that the same thing applies to most of the other CDs and LPs I used for both reviews: the De Capos are accurate, musical, natural-sounding, while the Athenas are visceral and have an emotionally involving, musical bass -- no small achievement at their price point.
The Athena S2/P2 speaker system is very good and unquestionably the most versatile speaker system I have heard at its price. These speakers deserve all the accolades they receive for one very simple reason: the ratio of quality to price. They possess a distinctive sound, geared, I think, to the market for which they are designed. They keep their occasionally forward nature sufficiently in check for the two-channel purist to enjoy them, and they are musical while being pushy enough to be a lot of fun.
And when you can get all of this plus a set of 100W subwoofers complete with a red-green on-off diode on the front, you know why you are a music and stereo nut. And you also know it is your lucky day when you get to take home this set of sound motors for a reasonable price.
My friend, Dave, gave the Athena speakers the most impressive endorsement so far. One Saturday afternoon, we listened carefully to them, trying out jazz, rock, symphonies, electronica and even some bluegrass. The following day, I called Daves place only to find that he had just walked in the door with two sets of the S2 speakers. You just cant keep a good speaker in stock, I guess.
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