In the realm of high-end audio, performance often knocks hard at the door of diminishing returns, which is to say that the next marginal degree of satisfaction comes at much greater cost. Its not uncommon for the incremental step up from a $2500 monitor to cost in the neighborhood of $3500. The extra $1000, or 40%, usually takes the basic performance of the monitor and adds a modicum of bass. Rarely does it even extend bass to satisfying levels, though -- for that you will probably have to spend double, or an added 100% of the monitors price. And for truly earth-shaking subwoofer-like bass, you may have to spend double again. This skyrocketing of cost can get out of hand quickly, both in terms of dollars and expressed as a percentage -- unless you start with an overachieving budget speaker. In that case, the percentage may remain about the same, but the dollars involved can be quite reasonable.
Take, for instance, the Axiom Millennia M3Ti (since replaced by the newer, but sonically identical, M3Ti SE). Doug Schneider has written extensively for SoundStage! about what a great little speaker it is. And he's right -- I own a pair of M3Ti SEs. Without a doubt, the M3Ti SE is a shockingly good speaker. The M3Ti SE will outrun every other speaker Ive come across in its class without breaking a sweat. It will also clip at the heels of many speakers that sell for multiples of its $275 USD price.
Well, that brings me to the Axiom M22Ti SE. For $400, roughly 40% more than the cost of a pair of the M3Ti SEs, the M22Ti SE hovers just above that speaker in the Axiom lineup. Yes, 40% is still a steep increase in price on a percentage basis, but in dollars, we are talking about the paltry sum of another $125 for the pair. For less than the price of a pair of quality interconnects or speaker cables (either of which would not be out of place in a system including either the M3Ti SE or the M22Ti SE) the M22Ti SE takes the already high standard of performance of the M3Ti SE to the next level.
You pays more and you gets -- what?
The M22Ti SE is Axiom's top-of-the-line bookshelf speaker. At 19 3/4" x 6 1/2" x 8 1/2", it is roughly six inches taller than the M3Ti SE, and due to the M22Ti SEs use of dual 5.5" aluminum mid-woofers (the M3Ti SE uses a single 6.5" driver), the M22Ti SE is two inches more narrow too. Taller and slimmer may sound like a recipe for an unstable speaker, but the 14-pound M22Ti SE has a center of gravity that's low enough to make the speaker fairly stable. The M22Ti SE seems to share the same titanium tweeter with the M3Ti SE, and around back is the same corrugated bass port that Axiom is known for as well as a single pair of good-quality gold-plated five-way binding posts -- a rare find in this price class. The M22Ti SEs maintain the same cabinet geometry found in the rest of the Millennia line, with the front baffle being wider than the rear, which results in fewer parallel surfaces to cultivate internal standing waves.
On paper the M22Ti SE really doesnt get you much more than the M3Ti SE. Axiom specs the M22Ti SE as being 2dB more efficient, which is nothing to sneeze at if you are the owner of a low-powered amplifier or receiver. If Axioms ratings are accurate on a relative scale, the new M22Ti SE will get by with nearly half as many watts while being able to handle an additional 25, for a total of 200 watts. Both speakers are said to achieve the same 22kHz treble extension and are rated with the same bass performance: down to 50Hz. But theres more to a speaker than its rated frequency response. Much more.
The review pair of M22Ti SEs came in a black wood-grained vinyl. Though I detest the look of such speakers (even when the finish is of wood veneer), I couldnt help but to respect the job that Axiom did on these. Application of the vinyl was first-rate and the quality of that vinyl is the best Ive ever seen. Rather than a contact-paper type of gloss, the Axioms had a fine grain and a graphite-like luster about them.
Setup, sound and similarities
The Axiom M22Ti SEs were set on 24" stands with their front baffles 40" out into the room. The Axiom M22Ti is a tall speaker and will do better on 18" to 20" stands. In order to get my ears on the tweeters axis, I did most of my listening from my computer chair, which is several inches higher than the Ikea chair that I generally inhabit for listening. Once seated in the taller chair, I noticed a slightly more coherent overall sound with very little change in treble balance, so while matching seating height to the speakers height was important in achieving the best performance the speaker could muster, I would quickly add that the difference was not so great that the performance would suffer greatly in a more casually arranged environment.
As good as the M3Ti SE is, the M22Ti SE is a more successful speaker design, and it has more musical potential than the M3Ti SE too. While both speakers share an exceptionally smooth and balanced character and treble quality that would seem to have no place in a speaker of their price class, what sets the M22Ti SE apart from the M3Ti SE and elevates it even higher from the pack is the midrange performance. First of all, the upper bass is more natural-sounding than the M3Ti SE's. The reason that the M3Ti SE sounds more solid in the bass is because it is tipped up, ever so slightly, in the upper bass. This makes the M3Ti SE sound bigger and more satisfying as a standalone monitor. This results in a situation where the M3Ti SE can sound just a touch congested in absolute terms, particularly on male vocals, where the M22Ti SE does not; it remains utterly clean and natural.
Moving up into and through the midrange, the M22Ti SE continues to ascend to a level of liquidity that the M3Ti SE cant quite match. I have to be careful not to step on the toes of the M3Ti SE; its a wonderful speaker in this regard. But the M22Ti SE has a more smoothly flowing nature about it in the midrange. By comparison, and only direct comparison, the M3Ti SE can sound a tiny bit grainy. The M22Ti SE does not, as should be the case for 40% more money. I also believe that the M22Ti SE's midrange performs a more successful segue into the treble, resulting in a slightly more seamless and coherent presentation.
To be sure, we are talking about a relatively small degree of improvement here, but a musically significant one all the same. This is the same type of incremental improvement you can achieve via a carefully chosen electronics upgrade. Changing CD players wont achieve such an upgrade in sound unless you are moving from the very bottom of the bargain-basement-special category to the top product from a high-end manufacturer. Upgrading preamps can do it, but at a substantially higher price than moving up the Axiom line to the M22Ti SE. Ditto for upgrading power amplifiers.
As far as bass goes, theres not a whole lot to tell. With bass extension to 50Hz or so, the M22Ti SE just makes it into what I would call acceptable bass response, and it greatly reminds me of the $2450 Tyler Acoustics Taylo Reference Monitor. You will not feel the full power of the bass drum, you will miss most of what it is that excites people about pipe organs, and you can forget all about Tchaikovskys digitally recorded canons. But what you will get is acceptable and naturally rendered bass guitars, and psychoacoustics being what they are, even the reproduction of bass drums will sound surprisingly full and natural. With proper in-room placement of the speakers (admittedly, my placement made little use of bass-reinforcing room boundaries), the bass remains smooth and completely natural all the way up to the midrange. Ive already mentioned that there is no midbass hump, which is common to many small speakers, and the bass joins the lower midrange in a nicely seamless way. "Gipsy" from Jesse Cooks Gravity [Narada ND-63037] did, however, sound surprisingly full down low. Whatever it is that creates the bass percussion (they may well be foot-stomps on the floor) sounded more than acceptably powerful, and the bass lines from Cooks Spanish guitar were warm and appropriately powerful. "Losiaida" from Joe Jacksons Body And Soul [A&M CD-5000] offered up a superb rendition of Graham Mabys bass.
Earlier I spoke of the increased musical potential of the M22Ti SE. What I was referring to, in part, was the speakers ability to mate seamlessly with a good subwoofer for excellent full-range sound. That natural upper-bass response will more easily blend with a subwoofer, leaving only a smooth and natural bass line. Additionally, the M22Ti SE will take advantage of better electronics in a way that the M3Ti SE wont quite manage due to its more refined nature, which will allow it to step out of the way rather than imposing its sonic signature on the music. Of course, all speakers have their own sound, but the M22Ti SE is more transparent and less colored than any speaker I know of that sells for less than $1000 -- and less so than a lot of speakers that sell for more.
From the lower-midrange up through the vocal region, the M22Ti SE will rival the vast majority of speakers in terms of detail, transparency and neutrality. Notice I didnt say anything about budget speakers; forget about cost for a moment. Through this region, these speakers really are that good. Im talking about the kind of performance that people take for granted in $3000 monitors. The M22Ti SEs just about nail James Taylor on his Hourglass CD [Columbia CK 67912], which Ive been listening to almost continually over the course of the last year and on systems, including my own, with street prices in excess of $18k. I did notice that the M22Ti SEs take a few years of resonance off of Neil Youngs voice on his Unplugged CD [Reprise 9 45310-2], making him sound more like he did in his earlier days, during which his voice lacked some of todays resonance and was somewhat smoother (more youthful?).
Moving up through the midrange, things get just a little thin and a little hard before about 100 hours of break-in after which things were better fleshed out, considerably smoothed and quite musically resolving. You wont exactly be luxuriating in the strings from Tchaikovskys Symphony No. 6 in B minor, "Pathetique" from Rostropovich Return to Russia [Sony SK 45836]. But keep in mind that Im talking about a $400 pair of speakers here. The string sections may not sound as lush as they would played over more expensive speakers, but neither will they send you to the medicine cabinet for the aspirin, as budget speakers with sharp edged and screechy highs will. Its almost ludicrous to be talking such minutia with regard to such inexpensive speakers! But after my assessment of the M22Ti SEs bass capabilities was complete, the bulk of my listening was with one of either the ACI Titan or Axioms EP 125 subwoofer. I still wanted the subterranean depths.
The treble region is where these speakers get insanely good again -- the single greatest defining characteristic of the M22Ti SE is probably found here. Sure, the midrange is excellent, but itll take an experienced pair of ears to tell you just exactly how excellent it is (or even to tell you where they deviate from perfection). But its the treble where even novice ears will hear how pleasingly and naturally balanced the speaker is -- how smooth, extended, airy and unfailingly enjoyable the treble is. The M22Ti SE may not have the complete detail and delicacy of that very good $3000 monitor, but it is every bit as comfortable over long listening sessions, and every bit as well balanced.
The treble integration and balance are two areas in which the M22Ti SE will downright embarrass the majority of speakers available. Particularly among budget speakers, its the hard, bright and spitty treble that's the deal breaker as far as Im concerned. Though some offer treble performance that is good for the price, the Axioms just offer good treble performance, period. It is balanced just to the forward side of absolute neutral (that is right in step with the upper midrange), which lends the speakers a very open and somewhat exciting sound without overdoing it. Somewhat odd in my experience is that it is in the treble where you first hear signs of the speaker approaching its dynamic limits. When pushed too hard, the treble can get a little white-noisy and can lose some of its composure. I noticed that when pushed, the brass section of Joe Jacksons "Loisaida" could get somewhat irritating as it took on a bit of a sharp edge. I suppose that this is why Axiom uses dual tweeters for its larger floorstanding speakers. In any case, this is still performance well within expectations of a speaker in this class and it was the only thing that the M22Ti SEs ever did to irritate.
Imaging was very, very good. Center images were nice and solid, just lacking the extra focus that more expensive speakers can, but dont always, deliver. Lateral imaging was equally good, if not a little better, and the M22Ti SE threw a surprisingly tall image. In my room, performers regularly appeared to the outside of both speakers. The speakers easily passed my test track: "Look Out For My Love" from the Neil Young CD. The M22Ti SEs successfully positioned all the guitars in a straight line across the stage, two of which were situated behind and outside of the left speaker.
Soundstage depth was very good too, although it took me a little time to make the observation. The one thing that I just couldnt get the M22Ti SEs to do was give me some real layering of images. Eventually I noticed that the front of the stage appeared to be considerably behind the plane of the speakers; it just lacked the 3-D nature of my reference speaker's soundstage.
What we have in the M22Ti SE is a beautifully tuned speaker with an enormously clean and musical midrange combined with a smooth, coherent and friendly treble. Combine this speaker with a powered subwoofer in either a two-channel music system or a multichannel home-theater system and you have one heck of a full-range system for a previously unheard-of price.
If you are the kind of audiophile who sits in the dark in the perfectly situated chair listening to meticulously positioned speakers with eyes closed listening for every available nuance that can be squeezed from your system, you can do better than the Axiom M22Ti SE -- but its gonna cost you. However, if you listen for the enjoyment of the music, as the other 99.9% of the population does, you just may be crazy for paying more than for a pair of Axioms. And the Axiom M22Ti SE need not be restricted to entry-level systems. I can envision the Axioms being paired with electronics many times their price, either as an interim solution or as a final selection. But be warned: if you use a pair of M22Ti SEs while saving for your dream speakers, you are going to have a very hard time justifying the added expense when the time comes to move up -- you may already be there.
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