Axiom Audio Millennia M80Ti Loudspeakers
by Jason Thorpe
Ever listen to a pair of $10,000 USD speakers that are each about the same size as a six-pack of beer? Maybe youve thought about buying a pair. Perhaps you own a pair, but hide them from your non-audiophile friends for fear of the weird looks youll get if you tell them the price. Or just maybe the idea of two boxes that small costing that much is as foreign to you as the concept of, say, $10,000 speaker cables.
OK, then. How much should you spend on a pair of boxes that dont even take up one cubic foot? Well, I ask you, why bother with something that small and prissy to begin with? What if I told you that you could have a pair of full-range, well-built, good-sounding, man-sized speakers for roughly one-tenth that sum? You can. Theyre called the Axiom Millennia M80Ti.
Nobody can eat 50 eggs
The Axiom Millennia M80Ti is a rather imposing speaker. It measures 40"H by 9 1/4"W x 17"D, weighs 55 pounds, is beautifully finished and is the top-of-the-line offering from Axiom, yet another Canadian speaker company.
How on earth can Axiom build a speaker like this and sell it for $1100? As I circled the speaker, touching the various parts, I noticed a ton of attention to detail. The finish is flawless. Sure its vinyl (black wood grain on my samples, with maple and cherry also available), but theres no evidence of a joint anywhere -- even at the edges. The vinyl is smooth and wrinkle-free, and it invites a caress. The binding posts are solid brass. Ive seen much more expensive speakers using the plastic-nut variety. And the speakers are set up for biwiring too. The cabinet sides are non-parallel, to help reduce standing waves, and the front vertical edges are chamfered. The cabinet material is non-resonant MDF, instead of much cheaper clapboard that rings like tympani. The accessories that come with the Axioms are quite complete: a plastic wrench to tighten the binding posts, and both spikes and rubber feet.
And man-oh-man, are there ever a lot of drivers in each cabinet: two -- count em -- titanium dome tweeters, two 5.25" mids and two 6.5" woofers in all. This increases power handling, which enables the speaker to both play loud and add to the fiscal responsibility that theyll bring to the prospective purchaser. Axiom claims 98dB in-room sensitivity, which means that theyll get it up with very few watts. But they also handle large amounts of power, which I confirmed by cranking the living daylights out of them via remote control from another room. Frightening levels of sound pressure ensued, which points to the M80Tis as being a good choice for a large room. Quoted frequency response is 28Hz to 22kHz.
The mids and woofers are of the metal-cone variety, which youd think would drive the price up. But Axiom is a pretty large concern, as they make OEM speakers for lots of companies, and thus they have an economy of scale behind them. They build and veneer their own boxes, and they manufacture their own drivers, which helps keep prices down. I unscrewed one of the midrange drivers and its certainly substantial. It has a huge magnet thats almost the same diameter as the cone. The cavity behind the driver is sealed off from the rest of the cabinet and is tightly packed with polyester stuffing. The drivers are shielded too.
The M80Tis have three large ports -- one in front and two in back. These are corrugated, apparently to increase surface area, and are flared at each end to discourage chuffing. The appearance is somewhat disconcerting, as, to me at least, they resemble the port that one might find on the backside of a large gorilla. Things got even more disturbing as I watched my cat pulling out stuffing, reaching in up to his armpit like a jungle veterinarian. But the grille hides the front port, so odds are you wont lose sleep over it.
The general design philosophy of all the Axiom speakers follows the research that was done by Floyd Toole at Canada's National Research Council. I'm not going to get into this topic, as Doug Schneider has covered it in his reviews of the M3Ti and M40Ti speakers. However, the M80Ti differs from the M3Ti and M40Ti in some key areas. According to Ian Colquhoun, Axiom's president and chief designer, the goal is to provide a high-output, full-range loudspeaker with very low distortion that can meet the demands of home-theater enthusiasts and also serve music well. This appears to be the reason for the use of the many drivers and the much larger cabinet size than the smaller speakers in Axiom's lineup. In short, the output capabilities of this loudspeaker are much more substantial than others in the Axiom line.
Nuts and bolts
For the last two months Ive been moving the Axiom M80Ti speakers from room to room, trying them out with different combinations of amplifiers, CD players and cables. These have included, on the solid-state front, the Musical Fidelity A300 power amp and Talk Electronics Cyclone 1 integrated along with an old pre-Cyrus Mission integrated. Tube-wise, I plunked an old 5W tube integrated -- made by Monarch of Japan, if anyones interested -- into the mix, and I used the Axioms in my reference system too. The big rig consists of a Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp, EAR 509 monoblocks, Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature phono stage and Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz/Shiraz analog combo. Speakers for comparison were a pair of Hales Transcendence Fives.
As far as cables go, Ive had the Axioms hooked up to all manner of things, running the gamut from Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables and Matrix Reference interconnects to AudioQuest Quartz interconnects to good ol 18-gauge zip cord.
Tell me about the rabbits
These speakers need room to breathe, and getting them placed properly is very tricky. Im assuming that it's the multiple ports and high bass output that make them quite room sensitive, and the good off-axis response compounds this, making it hard to balance the rich bottom with the precise top. I ended up with the M80Tis 24" from the front wall and nine feet away from my listening position, four feet away from the side walls and with eight feet between the speakers. Any closer to the front wall and the bass became boomy, indistinct and overpowering. If I pulled the speakers out much further, the sound became spitty, bright and edgy. I get the feeling that my 15' by 19' by 8' room is about the smallest that will comfortably hold the M80Tis -- and indeed may even be a bit too small.
In terms of power, although the M80Tis are quite sensitive, their impedance dips down to 5 ohms, and the bass in particular seemed to be at its best with a meaty solid-state amp. Although the bass was respectably deep and tight with low-or high-powered tubes, it took on a hammer-fisted integrity with a powerhouse amp like the Musical Fidelity A300 -- more on this below. While this very sensitive speaker doesnt need 150Wpc, it most certainly doesnt mind it. But youll also be very happy with the bass via a 50Wpc integrated amp, so long as it's of good quality.
After I finally got the speakers set up appropriately, the first characteristic that (literally) jumped out at me was the microdynamics of these speakers. Small details that were buried deep in the mix were brought forward, transients had an effortless snap to them, and low-level detail was resolved in a manner reminiscent of a horn speaker.
I just cant get enough of Percy Jones fretless bass work on the Brand X LP Moroccan Roll [Charisma 921-1126]. Whereas many "lead" bassists attempt to impress first and accompany second, Jones has both qualities rolled firmly into a cohesive whole. Just listen to the snaps and pops that he evokes on "Malaga Virgen." The small inflections that show the brilliance of Jones playing were brought into relief by the Axioms, but not at the expense of the cohesive whole. Many other speakers tend to gloss over this subtlety, but via the Axioms, when the entire bands thrashing away, the images and overall sense of each instrument remained distinct from one another, and the soft-to-loud contrasts were handled with aplomb.
Down in the basement, the Axioms gave forth most abundant amounts of low frequencies. When properly sited, the M80Tis provided good definition of individual low notes, especially on older jazz albums where the bass tends to be a touch thin. A case in point is Blue Train by John Coltrane [Blue Note ST 46095]. Ive always found the bass on this LP to be somewhat lightweight. On the title cut, theres a driving sub-text played by trumpet and trombone. This line is played at a low level and is nearly obscured by Coltranes layered, merciless attack. To tell the truth, Ive always felt that it sounds a little lonely, trundling along all by itself. The added juiciness provided by the Axioms low end backed up the rest of the rhythm section, adding a bit of cement upon which the band could rest.
Although the M80Tis have tons of deep bass, they didnt quite reach the earths core, as I had first assumed they would. Based upon their low-bass performance, I was expecting the subsonic stuff to be dealt out in spleen-bursting quantities. My usual torture test for low bass is "Squonk" from Trick of the Tail by Genesis [ATCO CD 82668]. Theres some mid-20Hz synth on this track that tends to drive ported speakers berserk. The Axioms, understandably, couldnt reproduce this note. It must be below the port-tuning frequency and was completely absent. Anyway, this type of bass is very expensive to achieve and completely beyond the design parameters of the M80Tis. If you want 20Hz rumble, get a dedicated subwoofer.
But I just cant stress strongly enough just how much grunt these speakers have. Listening to "Rubber Shirt" from Zappas Sheik Yerbouti [Zappa Records SRZ-2-1501], I was almost literally blown away by the strength, integrity and depth of the bass and drums. There was little to no distortion of the low E note (or thereabouts) of the electric bass thats central to this track. And this was with an LP and no rumble filter, at lease-breaking levels. The low bass could have been a touch tighter, as the sharp start-stop attack that my reference Hales speakers define so effortlessly was missing, replaced instead by a bit of overhang. But hey, I still loved listening to -- no, make that bathing in -- the Axioms rich low end. That a speaker of this modest cost can produce this kind of bass is nothing short of startling.
This speaker is also quick on its feet. The fast snap of stringed instruments was especially well served. I guess that you could characterize the album Songs of Warriors and Kings that Al-haji Papa Bunko Susso made for Water Lily Acoustics [WLA AS 15] as African tribal music. This album consists of solo vocals accompanied by a stringed gourd-type thingy (no, I don't know its name). This LP is stunningly recorded and is exceptionally revealing of any soundstage anomalies. While much of the sense of depth portrayed by my Hales Transcendence Fives was missing, the lateral spread of images was, in some ways, better. On "Sherif Sidi," for instance, each string on the gourd-like instrument was given its own pinpoint location in space. The crystal-clear midrange contributed to the precision, stripping the tone of the instrument of any grain or fuzziness. This effect was almost hyper-real; I dont think the actual instrument is quite as large as it was portrayed. Nonetheless, its a neat trick thats quite musically satisfying.
But all was not perfect. At the top end of the midrange, I ran into some difficulties. There was a fairly narrow band in the upper midrange, bordering on the treble, that added a bright, metallic quality to female vocals. This brightness was also evident on alto sax and even the upper registers of the piano and tenor sax. It was conspicuous in its absence from acoustic guitar and cymbals, as well as the stringed gourd on the Papa Bunko album, which also shares some of the same frequency band.
I ran into a startling example of this trait when Zappa's "Rubber Shirt" ended and "Sheik Yerbouti Tango" began. Right off the bat, Zappa gets savage on the guitar in precisely the frequency range that was causing me grief. The volume was set really, REALLY loud, as I was grooving happily to the bass solo, and as the "Tango" started, I scrambled for the volume control while a thousand searing hornets dive-bombed my ears. The listening session ended for the evening right there, and I stomped off shaking my head.
All attempts at ameliorating this midrange peak were unsuccessful. I stacked cushions, moved furniture, and tried all manner of placement and amplification options, but I was unable to get it out of the system. The end result of this band of brightness was a sense of fatigue that made much of the music that I love somewhat difficult to listen to. But this quality is undoubtedly room-related to some degree, and for two reasons. First, another SoundStage! reviewer who is also evaluating the M80Tis in a home-theater system hasnt noticed this band of brightness. And second, the Hales also excited this upper-midrange region, albeit not to the same extent as the Axioms and only at high volumes. But there was definitely a sense of the reflected sound added to that coming directly from my reference speakers.
Next up, for a change of pace, was Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue [Reference Mastercuts RM1003 LP]. Boy oh boy is this ever a great record! While the upper octaves of solo piano on other albums could irritate the M80Tis' upper mids, this recording was as smooth as silk. The lateral spread of instruments across the soundstage was astonishingly vivid, each arrayed with precision across the soundstage. The highs in this piece displayed heaps of detail, but they refrained from any grain. The midrange had a see-through quality, and the highs, while clear and grain-free, were just a little tipped up for my taste, even on this delicate recording. While I wouldnt call the treble aggressive, (note that I didnt have any urge to stop listening), it was up-front and incisive, and it tended to bring out detail in a manner that isnt exactly kind to already bright recordings. But if you want to hear everything thats going on in a recording, the Axioms will show it to you, warts and all.
Contrast the above response to how I interpret the Gershwin piece through the Hales Transcendence Fives and youll have a definite idea of how the Axioms present music. In general, the M80Tis give forth music in a larger-than-life manner. A classier speaker like the Hales Transcendence Five doesnt need to resort to such antics. The bass is less full but still powerful and much tighter. The midrange is slightly recessed (in comparison), and the treble doesnt call attention to itself. Its like comparing an amusement park to the art gallery. With the Hales I dont sit there with my jaw hanging open, but I do get to relax and enjoy a more realistic, less forward presentation. Its a taste issue; if we all liked the same thing wed all be driving K-cars.
But -- and a big but -- were talking about a huge difference in price here, for speakers that are roughly the same size and with roughly the same claimed frequency response. The Hales T5s, when they were available, retailed for over $6000 per pair. For that money you could buy the M80Tis and a killer amp/CD player combo such as the Musical Fidelity A300/A3CD and still have lots of change left over for cables and software or a week in Miami Beach.
The Axiom Millennia M80Tis reach high. They have absolutely slamming bass thats deep and authoritative, crystalline midrange and treble, superb soundstaging, and outstanding microdynamics. Partner these with high build quality and sensitivity and you have an impressive full-range speaker for $1100. While they aren't perfect, lacking the ultimate in bass tightness and showing a bit of upper-midrange prominence, there were times I just couldnt believe that these speakers sell for their price. Id think to myself, "$3000 at least" and then shake my head in disbelief.
But before you take this recommendation immediately to heart and rush out and buy a pair, consider this: Dont expect to just plunk the M80Tis down and sit back to enjoy stellar sound. Youll need a large room with lots of space within which to maneuver these substantial towers and a good-quality amp in order to make the best of the M80Tis' bass. Placement especially is a make-or-break factor here, folks. But if you can afford the time and effort to work with these speakers, theyll reward you with sound and build quality that are far above their price point.
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