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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, RB1000 & Hadcock GH Export arms, Benz Micro MC Silver, Rega Super Elys & Garrott Bros Optim FGS Cartridges
Digital Source: Accustic Arts Drive 1/Audio Aero Prima SE DAC
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre2P
Power Amp: Art Audio Carissa, Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and Canary CA 160 monos
Speakers: Hørning Perikles, Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3, Ohm Acoustics Walsh 4 with 4.5 mk.2 upgrade
Cables: JPS Labs Superconductor and Superconductor FX interconnects and speaker wire, Furutech Digi Reference digital
Power Cords: ZCable Red & Black Lightning, JPS Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC and Kaptovator power cords
Powerline Conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Heavy Power Cord
Sundry Accessories: Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Ultra & ZCable Extra Heavy ZSleeves, Viablue QTC spikes under speakers, Auric Illuminator
Room Size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review Component Retail: M80v2 towers $1,300/pr | Epicenter EP600 subwoofer $1,780

I've been recommending Axiom speakers to the budget conscious for years now. I owned their little $320 M3Ti for several years and only recently sold them to a friend who begged. I reported on the $460/pr M22Ti for Soundstage! back in November of 2001 and not only was it an easy Reviewer's Choice recommendation but I remember that I compared its midrange performance with $3000 monitors, a statement that I stand by today. It was a small monitor with a just acceptable level of bass and a pretty good treble as long as one didn't push output levels. Push them too hard and the treble would start to break up. All in all, it was exceptional performance from such an inexpensive pair of monitors.

I spotted Axiom's M80 flagship loudspeaker quite some time ago and noted its dual tweeters. My first thought was that Axiom doubled up on the tweeters as to not stress them at high levels, insuring a smoother treble at higher playback levels. However, in the back of my mind I always wondered if a speaker of the M80's size could remain as clean and uncolored through the midrange as its smaller siblings. Popular convention holds that the larger the cabinet, the more internal bracing is required to avoid resonance-induced colorations. And convention continues that the more bracing, the higher the cost. If Axiom M80 could replicate the clean midrange of its smaller siblings, it could well be one special speaker. Last year Doug Schneider reviewed the speaker for Soundstage! and awarded it yet another Reviewer's Choice Award as well as an end-of-year award for special value. Because I'm always on the lookout for inexpensive speakers to recommend, I decided that this was a speaker I wanted to hear for myself.

Sensing an opportunity to scratch two itches at once, once I'd coerced Axiom Audio into sending me a pair of the M80s, I went for broke and asked them about pairing these full-range speakers with their gargantuan EP600 subwoofer. Axiom rates the EP600 subwoofer down to a staggeringly low 17Hz. If it was as good as the rest of the line -- and if indeed the M80's midrange compared favorably to the M22Ti -- the M80 plus EP600 could be a $3,080 combination that promised to not only rock your socks but your entire crib. And if all that wasn't enough, what made the combo even more interesting was the fact that the 4-ohm M80s are quoted as having an in-room efficiency of 95dB, making them compatible with most of the lower powered amplifiers reviewed in these pages, including my own 16-watt Art Audio Carissa.

Axiom Audio M80 v2
It's difficult to imagine calling any pair of $1,300/pr loudspeakers a flagship but these are indeed Axiom's top-of-the-line speakers. Standing 39.5" high, 9.25" wide and 17" deep, the M80 is a large speaker by Axiom's standards. However, in real terms, it's a medium sized floorstander. Weighing in at only 57 pounds, it's a lightweight in its class. The driver complement includes dual 1" titanium dome tweeters, dual 5.25" aluminum midrange cones and dual 6.5" aluminum woofers. Around back are dual sets of 5-way binding posts as well as dual bass ports. You even have dual options of footers - sharp metal cones and compliant rubber feet.

Without a doubt, the M80 is a lot of loudspeaker for the money. As there's no such thing as a free lunch, let's examine how that can be. First, Axiom loudspeakers are sold factory-direct in the US, shipped from Canada. No middle-man distributor, no dealer and none of their usual mark-ups either. Sold through conventional retail channels, the M80s would have to command a retail price of at least $3,000 just to assure everybody a piece of the pie. That said, in most performance parameters the M80 is fully competitive with most $3K floor-standers. And they'll stomp on a lot of them. Their secret? Well, it's no secret. Just forget about trophy craftsmanship. Forget about real wood veneers and
hand-rubbed finishes. Axiom's always been about great sound on the cheap. The MDF cabinets clad in a more than reasonably authentic-looking wood-grained vinyl save you a ton of money (I remember doing a double-take on my M3s which arrived in Light Maple that looked very real). About the only thing of note here is the fact that the M80 is constructed with few parallel surfaces. The speaker is wider at the front than the rear, making the side walls non-parallel. Minimizing parallel surfaces means minimizing standing waves from within the cabinet, which means minimizing colorations. And if you're on a budget and looking for full-range sound, that may be the M80's most important construction detail and one of the main reasons that the price-to-performance ratio of the M80 is nothing short of amazing.

The M80 is, hands-down and in my experience, the best and most complete loudspeaker in its class! I refer to the ca. $1,000/pr full-range floorstanding loudspeaker class but I'll add that I've never heard a monitor in its price class that I'd rather listen to. In and around the $1,000 price class, I've only encountered one other speaker I could live with - the Ohm Micro, another factory-direct offer. That's no coincidence. Selling through the usual retail channels just doesn't allow the manufacturer the budget to build a speaker like the M80 and keep the price so low.

In terms of quantity, the M80 plays loud. If it's not too judgmental a label to hang on them, the M80s are party speakers. Lots of output per watt, lots of bass, lots of fun. In terms of quality, the M80 are better than most non-audiophiles will have ever heard. People like to bash Bose and so do I. But when it comes to what inexperienced listeners expect, the 901 is a very satisfying speaker at first blush. Only upon extended listening do most listeners long for something more. But the 901 is a subjectively full-range experience, it too plays loudly and it seems to have deep bass. In fact, at this price level it's hard to recommend a speaker that surpasses the Bose 901 at what it does best. I'm not talking resolution here. I'm not talking about imaging or natural soundstaging, linearity or tonality. The things the Bose lacks, novice listeners don't know and don't care about. Yet. And they'll judge a bona fide little $1,500 monitor a fairly poor substitute due to its comparative lack of both bass and dynamics.

But the M80s easily meet the expectations of these buyers plus bring to the table all the other goodies as well - goodies which only the experienced audiophile knows to expect. And that's rare in this price range, let's face it. What I'm trying to say is that when all is factored in, the M80s are more speaker than most of these buyers can even imagine. They by far surpass expectations of the inexperienced buyer. Audiophiles are a different breed, however. They are much more finicky with much higher and often unrealistic expectations. They all want something for nothing. The question is, will the M80s appeal to these neurotics as well? You can bet on it. They offer a level of performance that I couldn't have anticipated at this price.

Right out of the box and in the middle of the Gallo Ref3.1 review, the M80s knocked me out with unbelievable bass depth and power. The midrange was just about everything I'd hoped it would be based on prior experience with Axiom's monitors. I was, however, immediately aware of the speaker's treble. I could hear the tweeters. While I was mildly disappointed, I was neither disillusioned nor surprised. A lot of speaker in this class exhibit somewhat compromised treble performance and if this was what the Axioms were going to bring to the table, overall I judged them good enough. I was, however, still in the middle of my Gallo review and the Axioms had to be sidelined for a while.

Upon completion of the Gallo write-up, the Axioms were returned to the room and driven at moderate levels for a few days while I was at work. With less than 20 hours on them, I settled in for another listen and was surprised to hear a complete lack of the aforementioned treble prominence. As a matter of fact, not only were the speakers not bright, edgy or sibilant, they were downright smooth and civilized. Much smoother, balanced and linear than what I recalled even from the M22Ti. For the duration of the M80s' stay, their treble performance was judged exceptional in its class and very good by any measure - smooth, fairly refined and properly extended.

It took only a very few more hours for the midrange to reach its full potential. I was playing the Brian Setzer Orchestra's self-titled CD [Hollywood Records HR 61565-2] and puttering around when the sound summoned me to come take a seat. "September Skies" and "There's A Rainbow On My Shoulder" both served up Setzer's voice as though on black velvet - smooth and with excellent contrast as it stood out against the acoustic backdrop. Frankly, I was a little taken aback by both their transparency and intimacy. I wasn't aware that either the recording or the speakers were that good. The brass section of this big band orchestra impressed me with blare, blat and microdynamic expression commensurate with speakers of a much higher pedigree. And the bass? Throughout the bass, the M80s were almost unbelievable. Actually, the M80s remind me of the firecracker that bears their name. Axiom rates the M80's frequency response as +/- 3dB from 34Hz to 22kHz, with usable bass down to 25Hz. Particularly through the bass, the speakers sound explosive. These are not speakers that beg the question "who stole da basz?"

When I first approached Axiom over the prospect of pairing the M80 v2 with their EP600 subwoofer, I was thinking that as low as the M80 would go, surely it would blend very well with the huge subwoofer ensuring not only a good match -- a seamless blend between speaker and sub -- but also a very robust full-range reproduction of any music I might throw at the system.

What I didn't expect was a speaker completely without need for a subwoofer. I'll get to exactly why this was such a blessing in my discussion of the subwoofer proper but for now let's just say that in my modest room, the M80s provided all the bass extension and weight that I could comfortably handle. These speakers pack a punch! And they deliver it with a remarkable degree of flair.

I'm not much for pipe organ so when I'm looking to test real-world bass response, one of the CDs I routinely go to is GRP's Live In Session [GRP-D-9532]. It's a live studio recording featuring the likes of Dave Grusin, Abe Laboriel and the label's all-star band. "Oasis", "The Rit Variations" and "Rio Funk" are boisterous jazz tunes that feature a close-miked perspective on Carlos Vega's drum kit. With the right system and when reproduced at realistic volumes, the bass drum and floor toms have in-room presence and that's exactly what the overachieving Axioms produced in my room. Excellent bass definition coupled with heretofore unexpected impact, power and panache, all from extremely inexpensive and modestly sized floorstander. Of course, the speakers were not at a loss when it came to providing Laboriel's soulful bass lines, either. These speakers can articulate the tunes and tones down low, not just the mayhem. And Grusin's keyboards? Ritenour's guitars? Just spin "Mountain Dance" or "St. Elsewhere" and listen for both the clarity and balance of Grusin's piano; and "Dolphin Dreams" or "Rit Variations" for a rare insight on the combination of speed, dexterity and emotion that Ritenour brings to the electric guitar. Once you cue up Diane Schuur's "Reverend Lee", you can't help but notice the clarity and expression in her voice. It's an Axiom trademark. Even the least expensive Axiom speakers are exceptionally well versed throughout the vocal range.

What impressed me further were the sharply defined soundstage and imaging cast by the M80s. I will say that I seemed to have to work just a little harder to achieve what I did through them but my quest paid off. Like any full-range speaker with healthy bass capability, you will have to work with room positioning before you achieve that top-to-bottom balance along with a smooth and flowing lower-bass/upper-midrange transition that doesn't infringe on midrange clarity. When you muck up the midrange by positioning the speakers such that the lower midrange is out of balance, everything gets clouded. But a little persistence not only achieved what I was hoping for, it surpassed it. When you get everything right, you are rewarded by a large and open soundstage with outstanding image delineation. If you're looking for a justification to pass by the Axioms and spend much more money, I do suppose you can look to front-to-back depth. The Axioms are much closer to performing commensurately within their class in this particular regard. It's not that there's no front-to-back perspective, it's just not as easily perceptible. It's not as well layered. I'm not sure that this alone would be justification for most people to pass the Axioms by. In fact, I suspect not.