This is a review. Review readers beware! Never forget that all reviews are subjective, including this one. Reviewers can tart up assessments with lots of adjectives and rhetorical devices and refer to measurements they've done, but strip away the verbiage, and tech-speak, and the reader is left with this: that a reviewer, listening to selected music in a specific room with particular associated equipment, liked or didn't like all or part of the reviewed component.
But, that residue - an opinion, a subjective assessment - can be more or less valid to individual readers if they are fully aware of the general drift of a reviewer's preferences. And the result can be most useful. If, for example, he has shown in other reviews that he likes the kinds of things the reader likes, comments of such a reviewer can be helpful in terms of making critical purchasing decisions, especially in this era when it's getting harder to get equipment demonstrations.
Indeed, for this reason, such subjective assessments can be more helpful to non-technical readers (and non-technical audio buyers) than a confirmation of specs through reviewer measurements. Why? Specs help point readers toward, or away from, certain products, but ultimately non-technical readers, and more importantly audio users, need to know not what a component does on an oscilloscope, but if they will enjoy it, and, therefore, might be worth purchasing.
I firmly believe, the most important measure is how much a listener likes what he hears. If an ancient boom box gives him the sound he loves, then that ancient boom box is perfect - perfect for him. That's the bottom line, all that really counts. Specs are guides, not the final determining factor.
Because I'm an audiophile, I do read specs carefully, as guides. But as I have gone up the scale of high end, I also have found that sometimes even outstanding specs don't always mean a piece of gear with great specs is enjoyable to me. Sennheiser HD800 headphones, for example, which I bought, have outstanding specs and received many rave reviews. But to my ear, while they were very accurate, and technically superb, they were not enjoyable. I gave them to someone who would use them. I continue to find other less expensive headphones that are significantly more enjoyable - to me.
By enjoyable I mean making the music does what is supposed to do - attracts me, makes itself appealing, makes me stop, listen. Moves me. The Sennheisers didn't do that for me, they were correct, but cold and analytical. Like an English teacher I once had who really knew his stuff, but was a lousy teacher. He, too, was correct, but cold and analytical; not someone a student could come to like, let alone love.
I emphasize that what I enjoy, others might detest. What I like in my room, with my equipment, might be found wanting by other listeners - even those with tastes that are similar to mine - in their rooms and with different equipment. To the degree that this review might be a guide to their own possible purchase of the M80s, I ask that they remember how, like all other reviews they read, this one is no less subjective.
I want to put this review into context. Readers should know what my experiences, biases and tastes are so that they can judge how useful my comments might be to them.
I began to buy audio equipment around 40 years ago as a way not just to "play" music, but to get better sound. In all that time, I have limited myself strictly to two-channel stereo equipment.
Oddly, it wasn't until recently that I began to refer to myself as an audiophile. There's a explanation for why it took me so long "to come out" as an audiophile.
I was late in recognizing that being an audiophile is like being a butterfly collector who tries to collect butterflies that never can be caught.
Audio is the reproduction of a sound - a copy of a sound. It is a picture of an apple, not an apple. And there are so many factors involved in making that sound picture that one has to concede that the idea of getting a reproduced sound that is "just like live" is just plain silly. It can be great, but it never can be more than a facsimile.
So the first thing I had to admit to myself was that I was involved in an essentially ridiculous hobby - knowing one is searching for a Golden Fleece that never can be found, and, indeed, never existed.
But the admission didn't mean a resolution to be sensible. No. The quest is part of the thrill. The thrill of finding something that is better (to my ear) adds to my motivation to stay on the search.
Second, I had to understand that admitting to being an audiophile meant confessing to self-imposed insanity. You end up spending a lot of money for what normal people (i.e. non-audiophiles) see as an utter waste, and what I know is sometimes extravagant and even excessive.
As an audiophile you spend a lot of money, but it's worth it if you make a good choice because it knocks you out of your seat. And then you do it again and again. Being an audiophile is like Bill Cosby's "Little Old Man" song:
"A little ole' man was sittin' on a step
And a tear trickled own his cheek.
I said 'What's the matter?'
He said 'A train just ran over me.'
I said 'Hmm. How often does this happen?'
He said 'Everyday about this time.'
I said 'Well, why do you just sit out here then?'
He said 'Cause I cannot believe that this happened.'"
So what do I have to show for 40 years of being an audiophile?
For one, a lot less money than I might otherwise have had for my Golden Years, which I am now living.
For another, I have a number of expensive items that have been gathering dust for years. I find it hard to part with them.
Now I'm a little old man, and the audiophile train keeps running over me. Each success - the better sound that sends a chill up my spine - makes me think it can't happen again because this is as good as it gets. But it keeps happening again, and then I sit back on the tracks hoping I get run over one more time.
I was run over several times building an outstanding main audio system in a good 12X23 foot sound room (the most critical component in any audio system I've been told and have learned), which consists of:
Two 7BSST Squared monoblock amplifiers, a BP26 pre-amplifier, a BDA-1 DAC, and a BDP-1 digital player, a Torus power conditioner, and PMC MB2i speakers.
I also have a modestly priced small second system in the same room, which I have recently developed for a very specific application playing my music while my wife sleeps, without having to use headphones.
I was running B&W 685 stand mount speakers with a Harmon Kardon 3490 receiver. The speakers were delightful, but with too little bass extension at the low volumes I needed to keep from waking my wife. But I didn't want to go wild in spending more money on a second system. The second system started at about $250 using mostly old gear I had, then jumped to just under $1500.
Which is why I came to buy the Axiom M80s. I researched but did not demo, because of their unavailability, several other possible choices. Some were above my price point, some below. I considered especially the widely praised Revel F12 and the B&W 683, both of which were slightly above my price point.
Trusted advisors first brought the M80s, sold only online, to my attention. The specs also suggested to me that they might meet my application. Reviews also helped, especially one by Douglas Schneider posted on the Axiom site, whose reviews showed we share some common goals and tastes. Based on this research, I ordered a pair even though I had never bought a significant piece of audio gear from a strictly online company.
The online purchasing experience was outstanding. Lots of information on the website. Excellent help from telephone representatives to the point of going the extra mile to help me. On time delivery. Good follow-up. A small plastic medallion on one speaker grill had been broken, perhaps even by me. A new grill was shipped out immediately. Easy set up. Indeed, perhaps one of the easiest I've had.
Bryston service, for some 30 years, has been the very best I've received from any company, anywhere. It is the "above and beyond the call of duty" kind of service every consumer dreams of, but seldom, if ever, encounters. So far, Axiom's service has been very close to the Bryston standard.
Having been impressed with the online purchase and service experiences, I got down to the serious business of assessing the sound.
In my room, the M80s had to be placed next to the MB2is, which are 6 feet apart, meaning that the Axioms are only five feet apart, with their front grills brought to the plane of the MB2is front grills. I knew this would narrow the width of the M80s' soundstage, and I would have to live with that. It turns out it to be easily done.
The MB2is are well away from the wall facing the listener - over two feet. As a consequence, so are the M80s.
There's a long, raging debate among audio enthusiasts and technicians about whether or not speakers need to be broken in. I won't get into that debate. I say only that, technical measurements notwithstanding, it has been my experience that speakers with traditional drivers have a different sound after playing them for some hours; how many depends on the speaker.
I also believe that there is a psychoacoustic effect in listening to new speakers. One gets used to the sound of a new speaker. The corollary is that having become accustomed to our previous speakers we are resistant to the sound of new ones. Our knee-jerk response, then, can be disappointment. More simply, it also takes a number of hours of "getting used to" the sound of new speakers.
For these two reasons, it takes some patience before listening to new speakers closely or critically, and, therefore, before rendering any judgements. And my initial experience with the M80s reconfirmed and reinforced my embrace of these two breaking-in effects.
My out-of-the box reaction to the M80s was two-fold.
The first was reminiscent of my ultimate judgement of the Sennheiser H800: accurate, cold, and analytical. And, given that my ear had become accustomed to the B&W sound, hard edged.
The second was that the high end - I attend especially to cymbal work - was not merely bright (a comment made by some, but not by my trusted advisors), but downright harsh. In fact, playing one of my favourite cuts, Jennifer Warnes singing Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan," I could hear a high pitched rattle that to my ear was nothing less than that most dreaded of audio offenses: distortion. At that dreadful moment, I momentarily considered taking advantage of Axiom's 30 day trial return policy.
But it is a good thing to stick by one's beliefs, and in this case my belief in the "truth" of a break-in period was borne out - big time.
Having put more than 50 hours of play on the M80s, I think I now can assess the M80s.
So how do they stack up against the B&W 685s?
Before the M80s were delivered to me, I asked this question of Douglas Schneider, who posted my question and his answer in the Letters section of "SoundStageHiFi":
"You're likely to hear a much different sound for a couple of reasons. The most obvious reason is that the B&W 685 is a small, two-way stand-mounted speaker with just two drivers. Axiom's M80 is a three-way, six-driver floorstander. The M80 will sound much larger (and fill a room with sound much more), play much louder (providing you have enough amplifier power), and go much deeper in the bass. It's really an apples-to-oranges comparison."
He went on to write:
"But even if you were comparing the M80 to a similarly configured B&W floorstander, I still think they'd sound worlds apart. Axiom aims for strict neutrality (i.e., linearity) from the bass through to the highs, and that type of presentation can sound quite a bit more forward than speakers that are voiced for a more relaxing sound, which is what I've found with newer B&Ws I've listened to. I also find that B&W speakers have a distinctive midrange presentation that other speakers don't possess, and I think that has a lot to do with their consistent use of Kevlar-based midrange cones. It's what I consider to be B&W's "house sound." So even if the speakers' sizes were similar, it would be an apples-to-oranges comparison."
Listening to the M80s as well as the 685s using the HK3490, and receiving music from my BDP-1 through my BDA-1, Doug Schneider's description perfectly fit with what I found, with these exceptions and additions.
First, I do not find the M80 more forward sounding than the 685s. In fact, in my room, I find them to be a little more recessed sounding than the 685, but not excessively so. More on depth below.
Second, the M80s are intensely revealing. That is a good news, bad news story. The good - very good - is the audiophile's goal: getting everything that was put on the recorded piece. The bad is that if the recording has junk on it, the M80s mercilessly bang it out to you. For example, on one cut of mine they play back a hiss I never heard before. I think those who recorded it picked up the noise from an electric guitar amp.
The in-room performance of the M80s more than justifies my reason for digging deeper into my pocket to improve my second system. They give me the extended bass at low volume listening I wanted, and an overall better performing speaker than the 685s, to my ear in my room.
But they are better, much better, than that. For me, and paradoxically so, they are scarily better. Read on.
The ultimate test for me - in my room with the equipment I own - was comparing the M80s against my much-loved PMC MB2i speakers played with all my Bryston equipment, including my 7BSST2 amps. Frankly, I was a little reluctant to make this test, thinking, "What if they sound better than speakers that carry a sticker price of over $20,000?"
The remarkable thing - the scary result - is that in my room, and to my old tinnitus-plagued ears, the question is not which is better but which flavour I prefer.
Technically, meaning in the usual terms of assessing speakers, I think the M80s, in my room and to my old tinnitus-plagued ears, are overall better performers. I would even venture that this also might be the judgement of those with younger, healthier ears and better credentials, like those of my trusted advisors and maybe even Doug Schneider.
Specifically, this is what I find with my M80/Bryston to MB2i/Bryston comparison.
On all program material, the M80s have a deeper soundstage in my room, perhaps because of their rear ports. I like this quality a lot, and it is a greater depth than I've heard with any other speakers I've used in this room, which includes Hales Revelation Threes, PMC IB2s, MB2s, B&W 685s, Tangent TM3s, and, of course, the MB2is.
The bass reaches down as far as I've heard with my MB2is, which may mean simply that in this respect it is a draw since I don't think my hearing is good enough to hear the lowest notes of which either speaker is capable.
But the nature of the bass is different. The M80 I find to be quite a bit more controlled. Full and rich, to be sure, but leaner than that of the MB2is. There is some degree of greater percussiveness with the M80s, and the deep bass is a thrill. Listening to Ray Brown's big bass play such notes in "Starbuck Blues" items in my room rattle that never rattled before.
The MB2is have wonderful, huge midrange drivers, and the speakers show them off. Here, again, the M80s have an excellent midrange sound: clear and appealing only with a slightly harder edge to them than the MB2is.
The MB2is have been criticized for having a high end that is too bright. I disagree. Compared to the M80s, it is nearly mellow. The M80s, after break in, are not harsh or shrill, but clear and crystalline. They are reminiscent of very unique R. W. Oliver music man speakers I once owned that used horn high end drivers. Until now, they were the only speakers that played that first opening crash of Mick Fleetwood's cymbal on "Dreams" the way I thought sounded best. I've longed to have that sound back. With the M80s, it's back.
Because of how revealing the M80s are, this high end can be hard to take on some recordings. For example, Blue Rodeo's "5 Days in May" has a few passages that are very piercing on any equipment. With the M80s, these passages can make you cringe, which I think is what Blue Rodeo wanted listeners to do.
And what about the problems with "First We Take Manhattan" encountered before break in? I still detect what I first feared might be distortion, but with the Bryston electronics it is highly localized and, I believe, likely something in the recording. To put this another way, one of the things an outstanding speaker does is instill confidence. The M80s are the most accurate speakers I've ever heard. If there is a problem with the sound I'm hearing, I would tend to believe the source of it is not the M80s.
Then there are other M80 qualities that, technically, beat the MB2is in my room to my ears.
The definition of instruments and voices is incredible with the M80s. Each one is set out on the soundstage with pinpoint precision. For example, on pianos recorded where listeners hear the notes progress from right to left, the MB2is reproduce this well, but the M80s do it better. It's almost as if you can see the fingers move from one key to the next on the soundstage.
Here's another example. I love listening to the final "bell" sequence on Pink Floyd's "High Hopes" from "Division Bell" as it rings progressively into the righthand corner of the soundstage. The M80s reveal, in a way the MB2is do not, just how subtly that bell moves slowly while fading.
How do the M80s and MB2is compare when it comes to what separates great speakers from the rest?
My trusted advisors believe one of the things that make for a great speaker is "presence" - whether a voice or instrument sounds as if it is in your room.
The first time I heard this kind of presence was listening to a Paul Bley piano solo called "Owl Eyes" through my MB2is. There is a passage with low frequency notes that made me (and others who were there) say, "Hell, the damned piano is in the room!" It was a shock. It took decades for my gear to reach that point, but there it was: a great speaker, made great with no small contribution made by Bryston equipment.
Is there presence with the M80s. No doubt about it. Same effect, but a different kind of sound, with the Paul Bley solo. The MB2is have more weight, and a mellower edge, especially with the sound of the piano decay. Not being much a live music listener, I am not a good authority, but I would guess that the M80s are closer to being more authentic.
But for me the overall conclusion isn't about technical qualities, it's all about what I like, which I enjoy most.
There are two effects that I now hope for in an audio system.
First, I usually listen to music when I'm reading. When the music and the quality of the sound - as an audiophile I'm as interested in the performance of the gear as I am in the music - draws me away from my book, the system is telling me it's very good indeed.
Second, when I listen closely to favourite cuts, and get that shiver, that thrill up the spine, then I know I have something special. These are the moments that bring out all my audiophile smiles.
The great M80s do both. But do I like them more than I do my great MB2is?
After spending a boatload of coin, the answer to that question is a coin toss, right now.
At this moment, I am more familiar with the PMC sound than the Axiom sound, so my psychoacoustic self presently slightly tilts to the MB2is. Doug Schneider says there is a B&W house sound in its newer speakers. There is also PMC house sound, and like the B&Ws, it tends to be relaxed and smooth. As I understand it, this is typical of many British speakers, as opposed to Canadian speakers, where linearity and accuracy prevail.
But over time - with more breaking in of the M80s - my PMC leanings might change. But note this well: I'm talking about a coin toss, a slight leaning. I never believed that I'd own speakers to rival my beloved MB2is, let alone ones that cost a twentieth of their price. Astounding! Unbelievable!
For now I'll use the M80s when my wife sleeps, and think I'll probably crank up them up when I want to listen to rock music. They are particularly good at giving new life to older rock songs. I'm old so all my rock music is old. The MB2is will be used for my regular background-to-reading listening...for now?
And for now, I'll keep the M80s connected to HK3490 receiver. It does not bring out all their great merits as my Bryston 7BSST2s do so dramatically. Yet I'll take some comfort in knowing that I own two great speakers, one of which also just happens to be one of the best audio bargains I've ever had.
There you have it. The audiophile train has run over this old man once more. I'm not dead, I'm not flat broke, yet. So because I'm incurably still an audiophile I can't get this question out of my head - Should I find a way to buy a Bryston B135 integrated amp for my M80s to make them, and me, even happier?
That damned train just keeps rolling!