Surround Sound Speaker Systems

Axiom Epic 80-800 Speaker System: M80v3 Tower, VP180 Center, QS8v3 Surround, and EP800v3 Subwoofer

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

When shopping for loudspeakers today, we assign many different criteria to our decision. Do we choose on price, sound quality, aesthetics, science or some other aspect? Of course a discriminating listener wants the best of all these worlds and there are many manufacturers ready, willing and able to deliver on all counts. Axiom is one who has been at their game a long time. Founder and President Ian Colquhoun started out in the 1970s as a protégé of legendary designer Dr. Floyd Toole. This group of engineers which included other well-known names such as Kevin Voecks (Revel) and Paul Barton (PSB) developed many of the design philosophies and testing procedures that are commonplace today. Through their efforts, we now have a class of loudspeaker that is known for its "Canadian Sound."

Specifications

  • M80v3 Tower
  • Design: Three-way, Ported Enclosure
  • Drivers: Two 1" Titanium Dome Tweeters, Two 5.25" Aluminum Midrange, Two 6.5" Aluminum Woofers
  • MFR: 34 Hz - 20 kHz, ± 3 dB
  • Crossover Frequencies: 160 Hz, 2.3 kHz
  • Nominal Impedance: 4 Ohns
  • Maximum Amp Power: 400 Watts
  • Dimensions: 39.5" H x 9.25" W x 17" D
  • Weight: 56.8 Pounds/each
  • MSRP: $1,380/pair USA
  • VP180 Center
  • Design: Three-way, Ported Enclosure
  • Drivers: Two 1" Titanium Dome Tweeters, Two 5.25" Aluminum Midrange, Two 6.5" Aluminum Woofers
  • MFR: 34 Hz - 20 kHz, ± 3 dB
  • Crossover Frequencies: 150 Hz, 2.7 kHz
  • Nominal Impedance: 4 Ohns
  • Maximum Amp Power: 400 Watts
  • Dimensions: 9.25" H x 39.5" W x 17" D
  • Weight: 56.8 Pounds/each
  • MSRP: $720 USA
  • QS8v3 Surround
  • Design: Two-way, Sealed Enclosure
  • Drivers: Two 1" Titanium Dome Tweeters, Two 5.25" Mid/Woofers
  • MFR: 95 Hz - 20 kHz, ± 3 dB
  • Crossover Frequeny: 2.5 kHz
  • Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms
  • Maximum Amp Power: 400 Watts
  • Dimensions: 8.25" H x 11" W x 6" D
  • Weight: 13.5Pounds/each
  • MSRP: $558/pair USA
  • EP800v3 Subwoofer
  • Design: Sealed Enclosure
  • Driver: Two 12"
  • Amplifier: 800 Watts RMS
  • MFR: 12 Hz - 150 Hz, ± 3 dB
  • Low Pass: 40, 60, 80, 100 & 150 Hz
  • Phase: 0 and 180 Degrees
  • Inputs: XLR Line with RCA adapter, Speaker level
  • Output: XLR
  • Subsonic Filter: On - 20 Hz, Off - 12 Hz
  • Dimensions: 15" H x 45.5" W x 17" D
  • Weight: 110 Pounds
  • MSRP: $2,380 USA
  • Axiom

The parameters of this class of loudspeaker are fairly simple – unfailing accuracy, low distortion and a large listening window. While this is an oversimplification, the important thing to keep in mind is these speakers are meant to present their material totally unaltered with no coloration or modification of the original signal. Some might call them "revealing." For those who demand the absolute truth from their music or movies, they are regarded as "just right."

Axiom Audio markets a full line of loudspeakers and subwoofers that are available only through direct Internet sale. This keeps their prices quite low. You can see from the specs on this page the total price of my review system is lower than that of many mid-fi speakers. In a high-end system, the cabling would likely cost more than a complete Axiom surround setup. For this review, Axiom sent me all their flagship models – a pair of M80 towers, the new VP180 center, QS8 surrounds and the monolithic EP800 subwoofer. All models are brand new third-generation products with updated crossovers, new driver designs and a first for Axiom, magnetic grills.


Design

Beginning with the M80 – this tower model is fairly tall at just under 40 inches but not the biggest tower out there. It uses six drivers, all active, in a three-way ported design. Crossovers are set at 160 Hz and 2.3 kHz. The woofer and midrange are aluminum with a silver dust cap. The tweeter is a newly designed titanium dome and in an unusual touch, there are two of them. Impedance is 4 Ohms with a high sensitivity of 95 dB. Three ports (one front, two rear) take care of air management. The ports utilize a contoured lining to prevent chuffing. The cabinet is a familiar wedge shape which serves to reduce interior standing waves. My sample came with a single pair of binding posts but you can order duals for an extra $40 if you want to bi-wire or bi-amp. Thick rubber feet are included and you can specify spikes for an additional $18. There are also a huge number of finish choices available. The basic choices are Black or Boston Cherry vinyl which is of very high quality. For an extra $75 you can pick from 15 custom vinyl choices. If you want to go high-end, Axiom offers real wood veneers (six) with six stain choices. You can also specify piano black or gloss white. All of these options add anywhere from $245 or more to the final tally.

The VP180 center is quite unusual. For starters, it's the largest center I've ever laid eyes on. At over 39 inches it is as wide as the M80 is tall. In fact the VP180 is pretty much an M80 turned sideways. The cabinet is angled differently to maintain a 90-degree angle between the bottom and the front baffle. The driver arrangement is also different being W-T-M-M-T-W. The three ports are all on the rear and different crossover points are used (170 Hz and 2.7 kHz). The same foot options are available as are the different finishes. Axiom markets a stand for this behemoth which runs $243. If you want to bi-amp or bi-wire the VP180, just specify dual binding posts when ordering. Impedance is 4 Ohms with 95 dB sensitivity. Like the M80, the -3dB point is 34 Hz.

The QS8 surrounds are also unusual in that they are a quad-pole design. Two midrange drivers fire up and down and the two tweeters are on the angled faces of the quadrant. Impedance is 6 Ohms with 95 dB sensitivity. The drivers are wired in phase with a 2.5 kHz crossover. For wall-mounting, a bracket and rubber bumpers are included. There is also a threaded hole in the rear for Axiom's swivel mount, available separately. You can also buy a tall stand from Axiom if you wish. If you must place these speakers on a shelf, you'll need to elevate them at least an inch to clear the bottom-mounted driver. Axiom's stand has a cutout in its mounting plate to accommodate this. Obviously it's best to hang them on the wall. They're quite compact as surround speakers go; and will blend into most rooms well. Since all the same finish options are available, it's easy to match them to your décor and wall color.

The EP800 is physically the largest sub I've ever seen. At over 45 inches tall, it dwarfs even the M80 tower. It is a sealed design with two 12-inch woofers and an 800-watt DSP-controlled amplifier. The anechoic response is 12 – 150 Hz (+/-3 dB). I suspect the in-room response is a couple Hertz lower based on my experience. The amplifier is unique to Axiom products. It has a max output of 800 watts RMS to drive the twin 3-inch voice coils in each transducer. The DSP controller, called XLF, uses custom code to increase extension and output without increasing distortion. Let me tell you, this thing can really shake the furniture! Maximum claimed SPL is 120 dB which is entirely believable. I can't even imagine the possibilities if you were to use two of them! For this review I had only one EP800 but it was well north of plenty for my small room. When buying this sub, you can choose either a vertical or horizontal orientation. You can hide it much more easily when it's lying down and its sealed design makes it more forgiving of placement than a ported cabinet. I chose vertical and installed it next to and slightly back of my right front speaker.

All the speakers and sub include Axiom's new magnetic grills. This is my first experience with these and I must say it's a luxury. Not having to fiddle with easy-to-break pins is a real plus. The grill cloth is also new boasting greater acoustic transparency than the old. Fit and finish on all the speakers is excellent with a nice deep wood-grain texture to the vinyl covering and precise joints on the cabinets. The drivers are all secured with stout screws or bolts in the case of the EP800. The rap test reveals a well-braced box with only minimal resonance. Overall quality is well above the system's modest price point.

I don't usually write about the packaging a product comes in but in this case it is relevant. The only way to buy these speakers is through the mail so it's important to know your purchase will arrive safe and sound. Axiom uses FedEx ground service to ship all their products right up to the massive EP800 sub. I have purchased from them before and I must say they have improved their packing over the past few years. All the boxes arrived in nearly perfect condition. Upon opening them I found dense foam protecting the cabinets from top to bottom at all four corners. The base and top were fully covered with the same material. This foam looks like it can absorb considerable energy. I think it would take seriously abusive handling to damage one of these boxes. The speakers themselves are wrapped in thick plastic. In the unlikely event of damage, Axiom will replace the product after you provide photos to them. And they won't wait to receive the damaged speaker before sending a replacement.

Rather than paraphrase Axiom's extensive literature on speaker design, I asked founder Ian Colquhoun to answer a few questions for me. He's a 30-year veteran of the business and knows more about audio engineering than I ever will. His interview follows.

Axiom Epic 80-800 Speaker System Review

Chris Eberle: A lot of what sets speaker makers apart today is their different approaches to the development process. Can you tell me about your R & D and what makes it unique?

Ian Colquhoun: I'd say our biggest emphasis is on the outcome of our blind listening tests. We are constantly looking to improve drive unit performance, crossover optimization, and DSP performance in subwoofers, but only in the name of demonstrably better performance. R&D at Axiom is integrated within day to day product development rather than being in the form of strictly pie in the sky ideas. That's not to say that we don't have pure research projects, only that they are usually tied into a specific aspect of our product performance and every new design is looked at as a test bed for furthering our overall understanding of loudspeaker design and measurement. We are also one of the few loudspeaker manufacturers who have in-house electronics R&D, rather than farming out amplifier or DSP design.

CE: Please tell me what role your anechoic chamber plays in the R & D process.

IC: The anechoic chamber is absolutely essential for loudspeaker design. It's our firm belief that you can't do the job without one. Consistency is one of the most important benefits of having a chamber, as you can go back to a measurement from 3, 4 or 5 years ago and have confidence that that reference curve has not changed. All of our driver and system acoustic measurements take place in our chamber and it's likely the most utilized piece of equipment in R&D.

CE: Do you use any other instruments to measure speaker component performance?

IC: This depends on the component. For drive units both simulation software and loudspeaker measurement software (LMS, SpectraLAB) are used. For crossover network validation and DSP work the Audio Precision System is used regularly.

CE: Once you've moved to listening tests, what kind of room/environment do you use and how are the tests structured?

IC: Our main listening room is of standard drywall/stud construction and is of a typical family room size. All design validation and comparison tests are performed as a blind A/B where the listener is given full control over switching, program material, and listening level. A score sheet based loosely around the original NRC performance sheet is used. Listeners are able to rank overall performance, bass, midrange and treble quality on a numbered scale, in addition to free-form comments.

CE: Regarding your cabinet design – how has it evolved to its present form?

IC: Prior to 1991 we utilized the same rectangular shaped cabinets that are commonplace in the industry. In 1991 we began experimenting with non-parallel sides to assist with breaking up the standing waves inside the cabinet. Today's cabinets are the result of a number of refinements to the original design of 19 years ago.

CE: Can you give me a few details about the development of your drivers and crossovers?

IC: Having the luxury to manufacture all of our drivers in house means that each new design is a ground-up design. All motor system geometry is optimized using finite element analysis modeling software. New drivers are evaluated for not only acoustic performance, both measured and subjective, but extreme importance is also placed on driver distortion, power handling and compression. Crossover design takes place in the chamber lab and optimization is performed in real-time. We're not fans of crossover simulation software. Once the measured performance is getting close to our target, which is based on a suite of measurements, the new design is setup for double-blind listening.

CE: Please tell me about the changes to the v3 products with regards to drivers and crossovers.

IC: v3 is the culmination of many changes over the past four years. The biggest changes were in the tweeters and the crossovers. We developed an entirely new dome for our tweeters which was completed in July 2009. Many changes were made to the crossovers which were mainly focused on refining the family of amplitude response curves for each of our models.

CE: The VP180 is a fairly radical design for a center channel; essentially a tower speaker in horizontal form. Besides the obvious physical differences, are there changes to the crossover or internal cabinet design?

IC: Of course! The cabinet design is basically taken from our M80 floor-standing model with appropriate changes to the form factor, bracing and port location. The crossover is likely the most important contributor to the performance of the VP180. There is a general misunderstanding among many consumers that a loudspeaker placed vertically or horizontally will sound the same. This is completely false! A crossover that has been optimized for a vertically placed loudspeaker will likely have excellent horizontal off-axis performance but the vertical dispersion will be far less uniform. Placed in a horizontal position, that same loudspeaker will now have excellent vertical off-axis performance but compromised horizontal dispersion. This is the main reason that many center channel designs have widely varying performance depending on where the listener is sitting. The VP180 crossover was totally redesigned to meet the dispersion requirements of a dedicated center channel in addition to creating a seamless match to the rest of our product line-up.


Setup

Installation was easy for me since I am familiar with Axiom's optimal placement guidelines. The towers were placed eight feet apart and toed in slightly. The center was placed on a sturdy pair of stands I had on hand from Sanus Systems. I was initially concerned about the three rear ports being too close to the wall. Ian Colquhoun recommended a clearance of two inches so I went for three. That put the front baffle only a little back of the M80s' front plane. Remember the VP180 is 17 inches deep. You will need to consider your placement options carefully so as not to choke this cabinet. If you use a shelf, be sure your furniture has an open back. Like a tower, the VP180 sounds best freestanding. With a three-inch gap, I heard no artifacts from the ports at all.

The QS8 surrounds were hung on the brackets already in place from my personally-owned QS8s (version 2). The EP800 went in the front right corner, next to and slightly in back of the neighboring M80. Though Axiom didn't send me spikes for the towers and sub, I had some extras on hand so I made use of them. The VP180 includes large and dense rubber feet and I employed these as bumpers to isolate them from the top plate of the Sanus stands. I also angled the front baffle slightly upward to fire directly at the listening position. The M80s place their tweeters perfectly at ear level for a listener and seat of average height. The QS8s work best in my room about two feet above ear level.

If you've read my past speaker reviews, you know I'm a firm believer in room EQ. I've used both Audyssey and Anthem's excellent system. I recently added an Integra DHC-80.1 pre-pro to my reference system and it includes Audyssey MultEQ XT. Through much trial and error, I've worked out a solid and repeatable mic placement scheme which gives me great results.

Begin by setting your sub's gain control to the 12 o'clock position. Make sure there is no ambient noise whatsoever. Use a tripod or mic stand rather than setting the mic on your chair. Don't even consider holding it in your hand. Start with the mic in the main seat exactly at ear level. Refer to the drawing below to see the rest of the positions. It is important to match heights perfectly whether the mic is on a chair or over the floor. Positions 2 and 3 are equidistant from position 1. Positions 4 and 5 are approximately 30 percent of the distance between 1, 2 and 3 and the opposite wall.

When complete, Audyssey had selected crossovers of 40Hz for the mains and center and 90Hz for the surrounds. Ordinarily, I would raise these but I found quickly that 40Hz was just right for the front three. With my QS8 v2 surrounds I had used 120Hz but 90Hz was better suited for the v3 models. The M80 is a truly full-range speaker and that goes for the VP180 too. It's the lowest reaching center I've ever experienced. I couldn't wait to hear the vocals from this puppy. The only anomaly was the sub distance which came up as 22 feet. This was obviously wrong so I corrected it to the proper number of nine feet. I did try using 60Hz for the fronts but I found the bass less agile and less focused around the crossover point. The EP800 is better left to explore the depths while musical bass is handled by the other speakers.


In Use

My overall impressions of the Epic 80-800 system were that it presented a perfectly unified sound field thanks to each speaker playing its role properly. Axiom uses the same drivers in all its models. The cabinets are constructed similarly and the crossovers too. Despite this, each component has an individual character that precisely executes its given assignment. The M80s are an excellent anchor. They have broad dispersion and tremendous dynamics; just what's needed for music reproduction. The center channel handles dialog and ambient music effects. The VP180's tremendous bass extension and a personality very much like the M80 make it just the right for the role. Since it's so large, there was never a break in the front soundstage and I noticed no lobing or change in sound from different seats. The QS8 surrounds have the job of creating a diffuse yet detailed sound field that wraps around the listener. They did this job superbly. Though my seating is only slightly forward of the speakers' positions, they did a very convincing job of creating sound behind me.

Since I am already an Axiom user, I couldn't help but make comparisons to my reference system. The M80 is a very different speaker from the M60. Not only does it display greater dynamics, the soundstage has far more depth and width. My most familiar content sounded much broader and displayed a greater sense of dimension. The bass frequencies had a lot more presence. I didn't think a 40 versus 60 Hertz crossover would make a big difference but it did. The specs show only a small difference in bass response between the M60 and M80 but my ears told me otherwise. There is obviously more going on here than just an increase in measured frequency response. The bass was far more tactile and tangible. It didn't hurt that I was driving them with an Emotiva XPA-5 putting out 300 watts peak into 4 Ohms. You can drive these with a mid-level receiver just fine but a beefy amp will bring out their full potential. There's just no substitute for more headroom.

Compared to my VP150 center, the VP180 is a revelation. The difference is literally night and day. Even with room EQ, the VP150 would get a little chesty when playing at the bottom of its range. Thanks to the VP180's extra low-end, vocals sounded as if they were coming from a quality full-range tower; appropriate since that's pretty much what it is in character. The front soundstage was completely seamless; not surprising given the 180's width of nearly 40 inches and its six active drivers. The new QS8s were a surprise too. I didn't expect a very noticeable change from my old QS8s but I clearly heard a difference. The new quadrants had much more presence and a larger sound field. They made my v2s seem polite by comparison. And yes, I did take the time to level-match the new speakers with the old. If you've been doing the math, the EP80-800 system placed a total of 28 active drivers in my theater. That's a tremendous amount of cone surface area to move a relatively small amount of air. Needless to say, distortion is a non-issue. I could turn the volume to ear-bleeding levels with no trouble.

Axiom Epic 80-800 Speaker System Review

Heroes Season 4, like most TV shows, is dialog-driven and as such, the center channel becomes even more important than it does in the average action movie. There are often tight shots of the characters faces and it was obvious in these scenes that the VP180 is something very special. When you have a full-range speaker with such broad dispersion in the middle spot, other centers suddenly seem very small. Voices had a richness and power that you just won't hear with a lesser speaker. Thanks to the wide driver array, the placement of dialog on the screen was extremely precise. I thought I had experienced a seamless front soundstage with my previous center, but the 180 redefined my perceptions in a big way. Of course it doesn't hurt that it physically occupies twice as much space as most centers but to me the entire front array sounded wider. It was as if an entire wall of my theater was emitting sound.

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen is my favorite LFE demo and with good reason. Michael Bay pulls out all the stops with this reference-level soundtrack. From the opening credits I knew the EP800 was going to be different than any sub I'd heard previously. This thing plays LOW and LOUD. My entire room, which has a sealed door and windows, literally pulsed with frequencies well below 20Hz. My clothing moved as though a breeze were blowing. The adjectives were going through my mind so quickly I couldn't even write them all down. This is no mere subwoofer – it's The Hand of Zeus. Axiom prints "Made in Canada" on the box but I think they should change it to "Product of Mount Olympus." If you desire the absolute lowest extension possible, look no further, your sub has arrived. Despite the ridiculous SPLs shaking my house, it was never fatiguing or bloated. This is far from the one-note bass so often heard from lesser subs. It was always clean and controlled, and it never overwhelmed the other speakers. It anchored the system extremely well without taking over.

The Illusionist is another dialog-heavy film with little else in the way of sound effects. Voices took on a whole new dimension with the extra width and extension available in the VP180. Just like in Heroes, the front soundstage seemed to emanate from a wall-sized space and completely transported me out of my room and into the movie. The surrounds aren't used much here but the EP800 announced its presence when a majestic steam engine powered up and lumbered into motion. I was right on the platform watching the train leave the station.

Axiom Epic 80-800 Speaker System Review

Since the BBC miniseries Planet Earth is more a visual experience than a sonic one, I had not intended to include it in this review. I quickly changed my mind when I heard the surround sound presentation in a whole new way. The encode is merely Dolby Digital but the sense of actually being in the different places portrayed was incredibly strong. Sounds like rustling leaves, rain, flowing water and flapping wings literally occurred all around the room as I watched. I have watched this series several times and until now, never realized what a difference the experience could be with better audio.

Green Zone is a non-stop action thriller that uses the Iraq war as its backdrop. From the very first firefight, I was immersed in incredibly intense gunfire and explosions that took place all around me. The DTS-MA track is very realistic and the Epic 80-800 system didn't miss a beat. The EP800 provided tremendous depth and slam without the slightest hint of distortion. I had seen this movie recently played through my reference speakers but it was a different experience with so many drivers pumping away!

If ever there was a movie begging for Blu-ray and lossless sound treatment, it's Raiders of the Lost Ark. At least the DVD is THX-certified. The Axioms reproduced the soundtrack faithfully and accurately. The speakers won't make a bad recording sound good but you can be sure that every element will be extracted and reproduced. Dolby Digital didn't sound like TrueHD here but I've never heard this film sound better. Again the fantastic bass brought a huge depth and width to everything. The full orchestra used in the score sounded like it was playing in a fine concert hall rather than a Hollywood soundstage. Sound effects during action scenes had a wide dynamic range and lots of punch. Dialog was always placed correctly with clear environmental cues. Hi-res codecs are the new reference standard but old-school Dolby Digital well-mixed and played on good gear can still hold its own.

Music

Axiom Epic 80-800 Speaker System Review

I started my music listening with a couple of concert videos - Bryan Adams Live at Slane Castle (2000) and Bon Jovi at Madison Square Garden (2008). Bryan Adams sounded fantastic with a huge-sounding mix and tremendous dynamics. This concert is outdoors in front of 65,000 people and the music is appropriately large. Concerts like this can often sound flat since there is no reverb from walls and ceiling but this Dolby Digital encode is very spacious and detailed. I had to do something that I almost never do; turn down the volume! It was so loud, I expected the neighbors to come knocking but luckily my sealed room kept the music contained. Inside the room though, my wife and I were standing on an Irish moor below a beautiful castle with 65,000 fans drinking in some good honest rock-and-roll. This is an awesome video in every way and the Axioms really did a super job.

The Bon Jovi video is a recently-released Blu-ray of a concert from 2008. The sound is super clean but relatively polite. The balance was shifted more toward the drums and bass rather than the vocals and lead guitar. It seemed to improve as the concert went along though. Perhaps a sound engineer was tweaking the board as they performed. By the halfway point, it was very enjoyable; again good solid honest rock. I most enjoyed Tico Torres on drums. Every beat was crystal clear with a great sense of space and long full decay.

To try some more challenging material, I borrowed Peter Gabriel's Secret World Live from a friend. This was filmed in 1994 so the sound isn't exactly state-of-the-art. Fortunately the DTS encode is of good quality. I especially enjoyed the tight control of the drums and the super-detailed bass guitar. Gabriel's raspy yet rich voice was as clear as I've ever heard it and I had no trouble understanding the lyrics. Paula Cole's backup vocals sounded very sweet and pure as she really brought something special to the show.

Axiom Epic 80-800 Speaker System Review

I wanted to do a bit of two-channel only listening so I started with an Andy Narell disc, The Long Time Band. His arrangements call for very complex percussion that accompanies some of the best steel drum playing I've ever heard. The sound is quite unique with no real attack and a fast decay. Hearing any sort of articulation demands an accurate system and the Axioms had no trouble. Despite a lot of presence in the background percussion, the steel drum line was never covered. Everything about this recording is super-clean. Even though I usually use Dolby PLII Music with a recording like this, I didn't give up any sense of space listening to it from only two channels. The M80's created a great center image and provided plenty of ambience outside the mains' positions.

Next up was Diana Krall, Stepping Out. Her arrangements are the essence of simplicity with just piano, bass and drums accompanying her silky voice. The imaging was excellent with Diana firmly in the center and the instruments to the sides and rear. The mix has a real "empty nightclub" feel with lots of tight reverb that wraps around the listener. I heard little difference between two-channel and DPLII. I found as I listened more, I needed the surround speakers less and less. The M80s are that good. With my previous system anchored by the M60 towers, I used surround for everything. With the review system, two-channel rises to a new level.

I couldn't resist listening to one of my Chicago/Solti recordings so I pulled out Brahms' Fourth Symphony. This recording always demanded a surround codec to display any depth at all but not this time. Even though I preferred the surround upconversion, it sounded fantastic in two-channel. The front-to-rear imaging was better than I'd ever heard it and so was the bass. I did use the sub and my Integra processor's bass management for this one. Even though the crossover is a low 40Hz, the sub still picked up some material below that. It never sounded anything but tight and controlled.

Axiom Epic 80-800 Speaker System Review

Turning to SACD, I couldn't help but drop in the Saint Saëns Organ Symphony. I focused on the second movement first which features a lot of super-quiet pedal tones. The EP800 exceeded my expectations with its musicality. The tonality was quite clear no matter the pitch. Getting this right requires a good deal of finesse and the 800 has it. The low brass also had tremendous presence thanks to the extension of the M80s and VP180. Since this is a live concert, I could hear every rustle and cough from the audience. With modern live recordings it's often difficult or impossible to hear these super-soft details but having six tweeters up front brought them out. The final movement was in a word, phenomenal. I clearly heard deep pedals I had not heard before. This is easily the lowest-playing sub I've ever experienced.

Next up was a new recording for me: Stravinsky's Firebird Suite with the Cincinnati Symphony. This is a pure DSD recording and its transparency is something to behold. I loved the haunting bassoon solo in the Berceuse. The final movement starts with a horn solo; then the strings and a single flute answer. Even though one flutist is competing with at least 20 violinists, the flute timbre sat beautifully on top of the line and was never over-balanced. The ending fanfare is punctuated with the biggest bass drum hits I've ever heard. My entire room pulsed with each entrance. And yes, my pants flapped!

Pop music in multi-channel can sometimes sound bizarre and Steely Dan's Gaucho album is a prime example. The entire studio mix is presented with mechanical precision and the utmost detail. Then, just as you start getting into a song, a cymbal crash pops out of a surround channel and the backup vocals appear behind you. It's a little strange to say the least. Even though the music sounded very accurate and clean, the odd use of the surrounds spoiled my suspension of disbelief. Fortunately, I was able to switch over to the two-channel layer. That cleaned things up considerably. With a system like this, you can't help but lament the lack of SACD recordings on the market. The better gear you have, the more obvious the difference is.


Conclusions

If you're reticent to buy speakers over the Internet, check out Axiom's online forum. There you can find someone in your area who will give you an audition. There are a surprising number of willing participants in this program. When I bought my first Axioms, I found someone 20 minutes from me that had the exact system I was considering installed in a dedicated room. Don't be fooled by their low prices and direct-only sales. These speakers are serious. They have 30 years of development behind them and they compete easily with some very famous and more expensive brands.

Looking over Axiom's excellent website, you'll see an emphasis on home theater. Given their aggressive pricing and perfectly-matched components, that's no surprise. If you have the room, the budget and the electronics, go for the flagship models, you won't regret it. When I bought my first set of Axioms, I didn't quite have the bread for the M80s and the VP180 didn't exist. Now that I've heard this system, I can't imagine going back. You guessed it – I bought the review units. I didn't expect such a major difference but six weeks of listening told me otherwise. Axiom has a real winner in the Epic 80-800. The improvements they've made in sound and build quality just in the last couple of years are significant. They had already turned out some impressive speakers. Now they've upped the ante. These should be on everyone's short list – they are on top of mine.