Surround Sound Speaker Systems

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

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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.