Canadian loudspeaker manufacturer Axiom is the latest company to wade into the desktop audio fray, joining a few other established, high end audio players in the burgeoning computer audio market (see my recent review of the Dynaudio MC-15 desktop speakers). Like the recently reviewed Audioengine A2’s, the Audiobytes are very, very small (6.5 x 5.5 x 4 inches), appealing to those with limited desk space to cede to speakers. The Audiobyte system, however, unlike the Audioengine, is a multi-box affair, Axiom having opted to put the amplifier in a separate box which can be placed on, or under a desk. Considering how large (and especially deep at more than a foot ) the amplifier is, many customers will opt to place it under their desks, something which will make the forthcoming external, remote control volume and mute add on module quite attractive.
As for the speakers themselves they’re tiny enough to fit almost anywhere. They feature Axiom’s own 1” titanium tweeter and 3” aluminum cone mid/woofer mounted in sealed MDF enclosures. An impressive array of finishes is available (ten in all), from “real wood burled walnut cherry” to high gloss orange (premium finishes raise the price of the system as high as US $559). My review pair was finished in the understated and elegant “standard silver”. Not only sturdy, the cabinets use sloping side panels to eliminate parallel surfaces inside the speakers, which helps break up standing waves.
The Audiobyte amplifier is a class D design that puts out 55 watts a side and is meant to be used only with the Audiobyte speakers, providing only 1/8” mini cable outputs to drive the speakers (via supplied cables) and the matching EPzero subwoofer, a 1/8” mini input, a USB port (for powering USB devices only – there is no digital input, USB or otherwise) and a sleek looking silver volume control at front top. Axiom has, however, provided an RCA subwoofer line out jack which will make the system easy to use with almost any powered subwoofer, not just the EPZero.
The Audiobytes arrived not long after the AudioEngine A2’s and, especially considering the similarities in size, price and application, sonic comparisons were inevitable. I did my critical listening to both speakers at the same time, using the same system and source material (Apple Powerbook playing AIFFs, WAVs and MP3s via an Echo Audio Indigo sound card).
I started listening to the speakers before the EPZero showed up, and, since unlike the A2’s the Audiobytes don’t even try to hint at bottom end below 100Hz, the presentation was very much on the light side; the need for a subwoofer with almost anything but chamber music, glaring. The Audiobytes, however, distinguished themselves in other departments very quickly. The tweeter, for instance, is simply excellent and would be at home in a much more expensive speaker. The Axioms edged out the A2’s in terms of top end refinement and inner detail on the Hillary Hahn recording of Bach Partitas (Hillary Hahn Plays Bach), making for a cleaner, more transparent sound with a little more sparkle and excellent portrayal of subtle ambient decay. While a little airier and more spacious sounding, the A2’s are a touch warmer by comparison, the Audiobytes favouring a cooler, slightly cleaner and more revealing sound.
Clarity and neutrality were also hallmarks of the midrange presentation, Sarah Harmer’s voice on I’m a Mountain reproduced with an honesty and realism that made me sit up and listen attentively. As in the top end the Audiobytes have resolution and clarity to burn in the midrange and they sound a great deal more like a very good pair of mini-monitors than they do computer speakers. By comparison the Audioengines are a little sweeter sounding and more forgiving, with slightly rounded transient edges. The Axioms are more like studio monitors: truer and less forgiving with crisp transient attack.
Axiom calls this system the “first luxury hi-fi computer speaker system” and while I could take issue with calling it “first” with products like the Dynaudio MC-15 available before it, it most certainly qualifies as both hi-fi and luxurious. If you can make space for the amplifier and the sub this is a very satisfying and extremely honest sounding system that would not be out of place on a digital audio or video editing workstation. It may cost more than many competitors (ie both the Audioengine A2 and A5) but it manages to deliver remarkably clean, neutral, high resolution sound in a very flexible and attractive package. With Axiom’s free shipping policy and a 30 day in home trial period, it’s a persuasive argument for better sound from your computer or iPod.
AM Comments on his measurements:
The top curve is the whole system (both satellites stacked on a stand, and sub on floor) in Flat setting for the subwoofer. It is probable that were the satellites on separate stands or table ends, the bass would be less prominent, but since we’re dealing with relative placements of wide spatial variations, it is unimportant, and optimum subjective balance will be achieved in the room or at the desk, using (or not using) the other sub curve options.
The 3 overlapping curves below are just the satellites at 0, 15, and 30 degrees off axis. Overlapping at left are the subwoofer settings, with “Full” at top alone, “Half” below, and “Flat” the lowest and shown balanced with the full frequency measurements. The EPzero sub curves, though varying in their “mountain” shape, all provide useful response to 50 Hz, where that in Half setting (the middle one) is 5 dB down at 50 Hz, the Flat one down the same at 60 Hz. The Full setting, when brought down in level by 5 dB, will offer similar extension to 40 Hz, but rolloff below is quite steep; one can surmise that this is to prevent doubling or harmonic distortion by controlling the output of the triangular front port.
The whole-system (at top) and sub curves here have been smoothed for clarity. The unsmoothed Audiobyte axial curves show very flat response, with good top extension, superb midrange accuracy, and pretty much +/-1dB response from around 150 Hz to 15 kHz on axis. The top end rolloff at -15 degrees off axis is just 1 dB, and that at 30 only 2db, quite amazing dispersion for a speaker of this type, let alone any speaker, period!
And as a final tech note, when I fired up my LMS this time I discovered that my venerable supplied measuring microphone had died, so after some cable and connection checking, I found a more-than-adequate Plan B in one of my extremely flat recording microphones, an AKG 460ULS type with a CK62 cardioid capsule. I have the original supplied measurement curve from AKG, and can guarantee it is +/- .5dB from below 20 Hz to 20 kHz and beyond. The directional capsule itself limits reflections leaking into the measurements, and there are few other cardioids with this kind of bass flatness (See How We Measure Loudspeakers for more on this subject).
Looking at the curves with a jaundiced and experienced eye, I can guarantee that these measurements are even more accurate than previous ones, and were made through the microphone preamp of a classic Stellavox SP-8 recorder, with a pair of the best and most highly regarded, even revered, preamps of this type ever made, also found in their legendary AMI-48 5-channel mixer. I’ve got one of these, too.
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