Speakers of the House
A Sound Editor Surrounds Himself with Woofers and Tweeters
by Michael Hertlein, MPSE

The author auditioned all of the speakers in his home. Photo by Michael Hertlein, MPSE

The last time I purchased audio speakers was about 10 years ago, and those were a “bass module” and a couple of satellites. Before that, it was when I graduated high school and I got some generic brand speakers with huge 12-inch woofers. This time around, instead of going to the store and buying the first speakers I heard, I thought I’d research what others had to say to help me narrow down the selection.

My research began on the Internet, and the more I looked, the more I was seeing certain Internet direct (ID) speaker brands. It seems there’s a loyal and growing community of people who buy speakers over the Net. Axiom, Onix, Ascend and ACI are some of the most popular ID brands among audiophiles. You won’t have to look long to find positive, glowing reviews by satisfied customers.

Rather than going to a huge electronics store and listening to the two different kinds of speakers it sells, or to a high-end specialty store, with its acoustically treated and tuned rooms with thousands of dollars of gear driving them, I chose internet direct companies, which allow you to listen to speakers in the best place possible: the room in which they will be used. Comparing speakers is very subjective and, ultimately, the differences are more obvious to a trained ear. It’s also hard to compare speakers without listening to them in the same room under the same conditions. Our sonic memory is very short.

If you do decide to do your research online, you’ll probably notice that most speakers are referred to as either bright (revealing) or laid-back. Bright and revealing are oftentimes the same thing. One man’s bright is another man’s revealing and accurate. Some people are more sensitive to revealing speakers and prefer a more laid-back sound. Once you figure out the type of sound you want, be sure to read between the lines of some of the reviews and opinions. Any speaker with a lot of high-end detail can ultimately be at least a little fatiguing at very loud volumes, especially in untreated rooms.

In my research, I found out how drastically a room can affect the sound of a speaker. In fact, the room is the most important factor in getting good sound––more important than your speakers themselves. Do not underestimate the importance of room acoustics.

I have a tough room to work with in my house. First, it is rectangular in shape with flat walls and a hardwood floor. Also, it is a fully functioning family room and not a dedicated theatre room. My wife and I were able to come up with some do-it-yourself acoustical treatments that double as decoration, along with some professionally made products, and everyone was happy. Audiotec USA (www.audiotecusa.com) sells foam panels that can be colored to match your walls or ceilings. We used some of its 2 feet by 2 feet by 1-inch-thick panels and made some cool designs. The difference in sound was dramatic. I knew acoustical treatments would make a difference, but I was surprised at how much of a difference.

Back to the speakers. You’ll notice that any company making above-average speakers will willingly provide frequency response graphs, usually represented from 20 Hz to 20 kHz +/- 3 db. While the measurements can be taken many different ways, and thus affect actual results, this is still a good starting point when considering speakers. Most speakers can’t handle the entire range but good main speakers should at the very least be able to go down to 80 Hz (100 Hz is okay for surrounds), and should have no problem going up to 18 kHz +/-3 db (20 kHz or more is better).

THX recommends 80 Hz as the ideal crossover point between speakers and subwoofer, so it’s best if your speakers can go down to that point, especially in bigger rooms. Frequencies above 80 Hz start creeping into localized territory. These numbers don’t tell the whole story because many speakers can go from 80 Hz to 20 kHz, but they don’t sound the same. The numbers are important but listening is more important.

No longer do most modern speakers have 12- or 15-inch woofers. Newer designs use much narrower cabinets with smaller drivers and can be ported in the front or rear to improve bass response. Porting allows lower response with much smaller drivers but they need room to “breathe.” If a speaker is rear-ported, it needs to be kept at least a foot or more away from walls. A rear-ported speaker is going to sound weird if you try to put it in your entertainment center cabinet. Sealed cabinet speakers are more flexible in terms of placement but usually won’t provide deep bass response.

The four speaker companies used for my research were chosen based on professional and consumer reviews as well as comments on various forums and websites. These companies have many similarities. 1) All of them offer 30-day, in-home trials of their speakers and equipment; you can return the speakers if you don’t like them and at worst will be out the shipping costs. 2) All of them have excellent customer support and very knowledgeable employees. 3) All of these companies have active forums on their websites that offer tons of information about speaker placement, room acoustics, customer comments, people in your area who will audition speakers for you, etc. All of the companies offer speakers in different price ranges and for different applications (home theatre, music).

Ascend Acoustics

This was the least expensive and smallest speaker set that I auditioned, but don’t let that fool you. I went with the CMT-340se (Com-pact Mini-Tower) model across the front. These are brand new and all three are identical except the center is horizontally aligned. They are somewhere between bookshelf-sized and floorstanding, but not quite either. You can get stands for the left and right that make them look like floorstanding speakers. For surrounds, I went with the CBM-170se. Although not designed as a true surround speaker, it’s a bookshelf speaker that works well as a

surround. The 170s are bigger than they look in pictures, so for a surround speaker they’re kind of bulky. I wanted them for surrounds because I listen to multi-channel (5.1) music and wanted a speaker that would work well with music.

Having three identical speakers across the front made a noticeable difference. The soundstage was seamless and made it feel more like a continuous wall of sound rather than three separate speakers.

Panning from front to rear with the 170s was great too. For home theater and some 5.1 channel music, the Ascends were just flat-out great speakers. One drawback is that they are only available in a few finishes, so if having a speaker that looks like high-end furniture is important to you, then you’ll need to look elsewhere. The other is that you will most likely need the stands because both the 340s and 170s are rear-ported and need some room behind them to sound accurate. This prevents you from being able to put them in a cabinet or right against the wall.

Both speakers play much larger than they look. The 340s are rated down to 45 Hz and the 170s to the mid 50s, well below the 80 Hz crossover. At $568 a pair for the 340s, you’ll be amazed at how good and big they sound. Ascend offers speaker packages that include a subwoofer from Hsu Research (www. hsuresearch.com). They make some of the best budget subwoofers in the business and are well respected by both professional reviews and customers. The system I chose came with the then top-of-the-line Hsu VTF-3 mkII ($699). It had no problem filling my entire downstairs with sound. I could get this thing to rattle glasses in a cabinet more than 50 feet away.

While the vast majority of reviews of all of this Canadian company’s speakers are glowing, there have been a few complaints. The one you’re most likely to hear from the minority is that these speakers can be bright, or harsh, at higher volumes. In a room with relatively good acoustical absorption (carpets, curtains, fabric furniture, etc.), I doubt you’ll experience any of these traits.

Axiom offers many different packaged systems and I went with the Epic 60-500. That includes the m60 floorstanding speakers for left and right, along with the top-of-the-line VP-150 center, top-of-the-line QS-8 surrounds and the EP-500 subwoofer. This one is around $2,800 to your door. The 500-watt subwoofer is the majority of the cost at $1,200 but this thing really rocks. There isn’t anything you could throw at this sub that it couldn’t handle; it will play frequencies that are probably below what you can hear.

That doesn’t mean you won’t feel them. For all its performance, this sub is relatively small and easy to place in a room.

The VP-150 is a sealed design and is relatively short in height, so it can fit above your TV or on a shelf. This is a good center speaker and probably matches really well with Axiom’s smaller speakers. With the m60s, it matched well for TV and dialogue-driven movies, but for big-sound movies and multi-channel music, I was aware that it wasn’t as big as the floorstanders. It isn’t bad, just not as seamless as the Ascends or ACIs, which are identical across the front. The big benefit of the vp-150’s design is that, because it’s sealed, you can put it almost anywhere.

The m60s, and all the Axiom speakers, are very revealing and rather unforgiving when it comes to music. Some people may like this and some may not. These speakers will give you exactly what was recorded, which may be refreshing or scary, through no fault of the speakers. Some of the more vocal opponents of Axiom’s speakers like to call them fatiguing or bright. I can see what they may be getting at, especially at loud volumes, but these speakers in most listening situations are very good. I did feel that they were the most adversely affected in my room without acoustic treatments. You can get speakers in several different colors that are vinyl-wrapped. They do a great job with the wrap, it’s seamless and pretty realistic looking. Axiom has also just started offering real-wood veneers, although it adds a lot to the cost.

Axiom and Ascend were the only companies from whom I requested surround speakers. It was too difficult switching the surrounds because of the way they’re mounted in my house. The Axiom QS-8s were often used along with the Ascends, and vice versa. Although quite different from the Ascend 170s, the QS8s were able to blend well when using the 340s up front. The Axiom surrounds are quadropolar, which means they don’t aim sound at the listening position. They work so well as surrounds because the sound is aimed up, down and to either side of you. This really makes surround ambience envelop you, and since they’re sealed, they can be mounted on a wall. The only issues I have with them is that they are only rated down to 95 Hz.

Audio Concepts Inc.
The Essence Vs and Essence center were the most unique of all the speakers I auditioned. They’re a little too small to be floorstanders and way too big to be bookshelves. You almost certainly need to have some kind of stand for them. Also, they are completely sealed with a low-end response only down to about 75 Hz, meaning they have to be used with a subwoofer (which ACI also sells). Finally, while the speakers feature real wood finishes, it isn’t just a thin wood veneer; a three-quarter-inch-thick piece of wood is added to each side, making a huge center speaker even larger. The center was the only one I had with the wood finish, but even without the extra wood the Essence Vs felt like they were made out of concrete.

The Essence center is a behemoth. It’s actually deeper and wider than the “identical” Essence Vs. Except for the horizontal arrangement of the drivers in the Essence center, the speakers are the same. As with the Ascends, I was impressed at how seamless three of the same speakers across the front can be. Voices sound big and meaty. If I were building a dedicated theatre, or had a room that was more isolated from the rest of my house, I would seriously consider building a system around these.

All three Essence speakers have a more laid-back sound than the others. They are more forgiving of poorly recorded music and beg to be played loudly. What they don’t have is the airiness at the top end that the others have, but that mid-range is just rock solid. When watching movies loudly, I found these speakers sounded great and weren’t at all fatiguing. What I found tough with these speakers was listening to TV or movies at lower volumes, like at conversational levels. I wanted a little more vocal clarity.

Onix Reference
If you would have told me a year ago that I’d be seriously interested in a $3,500 pair of speakers, I would have laughed. Well, here we are. The Onix Reference 3 floorstanding speakers are sublime. The wood veneer finish looks like polished marble. Originally, I thought their rectangular shape was ugly, but seeing––and hearing––these in person changed my mind.

I found myself liking these speakers a lot. The interesting thing about the Ref 3s is that they’re rated from 28 Hz to 45 kHz. That is a frequency over twice as high as perfect human hearing. I’m not sure if it was the Magnetostat Super Tweeter or not, but these speakers have an airiness in the upper frequencies that makes things sound alive. Someone once referred to these speakers as euphonic, and I thought that was a perfect description. Everything is just tight and refined; there’s no fat or bloatedness in its sound. The Ref 3s are forward in their presentation and offer plenty of high-frequency detail, while maintaining great control over sibilant recordings.

The comparatively small Reference 100 ($800) center channel does an admirable job against such massive left and right speakers, and looks just as good. Again, as with Axiom, I wish Onix offered a center speaker that was closer to the Ref 3s. The Ref 100 does play low and sounds good on its own, but it doesn’t have the super tweeter that’s in the Ref 3s.

In summary, I want to stress that the criticisms I had of these speakers were relatively minor and came after listening to them in direct comparison over a period of time. Most people may not find the center channel issues I had to be relevant to their listening habits. The bottom line is that all of these speakers are great performers and should be considered if you’re looking in their respective price ranges.

Equipment used to test these speakers:
Panamax 5510 Pro Line; Conditioner/Regenerator;
Pioneer vsx-815k receiver;
Pioneer dv-588a; SACD/DVD-A player;
ATI 1502 stereo amp;
Tapco J-1400 stereo amp;
Onkyo m-282 amp;
Outlaw Audio Integrated Controlled Bass Manager.

Michael Hertlein, MPSE, is a dialogue, ADR and foley editor working in feature films. He can be reached at dialedit@yahoo.com.

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