- Created on Thursday, 01 November 2012 00:00
- Written by Kevin East
In the fifth and sixth grades, all I did was listen to rock’n’roll and read comic books -- that is, when I wasn’t meticulously copying Gil Kane’s ingenious Green Lantern line drawings inch by painstaking inch. My folks tried -- really, really tried -- to interest me in good Catholic boys’ literature, but squeaky-clean white guys who kept their thoughts pure and their hands to themselves while batting .400, winning the championship, and overcoming a cosmic onslaught of moral ambiguity about the goodness of it all . . . well, I was a nerdy kid and no match for pious, virtuous athletes.
Besides, Green Lantern was cool. He could do anything with that ring -- an artifact that differentiated him from Superman (an alien), Batman (independently rich, physically and mentally gifted), Green Arrow (a gimmicky overachiever), Flash (accidentally bathed in chemicals), or Aquaman (only half human). OK, Hal Jordan was a test pilot. Big whoop. If it weren’t for the ring, he’d be just another guy. Hell, with that ring, you didn’t need a super power or a pedigree. We all knew that. The Lantern was the guy.
When Axiom Audio’s Epic 60•500 home-theater system ($3406.70 USD) arrived with its monster VP160 center-channel speaker, I knew -- sure as I knew I could be Green Lantern if only I had that ring -- that it was time to reinvigorate my action jones. Oh, time-honored fave raves like The Incredibles, The Fifth Element, and Hellboy had been and would continue to be a lot of fun, but the Axiom Epic 60•500 was a system to be explored with monster flicks -- if not of immense merit, then at least of monstrous ticket sales. Unfortunately, neither described Green Lantern -- but this was about Axiom loudspeakers.
Internet-only Axiom Audio, based in Ontario, Canada, offers advantages that one wishes other sorts of vendors would adopt: a 30-day home trial with a no-questions-asked return policy, and product prices that include shipping anywhere in North America (including Alaska) and Hawaii. And if you buy one of their home-theater systems, the price is discounted exactly 5%. The prices of the individual speakers in the system reviewed here total $3586; bought as a system, the cost is $3406.70.
The Epic 60•500 home-theater speaker system comprises two M60 v3 towers, one VP160 v3 center-channel, two QS8 v3 surrounds, and one EP500 v3 subwoofer. Like all Axiom speakers, the M60, VP160, QS8, and EP500 are offered in a choice of Black Oak or Boston Cherry vinyl veneer, or can be customized with wood finishes for additional cost. All have magnetically attached black cloth grilles, but the speakers are so attractive with their aluminum drivers exposed that we put the grilles in the closet. All speakers are covered by a nontransferable, five-year warranty on parts and labor.
The M60 ($1120/pair) has two 6.5” aluminum woofers, a 5.25” midrange driver, and a 1” titanium tweeter in a cabinet measuring 37.5"H x 9.25"W x 15"D. On the front panel, as on most Axiom speakers, is a Vortex port with an irregularly notched surface, to increase the area of the port’s sidewalls, which is claimed to reduce the strength of the eddy currents generated by the flow of air through the port. Additionally, the port’s round shape contributes to reducing the annoying huffing and chuffing of airflow. The cabinet’s footprint narrows slightly toward the rear, in what Axiom calls their Anti-Standing-Wave design, resulting in a trapezoidal cross section that seems to have become au courant throughout the speaker-making world. The M60 weighs a hefty 47.6 pounds and is equipped with solid, gold-plated, five-way binding posts.
Also supplied are carpet spikes and rubber feet, the latter a tremendously sensible solution to the conundrum presented by a hardwood floor. The objective of footers is to couple the speaker solidly to the floor. Spikes penetrate carpet and pad so that the speaker rests squarely on the subfloor. But too often, manufacturers supply only spikes, leaving folks with bare floors to their own devices, such as resting the spikes on quarters or aftermarket cups, either of which can be a treacherous exercise in balance as you try to engage the spike blockers without gouging your floor. Axiom’s rubber feet coupled their speakers to the floor quite well, thank you. Not only were they solid, they didn’t move around. For the M60 and the EP500 subwoofer, Axiom also sells optional custom feet, which are bigger and can be leveled, at a modest extra cost.
The heart of the Epic 60•500 system is the VP160 v3 center-channel speaker ($580), a behemoth measuring 30"W x 11.5"H x 13.9"D and weighing a whopping 43.2 pounds. Its drivers are identical to the M60’s -- twin 6.5” aluminum woofers, a 5.25” midrange driver, and a 1” titanium tweeter -- but horizontally mounted in a quasi-D’Appolito array, with the midrange and tweeter between the woofers. It has two Vortex ports, and sports the ubiquitous rubber feet and a pair of binding posts.
Ponder for a moment the latter-day function of the center-channel speaker. Originally designed to reproduce dialogue, it has quickly become the primary carrier of virtually all significant sonic information, regardless of the source material. For instance, TV programs with 5.1-channel soundtracks cram all the dialogue, most of the sound effects, and some music into the center channel, generally relegating the “main” speakers to supporting roles.
You harbor doubts? Try this simple test: Tune in any multichannel program -- content doesn’t matter. Disconnect or otherwise disengage the center speaker. Odds are you’ll hear disembodied ambience, the remnants of the film’s score, crowd noise, perhaps a faint trace of dialogue. Subtract the center channel and you subtract the essentials of what you’re viewing. Small wonder Axiom has beefed up its center-channel models’ drivers, electronics, and performance to equal those of their front left and right models.
The QS8 v3 surround speaker ($596/pair) is itself worth the time spent auditioning an Axiom home-theater speaker system. As in the M60 and VP160, Axiom’s revolutionary Quadpolar design has been updated, with two 5.25” midrange drivers and two 1” tweeters, which fire in four directions simultaneously: up and down (midranges), and 45° off axis to right and left (tweeter). Each QS8 measures 8.25"H x 11"W x 6"D and weighs 13.5 pounds. My guess is that the QS8 sounds best when mounted on a wall with the supplied flush-mount bracket (Axiom also offers their adjustable Full Metal Bracket, priced at $44 each). But that’s not an option in domus antiquus, so Axiom shipped me a pair of FMS QS dedicated stands ($298/pair, not included). Remember, you can’t use garden-variety stands -- their platforms will block the QS8’s downfiring woofer, rendering your Quadpole a tripole and pretty much defeating its purpose. The QS8 also has five-way binding posts, but be careful how you connect your wire: Banana plugs, always the busy reviewer’s choice, will compromise a wall mount. I didn’t try spade lugs, but bare wire will work just fine.
The EP500 ($1290) subwoofer deploys a dedicated 500W internal amplifier to drive a 12” aluminum-cone driver with a cast-aluminum basket. It has a horizontal, rectangular port for maximal noise abatement while optimizing LF output. In addition to balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA inputs, the EP500 has high-level inputs, an XLR output, 180° switchable phase inversion, adjustable crossover frequency (40, 60, 80, 100, and 150Hz), and a 12V trigger input. It measures 19.5"H x 15"W x 19.5"D and weighs 72.6 pounds. Don’t try to be a hero -- get someone to help you unpack this Hummer.
Unpacking the Epic 60•500 system took some time, but every component and tool needed for assembly was included: an Allen wrench for the M60s’ rubber feet, and three different Allen wrenches for the FMS QS stands for the QS8s. The placement instructions included with the system are, um, brief. But, as with so many other online sellers, a wealth of material about installation, speaker placement, break-in, and so forth is available at Axiom’s website.
The M60s went to either side of the entertainment center, about 7’ from each other and 11’ from the central listening position. The VP160 center-channel was installed atop the entertainment center, and the EP500 tucked away behind a big, comfy leather chair to one side. The QS8 surrounds, sitting on their 38”-high FMS QS stands, went to either side of our sectional, each about 6’ from the listening seat. I tuned everything using the Onkyo TX-NR808 receiver’s Audyssey speaker/room calibration software, then checked it all with the Onkyo’s pink-noise generator and my handy, dandy RadioShack digital sound-pressure-level meter.
We don’t watch much TV. Hmm. That is, I don’t watch much TV. The Nationals games on the local cable outlet, Premier League soccer on Sunday mornings (bloody long season), the odd golf event, and, this summer, the Olympics. Little else. Sitcoms, soaps, reality shows, and almost anything on the Food Channel, Home and Garden, and so on is the girls’ territory -- though I have a soft spot for How I Met Your Mother, especially the “Little Minnesota” episode. (Sorry, Doug.) Most of the sporting events are in simple two-channel stereo, and listening to them gave me my first inkling that Axiom’s Epic 60•500 ensemble was something special. It didn’t matter what was on -- the thwack of a hard-hit fly ball, or Liverpool’s fans crooning “You’ll Never Walk Alone” -- all was rendered with effortless accuracy. Usually, when I get stuff in and play TV through it, my reaction is “Ho-hum” -- not something worth mentioning in a review. But the Epic 60•500 system actually made TV sound better. Yes, the commercials were still too many and too loud, but they sounded as good as ever -- not much of a consolation.
The film Green Lantern was a major disappointment. By trying to cram in every bit of the legend of GL’s origins -- including the Guardians’ weaknesses, and Sinestro’s seduction by the Yellow Side, the big blob of pure evil that wants to devour the universe (see The Fifth Element for the plot essentials) -- it was as if director Martin Campbell had issued an open invitation to all GL fans: “Tell me what you want and I’ll get it in the movie!” Unfortunately, fans want everything, and Campbell evidently felt compelled to oblige. The soundtrack, though, is fair, and the sound effects are a better-than-average test of a home-theater system’s capabilities. Like most action flicks short on story or character development, Green Lantern has plenty of explosions, crashes, thundering entrances, and loud noises. In the very first scene, in which three hapless aliens fall through the weakened roof of Parallax’s tomb (really? the only weak point in the entire planet’s crust is right above his tomb? and they just happen to land there?), roof scree clattered all around me, bouncing from the front to the surround channels in balletic synchrony.
Simple surround stunts, such as a helicopter’s rotor blades whirling before and behind me (chapter 9), and more complex scenes -- e.g., Parallax’s descent on Coast City (chapter 11) -- enveloped me with a seamlessly cohesive soundscape, each sound carefully balanced with the rest so that I wasn’t conscious of the fact that it’s all been cleverly manipulated to complement my view of the action. Still, the action, as excellently rendered as it is, can’t save this clunker. Even the film’s genuine star power (Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett) is wasted, though Ryan Reynolds is a perfect Hal Jordan/Green Lantern.
Director Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, on the other hand, though it has, pound for pound, as many system-wrenching effects as Green Lantern, also boasts measured, well-paced storytelling -- the absence of which can’t be made up for with all the special effects on our CGI/green-screened planet. Not so Captain America. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a bit of a nebbish with a mean streak of bleeding patriotism and the stature of a 98-pound weakling. He’s quiet, clever, unassuming -- qualities that his chemically induced transformation into the paragon of red, white, and blue don’t alter. He may have ingested a megadose of chemical spinach, but beneath all the hunkiness is the same guy, and one of the film’s themes is just that: donning the union suit and shield has not changed the essential Steve Rogers. Pretty cool. After his transformation, Cap swings and slings into action.
And, oh, the action. In chapter 6, as a Hydra agent’s purloined taxi rolls across a Brooklyn pier, its sound navigates the soundscape from the front left channel to the right rear. The props of the Red Skull’s pogoplane (chapter 10) whirl in wide arcs, enveloping the listener in a series of Dopplered whooshes. The Axiom system proved to be 360-degree soundstaging champs, and the details came through in flying colors (red, white, and blue, actually). But the coolest thing about Captain America is how he wields his shield -- blocking bullets one minute, smashing a Hydra trooper the next. As he and the howling commandos storm Hydra’s alpine headquarters (chapter 13), Cap flings his shield so that it kayos a couple of troopers before caroming off two tanks and back to him -- the crisscross whizzing captured perfectly by the Epic 60•500 system.
Oh, yeah. Explosions. There are enough between these two flicks to last moviedom another millennium or two. Regardless, the EP500 subwoofer rumbled with masterful authority. In fact, the one remarkable attribute of the EP500 was its utter silence unless called into action. But once engaged, it delivered deep, percussive sound with no hint of chuff or bloat.
One audiophile quality that I don’t ever expect from a home-theater speaker system is transparency. For some reason, the HT tuning sacrifices this rare attribute, and when it’s not there, I don’t write about it. Not so the Epic 60•500 system. Whether in two-channel or full-blown 5.1, the sound was where the programming put it. Only in extreme instances of too-loud commercials blasting through the surrounds was I conscious that I was listening to anything but six speakers working in concert. The ability of the Epic 60•500 to disappear when I watched films says volumes about the care and attention Axiom has devoted to minimizing their internal vibrations, designing and building their many crossovers, taming their ports’ noise, and choosing their driver materials.
For my money, the test of a good, if not great, home-theater system is that it effectively manages film sound as a complement to the screen action. On one level this is intuitive -- without sound, we’re back to 1926, and one reason we don’t use flicks like Silent Movie or The Artist to review gear -- but without an excellent home-theater speaker system, half of the writers’ and directors’ intent can be mishandled. As with many other films, the musical score for Captain America is largely relegated to the surround channels. Well, you’re not going to hear a fully realized score without a couple of excellent speakers. Throw cheese back there and you’re going to miss out on a lot of the movie. The Axiom system delivered regardless of where the sound came from.
Axiom Audio’s Epic 60•500 system is one of the finest, fully integrated home-theater systems we’ve had here at domus antiquus. Regardless of the material, from the Nats drubbing the Cubs to Green Lantern zipping through the galaxy, the Epic 60•500 delivered measured, unfettered sound without artifice or compromise.
The Epic 60•500 isn’t something you’ll like for a while, then start finding nits to pick about. It’s a keeper. If you audition this system, I don’t think you’ll even dream of taking advantage of Axiom’s 30-day return offer -- and I suggest you audition the Epic 60•500 system as soon as possible, if not sooner.
. . . Kevin East
- Receiver -- Onkyo TX-NR808
- Source -- Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player
- Display device -- Dell W4200HD 42” LCD TV
Axiom Audio Epic 60•500 Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $3406.70 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor; nontransferable.
Dwight, Ontario P0A 1H0
Phone: (866) 244-8796