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GoodSound Equipement Archives
December, 2000

Ear itching

I didn't know speaker manufacturer Axiom from Adam when GoodSound! publisher Doug Schneider first mentioned the company many moons ago. Then his SoundStage! review of Axiom's Millennia M3Ti followed. The speaker earned the Reviewers’ Choice designation. A bit later, Doug added further insult to my injured ignorance. He confided that, based on blind listening tests with none other than audio expert Ian Masters, he considered the M3Ti fully competitive with high performance speakers costing up to $2000. Now my ears began to ring in earnest. After all, the Axioms retail for about one-eighth the price. Shortly thereafter, the Canadian upstarts ended up in my own living room in New Mexico.

Head scratching

The M3Ti speakers weren't what I was expecting. Their sides splay inward to the rear panel, avoiding parallel walls and eliminating certain internal resonances. This also avoids the need for filler materials. I don’t know of anybody who does this at these prices. The veneer -- which turns out to be vinyl upon close inspection -- is so well done that many manufacturers of pricier speakers could learn a lesson or two from Axiom's cabinetmakers. The novel corrugated plastic port isn't chopped liver either. Nor are the hefty metal binding posts or mitered front edges. And the crossover-less aluminum woofer, engineered to have a purely mechanical roll-off, is a bit of high-end sophistication that nobody in his or her right mind has a right to expect at this price. Properly humbled, I began to suspect that further surprises lay in store.

Even if money isn't burning a hole in your pocket

Axiom, as it turns out, is one of the larger Canadian speaker manufacturers. So why have so few people ever heard of them? OEM, that's why -- it accounts for 85% of their business. Axiom builds finished loudspeakers for numerous other companies. It's the secret to their attractive economies of scale. Their own offshore facilities and massive volume buying power enable them to sink an enormous amount of value into their own brand. Currently, Axiom-branded speakers sell mostly to Canadians, but based on the M3Ti's stellar performance, that's surely about to change. Speaking with Axiom's Amie Colquhoun at the NY Home Entertainment show, I learned that US sales will be handled factory-direct at full retail. The downside of this arrangement means you'll have to purchase Axiom speakers on the strength of reviews alone -- unless, of course, a friend of yours already owns a pair you can listen to. The upside is a no-worry 30-day satisfaction-guaranteed policy and superior service. Rather than deal with the wide variety of sometimes classy, sometimes snobby and sometimes are-you-buying-yet? levels of retail service, you will always be dealing with the company directly. Meeting the affable Mrs. Colquhoun suggested that this is definitely a very positive ingredient of the Axiom experience.

The Axiom Millennia M3Ti measures 13.5"H x 8.5"W x 8.5"D. The speaker represents a nominal 8-ohm load, with an optimistically overstated sensitivity of 93dB that's probably closer to 89dB. As a basic 6.5" two-way configuration, it's specified to -3dB at 50Hz and sports all-metal driver technology (aluminum woofer, titanium tweeter). It's available in black or cherry and retails for $275 per pair. Let that sink in as you read what follows.

Shocking is the word

Doug and Ian are, I must admit, dead on the money. The M3Ti's performance is indeed phenomenal. In fact, from a passive two-way monitor, you can't really get much more performance regardless of price! This implausible statement warrants an explanation. "Audiophile monitor" genre leaders can cost a whole lot more and will play lower and louder. Also, they are usually gussied up in fancy wood veneers with overbuilt cabinetry and impress with their established brands' reputations for superior sonics. But by comparison, these speakers that can cost up to $2000 per pair really won’t give you any more sonic quality. Yes, you do get a bit more quantity. But then the question becomes do you need it, or do you want to pay for it? Wouldn't you prefer to impress your visiting audio friends with the unknown Axiom brand? You know, play them a tune or two, watch their jaws drop and then explain casually how much you didn't pay for the speakers? Depending on how you answered these questions, the Axiom Millennia M3Ti speakers belong at the very head of your short list of stand-mounted speaker contenders.

The real deal

I hitched the speakers up to an Audio Refinement stack of CD player and integrated amp, and I connected everything with Cardas Audio's most affordable offerings. Compliments of Doug Schneider's prior break-in, the Axioms wove their magic quite literally from the first note. The term that sprang to mind (and never left) was ultra-smooth. Think limited edition single-malt Scotch; think the way a Mercedes-Benz engines purrs. We're talking sophisticated and mature smooth, not the flat sort that hides behind "nice" or "interesting."

The Axiom's bass extension falls between those of the previously reviewed Polk RT35i and Triangle Titus XS. On the stellar LIVE! Blueport Jazz Sampler [BP-J009], the various double basses of the featured jazz combos were re-created in all their massive physicality. This meant not just low notes but notes coming from large wooden resonators. A beautiful showcase was the Bill Evans tune "Time Remembered." It opens with a freely meandering fat bass solo by Chris Colangelo before the piano and drums add accompaniment for the increasingly frenzied bass workout. Hearing it through the Axioms, I could sense the vibrating body of the bass and practically watch the player's fingers excite the strings. All those little noises that are part of playing a real instrument were there. Brushed and struck cymbals (notorious for high-frequency content that shimmers in real life but often reproduced as a kind of metallic white noise) came across intact. Instead of being cut short or obscured by inferior resolution, their decay trails stretched out beautifully.

Nancy Marano's rendition of the Gershwin tune "The Man I Love," with its mixture of come-hither seduction, wistful daydreaming and moody scatting, is very compelling. Instead of the headliner sophistication of a major star (i.e., an overdubbed performance spliced unto perfection) there are the telltale signs of an intimate, unplugged performance -- the little body or head shifts relative to the microphone, inflections responding to audience feedback, heightened energy and atmosphere. The M3Ti’s high level of resolution conjured up a re-creation of the La Jolla venue and its performers. You'd expect that from heavyweight statement monitors -- it was surprising enough with last month's $495 Triangle Titus XS. But to obtain it at little more than half the price makes you wonder why you should spend any more. Listening to the same tracks on the two speakers (I still had the Triangles in-house), I found that the little Triangle exhibited a bit more treble energy and vivaciousness while the Axiom seemed smoother (there is that word again) and more polished.

I dislike the term "neutral" because it suggests a very nondescript character. However, in audio, character is generally not wanted. Rather, neutrality is prized for its invisibility. It lets the music come through untainted. I happen to really dig the spunky and exciting character of the Triangles. But it's fair to point out that they do have a recognizable character. The Axioms don't. What I hear with them is mature class.

How does the Axiom's neutrality translate into more lively material? Take Samra by French räi sensation Faudel [Mondo Melodia 186 850 020 2]. This is well-recorded high-energy pop music. It moves effortlessly from dance floor hip-hop beats to salsa, R&B and flamenco. On "Salsa Räi," Yuri Buenaventura does the Latin lyrics and is backed up by the traditional question-and-answer chorus, two trombones, baritone sax, piano, congas, bongos, timbales, drums and assorted percussion. Faudel interjects with his Algerian lyrics, and an electric violin adds some sharply jagged modal moves. It sounds complex because it is. The Axioms remained unruffled. They cleanly separated the arc of the back-up singers from the main vocalists, tracked the syncopated bass guitar, synched up the blaring brass, showed off the depth of the space the rhythm section players performed in, and played at levels that could have broken my lease. On "Rohi," things turn dance hall. Surprisingly, the massive attack bass beats slammed just fine without a subwoofer. The electronica synth beats of the following track, "Samra," pulsed like a freight train and didn't need the added output of a larger woofer either.

Exceptionally well-recorded solo piano was next, namely "Ondine" from Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, on Nojima Plays Ravel [Reference Recordings RF-35]. This movement depicts a water nymph sporting in her element. Right-handed trills and arpeggios in the piano's uppermost register suggest a running stream -- a steady-state effect that can pose a serious challenge to any system. That ethereal flicker can easily turn brittle, sounding "tinkly" and hard instead of burnished and mysterious. Sure enough, that's the direction things turned. On a whim (call me crazy), I swapped the affordable Audio Refinement amp for a $5000 single-ended tube amp. Sacre bleu, the Axioms were innocent after all. The slight hardness in the piano disappeared, giving way instead to vastly improved timbre, richness of tone and a wealth of microdynamic nuances that had been flattened out by the solid-state components. For a reality check, I then switched to six-driver three-way speakers 20 times the M3Ti's sticker price. The only noticeable improvement with this material was in weight and scale, especially when Nojima thundered into the piano's bass register. Otherwise, the level of coherence and sheer elegance remained unaffected.


Are you kidding? If a $275 per pair speaker can survive the Nojima test and not embarrass heavyweight electronics, I'm very much affected. The Axiom Audio Millennia M3Ti is GoodSound!'s first affordable reference monitor. If the M3Ti retailed for $495 per pair like the Triangle Titus XS, I'd give them a high five. As it is, they are a legitimate no-brainer. Keeping them in-house will force other contenders to test their mettle against a shockingly high standard -- and all for a startlingly modest price.

Now that the M3Ti has rewritten the rules for super-affordable speakers, I expect to be investigating other offerings by this company shortly. For the moment, watch me scratch my head in awe. Axiom's OEM history partially explains their high value operation. The minimal crossover, custom drivers and non-rectangular cabinet of the M3Ti all point to excellent engineering. However, none of that fully explains why these little 'uns do what they do so well. Until I figure that out, let's just assume that Ian Colquhoun (who obviously is a very crafty designer) was, at least in this instance, blessed with an extra dose of inspiration. He truly hit the bull's-eye smack-dab in the center.

Check out the M3Ti and the rest of the Axiom Audio line now!

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