Axiom Millennia M80 Tower Loudspeakers: Sound Comparisons

AudioWorld Rating:

How do they sound?

I tested the M80’s in a variety of contexts, focusing mostly on their role as main front speakers in a 5.1 surround system, both for music and for movies. With the M80’s replacing the smaller M22’s in the Epic Grand Master package, the system is similar to Axiom’s top-of-the-line Epic 80 package, but with a smaller center channel speaker (VP100 instead of VP150) and subwoofer (EP175 instead of EP350).

I also made direct A/B comparisons of the M80 vs. the M22. I was interested to find out how much of a difference the upgrade to the M80’s would make in various settings, given the $700 (US) per pair price differential.

Diana Krall: Love Scenes
(Impulse DVD-Audio)

This DVD-Audio disc is a great romantic jazz listen, as well as an ideal way to evaluate the essential characteristics of a speaker system in both stereo and surround. The ensemble of bass-piano-guitar plus vocal is beautifully recorded, with distinct mixes for each format: the stereo version (96kHz/24-bit) is up-close and intimate, the surround version (44.1kHz/24-bit) a little more spacious and reverberant. In both cases, the instruments are captured with realism and detail that reveals all.

Listening to Love Scenes in advanced resolution stereo through the M80ti’s alone is a delight. The acoustic bass, in particular, sounds sumptuous and natural, right down to the bottom. No hint of resonances or imbalances of any kind. As you would expect, the bookshelf M22ti’s are no match for the big speakers at reproducing the lower bass. Putting that obvious difference aside, I found that the M80ti’s present a slightly better defined soundstage, with the phantom center more stable and the whole stereo field a little more enveloping.

In surround, the M80’s again sound spectacular. The characteristic Axiom sound – transparent, open-ended, detailed – is evident, and the tower speakers fit together tonally and spatially with the rest of the speaker ensemble, to perfection. With this recording, there is little to say about the bottom end, since the mix directs the low bass to the LFE subwoofer channel rather aggressively. With or without bass management switched in, the end result is an accurate reproduction of the bass instrument, without any crossover glitches between registers.

Insane Clown Posse: The Wraith – Shangri-La
(DTS Entertainment DVD-Audio)

For something completely different, I turned to this extravagantly-produced hip-hop/rap attack, which offers a riotous surround mix and multitrack aural manipulations by the jugful (note: definitely not recommended for family listening, highly abrasive lyrics).

What I was after here was a fix on how the M80 would handle an extreme challenge in the low frequencies, with the heavily-processed bass lines and layers of chunky beats often found in current pop recordings.

The advantage of full-range speakers for the main front pair is evident in this situation. With the bass management crossover set at 40Hz, the deep – almost sub-sonic – fundamentals throughout this recording issue forth with appropriately furniture-rattling weight, courtesy of the subwoofer, while the M80ti’s bring definition and clarity to the mid-bass drum, percussion and synth elements. With the sub taken out of the picture, the M80’s still put this music over with substantial impact, but entirely lacking the profound bottom end on tracks like Murder Rap and Blaaam!!!

The big Axioms also have a clear advantage over their bookshelf siblings through the midrange of the spectrum, with this recording. The music is densely layered and frenetically busy, and I found that the M80’s are able to articulate and lay out the complex mix with greater clarity. Not to mention that cranking the amp up to deliver dance-club sound levels, the M80’s ramped up without breaking a sweat: really loud, and really clean.

Black Hawk Down
(Columbia Pictures DVD-Video)

The soundtrack of this modern war flick (Academy Award for Best Sound, 2001) is a showcase of complex, nuanced sound design – everything from crushing explosions and chopper fly-by’s, to subtle ambient details in the quieter scenes. The M80’s handle everything this movie throws at them with ease. These speakers, in common with all of the Axiom models I have auditioned, are masterful at creating a surround soundscape that is utterly realistic – enveloping, detailed, and accurate. I can’t really say that there’s much advantage in having the larger Axioms this time around, as the standard Epic Grand system with the smaller M22’s is equally proficient in this context.

Philippe Herreweghe J.S. Bach – Leipzig Christmas Cantatas
(Harmonia Mundi Hybrid Multichannel SACD)

A fine performance and recording of Bach choral-orchestral works, with lovely, naturally-reverberant acoustics. The M80ti’s sound spectacular here, all by themselves in the stereo version, or carrying the main effort in the surround mix. Perhaps it is tellling that listening to the stereo tracks provides an enveloping surround-like experience that is almost indistinguishable from the full surround – the Axioms really are that good at recreating a vibrant soundstage, given an excellent classically-engineered recording.

The low frequency response of the M80 handles the full range of this recording without any difficulty: in fact, they sound better with the subwoofer switched out altogether, producing accurate, tight bass that is a tad compromised when the sub is involved.