Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Recently, in response to an editorial he’d written, fellow reviewer and SoundStage! Access editor Hans Wetzel received an e-mail from a reader. In his article, Hans had said that he was more interested in affordable loudspeakers (i.e., those costing $1500-$2500 USD per pair) from venerable manufacturers than in speakers retailing for north of $5000/pair. The reader called him out for losing perspective on how much most people can actually afford to spend on an audio system. He argued that, considering that approximately one-third of Americans have an annual income of less than $25,000, they don’t make anywhere near enough money to buy many of the products reviewed on SoundStage! Access -- the most budget-friendly publication in the SoundStage! family. His point is valid, and Hans was gracious in acknowledging this in a subsequent editorial, in which he promised to dedicate more time to writing about products more accessible to the average person.
When I read that exchange, it took about one second of self-reflection to realize that I’m at least as guilty as Hans in losing perspective on what people can afford to spend on audio. I first developed an interest in this hobby when I bought a pair of computer speakers for $130 that sounded considerably better than my boom box at the time -- that small purchase opened up a whole world for me. I’ve lost perspective because I’ve paid attention to this industry for over a decade now and am no longer shocked by the exorbitant prices some companies charge for their goods. Alongside speakers that cost well into five figures, a pair that retails for under $2000/pair now seems pretty reasonable -- and yet, other than fellow audio reviewers, I personally know almost no one who has spent that much on speakers alone.
All of this brings me to the subject of this review: Axiom Audio’s new flagship bookshelf speaker, the M5HP ($968/pair). The only Axiom speaker I’d previously reviewed was the M60 v2 floorstander, in 2008, and after hearing how incredibly good those sounded for $990/pair, I’ve always held the company in high regard. This has almost as much to do with the high quality, sonic and otherwise, of Axiom’s products as the fact that they still design and build their speakers in Canada. While their floorstanding models might be too pricey for someone whose budget for a complete audio system is limited to $1500, Axiom’s smaller bookshelf speakers are not. At $968/pair, the M5HP is probably still too pricey for many buyers -- but for those who want to save longer or can afford to spend a bit more, it might be not your gateway to high-end audio, but your final destination.
The M5HP, Axiom’s first-ever three-way bookshelf speaker, has the same 6.5” woofer developed for their LFR1100 omnidirectional floorstander. The “HP” in the model name stands for “high-powered,” which relates specifically to the design of this driver.
It’s interesting that Axiom chose to design a new woofer with better power handling -- ten years ago, when I reviewed the M60 v2 tower, one thing about it that stood out was how clean and dynamic it sounded at high volumes, especially for the price. However, good as that woofer was, for Axiom to achieve even better bass performance they needed to build something more robust. They came up with a beefier motor system, with longer excursions and greater power handling. Featuring a 1.5” voice coil, the new HP driver boasts lower distortion than its non-HP counterpart. Clearly, Axiom is pleased with the result -- they’ve begun to offer the HP driver in high-powered versions of their M60 and M80 floorstanders, and in all of their omnidirectional models.
In a video posted on the company’s website, Axiom’s R&D manager, Andrew Welker, discusses the advantages of a three-way bookshelf speaker over two-way models. He explains that, in a two-way, the midrange-woofer is asked to cover a wider range of frequencies. This increases how much the driver moves and thus introduces more distortion. The third driver in a three-way can be dedicated to reproducing the midrange, resulting in a speaker with a more linear group of frequency-response curves, due to the wider dispersion of the smaller, dedicated midrange driver. According to Welker, the benefits of this sort of three-way design are a broader soundstage and more powerful bass, because each such speaker now has a driver dedicated to doing only the latter.
The M5HP’s 5.25” midrange driver and 6.5” woofer have aluminum cones; its 1” dome tweeter is made of titanium and is crossed over to the midrange at 2.2kHz, while the midrange hands off to the woofer at 250Hz. These drivers are built into a box measuring 19”H x 9.3”W x 10.5”D and weighing 26 pounds. The M5HP is large for a bookshelf speaker, and with so much internal volume and a dedicated bass driver, it appears -- on paper, at least -- to be built to produce a solid low-end response. A port on the rear panel permits more air movement than would a sealed box.
Axiom specifies the M5HP’s frequency response as 45Hz-20kHz, +/-3dB, dipping down to 33Hz, -9dB. The M5HP’s frequency-response curves, measured in Axiom’s own anechoic chamber, are provided on their website. (It will be interesting to see how these compare with the curves SoundStage! will have taken in the anechoic chamber of the National Research Council, in Ottawa.) Axiom recommends 10-250Wpc to power the M5HPs. With the speaker’s 8-ohm impedance and 90dB efficiency, it’s difficult to imagine the need to push 250W through them, but it’s reassuring to know that they’re robust enough to handle it.
The base price of $968/pair is for the stock vinyl veneers of Boston Cherry, Black Oak, or one of four vinyl claddings. For another $150/pair, Axiom will match the speakers to the color of your walls in one of five finishes (Flat, Eggshell, Satin, Semi-Gloss, High-Gloss). And for an extra $250/pair, you can opt for a real-wood veneer of Cherry, Knotty Pine, Maple, Oak, or Walnut (Rosewood costs $334/pair). What’s particularly nice about the wood finishes is that there are six choices of stain for each type of wood, as well as Satin Low Gloss, Semi Gloss, or Real Wood Gloss (the last adds another $126/pair). The highest-cost finishes are the Black or White High Gloss (add $506/pair), which increases the speaker’s price by more than 50% over the base price. As if these choices weren’t enough, there are six grille colors to choose from, as well as the option to go with a single pair of standard binding posts (accepting bare wire, spades, or banana plugs) or, at no extra cost, two pairs, for biwiring or biamping. And you can customize the rear-panel speaker label, also at no extra cost.
Those on a budget will likely choose one of the vinyl finishes. They’re nice, but there’s no denying that real wood makes for a significant upgrade in appearance -- my review samples came in the Satin Walnut finish, and they looked fantastic. I liked how the M5HPs looked at the front of my listening room, perched atop 24”-high Osiris speaker stands. I removed the grilles for all of my listening, and was pleased to see that Axiom now affixes their grilles magnetically, to give their speakers cleaner façades.
Hooked up with AudioQuest Comet speaker cables, the Axiom M5HPs took up residence in a system powered by a Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier. Digital content was provided by an Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana software, feeding a Bryston BDA-2 DAC through an AudioQuest Forest USB link. The BDA-2 fed the B135 SST2 via Kimber Kable Tonik RCA interconnects. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner-regenerator. Revel Performa3 F206 speakers were on hand for comparison.
Although, like most audio reviewers, I tend to throw around a large number of descriptors to convey the sounds of products, that doesn’t guarantee that the reader is left with clear senses of those sounds. While I can (and do, below) use many adjectives to describe the aural character of the Axiom M5HPs, much of what I heard from them can be summarized in three words: clean, effortless, neutral.
It was nearly Christmas as I worked on this review, so I spent some time listening to a favorite seasonal album of mine: Loreena McKennitt’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Quinlan Road). The M5HPs’ retrieval of details from the opening track, “In Praise of Christmas,” was exemplary. As the song begins, the sound of McKennitt’s accordion emerges from the rear of the stage, before her harp enters. As the music reverberates off the walls and ceiling of the Basilica of Our Lady, in Guelph, Ontario, where this and some other tracks on this album were recorded, the Axioms conveyed a sense of the grandeur of this sanctuary; however, what most caught my attention was the patter of footsteps, and the general low-level clatter captured by the microphones. This sort of transparency depends heavily on the quality of the recording, of course, but it takes a revealing system -- and, in particular, a pair of revealing speakers -- to appreciate it.
With “Snowflake,” from Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow (16/44.1 AIFF, Anti-), the piano sounded gorgeous through the Axiom-Bryston pairing. This intimate music is made even more so by the warm fullness of the piano’s lowest register. The percussion, set far back on the stage, seems almost distant, in sharp contrast to Bush’s voice, which, positioned front and center and suspended between the speakers, sounds almost ghostly. All of this was communicated beautifully by the M5HPs, whose lucid sound was impeccably clear.
Listening to “Broken Homes,” from Tricky’s Angels with Dirty Faces (16/44.1 AIFF, Island), I found that the Axioms did a fine job of conveying the cavernous reverb of the percussion. Fellow Brit PJ Harvey appears on this track, her voice distinctly separate from Tricky’s as the two voices seem to float between the speakers. A choir behind the lead singers’ voices seems to come from farther back on the stage, giving the sound a tangible sense of depth, and offering an interesting contrast to the drums, played in a rhythm reminiscent of a military band.
The M5HPs’ outstanding clarity was evident with everything I played through them. With “Could We,” from Cat Power’s The Greatest (16/44.1 AIFF, Matador), Chan Marshall and her band had a palpable presence courtesy the Axiom’s ultraclean sound and sharp imaging. The bass had warm punch, and the tweeters conveyed the shimmer of the cymbals with commendable precision. Marshall’s voice sounded natural, and was positioned squarely between the speakers.
“Tombstone Blues,” from Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (16/44.1 AIFF, Columbia), offered a significant contrast to Cat Power in terms of recording quality. Though it will never escape the shadow of “Like a Rolling Stone,” which precedes it on this album and is probably more synonymous with Mr. Zimmerman than anything else in his catalog, “Tombstone Blues” is a favorite of mine. The sound isn’t bad, but compared to The Greatest it lacks that sense of a three-dimensional acoustic space, sounding thinner and more compressed -- though this never manages to detract from its infectious, toe-tapping rhythm. What it did do was illustrate that the Axiom had little character of its own and was faithful to the recording. The M5HP’s inherent neutrality bodes well for the long-term enjoyment of a wide-ranging music collection.
To hear how the M5HP handled music with lots of beefy bass, I listened to “General Patton,” from Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (16/44.1 AIFF, Def Jam). It took almost no time to hear the character of the Axiom’s low end: powerful but neutral. “General Patton” features a weighty bottom end that speakers less disciplined than the M5HP tend to make fat and boomy. I saw Big Boi tour this album, and from what I heard at that show, I’m pretty certain that’s exactly how he wants his music to be experienced. The problem is that sloppy bass performance not only sounds bad, it overwhelms and muddles everything else. Through the Axioms, “General Patton” had a strong low end that was actually articulate -- the quality of the bass wasn’t masked by the quantity of bass. The speakers sounded full, and made plenty of impact, but did so even as their sound remained crystal clear and apparently effortless. If you had enough amplifier power and space to push these speakers hard, I’m fairly certain you could play them continuously at dangerously high levels and they would remain entirely composed. There are speakers that cost multiples of the M5HP’s price that can’t handle such abuse; the fact the M5HPs sell for less than $1000/pair and are designed for this is pretty remarkable.
The M5HPs’ ability to play loudly, cleanly, and effortlessly should be apparent the first time you throw something rambunctious at them and turn up the volume. War Dance, from Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba: Suite (16/44.1 AIFF, Reference), is one such recording, and the Axioms merely yawned at the sonic onslaught, further confirming their ability to portray seemingly limitless dynamics. Sure, they reproduced the solo flute with aplomb, floating its image with impeccable precision on an impressively wide stage -- but it’s the percussion and brass of the Minnesotans that invigorate this dance, and the Axioms delivered those in full measure. If you wanted to increase the apparent size of the concert hall a bit, you could add a subwoofer (Axiom makes a number of these), but otherwise, the M5HPs will have you questioning whether spending more will buy you sound that’s genuinely better or merely different. If it were possible, I’d love to hear them in a double-blind listening test pitted against some speakers costing ten times their price. Depending on the model, I think they might be good enough to hold their own.
Given the high praise I’ve lavished on the Axiom M5HPs, it was fitting that I could listen to them alongside a pair of Revel Performa3 F206 floorstanders. The Revels are probably the best speakers I’ve ever heard in my own system and room, and I was interested to hear how the modestly priced Axioms would fare against them.
The Performa3 F206 ($3500/pair) is also a three-way speaker, with a driver complement similar to the M5HP’s. The Revel has a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter, a 5.25” midrange, and two 6.5” woofers. Aside from the additional woofer, the most obvious thing distinguishing the Revel from the Axiom is the fact that it’s a floorstander, not a bookshelf model.
Since I was so enamored of the M5HPs’ dynamic prowess, I wanted to listen to them alongside the F206es to hear if their low-end performance could measure up. For that I played “m.A.A.d. city,” from Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city (16/44.1 AIFF, Aftermath/Interscope). Overall, I found the two models’ bass characters similar -- both pairs of speakers reproduced tight, powerful lows. The Revels and Axioms are both squeaky clean -- even with such a track as this, which features a fat bottom end, their low-end outputs were well controlled. The difference was in the sheer volume of lows each could deliver -- the Revels dug deeper and sounded fuller. Given their additional woofer and larger cabinet volume, it wasn’t surprising that the Revels could move more air. Both speakers retained their accurate tonal characters at the highest volumes I could stand -- but given the effortless nature of the Axioms’ sound, I wouldn’t be surprised if they could play just as loudly as the Revels in a room big enough to test this in.
With “Banquet Hall,” an acoustic instrumental from Loreena McKennitt’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away, the M5HPs and F206es were both commendable in their ability to portray a clear soundstage with real senses of depth and width, and the crystalline ringing of McKennitt’s finger cymbals added bright bursts of color. The two pairs of speakers, each with metal-dome tweeters, sounded smooth and extended, not bright or analytical in any way that had me reaching for the volume control after a few minutes.
The Axioms and Revels did superb jobs of producing convincing impressions of the acoustic of Glenstal Abbey, in Ireland, as captured in “Snow,” also from the McKennitt album. Her tin whistle appears “behind” her harp, portraying good stage depth, but more impressive was the height of the stage audible through both sets of speakers, most noticeable as McKennitt’s voice soars up into the rafters. Much like the rest of their sound, the Axioms’ and Revels’ reproductions of the midrange were uncolored -- the speakers didn’t impose their own characters on the sound. In my experience, the Performa3 F206 has the purest, most transparent-sounding midrange reproduction of any speaker I’ve heard for under $5000/pair -- but the Axiom M5HP conceded little to them. As I switched between Axioms and Revels, still listening to “Snow,” I tended to prefer whichever speaker I was hearing at the time. At times I thought the Revels seemed a touch more open, but when I then switched back to the Axioms, I wasn’t so sure. With good recordings of the human voice, there was something very lifelike about the Revels’ sound -- and, at little more than a quarter of their price, the Axiom M5HPs weren’t far behind.
While $968 for a pair of bookshelf speakers is still a lot of money for someone with a modest income who wants to assemble a hi-fi system, it isn’t unreasonable when you consider that the product you’re buying easily competes with far more expensive speakers, is made in North America, and probably won’t merely tempt you to spend even more on better speakers, but may well be the end of your journey. Because so many audio manufacturers sell products priced far beyond the reach of most of us, it’s easy to become jaded and assume that you must spend a small fortune to get outstanding sound quality. Many reviewers, too, would have you believe that if you want great sound, you’d better be ready to pony up a lot of cash.
But here’s the thing that we in the audio press don’t tell you often enough: Forget about the highest end of the audio market. If your goal is great sound, it doesn’t matter if you can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on your system. A speaker like Axiom’s M5HP is proof that you can get incredible sound, superb engineering, and fantastic build quality at a reasonable price. You will still need money for amplification and source components -- but the M5HPs require little power, and excellent DACs are fairly affordable. If you skip the fancy speaker cables and interconnects (you don’t really need them), the only thing you’ll be missing to get the Axioms to sound their best is a pair of sturdy stands. I’m not very handy, but I’m sure that more than a few readers could build a solid pair of stands for a fraction of what they cost to buy. Voilà! You’ll have a complete high-end system that you can own and enjoy for years to come, all without falling into the trap of overspending that plagues so many audiophiles.
Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time writing about speakers that cost well over $1000/pair. After spending time with the Axiom M5HP, I think I need to take Hans Wetzel’s lead and get back to what got me interested in audio in the first place: high-quality speakers and components that normal folks can aspire to own. In the meantime, Axiom Audio’s M5HP gets my unreserved recommendation.
. . . Philip Beaudette
- Speakers -- Revel Performa3 F206
- Integrated amplifier -- Bryston B135 SST2
- Digital sources -- Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana, Bryston BDA-2 DAC
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Comet
- Interconnects -- Kimber Kable Tonik
- Digital links -- AudioQuest Forest USB
- Power conditioner -- ExactPower EP15A
Axiom Audio M5HP Loudspeakers
Price: $968-$1474 USD per pair, depending on finish.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Dwight, Ontario P0A 1H0
Phone: (888) 352-9466, (705) 635-2222
Fax: (705) 635-1972