Axiom has been trying to get me to review a set of speakers from their home theater surround lineup, but I asked to start with something smaller, so they suggested their Audiobytes PC speaker system. I’ve been using what counts as “high end” speaker systems in the PC world on my media center PC for nearly a decade. My primary PC speaker system is a Klipsch THX Pro Media 5.1, which I have pitted against a 5.1 THX setup from Logitech, 2.1 systems from Altec Lansing, and others over the years. Axiom’s Audiobyte system consists of up to four pieces: modest sized left and right speakers and an enormous desktop amplifier/volume control that I struggled to find room for on my desk ($349 for all three); and a subwoofer roughly the same size as a full sized PC desktop case that will almost certainly be placed right next to it ($179). The speakers can be ordered in some fairly exotic enclosure materials (from various types of wood to bold designer colors), which is fairly common in high end audio and home theater, but quite unusual for PC speakers. For review purposes I asked for a set in basic black (pictured to the left; the subwoofer is pictured separately, below).
The system arrived in two large, heavy boxes (large enough that visitors to my office could not believe that they contained a PC speaker system). All the cables required to hook up the system are included. The cables don’t offer the most flexibility in placement, but since most users will just be flanking their computer monitor with the speakers, super-long cables aren’t required. There are small rubber “feet” you can add to the speakers, but no stands. This is a shame, because the speakers will obviously be used on a desk, and in most situations, that will be below ear level; angled stands would be a big help.
The amplifier unit serves all the speakers; the subwoofer does not have its own power supply and amplifier. The amp glows blue around the volume control and never got more than warm after hours of continuous use. The large amp does seem to have an effect on the system’s capabilities, imbuing the Audiobytes with tremendous dynamic range – they can play ridiculously loud without distortion. For example, John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter goes from quiet to over-the-top brassy; the quiet sections were clear and full, and then – boom, it’s loud! – but without any sibilance on the horns. Some of this power is wasted on a near-field product like a PC system where you have a defined listening position – most listeners will be no more than three feet or so from the speakers at any time. Still, it’s nice to have gobs of power on reserve, even if there’s no way anyone will ever push the amplifier beyond mid-point before going deaf.
The main speakers and amplifier combination is more neutral and analytical than warm. Pianos were rendered realistically, which is quite hard to do and rarely achieved on PC systems. Female vocals were also good, but not great, mostly because the sound is overly localized to the little speaker. Similarly, drum kits were loud and crisp but were still sounded like they emanated from a little box three feet away rather than from a real drum set farther back. In short, they sound better than most PC speakers, but you can’t expect audiophile nirvana for $350.
Still, the system’s clarity is excellent. The mark of a good PC or iPod speaker system – you can easily tell which songs have been recorded at higher bit levels – is achieved here. Better sources sound better. I also found that the added fidelity and ability to raise endlessly raise the volume is useful beyond music when used with a PC – a webcast with poor audio quality was much clearer and easier to follow.
However, despite the big subwoofer, at anything less than ear-bleeding levels, the EPZero generated very little bass. The sub has three setting: “flat,” “half,” and “full.” It badly needs something beyond “full,” say, a “Spinal Tap” setting that takes it to 11. On Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” her vocals were crystal clear and the bass had wonderful tone – there just wasn’t that much of it. I wasn’t sure what was going on here, so I tried the “full” setting and played an even more bass-heavy dance track, “SOS.” On the Klipsch system played at the same volume level, the room shakes. On the Axiom, the bass is extremely tight – ‘bob your head’ tight, not ‘shake your rear’ tight. It worked well enough for classical and indie rock (Jonathan Coulton never sounded better), but the Axiom system isn’t the best system to listen to house, electronic, or hip hop unless you prefer listening at levels loud enough to damage your hearing.
The lack of bass at reasonable volumes really bothers me, and the high price doesn’t help matter, so I had fully expected to end my review on a negative note. But the longer I listened to music on the Audiobytes, the more I enjoyed them. The main speakers have a very neutral, open, non-fatiguing sound. They sound good. Would I spend $350 for them? Probably not. But I’m quite reluctant to let Axiom know that I’ve completed the review and ask for a shipping account number to use to return them.