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Published March 15, 2006



Athena Technologies AS-B2.2 Loudspeakers

In the film Risky Business, after Tom Cruise’s character, Joel Goodsen, has painstakingly reassembled his audiophile father’s obviously high-end stereo system, his father calls him into the room. As a classical work plays, Mr. Goodsen asks Joel what he hears. His son is silent, his mind racing through the possibilities: Could a component be missing? Is something broken?

"A preponderance of bass," his father says, readjusting the equalizer.

Bass may be the opiate of the masses, but in the wake of boom boxes and boom cars, and as more and more music is heard through portable devices and sonically deficient, manufacturer-supplied earbuds, music reproduction is judged less by the quality of its bass than by its quantity. Every speaker has to face up to this, especially in the heavily populated and competitive category of the two-way bookshelf monitor.

Athena Technologies, Energy, and Mirage are all brands produced by Audio Products International, based in Toronto, Canada. Currently one of the leading speaker companies in the world, API made significant headway in the early 1990s and, along with such competitors as Paradigm and PSB, helped to establish Canada’s reputation for making world-class speakers at reasonable prices. Athena’s Audition Series (AS) retains this spirit of progressiveness in its appearance as well as its sound.


Athena Technologies’ AS-B2.2 speaker ($249 USD per pair) comes in a single finish -- a synthetic yet realistic black ash that is grainy and tactile. At 15.75"H x 7.875"W x 9.5"D, the speaker is a bit tall and narrow for a bookshelf monitor, which only adds to its sleek profile. This bass-reflex design is ported in the rear, and connection is made via gold-plated five-way binding posts that can accept bare wires of up to 12 gauge. The one-piece faceplate is covered in a smoky silvery composite material that presents a contemporary look that should integrate nicely with most home-theater setups. The AS-B2.2 is magnetically shielded, which enables placement near a video display. Its plain black grille bends slightly outward from its four protruding silver pegs. The grille is easily removed, does nothing to improve the Athena’s sound, and arguably even less for its appearance. I left them off.

Minus its grille, the AS-B2.2 looks striking. At the top, a 1" Teteron tweeter sits like a reflective gray bubble, secured by four small silver screws to an oval enclosure fixed in place with four more small screws. Below this is a large black dust cap in the center of a 6.5" polypropylene woofer that matches the color of the tweeter. This driver has a black rubber surround and is secured with more silver screws. The third circle on the face of the speaker is a discreet black button near the bottom with the brand name in small lowercase silver lettering. All of this detailing -- pegs, screws, letters -- combines with the attractive shades of the dominant silver styling to catch the light and sparkle in contrast with the black of the box itself.


The AS-B2.2 has a reported impedance of 8 ohms, a claimed frequency range of 50Hz-20kHz, and can handle up to 150Wpc. I drove them with an NAD C320BEE integrated amplifier. Given that the NAD’s 50Wpc rating is widely thought to be conservative and the Athena’s sensitivity is rated at an impressive 91dB, very little gain was needed to drive the speakers to satisfactory listening levels. I connected them to the amp with 9’ runs of Element Cable’s Double Run speaker cable terminated with banana plugs, placed them about 8’ apart on stands that put the tweeters at my seated ear level and the speakers 3’ from the front wall, and toed them in slightly to optimize the treble response. I played CDs on my trusty source, the all-purpose Pioneer DVD-353, linked by Monster Cable interconnects.


Since the introduction of the compact disc, the songs of innocence on Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run have hidden behind a wall of sound washed with mud. With the release of a beautiful digital remastering in the album’s 30th Anniversary 3 Disc Set [Sony 94175], however, the recording’s initial analog power to move, remind, and inspire has been restored, wrestled away from classic-rock cliché. From the opening harmonica of "Thunder Road" to the horns on "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," through the saxophone downshifting of the title track and the pretty piano and violin of "Jungleland," the AS-B2.2 was involving, musically alive, and balanced between airy highs and unexpectedly strong low frequencies: I was grabbed and threatened to be pulled under by the bass and kick drum on "She’s the One." While not quite bringing the recording studio into my listening room, the AS-B2.2 was able to present details previously subsumed in the mix, such as background vocals and the sound of the glockenspiel, and made me feel good about being able to give this remastering its due.

Tenor saxophonist Louie Belogenis explicitly traces his roots to John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, with the same agenda (transcendence) and a similar vocabulary (ecstatic). On Unbroken [Tick Tock 01], his first release as a leader, he is backed by bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Kenny Wollesen, who frequently establish modal grooves and repeated bass vamps that, through the AS-B2.2, induced a pleasantly mild hypnosis. The notes of the double bass struck with the weight of a brick dropped on a stack of cotton on "Transmission," and on "Bells Canto," the shaking and ringing were rendered with crisp realism. Belogenis’ timbre is alternately hoarse and whispery, high-pitched and urgent, smooth and mystical, with a touch of vibrato; the AS-B2.2’s natural, laid-back presentation handled it all.

On their own, Chris Whitley’s National Steel guitar playing and vocals, the latter ranging from breathy whisper to cracked falsetto, can be bluesy, soulful, and sexy. Rocket House [ATO 21501] adds layer on layer of drum programming, turntable scratches, synthesizer blips, and pinpoint tape looping to transform Whitley’s bare-bones approach into a great meal for the ears. Through the Athenas, daughter Trixie’s girlish, disembodied backing vocal on "Chain" and "Serve You" seemed to come from the back of the soundstage, while the instrumentation and additional effects were properly positioned in the foreground. The aggressive break beat on "Rocket House" was rendered with tightly controlled quickness, as was the transient speed of the clipped, syncopated rhythms of "To Joy." "Vertical Desert" offered a textural challenge of vocal pitches, swooping keyboards, and spatial atmospheric effects that the Athenas met with characteristic warmth.

By now, I’d given in to the Athena’s seductively smooth midrange and plush bass extension. It also proved a wonderful speaker for reggae, reproducing Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey [Mango 539377] and its miasma of Robbie Shakespeare and Ashton "Family Man" Barrett’s bass playing, as Earl "Chinna" Smith’s skanking guitar chops and Winston Rodney’s keening, incantatory vocals cut through the smoky haze. Rodney doesn’t sing so much as chant, and on the title track, the Athena accurately conveyed the loping rhythm and lyrical repetition of his phrasing, its audible nuances intact. On "Slavery Days," Rodney’s lead was presented in sharply detailed contrast to Rupert Willington’s and Delroy Hinds’ more mellifluous supporting voices, all in three-dimensional fashion. But I kept coming back to Jack Ruby’s production, as if the CD had been mixed on the antique, idiosyncratic, patched-together gear in Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio. The bass was hardly seismic, but if a speaker can have the sound of tubes, the AS-B2.2 is that speaker.


First I compared the AS-B2.2 to the similarly priced Paradigm Titan ($220/pair). The no-frills Titan is available in two basic vinyl finishes and has a fixed grille of black cloth, but it’s a wonderful point of entry to the high end. The Titan’s midrange was warm and rich, but its highs were less detailed and extended than the Athena’s. In the midbass, the Athena was a bit more extended and warm, and while both speakers were impressively dynamic and equal in transient articulation, the Athena was more revealing of low-level dynamics and had a more extended deep bass. The Athena demonstrated greater ease with loudness and slam, likely as a result of its taller cabinet.

Next I put the Athena up against my reference speaker, the German-made MB Quart QLC-204 ($399/pair), which also has a 1" tweeter and a 6.5" woofer but has a claimed range of 48Hz-32kHz. At 86dB, the MB Quart is not nearly as sensitive as the Athena, and required a bit more oomph from the NAD amp. The QLC-204 is most simply described as bright, and, true to my previous experience of it, presented a greater offering of microdynamics with the recordings mentioned above, particularly in the upper frequencies, and a more complex tonal palette overall. But I found myself liking the AS-B2.2’s midrange warmth and damped lower end more, and particularly the way it handled the reverberating woody sound of double bass and the heavy thud of roots reggae. And the Athena is almost a third less expensive.


Athena Technologies’ engineers have made some choices that almost always must be made in a loudspeaker at this price point, and the AS-B2.2 is likely to appeal to a specific taste. It’s tilted in the direction of politeness, with a full midbass and a satisfying, softly sweet high end. This suggests that a tube amplifier would recess its sound to the point of being closed-in, but that pairing is unlikely for the entry-level market Athena has evidently targeted with the AS-B2.2. But with a lively, modestly powered amplifier, the speaker’s looks and sound should achieve a lushness uncommon for the price.

In short, the AS-B2.2 offers maximum musicality at minimum cost. With its sweet treble, warm midrange, and well-engineered and surprisingly smooth and palpable bass, it would be extremely difficult to pay less than $249/pair and get as much as this speaker delivers.

...Jeff Stockton

Price of equipment reviewed

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