Athena Technologies Audition
On a few occasions, humanity has come
close to achieving its quest for technological perfection. Consider the 1964 Mustang, for
instance: a stylish, affordable bundle of muscle that appealed to both sexes. The car was
an instant success and is today a collector's item that gets rolled to vintage auto shows
for gearheads to admire and sigh over.
In 20 years, perhaps, Athena's AS-F2 speakers might receive
the same tender treatment from fans of affordable loudspeakers. The Canadian manufacturer,
Audio Products International, which also makes Mirage and Energy gear, has consistently
given people budget-priced speakers with price-is-of-no-concern quality. The AS-F2s, the
flagship speakers in Athena Technologies Audition series, continue that remarkable
Standing three-and-a-half feet high and weighing in at 51
pounds each, the Athena AS-F2s command attention: quality speakers costing $599 a pair are
often consigned to bookshelves. Lots of manufacturers simply haven't figured out how to
give consumers a good, substantial pair of floorstanding speakers, like the AS-F2s,
without sacrificing quality. Sure, there are lots of great bookshelf models at $599 per
pair that are well worth the money, but some of us are looking for more bass-bang for our
buck than those diminutive speakers are typically able to deliver. Naturally, we don't
want our midrange or highs to be thin or edgy, either -- we're a picky lot.
In an effort to make sure a lot of us choose the AS-F2s,
Athena packed dual 8" polypropylene, injection-molded woofers with 1" voice
coils and rubber surrounds (the flexible, half-round connecting material between speaker
cone and frame), and a 1" Teteron (man-made silk) dome tweeter into these speakers.
The AS-F2s are also magnetically shielded, which means that they're safe for use next to
your television, should you decide to use them as the front speakers in a home-theater
system. In fact, the Audition series includes surrounds, a subwoofer, and another
floorstanding model, the AS-F1, as part of this speaker range. We're focused on these
top-of-the-line AS-F2s, which are well suited to two-channel systems as well as
movie-watching applications. And in case youre keeping track, Athena says the AS-F2s
have a frequency response of 35Hz to 20kHz (+/- 3dB) and 93dB sensitivity.
I like my first listening experience with a new set of
speakers to get the blood boiling, to see if the new boxes are capable of getting my
rock'n'roll heart pounding just a little bit harder. So I chose to break the AS-F2s in
with some selections from the monstrous British metal Best of the Beast [Castle
124-2] double-CD packaging of Iron Maiden's most memorable musical onslaughts. Sliding the
first disc into the NAD C521i
CD player, hooked into the two-channel system with the Vasant GA-120S Final Edition
0.1 amp, brought the rambunctious "Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter" to my
eager ears. The tune was once given a Golden Raspberry for Worst
Song of the Year, but this oh-so-silly bit of fun hyperbole showed that the Athenas were
more than capable of delivering aggressive and full -- but not boomy -- bass, as well as
detailed guitar wankery with a naturalness and ease one might reasonably expect from
speakers costing two, three, even four times the asking price of the AS-F2s.
Right out of the box these speakers delivered transparent,
neutral sound with natural, warm bass on a wide variety of musical selections, and
frankly, they don't need an extended break-in like so many do. Sure, the bass extends a
bit and becomes slightly fuller over time, and the highs are palpated just a bit more
gently after a couple dozen hours of breaking in, but the AS-F2s are ready to go as soon
as you can get 'em set up. It isn't just the highs and lows -- the most difficult ends of
the musical spectrum for speakers to deliver accurately -- that are superb once released
from the confines of the cardboard boxes: the Athena's well-defined, quick midrange excels
from the get-go, too. This was made abundantly clear when trying them out with chamber
They handled the "difficult" music of Kronos
Quartet's Early Music from 1997 [Nonesuch 79457] with ease. Medieval French
composer Guillaume de Machaut's darkly eerie "Kyrie I" is a short burst of
melancholy propelled by Joan Jeanrenaud's mournful cello; it was resonant and without the
overly warm coloration too often a part of the affordable-speaker oeuvre.
Other "difficulties," such as the Miles Davis/Gil
Evans landmark reinvention of Porgy and Bess [Columbia Legacy CK65141], were
delivered with equal measures of transparency and detail. Danny Banks' haunting alto flute
solos provided a chance for the Athenas to reach up and up, but his lyrical passages never
floated outside the sure grasp of the speakers. On this exquisitely recorded CD, the flute
was never bright or metallic sounding, but was consistently natural and fluid in tone. The
bass and tuba duet romping and bobbing through "Buzzard Song" is more evidence
that these full-range speakers are just that: they reproduce those lows with the very same
clarity and detail one hears in the midrange and highs.
The solemn tenderness of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for
Strings, Op. 11" was never meant to be considered an elegy, but after it was played
at President Franklin Roosevelt's funeral, a whole generation of Americans would forever
hear it as such. The sweeping string section of the New York Philharmonic, as conducted in
this recording (Club Verboten [DCC DZS4-135]) by Leonard Bernstein, can be broken
down by the listener. The violins are quite distinct from the cellos, for instance, even
as the instruments swell and ebb together; the speakers were more than capable of coping
with the immensity of sound in the piece, never blurring instruments near each other in
tone. The only minor caveat here would be that, at times, the sound might be considered by
some to be slightly warm, though hardly excessive or overly distracting.
Clearly, the AS-F2s are capable of meeting all sorts of
instrumental challenges, but are they able to faithfully reproduce the most fascinating
instrument of all: the human voice?
Country singer Dwight Yoakam's nasal twang can be like the
proverbial fingernails on a chalkboard to some, but to me, his lonesome voice has a
perfectly piquant quality that makes me want to drown my sorrows, whether I have any at
the moment or not, in an aluminum can full of cheap American beer. His "I Sang
Dixie" (Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years [Reprise/Rhino R2 78100])
is a despondent beauty nicely suited to our voice-reproduction testing needs. The Athenas
gave that twang to me with an unaffected purity that I hadn't heard since the last time I
saw the hillbilly deluxe in concert.
The same goes for the fiddles and steel guitar mourning at
Yoakam's side in the song; they're so real-sounding and immediate, one's tempted to reach
out and pat Tom Brumley on the back for a job well done.
One of our last purely musical investigations involved a
guilty pleasure: the mostly forgotten bubble-glam of T. Rex. I cranked the Athenas up to
1972 T. Rexstasy levels appropriate for making the neighbors' ears bleed in order
to groove on Marc Bolan's "Metal Guru," "Telegram Sam," and
"Spaceball Ricochet" from Chronicles' remastered edition of The Slider
[314 534 355-2]. Once again, low-bass extension and definition, as well as high-level
dynamic articulation, were superb. The soundstage these speakers presented on the glam
thunder was as wide and deep and articulately defined as it had been on the previous
Athena Technologies Audition AS-F2 Loudspeakers
Satisfied that the AS-F2s had met all the musical
challenges hurled at them, I moved 'em from my listening room to the living room in order
to give them a brief, though vigorous workout on home-theater material.
From the opening of Enemy at the Gates, shocking
scenes of the epic madness that was war-torn Stalingrad during World War II, tested the
Athenas. The AS-F2s presented explosions, screams, and gunshots with startling realism
(realistic, at least, from the perspective of someone who has only seen war in movies),
all backed by James Horner's soaring score.
Similarly satisfying aural experiences were enjoyed when
watching DVDs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Quills, Raising Arizona,
and a number of others varying in their demands on the speakers.
I recently had the pleasure of auditioning the Magnepan MMG speakers and
decided that they would be perfect for head-to-head comparison, since the two sets of
loudspeakers carry nearly identical price tags.
At this price point the Maggies are without peer at
reproducing the high end of the musical spectrum, but the Athenas nearly matched their
precision, detail, and transparency. They fell just a tad short in these areas.
Where they bested the Maggies, however, was at the opposite end of the aural palette. The
Athenas' depth and timbre down to the 30Hz to 40Hz region is not only better than what the
Magnepans can deliver, but better than the bass extension most speakers costing well over
$1000 will give you.
Athena Technologies' AS-F2 floorstanding loudspeakers are
more than just affordable; they're truly superb speakers that would enhance just about any
stereo system. Because they're so transparent, however, Id urge you to add them to a
system with a good-quality CD player (and/or DVD player), as well as an amp capable of
doing them justice. It would be a shame to muddy their engaging, intimate midrange, and
extraordinary high-level dynamics and bass extension with components incapable of
delivering the articulate musical muscle of the Athenas. These speakers are highly
Price of equipment reviewed