GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published July 15, 2002

 

Athena Technologies S.5 Loudspeakers and P.5 Subwoofer

Gord Van Kessel, chief engineer at Athena Technologies, would like his company to be known for offering the "best-built, best-sounding product, and, dollar for dollar, the best speaker value available today." A lofty goal to be sure, but Athena's first products, the innovative System Creation Technology (SCT) loudspeakers, which featured powered subwoofer sections "docked" to different midrange/treble satellites, provided both system flexibility and excellent value.

Athena's second series of products, the Audition line, was more conventional. These affordable speaker designs compete with the high-value offerings of their competitors in the budget music and home-theater market.

The subjects of this GoodSound! review, the S.5 satellite speakers and P.5 subwoofer, share the same nomenclature and look, as well as some of the basic design features, of the SCT series. However, they lack the docking ability, hewing instead to the more common subwoofer/satellite configuration.

Sub/sat systems like the S.5/P.5 make a lot of sense for people who have limited space, yet want a full-range or nearly full-range speaker system. Also, having the bass reproduced by a single subwoofer rather than two large stereo speakers is simply more cost effective. Most subwoofers these days are powered (they contain built-in amplifiers), so the amplifier or receiver driving the satellites is relieved of reproducing the bass frequencies, which, theoretically, should result in a cleaner and more accurate sound through the midrange and high frequencies. Athena Technologies also has available the C.5 center-channel speaker (which was not submitted for review), which can be combined with two pairs of the S.5 satellites and the P.5 sub for home-theater applications.

Description

The S.5 satellites are small and retail for $175 USD per pair. On the back panel, the speaker sports a small port, two widely spaced five-way binding posts, and a bulbous protrusion for the attachment of a mounting bracket. A simple bracket system is included for wall mounting, which allows the speakers to be easily angled both vertically and horizontally. I utilized the optional 32" metal stands instead, which were quite sturdy. The stands retail for a reasonable $89.99 per pair.

The S.5s have individually removable grilles for the tweeter and bass/midrange drivers, and are available in black gloss with a silver front baffle, cherry with a black-gloss baffle, or black gloss all around. The S.5s have a modern look and a hefty feel for such an economically priced speaker.

The S.5's tweeter is a 1" Teteron dome with a dispersion pattern, which, Athena claims, is enhanced by the contoured front baffle. The bass/midrange driver is a 4" injection-molded polypropylene cone. The shielded cabinet measures only 8.5"H x 5.75"W x 6.25"D, yet the S.5 still weighs in at an impressive six pounds. Its sensitivity is rated by the manufacturer at 89dB with a claimed frequency response of 60Hz to 20kHz (+/- 3dB) and an "8-ohms compatible" impedance. I assume this means the S.5 should be an easy load for even modestly powered receivers and could even be used without a subwoofer if deep bass response is not a requirement.

The $275 P.5 subwoofer is also a compact unit, measuring only 13.25"H x 10"W x 13.5"D. Its sides are covered with stretched fabric and its top and rear panel sport a heavy-duty vinyl veneer. It employs a single 8" down-firing woofer. The back panel features a power switch, left and right high-level speaker inputs on spring clips, and a single line-level RCA input. A large flared port is located just below the front control panel, and large rubber feet are provided to raise the unit off of the floor to provide adequate clearance for the woofer. There is a 75W internal amplifier.

The P.5's front panel has controls for output level and "Bass Range" (high-frequency cut off), as well as switches for "Mode" and "A/V." The A/V switch can be set for Audio (flat frequency response) or to Video, which "enhances the bass frequencies’ response for the thump and excitement of home-theater soundtracks." The P.5’s Mode switch can be set to provide the optimum crossover characteristics for an appropriate Athena Technologies satellite speaker, which in this case is the S.5. When the switch is set to this position, it overrides the Bass Range control and the user need only adjust the output level of the sub to match the volume of the S.5 satellites. Blending satellite speakers with a subwoofer can sometimes be a frustrating process of finding just the right balance of the crossover frequency, output level, and perhaps even placement of the sub. I appreciated having the "S.5" setting for the Mode switch, which greatly simplified this process.

Setup

I did most of my listening to the S.5/P.5 system with a Blue Circle CS integrated amplifier, NAD 502 CD player, Audio Magic Xstream interconnect and power cable, and Analysis Plus Clear Oval speaker cables. The S.5/P.5 system also spent some time mated to an Arcam DiVA AVR200 receiver and a Panasonic A110 DVD player with TARA Labs Prism cables.

As Gord Van Kessel points out, the P.5 subwoofer will typically be connected to surround receivers with a mono LFE output or used with a stereo receiver or integrated amplifier that does not have preamp outputs, so stereo line-level inputs would be largely unnecessary. Consequently, I connected the P.5 via the speaker-level inputs, set the Mode switch to "S.5," and adjusted the output level with bass tones from a test CD to achieve a smooth frequency response. Set up turned out to be a snap and the sub did not seem overly sensitive to placement. I ended up situating the sub just inside one of the speakers, which were placed on the stands about 6’ apart and toed-in slightly.

Sound

When I first connected the S.5 satellites, I was amazed at how clean and open they sounded, and how capable they were at throwing a huge soundstage. Even without a subwoofer, the S.5s provided enough bass on their own to make listening to most kinds of music extremely enjoyable. However, adding the P.5 subwoofer to the satellites transformed them into a near-full-range speaker system with surprisingly well-integrated bass. The system retained the excellent imaging characteristics of the satellites, while the subwoofer added solid, well-blended bass of the sort normally associated with good floorstanding speakers.

Unlike many small, relatively inexpensive sub/sat systems, the S.5/P.5 combo did not suffer from an obvious hole in the upper bass, nor did it attempt to compensate for its small size with an excessively boomy low-frequency response. Instead, the entire frequency range seemed quite smooth and natural. The kick drum on "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" from Robbie Robertson’s eponymous album [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 618] was taut, yet full bodied, imaging solidly between the two satellites. The deep, richly textured bass lines from his later album, Music for the Native Americans [Capitol C2 724382829522], was well delineated, and its complex drum rhythms were reproduced with very little overhang or smearing. In fact, the P.5 did an incredible job of reproducing the lower frequencies for such a small and inexpensive subwoofer. I would guess the in-room response extended solidly down to 40Hz -- and there was usable response into the 30Hz range.

I cannot emphasize enough that it was the quality and integration of the bass from the S.5/P.5 system that impressed me the most. For instance, the upper bass of the synthesizer chords on "Broken Arrow" from Robertson’s first album were powerful and had plenty of body, as did his gravelly vocals. It was the system's smooth transition from bass to midrange that provided a solid foundation to the sound, which tied together vocals, keyboards, guitars, and percussion with a cohesiveness often lacking in small sub/sat systems.

The S.5/P.5 system was also an imaging champ, placing the various elements of recordings accurately within the sizeable soundstage. Instruments had plenty of space around them too. The soundstage was spread evenly between the two satellites, and extended beyond them with good depth and even a sense of height. The imaging was not overly precise and holographic, but rather, it had a slightly diffuse quality that made the images seem a bit more relaxed and natural. A perfect example of this was "People Get Ready" from Eva Cassidy’s Live At Blues Alley [Blix Street G2-10046]. At the beginning of the song, I could almost picture her standing slightly back from the edge of the stage with a clear sense of the recorded space around her. Later on in the track, the drums and bass were tight and punchy, and placed farther back and to the sides of the soundstage, as was the guitar, which had plenty of air around it. Nothing got lost in the mix, and Ms. Cassidy’s vocals remained powerful and clear throughout while not being masked by the instrumentation.

The Blue Circle CS integrated provided plenty of power, making the S.5/P.5 system sound authoritative and controlled -- but even a surround receiver, such as the Arcam DiVA AVR200, was able to make it sound nearly as good. I suspect that, because the S.5 satellites seem quite efficient, and because the P.5 powered subwoofer reproduces the hard-to-drive low frequencies, any moderately powered, high-quality integrated amplifier or receiver would be a suitable match for the S.5/P.5 system.

Comparison

GOODSOUND! APPROVED COMPONENT
Athena Technologies
S.5 Loudspeakers and P.5 Subwoofer

The Athena Technologies S.5/P.5 system provided the best (and easiest) blending of subwoofer and satellites that I have experienced with such a small, inexpensive system. Compared to the floorstanding Athena Technologies AS-F1s ($499 per pair), the very open sound of the S.5/P.5 system could be considered a little lean, especially when placed in a large room, but they were otherwise amazingly balanced and coherent.

The little P.5 sub simply could not keep up with the AS-F1s in terms of output level, but it could go nearly as deep. It distinguished itself by having a very quick response, especially in the critical midbass region, where a lot of musical information is present. For example, with the pipe organ from Pictures at an Exhibition [Dorian DOR-90117], the S.5/P.5 system could not shake the room like the AS-F1s, but it still did a credible job. With recordings such as Robertson's Music for the Native Americans, the S.5/P.5 system seemed to produce less bass, but what bass was there seemed more precise. The S.5/P.5 system more readily defined the varying pitch of the drums on tracks such as "Mahk Jchi" and "Vanishing Breed."

Overall, the articulation and balance of the bass presentation, as well as the soundstaging abilities of the satellites, were better than anything I’ve heard in the $500 range, even when compared to the AS-F1.

Conclusion

Some people would rather choose a floorstanding speaker to avoid the difficulty of integrating a sub/sat system. However, the benefits of the Athena Technologies S.5/P.5 system are obvious. The small satellites provide the enormous soundstage and excellent imaging qualities that good minimonitors are known for. The subwoofer extends the bass to make the system sound like a floorstander. And together they integrate wonderfully, which is a huge accomplishment. I cannot think of another sub-$500 speaker system that I would rather have, be it bookshelf, floorstander, or sub/sat system.

Price of equipment reviewed


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