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Published July 15, 2008

 

Axiom Audio Audiobyte Computer Loudspeakers and Amplifier and EPZero Subwoofer

I haven’t been big on what passes for audio these days. I sneer at MP3s, the antithesis of high fidelity. I don’t own an iPod or any other such device, and don’t plan to. About the only aural use I make of my computer is to listen to radio via the Internet (especially WBGO, the jazz FM station from Newark, New Jersey), and most often, those services don’t sound all that good.

So why am I so enamored of Axiom Audio’s Audiobyte computer speaker with matching amplifier ($349 USD) and passive EPZero subwoofer ($179)? Have they blown all my preconceptions into the weeds?

Description

The Axiom Audiobyte is tiny -- roughly 6.5"H x 5.5"W x 4"D -- with a 3" aluminum midrange driver, a 1" titanium tweeter, and a claimed frequency response of 100Hz-20kHz. The EPZero passive subwoofer isn’t huge either -- just 12.4"H x 7.9"W x 14.5"D, with two modest 6.5" drivers -- but it’s unique: on the front is a three-position switch that controls the sub’s output level. The settings are Flat, Half Boost, and Full Boost; no details are offered in Axiom’s literature, but there was a fair amount of difference in bass output between Flat and Full Boost.

All three speakers are driven by the dedicated amplifier, which measures 5"H x 5"W x 12.4"D. The amp’s only controls are a volume knob on the front and a Power switch on the rear. The speakers are connected via supplied cables terminated in 3.5mm phone plugs. The EPZero has its own dedicated output on the amplifier, but there’s also a line-level subwoofer output if you plan to use a different, active sub. The amp offers two inputs: a stereo 3.5mm phone jack (the system includes a stereo-RCA-plug-pair-to-stereo-3.5mm-plug patch cord) and a USB input for an iPod (it also charges the iPod). Axiom claims the amp puts out 55Wpc -- a lot more than most computer-speaker setups. No other specs are provided.

System

My computer is far from the state of the art: a Dell Dimension 8100 PC from late 2001, 1.8GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB RAM and a 40GB hard drive, running Windows 2000. However, it does have a Turtle Beach soundcard, which several of my audio-oriented IT friends told me was one of the best a couple years ago. (There are doubtless better cards now, but the TB does me fine.) I drove the Axiom amp via its analog input. The speakers were set up just in front of my widescreen monitor, about 15" apart (from mid center to mid center).

Sound

What all have I found in the process of trying out the system by accessing the Web? I’ve been "RickRolled" -- sent without my understanding to a YouTube video of Rick Astley’s 1987 hit, "Never Gonna Give You Up." Of course, the joke is on the perps -- I actually like the song. It sounded quite good through the Audiobyte-EPZero system, especially when I set the sub’s bass control to Full Boost. I’ve searched YouTube for songs by such favorite artists as Aretha Franklin (good versions of "Think"), Manhattan Transfer (their version of "Birdland" with Weather Report is a train wreck but interesting), and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (they sing "Cloudburst" on the set of Playboy After Dark, a syndicated TV series from the early 1960s -- yes, that’s Hugh Hefner on the couch, puffing on his pipe and flanked by two rather pneumatic lovelies).

When I began my serious listening, I wanted to see how the Audiobyte system would handle intense, percussive music. These characteristics were well demonstrated by Fourplay’s "Bali Run," from their eponymous debut album [CD, Warner Bros. 26656-2], which has highs, lows, and everything in between, all in abundance. The Audiobytes handled it all with aplomb. The initial guitar is delicate, but the bass that enters soon after is deep-footed and athletic, even with the sub’s control set to Flat; at Half or Full Boost, the bass output with this track was a bit over the top. The brushes had just the right degree of air through the Audiobytes and the soundstage was full, despite how close together I’d placed the speakers. They wanted me to sit about 2’ back for the clearest sound. All in all, it was impressive sound, and amp and speakers worked well together: there was no sense of strain as they reproduced this tune.

The Audiobyte system did a fairly nice job on "Our Love Is Here to Stay," as performed by John Pizzarelli and the Don Sebesky Big Band [CD, RCA 67501-2]. My one quibble was that the satellites added a little lower-midrange tubbiness to Pizzarelli’s voice. There also was a discernible disconnect in the bass: the harmonics came from the satellites, while the fundamentals came from the sub about 3’ away. Not bad, but not perfect. The big band’s horns came through beautifully, even the baritone sax.

The guitar that opens Diana Krall’s lush version of "Let’s Face the Music and Dance," from her When I Look Into Your Eyes [CD, Verve IMPD-304], was well reproduced by the Audiobyte system. Again, the speakers set up a very fine soundstage, with Krall’s voice a bit out in front of her piano and the rest of the instruments behind that -- though not too far; this is a pretty intimate-sounding recording, given the large number of players. I was never really tempted to change the sub’s setting from Flat, though I did try the other settings -- only to find the bass too prominent, as expected. The light percussion also was reproduced well, with just the right presence.

There is a lot of percussion in the accompaniment to Manhattan Transfer’s vocal performance of "Birdland" on their The Definitive Pop Collection [CD, Atlantic/Rhino R2 74111]: synth drums and bass galore! The Audiobytes provided some good punch -- there was nothing sloppy about their reproduction. Interestingly, the kick drum was above and to the right of center stage, but well back from the singers. Tim Hauser’s baritone had a bit of the tubbiness I heard in Pizzarelli’s voice, though, oddly, not as much (Pizzarelli’s voice is higher in timbre and lighter in tone). Furthermore, the source of this seemed to be an interaction in the sub’s output of Hauser’s voice and the kick drum. It was nothing too disturbing; it just fell a bit shy of perfection.

Conclusion

Axiom Audio’s Audiobyte-EPZero system offers marvelous sound and an attractive appearance, and nearly everything I played through it sounded fine. In fact, the Audiobytes are so much better than my own crummy little cheap-o computer speakers that I now realize I may have been missing the computer-audio boat. For one thing, thanks to the EPZero sub, the Audiobyte system has some real bass. For another, the Audiobyte has actual output above 5kHz. This little rig is a lot better than I expected, and provided a fine glimpse of what is available from a really good hi-fi system.

While the Axiom system has made me realize that computer-based audio doesn’t have to sound crummy, its $578 price is a bit rich for my blood. But if you use your computer to create music or video soundtracks, or to listen to a lot of music downloads and/or watch movies, the Audiobyte-EPZero system could be just the ticket. It sure exceeded my expectations.

. . . Thom Moon

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