Monday, September 24, 2007

Axiom Epic 60 Loudspeaker Review

I'll answer the first question right off: yes, Axiom is one of those internet-only speaker companies. They're based in Canada. Like other Canadian speaker makers (PSB for example), Axiom has access to the National Research Institute. This well-equipped lab provides the best in test equipment to help manufacturers design the best possible products. I first learned of Axiom by reading reviews on the Audioholics website. I spent a lot of time over the past 6 months researching and listening to many brands of speakers. As a classical music lover, accuracy was of paramount importance to me. Axiom is one of the few companies that publishes detailed graphs of all their models online. I was also fortunate to find a local man who had the exact setup I was considering in his theater. After spending an afternoon spinning CDs and DVDs on his excellent setup, I made my decision. I placed my order online and 2 weeks later, the speakers showed up from DHL. All pieces were in perfect condition. Packaging was quite robust and secure. Axiom has a 30-day refund policy if you wish to return the speakers for any reason. They also cover any damage incurred in shipping. In fact, the man who demoed his speakers for me said they replaced a surround speaker he had damaged himself at no charge! All Axiom products carry a 5-year warranty. The system consists of 2 M60 tower speakers, 37" tall, driven by 2 6.5" aluminum woofers, a 5.25" aluminum midrange and a 1" aluminum dome tweeter. There are 2 ports on the back and one on the front. The 27" wide VP150 center channel uses 3 of the same 5.25" midranges and 2 of the same 1" tweeters. They are arranged in a TMMMT layout. This is unusual compared to other center channel speakers but there are definite benefits which I will talk about later. It is a sealed design. The QS8 surrounds are a sealed quad-pole design employing upward and downward firing 5.25" midranges and 2 1" tweeters arrayed at a 45-degree angle. The EP350 subwoofer employs a front-firing 12" aluminum driver and 200-watt amplifier. It is front ported.

My room is a bit unusual in that I have the couch and the TV in opposite corners. I placed the 37" tall M60 towers on a low TV bench I built myself. This placed the tweeters about 4" above ear level. For movie and TV sound, this is not a problem. For music, I would like to have the tweeters lower. I plan to solve this problem by building a seperate media room in an unused bedroom. More on my future mancave plans soon, stay tuned! Anyway, back to reality. I placed the center channel in a box I have suspended over my 50" TV. The sub was placed to the side firing at the seating area. The surrounds were wall-mounted. They are far from ideally placed but more on that later. All speakers were wired with 12-gauge cable and compression-style banana plugs from Bluejeans Cable. The mains were bi-amped. The sub was connected with a high-quality Belden cable also from Bluejeans. Crossovers were set at 60hz for the mains, 100hz for the center and 110hz for the surrounds. Channel levels were set with my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter. I did go +2db on the center and -2db on the sub after watching several movies.

Since the bulk of my listening is movies, I concentrated on that for the first few weeks. Let me tell you, if you haven't had a quality sound system for movie watching before, you don't know what you're missing! Even this system, which is far from expensive, blows away any movie theater I've ever been in. Mind you, most movie theaters are not calibrated properly at all. Often, subs or dialog channels are missing or set too low or too high. The last movie I saw in a theater, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was painful to sit through. The dialog was OK but the mains and subs were so loud they approached distortion. I was physically exhausted when I left the theater. With a quality home theater system such as the Axiom Epic 60, you can finally hear a movie soundtrack the way it was meant to be heard in all its detail and ambience. And as my room is far from ideal, I can only imagine how much better it will be in a properly sound-treated room. (Mancave, more to come!) The center channel's unusual design placing the tweeters on the ends, really came to the fore. The sound field for dialog was far wider than traditional centers that place the tweeter in the middle. Plus, the Axiom's tweeters are less affected by the output of the midranges since they are only bordered on one side by other drivers. The surrounds as I said before, are very forgiving of placement. THX spec calls for surrounds mounted on the sides of the seating area, above ear level. Mine are to the side and to the rear. They are also mounted at 90-degrees to one another. Even with this huge compromise, the surround envelope is superb. Panning effects really do make you jump and the sound field is truly 3-dimensional. My favorite track so far is the movie Pan's Labyrinth. The scenes during rainstorms and gunbattles are just incredible. If you watch this movie, be sure to engage the DTS track, it's a little beefier.

This system cost me just over $2500 delivered. Coupled with the excellent Denon AVR3806 receiver and DVD 2930CI disc player, my in-home theater experience has improved by a huge factor. These are truly long-term speakers. Receivers and disc players are in a constant state of flux but good loudspeakers can last a lifetime. Unless I have to fill a significantly bigger space with sound, I can't imagine a better matched system. Axiom does have a larger tower model and 2 more sub upgrades should I feel the need, but I don't! My next upgrade will be the Mancave. I plan to buy another identical system from Axiom and install it in a dedicated, acoustically treated room. Stay tuned for that as I plan to document the entire process of building this room. Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Denon AVR-3806 Review

A few months ago I was finally able to upgrade my audio system to something more worthy of my excellent Samsung DLP display. I had muddled through for about 2 years with *gasp* a Home Theater in a Box from Sony. This system wasn't total crap but since installing the new gear, it's now gracing a landfill. For years I read the advice on various websites saying you should spend at least as much or more on audio as you do on video. OK but that's really hard to do. Of course you want the rockin' display with the most pixels, the biggest screen, you know the drill. It's what guys do. Well after installing this receiver and a 5.1 speaker setup from Axiom Audio, I can see the importance of this advice. Speaking of Axiom, I'll review the speakers and sub (M60s, VP150, QS8 and EP350) next week.

I purchased the receiver as well as a Denon DVD 2930CI from Crutchfield. You can read my review of the DVD player here. I highly recommend Crutchfield as a dealer. Their customer service is outstanding. The electronics arrived in a few days double boxed with generous amounts of peanuts. There was absolutely no damage to the Denon cartons. Crutchfield has a generous return policy and excellent support.

Setting up the unit was fairly straightforward. I'll tell you right now, the manual is terrible. The important information is there but you have to look for it. My advice with any Denon product: read the manual thoroughly before you install. This receiver like most modern multi-channel AVRs has many many options and features. You owe it to yourself to explore everything beforehand so you can get maximum performance from your gear. My main tower speakers are bi-amp capable so I wired them up as such, making sure to remove the jumper between the 2 pairs of binding posts. It doesn't matter which amp powers which drivers. Enter the setup menu and set the surround back amps to power the mains. After setting delays for the various speaker distances, I pulled out my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter to set levels. Using the test tones, I set levels for all channels to a reference volume of 80dB. I set the bass management as follows: front speakers set to small, 60hz crossover, center set to small, 100hz crossover, surrounds set to small, 110hz crossover. This gave the flattest frequency response when measuring frequency sweeps from the Digital Video Essentials audio tests. The only change I made after the fact was dropping the sub 3db. The Radio Shack meter is less accurate at low frequencies so this was as expected. Convenience features are all there such as auto-detect of audio track types, renaming of inputs and assignment of digital inputs. You might notice I've said nothing about the Audyssey auto calibration feature of this receiver. I actually bought this particular unit because of that function. I have every intention of at least trying the room correction in the future. I've just been so amazed and pleased with the sound the way it is, I haven't actually tried it out yet! My room is a bit challenging as well. I live on a fairly busy road. It would be nearly impossible to run the auto setup without a car driving by during the process. Perhaps if I did it late at night... If at some point I engage the Audyssey function, I will post an article about it.

Once all options were set, I checked my Denon Link connection from the DVD2930CI and fired up Casino Royale. Unfortunately, I heard nothing. OK, check connections, check setup, check DVD player (which I had already been using with my old audio setup). There was no light for Denon link evident on the player's front panel, hmm. I pulled out a generic CAT5 cable I had in my office and replaced the Denon cable that had shipped with my DVD player. Guess what? It worked just fine. Swell, Denon's supplied cable (which costs $45 by the way) was a dud and my free CAT5 cable that a friend made up for me worked perfectly. I had wondered if Denon Link was standard CAT5 and now I had my answer. If you want to install your player more than 6 feet from your receiver, you can with regular CAT5 for a few cents a foot. You do want the Denon Link by the way because it will support Direct Stream Digital transmission from SACDs. There is no other player in this price range that will do this. I believe the Oppo players will output PCM over HDMI from SACDs but not DSD. (was that a geeky sentence or what?) All other SACD players require you to use the multi-channel analog outputs. I also recommend using the IR in/out jacks if you have either IR blasters or some type of RF receiver for your remote. It beats sticking those pesky IR emitters to the front of your gear. In fact, I discovered the IR jack on my Scientific Atlanta 8300HD cable DVR actually works! I now have an IR emitter only on my TV. This is a much cleaner-looking and reliable way to control your components.

Sound quality? Let's just say... holy $@#&! The opening scene in Casino Royale starts with a guy riding up an elevator. The LFE effects are simply amazing. Then as he is confronted by James Bond, the scene flashes back to a fight in a bathroom. The bodies slamming through toilet stalls and other high-impact effects are simply breathtaking. Later during the now-famous chase scene, Bond drives a front-loader through a fence and a pile of iron pipe. The slam of this effect simply knocked my socks off! This is only the first day mind you. I have had this system in place for almost 3 months now and I can say I've never enjoyed movies and TV more. Even broadcast content is hugely improved. By default, this receiver will use Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo6 to pipe all soundtracks into 5.1. This is done very well as you don't really notice the extra channels unless you switch back to straight 2 channel listening. My advice, let the DSPs do their thing, they work really well.

Music listening is equally amazing. For this, I engage the Denon's PureDirect mode. Even though the manual says this is only for analog sources, it still works with anything coming over the Denon Link connection. There was a small but noticeable improvement in the sound stage and the overall transparency of the music. (if you play Redbook CDs, they will play 2-channel whether you use PureDirect or not) I am strictly a classical buff so it's really easy to hear even the subtlest changes when you're trying new gear. I used SACDs of the San Francisco Symphony playing Mahler's 5th Symphony and the Kirov Orchestra playing Shostakovich's 5th and 9th Symphonies. I love multi-channel music and this setup really shone in this capacity. I'll expand on that more in next week's Axiom speaker review.

I believe this model is now being replaced by the AVR3808CI. From my research, it seems to the be the same receiver with the addition of HDMI 1.3a and decoding of Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. If these formats are not a factor, the 3806 is $300 cheaper so grab one while you can. I can tell you I am extremely happy with this unit and plan to use it for the forseeable future.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Panasonic TH50-PZ700U Calibration

I had an opportunity this past week to calibrate this latest Panasonic plasma. The PZ700U is 1080p with 2 HDMI inputs and a slot for an SD memory card to display photos. This display is not only one of the best plasma panels available today, it is also by far the best value. The only brand at this level is the Pioneer Elite line and you'll pay more than double the price for the same screen size.

There are 4 picture modes available, Standard, Vivid, Cinema and Custom. Only the Custom setting allows different settings per input. Selecting the Warm color temp got me within striking distance of D65. One interesting thing I learned concerned video noise reduction. There are 3 controls that address noise reduction and none of them seemed to affect the image at all. I was viewing 1080i multi-burst patterns and even though the 1-pixel pattern was rendered perfectly, I could see just a bit of noise around it. I finally removed the noise by turning up the Sharpness a few clicks from off. In fact, the Sharpness control at full blast didn't introduce any ringing in the image. My conclusion is that Sharpness on this TV affects noise and not edge enhancement. Another factor is the HDSize control. There are 2 options. Number 2 combined with Normal Aspect will give a 1:1 pixel map. The first option introduces about 3% overscan which is in spec but it breaks up the 1 pixel multi-burst. Bottom line, the sharpest and cleanest image comes in the 1:1 pixel mode.

Grayscale tracking showed a Delta C* error of 5-13 before calibration and under 1 after adjustments were made in service. I was also able to improve gamma and black levels by working the sub-brightness adjustment. I noticed when adjusting Brightness in the user menu that there would be a certain point where the gamma curve would change visibly on one side or the other of a particular number. Just below this point was the sweet spot for the final Brightness setting. After exiting service, I loaded a few Blu-Ray titles into the client's PS3 for some real content analysis. The first thing we noticed is there was still some downward room to be had in black levels. I settled on another 3 clicks lower on both the PS3 and the SA8300HD cable box sources. Like the majority of consumer displays, the black levels float somewhat depending on the average light level of the image. The adjustments made in service greatly reduced this tendency. For example; before calibration the darkest Pluge pattern would actually change after a few seconds. The lighter bar would at first be visible then disappear. After calibration, the pattern remained stable. The change in different light output levels also had less of an effect on black level. Even though this set is decent before calibration, this improvement alone is worth doing a full calibration.

The color-related aspects of the picture were excellent all around. Primaries are dead on for blue and slightly over-saturated for red and green. This is not visible in content. A slight lowering of the Color control aligned the decoder fairly well. Using my Progressive Labs CA6X allowed me to adjust the Tint to correct secondary color errors with respect to the measured primaries. This is much more accurate than using filters. Filters are only useful if they match the displays actual primaries and this is quite rare.

In conclusion, I would rate this as one of the finest HDTVs I have calibrated to date. It's the closest in dynamic range and clarity to the legendary Sony XBR960 CRT, my benchmark. Given the amazing price point of this TV (around $2500), there is no better value to be had, period. There is certainly no 50-inch LCD of any decent quality that sells for as little. And I have yet to encounter an LCD that can reproduce the blacks this TV can. I was so impressed with this display that I'll be adding one to my own theater in the coming months.