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May 2009
Enjoy the Music.com
Budget Monitor Loudspeaker Shootout!
The Aperion Audio Intimus 5B, Axiom Audio M2v2 and Paradigm Mini Monitor v.6 go head to head.
Review By Clarke Robinson
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Aperion Audio Intimus 5B Speaker  I read a quote from Keith Richards once back in the1980s (at least I think it was Kieth Richards... Google doesn't work very well going back that far), it was something to the effect of "Music is a necessity... it's the stuff that it's played on that's a luxury." Well, we're approaching a time in history (if we're not already there) where many of us will be forced to make some very real decisions about what is a necessity and what is a luxury. I'm with Richards on this one...music is a necessity. However, I get my recommended daily allowance from all sorts of places besides my home system: singing in church, buskers on the street corner... there isn't a coffee shop in America that doesn't play something during their open hours. I love my two-channel system, but if push came to shove I'd sell the sucker in a heartbeat if I had to. I assume that the current state of the economy isn't shoving most Enjoy the Music.com readers quite that hard, but I also assume that most don't have the cash they once had (even just last year) to invest in an audio system. Have no fear, budget-strapped readers. A lot of companies have been perfecting the art of the over-achieving bookshelf speaker for years, and we have the fruits of the labor of three of the biggest right here. But first, a few notes about this review.

 

Caveats

Bass Performance
Every manufacturer who sent speakers in for review was cautious, in some cases paranoid, about what I would say about the bass performance of their speakers. Two of the three offered to send subwoofers along. I put them at ease by promising to deliver the following caveat: these are small speakers. There are physical limits to the amount of bass small speakers can produce. Each of these manufacturers would like you to know that a subwoofer is required to fill in the bottom octave on any of these (and that each of these manufacturers make subwoofers that they would love for you to purchase along with your new speakers). Fact is, I listened to each of these speakers full-range during their breaking-in period (all were played relentlessly for a minimum of 50 hours before any critical listening took place). All were perfectly listenable that way...even enjoyable. Things were definitely improved with the use of a subwoofer, so that's how I used them for the review listening sessions: crossed over at 80 Hz. Frequency response below this point will be ignored for the purposes of this article. The subwoofer in use was the outstanding Rythmik Audio F12SE, a virtuoso dealer of the deep that you'll be reading a lot more about next month.

 

Congestion
There is a limit to the amount of volume a small speaker is capable of. All of the speakers in this review are capable of hitting senseless SPLs (loud enough to make my ears ring), but not without noticeable congestion and dynamic compression. Unless you aspire to early-age hearing loss, all of these will satisfy in most domestic environments, but look elsewhere if you need to get a few hundred people bouncing on a dance floor.

 

Room Size
Most of the manufacturers here recommend these speakers for small to medium sized rooms. None give any dimensions for what constitutes "small to medium sized", but I think most would consider my 25 x 13 foot living room "medium to large". All of the speakers were placed on sand-filled stands made of bamboo plywood, and placed in the same location that works well with most every other small speaker I've had in my room: three to four feet from any walls and the speakers about six feet apart.

 

Imaging
One of the universal strengths of small, two-way speakers is their imaging, and none of the speakers in this review are exceptions. Just pointing that out now to save myself the trouble of going over it again and again.

And now, on with the show...

 

Paradigm Mini Monitor v.6
Paradigm Mini Monitor v.6One of the first purchases I ever made as a budding audiophile was a pair of Paradigm Mini-Monitors v.2s that I picked up at a local dealer on closeout right before the v.3s came out. I've got a special place in my heart for any audio company that lives to serve the beer-budgeted (and Paradigm certainly qualifies), but my feelings go even deeper for them because, well, "you never forget your first love" and all that. Like other Canadian speaker companies, Paradigm has benefited from more than 20 years of research into sound reproduction and measurement conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa (funded, presumably, by Canadian taxpayers) and they've been passing the savings on to us ever since.

Bringing them out of the box, it was apparent that much has changed from the Mini Monitors of yesteryear The first thing I noticed was the Wengé finish. New for v.6, this slightly-darker-than-chocolate brown faux-woodgrain looks quite elegant across the room, but does not require too close an inspection to reveal its true nature (not that there is anything wrong with its true nature... the finish looks nice). Also new this time around are magnet-mount grilles and improved, phase-coherent crossovers. Some features that are not new for this version but were still new to me include the Advanced WaveGuide Chassis for the H-PTD titanium dome tweeter (said to improve dispersion), M-ICP (Minimum-Mass Injection-Molded Co Polymer Polypropylene) midrange cones, and Paradigm's own SuperDrive technology, which improves the speaker's efficiency.

Clearly Paradigm's lawyers have been busy putting trademarks on all of the nifty little names they have for everything (like MagneShield, PosiGrip... they even have a trademark on the word "Quiet", as it applies to speaker enclosures), but to make sure everyone else in the company has been doing their job, I had to do some listening. The Mini Monitors I owned always had something of a midrange-rich balance, and this overall sonic character still describes the v.6s. The grilles confound the issue a bit by robbing some top-end energy. I highly recommend removing them for critical listening. Fortunately, doing so is very easy, as the new magnet-mount grilles are the best I've seen on any speaker at any price.

Paradigm Mini Monitor v.6Even with the grilles off, I'd still characterize the Mini Monitors as somewhat dark sounding. Whether or not this was a detriment depended on the source material: McCoy Tyner's New York Reunion [Chesky JD051] has almost perfectly recorded cymbals (not harsh, but not unrealistically smooth either), and on the Minis they sounded lush and velvety. Vocals, on the other hand, didn't fare so well...guitars and drums on AC/DC's Back in Black kicked hard in all the right ways, but the energy in Brian Johnson's vocals seemed somehow obscured. I had a similar reaction to Natalie Merchant's Tigerlily where the overall presence and dynamics were excellent, but the highs were slightly veiled, almost as if the Minis were trading in a bit of top-end air and sparkle for a more muscular midrange.

That said, the Paradigm's punchy midrange worked wonders with chamber music. They delivered the best performance of all the speakers in this roundup of Azazel by the Masada String Trio [Tzadik 7351], bringing their violin, cello and bass strings to life in a way that was effortless and involving. The dynamics the Minis displayed on Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's recent double-SACD of Mozart Symphonies 38 – 41 [Linn Records CKD 308] was nothing short of spectacular for a speaker this size. The tonality of the Mini Monitors could be exactly what the doctor ordered for taking the edge off the inexpensive electronics that speakers in this price range are often mated with, but no matter what the gear... if paired with the right music, the Mini Monitors certainly deserve a place on the nickel-pinching audiophile's audition list.

 

Aperion Audio Intimus 5B
Aperion Audio Intimus 5BA relative newcomer to the scene compared to the others in this roundup (and the only American company), Aperion has been around just over 10 years. In that time, however, they have earned their way into thousands of homes and received many glowing reviews and awards, including our own "Budget Beater" award for 2007 (seen here). First impressions of the Intimus 5B is that they are extraordinarily well built, and boast a fit & finish that would not be out of place on speakers four times their price. Very solid and heavy for their size, the pair I received was finished in a gorgeous real-wood veneer called "Medium Cherry". Tweeters are 1-inch silk domes, main drivers are 5.25-inch woven fiberglass, and the whole thing comes backed by a ten-year warranty. At $450 a pair, the Intimus are not the cheapest bookshelf speakers on the block (in fact they are the most expensive of this roundup), but they certainly deliver from a materials perspective.

The 5Bs are somewhat lean sounding overall, something that was exacerbated when the grilles were removed (I recommend leaving them on at all times). They are not strident, but are a touch thin in the upper midrange/lower treble region, a characteristic that reveals itself in upper-register instruments. For example, New York Reunion came across well balanced for the most part... bass, tenor sax, and the lower octaves of the piano all sounded good; and cymbals sounded natural. However, the top few octaves of the piano lacked body, which took away some of the realism that was present at the bottom end of that same instrument. Similarly, Mark Feldman's violin on the Masada String Trio recording (mentioned above) also lacked that last bit of realism and air, even while the cello and bass sounded quite good.

Aperion Audio Intimus 5BMidrange-dominant instruments tended to sound fantastic on the 5Bs, due at least in part to the Intimus' exquisite inner detail. Viola and cello on the Mackerras/SCO Mozart symphonies mentioned above had an invigorating crispness that didn't sacrifice the warm and inviting character present in these instruments. The instruments on Emmylou Harris' live album, Spyboy [Eminent 25001] are well-recorded, but the album has some problems in Harris' vocals that make it hard to enjoy on clinical speakers. The Aperions didn't fall in to that trap...they delivered enough detail to be lively, but weren't so ruthlessly revealing as to spoil it. Vocals were excellent across the board on the Aperions as Natalie Merchant sounded great on Tigerlily, as did Brian Johnson on Back in Black. Electric guitars had plenty of grit and impact. The 5Bs can rock!

Late in the review period I heard from Ken Humphreys, Aperion's Lead Speaker Engineer, who told me that the 5Bs were voiced for use about 1 foot from the front wall...a situation that speakers this size/price are likely to find themselves in often, but not one that I can replicate in my listening room. Of course, the bass reinforcement that comes with placing speakers that close to the wall could completely cure the lean tone that I experienced with them. Even if not, the Intimus still get a lot more right than they do wrong, and they could be a good match for darker-sounding electronics (efficiency is low at 84dB/W/m, but the impedance plot published on Aperion's website suggests that the 5Bs could be usable with tubes). For those whose boat is best floated by a crisp, spirited listen, the Intimus 5B might be just the ticket.

 

Axiom Audio M2v2
Axiom Audio M2v2Founded in 1980, Axiom Audio founder Ian Colquhoun was among the first crop of Canadian speaker designers to take part in the acoustic research done at the NRC. Axiom relies on a rigorous blend of anechoic measurements and double-blind listening tests to design their speakers, and are serious enough about it that, in 2005, they built an exact replica of the NRC anechoic chamber in their own facility. Axiom's smallest speaker, the M2 has existed in various incarnations for about ten years. The current M2v2 under review here is a mechanical update. In other words, sonically it's the same as their award-winning M2i yet has changes to things like the binding posts and how the grilles attach to the cabinet. It features the same wedge-shaped cabinet that all of Axiom's speakers share, and sports a 1-inch titanium dome tweeter and 5.25-inch aluminum woofer. The pair sent to me was finished in a faux-woodgrain brown called "Boston Cherry" and (like the Paradigm offering) looks fine, even though it isn't going to fool anybody into thinking its real wood. Axiom does offer real wood veneers (and can even match any sample finish you send them), a premium that brings the price of the M2 more in line with the Aperion 5B above. Fit and finish is adequate; certainly nothing stood out that might be problematic, but nothing blew me away either.

Sitting down to listen to the M2s also didn't blow me away...at first. I played one song, then another. Then another. Then an entire side. Then... hey, I haven't heard this album in a long time, I should put that on. What I realized, after a few hours of being pulled completely out of "speaker evaluation" mode, is that the M2s are the least colored speakers in the group. My notes from my listening sessions with the Axioms are suspiciously sparse: "nailed it", "impressively involving", "perfect?", etc. While the Paradigms may have sounded lusher with the string trio, or the Aperions may have delivered rock music with more punch, the Axioms lacked any of the other speakers' tonal caveats. If they weren't the best at every type of music, they were the best at any type of music. I'd like to add that the M2's neutrality extends all the way to the grilles as I thought I heard a touch more air in the highs with them off, but the impact they had on the sound was so minimal I wouldn't make a strong recommendation either way.

Axiom Audio M2v2Now, some people feel that a neutral speaker is a clinical speaker, a tool rather than a toy, good only for studio monitoring or reproducing sine wave tones for scientific research. It's possible, I suppose, but it's not the case here. With the M2s, neutral = musical. As I mentioned above, Spyboy is a good test: a great speaker won't hide the sonic issues present in the recording, but it won't let them distract from the emotional power of the performance either. In the penultimate track, "All My Tears", my eyes started to fog up before the end of the first verse...by the time Harris got to "...and I will not be ashamed; For my savior knows my name..." I was a mess. Mozart's Symphony #40 from the Mackerras/SCO SACD practically induced a state of cognitive disconnect... could 5.25-inch speakers really deliver a symphony (albeit a miniaturized, chamber orchestra rendition) with such a wide sound stage, lifelike tone from top to bottom, and involving dynamics? I might doubt it if it hadn't happened in my own living room.

If its not already, the M2v2 should be considered a classic... Axiom has knocked this one clear out of the park. Considering that they deliver music as well as they do and are the cheapest speakers of the group ($296/pr), they get my highest recommendation.

 

Conclusions
The default advice for budgeting an audio system used to be "spend the largest chunk of your available cash on loudspeakers". Recent developments in driver-production technology and speaker measurement software may have changed that. Speakers are now some of the biggest bargains around. While none of the speakers in this review pose any threat to my personal reference (Ascend Acoustics' Sierra-1 which, at two to three times the price of any of the models here, should come as no surprise), if times got tough and I had to downsize, I could live with any of them. They are all that good. Don't read too much into the details of these comparisons. While fully standing behind what I've written, but just the act of putting sonic impressions down on paper (screen?) tends to amplify them. None of the speakers in this review are "night and day" different from any other (though they may be "late afternoon and evening"). Audition them for yourself, choose, and enjoy. This stuff is fun, and taking it seriously is fun, but there are more important decisions in life than what speakers to buy.

Life goes on, and music will continue to play, long after you have made that decision.

 

Associated Equipment
Parasound Model 2100 Preamplifier
Parasound Model 2125 Amplifier
Marantz SA8003 SACD Player

 

 

Specifications
Aperion Audio Intimus 5B
Frequency Response: 75Hz to 20kHz (± 3dB)
Impedance: 6 Ohms
Sensitivity: 84dB/W/m
Recommended Power: 25 to 200 Watts
Tweeter: 1-inch Audiophile-grade Silk-Dome Tweeter
Woofer: 5.25-inch Woven-Fiberglass Mid-Woofer
Enclosure Type: 1-inch HDF, Ported
Height x Width x Depth: 12" x 6.75" x 8"
Weight: 14lbs. each
Price: $450/pr

Axiom Audio M2v2
Enclosure: Vortex / Reflex
Max Amp Power: 150 Watts 
Min Amp Power: 15 Watts
Frequency Response: 70Hz to 22kHz (± 3dB_
Impedance (Ohms): 8 Ohms 
SPL in Room1w/1m(dB): 91 dB 
SPL Anechoic 1w/1m(dB): 87 dB
X-Over - 2.7 kHz
Tweeter: Single 1-inch
Woofer : Single 5.25-inch
Height x Width x Depth (inches): 11.5" x 7.5" x 8.5"
Weight: 11.2 lbs. each
Price: $296/pr

Paradigm Mini Monitor v.6
Design: 2-driver, 2-way bass reflex, quasi-3rd-order resistive port
Crossover: 2nd-order electro-acoustic at 2.0 kHz
Tweeter: 1-inch H-PTD dome, ferro-fluid cooled
Woofer: 6.5-inch M-ICP cone, 1 inch voice coil, GRIP chassis
Low-Frequency Extension: 43 Hz (DIN)
On-Axis Frequency Response: 70Hz to 20kHz (±2)
Sensitivity: 92 dB in-room; 89 dB anechoic
Suitable Amplifier Power Range: 15 to 100 watts
Maximum Input Power: 80 watts
Impedance: Compatible with 8 ohms
Height x Width x Depth: 13-3/8 in x 7-1/2 in x 11-3/16 in
Weight (Unpacked): 15.4 kg / 34 lb per pair
Price: $438/pr

 

Company Information
Aperion Audio
18151 SW Boones Ferry Road
Portland, OR 97224
www.aperionaudio.com

 

Axiom Audio
Highway 60
Dwight, ON P0A 1H0
Canada
www.axiomaudio.com

 

Paradigm Electronics Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, ON L5T 2V1
Canada
www.paradigm.com

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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