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.
And now, on with the show...
Paradigm Mini Monitor v.6
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.
Even 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
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.
Midrange-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
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.
Now, 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.
Life goes on, and music will continue to play, long after you have made that decision.
Axiom Audio M2v2
Paradigm Mini Monitor v.6
Paradigm Electronics Inc.