Monday, July 28, 2014

Premium Two-Way Monitors and Why They Exist: the Axis VoiceBox S

I've said it many times before, but I have a special place in my heart for small two-way monitors. That was my entry point for high-end audio, tiny stand-mounted speakers that offered far better imaging and midrange purity than big, floorstanding speakers. Sure, small speakers don't offer the same low frequency response as their larger brethren, but the true joy of listening to such monitors is finding one that does. For example, I have a pair of Opera Callas monitors in our house that have a frequency response that goes down to 32 Hz...all with just a 5.5" woofer. I've owned/evaluated/reviewed many monitors that were more than satisfying with many different musical genres--the Trenner & Friedl ART monitor, My Audio Design 1920S, Harbeth Monitor 30, WLM La Scala monitor...the list goes on and on.

As you can see, my house is filled to the brim with little two-ways. They're everywhere. I love them all, for different reasons.

I'm bringing this up because I've just allowed an unusually intriguing little monitor into my home...the Axis VoiceBox S. The VoiceBox is the result of two famous Australian speaker designers, Brad Serhan and John Reilly. For years these two gentlemen were friendly rivals in the industry. One day they decided to join forces and build an exceptional studio monitor, and the VoiceBox was born. It was named for its ability to recreate the human voice with stunning accuracy and realism. Benchmark Mastering in Australia uses these speakers for studio mastering, which is something that looks very nice on Brad and John's resumes.

So how did I get a pair? Well, we've been friends with Brad for a long time. We worked with him on the Moos Audio project, a wireless active speaker project that didn't quite make it to the global marketplace but still allowed all the involved parties to move forward with the revolutionary technologies that were developed. Brad's been a bit of a hired gun in the last few years. He came up with all of the speaker designs for Orpheus Audio, a very respected marque in Oz. He bills himself as "Australia's Leading Custom Speaker Designer," which allows him the flexibility to design as his imagination dictates.

One day I was talking to Brad and I realized that outside of the Moos Audio speaker, which sounded fantastic, I had never truly heard one of his established designs. So at CES last January, Brad brought the VoiceBox into our room and we hooked it up to our room system. There were a few seasoned vets in the room, and we all liked what we heard. I asked Brad and John to send me a pair, and they did.

John is a very interesting fellow as well. He's been running Axis as a joint Australian-Chinese venture for a few years, which is logical since he's half-Chinese and half-Australian himself. He has residences in both China and Australia, and he closely supervises all operations in his Chinese factory. John set out to prove that high-quality audio products can be designed and manufactured in China, and the VoiceBox is proof that he's succeeded. Despite its rather ordinary appearance--it's a little box with a 5" Peerless woofer and a ribbon tweeter, finished in gloss black--it took me by surprise. Unlike most studio monitors, which can be so revealing of source material that they're no longer fun, the VoiceBox is a very detailed yet very lovely-sounding speaker.

I had three initial concerns with the VoiceBox when I first unpacked the pair. First, the binding posts are set vertically on the back of the speakers as opposed to the horizontal norm. That made it difficult to properly attach my big, heavy Furutech cables with spade terminations without the weight of the cable putting too much stress on the posts. Brad told me that he prefers to use banana plug terminations, which would definitely make it easier to dress the cabling. Second, both the rear of the speaker and the speaker grille are emblazoned with red Chinese characters, which may turn off North American audiophiles who only buy Chinese audio gear to save big bucks. But John is very proud of his Chinese heritage--on every box you'll see "Designed in Australia, Proudly Made in China." He's challenging our preconceptions, in other words. Finally, the grilles are not functional--they're formed like a metallic grate that will block sound coming from the drivers. They look very cool, but I think most audiophiles want the option of a functioning grille for listening in the vicinity of pets, kids and the occasional clumsy party guest. (As if the majority of audiophiles had parties.) I can understand why John did this--these speakers are meant to be listened to while naked (the speaker, not the listener)--but not every audiophile will agree.

Those concerns all seemed utterly insignificant once the pair of VoiceBox S broke in. For the first three days I loved the huge, revealing soundstage and all the inner detail--it was easy to see why Benchmark chose them as studio monitors--but there was a definite lack of weight in the low end that made the overall balance seem thin. On the fourth day the heavens parted and the bass made its first appearance, and that transformed the overall balance of the speaker. The VoiceBox should go down to 55 Hz or so, which is excellent for a tiny speaker such as this, and for the first time I felt they were delivering the goods. While the bass wasn't as deep as some of the floorstanders I have sitting around, it was tight and well-defined. Every note of Ray Brown's bass in the hi-rez FIM release of Happy Coat was present and delivered with the appropriate weight and woodiness. The VoiceBox excelled at revealing new musical details--one on particular recording I heard foot-tapping for the first time, despite the fact that I've heard this LP on at least a dozen different loudspeakers.

These speakers are so good, in fact, that I'm going to keep them in my system until the brand new Opera Grand Callas, which weighs 180 lbs. each and costs $12,000 a pair, arrives next month. (We're going to show them at the New York Audio Show in September, Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October and CES 2015 in January.) And yes, we're thinking about becoming the Axis distributor for the US, which means I'll have to shut up about how good they are on this blog. But until that happens, I'm going to enjoy the heck out of these speakers and congratulate Brad and John on a job well done. Whether or not I'm involved with Axis in the future, I think people outside of China and Australia should know about this fantastic little speaker. I'm keeping these either way.

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