Photos by Tony Cordoza
As I unpacked Athena Technologies' Audition Series home theater speakers, I recalled that Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom, reason, and purity. Was it wise and reasonable, I wondered, to expect purity of sound from a six-piece system that costs less than $1,500? If anyone could make such a system, though, I figured Athena could. After all, it's an Audio Products International (API) company. And API, which also owns the Energy and Mirage brands, knows a thing or two about making good-sounding speakers.
Standing about 3 1/2 feet tall, the AS-F2 tower fills the front left/right speaker positions. It's a full-range design with dual 8-inch woofers and a big, vented enclosure finished in simple, black ash vinyl woodgrain. A matte-silver baffle surrounds the trio of vertically arrayed black circles - two 8-inch woofers and the port - and the horizontally oriented gray oval above them. That's Athena's Teteron tweeter, a 1-inch dome set into a concave molding that's presumably intended to function as a waveguide, shaping the spread of high-frequency sound. Thanks to the silver baffle's high-tech appeal, to my eye the AS-F2 actually looks better with its curved, black-knit grille off than on.
Similarly fashioned and finished, the AS-C1 is a dual-woofer center speaker meant for TV-top placement. And that's just how I used it, putting it atop my 30-inch Princeton Graphics widescreen set. The pair of AS-R1s Athena sent along to handle surround-channel duties each combine a single woofer and two tweeters in a trapezoidal cabinet. Following my usual home theater layout, I put them on high shelves on my side walls.
Completing the package is the AS-P400 subwoofer. It's a fairly conventional-looking sub, and though it lacks a phase-reverse switch and has a permanently engaged auto-on/off power system, it does include a "direct" input that bypasses both level and crossover controls, ceding control to your A/V receiver or processor.
Beginning as always with two-channel music listening, it took me all of about 30 seconds to predict that I was going to like the AS-F2 towers. Their sound was smooth and even from the bottom end on up, with extended but unhyped treble, especially in the vocal ranges. Mark Knopfler's baritone growl on The Ragpicker's Dream sounded rich and fine. On CD tracks like "You Don't Know You're Born," I heard just the tiniest bit of high-treble "tsk" on the high-hat rides and snare hits, but the overall balance was so honest this barely warrants mention - squaring up the AS-F2s from my usual slightly toed-in position mitigated it a lot.
Want lots of volume? No problem. The Athena towers were able to play loud, conveying the superbly recorded snare drum with the kind of flick-at-your-Adam's-apple impact that usually only the drummer himself gets to experience.
It mattered little what music I threw at the AS-F2s. They unfailingly produced natural, lifelike balance on classical strings, jazz combos, acoustic guitar - you name it. They sounded maybe a shadow's worth rich in the mid to upper bass, but the effect was pleasant, so I'm not complaining. I could easily have been listening to speakers costing twice as much.
Despite its diminutive size, the AS-C1 center speaker was a fairly good partner for the towers. It sounded slightly thinner on male voices and had a marginally brighter balance over the top octaves, but otherwise its tonal character matched the AS-F2s very well. This was true even though its tweeter waveguide is turned 90° relative to those of the AS-F2s.
I'm guessing that the orientation was changed to save space - permitting the dual woofers to be placed closer together - and also in an effort to keep the speaker sounding as neutral as possible for off-center listeners. It worked. The AS-C1's sound held together over a range of around 20° to either side - plenty to accommodate listeners seated at the ends of a sofa.
The Athena system sounded powerful and detailed with multichannel music. A rotation of my favorite test tracks revealed open, clear sound with clean treble and the same balanced midrange I heard during stereo playback. The small AS-R1 surrounds, and to a lesser degree the AS-C1 center, were a bit bass-shy, but that won't be a problem if your system's bass management is operating correctly.
The impressive clarity carried over into movie sound. Steven Soderbergh's remake of the ambitious sci-fi head-trip Solaris features a gorgeously crystalline, post-Glassian musical score by Cliff Martinez and a soundtrack filled with slowly shifting ambient thrumming from the haunted ship. The Athena system presented these with almost seamless continuity from front to back, powerfully enhancing the film's hypnotic world.
The AS-R1s did a great job with this soundtrack's steady, but subtle, use of the surrounds. I did hear some shifts in tonal color and focus as the action moved around the room, but only when I was listening for it - it never caught my attention when I was simply watching the movie.
Effectively integrating the Athena sub with the other speakers proved a little tricky. After quite a bit of experimenting, I found that things sounded best when I set my A/V processor's bass management for "large" front speakers and used the AS-P400 to support only the center and surrounds. Overall, the sound was crisp and well defined in the lower-midrange/upper-bass region and smooth in the deep bass. With all channels rockin', the Athena system reached concertlike volumes with no signs of strain. The AS-F2s in particular were happy to play way loud even on their own, and they sounded dynamic, punchy, and clean.
Despite its relatively compact size - and price - the AS-P400 pumped out a good dose of bass when the AS-F2 towers began to falter. For example, the avalanche sequence from XXX produced an extra layer of deep-bass rumbling beyond what I heard when using just the towers. At really loud, cinemalike volumes, the sub couldn't quite match the higher-frequency rumblings from the AS-F2s, so the bass balance became a touch boomier.
This collection of Athena Audition Series speakers is nothing less than a killer deal. That Athena can sell a speaker of the AS-F2's size and finish for $600 a pair is mind-blowing. That it can do so while maintaining such good sound is little short of miraculous. If value is your pole star, and you don't mind big speakers, this system is a must-hear.
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