I started out my sessions with the Epic 80 sub-less and in stereo-only mode. On "Save Me" from the Magnolia soundtrack CD, Aimee Mann's voice emanated from dead center between the M80 towers and sounded as pure and clean as I usually expect to hear it. The M80s also did an impressive job retrieving spatial details in the spare recording - such as drums that sound pushed back to a rear corner of the room and strands of guitar and concertina that casually weave in from the left and right.
Switching to something denser, I put on "I Hope I Know You" from the Clientele's latest CD, God Save the Clientele. Given this recording's honey-glazed, retro-1960s tone, it was a revelation to hear how crisp and detailed it sounded on the M80s. Cymbals had a shimmering, airy quality, while the tremolo-soaked guitar retained a crisp, twangy bite. And the cleanness of the bass-guitar fills revealed the M80s' articulate low end, which sounded fairly substantial even without help from the subwoofer.
After I reintroduced the EP500 sub, the system displayed a truly impressive sense of depth and authority. Listening to a reference electronic-music track, Squarepusher's "The Exploding Psychology" (from Go Plastic), the bass sounded taut and controlled, with little sense of overhang. Integration between the EP500 and the M80 towers was also smooth; even at loud volumes, I encountered no booming or blatting effects that would draw attention to the sub's location in the room.
Movie Performance At the risk of treading into overused demo-disc territory, I watched some clips from the HD DVD of 300 to get a feel for the Epic 80 system's movie-sound chops. Its overall dynamics were excellent: In the slo-mo scenes where Spartans first battle Persians, the whooshing effect of sword strikes filled the room, and the impact of weapons hitting armor had a full and resonant quality. The QS8 surrounds also performed well in these sequences. For instance, when the Persian army launched a literal cloud of spears, the slash of the spears raining down sounded equally powerful in both the front and surround channels.
The system's center speaker did a mostly fine job when delivering dialogue. A wide range of voices in 300, from the heavy-handed narration to King Leonidas's barked orders and the superhuman sound of Xerxes's utterances, came across as clear, natural, and unstrained. When I shifted to either side of my couch, however, clarity dropped off noticeably. Voices basically retained the same tone, but they sounded less crisp when heard from any position other than dead center in front of the screen.
Bottom Line At about $3,300, the Axiom Epic 80/500 home theater speaker system delivers seriously good performance for the money. The system's clean, neutral sound shined with music, and its wide dynamics provided well-above-average kick for movies. If I were looking to upgrade my speakers, Axiom's free shipping and 30-day money-back guarantee would place the Epic 80 way up on my list. Both reduce the risk of an already excellent bet - although I'd wager that once you get these speakers home, you won't be sending them back.
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