October 15, 2005
I dont believe that people ever really change. Habits are always lurking inside of us, no matter how well we hide them on the outside. However, I would say that while people dont change, oftentimes their priorities do, and today, with the popularity of miniaturized high-tech devices and flat-panel TVs, many people are not as willing to put up with large, unsightly loudspeakers in their living rooms as they were even just a few years ago. Im one of these people. Im still willing to put almost any speaker in my dedicated listening room, but I want something that looks and sounds good in my living room, and I dont want it to take up that much space either.
Thats precisely why Athena Technologies, long known for combining high performance and high value, has created its WS series -- high-performing, exquisitely styled, and small speakers that many shoppers are looking for to complement, not clutter, their living rooms. Athenas top model in this series, the WS-100, is priced at $600 per pair, stands 42" high, weighs just 14 pounds, and takes up less than a square foot of floor space. Does the WS-100 represent high style, high value, and high performance all in one speaker?
The WS-100 looks bang-on with its aluminum enclosure and see-through round plastic base with molded feet. The enclosure is only 4" wide in any dimension, and the front baffle is made of MDF, which, according to Athena, "serves as a mechanical barrier, or filter, between the drivers and the aluminum enclosure." The WS-100 is, of course, magnetically shielded, so you can put it close to a TV.
Two WS-100s come in one box and are a snap to set up, which I think is important in this day and age of ultra convenience -- nothing is worse than buying something new and cursing as you set it up. Each speaker is light enough and narrow enough so that you can take it out of the box with one hand, peel off the protective plastic, and plunk it down on the floor. On the backside is a single set of spring-loaded binding posts that can likely accommodate banana plugs, but I found them best-suited for bare-wire connection.
Beyond the flashy exterior, the WS-100 is one of the most complex low-priced two-way speakers Ive seen, a necessity, it seems, given the speakers enclosure. Remove the WS-100s grille and youll see a lineup of eight -- eight! -- 3.5" polypropylene-cone drivers and a single 1" Teteron-dome tweeter -- the same tweeter that youll find Athena's Audition-series speakers. Of those eight drivers, three are "active" woofers -- the first and second ones under the tweeter, and the fourth one from the bottom -- while the other five drivers are passive radiators. The group of active woofers and passive radiators is intended to move enough air to create substantial-enough bass output and substantial-enough SPLs from such a small, narrow enclosure. The crossover point of the tweeter to the woofers is 2.4kHz.
And theres more. While the tall, slender cabinet shape may look great, it can cause internal standing-wave problems if the designer doesnt deal with them properly. Athena talks openly about this problem, and theyve addressed it in the WS-100 in two important ways. First, the relative position of the drivers on the cabinet, and in relation to each other, has been optimized to minimize internal standing waves as much as possible. Second, Athena has used a foam-based passive filter inside, something they call SWF (Standing Wave Filter), to tame standing waves that will still build up despite the efforts with driver placement.
Athena says that the WS-100 has a sensitivity of 90dB and is a nominal 8-ohm load, meaning that any reasonably powerful amplifier will drive the WS-100 easily. I found that to be true.
I was intrigued enough with the WS-100s sound over the review period that I not only used the speakers in my inexpensive living-room system (Nakamichi AV-10 receiver; Panasonic DVD-S27 DVD player; no-name interconnect, digital cable, and speaker cables), but in my two-channel reference rig, too (Theta Data Basic transport, Stello DA220 DAC, Blue Circle BC3000 preamplifier, Blue Circle BC204 power amplifier, all analog cabling by Nordost, plus a single i2Digital X-60 digital cable). While the caliber of my reference equipment is overkill by a factor about ten for the WS-100s (I do these things because I really like to test something to its limits, not because it necessarily makes sense for consumers), this rig showed me just what the WS-100s could do in terms of all-out performance, which, to my surprise given the décor-friendly nature of the speakers and their relatively low price, is plenty.
From the beginning, even just set up with my Nakamichi receiver and el cheapo Panasonic DVD player, I was startled by how clean and clear the midrange sounded, which translated to voice intelligibility for movies and TV shows, and impressive accuracy for music playback. If anything, the WS-100 is a touch forward in the mids and highs, but in a way that contributes to the speakers overall character and doesn't detract from enjoying it.
For example, I remember watching the movie Monster-in-Law on DVD, using the WS-100s as a stereo pair -- no center-channel speaker, no surrounds, and no sub -- and two things came to mind. First, I wondered how such a lame, predictable, and unfunny movie could be such a box-office success. Id never be able to solve such a riddle, but the second, much more important thing leaped out: Despite how bad almost all the dialogue was, I could hear it all extremely well.
The WS-100 presents midrange information with excellent clarity and an impressive level detail. The highs, too, are refined for a speaker at the WS-100's price, no doubt the reason the folks at Athena like to promote the fact that the WS series uses the same Teteron-dome tweeter used in the highly regarded Audition series. In fact, Ive heard plenty of speakers priced higher than the WS-100 that arent designed for good looks at all and dont exhibit the same level of clarity and finesse.
Damien Rices O [Vector Recordings 48507] is all about the midrange, and with this music the WS-100s showed how polished they can sound. Rices voice leapt out of the mix with excellent detail and delineation. As I said, these speakers are impressively clean-sounding through the mids and highs. Whats more, they were able to cast a well-defined soundstage that had good image specificity and a reasonable sense of depth, which is certainly not always the way it is with speakers of this type and price.
Besides the clarity through the mids and highs and the overall sense of finesse, I was also impressed with how loud the WS-100s could play, something I didnt necessarily expect. I pushed the WS-100s hard, really hard, with O and with Blue Rodeos Five Days in July [Discovery 77013], just to see what would happen. "The Blowers Daughter" on O was made famous in the movie Closer, where it was playing as Natalie Portman is shot walking down the street. Rice must have been swallowing the microphone when he sang -- if it was any closer-miked hed have to have the microphone extracted from his throat. Still, its an interesting sound, and all that midrange energy taxes many speakers, turning them raspy when they hit their limits of loudness. To the WS-100s credit, they were able to reach "uncomfortably loud" SPLs before severe congestion started setting in, meaning that the WS-100s will likely meet the majority of listeners needs for loudness. This torture test pushes speakers beyond what I consider "normal."
On Five Days in July I like to use "Hasnt Hit Me Yet" and take note of what happens at the point where the drums kick in. If a speaker can produce prodigious bass output and has good dynamic range, you can feel it happen as well as hear it. Its here, though, that the WS-100s showed their limits. The bass, while impressively tight, lacks weight and depth. Athena has done good things to deliver clean, clear, detailed bass with all those drivers, but the WS-100 still goes only so low -- defined as the WS-100 giving more than just a hint of whats down in the bottom region, but definitely sounding thin nonetheless.
In all of our SoundStage! Network product reviews we consider comparisons an important element because they put into perspective how products perform in relationship to their competition in the marketplace. But there's a problem comparing a speaker to the WS-100, which can be considered an "audiophile" speaker and "high-style" speaker. If youre not careful, it wont necessarily be an apples-to-apples comparison. In short, the WS-100 has to be thought of a little differently.
For example, someone could argue that a good comparison would be the Mirage Omnisat v2 FS that I reviewed a number of months ago. It, too, is a high-style design that is also high performing. The comparison seems natural, but the v2 FS costs $400 more per pair. In other words, take what the WS-100 costs and then add two-thirds more to its price. Or put another way, you can have the WS-100 and Athenas biggest sub, the P6000, for the same price as a pair of the v2 FSes. Or yet a third way, you can buy the WS-100s and a pair of the tiny WS-15s ($175) and a single WS-60 ($200), which are the smaller speakers in the WS series, and have a full five-channel setup for about what the v2 FSes cost.
A speaker closer in price thats high-style too is the smaller Omnisat v2 satellite, priced at $500 per pair. But theyre not really the same thing, either. On the one hand, the WS-100 does produce deeper, more prominent bass than the Omnisat v2. But the Omnisat v2 is a very small loudspeaker thats designed to be set on a bookshelf, mounted on a stand, or attached to the wall. No one expects any bass from such a speaker. If you want bass from a system with a tiny satellite speaker like the Omnisat v2, you have to add a sub, simple as that. So, in this case, although the price is closer, the concept of each speaker is quite different, and kills any real comparison.
And what about comparing WS-100 to some boxy audiophile-approved two- or three-way design that places very little emphasis on how it looks and places most of the priority on how it sounds? Again, theyre different beasts, even if theyre identically priced. Which one is better for you will depend on your -- you guessed it -- priorities.
What the WS-100 ends up being is a relatively inexpensive loudspeaker that can be compared sonically to full-fledged audiophile designs that dont place all that much emphasis on appearance and visually to higher-priced high-style designs. Its not necessarily the only speaker of its type, but its one of a rare breed.
As a marriage of styling, sonic performance, and value pricing, the WS-100 is a winner. Whats more, because the WS-100 is a floorstanding design, you wont be burdened with the added expense or inconvenience of stands, which makes it even more of a good buy. The only thing Id warn against is that if youre expecting maximum bass output, closer to that of a large conventional box speaker, consider coupling the WS-100 with one of Athenas subs.
There are speakers that will compete sonically with the WS-100 in certain ways, and there are speakers that can compete visually, but youll have a tough time finding both in a speaker that's competitively priced. Six hundred dollars doesnt buy all that much in the audio world, but in this case it buys a great-looking speaker that has sound quality to match.
Athena Technologies WS-100 Loudspeakers