May 1, 2007

Axiom Audio Architectural Series W22 Loudspeakers

It wasn’t that long ago that I wouldn’t have even considered owning, let alone reviewing, a pair of wall-mounted loudspeakers. I was single, and living in a spacious top-floor apartment where my audio system took up a lot of floor space -- everything was just the way I wanted it. Then I got married. Suddenly, that apartment didn’t seem so spacious anymore, and my prized audio system was taking up too much real estate. So we moved into a house.

But that didn’t entirely solve the problem. Although our new house provided a lot more space than my apartment had, and I was able to set up a dedicated listening room on the top floor, most of the house is shared space, and floor area is still at a premium. Furthermore, since moving in we’ve had a child, and now in the shared areas it’s no longer safe to place speakers on the floor.

Enter the Architectural W22 loudspeaker ($660 USD/pair) from Canada’s Axiom Audio, who made the switch to online factory-direct sales about seven years ago and have never looked back. The W22 is an innovative, attractive speaker designed to be mounted on and in the wall, to take up no floorspace at all. What impressed me most about the W22 wasn’t the convenience it offered, but its sound -- I hadn’t expected such quality from something that mounts on the wall. The key, as you’ll see, is all in the design.

The idea

Ian Colquhoun, Axiom’s owner and chief designer, is an avid audio enthusiast who values sound quality, and his speaker designs reflect his own musical tastes.

So when setting out to create his company’s vision of a décor-friendly line of speakers, Colquhoun considered all the alternatives, including pure in-wall speakers. However, he wasn’t happy with their sound, nor did he like the size of the hole that had to be cut in the wall to house them. That’s when he decided to design a speaker that would go on and in the wall. This allowed him to create a self-contained loudspeaker with a wide, shallow, MDF-based cabinet section that stands proud of the wall, and a narrower, deeper section of molded plastic that’s set into the wall.

Having part of the cabinet protrude from the wall gave Colquhoun all the cabinet volume he needed without punching nearly as big a hole as would be required by a speaker mounted flush with the wall’s surface. It also meant that a port could fire through the bottom of the speaker’s exposed front section to extend the bass response, something not possible with a pure in-wall design.

The result

Axiom calls their in/on-wall line the Architectural Series, and the number of each model in it is prefaced with W, for wall. The W22 is the largest, most expensive model in the line, followed by the W3 ($500/pair) and W2 ($446/pair). The three are based on, respectively, Axiom’s M22 ($470/pair), M3 ($330/pair), and M2 ($296/pair) freestanding bookshelf speakers -- each W model has the same driver complement as its M counterpart. All three M-series speakers have been reviewed within the SoundStage! Network by a variety of writers, who have consistently given them high marks for sound quality and value. There are also two Architectural center-channel models: the W100 ($345) and W150 ($505), based on Axiom’s VP100 and VP150. Again, the matching model numbers indicate the same driver complements and configurations.

However, the W cabinets differ significantly from the M and VP boxes, as do the prices. The complexity of the W cabinets and the need to include additional parts to make them wall-mountable mean that the W models cost about 40% more than their M and VP counterparts. So if you don’t really need to mount your speakers on the wall and you want the best value, look at the M models. But if you need them up on the wall, the W series is your best choice -- either that, or buy some brackets and try hanging the Ms. (But the bracketed Ms don’t look nearly as good as cleanly mounted Ws.)

Description

Axiom was willing to supply any W model for review. I chose the W22, mostly because the M22 has long been one of my favorite Axioms, for its exceptional neutrality and quite decent bass extension -- qualities I’d want in any speaker, wall-mounted or not.

The portion of the W22’s cabinet that stands proud of the wall measures 20"H x 8.5"W x 3.5"D, but the required hole in the wall measures only 14"H x 4.5"W x 3.4"D. The two-way W22 uses the well-known 1" titanium-dome tweeter that Axiom uses in all of its speakers, and two 5.25" mid-woofers that work together to reproduce the midrange and bass (they’re crossed over to the tweeter at 3.5kHz). Axiom rates the -10dB point, a good indicator of a speaker’s in-room bass extension, at 50Hz. The W22’s anechoic sensitivity for 1W input is said to be 88dB, and the impedance is rated at 8 ohms. All in all, the W22 should be easy to drive and have reasonable bass extension.

Like the rest of the Architectural Series, the W22 can be ordered with a veneer of black oak, Boston cherry, Mansfield beech, light maple, or eggshell white vinyl, at no extra cost. I’ve seen all of these finishes, and they look very good. I chose black oak because I felt it would best complement the television monitor the W22s would flank. There are six choices of grille color, also at no extra cost.

If you want to spend extra for something special, you can order custom finishes or real-wood veneers, though these will take longer to make before being delivered. For some though, it might be worth the cost and time -- with all the choices Axiom offers, there are literally dozens of options. I can give Axiom nothing but high praise for offering this much flexibility. No other company I know of makes its speakers "customizable" to this degree -- a benefit, obviously, of Axiom’s making all its speaker cabinets in its own plant in Dwight, Ontario, north of Toronto, and not somewhere in Asia.

All necessary parts, including the frames necessary to mount the speakers on and in the wall, are included with each W unit. Cables are not included.

Installation

I’m not the handyperson around our house -- my wife is. She renovated most of the place shortly after we moved in, while I watched. When people compliment me on our house, I say, "She did it." When they admire the Axiom speakers on the wall, I say, "She installed them."

However, I did take part in the critical planning stage of that installation. When I say critical, it’s not only because I’m trying to make myself sound more useful than I was. It’s also because, unlike regular speakers that can be moved here and there on the floor at any time after installation, Axiom’s W speakers must be placed correctly before you start cutting holes in the wall. Unless you don’t mind patching holes and repainting, there’s no turning back. Therefore, think first, cut later.

To find the positions on our walls where the W22s would sound best, I had to take into account four things. First, I had to determine how far apart I wanted them. In general, 6’ to 8’ is normal. I felt 7’ was appropriate in my situation.

Second, I had to determine where the center spot of my listening position was, then mark that point on the wall on which the speakers would be mounted. For us, this was easy -- the center listening position corresponds to the center point of the TV screen. With that center point marked on the wall, we simply measured 3.5’ to either side of it and marked those spots as each speaker’s initial position. But we couldn’t start cutting holes in the wall yet.

Third, we then had to ensure that our proposed positions weren’t on or too near any wall studs -- the W speakers are intended to be inserted through the wallboard and take up residence between the studs, not right beside or on top of them. It turned out that one of our marks was directly over a stud, so we had to adjust the speaker positions by several inches. Because I didn’t want less than 7’ between the speakers, we moved them several inches farther apart; the W22s ended up exactly 4’ to either side of the center position (always keep your speakers symmetrically positioned).

Finally, we had to determine the correct height for the W22s. We could have lined up the speakers with our TV, or just mounted them where they looked best. But I wanted them where they would sound best. However, figuring this out was tricky -- we’d be using the speakers not only for movies, when we’re always sitting down, but also for listening to music, both when we’re seated and when we’re walking around. We therefore had to strike a compromise between what sounded best at a seated position and what sounded best when we were standing. The W22s’ tweeters ended up about 5’ from the floor: in other words, a little below our standing ear height, and somewhat above our seated ear height. In hindsight, after listening, I could have moved them about 6" lower to get even better sound when sitting and still not have affected the standing position too much. But the W22 had good enough dispersion characteristics that the position we picked worked well, leaving me with no itch to patch, paint, and cut again.

From that point on, installation was a snap -- partly because I had nothing more to do but watch, but mostly because my wife, a whiz at these things, quickly figured it all out. She used the cardboard cutout Axiom supplies to trace on the wall the outline of the hole the W22 would require, then cut the hole with a drywall knife. Finally, she used the professional-grade cordless screwdriver I’d bought her for Christmas to screw the supplied frame into the wall.

After the frames were attached, we made smaller holes just above the baseboard directly under each speaker, and there attached some Leviton on-wall speaker terminals I’d bought at Home Depot. We ran in-wall speaker cables (also from Home Depot) from the terminals to the binding posts on the speakers. We then slid each speaker into the wall until it hit the back of its frame. A hard downward push and it "clunked" down about 1/8" into place, secured to the frame, which in turn was secured to the wall. If at some point we need to remove the speakers, all we have to do is lift them up that 1/8" and slide them out again.

According to my wife, the installation process was "easy."

Installation at a Glance


The tools used


The hole is cut

The frame is installed
200705_s4_speaker.jpg (20969 bytes)
The speaker slides in

The rest of the setup

I connected my Nakamichi AV-10 receiver (100Wpc) to the W22s using Nordost Red Dawn Rev.II speaker cables running to the wall jacks, then hooked up my el cheapo Panasonic DVD player as a source, using generic out-of-the-box interconnects. I occasionally bring the Slim Devices Transporter down from my reference system into this room to act as another music source. I auditioned the Axioms first on their own, then with a Mirage S10 subwoofer, to see how well they would blend.

Sound

The Architectural W22’s ease of installation wasn’t the only thing that surprised me. So did their sound, which was much in the same vein as Axiom’s freestanding speakers. This was not what I expected from any kind of wall-mountable speaker, most of which, to me, have sounded compromised in many ways. But the W22 had fewer compromises than most, and presented an audiophile-approved sort of sound.

For example, the W22’s midrange clarity was outstanding, as was the overall level of detail it conveyed. Furthermore, the high frequencies were extended in the same way I’ve heard from Axiom’s regular speakers. Ian Colquhoun doesn’t believe in artificially rolling off the highs -- he’d rather let them soar into the stratosphere. The bass, too, seemed generous for a smallish speaker. Finally, the W22 could play quite loud -- really loud, in fact -- while still maintaining its composure, which is important when we’re watching movies or hosting parties that last till 4am.

However, since we’ve become parents, parties never last till 4am anymore (heck, we can’t last till 11pm), but we do watch a lot of movies. The other night we were watching Children of Men on DVD -- a great film with an equally fine sound mix -- and I was taken aback by how clean and detailed it all sounded through the W22s, even at high listening levels. Actors’ voices, in particular, were striking in their clarity and articulation. And, as I’ve said, the W22 produced surprising amounts of bass, something that probably has to do with the wall providing a certain amount of "lift" that speakers standing free in a room can’t take advantage of.

But before I get carried away: The Architectural W22 wasn’t full-range or even close to it. It’s specified at a bottom-end limit of 50Hz, which sounds about right. So when it came to movie viewing, things definitely sounded better when the subwoofer kicked in, mainly because many movies these days routinely use the low-frequency-effects (LFE) channel for frequencies below 50Hz, which are best handled by a dedicated subwoofer. Such effects greatly enhance the viewing experience -- without a good sub, the fish-tank-knocking scene in Finding Nemo isn’t the same.

I achieved a very cohesive blend between the W22s and my Mirage S10 subwoofer with an 80Hz crossover point, nor did it take me long to get the sub’s level just right. The combo produced a startlingly impressive, room-filling sound that brought heft, impact, and weight to the battle scenes in Children of Men. If you plan to watch a lot of movies with the W22s, get a sub as well.

But for music, it’s easier to get away without deep, subwoofer-reinforced bass. That’s partly because much recorded music doesn’t have really deep bass (not movie-deep, anyway), and partly because many music listeners don’t demand sound that goes down to 20Hz. The W22’s 50Hz or so can work just fine, which is part of the reason smallish bookshelf speakers remain popular.

During the day, my wife plays a wide assortment of Latin-based music on a constant-repeat basis, and most of the time she doesn’t use the subwoofer -- nor, for this music through the W22s, did we miss it. In fact, day in and day out, I admired the W22’s overall clarity, and the way it presented music in a vivid, immediate way. It had the subjective qualities of "speed" and "snap" that are characteristics of every Axiom speaker I’ve heard, and likely a result of its designer’s musical tastes. Ian Colquhoun likes to design speakers that are neutral but also capable of reproducing lifelike dynamics -- they’ve gotta have punch. The W22 couldn’t quite do these things the way Colquhoun’s favorite model, the company’s top-of-the-line M80 v2 ($1330/pair), can -- but the W22 got a lot of it right.

The W22s stumbled only in the areas of soundstaging and imaging. Left-right imaging was good, but depth was rather shallow. I don’t blame this on the W22s in particular; it seems to be a weakness of all in-/on-wall speakers. While the wall boundary can actually increase bass weight and the fullness of the sound, it messes up the perception of depth. For example, whenever speakers create a spacious sound with a credible (or even incredible) sense of depth, it’s almost always when they’ve been placed well away from the walls, which minimizes the messy reflections of sound off those surfaces. Wall-mounted speakers have no choice but to be close to the wall -- if you go this route, poor imaging and soundstaging are compromises you just have to live with.






However, when I began listening to the W22, I expected far more compromises than I heard. Most in- and/or on-wall speakers don’t sound this much like regular freestanding designs, and that’s what’s special about what Axiom has achieved in the W22. While the M22 costs less (now you can see why Axiom’s M speakers get such accolades for high value), it’s designed to be placed out in the room on stands so it can breathe. The additional $190 you pay for a pair of W22s gets you regular-speaker sound with few compromises, in an attractive package that mounts neatly and easily to the wall. That’s not much to pay for this type of convenience.

Conclusion

If you, as I once did, prefer your speakers out on the floor, and don’t have a compelling reason to put them on and/or in your walls, then don’t go the route of Axiom’s Architectural W series. Comparable freestanding speakers, including Axiom’s own, are less expensive, and they’ll give you ongoing flexibility in terms of placement options -- you can tweak to your heart’s content to wring from them the best possible sound. Forget the W22s and get the M22s.

But if you want something like the M22s and need to get your speakers up off the floor, then get the W22s and rest assured that the transition to the in-/on-wall way of life needn’t be painful at all. Unlike loudspeakers for which much is promised, but that end up being little more than patchwork designs, Axiom’s W22 is an extremely well-thought-out speaker that gives you Axiom’s trademark sound quality in a package much more convenient and spacing-saving than the norm. Furthermore, my wife tells me it’s dead-simple to install, and, like all Axiom speakers, it’s available in a multitude of finishes. This Architectural W22 is a unique solution for the audiophile who wants it all, but wants it on -- and in -- the wall.

…Doug Schneider
das@soundstageav.com

Axiom Audio Architectural Series W22 Loudspeakers
Price: $660 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Axiom Audio
Highway 60
Dwight, Ontario P0A 1H0
Canada
Phone: 866-244-8796 (toll-free in North America), 705-635-3090 (worldwide)

Website: www.axiomaudio.com

 


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