From the moment I received the Axis Voicebox S—the small two-way monitor from Australia—fond memories transported me back to a simpler time in the high end. Suddenly I’m sitting in my old apartment listening to vinyl into the wee hours with enchanting mini-monitors such as the redoubtable Rogers LS35a or the ProAc Tablette—both sensations in their day and musical beyond their modest dimensions. Although these speakers had clear output limits and attenuated bass response, they were pure magic in the way they shed the confines of their small boxes, just like Houdini shedding a straitjacket. They spoke with an authenticity (at least in the mids) and overall transparency that sold first-time listeners and aspiring audiophiles worldwide. This is the sort of mood the VoiceBox S put me in.
The $2500 VoiceBox S is the product of a relationship between friendly engineering rivals John Riley and Brad Serhan, both notables in Australian high-end circles. Riley is an original founder of Axis. In 2008 he brought to Serhan the general outlines and ribbon-driver concept of a speaker project to be called the VoiceBox. Serhan agree to collaborate and began to develop the speaker. In an e-mail exchange, Serhan described the genesis of the VoiceBox: “The quest began when John asked if I knew of a bass/mid driver that could match a particular ribbon tweeter he wanted to incorporate into a bookshelf design. Coincidentally, I had been working with a 5″ paper cone that had all the necessary traits to match John’s ribbon tweeter. Our initial testing indicated the drivers were more than a match.” (Unexpectedly, I later learned that Riley’s aim was to create an Australian classic, somewhat akin to the great English bookshelf “voice” monitors like the aforementioned Rogers and ProAc. See designer sidebar.)
The VoiceBox S (VB-S) is a two-way compact in a sturdy bass-reflex enclosure. The port vents to the rear. It’s fitted with a 5.25″ mid/bass cone driver and a 50mm ribbon tweeter. The crossover point is 3kHz via a fifteen-element, Linkwitz-Riley, fourth-order design. Construction quality and finish appear to be first-rate. The multi-layer piano-black gloss finish is deep and lustrous. The speakers include black perforated-aluminum grilles that magnetically attach to the front baffles; however, Axis recommends grilles off for critical listening. The single-wire binding posts are of the WBT-type, similar in every way but the name. There are also three Chinese characters adorning the terminal plate in back. Translated, they mean “love of sound.”
With a name like VoiceBox S, it doesn’t take a psychic to tip you off to its intentions. Its small volume and modest mid/bass driver are not seismically geared to set rafters a-rattling or scale Carnegie Hall-sized images. Nor will the VB-S fully meet the lofty (or would that be chthonic?) expectations of organ aficionados, Mahler mavens, or Kodo drum groupies. However, if you set those pipedreams aside and let the monitors perform as intended, then the rewards are considerable.
Sonically the VB-S is a robust and agile performer, reproducing instrumental timbres with truth and authenticity. In spite of its lighter character, there’s a welcome zone of midrange warmth that keeps it on balance. Primary is its midrange resolving power that carries with it a slightly forward tilt. There was a warmth and openness on “Slumber My Darling” [Appalachian Journey] that captured the nuance and urgency in singer Alison Krauss’ gently soaring performance. The VB-S even suggested much, although not all, of the chesty resonance of Tom Waits’ “Georgia Lee” [from Mule Variations]—no easy task even for larger compacts. What truly makes the VB-S uncommon in this price range is its 50mm ribbon tweeter, the trump card that underscores its sonic identity. This is what makes it a loudspeaker that thrives at reproducing music at its most intimate—the distant rattle of a tambourine, the soft airy cluster of notes from a harp, or the brittle metallic attack and resonant ring of a mandolin. Or the distinct differences between the speed of a flat pick and the more muted articulation from the soft pads of a player’s fingertips.
However, don’t judge the VB-S by its name only. Although it excels with human voices, there is a lot more to its portfolio. A track from Dave Brubeck’s Take Five perfectly illustrates how this loudspeaker sets a large body of energy in motion. In this cozy yet reverberant jazz setting, it nimbly reproduces Desmond’s sweet and lively sax and the vibrant, dynamic tonal color and crispness of Joe Morello’s drum kit, most particularly the snare rolls and shimmering cymbals riding high over the mix. It also captures much of this recording’s ambience and three-dimensional space. This is the sort of music that fits the VB-S’s comfort zone to a tee.
Symphonic pieces like Malcolm Arnold’s Sussex Overture are reproduced a little less convincingly. Achieving believable dynamics and scale is a challenge for any monitor of the foot-tall persuasion, and some congestion creeps into the stage during orchestral fortissimos. However, at less intense levels its poise returns, and with it all the dimension, inner detail, and individuation of the musicians. Actually, when the VB-S is properly set up, its midbass response is far from threadbare, and further extension can be exacted by careful rear-wall placement of around 18″ to 24″, which provides good reinforcement without overly plumping up response. And because it doesn’t juice the 80–100Hz range, this makes the VB-S a fine candidate for low-bass augmentation via a subwoofer. The REL S/5 sub I had on hand made for a seamless partnership with the VoiceBox S. (See the REL S/5 review this issue.)
Imaging and dimensionality are uniformly excellent. The drivers cohere to one another like sheets of flypaper, and with no apparent presence dip at or around the crossover point. Although excellent driver integration is more the norm than the exception in today’s crop of two-way monitors, the VoiceBox’s performance in this regard still rises to the top. The VB-S is somewhat particular about listening levels, however. At 83dB sensitivity, it demands a bit more amplifier muscle than usual and some volume to fully come into its own.
In spite of its name there’s one area where the VoiceBox isn’t backtalking, or talking at all: its quiet, uncolored, and invisible enclosure—perhaps not a complete surprise given its modest cabinet dimensions and stout construction. Premium efforts in this segment—and I count the VoiceBox among these—produce enclosures that are intrinsically stiffer and less resonant, even with a minimum of internal bracing. It’s not hard to understand why—simply consider how much harder it is to bend a short panel than a long one of identical material and thickness, and you’ll understand the advantages designers of small boxes have going in. Still, when they are poorly executed, enclosures can negatively color the sound. In this regard the VoiceBox is dead silent.
The one critical concern that I had was how well the ultra-light ribbon would integrate with the more conventional cone diaphragm of the five-inch mid/bass unit. Would there be a sense of transient and harmonic discontinuity? Would the ribbon get the jump on the bass unit and speed on ahead? After listening to selection after selection of female vocals, from Shelby Lynne’s “Just A Little Lovin’” to Holly Cole’s “I Can See Clearly,” both expertly recorded favorites, as well as to solo and accompanied violin, I couldn’t clock any discontinuities or artifacts that tended to split the image into competing versions between transducers. I have to conclude that the VoiceBox does a very good job at blending these technologies and materials into a near-perfect point source.
The Axis VoiceBox inhabits a premium market segment where there is no lack of competition. Among its rivals are the Revel M106 and the ProAc Tablette Anniversary (each reviewed in Issue 234), both possessed of their own special charms that differentiate them from the VoiceBox. But the little Aussie doesn’t need to take a backseat by any stretch, and could very well rattle one’s expectations of foot-tall two-ways in this range. It may be a crowded field but, as I discovered, there’s always room for a fresh voice.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-way, bass-reflex
Drivers: 50mm metal true ribbon, 5.25″ Peerless Nomex paper cone
Frequency response: 60Hz–20kHz +/-2dB
Nominal impedance: 5 ohms
Dimensions: 7″ x 12″ x 8″
Weight: 14 lbs.
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