Athena Technologies AS-F2 loudspeaker
The AS-F2 floorstanding speaker is the flagship of Athena's new, affordable Audition series, which encompasses five models ranging from $179 to $599/pair. Before the speakers even arrived, Budget Bob's juices were bubbling at the thought of reviewing the most expensive speaker in a product line that tops out at only $599/pair (the old "design in North America, build in China" trick). But when the Athenas arrived, I scratched my head. At 3 1/2' tall and 51 lbs, the attractive, formidable-looking, silver-faced AS-F2 doesn't look like a $599/pair speaker—and at $6/lb, it costs a fraction of what I pay for dry-aged sirloin ($24/lb from Bryant and Cooper in Roslyn, New York).
Athena's Audition speakers are the brainchildren of designers Gord Van Kessel and Carmine Gitto, the team responsible for the highly popular Energy Take 5.2 home-theater system and the Sound Dynamics RTS bookshelf line. The AS-F2 features a 1" Teteron (manmade silk) dome tweeter with a 70mm ferrite magnet and two 8" woofers with 1" voice-coils, injection-molded cones, and rubber surrounds. The drivers are mounted on a 1"-thick front baffle in a braced cabinet with ¾" panels. The designers chose a relatively low crossover point of 2kHz to optimize dispersion. The shielded, front-ported cabinet sits atop proprietary composite spiked feet.
Big speakers, little price...big sound?
Immediately out of the box, the Audition AS-F2s presented an open, detailed, coherent, and neutral sound that reminded me of much more expensive floorstanding speakers. On Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (Nonesuch 79624-2), the slightly processed sound of Frisell's electric hollow-body archtop guitar was naturally woody and reverberant, as he sounds live, and Holland's bass was clean and properly defined, with just the right amount of warmth. Jones' cymbals were natural, with the requisite snap and metallic presence, but not "oversizzled."
The better the recording, the more the Auditions "disappeared." One of the most transparent solo-guitar recordings I've heard is Mark Ribot's Saints (Division One/Atlantic 83464-2). The detail and warmth of the lower strings of Ribot's closely miked, finger-picked electric guitar were readily apparent, and the microdynamics were so realistically reproduced that I could visualize the positions of his hands. From my notes: "Engaging! Vibrant! Involving!"
The detailed and natural midrange reproduction of the Athenas made them ideal for vocal recordings. I've seen jazz vocalist-pianist-composer Dena DeRose several times in concert (why has this multi-talented treasure not yet achieved the attention she deserves?), and her vocals on I Can See Clearly Now (Sharp Nine CD 1018-2) were reproduced with the immediacy and subtle dynamic articulation of her live shows. On her original composition "With a Smile," the vibes solo rang with bell-like natural clarity and the requisite percussive attack, but with no unnatural sharpness.
On material with considerable high-frequency content, however, the AS-F2's perspective was a bit forward. The speakers were not bright or edgy, but during solo passages of higher-register instruments on classical recordings, for example, the effect was similar to moving five rows closer to the stage. This gave an attractively lively quality to the reproduction of electric-guitar-based rock recordings, but made brightly mixed DVD soundtracks a bit in-your-face. However, the reproduction of string tones from well-recorded chamber music was the most natural of any speaker I've heard for under $1000/pair. Even with such "difficult" composers as Tomiko Kohjiba (Festival, Stereophile STPH007-2) and John Zorn (The Circle Maker, Tzadik 7122), violins and cellos had the requisite bite and attack, but were not fatiguing over long listening sessions.
The Athena's forceful, dynamic midbass had a warm emphasis but did not interfere with the music's dynamic articulation or pacing. My acid test for midbass definition is the heavily mixed bass synthesizer ostinato used on Sade's Love Deluxe (Epic EK 53178). Through the Athena this sounded quick, linear, and well-defined, despite the midbass warmth. Below the midbass region, the speaker just kept going and going..