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Ascend Acoustics Speakers
CMT-340 / CBM-170 Review

Introduction
After spending a comfortable year with a 6.1 set of Athena Audition Series speakers (reviewed here) I decided to try something new.  Positive reviews and forum chat regarding speakers from the internet-direct company Ascend Acoustics caught my attention, and I jumped on a bargain priced set of used Ascends consisting of CMT-340 mains, a CMT-340 center, and a pair CBM-170 monitors for surround duty.

Ascend CMT-340m, CMT-340c and CBM-170

Build Quality
There are some out there who do not appreciate the clean and simple design of the products from Ascend Acoustics.  I happen to like the understated simplicity.  While they will not win prizes for exotic cabinet veneers, the Ascends are solidly constructed and covered in a lightly textured black material that is a fairly close match to the finish of my SVS PB12-ISD/2 subwoofer.  The larger CMT-340 speakers have dual gold plated brass binding posts, and the CBM-170 monitors have a single pair of gold plated binding posts.  I will not go into the technical specifications of these speakers as they are fully represented on the Ascend website, but I will note that the CMT-340 center is not just a 340 main turned on its side.  It was designed specifically for horizontal center channel use and engineered for wide dispersion and minimized off-axis lobing.

Click for hi-res photo CMT340 binding posts (891612 bytes)

Click for hi-res photo CBM170 binding posts (801614 bytes)

Click for hi-res photo CMT340 tweeter (1106643 bytes)

Click for hi-res photo CMT340 woofer (760033 bytes)

CMT-340 Binding posts
(870 KB)

CBM-170 Binding posts
(782 KB)

CMT-340 Tweeter
(1.05 MB)

CMT-340 Woofer
(742 KB)

Included with my set of speakers was a pair of the TP-24 pedestal stands for the CMT-340 mains.  These stands are finished to match the CMT-340's, and give a 'pseudo-tower' look.  While I like the look and build of the stands, I am not impressed with the flimsy cardboard-like piece of pressed wood that is supplied to connect the stand to the back of the CMT-340.  I hope to fabricate a replacement from sturdier material at some point in the future.  The stands are sand fillable and come with a decent set of spikes that screw into the bottom of the base.

Set-Up
The mains were set-up in a slightly toed-in position.  The CMT-340 center was placed on top of my entertainment center and angled down slightly at the listening position.  The CBM-170 surrounds are currently on stands that are slightly behind and angled towards the listening positioning. I have purchased a pair of the Omnimount 20 brackets from Ascend and plan to wall-mount these in the near future.  Since they will be mounted within two feet of the ceiling, David Fabrikant of Ascend has advised me to mount them in a tweeter-down configuration.  For music and movies, I set all the speakers to small and cross them over at 80hz on my Pioneer VSX-1014TX receiver (reviewed here).

Initial Listening Impressions
After living with the Athena's for over a year, it took me some time to become accustomed to the more neutral sound of the Ascend speakers.  The Athena's have a bit of mid-bass bump and a brighter high-end.  The Ascends do not have a jump-out-and-grab-you quality to their sound, but rather a very clean and honest presentation that grows on you day by day.  I have been using them for well over a month now, and I like them better every time I listen to them.  

One thing I found is that I no longer use the EQ function of the VSX-1014TX receiver.  With the Athena's, I found the EQ settings to be useful for blending the speakers and reducing brightness on the front soundstage (especially with movies and television).  While the Ascend high end is clear and detailed, there is no 'brightness' to tame, and the Ascends simply sound worse with the EQ function engaged.

Music
I listen to CDs in two channel 'Direct' mode on my receiver, with the subwoofer on and the crossover set at 80hz. I use a Denon DCM-380 CD player connected with analog cables. 

The CMT-340 mains blend beautifully with my SVS subwoofer, and provide a very clear, detailed and unforgiving reproduction of music CDs.  The soundstage is wider and deeper than that of the Athena AS-F2s and imaging a bit more focused.  Vocals are moved forward, as if the singer is up front at the microphone with the instruments behind.  By comparison, vocals on the Athenas sound as if they are back a few feet and blended with the instruments.  For higher volume listening, I find the Ascends to be a major improvement over the Athena's.  The AS-F2s tend to get a bit harsh at louder volumes, but the Ascends stay clean and clear (at least with higher-quality recordings).  On some recordings (Nightingale on the Norah Jones Come Away With Me CD for example) the sound from the CMT-340's is so room filling at higher volumes that it is near-holographic, and actually sounds as if the surround speakers are playing.

Currently running a 5.1 system, I am trying the "bi-amp" feature of the 7.1 Pioneer receiver to add more power to the 340 mains.  After rewiring and recalibrating the speaker levels I can almost convince myself that vocals are a tad cleaner at higher volumes.

Movies
Three things come to mind regarding the home theater performance of the Ascend speakers:

1)  Reduced brightness.  The Athena AS-F2's are great speakers for home theater - very powerful and detailed.  The only issue I had with them is that during very dynamic and loud scenes they could get a bit bright and ear-piercing.  The Ascends are a big improvement in this area.  Though I still do a bit of volume-fiddling during movies (up for quiet dialog, down for loud action scenes), the loud moments are nowhere near as painful as they could be with the Athena's...and this is with all EQ functions turned off.   I would speculate that with some proper acoustic treatments added to my room I might not have to adjust the volume at all during movies.

2)  Seamless pans.  The all CMT-340 front and CBM-170 rears really blend together superbly.  Side to side and front to back pans sound perfectly timbre-matched to my ears.

3)  Direct radiating surrounds.  I like them.  My Athena system included three AS-R1 bipole surrounds, and they are good speakers for the money.  But I am finding that I do prefer the sound of direct radiating speakers as surrounds.  My room is fairly large, and I found that the sound of the bipoles could be a little too diffuse.  The CBM-170's are also much better at presenting music and vocals than the Athena surrounds.

Well recorded dialog is clear and natural sounding through the CMT-340c, even in the off-axis areas that revealed lobing issues with the Athena AS-C1 center.  Though not a magic cure for poorly recorded or mumbled vocals, the Ascend center channel speaker has performed quite well.

Customer Service
The customer service received from Ascend Acoustics has been excellent.  When I bought my pre-owned Ascends they were missing a grill for one of the CMT-340 mains.  When I called to order a new one I mentioned that my speakers had the 'old' style Ascend logos and was a little concerned about getting a replacement grill with a mismatched logo.  No problem.  Despite the fact that I bought my speakers used from a private party, Ascend included a set of the new style logos for all my speakers - no charge.  Emailed questions about placement and performance have always been answered quickly, politely, and professionally.

Conclusion
I like my Athena speakers, but they are up for sale.  The Ascends continue to impress me daily, and for the first time in a long while I don't have much interest in surfing the net looking at other speakers.  I am planning to go back to a 6.1 system by adding a single Ascend Acoustics HTM-200 as a center rear speaker.  With that addition the audio section of my system should be complete, and I can concentrate on researching screens and projectors.  Now to decide between DLP and LCD....

Note
Ascend has recently revised the CBM-170 and CMT-340 to the 'Signature Editions'. Now known as the CBM-170 SE and the CMT-340 SE these speakers feature upgraded woofers, and improved tweeters by SEAS of Norway.


Questions or comments?  Email me at chas41363a@yahoo.com

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