Studio Gear: Three Mid-sized Studio Monitors
Author: Zed Brookes
So you’ve finally finished that album, tracked and then mixed and finally burned off a copy for the band. Then shock, horror! They came back to you with some complaints about how it doesn’t sound very good when they play it at home, or at their friend’s place, or much, much worse; in the record label’s office. Welcome to the world of mix translatability, my friends.
A world of mixes that transcend the limitations of cheap boomboxes and defile the $100 per inch super-cables of the elite audiophiles. This can be you.
“But how?” you ask in a hushed, breathy voice? “How can I become the super-mixer?” Come closer and I’ll tell you. It will cost you. Over and above the years of hugging computer keyboards and fondling mice, gazing into the technological abyss of coloured audio regions on innumerous tracks, it will cost you money.
What will you sacrifice for the $50,000-a-pair studio monitors and the million-dollar custom-designed acoustically-perfect space? Hmmph. Not even close. Perhaps we will try plan B – which involves buying some studio monitors that are reasonably priced, but pretty darn good, and getting to know them really, really well. It will mean positioning them carefully in your room and adjusting the bass and treble tilt to match. It will mean checking your mixes on many other systems and on your car stereo until you know in your bones that what you hear on your own system will translate into most other systems in the real world. Then you will hire a good mastering engineer to fix the rest.
What’s that you say? Headphones? Sacrilege! No, you can’t do decent mixes on headphones – even expensive thousand-dollar jobs. You can check your mixes on headphones, but mixes done entirely this way don’t translate well into the real world. Part of your hearing involves various resonations of your body. Besides, over and above the almost instantaneous ear-fatigue you will develop, you’ll wreck your ears a lot faster than using speakers.
What we need is a speaker system that is accurate over the full range of frequencies we are able to hear without too many holes or peaks. They need to sound clear at both really low and fairly high volumes. We should be able to perceive panned sounds that sound like they go even wider than the speakers, and to hear the funny noises the drummers make as they unconsciously sing along to the song. Then we know we’re hearing everything we need to hear, or at the very least, hearing enough to deliver decent results that will translate into the real world.
Factoid: Studio monitor systems are often defined around the size of the bass speaker – the last review I did for NZ Musician was around 5” systems, this review is around 8” systems.
In the June/July 2010 issue review we looked at smaller, low-budget studio systems that had to really push the technological envelope to get a biggish sound out of small speakers.
The first thing to suffer is usually the bass – the universe demands that you need a certain sized cabinet and speaker to reproduce low frequencies. Small systems either run out of oomph or need a big sub-speaker to deliver those lows. Otherwise you get ‘colouration’ – yes you’ve got bass, but it’s decaff. And although subs can deliver the goods volume-wise, they’re one of the most annoying things ever to set up properly and find the perfect position. In my last sub-based setup, it was where you put your legs under the mixing console.
A slightly larger set of monitors with larger bass drivers can provide a much more accurate and consistently louder sound. More box volume, bigger speakers and magnets along with more powerful amplifiers make a world of difference.
These systems are often considered ‘flat’ down to frequencies around 40Hz, so hopefully you shouldn’t need that extra sub to reveal the low frequencies in your mix. I get my leg-space back!
So let’s start looking at the three studio monitor systems here for review. Each speaker in this review has only two drivers – a low-frequency bass/mid driver and a dome tweeter. Some engineers prefer a third mid speaker to give more accurate mid-range detail, but that pushes the cost up significantly – one more speaker and one more amplifier or crossover per speaker adds quite a lot to the price.
Each of these three systems is bi-amped; it has one or more integrated power amps to drive the speakers, and at this range of prices upwards, I also expect to find some sort of switching to change the speaker’s bass or treble balance to suit the size of the room and also the positioning within it. The closer you are to a wall or corner, the more low-end you need to roll-off.
I tested each pair of speakers with a couple of sources; firstly with my favourite reference album Salmonella Dub’s ‘Inside the Dub Plates’. This album has a number of tracks that include instruments that cover the entire range of frequencies – most especially that challenging bass and low-mid area that can be difficult to critically evaluate. The album is also very well-mastered, so if there’s any rumbly bass notes, it’s definitely from the speaker system or room, not the mix! In addition, I used some tracks that I’ve been mixing for the Alan Brown Trio to reveal the monitor systems’ stereo imaging and clarity/depth of detail.
SONODYNE SM200 (AVC, rrp $2800)
Sonodyne are an up-and-coming brand breaking ground rapidly overseas. These tidy-looking, hand-finished cast aluminium-fronted speakers are manufactured in India. This particular model has a largish trapezoidal box shape that’s wider at the back than the front, to minimise internal reflections. (The other models are all aluminium – these ones have MDF sides.) I was really surprised with how good they sounded straight out of the box, especially considering they were competing with systems that cost significantly more. I initially compared them to some JBL LSR28P speakers and thought the SM200s were a little on the bright side, so I pulled each tweeter level down 2dB via the switches on the back, which matched them quite closely to the JBLs tonally.
Overall the sound was clean and open, with excellent transient response, solid bass and outstanding stereo imaging. The 150W bass and 100W treble amps coped well when driven hard, remaining clear at all volumes.
At this price range they’re perfect for someone with a mid-size project studio or home studio who would normally be buying something like the Mackie 8” systems or similar – in fact I swapped them out with some original-model Mackie 8” speakers in the studio at work, and immediately the sound was much improved. For those with a limited budget I highly recommend them – they are outstanding value for money and a great alternative to slightly more expensive aluminium models. They have XLR connectors on the back plus bass and treble tilt DIP switches for tuning to the room. With the power switch and volume controls on the front of each speaker they are very handy for smaller studios. And no sub needed.
YAMAHA MSP7 (MusicWorks, rrp $3300)
Yamaha has garnered a considerable reputation as a reputable manufacturer of various products. This speaker model has been around since about 2007 – and is obviously a successful one for them to have lasted so well. Physically the smallest of the three sets I reviewed (but still really heavy!), they have a slightly smaller (7”) bass driver than the others and a compact cabinet made of moulded resin. Despite each cabinet’s built-in 80W bass amp and 50W tweeter amp I found that the performance suffered somewhat at higher volumes – perhaps due to the limited cabinet size and bass porting more than the amps themselves.
I also found the sound from these monitors quite ‘coloured’ – especially when sitting on a shelf or desktop rather than a stand. The mid-range, however, was well-defined and the stereo imaging clear. These would likely do well as a powered replacement for the ubiquitous Yamaha NS10 monitors which are no longer in production.
The MSP7s had plenty of upper-bass/lower mids, in fact I had to turn the bass down using the switches on the back, but they weren’t extending bass into the low frequencies. They felt a little boomy, with the lows tapering off below about 80Hz.
The smaller size of these monitors would definitely be advantageous where space is limited. The build quality and finish is very good – the clean-edged black cabinet finish looks very nice. The rubber speaker surrounds in contrast are an odd powdery grey/white colour – some kind of side-effect of whatever they use to keep the rubber flexible. There are power switches on the front but only a rear volume trim control. They have XLR inputs and three switches for adjusting the tonal response. Overall an excellent compact system, but I can’t help but feel that more recent technology and design is overtaking this model, especially at this price point.
RCF Mytho 8 (Direct Imports, rrp $3600)
It’s hard not to be impressed by these speakers. I remember way back in the old days that RCF was a company that specialised in speakers for PA systems, and although I vaguely recall seeing the name crop up from time to time in magazine ads, I’d not really thought of them as makers of studio monitors. Well, surprise!
These cast-aluminium speakers are physically the largest (although not the heaviest) of the three sets reviewed here, with very rounded corners/edges and a cool tilt-able base. Overall the sound was extremely clear and ‘open’, and they were certainly the most tunable of the three, with 11 dip switches on the back for adjusting various sonic characteristics as well as some other system options. With a little tweaking they worked well even sitting on a table top.
A front-mounted touch-sensitive power switch with glowing ring adds to the glamour appeal (you can disable it if you prefer), although volume is controlled only by a rear trim pot. Input is via a combo XLR/jack plug socket.
Interestingly, it uses a digital DSP processing system to factory-fine-tune the crossover and speaker settings. I assume it also internally compensates for signal overloads by limiting the input signal as it was very difficult to make them distort.
I found this set of monitors sounded smoothest overall at all frequencies from low bass to extreme highs, and across a wide volume range. The 200W bass plus 100W tweeter class AB power amps have headroom to spare and remained amazingly clear at both low and high volumes. Although the most expensive of the three systems, if you had the budget they wouldn’t disappoint.
Zed Brookes is Head of Audio Dept at MAINZ, is a mastering engineer and producer, and performing songwriter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his audio blog http://dbzeebee.blogspot.co