Some say it was the Alesis ADAT that revolutionized the home studio,
while others point to Mackie’s 1604 mixer or Digidesign’s Pro Tools.
But let’s not forget the appearance of high-quality, near-field
monitors at a reasonable price that let us hear the music we were
making in our studios. Without those, we’d still be looking for some
place to mount some honkin’ big JBL speakers, or using hi-fi bookshelf
speakers intended for consumers.
In any event manufacturers have certainly not forgotten about near-field monitors, because their numbers keep increasing. And increasing . . . which is what led to this article.
You see, at the EQ offices Editor Matt Harper was literally buried behind a wall of near-field monitor boxes, where he had been trapped or days without food or water (fortunately, an alert night-time janitorial service worker heard the faint sound of someone saying over and over again, “too . . . many . . . speakers”).
After he recovered, I got a call from him and we talked about doing an EQ-style roundup of the best of the batch, based on the most recent speakers to arrive so we’d keep things timely. Ideally, he wanted to group monitors by design or price point, but that simply didn’t happen: More and more candidates appeared at his office, and he was running out of room to walk. Nor did we want him to get buried alive again.
Bottom line: The bad news is the article didn’t turn out quite the way he wanted, but the good news is we’re able to present a collection that suits your budget or design preference. So whether you grew up on NS-10s, Genelecs, Tannoy Red Devils, or are brand new to the market, we probably have something for you. (Note: We had also completed a review of the AAD SM6, only to find out just before going to press that we had been shipped defective speakers. As there was no time for a re-do, we had to pull it.)MORE OPTIONS THAN EVER
Gone are the days of drilling two holes in a box and dropping in some drivers: Designers have multiple options when it comes to building loudspeaker systems. Historically, most of the attention has been on driver and enclosure design. Great strides have been achieved in the areas of enclosure shape, as well as options featuring ported cases. In recent years, some companies have turned to onboard digital signal processing to alter the response of the unit, with the most advanced systems incorporating microphones for individual room adjustments. Consequently our roundup contains speakers designed for the smallest project studios, world-class facilities, and just about everywhere in between.
All prices are list price, per speaker; “street” prices are typically less. Double the prices for a pair.
BAG END PM6 TIME-ALIGN
Bag End is a household name in live sound reinforcement. EQ-reading bass and keyboard players have probably come across the company’s instrument amps, as well. But they also make near-field monitors for audio and video suites.
The PM6 is about the same size as the ubiquitous Yamaha NS-10, and at first glance it looks like it’s missing the tweeter! Actually, the design is built around a 6-inch 2-way coaxial driver. If you’ve never seen one of these beasts in person, they’re kind of cool. Instead of the round dome you normally encounter at the center of the woofer, the tweeter is built into a pole that extends through the middle of the cone. (The outer driver can move independently from the tweeter unit.) But the physical proximity of the two units means the high and low frequencies hit the listener’s ears at the same time. Bag End has licensed the Time Align trademark from E.M. Long Associates, the original inventor of Time Aligned loudspeakers dating back to 1976. Other vendors have there own various implementations.
For a while, most speakers were not time-aligned (unless is was by accident), but modern designs have done a better job addressing this issue. Companies such as Dunlavy, Lipinski, and Earthworks have made “stepped” monitors, where the tweeters are recessed further into the enclosure, while other companies have incorporated delay-adjustment features inside the monitor’s internal crossover. Nonetheless, time-corrected speakers tend to have great imaging, and the Bag End PM6 is no exception.
You can mount the PM6 vertically or horizontally, and it comes with a removable speaker grill. A blue LED illuminates to indicate the speakers have power, which is provided via a Speakon-terminated power cord. There is no power switch, so unless you have the Bag Ends on a switchable power conditioner, the units remain on.
In use, the PM6 provided the tightest transients and most separated stereo image of the bunch. Mixes with extreme stereo panning, or percussive instruments like double kick or marimba, were outright fun to listen to on the Bag Ends. The high end was articulate, but not fatiguing—I could listen to these speakers for long sessions, no problem. The midrange, although defined, was not overly wooly or exaggerated. Of course, with a nonported box of this size, a 6-inch driver cannot produce the big bass of larger units—but we knew that before we plugged them in.
If you grew up mixing with NS-10s, mid-sized Genelecs, or even Auratones, the Bag Ends would be a dream come true upgrade in terms of fidelity, image, and fatigue reduction. Other users would want to consider adding a subwoofer to augment the lowest registers. Overall, though, this is a very sweet set of speakers that you can trust for doing mixes that translate across multiple playback systems.
Strengths: Incredible imaging. Tight, focused midrange. “Just right” amount of high end.
Limitations: No power switch means they’re always on. Power cable uses Speakon connector rather than IEC-type. Thin on the low end compared to others in the roundup.
EQUATOR AUDIO Q10
The name Equator Audio might be new, but the man behind the brand is no stranger to the monitoring world. President Ted Keffalo has two decades of experience in pro audio, including time at Alesis and as a cofounder of Event Electronics. He founded Equator Audio with the goal of developing a no-compromise monitor that would allow any recording engineer to experience the high caliber monitoring found in world class studios. The Q10s, while at the smaller end of the Equator line (they also have 8, 12, 15, and 18-inch models), are massive in person, weighing in at 54 pounds each. Models in the Equator line can be networked via Ethernet cables, which enables computer-based control of the units, as well as integration with the company’s alignment and tuning software.
Like the Bag Ends, the Q10 features a coaxial design. Each unit features a 10-inch main with dual bass ports for extended response. The highs come from a full-blown High Frequency Compression Driver, and the way they get a horn to sound not like a horn is by using the onboard computer to reduce the sloped areas on each side of the crossover point, where both the horn and woofer would normally be reproducing the same frequencies.
To start, we tried the Equators in our Studio A as-is, foregoing any of the alignment features. In this out-ofthe- box configuration the Q10s sounded great. They produced one of the widest frequency responses of any near-field monitor I’ve heard, and would not distort no matter how hard we pushed them. (Our ears cried “uncle” before the Q10s gave up.) Most notable was the uncanny accuracy in the midrange, which at times bordered on clinical. Listening to AC/DC’s “Back In Black” revealed finger tips sliding on strings, hi-hats ringing out during rests, and the slightest details in Brian Johnson’s vocals.
One listener found this much information to be “distracting,” but as a mastering engineer who spends too much time cleaning up pops, clicks, and other things that slip by some mix engineers, I contend the better we can hear what’s going on, the better our final product will be. But after a few days of working with the Q10s, the same critic, now accustomed to the resolution, had a hard time going back to his previous monitors. Mixes created on the Q10s translated well to MP3 player, car, and mastering speakers, so the detail didn’t prove to be a hindrance to productivity.
We moved the Q10s into our smaller mixing suite and fired up the alignment software. Setting the supplied omni mic at the mix position, the system conducted all of the tests and calibrations in a few minutes. While we didn’t require significant EQ changes, the software did note some early reflection issues, and adjusted accordingly. To my knowledge, Equator is at the forefront when it comes to addressing reflections in addition to room response. Alternating between monitoring with and without the correction revealed subtle changes in imaging and localization. I’m a big believer in tuning one’s room rather than one’s speakers, and I’ve had poor experiences with room-adjusting speakers in the past, but the Equator software really works. Many of us do not have the time, resources, or space to change our control rooms. If you’re in this group, consider the Equators at the top of your shopping list.
While some of the speakers in the roundup blur the distinction between pro and project studio use, the Equators blur the distinction between mixing and mastering speakers. I could envision a mastering suite built around a pair of Q12s and a pair of the Q18s—and a surround mixing suite featuring Q8s would be eargasmic. I’m convinced the Q series does achieve Keffalo’s goals of bringing “Studio A” to “Studio Anywhere.”
Strengths: Clarity, clarity, clarity. Wide frequency response, solid imaging, can reproduce loud material with ease. Power controls on front panel. Correction software actually works.
Limitations: Physically very heavy and require appropriate support. Larger-than-most-near-fields-size means they take up more real estate. This level of performance comes at a price.
NEAR-FIELD MONITOR PLACEMENT
In smaller studios, near-field monitors have become the standard way to monitor. These compact speakers sit around 3 to 6 feet from the mixer’s ears, with the head and speakers forming a triangle. The speakers should point toward the ears and be at ear level. If slightly above ear level, they should point downward toward the ears.
Near-field monitors reduce—but do not eliminate—the impact of room acoustics on the overall sound, as the speakers’ direct sound is far greater than the reflections coming off the room surfaces. As a side benefit, because of their proximity to your ears, near-field monitors do not have to produce a lot of power. This allows including amps within the speaker to create powered monitors that need no external power amp, as well as relaxing the requirements for external power amps, if needed.
However, placement in the room is an issue. If placed too close to the walls, there will be a bass build-up. Although you can compensate for this with EQ (or possibly controls on the speakers themselves), the build-up will be different at different frequencies. High frequencies are not as affected because they are more directional. If the speakers are free-standing and placed away from the wall, back reflections from the speakers bouncing off the wall could cause cancellations and additions.
You’re pretty safe if the speakers are more than 6 feet away from the wall in a fairly large listening space (this places the first frequency null point below the normally audible range), but not everyone has that much room. Nor are room reflections the only problem; if placed on top of a console, reflections from the console itself can cause inaccuracies. Always aim for as direct a path as possible from speaker to eardrum. —Craig Anderton
KRK SYSTEMS ROKIT POWERED RP5 G2 AND KRK10S SUBWOOFER
These aren’t your dad’s Rokits. I know—I owned the originals, and that experience made me vow never to buy KRKs again! But, over the past few years the company has conducted a complete overhaul of the entire product line, and won me back in the process. (In fact, the KRK VXT8s have now become our main monitors in Studio A.) With this updated model, the advances in design that debuted in the company’s Expose series are being implemented in the Rokit line.
Long gone is the A-frame shape of the original Rokits; the new generation features a curved, almost eggshaped design, making them resemble shrunken versions of the VXT line. The 1-inch neodymium soft dome tweeter is paired with a 5-inch glass aramind composite woofer, and they put out significant levels for their size. As with any compact speaker, the Rokits have almost nonexistent response at the very low end, which is why KRK sent us the KRK10S powered subwoofer to complement the mains. The sub also incorporates advances in cabinet design, as well as power amplification and crossover tweaks made by the design team.
We set the Rokit’s low cut to 50Hz, and the low pass filter on the sub to the same. Once again, we loaded up our AC/DC tracks and hit play. The result? Mud. The low mids were so out of control it sounded like quarter-inch tape at 7.5 ips without the hiss. We scratched our heads and decided we would ignore the legend on the back of the sub. Out came the test tone CD, and after adjusting the crossover, we started again. (By the way, for a great resource on setting up a sub, check out an article by Bob Katz on his website at: www.digido. com/media/articles-and-demos/13-bob-katz/ 14-subwoofers.html.)
Within a few minutes, we found a crossover combination that fit our setup, and were immediately impressed with the system’s quality. The kick and snare of the AC/DC album hit with meaty force, and interplay between the lead and rhythm guitars was spot on. Engaging in a totally unfair comparison, we A/Bed the set up against the far more expensive Equators. And while the KRKs lacked equivalent definition and precision, the balance of mix elements was very similar. Translation: You can probably trust that mixes made with these units will travel to other systems. Nick Barnes, who was helping with the evaluation, made the observation that the Rokits had a pretty wide sweet spot for such little speakers. Comparing them to the Bag Ends confirmed this opinion.
Provided you invest the time to find the correct crossover setup, this is definitely the best value in the bunch. They would make a great starter set, and even a second opinion monitor (in place of a boom box or smaller speakers). And I can’t emphasize enough how much bang you get for your equipment dollar with the Rokits.
Price: Rokit $399, Sub $599
Strengths: One of the best values on the present market. While not as accurate as more expensive models, you can trust mixes made on these. Small footprint of Rokits makes integration easy in tight spaces.
Limitations: Need the KRK10s Sub for best results. Setting up correct crossover point requires effort. Not as much resolution as high-end models. Can distort if pushed too far.
IS THERE A “BEST” MONITOR?
On Internet forums, you’ll see endless discussions on which near-fields are best. In truth, the answer may rest more on which near-field works best with your listening space and imperfect hearing response. How many times have you seen a review of a speaker where the person notes with amazement that some new speaker “revealed sounds not heard before with other speakers”? This is to be expected. The frequency response of even the best speakers in reasonably well-treated rooms is sufficiently uneven that some speakers will indeed emphasize different frequencies compared to other speakers, essentially creating a different mix.
Although it’s a cliché that you should audition several speakers and choose the model you like best, I believe you can’t choose the perfect speaker, because such a thing doesn’t exist. Instead, you choose the one that colors the sound the way you prefer, or even better, provides the least amount of coloration.
Choosing a speaker is an art. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear my music over some hugely expensive, very-close-to-perfect systems in mastering labs and high-end studios, so I know exactly what it should sound like. My criterion for choosing a speaker is simple: Whatever makes my “test” CD sound the most like it did over the high-end speakers wins.
If you haven’t had the same kind of listening experiences, book 30 minutes or so at some really good studio and bring along one of your favorite CDs (you can probably get a price break because you’re not asking to use a lot of the facilities). Listen to the CD and get to know what it should sound like, then compare any speakers you audition to that standard. For example, if the piano on your mix sounds a little understated on the expensive speakers compared to what you’re hearing at home, choose speakers where the piano is equally understated.
One caution: If you’re A-B comparing a set of speakers and one set is slightly louder than the other (even a fraction of a dB can make a difference), you’ll likely choose the louder one as sounding better. Make sure the speaker levels are matched as closely as possible in order to make a valid comparison. —Craig Anderton
ACTIVE VS. PASSIVE MONITORS
There are two main monitor types, active and passive. Passive monitors consist of only the speakers and crossovers, and require outboard amplifiers. Active monitors incorporate any power amplification needed to drive the speakers from a line level signal. I generally prefer powered monitors because the engineers have (hopefully!) tweaked the power amp and speaker into a smooth, efficient team. Issues such as speaker cable resistance become moot, and protection can be built into the amp to prevent blowouts. Some speakers even have digital inputs, so you can feed the power amp directly from a digital source. Powered monitors are often bi-amped (e.g., a separate amp for the woofer and tweeter), which minimizes intermodulation distortion and allows for tailoring the crossover points and frequency response for the speakers being used.
However, there’s of course nothing wrong with hooking up passive monitors (which are usually less expensive than active equivalents) to your own amps, but make sure the amp has adequate headroom. Any clipping that occurs in the amp generates lots of high-frequency harmonics (ask any guitarist who uses distortion), and sustained clipping can burn out tweeters. —Craig Anderton
M-AUDIO DSM1 AND DSM2
The product of a joint venture between Digidesign and M-Audio, the DSM1 and DSM2 are more than a cosmetic rebranding of previous models: The DSMs have new cabinets, drivers, and most interestingly, an onboard DSP engine, making this an exciting new entry in the market. The cabinet is ported, and features either a 6.5-inch low-frequency driver for the DSM1 or an 8-inch version on the DSM2. Inputs can be analog or digital via AES or S/PDIF inputs, and either model supports PCM signals up to 24-bit at 192kHz. As all audio goes through the DSP, you might as well feed the DSMs a digital source, which avoids an A/D conversion inside the speaker, and frees up I/O on your DAW (for use with outboard gear and the like). Rear panel DIP switches let you adjust any of 12 parameters, ranging from shelves to desktop resonance filters.
If I had to describe the DSMs in one word, it would be “smooth.” The 1-inch ferrofluid-cooled tweeter is made of a soft Teteron dome, which is tech-marketing-speak for audio silk. Cymbals, tambourine, and horns were lush, and as far from harsh as imaginable. Having the DSP compensating for phase differences between the drivers at the crossover point is evident. Whether it was Brad Paisley’s Telecaster on “5th Gear” or Andrew Manze’s fiddle in Tartini’s “Devi’s Sonata,” complex mids and highs danced alternately from the LF driver to the tweeter with transparent ease.
As for low end, the combination of ported cab and 6.5-inch driver gave the DSM1s a good deal of push. Perhaps a sub would be helpful for checking low lows, but this is not at all required for every studio. Moving up to the 8-inch driver and larger cabinet volume of the DSM2s produced even more low-end extension, with wellfocused response down to the 40–50Hz range. While neither monitor exhibited the depth or clarity of the Equators, they clearly raise the bar of what can be expected at this price point.
My reservations about the DSMs are minor, but worth noting. Reference monitors are not supposed to be pretty, and I would classify the smooth, non-fatiguing response of the DSM line as on the verge of being “nice” speakers. Yes, you will be able to mix non-stop for 12 hours on them, but owners will want to exercise caution to avoid vocal sibilance or hi-hat splatter when mixing on these. Again, this is minor, and I would opt for the DSMs over more traditional, “less flattering” monitors any day of the week.
If you’re considering the DSM line, I suggest you try both models in your control room. Don’t just automatically assume that the 2s must be better than the 1s; it’s really more a matter of determining which model is more appropriate for your environment. For example, one of our engineers, Kyle Smith, was impressed by the lowend extension of the DSM2s. Conversely, I preferred the more controlled low mids of the DSM1s. Again, the best way to decide is in your room.
Price: DSM1 $649.95, DSM2 $749.95
Strengths: Digital input frees up your DAW’s analog I/O. Smooth, unfatiguing mids and highs. Ample lows on the DSM1, extended lows on the DSM2. Extensive EQ configuration options via back panel switches.
Limitations: High end is so silky you may be tempted to add more top than you should.
All of this market competition is obviously keeping manufacturers on their toes. And we—the consumers—are the beneficiaries. Whether it’s improving upon traditional closed cabinet designs, or developing new ways to integrate digital signal processing, things are only getting better.
After listening to this group for several weeks, I can attest that the line of demarcation between professional and project level monitoring continues to get fuzzier. Likewise, these models show there is more than one way to skin the proverbial design cat. Ported or closed, coxial or separated woofer/tweeter, correction DSP or sans computer, creative minds are constantly working to help us do our creative jobs better. Ah, if only these models had been available when I was starting out. . . .