I wouldn't dream of mixing without listening part of the time to small, bass-challenged close-field monitors. Listening back to a mix on such a system gives me a better idea of what it will sound like on consumer systems such as tiny boomboxes, cheap car stereos, computer speakers, and clock radios. With bass frequencies no longer masking the overall sound, I can more readily hear whether or not critical midrange elements such as lead and background vocals and electric guitars are at the right volumes relative to each other. Also, the closer the monitor approximates a point source (by virtue of its diminished size), the more I get the overall picture instead of being lost in a sea of details thrown at me by larger monitors with widely offset drivers. Those details are critically important to hear, but I want the bigger picture too.
FIG. 1: The MixCubes feature one 5-inch driver per cabinet. All cabinet edges are radiused.
Equally important, I can put bass-challenged monitors where they belong — on a console meter bridge or workstation shelf — without upper-bass frequencies sounding too boomy due to furniture resonances and speaker-boundary effects. (It should be a critical design goal for all close-field monitors to have this clarity and evenness in response when placed thus, yet the overwhelming majority of manufacturers overlook it in their quest to build a small monitor with impressive bass response.)
The Avant Electronics Avantone MixCubes, a stereo set of close-field monitors from Avant Electronics, addresses all of these performance issues with amazing grace. Additionally, because the MixCubes each employ only one wide-range driver, they do not need to use a crossover between high and low frequencies. This avoids the midrange hole and phase anomalies that plague many 2-way systems.
The MixCubes present a refreshing approach, one that's different from that taken by most speaker manufacturers. In a market flooded with close-field monitors, they stand out for providing an eminently useful and unique reference.
The MixCubes were inspired by, and designed to improve upon, the performance and construction of the Auratone 5c SoundCube, the seminal close-field monitor that enjoyed widespread popularity in the early '80s. Like Auratones, each MixCube features a single 5-inch driver in a sealed cabinet (that is, it's not ported) and employs a passive design (see Fig. 1). The speaker's cone uses a blend of paper pulp and mica fibers for rigidity and longevity. The MixCubes' frequency response is stated to be 90 Hz to 17 kHz, with no plus-or-minus tolerances given.
The MixCubes are striking in appearance, sporting a high-gloss buttercream polyurethane finish over their nonlayered, high-rigidity MDF (medium-density fiberboard) cabinets. These are positively tiny monitors, each measuring 6.5 inches in all three dimensions (width, height, and depth).
All cabinet edges are radiused to minimize diffractive effects and comb filtering, as well as to improve imaging. A 7-mm-thick neoprene pad affixed to the base of each cabinet serves as a skid-resistant acoustic decoupler, an outstanding solution for the boomy resonances mentioned earlier that generally plague shelf-mounted monitors. (Incidentally, such decoupling should also improve imaging.) To accommodate unusual speaker setups, each cabinet also features a mount recessed into its base so you can place the monitor on a mic stand. The cabinets are magnetically shielded and can be put near a CRT monitor without distorting the picture.
On the rear of each cabinet, 3-way metal binding posts accommodate bare wire, spade lugs, and single or dual banana plugs (see Fig. 2). Avant recommends using the MixCubes with a power amp having 50 to 200W of solid-state power or 10 to 100W of tube power.
I placed a pair of MixCubes on the monitor shelves of my Omnirax MixStation/02R, behind which I have installed in my control room an Acoustic Sciences Corporation Attack Wall (a modular arrangement of tube traps that tighten up the room's impulse response). Normally I place my shelf-mounted close-fields (Yamaha NS-10M Studio monitors) on Auralex MoPads to decouple them from the furniture. Because the MixCubes have neoprene decouplers, I decided to forgo using the MoPads.
For my tests, I listened to a number of pop and country productions, including my own mixes. The first thing I noticed was that electric guitars and especially lead vocals sounded very forward. Good — now I can really hear those money tracks. I could easily tell whether the lead vocal was suitably louder than the guitars, fiddle, and pedal steel or whether it was being stepped on by those instruments. I could also confidently assess the relative loudness of background vocals compared with that of the lead vocal.
FIG. 2: Three-way binding posts on the rear of each cabinet afford connections to a power amplifier.
The bottom end of bass guitar tracks was audible but very understated. On the other hand, bass instruments such as bass guitar and kick drum also sounded extremely tight; there was no hint of flabbiness whatsoever.
Rapping my knuckles sharply on the tops of the cabinets, I heard no resonances. These monitors are built solid, and a five-year manufacturer's warranty supports that impression.
The upper portion of the MixCubes' high-frequency response is slightly soft, which is a good thing. A sizzly high end, in combination with weak bass response, would've made these monitors fatiguing to listen to. Instead, I found their overall sound to be very pleasing and smooth at low to moderately loud listening levels. And despite their subtle high-end and dramatic low-end rolloffs, the MixCubes' transient response and stereo imaging sounded excellent. Percussive mixes were really popping.
Even when I briefly cranked them up to deliver 97 dB SPL (A weighted) at my mix position (3 feet from the speakers), the MixCubes didn't distort at all. I didn't want to damage my hearing by going any louder, but suffice it to say that these babies are no wimps. And with a rated sensitivity of 93 dB at 1W per meter, they are also quite efficient (which means they are relatively loud for a given input).
A Clear Winner
For all their great attributes, it is important to remember the MixCubes' niche purpose and limitations. I would not use the MixCubes as my only, or even my primary, reference monitor while mixing. Doing so would almost guarantee bass-heavy mixes with dog-whistle highs and lead vocals tucked too far back in the mix. But as a proxy for bass-challenged consumer playback systems, used alternately with full-bandwidth monitors, the MixCubes provide unique and invaluable insight.
Avant dutifully states in its literature that the MixCubes should not be an engineer's sole mix monitor. But make no mistake: despite their Lilliputian size and band-limited response, these are not toys or entry-level monitors. The MixCubes are professional tools that provide a highly useful alternate reference when in pursuit of the perfect mix that will translate well to consumer playback systems. Simply put, these are outstanding monitors. What's more, the price is ridiculously affordable. The Avantone MixCubes get my highest recommendation.
Michael Cooper is a contributing editor for EM. You can hear some of his mixes online atwww.myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording.
passive monitors $199 per pair
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Outstanding proxy for bass-deficient consumer playback systems. Excellent transient response and stereo imaging. Provides useful window into critical midrange band of the mix. Tiny footprint makes placement a snap. Built-in neoprene decoupler. Rock-bottom price.