Bang for the $$$!!! - EMusician

Bang for the $$$!!!

We took three amps, three monitors, and one criminally minded mix. The objective? To separate the wheat from the chaff. Oh yeah.
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When the editor said, “I don’t want reviews of gear where the product is tested with a list of all the specs, a rating, and a price. I want engineers to use the gear on a daily basis and talk about how well it worked into their studios and sessions,” I thought that it would be easy. Yeah . . . easy . . . especially if by “easy” you mean the amp and speakers challenge to end all amp and speakers challenges. Yes. The one that would almost kill me. Anyway, I was given an ART SLA2 power amp, a set of Event SP8 passive monitors, and a set of KRK V6II powered monitors, plus an unusual assortment of other goodies.

WHERE

I work in two places mainly: my home studio, which I use for editing, premixing, overdubs, cue composing, and the occasional full project. I spend a lot of listening time in the tiny cockpit-like control room. Too much time. I also work at a private producer’s nest studio called Function 8. This is the place where I do most of my mixing and tracking of bigger projects. I feel very tuned into these rooms. So I thought it would be a good experience to shake up the status quo and switch out amps and speakers in the middle of a project.

In my home space I’ve been using a NAD 3020 150-watt amp that even though it is a consumer stereo component, I’ve always liked how it sounded — warm and predictable. For monitors I have some KRK 6000s from the time before their cones turned yellow. I monitor through a dusty old Soundcraft 400B and I work exclusively in Pro Tools.

At Function 8 there’s a Trident 80C console, an Otari MX70 1-inch, 16-track Pro Tools mix system, and a few choice pieces of gear in the racks. We have been using a Hafler Trans Nova P1500 amp to power another set of the KRK 6000s (we bought them at the same time so our stuff would translate). We also have some NS10s but lately we’ve kept them in the box behind the racks. The KRKs sound so much better to our ears.

WHAT

I couldn’t wait to unpack the ART SLA2 and get it hooked up in my home space first. I was in the middle of mixing an eight-minute film that had a lot of interviews and some full-spectrum atmospheric music. So I left the session open — plugged in the amp, connected the XLR inputs, the speaker wires, set the output attenuators to 12 o’clock and slowly pushed up the faders.

Wow.

My first reaction was that this amp sounded good. I closed the film session and opened a track I’d been working on with reasonably heavy kick and bass and tons of splashy cymbals. I was a little wary of pushing the master up too high as the ART is 200 watts per side and my old KRKs are rated at 75 watts. When I did get the fader up I was very happy. I was so used to the NAD that this was shocking. Everything (even at the low volume) sounded clean, clear, punchy, smooth, fat, the stereo image opened up a bit, and I swear the depth of field had increased. Within five minutes I came to the realization that I had to get a new power amp!

I like the size — the ART SLA2 takes up one rack space, which is great for my small room. It also has output attenuators that push in after you set them so no one can inadvertently bump them and blow your speakers. It also comes with a screw-on faceplate in case you really don’t want anyone messing with your settings. It runs very quiet and very cool. I left it on for a couple of days and it was still cool to the touch. They have “Smart Fan” technology that kicks in when the amp is being taxed. With the price less than $300, it doesn’t make any sense why I wouldn’t switch.

HOW

I was looking forward to trying the amp out at Function 8. We were also going to check out the Event SP8 speakers. In order to A/B the ART and the Hafler amps, we borrowed a JBL crossover box. We could hook both amps up and then defeat the crossover and switch back and forth. We got the Event monitors out of the boxes and proceeded to set everything up. We didn’t have a sophisticated method of A/B-ing the speakers with each amp so one of us would stand behind the console and switch the banana plugs on the speakers really fast.

We had been working on a mix and decided to continue while we checked out the different set-ups. The track we had up was a moody instrumental with plenty of low end and some tricky mid range thanks to a Rhodes loop with a long delay. This track had an annoying hi-hat tone with some phasey stuff around 7 or 8K. This is a range that the KRKs seem to push a little.

We’ve been mixing on the KRK 6000s with the Hafler amp for so long that when we switched to the ART amp it was very surprising. First the ART with the KRK 6000s — same thing as at my home space: The stereo image got cleaner, the depth of field seemed to get deeper, and the dynamics increased. But the real cool shock was when we switched to the Event SP8s. How could we have been mixing all this time without being able to hear the lows like this? Suddenly that clean solid low end that I’d been missing and compensating for was there. The highs were smooth and pleasing: The 7.5K hi-hat problem seemed to melt away. It only took us a few minutes to notice flaws in our mix — from the compressor artifacts chugging along to the verb and delay tail ambiences that were sticking out in an awkward manner. The noise in the Rhodes loop was almost too apparent. Oh well.

I was never a fan of the Event 20/20s that everyone seemed to be using a few years ago. So when I got these I was a little wary about how they would sound. They are miles away from the tubby, low-end and hyped “home stereo” highs of the 20/20s, in my opinion. They are clear and accurate with sweet highs and great detail in the stereo image and a truly deep 3D field. The speakers are pleasing to listen to with a non-fatiguing smoothness that beats the KRK 6000s in the same way that the KRKs beat the crap out of the NS10s. They are good sized (12.5" x 16" x 11.9") and pretty heavy. But they are also less than $700 a pair. Good value indeed.

We continued our mix leaving the ART SLA2 and Event SP8 combination. When we brought the mix out to the 1999 Audi mix testing vehicle, the lows translated so much better. We had been used to the compensations that we had to make with the KRK 6000s and we usually got it right after a couple tries, but now I felt like we could trust what we were hearing down there from the start.

Since I didn’t have an amp set up anymore in my home space it was the perfect time to try out the KRK V6 Series 2 powered nearfields. They are the same size as the KRK 6000’s (14" x 9-3/8" x 10") so they fit perfectly into my set up without having to move anything. These speakers are bi-amped with 30 watts for the highs and 60 watts for the lows. These are very easy to plug in and go. I brought up the same track that I had been working on before — the one with the heavy kick and bass and obnoxious drums.

First impression is that these speakers are loud. They push lots of air for little 6" woofers. There were lots of similarities between these V6 IIs and my old 6000s: The midrange up to the high mids — felt smooth and clean and present. But that’s where the similarities ended. The lows on the V6IIs were hyped around the 60 to 100Hz range. The highs seemed a bit harsh upward of 9 or 10K. I felt like my room was too small for these lows and definitely overwhelmed. I like the KRK speaker line and swear by the old 6000s that I’ve been using forever, but I have to say that these V6IIs started to wear my ears out. I gave up and went back to Function 8, grabbed the ART amp, re-hooked up my trusty 6000s, and everything felt right.

AND NOW

In conclusion, yes for the ART SLA2 amplifier — yes for the Event SP8s. We will make them our new midfield monitors — keep the KRK 6000s as near fields — maybe the KRK V6IIs will work in the right room — get rid of the NAD 3020 amplifier — consider replacing the Hafler P1500.