Buyers Guide: Active Studio Monitors

Powered speaker systems for every application
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Powered speaker systems for every application

MICROPHONES AND speakers are the bookends of any studio setup. Whether you’re tracking an album, recording voices for podcast or broadcast, composing sound for picture, or demoing songs on the road, your configuration needs balance in quality between both sides of the signal chain. In every case, your monitoring system should provide playback that is as clear and uncolored as possible, given the constraints of both your budget and your physical space.

In this article, I examine eight models of active near-field monitors (in some cases, more than one size for each model) that are designed for a variety of applications and span a wide range of prices. However, this article is not a shootout: As with microphones, choosing a monitor is a subjective process, and among the many factors you need to consider when selecting an appropriate pair for the job are sonic preferences and application specifics.

Putting It in Perspective When it comes to low-end response, size matters: A monitoring system with a 3.5" low-frequency driver simply will not reproduce bass the same way an 8" woofer does. (See “Uncharted Territory” in the June 2014 issue of Electronic Musician to learn what you should look for in speaker frequency-response specs.) Of course, larger speakers come in bigger, heavier cabinets. While a monitor with a 5" woofer might fit comfortably on your desktop, the 8" model may crowd your setup (and the higher output could be hard on the ears at such close range).

On the other hand, if you need a pair of speakers that can be mounted in the back of a van for mobile recording, you will want a system that is small, tough enough to handle the road, and loud enough to cut through an environment with a higher ambient noise level than a soundproof studio. As we will see in a moment, an increasing number of powerful playback systems are small and lightweight, and provide affordable, pro-level resolution compared to consumer-grade multimedia speakers.

Other elements to consider include amplifier design (Class AB and Class D designs sound different, particularly when played at higher volume levels), the shape and layout of the cabinet, speaker position, the location of bass-reflex ports, the EQ controls, and input connector selection.

All of the monitors tested in this article were placed on stands positioned 3 feet from any boundaries; monitors designed for multimedia use were also tested on my desktop to see how their response changed. In every case, the speaker cabinets were placed on pads to decouple them from the stand or desk. (See the “Get ’Em Off the Shelf” sidebar on page 42 for resources for decoupling your monitors.) All prices in this roundup are MSRP unless otherwise noted.

Not included in this roundup are monitors recently reviewed in the pages of Electronic Musician: PreSonus Eris 8 (April 2013); KRK Rokit 8 G3 (December 2013); Yamaha HS5 (January 2014); JBL LSR308 (March 2014); and Mackie MR5mk (May 2014). Look for these online at emusician.com.

Mackie CR3 and CR4
CR.MACKIE.COM
$129.99/PAIR AND $199.99/PAIR

The Mackie CR3 (pictured) and CR4 are a snap to set up: One cable powers both, and a single speaker cable connects them to together. The front-panel Aux in and headphone jack add to the convenience. The CR3 and CR4, part of Mackie’s new Creative Reference Multimedia Monitors line, are designed for desktop use in cost-conscious situations where space is at a premium and portability is important. Sold in pairs, these monitors stand out in a significant way: One speaker contains the active components (a 50W, Class AB amp), while the other is passive. That means only one power cable is used (though it is permanently attached to the active monitor).

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The CR4 has a 4" woofer, the CR3 a 3" woofer, and both have a 0.75" silk-dome tweeter. The speakers are remarkably lightweight, with the powered speaker being the heaviest in each of the pairs: The CR4 is 7.1 lbs; the CR3 is 5.7 lbs.

The powered speaker’s rear panel provides two balanced 1/4" TRS inputs, two RCA inputs, and the main power switch. Having all inputs on one monitor is helpful when you only have short cables from your audio source and the second monitor is placed out of reach. The front features a secondary power switch (that also acts as a volume control), along with a headphone jack and a stereo Aux input that can accept signals from a portable audio player.

The powered speaker is connected to the passive speaker with the bare ends of a molded pair of wires; positive and negative spring-loaded terminals are located on each speaker. A switch on the powered monitor determines whether it acts as the left or right speaker.

Each monitor comes with a 2-piece foam pad to decouple the speaker cabinet from your desktop or stand. Depending on how you configure the pad parts, you can angle the monitor up or down, or set it level. The package includes two additional cables—a 3.5mm TRS-to-split-RCA and a 3.5mm TRS.

While the CR4 clearly produces more low end and an overall smoother sound than the CR3, at times I felt that the CR3 was more revealing and particularly useful in situations when I was listening for transients and edit points in sound effects and voiceover. Percussion sounded punchy on both sets, getting pushed a little more forward in the mix than on the monitors with larger low-frequency drivers. Overall, both pairs produced a nice dimensionality, and the stereo imaging was surprisingly well-defined.

Despite being small and lightweight, these monitors can get surprisingly loud. Predictably, the highs begin to get crunchy when you push the playback level too much. At normal listening levels, however, both sets provide a remarkably full sound with a wide frequency range that befits speakers designed for multimedia environments.

Tannoy Reveal 402, 502, and 802
TANNOYSTUDIO.COM
$139, $179, AND $279 EACH (STREET)

Tannoy’s family of Reveal monitors have balanced and unbalanced inputs and include the Monitor Link system to easily connect a pair together when using mobile playback devices. Available with 4", 5", and 8" woofers, the bi-amped Reveal Series monitors are intended for home studio and desktop use, with a price and feature set that bridges the prosumer and pro-audio worlds very well. Each model has an XLR input, an unbalanced 1/4" input, and an Aux input for the Monitor Link mode. To use Monitor Link, connect the two speakers with the supplied 3.5mm cable and feed a stereo signal into the Aux input of one of the monitors. A rear-panel switch on each monitor determines whether that monitor serves as the left or right speaker of the stereo pair. Monitor Link is very handy when you simply want to use your Reveal pair to audition sound files directly from a handheld, portable digital recorder or play synths from your iPad.

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Other rear-panel features include a stepped volume control for setting playback level and an EQ switch providing -1.5 dB of high-frequency cut or +1.5 dB of high-frequency boost. (The corner frequencies are not given.) I ended up using the high boost the most, particularly with the 502 and 802, to hear more of the air band when working with raw audio tracks. The front-panel bass-reflex port allows you to place Reveal monitors closer to a wall with less effect over the low-frequency response than you could with monitors that have rear-firing ports.

Providing 50W, 75W, and 100W, respectively, the 402, 502, and 802 feel solid and well-built. The 402, which I brought on a couple of remote sessions, is light enough to schlep on the road for quick-reference monitoring, and feels like it can handle the abuse.

Attached to the bottom of each cabinet is a thin rubber pad that helps decouple it from the surface it’s placed on (though I would still recommend the addition of a thicker pad to improve the bass response when using these or any other monitors in a critical listening environment).

Audio reproduction, transient response, and stereo imaging are very good throughout the Reveal line, and all three models have the ability to put out a strong, clean signal at higher volume levels. Among all the products in this roundup, the Reveal monitors exhibited the highest self-noise—amplifier hum, to be exact. That, and the lack of general product information, such as tolerances in the frequency response, are what make this line seem more prosumer oriented.

Nevertheless, for the level of detail they provide during playback, as well as the build quality, the Reveal monitors are extremely well-priced.

Mackie MR8mk3
MACKIE.COM
$249.99 EACH (STREET)

A redesigned waveguide and bass port are part of the improvements Mackie added to the MR8mk3. Intended for studio and multimedia applications, the MR8mk3 is the largest configuration in Mackie’s latest iteration of its MR Series monitors. The complete cabinet overhaul includes significant design changes: The front baffle is symmetrically bowed forward, with a raised area surrounding the 8" woofer that affects the bottom portion of the 1" tweeter’s waveguide, making it slightly asymmetrical. When you take into consideration the rounded edges on the cabinet, the overall results are intended to provide improvements in imaging by reducing diffraction.

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The biamped Class AB system offers a total of 85W RMS and includes audio inputs to match most production needs—XLR, balanced 1/4" TRS, and unbalanced RCA—and a continuously variable gain control. Switches are provided for adjusting the low-frequency (0, +2, +4 dB below 100 Hz) and high-frequency (-2, 0, +2 dB above 3 kHz) response. The shape of the rear-positioned bass-reflex port has been changed—earlier models had a wide, oval shape, whereas the mk3 has a tube opening up at the top of the rear panel.

The improvements to the mk3 over the original pair of MR8s that I use were immediately apparent in the stereo imaging, as well as a more open sound in the mid- to upper frequency registers. However, the MR8mk3 has a pronounced bass response, even when positioned well away from any boundaries, giving the monitor a slightly scooped sound: It would be nice to have an option for lowering the bass shelving.

Still, for an active studio monitor with an 8-inch low-frequency driver, the MR8mk3 is a tough one to beat in its price range.

Genelec 8010A
GENELEC.COM
$395 EACH (STREET)

Quite powerful for its size, the Genelec 8010A packs a lot of punch when you need highquality playback and ultimate portability. These guys are small—very small. When only one box arrived from Genelec, I presumed it held a single speaker (and that, perhaps, someone had even forgotten to pack one inside). But I was wrong: inside the box where two more boxes that looked as if they each contained a travel tumbler for coffee. Inside each of these was a diminutive 8010A.

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The 50W, Class D, biamplified 8010A exemplifies Genelec’s interest in providing high-quality monitoring for a wide variety of applications—in this case for portable use, desktop work, and surround. Each monitor stands just over 7.5" tall when sitting on the supplied Iso-Pad base, and weighs 3 lbs., 7 oz. Although relatively lightweight, the 8010A feels substantial and solid, thanks to its die-cast aluminum enclosure.

The 3" woofer and 0.75" tweeter are each protected by a metal grille, and the recessed XLR input and power jack face downward from the back panel so that the cables are perpendicular to the floor rather than sticking straight out from the rear panel—perfect for wall mounting. (Six threaded holes on the back and one on the bottom are provided.) Considering that the intended use includes desktop playback, I was surprised that the 8010A didn’t have an unbalanced input (although the manual says you can plug in an unbalanced line-level source if you use the proper adapter).

The 8010A includes several recessed DIP switches to customize playback depending on how and where the monitor is used: Change input sensitivity for -10dBV levels; engage Intelligent Signal Sensing so that the monitor goes into standby mode (consuming 0.5W) when no signal has been detected for a period of time; and adjust the bass response to match the room and mounting situation—wall (-2 dB at 100 Hz), freestanding (-4 dB at 100 Hz), or desktop (-4 dB at 200 Hz). The monitor has a rear-firing bass port.

As one would expect with a 3" low-frequency driver, the 8010A doesn’t offer the deep bass response you get from larger woofers. However, this little powerhouse provides exceptionally detailed playback, with plenty of punch and clarity, whether you’re working with music, sound effects, or dialog. Moreover, my ears didn’t tire when using them for long periods at moderate volume levels while editing.

Priced for the professional, the 8010A offers pro-level sound, features, and build quality in a form factor small enough to pack in your carry-on (leaving room to spare for other gear).

Focal Alpha 50, Alpha 65, Alpha 80
FOCALPROFESSIONAL.COM
$349, $449, AND $599 EACH

The Alpha Series brings Focal’s noteworthy playback quality into the price range of the personal studio. Focal has made a name for itself in the pro-audio world with several classes of great-sounding monitors. With the Alpha Series, designed for stereo or surround use, Focal has entered the personal-studio world, but only in terms of price point: Based on their performance level, all three models have a professional sound and should cost significantly more.

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As you would expect, the size of the low-frequency driver is 5" on the Alpha 50, 6.5" on the Alpha 65, and 8" on the Alpha 80, with a 1” inverted-dome tweeter in each. Together, the HF and LF drivers are designed to provide a wide sweet spot, which is helpful in situations such as home studios where optimal speaker placement is not always possible. Input options are XLR and unbalanced RCA.

The Alpha Series monitors are bi-amped with Class AB electronics and provide a total of 65W for the Alpha 50, 105W total for the Alpha 65, and 140W total for the Alpha 80. On the back, a sensitivity switch provides +6 dB of boost, while high- and low-shelving filters let you boost or cut at 4.5 kHz and 250 Hz, respectively. A built-in compressor and limiter allow you to monitor at high levels without damaging the system. The monitors default to standby mode when powered up, and they automatically go back into standby mode if they don’t receive audio for 30 minutes, significantly lowering power consumption.

The Alpha Series illustrates a situation in which size will likely be a consideration in which model you choose: Although the cabinets are only moderately larger as the woofer size is increased, the weight is greatly increased—16 lbs., 21 lbs., and 28 lbs.

Focal says it voiced the three models the same, and they do share a sonic signature. The overall resolution is fantastic among them, with an even frequency response across the board. However, there is a noticeable increase in fidelity in the Alpha 80 compared to the Alpha 50 and 65. The frequency spectrum from the Alpha 80 spreads out nicely without hype in the extreme frequencies or a scooping out of the midrange. And with that model in particular, I could hear around the instruments in the mix— an extra dimensionality that was very helpful.

With the Alpha Series, Focal has set a new level of audio quality for monitors in this particular price range.

Neumann KH 120
NEUMANN.COM
$749.95

With front bass ports and an extended waveguide, the Neumann KH 120 is well-suited for critical listening in multimedia, broadcast, and surround situations. Neumann designed the KH 120 for a broad range of work, from desktop monitoring in film, broadcast, and music studios to surround use and facility installation. That is one reason why the waveguide for the 1" tweeter is so big, the 5.25" woofer is covered by a metal grille, and the controls, DIP switches, and inputs are recessed.

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Weighing in at 13.7 lbs., the KH 120 feels hefty and solid. Neumann did a great job of packing all of the useful features one needs for the above applications into a small area on the back panel. Three bands of EQ settings are provided to offset acoustic anomalies such as boundary effects: bass-cut (0, -2.5, -5, -7.5 dB); low-mid cut (0, -1.5, -3, -4.5 dB), and treble boost/cut (+1, 0, -1, -2 dB). An input-gain control and output-level switches help you set the proper volume for your needs. You can dim or turn off the light behind the Neumann logo (which also acts as a overload indicator) for situations where you don’t want the distraction, such as in an installation. To facilitate wall mounting, the XLR input and IEC power connector face downward. (M8 holes are provided for mounting.)

Bi-amped with 50W for each speaker, the KH 120 is powerful and sounds surprisingly smooth for its diminutive size, especially at louder levels. This monitor does not have that pinched, claustrophobic sound that smaller drivers often display, especially when heard in combination with larger monitors as in a surround situation. Instead it produces a punchy low-end, projects solid mids, and doesn’t get crunchy when cranked up—particularly handy in multimedia situations.

The result is a monitor that you can work with for long periods of time and not feel as fatigued as you would with a low-cost product. The KH 120 is clearly designed for the professional market.

PreSonus Sceptre S8
PRESONUS.COM
$749.95 EACH (STREET)

The PreSonus Sceptre S8 is based around a coaxial design that aligns an 8" driver with a 1" tweeter. Built-in DSP is used to eliminate the effects of horn reflection and coloration. Packing 180W and featuring Class D amplifiers, the Sceptre S8 is unique in this roundup: It has a coaxial design that works in conjunction with DSP—a system PreSonus calls CoActual. Here, an 8" midrange driver and 1" horn-loaded, titanium high-frequency driver are placed inline in order to phase-align the upper and lower frequency spectrum. Meanwhile, 32-bit/48kHz digital signal processing is used to correct time and frequency anomalies. (PreSonus also offers the Sceptre S6 [$649 each, street], which includes a 6.5" midrange driver and 1" high-frequency driver.)

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The S8’s rear-panel tuning controls are set electronically. Acoustic Space attenuates frequencies below 100 Hz (linear, -1.5, -3, and -6 dB) to compensate for boundary reflection, while HF Driver alters the tweeter’s playback response (linear, +1, -1.5, and -4 dB). High Pass is used to reduce the bass response by 24 dB/octave (linear, 60, 80, 100 Hz) when you’re using the S8 with a subwoofer. Other pro-level features include balanced 1/4" TRS and XLR inputs, and a sensitivity control with a range of -10 dBV to +4 dBu for matching levels with your interface or mixer. As a result of the coaxial speaker design and breadth of controls, the S8 was easy to position and tune to the peculiarities of my studio.

I wasn’t at all surprised that the S8 sounded noticeably different from the other monitors in this roundup. The overall frequency spectrum was well-balanced, with no hype added to the extreme registers. The transient response was crisp, revealing subtle details in a variety of types of musical material—rock, jazz, and orchestral music.

In rock mixes, vocals and punchy mid-range instruments tended to move forward with the S8 compared to the other speakers, and there was more energy in the upper frequencies, particularly in percussion instruments such as cymbals, triangle, and tambourine. The S8 also exhibited increased definition with short-decay instruments such as mandolin and single-note acoustic-guitar lines.

All told, the Sceptre S8 provides a revealing and different audio perspective, which is important whether you’re in the recording or mix phase of a project.

Dynaudio BM12 mkIII
DYNAUDIOPROFESSIONAL.COM
$1,229.99 EACH

The Dynaudio BM12 MkIII provides exceptional audio resolution that is well-suited to mixing and mastering applications. Although price isn’t always an indication of quality, in the case of the Dynaudio BM12 mkIII, you definitely get what you pay for. The BM12 is part of a mature product line with a well-earned reputation for exceptional resolution, and the mkIII continues the legacy by providing an uncluttered low end, a revealing midrange, spaciousness in the upper registers, and a precise transient response. The stereo imaging is outstanding, with a surprisingly wide sweet spot, thanks to the improved waveguide design. Moreover, this model sounds exceptionally smooth at high volume levels.

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The BM12 mkIII combines an 8" woofer with a 1.1" soft-dome tweeter, and is biamplified to provide 150W of power that is rated to produce 123 dB SPL at peak—plenty of headroom when you need it for monitoring in moderate- to large-size studios. (For home studio and desktop use, check out Dynaudio’s smaller monitors—the BM6 mkIII [$899.99 each, street], which has a 7" woofer and provides 150W; the BM5 mkIII [$729.99 each, street], which offers a 7" woofer and 100W; and the BM Compact mkIII [$629.99 each, street] with its 5.7" woofer and 100W of power.)

Despite the higher price and excellent audio quality, the BM12 mkIII’s rear panel is surprisingly austere: an input level switch (+4, 0, -10); a highpass filter (Flat, 60 dB and 80 dB); and a 3-band filter section—HF (+1, 0, -1), MF (0, -2, -4), and LF (+2, 0, -2)—to compensate for acoustic anomalies caused by nearby boundaries. The input is a single XLR jack.

With each BM mkIII Series monitor, Dynaudio includes an appropriately sized IsoAcoustic stand (in this case, the ISOL8R200), which not only decouples the speaker from any surface but provides horizontal positioning (up or down a few degrees).

Although the BM12 mkIIIs ended up being the benchmarks for my roundup due to the level of resolution and clarity they exhibit on their own, I also used them in a 2.1 system with the BM14S II ($1,849.99 street) subwoofer. Providing 300W and using a 12" woofer to extend the frequency range to 18 Hz (±3 dB), the BM14S II easily coordinates with other Dynaudio monitors, giving you an opportunity to hear what’s going on in the lowest registers of a mix or to fill the LFE role in a surround system.

Setting up and tuning the sub were quick and painless. The BM14S II provides a gain control, highpass and lowpass filtering, and a phase switch. For critical listening with a subwoofer, moderation is the key: You don’t need to crank this up to reap the benefits.

Once you achieve the optimum volume and frequency balance between the three speakers, you’ll have the opportunity to hear your recordings at a level of resolution that will likely cause you to re-evaluate the transducers at the other end of the signal chain—your microphones.

Gino Robair is Electronic Musician’s technical editor.

The Primacoustic Recoil Stabilizer provides a layered surface that mitigates speaker movement in order to maximize performance.Get ’Em Off the Shelf

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Once you find the monitors that meet your needs, you can maximize their performance by decoupling them from the stands, shelf, and desktop. Acoustic-isolation pads and stands lower sympathetic surface vibrations that can negatively affect the upper bass frequencies and transient response of your playback system.

A range of products is available to match your speaker size and budget, from the inexpensive and simple Auralex MoPad and Primacoustic Isopad, to the heavy-duty Auralex ProPad and Primacoustic Recoil Stabilizers, to the line of affordable IsoAcoustics stands that offer tilt adjustment. As with every part of your studio, a few well-chosen accessories such as this are all it takes to increase the return on your investment— in this case, giving you the most accurate playback your monitors can provide.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Ever wonder why some companies offer many sizes of the same model, but price them relatively close together? The main reason is to hit certain sweet spots in cost, which they hope will attract buyers.

Of course, if you are buying only one pair of monitors and the difference between a decent-sounding pair and a better sounding pair is a mere $75, you certainly should make the extra investment if you can afford it. However, imagine that you are outfitting a classroom of workstations for an educational facility, and you have a strict budget to purchase, say, 20 pairs of powered monitors. That $75 difference between the two models will have a major impact on your decision.