COVER STORY: Sound Choices - EMusician

COVER STORY: Sound Choices

Now that powered monitors have taken over pro and project studio airspace, a speaker seems to be available for every room and budget. The studio owner who is shopping for a pair will find it easier to name the audio manufacturers that don't offer a powered monitor than to list all the ones that do.
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Now that powered monitors have taken over pro and project studio airspace, a speaker seems to be available for every room and budget. The studio owner who is shopping for a pair will find it easier to name the audio manufacturers that don't offer a powered monitor than to list all the ones that do.

In an effort to cut through the clutter, we rounded up a group of similarly equipped and priced models and gave them a listen. First, of course, we had to choose which models to compare. With the proliferation of low-priced active monitors geared to the home-studio owner, we needed to set some boundaries. The first part was easy: we wanted to examine a set from the large group of monitors priced under $1,000 per pair, but we didn't want to include speakers that are sold as desktop or personal monitors.

Next we decided to stick with stereo configurations that we felt would move enough air for monitoring hip-hop or hard-rock mixes at high volume without requiring a subwoofer. We decided to limit ourselves to monitors built around 8-inch low frequency drivers. (We allowed some latitude in diameter measurement.) We also looked for units that offered similar power specs. (See the table “Powered Monitor Specifications” for details.)

Setting those limits enabled us to whittle the list down from a group of about 35 candidates to a group of six, with components, specifications, and list prices that would appeal to any studio owner who is interested in purchasing a pair of speakers that cost between $600 and $800. Five were from manufacturers with familiar names: the Alesis ProLinear 720, the Event Tuned Reference 8XL, the Fostex PM-2, the M-Audio Studiophile BX8, and the Tapco S8. One relative newcomer, the Phonic P8A, also joined the listening party.

All the monitors are two-way, bass-reflex (ported) designs. All feature magnetic shielding, which prevents the monitors from affecting a computer display when positioned nearby. All offer at least balanced XLR and ¼-inch TRS inputs. None of them offer digital inputs or processing.

After spending time with these monitors in home and pro studio environments, we were impressed with the quality of products available in this price range. Although we had our favorites, any of the speakers we looked at may perform well in your studio with the proper adjustments. We also learned more about why some classic monitors are classics. (Hint: if you still have a pair of Yamaha NS-10Ms, don't throw them out — they still sound fantastic.)

Where We Listened

To give the monitors as extensive a workout as possible, I tested them in my home studio control room in the suburbs of New York City, and a few days later I schlepped the whole group into Bass Hit Studio, a busy commercial recording facility in Manhattan. I also enlisted the help of Bass Hit owner/engineer and EM contributor David Darlington, the composer for HBO's Oz series and a recent Grammy winner for mixing on Wayne Shorter's Alegria.

My home studio control room is in a tight 8' 5 10' space in a finished basement. Like many home studios, it's in a constant state of flux, with equipment moving in and out on a daily basis and remodeling in progress within and outside of the studio walls. The monitor setup remains constant, however, with a pair of Mackie HR824s positioned about five feet apart on a large curved computer workstation that cuts diagonally across adjoining walls. The midpriced HR824s have gained wide acceptance as an accurate mid-priced reference monitor.

Only three inches of clearance exist between the left and right rear corners of the HR824s, which are aimed about five feet away in the center of the room. The angled walls (relative to the monitors); the interplay of carpet, drywall, and natural diffusers such as bookcases and gig bags; and a little luck have combined to make the room a fairly reliable listening area with no bass build-up or stray reflections. My mixes have translated very well to other environments, which also may owe something to my having been recording and mixing as a working musician and pro engineer for more than 25 years.

The control room at Bass Hit is a tad more fine-tuned than my home studio. The 15' 5 15' room features powered Genelec 1031As and Yamaha NS-10Ms powered by a Bryston 4B amplifier (300W per channel into 8Ω). The room is acoustically tuned for those speakers with various RPG diffusers and bass traps and is accurate. The speakers and listening position form a 6.5-foot equilateral triangle. The monitors are positioned about three feet from the front wall, which minimizes bass build-up, and about 12 feet from the rear wall, minimizing unwanted reflections. Carpet extends halfway from the front wall to the listening position, providing additional dampening.

We frequently referred to our own powered monitors, the Mackie HR824 ($1,699 per pair) and the Genelec 1031A ($4,100 per pair) during our evaluations. However, we made no judgments about the budget monitors based on direct comparison with the Mackie and Genelec units. We used the more expensive monitors to set a standard by which we could compare the lower priced monitors with each other. We came away impressed with what manufacturers have been able to achieve for a fraction of the cost of industry-standard reference monitors.

Getting With The Program

For initial listening in my home studio, I selected a wide range of recordings representing several different musical styles as well as finished and unfinished projects of my own. I listened to some CDs that have proven to be reliable guideposts for judging monitors over the years, and I checked out current hits. Although in theory accurate frequency response doesn't change, in practice changing musical tastes have meant that today's budget-priced close-field monitors have to reproduce more bass and more volume while remaining accurate. (For an excellent tutorial on close-field monitor design, see Brian Knave's article “Good References” from the June 2001 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com.)

For comparison I chose a reliable group of classic and state-of-the-art recordings by artists including Earth, Wind, and Fire; Jane's Addiction; Norah Jones; Alan Jackson; and Usher. Each CD featured tracks by the best engineers in the business with instrumentation that helped me evaluate different aspects of a monitor's sound quality, power handling, stereo imaging, dispersion characteristics, and other technical criteria. In my studio I positioned each pair of monitors as close to the HR824s as possible, being careful to maintain the distance between monitors and listening position and to avoid creating hum or other artifacts caused by power amps and magnets operating close to each other. I frequently cut AC power to one set of monitors while I was listening to another to avoid any sort of electrical interference.

At Bass Hit, Darlington and I also A/B'ed each pair of monitors using commercially recorded CDs. Darlington selected D'Angelo's “Brown Sugar,” a contemporary R&B track with a strong, clear low end and prominent vocals. The Berlin Philharmonic's recording of Ravel's “Bolero” on Deutsche Grammophon served as an example of a pristine recording of acoustic instruments in a detailed, naturally reverberant environment. Sade's “Your Love Is King” provided a well-recorded and beautifully mixed live band.

We also listened to recordings of individual instruments that Darlington had made for various projects. Among them were a stereo track of nylon string guitar, various close-miked hand percussion tracks, and a brass quintet. As a whole, the audio samples covered a wide frequency range and spanned the dynamic spectrum from piano to fortissimo.

Finally, Darlington pulled up a recent project he engineered by the rock power trio of Carl Burnett (Life Before MIDI) that featured Branford Marsalis on sax. The tracks had been challenging to record because of high volume levels in the studio and difficult to mix because of the amount of competing midrange information. Tweaking the EQs and balances on different monitors told us a lot about their usefulness in a real-world application.

After all was played and heard, we agreed on a monitor we would choose if we wanted to add a pair from this group to augment our existing systems. The Event Tuned Reference 8XL came the closest to our personal preferences while representing a significant value. We differed on our second choice. Darlington preferred the Fostex PM-2 while I leaned toward the Alesis ProLinear 720. With experience learning their unique characteristics and perhaps some room adjustments, neither of us would be apprehensive about mixing with them.

In your situation any of the six monitors we checked out might make economic sense and represent a vast improvement over your current setup. Check out the following evaluations, head to the audio dealer with your favorite CDs, and let your ears decide.

Alesis Prolinear 720

Although first on the list, the Alesis 720 was in some ways the odd man out in the group, with its comparatively smaller cabinet and 7-inch woofer. The 720's sibling, the ProLinear 820, offers an 8-inch driver and negligible improvements in low-end frequency response and SPL handling. The 820's list price, however, was a full $300 more per pair than the 720's and $200 over our targeted price limit. The 720 was close enough to the 820 in its listed performance specs that we decided to include it in the roundup. (Alesis sells two other ProLinear models with built-in digital processing, the 720DSP and 820DSP.)

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The Alesis ProLinear 720 has a big sound, despite being the most compact of the monitors evaluated, with a 7-inch low-frequency driver and smaller cabinet.

The ProLinear 720 contains a Kevlar woofer and 1-inch ferro-fluid-cooled silk dome tweeter. A bi-color LED on the front baffle is green when power is on and turns red to indicate clipping. Two slotted vertical ports on either side of the tweeter's wave guide push air for enhanced bass.

The 720 has no room compensation switches on the rear panel. A combo connector for TRS and XLR connections and an Input Level pot marked 0-10 are the only adornments. Though the 720's cabinet is about 10 percent smaller than that of the 820 (and those of the other monitors we evaluated), you would never know it from its sound, which is big.

We were glad we included the 720 in our tests, because it is an excellent-sounding monitor. Its strong bass was surprising, considering it has the smallest woofer in the group. The monitor is rated flat down to 45 Hz, a limit that will not satisfy hardcore club remixers looking for the lowest of the low frequencies. Those with limited desktop space, however, will want to check out the 720.

In fact the 720's weakness is not its frequency range; its weakness lies in its slight cloudiness in the bass. We noticed a minor loss of definition in bass guitar attacks on Earth, Wind, and Fire's funkier tracks. The 720's strong upper midrange can be too aggressive in spots such as the shouted vocals and blistering guitars in the fade-out of Jane's Addiction's “True Nature.” Compared to the Genelec 1031As at Bass Hit and the Mackie HR824s in my control room, the 720s made tracks sound a little more intense in the upper mids, indicating a risk of losing some intensity on mixes. We also felt the stereo imaging of the 720s was not as clearly defined as we would have liked. An auto-panned bell sample during the intro of Usher's “Yeah” had a narrower spread than it did on our reference monitors.

Nevertheless, the Alesis ProLinear 720 is a fine monitor and a good choice for those who want to get big sound in a small space for a reasonable price.

Event Electronics Tuned Reference 8XL

Event's Tuned Reference 8XL was the hit of our tests. Neither of us was very surprised by this, having enjoyed working with Event monitors in the past. (Event's Studio Precision 8 Active, with a list price of $1,499 a pair, recently won EM's 2005 Editors' Choice award in the Powered Monitors category.) But we were surprised by the quality that Event managed to build into the $699-a-pair 8XL.

The 8XL uses an 8-inch woofer and 1-inch tweeter that are powered by amps providing 150W and 50W RMS, respectively. The rear panel hosts an RCA jack as well as balanced XLR and unbalanced ¼-inch jacks. Like the Alesis monitor, the 8XL offers no cut or boost switches for room compensation. (I found it interesting that my two favorite monitors out of the group didn't offer those extras. It suggests that all the effort went into making these speakers sound their best right out of the box.) A power switch and a long, thin Input Sensitivity knob (-20 dB to Max) are the only controls on the rear panel.

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The Event Tuned Reference 8XL''s round port sits between the monitor''s 8-inch woofer and 1-inch tweeter, which is surrounded by a tight 1.5-inch flared rim.

A 2.375-inch circular port sits between drivers and off to the right on the 8XL's front panel. A power-on LED is positioned at the bottom of the woofer rim. The 8XL's tweeter sits in a housing that is barely larger in diameter than the tweeter itself.

Our first impression of the 8XL was that it provided a smoothness and full-range frequency response that boded well for long listening sessions without fatigue. Though concerned about the lack of options to compensate for room acoustics, Darlington was surprised by the 8XL. He felt that the bottom end of the D'Angelo record, though understandably not as strong as it was on the Genelec 1031A's, was impressively tight and clear. Vocals were crisp, pleasing, and properly proportioned.

The classical recording was absolutely stunning in detail, and the reflections of the concert hall translated well, sounding as though we were seated in center orchestra. The upper midrange reproduced consistently at lower and higher listening levels, so we could accurately deduce vocal and soloist levels. The tweeter was silky, not harsh, and reproduced an extended range of high frequencies. Hi-hats and vocal sibilants were audible without being overpowering, and the strings sounded bright without any scratchiness. Darlington's acoustic guitar recording sounded the best of all on the 8XLs, very natural and clear, while hand percussion also came through accurately.

The Burnett/Marsalis project sounded as Darlington remembered it from mixing on the Genelecs, although the sax appeared a bit dominant over the guitars on the 8XLs. We attributed that to a slight boost in the upper mids. We also noticed that on the 8XLs it was easy to distinguish between instruments that were close together in frequency. Sensing a lack of low end, Darlington raised the level of the bass guitar and added some extra low end into the kick drum around 40 Hz. We took the remix outside and played it on an average car sound system, and agreed that the increased bass had been unnecessary. However, the correction was slight, and Darlington felt it would be easy to adjust mixes to the low-end response of the 8XLs. We also agreed that they were the most accurate of the bunch, and could be relied upon for critical listening and mixing. Frequency relationships were consistent at all listening levels, and the monitors reproduced many different genres of music equally well.

Fostex PM-2

The 8-inch LF driver and 1-inch soft dome tweeter are housed in a cabinet with dual circular ports, one to each side of the speakers. Both drivers are powered by matched amplifiers that provide 120W each to the woofer and tweeter. The cabinet feels hefty but its width-to-height ratio gives it a slimmer look than the other models.

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The Fostex PM-2''s amps provide 120W RMS each to the woofer and tweeter, and its rear panel features a variable Tweeter Gain pot and a three-position Woofer Gain switch.

The rear panel hosts a ¼-inch/XLR combo connector, a volume pot, a variable Tweeter Gain pot (±3dB at 5 kHz), and a three-position Woofer Gain switch that can be inactive or provide a 3 dB boost or cut at 60 Hz. Half of the rear panel is taken up by a large heat sink.

We were impressed with the PM-2's volume and punch as soon as we connected it to a music source. The overall frequency response reminded us of the Genelec 1031As and a direct comparison brought the PM-2 high marks. The low end of R&B CDs sounded full and strong with a satin high end and impressive stereo imaging. We detected a slight bump in the sound around 1.5 kHz. With the response controls set flat, the sound was robust but not hyped and aggressive at low levels, making the PM-2s a good choice for home studios where nighttime noise levels might be a problem. The orchestral music translated well, although the sense of room acoustics and instrument separation fell a little short of the clarity we perceived from the 8XL. The lower instruments, however, translated somewhat better, indicating superior low frequency imaging and perhaps better cabinet damping.

None of the compensation controls brought the PM-2s more in line with Bass Hit's reference monitors, so Darlington reverted to flat settings on the rear panel. When boosting bass frequencies, the drivers became somewhat flabby at higher levels without really increasing the apparent bass response. The high frequency boost worked as advertised, but in this particular environment, flat was better.

Acoustic guitar tracks sounded full and rich — clear but not overly bright. Brass tracks exhibited good presence due to the mid bump, and trumpets were shiny without being brash. The trombones sounded excellent on the low end.

On the rock mix, Darlington ducked the sax and guitar because of the aggressive mids. As you might expect, the result was that when listening to the mix on other systems, sax and guitar levels seemed lower than in prior mixes. After listening to a few more passes in the studio, we agreed that the separation and imaging were fine and that only minute adjustments would be needed to compensate for the midrange bump. Mixes needed little or no tweaking on the bottom or top. The PM-2 sounded accurate across the frequency spectrum, delivering a satisfying bass and clearly defined highs with a slightly aggressive midrange. We felt the monitor would be reliable in critical applications.

M-Audio Studiophile BX8

Except for a blue power indicator, most of the BX8's action is on the rear panel. The monitor is rear-ported, with a 2.5-inch circular port directly above the monitor's compensation controls. A volume pot controls amp output (rather than input trim). The BX8's EQ features include an Acoustic Space control, a PSC (presence) control for a mid-range boost, and variable low-frequency roll-off and high-frequency cut switches. The LF roll-off can be set at 80 Hz, 47 Hz, or 37 Hz (what is essentially a bypass). You can set the HF switch can be set to 0 or use it to attenuate frequencies (2-5 kHz) by either 2 dB or 4 dB.

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The rear-ported M-Audio Studiophile BX8 features a three-position Acoustic Space switch designed to compensate for speakers positioned close to studio walls.

The Acoustic Space switch is a three-position switch designed to compensate for speaker positioning according to the following settings: 0dB (speakers against a wall), ▸2 dB (speakers in corners or close to wall), or -4 dB (speakers away from wall). The BX8 was one of the lower-powered monitors we looked at, providing 65W each to its 8-inch woofer and 1-inch silk-dome tweeter.

The two BX8s, though packed in the same box, had radically different switch and control settings. I made sure the Acoustic Space control was set at -2 in my home studio because of the monitors' close proximity to the front wall. I started off my listening with the PSC engaged. That was a mistake. The midrange boost (unspecified by clearly centered around 1 kHz) created far too much brittleness in the upper mids.

Setting HF to -2 and PSC to Flat made a world of difference. The results were much improved, but even then crash cymbals and female vocals were sometimes strident. The BX8s were loud, but we felt the upper mids couldn't be attenuated enough. With the HF cut at -4, which attenuates highs to a maximum of 5 kHz, there was little noticeable difference in overall brittleness. This limitation wasn't that noticeable in a dance mix like BT's “Knowledge of Self,” but it turned fatal in a female ballad — Norah Jones's sexy smokiness turned into a raspy smoker's hack. That could threaten your mix with a loss of presence if you compensate for the elevated mids you're hearing.

The BX8s were generally good in the lower midrange, but Darlington and I agreed that the bass was slightly muddy and unfocused, albeit ample. The BX8s didn't perform well on fingered bass guitar tracks, losing attack transients. When mixed the bass guitar tracks with other heavy low-frequency sounds such as seven-string guitars, the sound became a bit mushy.

With the right settings, however, the BX8s could sound excellent on certain material. We agreed that they would probably benefit from an outboard stereo graphic equalizer. If your mixes don't rely on bass instruments of different textures playing at the same time and you like a scooped sound with a truncated upper midrange for your mixes, the BX8s might be a good choice because of the aggressive upper mids.

Phonic P8A

Phonic is relatively new to the studio monitor business, although the company caries an extensive line of live sound, DJ, and other audio products. The flagship of its recently introduced monitor line is the P8A. The front panel features two slotted vertical ports next to the 1-inch tweeter and 8.75-inch woofer, the largest LF driver in our survey. The rear-mounted amps provide 150W to the woofer and 75W to the tweeter. The rear panel also hosts balanced TRS and XLR connections, an input level control, a three-way power mode switch that puts the monitor to sleep after five minutes of inactivity, and EQ controls.

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The phonic P8A offers a large 8.75-inch woofer and a Low Match switch for selecting crossover points to use with a subwoofer along with a ±6 dB High Match switch.

A Low Match switch allows you to select 45, 60, 80 or 100 Hz crossover points to use the monitor with a subwoofer. (Phonic also offers the P28 subwoofer.) A High Match switch adjusts highs by ±6 dB. A room compensation switch attenuates low frequencies by ±6 dB to help deal with wall proximity.

The P8As exhibited accurate midrange definition and depth of field when set flat. But they also exhibited a noticeable lack of bass response and slightly less ultra-high-frequency response in the 12-15 kHz area, resulting in a sound that seemed heavy on mids and truncated the high and low ends of the frequency range. We were able to improve the sound somewhat with the P8A's controls. Boosting the Low Match switch gave us a fatter bottom and a little bump in the low mids (around 200 Hz), but without any added definition. (In fact, when we switched monitors to the Yamaha NS-10M's powered by the Bryson amp, the improved bass definition and energy were startling, even with the NS-10M's 7-inch woofers and limited low-frequency range.) Boosting the high end with the High Match control (8 kHz) resulted in more strident upper mids and not the silky sheen we were looking for. We kept the setting flat for listening.

The P8As didn't generate much apparent loudness. Monitoring at moderate levels, we were able to get an accurate picture, but not the thumping volume necessary for monitoring rock and hip-hop accurately at high volumes. We were most concerned about the apparent roll-off in the bass response, which seemed to descend rapidly starting at about 150 Hz, creating a sense of lightness in the low end. The high end sounded mostly flat with a little too much energy in the midrange between 1 to 2.5 kHz.

Tweaking the band mix on the P8As was difficult because the tracks had plenty of midrange energy already. Darlington struggled to get an accurate reading on the kick drum and electric bass. The sax and guitars, however, were clear and nicely separated, and the ambiences were well defined. But we agreed that we would be tempted to increase the hi-hat and drum overhead (cymbal) tracks to bring a little more shine to the mix. Overall, the P8As were noticeably lacking in full-range tone, and especially bass energy, compared to others in our survey.

Tapco S8

Mackie resurrected the Tapco brand in 2003 and made budget monitors one of the new company's priorities. When I reviewed the first offering, the Tapco S5 (see the May 2004 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com), I was impressed with the monitor's value but wished that it had a big sibling with an 8-inch driver. As if on cue, Tapco released the S8, a hefty bi-amped monitor with a much heftier bass output than the S5.

And the heft doesn't stop there. The S8 is also the most expensive of the monitors we tested, with a list price of $750 for a pair. It is also the heaviest, weighing in at 35.2 pounds. On the other hand, it has the lowest listed power rating of the six monitors, at 60W RMS each for the 8-inch polypropylene woofer and 1-inch silk dome tweeter. The rear panel has an adjustable sensitivity control and low- and high-frequency EQ switches, providing standard boosts and cuts (+2 dB or +4 dB at 100 Hz and below and ±2 dB at 5 kHz and above). The crossover point is set at 3 kHz.

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The Tapco S8''s rear panel contains an adjustable sensitivity control and a low-frequency EQ switch that provides a +2 dB or +4 dB boost at 100 Hz and below.

The S8 provided exactly what I was hoping for — more bass. The monitor sounded very good and never suggested that listening to it could become fatiguing. That may be because a slight scoop is apparent in the lower mids, and a slightly elevated bass is apparent below 100 Hz. That results in a slightly muddier bass as attack transients disappear on bass guitars and low frequencies tend to cannibalize each other. The monitor's high-frequency response was very good in my studio with all switches set flat. In my room I saw no need to use either the LF or HF adjustment switches.

At Bass Hit, Darlington was impressed with the low-frequency energy of the S8, which produced a lot of volume, efficiently using its 60W of power. The sound was somewhat reminiscent of Bass Hit's Tannoy 2.1 system (used to more closely emulate a club environment). But as a stickler for tight, accurate bass for jazz and R&B projects, Darlington found the S8s pumped out too much of a good thing. The S8s didn't need bass boost, although setting the HF switch to +2 dB seemed to balance the monitor nicely in that room. When Darlington remixed the rock band, however, without making adjustments for the monitors, the mix was short on bottom and upper frequencies during the car stereo test.

Bass frequencies, however, were very intense on hip-hop mixes such as “Yeah.” Although midrange male vocals sounded fine, shouted chants like those in the chorus of the Usher/Ludacris tune became ear-splitting at high volumes. That kind of EQ curve might work well in rooms with limited response in those frequency ranges. If you like to mix loud hip-hop, the S8 is a good choice, but you'll need to check your mix carefully on other systems for lower vocal and bass levels, because you'll be hearing somewhat elevated levels of both on the S8.

Loud and Proud

In our real-world tests of the monitors examined here, we relied on comparison listening and off-site evaluation to come up with our favorites. Experience has taught us to consider not only the sound we prefer personally, but also what is likely to appeal to clients and to work in a competitive marketplace. If you're thinking about buying one of these monitors, consider the kind of projects you're working on, and listen to many different kinds of program material on different monitors before making a choice. Also, don't hesitate to return a set that isn't working in your studio space. After all, if the music doesn't sound good to you, it probably won't to the client or the public.

If you are looking for monitors under $800 a pair, you would not make a serious misstep with any of the units we looked at, although certain models will require tooling with built-in compensation settings or outboard equalizers to ensure they are providing the most bang for your buck. For most small studios, however, we would recommend the Event TR 8XL for the widest range of projects. For ample bass in smaller studios, the Alesis ProLinear 720 is an excellent choice, while the Fostex PM-2 provides an even balance and crispness rivaling the TR 8XLs for a list price of $100 less.

Manufacturer Contacts

Alesis/Numark —www.alesis.com

Event Electronics —www.event1.com or www.eventelectronics.com.

Fostex Corporation of America —www.fostex.com

M-Audio —www.m-audio.com

Phonic America Corporation —www.phonic.com

Tapco (Loud Technologies, Inc.) —www.tapcogear.com

Powered Monitor Specifications
Click here to view specifications.

Rusty Cutchin is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted atrcutchin@comcast.net.