Proof that good things come in small packages.
It seems as though it was only yesterday that Hafler was known solely as a manufacturer of power amplifiers - and darn good ones, at that. The situation changed in 1998, however, when the company introduced its first studio-reference monitor, the TRM8. The first in a series of active Hafler monitors, the TRM8 won almost universal industry acclaim.
Hafler has broken ground again with its M5 reference monitors, which are passive rather than active (that is, they have no built-in amplifiers). The M5s are also quite small, making one wonder whether they can deliver true reference-quality sound. Well, there's no need to wonder - these babies deliver in spades.
SUPERLATIVE DESIGNThe M5s look rather tiny next to Yamaha NS-10Ms, as they measure only about 7 inches wide, 7 inches deep, and 12 inches high. Weighing only 10 pounds each, the M5s are excellent for professional monitoring in tight spaces, and they can also be easily placed on a console bridge or workstation furniture.
Though the M5s' relatively low price may suggest that Hafler cut some corners, that is not the case. The quality of construction is professional throughout.
The M5 uses a 511/44-inch polypropylene woofer and a 1-inch silk-dome tweeter, with the latter set in an exponential (that is, curved) horn waveguide. Hafler maintains that the waveguide helps stabilize the close-field "phantom" center image. Whatever the reason, the M5s exhibit spectacular imaging.
The tweeter's optical-protection circuit prevents damage by slowly attenuating the signal level when power exceeds safe levels. In addition, a front-panel switch lets you reduce the tweeter's level by 3 dB. This feature could be helpful in a very live room where the highs are emphasized too much for your tastes. My control room features a dead front end (thanks to an Acoustic Sciences Corporation Attack Wall and floor carpeting), so I left the tweeter switch in the 0 dB (unattenuated) position. Interestingly, neither setting is indicated on the switch - a minor nuisance that you can easily remedy with a makeshift label.
Magnetically shielded, the woofer allows you to place the M5 next to computer monitors and televisions without distorting the image. The woofer also employs a nitrile rubber surround that prevents sound waves from reflecting back into the speaker cone and compromising the linearity of the frequency response. Furthermore, according to the manufacturer, the mineral-loaded cone's extra rigidity helps minimize intermodulation distortion (IMD). Listening for extended periods of time to speakers that produce a lot of IMD can be fatiguing, and the M5s are some of the least-fatiguing speakers I've ever heard. They were a pleasure to work on in long sessions.
The M5's internally braced cabinet is sturdily constructed of 51/48-inch-thick medium-density fiberboard and covered in attractive, textured black vinyl. The slot-shaped bass port is in the front of the cabinet, where it belongs. (Some rear-firing designs sound a little mushy to my ears.) From an academic point of view, I wish that the M5's cabinet edges were rounded, because sharp, square edges tend to cause high-frequency diffraction, which scatters stereo imaging. However, as I noted earlier, the M5s exhibit outstanding imaging, even though they don't have rounded cabinet edges.
Gold-plated, five-way binding posts on the rear of the cabinet provide connections to your power amp. The M5s are conservatively rated to handle 100W RMS and 200W peak power - quite a load for such small monitors (and considerably more than the larger Yamaha NS-10Ms can handle). The only downside to the M5's small size is that, as one would expect, the speaker's bass-frequency response doesn't extend down very far. (Low-frequency response is rated at 70 Hz.)
The M5's peak acoustic output is rated at 110 dB at 1 meter - plenty loud for those who want to preserve their hearing and have a long career. Sensitivity is rated at 89 dB, which is a bit weak. In practice, I found the M5s' output to be noticeably quieter than that of the Yamaha NS-10Ms. This is not an issue unless you routinely use a superefficient second pair of monitors, in which case switching between them and the M5s could cause disconcerting monitor-level changes. It's a minor point, but one worth considering.
SOUNDING OFFI tested the M5s using a Hafler P3000 Transnova power amp ($779), which Hafler kindly provided. My control-room setup is modeled after a LEDE (Live End Dead End) design, featuring the ASC Attack Wall at the front and RPG Skyline diffusors and an ASC Studio Soffit Poly-Trap on the rear wall. Optimal speaker placement for my room was rigorously devised using a combination of Metric Halo Labs' SpectraFoo and RPG's Room Optimizer software. The remaining low-bass room modes that resisted acoustic treatment were electronically equalized at the mix position for an even room response.
During the time I had the M5s, I used them to overdub vocals, flute, and Celtic harp tracks. I also used them to mix Celtic and modern country (including drum set) tracks. Mixes that sounded good on the M5s invariably translated well to other systems, as long as I used a subwoofer to reinforce lower bass frequencies (a point I'll come back to). In addition to tracking and mixing on the M5s, I used them to listen to a variety of commercially released rock, jazz, pop, R&B, techno, and new-age material, including some tracks that I had mixed previously.
Besides their outstanding stereo imaging, the M5s' incredible depth was immediately noticeable. For example, reverbs sounded dramatically clear and three-dimensional. From a timbral standpoint, the M5s sound warm, yet also clear and detailed. Upper mids in the vicinity of 2 kHz sounded very slightly understated, preventing vocals and guitars from being too forward or cutting. Yet the M5s have an uncanny ability to sort out loads of competing guitars and keyboards in a midrange-heavy mix. The spectral balance sounded quite good even outside the somewhat narrow sweet spot.
As I mentioned earlier, the M5s' low-bass response is a bit weak. Alone, these monitors don't reproduce kick drum and low bass notes adequately enough. Were you to rely solely on the M5s for mixing, you might inadvertently add too much low end. (Of course, the same can be said about other small close-field monitors on the market.) For critical work, then, you'll want to either add a subwoofer or use the M5s as adjuncts to a larger pair of primary reference monitors.
It's worth noting that many of the M5s' positive attributes were severely compromised when the monitors were poorly positioned (for example, on some workstation shelves). This demonstrates how important it is to do an acoustical analysis of your room to determine optimal speaker placement, and to effectively couple the monitors to their stands (another point that is true for all reference monitors). Though Hafler recommends that the M5s be placed in a vertical alignment, I found that they also performed extremely well horizontally.
NO HYPESome engineers (NS-10M fans come to mind) like their monitors to have hyped high mids so they can hear everything very clearly and won't be inclined to crank those frequencies to achieve clarity. It's a valid strategy meant to steer them toward a warmer mix. (For the record, I occasionally refer to my pair of NS-10Ms, but only for a few minutes at a time, as I find them quite fatiguing. In fact, I'm considering replacing them with the M5s.) For those folks, the M5s may not be the small monitor of choice.
However, if you're looking for revealing close-field monitors that owe their detail to superior execution of acoustical-design principles rather than hyped mids, look no further. The Hafler M5s' small size makes them a great choice for cramped control rooms and itinerant engineers. But size benefits aside, the M5s' rock-solid imaging, top-notch depth, and smooth spectral balance add up to a terrific value. I highly recommend that you check them out.