Little Wonders

Can you trust what you hear on small active monitors? It has been only a few years since affordable powered monitors hit the market in force. Now we're
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Can you trust what you hear on small active monitors? It has been only a few years since affordable powered monitors hit the market in force. Now we're

Can you trust what you hear on small active monitors?It has been only a few years since affordable powered monitors hit the market in force. Now we're witnessing a similar market surge, but this time the focus is on compact powered monitors (defined loosely as models with woofers less than 6 inches in diameter). But wait-we're not talking cheapie multimedia speakers for gamers seeking maximum boom while playing Doom: Those diminutive drivers have been around pretty much since the multimedia get-go, and have yet to garner heavy raves from any pro-audio folks (for a story on multimedia speakers, see "Little Monsters" in the November 1995 issue of EM). The compact monitors under scrutiny here are, in contrast, well engineered, often expensive units from reputable manufacturers of studio reference monitors. They just happen to have wee woofers.

Why are compact powered monitors suddenly all the rage? Largely, it's due to the ascendant popularity of the desktop studio. After all, those who have grown accustomed to having the power of a full-blown studio inside a little box-the personal computer-can only be expected to embrace the "small is beautiful" ethic that pervades the computer market. Moreover, many desktop-studio engineers work in tight quarters (or corners, as the case may be!), so the lighter weight and reduced footprint of compact monitors is doubly appealing. And then there's the issue of electromagnetic interference (EMI)- those dreaded emissions from conventional, unshielded monitor speakers that make computer VDT screens shake, wobble, and roll.

Of course, desktop studios aren't the only raison d'etre for quality compact powered monitors. The portability factor makes them attractive also to location recordists, as well as to studio engineers who, in the interest of sonic familiarity, travel with their own monitors. Other potential uses include post-production, surround sound, multimedia, and any application for which compactness is a plus. But for the most part, it's the desktop-studio user whom manufacturers of compact powered monitors are targeting.

QUESTIONS, ANYONE?For those who are serious about audio production, the proliferation of these miniature speaker systems may cause a certain wariness. It doesn't take an acoustical engineer, after all, to determine that a reduction in woofer size typically leads to diminished low end. Obviously, the big challenge for manufacturers is to get sufficient bass response from such small boxes. To that end, they typically employ equalization and various design features to compensate for the inherent deficiencies of smaller drivers.

So, have the manufacturers been successful? Is it possible to record and mix with confidence using compact powered monitors? Are some models more capable than others, or do they all fall short of the sonic accuracy required in critical listening applications? In short, what are these speakers really good for?

To help answer these questions, I examined five pairs of speakers with woofers 5.25 inches or less in diameter. I kept within a modest price range: $500 to $1,100 a pair. (Clearly, these monitors are in a class above their consumer-oriented brethren, both in terms of performance and price; you can bet that few gamers are prepared to spend $500 or more for a pair of speakers.) The models I chose were the Event Electronics PS5 ($599), the Genelec 1029A ($1,080), the JBL LSR25P ($958), the Vergence Technology (originally NHTPro) M-00 ($750), and the Yamaha MSP5 ($598).

Interestingly, the number of compact active monitors on the market is quickly increasing. By the time you read this, additional speakers-Hafler's M5 ($498), KRK's V4 ($599) and V4Si ($799), and Tannoy's i5AW ($226)-will have begun shipping. That so many well-respected speaker manufacturers are entering this market is good, if only because it will increase competition and, hopefully, result in better-sounding monitors at lower prices.

COMMON GROUNDTo get a feel for the territory, let's first look at features that most of the monitors have in common. Of the five tested, all but one-the Vergence M-00-have woofers measuring 5 inches or more in diameter. (The woofer in the Vergence M-00 measures 4.5 inches.) The M-00 is also the only monitor here that employs a single amplifier-the other four are biamped and employ active crossovers.

Furthermore, the M-00 is the only monitor of the bunch that has neither a volume control nor a bass port. (The purpose of a bass port is to enhance the speaker's low-end reproduction by allowing sound from inside the cabinet to escape.) On each of the other four monitors, both the volume control and bass port-or ports-are located on the front panel.

The volume controls on the Genelec 1029A, JBL LSR25P, and Yamaha MSP5 are stepped, making it easier to match volume levels between the speaker pairs. In addition, the power switches on the Genelec 1029As and the JBL LSR25Ps are located on their front panels, which is a nice convenience.

Note, too, that a couple of the models tested here-the Genelec 1029A and the Vergence M-00-have been on the market for some time. (For a separate review of the Genelec 1029A, see the July 1997 issue of EM.)

PROTECTION PLANA notable structural difference between the monitors is the implementation of speaker protection-or, in some cases, the lack of it. The Yamaha MSP5s and Genelec 1029As, for example, offer the best protection of both speakers-a metal grille over the woofer and a foolproof "cage" over the tweeter. This is important if you intend to transport your monitors on a regular basis. On the other hand, many engineers believe that anything placed in front of the speaker-including a vented grille-will negatively affect the sound. Though I'm inclined to agree, on a practical level I would prefer having protected speakers, especially if I were planning to move the monitors around a lot.

The Event PS5 features a metal grille enclosing the tweeter, but the woofer is unprotected. The Vergence M-00, on the other hand, has a metal grille for the woofer but nothing to protect the soft-dome tweeter (which, actually, seems rather impervious to poking).

The JBL LSR25P provides a sturdy metal grille over the woofer, but only a thin vertical bar to protect the tweeter. It didn't do such a good job, either-on one of the LSR25Ps I received for review, a small portion of the tweeter's surface was worn away. This didn't seem to compromise the sound, but it did indicate how vulnerable the tweeters are to damage.

ON THE JOBTo put the monitors through their paces, I first listened carefully to how each pair handled finished stereo material that I was intimately familiar with, including recordings of acoustic and electronic instruments in rock, jazz, and classical styles. I also mixed a number of projects from the ground up on each pair of monitors, and then used them again for editing the mixes once they were complete. And, to occasionally clear my aural palate, I also subjected the monitors to a variety of test tones, noise bursts, and frequency sweeps.

Although any instrument will sound somewhat different from one monitor to the next, certain instruments reveal a speaker's attributes and deficiencies better than others. The low, rumbling decay of a floor tom, the mix of highs and lows from cymbals, and the orchestral scope of the grand piano, for example, provide immediate clues as to the effectiveness of a particular monitoring system.

For consistency, I kept the volumes on the monitors (for those that provided controls) at their maximum levels and regulated overall levels at the mixer. This solved most of the problems I had trying to match levels between monitor pairs. Fortunately, the self-noise in each pair was low enough that I could crank the volume and not add noticeable hiss or hum.

Event Electronics PS5. Though they are the smallest in Event's new PS (Project Studio) series of biamplified monitors, the PS5s are the largest overall of the five models I tested. (The Yamaha MSP5s are just as tall, but not as wide.) Made of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and finished in a flat, gun-metal gray, the monitor enclosures, though not unattractive, have a rather plain, no- nonsense look. Unlike the other ported models, each of which has dual, symmetrical bass ports on either side of the speakers, the PS5 employs a single, larger port positioned to one side of the tweeter and woofer. The unit's only front-panel control is a volume knob, which has an orange dot to show its relative position. A green LED beneath the woofer indicates power-on status and flashes at the onset of clipping.

The rear panel of the PS5 acts as a heat sink and provides a power on/off switch, XLR and balanced 14- inch TRS input (which also accepts an unbalanced 14-inch TS input), a variable input-sensitivity control, and a connector for the standard IEC power cable (included). The PS5 is the only monitor of the test group that provides no onboard tonal adjustments.

One handy feature, located on the bottom of each monitor, is a tilt bar. This allows desktop users to tilt the front panel 30 degrees upward, thus reducing problems caused by desktop reflectivity while aiming the drivers toward your ears. But even with the tilt bar folded flat (that is, not in use), the feet on the bottom are designed to tilt the PS5 slightly upward.

The PS5s were designed to be suitable for computer-based studio use and, therefore, are magnetically shielded. Unfortunately, the first pair of monitors I received from Event were defective in this regard and caused the image on my computer monitor screen to wobble slightly. However, a subsequent pair provided by Event were adequately shielded.

Sonically, the PS5s are quite smooth from bottom to top, although I did notice a bit of tubbiness in the low end on some instruments. The transient response is above average. Percussion sounds great through these monitors, as do vocals and electric guitars. Overall, the PS5s sounded warm and well balanced, and were pleasant to listen to.

Genelec 1029A. The most expensive monitors of the group, the Genelec 1029As are in many ways also the most versatile. They provide four rear-panel tone-control DIP switches, allowing you to customize the response to the acoustic environment-an especially useful feature for surround- sound applications. The DIP switches, though a bit of a hassle to deal with, provide a fair amount of tailoring. Switch 1 is the "treble tilt," which attenuates the high end by roughly 3 dB, beginning at 4 kHz. Switch 2 is a bass-rolloff shelving filter positioned at around 90 Hz. (Theoretically, this switch would be engaged only if the Genelec 1091A subwoofer were part of the setup.) Switches 3 and 4 cover "bass tilt" duties, allowing low-end cuts beginning at approximately 1 kHz. (The bass-tilt controls also cut a dB or two from the spectrum between 1 and 3 kHz.)

Except for the Vergence M-00, the 1029A is the smallest of the five monitors. The enclosure is cast aluminum and provides good electromagnetic shielding. Finished in black semigloss (and available in white or gray, too), the units have a simple yet elegant look. The slitlike ports, located on either side of the tweeter, are flush with the sides of the cabinet, and the power switch and volume control reside beneath the woofer on the left and right sides, respectively. A green LED located above the power switch indicates power-on status.

The 1029A's rear panel, which doubles as a heat sink, provides simultaneously available, balanced XLR and 14-inch connectors; recessed DIP switches; a recessed voltage selector; a connector for an IEC power cable (included); and predrilled holes for mounting the unit on an Omnimount Series 50 bracket. There is also a 38-inch threaded hole on the bottom of each monitor that can accommodate a standard microphone stand (which is handy if you follow Genelec's suggestion that the monitors not be positioned on a console or desktop).

The frequency response of the 1029As is fairly even between 100 Hz and 1 kHz. There are, however, noticeable boosts between 70 and 90 Hz and between 1 and 4 kHz. The low-end boost was the more problematic of the two-with the speakers set "flat" (all switches in the off position), drums and bass tended to sound muddy, especially when playing together in a mix. After a bit of experimentation, however, I found the best DIP-switch settings for my room, which included using switch 2 (the 90 Hz bass rolloff) to reduce the annoying low-end bump without sucking out all of the bass frequencies.

The 1029As have a perky high end, but I didn't find it bothersome or fatiguing. Rather, it provided natural- sounding detail and air that were missing from most of the other monitors. The stereo imaging was good, and on acoustic instruments, including a full-blown jazz-horn section, the tonal balance was remarkably smooth. Moreover, vocals sounded so good through the 1029As that I would guess these monitors were created with the human voice in mind.

JBL LSR25P. Like the 1029A, the JBL LSR25P Linear Spatial Reference bi-amplified monitor provides both a front-panel power switch and volume control (also positioned beneath the woofer on either side), indented wave guides around the tweeter, and rear-panel DIP switches for tuning the monitor. However, at 17 pounds each, the LSR25Ps are much heavier than the Genelecs, and they also sound remarkably different.

Made of cast-aluminum with a silver-gray, semigloss finish, and sporting oval bass ports and the aforementioned vertical tweeter-protection bar, the LSR25P is decidedly more space-age-looking than the other monitors. The snazzy vibe is further enhanced by the shape of the cabinet, which flares out from back to front, and is quite deep. A green LED located above the volume control indicates power-on status. The light turns red when the signal is clipping.

The LSR25P's rear panel, which also doubles as a heat sink, provides an unbalanced, -10 dBu RCA jack; a balanced, +4 dBV XLR jack; four recessed DIP switches; and a connector for the IEC power cable (included). There are also predrilled holes for mounting the unit. Curiously, the XLR jack is non-locking, which is a bit disconcerting when you consider that it's mounted vertically. DIP switch 1 is an 80 Hz highpass filter, switch 2 is "boundary compensation" (a low and low-mid cut), and switches 3 and 4 let you boost or cut, respectively, high frequencies by 1.5 dB from 2.2 kHz upward.

Impressively, the LSR25Ps sound great right out of the box. In terms of full- range frequency response, they were the most evenly balanced of the bunch, producing a realistic sound even on demanding instruments such as classical guitar and grand piano. The bass and low-mid frequencies seem slightly enhanced (again, with the tone switches off), which helps the monitors maintain full lows even at lower volumes. However, the low boost isn't excessive (it didn't, for example, register as much rumble from a floor tom or bass guitar as did most of the other monitors), which is good because it keeps the LSR25Ps from sounding artificial.

I also noticed what seemed to be slight dips at around 3.5 and 12 kHz. Overall, though, the upper frequency range is clear, distinct, and pleasing to the ear. Transient response, too, is exceptional. I got used to this pair of monitors very quickly.

Vergence M-00. Though weighing in at only 14 pounds each and employing the most diminutive woofer of the group, the Vergence M-00s pack quite a sonic punch. The cast aluminum/zinc body makes this not only a durable unit, but also provides excellent shielding. The finish is flat black and the look understated.

All M-00 controls, including the main power switch, are located on the unit's back panel. There are three switches. The Position switch lets you choose between NF (near-field, or up to three feet from the speakers) and MF (mid-field) settings. This is the only EQ adjustment available. The NF setting subtly attenuates upper frequencies, beginning at 3 kHz and sloping to a maximum of 3 dB attenuation at 20 kHz.

The second rear-panel switch, which can be set to -10 dBu or +4 dBV, controls input sensitivity. The M-00 is the only speaker in the bunch that offers three different connectors: XLR (balanced), 14-inch (balanced or unbalanced), and RCA.

The third rear-panel switch controls a power-saver feature: in Auto position, the speaker will go into a low- power, standby mode if no signal is detected for approximately ten minutes. This feature allows you to leave the main power switch on. (You can also leave the switch in the On position and use the main AC switch to power the speakers up or down.)

Compared with the other monitors, the M-00s had a tight, somewhat claustrophobic, and slightly two- dimensional sound quality, with a noticeable muddiness in the low and low-mid frequencies. In addition, the M-00s sounded "throaty" in the midrange, which was especially noticeable on piano tracks. The upper range was better, but sounded slightly diffuse and unfocused.

The M-00s came off sounding more like home-stereo speakers than reference monitors when compared with the other units. Of course, this could be a plus if you need a secondary speaker pair to test mixes on a "real-world" listening system. In addition, the M-00s were the noisiest pair that I tested: they pop when turned on and off, they pop going in and out of standby mode, and they emit more hum than the others. In standby mode, however, the M-00s are practically silent.

Yamaha MSP5. Despite a relatively modest power output maximum of 40 and 27 watts for the woofer and tweeter, respectively, the Yamaha MSP5s proved easily the loudest pair in the group. They are also well shielded and, as mentioned previously, feature full protection for both tweeter and woofer (which, come to think of it, is a big plus if your desktop studio is within reach of children!). The plastic cabinets have a flat- black finish and a slight downward slope-a useful design if the monitors sit above your desktop. In my case, however, with the monitors roughly at ear level, I needed to elevate them slightly in front.

The MSP5s have a straightforward, down-to-business sort of look, with two circular bass ports situated between the tweeter and woofer, one on either side. The stepped volume control is located in the lower right corner and a green status-on LED in the lower left.

A large, attached heat sink takes up much of the rear panel. The power switch is located below the heat sink, along with unbalanced 14-inch (-10 dB) and balanced XLR (+4 dB) input jacks. There is also a pair of frequency-trim switches labeled "Low" and "High." The Low switch has four positions: in addition to the 0 setting, you can either add 1.5 dB or subtract 3 dB in two 1.5 dB increments at around 60 Hz. (These changes affect the frequency band from 400 Hz downward.) The High switch has three positions, allowing you to add or subtract 1.5 dB from the 0 setting at around 25 kHz. (This cut reaches down to the 3 kHz range.) Unlike the other monitors in the group, the MSP5 has a permanently attached power cable.

The MSP5s have a robust low end, scooped-sounding lower-mids, and a brittle high end-much brighter than the frequency-response graph would suggest, with noticeable boosts between 3 and 10 kHz. There is also a noticeable bump in the low end, around 80 Hz. In terms of frequency response, I found the MSP5s to be the most "enhanced-sounding" of the units tested, and hence the least reliable as critical reference monitors.

Fortunately, the frequency-trim switches allowed me to attenuate the boosts somewhat. I elected to cut both the highs and lows by 1.5 dB. Actually, I would have cut the highs further had there been the option. These monitors are crispy sounding, and probably the most ear-fatiguing of the bunch.

I must admit, though, that certain things sounded great on them. Heavy rock mixes, for example, seemed to jump out of the speakers. The MSP5s also delivered the best kick drum and floor tom sounds of the test group. Moreover, there was clear delineation between the drums and bass. As fun as they were to listen to, though, the MSP5s didn't instill much confidence in terms of reproducing a balanced frequency range.

WONDERS NEVER CEASEThough each of these monitor pairs made for a good listening experience, after working closely with them, I can only conclude that small speakers-those 5.25 or less inches in diameter, at any rate-are inadequate as woofers. They simply cannot compete with larger speakers when it comes to smooth and accurate low- end reproduction. Therefore, I wouldn't choose any of these models as my primary reference monitors, at least not without the addition of a subwoofer. (Note that three of the models tested here are available with system-matched subs: the Event Electronics PS5s, the Vergence M-00s, and the Genelec 1029As.) With time, of course, one can learn to mix well on practically any monitors. But if you are looking for an accurate critical reference monitor for your desktop studio, I would suggest that you stick with one that features a standard-size woofer-something at least six inches in diameter.

Of course, that's not to say that the five monitors tested here are inadequate for other applications. On the contrary, I would welcome any of them as a secondary pair of speakers in a mixing session. Moreover, any of them would make killer multimedia speakers, and most would probably also prove impressive in home- theater surround-sound applications.

In terms of overall tonal balance, I found the Event PS5s, Genelec 1029As, and JBL LSR25Ps most trustworthy. Therefore, of the five, these would be my first picks for location recording and post- production. If size is a primary consideration, the Vergence M-00s and Genelec 1029As deserve a close look. And if what you need is a rocking speaker with lots of volume-for intensive multimedia, say, or installation in the game room-the Yamaha MSP5s will fit the bill and then some.

Gino Robair is an associate editor for EM.

The placement of monitor speakers in the room has a big impact on the way a system behaves. When your speakers are too close together-such as when they are positioned flush with either side of your VDT monitor-the stereo field is reduced, and reflections from nearby surfaces enhance and cancel portions of the frequency spectrum in complex ways.

Some active monitoring systems include tone controls that allow you to tune the frequency response based on the room and monitor positioning. Moreover, if you've added a subwoofer to the system (often recommended when using compact monitors), you may have to compensate for its subsonic enhancement by attenuating the low end of the satellite monitors. On the other hand, some systems (such as those by Event) allow you to adjust the crossover of the subwoofer to match the natural rolloff of the satellite speakers.

Regardless of where the monitors are in the room, for optimum monitoring it is best to position them so they form an equilateral triangle with the listener. For close-field monitoring- the usual method in personal and desktop studios-this means allowing a distance of roughly 3 feet between the monitors and an equal distance from each of the monitors to your ears. Make sure, too, that there's nothing between you and the speakers. Reflective surfaces in the direct path of the speaker-whether a mixing console, desktop, or the side of a rack case-will degrade the sound.

Powered monitors are essentially plug-and-play devices: just insert the power cable into an AC outlet, feed the monitor a line-level signal, and you're ready to roll. Some powered monitors have a single amplifier that powers both woofer and tweeter. Others, called biamped monitors, employ two separate amps, one each for the woofer and tweeter. A three-speaker system with an amplifier for each speaker is referred to as a triamped system.

However, active monitors are more than just speakers with dedicated amplifiers. Besides the drivers, power supply, and amplifiers, powered monitors also include, among other things, crossovers that determine where the high and low frequency range is divided between the tweeters and woofers. The benefits of having all of this equipment on board include better transient response, larger dynamic range, and improved phase coherence.

Powered monitors solve a number of other problems for the engineer. To begin with, they offer a complete and optimized listening system. There's no need to worry about compatibility between speakers and power amps, because each component in the system is carefully matched for optimum performance. And, because active monitors are self-contained, they're easy to travel with. It's not uncommon for an engineer to show up for a session at an unfamiliar studio with his or her favorite powered monitors in tow.

My first experience with powered monitors was not in the confines of a studio control room, but in a cathedral where the engineer was recording a pipe organ. Rather than rely on headphones alone for monitoring, the engineer brought a pair of powered monitors and set them up in a back room that was sonically isolated from the sanctuary. That way, he was able to get a much truer sense of how the recording would translate to playback. And, by bringing active rather than passive monitors, he was able to leave his power amp and extra cables behind.