SOUND JUDGMENT - EMusician

SOUND JUDGMENT

Over the years, EM has done several comparison reviews of lower-end, studio reference monitors, covering both powered and unpowered models. Now that powered
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Over the years, EM has done several comparison reviews of lower-end, “affordable” studio reference monitors, covering both powered and unpowered models. Now that powered monitors have gained such prominence in the market, we felt it was time to give a listen to some popular higher-end models — not the most expensive available, but those that represent a significant step up from the least expensive, or what I call “the low end of the high end.” We designated this the midpriced range.

To make sure we compared apples to apples, we decided to look only at two-way powered systems with woofers between six and seven inches in diameter. (For comprehensive information about studio reference monitors, see “Good References” in the June 2001 issue.) That narrowed the field, but still left us with more than two dozen models. Next we had to determine what constituted midpriced. Naturally, that also meant determining where the low end and the high end are. After careful consideration, we concluded that, generally speaking, low end refers most aptly to powered monitors costing $1,000 or less, and high end to powered monitors costing $2,500 or more (MSRP).

Even after those deliberations, we still were looking at a dozen different monitors — far too many to compare at one time. So, aiming toward the middle of the midpriced zone, we kept tightening the price range until we ended up with five models: the ADAM P11-A, the Dynaudio Acoustics BM6A, the Genelec 1030A, the NHTPro A-20, and the Tannoy System 800A. These five monitors each cost between $1,895 and $2,098 — a spread of only about $200.

For some readers, dropping two grand on a pair of monitors will seem extravagant, if not out of the question entirely. But most people who are serious about audio production come to understand the singular importance of the reference monitor — it is, after all, the only link in the signal chain that lets you hear what you're producing. Fortunately, quality reference monitors are a long-term investment; with proper care, they can be expected to provide many years of trouble-free service.

The issue of price brings up a critical point: that monitors in this price range are typically expected to function as sole or primary monitors rather than as a secondary pair for checking mixes. That presents a challenge because low-frequency response is necessarily limited by woofers that are only six to seven inches in diameter. Certainly, none of the monitors in this test group could reproduce frequencies below 40 Hz at a usable level; some barely went below 60 Hz. For that reason, I have also mentioned each company's subwoofer offerings.

I evaluated the five monitors extensively in listening tests conducted at Toys in the Attic, my personal production facility, where applications range from album work to film and industrial sound design. I'll start by describing each monitor and its features, then move to the listening tests.

ADAM P11-A

New to the U.S. market, ADAM (Advanced Dynamic Audio Monitors) is a German manufacturer of both hi-fi speaker and studio reference-monitor systems. The P11-A is the least expensive monitor in the company's professional line.

The P11-A's compact enclosure houses a 7.1-inch Nomex woofer and a unique folded-ribbon tweeter design (which is used in all other ADAM speakers and monitors as well). Dubbed Accelerated Ribbon Technology (ART), the proprietary design employs a ribbon that it is folded in accordion-like pleats, allowing its large surface area — 2.8 inches long — to fit inside a much smaller space. According to ADAM, the ART tweeter offers better acoustical loading than piston-type tweeters and therefore is more efficient and provides superior transient response. Other front baffle features include sharply beveled edges on the top half of the cabinet (to reduce diffraction effects), a circular bass port in the lower left corner, and a green power LED that turns red if the amp clips.

Inside, the P11-A's woofer and tweeter are powered by separate 80W RMS amplifiers and are actively crossed over at 2 kHz. The system's frequency-response plot shows the highs extending all the way to 35 kHz and the lows down to 48 Hz (±3 dB). Tweeter gain can be adjusted 4 dB up or down with a pot on the rear panel. Also found on the back are contour controls (±3 dB) for high- and low-shelf filters at 6 kHz and 160 Hz, respectively. Speaker input is on a balanced XLR connector.

For those in need of a subwoofer, ADAM recommends its Sub-P for use with the P11-A. The Sub-P is an active bass-reflex sub that extends the low end all the way down to 25 Hz.

DYNAUDIO ACOUSTICS BM6A

The Dynaudio Acoustics BM6A incorporates a 6.7-inch molded polypropylene woofer and a 1.1-inch dome tweeter in an all-black cabinet with a rear-firing slotted port. High and low drivers are each powered by a 100W MOSFET amp. The active crossover, positioned at 2.2 kHz, is a fourth-order (24 dB per octave) design, which makes for a clean division of labor between the drivers.

The BM6A's front baffle is tapered around its perimeter to reduce diffraction effects. Two LEDs in the lower right corner indicate power/fault status and clipping. The clip indicator lights when the low-frequency amp clips. The BM6A and ADAM P11-A are the only monitors in the test bunch that provide a clip indicator on the front baffle. (The NHTPro A-20 has a clip indicator on its outboard power amp.)

Rear-panel controls on the BM6A include a level switch (which allows for either balanced +4 dBm or unbalanced -10 dBm operation), high-frequency (HF) trim, and low-frequency (LF) trim. The HF trim allows for up to 5 dB of attenuation on a high-frequency shelf filter positioned at 3 kHz. The LF trim allows for up to 5 dB of attenuation on a low-frequency shelf filter positioned at 100 Hz. In addition, as you turn the LF-trim level down, low-frequency extension is improved, thanks to a special equalizer in the LF-trim circuit that swaps bandwidth for power. The BM6A also has an electronic protection system that protects against both thermal overload and DC voltage, and it includes an optical limiter on the tweeter amp. Speaker input is on XLR connectors.

The BM6A's frequency response is rated 42 Hz to 21 kHz (±3 dB). For those needing more bass, Dynaudio Acoustics makes a subwoofer, dubbed Active Bass Extension System, that extends the BM6A's low-frequency response to 35 Hz.

GENELEC 1030A

The smallest monitor in the test bunch, the Genelec 1030A features a 6.5-inch woofer and a 0.75-inch metal dome tweeter. The tweeter, flanked on either side by vertical slotted ports (which the company believes exhibit fewer turbulence problems than circular ports), is mounted in Genelec's Directivity Control Waveguide (DCW), an acoustical device designed to match the tweeter's dispersion characteristics to those of the bass driver, thus improving stereo imaging, increasing driver efficiency, and reducing distortion and cabinet-edge diffraction, among other things.

The 1030A employs an 80W low-frequency amp and a 50W high-frequency amp. The active crossover is a fourth-order design set at 3.5 kHz — the highest crossover frequency in the bunch.

The 1030A's rear panel provides a balanced XLR input connector and adjacent input-sensitivity knob (±6 dBu, adjustable by screwdriver); a four-position Bass Rolloff control with decibel settings labeled -2, -4, -6, and -8; a four-position Bass Tilt control with settings labeled +2 (dB), -4, and -6, and Mute; and a four-position Treble Tilt control (shelf filter) with settings labeled +2 (dB), -4, -6, and Mute.

The frequency response of the 1030A is rated 55 Hz to 18 kHz (±2.5 dB). For those who require greater bass extension, Genelec recommends its 7060A or 7070A Active Subwoofers, which go down to 29 and 19 Hz, respectively, for use with the 1030A.

NHTPRO A-20

NHTPro takes a different approach to a powered monitor system. Rather than power amps inside speaker cabinets, the A-20 comprises a pair of speakers powered by a separate Control Amplifier. In addition, the A-20 employs a passive crossover (at 2.1 kHz), so although it qualifies as a powered monitor, it is not an active powered monitor (as are the rest of the monitors in the test group). Don't let the XLR connectors on the back of the cabinets mislead you: they are speaker level and intended to mate only with the control amp via the supplied low-capacitance speaker cables.

The A-20 features a 6.5-inch treated-paper woofer and 1-inch dome driver mounted in an acoustic-suspension (sealed) cabinet. The sleek, polished black cabinets have a distinctive, asymmetrical shape that necessitates dedicated left and right units; the front baffles are angled inward, which, according to NHTPro, not only facilitates speaker positioning and listener orientation, but also helps eliminate internal standing waves, among other things. With the backs of the cabinets perpendicular to the listener (or to the rear wall), the speakers are angled such that the listener is directly on axis when sitting in the sweet spot. Another distinctive feature is a strip of absorbent foam, intended to combat diffraction, attached to the front baffle on the outer side of either tweeter. A green LED indicates that the amp is turned on and that the system is wired correctly.

The A-20 Control Amplifier is a hefty, 34-pound, 2U box providing 250W per channel and sporting three five-position controls; a switchable “System Status” numerical LED readout, which shows average system SPL, incoming line voltage, or temperature of the output heat sink; and a headphone jack. (The A-20 is the only system in the group to offer headphone monitoring.) The three control knobs are labeled Sensitivity (input sensitivity), Boundary (low-frequency compensation), and Position (high-frequency compensation). Each step of the Boundary knob attenuates low frequencies by 1.5 dB using a 50 Hz shelf filter. Each step of the Position knob attenuates high frequencies by 0.75 dB using a 20 kHz shelf filter.

The A-20 control amp's rear panel provides both XLR and ¼-inch TRS input connectors, as well as XLR output connectors for the speaker cables. Should you decide to expand your NHTPro system to 5.1 surround, the company makes the C-20, a flat-faced version of the A-20, for the center channel. Low-bass duties (down to 25 Hz) can be handled by the NHTPro B-20 subwoofer.

TANNOY SYSTEM 800A

Tannoy's NFM8 was one of the earliest studio monitors designed for near-field use, and the concentric driver technology found in those speakers has evolved on through to the System 800A. According to Tannoy, locating the tweeter in the center of the woofer results in wave fronts that are more time-coherent and provides greater efficiency and directivity control.

The largest monitor in the review bunch — it's nearly 18 inches long — the System 800A is a bass-reflex design with an octagonal cabinet. It's covered in gray “suedette” vinyl on the sides and back and has a dark blue, contoured front baffle designed to reduce diffraction. The dual-concentric drive unit, which is matched to two 90W RMS amplifiers, comprises a dual-magnet assembly, an 8-inch injection-molded polypropylene woofer cone, a 1-inch metal tweeter, and a tulip-style high-frequency waveguide. Two small, circular bass ports are located to one side of the drive unit. Between them is a blue status LED, which illuminates to indicate that the power is on.

The System 800A uses a second-order active crossover at 1.6 kHz, positioned before the amplifier in the signal path. Frequency response is rated 44 Hz to 20 kHz.

The System 800A rear panel provides a combination XLR/¼-inch input jack and three user controls: an input level switch (+4 dBu or -10 dBu), a LF Control switch with Half Space and Free Space settings (the Free Space setting extends the low end by using a gentler slope on the system's highpass filter), and a three-position HF Control switch that provides a flat setting and ±2 dB of HF shelving EQ at 2 kHz. Connectors are combination XLR/TRS.

According to Tannoy, its Dual Concentric monitors “work equally well when placed horizontally or vertically, as the relationship between woofer and tweeter doesn't change either way.” I chose to position the monitors vertically, not only to save space (there were a lot of speakers around at the time) but also because the vertical orientation put the driver precisely at ear height, which, as I learned, was particularly important with the System 800A.

EVALUATION METHODOLOGY

I put the group of speakers through a battery of listening tests, executed in three passes. The first pass consisted of listening to a wide variety of reference CDs, ranging from Los Lobos's Kiko to the San Francisco Symphony's Grammy-winning recording of Orff's Carmina Burana, and to various 24-bit recordings of individual instruments. The material was auditioned on each speaker in A/B/C tests against two higher-end monitors with which I am intimately familiar — the M&K 2510P and the Genelec 1031A — and then again in A/B comparison tests with each other.

Unlike the close-field, half-space monitoring environment that's typically found in small personal studios, the monitoring environment at my studio, Toys in the Attic, is essentially free-field and midfield. The speakers are six feet away from the mix position, each other, and the nearest wall, and it's more than ten feet from the speakers to the front wall. This setup not only minimizes the bass boost that results from speakers being positioned close to a boundary, but also allows more cubic volume in which bass frequencies can naturally develop. I'm certain that in a more typical small personal-studio kind of space, the low end of all these speakers would be perceived differently. It is always advisable to listen to speakers in your own monitoring environment before committing to them.

I started testing by auditioning each speaker with all of its controls set flat. Later, I did a second round of individual tests in which I attempted to optimize the sound of each monitor for the room using the available user-adjustment controls. In the process of comparing the monitors, I also gained very helpful insights by equalizing one speaker to sound as much as possible like the one to which I was comparing it. When performed on all the monitors, this “matching” procedure proved a very informative method of comparison.

The second pass was the ever-critical mix test. I did my best mix of the same song, which included drums, bass, vibes, vocals, and a half-dozen guitar tracks, on each set of monitors and printed it to hard disk. I then made a CD and a cassette-tape copy of the mixes so that I could audition them on a variety of different playback systems to determine how well they translated.

For the third pass, I ran a few tests and listened to some isolated sources. First, I recorded a sample of pink noise (played through a single monitor from each pair) from one meter at 85 dB/SPL into MOTU's Digital Performer. I then played each sample and viewed its frequency spectrum in Waves' PAZ Frequency plug-in.

Though I'm not really big on listening to test tones, they are good for revealing how a monitor's high and low frequencies roll off. For this part of the test, I calibrated a 1 kHz tone to 75 dB/SPL at the listening position (two meters from the speaker), and then played a sequence of tones from 30 Hz up to 15 kHz. None of these speakers is rated down to 30 Hz, of course; nonetheless, I was curious to see what, if anything, they could reproduce on the extreme low end.

In addition to the test tones, I also listened to a large range of individual instruments, both from my own recordings and from vol. 2 of Lexicon's Dry Tracks CD series. Finally, I listened to several sound effects from my personal effects library — things I had recorded previously and was well familiar with. Those included field recordings of a building implosion (tons of low end on that one, not to mention multiple car alarms going off immediately after the building collapse and echoing from various points across a wide soundstage), a large-toothed saw ripping ferociously through a board, various metal hits and scrapes, a very squeaky mechanism, and some hysterical laughter.

SALIENT POINTS

Comparing five sets of monitors proved very enlightening. The most striking thing was that different monitors could sound good without sounding alike. What that suggests to me is that accuracy, as important as it may be, is ultimately trumped by the character of the sound.

It was interesting, too, how differently voiced each monitor was from the others. This was often highlighted by the choice of material. Take, for instance, Stinkeye's Off the Street album, which combines hammer dulcimer with other traditional stringed instruments such as mandolin and fiddle; the hammer dulcimer largely disappeared on the NHTPro A-20, betraying a dip in the high-mids. On the Dynaudio Acoustics BM6A, by comparison, the hammer dulcimer rang out clearly. On vocals, the BM6A reproduced less body than did the Genelec 1030A. But the 1030A's low end rolled off faster than the A-20's — and so on.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the maximum SPL limits of smaller drivers (such as those found in this test bunch) may not be sufficient for every application. Though each monitor I tested was reasonably loud when cranked, none was quite able to attain really loud, rock 'n' roll levels. Expect to be able to work at satisfying levels with any of these monitors — but if you need the full rock 'n' roll effect, consider buying bigger ones.

ADAM P11-A

The P11-A was the punchiest rock 'n' roller of the gang. Even at low levels, it could muster more attitude than the rest — an important consideration for apartment dwellers who must monitor at low levels but still want to hear some crunch from their Pods. At the same time, the P11-As were louder than the other monitors. They also produced a reasonably wide soundstage and sweet spot.

The P11-A's unique folded-ribbon tweeter is certainly a defining aspect of its sound. The tweeter did indeed exhibit exceptional transient response, and it seemed integral to the P11-A's overall crisp sound. Snare-drum hits were delivered with a particularly satisfying slap, and horn punches and bass-guitar-note attacks were crisp. The P11-A also provided great detail to all of the synthesized and acoustic percussion on Michael Shrieve and David Beal's The Big Picture album. Crunch guitars, too, sounded appropriately aggressive, though they lacked the raw and yet refined quality they had on the Genelec 1030A.

The close-miked recording of the saw translated in an exceptionally ripping manner on the P11-A — very aggressive and true to life. Then again, acoustic-guitar-string squeaks were sometimes prominent enough to distract.

While mixing on the P11-As, I used EQ to cut some high mids from a bright rhythm guitar that was really jumping out of the mix. To my surprise, this did not result in the guitar sounding dull when I played the mix back on other monitor systems.

The mix I did on the P11-As translated very well to other systems, and the CD version provided the punchiest kick-drum sound of the lot. The snare drum, which was more prominent in this mix than in any other (though not excessive), had nice body without sounding tubby; however, it did not exhibit as much snap as the snare drum in the BM6A mix.

Though the exceptional transient response clearly contributed to the P11-A's better-than-average imaging, high frequencies were not always pristine. Cymbals, for example, did not have the clarity they did on the Genelecs or the Dynaudios, and high harmonics in some vocals sounded a little fuzzy.

DYNAUDIO ACOUSTICS BM6A

The BM6As competed with the NHTPro A-20s for deepest low end of the bunch. The response sounded fairly even through the low range, but fell off sharply as volume was reduced — medium to loud listening levels had very full bass, but low listening levels lost the low end. The same was true of the very high end: the 15 kHz tone, for example, was clearly reproduced at higher monitoring levels but became barely audible at quiet ones.

The BM6A's high end was silky and clean. Cymbals had a nice ping, and the complex activity of inharmonic partials — something that is a challenge for mics and speakers to get right — was not distorted.

There was also a noticeable depth to the soundstage, especially on acoustic music. I got the impression of a dip in the upper midrange, which could make these monitors easy to listen to in long sessions but might also hide some details in that area. One reason I noticed the apparent dip was that the same bright rhythm guitar that had jumped out from the P11-A mix sat nicely in the BM6A mix without any EQ.

When mixing on the BM6As, the kick drum sounded really nice, especially considering that the monitor couldn't reproduce the lowest frequencies. I was able to get a pretty beefy kick with a nice snap to it. That translated excellently, leading to the best-defined kick drum sound of any of the cassette-tape mixes. I ultimately concluded that the mix done on the BM6As was overall the best of the batch in terms of translating to other playback systems.

I also found it easy to get a satisfying snare sound on the BM6As. Vocals, though, came out sounding a bit farther back in the BM6A mix than they did in some of the other mixes. And, as I mentioned, the bright rhythm guitar tracks sounded slightly mellow on the BM6As, which helped them sit well in the mix.

While mixing on the BM6As, I became very sensitive to the Peak LEDs, and I found it useful to know when I was hitting the monitors too hard. However, I couldn't always get the speakers quite as loud as I wanted — it's not difficult to overdrive these monitors with high-volume playback.

GENELEC 1030A

Though each of the other monitors exhibited a broader frequency range than the Genelec 1030A — more extended on the high end, low end, or both ends — to my ear the 1030A was still the flattest sounding of the group. It had the smoothest, most even-sounding midrange — especially nice for vocals — and also provided the cleanest reproduction of tough high-end sources such as cymbals, triangle, and vibraphone. The 1030A's presence allowed it to reproduce the crunch-guitar and wood-sawing recordings with authority and without distortion. Still, the 1030A's high-end response didn't extend as far as the Dynaudio BM6A's or the NHTPro A-20's.

The 1030A's weak suit is its low end, which extends down to only 55 Hz or so. A few extra hertz does make a difference on the low end, and the NHTPro A-20 and the Dynaudio BM6A both produced much lower frequencies. When mixing on the 1030As, I had a heck of a time getting a satisfying kick-drum sound, and I never felt I could wholly trust the kick sound I was hearing. This perception was confirmed during the test-tone section of my tests: of the five monitors, the 1030A produced the least of the 30 Hz tone.

The mix done on the 1030As exhibited the best definition on each instrument and also put the vocals the most forward. Still, the 1030A mix didn't pack quite the punch of the ADAM P11-A and Dynaudio Acoustics BM6A mixes. The 1030A is not the crankmeister of the crowd, either, but it is capable of outputting satisfying levels. I sometimes wondered, though, if I was pushing them a bit into overload without realizing it, as there is no peak indicator.

Classical recordings such as a Denon/Nippon Columbia recording of Mahler's Fourth Symphony and Antonin Kubalek's solo album of Schumann piano music showed — in a way that the pop material I auditioned did not — that the 1030A is capable of an admirably wide soundstage. Classical and jazz selections also demonstrated the 1030A's ability to accurately render delicate material. However, the 1030As' sweet spot was pretty tight — even slight head shifts caused noticeable movement in phantom center images.

NHTPRO A-20

The A-20 has a broad frequency response, which NHTPro informatively specs at two distances — 1 meter and 2 meters. Naturally, the 2-meter distance (which is what I used for these tests) provides the more extended low-frequency response — in this instance, 45 Hz to 20 kHz (±2 dB).

Although my ears agreed with that spec, the response of the A-20s did not sound entirely even throughout the spectrum. Most noticeable was a mild dip in the upper midrange (at about 6 kHz, according to my EQ experiments). The low frequencies, though warm, full, and as deep as the BM6A's or even slightly deeper, did not sound ruler flat, either. However, the A-20 was the only speaker able to produce a clearly perceptible 30 Hz signal at the calibrated level. It was not loud, but it was there.

The low-end beef of the A-20 came across amply as I listened to the building implosion, the wood being sawed, and Los Lobos's Kiko, which has a very full bottom end. And even at low monitoring levels, the bass was decidedly more present on the A-20 than on the other speakers at the same level.

Despite my uncertainty about their flatness, the A-20s sounded excellent on a variety of material and were very pleasant to listen to, suggesting that they would be nonfatiguing during long sessions. In addition, it was easier to get good kick and snare drum sounds when mixing on the A-20s than on any of the other monitors. And the mix I did on the A-20s turned out to have the most shimmer on cymbals — the result of a touch of EQ I added above 12 kHz. However, the slight high-mid dip made rhythm guitars sound a bit dull and thus in need of brightening. Similarly, crunch guitars lacked “teeth.”

These response characteristics are mild and broad, though; it would be easy to get accustomed to them. Given their beefy low end — enough to get you by if you can't get a subwoofer — the A-20s would be an excellent choice for studios that have to rely on small speakers as their sole monitors. I can also imagine clients really enjoying the sound of the A-20s.

The A-20 had a decently wide sweet spot, too. That meant I could reach for controls on the mixer without experiencing severe image shifts as my head moved to either side. However, image localization wasn't quite as precise as that exhibited by some of the other monitors.

The A-20 manual points out an advantage of having the control amp separate from the monitor speakers: rather than have to reach around behind the speakers to change settings, you can make parameter adjustments from the sweet spot, which is where their effect is best heard and where it counts. But that advantage is somewhat lost on me; I would tend to treat a rackmount power amp as a machine-room piece of gear, functionally available but visually — and thermally — isolated from the control-room area. To its credit, the A-20 control amp is designed without a fan, meaning quiet operation, and the unit runs fairly cool. That makes it especially suitable for personal-studio folks who must record and mix in the same room.

That said, I found the features on the A-20 control amp very useful, especially the Boundary and Position switches, which made it easy to optimize the A-20s for my space. In addition, the LED readouts — SPL, line voltage, and heat-sink temperature — allow you to monitor more than just the sound and could be helpful in tracking down studio glitches.

TANNOY SYSTEM 800A

The Tannoy System 800A's low-frequency response was respectable; it didn't top the A-20's or the BM6A's, but it was definitely better than the 1030A's. On the high end, I heard a particular contour that I associate with the “Tannoy sound.” Adding 2 dB of high-end boost with the HF Control switch improved the sparkle somewhat, but it did not bring up the presence range. Likewise, the 15 kHz tone was noticeably less audible on the System 800As than on the rest of the monitors — I had to boost the level considerably before I could hear the tone clearly.

I also noticed some buildup in the low-midrange response down around 400 Hz. Thankfully, the murkiness yielded to a modest 1 dB cut.

The mix I did on the System 800As turned out the brightest of the five. It exhibited sibilance on the vocals and a noticeable hole in the midrange. But despite the hole, the mix had a very satisfying snare sound. The toms, however, did not sound round and full.

The System 800A proved very sensitive to positioning: with the drivers at exactly ear height, the high-frequency response became noticeably more articulated. The sweet spot was very sensitive to vertical movement, but held up nicely over a fairly wide range of lateral movement. Had I positioned the 800As horizontally, this perception might well have been reversed.

Overall, I felt the least comfortable mixing on the System 800A. Not only did I have to do the most compensating for the sound, but I also had the least confidence in how the mix would translate.

HIGH FIVE

One thing this comparison test shows conclusively is that truly excellent professional monitoring is available from a number of midpriced (around $2,000 a pair) powered monitor systems.

For me, the most surprising discovery was how different each monitor sounded from the rest in terms of midrange response. From the slight aggressiveness of the ADAM P11-A to the soft upper mids of the NHTPro A-20, each monitor exhibited a distinct midrange character. There was considerable variation on the low end, as well, with the NHTPro providing the most bottom and the Genelec 1030A the least.

Though each of the monitors in the group had its strengths, I kept coming back to the Genelec 1030A and Dynaudio Acoustics BM6A. To my ear, the 1030A's frequency response was the most accurate overall, especially in the midrange. However, it was also the wimpiest on the low end. And though its high-end response presumably tops out at 18 kHz, the 1030A also exhibited the cleanest, most open high end of the test group. While listening to a Phillips recording of Debussy's Nocturnes on the 1030As, I was able to pick out the sound of a musician quietly turning a page of sheet music.

The Dynaudio Acoustics BM6A was an excellent performer, too. It exhibited an airy top end and impressive depth of field. Though it couldn't go as deep on the low end as the NHTPro A-20, I felt that it provided the best bass response overall. In addition, the BM6A performed consistently well regardless of monitoring level, and it was able to get reasonably loud before starting to clip.

The NHTPro A-20s sounded most like the Genelec 1030As, the main differences being that the A-20s had a more extended low end and exhibited a broad, shallow dip in the high mids. I was impressed by the A-20's low fatigue factor — these monitors are very pleasing to listen to, and they sounded especially wonderful on classical and acoustic music. After learning the A-20's sonic idiosyncrasies, you should have no problem turning out great mixes that translate well to other playback systems.

On the other end of the spectrum was the ADAM P11-A, which takes a more in-your-face approach. This monitor exhibited a distinctly crisp high end, exceptional transient response, a wide sweet spot, good imaging, and attitude to spare. The loudest monitor of the five, the P11-A was also impressive for being able to muster punch and crunch at low levels. Thanks to its abundance of snap and bite, the P11-A seems especially well suited for music that benefits from a bit of edge.

Tannoy has built a loyal fan base over the years, and I'm sure there are many users who love and swear by the System 800A. However, in comparison to the other monitors, the System 800A's particular sonic signature and vertically tight sweet spot just didn't work well for my production style. It was a lot of work trying to “imagine” how my mixes would translate; I never quite trusted what the 800As were telling me. Also, there is another more pedestrian drawback with the System 800A: of the monitors I tested, it had the largest footprint, which might be an issue in some studios.

LISTEN UP

I hope this comparison test has provided a fair assessment of five midpriced powered reference monitors. Having worked closely with each, I can all but guarantee you won't regret taking the plunge and dropping a couple of grand on monitors such as these. However, I would recommend strongly that you listen before you buy — after all, your sensibilities might be very different from mine. When it comes to investing in such a critical part of the studio signal chain, you should trust your own ears foremost.

Larry the Ois a musician, producer, engineer, and sound designer whose music and audio services company, Toys in the Attic, is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Powered Monitor Specifications

ADAM Dynaudio Acoustics Genelec NHTPro Tannoy

ModelP11-ABM6A1030AA-20System 800AWoofer7.1" Nomex6.7" injection-molded polypropylene6.5" injection-molded polypropylene6.5" treated paper8" injection-molded polypropylene (dual concentric)Tweeter2.8" folded ribbon1.1" soft dome0.75" metal dome1" metal dome1" aluminum/magnesium alloy (dual concentric)Crossover Frequency2 kHz2.2 kHz3.5 kHz2.1 kHz1.6 kHzPower Output RMS (woofer/tweeter)80W/80W100W/100W80W/50W250W per channel90W/90WFrequency Response48 Hz-35 kHz (±3 dB)41 Hz-21 kHz (±3 dB)55 Hz-18 kHz (±2.5 dB)48 Hz-20 kHz (±2 dB)44 Hz-20 kHz (±3 dB)Peak Output SPL107 dB116 dB115 dB117 dB120 dBDistortion< 1.0%not available< 0.5%< 0.4%< 0.5%Input TypeXLRXLRXLRXLR, TRScombo XLR/TRSNominal Input Level-10 to +10 dBu (variable)+4, -10 dBu (switchable)-6 to +6 dBu (variable)-10, -3, +4, +11 (switchable)+4, -10 dBu (switchable)User Controlsinput level, HF gain, HF EQ, LF EQinput level, HF LF trim, HF triminput level, Treble Tilt, Bass Tilt, Bass RolloffSensitivity, Boundary, Position (5-way switchable)input level, LF Control HF ControlEnclosure Typeportedported bass reflexportedacoustic suspensionported bass reflexSize (W × H × D)8.3" × 11.0" × 9.0"8.5" × 13.3" × 12.6"7.90" × 12.25" × 7.40"7.5" × 14.0" × 11.9"10.83" × 17.72" × 11.42"Weight22.0 lb.24.3 lb.17.0 lb.17.0 lb.28.7 lb.System Price$1,700$1,999$2,098$1,800$1,995

MANUFACTURER CONTACT INFO

ADAM Audio U.S.A. (distributor)

tel. (805) 413-1133
e-mail dB@adam-audio.com
Web www.adam-audio.com

Dynaudio North America/TC Electronic (distributor)

tel. (805) 373-1828
e-mail info@dynaudiona or dynna1@aol.com
Web www.dynaudio.com

Genelec

tel. (508) 652-0900
e-mail genelec.usa@genelec.com
Web www.genelec.com

NHTPro

tel. (707) 748-5940
e-mail jhidley@recoton.com
Web www.nhthifi.com

Tannoy North America, Inc.

tel. (519) 745-1158
e-mail mbertrand@tgina.com
Web www.tannoy.com