Which Monitor? An overview of all monitor speakers reviewed thus far in HSR.
This month, Ben Duncan takes a comparative look at the monitor speakers reviewed so far in HSR and provides several guidelines for you to follow in your own assessment of suitable studio speakers.
The survey here puts into perspective the monitors we've covered in HSR reviews over the past 10 months. Looking at Table 1, these are listed in order of ascending price. The first thing to notice is that two models - the AKG and the Questar - are tinted, to remind you that they're very different to the remainder, and can't be compared directly. (The AKG is a micro-monitor, whilst the Questar is bi-amped, with integral power amplifiers and active crossover). Using the table, we can now move on to a cogent summary, from all the important angles:
For main monitoring, the B&W 110 and Tannoy Stratford are most worthy if your budget is tight. Taking into consideration the fact that the law of diminishing returns doesn't set in with monitors until you pass the £1000 mark, speakers costing just over £100/pair will obviously involve just a few trade-offs. Nevertheless, Tannoy and B&W must be congratulated for packing above average performance into these models, which compare favourably with some of the more expensive ones listed.
Subtly distinguished from cost per se; with the Questar QA2, for instance, the price isn't as high as it first appears, for you won't need to buy a power amplifier (as they're built-in). Meanwhile, the Kord Vulcan and Tornado also come at a lower price in kit form.
A full stereo image costs a lot. It generally involves all horn-loaded monitors with broad, yet tightly defined directivity. Of the manufacturers in our list, Electro-Voice and JBL pay special attention to the latter parameter (it's often called beamwidth in the US), and accordingly, the 4401 and Sentry 100A come closest to the solid, 3D image that more elaborate monitors can best resolve. The Kord Tornado is on the same level, whilst at the budget end, the B&W 110 is notable. And don't forget the near definitive centre-image that AKG's small LSM50 can generate.
In order of ascending importance, a neutral tonal balance is important when you're monitoring orchestral/classical music, acoustic sounds (excluding Rock), and above all, speech - in dramatic productions, for example. The Rogers Studio 1 and Kord Tornado are best in this regard. But if you're prepared to accept some early bass roll-off (and thus a brighter sound) the Kord Vulcan, Rogers LS7, and B&W 110 are also serious contenders.
A small amount of colouration in the right places makes a 'Rock' monitor. The magic word is not printable, but begins with 'B'. A judiciously tilted low frequency response, some care with the Thiele alignment, a gentle peak at 4kHz (for bite) and a dozen other secret ingredients go into attaining a healthy balance between fidelity and the Rock 'n' Roll sound. Put simply, the EV Sentry 100A has 'B—'! Lower down in price, JBL's 4401 has perhaps too much colouration (and in the wrong places) for most tastes. And cheapest of all, Tannoy's Stratford strikes the same middle ground as the EV.
Sensitivity ratings have to be read with a pinch of salt, for they can vary by +/-2dB or more, depending on the measurement technique, and the directivity of the speakers. Subjectively, 2dB is quite a small change in loudness, and the much larger subjective difference between monitors with virtually identical on-axis sensitivity figures arises primarily out of colouration (and the directivity if taken in conjunction with room acoustics) which can add an apparent 6dB or more to perceived loudness.
With most of the models listed being within +/-1dB of 89dB (@ 1 watt, @ 1m), the subjective effect is overridingly obvious, so look under colouration to discover the three loud models. And remember that the converse is true: the speakers listed under neutrality will sound unusually quiet in comparison.
These are something of a problem area, because all the speakers listed are of an easy-to-handle size, and strictly fall well below the theoretical ideal for low frequency performance. And yet, with all the main monitors (ie. excluding the LSM50), there's no intrinsic lack of bass in the paper specification. Indeed, many of the monitors go down to 50Hz, or lower. But how usable is the low-bass performance in practice?
Reproduction below 150Hz is very much tied in with physical size, so you don't get something for nothing when the cabinet is small: squeezing low bass from a small cabinet invariably spells trade-offs in sensitivity, and more important, Power Handling Capacity (PHC). An 8" driver has to work hard to reproduce 50Hz, so it's usually the mechanical excursion limit which prohibits the practical realisation of wonderful low bass performance at high SPLs (Sound Pressure Levels). Above all the other models, the EV Sentry 100A squeezes the most - and the most useful - bass-end from a relatively tiny enclosure, and is a foremost example of what the best Thiele-loaded speakers can achieve. Alternatively, consider a single, central subwoofer to augment the bass handling of any of the other speakers.
The neutral sounding monitors are best kept well away from surrounding walls. And listening in the nearfield (say 3 to 5 feet away) will help retain tonal accuracy if your room's acoustics aren't exactly ideal.
The more coloured monitors will sound louder, so you can afford to place these further away, perhaps against a wall, or in the corners. This will effectively enhance the bass-end PHC, but you may loose out on stereo-image, so take care. Also, if you're auditioning at a dealer's, do bear in mind that tests outside the nearfield will be influenced by the acoustics of the demo room. In this instance, it's sensible to insist on checking out units in your own environment, particularly if you're spending a significant sum, over £300, say.
Lastly, make sure you end up with suitable stands and/or ancillary hardware to place the monitors on-axis to your ears. At the same time, steep angling in the vertical plane is best avoided.
The prices given in Table 1 are for guidance only. Many of the speakers listed are principally aimed at domestic Hi-Fi, and the manufacturer/distributor will generally offer the goods at a lower (Professional) price providing you can convince them that you're a bonafide studio owner. Readers blessed with strong Gemini characteristics in their natal charts will know all about sweet-talking, ad-hoc deals, and the advantages of folding money..!
Failing this, bargains can sometimes be picked up by checking with dealers, distributors and manufacturers for shop-soiled or ex-review speakers. Mentioning HSR, taking along a copy of the review, and bags of enthusiasm may also help. Good luck!
Feature by Ben Duncan
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