Ten Powered Nearfields Reviewed

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in October 2001, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

The last three years have been exceptionally good for powered loudspeakers. This is good and bad. Good, because there are so many excellent choices now. For the most part these speakers all sound great, and they’re generally better than most of the midfield monitors available ten or so years ago. Bad, because it’s so damn hard to choose.

I chose ten of the more well-known speakers to review. All of them are biamplified systems with between 90 and 250 watts of total system power. Eight of them use 8 inch woofers. All are ported systems: nine conventionally ported, one with a passive radiator. Most utilize liquid-cooled metal dome tweeters with computer-designed tweeter waveguides. All are approximately the same size and weight, give or take.

Are you starting to see a pattern emerge?

The real differences are differences in price – which varies widely – and details of quality and design. Most of these systems are really excellent. However, as I studied and listened to these systems, I was able to find and define clear preferences. Hopefully, my findings will coincide with yours.

A word needs to be said about the way I evaluated these speakers. As a mixing engineer, I am primarily concerned with getting mixes that translate well outside of the studio. Monitors should tell me if there’s too much bass, if the sibilants are harsh, if the sax is ringy, or if any instrument is too loud or quiet in the mix. To me the best monitor is one that lets me get the perfect mix – the one that sounds exactly the way I expect both IN and OUT of the studio. The best compliment is when the mastering engineer tells me, “I really didn’t need to EQ anything at all.”

This is a listening test, not a scientific evaluation, using ears, not scientific equipment. The tests were performed primarily in my control room, the most familiar place for me to listen to a speaker. I also listened to all of these speakers in at least one other room besides my control room in order to get a better basis for comparison. And I listened to a variety of CDs, including rock, pop, jazz, and world music. I also listened to some CDs that I mixed and with whose deficiencies I am intimately familiar.

Since I used my ears as the primary basis for gathering information, there’s a fair chance that you’ll disagree with some of my findings. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to share my experiences and tastes. Hopefully, though, the information I present here in the review will tell you what you need to know in order to choose the right monitors for you and your work style.

I used a 10 point scale to subjectively rate factors such as imaging, dynamic performance, frequency response, and high-volume performance. I also subjectively graded the overall sound quality and the price / performance score of these speakers. We then created an overall composite grade which weights sound quality twice as heavily as value. In the end, this approach provides some insight into how I interpreted these speakers, and the final grades correspond closely to my personal preferences.

How to Interpret the Scores

ImagingAbility to accurately position sound sources in space
Dynamic PerformanceAbility to recreate fast, punchy transients
Frequency ResponseAbility to reproduce all frequencies without misrepresentation
High VolumeAbility to play loud without damage or excess distortion
Sound QualitySound quality composite, includes all dimensions of sound quality
Price / PerformanceDirect ratio of sound quality composite to price
OverallWeighted ranking, weights sound quality twice as high as price, shown as a percentage and letter grade.

Why did I factor in price? Simple. Some of our contestants are value-priced, and yet competitive with luxury-priced monitors. I think its more than fair to give the value-priced, strong performers an extra lift in their grade. Yet sound quality has to come first, so in the overall score, the sound quality is weighed twice as high as price. So if you’re looking for excellent sound with the best value, trust the Overall score. If you’re looking for a flat-out bargain, trust the Price / Performance score. And if you’re looking for the best sound at any price, evaluate the Sound Quality score.

Behringer Truth B2031

Our ScoreD+
Imaging5
Dynamic Performance5
Frequency Response4
High Volume6
Sound Quality5
Price / Performance9.5
Overall68 D+
Web sitehttp://www.behringer.de

The Behringer Truth B2031 is a biamplified monitor featuring an 8” polycarbonate woofer and a 1” ferrofluid-cooled titanium tweeter. A 150 watt amplifier drives the bass speaker while a 75 watt amplifier powers the tweeter. The tweeter is mounted into a computer-designed waveguide horn to improve imaging and time alignment. The cabinet is a ported design that offers a pair of elongated ports to either side of the tweeter. The Behringer B2031 is surprisingly similar to that of the similarly-named Genelec 1031, with its long, narrow ports and almost identical dimensions. Maybe that’s not so surprising given Behringer’s proclivity for building products that bear uncanny resemblances to their competitors’ products.

The Truth features a number of flexible equalization options. A low-cut option is provided if you wish to use the Truth with a subwoofer or just prefer mixing without the extended low end. Four settings are available: 50 Hz (no cut), 65 Hz, 80 Hz, and 100 Hz. This feature gave the Truth more flexibility for use with a subwoofer than the other speakers we tested. A low-shelf EQ is provided to compensate for wall proximity or room modes. The low-shelf offers a flat setting, as well as cuts of 2 dB, 4 dB, and 8 dB below 80 Hz. A high-shelf EQ offers a flat setting, a +2 dB boost, and –2 dB and –4 dB cuts.

Connections are flexible with available TRS and XLR jacks. An input trim provides an additional –5 dB / +5 dB gain trim. The speaker includes an Auto-On feature that turns the speaker on as soon as a signal is detected. You’ll want to use the Auto-On feature because the power switches for the speakers are in the back on the recessed portion of the panel. We would have preferred front-mounted power switches.

Since this is Behringer’s first entry into the loudspeaker market, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Boy was I surprised. At first blush, the speaker provided ample, punchy bass, and brilliant treble – it made a great first impression. Over time, though, my enthusiasm waned.

Extended low bass was somewhat lacking in this speaker. Also I found that on loud program material, the woofer was more likely to rattle than most of the other speakers in our comparison. Port chuff was present but not horrible, just audible only on the most bass-heavy material. However, the speaker’s hyped bass response would make it difficult to make wise judgments on bass levels in a mix.

What was worse, the treble was too harsh for my tastes. I found myself dialing the tweeter down –2 dB at first, and –4 dB later. Even with the treble obviously muted, the tweeter performance was still strangely harsh. Over a short period of time I found this speaker to be just too fatiguing to get accurate mixes over the long haul. In a side by side comparison with the Event 20/20 bas (the nearest competitor, pricewise), the Truths were more harsh on all program material we listened to.

Even with the tweeter turned so far down, listening to vocal-rich material revealed that vocals seemed to move too far forward in the mix, particularly with female vocalists. My unproven assumption is that an anomaly in the crossover was accentuating the vocal harmonics, since it didn’t sound as though the speakers had too much midrange presence. At any rate, it might a bit difficult to judge relative vocal balance on some vocalists. Your mileage may vary.

All things considered, Behringer’s first foray into the nearfield market is a decent move. I would have liked a smoother midrange and more accurate bass performance. In the end, I did not think that the Behringers low price justified their sound quality. Spend a little more money, and get a lot more speaker.

Dynaudio BM6A

Our ScoreA+
Imaging10
Dynamic Performance10
Frequency Response10
High Volume9
Sound Quality10
Price / Performance6
Overall91 A-
Websitehttp://www.dynaudioacoustics.dk/

The Dynaudio BM6A is a biamplified nearfield with a 7” woofer and a 1” silk dome tweeter. The speaker is the only one of the bunch to offer a rear-mounted port. The system enjoys a reputation has having excellent transient response, and excellent imaging, resulting primarily from the unusual and rather amazing woofer – this little 7” woofer sports a huge 3” voice coil and a powerful magnet, giving it a powerful electromagnetic engine.

These were one of the most expensive speakers in our lineup – and also my favorite. The Dynaudio BM6As were just lovely. They offered a surprising amount of bass for a speaker their size, and the accuracy and transient response of the speakers and their amp was just amazing. They just sound fantastic.

Listening to Pat Benatar’s “True Love” revealed these speakers’ ability to pump out an impressive amount of bass. Now, these are not speakers that will fill up a large room with bass, or shake walls. But, in the proper position for nearfield listening, they offer a faceful of big bass, down to a respectable 45 Hz in my listening room. Listening to the lounge-techno sounds of the Supreme Beings of Leisure assured me that these speakers could go plenty deep. And the bass was unusually accurate – very clean with no audible distortion at all.

The openness and clarity of these speakers is likely to confuse engineers who are used to more conventional nearfields. These speakers do not suffer from the typical nearfield “stopped-up” sound of too much midbass and too little deep bass. Rather, they almost sound a little “empty” compared to other nearfields. I have had several other engineers remark that it can take a few mixes before one learns to use these speakers properly, and the midbass response is probably why. These are the anti-NS10s, and if you’re used to NS10s, prepare to take a little time and learn. The results are worth it.

I had a few complaints about the BM6A, however. With no EQ compensation, I found them to be a tad on the bright side, though not harsh. This is easily corrected by using the treble rolloff provided on the back of the cabinet. Also, I discovered that the speakers and their amp couldn’t achieve very high volumes gracefully, not surprising given the power/mass ratio of the woofer. Commercial studios that occasionally need to play at high volumes would need to keep a pair of large main speakers to augment the BM6As. Note that I am not talking about normal mixing levels, I’m talking about turning up LOUD. At anything like a normal mixing level, the BM6A will hang right there with you.

All things considered, the BM6A had me just amazed. In fact I trucked the pair over to ProRec’s resident curmudgeon Bruce Richardson. “If there’s a flaw in this speaker, Bruce will find it.” Bruce dialed up a mix of an orchestral recording with pipe organ that he recorded at Dallas’ Meyerson Center. The depth of field, detail, and excellent bass coincided right before our ears. Bruce was amazed. While the BM6A couldn’t reproduce the lowest notes of the pipe organ with the kind of air-shuddering authority that Bruce’s JBL mains had, you knew exactly how much bass was there. And the BM6As ability to project a soundfield simply has to be heard to be believed.

Event 20/20bas

Our ScoreB+
Imaging7
Dynamic Performance7
Frequency Response6
High Volume7
Sound Quality6.5
Price / Performance10
Overall81 B-
Websitehttp://www.event1.com

For three years the Event 20/20 bas has been widely praised as a bargain in monitoring excellence. The 20/20 bas includes an 8” polypropylene woofer and a 1” silk dome tweeter driven by a 130 watt bass and 70 watt treble amplifier. The reinforced cabinet is a ported design with a single, large port in the front baffle. The tweeter is flush-mounted with the cabinet, one of the few speakers in our comparison that does not have a treble waveguide.

Rear controls include individual low and high frequency trim controls and a power switch. The controls are fully variable (not switches) and offer boosts and cuts from +3 dB to –3 dB. At first glance I thought, “finally, a continuously variable trim control.” In reality, though, it’s hard to tell exactly where each knob is set, making it difficult to match the two monitors if desired. For our tests we left the knob in its “flat” position.

First impressions are favorable with this speaker. They offer a decent amount of bass, reasonably flat response, good imaging, and clear treble. And they’ll play loud!

More detailed listening did reveal some flaws, however. With certain material the bass response can appear somewhat tubby, sounding a little hollowed-out. The result is that mixes tend to take on a compensatory effect: muddy. I would guess that some 20/20 bas users may struggle with muddy mixes.

Also, after some time in front of the 20/20 bas, I started to notice some listening fatigue. I was unable to alleviate the problem with the speaker’s high-frequency trim control. Tweaking on the console’s midrange control I discovered that a narrow cut near 1500 Hz really helped me listen to the speakers. While it wasn’t immediately obvious that the 20/20s had a “hot” upper midrange, it did eventually become obvious.

In the end, though, I liked the 20/20 bas, given the unit’s particularly low price. In fact you can buy a pair of 20/20 bas speakers for about half the price of most of the other speakers in our comparison. For example I found the sound quality of the 20/20 bas to be more or less comparable in quality to the Yamaha MSP10, and superior to the Roland DS-90, even though this system is considerably less expensive than either of those monitors.

If you are looking for a speaker in this class, and have limited funding, the 20/20 bas may just be your ticket.

Genelec 1031A

Our ScoreB-
Imaging9.5
Dynamic Performance10
Frequency Response10
High Volume10
Sound Quality10
Price / Performance3.5
Overall82 B-
Websitehttp://www.genelec.com

Probably the most popular biamplified nearfield in use in major production facilities, the Genelec 1031A has seen widespread acceptance in broadcast, video post, 5.1 mixing, and music production and mastering facilities (in fact all of the local post facilities I’ve worked in use Genelec 1031As). The 1031A offers an 8” polypropylene woofer and 1” metal dome tweeter housed in a computer-designed waveguide. Power is provided by a pair of 120 watt amplifiers.

Like most of the other contenders, the 1031A offers a number of equalization options, including a bass cut and bass and treble shelves. The bass cut offers cuts of –2 dB, -4 dB, -6 dB, and –8 dB at 40 Hz. The bass tilt offers shelves with 2, 4, and 8 dB cuts. The treble tilt offers +2, 0, -2, and –4 dB shelves. These shelves have very gentle slopes and are centered at approximately 1000 Hz providing the lowest possible coloration. The equalization options allow you to tailor the response of the 1031A to your control room and listening tastes.

Most engineers that use Genelecs swear by them, and for good reason. The quality of Genelec products has been consistently good, and the 1031A is no exception. All that quality comes at a price, and the Genelecs are by far the most expensive speakers in our shootout.

The 1031A was a great speaker, with the least apparent distortion of the bunch, overall good frequency response, and great detail. In fact, maybe too much detail. I found the 1031A a little fatiguing, with a bright sound that, over time, made me want to lower the treble content of mixes that I knew were not too bright. I have had this problem with Genelecs in other studios, and in my control room I got the best mixes with the treble tilt in the –2 dB position.

The 1031A also has ample power, among the most in our shootout, and will play loud. Woofer excursion at high volume was a little high, but not overmuch. If you’re mixing club music you might want to use the optional subwoofer to avoid overdriving the woofers in the 1031As. Other, less bass-heavy mixing applications won’t have a problem with the 1031A’s bass response. The only deficiency I found in the 1031A was the inability to fully reproduce the lowest notes in the Supreme Being’s “Last Girl on Earth” – notes which reach down below 60 Hz.

I wondered about the 1031A’s ability to reproduce bass cleanly, and was surprised at the overall clarity of bass notes as well as minimal port chuff and baffle vibration. The 1031A was a much better performer than I expected. And the 1031A provided excellent imaging, surpassed only by the Dynaudio BM6As. I was really pleased with the sound of the 1031A on sparser, more spacious recordings. They really let the detail in the mixes come forward.

The 1031A is an excellent speaker which deserves its reputation as an industry standard. However, I think some of the mystique comes from its luxury pricing. Let’s face it. These speakers are very good – but are they twice as good as the Dynaudio or Mackie offerings? No. While the Genelecs offer world-class sound, they are significantly overpriced, a factor which hurt their overall ratings.

JBL LSR28P

Our ScoreC
Imaging9

Dynamic Performance
8
Frequency Response8
High Volume8
Sound Quality8
Price / Performance5.5
Overall75 C
Websitehttp://www.jbl.com

The JBL LSR28P is a biamplified nearfield that has caught the attention of a number of respected professionals both for its sound as well as its technological innovations. The LSR28P features an 8” woofer and 1” metal dome tweeter in a somewhat oversized cabinet. In fact the LSR28P, the largest speaker we reviewed for this article, might be a little large to be considered a “nearfield.” Nevertheless, the folks I know who use them put them on their meter bridges, so I guess if they fit on a meter bridge, then they’re nearfields.

The most immediately apparent design aspect of the LSR28P is the carbon-fiber front baffle. JBL claims this rounded, rigid baffle helps to reduce resonances. Probably the next things you’d notice about the LSR28P are the unique elliptical port and tweeter waveguides. But the LSR28Ps most noteworthy design attribute would also be the last one you’d see, and that’s the Differential Drive woofer. This remarkable design features three voice coils: two which oppose each other and a third which acts as a magnetic brake at maximum cone excursion. The net result is a controlled, efficient woofer with high power handling and almost no cone overthrow even at irresponsibly high power levels.

Listening tests to the JBL LSR28 revealed a speaker that was instantly recognizable as a JBL. It is difficult for me to describe the “signature sound” of a JBL speaker but I can recognize their sound immediately. This is a good thing if you like mixing on JBLs and a bad thing if you do not.

I found the bass response of the LSR28 to be powerful and accurate, almost as plentiful as the Mackies but a little more “tight” sounding. Midrange response was classic JBL all the way: warm, rounded, and present-sounding, and just a little boxy. Imaging was barely acceptable – I felt at times that the sound was coming from the boxes, not from a well-defined soundfield.

What disappointed me was the lack of treble detail. These speakers just didn’t quite tell me everything I needed to know about the top end, and were capable of covering up the harsh sound of the Supreme Beings of Leisure’s “Last Girl on Earth”. In fact, Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature” didn’t sound all that crisp or trebly, two attributes I immediately apply to that song. I also heard some bass anomalies in the drums of Loreena McKinnett’s “Marco Polo” that weren’t there in any of the other monitors – not in the Genelecs, not in the Dynaudios, not in the Mackies. I’m inclined to suspect that it’s an issue with the speaker.

All things considered I was underwhelmed by the LSR28s. Again, this is an award-winning speaker that many top engineers swear by. Not me. However, if you prefer the classic JBL sound, then you’ll be right at home with this monitor.

KRK V8

Our ScoreF
Imaging4
Dynamic Performance4
Frequency Response3
High Volume10
Sound Quality4.5
Price / Performance4
Overall46 F
Websitehttp://www.krksys.com

The KRK V8 is a biamplified system with an 8” woofer and 1” silk dome tweeter. Probably the most remarkable attribute of this system is its unusual gold-colored woven Kevlar woofer cone. The system is ported with a long, narrow port that extends across the bottom of the cabinet. The cabinet has the typical KRK look with it’s stone-like Zolatone coating.

The system offers adjustable high-shelf and low cut EQ options. The high shelf centers above 1 KHz and offers only a minor +/- 1 dB boost or cut. The low cut switch adjusts the system’s subsonic filter and offers cuts at 45, 50, and 65 Hz. The factory default is 45 Hz. This allows you to match the V8 with most subwoofers, or to diminish the deep bass content based on your mixing preference. We would have preferred to see more flexible equalization options such as are found on the Genelec or Mackie systems. For our tests we left the speakers flat with the cutoff at its lowest position, 45 Hz.

Power is ample: the woofer is fed by a 130 watt amp, with a 90 watt amp driving the tweeter. KRK has opted not to include a peak limiter, claiming that by eliminating limiters and compressors the listener will receive a purer, more accurate sound. Possibly. However, if you abuse your nearfields like I occasionally abuse mine, then you might prefer a limiter.

I was very surprised to listen to the KRK V8 and discover a speaker quite lacking in bass and with a harsh, almost shrill treble response. The frequency response of this speaker is more on par with the Yamaha NS-10 than the other speakers in our comparison. The speaker was immediately fatiguing and difficult to listen to.

I thought that the speaker would probably fare better in other environments, but this was not the case. In the end I listened to two different pairs of V8s in four different rooms, and was thoroughly unimpressed. Trying to mix on the V8 had me constantly reaching to turn down the mids. It was almost painful. Even very well-mixed material like Loreena McKinnett’s “Book of Secrets” took on an edgy quality. And the bass response was virtually nonexistent. I have heard many people praise the V8’s bass response. All I can say is that they must have been listening to a very different speaker than the two pairs that I heard.

In the end I was very disappointed with the KRK V8. I know a few guys that I trust who love to mix on the V8s. I suppose they and I will have to agree to disagree. The KRK V8 was a no-go in my book.

Mackie HR824

Our ScoreA+
Imaging9.5
Dynamic Performance8
Frequency Response10
High Volume9.5
Sound Quality9.5
Price / Performance9
Overall98 A+
Websitehttp://www.mackie.com

The Mackie HR824 practically stole the show at the Winter 2000 NAMM, and for good reason. This biamped nearfield offers a unique design with its large passive radiator underneath the rear-mounted amp, high power output, and surprising bass response. In fact the usual reaction people have to the HR824 is “where’s the sub?”

The HR824 offers a 150 watt bass amplifier and 100 watt treble amplifier. The speaker components include a mineral-injected polypropylene woofer cone and 1” aluminum liquid-cooled tweeter. The tweeter is mounted into an 8” treble waveguide horn that allows the tweeter to be properly time-aligned with the woofer. The cabinet is rigid and internally braced.

Probably the most interesting thing about the HR824 is the 6×12” composite honeycomb passive radiator that more or less covers the entire back of the cabinet. The passive radiator is mounted underneath the amplifier, which means that you can’t see it or touch it. Unlike the conventionally ported speakers in our comparison, the woofer of the HR824 is quite damped. Not as tight as the woofer in a bass-reflex system, but much harder to rattle than the ported speakers. Result: we could play the Mackies louder, longer, with better control than any of the other speakers we tested. If you have a commercial studio that occasionally has to blow away hardcore rock and rollers (as we do) then you’ll appreciate the ability to crank out the volume.

And how about that bass? The HR824 definitely wins the Mo Bass award. In the right listening position, you’d just swear that there’s a sub somewhere. Unlike the ported models (most of which produced some port chuff at high bass levels) there is no audible distortion from the passive radiator. The bass goes lower, stays flatter, has less audible distortion than any of the other speakers we tested, and yet in a side-by-side comparison, does not sound hyped compared to other reference speakers like the Genelecs and the Dynaudios.

And yet, even with this strong bass performance, the Mackies were among the loudest and toughest of the bunch – handling serious abuse like high-gain spikes from a bass guitar or kick drum. The damped woofer – tighter than any other speaker in the lineup – is much more capable of handling all kinds of low frequency abuse. This design does come at the expense of transient response. The HR824s do not have the same fast, snappy bass response of the Dynaudios or the Genelecs.

Even though the HR824s will play very loud, I have found that I tended to listen and mix at a slightly lower volume with them. This is almost certainly due to the bass response which always conveys a sense of authority. Even at low volume the Mackies have a certain deep punch that lets you know just exactly where the low end is in relation to the mix. Over time I found the lower volume and overall sonics of the HR824 made them easy to listen to for long periods. These are not fatiguing speakers. Even after a grueling mixing session, I am still able to make reasonable decisions based on what I think I’m hearing. Good stuff for the working studio.

One feature I loved was the convenient power switch on the front of the cabinets. I found that it is very useful to just reach out and turn the speakers off when I am going to do something wacky with the mixer or when I have a live mic in the control room and want to put the speakers into “safety” mode. Unfortunately I learned that if you turn the power off, and hit the HR824 with a loud signal, they’ll POP on for a second. This is very bad when there’s a live mic in the control room: instant full-volume feedback. Here’s the deal: when the switch says “Off” I want it OFF!

In the end the Mackies were one of my favorite speakers of the bunch. They are just all-around great. From the moment I started mixing with them, my mixes were dead-on. There was no learning curve with these monitors at all. You just can’t beat that. I worked with them for a few weeks and knew they weren’t going to leave my control room. You are welcome to try to pry them from my cold dead fingers.

Roland DS-90

Our ScoreF
Imaging5

Dynamic Performance
4
Frequency Response4
High Volume4
Sound Quality4
Price / Performance5
Overall46 F
Websitehttp://www.rolandus.com

Roland has its own unique approach to the powered nearfield solution. The DS-90 is billed as a “digital monitor speaker”. The system features 24 bit D/A converters that allow the user to feed the speakers directly from the digital output of a digital mixer.

The DS-90 offers a 6½” woofer and a 1” silk dome tweeter. Power is provided by a 60 watt bass amplifier and 30 watt treble amplifier. The cabinet is ported with two small, round ports located below the woofer.

The smaller woofers and lower power output makes the DS-90 something of a bad fit for our article. However, since its price is comparable to the other speakers in our shootout, we thought buyers might think a comparison is in order. Also, since it offers an original take on the powered monitor phenomenon, we thought it was worthy of scrutiny.

The DS-90 is designed in particular to mate with the Roland VS-1680 and 880EX digital mixers. These mixers offer Roland’s COSM speaker modeling technology which supposedly will make the DS-90s sound like a number of popular monitors including Yamaha NS-10s and others. In theory, the DS-90s combined with a COSM-capable mixer will allow the engineer to hear their mixes on any number of reference-standard monitors.

Listening to the DS-90 we could tell that the speaker’s top end is a little harsh. Adjusting the high frequency contour helped a little but did not solve the problem. My first thought upon hearing these speakers was “listening fatigue.” These could be particularly tiring monitors to listen to exclusively.

Bass response was shy below 80 Hz, due to the speaker’s smallish woofer and underpowered amplifier. Very low frequencies were poorly rolled off resulting in excessive woofer excursion and severe port chuff. And the underpowered amplifiers were very easy to clip.

Midrange response was good. Vocals in particular shone, with decent imaging and a warm midrange. However the overall tonal balance was shifted to the mids and highs. One would need to be careful in order to avoid muddy mixes with the DS-90s.

So the overall sound was not great, but not horrible. Now what about the idea of a “digital monitor?”

The simple answer is that Roland just doesn’t get it. While the idea of a “digital speaker” might get everyone horny in the marketing department, the reality is that there is no benefit from placing D/A converters in the monitor and several drawbacks to this approach.

For one thing, nothing changes faster in the world of digital audio than sample rates and bit depth. These monitors will not support higher sample rates (such as the proposed 192 KHz DVD-A spec) or longer word lengths, or in fact any changes to the underlying digital technology. So when some new audio format comes along (as will soon happen), your speakers are not up to the challenge. It’s called Planned Obsolescence, and in this case, it’s blatant.

Then there’s the cable run. People who do not understand the problems of digital cabling are likely to look at the ability to run digitally “from DAW to speaker” as A Good Thing. Not at all. The upside is negligible – a good cable run can carry both +4 dBu analog and S/PDIF digital signals with virtually no distortion. The downside, however, is clear – any cabling problems or interference will manifest themselves more prominently in a digital environment, where distortion is not tolerated. As a rule, analog cabling can handle problems much more gracefully than digital.

Moreover, are the digital converters in the DS-90 really special? No, chances are that most outboard converters will sound as good or better than the converters in the DS-90.

So, instead of using the D/A converters you already own, you’ll purchase another pair that you don’t need as part of your DS-90 purchase. In the process you’ll waste valuable money that could have been better spent on any of the other, better sounding, higher-powered speakers in our shootout. Hey, here’s an idea: save your money and buy a better sounding speaker in the process.

Lest I sound like I’m picking on Roland exclusively, note that Genelec has now started to sell speakers with built-in converters. Unfortunately we were not able to test these speakers in our review. However the same issues apply: converters in the monitor are simply a bad idea. Just say no. Hell No!

Since Roland is also wildly promoting their COSM speaker modeling technology, we thought we’d take a close listen to that technology as part of this review. Note that the DS-90s do not include COSM – it is included in the VS-1680 and 880EX multitrack recorders.

I really did not find any benefit to mixing with COSM. The fact is that, like modern “microphone modelers”, speaker modelers cannot truly reproduce the sound of the speakers they attempt to model. COSM cannot remove the port chuff of the DS-90’s ports to make it sound like a Mackie, cannot realign the tweeter to make the DS-90 sound like a Tannoy, cannot cause the DS-90 to reproduce 18 Hz bass like a Bag End subwoofer, cannot shoot sound all around the room like a Bose 901. COSM is a nifty effect and nothing more.

I believe that, even if the technology really worked well, the vast majority of skilled engineers would still prefer to mix on a single pair of well-known reference monitors instead. I know I would. So, even if you have a Roland COSM-equipped mixer, don’t buy into the hype by buying these speakers. As we say in Texas, “That dog don’t hunt.”

The final word? Forget it. Roland’s DS-90s are the New Coke of the audio world.

Tannoy 800A

Our ScoreD+
Imaging9
Dynamic Performance7
Frequency Response7
High Volume7
Sound Quality7
Price / Performance5.5
Overall68 D+
Websitehttp://www.tannoy.com

The Tannoy 800A is a biamplified system featuring Tannoy’s “dual concentric” speaker design which places the tweeter in the center of the woofer’s voice coil. The philosophy is that the identical bass and treble point sources reduce phase coherence and time alignment problems present in conventional designs. In a sense the woofer performs a function similar to the waveguide horns found on other systems.

The cabinet is a ported design with a pair of smallish round ports in the front baffle. The 800A is driven by a pair of 90 watt amplifiers, making it the lowest-power monitor in our roundup. The 800A is also the smallest and lightest speaker of the bunch, but only by a small margin.

The 800A features the usual complement of controls: input trim, low and high frequency contour switches, and a power switch. All of the controls are on the back of the unit. No bass cut switch is provided, so if you want to use the 800A with a subwoofer you’ll need some other way of crossing over to the sub.

Much has been written about Tannoy’s concentric-speaker approach both pro and con. On the pro side, advocates of the design claim accurate time alignment as well as improved imaging resulting from the point source. On the con side, detractors claim treble distortion at higher volumes due to the compression effect of the woofer as well as the distortion caused by using, in essence, a vibrating tweeter horn.

I find a little truth in both camps. I do think that Tannoy’s speakers, including the 800A, offer good imaging. A recording containing good imaging information does seem to have a little more space on the 800As. On the other hand I am confident that I can hear treble distortion when playing back bass-heavy recordings that get the woofer hopping. In particular, modern music containing heavy sub-bass information was clearly distorted. Even Loreena McKennitt’s “Marco Polo” exhibited treble distortion from the bass content, which is rich but not overbearing.

In the end, the cons outweigh the pros for me. To me, a spectrally-balanced, low distortion sound is the most important attribute I look for in a monitor, and at least at high volumes, the 800A doesn’t do it for me. The midrange is always good, but when faced with heavy bass content, the treble response of the 800A starts to break up perceptively. And though the imaging was good, it wasn’t the best of the bunch. Moreover, the bass performance of the 800A is definitely inferior to that of the Dynaudios, Mackies and Genelecs.

In the end you will have to decide on the Tannoys. If you like the “Tannoy sound” then perhaps the 800A is just the ticket. For me, I found them to be less than I expected.

Yamaha MSP10

Our ScoreC
Imaging8
Dynamic Performance8
Frequency Response7
High Volume7
Sound Quality7
Price / Performance7
Overall74 C
Websitehttp://www.yamaha.com

The Yamaha MSP10 is a biamped nearfield featuring an 8-inch woofer and aluminum dome tweeter mounted in an 8-inch waveguide horn. The speaker is ported with two round ports on either side of the tweeter.

Listening to the MSP10s immediately made me think of NS10s. Like other Yamaha speakers, the MSP10s offer a prominent midrange – not nearly so harsh as the NS10, but definitely out in front. If you like mixing on NS10s, then the MSP10 is going to be right up your alley. They have that hot-midrange sound prevalent in all of Yamaha’s speakers.

The MSP10s have a great midrange and top end, but do not offer the earth-moving bass of the Mackies. The bass response of the MSP10s seems to start sloping off just a little at about 80 Hz, and is definitely rolled off pretty good by 55 Hz.

For speakers with average bass response, though, the MSP10s seem to have more-than-expected woofer excursion issues. I was able to rattle the woofers of the MSP10s with program material that didn’t trouble the other speakers. And as I listened to the sub bass on the Supreme Beings CD, I noticed some serious amplifier issues with high bass levels. When presented with deep bass at a loud (but not unreasonable) level, the woofer “pushed” out hard as though faced with DC – a sign of an amplifier behaving badly – even though the amplifier clip indicators never lit. Surprised, I tested bass-heavy CDs on a different pair of MSP10s, and was able to reproduce this behavior every time.

When I saw this issue it was a dealbreaker for me. When a company integrates amplifiers into its speakers, the amps had better be good ones. Not these.

Finally, the MSP10s have ports tuned such that they produce extremely focused puffs of air at high velocity. Why do I mention that? Because – and I’m not kidding here – at high bass levels these ports produce blasts of air that will literally part your hair at a distance of four or five feet. Trust me, the constant puffing of air in your face will really drive you nuts. Do not underestimate how annoying this can be. Think Chinese Water Torture. Imagine feeling it every time you mix for the next few years. Get the idea?

I did have the opportunity to audition the MSP10s with their matched subwoofer, the SW10. The SW10 is a 10 inch front-firing ported woofer with a built in power amp. The SW10 does extend the bass response of the MSP10s, but like many subs it lacks the definition and sense of balance that you get with a two-piece system with equivalent response.

At high bass levels, the MSP10s produced a substantial amount of port chuff, exceeded only by the Behringer Truths. I hoped that the chuff and other bass response issues would be solved when the SW10 was added into the equation. Only a little: the SW10 also exhibited excursion and port chuff issues. And the SW10 did not go as deep as I would have hoped that a powered subwoofer would. While the performance did improve, I was never able to get the quantity or quality of bass present in the Genelecs and the Mackies.

And the MSP10s are no bargain. At $1200 for a pair (street prices), plus $600 for the sub, you’re just under $2000 by the time you get the three piece system.

Final Words

First, the obvious: NS10, May You Rest In Peace. Now that Yamaha no longer makes the NS10, and now that so many new, great alternatives abound, I think we’ve finally seen the beginning of the end of that speaker. For me, that’s just fine. I like the NS10, but there are much better speakers out there. It’s time to move on.

Secondly, these are some great speakers. I was quite impressed with the overall quality present in the lineup. Computer-aided design has improved the quality of speakers more than any other aspect of recording technology. Probably half of these speakers were among the best sounding speakers I’ve ever heard (and as a recovering audiophile, I’ve heard quite a few esoteric speaks in the last 20 years).

Thirdly, can we just close the books on the concept of digital speakers? This is a bad idea whose time will never come. While we’re at it, let’s close the books on the idea of speaker modeling. Speaker cabinet modeling is a great effect when you’re recording an electric guitar, but it has no place in pro audio mixing.

In summary, I can categorize the monitors I listened to into three distinct groups:

Rips Picks

1.Dynaudio BM6A: outrageous accuracy, excellent frequency response, superb imaging, shockingly petite, utterly impressive. Premium priced.
2.Genelec 1031A: industry standards for a reason. Excellent overall performance. Exorbitantly priced.
3.Mackie HR824: great sound, balanced frequency response, high power, the most robust low bass performance in the group. Aggressively priced.

Worthy of Your Time

1.JBL LSR28: usable sound but did not meet my expectations. Maybe you’ll like them better than I did. JBL fans be sure to check these out.
2.Event 20/20 bas: the price / performance champion. If you can’t afford the other speakers in this comparison, you can at least get the job done with these. Better than some speakers at twice their price.
3.Behringer Truth: slightly unrefined but a strong price/performance contender.

Don’t Go There

1.Tannoy 800A: underpowered, substandard bass response and midrange / treble distortion.
2.Yamaha MSP10: poor amplifiers, insufficient bass, and aggressive treble. Not horrible but not worth the price. You can do better.
3.Roland DS-90: digital speakers – a complete misapplication of your money. Send a message: buy something else.
4.KRK V8: personally, the biggest disappointment of the bunch. The best thing I can say for them is that they’ll play real loud.

Needless to say, a number of our readers who own speakers in our Don’t Go There category will be offended that I didn’t love your prized pair of monitors. The best I can do is call ‘em like I hear ‘em. Hopefully this article will help you find the monitors you need to get the best mixes you can get. Either way, if you have used any of these monitors, be sure to write in and let us know what you think.

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