Recalibrating expectations – All about the new Monitor Audio Studio loudspeaker system.
At the start of February, Monitor Audio entrusted me with a pre-release pair of their new Studio speakers. I’d had no idea these were coming and so have been able to listen without preconceptions. They are quite unlike anything else I’ve heard from Monitor Audio – yet they couldn’t have been built by anyone else.
The Studio is a very forward looking 21st century design. Sleek in frontal profile but unusually deep, my pair is finished in an architectural white satin with matching stands (there are also grey and black options). They are aesthetically uncompromising – minimalist, with no grille to cover the main speakers.
It is suggested that the design brief was to create a powerful yet elegant premium loudspeaker that would grace any setting – I think the design team have gone well beyond this, and produced a system that will say much about the owners desire for something utterly distinctive, both in form and performance. They will be a centre of attention for all the right reasons. These are a compact speaker, able to be placed on shelves or stand mounted with optimal placement out from the rear wall.
For our own home, the look is just perfect.
The first major departure from almost all other Monitor Audio models is the D’Appolito configuration. The only other model in the Monitor Audio stable to use this is the flagship model in the Monitor Audio line up – the massive 1.85m high, 100kg PL-500-II, a 7 driver statement of power and refinement, centred around what appear to be the same components.
When questioned on the design of the PL-500-IIs, Monitor Audio’s chief designer – Dean Hartley – states ‘the dual-mid (M-T-M) arrangement (aka D’Appolito) gives the new PL500 an incredible amount of focus and precise imaging, compared to the PL300, for example. This is related to the PL500’s different dispersion pattern and also its significantly lower distortion profile‘. (credit – the Absolute Sound) . We can take it that, at least in part, the same applies to the Studio, especially when making the comparison to any conventionally designed speaker system.
Flagship models do come with caveats – size, cost and the inevitability of having to specify matching components of the same calibre in order achieve the promised performance.
The Studio is a way to not only have the essence of the ultimate model, but to have it fit in with your life, in practical, aesthetic and financial terms. But we already know that the Studio is a model in it’s own right and the PL-500-II is the starting point – not the end.
The name ‘Studio’ does have some history and connotations – Monitor Audio have previously released premium models with this designation, but nothing that looks remotely like these. The compact size also suggests a role as a recording studio monitor but on the whole these tend to be active models with in-built amplification. But for now, we discuss the model on hand.
Monitor Audio tell us that the shape and configuration has been designed with the sole intention of delivering to most faithful sound reproduction possible – the ultra slim frontal profile and has obvious benefits and the unusual depth provides greater cabinet volume which delivers more bass and efficiency than would otherwise be possible.
The use of two smaller bass drivers also has benefits in terms of speed, resolution and power handing – a small lighter cone can move faster, two voice coil/motor systems give greater control and efficiency. The drivers are mounted in a rigid die cast aluminium sub baffle – this gives a level of precision and mechanical integrity to the frontal assembly that would not be possible if attaching directly to a wood composite cabinet.
It’s important to understand that the drivers in this speaker are unique to Monitor Audio – they design and build everything as a system. The cones are made from a composite ‘sandwich’ structure made from ultra thin low mass skins with a central honey comb core. The front skin is Monitor Audio’s proprietary ‘C-Cam’ – a ceramic coated aluminium magnesium alloy. The rear skin is a woven carbon fibre material. This gives near ideal combination of rigidity, self damping, and light weight. Further to this the smoothly dished cone – with no dust cap – presents an absolutely clean frontal surface. The bass response has been extended over the similarly sized midrange drivers used in the PL-500-IIs.
At the rear of the cabinet you’ll find not one, but two slot loaded ports – top and bottom. This means we have symmetrical airflow from each driver improving accuracy. A thin slot gives better control over airflow than a conventional round port and the rifling (HIVE) keeps this linear and fast. The slots run deep into the cabinet. The result is faster, more controlled and deeper bass. As a side benefit this construction also helps brace the cabinet.
This high level of control allows shelf mounting although the unusual cabinet depth means you’ll want a little extra room to move and have around 20cm clearance.
There is a single set of precision engineered binding posts. I’m happy to see this rather than a bi-wire set. There is a clear message here to use better quality speaker cable and that Monitor Audio have really gone to town on the crossover design. Every part of the design is aimed at a more coherent and seamless response from the speaker as whole.
As with many high end compact speakers, the matching stands are an integral part of the overall performance – the Studio stand is a bespoke design – an almost skeletal die cast alloy base, box section extruded column which I’d suggest should be sand filled and top plate on which the speaker is directly attached. The 4 feet are an indulgent bit of engineering that could only happen with a premium speaker – having a polished concrete floor we removed the spikes so the rubber feet were able to provide stability. Speaker cables can be hidden in the channel found at the back of the column.
From the outset we loved this speaker – as much as we’ve been impressed by the larger floor standing Silver 6G 300s, there was an immediate lift in resolution, speed and space when moving to the newer, smaller model.
The Platinum-II ribbon tweeter is at the heart of this – this advanced transducer has a whole series of technical advantages over a conventional unit – low mass, lower inertia, and larger radiating surface area (eight times the area of a typical dome tweeter), which together produce transient response that’s more similar to an electrostatic driver than to a dynamic design. The MPD (Micro Pleated Driver) has a pair of neodymium/iron/boron magnets front and rear to reduce distortion, provide greater uniformity of response, and increase efficiency; the micro-pleated diaphragm only needs to move one-eighth of the distance of your average dome tweeter to produce the same output. Read more detail here.
What this gives in real life is a remarkably smooth and extended sound – the high frequencies are almost silky in texture and the clarity is really as good as I have ever heard – vocals sound more natural and relaxed yet there is an obvious improvement in the way transients are handled. I’ve had the same experience when first hearing the better Dynavector moving coil cartridges and Stax Electrostatic earspeakers. The extension of high frequencies isn’t about producing a bright sound – it’s reducing distortion, artificial ringing and noise.
Outside of the cost, the critical design issue with a speaker using a ribbon tweeter is the integration with the midrange and lower frequencies – the discontinuity produced by the differing operating principles and (in most cases) materials used means that a ribbon can have a ‘look-at-me’ character and you end up listening to the speaker rather than the music.
Monitor Audio have made huge strides with their recent generational changes to established speaker ranges. The defining characteristic of the new Silver 6G series is the way in which the drivers work together to create a seamless whole. Having the dome tweeter formed out of the same coated alloy as the mid and bass divers plays a big part in this but with the Studio, the challenge is greater.
As we’ve already pointed out, the construction of the cones in the Studio midrange/bass drivers is an elaborate sandwich of alloy, Nomex honeycomb and carbon fibre, while the ribbon is a very thin section of finely pleated alloy, so how do we best manage the transition between the two related but distinct elements?
The use of two smaller bass drivers rather than a single unit (such as in the PL-100-II stand mount model) allows the crossover point to be higher than it would otherwise which again feeds into the goal of making the transition from a dynamic cone to the ribbon, precise and controlled.
One part of the specification of the Studio that did jump out at me was the upper frequency -6dB point being at 60kHz rather than 100kHz for the models in the Platinum range, despite what looks to be an identical ribbon driver. I suspect that this is a conscious design choice to keep the overall sound of the speaker system in balance. Because the bass doesn’t stand out in the way it would for a large floor standing model, to have a same high end response as say the PL-300-IIs, would make the Studio’s sound overly bright in character. This will probably be adjusted at the crossover, but the mechanical virtues of the Platinum ribbon should all still be intact – the speed and audible resolution unchanged.
The ribbon in the Gold series worked to the same frequency level but everything I hear tells me the better micro pleat unit does sound appreciably better, so it’s clear that Monitor Audio intended the Studio to be a true no compromise model.
Not surprisingly, the deep rich bass that we’d become used to with the Silver 300s disappeared, but in part this was always expected with not just the smaller size, but the need to have the speakers run in. The movement of the two bass mid drivers appeared to be very constrained at first so I was never going to judge this aspect of the Studio on first listen – we don’t have any run-in routine so just played music as normal and got to enjoy the rapid evolution of the sound.
With time and digital source material, the Studios became agile and free flowing in the bass. Percussion is a particular strong point with some real snap and attack. But it when we changed over to analogue, the contrast between the two formats was laid bare in a way I haven’t heard for a while. The comparison has to be held in the context of going from a relatively low cost digital source and standard definition (CD level) to a Well Tempered record playing system which I’ve put a lot of work into optimising. So I’m not trying to tell you one format is better than the other.
What we are saying is that when fed a higher quality signal, the Studios make this obvious in a way that most speakers obscure. As an example the gothy electronica of local band élan vital went from a good way to run the Studios in as download, to something with a real snarl on vinyl.
While the Studios have a provisional power rating of 120 watts, from the outset we fed them with the 200 watt Nuprime IDA-16. The Studios are a more demanding speaker than any of the Silver 6G series, with specified impedance dropping to slightly below 4 ohms and and sensitivity at 86dB. The combination of (likely) paralleled bass drivers and a ribbon tweeter are always going to present a challenging load although careful crossover design can compensate in part. Combine this with their high resolution and it is clear that your matching amplifier choice should be at a level suitable for the Studios. That said I strongly suspect the lushness of a better quality tube amplifier would pair well with the almost panel like qualities these speakers exhibit.
While the lowish sensitivity means the Studio will be happier with better quality and higher power amplifiers, a side benefit is greatly reduced susceptibility to system noise – that background hiss or hum that really shouldn’t be there but is often a products of outside interference, either mains or airborne.
But I remain a bit of a sold state guy and so relish the ability of the Studio to absorb some serious wattage – while two bass/mids do lower impedance, they also distribute the power handling between two motor systems in a way that the conventional two way system can’t. The almost resistive nature of the slotted ports and highly controlled bass divers means there is no flapping of drivers even when running at high levels. There is a striking linearity in the performance of the Studio – the character of sound remains consistent regardless of volume level – the open soundstage, speed and control evident from the outset remain as key attributes.
What does change with higher levels of volume applied is the way the sound carries in the room. As you’d expect from the ‘Studio’ designation, listening in an optimal position in an almost near field setting makes the most of the compact size of this speaker and tight coherence delivered by the driver layout. But when listening in a larger room, a little extra volume makes the sound really carry with exceptional clarity. Rather than a wash of sound from a distance you get clear transmission of vocal and instrumental lines.
There is no overhang in the bass, or added presence in the midrange – this could be disconcerting to someone expecting a ‘big speaker sound’ with heavy wall penetrating bass. There are plenty of other speakers that will do this but very few that can compete with the Studio in terms of accuracy. Conversely there are many speakers systems with higher efficiency and an extra push in the top end that sound exciting but with colourations selectively enhance some parts of the music at the expense of others.
After a couple of weeks of listening, the evolution of the Studio with run in was subtle but worthwhile. Rather than an extension of performance at the frequency extremes that we often find, it was in the area of midrange clarity that really demanded my attention – there was just more and more coming through with vocals, leading edges of percussion, and individual threads of instrumentation being presented with increasing definition in an expanding soundstage that extended well past the outside edge of the cabinets.
Under Carolijn’s influence I’ve been spending more time in the Dunedin Public Art Galley – in a recent exhibition we were struck by the difference between some older paintings that had been restored and cleaned over those that had an obvious patina of age. Paint can fade, the contamination of accumulated years of smoke and atmosphere exposure forms a layer that dulls the vibrancy that would have been apparent when the painting was first presented. Do we want to observe something as an historical object, or to see what the artist originally painted and intended us to react to?
The Studio’s deliver us that original unvarnished performance with vibrancy and detail. By stripping away layers of resonance and distortion, and focusing on detail right down to the finest levels, you get not just the picture, but real texture. With these attributes comes an ability to achieve a focus not otherwise possible. Peter Walker of Quad commented that an amplifiers volume control should be thought of as a focus adjustment, comparable with a microscope. The Studio makes this point of focus much more obvious. And while the can run loud, there often isn’t the need to do this to achieve the most involving result.
While we are discussing volume levels it should be noted that hearing loss is something many people experiencing and worried about – it’s usually caused by both ageing and earlier damaging noise exposure. It can be used as and unthinking reason not to invest in better quality audio – but the exact opposite is the case.
A quality audio system provides you with clearer more intelligible sound, it reveals swathes of detail previously lost in transmission or obscured under colourations and distortions. I’ve joked about this with clients before but we really do sell hearing aids. And unlike the in ear models which can only work with the sound that arrives at the ear, we address the issue at source and in the room.
The Monitor Studio speaker works on several different levels. As I’ve pointed out, they don’t have to be played at high volumes to sound great.
Next – these speakers are superlative in delivering detail – the purity and clarity of sound enables anyone to hear much that was previously obscured. Even if your hearing isn’t what it used to be, well known recordings are renewed. In fact, for many of the albums I’ve been listening to to evaluate the Studios there are layers that I’ve never heard on any system regardless of cost.
The tight control of the bass with the Studio delivers a level of definition in this part of the music is in keeping with the transparency further up the frequency range. The bass is there when it should be but never becomes intrusive. It’s fast and steps along with immediacy.
I can see the new Monitor Audio Studio appealing to two distinct types of listener – as a compact piece of modern design and state of the art technology, the Studio is perfectly suited the younger music enthusiast who wants something special that will bring life to smaller spaces. The speed and attack opens out digital and the taunt bass keeps things civil in shared environments. These are speakers that will perform at progressively higher levels as the system feeding into them improves over time – and I fully expect this to be a technology driven process.
By way of contrast, older listeners will find these speakers a revelation in clarity, renewing interest in a collection of music that can stretch back many decades – the similarities between the ribbon tweeter and electrostatic speaker designs is an obvious point of reference but the Studio delivers a greater dynamic range from a much more domestically friendly enclosure.
Over the period of listening to and writing about this speaker I had no idea of the actual price of the Studios – I’d drawn some inferences based on the Platinum-II derived drivers, the quality of construction and comparisons based on performance were against a variety speakers from both Monitor Audio and Sonus faber. Because we’d been so impressed at the outset, there was no hesitation in teaming the Studio’s up with our best electronics as they responded to every improvement made.
So let’s just say I was more than a little thrilled to find out that we’ll have these speakers for a lot less than expected – at NZ$2500 the pair they are going to really ruffle some feathers. I can see where some savings have been made – the cabinet design is minimalist and functional. The major components have already been developed for the Platinum series and so the sunk costs in this range have been recovered.
And Monitor Audio are smart – they know that by effectively underpricing the performance of these speakers they will get to sell a lot more than otherwise. While no compact $2500 speaker will ever be considered mass-market, I predict there will be an almost cult like following for this model – it does what it does so well that any alternative can sound wrong footed and boring by comparison.
While Monitor Audio’s own Silver 6G 200 floorstander at the same price is a five star best buy and brilliant all rounder with broad appeal, it’s the Studio that get’s my vote. The microscopic precision and detail, almost halucinogenic soundstaging and purity of purpose cleanse both my forelobes and ears.
The Monitor Audio Studio has recalibrated my expectation of how a compact speaker can perform – the resolution levels and clarity are the best I’ve heard and lay bare everything that is happening in the system. The integration between the metal cone bass/mid drivers and ribbon tweeter is seamless. The speed, control and pace are exemplary.
At their best in an almost near field situation fitted to their dedicated stands, with a wide spread and carefully adjusted toe in, the Studio’s project a holographic soundstage with uncanny accuracy and precision.
The performance delivered from the mid bass upwards is at the very least equal to that of Monitor Audio’s flagship PL-500-II from which the Studio is derived but this much more compact and affordable model is by far a better choice for smaller rooms and doesn’t require anything like the same investment in front end electronics to sing. The Studio is an insight into the values of Monitor Audio’s design team – it is a completely modern, forward looking speaker system that values performance above compromise and deserves to be partnered with electronics from like-minded designers.
Monitor Audio Studio NZ$2500 a pair – satin white, grey & black finish choice. Optional matching stands $995 a pair.