PAR Session Trial: Small Monitor/Subwoofer Systems feat. Dynaudio, Focal, Genelec, K+H (Neumann) and KRK - ProSoundNetwork.com

PAR Session Trial: Small Monitor/Subwoofer Systems feat. Dynaudio, Focal, Genelec, K+H (Neumann) and KRK

Here, we examine and employ five active monitoring systems — each with six-inch or smaller woofers and a complimentary subwoofer — in a gamut of mixing and listening tests to find substantive differences in performance for one man’s real world, professional application.
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Featuring Dynaudio Acoustics BM5A & BM9S, Focal Professional CMS50 & Sub6, Genelec 8020A & 7050B, Klein + Hummel O110 & O810, and KRK Systems VXT4 & KRK10S

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By Rob Tavaglione

For this, Pro Audio Review's third installment in our Session Trial review series, we examine and employ five active monitoring systems — each with six-inch or smaller woofers and a complimentary subwoofer — in a gamut of mixing and listening tests to find substantive differences in performance for one man’s real world, professional application. Already proven performers, each of these five contenders were previously reviewed and notably endorsed by PAR reviewers.

In “phase one” of our most set-up intensive Session Trial to date, each small monitor/subwoofer system was set up for evaluation in my rather large control room room (approximately 22’ deep X 19’ wide, acoustically treated via absorption, diffusion, and bass trapping), within a five-foot equilateral triangle from my listening position at exactly ear height, with Auralex MoPAD Monitor Isolation Pads to provide decoupling from the “meter bridge” shelf, part of a Sound Construction & Supply Custom Console.

Each set of monitors provided different controls for EQ, filtering, sensitivity, etc.; I kept these controls as close to neutral as possible, using them only when deemed absolutely necessary. As a longtime subwoofer user, I calibrated the subs and adjusted placement, polarity, phase and crossover frequency. Once each system was calibrated, I did some intensive listening to a variety of sources, then mixed a pop/rock song with male/female vocals and a dense arrangement — one mix of the same song per each of the five systems.

Below is what I discovered, in order of audition.

KRK Systems VXT4 & KRK10S

The pot-bellied shape and radiused edges of KRK’s flagship E8 model are present in the VXT4, mated with a four-inch woofer and a one-inch soft dome tweeter. The KRK10S subwoofer has a 10-inch driver and is absolutely necessary to get full bandwidth response from the system (just like all the systems tested here).

My first impression upon mixing was that the VXT4s have a nicely balanced sound, complimented by a rather thumpy sub with plenty of punch and output. The VXT4s employ both a clip indicator and a limiter; I engaged both and cranked up the volume, finding reasonable SPL before the limiter kicked in. No bass or treble adjustments are offered, so it was fortunate that the system naturally has a usable balance. Not so fortunate was the absence of phase adjustment on the sub; 180 degree polarity reversal was offered, but often a fine tweaking of phase allows for a smoother transition between the two-channel monitors and the sub, particularly across the crossover region.

My mix translated quite well to other environs, with no surprises way down low or up high, although my midrange instruments seemed slightly tucked due to the VXT4's ever-so-slightly forward mids.

Other complaints concerning the VXT4/KRK10S system are minor: no front panel power indicator on the sub, no rubber feet on the sub (it’s easy enough to slide around, and de-coupling may be needed in some apps), and the amps in the VXT4 get pretty hot (external heat sinks would be advisable). All in all, this KRK rig is a fine monitoring system and this Session Trial’s lowest priced competitor at $798 per pair, list (the KRK10S is $599 list).

Focal Professional CMS50 & Sub6

French manufacturer Focal Professional has been making waves lately, and obviously for good reason: this monitoring system simply sounds great. The CMS50 ($1,300 per pair, list) sported a five-inch woofer and an inverted tweeter made of aluminum/magnesium, which concerned me at first (as I'm a die-hard proponent of soft dome tweets). Well, I now stand corrected, as the highs on the CMS50s were quite trustworthy, seemingly flat, and non-fatiguing. The CMS50’s die-cast metal enclosure, rubber footings and front panel volume control are all nice features, but I particularly like its EQ options; I didn't use the high- or low-frequency shelf, but I did engage its “desktop EQ,” which inserts a notch at 160 Hz, compensating for desktop or meter bridge mounting.

Paired with the 11-inch driver of the Sub6 ($1,795 list), the Focal system is very easy to mix on, with unrestricted dynamics, ample SPL, a wide sweet spot, and a sense of “truthfulness” across the crucial mids. Though ease of mixing doesn’t indicate necessarily translatability, no problems here: my mix was spot on with nearly perfect balance top to bottom everywhere I double-checked. Thankfully, the subwoofer offered substantial power, continuous phase adjustment and polarity reversal, making it one of the top two subs tested here. Other than some poor English and questionable advice in the owner's manual, this Focal system approaches nearfield perfection (especially after engaging that desktop EQ, which prevented them from being just a tad murky).

Genelec 8020A & 7050B

The Genelec system was one of the smallest tested, with 3.5-inch woofers and an eight-inch subwoofer. Fully featured, the 8020A ($1,150 per pair, list) offer front panel volume adjustment, bass and treble controls, adjustable bass roll-off for tops and the subs (useful if you're close to a front wall in a small control room) and heavyweight metal enclosures.

Despite these controls, the Genelec system was starved for power compared to the others in my application [Perhaps the larger 8030A, which still meets the test criteria but has twice the power, would have allowed a more even comparison-Ed.]. In the end, neither the tops nor the sub could reach the levels I use for the “check for little details” loud pass that is part of my mix process. The 7050B sub ($1,395 list) offered great construction and numerous parameters, but those adjustments were found on dip switches, difficult to access and adjust when one is crawling underneath a console.

Despite these drawbacks, I was surprised to find that I did get a solid and well balanced mix from the Genelec system, one that translated nicely elsewhere.

Klein + Hummel O110 and O810

The K + H system immediately got my attention, based on features alone. Yes, the O110 tops are, by far, the most expensive tested here ($2,700 per pair, list), but they offer a four-position bass switch, four position mid switch, a built-in limiter, a one-inch titanium/fabric dome tweeter, and a 10-inch subwoofer that is over 25-inches deep (!) and loaded with controls.

My first impression when mixing was that the O110 has a slightly “crispy” top end that is absent in the other systems: it sounded very nice, but not necessarily flat. I found the mids to be very pleasant and quite articulated with excellent detail — but possibly slightly colored; again, I thought, “Are they flat?”

It is the O810 sub ($4,598 list) that excelled and deserves more study. Surely woofer diameter matters, but it appears that cabinet mass and volume do far more to determine depth of frequency response and general “thump-ability” of a subwoofer. No mere brute, the O810 also offers advanced features like 7.1 surround capability, four-position phase adjustment, four filters, remote control via CAT5, and remote powering (for systems with staged power switching).

With the K + H system, my mix offered no surprises. . I thought my mix was just a touch thin overall, although its accurate frequency response did allow me to fine-tune the bass elements for some fine separation and low-end clarity (and note differentiation).

Dynaudio Acoustics BM5A & BM9S

I have always been a fan of Dynaudio’s “smoother than silk” tweeters and their three-inch domed midrange driver (offering the “truest” mids I've heard), so I relished a chance to try out the BM5A ($1,250 per pair, list). Its 5.7-inch woofer is propelled by a hefty three-inch voice coil and is joined by a 1.1-inch soft dome tweet (a more modern waveguide would widen the sweet spot). A 10-inch magnesium silicate polymer woofer resides in the BM9S sub ($1,245 list). Ample EQ controls (LF shelf, HF shelf and mid cut), thermal protection, and limiters gave me cause for confidence when using the system, but the overall system didn't perform as well as the tops alone did.

I'm not a loud mixer — I usually hover around 85 to 90 dB at the sweet spot — but I had self-protection circuits going off constantly, with bass coming and going as the subwoofer cut off and turned back on again. This was compounded by the sub's inconsistent response: some notes boomed (some very low notes, oddly enough) while others ducked out. Flipping polarity didn’t help (phase adjustment is not provided) and the sub driver’s excessive excursion forced me to back off. Even though the sub lacked power, punch and clarity, daisy-chaining of multiple BM9s into a larger, scalable system is allowed (with controls on the master governing all slaves); this may be a viable way to get professional output from this system, as the BM5A itself is excellent.

The subsequent mix came out OK, but it didn't sound at all like I remembered it on other systems. Without the familiarity of multiple mix attempts bouncing around my memory, I doubt that I could have achieved useful results with this system.

Phase Two: The Big Room

I carted all five systems over to Studio A at Reflection Sound Studios for some additional testing. I wanted to try these systems in an environment open and large enough so as to hear them in a space closer to a “free field” — one that minimizes reflections and phase cancellations from nearby boundaries, and with minimal standing waves that can cloud bass response (the room is 30’ X 45’ and about 15’ in height). With all five systems set up simultaneously, I could make quicker comparisons that didn't rely so much on memory. A great idea, but this method would require five pairs of identical speaker stands to be effective. Thankfully, Argosy Console, Inc. stepped up and generously offered five sets of their Classic Series speaker stands to facilitate this test.

First, I calibrated each system using pink noise and sine wave test tones. Per speaker set, I created a six-foot equilateral triangle for each system (including myself as a point, in the center of a large circle of monitors), measured and balanced each pair’s output using a Radio Shack digital SPL meter (A-Weighted with slow response). I then tweaked polarity (and phase, when available) of each sub and got each sub’s output as closely matched as possible. I played back a number of popular modern CDs as a check for musicality and perceived balance and did some critical listening, resulting in some revealing observations.

The Dynaudio system was humbled by this large open environment, running out of steam playing a mastered pop mix. The sub sounded more pillowy than thumpy, and again, it struggled to stay audible before self-protection kicked in. Overall, the system had a distracting bump at roughly 200Hz that only benefited productions that were somewhat hollow down there.

The Genelec system was also undersized for such surroundings. A touch of top end hype was found here, but the subwoofer sounded punchier than in my control room. The sweet spot was a little narrower than the other systems. I concluded that the Genelec system is best suited for much smaller monitoring environments.

The KRK system maxed out at similar levels as the Genelec system. Certain program material revealed a touch of low-mid murkiness not revealed at my studio, but the top end proved to be adequate and un-hyped across all sound sources. The subwoofer seemed a little more “woofy” here than I remembered: too much 125 Hz and not enough 60 Hz, in my rough estimation.

The K + H system was the first to excel at Reflection Sound Studios, with another 3dB or so of output before the clip light engaged. The ultra-deep O810 sub got to show off its abilities with a perfect combination of punchy top-lows, musical and round mid-lows, and deep-lows that were extended without floppiness or distortion. Other than a little extra emphasis at 250 Hz, the K + H system portrayed a trueness, musicality, and definition in the lower regions that was clearly superior to all systems tested.

The Focal system also seemed to relish this demanding environment, reaching the loudest levels of any of the systems before maxing out. Overall system intelligibility was fantastic, with the flattest mids tested here and the widest sweet spot. I had to turn up the sub for my desired tastes, but the Sub6 met my needs with a sound a little less “poofy” than the K + H O810, and a little tighter response, with less resonance.

Summary

I'm hard pressed to pick an overall favorite here, as the Focal Professional CMS50 with Sub6 and Klein + Hummel O110 with O810 were clearly the top contenders as tested. However, I must give the nod to Focal for linear mids, a nice and non-fatiguing top, and resulting mixes that translated well everywhere. Yes, K + H would easily win a subwoofer award and the O110 with O810 system has a very musical and pleasant sound; I'm just not completely convinced they are truly neutral … and they are, after all, a lot more expensive than the Focal system. The KRK system would surely win a “best value” award; its performance easily clears the bar and their price is low for such an advanced design. The Genelec system sounded quite nice and created good mixes, but its low output make this particular small model suitable for only the most reserved mix engineers with smaller control rooms. The Dynaudio system had the top end and mids of a serious contender, but its consumer-ish subwoofer and low bass output overall had it struggling to keep up.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Wayne Jernigan for the generous use of his studio, Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte, NC (reflectionsound.com); Argosy Console, Inc. (argosyconsole.com) for providing five sets of speaker stands; and Phillip Morgan for helping me move around a small mountain of monitoring.

BIO: Rob Tavaglione has owned and operated Catalyst Recording in Charlotte, NC since 1995. He welcomes your questions and comments at rob@catalystrecording.com.

Test Equipment: Soundcraft Ghost console, MOTU Digital Performer 6.02 DAW, Radio Shack digital SPL meter, Mackie 1202 VLZ mixer, Ebtech Swizz Army 6-in-1 cable tester/test tone generator, Philips CD player.