I am on the hunt for new monitors for my home-studio and I’d like to share my experience during this process. In this article, we’ll discuss my process of picking new monitors and I’ll compare speakers from:
If you are interested in any of these names you should stick around.
Everything here should be taken with a pinch of salt as this is my own opinion based on what my ears have heard. Shop with your ears, NOT with your eyes!
A little history on what I’ve worked on by now.
On the picture below you can see 3 of the 4 monitor speaker pairs that we are using in The Friary Studios. All 3 of them have similar sound properties and are carefully picked to match their sound.
Yamaha NS10 (400£/pair)
Starting at the far left we have the classic Yamaha NS10s and there’s not much to say about them. The NS10s are probably the most recognizable speakers seen on almost every desk in the past few decades. They have great representation in the mid-range, suitable for rock and pop. Most importantly producers find their sound to be very familiar as much of today’s music has been and still is mixed on them.
Dynaudio DM15A (2,200£/pair)
Going a step further on the right we are using the Dynaudio DM15A placed side by side the NS10s on the 48-channel SSL. In complete honesty I am not very familiar with them as I only had the chance to hear them on a couple of occasions. In one mixing session, I was properly introduced to their sound, as I was assisting Barny Barnicott (producer/ Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay, Placebo). They have clean mid-range and surprisingly tight low-end. I think they are very natural-sounding.
Zooming out even further on the right you are watching at the Munro M4s custom 4-way monitor speakers. We bought them straight from The Red Room of Miloco. These 20-year old heavy beasts (200 kilos each) have mixed quite a few UK #1 albums including Lana Del Ray, as well as Oasis and most of the Chemical Brothers albums. The speakers sound like NS10s on steroids. Super loud and powerful in the mid-range, yet very controlled and tight low-end, with a clean sound even in very loud levels.
If anyone is wondering why we have picked exactly those 3 sets of monitors for the control room I’ll just quote Barny from a conversation we had the other day. He made a very good point which I hadn’t thought about much before and which I believe is quite often overlooked in studios even from the highest range.
“There’s nothing worse than going in a top studio, switching between the different monitors and hearing worlds apart.”
– Barny Barnicott
Picking monitors with a similar sound are crucial for the artist to understand how his music actually sounds. Switching between monitors with totally different sound properties can create more chaos and confusion than you can think of. It’s like going to a high-end mastering studio and checking out your final masters on speakers that cost more than your new BMW. Speakers that look like the next generation plasma-powered jet engines from DARPA, which you will never even see outside that studio. Then you go home, play the masters through your cheap hi-fi system and your smile dies instantly.
Focal Twin6 (3,000£/$4000 pair)
Back to The Friary Studios as a final set of monitors we have the Focal Twin6 set up in a temporary control room, while the mixing room is being built. They are spectacular speakers in the mid-price-range but rise mixed feelings in different producers and mixers. Some people swear by them while others have no remorse in trashing them. I personally like them as they have a clean high-end and nice bite in the mid-range. From time to time I do feel like the top-end can be a bit metallic, but that’s probably me not being used to them.
Now the time has come to upgrade the dreadful KRKs in my home/bedroom studio, so my morning mixes can become more efficient and enjoyable. The Rokit 5s are indeed a decent entry level from the low price-range of monitors, but the time has come to upgrade them to the mid-price-range of speakers with names such as Adam, Genelec, and Dynaudio.
Aside from speaking to some producers and watching a bunch of opinionated videos on YouTube, I decided to go to RedDog Music London and compare with my ears. I bought a familiar track with me that to play on my top picks and see if I’ll find a match.
I guess picking a new set of monitors is as is or even more intimate and intense than trying to find your next wife on Tinder. Imagine going on a blind date with a girl you’ve seen only on pictures in Sound On Sound. You’re in a restaurant full of other girls all wired up for you and you have to pick your bride and bend the knee at the end of the night. You have to consider how tolerant you will be to her shouting at you 10h a day and at what point you will get ear fatigue. No matter what promises you hear from her, you know most of it is unrealistic and untrue. The moment she steps in your room and you give her 24-48h of pink noise to burn out the tweeters, she will show her true colors and will behave differently. Now you have to learn to understand and love her as well as count on her making your living for the next good 5 to 10 years… It’s a hard choice to make.
So I got myself dressed up and went to my date early in the day while my ears were still fresh.
[RedDog London monitor testing room]
Genelec 840 (1,600£/pair)
At first, I was really impressed by their sound. All my favorite records had a lot more presence and bite. I compared them to some other monitors and tried to figure out why they sounded so different. The other monitors sounded like they almost have a minor scoop in the higher mids. After I checked out my own mixes I figured out what was the problem. I was listening to a very sophisticated hi-fi system. No disrespect to anyone using the 840s for mixing, but their response didn’t seem that flat nor that uncolored. They had a slight boost in the mids with a certain almost metallic airiness in the sharp higher- mids. The top end didn’t seem realistic as well. Don’t get me wrong – I loved how they sound as a hi-fi system, but I wouldn’t mix on them.
These bad boys compared back-to-back with the 840s had a much smoother and harsh-less high-end, which I guess is to be blamed on Adam’s unique Ribbon tweeters that can produce frequencies beyond what the
human ear is capable of comprehending (50 kHz). I felt like they sounded a bit cleaner and were lacking the coloration of the 840s.
For those of you wondering, the A77Xs are not just double A7Xs. They are indeed a 3-way system. Both 7-inch cones share the load from 38 Hz to 400 Hz. At that point, one of them fades out whilst the other one goes on as far as 3 kHz. That as Adam claims prevents frequency cancellation in the most crucial range – the mids. I guess the reason their low end sounded so tight is precisely because both of the cones work together in that range.
Now I know the 840s are a 2-way system while the A77Xs are a 3-way system, but they do compete in the same price range, so I believe the comparison is fair.
Focal Shape 65 (1,300£/$1800 – Pair)
While the 840s and A77Xs were battling for my wallet I also had a listen to the Shape 65s, but I wasn’t quite sold on them. The speakers were positioned very poorly, which is understandable when a small room is fitted with a million different monitors. That is why I don’t feel I have the right to judge them. They were advertised to me as the A7X (950£/pair) killers, but I again I did not find that to be the case. I guess it’s probably a taste thing and I feel I have to go back to RedDog and try them out again with a different positioning.
If you check them out and you are fooled by their 3-way unported look, don’t worry – you are not alone. What I initially thought were woofers positioned on their sides turned out to be Focal’s passive radiators (PR). They serve the purpose of bass reflex ports.
Another strange designer touch on the Shapes were their tiny adjustable legs. At first, I thought maybe they are for lunatics that hate foam and rubber pads, but then again – it wouldn’t hurt to have them as a bonus.
Dynaudio LYD 8 (1,220£/$1650 – Pair)
These are rear-ported so naturally, I was experiencing less low-end when comparing with the front-ported A7Xs even with the bigger 8-inch woofer. They sounded very natural though with a nice warm presence, giving me a sudden urge to listen to Arctic Monkey’s “What Ever People Say I Am”.
As expected they shared similar sound properties with their big daddies – the
DM15As. The way I would describe them is as neutral speakers. Starting
from their un-disturbing design simplicity to their sound – nothing could grab
my attention. Nothing was disturbing me in the sound and I couldn’t focus on any parts of the frequency spectrum, which led me to believe I was listening to a fairly flat and realistic set of monitors with a substantial tonal balance. It is as if the designers and engineers at Dynaudio got together and thought “How can we make the listener not be bothered at all by our product, so he/she can focus entirely on the music?!”
While they were maybe lacking the presence of the LYD 8s, they had a tight low-end with a very gentle and silky high-end. It was like a creamy vanilla milkshake being poured into my ears with promises of long listening hours with less fatigue. I was told that the era of the A7X is coming to an end as some other brands are stepping up their game in that price range, but I couldn’t disagree more from what I heard. The assistant in RedDog did suggest that I might experience a slight lack of attack, bite, and presence in things like punchy snares, because of the silky smooth high-end. I could x`see that happening, but I am personally willing to trade that in exchange for their clean sound. These set of speakers have definitely established themselves as an industry standard and are approved by many engineers. I would like to say that if you can’t afford the A77Xs, these are the best of the AX series. They couldn’t sound any more different than their big brothers A8Xs, which I personally find boomy and unnecessary.
Neumann KH120 (1,100£/$1500 – Pair)
Last but not least I had a very quick listen to the KH120s as recommended from the staff at RedDog. I could not compare them to the others in that list, because of their small 5-inch cones, but I was very pleasantly surprised. I don’t have much to say except – great and awesome sounding small monitors. Anyone who’s struggling with space and has a thicker wallet should look into that direction. In my personal opinion, they wipe the floor with most 5-inch monitors, but they are competing in a price range with speakers that have larger woofers, so they naturally fall behind in the battle for the low end. Overall – too expensive for people with small rooms and a bit weak for people with money and larger rooms. Never-the-less – incredible speakers.
Every brand in this list has something unique and/or “revolutionary” from Genelec’s aluminum body designed purely around the sonic qualities, Adam’s X-Art ribbon tweeters, Focal’s flax sandwich cones all the way to the incredible simplicity of the old-school fabric tweeters of Dynaudio’s LYD 8s. Each of those monitors sounds great and at least one if not all of them will put a smile on your face.
Like I said earlier – shop with your ears, not with your eyes. Even if a brand claims to have added a new element to the Periodic Table of Mendeley, which you can find in the cones of their new monitors – what matters is what you hear.
In my next article, I will publish a full in-depth review on what I have chosen as my next set of monitors.
I want to thank RedDog Music for being so co-operative and having great customer service. If you are a Londoner or live in the UK and have access to one of their stores you should check them out.
Ivo Sotirov – Sound Engineer and Music Producer