by Pablo Bellinghausen –
Most musicians and budding producers getting into their craft will at some point require small, yet great-sounding studio monitors in order to hear their work accurately, and there are many options in the market at wildly different prices. However, it is quite hard to find any detailed comparisons made in acoustically treated rooms so that buyers can make an informed choice.
5″ nearfield studio monitors (five inches being the diameter of the low-frequency cone) are a common sight in small rooms, mainly due to space constraints – not only because of their small footprint, but also due to the fact they are devised to be placed quite close to the listener and still produce a coherent, accurate sound, unlike larger designs.
We were recently able to acquire a good number of different 5″ studio monitors to try out, and we therefore took the opportunity to put them through their paces in our own Esmono booth (a very dead, yet balanced-sounding space, which was perfect for this session).
Most A/B tests of this kind are made in reverberant environments that will flatter some models more than others. Therefore, when a frequency jumps out or disappears, it is often hard to tell whether it is because from the speaker itself or rather because of room resonances.
For this particular test we used as benchmark the Swiss-made PSI Audio A21-M, a very high-end pair of 8″ speakers (worth £4.5k at the time of writing) that really proves that fantastic phase coherency, transient response, and frequency response flatness can also sound warm, beautifully musical and completely non-fatiguing – characteristics that many tend to rather misguidedly associate with inaccuracy.
It is important to stress the fact that any descriptions are inevitably subjective; people prefer vastly different sound signatures and will naturally gravitate towards certain characteristics that others consider unappealing, or even flaws. Many listeners will tend to associate a bright and “clinical” quality with sonic precision, which is not necessarily the case – although many speakers with those characteristics can often be helpful to hone into specific frequencies as a sort of magnifying glass.
For this test we used a Macbook Pro playing lossless files through the fantastic Clarett 2Pre audio interface, the outputs of which went to a Mackie Big Knob for easy A-B comparisons. We set the speakers at equal angles at about 80 cm, the average distance one would find in a small home studio, and placed them on RED10 isolators, themselves on top of a heavy wooden desk.
Here is the list of the tested models, by ascending price:
Behringer NEKKST K5
Our first speaker to be tested was the Trojan Aktiv5, which was a complete surprise in terms of performance. They were warm, smooth, and really pleasant to listen to. Comparing their midrange with the A21 I was shocked at how similar they were – I actually had to plug in other speakers to confirm my ears weren’t lying! After listening for a bit longer however, the differences became apparent; unlike most monitors, the Aktiv5 focusses in the lower midrange, adding a lovely, buttery-smooth “bloom” in the low-mids, and a present upper bass.
The part where the Aktiv5 trades most of the performance is in the high-frequencies; these are very dark speakers, with rather unfocussed treble that hides much of the detail high-end recording will contain. They have a treble boost setting which helps somewhat, but adds a bit of harshness as a drawback. They also felt slightly congested at high volumes, although only at a level that would be higher than recommended for mixing in general.
All in all, these are absolutely astounding value for money, and I would recommend these for budding musicians who prefer a warm sound without being overly flattering, and would like to be inspired by their speakers rather than see them as just work tools. The smoothness in the midrange will particularly suit electric guitarists who need to monitor critical frequencies that affect their instrument’s tone more than any other, and also vocalists with a good recording chain who need to monitor for tone and boominess. They also blow most home speakers out of the water in terms of overall pleasantness and richness of sound, which would make them great as a domestic listening setup, well above many more expensive “home audio” brands.
These yellow-coned speakers, which are a staple of the urban music home studio, have gathered a lot of reviews already, and like most in this business I had my preconceptions about them, which at first felt confirmed, but upon further listening got heavily revised, particularly in comparison to other models.
The whole Rokit range has a reputation for a “fun” sound, with boosted bass and treble, and at first there does seem to be the case. However, comparing to the A21s showed that they are actually quite conservatively tailed off in the very low and high frequencies, although there is a bit of a mid-bass boost. They do however under-emphasise a large part of the lower midrange (the opposite to the Aktiv5 in that regard), making them sound both present (upper midrange) and bassy (upper lows) in comparison. This actually allows for them to comfortably be listened to louder than other models without getting screechy or muddy.
Although the frequency response is far from ruler-flat, it is really very smooth, and shaped in a way that can prove helpful for mix translation of types of music like R&B and Hip Hop – there are no unduly spikes or harsh resonances to be found. They have a decent timing accuracy, and although not the most detailed at either end of the audio spectrum, they will reveal things that cheaper models won’t. A great pair of nearfields for the price.
After plugging in these speakers I had to plug the KRKs alongside and do a direct comparison, because these made the RP5s sound positively polite in comparison! Out of all of the speakers in this comparison, they had the biggest bass boost and extension, as well as a very present treble, which made them sound brash, punchy, and absolutely huge at first listen. Comparing them to the PSI model it was clear that JBL have managed to squeeze an impressive bandwidth out of such a small speaker, particularly at this price.
Upon closer inspection however, this does come at a price; the treble is there, but it’s not very clean, sounding a bit grainy and shrill on several tracks. The bass, which was frankly impressive at first, ended up showing itself as lacking focus (unlike the RP5), and a bit bloated, and the some of the mids are rather recessed, which makes the top and bottom of the range feel a bit disconnected from each other. This is fine for instrumental dance music for example, but more problematic for things that requires a critical midrange analysis, like distorted guitars or vocals.
It must really be stressed that, although a bit inaccurate, the lower bass does extend far lower than almost every other nearfield of this size, and although rather metallic, the upper treble is really quite detailed. If you’re doing dance or instrumental music, or if you are definitely not planning on getting a sub later on due to budget or space constraints, this one will give you information no other speaker of their price or size will.
Once a resolutely budget-range company, Behringer has been releasing products that have rightfully impressed customers in many different areas of the industry, from their latest Bugera valve amps and audio interfaces, to the X32 digital mixers. These particular monitors were designed by Keith Klawitter, formerly from KRK. However, they sound rather different to the RP5, and seem to come from a different design philosophy.
The first thing one notices is the brightness of the K5s – not in the very top end like the JBLs, but in the area where the midrange meets the treble, where there is a very noticeable, rather narrow “bump”, after which the treble smoothly tapers off. They were so bright that they were pretty unpleasant to listen to before tampering with the EQ controls at the back to tone them down.
After removing some top-end, the upper treble revealed itself as quite smooth, although still unbalanced. The bass was quite punchy and tight, but not particularly trustworthy. All in all, the K5 is designed as a “magnifying glass” by emphasising certain frequencies, and to be fair they did reveal problems on some mixes – even professional ones. These could be very useful speakers for people who need to build busy pop or rock mixes quickly, although I would be weary of using them as a sole reference due to their rather uneven tone.
These speakers take a completely different approach to most of the other ones in this comparison, by not trying to squeeze out bass out of such a small cone, resulting in the most bass-light studio monitors of the shootout. They are, however, very smooth sounding in the frequencies they do reproduce, with a particularly good transient and phase response, and no spikes anywhere in the frequency range, making them more trustworthy tone-wise than other models.
In comparison to the A21-M, however, they did feel a bit lifeless and clinical; although very detailed and quite bright, they are still tapered off in the upper treble, which added to the lack of bass makes made them rather fatiguing; despite this, the clear and trustworthy upper midrange renders them more versatile than the previous two models, although just not that fun to listen to.
However, they would match up wonderfully with a subwoofer, which anyone with a pair of HS5s should consider; mixes done on such a system should translate very well to other listening situations, a testament to Yamaha’s pedigree in studio monitors.
ADAM has for a long time been a household name in broadcast and film studios, as well as anywhere one requires very accurate sound reproduction with a flat frequency response. Their tweeter technology, a pleated diaphragm which they call “accelerating ribbon”, is able to reproduce high frequencies incredibly cleanly, and far beyond the audible range.
We had a chance to review their two 5″ nearfields, the F5 being the cheaper one out of the two. They sound quite different from each other, however; don’t miss out on our impressions of the A5X just a bit further down.
The F5, like several of the speakers in this review, tries to reproduce bass to the best of its ability, with a respectable low-frequency extension, decently accurate upper bass, and good overall punch. The rest is rather less impressive though, with a very present treble which proved less refined than expected from an ADAM speaker. Although the tone control at the back helps tame the brightness, and the overall response is definitely flatter than others in this comparison, the upper mids are lacking a bit of depth and feel rather recessed, making some tonality adjustments more difficult than they should be.
At this price range and with a little adjustment, the F5s are a good combination of linearity and detail, making them a great choice for checking sound for picture and other broadcast-like applications. They will do a great job when mixing instrumental music, but they will be rather less helpful when mixing guitar or vocal-centric music.
The Equator D5 is an unusual model in that it uses a coaxial driver, placing the tweeter inside the woofer cone. We took them out of the box, installed them, and instantly had to look at the back of the speakers to see if there was an incorrect setting somewhere: the sound was very bright and rather harsh, in a way we didn’t expect at all!
After a few seconds it was apparent that this pair was going to benefit from “speaker break-in”, which involves playing music quite loud for several hours in order to allow the moving parts to gain a certain amount of flexibility and smoothen the sound. We actually left these in the booth for a whole working day, after which the sound changed quite dramatically; the harshness had mostly subsided, leaving behind a far more balanced presentation.
The D5s are still unabashedly bright – particularly in the lower treble, with a noticeable bump which, without a reference like the A21-M, many would just put down to “clarity”. And they are indeed very clear-sounding, with a punchy bass, a very clean midrange, and good depth.
Whether the brightness (which sadly cannot be tamed by tone controls) will be a problem is a personal matter, and opinion at the office was divided on this model. They are certainly a lot less flat than other reviews have suggested, but they would certainly be very useful for mixing; and since they emphasise different frequencies than most of the other speakers we’ve mentioned so far, it would be a nice contrast to most of them in a mid-sized home studio.
The ADAM A5X is the second most expensive out of the nearfields we tried, and although the price is still quite reasonable for a studio monitor, one should expect a marked improvement in overall sound quality for this kind of money. I would have to say, after some extensive listening, that these might actually be the best value of all of these – that’s how good they are! The low end is authoritative and punchy (and went as low as any of the other models), but doesn’t call attention to itself, and integrates smoothly with the rest of the sound. There are a couple of resonances somewhere in the midrange, but otherwise the frequency response feels very flat, with no part of the upper midrange or treble being emphasised, the latter extending flawlessly well into the ultrasonic range.
The renowned ADAM tweeter shines through, with silky clean, yet very revealing treble, and absolutely fantastic transient response. We could perfectly hear the micro-texture of cymbals, vocal sibilants, and acoustic guitar sparkle in a way that none of the cheaper speakers, even the brightest ones, could reproduce, feeling rather smeared in comparison. At this point we brought in a pair of ADAM A7X, the brand’s best-selling model and a modern classic, and we compared them side by side, with surprising results: although the 7″ driver reproduced lower frequencies better and felt punchier, the midrange actually felt slightly recessed and disconnected in comparison, somehow feeling more fatiguing than on the A5X (a common complaint about the bigger brother). Although slightly more midrange-heavy, the balance on the A5X was actually quite close to the PSI model on anything above upper-bass frequencies.
Comparing the A5X side by side with the other studio monitors in this comparison revealed another characteristic of them that is particularly impressive for a nearfield this small, and that is front-to-back depth. A properly-recorded, naturalistic recording will have elements that feel closer to the listener than others, and the A5X presented that beautifully, more so than any of the cheaper speakers, and almost as well as the PSI speakers. If we were to nitpick, the bass felt less tight than it could have been, and a couple of midrange frequencies did jump out in an unduly way at times, but all in all these are very impressive speakers, and paired with a decent sub they would be a fantastic option for any sort of music, from classical to pop, rock, and metal.
As the most expensive of the speakers we tested, and after listening to the A5X, we had very high hopes for the 8030B, and to a large extent, they did deliver. The sound is beautifully rich, with a low-mid emphasis that reminded of the Aktiv5’s voicing but in a more refined way, with great bass extension and weight that made them feel a lot bigger than they are. They were less impressive in the midrange and treble, however; although they were hands down better than most of the others in overall presentation and accuracy, they couldn’t match the detail both the ADAM and the PSI models could effortlessly reproduce. The emphasis on low-mids also made the upper-mids feel a bit recessed, which could become a bit more problematic when working with busy pop or rock mixes.
Having been more impressed by this model before, we went back to Genelec’s tech specs and description to explain why that was, and realised that possibly their biggest strength wasn’t shining through inside the booth; a lot of the design decisions on these have to do with how they radiate frequencies at different angles, which matters far more in a reverberant environment! So we listened closely at the 8030B at different angles, vertically and horizontally, comparing them to the ADAMs, and then to the PSIs. Sure enough, the Genelec outperformed both in this regard, with the A5X in particular sounding rather wonky at certain angles; the Genelecs on the other hand, sounded balanced even in odd positions, with only the treble smoothly tailing off the further one steered from the front.
We then decided to take the speakers and test them outside of the booth into another room, which is relatively balanced-sounding, but quite live and echoey; the extra detail of the ADAM tweeter was lost in this context, and the Genelecs outperformed the ADAMs by sounding slightly more linear and natural throughout. This shows why Genelecs are so common in high-end broadcast and art installations; they sound balanced in most rooms, and perform admirably at angles that most speakers at any price are unable to pull off. The Genelec 8000 series also has their own set of rubber feet, which decouples them from desks and cleverly allows them to be angled forwards or backwards, something no other speaker in this shootout has. The last thing to consider is the sheer ruggedness of the construction; they are built like a tank, with very sturdy grills in front of the tweeter and the woofer, making these the kind of speaker you can chuck in a backpack without really thinking about it, taking them wherever you need high-end monitoring on the go.
All in all, the A5X would be a better choice for mixing in a dry control room, but for most other applications (many of which lie beyond the recording studio), the extra cost of the 8030B is definitely warranted.
There are many compromises a manufacturer will have to make to ensure good performance in a speaker this small; some will boost certain frequencies, often in the name of helpfulness; others will focus on trying to reproduce as much bass as possible, trading off timing accuracy in the process. All in all however, we are currently at a point in which there are professional options available for less money than ever, empowering musicians, engineers, and producers alike.
As speakers are such a subjective matter, it is always best when considering your next purchase to try to actually listen to different models yourself; more often than not you’ll be surprised about what you will hear, and what you will like!