Professional vs. Consumer Speakers?

As most of you know, I had a pair of one the world’s most expensive speakers in my demo room at the AXPONA 2014 show in Chicago. It turned out to be a great thing and problematic at the same time. There were plenty of attendees that made their way to the Madison Ballroom to experience what was billed as “one of the most expensive demonstration setups ever assembled”. And it probably was. I certainly heard from a large number of people that visited the room because they heard about the price tag. They sat and listened to the AIX Records tracks and left with an opinion.

The folks that sat in the sweet spot were very favorably impressed. One visitor posted the following at the Stereophile website:

“AIX records, again, had one of the most impressive displays of product. The views of Mr. Waldrep again educated and elucidated the points of the debate on the past, present, and future of recorded media for music playback.

[NOTE: I must say that I prefer “educated and elucidated” a whole lot more than “egregious presentation”…and “harangued” as stated by Jonathan Valin.]

…Finally, I compliment Mr. Waldrep on presenting his music at a realistic and sane volume level. Far too many Axpona exhibits are in a volume arms race. I curtailed visits to, or avoided completely, the rooms where excessive volume, possibly at ear-damaging levels, degraded the experience.”

Others were less enthusiastic about the sound of our room.

But hearing the JBL M2 Reference Monitors during my visit to Harman at 10% the cost of the German Physiks speakers we had in Chicago, got me thinking about what dedicated audiophiles should look for in a speaker. Is it really worth spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on exotic speakers and amplifiers, when the studios that produce the music don’t use that type of equipment?

My studio is an exception to the rule when it comes to speakers. I have a Bryston 9B amplifier driving a matched set of B&W 801 Matrix III speakers. I love the sound of my room…and I’ve had other prominent engineers rave over the sound. But I made a conscious choice to equip my mixing room with consumer speakers rather than studio speakers. The other studio in the building has a 7.1 set of PMC speakers, for example.

Unless your prime criteria for speakers includes beautiful piano finishes, unusual industrial design and paying for the very expensive advertising campaigns that promote them, I would highly recommend that you avoid the usual brands one finds at audio trade shows. Why not think about getting the same equipment that the mixing and mastering engineers use?

If there is a trend to provide end user’s with playback “as the artist intended”, then it makes sense to use the same gear that was used when the artists heard their album, right? And I can guarantee you, they didn’t hear their mixes on Wilson, Magico, German Physiks or B&W speakers.

The M2 speakers that I experienced during my time at Harman were absolutely incredible! I’m looking forward to getting a pair in my own studio and take a listen to my own recordings. Dr. Sean E. Olive played a variety of tracks (including Nora Jones) from a Mac Laptop through a USB connection to a Benchmark DAC1 and then to a set of Crown amplifiers. The sound was crystal clear, very dynamic and well balanced from the extreme low end through the top. This is the “absolute sound”.

JBL Professional Products shouldn’t restrict their marketing efforts to professional studios and post production facilities. These speakers would best anything that I’ve ever heard regardless of price. I’m hoping to have a set here at the studio and perhaps next year at the AXPONA 2015 show. I’ve already seen the room that we’ll have and there will be more room than ever!

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

20 thoughts on “Professional vs. Consumer Speakers?

  • May 13, 2014 at 11:35 am
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    I agree. I bought a new pair of Yamaha NS-1000 monitor speakers in 1984 for under $500. They were designed to be used as recording studio monitors, including strong wire mesh protective covers over all the drivers. Beryllium was used in the midrage and tweeter of the NS-1000M, and this metal is making a comeback in speaker design. I have had no need to replace my speakers, and they sound as good as half of the speaker demos I heard at last years Newport audio show.

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  • May 13, 2014 at 12:00 pm
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    Well at $20k as priced at Sweetwater, these JBLs are for the “well heeled”. Not sure of the audience here, but excellent speakers, especially those with servo bass, are available at a fraction. The directivity of this horn is a nice piece of engineering, but properly crossed coax designs are capable of unchallenged off axis responses and do so at real earth pricing. Not dissing JBL, but a little gleaning will produce outstanding alternatives for those most likely visiting here. Just another opinion, thanks for the venue Mark.

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    • May 13, 2014 at 12:08 pm
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      You’re certainly right…these are not cheap. But in comparison to the world of Wilson, B&W, Magico and others…these are an investment worth making. The others are more pieces of art or furniture…and have less fidelity,.

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  • May 13, 2014 at 3:38 pm
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    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for the nice review of your field trip and the JBL M2s. It was a pleasure having you here.

    Small correction above: The Benchmark DAC you listened to with the M2’s was the DAC2 — not the DAC1.

    Cheers
    Sean Olive

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    • May 14, 2014 at 11:28 am
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      Thanks Sean…I should have looked closer at the Benchmark.

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  • May 13, 2014 at 3:59 pm
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    I belive EMI at Abbey Road use Bower and Wilkins speakers. Also, monitor speakers, as with monitor headphones (I’m thinking Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro, I have a pair) don’t fulfill the same purpose as home listening equipment. Monitors are there to make sure nothing is missed, they need to be detailed, somr might say analytic. Home gear should reproduce subtlties such as tonal colouring – which is irrelevant, as far as monitoring is concerned.

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    • May 14, 2014 at 11:17 am
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      Dave…you’re right about the B&W speakers at Abbey Road. I have the same model that they’ve used for years. However, I do not agree that high-end consumer speakers should be somehow able to reproduce any aspect of sound that studio monitors don’t. Everything about the sound is relevant in a mixing and mastering room. This is where the reference monitors are. This is the sound that others should be trying to equal.

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  • May 13, 2014 at 11:14 pm
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    Would you like to comment on the Blah Blah surrounding the “NEW Michael Jackson Album” available ONLY as 44.1K/24 bit download? It’s eight remixed pop music tunes play at a consistently high level. So do the eight original versions of the same tunes. What are they using the extra bits for? They state that higher res files were used in the production of the New album. Too bad we don’t get any benefit from them. Still feasting off the corpse of the departed.

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    • May 14, 2014 at 11:23 am
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      The Michael Jackson was most likely recorded using Pro Tools running at 44.1/24-bits…and thus will never quality as a high-resolution audio recording….you’re right. And the fact that they used 24 bits, while important during the production phases of the project won’t mean anything when the mastering engineer gets done with the tracks. The potential dynamic range of the PT sessions will be lost when the music doesn’t have any dynamic range.

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  • May 14, 2014 at 1:06 am
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    If you should tire of the inevitably boxy sound of moving coil speakers mounted in cabinets, I can recommend a pair of Quad electrostatics. Their 2905 model is unforgivingly transparent (a good and a bad thing – great recordings shine, but poor recordings sound like poor recordings) and its lower -3dB point is a very respectable 38Hz. I use a tunable subwoofer to add another octave at the bottom end and the result is a virtually seamless full frequency response.

    I don’t know about current prices but the above ‘prosumer’ equipment cost the equivalent of about $12,000 in 2008 and I have never heard a demo set that sounded better. Louder yes, but not better.

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    • May 14, 2014 at 11:26 am
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      I’m not with you on the “boxy” sound of moving coil speakers…the ultimate sound, accuracy, frequency range, dynamics and dispersion characteristics are what matter to me. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of electrostatics…but am open to re-evaluating them.

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      • May 16, 2014 at 8:09 am
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        If you haven’t seriously tried electrostatics, you haven’t experienced the best in un-boxy sound. The Quds simply disappear into the soundstage and play with a very low level of distortion, which makes them an untiring pleasure to listen to for extended periods at sensible volumes.

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  • May 14, 2014 at 6:46 am
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    That Sweetwater price includes the dedicated Crown amps and integrated DSP. So, effectively, for comparison with home audio speakers, it equates to a pair of home speakers, two stereo amps, and a DSP system.

    Any home system available at the price, comprising all modules described above, will be like toys by comparison. IMHO.

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  • May 16, 2014 at 6:40 am
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    I agree about the amazing sound quality of the JBL M2s. I have had the honor of working in both professional audio (Record Plant Studios NYC, EAW) and highend consumer (Apogee Acoustics, Signet, B&W) and have always not understood the great divide between these two markets in many peoples minds. Accurate sound is accurate sound.

    I heard the M2s in Harman’s listening room as well and was absolutely blown away. The micro dynamics at low levels and complete lack of compression or distortion was the best I have heard. These speakers are a bargain compared to most “audiophile” offerings!

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  • May 17, 2014 at 2:02 pm
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    Hi Mark,

    The criticism I’ve read of professional speakers is that they are too accurate, and ipso facto they are too fatiguing to listen to. That same criticism, I’ve recently seen deployed by the proponents of analogue sound in their arguments against HD audio. Shouldn’t it be that hi-fi equipment is passive; that is, it’s job is simply to pass on whatever information is included in the medium it is playing back, and reproduce it accurately?

    That takes us back full circle, and is fundamental to what the hobby/ pastime / profession that hi-fi has become. It’s not about accuracy per se, it’s about how much a signal needs to be manipulated (i.e. distorted) to provide the listener with the aural pleasure he (or she) is seeking. One man’s meat, is indeed another man’s poison.

    Most people neither like accuracy nor truth. The term ‘high fidelity’ is in fact an oxymoron, it has been for a long time. Thinking about the day when music is recorded pretty much ‘as is’ (I know, I know…) and reproduced accurately with aplomb, I suspect I might be twitching to adjust the treble just a little bit, or add a little bit more emphasis to the lower registers. You see, I prefer my version of the truth as well.

    Keep up the good work. I’m with you 100% (as long as I can keep tweaking my treble and fiddling with my lower registers).

    BTW, your article has prompted me to investigate studio monitors to augment the sound I listen to in my home office. I’m about to invest a few hundred $’s in a pair of baby JBL’s with little 5″ drivers, and whatever they call that horn hf unit.

    Bob

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    • May 17, 2014 at 6:16 pm
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      I’m not in agreement with the concept of “professional speakers” being too accurate and therefore “too fatiguing”. Where does that come from? Wouldn’t you think that people that sit in studios for many hours everyday would want speakers and sound that is the least fatiguing? I know I would.

      Accuracy is not what most audiophiles are looking for. They want the distortions and “euphonious” sound delivered by imperfect or inaccurate systems.

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    • May 25, 2014 at 12:15 am
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      The problem, Bob, with your idea (which is a very common audiophile idea) of one man’s meat being another man’s poison, is that the idea has been carefully tested and found untrue. The hard-to-swallow truth is that virtually all recorded music lovers like exactly the same attributes in playback audio. And (shock, horror) the thing they (we) rate most highly is *fidelity*: wide, flat bandwidth, of sufficiently low distortion and high power handling, and carefully controlled beamwidth that varies little and slowly vs frequency. Refer scientific tests by Olive, by Toole, and by a range of earlier experimenters who provided the groundwork.

      So, in reality, one man’s meat is all our meat, and one man’s poison is all our poison.

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  • May 24, 2014 at 9:42 am
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    You said in HT Geeks interview that most musicians never heard good sound. Why would I want to hear sound as they do in the recording studio?

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    • May 24, 2014 at 10:09 am
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      When a commercial recording is being produced, the aesthetics of the recording process is focused on the music, the arrangement, the sounds and the parts that make up the whole. The engineer’s job is to capture the sounds as the producer and artists want…and they do it using lots of plugins and other processors. This type of recording is done at 88.2 or 96 kHz…even analog tape and 192 but the focus is not on dynamic range and frequency response.

      The idea behind the “artist’s intent” being the be all end all representation of their music is a fallacy. What they hear in the studio is not what we get to hear. The final mixes prior to mastering can be glorious. I’ve heard the Fleetwood Mac multitracks of “Rumours” and the sounds are only so so…but the tunes were huge hits! The 5.1 mixes that were done for the DVD-Audio disc were incredible…but still only marginal fidelity.

      I can get behind the idea of consumers getting a choice of what they want…a heavily mastered CD version or a more dynamic “audiophile” version. This has been tried but the label people that I’ve spoken to are not going with it.

      Reply
      • May 25, 2014 at 2:25 pm
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        I think one thing that becomes problematic particularly in Pop, Rock, R&B, Modern, etc. in general, is in the listening of it, there tends to be an audience that is using the music as a component of their day.

        Having a final product that reproduces the full dynamic range of a performance would/could be very distracting, and quite unenjoyable.

        I once had a singer with a very nice voice, good intonation, but not terribly experienced at working the mic or controlling his voice.

        He went from a breathy whisper to practically screaming at the mic, and even with judicious riding of the fader, it took an LA2A, and a DBX doing brick wall limiting to keep the occasional clipped word from sneaking through while getting a natural sounding pass to tape.

        If this had been cut today with the dynamic range we have available, without a good bit of compression, his vocal would have been quite unpleasant to hear in all its accurate glory.

        Reply

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