November 2013

DigiDesign RM2The loser . . .

This story begins with a nightmare that all too many audiophiles have experienced. I found a pair of flawless speakers that were right in every way for bringing glorious sound to my office system: Digidesign’s RM2.

The RM2 should have been a bulletproof choice. Anyone who’s ever considered making his or her own music knows Digidesign’s main product, Pro Tools, and the RM2 was designed for them by the Professional Monitor Company (PMC), one of a handful of gold-standard makers of recording-studio monitors. A high percentage of the top audio recordings are taped and mixed using PMC monitors and Pro Tools. Even the mad scientists in the mastering world use the bigger PMC monitors. With that type of pedigree, how could I go wrong? If I can listen through the same speakers the engineers use, I’ll be that much closer to the master tape!

It was not to be. I’ve put together the following account from conversations with people placed high in the companies involved; they all spoke freely to me, but none wanted to speak on the record.

Avid Technology, makers of video editing equipment, bought Digidesign. Avid had little interest in making expensive monitor speakers, so they stopped making the RM2. But instead of trying to maintain some goodwill with the people who’d already shelled out $3500 for a pair of RM2s, Avid decided to kill it outright: no parts support. The designers, PMC, were told to abandon the RM2 and to hand over all spare parts, which they did.

Toward the end of summer 2013, within a five-day period, both of my RM2s quit working. One stopped playing music altogether, replacing it with a loud buzz; the other sounded as if it had blown a woofer. I called and asked for help. They told me that they had no parts, but still had two RM2s on hand they could cannibalize. Price for repair: $1000/speaker. Two days later, a guy from Guitar Center told me that Avid had closed them out for sales personnel at $300/pair. So I could have purchased a new pair for $300, but to cannibalize a pair would cost $2000? I refused to pay that much to repair a $3500 pair of speakers. My RM2s are now worth zip, zero, nada.

This time, I wanted to make sure I got something that sounded as superb as the RM2s, but made by a company that would still be around when they needed repairs. I narrowed my possibilities to (all prices per pair): Dynaudio’s BM15A ($3400), Quested’s S8R ($3950), PSI’s A1-7M ($3500), ATC’s SCM16A ($3995), PMC’s twotwo.6 ($4999), Neumann’s KH 310 ($4500), and Focal’s Solo6 Be ($2990) and Twin6 Be ($3990). All of these speakers are expensive, but they’re also powered -- you save the cost of four amplifiers. They’re all made for listening in the nearfield, from 3’ to 6’ away, which is about as much space as most of us have for a computer-based office system. And each of these speakers has been widely used in some of the world’s finest recording and mastering studios. Finally, they’re made by good, dependable companies with long track records. Because most of them concentrate on professional gear, you may not have heard of them -- but trust me when I say that, for anyone listening in the nearfield, these brands require your attention.

As I’ve mentioned before, I feel blessed that I can listen to music on a high-quality system all day long, seven days a week. My job allows me to sit and create in a quiet, remote office or in a dedicated home theater. I never realized just how lucky I was until my speakers broke. Thank goodness for my trusty PSB headphones. But as I agonized over which speaker to choose, another company came to my attention . . .

. . . and the winner

Equator Q12Equator Audio makes professional monitors that use DSP technology in two helpful ways. First, on their most expensive monitors, they use a combination of DSP, a computer, and a calibrated microphone to do away with the vast majority of room-boundary problems. Second and perhaps more important, on every monitor they make, they use the DSP to match the two speakers’ outputs to within vanishing differences.

Why is that important? If your speakers don’t create a truly seamless soundstage, you may not be aware of some of their most important faults. Speakers with different acoustic responses will cause the image to shift any time one of the offending frequencies is excited. But because identically voicing a pair of speakers is extremely expensive and time consuming, most companies don’t bother, instead just making sure that each speaker meets a target response. However, the benefits of perfectly matched speakers are a rock-steady image with whatever natural depth the original recording might contain.

Equator’s most popular speaker for recording studios is the Q12 Studio Monitor ($5590/pair), a 70-pound, 17” cube. Not only are the pairs matched, they can also remove most room-reinforcement problems, and get the outputs of all the drivers to arrive at your listening seat at the same time. The Q12 is biamplified: 500W to the woofer, 200W to the tweeter. It can put out a 30Hz signal at 114dB, and its coaxial drivers are claimed to provide time coherence. The Q12’s big brother, the Q15 ($7990/pair), can put out 29Hz at 117dB. They’ve been used to record hits by Stevie Nicks, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Christina Aguilera, Van Halen, Sean Combs, and Chuck Loeb, as well as in the recording of various orchestras and film scores. Equator speakers are used in some of the world’s top recording studios, including Abbey Road, the Record Plant, and Skywalker Ranch. Sadly, their prices were a tetch out of my range.

The good news is that Equator’s manager, Ted Kaffalo, decided to use the DSP speaker-matching technology developed for the Q series in their lower-priced D series. The D models also include some of the Qs’ room-correction power, though truncated a bit. The Ds come in two flavors: the D5, with a 5” woofer ($399); and the D8, with an 8” woofer ($799). Both were way below my range, but Kaffalo’s success with the Q series and his prior successes in management with Alesis and Event, both makers of inexpensive monitors of excellent quality, gave me hope that the D5 and D8 might be wildly underpriced.

Equator sent pairs of both models, but I spent most of my time with the D8s. The D models are much smaller than the Qs. The D8 is 14”H x 10”W x 12”D and weighs only 22 pounds. Each speaker has two built-in amplifiers: 60W for the woofer, 40W for the tweeter. Even with those relatively low numbers, the D8 is specified as being capable of a 106dB output of 44Hz-20kHz, +/-3dB. It has a front port and the speakers are arrayed coaxially. Setup was fast and easy; I was listening to music in no time. Equator also offers an unconditional 60-day, money-back guarantee. If you don’t like them, send them back. Simple.

I’m not a big fan of heavily compressed recordings that value maximum volume over accurate sound. Anyone with the right software can compress a signal till it has zero dynamic range. Will it sound loud on the radio? Yes. Will it sound like shit? Yes. Still, given that many of today’s hits, including those mentioned above, are heavily compressed, I steered to those of an artist I nonetheless like: Bruno Mars. His “Grenade” has subterranean bass that grooves like wild. It also sounds as if it was recorded by real musicians in a real room, and that really came through the D8s -- especially the opening, with tinkly piano, smooth organ, and Mars’s brilliant voice. When the bass and the “oooh-oooh” chorus enter, you can understand why this song was a big hit. Have you noticed that the voices singing those “oooh-ooohs” are all gathered around a single microphone, not recorded separately and then mixed together? You will with the D8s. Another heavily compressed but gorgeous-sounding hit is “Royals,” by Lorde, which features a concert bass drum that sounds as if it was recorded in a hall -- and her vocal overdubs rival those of the Roches in their heyday.

“Scabbard,” from Trey Anastasio’s Traveler (Rubber Jungle), sounds like Frank Zappa got about ten multi-effects units, chained them together, and went crazy with sounds. Then, about two minutes before the end, it morphs into something exquisitely lovely, even with the compression. Through the D8s, it had a weird but completely cohesive soundstage that most other speakers can’t reproduce.

When I told my friends at Austin City Limits that, so far, my favorite song of 2013 is by Justin Timberlake, I offered to turn in my credentials. They thought I’d gone off my nut, but when I played “Blue Ocean Floor” for them, all was forgiven. The story of two doomed lovers who promise to always find each other, no matter where, is a perfect example of what money can buy these days in sonic production, with everything from elusive sounds at the edge of consciousness to big drum thwacks, a large string section, and a final section in which you feel you are falling to the ocean floor. It takes a great speaker to bring all of those sounds to life, and the D8s did it.

The Equator D8s also did well with classical music. The percussionist Kuniko’s Cantus (Linn CKD 432 and 24-bit/192kHz download) features Arvo Pärt’s lovely Spiegel im Spiegel, arranged for marimba and bells. It, too, evokes the feeling of falling to the ocean floor, but it’s such a nice ride, so gentle, and recorded so beautifully. The D8s handled the delicate sounds of the marimba and bells quite realistically. Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony (Blu-ray, Naxos NBD0037), features all the snap and fun that Slatkin has learned over his many years of performing the piece. And while it doesn’t mention how many microphones recording engineer Matt Pons used, through the D8s it had the coherence of an ORTF setup.

In the final movement of John Corigliano’s Conjurer (Naxos 8.559757), Evelyn Glennie pounds away on various skinned drums while the close-miked Albany Symphony Orchestra, led by David Alan Miller, saws away in the background. To try to make sense of the layers of sound is a brilliant test for a set of speakers, and the D8s handled this recording like the pro gear they are. I don’t know what you’d call trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg’s Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, with Henrik Vagn Christensen and the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra (SACD/CD, Our Recordings 6220607). At times it’s quite modern, but at others, it aims at pure beauty. In any case, it’s a brilliant recording of a trumpet and orchestra that has been engineered to the highest standards. Through the D8s I could hear that the trumpet has a spot mike, but the orchestra sounded wholly lucid.

The Equator D8 sounds about as perfect as a $799/pair powered speaker can. I think it would be a bargain at $1000/pair, maybe even more. Was there anything I didn’t like about it? Well, there was a touch of forwardness in the midrange -- recordings mastered with a midrange hump will sound a touch rough. Take, say, A Fine Frenzy’s “Now Is the Start.” Three minutes in, when the buzzed synth pops in under the lead singer, the D8s sounded a little harsh. But that wasn’t really the speaker’s fault -- these are recording monitors, and they’re supposed to tell engineers if there’s a problem. One thing I can tell you is that the D8 will reward those who precede them with a clean chain of components, and vice versa -- they’ll ruthlessly expose any problems. The good news is that, with the 60-day, money-back return policy, you can try them yourself and see if you agree or disagree with me. The Equator D8s played way above their price class. They’ll be great speakers for people who really want to know what their recordings contain.

Did I replace my dead Digidesign RM2s with Equator D8s? No -- but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, I found a speaker I like even more. But my new office speakers cost $2990/pair -- almost four times the price of the D8s. Still, if my price range was $1500 or less, I’d make sure I heard the Equator D8s before making a final decision.

. . . Wes Marshall