The Stealth Revolution in Studio Monitors

There was a period when monitors migrated en-masse from passive designs like the Yamaha NS10 to active designs like the Yamaha HS and MSP series. Integrating multi-way amplifiers, active crossovers and drivers in one cabinet made such sense – technically, practically and sonically – it’s surprising it took so long. One trigger was availability of small-format amplifiers driven by compact, switching power supplies: the power of miniaturisation.

At the start of 2018, a similar (but less obvious) revolution is sweeping (creeping?) through the marketplace: digitisation.

The falling price of processors increasingly favours cheaper – and more flexible – implementation of EQ and XO in the digital realm, opening the door to user-controlled DSP,  automated room correction, network connectivity and on-board DAC.

The current market is now distinctly divided into digital and analog monitors, and its worth considering how fundamental the difference is between them . . .

We should first tip hats to Genelec, whose trailblazing 8240 and accompanying GLM software demonstrated the advantages of digital-first design back in 2006, and whose current SAM range represents the state of the art in fully automated in-built room correction. ADAM’s S-Series, Dynaudio’s LYDs, JBL’s 7 Series and the tour-de-force Kii speakers are recent converts to this architecture, whereas KRK, Focal, Unity Audio and PSI  remain resolutely analog animals.

HEDD Audio – as a recent start-up – had the opportunity to design afresh for the future and made the decision (on purely sonic grounds, says MD Klaus Heinz) to base their Type range on an analog XO, but build in an expansion port for digital modules such as Dante, Ravenna, AES and wireless protocols. It’s a smart move, but let’s not kid ourselves it’s any better than linking the relevant interface to its analog XLR inputs: it’s cute packaging, not a revolution. However, it’s canny, and makes the Type models the most future-proofed speaker presently available.

It remains to be seen how all-encompassing the digital speaker revolution will be, or which protocols will dominate: we’re midway through format wars.

However, recent auditioning of a wide range of monitors has clearly confirmed the inevitable hunch that arises when considering the signal path of an active speaker with a digital crossover / DSP: in order to do its thing, it necessarily digitises its input. The journey from instrument to ear is a big ol’ heap of A-D/D-A flip-flops:

– Analog > digital from real world into DAW
– Digital > analog from DAW into interface, monitor controller or DAC
– Analog > digital from monitor XLR input to internal DSP
– Digital > analog via DSP to XO to amplifiers

The extra A-D stage is more of a worry than the D-A. Much neater to go digital-direct into the speaker’s brain and – in practice – better sonically. Genelec’s SAM range, ADAM’s S Series and the JBL7s all allow digital input and sound much more transparent when bypassing their on-board A-D (ie, mono balanced analog input via XLR) and instead hotwire them with direct AES. And, yes, they will show the difference between differently clocked sources: upgrade to a top-end Antelope master and the monitors will sound 50% more expensive. Even the quality of the AES/EBU cable plays a role in such a minimal setup. Try it.

To stress this again: feeding an Adam S3-H with a balanced digital signal is a bigger upgrade for it than feeding a HEDD Type 30 digitally via a Bridge module. The HEDD is fundamentally analog: it only understands voltage; the Bridge is an external converter with a short lead. The ADAM is fundamentally digital: it’s native language is binary; it’s actually slightly handicapped by the translation required when feeding it an analog source.

Dynaudio LYDs are different again: they are natively digital, but don’t permit digital input: an extra layer of A-D is baked into the design and you can’t bypass it. That doesn’t mean they don’t sound good – they do – but your workflow requires an ‘old-school’ analog endpoint.

The future promise of digital speakers is a studio (or listening room) without external DACs and mike cables, with greater control from the DAW (or transport) and the possibility of addressable multi-room or multi-channel systems in which each speaker behaves as a network device. And that would be A Good Thing.

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