Which loudspeakers do audio professionals listen to? And why should we care? After all, it’s not as if recording engineers are the kind of refined, sensitive, music-loving types who read Stereophile. As much as they may love music, many audio pros appear only to view the original sounds of musical instruments as raw materials to be creatively reshaped and manipulated. (Okay, there are exceptions. But recordists who care about the sounds of real instruments usually record them in real acoustic spaces rather than in studios, and use as little signal processing as they can get away with.)
This doesn’t mean that recording engineers are oblivious to the quality of their monitor systems. Au contraire, they demand the highest possible quality of them—not because they value the real sounds of instruments, but because they need to hear exactly what they’re doing to those sounds. They want to hear what the recording sounds like, regardless of how high its fidelity to any actual acoustic event. If you ask, they’ll tell you they want “accuracy.”
Of course, audiophiles and the people who design our loudspeakers also salaam before the altar of accuracy, but our definition of it is quite different. The audiophile’s dream is to find a system that makes all recordings sound like his concept of real, live music—whatever that may be. Many audiophiles hear live music so rarely that their ideas about reproduced sound are bizarre, but even those who attend concerts frequently and want to hear that sound at home may have a hard time judging realism because they can’t do direct comparisons. To bring the sound of the real thing from the concert hall to the living room, they must rely on the vagaries of aural memory.
The recording engineer has a much easier time of it: in a studio, real, live instrumental sounds are routinely just a doorway away from the control room’s monitors. This is why the raw sound in a recording studio—the so-called console feed, prior to the equalizers and fuzzboxes and other signal processors that engineers live by—tends to be much more realistic than that in most audiophile listening rooms.
All of these things were brought home to me for the nth time at a recent digital-systems shootout at Colorado Sound, a Denver recording studio. I had a chance to compare Colorado Sound’s set of Genelec Studio Monitors with the real instruments playing in the next room. I was sufficiently impressed to petition John Atkinson for an exception to Stereophile‘s review policy of “no pro equipment.” Genelec was delighted to loan us a pair of Model 1031As (footnote 1), and a matching subwoofer.
But even though most recording studios still record in two channels (just as most Stereophile readers still listen in stereo), what Genelec really wanted me to review was their home-theater surround-sound system. They insisted on sending me a complete 5.1-channel system with two subwoofers (which I’ll review briefly as an addendum). An in-depth review of the multichannel incarnation of this system appears in the July/August 1999 issue of Stereophile Guide to Home Theater.
All Genelec loudspeakers are active designs—ie, powered by their own power amplifiers. This should, in theory, provide better performance and higher reliability than is possible by mixing and matching unrelated amps and speakers. I won’t reiterate the litany of reasons why they should, because they’ve been discussed in just about every review of powered speakers we’ve ever published.
Genelec’s systems are satellite/subwoofer combos of the type now favored by most recording studios, home-theater owners, and me. I spent most of my audio years lamenting the fact that the best imaging is usually obtained when the upper-range speakers are placed symmetrically with respect to the side walls, while symmetrically placed woofers have about the most irregular response it’s possible to get. But audio purists tend to be a perverse lot; our dread of compromised time-alignment led us to insist for years that everything be in one box, even if doing so compromised frequency response. Multichannel home theater broke the all-in-one-box tradition—not because separate woofers deliver better sound, but because five satellites and one subwoofer take up much less room space than five full-range enclosures. I, for one, am delighted.
Many audiophiles insist that bass is directional because they can tell where bass instruments are located, but I’ve cheerfully humiliated enough of them to know that they’re flat-out wrong about this. Below a certain frequency, usually cited as 200Hz, our ability to localize sounds diminishes until—at around 80Hz—it is, for all intents and purposes, gone. We locate the direction of bass instruments by their overtones, not their bass content. There are also those who claim that stereo bass sounds richer and more natural than mono bass, but again, the stereo advantage diminishes with frequency. (And many CDs from LP originals have only mono bass on them to begin with, because vinyl couldn’t handle stereo bass.)
The Genelec 1031A Studio Monitor is a so-called nearfield monitor (footnote 2). This means simply that it’s designed to be listened to from up close, which is how I first heard a pair of them—from a distance of a little more than 30″. (They were on stands right behind the mixing console’s meter bridge—the superstructure at the back where the volume indicators are mounted.) Nearfield monitors are designed to have a slightly depressed midrange, to make them sound farther away than they really are, and are not intended to be listened to from 7′ or 8′ away. They have nonetheless gained immense popularity among high-end audiophiles because their laid-back midrange enhances the depth and spaciousness of the stereo soundstage.
The 1031A’s 8″ polypropylene-cone driver is housed in a 15-liter (0.5 cubic foot) reflex enclosure, and the entire amplifier of each speaker is attached to the inside of the enclosure’s back panel. The panel is hinged to provide easy access to the electronics for quick repairs, and shock-mounted to prevent rattles. The system’s –—dB point is 47Hz and its low end is 6dB down at 43Hz. The tweeter is a 1″ metal-dome unit with claimed “pure piston behavior up to 23kHz.” Crossovers are parallel bandpass filters, giving 24dB/octave of acoustical slope. The 1031A’s crossover is at 2.2kHz, and its bass and treble amps are capable of 120W peak output each.
The 1031A is rated at 120dB SPL of output at 1m, and its sensitivity-control default is fully clockwise, which gives 100dB SPL at 1m with 400mV input level. (In order to get the speaker’s claimed 110dB output, the input level must be at least 1.23V.) Genelec’s audio connectors are balanced XLRs, but even with an unbalanced input, the speakers have more than enough gain to allow any surround processor or modern active preamp to drive the speakers to overload.
The 1031A has three DIP switches—treble level, bass level, and bass rolloff—for tailoring the frequency response. The treble control hinges at 3kHz and adjusts the 10kHz level from +2 to –4dB (relative to nominally flat?); the bass level hinges at 400Hz, adjusting 40Hz from 0 to –6dB; and bass rolloff hinges at 100Hz and adjusts 40Hz from 0 to –8dB. The adjustment steps are all 2dB, which is coarse but a lot better than no adjustments at all. They provide a bewilderingly wide range of settings, but Genelec helpfully supplies initial-setup guidelines based on room conditions and speaker placement.
The 1092A subwoofer has three adjustments: input level, bass rolloff hinged at 50Hz (adjusting from 0 to +6dB at 30Hz), and a phase control that adjusts from 0 to –270° at 85Hz in 90° steps. It also includes three 85Hz, 24dB/octave active crossover networks for the upper-range speakers, with balanced input and output connectors for them.
The 1031A uses Genelec’s Directivity Control Waveguide to match the tweeter’s horizontal dispersion to that of the woofer, for maximally smooth off-axis response. The tweeter frame is square so that it can be rotated in 90° increments, and the 1031A is supplied configured for vertical orientation, at which time the Genelec logo is at the lower left corner of the tweeter.
Each 1031A has a front-panel LED that shows green when the unit is powered up, red when it’s overloaded or in overload-protection shutdown. The 1092A subwoofer has the same lights but, inexplicably, they’re on the rear panel—you have to peer behind them to see what’s going on. Duh.
Genelec’s systems can be configured for use with any source, from a simple stereo preamplifier to a sophisticated Dolby Digital/DTS surround processor. I tried them both ways—as a stereo system using the subwoofers’ built-in crossovers, and as a 4- and 5-channel music-surround system using the crossovers in my Lexicon DC-1 surround processor.
Footnote 1: The Genelec 1031A was in production between 1991 and 2005. It was replaced by the 8050A.
Footnote 2: In acoustical parlance, the “near field” is that range of listening distances in which direct-sound energy is stronger than the sound of the room reflections, the “far field” is that range where the room sound predominates, and the “critical distance” is where direct and reverberant sounds are equally loud.