Monitor Audio R952MD loudspeaker Sam Tellig May 1988
I was in my local mid-fi store the other day to look at the used equipment shelf (you never know when you might see some old Marantz tube gear). A customer—I'd say he was in his early 30s and very much a burn-out case—was grooving on a Grateful Dead tape.
The speakers were by the man in the white coat—you know . . . the genius.
"Great sound, huh?" the customer asked.
I nodded, trying to hide the fact my eyeballs had rolled into the back of my head.
The sound was all bass. And lots of it.
Not that the genius in the white coat was to blame. The room would have made almost any speakers boom rather than bloom. There were at least two dozen other pair of speakers, all resonating and adding to the bass energy. The Deadhead, however, was ecstatic—he thought the sound was great.
I wonder if the Monitor Audio R952MD has a chance.
They are very British. They don't go low, don't play loud. Thank you, JA, for warning me about how delicate these speakers are. I did not play pink noise overnight to "loosen things up" (heh-heh). Nor did I play the garage-door opening track from the HFN/RR test disc (tsk-tsk). Nor have I played killer Telarcs at loud volume levels.
I have not blown up my Monitor Audio R952MDs. The Deadhead would have probably taken out the tweeters in under 10 seconds. I have to hand it to the genius in the white coat: his speakers did survive the onslaught. Great gear is often delicate—not for clods. The original Quad speakers, for instance, were easily fried.
Back to the Monitor Audio R952MDs.
As JA said in Vol.11 No.1, these are not the speakers for everyone. As he's blown at least two tweeters, I suggest that they are perhaps not the speakers for him.
A dealer friend, who sells Monitors, Spendors, and Vandersteens, and who likes the Monitors, reports that it's still the 'steens that march out of the store—more bass, a warmer tonal balance.
An acquaintance recently called me for speaker recommendations—British chap in his late '40s married to a concert pianist. I suggested they audition the Monitors and the Spendor SP1s. They spent their money on the Spendors.
"The Monitors sound like Avery Fisher Hall," said he. "And the Spendors sound like Carnegie," chimed she.
Well, maybe. There are some very good seats in Avery Fisher Hall, where the sound is astonishingly well-focused and transparent. I would say the comparison is more between the old and the new Carnegies. The Spendors are old Carnegie—warmer, but a little muffled. The Monitors are the new Carnegie—brighter, crisper, cleaner, clearer.
The Monitors also cream the Quad ESL-63s in the transparency sweepstakes, although I have not auditioned the latest version of the ESL-63s at home (I've heard them at a dealer's). The Quads always struck me as a little, well, fuzzy on top, with the imaging slightly unfocused. They are open and airy, of course, but images can be hard to pin down. They sound a bit vague—I guess that's the word. Compare Quads with Martin-Logan CLSes and you'll hear what I mean—the 'Logans are cleaner, clearer, crisper. Ditto the Monitors. For less money.
I have not yet heard the Celestion SL700s at home—only at shows. But I already know those are speakers I like. Unfortunately, they cost $2799/pair and can easily be knocked over on their supplied stands. The Monitor R952MDs cost about half as much. And they are floor-standing, on optional spikes, so you don't have to worry about speaker stands.
With some trepidation, I had my pair come in Kenya Black, at the suggestion of Ross Ginn, the North American importer. I then had visions of zebra-striped wood in my sleep. What the devil would these things look like? I needn't have feared, however. The finish is actually a dark brown, very rich and beautifully grained. Beautifully finished, too. I think the Kenya Black is Mo Iqbal's native wood—bubinga wood, I believe—and I commend it to you.
Mo Iqbal, of course, is the Mo of Monitor (pronounced MOE-nitor) Audio. Mo is the antithesis of the audio snob, or snot—the stuffed shirts you often encounter in the high end. I remember Mo at last summer's CES, where it was hot as blazes. Mo was running around in T-shirt and tennis shorts. What's more, Mo is a veritable Cheapskate. No $3000, $5000, or $10,000 speakers from him. The R952MDs are his most expensive product at $1349/pair. And they need no stands—which, if they are any good, are expensive.
For this piddling price (well, almost piddling), Mo has given us a speaker which can hold its own when compared with such contenders as Martin-Logan CLSes, Celestion SL600s and '700s, and even the Wilson Audio WATTs.
I am not saying the Monitors are better than the WATTs, just that the transparency is comparable, for less than a third the price. I can return home from a listening session with the WATTs and be quite happy with the R952MDs (MD stands for metal-dome tweeter), especially considering the balance in my checkbook.
Are the MOE-nitors for me?
You bet. No question. I heard these speakers and I knew. But they are not perfect. They lack deep bass, for one thing. This may bother you, but it doesn't bother me a bit. The bass that's there is tight, detailed, and interesting. With many speakers, the bass is a one-note boom. And speakers that have lots of bass may also create lots of standing waves. Cabinet coloration is very low—especially welcome with male voices.
As JA points out, the upper midrange is somewhat forward—in the range of 2–4kHz, which, of course, adds to the impression of clarity. But the clarity is real: the detail is actually there. It's also true that you can't—or shouldn't—play the speakers particularly loud. Unless you feel like replacing the tweeters.
But, oh, the transparency.
JA has said it all in his review. You can see (hear?) the trees (leaves?), and you can see the forest too. The sound has what I call body, or wholeness. I think other people call it coherence.
I hear the fullness of a symphony orchestra. (I'm not talking about loud volume levels here, but a sense of listening to a whole orchestra rather than just parts.) At the same time, when the recording allows, I hear the superb imaging and the most delicate detail. This is a speaker that brings out all the subtle nuances of a performance and a recording. Nothing is lost.
And on older recordings, too. Especially on older recordings, before multimiking became the rage. Many of my old Melodiyas have never sounded better—Yevgeny Svetlanov's recording of the Shostakovich Symphony 10, for instance, or Gennady Rozhdestvensky's Sibelius cycle. If the sound is a little bright, the ear soon accommodates.
After the Monitors, I simply cannot go back to listening to a speaker that is less transparent. The Monitors make everything sound so interesting, so involving. They are so good that, one stormy evening, I thought to myself: why go out to a concert? I think I'll stay home with my Monitors.
There is one thing I should warn you about. The R952s have been devastating with regard to CDs. LA suggests that this is because of the speakers' forward midrange presence. Maybe so, in part. But I can tell what's related to frequency response and what isn't. As LA says, CD simplifies the music. It's the same thing I refer to when I babble about lack of "palpable presence" and music getting lost between the ones and zeros. The music isn't all there: there is less air, less ambience, less in the way of nuance—subtleties of intonation or whatever. CD isn't strident—not with my Sony CDP-505ESD. It's just boring. The Off button keeps beckoning.
And no amount of Sims Vibration Dynamics CD Rings can help the matter that much. I understand now why I was ambivalent about the rings in my last column. Not that the rings don't "work." But they still don't make CD sound as good as analog at its best. Not only that, there's the expense. CDs are too expensive to begin with. Then you have to pay a dollar a disc to ring them, and they still don't sound as good as analog. That's why I'm somewhat down on the rings.
I am reminded of the movie The Fly. You know, where Seth Brundle tries to send a steak through his teleportation device. He and his girl friend sit down to eat it and the steak tastes terrible—all the flavor and texture have been lost in the conversion from analog to digital. Aha! That's what happens to the music.
Of course, Seth Brundle perfected his teleportation device (and we all know where that led: Brundlefly). Maybe there will be a player that comes along and restores my faith in CD. Goodness knows I've flipped back and forth on this a number of times. Yes, I like CD. No, I don't. At the moment, I don't. And Mo Iqbal is to blame. Thank you, Mo. I think.—Sam Tellig