Who Stole The Bass? / No One Stole The Bass Page 2

That said, however, I would like to express my growing personal distaste for small monitor speakers and for the dishonesty with which they are advertised and reviewed. I can see a limited need for such units in the field and in very unusual listening conditions. I do not, however, see a need for such speakers in most listening rooms. I see no valid design reason for producing them, and feel they deserve far more criticism than they now get.

Let me begin by summarizing my reasoning in nontechnical terms:

• Whether a speaker is large or small, unless designed to be used adjacent to a wall, it still has to be the same distance from the rear and side walls for best performance. In addition, small speakers require fairly high stands. The illusion that small monitor speakers are easier to place than conventional speakers ignores the real-world laws of speaker placement.

• The laws of physics simply do not permit a speaker with a usable sensitivity to generate accurate bass below 120Hz from a small cabinet. Whether or not the speaker is equalized, something has to give, usually at the expense of accuracy from the lower midrange down. The issue is not deep bass or performance in a limited range of music, but mediocre performance in the area where most music has most of its energy.

• These speakers do not produce a better midrange at the expense of bass---they simply produce more midrange energy relative to the bass. A small enclosure demands far more compromises on getting flat and dynamic lower midrange than a larger one, and virtually forces the designer to play some sort of design trick to get the illusion of acceptable bass. At a given price, a talented designer is going to do better with a larger enclosure (footnote 1).

• If a small speaker with a restricted bass range or low-frequency dynamics has flat upper octaves, it will never sound musically natural. No live performance ever has such a balance in timbre; the imaging will be artificially exaggerated, and the soundstage will tend to be too wide and diffuse. There will be too much transient detail because the upper octaves will not be masked or balanced by adequate lower-midrange and upper-bass information.

• If a small speaker with restricted bass range or dynamics has rolled upper octaves, so that the highs seem natural in proportion to the lows, we get "polite" music with a sweet, comfortable sound, but no real bite and power. The result is fine for background music, but it is about as satisfying as a polite painting, a polite wine, or any other polite pleasure.

• In both cases, the listener eventually tends to restrict their listening to the music that suits the speaker rather than explore the full range of musical experience. The speaker is not supposed to help you select your music.

• There is no reason for the existence of such speakers. Virtually all of the better mini-monitors are British. Though generally reasonably priced in the UK, they are grossly overpriced in the US relative to full-range US speakers, such as models from Thiel, Vandersteen, VMPS, etc.

• While subwoofers or external woofers can help, only a bass unit specifically designed to work with a small monitor can really perform well. Most small monitors have to alter their low bass to provide some kind of boost so they sound reasonably good when used alone. This makes blending with a bass unit far more difficult.

• A single, separate bass unit will degrade imaging and the presentation of depth with a stereo system unless it crosses over well below 80Hz. Even a single bass unit, however, tends to raise the cost of a small monitor system above that of a full-range speaker system. Further, most combinations of small monitors and bass units are far uglier than a pair of full-range speakers, and harder to place in a listening room. They also involve very complex hookups, and often mean extra amplifiers and interconnects---all of which cost money and degrade sound quality.

These generalizations have a sound technical base, but many of these problems are not fully apparent to the audiophile because there are no universally accepted standards in the audio industry for measuring low-frequency response and dynamic range in loudspeakers.

Anyone, for example, can claim response down to 40-50Hz if they ignore the need for realistic maximum loudness levels, low levels of distortion, and/or the rate of rolloff in bass response. In practice, however, the real-world rolloff point for bass response in a domestic loudspeaker is going to occur at very high frequencies.

Footnote 1: All things being equal, however, a large enclosure will introduce higher levels of midrange coloration than a small one, due to the lower frequency at which the resonances of large panels occur and, price for price, the less opportunity there will be for damping the resonant behaviour with braces, etc.---JA
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