Monitor Audio Studio 2 loudspeaker
What is this, a philosophy seminar or an audio review? Perhaps both; maybe neither. I've been walking around in a funk lately, pondering Monitor Audio's Studio 2 loudspeakers, thinking about how much I like them, yet fretting because, according to our own revered founder, J. Gordon Holt, they aren't even worthy of recommendation, since they limit low-frequency information. This is pretty heady stuff for a new kid on the block, but if loving the Studio 2s is wrong, then I don't want to be right.
Listening to these Monitors, that hoary audiophile cliché palpable presence has haunted me; not as it's commonly applied, referring to the apparent physicality of a sonic event—although I had a few of those visitations, too—but rather, that I had a sense of communion with the intellect that informed the performance itself. Now, in the most literal sense, that's a heavy charge to lay at the stands of the diminutive Studio 2s, and I'm not saying that they channeled Beethoven, or even Moravec, into my listening room. However, the essence of that phrase, palpable presence, is very much to the point of my enjoyment of these speakers: I felt touched by the living greatness lingering in the music. Touched, as well, by the humanity that I share with the composers and their acolytes, the interpreters. Show me where that's hiding in the frequency-response charts.
Which is not to say that I think that speakers which are capable of response from 20Hz to 20kHz cannot also achieve this sense of communion. Some can. But these are no more common than small ones that can, and I say it's wrong to insist otherwise. If our enjoyment of music through stereo systems depended solely upon re-creating the full frequency response of the original event, then few people would be listening to recorded music for pleasure. Most of us do manage to enjoy our records and CDs, even when our systems are unable to reproduce that bottom-most octave. So we return to my three questions. And while we ponder them, let's take a look at the Monitor Audio Studio 2.
What's the story?
The Studio 2 is a very small, rear-ported, two-way compact monitor. The low/mid driver, a 5" anodized-aluminum–alloy cone hung on a diecast chassis by a nitrile rubber surround, features the increasingly ubiquitous stationary "phase plug" in lieu of a dust cap. The assembly is video-shielded. The tweeter is Monitor's signature 1" gold-anodized aluminum-alloy dome—complete with its own miniature nitrile rubber surround—which caps a ferrofluid-cooled voice-coil, wound upon a vented cast-aluminum former. Monitor manufactures both drivers and crosses them over at 3.2kHz. The speakers feature two pairs of five-way binding posts, in the increasingly common "staggered" configuration, to accommodate bi-wiring. Knurled metal nuts make finger-tightening relatively simple for slender-fingered audiophiles, and a chore for the rest of us.
Cabinet construction is outstanding, as always with this firm. The box is rigid, seems to have a fairly and beneficially high-in-frequency resonance signature in the "tap-test," and features veneer inside as well as out—which greatly strengthens the structure in terms of both rigidity and vibrational behavior. My samples featured rich oiled rosewood with matching grain patterns. Other finishes, including black-piano lacquer and French polish, are available, but can raise the cost substantially, as they're labor-intensive in the extreme.
What's the system?
The $1199/pair price tag suggests that the Studio 2s will be used in systems ranging from mid-price (in audiophile terms) on up. In my experience, the Monitors were never out of place, even when accompanying expensive high-end performers. Auditions utilized the Conrad-Johnson Evolution 20SE preamplifier and Premier Eleven A power amplifier, an Arcam Alpha 6 integrated amp, NAD's 304 integrated amp, Linn/Ittok/Sumiko SHO analog front-end, and a variety of digital sources including McCormack Digital Drive SST/DAC1, and Arcam Delta 250/Black Box 50 and Micromega Drive2/DAC transport/converter combos. Cables included Transparent Audio Music Link Reference interconnects, Magnan 4 Vi interconnect, Transparent Audio Music Wave Reference speaker cable, OCOS speaker cable, Transparent Audio Digital Link, MIT Terminator 3, and McCormack Wonder Link coax digital cables. (Whew!)
What IS reality?
Let's face facts. As much as I love what these li'l guys do, they have limits. Gordon wouldn't like 'em—he's stated that speakers which don't generate low bass don't do it for him. The Studio 2s are rated to 55Hz, although I would guess that their actual contribution to the room is minimal at that frequency. That's okay by me—given what else they do—but you'll want to decide for yourself.
By dint of size and sensitivity, the Studios won't be the right speaker for single-ended triode users or Stupid-Approved-Loudness fans. Not that they don't play loud. I was able to irritate my neighbor with NRBQ's rockin' Message for the Mess Age CD (Rhino/Forward R2 71427) by cranking "Over Your Head" to what I considered a reasonable volume for 3:00pm on a weekday. And as for triode fans, Sam Tellig himself has pointed out that you have to cheat when you've only got 7Wpc—or even 8. These would sound fine and even play pretty loud, but they're probably not the answer to your 300B prayers.
Reality also dictates that you'll need to mount these speakers on stands—tall ones. I initially listened to the Monitors on 21" Target stands and thought they were performing well enough; but they sounded over-detailed and whitish. Putting them up on Franklin and Lowell Audio Standards, which are 30" tall, made all the difference in the world. Get your ear at or below the level of the woofer, brothers and sisters, and you'll have achieved integration! Can I get an amen?! With the new stands, the slight over-articulation was gone, the sound became fuller, and the bass response was seamless and coherent with the rest of the Studio 2's output.
I spent a lot of time getting the placement right on these speakers. Bringing them about a third of my room's length out from the wall and using the same "rule of thirds" to place them away from my side walls, I still had to move them ¼" at a time to lock-in the point where they disappeared. In my room, they were pointed more or less directly at my ears—I was barely able to see their inner sides—with about 8' separating them. Fed the right software, they then created a lovely, wide soundstage—though it wasn't quite as deep, nor as good at re-creating height information, as the best that I've experienced. On the other hand, the specificity of that soundstage was startling; when the speakers vanished, only the music inhabited the room.
The Monitors are cable-sensitive. As much admiration as I have for my reference Transparent Audio Music Wave Reference speaker cable, the tweeter sounded peaky and less controlled when I used it. Changing to the OCOS/"black interface" combination, the peakiness disappeared so thoroughly that my first thought was that the cable or termination was essentially some sort of bandpass filter.