Monitor Audio Studio 2 loudspeaker Page 2

Eduardo Fernandez's Music of Turina, Segovia, & Llobet CD (London 417 618-2) convinced me otherwise. Miguel Llobet's creative arrangement of the wistful Catalan song "El testament d'Amelia," though short, illustrates the possibilities of touch. Fernandez exploits the pads of his fingers as well as the sides and nails, caressing or stroking the strings, striking overtones that linger in the room. The presentation of both touch and overtone decay mitigated against any loss of extreme high-frequency information. It was, quite simply, all there. As always, listening to the Monitors I was very impressed with the details of the sound—the placement, the nuance of touch, the presence of the performer; even more, I succumbed to the emotional gestalt of the performance. I felt Fernandez's affection for this little melody, and the ineffable and intangible sadness that it invokes. Other cable changes were audibly noticeable, as well.

One more realistic caution. These speakers take a long time to break-in—Monitor Audio suggests about 100 hours of play. I have to break-in speakers in situ, so—unlike folks with extra rooms—I have to listen to them during this whole process. My solution is to play Rykodisc's Babbling Brook—A Day on Cape Cod (RCD 30015 CD) day and night until we achieve a certain, uh, liquidity. Let me tell you, it took a lot of water under the bridge to take the edge off. Double Monitor Audio's estimate. The process is faster if you utilize one of the burn-in tones that are cropping up everywhere these days. Persevere—it's worth it.

What IS music?
Let us ask this question another way: Is music a thing? Is music as simple as a range of frequencies, or the space in which it's performed, or—even—the paper on which it's printed and the notes that are printed on the paper? Patently not! Music, like all art, is not a thing—it's a way.

A wha?

A way. Yehudi Menuhin held that music was no less than a way of creating "order out of chaos; for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous." That may be further than I'd be willing to go, but I see his point.

Most people agree that music is a language—a way to communicate; but how does it communicate? It has no way to refer to the non-musical world of objects and concepts. That makes it a "closed," or non-referential, system—like mathematics; yet we all agree that, unlike mathematics, music conveys emotions and meanings, as well as ideas. Levi-Strauss describes music as "the only language with the contradictory aspects of being at once intelligible and untranslatable...the supreme mystery of the science of man."

Now, a review isn't the place to pursue this particular enigma all the way to a conclusion—nor am I egotistical enough to assume that I'm capable of it. I cite the preceding merely to point out that it seems a mite presumptuous to conclude that any speaker stops making music just because it can't reproduce a 20-cycle pedal tone. Having said that, I must also submit that there are times when you do pay a price—in music—for the loss of low-frequency response. I offer two examples that illustrate the Studio 2's ability to communicate the essential emotion and meaning of the music, even when somewhat compromised.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's stunning performance of Sibelius's Symphony 2 in D, Op.43, conducted by Barbirolli (Chesky CD3) and now available as one of Chesky's ultra–high-quality gold-plated CDs, demands to be played loudly, and tortures much-more-ambitious speakers than these $1200/pair minimonitors. The Studio 2s, amazingly, were capable of really belting the piece out; they didn't congest orchestral crescendos, and the massed string choirs glistened. Brass—especially the trombones—were remarkably present, rude, and insistent. But...the presentation wasn't large, despite a seamless speaker-to-speaker spread; it was wide, yes, but shallow.

Also, the leanness in the bass robbed the hall of its volume. Moreover, it portrayed the walking-bass motif that begins the second movement as somewhat tentative, rather than forceful—a rare instance where the Studio 2s affected the meaning inherent in the music. Even so, I found the symphony thrilling. The fourth movement's opening string swells were massive and lush, with the brass punching through insistently, "buh buh buh buh!" As the piece ended on an orchestral tutti, timpani ringing out—with the overtones off the drumhead uncorrupted by the ensemble ffff I might add—I leapt to my feet and yelled "Yo mama!"

La Chapelle Royal's and Ensemble Organum's performance of Palestrina's Missa Viri Galilaei (Harmonia Mundi HMC-901388), conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, has become my favorite Palestrina recording. This mass employs the liturgical practice of alternatum: the even verses ("Kyrie," "Alleluia," "Offertoire," "Sanctus," etc) are sung polyphonically, alternating (aha!) with the solo psalmodic recitation of the odd verses (footnote 1).

One of the most remarkable of these pairings is the "Preface/Sanctus." "Vere Dignum et justum est"—the "Preface"—is chanted/sung; one can clearly hear a single, strong male voice sounding in a large reverberant space. The text even lends itself to this treatment, because it reads like a contract—laying out that God is just and plays by the rules—setting the stage for the lushness of the four-voiced polyphony of the "Sanctus." Where the "Preface" presents that solo voice alone in the acoustic, the "Sanctus" fills it. Through the Monitors, this change is as substantial as pouring water into a glass.

Vivid as this effect is, it's a perfect illustration of the Studio 2's strengths and weaknesses. Its sound was accurate and detailed enough to place both solo and massed voices in an acoustic clearly different from that of my listening room. It was capable of expressing cogent musical truths—both the "reading of the Law" of the "Preface" and the passionate praise of the "Sanctus" came through. But, ultimately, their lack of low-frequency extension was telling. The sound of a small choir did not fill a large hall as completely as water fills a glass: the voices should swim in the massed air of the space.

I've heard similarly priced, and sized, speakers that don't get as much of this as the Monitors did. I've heard much more complex, expensive, larger, (insert your adjective here) speakers that don't even make the stretch toward this level of musical truth, and I feel a trifle—I don't know—mean criticizing them for getting so close, when their ambition is so great. But there you go.

What IS truth?
Music is meaning—it's the meaning intended by the composer, as well as the meaning bestowed upon it by the listener. One could argue that musical "meaning" lacks precision—and while I'd concede the validity of that argument, I'd also dismiss it as totally beside the point. George Szell put it well: "Music is indivisible. The dualism of feeling and thinking must be resolved to a state of unity in which one thinks with the heart and feels with the brain."

Footnote 1: As a form, alternatum must have been a sop to traditionalists—a way of inserting the new (and somewhat suspect) practice of polyphonic singing into the mass, by saying "See? We haven't abandoned the old ways, we're just adding something."—Wes Phillips
Monitor Audio, Ltd.
US distributor: Kevro International
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