Monitor Audio Studio 10 loudspeaker

As much as I'm tempted by the impressive sweep and scale with which some of the large, full-range loudspeakers endow music, for some reason I find myself more at home with more compact examples of the breed. This is not through lack of familiarity with large speakers, a pair of B&W 801s occupying pride of place in our living room (which also serves as my wife's listening room). Yet I find myself hankering after that ultimate soundstage precision that only minimonitors seem capable of producing: the loudspeakers totally disappearing, vocal and instrumental images hanging in space, truly solid—the prefix "stereo-" is derived from the Greek word stereos, which means solid—so that a rectangular, totally transparent window into the concert hall opens at the rear of your room. In addition, the necessarily limited low-frequency extension offered by small speakers makes it much easier to get the optimum integration with the room acoustics below 100Hz.

If only the loudspeakers that were the champs at that didn't at best reproduce instrumental sounds in such Munchkinesque a fashion or, at worst, present them with all the weight and life sucked out of them. Hence my quest to find a small, high-performance loudspeaker which nevertheless presents musical sound in a sufficiently natural manner that you are not continually reminded of the speaker's lack of ultimate bass extension. I eagerly await delivery of a pair of Wilson WATT IIs; in the last five years or so, the only small speakers that have gone some way toward meeting my criteria are the Celestion SL600Si and SL700, the Rogers LS3/5a, and the Acoustic Energy AE1, with the Spica TC-50 an honorable runner-up. All are excellent but very different examples of the genus minimonitorus, with very different balances between strengths and weaknesses. But if I had to choose just one small speaker to listen to for the next 10 years, any one of those would suffice.

But I'm still on the lookout for that ultimate minimonitor, the speaker that apart from having a lightweight low register would give away nothing to the very best full-range speakers. Which brings us neatly to the subject of this review. Monitor Audio's Studio 10 is an examples of the direction taken by designers of high-performance minimonitors: extensive use of high technology to max out on a small speaker's intrinsic merit.

Launched with a good deal of razzmatazz at the 1990 Winter CES, the Studio 10 at $3000/pair is the most expensive loudspeaker to come from Monitor Audio. Yet, in true English fashion, it is a relatively small two-way, with what appears to the traditional driver lineup of a 1" tweeter and an 8" woofer. Looks can be deceptive, however, and this loudspeaker's modest appearance hides a wealth of high-tech design. The tweeter, for example, is the latest version of the familiar ferrofluid-cooled, gold-anodized, aluminum/magnesium alloy drive-unit with a vented pole-piece that Monitor Audio developed with English manufacturer Elac (though Monitor Audio has also been instrumental in the development of the SEAS metal-dome tweeters).

But it is the woofer that attracted journalists' attention last January, the cone being fabricated from metal rather than the usual plastic or paper. Now metal-cone woofers are not new, models from both Ohm and Acoustic Energy featuring the breed. The problem with a metal cone, however, is that although the material's high speed of sound and stiffness are things designers find immensely attractive, offering the potential for textbook pistonic behavior throughout the drive-unit's passband, the intrinsic lack of damping means that when the cone eventually goes into breakup, it does so in a frantic, unpredictable manner that inevitably leads to audible coloration.

The trick used by Monitor Audio to enable them to get the best of both worlds is twofold. First, the 100µm-thick, 7"-diameter cone is not spun in the conventional manner, but is drawn in a three-stage process with stress relief performed after each stage, this said to ensure a consistent thickness from center to circumference. Second, the aluminum/magnesium alloy is anodized on both sides to give a hard ceramic finish which damps the material's breakup modes. The inverted rubber half-roll surround presumably will also add a degree of breakup control. The woofer's chassis is diecast rather than pressed, and the magnet structure is said to be a low-distortion type.

A custom-made 100-strand cable is used for all the internal wiring, while the 6-element crossover features polyester capacitors. The bass loading is reflex, a 2"-diameter, 4"-deep port being sited toward the top of the cabinet's back panel (Monitor Audio calls this "Single Flow Reflex"; do you know what this means? Me neither!) above the two pairs of 5-way binding posts, these allowing bi-wiring or bi-amplification. The cabinet is constructed entirely from ¾" Medite, damped with bituminous panels and plastic foam, and the review pair looked, well, just stunning, being rosewood-veneered on all sides but the rear. (I was told by Kevro's Robert Sinclair that this veneer had come from a single rosewood log, said to be the oldest in the UK, that Monitor Audio head honcho Mo Iqbal had bought for a cool $80,000.)

The sound
As with the Infinities, the Studio 10s are said to require a significant break-in period, 48 hours being recommended; I didn't carry out any serious auditioning until this period was over. The 24" stands that Monitor Audio supplies for the Studio 10 cost a considerable $750/pair, but rival those made by Acoustic Energy (see my review of the AE2 in February 1990) in providing the ultimate mechanical ground for the loudspeakers. Triangular bottom and square top plates are joined by three steel pillars filled with lead shot, giving a total mass of 66lbs. Spikes are provided both to couple the stands to the floor and to the speaker; not wanting to pierce the review samples' beautiful rosewood veneer, I compromised by using vestigial pads of EZ-Tak between the speaker and the stand, which gives a mainly resistive coupling (unless too much is used).

I began listening with the Studio 10s toed-in to the listening seat, well away from the side walls, and Robert Sinclair's recommended 24" away from the rear wall. Ultimately, however, I found the smoothest transition between the mid and upper bass to be obtained with the speaker 48" away from the rear wall. Following the advice of Alvin Gold, I carefully prised away the protective mesh tweeter covers. This slight modification is said to improve the integration between the two drive-units; I certainly felt the speaker was maximally transparent after the removal of the covers.

Whereas the Infinity Modulus satellites that I also review this month had tended to sound too polite, too ill-inclined to give, musically, it was obvious right from the get-go that the Studio 10s, ahem, kicked ass. Visiting Santa Fe during my auditioning of these speakers were the winners of Stereophile's Write-Your-Own-LP-Review competition, Andrew Quint and Clark Johnsen (footnote 1). Andy and Clark sat unmoved through my presentation of the Moduluses, and while agreeing that the tiny Infinities did nothing significantly wrong and were very desirable in appearance, both felt that they didn't do enough to make the hairs on the backs of their arms stand up. I set up the admittedly much more expensive Studio 10s; smiles broke out; now this was more like music, was their verdict.

I agree with my visitors. The Studio 10 has that rare ability to allow the listener to forget the hardware, to listen through it to the music. Piano recordings that had been put to one side with the American minimonitors re-emerged into the light, including a favorite of mine, various works by Grieg including the Holberg and Peer Gynt Suites played by Ivan Davis (Audiofon CD72022). Engineered by Peter McGrath, this is one of the finest piano recordings I know; it is also one of the most fragile in that what might otherwise be thought to be minor system changes have large effects on its sound. With a Sumiko Soundring on the CD's circumference and played in the Meridian 208 player, the piano is reasonably closely but not unrealistically presented, and is capable of reproducing with exceptional verve. That is what I heard on the Studio 10s—a rich, exciting, yet not over-aggressive sound. Its small size notwithstanding, this Monitor Audio manages to convey the piano's majesty.

Footnote 1: See Stereophile, Vol.13 No.5, May 1990, p.94.
Monitor Audio Ltd.
US distributor: Kevro International
902 McKay Road, Suite 4
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3X8, Canada
(905) 428-2800