Under-$500 Monitor Shootout
Recently, I spent three hours (with small breaks to rest my ears) testing the following monitors: Alesis M1 Actives, Alesis MKII passives through a RA150 amp, Tannoy Reveals, Mackie HR824s, M-Audio Studiophile SP8Bs (8" Active), Behringer Truths and Roland DS90s.
My budget is $300-$500, so please keep that in mind (the Mackies were included only for comparison purposes, as their retail price is $1,698). I tested these speakers with the following reference CDs: Crystal Method, "Vegas" (for low-end and drums); Tool, "Aenima" (for Metal guitars and noise); Michael Hedges, "Arial Boundaries" (for acoustic guitar); and Dido, "No Angel" (for female vocal/vocal heavy songs).
Sound: 4th place
Value: 3rd place
MSRP: $649 (pair)
These monitors seemed to "fake" the low-end, adding some where there wasn't any (if that's possible). They seemed real low-mid range heavy. Fairly accurate detail, but if I were mixing these CDs with these monitors, I would cut lows where I shouldn't be cutting them.
Alesis MKII passives
Sound: 3rd place
Value: 2nd place
MSRP: $299 (pair)
These were my favorites before I tested the Studiophiles and the Truths. I thought these monitors had an A- in flat response. I would have to pay very close attention to placement with these monitors because it seem the "hot spot" was very small and different for each speaker. For example, the lows and the mids seemed to be right at the apex of the "triangle" (with your head in the middle and the two monitors at an angle that looks like a triangle from overhead). But the highs seemed to be a little off-kilter from that. Again, it could just be my ears, but to me these monitors would be great, but you'd have to pay extra attention to dampening and bass traps in your recording booth.
Tannoy Reveals (passives)
Sound: 6th place
Value: 6th place
MSRP: $399 (pair)
These were by far the biggest disappointment, not because they were the worst sounding, but because I had read so much good stuff and it was lacking upon listening. First off, the drivers looked severely overworked when I played the Crystal Method and Tool CDs. It looked like the bottom speaker was going to pop out and we didn't have them that loud (a little louder than I would have them in my home studio). They fared OK with Michael Hedges and seemed to have a good all-around clarity, but they just seemed fatigued and missing the lower end (almost distorting at 33-50Hz).
Sound: 1st place
Value: last place (with my budget)
MSRP: $1,698.00 (pair)Obviously these things rocked. They sounded like I was IN the CD it was so clear and accurate and responsive. The speakers took maximum wattage and yawned. Everything about these was a charm except the price. I can't afford $1,300 for a set of monitors and I don't produce "studio-mastered" quality songs anyway. If I had clients or was being paid for mixing/mastering, I would absorb the cost of these wholeheartedly. I did use these as a reference point along with the CDs to test every other monitor listed above, so they made good reference of the reference, and gave my ears something to go back to when I needed.
Sound: 7th place
Value: 4th place
MSRP $599.95 (pair)
I read the articles, saw the website, watched people talk about them in the forums and became so excited that I would find something to outdo my Alesis MKII passives. I rushed to the store, grabbed these monitors set them up along side the Mackies, the MKIIs and the Truths and ... was very disappointed. I could hear nothing but mids. The low end was a little better than that of the MKIIs, but you could barely register it with the amount of midrange that seemed to saturate everything about these monitors. The movable tweeters were nice, as I was able to aim them directly at my ear, but that didn't help get rid of the canniness of these monitors. I placed them in close proximity to a corner, away from a wall, even suspended, and nothing could be done to add to the frequencies that were there on the CD, but missing through the monitors. I really wanted these to work, so I even lowered the bar for them, but they did nothing to sway my opinion from where I started: the Alesis MKIIs.
Sound: 2nd place
Value: 1st place
MSRP: $499.99 (pair)
But then I plugged these bad boys in, and gentlemen (and ladies) let me tell you, the sky opened up and God himself came down with a magic wand, touched the tips of these monitors and blessed, blessed music came out. Keep in mind, we are talking about the $300-$500 range. Keep in mind we haven't heard Genelecs, Yamahas, etc. Keep in mind that this was in one store's sound room (a very nice one, but still...). That being said, these babies gave the most detail, the most response, the most crystal clear picture, the toughest handling (the speakers could take volume for days) of all the monitors on this list (with the exception of the Mackies). For $400 these puppies were deemed "Mackie lites" by myself and my friend. Also, bear in mind that they have switches on the back to accomodate speaker placement, room size, etc. So they have "play" for different settings and rooms shapes. I thought for $0 added this little bonus made them all the more appealing. I have a lot of wood in my "studio" (spare bedroom) so I have to be able to adjust ANY monitor I buy to my surroundings. How easy is flipping a couple of switches?!?!? Everyone owes it to themselves to at least hear these monitors before they buy anything. If you don't like 'em, fine -- but I think they'll add an element to your own personal bench tests.
Sound: 5th place
Value: 5th place
MSRP: $595 (pair)
These were hard to rate objectively. Frankly, I just didn't like them. They shook when you turned up the volume, the tweeter seemed more responsive than the bass driver and something about them just sounded plastic. I apologize to anyone reading this review who can't find anything constructive from what I'm saying about the Rolands. In a nutshell, I think they were OK. Better than the Tannoys, on par with the Studiophiles, but just not cutting it alongside every other monitor. And for the price they are asking for these monitors, it was real easy to dismiss them, given the fact they only really beat out the Tannoys (IMHO).
But, I will say we tested all these monitors systematically, with certain constants and few variables (we moved some speakers around while listening), and we tested the same songs or segments on each monitors. We even placed soundproof material in between the speakers and after testing them individually, we did a "lightning round" where we ran through each in succession in a short time span.
Perhaps the Rolands sound better when they are connected digitally (like they recommend)...I doubt it. Perhaps the Alesis MKIIs would sound better in my own studio versus where I listened to them...I doubt it. Oh, I forgot, as far as monitoring at low levels, the list goes: Truths, Studiophiles, MKIIs... (having not tested the Mackies for this).
Chris Ertel is a dance music producer as well as a DJ. He is currently working on a full-length album with his band Mind Soup.