John Baccigaluppi and Scott McChane both spent time on the recently reintroduced Auratone 5C Super Sound Cube. John owns a pair of vintage 5C speakers that he's relied on for 25 years; they are currently installed in his Panoramic House studio in Stinson Beach, CA. Scott spent many sessions listening to those same 5C speakers at The Hangar, John's previous studio in Sacramento. When Scott moved to the East Bay, he decided he needed his own pair of Auratones. After auditioning the new Sound Cubes, John and Scott came to slightly different conclusions that relate directly to attributes of the 5C's basic design that each finds advantageous for his workflow. On one hand, this relatively small speaker with a single 4.5'' driver has less than full-range frequency response. On the other hand, it exhibits outstanding time-domain accuracy. Let's start with Scott's opinion and finish with John's. -AH
SM: We've all seen those little square, wood-paneled boxes sandwiched between Yamaha NS-10M monitors in countless session photos from the '70s and '80s. My favorite picture of the classic Sound Cubes is the old advertisement (seen on Auratone's website) featuring Quincy Jones behind a console, resting his elbows directly on a pair of 5Cs. Immediately, I envision Mr. Jones in the mix position, leaning a bit towards the Sound Cubes while slowly bringing up the harmonica solo while mixing his T.V. theme song for Sanford and Son. Though I don't know if Auratones were actually used in that session, Bruce Swedien [Tape Op #91] claims that for mixing Michael Jackson's records, 80% of the work was completed on 5Cs, and he almost insists that we all must have them. But genius engineers and producers aside - why?
Looking back on my actual experiences mixing with classic Auratones (as well as "Auraclones"), despite some popular sentiment, I would not characterize these monitors as cheap in quality or trashy in sound. Therefore, there must be an explanation for their wide use and popularity other than, "Hey, let's check the mix on crappy speakers." I would argue that perhaps Auratones have been such a staple monitoring tool not because they are "lo-fi," but because they're actually very accurate - within their frequency limits, of course. With a sealed, non-resonant enclosure and a single driver, the 5C doesn't suffer from the time-domain anomalies and phase- response deviations (and resultant comb-filtering) typical of ported 2-way designs. Rather, the 5C has a revealing and unforgiving midrange. I'd been shopping for some "mix check" speakers for some time and was just about to buy a pair of clones, when I got the news that Auratone was manufacturing again.
Auratone has been a family owned business since 1958, when Jack Wilson started running the company out of his garage in Chula Vista, CA. Jack's grandson Alex Jacobsen has revived Auratone and set up shop in Nashville, where he oversees production of the new 5C, which is based on the design of the circa mid-'80s 5C. Over its lifespan, the Super Sound Cube has been sold in seven variations, with slight differences in enclosure construction and frequency response due to part sourcing, etc. The new 5C has a cabinet made of 16 mm MDF, finished in a simple, matte black. It's well built, heavy for its size, and totally sealed on all sides - no ports or openings, and correspondingly, no noticeable resonance characteristics. The 114 mm "full-range" driver is mounted on the front of the small cabinet, above the classic Auratone logo. A pair of heavy-duty binding-post terminals is on the back.
The 5C doesn't need a ton of power; its maximum power rating is 25 watt RMS, 50 watt peak. I've been using a Lepai LP-2020A+ Tripath Class T stereo amplifier ($26 on Amazon) to drive my 5C pair. The Lepai came with a janky power supply, but otherwise, the amp is small and super-efficient, and it exhibits lower distortion than some Class A or Class AB amplifiers costing several times more.
The 5C's published frequency response is 75 Hz - 15 kHz. In use, I hear a gradual, natural drop from about 8 kHz to 10 kHz, and a sharp drop beyond 12 kHz. No fundamental tones are resolvable in the 5C's output above 14 kHz, at least not to my ears. At the low end of the spectrum, the drop starts gradually at around 200 Hz, then dips after 100 Hz; but I can still hear some information below 80 Hz. In practice, I find the Auratone's pronounced midrange curve to be quite natural and easy to work a mix with. When switching from my 2-way nearfield monitors, the 5Cs are most helpful in revealing over-EQ'ing of the high frequencies (especially that 4 kHz electric guitar sweet-spot) and damn indispensable in adjusting ambience for the lead vocal.
I'm in the habit of mixing at lower volumes, which is where I feel the 5C really works best. Before powering up the big monitors, I love quietly working up a mix in the Auratones, because they really push me to concentrate on the essential midrange elements of almost every source. I can hear right away when a rhythm guitar is overshadowing a background vocal, or when overheads are eating up the whole track. Setting (or checking) pans with the Sound Cubes is a breeze. Imaging is strong, and the sound stage is rendered with focus. Therefore, I can really feel the difference between 1 and 2 o'clock positions, and it becomes painfully obvious when a hard pan is just not the right way to go. I should mention that I did experiment with the popular technique of a single 5C for mono use (and I achieved good results doing so), but it's really not my "thing" - so I won't elaborate here.
For setting bass guitar and kick drum levels when working with a traditional rock mix, the new Auratones delivered just as the old ones have for years. However, for modern use - low-frequency side-chaining of kick drums, bass modulation, placement of electronic elements, etc. - I found I could not rely on the 5Cs alone to really balance low-frequency instruments, though the Sound Cubes were always helpful in the low midrange.
According to Swedien, Quincy Jones calls the Auratone 5C the "Truth Speaker." Though that statement may be subjective, just having the ability to get a different "picture" of the same "scene" is enough of an excuse to grab a pair immediately. The 5Cs are now an indispensable element of my workflow, and I avoid mixing without them. Plus, it's easy to take them along to wherever I'm working, as two Sound Cubes are small enough to fit in a camera bag, along with my Class T amp that's the size of a guitar pedal. Engineers and producers are sure to be checking mixes with the time tested and famously approved Auratones for another 50 years.
Scott McChane is at www.scottmcchane.com
JB: I've been using Auratones as one of my pairs of main mixing monitors for the past 25 years. I really depend on them to help me achieve proper balances. I will usually start a mix on bigger, louder monitors to shape and place my sounds where I feel they need to be. Then after a break, I'll come back and do 80% of the remaining work on the Auratones at relatively low volumes. Using this method, I find that I end up with better sounding mixes that translate well to other systems. I also seem to catch weird anomalies like noise and distortion more readily while listening on Auratones. Importantly, I'm less fatigued at the end of a long day.
So, I was curious to compare the new Auratone 5C model to my vintage 5C speakers (which were manufactured in 1985, according to their serial numbers), and seeing as how vintage ones are going for a decent amount of money on eBay, I suspect other people will be curious as well. I was wrapping up a session at Panoramic House, and engineer Scott McDowell was hanging out, so we hooked up the new Auratones in place of our Yamaha NS-10Ms and did a comparison.
Our first reaction was that I screwed up, and the NS-10Ms were still hooked up. The new 5C sounds nothing like the old one. It sounds much better. Hmmm - not what I was expecting. We double checked and confirmed that the Yamahas were disconnected. I can now attest to the new Auratones having much lower and higher frequency extension than the vintage ones I own. Scott commented, "They sound more like NS-10Ms than Auratones."
Next, just to eliminate the variable of the amplifier (the new 5Cs were on the NS-10Ms' Hafler amp, and the vintage ones were on a solid-state home stereo amp), we hooked up both Auratone pairs to the home stereo amp and used the amp's speaker switches. The Hafler had offered a bit more extension in frequency response, as well as more depth, but even on the home stereo, the new ones still sounded much better than the old ones. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around how to write this review, as the Auratones sounded so different from one another. Then, I thought that since I mainly use my vintage 5Cs for mix balance, I should listen to some mixes I'd done to determine if I would have balanced elements differently on the new 5Cs. During this evaluation, I realized that the midrange was really similar on both Auratones, and that for guitars and vocals especially, yes I would have likely made the same decisions. Bass was a bit trickier. The thing I like about my vintage 5Cs is that they have no bottom end. If I can hear the bass on them, then I feel that I'm doing something right. If the bottom end is out of control when I switch to the big monitors and subwoofer, I know that I still have work to do. Moving between these two extremes gives me insight in where to place the bass in the mix. I'd have to spend more time with the new 5Cs to see if I would get the same results, but my guess is that I would.
The bottom line is that vintage Auratones are overpriced and really don't sound that good. It's all about the midrange in my opinion, and both new and old sound very similar in that regard. I think SM's review does a great job of contextualizing the Auratones. After our testing, the other Scott (McDowell) commented, "I hate those old Auratones you have. I never use them. I really like these new ones. I'd use these." I like my old 5C Sound Cubes - a lot. But maybe you'll like the newer ones more. Both Scotts did. - JB
$349 street pair; www.auratonesoundcubes.com