In my mind, one of the greatest shortcomings of the hybrid/in the box era in which we find ourselves is the loss of a coherent, thoughtful approach to the monitor section of a studio. The center section of a large format console is almost always hugely flexible and easy to use, especially compared to the complication of integrating a mix of components from several manufacturers. I needed to find an affordable monitor controller that was capable of both stereo and 5.1 surround operation and painlessly switchable between both – a part of the market in which I found surprisingly underserved. Enter the Heritage Audio Reference Audio Monitoring system 5000 (RAM 5000 for short). The RAM 5000 is Heritage Audio’s flagship entrant to the monitor controller space. It’s so surprisingly affordable and comparatively feature-rich that I felt compelled to write this review after having already purchased one for use in my studio.

The four main sets of analog +4 dBu inputs are presented on standard DB-25 connectors. Main Input 1 on the DB-25 connector is additionally mirrored on XLR for ease of use in smaller setups. There’s also a -10 dBV consumer line-level input presented on unbalanced RCA connectors, a Digital Input with connectors presented for AES/EBU, TOSLINK, and S/PDIF, and last, but definitely not least, a Bluetooth input for consumer devices.

There are five pairs of XLR Stereo Outputs. In 5.1 mode, the first three sets of I/O gang together to form a monitor path in the SMPTE channel configuration. In Stereo mode, they are simply three discrete stereo pairs. Since the SMPTE spec is L/R/C/LFE/Ls/Rs, your favorite set of monitors is available on Output 1 in either mode and the 4th and 5th sets of outputs enable the particularly speaker-rich to still have three pairs of monitors at the ready for stereo work without the need to ever physically reset the room. Considering this, Heritage Audio has configured the LFE output to be useable in both stereo and multi-channel modes if desired, however there is no onboard bass management in either stereo or 5.1. I already employ plug-in based bass management when working in surround, which simultaneously ensures the deliverables will be printed correctly and makes a layer of control at the monitor level unnecessary. For stereo use, even the most entry-level consumer subwoofers have onboard controls for crossover and volume, so bass management feels redundant here as well.

The Bluetooth input will likely be quite controversial with some of you luddites, so I will skip any kind of qualitative analysis and simply say it does work and is really cool. The RAM 5000’s Bluetooth circuit automatically detects the best available codec on the pairing device and utilizes the highest resolution available – AAC lossless for Apple devices and Qualcomm’s aptX for Android. The SBC codec is also present for older devices that can’t communicate via either of the other higher resolution protocols. This, coupled with an analog path based around the venerable Burr Brown op-amp design, results in a wireless streaming connection that is both extremely convenient and properly good sounding. It feels like a version of future that’s finally backwards compatible with our highly prized vision of the recent past. Let the RAM 5000 be the rocks that I forever dash the ubiquitous and shitty-sounding 1/4-inch-to-whatever cable upon.

The standout feature for me is the talkback implementation. The remote has momentary switches which route the built-in electret talkback mic to the two available cue feeds. There’s gain control for the talkback mic built into the remote as well. Engaging talkback dims the studio monitors as expected, but Heritage Audio has also added an 8-channel DB-25 I/O passthrough for third party cue systems which simultaneously dims all the cue feeds and routes talkback to every channel of the passthrough. This feature solves an essential issue I’d been trying to figure out for years, and to my knowledge no other major consumer monitor controller has this functionality.

The construction of both the remote and rack unit of the RAM 5000 feel robust, and all the switches and knobs are nicely tactile. The switches on the remote are illuminated and monitor level is displayed on a backlit screen so you can easily see the current state at a glance – even in the vibe-iest of lighting situations. One thing unique to the RAM 5000, however, is that the remote connects wirelessly to the rack unit. The only physical connection on the rear of the remote is the USB-B connector used for charging the unit. The typical and specialized, multi-pin cable situation is instead replaced by a jaunty little antenna! If I’m being honest, wireless connectivity for the remote felt a bit gimmicky until I handed it to someone across the room so they could use the talkback system just like the brainstorm remotes from the days of yore. In normal use here, I have simply routed a USB cable to the controller so power need never enter the conversation – the remote is also fully operational while charging. That being said, my remote just made it to 50 hours on a single charge under heavy use.

The RAM 5000 replaced a Tonelux CR2 Control Room Monitor Module, which I had known and loved for about ten years; but as soon as I plugged in my new system it was an old friend. It sounded slightly more modern and cleaner than the CR2, which made the RAM 5000 feel like a welcome update to a system I already knew and loved, rather than something that would require any learning curve to integrate.

I’ve been working with the RAM 5000 for about six months now, and in that time have sound-designed two independent films in 5.1, scored two independent films in 5.1 (one delivered stems in stereo, the other, final mixes in 5.1), hosted a 5.1 rerecord premix for an outside mixer that we then finished in 5.1 at a dub stage here in town, mixed an orchestral score in stereo for Kris Bowers for an audiobook Kobe Bryant produced, mixed the new Bing & Ruth record in stereo for 4AD Records, mixed a AAA video game score in 5.1 (which required a massive and highly specific set of multi-channel outputs), mixed half an episode of Kris Bowers’ score for Ava DuVernay’s new show in 5.1, tendering ten wide 5.1 stems in the style of the mixer who had handled the bulk of the series, did a week of production, and overdubs with Heather Christian for the OST for her musical Animal Wisdom (which will deliver in stereo), as well as a host of writing sessions, commercial songs, the occasional mix recall, and more than a few late night YouTube holes/phone rough listening parties (via Bluetooth!). This kind of genre, media, and channel configuration hopping is pretty typical for me these days, and the RAM 5000 has been flawless through it all.

As far as any complaints, the Master Level knob itself is not detented. In operation, this isn’t an issue because the knob is simply a control voltage source that tells the rack unit which fixed-level output relay to utilize. Effectively, this means it’s still a “detented” control, but literally everyone who touched it for the first time said, “Oh, it’s not detented?” in the same judge-y way – myself included. Ironically enough, even though the Tonelux CR2 was a detented, switched network of resistors in fine old-school fashion, it was also prone to switching noise – something that no amount of Caig DeoxIT or exercising could ever really fix. Another thing I noticed is that engaging the talkback can occasionally make a large “clack.” This appears to be mechanically-coupled noise from the switch being depressed, as the talkback mic is mounted inside the remote. This isn’t a problem with a light touch, but I could see that noise becoming an issue in situations where you’re multitasking quickly with a client who likes to listen to their headphones at full blast. All that said, the RAM 5000 is a huge winner for me. A massive amount of connectivity, smarter stereo and multi-channel interoperation, arguably the most intelligent talkback integration with multi-channel third party cue systems on the market, and freaking Bluetooth. Best of all, it sounds incredible and is $1,500 cheaper than the closest alternative, with a feature set that rivals some of the most expensive controllers available today.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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