Yamaha NS-10s (along with other equipment, like the Shure SM57) have undoubtedly been among the most omnipresent tools of our trade in the past three decades. Most professional engineers fall pretty heavily on one side or the other, the two sides being: 1. "I can't make a record without them," or; 2. "I can't stand them. Why would anyone want to listen to those all day?" I have remained ambivalent, but if pressed will admit to leaning towards the latter camp, having only worked on them with any regularity during the early 2000s in a studio that had a pair. Somehow I never felt compelled to purchase a set of my own, and the many engineers coming through the door at Figure 8 Recording seem to be in sync with my viewpoint – there's been a pair in the corner for years that I've only seen set up a couple of times.
I decided to try and take this opportunity to figure out why people love them so much, and why I never have. I mean, obviously I get the concept: bringing the "real world" into the studio environment, which otherwise might contain only super-expensive speaker systems that don't give a good sense of what most people will be hearing at home, or in the car, or in earbuds on the train. I have put lots of effort over the years into finding (and properly setting up) speakers that provide maximum translatability, but ones that also give me some amount of listening pleasure during hours and hours of work. I found that whenever I had Yamaha NS-10s as a secondary pair, switching over to them was simply too much of a bummer to want to stay on them. The low end disappearing, the lower midrange getting woofy, the upper midrange getting harsh, and the high end sounding pinched and crispy – I could never remain working on them long enough to get a feel for how their sound could influence my mix decisions.
All of that gives us the backdrop for where I was when I took receipt of the CLA-10s, Avantone Pro's take on the long discontinued and extremely popular Yamaha NS-10. They bear the initials (and chicken-scratch signature) of Chris Lord-Alge, certainly one of the most well-known and prolific mix engineers on the planet. They look very much like their inspirational antecedents, from the two little black drippy lobes on the white woofer cone to the car-dashboard tweeter grille to the black wood veneer. The main difference in construction, as Avantone states clearly on their website, is that the CLA-10 woofer cones are made of pressed pulp instead of an overlapped and glued flat paper sheet like those of the originals. Some have argued that the woofer construction was a huge part of the sound of the original Yamaha NS-10, since it damped the movement of the cone in a unique and effective way, but Avantone claims that their woofer has identical tonal and response characteristics to the original despite the construction variance – a claim which, of course, I had to put to the test. Remember how I mentioned that Figure 8 has a pair of Yamaha NS-10s collecting dust in the corner? I dusted them off and brought them up to my new spot in the Catskills, Spillway Sound, along with the CLA-10s and the CLA-200 power amplifier, which Avantone was kind enough to also lend me to review. I spent the next couple of months swapping in and out the two white-coned sets with my Bag End M6s [Tape Op #50], which have always been my absolute favorite passive "real world" monitors since I bought them in 2005. I pair the M6s with a Bag End subwoofer, because they start dropping off around 60 Hz, which is right around where the CLA-10s drop off also, according to their spec sheet. I did use the CLA-10s for a while with the subwoofer, which (I know) kind of defeats the point, but I just can't work for long without hearing what's going on "down there." Admittedly, turning off the sub is good for a quick check to make sure you can still hear the kick and bass elements doing their job above 60 Hz, but it's just too easy to overdo the subs in a mix if you don't ever hear them. Case in point, I was recording a synth bass a couple of days ago and forgot I had switched over to the CLA-10s with no sub. I spent a while tweaking the patch and sheepishly smiling at the client, like, "Sorry, heh heh, this synth usually sounds really marvelous, not quite sure what's wrong." Then I realized what was going on and switched back over, and immediately the bass synth rattled our guts, sounding as badass as I had been promising. Just an anecdote to warn you: Don't expect to hear the lower couple of octaves on these speakers without some augmentation.
But enough about the low end, since that's really not what the CLA-10 is there for. It's all about the midrange, right? Proponents of the Yamaha NS-10s claim that if you get the midrange right on them, it'll sound good on any system. On a technical level, this likely has to do with a better-than-average transient and time domain response (nerd alert!), but in practice it allows you to focus on the vocals, guitars, snare, horns, keys, etc., and really get them dialed in to work alongside each other. If you have any elements in your mix that are tending toward harsh, you will know it immediately. The CLA-10s delivered in that regard, to be sure. I have to be honest and say that I really didn't like the upper midrange when I started using them, but over time I have grown to understand it in a way that is most certainly helping me make better mix decisions. (Also, I felt like the speakers "broke in" and mellowed just a bit over a few weeks of usage, which could be expected.)
Having said all of that, they did sound different than the Yamaha NS-10Ms I compared them to. The ones I had were the vertical pre-"studio"/pre-"pro" models with the grille holes (check the Yamaha NS-10 Wikipedia page for the full lineage). The Yamaha's had a fair amount more treble (as that model is known for), a fair amount less in the 2 to 3 kHz range, and more details in the lo mids. Being somewhere between 30 to 40 years old, who knows if they are anywhere near factory spec nowadays, but I actually thought they sounded pretty pleasing over longer listening periods, much to my surprise. In my opinion, the CLA-10s sounded a little thinner and more aggressive by comparison. Switching power amps clearly made a difference. The CLA-10s (and the other speakers, to a smaller extent) sounded noticeably better through the CLA-200 power amp than through my Crown XLi800. There was a hair better transient response through the CLA-200, evident on the ping of a ride cymbal, for example, but interestingly the low end is where I really heard the difference. The impact of the kick in my chest really came into focus, where I had been missing it through the Crown amplifier. The CLA-200, which has the same power rating as the Crown, is almost exactly three times the price, so I'd expect better performance out of it, and it delivered.
One more thing about the CLA-200, and how it matches up with the CLA-10s: The CLA-10s are loud speakers, quite a bit louder than either of the other pairs I compared them to – they spec out 6 to 9 dB higher sensitivity-wise than the other sets. In practice, this means that you need to attenuate the signal somewhere if you want to quickly switch between the pairs. This happened to work out well, because when I had the CLA-200 above about 3 o'clock on its output controls there was a discernible noise floor coming out of the CLA-10s, which is something I'm not used to hearing with modern amplifier/speaker combinations. Backing the CLA-200 down I found a place where I could easily A/B with comparable level, without hearing white noise emanating from the CLA-10s (not a problem, just a note). Another byproduct of the CLA-10s being loud is that even at maximally robust listening levels – way above where I would leave the speakers for extended mixing – the big, honking VU meters on the CLA-200s barely move, which make them feel a bit of form-over-function to me. I'd prefer a less-attractive meter that operated in a more useful range, personally, but okay, they do look cool – and the little hiccups of movement in the -20 dB range of the meter clued me in that this amplifier has tons of headroom.
All in all, I'm feeling my position on Yamaha NS-10s start to shift a little after forcing myself to work on them for a chunk of time over the past couple months, although I wouldn't say that I'm a full convert yet. As for the CLA-10s, I do have some questions about how closely they match the original Yamaha NS-10Ms, but – to be fair – I only compared them to one set of decades-old speakers. I'm absolutely sure that if I'd had a few sets of Yamaha NS-10s they would all sound different from each other. As usual, when comparing a new version of an item to what it's trying to emulate, I take the concept of exact matching with a grain of salt, and at some point try to just evaluate the equipment on its own merits. My takeaway is that the CLA-10s are useful speakers, made with a high level of attention to detail, and they have been an important component of getting the mixes I've done in my new studio to translate better to other systems. I also like the robust connectors on the rear terminal plate, which can accept either bare wire or banana plugs – make sure you still screw them down if you're using bananas though; it took me a few minutes to track an infuriating rattle down to a loose binding post cap! The price is fair given the build quality, especially considering it's about the middle of the range for a used pair of Yamaha NS-10s, which aren't necessarily matched, and don't come with a warranty. I do feel like maybe there's a bit of a tax included for having such a superstar mix engineer's stamp on the CLA-10s, but so be it. As I'm leaning towards purchasing them, I'm sure I won't be the only one putting a little black gaffer's tape over the signature on the faceplate's logo, which I find pretty cheesy.
If you think these might be the speakers for you, but you'd like to save yourself $500, an active version (CLA-10A) became available during my review period for $999 a pair. These sport a knob labeled Variable Tissue Paper Control to change the tweeter's response to simulate the different models of Yamaha NS-10, some of which were reportedly made so that Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #129, 84] didn't have to keep hanging tissue paper in front of his Yamaha NS-10s' tweeters. I'll let you use your preferred search engine for the rest of that story, and, while you're at it, look for the great Bob Hodas' extremely thorough article for Recording Engineer/Producer magazine in 1986 about how different brands and ply-counts of tissue paper have varying affects on the tweeters' response. His conclusion is basically, "Um, we have a better tool for this, guys, it's called an equalizer." As far as technical acoustics reports go, it's pure comedy gold.