As the Gear Reviews Editor, one of my responsibilities is matching up recording equipment with reviewers. In other words, if there's a piece of gear that the editors of Tape Op or the readers of the magazine want to see reviewed, I try to find a reviewer who I think will give the equipment a fair shake. The best reviewers will not only try a piece of gear in the situation for it was designed, but they won't be afraid to do something out of the norm; and as writers, they understand that their readers may have different initiatives or needs. I think that many recording engineers are extremely picky when it comes to choosing gear; oftentimes, there's disagreement. And that's one of the reasons why we're lucky to have so many gear choices. So when I recently heard a pair of the BM5A nearfield monitors with the BM9S subwoofer, I wanted to try a "double" review with more than one viewpoint. I first asked the engineers at WMBR Radio (where in 1989, I started a live music program along with fellow DJ Ted Young-it's still ongoing without us) to give the Dynaudios a shot for a couple months. These guys do hi-impact, down-and-dirty engineering on a limited budget and a tight schedule. Bands show up-and two hours later- they're on the air live, playing all the instruments and amps they'd normally have on stage, with everything close- mic'ed. Everyone-the band and the engineers-gets only one shot to make it sound good. And it usually sounds very good. It's interesting to read what one of the WMBR engineers had to say about his first sessions mixing on such highly detailed monitors. Afterwards, I took the Dynaudios down to The Lodge (one of my day jobs), where producer Neil Mclellan is encamped. Neil's work with The Prodigy, Erasure, NIN, Sasha, Carl Cox, Kevin Saunderson, Fat Boy Slim, and many others has earned him numerous #1 hits, 17 million CD's sold worldwide, and a Grammy nomination for Best Electronic/Dance Album of 2005. Because all the rooms at The Lodge were busy that day, we set up the Dynaudios in the kitchen, and not only did Neil "piss his pants" (he's a Brit), but two composers who walked in on our little test decided immediately to buy BM5A's for themselves. So here are the two opinions, starting first with the report from the engineers at WMBR. (BM5A pair $1299 MSRP, BM9S $1245; www.dynaudioacoustics.com) -AH
We do quite a bit of two-track recording at WMBR Radio, usually live on the air. Since this kind of work precludes any kind of post-recording tweaking, good studio monitors are essential to making sure we get it right the first time-what we hear in the studio has to correspond with what our listeners are hearing and also highlight potential problems with the mix so they can be addressed as quickly as possible. We're a small, college radio station on a budget, and this Dynaudio system is quite a bit pricier than anything we're used to. We came away from demo'ing them for a month impressed.
Compared to the usual two-piece studio monitor sets that we're used to, the Dynaudios can be somewhat difficult to set up. With five switches on each BM5A nearfield monitor, and two knobs and three switches on the BM9S sub, a bad combination of settings (for example, letting the low-pass on the subwoofer overlap the high- pass on the monitors) can result in some very muddy low- end sounds. After some experimenting, we were able to match the monitors to the subwoofer by setting the high- pass on the monitors to 80 Hz, playing a CD with a lot of bass, turning the subwoofer well above its normal volume, and slowly scanning the sub low-pass knob until we found a "sweet spot" without much overlap and no frequency gap. A tone generator could probably do this more precisely, but the quick-and-dirty approach was fine for our purposes. The high-frequency shaping on the monitors, fortunately, sounded good out of the box and didn't require tweaking. Interestingly, if the high-pass on the monitors is set to "flat," they can function without the sub and sound only slightly weak in the lows, which was surprising considering what tiny little things (6'' woofers) they are! If you want to save some money, the BM5A's are a perfectly viable monitoring solution without the subwoofer.
Once we had them set up to our liking, the Dynaudios delivered an impressive level of detail at all frequencies. Interestingly enough, this turned out to be a double-edged sword. Because the clarity of the monitors was so much better than what we were accustomed to, every bad mic placement, poorly-tuned drum, and cheap microphone jumped right out of the mix, tempting us to overcompensate for insignificant mix issues. But once we spent some time with them, a mix that sounded good on the Dynaudios in the studio would generally sound even better on the air; having every sound problem thrown into sharp relief resulted in a very polished final mix. A major exception to this was the use of effects on vocals and instruments, particularly subtle reverb on vocalists. The effect of vocal reverb on the mix relies on a certain amount of frequency blurring to smooth out harsher voices, and the ultra-clear BM5A's didn't provide that; reverb would often sound much more spacey and pronounced than on other speakers. At the end of the day, the question of whether or not the level of detail on the monitors was too much of a good thing boiled down to a matter of taste; some of our engineering staff loved the detail, and some absolutely hated it.
Our final verdict on the Dynaudio setup was that it sounded more clear than any monitoring system we'd ever used, period. Given that it retails for several times the cost of the other monitoring systems in our studio, and given that the extreme clarity caused some of us translation problems in certain situations, the setup might not be perfect for our particular application. If we were doing serious production work, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend these things, but live recording is a very blunt instrument, and adding a scalpel to the setup doesn't change that.
-Bryan Cord, Kyle Bittinger, Nick McCarthy, Ramsey Tantawi; www.wmbr.org/shows/pipeline/
First of all, let me say that reviewing a set of speakers for mixing can be an extremely subjective matter. It's completely a case of horses for courses. What's great for one engineer/producer is bad for another. So I urge the listener to believe in a monitoring system only after a good spell of mixing and/or recording on it. As most of you know, the industry standard for nearfield monitoring (if you can call it a standard) is a pair of NS-10M's next to a pair of Auratones. I will admit that I do use both of these models and have done so for many years, but they're like the furniture to me. I also want to emphasize that a speaker is only as good as the amplifier driving it, and I am in favour of Chevin Research amps from deep within the UK. With such a fast reaction time, Chevin amps can really help any speaker perform to its best ability. Now let's move on to discussing the Dynaudio system.
The first thing that struck me when I saw the BM5A was its compact size. It's small enough to fit well in any workspace. Its cabinet does go back in depth quite a long way, so even before playing any music, I had a good feeling about its ability to move air and deliver some low end. I thought to myself, "Nice good depth, huge rear port, break out the DUB!!!"
After setting up the BM5A pair and turning them on, I was so wonderfully blown away. If good things come in small boxes, then this is the ultimate. A small set of monitors with a huge punch. Amazing clarity at all frequencies. Imaging so perfect it inspires one to write and mix beyond the normal threshold. At the end of the day, any music gear-software or hardware-should above all be inspiring and effortless. This is it, with oodles to spare. The BM5A's are that good. The built-in amps (50 W for the woofer and 50 W for the tweeter) seem to have headroom beyond the speaker capacity, so I have not once felt that I am overdriving the amp and therefore colouring the sound. And as I said earlier, a speaker is no better than the amp driving it, and it's clear that Dynaudio really thought this one out.
Exploring the BM5A a little further, I was very happy to see a great array of DIP switches (five total) on the back, allowing one to optimize the speakers to their environment. There is a high-pass filter switch to match the BM5A to a sub with settings for flat, 60 Hz, and 80 Hz. A switch marked LF lets you bump up the lows by 2 dB or drop them by 2 dB-useful if you mount the monitor near a wall. An HF switch allows a 1 dB boost or cut to the highs-great for that subtle tweak if your mixes are translating a little too dull or a little too bright. An MF setting with 2 and 4 dB cuts is designed to compensate for the lower-mid bump you get if you mount your monitors on the console's meterbridge. And input level can be adjusted with a three-position switch. Be warned, because all of these switches can really make a difference. Before settling on any changes, I would suggest printing a mixdown with the speaker settings in their initial positions and then printing a whole new mix from scratch with the new DIP settings. Play the two mixes on other systems (cheap hi-fi and car stereo included) and decide which configuration you like best. This is a laborious mission but well worth it to keep your perspective correct.
I haven't yet said anything about the BM9S subwoofer because the BM5A's are so fantastic that you may not need the sub. The range of the BM5A is quite full. That said, let's take a look at the subwoofer.
I love the subwoofer. Even though it's quite small-utilizing only a 10'' woofer-it sounds great. And maybe because the driver is so small, and in conjunction with the amplifier behind it, the unit's slew rate seems extremely high. I've had issues before with other subwoofers sounding too "late," so they don't gel with the satellites, so up until now, I rarely found myself mixing with a sub. But this one sounds tight. The slew rate is like BANG! Even with serious 808 kick drums- that's my test, and the BM9S and the BM5A together sound like one speaker.
My biggest problem was that the bass sounded so good, I turned it up a little too big, and my first mixes sounded a little lightweight. Also, the crossover took a while to set up and put into a happy place. I did what the two manuals suggested, but I think the manuals for the BM9S and the BM5A were written apart from each other- to make each more universal-so there's no real recipe for matching these two specific models together. On the back of the sub, there's a continuously variable knob to sweep the sub's low-pass frequency from 50 to 150 Hz. There's also a separate high-pass switch on the sub to cut off low frequencies going to the satellites; this switch has flat, 60, and 80 Hz settings. I settled on using the 60 Hz switch on the back of the BM5A satellites, and dialing in the sub's low-pass filter to somewhere around 70 Hz. (There are no real markings on the knob, so this is only a guess.) This gave me the maximum "join" with the least "hump" and made the system sound the most cohesive. By the way, the low-pass knob is incredibly sensitive, so it's best to mark it once you've tweaked it carefully. I should also mention that there's an LFE input that bypasses the filtering and satellite outs so you can use the BM9S to reproduce the dedicated effects channel while simultaneously providing the normal bass range for the main L&R. You can also set up the BM9S as an LFE- only sub or as a slave to a master BM9S.
I've had the BM5A pair and BM9S sub for not quite a couple months now, but I've completed a whole bunch of work on them already, including three tracks for F&V (a new band with a London street sound and great vocals) and a single for Télépopmusik. I've moved the speakers with me and used them successfully in a number of different spaces-from professionally-designed control rooms to storage areas (literally). And I think they're an amazing package. With the care and attention paid to the design of all the components in the system, there's a beautiful balance that can really be heard. They are the dog's bollox, and I am not giving them back.