Why, why, why?
My father says that as a kid I asked why so many times he almost gave up having conversations with me. As a (semi) adult I haven't stopped, although now I attempt to answer my own questions. One "why" that I've been working on of late, is why would someone buy a mini-monitor? The drawbacks are myriad. Quickly covering the majors, there is the lack of deep bass, and on some minis, any bass whatsoever. In addition, dynamics are usually restricted. As for the supposed price advantages of minis, in truth, to get the most out them you need to spring for high quality speaker stands, which often offsets their original price benefit. And once you place those cute little speakers that your spouse approved of on ugly stands their perceived furniture value evaporates as well.
Still, minis do have a plethora of virtues that work to balance the ledger. For equal dollar amounts, the smaller box size of a mini, and hence lower material and construction cost, allows for greater expenditure on drivers and crossover components. In addition, a smaller box is usually easier to brace than a large one, resulting in cleaner sound due to less box resonance. That small box also contributes to cleaner sound in another way. Its smaller front surface makes controlling diffraction easier. In addition, if your significant other is accommodating, correct room placement is usually easier to achieve using a mini. As a final point, the weak lower bass of minis is often an unexpected benefit. Since big, full-range speakers often overload a room's bass handling abilities, the gentler bass capabilities of a nicely balanced mini makes for a more room-friendly speaker. Furthermore, if your room won't support deep bass, with a mini you are not paying for bass extension that you cannot hear or use. 'Course, the real trick is to find a mini that controls or eliminates the standard drawbacks while accentuating a mini's virtues. I guess I'm just lucky, because while pondering these points one of Phil Jones' latest speaker designs showed up on my front porch.
And our guest tonight is
In case the name Phil Jones is not familiar to you, I direct you to his most famous design, the Acoustic Energy AE-1. And if the AE-1 is not familiar to you, you have my condolences. This superb mini monitor helped to redefine what minis are capable of. Combining grain-less highs, a detailed and uncolored midband, superb imaging, and most surprisingly, bass that reached most of the way to the last octave, these were speakers that audiophiles and music lovers alike fell in love with. So, after his success at Acoustic Energy, and a venture at Boston Acoustics Phil landed in New Hampshire and formed his own company, Platinum Audio. Hence we come to the speaker under discussion today, the Studio 1.
The Platinum Audio lineup consists of 3 different but parallel product groups. The Studio line is the entry level, consisting of the Studio 1 ($995) and the Studio 3 ($1695). In the mid-line, The Listening Room Series, the Solo is the equivalent to the Studio 1, with the Trio corresponding to the Studio 3. There are also other models in this series and the prices range from $1695 to $3895. Platinum's premium series consists of the Reference line, currently containing the Reference 1 and the Reference 2 ($3995 and $6500, respectively). Across the line these speakers share common design principles, including a rear ported enclosure, a single 1 inch; metal dome tweeter, and, depending on the model, one to four 5 inch mid/bass drivers. Besides the number of mid/bass drivers, differences between the models consist of enclosure size, and whether the 5 inch drivers are employed in a two or three way configuration. Differences between the lines consist of enclosure materials, component quality and not much else. Or to put it another way, as you move up the models and up the groups what you get is the same thing you had before, only more of it, and in higher quality.
How do I look Honey?
Before I get to the obligatory description of the Studio 1, I've got to get a question off my chest. What the hell is black oak? Isn't it just oak with a coat of black paint? Or is it, perhaps, a special type of wood grown in the same forests that furnished Ford, Chrysler, and GM with all that plastic wood in the 70's? And why do so many speaker companies use it? -- Well, that off my chest, I'm happy to say that the Studio 1's are NOT covered in black oak. The pair I had in for review were indeed black, but the surface was textured to look very similar to the black powder finish on the accompanying 24 inch tall speaker stands (BTW, we've had a debate here at SoundStage! concerning the meaning of "powdered finish." Yours Truly says it looks slightly pebbled, as if someone had sprayed baby power on fresh paint -- no where near as chunky as the acoustic spray on ceilings, but still with that sort of texture. Or perhaps more like the surface of an orange. Others say "typically smooth, but non-glossy not exactly flat, maybe satin would be close." I agree with the non-glossy. Does anyone out there have the definitive answer?) Paired together they looked quite striking. As you would expect from a speaker with a single 1 inch metal dome tweeter and single 5 inch mid/woofer, the Studio 1's are indeed mini monitor sized. At 8.25 inches wide and almost 14 inches high, they present a narrow face. However, at 13.25 inches deep, they cast a deeper profile than the typical mini monitor. They are also heavier than typical, weighing in at 23 pounds each. As an example, the ProAc 1S, which also uses a 5 inch mid/bass driver, is 1 inch narrower, 2 inches shorter, and 4 inches shallower. It also weighs 7 pounds less.
Besides their unusual profile, there are three other distinctive visual characteristics. First, the grills are perforated metal, and are designed to remain on. In fact, there is no obvious way to remove them, as the grills slide into tight grooves along the right and left edges of the speaker face (I used the tip of a corkscrew inserted into a hole in the grill and then gently pulled to extract the grills -- they slid back in with a little effort). Second, the bottom plate and top cap of the speaker are gently curved in front, and at the center of the face of the speaker protrude about an inch. This protrusion, while quite nice looking (and foam padded), is, perhaps, a cause of audible concern. Lastly, the rear of the speaker, besides the pair of 5-way binding posts (for bi-wiring), and the dual 1.5 inch, flared ports, sports heat sink fins for the crossover. Cool! Actually, as you would expect, there is not a lot of heat in a crossover circuit, but Phil believes that the couple of degrees of heat that can build up in a crossover are damaging, and so a heat sink.
"And now, direct from Studio 1 "
I can hear you ask, "So Todd, how do they sound?" Well, I'm glad you asked, because that's a question I definitely have an answer for. In short, good. Real good. However, there's more to the story than just the short answer.
When I first placed the Studio's in the main system they sounded just about exactly as you would expect. The metal dome tweeter had yet to fully break in and the woofer was also tight. In other words, while detailed, the overall sound was bright, bass shy and harmonically thin. Knowing that time heals many things, I let 'em cook for a while before forming any judgements. After 100 hours the tweeter smoothed out and the brightness disappeared. Hey, did I use a word as strong as disappeared? Yep, I did. And I meant it. This metal dome tweeter is good enough to make you forget that it is a metal dome. Clean and resonance free, it is a superb driver.
As for the bass, after the 100 hour break in period, it too was much more presentable. Did I just use a word as weak as presentable? Yeah, I did. Do I mean it? Well, no. The bass was actually very good. Actually, it bordered on stunning. I was often shocked at the volume, depth and force of the bass. While being able to reach down to the upper 30s/lower 40s before rolling off is impressive for a box this size, what consistently amazed about the 1's bass was they way the room was pressurized by its single 5 inch woofer. For example, Joshua Redman's "Freedom in the Groove" features some delicious drum work by Brian Blade, and the Studio 1's extracted every last oomph from his kick drum. From across the room I felt as much as I heard the impact. Very realistic. And if not the very best performance like this I've heard in my room, than so close that I can't remember what has bettered it.
As for the harmonic leanness, that too had been ameliorated. In fact, if anything, it had gone a bit too far. The criticisms I have of the Studio 1 lie in its upper bass and lower midrange region. In comparison, the degree of both clarity and harmonic correctness I hear from the Dunlavy SC-III's (review soon) was simply not in the Studio 1's repertoire. However, please consider that the 3-way, floor standing Dunlavy speakers are 4 times the price of the Platinum speakers. Getting back to the Studio 1's, at low to mid volume levels the midrange is excellent. They correctly, and with very little coloration, convey the sound of guitars, female vocals and the piano. I often found myself just kicking back and enjoying what I was hearing, especially for late night listening, where these volume levels are more appropriate. It was only when the volume knob was twisted up that the Studios began to trip up a bit. The powerful bass drive seemed to push up the spectrum a bit, adding a slight thickness to the lower mids. This also slowed the apparent response time, or pace of the speaker by a slight amount. Combined, these traits gave a slightly muddy tone to the upper bass and lower midrange at high volumes, a common occurrence with ported speakers ('course, without the port, less boogie). This congestion showed itself strongest on male vocals and the left hand on piano pieces. With the McCormack DNA-0.5 Deluxe amp, the effect was less than with the Warner Imaging VTE-201S, although it was noticeable with both amps. When the Nordost Red Dawn speaker cables took the place of the Cardas HexLink 5-C cables the congestion was even less noticeable. And when the Red Dawn was bi-wired the congestion was reduced to the point that it was only slightly noticeable.
One area of particular note was the dynamic power of the 1's. As you may have guessed from their bass power, they could really ignite. In fact, they are the most dynamically responsive mini monitor I have ever heard. I seldom get comments from the neighbors about the volume coming from my place but several times while the Platinum's were playing I entertained unexpected visitors. The funny part is that I hadn't been playing music at sustained high levels, but rather the peaks were louder than either I or my neighbors have been accustomed to. And in the long run the visits turned out well. One neighbor even went so far as to buy a pair of Studio 1's based on a demo in my place! Before leaving this topic, I do need to insert one caveat about the dynamics. The Studio 1's are of relatively low sensitivity (I'd guess in the low to mid 80s), and so they suck up a lot of amplifier power. To get the full impact they are capable of I strongly suggest at least a 100 watt amplifier, and one that can swing a lot of current as well. So supplied, the 1's will knock your socks off.
As for the typical mini monitor strengths of imaging and staging, the Studio 1's score quite admirably. The image stability was equal to the best I have heard in my room, with a stage that was wide, although not quite as deep as I like. Placement was relatively forgiving, as long I gave them at least 20 inches of space from the back wall. As for fit and finish, they were flawless.
As with any monitor type speaker, stands play an important part in their performance equation. To that end, Platinum, along with the Studio 1's, also sent their matching stand ($269). This stand is 24 inches high and has two support tubes that can be sand or lead shot filled.
When the Studio 1's first showed up I placed them on my sand and lead filled Spica Gravity stands, as I know these stands quite well. After several weeks I switched to the Platinum stands, now sand and lead shot filled themselves. If I had to choose between the two stands in this standard configuration the Spica stands would be my first choice, but by the smallest of margins. But the Platinum stands had another trick up their sleeves. See, the Studio 1's come with 3 rubber feet that screw out. In their place optional spikes can be screwed in their place, or best of all, an optional kit can be used to bolt the 1's directly to the stands. Once I removed the Studio's rubber feet and bolted them to the Platinum stands there was no contest. Bass was obviously tighter, deeper and faster than it had been previously. The stage was wider and more stable as well. The match of speaker and stand was so good it was like they were made for each other! Yes, these stands are essential, and they really do look good with speakers as well.
That's a wrap...
Are the 1's perfect? Not even Platinum will tell you that. The other Platinum models are all higher priced, and so one would assume, higher performing as well. My listening sessions revealed some upper bass/lower midrange coloring, a slight thickening of the bass when the speakers are pushed hard, and a slightly foreshortened stage. Still, these are relatively small issues, most especially when the 1's $995 price is taken into consideration.
Best off all, my time with the Studio 1's helped me answer my original question concerning why any one would or should buy a mini monitor. Phil Jones has made many intelligent decisions in designing these speakers. The traditional virtues of a mini are abundant. They image well, the box is rigid and contributes very little resonance. The tweeter is the same one used in the higher priced Platinum speakers, which, not doubt, contributes mightily to the 1's overall classy presentation. And the Studio's are small enough to be placed in a good spot in your room. In addition, Phil has also subdued many of the mini's traditional bugaboos. The Studio 1's have bass, and lots of it. In fact, the bass is good and deep enough that five Studio 1's were used by Platinum at their CES AC-3 demonstration, where they sounded excellent. Even Phil's choice of a ported enclosure is well done, since a ported enclosure extends the bass frequency of a mini monitor (or any speaker for that matter). A ported enclosure, at its lower limit, also rolls off very quickly, faster than a similar design in a sealed box, or a sealed box that has a similar -3dB point. So the 1's reach deeper in the bass than you expect, but unlike a sealed box, roll off fast, avoiding room overload (although there is that congestion at higher volume levels, but still Phil has struck a very nice balance here). Lastly, the matching stands are reasonably priced, and look very nice to boot. All in all, a well designed, good looking, nice sounding $1264 speaker (with stands).
In trying to sum up, I's reminded of H. L. Mencken's comment that he could write faster than anyone who wrote better than he did, and that he could write better than anyone who wrote faster than he did. In a like manner, the Studio 1's do the mini monitor thing better than any comparably price speaker that has better bass, and has better bass than any comparably priced speaker with better imaging. A canny balance. So, now we find ourselves with one final question. Do you need to hear these speakers? Absolutely!
|Studio 1 Loudspeaker
Price: $995 USD