Speakers are, as my closest audiophile friends and colleagues always remind me, the most important component of any high-end audio system. But unlike, say, an interconnect cable or a DAC, or even an amplifier, speakers are not easy to slip into a New York City apartment unnoticed. More importantly, they usually come with certain serious constraints attached to them by others who live with you, such as one’s wife. Speakers are viewed like furniture: a curio cabinet, a dinner table or even a couch — they are not supposed to be (or allowed to be) visually intrusive in the general ambiance of your home. Navigating this fact to optimize the sound of your system is an art and the constraints imposed can vary widely from home to home. I am fortunate to have a wife who does not impose a strict ‘heard but not seen’ condition, but instead imposes only two required conditions — all reasonable — before allowing me to bring speakers into our apartment:
C1: They must look like elegant furniture that match and complement our apartment as a whole. (Only two units that is; please no cluttering separate subwoofers or centre – channel.)
C2: Each speaker may be neither taller nor heavier than she.
Although I admit trying to take advantage of C2 once when my wife was pregnant (to no avail), these conditions have overall worked out splendidly. Plenty of modern three-way floorstanding speakers satisfy the conditions imposed, and thus smaller monitor-style speakers on a stand or desk or wall-mounted are not a required option for me. My B&W 804 Diamond speakers in Rosenut sailed through C1/C2 with flying colors and even the unique outer-space looking shiny black tweeter gracefully placed atop each is viewed as a piece of art by all who enter our abode.
I now felt, however, that the time had come to work seriously on upgrading my speakers to improve the sound quality — and on my own terms. I had heard several systems over the last year with speakers endowed with a wider frequency range and improvement in sound quality that sometimes totally staggered me, and this even included some downright extraordinary sounding monitor-style speakers. By better sound quality I mean better attack and decay for percussion, with its lingering lifelike after effects, more detail and depth at all frequencies, more transparency, better timbral accuracy, faster, and more/extended/tight bass. Price, however, is an additional constraint and it can be non-trivial; even audiophile quality monitor-style speakers can cost retail upwards of $30K a pair. I wanted to keep within the general price range (±$3k USA, loosely) of the B&W 804 Diamonds which are $7,500 USA retail per pair.
A family friend since the ’70s, Nick Perfito, owner of the oldest (and most excellent) high-end stereo shop in Connecticut, The Stereo Shop, after meeting my lively toddler daughter before I acquired the B&W 804 Diamonds warned me: ‘If you have young children, then it is highly likely that they will poke a hole in your Diamond tweeters, thus requiring you to replace them at a very high cost,’ and he had ample (hilarious) real-life stories on hand to make his point. Fortunately, this did not happen to me; but that might be because my daughter was not tall enough yet!
As a final practical matter, I also demanded simplicity — I wanted to use the same supporting equipment that I already was using; my two monoblock amps (one for each speaker), speaker cables, and so on. I wanted a simple speaker swap for the desired significant improvement in sound. Since I do not use a preamplifier (I only use digital audio files on a computer as server connected to a DAC connected directly into my amps), I particularly wanted new speakers with exceptional transparency. So, I started digging around. While doing so I recalled a classic quote from Oscar Wilde: ‘I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.’
But given all the constraints and desires mentioned above — the budget constraint in particular — my quest appeared to be a daunting one.
To The Rescue: Monitor Audio Ltd from the UK, founded in 1972.
Finally, after floundering about at the recent NY Audio Show 2013 hunting for speaker options, and flirting for a while with several well-known and respected speaker companies (KEF, for example), onto my radar screen entered Monitor Audio Ltd. The company’s speakers appeared to contain unusual and inventive engineering, offer lifelike, natural sound, be of solid construction, and all of this with a very attractive price tag at various levels. I became intensely interested.
In addition to an entry-level MR Series, Monitor Audio offers four series of speakers (in increasing quality and price): Bronze BX, Silver RX, Gold GX and their flagship Platinum (PL) series that includes three models: the PL100 bookshelf and the PL200 and PL300 floorstanders. The PL100 is a two-way model while the latter two are three-way models.
The Gold and Platinum series contain special proprietary ribbon tweeters, with the Platinum series culminating with the reference PL300 model that has an astonishing frequency response of 28Hz to 100kHz, while retailing for only $11,000 USA per pair. High-end speakers typically have an upper frequency response above 20kHz (the upper limit of human hearing); the 804 Diamonds, for example, are up at 28kHz. Other companies offer speaker models in the 30-35kHz region and the KEF Reference models are even up at 65kHz, but 100kHz is extremely unusual. In Monitor Audio’s own words, ‘Specified to reach ultra-high frequencies up to an elusive 100 kHz, the Platinum’s magical ribbon tweeter will reproduce with ease every last nuance and detail from vinyl, CD, DVD-A and SACD, together with the wider bandwidth of HD-DVD and Blu-ray.’ As we shall see, they mean it, and they should add/update, ‘every last nuance and detail from digital audio files.’
Unfortunately, the PL300 speakers are hefty, weighing in at nearly 100 pounds each — condition C2 is being tested! More to the point, they are meant for a considerably larger listening space than I have (mine being 12’ x 15’). To set them up properly, I would have to place one in the living room and the other in the kitchen — seriously compromising condition C1 to say the least. And, at full throttle, I was warned, they would probably knock my windows out and get me evicted. The PL300 would be overkill. As such, I became absolutely riveted to the smaller and lighter PL200 model, their newest addition of the three. So I went to go see them to check them out.
Not only does the PL200 have the same famous high-frequency C-CAM ribbon tweeter and the same 4” midrange driver as the PL300, but its two 6.5” bass drivers are cleverly scaled down versions of the PL300’s larger 8” ones. But, here is the truly amazing part: each PL200 speaker only takes up about 33% of the volume of the PL300, weighs about 25% less (73 pounds), is only 39” tall, and has nearly the same performance specs — condition C2 is certainly met. Moreover, the retail price per pair is only $9,000, falling safely into my proclaimed budget range. I am leaving out the very impressive complex details of the proprietary designing and ingenuity of Monitor Audio that went into this major accomplishment — an engineering feat extraordinaire.
How Do PL200 Speakers Look?
Although more masculine in appearance than my B&Ws, the PL200 speakers are refined and elegant looking, gorgeous in fact — condition C1 is easily met. The real wood Veneer finish options (there are two, Santos Rosewood and Ebony, as well as a separate, Piano Black option) are carefully lacquered and stunningly beautiful. When the front black metal grille is removed, luxurious black leather encompassing the drivers is revealed, of the sort normally found as upholstery in the finest automobiles. Even when the protective grilles are attached, they expose the drivers — you can still see all four of them. Brilliant. A decision was made: I would make a serious effort to acquire a new pair of the PL200 speakers for review. I succeeded; I chose the Santos Rosewood Real Wood Veneer finish.
Setting Up The PL200s
It took only 30 minutes with the help of one of my brothers to set up the PL200 speakers and connect them to my system. The heavy-duty cardboard boxes they come in are themselves remarkable; velcro is used to seal them instead of staples, for example. We took each out of the box, and attached four screw-in spikes onto the bottom of the already attached black base, and then stood them on my living room rug exactly where the B&W 804s had been. Then we magnetically attached the black metal front grilles (optional to use), attached the speaker cables (already connected to my amplifiers on the other end) and then turned the system on— voila! The base (plinth) keeps them very stable; there is no way a child can knock them over. Super. If you want the speakers on a bare floor instead of a rug you just use the four soft-padded feet without the spikes and then you can properly level them by using the tiny leveling device in the tool kit provided. Thoughtful. Because of the ribbon tweeter, I was advised to toe-in direct to my ears, which I did and it was easily established as optimal with simple and quick experimentation even before I started seriously testing/reviewing. Widening out the toe-in caused the soundstage to become huge and unfocused, for example.
Special thanks to Sheldon Ginn (V.P. of Sales and Marketing in North America for Kevro Int. Inc., the North American distributor for Monitor Audio, based in Ontario Canada) and Michael Naidu (System Designer and Authorized Monitor Audio Dealer at The Sound Exchange in Somerville, New Jersey), for their help, patience and assistance with my queries, requests and acquisition. Michael allowed me extensive listening to his on-site showcase pair of PL200 speakers and was very generous with his knowledge both before and after I acquired a pair to take home. (And, his shop has one of the largest music collections to use for listening/testing that I have ever seen.)
New speakers always require some time to break in, particularly the woofers, so I knew that I had to be patient and wait before reviewing the PL200s in earnest. I purposely played boring elevator-style music with lots of bass 24 hours a day continuously for 4 days before even beginning my review. When I finally began my testing, I enjoyed what I heard right from the start: In less than a fortnight, the PL200s had transformed my listening space into a mini concert hall. Not only were all of my desired speaker improvements significantly addressed, but there was also an unexpected improvement in imaging, soundstage and dynamics, among other things. Wonderful.
As a first a test, I listened to ‘We Get Requests’, The Oscar Peterson Trio, Polygram Records (1997; remastered) the track ‘You Look Good To Me’. The staging and imaging were phenomenal, the extended bass was deep, tight and eloquent, and as for resolution/detail: About one minute into the recording, I could hear one of the musicians whispering, from the right channel, and saying things like ‘baby.’ Nothing like that came out of my system before. Tremendous.
As a second test, I decided for a piece with voice. Billy Joel’s title song ‘An Innocent Man’ from the album as a 96kHz/24bit FLAC file startled me: Every time he snapped his fingers you could hear it echo across the room, and I had never heard his strong voice with its highs and lows sound so lifelike before, and there was some reverb in the recording of Joel’s voice that I had never heard before either. In 2010 Steven Axelrod, a writer for Salon.com, wonderfully summarized Joel’s voice as follows: ‘Billy Joel has one of the great rock and roll voices — or perhaps I should say, he has three of the great rock and roll voices — a screamer, a crooner and a straight-ahead band-fronting tenor.’ Through the PL200 speakers I could vividly hear all three singing to me.
I followed up the singing with some of my favorites such as Norah Jones, ‘Come Away With Me’, Jacintha, ‘Autumn Leaves’, and Diana Krall, ‘Love Scenes’. All were absolutely lifelike and natural; just wonderful from the PL200s. I finished with Harry Belafonte’s classic ‘Day O’ from ‘Belafonte at Carnegie Hall’, a live performance, and his rendition of ‘John Henry’ from his ‘All Time Greatest Hits’. The lifelike soundstage (Carnegie Hall!) revealed by the PL200s was exceptional.
I quickly changed gear: If Billy Joel’s snapping fingers can sound like that, I thought, how about percussion in general? I put on the Jacques Loussier Trio’s, ‘The Best of Play Bach’ track 2, ‘Italian Concerto: Allegro’. Every cymbal had its own distinct timbre, and I could tell through the PL200s that the drummer, Andre Arpino, was using sticks with plastic tips. I listened next to the album ‘Fontessa’ by The Modern Jazz Quartet, with Milt Jackson on vibraphone. Spectacular imaging and soundstage with an impeccably natural sound was exposed by the PL200s; I now had a vibraphone in my apartment upon demand. And I didn’t have to sit in the sweet spot of my couch for that effect: I could stroll around my apartment with a glass of iced tea and still hear the vibes loud and clear. Further favorites of mine for drums (Bill Bruford’s live Earthworks album ‘Random Acts of Happiness’, and his ‘Masterstrokes’ album, for example), revealed just amazing timbre and accuracy. At times I could even hear the snare drum vibrate when the tom toms were played.
But, there was more going on here: The piano I was now hearing from the PL200s sounded more full-bodied and rich than I had heard before on my system from piano in general. The piano is, after all, a partly percussive instrument, and it is one of my favorite instruments to listen too. So why, I asked myself, did I not include the sound of a piano in any of my previous reviews? This lead to yet another unplanned detour.
In my recent review of the PS Audio PerfectWave MKII DAC, I was completely captivated by the cello sound on ‘Beethoven’s Complete Works for Piano and Cello’ performed by Zuill Bailey (cello) and Simone Dinnerstein (piano). I never commented at all on the sound of the piano because coming through my (then) speakers it was not special — a somewhat muted sound that was upstaged by the cello. So, I simply ignored it in the MKII review. But now, out of the PL200s, the sound from the piano was full of life. There was a resonating, sustained, and vibrant quality that was lacking before. Every time Dinnerstein hit a key, it was bright and rich-sounding with a longer and beautifully lingering decay. It caught me by surprise. I continued on with Bach’s Partita No. 1 for Keyboard as performed by Piotr Anderszewski on piano. The Menuets 1 and 2 have particular significance to me because I still recall listening to them played by my father on our living room grand piano when I was four years old or so. The PL200s brought Partita No. 1 back to life for me. Bravo.
I finished up my piano listening with Ginastera, Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 28, the 4th movement, ‘Toccata Concertata’, but it was filled with such fascinating detailed percussive sounds as displayed by the PL200s that I could not help myself: I quickly switched to the classical rock adaptation of it, ‘Toccata’ from Emerson Lake & Palmer (ELP), ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. An extraordinary piece — perhaps the greatest example of classical rock ever — not only are there timpani and tubular bells used, but it even contains the first example of using a drum kit connected to a Moog synthesizer, within a drum solo by Carl Palmer. ELP was deeply criticized at the time (mainly by people who did not even bother to listen to it first) for daring to treat a classical piece of music in that way, but Emerson personally visited Ginastera in Switzerland to play a recording of it for him and Ginastera famously told him (with some funny confusion at first), ‘You have captured the essence of my music, and no one’s ever done that before.’ I had seen ELP perform ‘Toccata’ live in the mid 1970s with a near front-row seat, and, as with the aforementioned Bach Partita, the PL200s brought this experience back to life for me.
Moving on, I decided it was time to give the PL200s a ‘stress’ test — volume. For fun I tried out something unusual. Paul Kaplan (from Kaplan Cable), when visiting my home some time ago to help me properly sort out my power cord situation (I am grateful to him), brought me an odd CD, ‘Nu Made (Remixes)’ by Balkan Beat Box. He had used it at the time to assess my system (in his own mysterious way). I ripped it but forgot about it — until now. Tracks 2 and 3, ‘Digital Monkey’ and ‘Adir Adirim’, for example, are fascinating; although not for everyone, I would describe the music as exotic Israeli-snake-charming-electro-disco-punk music, and it was very powerful and lively sounding from the PL200s. I cranked up the volume very high to give the PL200s a worthy workout and challenge them. Wow! The PL200s could really handle high volume. A final note about track 3: My toddler daughter started dancing about the living room and said, ‘I like this song Papa, it sounds like a horsey.’
The better/more bass the PL200s offer from what I had (and needed) is exemplary — eloquent and extended. I am not a fan of booming ‘house-shaking’ bass: although I greatly enjoy drinking a full-bodied, in-your-face-15%-alcohol Zinfandel from California once in a while, I don’t want every wine I drink to taste like that: I want a bass, a timpani or bass drum to sound like a bass, a timpani or a bass drum — not like a sonic boom. In that regard the PL200s are top-notch.
By digging for gold, I hit platinum with the Monitor Audio PL200 speakers. With such extraordinary performance at $9,000 per pair retail, the PL200s are competitive with speakers that cost much more. And, the PL200s offer an additional unexpected plus: When the volume is low, the sound quality is still outstanding. As I do most of my writing late at night when my children are sleeping, this was a most welcome find. Meanwhile, my wife now wants a new black leather couch to go with the black leather behind the grilles — I have decided it’s worth it as long as I still get my sweet spot. The PL200 get my highest recommendation.
Further information: Monitor Audio