Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Tinkering with a successful formula is an incredibly risky proposition. Don’t believe me? Just ask Chevrolet’s designers about the hate mail they receive every time a new generation of Corvette is unveiled. Or maybe ask Jack Dorsey how things went after Twitter’s last big redesign. Change things too much, and you run the risk of losing the spirit of what made the product successful to begin with. Don’t tinker enough, and what’s the point?

So, with Monitor Audio introducing a new generation of its beloved Silver series loudspeakers, I couldn’t help wondering how its designers threaded that needle, innovating enough to justify a line relaunch without turning the speakers into something unrecognizable.

To get to the root of that question, I sat down with Monitor Audio technical director Michael Hedges and product design director Charles Minett via Zoom to discuss the history of the line, what the Silver series means to them, and how they approached the seventh generation of the high-performance, high-value speaker family.

Monitor Audio

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Dennis Burger: I’m sure you’re both as eager as I am to discuss the new seventh-generation Monitor Audio Silver loudspeaker lineup. But before we do that, I’d like to talk about the history of the range. It seems to me that Silver has always been a very appealing sweet spot for Monitor, a sort of optimal balance of performance and value, and I know a lot of people have a lot of love for the line as a result.

Charles Minett: You hit the nail on the head there. I’ve been involved with Monitor Audio since 2003, and the Silver RS—the third-generation Silver—was the very first loudspeaker project I worked on in its entirety. So it’s always been the backbone of our range—since its inception in ’98, I believe it was. It’s always had the broadest appeal, globally, because of the number of products in the range and the variety of products within the range. And we’ve always worked very hard to keep it quite fresh, both aesthetically and acoustically.

Michael Hedges: It’s a great product to work on because it’s a product that lots of people are going to get to experience, and Charles and I are here at Monitor Audio because we want to deliver a better listening experience to as many people as possible. And when you’re working on a product that you know gets engagement—you know has a wide appeal to lots of people and is well-known in the marketplace—it’s exciting to see what you can do with it.

It’s got a great design history to it, but it’s also got a great audio-quality history. It has evolved and changed in some ways over the years. In more recent history, we’ve been applying very cutting-edge science to the way we design loudspeakers, both in the audio sense but also the design sense. So Silver’s always that product where we take everything we learn from the lower-end ranges like Bronze and higher-end ranges like Platinum, and we bring it all together.

DB: So how do you know when it’s time to bring it all together? Do you start with the thought, “We need to update Silver”? Or is it more like, “Hey, we’ve got some advancements, and these would be good for the Silver line”? And when does that conversation begin?

CM: On core ranges like Silver, we’re straight on with development, to a certain extent. We’ll be thinking about the next generation of Silver next year, even if it may be a long time until that happens. It could be years and years. It’ll be implemented at the right time for the market. But the initial thoughts and discussions will happen as soon as next year.

MH: We have a series of ranges—Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum—that are core to the way we structure our business. They have a release cadence to them. So we’re always looking at where things change in the market—maybe new furniture trends have come out, and new finishes are required. Things like that. We’re monitoring that continuously.

But in the background, we’re also developing other ranges. And we’re using all that information to then build onto the next Silver generation. Even today, having just launched Silver, there are things we could make better in it. So it isn’t a question of, “Do you wait until you could make something better?” It’s more about, from an R&D perspective, we’re wanting to do a new range because we have so many things we know we could do better all the time.

The whole product-development process is just continually evolving. And I know there’s the perception, “What’s changed in hi-fi loudspeakers?” Well, fundamentally, in the physics, not a huge amount. But the tools we’re using to develop them have changed, and therefore at a particular cost point, we’re able to do more with what we’ve got, and we’re able to do more at such an increasingly rapid pace.

So just to give you a bit of insight into the early days of something like this: there’s a lot of market research that happens and a lot of concept design work that Charles’s team does, but there’s also a lot of simulation work, both in CAD and in FEA [finite element analysis], and we get frequency response, impedance curves, and all the metrics you require to design a loudspeaker, virtually, before we’ve even touched any parts.

So we’re able to then iterate on that whole process. Is it the right shape for the customer? Is it the right size? What would the impacts of a size change be? Have we got the drivers right? Is the crossover working with the drivers and vice versa?

And when we get into listening sessions, are we going to be able to get near our targets for how the loudspeakers should sound? We’re doing those improvements virtually. So it’s a really exciting time to be developing loudspeakers, because there are so many changes going on with the way we actually do our work.

Monitor Audio

DB: Ignorant question, if you don’t mind: when you’re developing new speakers in these different lines—Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum—is there a target sonic signature for each line that differentiates them, or is it all simply about trying to hit some platonic ideal and coming as close as you can given the budget of each range?

MH: I think it’s probably closest to the second point. It’s more about what we can do at this price point to get as close as possible to our ideal of how we think music should be presented to listeners. We want them to be able to sit down and enjoy their music, no matter what music they’re listening to. You should be able to listen to rubbish recordings and have them sound better than you’ve ever heard them before, but when you put great recordings on, they sound even better.

And we’ve spent a lot of time listening to a lot of different genres at a lot of different volume levels, making sure that the speaker never does wrong—it should always do right. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to have some corner-case things. I’ll leave that for you reviewers to look into.

But the Monitor Audio sound has matured over the years. And it builds step-on-step. And that comes along with technology and being able to get closer to the ideal.

And that occurs with price point, of course. Silver and Bronze are really exciting products to work on because there’s a cost constraint. We don’t want the customer to know there’s a cost constraint, but as a company, there’s a cost constraint. And if you can design a loudspeaker at this price point that’s really good and sounds amazing, you can do so much more at higher price points. It’s easy to put together an expensive loudspeaker and make it sound good. You can buy parts off the shelf or design them with no holds barred. But to do it at the lower end is a phenomenally hard task, and that’s where you see what your R&D teams are capable of.

We could make ranges above Platinum and ranges above that, and cater to a narrower and narrower niche, but as a company, we want to be providing great sound experiences to more people.

DB: Charles, you mentioned that you’d be thinking about the next generation of Silver as soon as next year. Which, of course, raises the question: when did work begin on this seventh-generation lineup?

CM: The actual core of the work these days, the bulk of the full-on engineering, is usually two years. But we move our resources quite agilely. Even before the pandemic, we were working in a very smart way with a lot of virtual meetings and things like that. So it’s not a linear sort of “Here’s one project and we finished that, so let’s start on the next one.” There is a lot of work done simultaneously, and we might start work on one area of a product and then leave it for a little while and pick it up later when it becomes more market-relevant.

So we’re not going to be starting the brief next year or anything like that. Anything we’re doing on other ranges, though, there will be areas where we go, “This work is really relevant and can translate into something like Silver,” so we might be working on another range—either higher or lower—and still make some advancement that ends up in the next generation of Silver. Knowledge learnt is always knowledge learnt. And that’s not just in Michael’s realm, within the audio; that’s also within my realm in the physical product design, the aesthetics and mechanics.

So it’s always on our minds. That’s what I mean when I say we’re never not thinking about the next generation of Silver. And just to play off of what Michael said about Bronze and Silver being the exciting ones, and the ones that are so hard to get right because of the constraints: that’s especially true for someone from my world, where all we want to use is expensive materials all the time. But the constraints make people smarter with the way they create and solve problems. We’re a human-focused company. Yes, we want to make good speakers, but we also want to make the experience for our R&D team as positive as possible because that results in a better product. It’s an ethos running through everything we do.

Monitor Audio

DB: So I’ve read the marketing pitch for the new line, of course. But let’s forget about the marketing for a moment because I want to get personal perspectives from both of you. What are the things about this new Silver line that are most special to you two? What are the things you’re most proud of, and what new features do you think will most appeal to potential customers?

MH: You often have products where you think, “We really nailed that one.” What we have with this iteration of Silver, though, is a range where I think we’ve nailed every single product. You can grab any individual product out of this range, put it down with some good electronics, and really enjoy your music. And enjoy it on any track.

As an engineering team, we’ve listened to each speaker in the new range back-to-back, A/B switching them across the range, and the tonal balance and consistency throughout the whole range are things only we will really experience, because no customer is going to own every speaker in the range. But it’s really phenomenal for a seven-speaker range—or eight now.

CM: Yes, because we’ve added Atmos this time.

MH: That’s right. At any rate, that consistency across the entire line is down to the dedication to the engineering of each speaker and looking at the range as a whole, being holistic about the design. Now, what individual customers get from that is they can go grab any single product and know they’re getting the best product for their needs.

CM: The breadth of the range is the key thing here. Each model in the Silver range has the same amount of attention and about the same amount of problem solving. The range isn’t the size it is because we can. It’s not about hitting certain price points; it’s about delivering a range of solutions.

The amount of attention per model is exactly the same, and we won’t parts-bin it, because if we have to tool new parts for one model to make it perform better, we’ll always do that.

Monitor Audio

DB: Speaking of parts, let’s dig into them a bit. Let’s talk about the innovations in this new lineup from top to bottom. Let’s talk drivers. Let’s talk crossovers. Let’s run down the technological and design differences that set this new Silver series apart.

MH: First off, all the driver units are ground-up new designs. But within that, there are some things where we built on previous drivers.

So the 8″ bass driver looks quite similar to the old 6G 8″ bass driver, but it’s actually a completely new cone profile and shape, and there’s a new RST [Rigid Surface Technology] pattern on the cone, and that signifies the use of a new aluminum alloy as well. The surround/cone interaction has been improved. We removed about a third to two-thirds of the energy of the breakup ring by optimizing the surround into the cone and the junction there.

It doesn’t look fancy; there are no show-offy surrounds with crazy geometry and big flares through cones and things like that. It’s simple and elegant, looks beautiful, and is perfectly functional, with a good helping of solid engineering in there.

So the 8″ bass drivers have been upgraded, and they handle more power than they previously did. They’ve got a bit more excursion than they previously did. The cone breakup has been treated in a new way, and the overall performance of that driver unit is a step up.

Perhaps even more significant are the changes we’ve made to the midrange driver. We’ve moved from a ferromagnet to a neodymium magnet, and we’ve shrunk the size of the cone. Mind you, we don’t look at individual driver units and say, “Right, how do we make that driver unit better?” We look at the whole loudspeaker and say, “How do we make the whole loudspeaker better?”

So the crossover has to work with the bass drivers and the midrange driver and the tweeter. All of those parts have to operate together in order to get the best sound. Part of that means that we have to ensure we have the smoothest crossover between midrange driver and tweeter. One thing that can cause a problem there is having a large drive unit with breakup that’s close to the crossover point. You can hear that. So we’ve shrunk the midrange driver a little bit more than we previously did. That pushes the breakup to about 10kHz, so it’s way out. The crossover can easily deal with it.

We then have the waveguide on the tweeter, which gives us a slight horn loading on the bottom end of the tweeter, but also a few dB more sensitivity. It also means we can cross over lower, so now we have a midrange driver that’s capable of crossing over higher and a tweeter that’s capable of crossing over lower. So both components are having to do less work when you cross them over in the right place, and in the listening session we’ve got a range of crossover frequencies we can select to tune the loudspeaker to the right sound.

The smaller-sized midrange cone also helps with directivity. So we’ve got a very wide directivity through the midband that matches to the tweeter really well. And then on the tweeter, it’s a completely new design, as all of them are, but it’s got a vented center magnet and venting on the surround as well, which is unusual. It has the new waveguide technology, the UDW II, with a compression ring in there.

And this is all just about engineering a tweeter that’s effortless at the low end but extends all the way up at the high end, has a controlled, flat frequency response, and then integrates using a simple crossover with the midrange or midrange-bass driver.

Monitor Audio

CM: We’ve also put a lot of work into trying to make the speakers more home-friendly. The products all have rear-firing ports, and making sure they still work in a wide variety of environments is crucial. We don’t want to make this too picky on where you put it and how you use the products.

We’re very conscious of the fact that all aspects of these new technologies have got to be useful in more than one environment. So that’s always been a part of the development as well.

I think the gains on the tweeter and the work with the waveguide and compression rings have been good demonstrations of how we’ve got good in-house design. Aesthetically, mechanically, and acoustically, we can all work as one and create something like that new tweeter assembly—which all parties are in daily, weekly meetings to make sure that all works as one, rather than it going in a linear method of creating a new motor mechanism, which passes on to a mechanical guy to work on a waveguide. It’s never working like that.

So I think more and more we’re working to create a team that’s quite unified in the way it works, rather than just leaving specialties to their own. And that’s to the benefit of a range like the Silver series.

MH: Yes, and as a result of that more unified, holistic approach to speaker design, when you look at the speakers as a whole, there’s a considerable distortion reduction with this range. On the 50 and the 100, you might be talking about 3 to 5dB improvements in THD in the midrange. But on the floorstanders, we’re talking about 5 to 10dB improvements in THD. So they’re significant improvements in one metric that may—or may not, depending on where you sit—define sound quality. But certainly, it’s a metric that’s used in the industry to define sound quality.

. . . Dennis Burger
dennisb@soundstagenetwork.com