Recently, I thought about all the audio shows I’ve attended over the last 27 years, looking for any pattern that all of them might have shared. I came up with a handful of audio manufacturers that have earned at shows a reputation for getting, year after year, consistently good sound-rooms in which I could reliably depend on being able to chill out and enjoy music in good, involving sound. Those companies include Audio Research, Music Hall (distributor of Creek and Epos), Vandersteen Audio-and Definitive Technology. Since their founding, in 1990, Maryland-based DefTech has been a major presence at shows, displaying an increasingly wide range of high-value speakers for two-channel and surround-sound systems. But I’d never reviewed one of their models. I thought it was about time.
Of the 25 two-channel loudspeakers Definitive Technology designs (in the US) and manufactures (in China), ranging in price from $290 to $3998 per pair, I chose the StudioMonitor 55 ($598/pair). (You can read Stephen Mejias’s thoughts on the SM55′s little brother, the StudioMonitor 45, in his “The Entry Level” in the August 2012 issue, with a “Follow-Up” from John Atkinson in October 2012.) This two-way, biwirable bookshelf model has two drivers and a passive bass radiator. Its 1″ aluminum-dome tweeter has been heat-treated to relax the crystal structure of the metal, then coated with ceramic to extend its high-frequency response. The 6.5″ mid/woofer has a cast aluminum basket and incorporates DefTech’s patented Balance Double Surround System (BDSS), which supports the cone at its inner and outer edges for longer, more linear excursions.
Having reviewed several dozen reflex-loaded bookshelf speakers that achieve low-frequency extension via a front- or rear-firing port, I was intrigued by DefTech’s unique solution: Instead of a port, the SM55 has a top-firing passive radiator measuring 6″ by 10″. As DefTech’s Paul DiComo explained to me, the company prefers bass radiators over ports because: 1) they effectively block midrange frequencies, which can create midrange smearing; and 2) they produce less distortion and avoiding “chuffing” noises. The bass radiator has a basket and spider but no magnet or voice-coil; its cone is of MDF with a vinyl laminate. DefTech claims that using a passive radiator provides greater control, definition, and speed.
The SM55 has two grilles: one each for the front and top panels. I listened to the speakers with all grilles on, all grilles off, and with the front grilles off but top grilles on. In all three arrangements, the sound was identical-hats off to DefTech for designing a couple of transparent grilles. However, I preferred the SM55′s looks with its front grille off and its top grille on. Removing the front grille reveals the sexy, gloss-black baffle while leaving all grilles on gives the black wood-grain SM55 a drab, boxy appearance. Removing only the top grille gives the speaker a ridiculous scalped-cowboy look. I biwired the SM55s and placed them on my Celestion Si stands, which are loaded with sand and lead shot. (DefTech doesn’t make a dedicated stand for the SM55.)
To test a speaker’s midrange integrity, I begin most listening sessions with well-recorded voices. With all recordings I sampled, the Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 55 passed with flying colors. In “You Are but a Dream,” from the Frank Sinatra singles compilation This Is Sinatra Vol.2 (LP, Capitol W982), the voice of Ol’ Blue Eyes was bathed in a reverberant and silkily mellifluous glow. Bob Dylan’s voice in “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” from a pristine reissue of his Blonde on Blonde (LP, Columbia/Simply Vinyl 0162), was as natural as I’ve heard through any speakers, regardless of price. Higher in the audioband, Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” from her Tapestry LP (Ode SP 77009), floated in natural holographic splendor throughout her vocal range; and the harmonies in “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon),” from the Mamas and the Papas’ Farewell to the First Golden Era (LP, Dunhill 50025), assumed angelic qualities. Finally, the SM55 enabled Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton’s voices in “Honeysuckle Rose,” from Satch Plays Fats (LP, Columbia CL708), to seamlessly blend while retaining each artist’s unique phrasing.
The SM55′s midrange created an open and natural window for jazz recordings. Anat Fort’s piano in her A Long Story (CD, ECM 1994) emerged as warm and inviting in its lower register, with perfectly linear low-level dynamics. And John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone in Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (LP, Jazzland 946), and Roland Kirk’s tenor in “Oh, Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me,” from Charles Mingus’s Oh, Yeah (LP, Atlantic 1377), generated identical responses for my notes: “forward, natural, and silky.”
Jazz recordings also brought out the SM55′s greatest strength: its midbass definition. Mingus’s double bass in the title track of his Pithecanthropus Erectus (CD, Atlantic AMCY-1036), and in “Theme for Lester (Goodbye Pork Pie Hat),” from Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (LP, Impulse! AS-51), was rich, woody, open, and airy, with perfect definition.
Satch Plays Fats showcased the DefTech’s ability to reproduce natural, extended highs. In his solo in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Armstrong’s trumpet was biting and extended but without a trace of harshness. The SM55′s high-frequency resolution also showcased its ability to render fast transients with abundant detail and no hint of smearing. It revealed all the subtle details of Monk’s piano phrasing in “Epistrophy,” from the aforementioned Coltrane-Monk record. Similarly, the SM55 revealed all the subtle nuances of pianist Jesse Stacken’s phrasing in his lyrical, fleeting solo in the title track of trumpeter Liam Sillery’s Phenomenology (CD, OA2 Records 22061). And I was able to individually follow each of the six percussionists on Tito Puente’s Top Percussion (LP, RCA 1617).
However, all the jazz recordings mentioned above also revealed the SM55′s single shortcoming. Although its high frequencies were natural, extended, and completely devoid of coloration or smearing, over them was layered a subtle powdery texture, and particularly over the drum kits. This created a slight lack of liquidity and continuousness in the highs that was not a problem in the midrange and bass. This was a minor problem, and I didn’t notice it with most recordings.
I found myself unusually engaged and focused when listening to rock music on the SM55s-and my feet wouldn’t keep still. Speaking of moving feet, the notes I took-when I could stop moving long enough to write-for “Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn,” from James Brown’s Soul Classics Vol.2 (LP, Polydor SVLP 127) read, “Churning! Coherent!” I then cued up a recent acquisition, The Complete Animals (LP, EMI EM1367), to discover that the compilers of this 40-track set had misled me. I looked for my favorite Animals tune, “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and found it missing (a royalties problem with songwriter Carole King, perhaps, or perhaps because it had not been produced by Mickie Most. (The collection’s subtitle is The Complete Mickie Most Productions for EMI.) So I went to my second choice, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which moved me more than when I saw this Newcastle band perform the piece live at a reunion concert in the 1980s.
With other rock recordings, the SM55 favored electric guitars. Jack White’s axe in the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells (CD, V2 63881-27124-2) was buzzy, raspy, and forward-as it should be. And the interaction of the Ventures’ two guitars in “Out of Limits,” from The Very Best of the Ventures (LP, Liberty LN-10122), was clearly delineated; it was very easy to follow individual lines and phrasings.
I’ve saved the best news for last. The StudioMonitor 55 proved to be an awesome classical-music speaker. Louis Andriessen’s orchestral blockbuster De Stijl is a combination of subtle delicate orchestral textures and a bombastic sense of drama. When I listened to a recording of this remarkable work by the Schoenberg and ASKO Ensembles conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw (CD, Nonesuch 79342 2), the DefTechs revealed its full dynamic range, from ppp to fff, on a wide, deep stage with gobs of ambience. And Marcel Dupré’s solo organ performance of his own Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, from his Organ Recital (LP, Mercury Living Presence SR 90169), revealed delicate, airy highs along with a big, bloomy organ sound and a sense of a real instrument playing in a real space. And for a bookshelf speaker, the SM55′s reproduction of the pedal notes in this recording were startlingly realistic.
I compared the Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 55 ($598) with the Epos ELS3 ($350 when last offered), the Epos M5i ($899), and the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 ($350). (All prices per pair.)
The Epos ELS3 had a silkier midrange, with longer decays and more ambience, than the DefTech SM55. Its highs were also more sophisticated, detailed, and delicate. The ELS3′s upper bass was cleaner and its midbass leaner than the SM55′s, and the Epos was far inferior in high-level dynamics.
The Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 had a warmer midbass than the DefTech SM55, and more delicate and detailed highs, but its high-level dynamics were slightly inferior.
The Epos M5i had the richest, most detailed midrange of all four speakers, the best low-level dynamics, and the most delicate and sophisticated highs. The M5i’s bass went as deep as the DefTech’s, but more cleanly. The M5i’s and SM55′s high-level dynamics were equivalent.
Definitive Technology has produced a detailed and uncolored bookshelf speaker that provides superb value for the money. And in terms of its midbass definition and high-level dynamic drama with orchestral works, you’d probably have to spend more than $1000/pair to exceed its performance. I’m sorry I waited so long to review a Definitive Technology speaker. Next time, I won’t wait.
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