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studio monitors

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Vivid Audio Kaya S12 as nearfield studio monitors – with an interview with designer Laurence Dickie

May 4, 2024

A few months ago I started to think about upgrading my nearfield studio monitors. I’d been using Tannoy Gold 5 speakers for a couple of years and though the coaxial drivers gave a nice stereo image, bass was inevitably lacking and there was something not quite right about the higher frequencies either. Improving my microphones was also exposing the limits of the Tannoys too. All too often I was shifting to open-back headphones for editing and mixing, which says a lot. You get what you pay for, obviously. Buying new monitors is a bit of a gamble unless you happen to have the luxury of working day in day out with a variety of pairs, in treated control rooms/studios that you know well: even if you can find a retailer that stocks several models, the listening conditions are invariably poor and/or are a poor match to your studio. I gave some thought to some of the usual suspects in the £1000-£1500 price range, but teardown photos gave me little confidence of cabinet construction in relation to internal resonances and reflections, and a circuit board on the back of the cabinet just feels wrong to me, even putting aside the long-term issue of having all your eggs in one basket (amplifier and speaker). I’ve spent too long being aware of decent speaker design – which goes back to my upbringing in Steyning, where B&W had their research headquarters – to want to spend significant money on something that was a step up from the modern Tannoys, but still, ultimately, unsatisfactory, and to be followed by another step up in a couple of years. And I am a great fan of exponential absorbers, as per my DIY hifi speakers, built a few years ago – see the post here.

The logical answer to all this for me was to bite the bullet, open the cheque book, and go for a pair of Vivid Audio S12s. I’d seen construction of the cabinets a couple of years ago when they were built nearby at Wymondham (and had a tour of the factory there), had heard larger Vivid Audio speakers over the years (and, indeed, the famous B&W Nautilus designed by Laurence Dickie (aka Dic), who is the engineering brain behind Vivid), and had always hankered after a pair of the S12s since they were announced in 2020. The reviews and tests bore out my suspicion that the Vivid Audio website’s slightly throwaway remark that ‘the small footprint makes it the perfect studio monitor’ was likely to be spot on.

Here are my S12s (though tempted by the more interesting colours, I played safe and went for black) in my treated office/mixing studio. The large ex-MOD desk that I like (and need) for work is shown with a couple of slabs of 70mm Basotech, which take out desk reflections for those critical bits of audio work: and they have the benefit of forcing me to periodically remove the normal clutter of cameras, papers and other junk that accumulates on my desk. The dinky DAC and power amp are nestled under the computer monitor.

In preparation, I swapped out my Sound Devices MixPre-3 (an excellent small field recorder, but certainly not the world’s greatest DAC), for a much better Topping DX1 DAC, and made bases with in-built shock absorbers for my existing wall brackets. I’ve been running the S12s for several weeks now, off a small Class D amp, and I continue to be astounded. I haven’t touched my headphones for weeks. But there is little point in writing a blog post eulogizing these speakers: any reader would, quite rightly, take it with a pinch of salt. I don’t have the means of doing comparative tests and, unlike microphones, I can’t post meaningful WAV files etc. for others to consider. Besides, there are detailed tests and reviews by those with a wider knowledge of speakers out there to be read (such as this on AV Nirvana), albeit from a hifi perspective, along with some videos with Dic explaining the engineering behind the S12, such as this one with Doug Schneider and this one with Jeff Fritz. And, of course, for specs etc. there is the Vivid Audio website.

So what I thought might be more useful is to give the rest of this blog post over to an interview with Dic giving more background to the S12 and, along the way, his thoughts about the lack of differentiation between good studio monitors and good domestic speakers. I found it an interesting conversation, not least learning about John Dunkerley (he of Decca fame) being so involved with B&W, where Dic worked for many years (and where, in addition to the Nautilus, he invented the matrix enclosure system). We covered quite a bit more in our long and enjoyable chat, including how I could remodel my desk with a punched steel surface for acoustic transparency (Dic’s enthusiasm for, interest in, and knowledge of acoustic matters knows few bounds!), but what follows are the key sections relevant to using the S12s (and, indeed, other comparable speakers) as studio monitors.

Dic keeping very much hands-on at Vivid’s design studio and workshop in Sussex.

RH: Dic, could you sum up your approach to loudspeaker design and how, if at all, it differs for studio monitors?

LD: I sincerely believe in creating loudspeakers that have a reasonably flat response. My mantra has always been to create loudspeakers that are free of resonances and reflections because I have always believed that these are the things that our ears are particularly sensitive to as a result of living in a natural world and evolving in it: resonances and reflections give you a lot of cues and clues about the environment in which you’re standing, about what is coming up behind you and other such things that might cost you your life if you are not aware of them. I think we are very sensitive to these, so for all Vivid speakers, and indeed Nautilus before it, the whole point was to engineer those discontinuities out of the equation. And I think it applies whether it be a studio monitor or a far field domestic loudspeaker: those values are the same.

RH: Many will be familiar with your work at B&W, most obviously with the matrix and Nautilus, but it would be good to hear more about your experience with studio monitors and, especially, its influence on the development of your Vivid Audio drivers.

LD: When I left B&W my goal was to produce studio monitors, but I wanted to produce a studio monitor that had the fidelity, transparency and other lovely features of the Nautilus yet was capable of supplying the power that typically people need to monitor electronic music, pop music and whatever. I’d made some monitors out of B&W parts for Bowl Court Studios in London, for which I’d used nine 12” drivers, six mid-rangers and a couple of tweeters and we drove it all actively. Everyone was impressed by the sound level that people were able to monitor at and when I produced the Nautilus it was clear that it was utterly incapable of producing that sort of sound level. So my mission when I left B&W was to create a set of drivers which would be capable of handling the power and having the efficiency required to do the job.

So for two years that was more or less what I was doing between other little jobs. I came up with an array of drivers, but didn’t want to start a studio monitor company on my own. By chance these guys from South Africa contacted me saying they wanted to start a hifi speaker company and I said I just happen to have designed some drivers which although ostensibly for studio monitors will actually work perfectly well in a hifi loudspeaker. So the drivers that we use in Vivid Audio give a nod to the studio market. But the point here is that the only real difference between top-end domestic hifi and studio monitors that I could detect at that time was the ability to handle a great deal of power and to put out really high sound levels. But the fidelity part of it, the accuracy, the frequency response and other such things I believed to be exactly the same and I still largely do believe that. The perhaps biggest difference really was the ubiquity of soffit-mount studio monitors, and I’m a real believer in soffit mounts. A funny thing was around the time I had just finished the Nautilus I was at a show and I was speaking to someone from Genelec and I was looking at this Genelec and saying yeah that’s the right approach – to have the speaker in the boundary and I think if I were to design a soffit-mount speaker it would look something like that. And he said, that’s interesting because the designer of Genelecs said if he were to design a folded transmission line speaker he would have made it like the Nautilus. So we came from the same place: basically it’s about having smooth contours, and avoiding resonances and reflections again.

Another thing I learnt in my time at B&W when looking at studios was that classical studios like EMI [i.e. Abbey Road] and Decca were using B&Ws and they were very happy using a 4π [i.e. free-field, and not soffit mounted] speaker in a studio environment: B&W never felt any pressure to do soffit-mount speakers. Another thing I learnt in other studios, was the ubiquity of the [Yamaha] NS-10 and the little Aurotone, the little cube. I said why do you use these and they said well you’ve got to see what It sounds like on Joe Average’s transistor radio or mediocre hifi and the NS10 was taken to be a benchmark mediocre loudspeaker: if it sounds good on an NS-10 it will sound good on anything. And I thought well surely you need something in between that is not as big as the Westlake or whatever it was they might have had – two x 15” with a horn – and this NS-10. You need something that has a nice wide response that you can sit on top of the desk a bit like the NS-10. I very much wanted to contribute something to that part of the spectrum and the S12 is almost that. It has taken a long time to get there, but it is almost there.

RBH: It’s relevant to this point: there’s still a sharp distinction in the market between hifi speakers and studio monitors. Is that because people have tried hifi speakers and many of them are just not suited; is it prejudice; is it marketing; is it simplicity (most studio monitors are active); or is it something else altogether?

LD: I’m absolutely certain that marketing plays a great part in it. There will also be some biases and bigotry – ‘I’m not using that: it’s a hifi speaker’ sort of thing – and probably vice versa, and that’s all based on whimsy, there’s no foundation for any of that. Marketing is certainly going to have an important part to play as it does with everything. So clearly somebody like Genelec market themselves very strongly as being a pro audio brand, and I’m actually surprised that they don’t make an effort to promote their products as a domestic speaker.

You have to be careful not to blur lines. You are branded. You produce a thing and then you are branded and people will therefore dismiss you, ‘on that’s hifi’. I completely understand that. Perhaps that’s why we underplayed the studio bit because we want to be careful to not to blur the line or prejudice our hifi market. Yes, it is tricky. The psychology of marketing is a whole other world that’s not necessarily based on reality: it’s a simple truth.

RH: You touched on the larger studios and some larger studios, such as Abbey Road with its use of B&W loudspeakers beginning in 1988 with the Matrix 801 speaker and now with the 800 Series Diamond D3 speakers and there’s Skywalker Sound studio with its B&W speakers being used, and, of course, you mentioned Decca. Do you think these very large studios are just less concerned about speakers that are designed or market ed exclusively as studio monitors and that as you go down to the smaller studios (including home studios) that they have a less open view?

LD: Yes, absolutely. Specifically B&W were designed with the help of John Dunkerley who was one of the golden ears of the Decca studio. He still runs a masterclass in studio technique, the Tonmeister course [at the University of Surrey]. John had an excellent relationship with John Bowers [founder of B&W Loudspeakers]. John Dunkerley used to come and do listening tests with John Bowers and was an integral part of the development of B&W speakers and, of course, he took them back with him to Decca and monitored on them. And that spread as other engineers joined him: the choice was between that or, of course, there were BBC monitors, or otherwise Ureis, Westlakes and classic 15”s and horns. For the high-end classical engineers the best speakers were things like the B&Ws and there is snobbery again there: in their opinion the Ureis, Westlakes and things were alright for pop music, but if you were going to do serious music you needed something like the B&Ws. So even within the pro field I’m sure there are all sorts of divisions and bigotries, not all based on realities. As far as John Dunkerley was concerned there was absolutely no differentiation between the studio monitor and the domestic monitor: it was all part of the same spectrum. And as far as he was concerned the goal was the same – for reproduction for a flat response free from aberrations and imperfections. It was all the same. So I guess I’ve learnt from him that it is all part of the same spectrum.

RH: So it tended to be the larger studios having a significant amount of classical music recording that used such speakers. Do you get a sense that has continued and spread?

LD: Well unfortunately, Roland, I am not very close to that world at the moment. But I have always believed that our speakers should be perfectly useable in the studio. In fact, if there wasn’t such exclusivity going on between B&W and Decca and EMI, I would have thought our speakers could easily be contenders for that application. Now in fairness our funny-shaped speakers might be a bit off-putting: I don’t blame them for that. I have thought we should make a concession to a rather less ostentatious look for the professional field. I have actually produced a version of the G2, which you might have seen here, which is a square-box version with all the drivers on the front panel.

RBH: Thinking of form, the Kaya range are less curvaceous so are more adaptable and when you get right down to the S12, while more curvaceous than most nearfield speakers, you can put it on a wall bracket or stand as normal: in short, there are no particular issues arising from its shape are there?

LD: No, you’re right. The thing about the Kaya range was the watchword was ‘accessible’. It was to be a less challenging design and a more acceptable cost. The cost drove the driver line, which went from four-way to three-way (and two-way with the S12), but I am very happy with the result. The Kaya series tends to have a slightly narrower beam pattern as a result. The reason for the waveguide we have around the tweeter is because you are crossing over from a 100mm cone to a tweeter and the acoustic centre of the 100mm cone is a little bit set back from the rim, so to be truly time-aligned the tweeter must also be set back a little. Now if you set the tweeter back you are going to have a little bit of a slope between it and the lip of the bass driver: that surface might as well be swept around the tweeter and then you’ve got a bit of a waveguide.

Now the advantages of having a wave guide are, first, it slightly controls the dispersion of the tweeter, which means it matches the dispersion of the mid-range so that at crossover you don’t get this jump in polar response, and, second, you get an improvement in efficiency – you’ve effectively got a bit of a horn, which benefits the signal significantly – about 4dB at 3kHz  – which means less power is going into the tweeter so it has an easier life, the voice coil will be cooler, the power compression will be less, so all rounds it’s a winning combination. The other thing we notice with the Kaya range is that because it has this slightly controlled pattern dispersion, it’s a little bit less fussy about the room acoustic. If you are trying to keep the room out of the equation it’s a good result, so we find for home theatre and possibly for mixing it’s a better solution.

RH: Coming back to crossovers, which you mentioned, so many studio monitors are active and using DSP, and you are beating a different path – for studio monitor use of the S12 – by being passive: what are the pros and cons of the two approaches?

LD: Right. When I first started working for Bowers it was because I had been messing around with active speakers in my free time. I had built myself some active speakers and I went for that job interview and as I started to describe what I had been doing the chap interviewing me his ears pricked up and his eyes lit up and he said you’re the man for the job because they were, indeed, just about to start developing an active loudspeaker. So that was perfect. And at the time when I looked at my colleagues designing passive filters, I thought that is old school, welcome to the late 20th century – active is the way to go! And Nautilus was only available in active. When I started working with my new partners in South Africa I fully intended to launch only with a fully active loudspeaker, but Philip [Gutentag], who’s feet are firmly planted on the ground (he had been owner of a distribution company, so he knows the field: knows people; knows the market) said ‘Dic, we’re a new small manufacturer in a country with no reputation for technology, making a funny-shaped product and you want to make it active? Honestly, we might as well burn the money and go fishing! It’s really stupid. At the very least people will want to be able to connect these speakers to their existing amplifiers.’

There were three partners at the time and the other chap, Bruce [Gessner], who was an excellent engineer, invested in a copy of LEAP, the loudspeaker enclosure analysis program that also had a crossover design program, and grudgingly I got into designing passive crossovers. And actually very quickly I started to appreciate – with this new tool at my disposal – designing passive crossovers was quite good fun. For the next 16 years we quite happily produced a whole range of speakers.

Nevertheless, at the back of mind I thought it would be instructive to do an active version of a G2. It was catalyzed in 2012 because we met some Swedish guys who were producing a new two-in eight-out digital processor, which was actually quite sophisticated, so we got this thing. To cut to the chase, at the first listening test we did it really didn’t sound a good as a passive G2. And I thought that’s ridiculous, it must sound at least as good as a passive: bear in mind I still thought instinctively that ultimately active has to be better. So I then went through each driver with a microphone right close to the drivers doing nearfield frequency response tests, and then I went into the DSP and tweaked it until the response of the individual drivers absolutely overplotted the passive plots. So we had the system up and running again and we did an ABX test and we couldn’t tell the difference, we really couldn’t tell the difference: we listened to a lot of music, switching backwards and forwards, with the person doing the switching not knowing what the two things were, somebody else deciding what A and B were. It really was very thoroughly blind and we really couldn’t tell the difference. And at that point I said, ‘do you know what, Philip, this is a waste of time. We don’t make amplifiers and the only people who benefit from active loudspeakers are amplifier makers. Sod it. There’s no point.’ And that was it. So that was 12 years ago.

Since then I’ve had a bit of a thought about all this, and you could do some little solid state pair of class Ds for remarkably little money and probably less resources are used to make one of those than just the one inductor in our S12s, which use about a kilo of copper: there’s an environmental thing here too. But if you build electronics into the speaker, when those electronics goes wrong – and inevitably with 1000 tiny parts something is going to go at some point – you have more of an issue, and the cycle to landfill will be shorter. Whereas with a passive loudspeaker and a separate little blob of amplification – you can pick up some remarkably good Class D power amps – then what’s the difference in the end? You’ve got two speaker wires instead of two power leads. Really, what is the difference: why are people so obsessed? There is in fairness the fact that a dedicated built-in amp does allow you to do EQ tricks and compression and limiting and all that sort of thing, not that compression and limiting are words that pass easily through my lips!

I’ll leave you with this photo of Dic as a good reminder that top-end audio shouldn’t be po-faced, fractious and tediously serious, but fun: Dic certainly embodies that!

NB Thanks to Jake Purches for the photos…and for encouraging me to buy the S12s.