Might and purity with great sense of space
Challenging assembly job
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My mate Big Mick is the front-of-house engineer for Metallica and has the record for the largest sound system ever assembled. It was 1,200,000W and was for 1,500,000 people at the Monsters of Rock festival in Russia, which took place after the Iron Curtain came down.
After all, speaker systems have to suit the amount of people assembled, or the space they are expected to cover; the THX Select and Ultra specifications, for instance, are all about the cubic capacity or volume of the room the systems are designed to fill.
And when it comes to cinema, the same rule applies to the space in any given room. Whether a living room in suburbia or a huge country barn extension, the size of the speakers you need will vary accordingly.
Now, I have a nice home and a lovely room that helped sell the house to me in the first place, as the fireplace has been removed and we can have a classic 5.1 system setup around where we like to sit. A Swiss chalet would go down well, especially in our lovely long garden, but I don't have that kind of cash.
So, if a set of speakers is suitable for a magnificent home, I tend to gravitate towards them. These are right on the edge of that criterion. Not because they are especially huge (they are about the size of the B&W 800 series, and the Monitor Audio Platinum Series front tower does get bigger than the one I had to play with), but because they are so lavishly and beautifully packaged.
Often it's advisable to keep cartons in the loft for future use, especially in the event of a house move, but these MDF ended, band-strapped, Velcro-sealed wonders were as heavy empty as some cartons are when full!
Once I had got over the heebie jeebies and worked out that I had to ask nicely for the boxes to be kept at HCC Towers, I unpacked some of the most weightily attractive speakers I have ever seen.
These speakers make a real statement, having been designed from the ground up, I was told, to be as fabulous as Monitor Audio can make them, both from the engineering and sonic points of view.
The design is first-rate: they have really strong gripping embedded Neodymium magnets to hold the snazzy, bent metal mesh grilles on their top-grain leather hide faces; Monitor Audio's signature branded front edges are present on the lavish cast chassis of the speaker drivers themselves; there are sexy metal trim bits on the top leading edges of the enclosures with the name engraved upon it; and the terminals are paired sets of lavishly made binding posts, complete with well engineered jumper pieces.
The latter even have a foam-lined home (in case you are going to bi-wire/bi-amp) in a box you get with the speakers. This also packs a spirit level and Allen-headed screwdrivers to assemble stands and feet.
The towers' feet themselves are delicious assemblages of precision engineering and can be used with the stubby, ovoid shiny-plated, multi-piece spikes, or else with those unscrewed and the rubbery polymer ring-grippers applied instead. These can optionally be used in a heavier-duty version under the awesomely pretty subwoofer.
The PLW15 sub has a huge kilowatt beast of an amplifier inside, and that mighty 15in cone is a ceramic metal alloy material (C-CAM) and sits under a big grille with turned metal stand-off legs.
The cones in the rest of the speakers are made of a skinny layer of this ceramic alloy on a Nomex honeycomb, which makes them unfeasibly light yet rigid.
The final cherry on the cake is the tweeter. A 'ribbon' type, it is a tiny sliver of C-CAM material, which acts as both voice coil and diaphragm, and as it weighs so little it can accelerate like a brute and can reach up to 100kHz. (And to think that at 20kHz it means 10,000 gravities of acceleration!)
But the overall finish is so lustrous and rich it made me feel guilty, as I'm not aware of any 'sustainable' Ebony plantations. If I am right, this speaker is covered in a veneer so rare and delicious, its use is obscenely unfriendly to the environment. It is quite the most luscious and beautiful speaker finish I have ever seen, and an awful lot of Monitor Audio fans will take one look and just hurt for wanting them.
But this 5.1 system offers far more than looks: the smarts are intense and that woofer is as clever as a weasel, yet without needing a room-EQ programme, microphone or boffin to set up.
In this brilliant sci-fi, the almost religious zeal with which actors and movie makers have paid homage to all that has gone before allows multiple references for Trekkers throughout, and I love it.
I cranked it up to full reference level, while offering up silent praise to neighbours who just don't seem to mind, and as the soundtrack swelled and soared, I marvelled at the sheer scale, power and purity of the output.
It was great with the tiny details and yet had massive grip even at the zero dB level. In fact, I found it almost too loud – and for me that is quite a statement!
The bass had a real, visceral thump-in-the-belly feel to it, which is quite a feat in my thrulounge, as there is a void under the floorboards, a set of flexible (in acoustic terms) French windows and big, absorbant velvet curtains over them. That woofer, quite simply, is an animal.
Beyond the low-end, the Platinum array continues to impress. In an early scene reminiscent of the Alien movies, baddie Captain Nero is seen in his spaceship, which is wet and corroded inside. Despite the snarling and stuff going on, the dripping of water in the background was clear and crisp. Even in the midst of explosions and mayhem, dialogue is unstrained and realistic, proving that the system can hit hard in the midband, too.
Meanwhile, brass instruments in the soundtrack are great indicators of the high HF fidelity, because if you can hear the rasp of the timbre of the horns, you know you have your hands on some excellence. And these horns honked like wailing geese, with great detail, all through the sequence where James T. Kirk's dad snuffs it, while heroically saving his wife in childbirth, along with his ship's crew.
One lump or two?
And right there, barely a few minutes in, they bloody had me. I am as tough as marshmallow and wept buckets over ET and Shallow Hal alike (albeit for different reasons), but as long as the system is suitably involving, it doesn't take more than regular Hollywood guile to put a great big lump in my throat.
As Jim's dad greets his son by video phone in the last few seconds of life, the violins swell with such purity I was reaching for the tissues – a broken man.
A later scene provides a great test of a speaker system's imaging ability. When we see a young Spock at school, young Vulcans learn in groups of individual, dish-shaped classrooms, and we track across the collective, listening to the multifarious tutors teaching seven-year-olds degree-level science.
You can focus in on any one teacher, follow the voice as it goes through the soundstage, often diagonally as the camera tracks and the vocals remain clear and easy to tell apart. It's almost like one of those audio test tracks and it showed just how smart this system is.
Finally, a word on the HF drivers. In the past, I heard a tweeter called the EMIT (Electro Magnetic Induction Tweeter), made by Infinity, and while it looks the same as this C-CAM job, it is more delicate and tinkly and ethereal. I was half hoping that these tweeters might offer the same breathy loveliness, but they don't.
What they do is handle some real power, which shouldn't be possible. So while they add fabulous detail and edge, as well as incredible staging and placement to the system, they still allow truly offensive levels to be raised. I love them to bits and found that they also have a terrific linear response, which means they work just as sweetly at low levels and with music.
So, in case you hadn't realised, I reckon we have another reference grade set on our hands here. A 5.1 system of true class. And, if you really want to fill a big room, Monitor Audio also makes an even bigger set of towers that promise to knock your socks off!
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