Definitive Technology StudioCinema 350
I used to wonder why I felt such an affinity for so many of Definitive Technology's speakers. What is it, I asked, that gives these slender, sock-smothered sirens their perennial appeal? Is it magnetism? (Well, surely, they use magnets, but that couldn't be it.) Is it the sexy allure of not being able to yank off a speaker's grille cloth to reveal what's hidden underneath? (Instead, you have to gently coax the soft sock covering down, slowly undressing the speaker. It's an act best done in the privacy of your own home after the children have gone to bed.) Maybe it's some secret, arcane knowledge inherited from the Knights Templar (promising riches, wealth, and speakers with popularity beyond reason)—or possibly it's from an earlier era, gleaned from chiseled hieroglyphics on the ancient stone walls of the pyramids at Giza (regaling in an afterlife filled with music and movies).
The answer dawned on me as I listened to Beau Jocque (Beau Jocque Live) crank out Cajun music through Def Tech's newest bookshelf speakers, the StudioMonitor 350s, and their brand-new stout but substantial SuperCube II subwoofer. Listening to Beau Jocque's raw energy and infectious enthusiasm, I was taken back to a rainy New Orleans evening that ended (as many a New Orleans evening does) in the very, very early morning on Bourbon Street. Although we'd begun as a group, 4:00 a.m. found only myself and a mysterious member of Def Tech's inner circle still searching for more Cajun music (along with any strange-looking liquid we could drink).
I'm convinced that the folks at Def Tech put a little bit of New Orleans in every speaker they design. Maybe it's a slightly demented Cajun outlook on life that filters into the CAD drawings at the earliest stages. My secret belief is that, just before they seal each box, somebody is tasked with the special job of sprinkling a drop or two of New Orleans voodoo water on each speaker. (That's a better image than the alternate idea I had, which involved chicken's blood and eyes of newt.)
Even from my first look at the StudioMonitor 350, I could feel the subtle power of that voodoo spell. The SM350 is pretty typical in size for a bookshelf speaker (7 inches wide, 9.69 deep, and 10.69 tall), but it derives a lot of elegance and visual class from Def Tech's standard design: a black sock with gloss-black end caps. In fact, the SM350's dimensions must approach some golden mean because this iteration seems exceptionally attractive. Maybe I'm just too used to looking at standard grille-cloth-on-the-front bookshelf speakers.
Underneath each sock are a 5.25-inch cast-basket bass-midrange driver and a 1-inch pure-aluminum dome tweeter. This is a standard configuration for a bookshelf speaker, but there's a surprise on the opposing sides of the left and right SM350s: an 8-inch passive radiator with a radiating surface that's actually made from the same high-density medite material as the speaker cabinet itself.
Def Tech's Sandy Gross (who, by the way, was present that night in New Orleans but sensibly bailed out before the real debauchery began) says that the passive-radiator design eliminates the midrange-frequency bleed-through that often plagues passives that use conventional materials while simultaneously enlarging the speaker cabinet's virtual size. In other words, it's supposed to provide better bass and better midrange. Not long ago, Def Tech approached the problem of getting big bass from a small bookshelf by adding powered woofers in their PowerMonitor Series. That solution definitely works, but the StudioMonitor is designed to be less expensive and smaller than the PowerMonitor.
So, does the passive radiator work? Well, Beau Jocque sounded pretty darn good through just a pair of StudioMonitor 350s running full-range, but I've never heard Beau Jocque in person (nor will I, now that he's playing the Cajun circuit where the saints come marching in). However, I have heard (both on-stage and off) Hadden Sayers' distinctive, back-of-the-throat voice, along with the Hadden Sayers Band's energetic sound. I can tell you that the StudioMonitor 350s absolutely nailed his voice on Supersonic, the band's latest CD.
The StudioMonitor 350's vibrant dynamism in no way interferes with its careful subtlety, whether you're listening to a beautiful choral layering of voices (as on the Gadeamus Sacred Feast disc) or on a simpler but no less engaging arrangement of voice, accordion, and guitar on Sara K.'s "Whiter Shade of Pale" (What Matters). Individual elements remain clear and distinct without being clinical. In other words, this speaker maintains the often-difficult-to-achieve balance of energy and accuracy.
While it's not as prodigious as its powered PowerMonitor brethren, the StudioMonitor 350 nevertheless manages to pack a punch of its own, thanks to its unusually constructed side-firing passive radiator. It makes a fine attempt at re-creating the pounding rhythm that's set up inside the railroad boxcar where Cassandra Wilson recorded "You Gotta Move" (Belly of the Sun). The bass response is smooth and natural—about as good as you're going to find in a passive speaker this size.
Def Tech has a problem. Once you hear a pair of StudioMonitor 350s with the new SuperCube II subwoofer, it's damn near impossible to separate the combo. What you thought sounded like a good pair of bookshelf speakers suddenly becomes an incredible three-piece dynamo.
The SuperCube II is the company's latest entry into the mondo-powerful, subcompact subwoofer category. It features the same cosmetics as the StudioMonitor 350 (black sock, gloss-black end caps). Inside is an ultra-long-excursion 8-inch woofer driven by a Def Tech-designed 1,250-watt digital switching amplifier. There are two 8-inch pressure-driven infrasonic radiators on the sides adjoining the front-firing woofer. On the back are high- and low-level inputs, plus continuously variable phase, crossover, and volume controls. The sub itself is rock-solid and heavy—which is good because, with the amount of bass this baby produces, anything lighter would go bouncing around your room like a genetically modified Mexican jumping bean.
Too many so-called subwoofers on the market today forget the "sub" part and give you just a loud "woofer." They're good at producing plenty of bass but not much low bass. Here's one way to tell the difference. If your ears say, "Wow, that's a lot of bass," you're not there yet. On the other hand, if your kidneys yell, "Holy crap, what just hit me?" you're on the right track.
Potential SuperCube II owners, beware. Get yourselves on the kidney-transplant waiting list now because the SuperCube II mounts a full-frontal assault on all of the soft, sensitive areas of the human body. It's deeply powerful and strong, and your internal organs will let you know it's there before your ears will. But it's also fast and light. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali, this sub floats like a butterfly and stings like…a freight train.
There's certainly some of that Def Tech voodoo in the SuperCube II. Watch the early street-race scene in The Fast and the Furious, and you'll think you're riding shotgun with Vin Diesel. (You might just find yourself wishing you'd installed seat belts on the couch in your home theater.) From the opening credits on, The Haunting takes on a dimension of foreboding that's simply not there when you listen to the movie using a lesser subwoofer. Likewise, hearing the Japanese attack sequence in Pearl Harbor with the SuperCube II might give you a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
It's great for action movies to have this kind of power, but the SuperCube II's speed and lightness make it an ideal partner for the StudioMonitor 350s for music and, especially, movies with music. Quite often during The Lord of the Rings, I was doubly impressed by this sub/sat package's ability to pound me with the heavy fall of a horse hoof or a battle-ax and then immediately tickle me with the delicate feather of pure music. In this case, the StudioMonitor 350s and SuperCube II achieved this overall effect with the addition of Def Tech's C/L/R 2002 center channel and a pair of BP1.2X bipolar surround speakers, which match incredibly well in tone and attitude (and, of course, appearance) with the front sats and sub. Def Tech sells this complete system under the name StudioCinema 350.
If it's true that Def Tech resorts to using voodoo water on their speakers, it's my guess that they shook an extra couple of drops on the StudioMonitor 350s and the SuperCube II. Finding another speaker combination that's as sweet, powerful, and conveniently sized in this price range is about as difficult as finding an Amish couple in the audience of the "Boys Will Be Girls" show on Bourbon Street. But don't worry: Even if you're not into late-night carousing, you'll drink in everything this new Definitive Technology combo can pour out.
• The StudioMonitor 350's
side-firing woofer extends low-bass response
• Clean, precise imaging
• The SuperCube II has foundation-cleaving bass response
StudioMonitor 350 Bookshelf Speaker $249
C/L/R 2002 Center-Channel Speaker $499
BP1.2X Surround Speaker $175
SuperCube II Subwoofer $899