Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 55 Speaker System Page 2
The StudioMonitor 55s pack a tremendous punch for their modest size. I spent a lot of time auditioning the SM55s without the aid of the SuperCube 6000, and I was continually amazed at the depth and quality of the bass output. Sade’s “Soldier of Love” (from Soldier of Love), for example, hits hard almost from the very beginning of the track. The SM55s did a remarkable job of handling the heavy, almost oppressive, deep-bass beat of the larger drums (playing quite loud without breaking up), while at the same time handling the quicker, tighter, lighter hits of the snare drum. On Lyle Lovett’s latest and final release for Curb Records, Release Me, his duet with Kat Edmonson on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has a nice, deep-bass foundation that the SM55s were able to reach down and reproduce so well it was easy to close my eyes and believe I was listening to a much larger set of speakers. Joe Cocker’s “Runaway Train” (from Hard Knocks) has an aggressive, fast beat that showed the SM55’s 6.5-inch-woofer/6-inch x 10-inch-passive combo to be controlled and tight.
That 6.5-inch woofer in the SM55 is quite spectacular. Sade’s voice, for instance, now has years of pain on it that have slightly roughed up the original golden tone, and the SM55 worked like an acoustic magnifying glass, bringing out her subtle unevenness with sharp clarity. Tom Waits’ voice on “Chicago” (from Bad as Me) is gruff and gritty, and the SM55s were able to clearly delineate his harsh voice in the center as well as handle the lighter, more melodic sounds of the guitar way off to the left of a very wide soundstage. I was especially impressed with the carefully painted contrast between Edmonson’s kittenish vocals and Lovett’s more-travelled intonations bantering about the weather and spending the night. While the “relaxed crystal structure” of the 1-inch, aluminum, domed tweeter certainly played its part in the previous selections, it proved that it could be wonderfully smooth while handling Anne-Sophie Mutter’s violin from Berg’s “Violin Concerto” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Although they certainly made a nice attempt, the smaller, ported StudioMonitor 45s were simply not able to hit as low or as solidly as the SM55s. That’s not to say they aren’t contenders in their price/size class; there’s just a distinct difference in bass performance between the two models. Again, while excellent for its size, vocals with the SM45s were a little smaller and thinner, missing an element of warmth that was so beautiful in the SM55s. The midrange dispersion was not as good on the SM45s as it was with the larger SM55s. (Although it’s another unfair comparison because the StudioMonitor 55s have such wonderful midrange dispersion.)
As impressive as the bass response is in the SM55s, however, it’s still no substitute for having a dedicated subwoofer—in this particular case, the SuperCube 6000. There’s nothing subtle about the way the SC6000 extended the reach and force of the driving bass beat on “Soldier of Love,” but it also fleshed out the richness of the lower register of Jeremy Denk’s piano on French Impressions, his collaborative recording with Joshua Bell on violin.
Let’s Kick Some Big, Bad
For a movie such as Real Steel, of course, an SC6000 (or any sub, for that matter) is an absolute must if you’re going to enjoy every ounce of violent, pounding, crushing, fighting, metal-robot impact. This movie was actually better than I expected it to be. Near the end, when Zeus jumps into the ring to fight Atom, the tremendous thump of his impact against the floor emanated from the screen throughout the room in an impressive pressure wave that I felt throughout my body.
Contagion is a movie that’s heavily reliant on dialogue, and the CS-8040HD performed superbly as a center channel with the SM55s, thanks in part to the identical tweeters, similarly designed bass drivers, and top-mounted, passive radiator. The dialogue stayed crisp and focused all across the front soundstage. When I first received the system, I asked Paul DiComo, who heads up Definitive Technology’s product development, if there was going to be a specific StudioMonitor center channel. It was a natural question for someone with roots in retail, because in my experience, consumers and salespeople like the idea of putting together speaker packages designated by the manufacturer as part of the same series. DiComo informed me that the people responsible for such things at Def Tech decided that the CS-8040HD was such a good match with the new StudioMonitor speakers that it didn’t make sense to design a new center channel. (Besides, it’s already taken them 10 years to come up with the new monitor speakers.) After extensive listening to the CS-8040HD with the SM55s, I have to agree that there’s not much of a reason to develop an SM-series center channel other than for marketing purposes. The blend of the CS-8040HD with the SM55s is superb, especially in a movie such as Moulin Rouge in which dialogue morphs into song without a moment’s notice.
In Contagion, the surround channels are used to give you a sense of the space in which the action is taking place. During a conversation occurring in an outdoor park, for instance, there are a variety of very delicate bird and insect noises that populate the rear of the soundfield. Because the SM45s are direct-radiating speakers, the soundfield isn’t as diffuse as you typically get with di/bipole-radiating surround speakers, but they did seem to have more pinpoint accuracy in locating particular effects. In that vein, while watching The Thing, I got less in the way of sheer dizzying and terrifying surround effects and more subtlety than what I expected. Once again, the CS-8040HD center channel did a wonderful job of creating very articulate dialogue in the lonely, solitary confines of the arctic research station. When the search party goes outside after the alien creature escapes, the blowing wind in the rear of the soundfield blends beautifully with the wind in the front speakers. The entire system finally gets fired up—including the SC6000—once the team decides to shoot and burn the alien “thing” after they’ve found it in one of the research buildings (still digesting one of its victims). It’s a moment in which every element of the speaker system is called on to work in harmony with the others, and the SM55 system held together well, developing a full and deep underpinning of moody and explosive bass and extending the entire soundfield into one seam- less swirl of wind, fire, and voices.
Scratching the 10-Year Speaker Itch
So it took the folks at Definitive Technology almost a decade to come up with a new series of monitor speakers; I can’t give them too much grief over that—after all, it’s not like they weren’t busy doing other things. Considering how well the previous models performed, I’m certain that Def Tech didn’t feel a sense of urgency in coming up with replacements. That’s actually something I have to admire. Often, a manufacturer will introduce new models not because it has something especially different to offer, but because the marketing department needs some sort of excuse to start squawking again. (“Hey, look at me! I’m new over here!”)
Thankfully, the new StudioMonitor 55s (and smaller SM45s) aren’t just the same old boxes with a new-color grille cloth. In my opinion, the updated cabinet styling gives the StudioMonitors a softer, more “living-room-friendly” look. More important, however, are the several enhancements to the speakers’ insides, notably revisions to the bass drivers that result in speakers capable of ultra-revealing midrange detail and exceptional low- bass performance for their size and price. Together with the CS-8040HD and SuperCube 6000, the Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 55 and StudioMonitor 45 speakers make an excellent, lively, and affordable home-theater system that won’t take up much space but will capture a great deal of attention.