Monitor Audio Gold Signature GS 20 Speaker System
Monitor Audio has the metal thing down. I remember thinking that after my first encounter with a pair of Monitor Studio speakers in the mid-1980s. In those days, metal drivers had a reputation for adding an annoying metallic zing to the sound, but the Monitors were as sweet as could be. Over the years, Monitor continued to hone the technology; even now, when there are a lot of great-sounding speakers with metal drivers, to my ear, nobody does it better. Monitor's current product range includes a healthy selection of custom-install models and the heavy-metal contenders, which run from the entry-level Bronze, the Silver, the Gold, and up to the flagship Platinum speaker lines.
Going for the Gold
For this review, I went for a set of Gold Signature speakers and the matching GSW 12 subwoofer. Yes, the metal drivers are the stars of the show, but I'd like to tell you first about how these speakers look and feel. My samples' Santos Rosewood veneers were stunning. Monitor puts extra effort into selecting matched wood sheets cut from the same log section to assure color and grain consistency for each pair of speakers. In addition to rosewood, the Gold Signatures are available in walnut, cherry, and high-gloss piano black (with no extra charge for any finish). The level of fit and finish really is well above par for speakers in the Gold Signatures' price class. The GS 20 towers come with hefty cast-metal plinths and the most well-thought-out leveling feet I've seen. They're rubber rimmed to pamper hardwood or tiled floors; and, if you have carpets or rugs, you can screw the supplied spikes into the feet. If you're as tweaky as I am, you can use the included bubble level to precisely level the speakers. The speakers' imaging focus was a tad more precise after I had dialed everything in just so.
To get me up to speed on the technology, Monitor sent along some literature elucidating the virtues of their C-CAM (Ceramic-Coated Aluminum Magnesium) drivers. The 1-inch dome tweeter looks like gold, but the color comes from the ceramic coating. The aluminum-magnesium alloy was developed for use in jet engines, but, thanks to its exceptional stiffness-to-weight ratio, the C-CAM tweeter raises the frequency of its breakup mode beyond that of more conventional designs and extends the speakers' high-frequency response enough to satisfy audiophile dogs (claimed to be 43 kilohertz).
The midrange and woofer cones are formed by a proprietary two-stage, high-pressure molding technique. Look closely at the drivers, and you'll see that the cones have, well, dimples—hundreds of them. I suppose the engineers thought the word dimples didn't fully communicate the importance of their breakthrough, so they dubbed the indentations RST (Rigid Surface Technology). Whatever. The dimples are said to significantly increase cone rigidity, which frees up the engineers to use thinner and therefore lighter C-CAM cones. They tell me the dimples—er, RST—minimize the driver surface's standing waves that would otherwise propagate across the cone. Their explanation of the result: cleaner, more detailed sound, just from a bunch of dimples.
The GS series' 6.5-inch midbass driver features a bullet-shaped solid-aluminum phase plug. Say what? I've seen lots of other speakers that use phase plugs to smooth the drivers' frequency response and improve dispersion, but some are fabricated from thin, hollow plastic or metal, while Monitor machines their plugs out of a solid aluminum bar. This makes them less resonant than the lightweight versions and improves power handling by better dissipating heat buildup that could otherwise compress dynamics.
The GS FX is a different sort of dipole/monopole surround speaker. You can switch the modes manually (front panel) or—this is the really cool part—remotely via 12-volt trigger. So, if you can program your pre/pro or A/V receiver's trigger-voltage outputs, the GS FX will effortlessly select dipole mode for wide-open, spacious surround with movies and more focused monopole sound for multichannel music. As another bonus, the GS FX is a three-way design, with a front-firing 6.5-inch bass driver and a 1-inch tweeter—plus a pair of side-firing 4-inch mid drivers and 1-inch tweeters. When you use the speaker as a monopole, only the front-firing drivers are active; in dipole mode, the side drivers and just the front woofer are active. Monitor calls the GS FX "ambidextrous," meaning you can configure it as right or left "handed" during installation, and that's important because it allows the drivers aimed toward the screen to be in phase with the front speakers. You can also adjust its tweeter level with a three-position switch.
The GSW 12 features a 12-inch C-CAM driver, an amplifier rated at 600 watts, and digital signal processing to provide four preset EQ curves labeled Music, Movies, Dynamic, and Impact—along with a 10-band graphic EQ. That adjustable EQ can facilitate smoother bass in your room, especially if you or your dealer knows how to use a spectrum analyzer. I didn't, but I still managed to significantly improve the bass with my trusty RadioShack sound-pressure-level meter. The various settings, volume, and phase controls are all accessible by the top-mounted panel or via the GSW 12's remote control. That's admirable, but, since the display is located on the sub's top panel, you have to walk over to the GSW 12 to see what's going on. Duh! On the upside, the sub is finished to the same high standard as the Gold Signature speakers.
Sounds Like Victory
I sat spellbound as the Monitors, pardon the expression, totally dissected the Saw DVD's truly hellacious thrills. The squishy wetness of the disgustingly dirty floors, the actors' nervous breathing, the ominous score, and the sheer ickiness the mix conveys will get the palms of any gore-o-phile sweating in no time. In the quieter scenes, the movie depends on borderline-subliminal sounds to keep the tension up, and that's where the GS' resolution paid off in spades. For high-impact home theater jollies, I popped on the newest 007 flick, Casino Royale, and cranked up the volume to more fully savor the soul-satisfying roar of Bond's Aston Martin. Yeah, baby. The Gold Signatures didn't disappoint.
The surround mixes on the Doors Strange Days DVD-Audio disc clued me in to all sorts of stuff I'd never heard before, like the hand claps on "Unhappy Girl." And Jim Morrison's vocals, hard-mixed to the center channel, sounded like he was ready to jump out of the speaker. The DVD-Audio treatment makes this old music sound new again.
Arcade Fire's Neon Bible CD unfurled a gigantic soundstage filled to the brim with throbbing orchestrations and angelic choirs. With a subwoofer as potent as the GSW 12, lines like "The sound is not asleep/ It's moving under my feet" were literally true. The majestic 500-pipe organ in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church in Montreal that opens "Intervention" was well represented in all of its glory. The Monitors' rich balance didn't prevent the GS 20s from highlighting guitarist Elliott Sharp's fleet-fingered fretwork on his Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk! CD. His amazing Dell Arte Grande Bouche acoustic guitar invoked the playful melodies of Thelonious Monk's piano. It's a strange and wonderful album.
That said, it was the unhyped tonality of the Gold Signatures that kept me coming back for more. If you're looking for über detail and sparkling highs, I'm not so sure if these speakers will light your fire. The Monitor Gold Signatures sound the way they look: elegant, sophisticated, and thoroughly modern. And that sounds like a winning combination to me.
• Drivers with dimples—you've got to love that!
• Remote-controlled subwoofer—the couch-potato special!