Monitor Audio Bronze 5 Loudspeakers by Paul Szabady
SEARCHING FOR A REFERENCE BUDGET LOUDSPEAKER
There are those who hold that the recording is the weakest link in any Hi-Fi system. Then there are those who hold that the medium of that recording is the limiting factor. Others would offer that the amplifying devices are determinative. Still others would claim the loudspeaker as the most obvious culprit. The cynically inclined might even claim that the listener is the weakest link.
In addition to my primary reference system, which produces full 10-octave bandwidth in a very large concrete-floor basement listening room, I also use 3 other rooms for auditioning review items. A second system of 9-octave range is located in a re-done attic bedroom suite. Additionally, a small 9-by-12 ft. room allows optimum set-up of small mini-monitor based systems. Finally, the most pleasant room in the house for listening – – a living room which features a large picture-window view of one of Minneapolis’ many beautiful lakes – completes the different tools I use for analyzing the performance of components under review. I’ve been able to get 3 of the rooms singing with soul-stirring musical performance, but it is the picture-windowed living room that has been the biggest challenge. Maybe the listening room itself is the weakest link…
Whatever the underlying principles of habitat construction might be, my near 50-year history with things audio shows me that the average listening room is designed to do everything but produce linear frequency response and high fidelity sound. The average Western room is almost obsessively based on the archetypal rectangle (the average Westerner also tends to place any large items/objects into the room along its walls,) and the dimensions of the rectangle (or even worse, square) are often simple multiples of each other. Since room dimensions determine bass response (reinforcing some frequencies while canceling others) in any given listening space, it’s not surprising that the performance of any speaker will be affected and compromised by the room in which it is placed. While applying the science of Acoustics to a room might lead to the identification and improvement of non-linear frequency response, it says nothing about the quality of that response, unless of course one makes the leap of faith that flat, measured frequency-response alone defines High Fidelity.
Because it’s not only bass response that is affected by the listening room: midrange and particularly high frequencies are also at its mercy. The very air in the room loves to eat extreme high frequencies, in addition to any reflective or absorbent furnishings, so unless one is listening fairly close to the speaker, top-octave response is likely to droop. Midrange performance suffers similar effects.
With the growing architectural popularity of open-room construction where multiple geometric shapes define the space, much of the predictive value of Acoustic theory of simple rectangles is compromised. Many of these open-plan rooms are also furnished with severe austerity and tend sonically to the bright and echo-laden. There also seems to be a conspiracy among architects and designers to guarantee that the optimum loudspeaker position in the room interferes with traffic patterns and doorways.
Finally, the construction of the room will affect sound: the materials used in the walls, floors, ceiling, and windows, coupled to the interior furnishings of the room will set the ultimate limits of resolution of a given listening space.
All the forgoing entered my considerations of this 4th listening room, and since it is probably similar to the ‘average’ listening room that most music listeners have to contend with, I felt compelled to master its difficulties and to achieve the quality of sound and music available in my other three listening spaces. It was particularly pressing because I use this room to review rationally priced Hi-Fi gear.
This living room measures 14 feet by 22 feet with a 9-foot ceiling. Its layout and use requires positioning the speakers along the long wall and shooting into the shorter width of the room. The right speaker is three feet from its sidewall, the left speaker loads a far bigger space, the ‘wall’ behind the speakers is actually a series of windows. Listening is done from 10 feet away with the same distance between the speakers, and with at least 2 feet between each speaker and the wall behind it.
The room is just big enough that it denies small mini-monitors the bass reinforcement that allows them to produce a necessary and satisfying bass response, and just small enough to overload and murk-ify if faced with strong low bass and mid-bass of full (or fuller) range speakers. Smaller bookshelf (i.e., stand mount) speakers typically run out of gas by 63 Hz in this room, and due to limitations of potential placement and the resonant characteristics of the room’s material construction, bass augmentation through use of a subwoofer has been consistently unsatisfying. There’s either too little bass or too much-blurred bass, a phenomenon many listeners might also relate to in their own listening spaces.
After running more than 40 different speakers in this room over the 30 years I’ve lived in this house, I’m forced to consider devoted and earnest supplication of St. Goldilocks, the patron saint of “Just Right,” as a desperate attempt to solve the room’s foibles.
Contemporary loudspeaker design seems to have solidified into 2 basic forms: bookshelf speakers (stand-mounts) and so-called “towers” – floor-standing speakers only wide enough to accommodate their small-ish drivers. Stand-mount speakers are the least expensive typically, and trade-off bass response and sensitivity (and often impedance) to achieve their small size. While they can create supra-hallucinogenic stereo illusions, they demand high-quality speaker stands and very small rooms to produce their magic. The price of high-quality stands usually raises the price of these mini speakers to that of the tower speaker, which typically offers higher sensitivity, much more bass response, and greater potential volume levels all without demanding greater floor space.
The Monitor Audio Bronze 5 is a 2.5-way floor-standing loudspeaker featuring two ceramic-coated metal (C-CAM in Monitor Audio’s parlance) 5.5-inch woofers and Monitor Audio’s Gold tweeter, crossed over at 3.2 kHz. The “.5” in 2.5-way means that one of the 2 midrange/woofers does not extend fully into the low bass, rolling off to -6dB at 400 Hz, thus effectively serving as a midrange driver. Monitor Audio specs the sensitivity at 90 dB, an 8 Ohm impedance, and bass response down to 37 Hz and up to 30 kHz. Retail price is $950 per pair.
Monitor Audio has been dedicated to the use of metal drivers for the last 3 decades or so, and has continually evolved, refined, and improved their performance to an exceptionally sophisticated and refined level that banishes any quibbles and stereotypes about what metal drivers sound like. Indeed, it was the quality and refinement of Monitor Audio’s drivers in this price-range that targeted the Bronze 5’s for this review. I learned early in my Audio Sales experience that the use of extremely high quality, extended high-frequency tweeters could raise a so-so speaker to the ranks of the exceptional in terms of clarity, transparency, and accuracy. The better the tweeter, the more accurately the speaker can reproduce the harmonics of any instrument, making identification of that instrument easier for the ear. Once you get used to superior high-frequency reproduction, it becomes impossible to return to the so-so and compromised. You can’t go home again. Monitor Audio’s use of their Gold tweeter in the Bronze 5 guarantees that compromised high-frequency performance is not part of their affordable price.
Speakers priced at less than $1000 per pair offer a wide variety of driver material choices in their circumscribed cabinet profiles, based on cost and manufacturers’ design criteria. One finds paper, treated and coated paper, a variety of plastic types, metal, treated-metal, and others to form the cones of the typically 5” to roughly 8” single or multiple drivers usually found. Tweeter materials range from a variety of fabric domes, to plastics, and various metals. System designs are typically 2-way, with the 2.5 way common. Woofer loading is invariably bass-reflex.
Monitor Audio’s metal-based speaker designs have long been known for demanding an extensive break-in period before they sound as intended. I played the Bronze 5’s for over 50 hours before listening to them critically.
It was immediately obvious that the frustrating and maddening bass difficulties of my room had been solved. Bass was taut, punchy, rhythmic, and true to timbre, and extended flat down to 32 Hz before the response nose-dived. I was deeply impressed. Here was an additional whole octave of response compared to stand-mount speakers, and all of it of exceptional dynamic and rhythmic prowess. We all know that the names of Jazz and Rock and Roll originated in slang euphemisms for the sexual act, and with the proper lasciviously rhythmic music, the Bronze 5 could sound positively slutty. Not only can the 5’s be considered a practical full-range speaker (which I define as flat-response to at least 42 Hz, the lowest note of a bass guitar) but their bass response helps to depict the ambience of a recording site, filling in details of its size.
Frequency response sounded flat and linear with extended high frequencies that clearly delineated cymbal strikes (catching both the initial wooden attack and the resulting metallic ring) and revealed the ‘air’ of the acoustic space in which the instrument was recorded. Measuring the response in my room, at my ears and in stereo, revealed an unusually flat response with no sudden spikes or suck-outs, closely reinforcing what I was hearing. The Bronze 5’s sounded smooth in response with no audible discontinuities, revealing a successful integration into a believable Gestalt. That Gestalt was one of clarity, neutrality, and detail.
Some of this naturalness and accuracy can be traced to its intelligent and user-friendly technical design: it is exceptionally easy to drive with an 8 Ohm load and a sensitivity of 90 dB. This means that relatively low powered amplifiers, and amps without particularly robust low-impedance drive capabilities can be used without qualms. I ran a batch of amps into the 5’s, ranging in power from 20 to 80 Watts per channel: a circa-1972 Marantz 1060 integrated amp, a turn-of-millennium NAD 325BEE, a NuForce STA200, Schiit Audio Aegir, PrimaLuna 5, Meitner STR55, EICO HF 89, and the Graham Slee Proprius.
The Bronze 5’s proved transparent enough to show the clear differences among these amps, but were not neurotic about what they were matched with. Like some other British speakers (Harbeth for one), they seem to bring out the best in what the electronics offer, without spot-lighting any limitations obnoxiously. Still, the better the system driving them, the better they sounded, revealing that the Bronze 5’s are a speaker one can live with for a long time: they will continue to improve and reveal the gains made in any system upgrades. Even more important is how good they sound with readily affordable associated gear.
It was the same with preamps, CD players, interconnects, and turntables. I was impressed with the 5’s ability to reveal the differences between CD and Analogue LP, and the differences among turntables, arms, and cartridges. The stair-step decay of notes on CD was obvious, and the differences between a Technics Direct Drive and my large stable of British and American belt-drive turntables in rhythmic accuracy, timing, and musical meaning and coherence was as clear now as it was in the 1970’s when Linn revealed that the Direct-Drive Emperor had no new clothes.
Indeed, it was difficult to clearly define what the limitations of the Bronze 5 truly are, as slight perceived anomalies proved to be the result of other elements in the system and not the messenger’s fault. Like a sonic chameleon, the 5’s sound like what’s driving them. Ultimately, and in comparison to the absolute best cost-no-object speakers (and my reference Sound Lab Dynastat electrostatic/dynamic speakers,) the Bronze 5 partakes of the traditional British element of a very slight politeness. It may be pointless to remark that even such a refined dynamic-coil speaker as the 5 fails to match the speed and transparency of an electrostatic, especially considering that even dynamic-coil speakers 5 times its price also fail to do so.
Although the Bronze 5’s come with spikes, I did all my critical listening to them with the StillPoints isolators. The StillPoints, as usual, transformed the speakers from very good, easy to listen to budget speakers to truly gripping, high-end musical performers: the increase in clarity, transparency, fidelity, and detail throughout the entire bandwidth revealing the true capability of the loudspeaker.
It was unusually easy to hear all the lines and strands of music, without blurring, slurring, or masking, an essential demand for all types of music. The Bronze’s accurate reproduction of individual instrument timbre eliminated wasting time trying to identify any given instrument, thus permitting full attention to what the instrument was playing.
The 5’s clarity of musical lines intensely served my auditions of the work of many seminal 60’s bands (along with the emerging expansion of recording technique), as I waded through the collected works of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Pentangle, Procol Harum, The Who, Jethro Tull, the Rolling Stones, and others on both CD and Analogue LP. The Monitor Audio’s bass clarity allowed a renewed appreciation of the bass playing and drumming of these bands, particularly noticeable on the relatively crude live-performance recordings of Cream in full concert flight. Never was Jack Bruce’s contribution to Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton more obvious.
The Bronze’s bass and high-frequency qualities led to an orgy of auditioning recordings to really hear the contributions of the rhythm section – including Little Feat, The Allman Brothers, Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter Quartet, the Meters, Bob Marley and The Wailers, Funkadelic/Parliament, Captain Beefheart, and the Grateful Dead’s live recordings.
Then I went on another listening orgy of a dozen Miles Davis albums and the same number of John Coltrane’s, which led to days of John McLaughlin recordings and Keith Jarrett solo piano concerts. Some of the LP’s I listened to had been neglected for over 30 years: the Bronze 5’s clarity and untangling of the most complex mixes evoked a sense of discovery similar to that of hearing a record for the first time. But most notable was how well the Bronze 5 communicated the artistic message of the music: aesthetic distortion was lower than anything I’ve heard anywhere near its price range.
I use Classical music as the final arbiter of a review item’s ultimate fidelity as it provides a touchstone reference to reality, and avoids the relativity of judging quality based on synthetic and artificial Rock and Pop recordings. Not only does the music demand accurate reproduction of the timbre of many more and more complexly over-toned instruments, it also demands the ability to untangle and to keep in focus a great variety of music lines as they change in volume. The Classical orchestra also demands the production of beautiful instrumental sonorities in addition to the beauty of what they are playing. Finally, Classical recordings are attempts to capture the width, depth, and height of a performance/recording venue along with its ambience.
It was deeply satisfying to hear how well the Bronze 5 performed with the sonic demands of Classical instruments: the acid test of the violin was passed readily, the quality of the Gold tweeter unravelling the highest harmonics of the instrument without turning harsh, smeared, or artificial. Demarcation of similar-sounding woodwinds was first rate. It was ditto for the rest of the string section, brass, tympani, and percussion. Finally, the sound of the piano was done so well that one could immediately immerse oneself in its message.
Stereophonic performance of the Bronze 5 was top-drawer with Classical recordings: the width, depth, and height of instrument placement clear and non-ambiguous. Pulling the speakers farther into the room by 3 feet or so produced the kind of hallucinogenic sound-stage that mini-monitors excel at: the speakers invisible aurally and the soundstage expanding beyond the confines of the room. A commensurate increase in depiction of recording venue ambience also occurred. Traffic patterns in the room prevented permanent installation in this almost half-way-into-the-room position, a common compromise for all non-dedicated listening rooms, though I did not find returning the speakers to their ‘normal’ position in this well-used room musically disruptive.
I was extremely impressed with the Bronze 5’s musical, rhythmic, sonic, and stereoscopic accuracy. So much so that I hold it to be a reference for a reasonably priced speaker. Essentially uncompromised, the 5’s encourage listening to all kinds of music. Easy to drive and thus easy to match with other components either solid-state or vacuum tube, the refinement of their individual drivers and their sophisticated integration into a single voice, provides unusually low artistic distortion. The Bronze 5 allows direct perception of the music’s aesthetic intention and clarifies the quality of musical performance and the recording art. Highly recommended.
- System Format: 2-1/2 Way
- Frequency Response: 37 Hz – 30 KHz
- Sensitivity (1W@1M): 90dB
- Nominal Impedance (Ohms): 8
- Maximum SPL (dBA @1M – each): 111
- Power Handling R.M.S (W): 120
- Recommended Amplifier Requirements (W): 30-120
- Cabinet Design: Dual-chamber bass-reflex – Ported front and rear HiVe® Port technology
- Crossover Frequency: LF: -6dB @ 400Hz; F/HF: 3.2kHz
- Dimensions: 33-7/16″ high, 6-9/16″ wide, 9-3/4″ deep
- Dimensions (including plinth and feet): 34-3/16″ high, 8-7/16″ wide, 11-1/8″ deep
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