Have you ever heard of the Benchmark DAC? How about the Alesis Masterlink? Or maybe the Behringer DEQ2496 rings a bell? All of these products started out as Pro Audio items, meaning they were intended mainly for use in commercial recording studios or live concert venues. They were not sold in home audio stores or advertised in Stereophile or TAS. However, somewhere along the line, each of these products were discovered by audio reviewers and written up in the high-end audio press. They became hot topics on audio boards and blogs, all resulting in many thousands of sales to audiophiles worldwide. And for good reason; they are excellent products selling for prices that make them attractive to home audio enthusiasts.

 

The fact is, there is a whole world of such products sitting in guitar stores right now;

speakers, amplifiers, cables, isolation devices, DACs – you name it. The question is, how good are they in comparison to components designed for and marketed to the home audio segment? We at Stereomojo believe this question is worth investigating and perhaps barbecuing a sacred cow or two along the way.

 

HOW MUCH WOULD YOU PAY…

 

…for a pair of very good, rather large (say 17" x 11" x 13.5"), very well constructed 2-way stand-mount monitors featuring not a 6 or 7 inch woofer, but a big Kevlar eight-incher? Plus a 1” silk dome tweeter? Then add that they are very accurate – flat from 50 -20,000 with only a +/- 1.5dB variance? Most expensive speakers do well to accomplish that within a +/- 3dB range. The specs say they are within 3dB all the way down to 39hz. The flatter the response the better, right?

 

What would you think so far? Maybe $1,000 a piece? There are plenty of much more costly monitors that cannot boast those specs. But wait a minute. Each of these boxes includes two amplifiers! An 80-watt amp just to drive the 8” woofer and another 40 watter dedicated just to the tweeter. Therefore, a pair of these speakers includes four separate amplifiers. Very clean amplifiers. 120 watts per side? That’s not all that much. But what if they could output a clean 113 db at 1 meter before clipping and built to sustain that 24/7 in a recording studio environment?

 

What class of amps are they? AB? D? I asked Alesis. Several times. They would not say, claiming that information is “proprietary”. I was also not permitted to talk to anyone in the engineering department. Since there are large heat sinks in the rear, class D is unlikely, and we know there are no tubes in there. Probably AB.

 

How much are we talking now, particularly since you save a bundle on expensive interconnects you would not need? You might want to invest in some good XLR ICs since these speakers are fully balanced. Balanced speakers? Yup. Three or four grand for the pair maybe? But wait, there’s more.

 

THE DSP FACTOR

 

You probably know DSP stands for Digital Signal Processing. In this case, the DSP is a digital crossover with 24bit resolution. If you are worried about digititus, there was no evidence of the malady anywhere to be heard.

 

With the Alesis 820DSP, here is what that means to you. Imagine, if you can, sitting in your room right in the sweet spot with your trusty laptop. A standard 9-pin serial cable (provided) runs from your laptop to the left speaker. Another included cable connects to the left speaker to the right speaker. On your laptop screen is a four-band parametric EQ. When you make adjustments from your listening position to one speaker or both simultaneously, you hear the changes in real time from the speakers. When you have achieved your optimum voicing of the speakers to your room, just click “save” and the parameters are saved – in the speakers - for you to recall or change at your whim via buttons on the front panel – complete with an LED readout of whatever you named it.

 

Up to eight user settings are storable, but in case that is not enough, there are another 8 factory presets. #1 is flat, #2 is Hifi based on the Fletcher Munson curve. What if you prefer a British sound? Use #7 named the BBC Dip which gives you a slight dip in the 1 to 3kHz range for a more distant (mid hall) and relaxed sound. #6 will even emulate an 80’s boom box for your teenager. They speakers are magnetically shielded

 

A professional, high quality EQ can set you back $1,000 or more, plus the ICs you would need to connect it and you still would not have the convenience of adjusting it from your sweet spot.

 

THE LED FACTOR     

              

The front of each speaker sports a greenish multifunction LED and six small buttons.

Depending on which buttons are used, the LED will tell you:

 

 

 

THE BREAKING IN FACTOR

There are those that believe that speakers do not need break-in, that what the listener is experiencing is a psychoacoustic effect which is actually their hearing and their mind adjusting to the sound of the speaker, not the sound of the speaker changing over time. It’s all in their head.

 

If there was ever a speaker to blow that theory out of the water, it is this one. When I first installed the 820s, they sounded very constricted and tight. Mediocre dynamics. The low end especially was MIA. However, most notably, they did not play very loud and clipped rather easily. How did I know they were clipping? It was obvious to hear, but I could also see it. The greenish-yellow LED was flashing red, signaling that clipping was indeed occurring even at moderate levels.

 

After several hours, the bass opened up, as did the rest of the frequency response. They played louder and the dynamic range expanded drastically. Moreover, the LED no longer flashed red even at ear shattering levels.

 

Besides, the manual states, “Nearly all new speakers require a few hours of bass-heavy material at fairly loud volume to break them in. What this does is loosen up the driver suspensions and smooth out the response”. No psycho babble now, please. Case closed.

 

HOW DO THEY SOUND?

 

How do they sound? I will let my wife Linda answer that first. She came home late from our office while I was listening in the dark to the newly set up 820s. She stuck her head in the listening rooms and said “Did you get new speakers in for review today? The sound makes me think of you sitting at a mixing board! What are they?” This from the sound she heard from outside the room.

 

Backing up a bit, as I listened to them after a few hours of break-in I had the very same thought, but I thought it was a since I knew these were recording studio monitors. But she did not. I kept trying to shake the feeling, forget they were pro audio and evaluate like I would any speaker, but still they evoked such strong memories of long sessions in various studios it was impossible to dispel. Linda confirmed what I was hearing was not a psychological predisposition, but an actual characteristic.

 

What is this characteristic? First, the sound is incredibly dynamic. Listening to Flim & the BBs Tricycle, the powerful snare drum did not just snap, it was a small detonation.Same with the kick drum. Maximum Mojo. The piano was clean, very neutral and again, the notes just leapt from the speakers. Electric bass was deep and tuneful. It took no effort to follow exactly what the bassist was doing and equally easy to differentiate him from the drummer’s bass kicks.

 

Wide dynamic splashes indicate there is a low noise floor. If a sound initiates from a high noise floor, there is not as far for it to expand. Anything percussive through the Alesis’ was explosive compared to most home audio speakers which tend to favor either a dry, detailed and restrained personality, or the opposite warm, smooth, romantic style. Bach or Rachmaninov. These are not euphonic in any sense. Critics who write that a certain speaker imparts no coloration need to compare them to a good pair of pro studio monitors. They might reconsider their remarks.

 

When listening to rock or pop studio recordings, I enjoy listening for what the producer

and engineer did in the mix. That is every bit as much art and science as what the musicians are playing. The 820s allowed me to hear that clearly; so much so that I began to pull out Alan Parsons, 10cc, ELO, Steely Dan, Sir George Martin and, of course, Pink Floyd. Their mixing artistry shown through gloriously.  These speakers love rock and rock loves them. Same with Boz Scaggs, Chicago and the remarkable new Beauty Room – a mix of The Dan and CSN&Y if you imagine that. Go check it out.

 

Recording studio monitors are designed to give such people a canvas with which to paint their aural masterpieces. The Alesis Prolinear 820DSPs did not place Miles and his friends on Kind of Blue in my room, they placed them live on the other side of the glass in the studio.

 

ONSTAGE

 

The soundstage is presented differently as well. In classical recordings such as Reference Recordings excellent “Tutti” CD or the Mercury vinyl version of Hanson’s “Composer and His Orchestra”, the images of instruments were very stable and easy to isolate, but they were not rendered in the 3D holographic tableau so characteristic of the better high-end home products. Classical vinyl sounds a bit sterile and more CDish. The size of the stage was rather moderate and not as dramatic as the Vienna Acoustics Haydn or the even larger sounding LSA 1 Reference. The ambient field was not as thick and palpable. Classical is not this speaker’s strong suit. Perhaps that is why many classical recording and mixing studios do not use commercial studio monitors and lean more towards B&Ws and the like.

 

THE DOWNSIDES

 

 

SO HOW MUCH DO THEY COST?

This was deliberately saved ‘til last. The Alesis Prolinear 820DPS retails for $529 each.

Google showed prices as low as $399. Remember, you are replacing your speakers and your stereo amp.

 

 

 

 

Recommended only for those who may enjoy the unique dynamic, clean, powerful sound of studio monitors and their accompanying unsexy appearance. Recommended for lovers of rock, funk, modern jazz, and any top 100 contemporary type music. Not recommended for classical aficionados. Ultra low price and superb reliability are big factors. Caution: Can easily play loud enough to cause ear damage. There are several competitive alternatives by Mackie, Event, KRK, Yamaha and others - with and without the DSP features - all worth exploring.

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