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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 01 November 2018 01 November 2018
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Although Studio Electric LLC was established in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2006, founder David MacPherson can trace his career as a speaker designer back 20 years before that. In 1985, he began making speakers for the professional market under the brand name MacPherson, Inc., which he remained involved with until 2005.
In the late 2000s I began noticing Studio Electric at hi-fi shows, where they usually exhibited with electronics maker Benchmark Media Systems, based in Syracuse, New York. I didn’t pay them much attention -- to me, Studio Electric looked like just another small maker of speakers in a market already overflowing with speaker brands, most of which had been around much longer. (I think if we had only half as many hi-fi companies as we do now, we’d still have more than enough to serve the market.) But when David MacPherson approached me earlier this year, offering review samples of his M4 loudspeaker, and was undaunted when I told him we’d be measuring them in the anechoic chamber of Canada’s National Research Council, I figured it was time to pay attention.
Studio Electric’s T3 ($8950 USD per pair) is an unusual-looking floorstanding speaker described on Studio Electric’s website as an “‘art piece’” and “a GREAT sounding speaker.” Their other models are far more conventional in appearance: two floorstanders -- the FS1 ($5900/pair) and FSX ($9500-$11,500, depending on choice of biwire connectors and “tweeter tilt” switch) -- and the subject of this review, the M4 minimonitor. The M4 is their entry-level model: a straightforward, rectangular box measuring 13”H x 8.625”W x 13.5”D and weighing 19 pounds, its front baffle made of high-density fiberboard (HDF) and the rest of its walls of medium-density fiberboard (MDF).
The M4 is available in three finishes: Wenge veneer ($2400/pair), Figured Maple veneer ($2750/pair), and high-gloss White lacquer ($2650/pair). Regardless of finish, the baffle is always black. Low on the rear panel is a single pair of binding posts, attached to a black aluminum plate.
None of those prices include the optional protective grilles, which cost $350/pair -- a price that seems high until you see them. Made of stainless-steel mesh in a pattern similar to that seen on a Neumann microphone and designed to be acoustically transparent, the grille adds a visually attractive curve to the speaker’s front, and gives what would otherwise be a pretty ordinary-looking speaker box some higher-end flair.
The M4’s frequency response is specified as 44Hz-22kHz, unqualified by a dB-down spec (e.g., -3dB, -6dB). Studio Electric doesn’t claim to make the M4’s 1” soft-dome tweeter themselves, or that it does anything all that special. However, it’s crossed over at 3.4kHz to a 6.5” midrange-woofer that is proprietary, with a cast frame, a rubber surround, and a copolymer (i.e., plastic) cone. The choice of plastic has to do with that high crossover frequency -- MacPherson says the copolymer behaves nicely, with no nasty breakups before handing off to the tweeter. He also pointed out that the mid-woof’s voice coil has a “split gap,” which he explained in an e-mail: “The voice coil remains within the field of the permanent magnet at the extremes of each stroke. Keeping the woofer under better control during high-power/low-frequency transients. The subjective result is better bass in terms of output and speed than one might expect from a drive unit of its size.”
Studio Electric specifies the M4’s sensitivity as 88dB/W/m, its impedance as 6 ohms. And unlike almost all other two-way minimonitors at or near this price, which use a port to augment their bass output by as much as 3dB at and around the port’s tuning frequency, the M4 is a sealed box. How that sealed box would sound and measure was one of the things that most intrigued me about this speaker.
I placed the Studio Electric M4s on 24”-tall Foundation stands, which I use for all stand-mounted speakers in my room. This put their tweeters on the same level as my ears when I sit down to listen. But if you sit taller than I do (not hard to do -- I’m 5’ 5”), and/or your listening seat is higher, 26”- or 28”-high stands might work better. The two M4s and my head described an 8’ equilateral triangle, as measured from the tweeters’ centers. Toe-in was a scant 15° -- the tweeter axes crossed several feet behind my head -- and each M4 was 4’ from its sidewall and 6’ from the front wall. My room is pretty big, with a listening area 18’L x 16’W, and behind that another space that’s a little larger. All of that meant that the M4s not only had to fill that space with sound, they had to do it with little help from boundary reinforcement.
I did most of my listening with a Hegel Music Systems H360 integrated amplifier-DAC connected to my Samsung R580 laptop computer with an AudioQuest Carbon USB link. All electronics are usually plugged into two Shunyata Research Venom PS8 power distributors, each connected to a dedicated wall outlet with a Venom HC power cord; but for this simple setup, I needed only one Venom PS8. The H360 was plugged into the PS8 with a Venom HC cord, the laptop with its stock cord.
The first thing I streamed through the M4s was the title track, by Tom Waits, of Joan Baez’s latest album, Whistle Down the Wind (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Concord/Tidal). The moment the music began, it gave me a jolt: Her voice was projected very solidly at center stage, with a hint of warmth and a sense of real presence akin to what I hear from some systems using tube amps. It also sounded a little forward, though I felt that at least some of that could be attributed to the H360 -- it and every other Hegel amp I’ve heard have sounded visceral and immediate, which tends to translate into a more forward sound -- but the presence and warmth seemed to be traits of the M4. The soundstage was also impressively wide -- it spread past the outer walls of my room. However, the soundstage seemed shallower than what I’ve heard from this track through other speakers -- something I’ll come back to.
The drum sound in “Whistle Down the Wind” includes some deep, rich bass that contributed to that initial jolt. I definitely wasn’t hearing or feeling much, if any, energy below 40Hz from the M4s -- as the speaker’s specified bottom-end limit of 44Hz attests, it omits the lowest octave of the audioband. But from 40Hz up the M4s sounded far fuller and richer than I’d expected -- not only for a pair of minimonitors, but especially for sealed boxes, which in my experience tend to sound a bit light in the bass. Nor did I have to turn up the volume very high to get these speakers to play pretty loud, which indicates that the M4 was indeed fairly sensitive -- you won’t need all that much power to drive them. The Hegel H360’s specified output of 250Wpc into 8 ohms was way more than enough to power the M4s; probably half that would have been enough.
I streamed Van Morrison’s Poetic Champions Compose (16/44.1 FLAC, Mercury/Tidal), beginning with track 1, the instrumental “Spanish Steps,” in which Morrison plays alto saxophone at center stage. His sax was as solidly centered as Baez’s voice had been, and again the stage was plenty wide, though shallower than I’ve heard before from this track. The reproduction of Morrison’s horn wasn’t the most “bitey” I’ve heard -- it was a bit smoother than I’m accustomed to -- but I still heard plenty of detail and loads of presence.
With “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” the M4s put Morrison’s voice prominently in the center, as I’d already come to expect from these speakers, and with the same tangibility and liquidity I’d heard in Baez’s voice in “Whistle Down the Wind.” I suspect that those who listen to a lot of singers will really appreciate the M4s for their reproduction of voices: almost voluptuous, without being too smoothed-over. Again, the bass was much stronger and deeper than I’d expected, and the highs sounded clean, beautifully extended, and sweet, with none of the hash or edge sometimes heard from metal-dome tweeters. It sounded really good.
Curious about those shallow stages, I played from my hard drive “Gabriel’s Oboe,” from Ennio Morricone’s score for the 1986 film The Mission -- a file I ripped from a CD I’ve owned for more than 20 years (16/44.1 WAV, Virgin). In the beginning of this track, the timpani are far back on the stage -- 40’ or so. Some systems I’ve tested create the illusion that the drums are far beyond the front wall of my listening room. With the M4s, the stage was again impressively wide when the chorus enters, but the timpani never blasted beyond that front wall -- instead, they more or less crept past it.
I then played “The Sweetest Taboo,” from Sade’s Promise (16/44.1 WAV, Epic), released in 1985 and also ripped from CD. It begins with percussion against a background of the sound of light rain falling. Some systems can place both rain and percussion just beyond my front wall, a little outside my house -- an interesting effect! In this case, the rain was just at the wall. I found the M4s’ reproduction of “Gabriel’s Oboe” and “The Sweetest Taboo” a bit odd -- I’ve often found that with high detail comes great soundstage depth -- the latter is a byproduct of being able to hear everything in a recording, including all the spatial cues that help present that illusion of depth, width, and height. The M4s didn’t compromise detail -- even the lightest timpani strokes were as clear as I’ve heard them, and the distinctions among Sade Adu’s voice, the percussion, and the rain were great -- but the depth wasn’t there.
I followed Promise with Sade’s Soldier of Love (16/44.1 WAV, Epic), their most recent studio album, from 2010 (their next album is at last in the works, per Wikipedia). I usually don’t judge speakers’ reproduction of soundstage depth using this album because it doesn’t contain much -- but the M4s did reproduce well what little depth there is in such tracks as “Morning Bird,” “Soldier of Love,” and “Long Hard Road”: The soundstage basically stopped at the front wall, which was on a par with what I’ve heard from most speakers with this album. What I really play this record for is Sade Adu’s voice, which the M4s offered up with that dollop of presence that made it sound real. Soldier of Love is one of Sade’s most bass-heavy albums, especially its title track -- which, for a fairly small minimonitor, the M4 reproduced with impressive punch and weight. The bottom octave was still missing, of course, but the heft of the octave and a half above that satisfied me -- with the M4s, I never yearned for a subwoofer.
I was curious how the Studio Electric M4s would compare with a pair of Revel Performa3 M106 two-way minimonitors ($2000/pair). Revel is part of Harman International, which was acquired by Samsung in 2017. Within the walls of its advanced facilities in Northridge, California, Harman has probably done more research into loudspeaker design than any other company in the world, work that has resulted in many speakers that provide reference-quality sound for their prices. The Performa3 M106 is no exception -- except for its absence of low bass, the M106’s sound is exceedingly clean and, from the bass it does produce to the top of the audioband, free of colorations.
The Performa3 M106 certainly looks sleeker than the Studio Electric M4 -- the two models’ front baffles are about the same width, but the M106 is a few inches taller, and its rounded sides taper to a much narrower rear panel. But I’m not in love with either speaker’s looks -- neither has the high style of, say, a Sonus Faber or Bowers & Wilkins model. In that regard, there’s no winner here for me; my choice between them is based entirely on their sound.
With Sade’s Soldier of Love, the Studio Electrics and Revels sounded more similar than different, but subtle differences were nonetheless audible. It was easy to hear that the Performa3 M106 doesn’t go as low in the bass, even with the support of its port. Furthermore, with this album’s title track, the M106es not only lacked the bottommost octave, but also the heft in the octave above that I so enjoyed with the M4s. However, the bass that the Revels did reproduce sounded a bit tighter than the Studio Electrics’.
The M106es sounded ever so slightly brighter in the highest highs -- not off-puttingly so, but I heard a bit more energy up top that, with the lightweight bass, hinted at a bit too much high-frequency energy in comparison to the M4s. In the midrange, Sade Adu’s voice sounded natural through both, with comparable levels of detail, but the M4s revealed just a bit more presence -- that smidgen of tube-like voluptuousness. The M106es presented her voice clearly and smoothly, but it sounded a little thinner overall.
The Revels’ soundstage was deeper: the rain at the beginning of Promise’s “The Sweetest Taboo” crept back past the front wall of my room, and I felt that the Revels’ retrieval of detail must have been a little better -- not because I could hear all that much more, but because the illusion of depth was more convincing, with an even better depiction of the space between the rain and Sade Adu’s voice. The soundstage through both pairs of speakers was pretty much equally wide, as was the solidity of the central vocal image. As for the low end, Promise has considerably less bass weight than Soldier of Love -- I thought the M106’s relative lack of bass might be less noticeable. But it wasn’t -- the already thin-sounding Promise sounded too thin through the Revels.
A similar thing happened with Poetic Champions Compose -- this album, too, is inherently a bit bass-light, and sounded too lightweight through the Performa3 M106es. The Revels could use at least a small sub to flesh out their bass. However, the Revels gave Van Morrison’s alto sax in “Spanish Steps” that touch of bite that I’m used to and had missed through the Studio Electrics, which made it also sound a little more detailed. The Revels’ downside was the subtle loss of fullness and presence in the sounds of Morrison’s sax and of his voice in other tracks, which I’d heard through the M4s and really liked.
The Mission produced results similar to Promise. In “Gabriel’s Oboe,” the stage depth through the Performa3 M106es was restored to what I’m used to hearing -- 40 feet! -- and detail was a bit more abundant. But again, the Revels’ bass was meek -- the timpani lacked some weight compared to what I heard through the M4s, and with the M106es’ slightly brighter top end, the sound was a bit too lean overall. And here I noticed another difference in the highs: the M106’s dome tweeter was not only a little higher in level than the M4’s, it could sound ever-so-slightly steely in comparison.
Joan Baez’s cover of “Whistle Down the Wind” was more of a toss-up. I didn’t notice the Revels’ more elevated highs in this track, but I did hear tighter bass, which I liked. But, again, the Performa3 M106es’ bass wasn’t as full as the M4s’, which once again made the M106es sound lightweight in comparison. And Baez’s voice, like Morrison’s voice and sax, had that presence through the M4 that I consider one of the speaker’s best traits; the Revel, while every bit as smooth and detailed, was a little cooler in tone.
Had Revel’s Performa3 M106 laid waste to the Studio Electric M4, I wouldn’t have been surprised -- Revel’s speakers tend to do that to competitors, even some priced much higher. But that’s not what happened. David MacPherson has voiced his two-way minimonitor to create a natural and exceptionally pleasing sound: surprisingly full enough in the bass that I never hungered for a subwoofer; rich through the midrange, which made voices sound great; supersweet in the highs, so the sound was never grating; and not lacking in detail, which, regardless of the music I listened to, never left me feeling that I was missing something. The only thing I couldn’t get from the M4s was the deep soundstages that the Revels and other fine speakers deliver -- a minor quibble, because I could get the soundstage width I wanted, as well as solid images on those stages. And I got one more thing that can’t be underestimated: great overall sound. For the many months the M4s were in my system, I always enjoyed listening to music through them.
In a world that has too many speaker makers, Studio Electric has come up with a loudspeaker that sounds a little bit different. I think many listeners will prefer the M4 to the offerings of some of the better-established brands out there. I’m glad they’re here.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Speakers -- Revel Performa3 M106
- Integrated amplifier-DAC -- Hegel Music Systems H360
- Computer -- Samsung R580 laptop running Windows 10, Roon
- Digital link -- AudioQuest Carbon USB
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L
- Power cords -- Shunyata Research Venom HC
- Power distributor/conditioner -- Shunyata Research Venom PS8 with Venom Defender (2)
Studio Electric M4 Loudspeakers
Price: $2400-$2750 USD per pair, depending on finish; stands, $350 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
1740 S 740 W
Salt Lake City, UT 84104
Phone: (801) 450-0633