When ProAc released the original Tablette in 1979, it was the kind of breakthrough product that challenged conventional wisdom about minispeaker performance. Designed by Stewart Tyler, the Tablette (iterations of the original continue to this day) was the consummate two-way overachiever, and set standards for transparency and soundstaging that are still emulated. It catapulted the ProAc brand into the high end’s consciousness. The rest, as they say, is history.
I was also swept up in the groundswell, and over the years have owned ProAcs— the Studio One, the Response 2, and the larger three-way Studio Three of the 1980s, a speaker whose midrange performance HP deemed state-of-the-art in cone-driver technology. In every case and across the decades, ProAc speakers seemed almost genetically joined at the hip, consistently delivering a rich midrange, deep soundstage, and a brand of transparency that often caused them to disappear as the source of the music.
ProAc’s latest, the $2995 Studio 140, makes it clear that time has not diminished Stewart Tyler’s deft touch. The profile of the Studio 140 is classic ProAc, a narrow columnar design with a stabilizing plinth at the base, pre-drilled for (included) adjustable spikes. Edges are crisp, the natural wood veneers near impeccable. Derived from the two-way Studio 130, the Studio 140 adds an extra midbass driver to boost bass output and sensitivity. The result is a two-and-ahalf- way configuration in a bass-reflex enclosure with a downward-firing port. The tweeter, a silk dome of the type that ProAc has traditionally preferred, is offset to the inside of the front baffle—a technique often employed by ProAc and others to reduce baffle diffraction artifacts and enhance soundstaging quality. It also serves the dual purpose of aiding placement relative to nearby sidewalls— some listeners prefer reversing the speakers so that the tweeter is positioned at the outside of the baffle, a choice that can expand the soundstage. Dual binding posts allow for optional bi-wiring or biamping, but with the Studio 140’s 91dB sensitivity a well-designed stereo amp in the 100-watt range does quite nicely.
To my mind, successful speaker designers and musical instrument makers share an instinct or “touch” that confers on the creations of each the designer’s signature sound. It’s a quality only achievable by the experienced ear—one that is intimately acquainted with live music. The Studio 140—like nearly every ProAc speaker I’ve heard—is no exception. Tyler’s touch is no better expressed than in the vivid, uninhibited character of the midrange; the virtual strike zone between 100Hz and about 4kHz. Its overall personality veers to the warmer side of the spectrum. The critical upper-bass region possesses good dynamic expression and bloom, and there’s a surprising amount of punch and control built into the midbass. The upper mids—the presence range—is slightly recessed but a lack of energy is certainly not an issue with the Studio 140. When the speaker is set up properly, the treble range falls into line with the midbass drivers, but there’s a bit too much tweeter when the speaker’s positioned directly on-axis to the listening position.
In the Studio 140, there’s a sense of harmonic unity that focuses your attention on the music rather than the speaker. Images have a fleshy physicality that makes them seem to stand in space. A jazz vocalist like Holly Cole or the Australian country-songbird Kasey Chambers is reproduced with the sensation of sound emerging from chest and throat and being radiated to a waiting microphone. Listen closely and you can divine what part of the vocal is the singer’s and what coloration you can attribute to the mic and equalization and compression.
However, compared to a traditional two-way layout the driver configuration of the Studio 140 adds a weight and magnitude that bolsters the presentation, whether it’s the vivid orchestral soundstage of the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 [Channel Classics] or the dry studio environs of Dylan’s latest CD Modern Times [Columbia]. Two factors contribute to this extra body—extension and dynamics. In terms of sheer lowfrequency extension and output there’s little doubt that the Studio 140 has come a long way from Tablette territory. Response drops confidently into the 40Hz region, with perceivable output trickling into the upper 30Hz range. But bass extension alone is only impressive as a mere specification. It’s the wide dynamic envelope that underscores the bass that brings the Studio 140 to life when the organ rumbles into the hall and the winds blaze, as in Vaughn-Williams Antarctica [Naxos].
Through the Studio 140, this symphony takes on a completely different dimension—the movement’s crescendo is more bone-rattling, the sense of orchestral scale is more accurately stated, and as the organ comes to life the hall’s energy is much more forceful.
These same virtues also allow the Studio 140 to easily change musical hats. There’s a lot of air and space to be mined in the converted barn where Tom Waits recorded Mule Variations [Epitaph]. When he roars out the lyric “come down from the cross/we could use the wood” in “Come On Up To The House,” the accompanying big drum kit and bar-room piano have a weight and bloom that few speakers in this price range other than the ProAc could muster. And let’s face it: If you can’t crank Slayer’s “Jihad” from Christ Illusion [American Recordings] to toe-curling levels, then one of the primal elements that gives metal its true meaning is missing.
That’s not to say that realistic symphonic or rock concert levels and scale are actually achieved by the 140. They aren’t. A larger room than mine and a much larger speaker—perhaps from ProAc’s premium Response line—would be needed for that.
The Studio 140 does an excellent job illuminating high percussion information. The microdynamics and transient speed elicited from the many delicate ticks and pings of the percussionist during Holly Cole’s “Train” on Temptation [Alert] flirted with some of best reproduction I’ve experienced with this disc. But on Sinatra’s Only the Lonely [Capitol], “Angel Eyes” had a bit of edge where the Studio 140 adds some extra mid-treble sparkle. This undermines Sinatra’s natural chest resonance and creates a bit of driver discontinuity. It’s not an issue I was keying on with every recording, but it is something to be aware of. Also keep in mind that, as robust as the Studio 140 is compared with a two-way of similar internal volume, it cannot be pushed in the same way that a threeway might be. When the Studio 140 is played hard, particularly during heavy-handed rock or large-scale orchestral passages, lower-level details can be over shadowed as the bass thickens somewhat. Massed basses and kettledrums reveal a bit of the port, which dampens momentum.
In terms of placement, the Studio 140 is worth fussing over. The tried and true toe-in method created a discontinuity between tweeter and midbass drivers that was not typical of my experience with ProAcs. However, firing them straight out into the room achieved far more harmonious driver integration, a warmer overall balance, and wider soundstaging. Keep in mind that wall reflections might become more of an issue when toe-in is reduced, so I drew the Studio 140s slightly closer together (to further reduce the first sidewall reflection).
I’d also add that, depending on your listening biases and room requirements, it would be worth the effort to have a listen to the standard two-way Studio 130. While it isn’t the subject of this review, I’ve had enough experience with that ProAc to allow the rough comparison, which is interesting, because something’s gained and something’s lost with each model. Though the Studio 130 lacks the output and slam of the dual midbass Studio 140, it offers other virtues, such as the improved point-source-style coherence and articulation that have always made purist two-ways hard to beat. The Studio 140, however, is probably the more versatile of the pair, better able to handle the dual-purpose imperatives of today’s multichannel-dominated market.
In true ProAc fashion, the Studio 140 captures the excitement and electricity of the live event. It sings with a musical authenticity that calls to mind the finest British studio monitors. But it is also a speaker for our time, capable of handling the demands of new formats in the volatile A/V marketplace. The only bit of old news? The Studio 140 is yet another ProAc speaker that should be added to any audiophile shopper’s short list. TAS