For many people, the term “high-end audio” equates to “high-priced audio,” but I fondly recall a time when things were not this way. TAS founder Harry Pearson once remarked that (I am paraphrasing, here), “The high-end is about high sound quality and a music-first mindset—not about high price points”—a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Thus, though I enjoy exotic, ultrahigh- performance audio gear as much as (or more than) the next person, I’ve long been fascinated by those affordable gems that occasionally come along in our industry—the products that, without fanfare, hype, or stratospheric prices simply settle in and play the music with fidelity and conviction. Three such gems are the affordable compact monitors from Definitive Technology, CEntrance, and GoldenEar Technology that I will address in this survey.
Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 45
Many audio enthusiasts associate the name Definitive with so called “home-theater speakers,” but the company also has roots that go deep in the area of affordable, high-performance monitors. Over the past year, Definitive has rolled out a threeproduct family of stand-mount studio monitors, the smallest and most affordable of which is the inexpensive Studio Monitor 45 (or SM45, for short). In spite of its almost laughably low price, the SM45 is a speaker that demands to be taken seriously, for reasons you’ll discover in a moment.
The SM45 is a two-way, bass-reflex monitor that is larger than you might at first expect (viewed from the side, it proves to be nearly a foot tall and deep). The driver complement includes a second-generation version of Definitive’s 1-inch aluminumdome tweeter (which receives special heat-treatment processing and a ceramic coating) plus one of the firm’s signature 5.25-inch BDSS (Balanced Double Surround System) mid/bass drivers fitted with Definitive’s recently developed LRW (Linear Response Waveguide) phase plug. Together, BDSS and LRW technologies are said to give the mid/bass driver dramatically greater excursion (and thus dynamic) capabilities, lower distortion, smoother frequency response, and improved off-axis performance. A curved baffle plate with rounded edges also helps fight diffraction.
I found the SM45s sounded great straight out of the carton so that they didn’t need a lot of run-in time and weren’t terribly fussy about placement. They did, however, need at least a little clearance from adjacent walls and sounded best on stands that positioned their tweeters at ear level.
From the start, three aspects of the SM45’s sound hit home for me. First, they were unexpectedly full-bodied and offered an astonishing amount of bass reach (down into the upper 30Hz region)—reach few other small monitors can match. Frequency response is smooth but perhaps not strictly neutral, as the speakers do introduce a broad, gentle touch of bass lift from about 80Hz on down. However, there’s not enough low-end emphasis to make the speakers sound overblown, but rather enough to remind you that this is a serious, near-full-range monitor—one that seeks to provide big-speaker depth and richness. The only caveat I found is that if you feed the Definitives very low-frequency material at high volume levels, you may periodically bottom out their mid/bass drivers (I did this once or twice on brutal LF test discs).
Second, the Definitives sounded much more dynamically expansive than other monitors that I have heard about their size and price. It’s almost as if the SM45s magically suspended the conventional rules of “small-speakerness,” holding forth with ease and gusto, as if they were much larger than they appeared to be.
Third, the SM45s were relaxed, effortless, and at times downright holographic imagers. Many small speakers claim to have these properties and can even achieve them to some extent, but the Definitives take “disappearing act” imaging to a much higher level and do so without requiring endless tweaking, fiddling, or fine-tuning. For a quick, four-word, audio-speak summary of the SM45, try this one: “Plays big and disappears.” Indeed, these speakers re-define the concept of cheap thrills.
To appreciate the broad appeal of the SM45s, it’s instructive to put on a piece of music that could, under typical circumstances, embarrass most small monitors—a piece such as the very taxing closing section of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (Tilson-Thomas, San Francisco Symphony, SFS Media, SACD). Rather than falling flat on its face and sounding painfully overstressed, the little SM45s just wade right in and play the music. Are there occasional moments of compression, low-level congestion, and the like? Of course there are (Mahler’s 8th is, after all, power music at its most demanding), but overall the Definitives’ presentation not only hangs together, but also retains a significant amount of the scale, grandeur, and aspirational reach that makes this piece so majestic.
Naturally, the SM45s work for smaller pieces too, such as the title track from Anne Bisson’s Blue Mind [Fidelio], where Bisson’s voice and piano sound pure and well-focused, although the accompanying acoustic bass does sound hearty almost to a fault. But overall, the musical effect is one where dense tonal colors, vivid imaging, and an overarching quality of sumptuous richness carry the day.
The SM45 might not provide the highest levels of strict textbook accuracy, but it provides giant helpings of musical richness, relaxation, and enjoyment at a ridiculously modest price. For these reasons and many more, Definitive’s SM45s are a no-brainer recommendation for music lovers whose sights are set high, but whose budgets are limited.