If you entered my living room (aka my listening room) right now, you might think, “What’s a nice gal like Julie doing with these enormous speakers?” Yes, up to now I’ve been charged with reviewing, shall we say, relatively small-scale equipment. Oh, it’s still serious hi-fi gear, but we’re talking midsized transducers along with a couple of components some might even call “cute,” female-friendly stuff. But for now, every time I enter that room and see the PL500 II towers—that tower over me by at least a foot—I get excited about this hobby all over again. (I even feel a little giddy!)
It’s been said that big loudspeakers mean big problems—and bigger bucks. Happily, neither claim rings true about Monitor Audio’s state-of-the-art flagship, the Platinum Series PL500 II. Tall, dark, and handsome, these boys impressed me from the very first time I heard them—at this year’s CES. (They also caught the attention of JV, who commented on them favorably in his Vegas show report.) The reason why I was impressed was simple: The PL500 IIs didn’t sound like any other Monitor Audio speaker I’d heard. In fact, in some ways—in their warm, rich musicality and overall driving energy—they reminded me of classic Raidho Acoustics speakers (minus the diamond drivers and nearly another zero on the price tag).
Happily, what wowed me (and JV) at the CES show proved equally wow-worthy in my home. With their layers of depth and detail, delightful musicality, and overall coherence the PL500 IIs have been immensely enjoyable companions. They are not only high-energy, high- resolution transducers that boast beautiful sound; they also offer superb build-quality, advanced technologies, and value far exceeding their price.
UK-based Monitor Audio is a 40-plus-year-old company that’s well respected overseas for many pioneering acoustical advances; yet the marque has flown largely under the consumer radar in the U.S. But the times are a-changin’. The brand has increased its market presence in the States, while continuing its longtime tradition of technological development. To this very end, the manufacturer brought designer Dean Hartley (see my sidebar interview with Mr. Hartley) on board a handful of years ago—the brains behind the newly evolved flagship Platinum Series, where the PL500 II holds the top spot. (Seven other models round out the line, ranging from the PL100 II stand-mounted two-way and two more floorstanders to two center-channel speakers, an in-wall design, and the PLW215 II subwoofer.)
In keeping with Monitor tradition, the PL500 II contains a wealth of innovative technologies—specifically in its drivers and crossovers. According to the manufacturer’s white paper on the Platinum II line, these new tech developments are the fruit of extensive FEA modeling and measurement (prior to extensive listening testing, naturally). In addition, Monitor Audio builds all of its drivers and crossovers in-house.
The PL500 II is a three-way, seven-driver floorstander in a D’Appolito configuration. The tweeter, a micro-pleated diaphragm (MPD), was created by Monitor Audio as an improved version of Dr. Oskar Heil’s Air Motion Transformer (AMT). Typical AMTs have a null in frequency response at around 40kHz, but with the help of FEA modeling Monitor engineers figured a way around this issue. As explained in the white paper, the larger rolls (or pleats) in the AMT diaphragm were causing phase cancellations at progressively higher frequencies. The resulting null, which reached a –3dB point at roughly 28kHz, could be eliminated by reducing pleat height and increasing the number of pleats. Incorporated for the very first time in a Monitor speaker, this new MPD driver reportedly functions with uniform output to over 100kHz. (In my listening, the treble did, indeed, prove to be quite silky-smooth and sweet-sounding, with desirable detail and no etch or beaminess.)
Another advantage of this advanced transducer is its low mass, lower inertia, and larger radiating surface area (eight times the area of a typical dome tweeter), which together produce transient response that’s more similar to an electrostatic driver than to a dynamic design. Indeed, I found the speaker possessed a satisfying sense of speed of attack as well as snappy overall energy and pacing (traits which of course are also linked to the electronics in the chain powering the speaker, more on which later). The MPD has a pair of neodymium/iron/boron magnets front and rear to reduce distortion, provide greater uniformity of response, and increase efficiency; the micro-pleated diaphragm only needs to move one-eighth of the distance of your average dome tweeter to produce the same output. These factors contribute to the PL500 II’s power handling and high sensitivity of 91dB @ 1W. (This surprising sensitivity allowed me to drive the PL500s with a relatively low-powered Air Tight tube amp—to very ear-pleasing effect.)
Monitor’s newly upgraded Platinum II technologies have also resolved the coherence issues that plague large-scale multiways. For starters, the crossover networks have been redesigned using air core inductors for the tweeter and midrange, and laminated steel cores for the woofer. All cone drivers in the Platinum II line also use underhung voice coils for lower distortion. For more efficient driver and voice-coil coupling, the speaker’s drivers feature Monitor’s new patented Dynamic Coupling Filter (or DCF) mechanism, which is a pliable nylon ring that is calibrated to stay rigid up to the crossover frequency, but above that wavelength to act like a spring to dampen excess HF energy.
Aesthetically, the PL500 II looks stately and statuesque. And with a speaker this size, you will want to like the way it looks. Even if you’re a go-big-or-go-home audiophile, you don’t want to feel like there’s a proverbial elephant in the room, and obtaining partner acceptance goes without saying here, as does having a listening room of adequate size. While there’s no getting around its grand dimensions (short of opting for another model in the line), the PL500 II boasts a blend of nice lines and strategic curves—all the better for minimizing diffraction. The hand-upholstered front baffles sport fine Inglewood leather from Andrew Muirwood, a supplier to many British luxury brands. Finishes follow suit in natural wood veneers (Santos Rosewood, as in my review samples, or Natural Ebony) that are pair-matched and hand-coated with 11 layers of clear gloss piano lacquer. If it’s a truly standout statement you’re after (and if you’re in the market for a speaker of this scale, it’s hard not to make a statement), piano black gloss lacquer is another option. Each speaker is hand-built with painstaking precision and takes as many as 144 hours to complete.
Critical Listening: A Tale of Two Amps (and a Sub)
As the loudspeaker represents the final outcome in the system chain, amplification choices (not to mention source components) have a powerful influence over how a speaker sounds. So let me say here that you’d want to consider carefully which electronics you choose based on your musical and sonic preferences. I listened extensively to the PL500 IIs with two amps from rather opposite ends of the amplification spectrum: the Air Tight ATM-1S stereo tube amp and a pair of Pass Labs XA100.8 monoblocks.
When the PL500 IIs arrived, like a kid on Christmas morning, I wanted to get them plugged in and powered up right away. So I connected them to the amp I’d had in my system, the Air Tight ATM-1S. Even right out of their huge crates, these speakers delivered the sonic goods with a firm sense of image solidity, impressive detail, and an easy laid-back (in a good way) listenability. After adequate break-in time, eventually I began my critical listening with this superb tube amp hand-built in Japan. It might seem an odd coupling (and yes, I’ll admit, the ATM-1S falls below Monitor’s officially recommended power specs) but the sound proved so compelling, highly musical, and utterly beautiful that I kept the Air Tight in the system for some time. Everything I chose from my eclectic vinyl collection was reproduced with a high degree of resolution and a natural ease that prevented the speakers from ever being fatiguing.
Just for fun (not due to any dissatisfaction with the bass), I connected a Crystal Cable Deep Bass Subissimo subwoofer crossed over at 40Hz. The outcomes of this experiment were something of a mixed bag. Broadly speaking, as the bass drivers were relieved of some of their duties, the results were increased low-end clarity, resolution, and separation—but this came at a price: The sub acted as a sort of tone control, and at times it also had a paradoxical effect on timbre. For instance, Dusty Springfield’s and Ella Fitzgerald’s lovely, distinctive voices didn’t sound as true-to-life and utterly recognizable as they should have with the subwoofer in the system; the former skewed deeper and the latter went unnaturally higher—even after some crossover adjustments were made. Due to phase cancellation in the bass, some sense of energy was lost in the upper midrange with the subs, but the tradeoff was an opening up of the midrange in other areas. I also found the sound sweeter without the sub; sonics turned slightly drier with it in the chain. However, the sub did seem to deepen the soundstage just a bit and add some extra air and dimension on certain large-scale orchestral pieces, such as Analogue Productions’ RCA reissue of the Khachaturian Masquerade Waltz. But too much separation can be double-edged sword if cohesion—a PL500 II strength—is lost. All told, I proceeded sans sub.
Questions for Dean Hartley, Technical Director, Monitor Audio Ltd.
When did you begin working for Monitor Audio?
I joined Monitor Audio Ltd as Technical Director in 1997. I was involved in the purchase of the company from its previous owner, who retired after successfully running the business since its founding in 1972. I was the only technical/loudspeaker person as part of a new investment team at that time. My UK team now comprises six acoustic engineers, six product/mechanical designers, three electronic/software engineers, and a project manager. I also have a project manager and four project engineers based off-site.
What kind of sound do you personally like?
I personally prefer a sound character that is engaging and dynamic, yet neutral in balance. This is very difficult to achieve, unless the drivers and parts used are capable of achieving this fine balance. The Platinum Series exhibits the type of sound character I have been trying to achieve for many years in that it presents a high degree of dynamic contrast and is exciting, yet still remains non-fatiguing on the ear.
What do you strive for sonically when designing a speaker? Do you have any particular influences?
I guess my influences go back many years to the professional studio environment and designing monitors for that application. The key elements would be to create a faithful reproduction by ensuring fundamental design principles are adhered to. Some of these techniques are restricted to higher-end speakers as they involve the use of expensive materials. Reducing distortion is an example. Elements we have introduced into Platinum drivers to reduce distortion are quite elaborate, more difficult to manufacture, and also expensive.
How long was the PL500 II speaker in development? Was it the first speaker in the line to come to fruition?
The Platinum Series development is now in its second generation; the first series was launched in 2007 and took around three years to develop. The new series concept ideas started in February 2014, and we launched the product range at CES in January of 2016.
What would you consider the most significant tech development in the PL500?
The PL500 II uses many of the same components and bases of the drivers from the rest of the Platinum range. However, it is the only one to use the dual-mid (M-T-M) arrangement (aka D’Appolito). This gives the new PL500 an incredible amount of focus and precise imaging, compared to the PL300, for example. This is related to the PL500’s different dispersion pattern and also its significantly lower distortion profile.
A fun question: Tell me about your first exposure to hi-fi. What was the experience like for you?
My first exposure to hi-fi was when my father bought a Quad hi-fi system with ESL speakers; I guess I was age 8 or so. I thought the sound was incredible and made a wish to be involved in music and sound at some stage in my life. Despite the fact that the source was 8-track tape, as the turntable was broken for as long as I can remember. I built my first speaker kit when I was 14 using old Leak/Wharfedale drivers.
Then the other big boys arrived: A pair of Pass Labs XA100.8 monoblocks. These pure Class A solid-state amps certainly brought more power to the party as well as some other dramatic sonic changes (not surprisingly). Broadly speaking, the switch to the XA100.8s entailed a slight sacrifice in textures and instrumental detail and differentiation in exchange for more muscle, speed, and attack. The Passes also delivered sharper resolution and increased the “wow” factor with their full, robust sound, particularly on rock and blues. This heavyweight setup begged for some brawn so I spun Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms [Mobile Fidelity 45rpm reissue]. There was pleasing separation of Fender bass and kickdrum on “Money for Nothing” while Sting’s plaintive tenor backing vocals shone through the mix with the astonishing clarity of a ray of light.
A listen to some tracks from Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer [Analogue Productions 45rpm reissue] conveyed all the intimacy and immediacy of this spare classic recording. Closing my eyes, I felt transported back in time to the 1963 sessions at Chicago’s Tel Arc Studios (aka Chess Records). “My Captain” was reproduced with a startling sense of ambience, presence, and realism as Muddy’s shouts echoed in the recording booth while the sharp transient attacks of his and Buddy Guy’s guitar strings resonated and lingered through clean decays. The spacious soundstaging and specific placement and imaging of snare and bass (both cleanly articulated) were especially striking on “My Home Is in the Delta”. “Long Distance” brought long guitar- and bass-string sustains and decays that uh, went the distance. This was captivating, even highly addictive listening!
Wanting to return to some classical cuts, I spun the Bernstein performance of the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 101 [Columbia, reissued by Impex]. Once again the PL500 IIs (still powered by Pass amps) threw quite a large soundstage commensurate with the full orchestra’s scale. Turning things up, I was thrilled by the highly resolved presentation, full of dynamic excitement, from pianissimo to forte and beyond. The speakers/system conveyed the intensity of Bernstein’s fingers striking away at the keys, slamming the hammers onto the strings. In the upper midrange I detected just the faintest hint of glare on a few notes but the degree of detail and overall image stability were maintained. (I should also mention that my ears are particularly sensitive to treble anomalies.) I also picked up on some subtle rustling of sheet music early in the second movement. However, on this record—and classical selections generally—it seemed that the Air Tight amp proved more nimble and offered more bloom than the Pass Labs monoblocks, while the Pass’s added sense of weight and stability—its gravitas, you might say—was better suited to rock, blues, or hard-hitting pop. But both were consistently enjoyable.
As for any downsides with these transducers, the only shortcomings in some listeners’ eyes—or ears, I should say—were that on certain recordings I noticed a slight degree of forward or frontal projection, though I never really found this bothersome. The farther I sat from the speakers—say, 12–15 feet away as opposed to 6–10—the less noticeable this became. On the other hand, the PL500 IIs seemed to do very well off-axis, making them a good choice for company. (IMHO, this is a hobby we should be sharing with others.)
A few more up-tempo and extremely layered selections, Buena Vista Social Club’s Lost and Found for one, seemed a shade more dynamically laid-back than on some other reference systems. I missed some of the high-octane energy charge those musicians bring to the party—as if they’d traded drinking Cafe Cubano for double Cuba Libres that day. But this was a rare occurrence and a rather specific nitpicky shortcoming.
Also, if you’re someone who goes in for transparency to sources above all else, these might not be the ideal speakers for you. The Monitors had a rich, mostly bottom-up, and occasionally kind of dark balance with the electronics I paired, though that balance never kept instruments from sounding highly coherent, musical, and pleasing.
There are many variables that help or hinder great sound: crossover, cabinet, resonances, sensitivity, hunger for power. Happily, Monitor Audio’s myriad technical innovations have allowed the PL500 IIs to pretty well nail every criterion. The PL500 IIs proved endlessly enjoyable in their layers of depth and detail, delightful musicality, and overall coherence. They can also rock out and supply slam with the best of them. In sum, whatever your sonic and electronic preferences are, you really can’t go wrong with these towering transducers, however you power or configure them. This is a whole lot of speaker for the money—and a whole lot of speaker by any measure—and it took a whole lot of passion and painstaking research to get so many things right. Above all else, no matter what music you like to listen to, these big guns are a whole lot of fun to have around. It’s going to break my heart to see these guys go. (I even briefly considered chaining myself to them.) If you have a hankering for big, bold, immersive sound and have the room space (and partner approval) and the desire for a mighty flagship-level speaker that delivers almost all of the qualities of much higher-priced multiways for far fewer dollars, go for the Platinum—audition the PL500 II.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Three-way, seven-driver floorstander
Driver complement: 4x 8″ bass, 2x 4″ midrange, 1x MPD tweeter (D’Appolito configuration)
Frequency response: 22Hz–100kHz
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 504mm x 1848mm x 626mm
Weight: 218 lbs. (99.1 kg)
Amplifiers: Air Tight ATM-1S stereo amplifier, a pair of Pass Labs XA100.8 monoblock amplifiers
Subwoofers: Crystal Cable Deep Bass Subissimo, JL Audio e110 (pair)
Source: Acoustic Signature Challenger 3 with TA-1000 tonearm, Air Tight PC-7 cartridge
Phonostage preamplifier: Soulution 525
Power conditioner and power cords: Ansuz
Cables and interconnects: Shunyata Research Venom series, AudioQuest Fire, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream
Equipment racks and amplifier stands: Critical Mass Systems Maxxum
Acoustic treatment: Stein Music
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