Hi-Fi Speakers or Professional Monitors?

KEF's new LS50 Wireless
The KEF LS50 Wireless (it’s not exclusively wireless – there’s analogue and digital wired inputs too)

There’s a question that comes up regularly in music recording magazines and on pro-audio forums, usually asked by less experienced musicians or recording engineers. It goes, “can I use hi-fi speakers for monitoring?” Sometimes it takes a different form; “what’s the difference between a hi-fi speaker and a professional monitor?”, but that question is really a different way of asking the same thing. Anyway, there are, to my way of thinking, one word answers to both versions of the question: “yes” and “none” respectively. Yes, you can use hi-fi speakers for monitoring, and no, there is really no fundamental difference between speakers intended for domestic living rooms and those intended for studios. There’s just a multitude of different speakers all endevouring to reproduce audio as best they can in their circumstances, some of them succeed, some of them don’t do quite so well. And as if to reinforce the point, the Yamaha NS10, before its particular qualities were discovered to work so well for monitoring, started life as a hi-fi speaker.

Having written that there’s no difference between hi-fi and pro speakers however, the elephant in the room has just raised an eyebrow and muttered something about professional monitors always being active, and she has a point. The professional nearfield monitor market is dominated by active speakers in a way that the domestic hi-fi market is not (yet), but there are also quite a few honourable passive monitor exceptions: products from Amphion, ATC and PMC spring to mind. Furthermore, and especially in the lower half of the monitor market, the nature of the implementation of active amplification is often unsophisticated and in truth constitutes little more than a different physical location for the amplifier(s). That physical location, on the back of the enclosure and usually lacking any isolation or decoupling from vibration or internal pressure changes, is also one that doesn’t do the electronics any favours in terms of microphonic effects.

It seems to me also, again in the region of the market where manufacturing budgets are most under pressure, that the cost of amplification steers manufacturers towards putting less effort into, and even to compromise, the components that more fundamentally contribute to audio quality: the drivers and cabinet. You see, if you’re designing a passive speaker, the only components you have at your disposal to make it sound good are the drivers, the crossover and the enclosure, so you work hard to optimise their performance. Throw amplification and active filters into the mix however and you might begin to believe that doing so is magic bullet that negates any need to put real effort (and budget) into the passive electro-acoustic elements. That’s how it sometimes seems to me anyway.

Now, the reason for my ruminating on this issue is not just that my current favourite affordable nearfield monitor is the KEF LS50, a passive hi-fi speaker, but that KEF has just announced an active version: the LS50 Wireless. As with its passive sibling, the LS50 Wireless marketing story makes much of the traditions of monitors at KEF by referring back to the company’s manufacture of drivers for many BBC in-house designs (the LS3/5A in particular). This perhaps is a bit of a stretch though because not only is that time now long ago, but also, outside of the BBC, the sight of professional monitors incorporating KEF drivers was (and is) relatively rare. However, there is no doubt that the LS50 is an extraordinarily good speaker, for either hi-fi or nearfield monitoring, and if KEF have made as good a job with the active variant, especially considering the app control, connectivity and DSP it incorporates, it could seriously blur that imagined line between hi-if speakers and professional monitors. I’m hoping to find out within a month or two.

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