Yamaha is attempting (again) to replace the legendary standard, and studio owners and engineers appear to be accepting it! Are the HS Series going to be the new nearfield monitors of the if-it-sounds-good-here-sounds-good-on-anything type? Read on. We placed them under the microscope and under our refined ears. Extended review!
Preface: Some History
Yamaha introduced the NS-10 design, with the iconic white woofer, in 1978. At the time, they were marketed as home audio, compact bookshelf speakers, and did a terrible job at it. Long listening sessions proved fatiguing to the ear, due to tweeter-woofer alignment, phasing issues and the harsh quality of the tweeter, when used with the original crossover.
Then, a couple of well known mixing engineers revealed, by word of mouth, that some of their recent multi-platinum productions had been mixed on NS-10s, instead of the Auratone cubes that were the untouched standard at that point. For a good reason, most purchases and decisions in the audio world are made according to what the most experienced and successful use, and how they use it. So, by word of mouth, more and more engineers started using NS-10s in their studios. They were the only speaker design with a contrasty white woofer on a black enclosure, which made them easily recognizable in any control room.
But the tweeter was indeed too harsh sounding, and some engineers started modifying their NS-10 with paper or cloth sheets over the tweeter, to absorb (and phase cancel) the high frequency output, or even performing after market crossover modifications. Yamaha, confused because engineers were more interested in their home speakers than actual home users, grabbed the business opportunity and started catering to that new target market: the recording studio.
Engineers were laying the speakers on their side on a console, and complaining about the harshness, so Yamaha addressed those modifications in a new revision, NS-10M (for Monitor). These had an improved crossover circuit with slightly less high frequency output, and were designed to be placed horizontally, with the logo turned 90 degrees, and the tweeter shifted to one side (always in the top-outer corner).
And now they were selling like candy. But then, engineers kept arguing about the best amplifiers to use with their passive NS-10M, and even adding subwoofers to compensate for the lack of lows. The NS-10 were so famous and prone to experimentation, even their white woofers were being used as kick drum mics. Due to the fragility of the tweeters (prone to burnouts) replacement parts were constantly being traded.
Thousands of albums were made using the NS-10M nearfields as the main source of monitoring. Virtually every well-known mixing engineer in history (Andy Wallace, Terry Date, Brendan O’Brien, the Lord-Alge brothers, Charles Dye, Dave Pensado, Ben Grosse, you name it) used them to make some of the most amazing production works ever. In 2007, they were awarded the Technical Grammy® Award.
But in the new millennium, Yamaha started having trouble finding the wood pulp to make the white woofer cones (or so they announced), and they weren’t yet prepared to release a new model, after decades of leaning back and cashing in with easy sales. Quickly, they put together a new line of active, black-woofer monitors, the MSP series. They were well built and great for mixing – but sounded smoother, and people were missing the NS-10 raw feel of present midrange – the Yamaha NS-10 look and feel.
So why not do things right? Why not release a redesigned line of white-woofer, active nearfields, with improved technology and lower price? That’s exactly what Yamaha did in 2006.
The Facts: why NS-10M became the standard
I love hearing the “experts” bashing the NS-10 based on a 5-second listen, even more than I love hearing the clueless followers claiming that they sound “amazing and flat”. They’re both right and wrong. But they don’t know why, or how.
- Myth: “The NS-10M have a flat frequency response.”
- False. Their 2 kHz bump of + 5 dB and low frequency drop starting at 200 Hz is part of what made them a studio workhorse. Far from being flat, they “open” the frequency range with a midrange-based response that exposes the most problematic and worst-sounding frequencies. In your consumer hi-fi, the EQ preset that makes most music sound “better” (“Loudness”, “Rock”) resembles the NS-10 frequency response, flipped upside down. Coincidence?
- Myth: “The NS-10M sound plastic, harsh and ugly.”
- That’s because you’re either speaker-spoiled, listen to bad mixes, or don’t know how to mix. They boost the uglier frequencies and hide the confortable ones. Like the Simon Cowell of studio monitors, if you can’t mix, they’ll tell it like it is. If you’re not ready to accept that, you’ll probably feel like leaving the room, cursing the speakers and promising to someday make great mixes and show them they were wrong! And that’s what happens to a lot of people. Similar situation, same effect.
- Myth: “The NS-10M sound great!”
- Well, they are defined in the midrange (see above) and very analytic – good if you’re used to critical listening. But I wouldn’t use them in a living room to play jazz at the fireplace.
Today, there are 2 types of nearfield monitors:
a) The “Genelec-type” that, thanks to new technologies, reproduce the kind of sound you hear from the mains, in a big studio. This is the type Yamaha tried to make with the MSP series.
Pros: flat response, so you can hear everything, the good and the bad. Great for mastering.
Cons: they are so defined and flat, that some people feel everything sounds good on them, especially before you get used to it. That makes them great Hi-Fi speakers.
b) What I call the Ugly Truth type (or If-It-Sounds-Good-Here-Sounds-Good-On-Anything type). This is merely theoretical, as only some speakers can do that, while others linger between the a and b types. These are the simple nearfield speakers designed to sound like mixing monitors – not like a Hi-Fi speakers. The Yamaha HS series belongs here.
Pros: They tend to make it easier to achieve a great mix.
Cons: They won’t impress the client, because frankly they don’t sound too great.
Basically, during mixing, most of us try to make the mix sound as “flat” as possible, to our ears. And when you try to make your mix sound flat on NS-10s, you end up cutting a specific group of mid frequencies around the 2 kHz range, and a lot of harsh high frequencies that cause ear fatigue (because the NS-10 are accelerating the process of fatiguing your ears, forcing you to notice the frequencies that usually don’t sound good in most consumer systems). Also, naturally boosting the midrange is a great way to make you pay more attention to the most important part of a mix – the mid range, where the vocals belong. And this leads to a better mix. It’s not magic. It’s physics. And Fletcher-Munson rules.
The box contains only a power cable, instruction manuals and the speaker. Like most studio monitors, they’re sold in units, not in pairs. The power rating is fixed and there is no switch – European models have a different transformer inside. The speakers were plugged in to play some test tracks. They sounded immediately detailed in the mid frequencies, with a definite NS10 feel to it. They were put through pink and brown noise for a couple hours, for testing purposes, and to verify if “burning in” made any difference. After a couple weeks of daily usage they seemed to sound better, with improved stereo imaging. Audiophiles would say it’s because they’ve been properly “burned in”; Studio professionals call it “getting your ears used to the speakers”. It’s up to you to see things either way. I’m a total audiophile turned studio geek, so I don’t want to subscribe to any particular view. Click the image on the left to expand.
Design & Features
The HS50M look like smaller, more technologically advanced, active NS10s. These are good looking little speakers. The 5″ white polypropylene woofer cone looks cleaner than the one on the NS10, which had 2 glued wires in black, right in the center. The HS80M model copied that perfectly. Still, the iconic white woofer is something to bear with pride and Yamaha definitely thought about the home studio people. Back to the HS50M – having a smaller woofer and a smaller enclosure doesn’t mean the low end response will be even worse than that of the NS10, because this is a ported design. At the expense of a little definition, the response will start dropping lower than on NS10s, but it will drop faster (see below).
An important test – knocking on the enclosure gives back a solid, opaque sound of a speaker that is quite well built, for the price range. Not too many hollow resonances, and the enclosure feels tight overall. In the HS80M things get worse, maybe because it’s a bigger enclosure.
Even using the unbalanced inputs, the level knob set to 12 o’clock (it snaps in a groove at that point, so it’s easy to set, even without seeing it) is loud enough for most applications, and allows more control on the preamp stage.
Using the HS50M
Each speaker was placed on a stack of four 12″ x 12″ x 2″ wedge acoustic foam from Foam Factory (a hint if you’re still using humoristically overpriced Auralex products). Standing vertically, aiming slightly inwards to the listening position, some test tracks were played. Hint: they do sound like NS-10s, as they should (see graph below).
But they’re studio monitors – the ultimate test is not sheer music listening, it’s recording and mixing, and maybe a quick home-made mastering. So I recorded a couple songs, tracked some instruments, synths and sampled drums, and then vocals. After that, the mixing fun starts. As with all small monitors, it takes some time to understand how they show us the low frequencies (yes, they are there), but for me, contrary to most bigger speakers (7″ woofer and up) mid and high frequencies don’t require as much “learning”. So it took some AB’ing with some good mixes (check out Daughtry’s mainstream rock self-titled album). Things would start to sound good from the listening position, but walking around the room would reveal a lot more. Headphones confirm that there is still a lot to fix in the overall mix balance.
And then I thought of fiddling with the controls. The MID EQ switch seems very inviting, and makes you think Yamaha put it there, right on the top of the EQ panel, for a good reason. Switching it up (+2) brought the frequency curve everyone thought was so useful in the NS-10 for 20 years! The mids sounded boxy all of a sudden – something that was not noticeable in a good commercial record. Mixing with this setup was like having super-NS-10s. I could tear the mix apart and put it back together where everything sounded right, in about 10 minutes. Switching the MID EQ down (-2) had the opposite effect and made these speakers sound more like Hi-Fi bookshelf speakers – genius! It was then obvious that Yamaha had made a great product, purposefully or not.
As you can see in this (Moozek exclusive!) comparison of frequency response curves between the old NS-10M and the new babies, the flat settings make the curve look quite similar to the NS-10, but those still have an even more pronounced bump of +2 to 3 dB at 2kHz. And Yamaha allows you to replicate that with the MID EQ – although, surprisingly, that is never mentioned in the manual. The only other differences are exactly what we can expect from a smaller ported speaker vs. a bigger sealed one (low frequencies extend for longer, to 60-70 Hz, but then drop quickly, instead of a smooth descent starting at 200 Hz on the NS-10M).
Maybe a side effect of bad quality control, the right tweeter started distorting a little after about a month of use – something that is only noticeable when playing resonating piano chords. These are not expensive speakers and it’s hard to control this kind of problems, but still, it’s a problem and it can become annoying after a while.
Build quality: 7
Pros: They are mixing workhorses! The future industry standard, and successor of the NS-10M.
Cons: If you’re one of those who hate NS-10, either change the way you think, or look elsewhere. Yamaha quality control could also improve.
- Don’t be afraid to lay them horizontally, with the tweeters on the outside, if you’re used to using NS-10M. Even though the HS50M are designed to stand vertically, this doesn’t seem to have a considerable effect on sound stage.
- Remember, MID EQ switch at +2 “replicates” NS-10, -2 Hi-Fi speakers, and flat, somewhere in between.
- Auralex sells MoPads, which are overpriced foam stands to decouple the speakers. If you have the money, go ahead (who am I to boycott the brand), but you can get similar products and better deals at other places, like Foam Factory (FoamByMail). Of course foam decoupling will never beat solid, good quality speaker stands, but it’s still the most used method for nearfields in the studio.
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