I’ve always thought that the best test of a monitor is to revisit an old mix and see whether you start changing things. Mixing is hard and creative people tend to be brutally self critical but it remains true that the better your monitors are the easier mixing becomes. I’ve had many conversations with people who insist that although their monitors are inaccurate and their room is untreated they know it so well that they can mix well in spite of these things. Having heard the results I can say that this is often true but every time I mix in a room better that mine or on monitors better than mine, mixing gets easier and the results get better. I’d be astonished if this wasn’t also true for these people.
I’m looking for some new monitors and to that end I’ve got a pair of Neumann KH 310 3 way monitors on loan. I’ve spent the overwhelming majority of my time using various flavours of 2 way monitors and I’ve never seriously considered 3 way designs as the 3 way monitors I’ve used in the past from the likes of Exigy, Genelec and ATC have been out of my budget, usually by quite a lot! There seems to be more choice than ever in the compact 3 way market and for the price of a good pair of 2 way near fields there are now 3 way offerings which are very serious contenders. One such contender is the Neumann KH 310.
The spread of prices for the compact 3 way market goes from around $8K at the top end down to around $2.5K and the KH310 at around $4.5K come in right in the middle of this range, so are they middling in performance? The answer is a resounding “no”. Let’s not waste any time getting to the punchline - these are very, very nice monitors. So what is it that I like about them so much?
Why Go 3 Way?
One of the biggest issues facing a speaker designer is the fact that there isn’t really a practical way of getting full range performance out of a single driver. A driver big enough to reproduce bass frequencies is too heavy to reproduce high frequencies. All sorts of solutions have been tried to avoid the compromises involved in using multiple drivers and crossovers to split the frequencies between drivers appropriate to reproduce them but the most practical solution always comes back to multiple electromagnetic drivers and crossovers. In a two way design the crossover inevitably ends up somewhere in the critical upper midrange and the effects of inherently imperfect crossovers and multiple path lengths from multiple drivers can introduce undesirable issues.
Conventional wisdom dictates that using a 3 way design allows the designer to push the crossover issues between the LF and MF drivers down and the MF to HF drivers up to preserve the midrange, however there are more benefits to using three way designs, one of the most significant being volume. Main monitors favour three way designs for just this reason as as anyone who understands the inverse square law will know, if you double the distance from the monitor you will need four times the output for the same level at the listening position (in anechoic conditions).
So with greater flexibility in terms of matching the drivers to the frequencies to be reproduced and power handling what are the downsides? Well the big ones are complexity and cost. More components makes a monitor more expensive and balancing two sets of variables is far, far easier than balancing three sets. Three way monitors are hard to do well.
So back to these specific 3 way monitors. The Neumanns surprised me because I hadn’t realised that they were an infinite baffle design - a sealed box cabinet. I’m on record as saying that I’m often disappointed at the poor timing some ported and band pass cabinet designs have. I really like sealed boxes for this reason but I’ve always understood that if you take the infinite baffle route you will get a shallower roll off of bass response from higher up than an equivalent sized ported design. Getting full range performance from a sealed box involves large cabinets of 35 or 40 litres upwards.
The KH 310 manages -3dB at 34Hz from a cabinet of only 28 litres (external) and being infinite baffle it has all the fast transient response at the bottom end I really enjoy, something I call the “PA system kick drum” of a bass transient which if loud enough would hit you in the chest rather than flapping your trousers - not that I’m going to try anything like that in my studio. However if it’s volume you’re after then, in a near field role, the KH 310 has more than I’ve needed. In full space these boxes can deliver 110dBSPL at 3% THD. They deliver a clean accurate sound with masses of headroom to spare at sensible levels. On the back, along with EQ controls, is an attenuator switch offering output level at 1m in four increments from 114-94dB SPL. I’ve had this pair at 94 and haven’t had any desire to change it working from about 1.2m.
So how does this monitor achieve this performance which has been making me so happy? The three way design is based around an 8 inch bass driver with distinctive radial grooves in the surround, a 1 inch HF driver which is barely visible behind a protective grille and a big 3 inch fabric dome midrange driver reminiscent of the famous ATC midrange driver but this is Neumann’s own custom unit. The combination of an extremely well protected tweeter, hidden as it is behind a metal grille and a naked midrange driver made me wince a little as when I worked in education I’d have given those drivers an expected lifespan of an afternoon at best before someone pressed it in! However in a safer environment good protection is provided by the deep recess and waveguide around the midrange driver. The drivers are powered by class AB amps of 150 watts for the woofer and 70 watts each for the mids and highs, limiters protect the drivers and the Illuminated Neumann logo ,which is usually white with three levels of brightness available turns red when the speaker protection is triggered, even when the logo illumination switch is in the off position. The crossovers have a 24dB/Oct slope and are at 650Hz and 2KHz. The MF/HF crossover is surprisingly low, particularly in light of my earlier comment about 3 way designs being able to push the crossover frequencies out of the upper midrange.
So how do they sound? I’ve had them a couple of weeks now and have used them a lot. My Tidal account has seen a big spike in activity and that is probably my most significant finding with these speakers - they have got me listening to more music more of the time and that is because they offer a new perspective on that music and it’s a perspective I like. The ability to resolve detail in audio is something I’ve previously likened to getting “glasses for your ears”. Something I always enjoy in mixes are elements which are mixed right at the threshold of audibility, the kind of elements which you can hear are there but you can’t quite follow all the way through a track. A good example is the banjo in Take It Easy by the Eagles (I’m choosing this because Russ is on record as a huge fan of banjos! - he really isn’t, he can’t bear them). The part is really obvious in the instrumental section leading to the outro after the big “Save me”. The part has actually been in the track since the first guitar solo after “open up by climbing in” but during the verse it’s buried. On lesser systems you can hear it’s there - just, but to follow the part is difficult. On the KH 310s it is plain as day. There are lots of other examples I could give like hearing new parts in well know harmonies, the list is endless.
The biggest impression the KH 310s made on me was how they presented low level information. Reverbs in particular were richer and, well, just more audible. One of the first things I did on unboxing them was to open up a mix I’d been working on and immediately wondered what the hell I’d been thinking when I heard the snare reverb. There was just so much! The sense of envelopment this low level detail can introduce was an issue for me in that these are large monitors for nearfield use and using them at very close quarters can encourage you to lean in too close. Being 3 way monitors the distances between drivers is greater than in 2 way designs and there is definitely a minimum distance beyond which the wavefronts haven’t yet had time to sort themselves out. The character definitely changes if you allow yourself to lean it too far.
The speed and accuracy of the bass has to be my next favourite characteristic of these monitors. Neumann describe it as a “dry” bass sound. It’s not a subtle effect, they just sound “together” in a very helpful way and having this great timing and extension down to 40Hz is a pleasure to be around. Just listen to anything with bass guitar and piano doubling their parts with the kick to hear what I mean. Then there is the midrange performance which is uncluttered is a way which just removes the intangible clutter which was between your ears and hearing your mix properly! You can probably tell I like these monitors.
Are there any negatives? Well apart from the point I made about not working too close to them, about 4 feet is as close as I’d go and a little further out would be a good idea, the vertical dispersion isn’t as wide as the horizontal. Horizontally the sweet spot is generous, by no means narrow but not as wide as some I’ve heard. If like me you want some monitors which offer a genuine step up from sub £1000 two way designs there is a great deal of choice in the compact 3 way market. At the bottom end in terms of price we have offerings from Dynaudio and HEDD, at the top end ATC have their SCM25 but if, like me, you are the kind of person who chooses from halfway up the wine list then these Neumanns deliver real quality performance which represents a genuine step up from the crowded quality 2 way market. And if, like me, you like infinite baffle designs these should be at the very top of your list.