Reviewer: Bill Armstrong
Financial interests: click here
Sources: Mark Levinson No.390S CD, Audio Analogue Maestro Settanta CD, Rega RP8 + Apheta 2 cartridge
Preamplifier: Mark Levinson No.326S
Integrated amplifiers: Audio Analogue Maestro Settanta, Krell S-550i
Loudspeakers: ATC SCM50 ASL Anniversary, Esoteric MG10
Cables: Complete loom JPS SC3, Complete loom Crystal Cable Micro, 1xJPS Digital, 1xJPS AC Power, 1xJPS Kaptovator   
Power delivery: Vertex Taga Distribution Block
Supports: Grand Prix Audio Monaco 4-Shelf, Track Audio Precision Speaker stands, Atacama stands, IsoAcoustic Aperta desktop supports
Review component retail in UK (inc. VAT): £4,598/pr

Billy Woodman, leading loudspeaker designer and owner of ATC, has long argued that there is no convincing reason why a proficient studio monitor should in principle differ from a skillfully conceived hifi speaker. We all want our music delivered with as little mechanical editorializing as possible. The primary goals should be the same, right? Ergo, any self-appointed audiophile pasha best attempt to listen without prejudice regardless of the equipment's provenance. And Billy practices what he preaches too, because the differences between his company's domestic and pro offerings are slight indeed.

But as the boundaries between both sectors continue to blur, an analysis of the wider picture still leaves room for debate. I have lost count of the many pairs of Genelec I've heard over the years. From miniature pick-up-with-one-hand designs nestled in cozy home studios to the main monitoring rigs installed in the walls of some of the largest and most famous London recording studios, I… well, this is where things start to get messy. Never once did I catch myself fantasizing about this venerable Finnish make making the leap into my own listening room. Why? Because the Genelec sound (something of an oxymoron, admittedly) often struck me as being unremittingly focused. Despite the total absence of cabinet signature, iron-fisted bass control and a midband free of any additive blemish, the overall effect rarely seemed to conjure up anything quite as nebulous as listener involvement. But of course you could still justifiably argue they were simply doing the job they were intended for.

Time-pressed sound engineers approach recording and mixing with the result-driven focus of the racing driver - get from A-B with as little drama as possible. However, when it comes to playing back the fruits of their labour I, and most likely you as well, are more likely to dream of lowering the top on our favourite sports car, finding the most involving road and punching the accelerator as the sun sets just so in the rear view mirror. Because for us, this hobby has never been solely about the raw ingredients. We know that the seasoning can be crucial, too. Synergistically matched hifi systems are assembled to precisely capture the many aspects of a recording which we audiophiles typically get excited about: the radiant bloom of a string quartet, the specific cushion of air elicited by a particular drum strike or the harmonically complex overtones that help to differentiate one renowned marque of piano from another.

And one final silty factoid to stir into to these muddy waters: recording studios rarely spend the same kind of serious money on amps and loudspeakers as many well-heeled audiophiles do. Nearfield monitors (that aim to mimic the average setup of John or Joanna Q. Public) usually come in under the 1k Euro mark. Even the big flush-mounted behemoths are still modestly priced compared with much of the esoterica we are often caught swooning at. And although amplification duties are often undertaken by heavy-duty beasts from well-respected makers like Bryston or Chord, it will only occasionally be their top-tier models. A brief piece of anecdotal evidence will help to explain one surprising way this apparent discontinuity can play out. Back when I worked in retail, a lauded London-based classical sound engineer came to our store to buy a new pair of loudspeakers. After demoing a few options listening mainly to his own handiwork, he said that he had enjoyed the experience but felt that many of the systems were unduly highlighting aspects of the recording "you're not really meant to hear" - specifically referring to both the myriad extraneous ambient hall sounds that a large orchestra can easily excite as well as what he felt was an undue emphasis on some of the actual mechanical workings of the instruments.

Our equipment then was proving more revealing than the control room presentation he was used to. So the belief that 'pro-sound' can simply be pigeon-holed as a 'warts 'n all' style of presentation is overly simplistic. Instead, the sound we often castigate as stereotypically monitorish can just as often be the result of a sin of omission. It's a complex subject and I realize that I'm painting with broad brush strokes. Also, I don't wish to suggest even for one second that talented recording or mixing engineers don't play a vital role in fashioning a rewarding listening experience. But it is a reminder that the time-honoured aim of recreating the sound originally experienced in the control room is in itself an attempt to pin down a target that in truth only each individual listener can give final form to.