Published: 1. October 2012, No. 101
"Studio Oslo are excellent nearfield monitors. They sport a single widerange driver which allows user to comfortably listen to them from as close as 1 meter range. One can put them on the desk and enjoy all aspects of musical presentation: timbre, spacing, dynamics, rhythm."
These are exactly sentences opening a manual for the speakers under review. Everything about them is bit different than it usually is. At the first glimpse – just simple, active, computer speakers like many others available on the market. But after a closer look, after realizing who designed and made them you might want to reconsider, or at least get curious.
The Studio Oslo were made by Ancient Audio, which means by Jarek Waszczyszyn – its owner and designer. Everybody who knows the brand knows very well that Ancient Audio manufacture rather expensive, very expensive and extremely expensive CD Players and amplifiers, and occasionally also loudspeakers (in fact at the very beginning of its activity this company manufactured the latter, and CDs and amps came later). I've been using Jarek's (yes, we know each other very well so I'm going to skip „Mr” if you don't mind) CD Players for years - first there was Lektor Prime, and than (still today) I've been using a special V-edition of Lektor AIR. The latter, even though it sits exactly in the middle of AA's players range, is very expensive and so are Ancient Audio's amplifiers. But while expensive all those products offer still a great price/sound quality ratio. Additionally one of the best systems I've ever heard (that belongs to one of Cracow Sonic Society's members) is build around Jarek's CD Player and amplifier (see HERE). And now company offering high-end, expensive products suddenly offers loudspeakers that absolutely don't fit the profile.
Why would Jarek need them in his range? When I asked him that he simply told me that he had this idea, because in many recording studios he saw many small monitors sounding really crappy. And he also reminded me that he did it once before, when creating another product „incompatible” with the rest of the range – WING speakers built for John Tu, the owner of Kingston Technology – you can read the whole story HERE).
Knowing many designers I realize that they have hundred of ideas for new products and they try to test as many of them as possible. But there are designers and there are designers who are company's owners at the same time and the latter must think ahead trying to estimate if and how particular product would fit into their range, and how they would be perceived by customers, and whether or not it would be possible to manufacture them on larger scale, and last but not least – would anybody really need such product. Surely there are even more questions that have to answer to themselves before starting production. Than there is cost calculation, proper documentation has to be prepared, and than a prototype has to be transformed into a PRODUCT. So there is a long, long way from the idea of a product to a PRODUCT that can be offered to customers.
So I'm pretty sure that Jarek had a nice idea, wanted to try it out, but in the same time he must have thought carefully about all those changes that audio market has been undergoing in the last years, and the great role of a computer audio – many people nowadays listens to the music sitting in front of their computers.
And that's great - finally!!! I've been planning for at least a year to shake Jarek up a bit to make him realized that audio world had changed and that he would have to adapt, but for whatever reason I actually never have...
It turns out I didn't have to – something is going on in Ancient Audio which is great. But I'm still about to ask next questions: "where the hell are D/A converters with Ancient Audio logo on them???", "where are headphone amplifiers???", "where is, promised a long time ago, digital input for Lektor AIR???". Or in short: "where are the products everybody is looking most for, right now???". To be clear, Ancient Audio has already developed most of those products and all it has to do is to implement production.
So it seems that the herewith reviewed loudspeakers are the first answer to actual audiophile's demand A.D 2012.
Our Ancient Audio reviews so far:
- AWARD: 2011 Yearly Award for Ancient Audio Lektor AIR V-edition, see HERE
- TEST: Ancient Audio Lektor AIR V-edition - Compact Disc Player, see HERE
- AWARD: Yearly Award 2009 for Ancient Audio Silver Grand Mono, see HERE
- TEST Ancient Audio Silver Grand Mono – power amplifier, see HERE
- AWARD: Yearly Award 2008 for Ancient Audio Lektor Grand SE, see HERE
- TEST Ancient Audio Lektor Grand SE - Compact Disc Player, see HERE
- COVERAGE: Ancient Audio in USA (reprise), see HERE
- TEST Ancient Audio Lektor V - Compact Disc Player, see HERE
- AWARD: Yearly Award 2006 for Ancient Audio Lektor Prime, see HERE
- Ancient Audio Lektor Prime - Compact Disc Player, see HERE
- COVERAGE: Antwerp – Silver Grand amplifier premiere, see HERE
- COVERAGE: ANCIENT AUDIO SILVER GRAND – premiere, see HERE
- COVERAGE: Ancient Audio Harmony loudspeakers, see HERE
As we can read at the beginning of the manual the ambitions of Ancient Audio's owner were bigger than just delivering a good sound for desktop users. The speakers he designed were to be also „monitors”, fully capable of reproduction of an original audio signal not only from mp3 files played on a computer but also from digital „master-tapes” played in a recording studio. That's why he called them „near-field monitors” - these were studio monitors that could be used placed very close to the sound engineer - right behind, or even on the console. The point is that one would expect exactly the same from small speakers to be used in a desktop system.
To achieve that Jarek decided to use a widerange driver, because he realized that proper integration of more than one driver in an environment when one listens from a very close range, would be very difficult if not impossible. The choice of particular driver was in fact a clou of a whole project. I know that he experimented a lot with different drivers but ultimately for this particular project he chose Dayton Audio RS100-4 – a solid driver with aluminum diaphragm.
Obviously these are not the first near-field monitors with wide-range driver – there were some other designs too, and the most famous probably was Fujitsu Ten Eclipse (see HERE). Fujitsu speakers are quite large though and extremely expensive. The goal for Ancient Audio monitors was to make them as small as possible and smooth integration with as many different rooms as possible.
If you want to understand these speakers even better you might want to read an article written by the designer himself, see HERE.
Recordings used during review (a selection):
- A Day at Jazz Spot 'Basie'. Selected by Shoji "Swifty" Sugawara, Stereo Sound Reference Record, SSRR6-7, SACD/CD (2011).
- Bill Evans & Jim Hall, Intermodulations, Verve/The Verve Music Group, UCCV-9342, CD (1966/2008).
Clifford Brown & Max Roach, Brown and Roach, EmArcy/Mercury M.E. [Japan], PHCE-3085, "2496 spectrum Rainbow CD", CD (1954/1998).
- Depeche Mode, Abroken Frame, Mute Records Limited, DMCD2, Collectors Edition, SACD/CD+DVD (1982/2006).
- Depeche Mode, Ultra, Mute Records Limited, DMCDX9, CD+DVD (1997/2007).
- Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis, Verve/Lasting Impression Music, LIM UHD 045, UltraHD CD (1956/2011).
- Jean Michel Jarre, Magnetic Fields, Dreyfus Disques/Epic/Sony Music, 488138 2, CD (1981/1997).
- Johann Sebastian Bach, Sonatas&Partitas, skrzypce - Henryk Szeryng, Sony Classical France/Sony Music Japan, SICC 840-1, 2 x CD (1965/2007).
- Johann Sebastian Bach, Cello Suites, Richard Tunnicliffe, Linn Records, CKD 396, SACD/CD (2012).
- Józef Skrzek, "Pamiętnik Karoliny", Polskie Nagrania/Metal Mind Productions, MMP CD 0535 DG, CD (1978/2009).
- King Crimson, In The Court of the Crimson King, Atlantic/Universal Music [Japan], UICE-9051, HDCD (1969/2004).
- Komeda Quintet, Astigmatic, Polskie Nagrania Muza/Polskie Nagrania, PNCD 905, "Polish Jazz Vol. 5", CD (1966/2004).
- Kraftwerk, Minimum-Maximum, Kling-Klang Produkt/EMI, 3349962, 2 x SACD/CD (2005).
- Paul McCartney, Kisses On The Bottom, Universal Music LLC [Japan], UCCO-3038, SHM-CD (2012).
- Portishead, Dummy, Go! Discs Limited/Universal Music [Japan], UICY-20164, SHM-CD (1994/2011).
- Stardelay, A New High Fidelity Tripout, Linn Records, 24/44,1 WAV.
- The Beatles, Rubber Soul, Parlophone/Apple/Toshiba-EMI, TOCP-51116, CD (1965/1998).
- The Eagles, Hotel California, Asylum Records/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-11936, CD (1976/2004).
Step I – computer's linear output
These speakers offer amazing spacing. I know, I know – talking about space with speakers placed just 1 meter apart might seem silly, but believe me – it is not. This spacial effect was quite similar to what I know from headphones – there is only like 15-20cm distance between driver and nobody is complaining. Also in real life most speakers working in studios are placed quite close to each other.
But let's leave that for know – all you need to do is to give those speakers a chance and listen to them for yourselves. Just play anything, I started with mono recording of Sony Rollins's Tenor Madness (24/96). Yes, exactly – it was a mono recording that impressed me so much at the very beginning of my listening sessions, as I „saw” a deep, perfectly layered soundstage. And I mean 'perfectly' not just as for "this type of speakers” but simply, objectively „outstanding”. When you listen to certain stereo recordings like for example Stardelay's Orange Park from A New High Fidelity Tripout album (24/44,1, available from Linn Records) this amazing spacing effect is even more distinct, more intense. To be honest the simpler recording techniques the better final effect as proven by Charlie Haden's and Antonio Forcione's Heartplay (Naim 24/96).
The width of the soundstage isn't bigger than distance between left and right speaker, but depth is really impressive. Whatever is happening in the front (as it was recorded) is presented on the line between speakers, so by moving speakers closer to your listening place (or moving them further away) you might decide how close this first plane would actually be from you. The closer you'll move the speakers to you the deeper soundstage will be.
OK, but the most important question considering the small size of these speakers, use of widerange single drivers, and knowing that these come from a very reputable manufacturer, the most important question must be: „how these speakers sound like”? The answer that comes to mind immediately is „unbelievably well". Mostly because of that wonderful, so precisely defined, huge space. That's what catches attention first of all. When you finally get used to it you'll start noticing another thing - coherence.
A single driver mean no crossover, no phase shifts between drivers. It also means not so wide frequency response. But in this particular case when we deal with so small speakers that are used so close to our ears, limitation of frequency range can not be perceive as a real weakness. What's left is coherence. And it's outstanding.
I already mentioned Rollins, now have to add Keith Jarrett's Koeln Concert (24/96), Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back (24/96) or hi-res version of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon (24/96) – all these recording (and in fact also all the other I listened to), so different, with different leading instruments (piano, vocal, guitar and drums), sounded absolutely even, coherent.
But ultimately these are small monitors, to be placed on a desk or table, with mini-drivers, in a tiny enclosure. So they must have their obvious limitations. For example there is no bass, which should be obvious. There is no way around laws of physics (at least for now). Yes, the outstanding coherence throughout the whole range result in higher harmonics suggesting lower bass, except it is not really there. You might be under impression that everything is there, but you need to realize that this is only a psychoacoustic effect – the higher harmonics, when properly reproduced, create some kind of „virtual” bass, and by that I understand that they make our brain „reconstruct” bass notes basing on information delivered by signal and patterns „build into” the brain. That's what's happening here. But it doesn't change the fact that there is only very little bass here. It might be obvious if we take a closer look to the size of phantom images – there are pretty small. They are defined by the distance between speakers but also by the existence/volume of bass, especially the upper one. Here it is done quite well, better than by mo son's speakers, but it is still not the level that we know from more „conventional” monitors. You can do something about it by increasing distance between speakers or by adding a subwoofer to the equation.
Step II – computer's USB output + D/A Hegel HD2
The change from computer's linear output to DAC's output is pretty easy as all input of those active monitors are active all the time. So all you have to do is to change output in a software you use to play music.
I started the comparison with Ryuichi Sakamoto & David Sylvian duet's World Citizen (I Won't Be Disappointed) piece, included in Sylvian's Sleepwalkers album. The difference was quite clear and it defined the way I perceived those speakers. I found their resolution impressive, surprisingly impressive. The selectivity they offer is very good, but it is the resolution (meaning ability to differentiate several elements connected with timbre, dynamics, texture and so on) is truly impressive.
Sound delivered by Hegel was bit „lighter” than one delivered by linear output of my computer. When I switched to DAC it became clear that the lower (audible) notes before were, in comparison, not so pure, clear. One might think that such a small speakers could not be able to show that, as they could never create enough air pressure, but against all odd, they do show that. The resolution also improves and thus upper frequencies become sweeter, softer, more spacial. Sound is even less „attached” to speakers, and sound gets closer to the listener. The change is clear, easy to realize, it's like some kind of nervousness that before we did not realize existed, now is gone.
Just to be perfectly clear – these are still tiny speakers so they can't deliver large volume of sound. Sound seemed to come directly from my laptop's screen – and it seems to be an idea of their designer. When playing a recording with a lot of uncompressed bass (like Haden's bass), these small speakers sometimes are not capable to deliver large peaks of dynamics. But if bass was compressed like in Katarzyna Nosowska'sKto? (16/44,1), Floyd's or Depeche Mode's recordings (24/44,1) speakers did just fine. Even if it's a bit surprising, there is some logic behind it.
Step III – linear output of a HiFiMAN HM-801 player
Finally I got back to linear output but this time of a portable audio player. I've been using HiFiMAN's player for quite some time now, as this is the best portable player I know. It's large, not very user-friendly, but it offers remarkable sound. The Manufacturer already works on its new version - HM-901, but it is not available yet.
I started this session with Dream Theater's On The Back Of Angels (24/44,1). The presentation was large in scale, with very good selectivity and dynamics. Everything seemed bigger and closer than when played from a computer either via linear output or via Hegel DAC. Presentation was very dynamic, energetic. I can't say that speakers „disappeared” from the room as there was this coloration of mid-bass, that was slightly homogeneous and bit „box-like”, which was a result of „collaboration” between speakers and the desk they were put on. Using some sort of rigid stands for the speakers improved that aspect significantly while at the same time totally ruined the look of the system and its style...
With both Dream Theater and Yello from Pocket Universe the space was huge, rich, continuous. And that's probably w reason why one could, or actually should buy these speakers for his computer (or some other system). I've never heard something like that from desktop speakers and I have never expected something like that would even be possible. And since resolution is outstanding, differentiation surprisingly good, this remarkable spacing is a bonus, and at the same time it's something that most of our audiophile friends simply can only dream about even with their „serious” systems.
When I found out about these Ancient Audio speakers I was truly surprised, as they did not fit the profile of that manufacturer, know from high-end products. After this review I think I finally understand why Jarek designed these loudspeakers – visiting many studios, listening to desktop audiophile's systems he simply couldn't stand what he heard. Plus he can make some money of them – man has to live, right?
Studio Oslo monitors can't replace large studio monitors – it would be silly to think that. But I've never heard so good computer/desktop speakers before. What's more – I dare to say that apart from bass extension, Ancient Audio speakers outperform famous Yamaha monitors (those with white diaphragms) which in comparison seem very colored, and their resolution is poor. In comparison to Studio Oslo they sound like some broken radio. The problem is that most sound engineers already got used to those distortions and stopped noticing them. But that’s not my problem anymore. Jarek's speakers are a great tool if you run a small studio, and they would also complement nicely desktop system. These are beautiful speakers for two reasons – first of all its their design, secondly it's an amazing, remarkable sound especially when you consider that they are very cheap for studio monitors and quite expensive for computer speakers. I can't really see any competition for them, unless we take much larger monitors into consideration. "Drama", speed, attack, resolution, liquidity – all those are very strong advantages of Studio Oslo.
You can use them in many different ways – apart for systems I described in this review, I used them also with my favorite radio - Tivoli Audio Model One. The latter has only one own speaker but in fact that a tuner with nice stereo, linear output. Combined with tested speakers it sounded great! Plus the design of this small radio fitted speakers design really well. So if you own any Tivoli and think about adding some speaker to it – Studio Oslo is the best possible choice!
This is product quite different than anything we usually test for "High Fidelity". It doesn't mean it is worse, or better, but that it belongs to a group of quite „untypical” audio products.
The Ancient Audio Studio Oslo monitors were tested in four places: working with laptop, that I work on, placed on solid table, working with desktop computer, placed on a desk, and on stands connected to a variable output of Ancient Audio Lektor AIR V-edition CD Player, and last but not least connected to linear output of Tivoli Audio Model One radio.
When working with computers, speakers were connecter either to linear audio outputs (integrated in soundcards) or via external D/A converter with USB input - Hegel HD2. I also tried separately a portable player HiFiMAN HM-801. I used 2xRCA/mini-jack iChord cable to connect speakers with computers and portable player.
Testing was a A-B comparison with A and B known. Musical samples were 2 minutes long. I listened to whole albums as well. My reference speakers were Harbeth M40.1 (in main system) and desktop speakers Tangent EVO E4 (with computer).
Ancient Audio Oslo Monitor are a one-way active speakers designed to work in computer-based systems – in small recording, mastering, mixing studios based on a computer.
The cabinets are truly tiny – even when put on a side it can be easily covered with a copy of the „Stereophile" and there is still a lot of space left underneath it. The cabinet is made of MDF, and enforced inside with a horizontally placed bar. They are finished with a beautiful, natural veneer, but also a „high-gloss” finish is available. The front and back panels are tilted, and a front is very narrow.
They sport a single, nice looking Dayton Audio RS100-4 widerange driver. It features a 3" cone is made of black, anodized aluminum, a heavy-duty 6-hole cast frame and a large magnet. There is a phase plug in the middle of a diaphragm, and the rubber suspension. Driver works in a small cabinet with hardly any damping and a bass-reflex with a port in lower part of its rear. Distance from a base is kept with a small, painted black, wooden block in the front, and a metal spike in the back. A practical advice – you need to put some nonslippery rubber under this wooden block, otherwise each time you touch a speaker it will move. I think also that a separate metal spike and a feet underneath it is an overkill – one piece solution should be more practical, and then I would also place some nonslippery rubber under this feet.
As already mentioned, these are active speakers. The amplifier for both speakers, and also inputs are installed in one of the speakers, the one with volume control pot on a front.
Whole electronic circuit is mounted on two PCBs bolted to an aluminum plate. The latter is placed inside cabinet on back panel. Electronic circuit comprises of two modules – input and power amp. The XLR inputs deserved a separate PCB (in any studio signal is usually transferred in a balanced form) that includes also a de-balancer as the amplifier is not a balanced one.
Amplifier is based on a single Philips TDA8566Q chip. It is capable of delivering up to 30 W (AB class). It is cooled by a back panel and a radiator attached to it. The circuit is quite simple and obviously high quality passive elements were used. Part of a circuit (input I think) is hidden under some black, rubber-like material. I guess it is supposed to cover some proprietary Ancient Audio solutions and most likely also to damp vibrations. It is probably the part described by the designer as "Analogue Signal Processor". As his text (mentioned at the beginning of this one) explains, this circuit's job is to minimize driver's resonances. Because this speaker can deliver quite impressive dynamics.
There is also another example of vibration damping – connections for RCA inputs on PCB are covered with transparent silicone. Signal from one speaker to the other is send via long RCA cable that looks like taken from some desk lamp – I wouldn't be surprised at all if that was in fact where this cable came from...
Speakers sport more than one inputs – linear RCA input, (1 V rms), intended for connecting a CD Player, a pair of XLR inputs (also 1 V rms), and another pair of RCA input (this time 0,5 V rms), intended for connection of some mobile devices like phones, computer outputs and so on. All inputs are active. The is also a single output that might deliver a mono signal for a subwoofer.
Additionally there is a tonal control – with two knobs placed on the rear of a speaker you can adjust bass and treble, which in fact I did lowering treble a bit and adding some bass.
The whole circuit is powered with external power supply that looks like taken from a laptop – that means that DIY guys could surely come up with some upgrade of this PS.
These speakers look great and sound amazingly well. What I lack are descriptions on rear panel. These were placed on a small plate attached to the bottom of one speaker, and in manual, but it's not very helpful if you need some information quickly. I guess that such cut backs were forced by „budget” considerations – these speakers don't come cheap, and all those small things, detail would made them even more expensive.