For those who go for small speakers, these mini-monitors have it all: great aesthetics, great build quality, and sound that would leave angels awestruck.
THE TRICKLE DOWN theory is a wonderful thing. The assumption is that what happens at the top eventually makes its way down to the bottom. So today’s Formula One technology might one day appear on a bog standard Corolla. In the hi-fi world, this phenomenon actually happens – the exotic technologies that are implemented on flagship products do make their way down the range as economies of scale and manufacture exert their influence on production costs. Take diamond tweeters for example, or in the case of Monitor Audio’s Gold GX speaker range, the driver, crossover and cabinet technologies from the range-topping Platinum series of speakers. So what was once in distinctly high-end territory has trickled down to a more affordable price point.
Features and Construction
At 300 x 170 x 263mm (H x W x D), the GX50’s rear ported cabinet is narrower than a piece of A4 of paper and only 3mm taller, which gives you an idea as to just how compact these speakers are. They weigh 7.5kg per side, which is heavy for a box this small, and the cabinets are reassuringly dead when given a series of hard thumps – there’s very little resonance to be felt here.
The finish is outstanding, with tight tolerances around the drivers and the rear panel fit and a lovely real wood veneer, which is hand fitted and grain matched. The rear binding posts are hefty metal numbers, set up for bi-wiring or bi-amping – there’s a short spade-terminated cable linking the two sets, which is a better choice than a set of cheap, plated metal links or bars. The GX50’s are shipped with a set of magnetic grilles but they look good without them; in general, grilles don’t do the sound quality any favours, so unless there are kids around, or the significant other doesn’t approve of naked drivers, then it’s best to leave them off.
The GX50’s are a two-way design featuring a 5.5-inch RST (Rigid Surface Technology) mid/bass driver and a C-CAM (Ceramic-Coated Aluminium/Magnesium) ribbon tweeter, which crosses over from the bigger driver at 2.3kHz. The mid/bass driver is mounted on a single bolt, which is secured to the back of the cabinet. This bolt acts as a rigid internal brace but it also eliminates the need for conventional driver fixing and decouples the driver from the baffle.
They’re rated for up to 100 watts of power, with a sensitivity of 86dB and a nominal impedance of 8 Ohms. The local agents carry the Walnut, Gloss Black and Gloss White finishes in stock but the Oak, Bubinga and Gloss Ebony finishes are available to order.
For the tech-heads out there, the ribbon tweeter is a proprietary design that uses an ultra-thin sandwich of C-CAM alloy suspended in the transverse magnetic field of Neodymium magnets. The ribbon functions as both the voice coil and the radiating diaphragm, with every part of the ribbon driven directly. It weighs 18mg, which translates into great potential for speed thanks to the ability to accelerate and stop very quickly. The tweeter is designed to reach up to ultra-high frequencies and is specified as having an upper response of 60kHz, although Monitor Audio doesn’t specify if this is a -3 or -6 dB point.
According to Monitor Audio, the 5.5-inch mid/bass driver has a cone profile that’s “been inspired by the Japanese art of origami, which demonstrates how a very light material can be strengthened and made more rigid by making small and precise folds on its surface.” So the GX series driver cones have been strengthened by a series of radial ribs, which increases its rigidity, and allows Monitor Audio to use a thinner and lighter material.
Even the rear reflex port uses a rifled design in order to accelerate airflow and reduce turbulence. So air moves in and out of the cabinet faster than via a conventional port, which in theory should enhance the mid/bass driver’s transient response.
The GX50’s were supplied with Monitor Audio’s dedicated stands ($999), which arrive in flat pack form and need assembling. This is straightforward enough and the end result is a pair of classy looking, distinctive and effective stands that are just about right for the speakers – another 150mm of column length would be enough to get the tweeters to ear height. The heavy baseplates are supported by four large feet per side, which can be configured with rubber footers for wooden floors or with screw-in spikes for carpeted rooms. The top plates have four soft rubber circles to protect and decouple the speakers, and to ensure that they’re stable.
After assembling the stands, I set the GX50’s up on the padded top surfaces and left them to run in for a day or so – they needed a workout above and beyond the one they’d already had courtesy of the local agents, so don’t expect these speakers to sound special out of the box.
Later, I hooked them up to my Viganoni and Viganoni Sachem monoblock power amps, which were aspirated by a Rogue Audio Metis Magnum preamp (reviewed here) and fed by Cambridge Audio’s Azur 851C CD player/DAC (reviewed here). Then I cued up ‘Hard Sun’ from Eddie Vedder’s epic soundtrack for Into The Wild, sat back, hit play, listened for a moment, then stood up to fetch the GX50’s user manual so I could check the claimed frequency response.
The manual claims that 55Hz is the bottom end of the GX50’s capabilities but again doesn’t say if that’s a -3dB point. I’d say that’s a slightly conservative rating because these little boxes were reaching down lower than I’d expected them to. My test CDs show that the GX50’s put plenty of bass into the room at 63Hz and 50Hz, before dropping down at the 40hz mark and fading almost completely at 31.5Hz. So they weren’t going ultra-low but they didn’t seem to be getting what low frequencies they had via too much of the tried and tested (but abominable) giant bass hump methodology, where the upper bass is heavily boosted to add a semblance of weight and presence. There’s inevitably going to be a degree of emphasis where the driver and port combine if these speakers are to sound at all balanced, but it’s not too obvious here.
As far as set-up goes, I settled on a fairly heavy toe-in with the speaker axis crossing just behind me. I also tried moving the GX50’s closer to the rear wall and then further away before returning them to their original location about 60cm from the wall; there’s a fine line between bass boom with the ports too close to a wall and a thin sound when the speakers are too far into free space– a bit of experimentation will get you in the zone.
Ribbon tweeters are known for their speed and revelatory levels of detail, and so it proved with the GX50’s. Beth Orton’s ‘She Cries Your Name’ was playing softly one night, while I was trying to get to grips with these speakers. This mellow recording was intricately detailed and texturally expressive, with both vocals and instruments clearly defined, especially the strings. Every element of the song was given its own place in time and space, at once separate but still cohesive. Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Adia’ comes up next on the Deconstructed CD compilation that I play so often, and the GX50’s opened up her vocals beautifully. She sounded quite breathtaking, and I found it easy to track the way she was phrasing each note. Again, there was no real sense that the low end was missing in action; in fact, it carried enough weight to make the song sound complete.
The real stars of the show are those deliciously extended tweeters. With a good source, they will, like most ribbons, leave you in little doubt as to what’s on the recording – if the cymbals sound like a thin “tcshhh”, then that’s exactly what the engineer put there but if there’s a lot of energy and detail up high, then you’ll get every bit of it, without the edge or stridency that’s sometimes found on metal coned or peaky high-frequency drivers. In this respect, these tweeters are more laid back than the ones on the Platinum series speakers which are even more revealing but less forgiving of bad recordings.
Otis Taylor is a blues artist who’s new to me but I’m intently working through his discography. His outstanding Definition Of A Circle CD is a sparkling recording (it’s a Telarc disc, so that’s no shock) with extended, well-defined highs. Through the GX50’s, Gary Moore’s guitar on ‘Little Betty’ shimmered and vibrated, and the vocals were raw and gritty. On ‘They Wore Blue’, the intensity of the guitars, electric mandolin and organ at high levels was quite an experience, especially considering the dark subject matter – seven minutes and 20 seconds-worth just wasn’t enough. So, are these speakers musical and involving? Heck yes, without a doubt.
The GX50’s were able to match well with amps as diverse as Cambridge Audio’s 120-watt solid state Azur 851A integrated or Opera’s 35-watt valve based Consonance Cyber-100. The Cyber-100 had no trouble pushing the GX50’s to respectable volume levels even in a big room, so they’re easy enough to drive, assuming you’re not after colossal sound pressure, but then again that’s really not their forte. Apply too much power and they start to get uncomfortable, slipping into compression and harshness. The overall tonal balance is slightly on the lean side but not really enough to worry anyone, except perhaps those who truly do need some warmth and romance with their music. Even when paired with the forensically clean 851A amp and Slinkylinks silver cables, the GX50’s never strayed too far in the cold and analytical direction.
They rock out pretty well, all things considered, and while they won’t move the walls, they do manage to get tolerably down. Playing a selection of Massive Attack tracks had me listening to the quality of the bass rather than its sheer weight. It’s not an ideal scenario, especially at higher levels, but such is the mini-monitor paradigm. As the old saying says: “You pays your money and you take your chance” (that is, don’t choose these speakers without being aware of their limitations.)
One Saturday afternoon, in a fit of audio-nerd insanity, I was trying various combinations of Slinkylinks, Transparent and Nordost cables (and as much of the full looms of each brand as I had on hand of course). I had Cambridge Audio’s giant killing Azur 851C and 851A pairing (reviewed here) hooked up to the GX50’s, passively bi-amped via the 851A’s AB outputs using two individual runs of Slinkylinks silver speaker cable, with Transparent’s Balanced MusicLink Plus interconnect hooking up the CD player to the amp. Power cables were Nordost’s Shiva into the amp and Blue Heaven into the CD player. This unlikely cable concoction sounded best with this particular arrangement of audio equipment – please don’t ask how long it took to ascertain this (very subjective) fact.
With disc one of Jackson Browne and David Lindley’s Love Is Strange playing, the sound was startling, and not just at the respective price points of the individual components. The detail levels were huge, the music flowed along with a great deal of energy, placed well beyond the confines of the speakers, while the attack on the leading edges of strings and the depth of the acoustic space were something special (the wonders of system synergy are all the more pronounced when the cabling is properly sorted).
I was already happy with the GX50’s but properly set up and with some good cable behind them, they lifted themselves to an even higher place in my estimation. All the advantages of mini-monitor speakers were blatantly obvious: the killer imaging, the way the speakers vanished into the soundstage, the clarity and refinement and the overall cohesion of the sound. They balance their revealing nature very nicely with smoothness, so they only sound harsh with really bad recordings – in most cases they’re a joy to listen to. One of my few criticisms was the limited front-to-back depth of the soundstage, but in a different room, the speakers might be able to be moved further from the rear wall to improve this quality without diminishing the bass weight.
While they obviously don’t explore the depths of the recordings in terms of bass extension, the low frequencies that are present are richly detailed and have a decent amount of power and impact considering the size of the cabinets. There’s enough weight to make many recordings sound about right but music that relies on a big bottom end is going to sound truncated through the GX50’s. That’s just the way physics works and the only way around this is to go through the complicated process of integrating a subwoofer, or to buy bigger speakers. Monitor Audio offers the larger GX100 standmounts at $3199 and two floorstanders (GX200 – $5999 and GX300 – $7999) for those who demand more bottom end. As in all things, there’s a compromise involved and what you gain at the bottom, you may well lose in terms of the purity of the mini-monitor sound. And in the relieving of your wallet, of course.
Monitor Audio’s Gold GX50’s are delightful little speakers. In absolute terms, they’re deeply flawed, as indeed are all mini-monitors and all small speakers, but is 20Hz to 20kHz really hi-fi’s Holy Grail or is enjoyment what we should aim for?
The best small speakers need no one to apologise for their deficiencies because they do certain things so extraordinarily well. So while these impressive little transducers will never be all things to all men, they make it possible to enjoy the music without bemoaning, or even noticing the things that they don’t pull off all that well.
Drum and bass fanatics, metal heads and hard rockers, church organ aficionados and those trying to fill a big room will of necessity need to look at other options. However, if you’ve got a hankering for a discerning set of small speakers that can peer deep into your recordings, then these might well be perfect. They boast an extremely transparent tweeter that’s a real point of difference compared to the alternatives. They’re well built and lovely to look at. In addition, the GX50’s are inherently musical, will match up with any number of amps and they won’t break the bank. That’s quite a list of positives.
Budget for some good quality stands, hook up a good source and a capable amp, pay some attention to the way the GX50’s are set up and settle back with your music collection. It’s unlikely that you’ll feel even a tinge of regret. ASHLEY KRAMER