Studio Electric looks for a higher class of consideration
Call me crazy but I have a particularly unwavering bias in this hobby for sound and sound only. I do not personally subscribe to the church of audio-bling, although I don’t mind its existence or necessity in another’s sense of taste. I understand the appeal high-end-audio-jewelry and cost-no-object endeavors that embody faultless craftsmanship inside and out. I don’t fault high-end audio manufacturers for looking to one-up each other by creating flashy high-end-art pieces as much as they are high-end-high-fidelity. However, a majority of the space in my heart only beats for those companies like Studio Electric (website here) who live and die by the sound of their wares. It is true that some brands have no choice in the matter when it comes to fit and finishing. Not every company has the means to develop a product with high-end looks. It has been proven that what you see can have an impact on what you hear. So with that in mind, I understand the reason to gild your product as much as possible. Some people might listen to mediocre sounds coming from a shiny, high-gloss, and embellished loudspeaker; and ultimately rate it higher than the comparative ugly-duckling that is more faithful. Personally, I think I might have a bias in the opposite direction. Going into this review process I continually reminded myself to avoid these types of biases.
I started out in this hobby with monitors. What I like about monitors is that they are more affordable to their towering brethren, they are often more “aesthetically pleasing” to the entire family, they are easier on nomadic lifestyles, and did I mention they are more affordable?
I’ve long been a fan of how well a small monitor can deliver a sizable portion of the tower experience in small to moderately sized rooms where floor-standers might be overkill. I often recommend to my millennial friends that bookshelf monitors are where to start. So when I first heard the Studio Electric M4 monitors at Capital Audiofest 2017, and heard their price, I felt that I had doubly stumbled onto something special. The M4’s were sharing a room with their flagship siblings, the FSX floor-standers. And much like the expertly crafted FSX towers, the M4’s were already making a name for themselves among show-goers and press members. The reason? For delivering up far more from the family bloodline than they should for their size and asking price. In my post-show reporting, I wrote something like “I deem the M4’s the most lovable bookshelf monitor I’ve encountered at a show, regardless of price.” Currently having them here in-house, and after a lengthy review period, I plan to put those words to the test.
The M4’s were designed by Dave MacPherson, the managing partner at Studio Electric. Dave has a 30-year history of designing and building speaker systems for professional and home use. Thousands of loudspeakers designed by Dave are in service around the world.
During my time with the Studio Electric M4’s I have taken them on the road, put them before friends (young and old) and the general public. All the while, advocating for better sound through having an actual “ears-on-experience”. During these events, I made sure to gather as much real-world feedback as possible.
Quirks and Features
The Studio Electric M4 is a sealed two-way monitor loudspeaker. Driver complement is a 6.5” proprietary co-polymer woofer, and hand-selected 1” tweeter. Around back, each monitor has a single pair of sturdy five-way binding posts mounted on a milled aluminum plate embossed with the M4 logo. Keeping it clean, and simple all that remains on the back is a serial plate, which also proudly names Salt Lake City, USA as their place of manufacture. I like that. The enclosure is a hefty mixture of high-density fiberboard, medium-density fiberboard, and sturdy bracing. Giving it the knuckle test, the M4’s cabinetry sounds inert from every angle. The front baffle in satin black, the sides and rear are wrapped in a beautiful, recycled real-wo-d wenge veneer (wood veneer options vary upon ordering). The M4’s looks aren’t flashy, and they don’t scream “Hey… I’m expensive.” However, the M4’s do look and feel serious enough with their larger than-average cabinet.
The manufacturer states that the M4’s should not be considered for placement on bookshelves. Not to say that the custom built-in cabinetry often found in modern homes would not be a sufficient substrate to support the 19lb per/each speakers, but that placing speakers like the Studio-Electric M4 on chintzy wall mounted bookshelves from IKEA might pose a serious threat of injury and/or property damage. Along with bookshelves being a piss poor placement for sound quality, I wouldn’t risk it. Desktops and credenzas are better, but for the sake of us all — stands are best. Without question or gripe, please get the stands. When it comes to stands, chose carefully as the M4 is a heavy and deep speaker, Those stands with small top plates, and flamingo legs will not offer a secure and stable platform for any kind of investment.
When it comes to placement, have fun and experiment; I did. In near-field listening (closer than 8ft), five to six feet apart with toe-in, worked well for me. In mid-field listening positions, the manufacturer suggests wider but not too wide as the center image can struggle. I found that sticking to the equidistant triangle between each speaker and my listening position worked best. For most of my mid-field listening, I preferred no toe-in.
Where things become more strict with the M4 is the listening height. The manufacturer recommends stands of 25”-30” in height, and I heartily agree with that recommendation. Achieving a listening height where my ear height was centered between the tweeter and mid-woofer was paramount to getting what I felt was the best out of the M4’s. More on that later.
Sound and Comparison
Studio Electric states the M4’s sensitivity to be 89db and a 6 ohm load, which should make them amplifier friendly. So with that in mind, I fire them up for the first time on my son’s Cambridge Audio integrated, he took the center seat and began doodling with pens and paper, not really noticing what I was doing. When I asked him, “So what do you think of the monitors?” To which Jonah replied, “I thought the Vandersteen 2CE Sig II’s (also in the room) were playing.” I wouldn’t fully dismiss that statement as I might have had the same initial reaction given the same circumstances. Much like I shared in my show report on these from Capital Audiofest 2017, the Studio Electric M4’s have a two-handed grip on the bass that would have you thinking it must be the larger speakers in any room playing. After a few short listening sessions while letting the M4’s break if for forty-eight hours I did notice that things steadily became more open in the vocals and that mid-range more or less fell into line with the already healthy top and bottom end.
By the end of the week, however, I felt that toiling with sixty watts of budget amplification had given me a rough idea of how well these speakers could work in a less costly or beginner system. A great man once said, “It’s a smart move to place the bulk of your stereo budget on the speakers.” However, having the more powerful (and costly) Peachtree Audio Nova300 on hand, I would from there on do the bulk of my serious listening with the more powerful and refined amplifier. The Studio Electric M4’s greatly appreciated the power. Even more, I was appreciating the Nova300’s graceful warmth and noiseless background.
My listening room measures 13’ x 15’, and when it came to listening to I preferred the balance I attained from placing the speakers front-baffle 39” from the rear (short) wall, with the speakers in an equilateral triangle and no toe in. The M4’s stood 7ft apart if measured from the inside facing side-baffles.
The most immediate character about this loudspeaker bass, and how well the 6.5” mid-woofer covers it’s assigned bandwidth with grace and poise. The crossover point of 3khz demands that the woofer carries more of the mid-range load than a lot of speakers I’ve heard. Having heard designs that go in the opposite direction (e.g. Mark & Daniel 1,200hz), for me those can be a little excited and harsh at times. Whereas this higher crossover route takes a more mellow approach when delegating lower mid-range to a larger and in this case extremely capable driver.
Listening to Music
Starting with Great Dane’s “My People Outside” from the self-titled album Great Dane (2015), the M4’s right away show off their speed and dynamic strength with extension of the highs and snappy lows, along with a few unexpected sonic acrobatics (a.k.a. imaging). Top end sparkle is there and ideal for music. During some relaxing and passive listening sessions, with tunes expanding from Jimi Hendrix to Buena Vista Social Club, to Mission of Burma, the sparkle was always comfortable and pleasing. No fatigue, but always with plenty of insight. Completely sober and listening to various records I’m convincingly transported to new places. This is saying something.
Listening to Ahmad Jamal & Yusef Lateef’s recording Live at the Olympia (2012), that feeling of being there in the audience of a smoky little jazz club is real. I could drone on and on about the bass being tight and rich, powerful and full. I could tell you about the bass drum thwacks that tore my heart in two — but that for me isn’t ultimately this speakers greatest attribute. The top end is neutral, extended, and full of micro-dynamics. Middle and upper piano, toms, cymbals, bells, all have a palpable life to them. I reach for the volume knob on the Peachtree Nova300 to take it all higher, and the speakers handle it mightily. The M4’s move up the in decibel range with control and get better in some ways by pouring on more of what you like. Unusual for speakers of this size, the M4’s introduced no surprises when things get loud. I credit that to the sealed enclosure design. With saying all of that, it should be noted that in my experience the M4’s also do well at low volumes by continuing to communicate precise detail and weighty action. Making them good for late nights when the baby is sleeping, or when neighborly apartment walls are thin.
We all have many go to albums for live vocals, and today it is Flight Facilities‘ Live With the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (2015). Flight Facilities’ performance of Clair De Lune with vocals provided by Owl Eyes (a.k.a. Brooke Addamo) were some the best I’ve heard from a 2-way speaker to date. I’ve never used this word as a superlative before, but “milky” was just one of those ways I was forced to describe how taking in Brooke Addamo’s voice felt. A bountiful liquid of easy drinking.
Next up something from a rising Vaporwave genre superstar, Jerry Paper. His track “Real Now Love” on Big Pop For Chameleon World (2014), vocals do have that heft that I usually find in larger floor-standers. However, the deepest portions of the digital bass don’t seem to have all of the grunt that I associate with large speakers — nor should it. I keep having to tell myself — “Hey asshole — remember, these are monitors.”
Just for fun, I move on to find something that really strikes me emotionally and to see how well I can connect through the M4’s. I cue up Tove Lo’s Habits (Stay High – Hippie Sabotage Remix) from Queen of the Clouds and here is where we’ve reached our limit on this speaker’s ability to play convincing large-scale bass. Admittedly there’s no way any speaker of this size should convey E.D.M. genre bass in all its glory, but that single layer of energy loss does urge me to jump out of this genre on settle into those that really shine on the M4’s, which is to say pretty much everything else. In recent years E.D.M. recordings have tended to flaunt bass texture over just about anything else, but not always to the genre’s benefit.
Thinking a bit longer about bass-extension, I reach for Phish’s instrumental piece “Bliss” on their album Billy Breathes (1996), as it’s always been a coin toss for most speakers when it comes to playing deep. The M4’s don’t quite make it, but they do give a few shadows of what is missing.
Geoffrey Oryema’s “Makambo” off his album Exile (1990) once again placed me into a view that is other-worldly and spacious. String detail of his acoustic guitar is spooky, and his voice floats up front, right between the speakers. The M4’s sound-staging up to this point hasn’t presented itself with any track to be extraordinarily deep, but this isn’t a subjective problem for me. The window is wide as the day is long, it’s just that the horizon, in this case, does not go on for miles like other speakers do.
Continuing with imaging analysis in mind, I fire up Turner’s Ship from Malia & Boris Blank’s album Convergence. Layers upon layers, un-homogenized, instruments in this album tend to find their own plane of existence. Played through the M4’s I am treated to deliciously tailored dynamics and landscapes that open wide, but again not as deep as I’ve experienced with other speakers.
Listening to Movies
Two channel for movies is something I often preach to my friends. Those of them who have heard a good two channel system (typically mine) being used for movies will often swear that I was hiding a good surround system. Two channel theater is practical for family living spaces, and more than gets the job done when decorating compromises must be made. My installations for this portion will be done with a Sony Blu-Ray player and a Blue Jeans Cable coax to any of the DACs I have on hand for this review, which includes the Schiit Audio Modi 2 Uber, Emotiva TA-100 (onboard), and Peachtree Audio Nova300 (onboard).
Ocean’s Eleven (2001), I chose this because it’s cool, and has a David-Holmes-produced soundtrack. This film’s vocal layering and placement are entirely related to where the camera’s perspective is. In both proximity to the character and environment. Sound design wise, it’s one of my favorites in the dramatic genres. They even make a self-referential joke of the film’s sound in a scene where Brad Pitt is trying to have a conversation in a noisy nightclub, but none of the characters involved can hear one another. There is no real reason for this scene to move the story along, but it does let the audience know that what they are hearing is intentional. The M4’s grab a lot of the auditory maneuvers from this film’s soundtrack and dances around the room with them. Brad Pitt’s munching sounds are present as in every scene of this film he is delivering dialog while eating. Vocals are clear and placed in the sound-stage with great accuracy. (Stereo 2.0 / 48khz – 192kbps).
Super Speedway (1997) I’ve skipped the action genre and gone right for the non-fiction goods. This was a film developed for IMAX theaters and has won numerous awards for sound design. This documentary-style film is a treasure trove of dynamics, textures and exciting editing. However, don’t mistake this for “Sub-woofer: The Movie” — that it is not. Racing engines, wind tunnels, and the occasional Esquivel! tune, make this one fun and sensory buffet. The M4’s did this film’s soundtrack gobs of justice. In areas where mid-bass strength was needed, I would say these sealed box speakers excelled and presented familiar racing sounds with new attack and a more life-like blasting nature. ( DTS 5.1 / 48khz 1.5Mbps down-mixed to stereo)
Against Bigger Competition
I’m comparing these Studio Electic M4’s to my Vandersteen 2CE Signature MkII’s because I can, and there is nothing you can do about it. The Vandersteen 2CE is a jack of all trades loudspeaker, and they set a good bar for value and performance. It is likely that we’ve all owned a pair or have spent time listening to them at a dealer. What better reference to have on hand than that? I’m also comparing the M4’s to the Vandersteen 2CEs for the sake of price point. Given that not too long ago the 2CE in question was closer to (and depending on how far back in time you go) under the price of the M4’s. Given a sub-$3,000 budget, which should you chose? Not to spoil my own ending, but this comparison turned out much closer than I expected.
Now there is no in-home 0-60 test or a quarter-mile time I can use to compare the two drastically different designs because this is a subjective test. My first impression when switching out the Vandersteens was how much more detail-forward the Studio Electric M4 was than the 2CE Signature II. It was presenting an insight that the 2CE’s didn’t necessarily lack, but just don’t offer as clear a view to. The extra detail was glossy and rich without being fatiguing. Mid-range timbre between the two was nearly the same, but the M4 presented it again with a forward notion that gave the impression that it was possibly more detailed. Bass on the Vandersteen is (was, and always will be) bigger and fuller, but the M4’s were not put to shame given the room size used for comparison. What the M4’s did better in the bass region was to offer a more taught and complex rendering of the bass regardless of amplification or source material choices. The M4’s are strong overachievers in this contest, and depending on your tastes, might have even been the clear winner for delivering more speed and accuracy in the bass.
Imaging with the Vandersteen 2CE’s, when set up right, can be ghostly. The M4’s do not haunt me the same what my 2CE’s do with waves apparitions coming deep from within the sonic landscape. Nor did I expect them to. What they did do was convince me that the sound-stage was as wide as the 2CE’s, but not nearly as tall. Is it a deal breaker? No. The M4’s didn’t disappear completely either, but not a lot of speakers I’ve heard actually do.
I’ve previously owned a few sub-$2k British designed bookshelf-monitors with similar driver specs that won’t be named for the sake of them no longer being available for direct comparison. That said, my gut feeling is that the M4’s would walk-all-over any of those speakers if they were still present for a showdown. As none of them had taken it to the Vandersteens and walked away un-trounced in as few ways as the Studio Electric M4.
On The Road
I would like to tell you that everyone who experienced the Studio Electric M4’s had varying reactions, but it just wasn’t the case. Most found the looks of the review samples to be mundane and lacking in overall sex appeal. I would assume it was those somewhat vintage anti-theft looks that set initial expectations low, but in another sense primed the pump for upsetting. Using Patrick Watson’s title track “Adventures In Your Own Backyard” from the album of the same name, the most common reaction I witnessed was a wide-eyed shock. The kind of shock you imagine seeing when someone finds an unexpected rattlesnake in their pillowcase. At first, the volunteer listeners would withdraw into their chair, but the furniture relinquished no retreat. Confusion sets in and the listener starts looking around the room like a prairie dog, scanning the room for more speakers. Many asked where the sub-woofer was — I told them, “At home.”
Admittedly, I never became fully accustomed to my expectations of the Studio Electric M4’s. Continually they surprised me at what they could do with the varying listening spaces provided. Every situation I placed them in, they succeeded.
After it was all over, I felt that the M4’s had done one thing better than I could have ever predicted. They had given my every-man audience exactly what I wanted them to have; a masterclass in audiophile sound. Their precise imaging, extension in dynamics, realistic textures, organic timbre, energetic speed, and most importantly, the ability to evoke the emotional connection that audiophiles gush about so regularly. The Studio Electric M4 might be one of the best teaching tools I’ve ever had at my disposal. It’s not often that you can demystify a multitude of abstract concepts within the time it takes to listen to one song — but that is exactly what the M4’s were readily doing.
Usually, when I think of monitors I think of apartments, small rooms, or budget constraints. But after nearly a quarter-year-stint with the M4’s in-house and on the road, I am starting to reconsider those presumptions. The M4’s do so well to step out of their category that I would even urge those who have generous funds, larger spaces and little concern for gaudy aesthetics to take a strong look at the Studio Electric M4’s — even when towers make up the majority of your shopping list. At $2,500 (USD) at the time of this review, I can’t help but express what a bargain these are considering they check a lot of the boxes I’d often associate with much more costly, bigger, and complex designs.
What separates the M4’s apart from the bulk of their competition is how clean and clutter free their approach is to capture the sound of larger speakers. Yes, many monitors in the market through the use of ports, transmission lines, wave-guides, and radiators have done their best to fool you into thinking their boosted bass is near equal to that of floor-standers, none do it as convincingly within their stated frequency range limits as these sealed monitors do from Studio Electric. The M4’s character is much like that of Mighty Mouse, don’t let their restrained appearances fool you, the M4’s can surely save the day.
Where we’ve all been wrong about speakers like the M4 is that we constantly refer to them as a portion of a larger realism. We relegate them to be a sampling of their bigger brothers, but why not just claim them to be equal exhibitors of the hi-fi-bloodline if they do indeed deliver it? Among towers, there are big and small, yet all battle for the same consideration. If ever there was a case where a bookshelf monitor did so many things well that from now on we just referred to it as a speaker — the M4 would be my Exhibit A.
I reached out to Studio Electric leadership for a statement on receiving our Editor’s Choice award.
“It’s good to be me.” – Dave MacPherson (Designer/Managing Partner)
Further reading on the Studio Electric M4 and it’s Record Store Day appearance can be read HERE.
Further reading on the Studio Electric M4 and how it inspired a young woman to become an audiophile can be read HERE.
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