July 2000Tyler Acoustics Mini Monitor and Bass Module Speaker System
by Jon Gale
My first exposure to Tyler Acoustics was at the CES 2000 in Las Vegas, exhibiting alongside MSB Technology and Naked Truth Audio. Theirs was a room I found myself returning to at the close of each day, finding at least some form of musical truth in the strange environs. What I remember most from the demonstration, though, was the striking aural resemblance of the Tyler Acoustics line on display, each model showing a close tonal presentation to its sibling, with an increase in resolution and extension of frequency extremes being the main factors in ascending the model line. That this voicing happened to fall directly in line with my biases, which I proudly wear on my sleeve, was icing on the proverbial cake. So when designer Ty Lashbrook offered to ship a pair of Mini Monitors to SoundStage!, I was happy to answer the reviewing call.
The Mini Monitor itself is a nicely finished box of unassuming proportions sized at a narrow 7" (just wide enough to house the midrange driver), a modest height of 14" and a depth of 11". This is a fairly good-sized cabinet, certainly not a "mini" as the name implies. As our own John Potis would surely attest, a chef is only as good as his ingredients, and Ty Lashbrook looks to be a pretty good chef. Here he has stuffed the Mini Monitor with goodies from the Scan-Speak driver line, most notably with the Scan-Speak Revelator 5.5" midrange driver, which hands off to a 3/4" tweeter at a 3kHz/12dB crossover point. Both drivers are flush-mounted above a 1 1/4"-diameter flared port. The supplied wood-framed, fabric-covered grille is fastened to the cabinet via four small tabs. Access to the high-quality binding posts, of which there are four to facilitate the recommended bi-wiring, is at cabinet rear and bottom. These binding posts are housed in a recessed cup, which angles the binding posts upward at 45 degrees.
Along for the ride in this review is Ty Lashbrooks latest creation, the Mini Monitor Bass Module (a matching Bass Module for the Tyler Acoustics Monitor is forthcoming). Sharing the same 7" width of the Mini Monitor, it has a height of 26". The top of the Bass Module is flat, front to back, for about 11" of the total 18" depth of the cabinet, with the remaining 8" angling down at approximately 30 degrees. Four square rubber pads are fastened to the top of the cabinet, on which the Mini Monitor rests. At the front is a 2 7/8" chamfered port of indeterminate length centered 6" off the floor, mounted just above the Tyler Acoustics logo. To provide support for this tall, narrow cabinet, a set of 2" x 11" x 3/4" "footers" are supplied. These are nicely finished in black lacquer with rounded top edges and finished off with quality-machined brass cones. Total system height is now a respectable 42".
The driver "ingredient" here is an 8" Scan-Speak woofer, side-mounted exactly midway on the vertical axis of the cabinet, which locates the center of the driver 13" off the floor. Connection of the incoming signal is via the same mounting-cup/binding-post assembly as used on the Mini Monitors, once again at cabinet lower rear. As the Bass Module also houses the bass/midrange crossover, a second binding-post assembly adorns the aforementioned angled surface at the top of the cabinet. Here the connection to the Mini Monitor is accomplished with the supplied jumper cables. The specified crossover point is 175Hz/12dB. Its actually a pretty slick design and nowhere near as complicated as it sounds.
Well, weve a great deal of ground to cover, encompassing a total of five different setups in two rooms. Better get crackin.
Little screamers not allowed
This review starts with the Mini Monitor all by itself -- no subs, no Bass Module, just this small-of-stature box enclosure trying to fill my rather large room (the Bass Modules were used as stands during this process). Right out of the gate, the fun factor was pegged at ten and stayed there for the duration of the review period. There are a couple of contributing reasons for this. First and foremost were the stunning imaging capabilities over most of the frequency range. This little box simply disappeared as a source of sound, notably deep into the upper bass, which in my experience is rare indeed. Only occasionally did the tweeter get a bit caught out, momentarily localizing itself at the speaker position. Concerning imaging capabilities in general, I differ from some in the audiophile community in that I tend to value this characteristic quite highly, up to the point of being willing to sacrifice a certain amount of tonal deviation to obtain it. While some consider imaging to be a stereo "artifact," I consider it to be a necessary ingredient for the suspension of disbelief in home playback, helping to replace the lack of visual clues you have in a live setting.
As stated, the Mini Monitor extends the "wrap around your head" image well into the bass region. This capability in a small speaker has a very important subjective effect. Connect the rare speaker that performs this feat with a good subwoofer, and what often happens is an end result of a "larger" sonic footprint than that of an all-in-one, physically larger speaker. Ive heard far too many large speakers that just could not get out of their own way. This effect, coupled with the added flexibility of proper room placement for each transducer, is why I have always preferred a good sat/sub combo -- or maybe Im just lucky. The physical setup of the Mini Monitors comes very close to the manufacturer's recommended equilateral triangle. The best position in my room was 4' off the front wall, with the speakers separated 8.5', measured from the inside corner of each speaker, with the listening position being 9' to 9.5' away. The speakers were toed in to aim just behind the listener's head, with the inside of each cabinet still slightly visible.
While being able to disappear sonically and throw a spacious soundfield are large positive factors, if a speaker throws, or distorts, spatial clues along with this, the illusion collapses. The Tyler Acoustics Mini Monitor handles this fine line rather well, seemingly possessing minimonitor, sharply sculpted image outlines while simultaneously exhibiting a touch of the addictive "dipole bloom." I attribute this to the good dynamic capabilities and wide midbass radiation pattern of the midrange driver. Vocals, unless electronically manipulated, were sharply focused centrally, but not minimized too much in size, a common complaint with small speakers. Usually a speaker exhibiting this problem can display life-size female vocals, but can diminish the size of male vocals. Not so the Tyler Mini Monitor. Depth was above average, aided by the recessed upper-midrange voicing (more about this further on). Clearly discernible on well-recorded discs was the arc of the violin section in orchestral works, timpani emanating from way back on the stage and, surprisingly, a decidedly articulate cello and bass-section stage presence. Re-creation of stage depth is a bit truncated in the lateral plane as the physical stage depth increases, but the Mini Monitors provided decidedly over-the-top imaging capabilities for their price range. With this imaging prowess, especially into the upper bass, the sonic result was the perception of a much larger model -- not in frequency-response extension, mind you, but in the ability to cast image outlines and hall ambience.
Starting with the tweeter, it will be immediately obvious that the designer has stuffed this box with very good drivers, especially at this price point. At no time did the sound appear peaky or harsh. Always open and free of congestion, the Tyler Mini Monitor just performed its function without calling undue attention to itself. It was fully capable of floating the ambient hall sound about the room without accentuating cymbals, bells, or other metallic instruments. My only complaint -- not actually a complaint, but an observation that plays to the musical fabric as a whole -- is the radiation pattern, which just does not quite match up to the bloom of the midrange. This leads to a very slight closing down of the soundstage at the very top, once in a great while localizing itself from the rest of the frequency spectrum. Overall, though, this is clearly above-average performance for the price range.
A tonal-balance controversy rears its head in the midrange. Simply stated, that region deviates from neutrality with a recessed upper-midrange voicing. Now, this voicing is certainly not unique to this speaker. My old Audio Concepts Sapphire IItis have it; the Alón series has it to a much lesser extent. Even the EgglestonWorks Isabel (review in the works) has it too. I believe it is just this voicing that lays at the heart of the hi-fi accurate/musicality debate, and hence the controversy. A designer has the ultimate choice in either voicing for utmost accuracy or, especially given the wretched state of commercial recordings, to help the musical presentation. Ill state for the record that I welcome the use of this tone shaping, if used with a very light hand. (There, I said it. Letters to the editor are most welcome.) The flip side of this is the designer ends up with a product that may be too forgiving. The sonic result can be a cupped-hands vocal coloration, boxy-sounding cellos and paper-cup drum sounds. It is here that the Tyler Acoustics Mini Monitor straddles this very fine line.
Ty Lashbrook unabashedly states that he has inserted a notch filter in the upper midrange, and he has done this for a couple of reasons. First, he uses it to control a frequency anomaly inherent to the driver itself. Second, the filter helps him create the voicing he wants, period. Hell get no argument from me -- its his box. Yes, there is a slight cupped-hands coloration to the Mini Monitor, and drums are slightly muted, although projected with a startling amount of dynamics for the speaker's size. If this were a more expensive speaker system, I would call the voicing a bit too much, but in the Mini Monitor's price range and considering the quality of equipment the speakers are likely to be associated with, I think this voicing is a good call.
Late in the review period, however, the designer informed me of the inclusion of a switch to eliminate the notch filter if the user chooses. He also instructed me as to which wires to cut so I could hear for myself the effect of said filter. At the end of the review period, I clipped these wires. Removing the notch filter dramatically altered the voicing of the upper midrange, but not to the extent I had assumed. Yes, a great deal of the seeming coloration was now absent, but the speaker as a whole still had a forgiving nature to it. When used as the main speaker in my home-theater setup, absent too was the glare and icy edge to movie soundtracks, while the speakers still exhibited good dialog articulation and resolution of low-level folly tracks. I thoroughly enjoyed the Mini Monitor's visit to the home-theater system. For all the positive attributes this type of voicing has, and there are many, there is a tendency to highlight the tweeters output. This is not to say it is bright or "not of a whole" with the midrange. The tweeter is actually very controlled and smooth, almost sweet. It takes a good tweeter to pull this voicing off. It is just that, at times, it can sound exposed. This is a very small side effect, really, that seems to come in momentary glimpses.
Aside from this upper midrange notch, the midrange was open, dynamic, and just a touch on the mellow side, while still capable of surprising robustness. Acoustic guitars had the requisite amount of "ring" to the body. And cellos actually sound like the large, resonating, spiked-to-the-floor cavities they are. From midrange to bass, of which I obtained a very usable 50Hz in my room, the sound was very even. Once again, the Mini Monitor displayed performance far belying its diminutive stature.
The Tyler Acoustics Mini Monitor Bass Module not only supports the Mini Monitor sonically but physically as well. Positioning the tweeter just above seated ear level at 39 1/4", it makes for quite a handsome stand itself when ordered in a matching finish. In separating the Monitor and Bass Module sections, the design leads to a flexibility of setup that, in my room, proved fortuitous. As the Bass Modules are decoupled, you have the added ability to run the driver firing to the inside, which is the manufacturer's recommended setup, or firing outside towards the side wall. As we shall see, this adds a very valuable flexibility in coupling the bass to the room. Initially, with the woofers set up inside, the bass measured ridiculously smooth, but subjectively sounded just a touch lean in the midbass. It strangely did not seem to excite a problematic 40Hz room mode. I was able to wring out a solid 35Hz in my room.
As the Bass Module performs the function of stand for the Mini Monitor while also being the woofer section, the perfect imaging location for the Monitor did not quite coincide with the best location for bass coupling. For those not "attuned" to room tuning and speaker setup, surprises await as you move to increasingly larger speakers. Basically, there are two trade-offs when positioning a speaker. From the midrange up, you are dealing with the "geometry" of the listener/speaker triangle. The bass region, however, depends greatly on the distance from side and back walls. It is the rare room indeed in which both of the preferred locations will be the same. This is the main reason I feel that, when done well, satellite/subwoofer systems can outperform their larger siblings in problematic rooms. Not wanting to destroy the imaging prowess of the Mini Monitors by moving them with the Bass Modules, I swapped the Modules so the drivers were firing outside. Oops, now we had a bit too much bass, especially the excitation of the 40Hz room mode. Keeping the speaker/listener geometry the same by moving both the speaker and listening position as one, I moved all three points further out into the room. This did not, for this room, work very well. Also, with the woofers firing outside, I noticed a type of frequency crawl or splash towards the outside of the soundfield. This is presumably due to the relatively high crossover to the bass driver, with some midrange being directed towards the side walls. Back to inward firing the Bass Modules went.
I must say I am much more enthusiastic about the Mini Monitor than the Bass Module. While the Bass Module is a wonderful idea, especially when looked at from a building-block approach, it just doesnt manage to match the articulation of the midrange performance of the Mini Monitor. That is not to infer that it was a slow, soggy mess. What I think is happening here is the Bass Module does not overachieve as successfully as the Mini Monitor in performance. This difference in articulation is not great enough to have the woofer sounding distinct from the midrange. It just basically does not retain the tightness and pace of the upper bass of the Mini Monitor. I did find the large wall of the cabinet opposing the driver to be a bit more lively than I would have liked. Perhaps with additional internal bracing, this slight problem would be ameliorated.
Another venue, another speaker
I had all along the suspicion the Mini Monitor would perform very well with budget electronics. To test this, I took advantage of my wifes vacation and invaded the sanctity of The Living Room. (This will be our little secret, OK?) Now, when I say budget electronics, I mean budget electronics. Lashed to a nondescript $350 surround-sound receiver in an untreated room, my suspicion was proved entirely correct, and then some. The icy upper-midrange edge that I had entirely attributed to the receiver was actually mostly a product of the Gallo Micros. I spent three straight nights watching movies and live-music DVDs and was left shaking my head at the synergy. Im left to simply state if you are on a limited budget and want to put the bulk of the investment into the speaker, the Tyler Acoustics Mini Monitor just may make your day.
In house at the time as the Mini Monitor/Bass Module system was the Vandersteen 3A Signature, retailing for just a bit more. This was an intriguing comparison as there was no clear winner in absolute terms. The bass regions in both speakers were fairly alike, with the 3As plumbing just a bit deeper, but without the full midbass performance handing off to the midrange. This had the effect of the Mini Monitor system being more dynamic in this critical band of frequencies. In the midrange, the call was a bit clearer, the 3A having a far drier presentation. While this led to the perception of better articulation, the Mini Monitor wins by the sheer weight of presentation. The Mini Monitor system, with its radiation pattern and dynamic agility, filled the room with a midbass impact and image outlines deep into the upper bass that the 3A just could not match. The treble region was a similarly easy call, but here the 3A showed just what a nice tweeter it has. Having a slightly more extended, airier but relaxed presentation. This is just what the extra money should buy. While my biases come firmly down on the side of the Mini Monitor system, the Vandersteen 3A Signature will undoubtedly appeal to other listeners.
All in all, I found the Tyler Acoustics Mini Monitor to be just the answer for budget-minded, music-loving audiophiles as they walk the fine line of audiophile delineation and a forgiving, musical presentation. Add to this the ability afforded the end user to gradually upgrade the product via the purchase of the Bass Module when funding is available and the inclusion of wonderful fit and finish at a wholly sane price and the budget-minded audiophile is extremely well served.
Before I go, I feel there is a need to mention one more response the Tyler Acoustics Mini Monitor led to: Every single serious listening session ended up going on far too long, far too late. Mornings after found me too tired, filing away stacks of discs left piled on the transport .
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