There’s a class of speaker manufacturer that gets little respect in this close-knit, parochial universe of high-end. If you lurk about in any of the many Internet audio forums, you’ll see much praise heaped on boutique speaker companies -- those small, exclusive shops that turn out speakers ranging from very to offensively expensive. This is all well and good -- I’ve often reviewed and raved about speakers from such companies. What I find odd is how the same audiophiles who rave about the boutique manufacturer du jour seem to have little love for larger companies -- the ones with huge resources who, in many instances, have forgotten more about speaker design than the boutique shops will ever know.
I think I know why. First, audiophiles can be arrogant. Read a bunch of magazines, digest some reviews, and you’re this close to being an expert. Then, you need some deep pockets and a hunch about a long-shot company. Buy the speakers, and become a shrill supporter on a forum. There you go.
Once the supporter of a boutique company has drunk the brand’s Kool-Aid, the result can be a disconnect too wide to even acknowledge the possibility that a company with an R&D budget the size of Luxembourg’s GDP probably builds a speaker with significantly better performance and brings it to market for one-fifth the price. And if that company also makes -- the horror -- lifestyle speakers, so much the worse.
But some big companies -- e.g., Monitor Audio -- have huge, industrial-scale research facilities complete with their own anechoic chambers (which cost upward of $1 million to build). Suffice it to say that such resources allow these manufacturers to design and build speakers that punch far beyond the level suggested by their prices.
Take just a cursory look at the PL200, the second from the top of Monitor Audio’s Platinum line. This knockout-sexy speaker is finished to a world-class standard. Its front is covered in flawless Strathspey leather stretched so tightly over the baffle that it looks like a solid piece of 2”-thick material. The gloss lacquer over the flawless veneer of real Santos Rosewood looks miles deep, and its dimension-skewing ability to reflect light tricks the eye. All ancillary parts, such as binding posts and footers, have a hand-milled, bespoke feel. It’s one of the most elegant-looking speakers I’ve had in my home.
I know, I know -- it’s the sound that counts. Still, some books can be judged by their covers. Monitor Audio has been making speakers a long, long time, they’re a big company, and they know what they’re doing. It would be hard to believe that MA would put so much effort into building such a beautiful cabinet and somehow manage to make the speaker sound anything less than very, very good.
The flip side of my assumption that the PL200 should be a very good-sounding speaker is reflected by its price. At $8999 USD per pair, it’s not cheap, so we must dig deeper to determine where its value might lie.
At 72.7 pounds and measuring only 38.9”H x 14”W x 14.6”D, the PL200 is a very dense speaker with a heroically constructed cabinet. While the gently curved side panels are made of MDF, the baffle is manufactured from a composite of mineral-loaded polymer that’s also used in the ports and plinth; it’s all joined together by steel bolts, which you can see on the rear panel.
The driver complement is interesting, given that Monitor claims that the PL200 delivers much of the bass response of the significantly larger Platinum PL300. Starting from the bottom, Monitor claims that the PL200’s two 6.5” woofers reach down to a respectable 35Hz. Monitor makes its own drivers, and the cones used in the PL200’s woofers and 4” midrange driver are cool indeed. Using a technology that Monitor calls RDT, the cones are made from a C-CAM layer over a honeycombed Nomex core. This structure promises the holy grail of cone design: dramatically stiffer than a single-layer cone and exceptionally low mass. The tweeter is a ribbon, partly made from Monitor’s proprietary C-CAM and backed by rare-earth magnets, and claimed to reach up to 100kHz.
Monitor specifies a sensitivity of 90dB for the PL200, which presents the partnering amplifier with an impedance of 4 ohms. While these seem reasonably benign numbers, as you’ll see, there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Say hello to our friends
The Platinum PL200s queued up directly behind the Focus Audio Liszt Sonata tube integrated amplifier, and the two components spent some time together in my system. As he installed the PL200s, Sheldon Ginn, Kevro’s director of sales and marketing, looked concerned. “These speakers really kinda sorta like some serious solid-state power,” he said, tactfully. “I’m not sure that 35Wpc is really going to cut it. But let’s sit down for a listen anyway.”
Ginn had brought along a full set of hookup hardware from Clarus Cables, another Kevro client, which he’d found worked synergistically with the Platinums. We installed the Clarus Crimson cables at the beginning of the listening period so that Ginn could get a feel at setup time. The Clarus cables are extremely well finished. Made of perfect-crystal Ohno continuous-cast (PCOCC) copper, each comprises three different gauges of wire. (More on them later.) I was fine with this intrusion into my reference system, even though it meant more work for me later -- I had to reinstate my reference Nordost cables so that the PL200s would be the only variable. This review isn’t strictly by the book -- I brought several different components into the system in order to extract the best performance from the Monitors, and I need to talk a little about each.
As stated earlier, Ginn was concerned about the use of a low-powered tube amp with the PL200s. It’s part of my job to ensure that any manufacturer is satisfied with their product’s sound, and that the system sounds up to spec before I do any serious listening. Driven by the Focus Liszt Sonata, the PL200s sounded extremely good, so I was cool with moving forward -- but I promised Ginn that I’d get some more powerful, solid-state weaponry pronto.
I’m smitten with the Liszt Sonata. Although its overtly lush, tubey midrange was still clearly audible, I could hear that the amp was compressing a bit as it tried to drive the PL200s. Still, I was more than content to listen to this combo until I could get some silicon artillery in the room.
After I’d finished flirting with the Liszt Sonata, I hooked up the PL200s to my Audio Research VT100, a tubed power amp. That was a step in the right direction -- although I lost much of the Focus’s rich, enveloping tube bloom, I gained some control and a bit of headroom. But I wasn’t yet convinced that all was well. The bass was a touch on the wet side -- not quite sloppy, but I had the feeling some control was missing.
About this time, editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz was finishing up his review of the Anthem Statement M1 monoblock power amplifiers. Jeff explained my dilemma to the always-amenable Erin Phillips, of Anthem’s parent company, Paradigm; she arranged for these formidable amps to be shipped my way.
As I hooked up the M1s, I wasn’t really expecting world-class sound -- they’re home-theater amps, right? And at only $7000 for 2000W into 4 ohms, surely Anthem must have cut some corners. Plus, I’m a tube guy. I couldn’t possibly enjoy the M1s, could I?
I could. The M1s are startlingly good. They’re clean and pure, with a delicate, very slightly rich midrange and highs that shimmer but are not bright. The bass, too, is very, very good, but with no sense of bombast or of bullying the music. I was extremely impressed. Driven by the M1s, the PL200s gained the overall control and crisp, expressive bass that I’d felt were missing.
In short, the Platinum PL200 isn’t a set-and-forget speaker that you can plunk down any-old-where, hook up to whatever components happen to be in your system, and then sit back to enjoy audio bliss from. You could do that, and they’d likely sound just fine. But huge gobs of potential lurk within these speakers, and anyone who’s laying down nine large to buy them should know that, with the right care and feeding, they can produce excellent sound -- but that if they lack the proper ancillaries, you won’t get your money’s worth. Tuning a system to get best performance from a given component isn’t unique to the Monitors, but the PL200s responded more to such tuning than have most speakers of my experience.
What follows describes the sound of the Platinum PL200s with my reference Nordost speaker cables. Afterward, I’ll talk about the Clarus Crimson cables, which are well worth searching out.
When a speaker makes me want to listen to Mahler, then manages to hold my attention through the entirety of one of his long symphonies, it’s clearly doing something very right. Mahler is like algebra -- it’s not immediately obvious how it works, and you need to practice, practice, practice, or you’ll never remember what it’s all about. His Symphony No.8, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” with Maurice Abravanel conducting the Utah Symphony (LP, Vanguard/Classic VSD-71120/1), is particularly opaque to me, and so doesn’t get much platter time. But when I do listen to this angular, perplexing work, I find myself astonished at how it often seems on the verge of melody, but keeps receding into atonal, almost nonsensical rambling. The sound is absolutely massive -- are there a thousand players and singers here? Probably not, but the PL200s threw a wall-to-wall soundstage with excellent depth and spacing. I could clearly hear the size of the recording venue, the Mormon Tabernacle, and that the space was well damped and not overly resonant. More important, instruments and voices were exceptionally well fleshed out.
Within minutes of beginning to listen, I felt that I had a good handle on what to expect for the rest of the symphony. The PL200 sounded extremely elegant, refined, and controlled. It’s seldom happened in my experience that a speaker’s sound has emulated its looks, but in this case there was a definite correlation. The smooth, well-finished flanks, rich leather baffle, and meaty, turned-metal spikes all come together in an appearance of functional elegance that was mirrored by the PL200’s clean, buttery-smooth midrange, controlled yet extremely extended bass, and crystalline, equally extended highs.
Did I say extended bass? Oh yeah.
I’ve known my buddy Andy 15 years now, and in that time he’s exposed me to some of the coolest, strangest, oddest music you can imagine. From Mr. Bungle to John Zorn, to such esoteric groups as Estradasphere and Secret Chiefs 3, Andy has dragged me to live shows that have made my hair stand on end.
Recently he stopped by for a visit and brought along Dub Trio’s IV (LP, ROIR RUSLP 8322). I’d never heard of the group before, and it sure wasn’t what I expected. While their Wiki page says that they’re a rock band that pays homage to King Tubby`s dub music, I’m not so sure that’s accurate. IV sounds more like speed metal mixed with electronica and trance. Whatever -- through the PL200s, the angular, pulsing bass just rolled out through my room
What was neat, though, was just how well the PL200s managed to keep each sound distinct -- from the snappy snare, odd electronic effects, and guitar that crowded the midrange, right through to the whomp of kick drum and growl of electric bass. Each studio-processed instrument and sound occupied its own point in lateral space, often moving past the speakers’ outer side panels -- which, for some reason, doesn’t often happen in my room.
Along with this soundstage precision, the PL200s excelled at pulling together disparate musical elements. I was never deserted, left alone with sterile minimonitor precision (much as that, too, can be fun). In my experience, it’s the rare loudspeaker that can combine soundstaging and imaging with musical cohesion; but with the Platinum PL200s, I was able to focus on nifty imaging tricks while still feeling the whole musical performance wash over me.
This musical contortionism was due in large part to the PL200’s seamless transition from bass to midbass, combined with its almost electrostatically clean midrange. The excellence of the speaker’s low end consistently surprised me. While not exactly small, the PL200’s modestly sized cabinet -- Monitor Audio states that the PL200 displaces one-third the volume of its big brother, the PL300 -- gives little indication of the scale of sound that these speakers could produce. But that’s only part of the story. The PL200’s bass lay dormant until needed, and that was the important part. There was no trickery, no sense of the bass level being increased to enrich the middle and make a speaker seem more impressive than it actually is.
Just for giggles, I listened to A Trick of the Tail, one of my three favorite albums by Genesis. (I much prefer the group’s early albums, with Phil Collins as frontman, to any led by Peter Gabriel.) “Dance on a Volcano” has some very, very low synthesizer notes that sound as if they’re in the low 30-40Hz band, maybe even the upper 20s -- low enough to approach the infrasonic. The PL200s reproduced these notes very well, given that they’re below its specified low-frequency cutoff of 35Hz. But that was only the start.
Acoustic jazz was a delight. Keith Jarrett’s Standards, Vol. 1 (ECM 1255) is a gem of a recording -- crisp, energetic, emotionally charged, and beautifully recorded. Gary Peacock’s double bass is mixed fairly low in level, but there’s so much texture in the wood that you can almost taste it. The PL200s gave me each low, open-stringed note down into my guts, and dredged up every nugget of detail around Peacock’s fingers as they slipped off the strings. The solo in “Meaning of the Blues” ranges from the lowest open notes up into the midbass, and here was where the PL200’s musical coherence came in: There was no sense of a handoff to the midrange, no lumpiness of the low bass trying to keep up with the midrange. Spectacular!
In the midrange, more wonderful stuff transpired. Every once in a while, I gently creak open the water-damaged cover of a boxed set of Bartók’s six string quartets, performed by the Végh Quartet (LP, Telefunken SKH 25083-T/1-3). This is challenging music, all elbows and knees digging into the wrong lyrical places; it’s difficult to untangle. Since I’ve gotten a little bored of Mr. Bungle, I sometimes use this set to challenge a component. There’s nothing like four stringed instruments all jangling together with notes that don’t really fit to help determine if a speaker is getting to the musical truth -- whatever that may be.
So yes, it was a good challenge, and the Monitors were up to it -- from the lower midrange right up to the lower treble, the PL200s proved self-effacing and eminently honest, and Monitor’s 4” RDT cone is a really good midrange driver. I got all of the juice, spit, and resin from the cello and violins, and it was easy to hear the position and orientation of each instrument. Further, the PL200s reproduced the requisite bite of the strings without a hint of glare, which can be the offensive flip side of our good friend Mr. Midrange Detail.
With the Bartók set, I was also able to clearly hear just how smooth, transparent, and revealing the PL200’s ribbon tweeter was. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for ribbon tweeters -- I love how they just don’t sound like speakers -- and the ribbon in the PL200 excelled. The leading edge of the violins in Bartók’s String Quartet No.1 had a luscious, almost savory texture that made my mouth water. I was acutely aware of the individual strings as they vibrated under a physically palpable bow with just the requisite bite and no more. This tweeter didn’t editorialize on the sound or gloss over details. Instead, it rode a fine line, sounding sweet and endearing most of the time, while exposing poor-sounding recordings for what they are. It certainly wasn’t euphonic -- in fact, some might find the PL200’s treble balance a teensy bit forward. But for the most part, its ribbon tweeter was so well behaved and so clean that this was not a concern even for me, who recoils from a bitey treble.
And I could easily listen through the warts on lousy pressings. Take, for example, my original British pressing of Carlos Santana’s Abraxas (LP, CBS 64087). By all rights, the album should sound fantastic, but this LP is the worst kind of awful: thin, abrasive, gritty, it went straight into the Never Play section of my record rack as soon as I’d bought and listened to it. Through the Monitor Audios I was clearly able to tell just how god-awful this pressing actually is -- but I could still listen through the sound to actually hear the music.
Over the course of my listening I played fair amounts of rock and electric jazz, and for the most part the PL200s performed superbly with this music. In the past I’ve raved about Tom Waits’s late-career barnburner, Real Gone (LP, Anti- 86678), and have spent a fair bit of time wringing out my system with this contrary, abrasive album. There’s so much going on in Real Gone, most of the hijinks emanating from Waits himself and his beat-box singing.
I like to play this album -- all of it -- at extreme, room-clearing, non-audiophile, barely-able-to-talk-over-it volumes. As long as I kept the volume down to rational, normal levels, all was well, but when I went above a certain point, the PL200’s treble began to harden. With “Make It Rain,” Waits stood between the speakers and assaulted me, much as I expect from this track. But at elevated levels, the guitar solo had an annoying, abrasive edge that it totally lacked at lower volumes. If I had to guess, I’d wager that the tweeter begins to distort before the other drivers do. But remember -- I’m talking high volumes that most sensible people wouldn’t want to inflict on themselves.
Clarus Cables Crimson speaker cable
Earlier in the review, I mentioned the Clarus Cables products that Sheldon Ginn used to tune and install the Platinum PL200s. Clarus is a new company that sprang out of the bang-for-the-buck Tributaries brand, and the Crimsons are their top models. But they’re not priced into the stratosphere, as I’d expected from their build quality and, especially, their sound. Ginn, perhaps sneakily, didn’t tell me the prices of the Crimsons when he installed them; it was only near the end of the review period that I learned that a single-wire, 2m pair retails for $3600. A 1m pair of RCA-terminated interconnects can be had for $1000, and a 6’ power cord is $1500. None of that is chump change, but I’d expected the prices to be 50% higher -- these cables sound rich, dimensionally complex, decidedly clean, and in no way sterile or fatiguing. I could have happily kept them in my system.
Functional elegance in your home
Back to the Platinum PL200. If it sounds to you as if I enjoyed myself with these speakers, you’re right. Once I’d sorted out the ancillary components to the speakers’ satisfaction, I had a grand old time. The PL200 is an intensely satisfying and very musical speaker. And while we’re all about sound first here, I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that the PL200’s appearance factored into my experience. There was something innately elegant about the way the speaker’s materials and proportions have been combined to form something part functional device, part object of art.
The slim PL200 sounds large for its size. While most non-audiophiles don’t want to have speakers in a room, let alone see them, I can imagine the PL200 gaining acceptance as an accessory, especially in Monitor’s real-wood Ebony veneer. Finishes of Santos Rosewood, Leather, and Piano Black are also available, but I can’t imagine purchasing these speakers in anything other than Ebony. It’s that beautiful.
Still, I can’t give the Platinum PL200 a blanket recommendation. First, you’ll need to ensure that you can give them adequate power. Don’t even think about these speakers unless you have a powerful solid-state amp, or plan on auditioning them with your own tubed or lower-powered amp. Second, if you like to listen to music at loud to very loud levels, an audition is mandatory. With certain types of music, at high levels, the PL200s hardened up and lost their elegant composure. I rarely ran into this problem, but it was there -- be forewarned.
But those concerns faded into the background whenever I sat down to just plain ol’ listen. Whenever I spun an album, I was swept up in the music, and that’s what this is all about.
I began this review discussing value in audio, and how the larger, monolithic speaker makers have the resources to offer exceptional products at reasonable prices. Unspoken in that concept is its obverse: that it takes a boutique manufacturer to pull out the stops and assault the state of the art with outside-the-box thinking, damn the torpedoes and the prices. But Monitor Audio’s Platinum PL200 shows that a big company can also build a product that’s flat-out stunning, with off-the-charts sound quality and build quality to match. That makes me feel warm all over.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog source -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable, Roksan Shiraz cartridge
- Digital source -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Phono stage -- Aqvox Phono 2 CI
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifiers -- Audio Research VT100, Anthem Statement M1 monoblocks
- Integrated amplifier -- Focus Audio Liszt Sonata
- A/V receiver -- Anthem MRX 300
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos STS, MartinLogan Ethos, Focus Audio bookshelf prototypes
- Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8, Nordost Frey, Clarus Crimson
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus, Nordost Frey, Clarus Crimson
- Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu, Shunyata Research Taipan, Clarus Crimson
- Power conditioners -- Quantum QBASE QB8, Shunyata Research Hydra Model-6
Monitor Audio Platinum PL200 Loudspeakers
Price: $8999 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Monitor Audio Ltd.
24 Brook Road, Rayleigh
Essex SS6 7XL
North American Distributor:
Kevro International Inc.
902 McKay Road #4
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3X8
Phone: (905) 428-2800