Speaker packages have been big business ever since they appeared in embryonic form at the start of the century. In a modern lounge, small speakers with flexible mounting options simply make more sense for many of us than trying to shoehorn full size speakers into the same space. There are some other advantages too. As the satellites are designed from the outset to work with the subwoofer, good integration between the two is usually a given (although some packages have found a way to somehow avoid this) and the result is often cohesive in a way that some larger packages aren’t.
AVForums has tested some excellent examples of the genre in recent years and we have two packages in particular, the Q Acoustics Q7000 and Cabasse Eole that we feel represent some of the best options out there in the £800-1,000 price point. There are no shortage of offerings from other manufacturers though and it would stand to reason that some of our better known speaker brands might have some ideas up their collective sleeves that make for a great speaker package.
Monitor Audio is no stranger to small speakers. The company has been making the hugely successful (and recently updated) Radius range for some years and has also added the Apex range of speakers. Both of these are relatively conventional in appearance- they are effectively shrunken normal speakers- but the least expensive package in the company’s arsenal is possibly the most unusual. The MASS package is £800 for five speakers and sub and superficially at least looks nothing like the rest of the company offerings. Can this unusually styled set of speakers take the fight to the category champions?
The MASS system arrives in two sections. One box contains five MASS satellites and the other, the matching subwoofer. Some retailers offer these two sections separately but as they are designed to work together, I imagine that most leave them together. Putting five speakers in one box results in a large but manageable container that sits the five speakers upright in sturdy packaging. Sturdy or not, all the boxes for the MASS system have my favourite instructional message in the hi-fi industry ‘Useless if dropped.’
Each satellite is a two-way design and makes use of a 4” mid bass driver and 1” tweeter in a ported enclosure. The 4” driver gives a frequency response down to a claimed 80Hz which is low enough to try and make it to the threshold of omnidirectional bass from the subwoofer. One of the more unusual aspects of the design is that the satellites are ported - most of the competition are sealed and this might explain where Monitor Audio has found the extra 20Hz from.
Monitor Audio has taken the decision to make the MASS satellites free standing with optional wall mounts and floorstands - some of which were supplied for the review. This approach contrasts with how Cabasse has designed the Eole 3 which has an integral wall mount (and supplied stands). The immediate benefit of this approach is that unlike the Cabasse, which is a bit of a misery to install, the MASS is something of a joy. Each speaker has a removable metal end plate that hides a pair of binding posts that will accept 4mm plugs and cables thicker than a human hair. Once you have attached the cable, you can pop the end cap back on and place the speaker wherever you need to put it.
The optional floorstand has some nice design touches too. The first is that is has some reasonable weight at the bottom making it impressively stable. The second is that Monitor Audio has had the presence of mind to equip the stand with cabling. Instead of having to route cables up the thin tube (or in reality, decide that this is far too much like hard work and not bother), you simply attach your cables to terminals at the base of the stand. The really clever bit is that the stand cabling terminates in a pair of 4mm plugs which in turn form part of the mount between the speaker and the stand. This is genuinely good thinking and very welcome. The good work is undone slightly in my opinion as I feel the stand is a little too high but not unduly so.
The centre is an identical satellite with the logo rotated through ninety degrees and a small rubber mount provided to stop it from rotating freely. This is only partially successful as the QED original cable that I use had enough sprung resistance to it to move the speaker about slightly and prevent it sitting square on.
The matching subwoofer is a surprisingly large device - bigger than either the Q Acoustics or Cabasse units in rival packages. The driver compliment takes the form of the increasingly popular practice of partnering an active driver (in this case a 10” C-CAM type) with a passive radiator (another 10” model). Power comes courtesy of a 220w class D amplifier and combined with the big cabinet, the omens are good for reasonable bass performance. The controls on the back are unusually comprehensive and include phase controls, switchable modes and the ability to have the sub run on auto on or on all the time (the latter being useful if you receiver doesn’t supply much voltage via the sub pre-out.
The appearance of the MASS has divided opinions among the people that have seen it. Each satellite is a trapezoid where the widest point is halfway up the body. The speaker is completely fabric covered and combined with the brushed steel endcaps looks a little like a Bowers & Wilkins MM1 USB speaker. When placed on the high stand, my wife felt the end result looks a little like a light fitting but the overall effect shouldn’t scare the horses. I’m less sold on the sub however. This mimics the design of the satellite and this means that what is already a big box is made even larger with no real reason. Add to this the decision to fabric coat it like the other speakers and the result is a challenging looking device. The overall build quality of all the components is good for the asking price though.
I used the MASS system with the standard duo of a Cambridge Audio 751R and 752BD in my lounge. Additional testing was done with Sky HD and a NAD DAC1 wireless DAC. The size of the sub prevented it from being used in one of the available locations inboard of the front speakers so it was used off to one side and slightly forward of the fronts. None of the speakers gave any unwelcome surprises to auto setup software and the sub proved happy enough in the location selected.
Material used included the amazingly silly Ahnuld flick The Last Stand and the equally splendid Trollhunter. The standard range of broadcast TV was also used (any speakers effectively run constantly) and a range of lossless and high resolution FLAC was also tested as well as music on demand services like Spotify.
The very distinctive way that Monitor Audio goes about making drivers (C-CAM stand for Ceramic Coated Aluminium/Magnesium) has historically had advantages and disadvantages. The advantage has generally been a lively and detailed sound that meant that you never needed to push MA speakers very hard to get good detail and an impressive soundstage. The downside always used to be that this excitement could all get a bit too much if the recording was poor or the partnering electronics were a bit bright. The good news is that recent designs I have listened to have managed to lose some of this brightness while keeping the same excitement and liveliness that the brand is famous for and the MASS system is no exception.
This means that the MASS manages the most important achievement of any sub/sat system - it sounds bigger than it actually is. The climactic showdown between cops and crims in The Last Stand is handled with assurance and a sense of space that is very appealing. The use of identical satellites means that the handover from speaker to speaker is seamless and this further aids the sense of being in the thick of the action. The reproduction of fine detail is extremely convincing and like its larger brethren, the MASS achieves this without needing to drive the bolts out of it - although you can push it fairly hard without it hardening up. Get truly antisocial and the MASS becomes a little bright but this is not the sort of level most people would be using domestically.
The MASS also manages to sound believable with voices and other details. The woods in Trollhunter convey a genuine sense of creepiness and claustrophobia and voices have the weight and impact they need to sound right. The 80Hz crossover seems believable although I found that 90Hz was slightly more seamless. The satellites avoid sounding strained or rolled off as they approach the bottom end of their frequency response and the handover to the subwoofer is also well implemented and generally imperceptible.
The sub itself is a good performer too. As you might expect from a relatively large device with two 10” drivers, it manages to generate convincing low end extension. The movement of the trolls is captured with real depth and enthusiasm and there is little you are likely to encounter in a film soundtrack that it won’t do justice to. There is plenty of detail as well - impacts are not simply a dull thud but manage to compete with the satellites for nuance and believability.
The sub isn’t perfect though. Even when you select ‘always on’, there seems to be a lag between a bass signal being generated by the amp and the sub starting working. This hasn’t been present on other subwoofers that I’ve used with the amp and does seem to be something specific to the Monitor Audio. This isn’t too much a problem with films but television- where subwoofer moments can be more widely separated- does tend to mean that bass comes in slightly after the point where you really needed it. This isn’t the end of the world but it isn’t an issue I had with the Cabasse in the same situation.
The other limitation I found with the MASS is slightly more subjective and stems around music reproduction. The MASS is actually pretty good in stereo but the high stands are better suited to films and when you switch to two channel it doesn’t sound completely convincing. Take the speakers off the stands and plonk them on a rather lower pair of Soundstyle Z60’s and the result is much more convincing. I don’t really know what to suggest about how Monitor Audio might kill two birds with one stone on this one. The added height is useful for the presentation of film material and as I said earlier, the stand is an absolutely superb design which you’d be foolish not to use but getting the tweeters down to ear height makes all the difference in musical terms.
For less critical listening though, the MASS is a capable design that manages to sound like a stereo presentation rather than three speakers trying to be two. Once the starting delay is overcome, the sub manages to stay light on its feet and the commendable detail it showed in films is also present with music as well. There is a genuine sense of rhythm and timing to the presentation. If you need your sub/sat to be a true all-rounder, the MASS is definitely a more impressive performer with film than music but not to the extent where it can’t perform musically full stop.
- Clever and flexible design
- Excellent performance with films
- Solid build quality
- Sub is bulky and has a small lag from cold
- Music performance not as good as films
- Looks divide opinion
Monitor Audio MASS Speaker Package Review
The Monitor Audio MASS is an impressive system in many ways. Monitor Audio has applied their considerable experience to the business of making speakers to create a system that has genuine talent with films and soundtracks. It sounds big, bold and extremely capable and nothing I used it with in terms of film or broadcast TV sounded anything other than deeply impressive. Monitor Audio has never deviated from their driver technology and the continued refinements they are bringing to it are amply demonstrated here. This is also an extremely easy set of speakers to live with too. They are a doddle to set up and the floorstand in particular is a cracking piece of design. The appearance is unlikely to offend either.
When I compare it to the Cabasse Eole3, I reviewed earlier in the year, I’m slightly torn on calling a winner. The MASS is a dream to install compared to the fiddly and frustrating Cabasse and it sounds bigger and more refined with film and TV than the Eole does - and that hardly sounds small. The Cabasse hits back with a better performance with music, smaller and more easily hidden subwoofer and I prefer the slightly zany appearance of the French pack. The Cabasse is a little more expensive but comes complete with cables, stands and wallmounting options meaning that actually there is very little between the two in terms of real world expense. For many people, the better film performance and wider availability of the Monitor Audio will be too good to pass up though and they're likely to enjoy themselves immensely once they do so. This is another very well thought out speaker package at the price point and one that certainly warrants an audition.
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