Monitor Audio Reference 1200 "Gold" Loudspeakers Reviewed

Monitor Audio Reference 1200 "Gold" Loudspeakers Reviewed

The 1200 "produced a wonderfully convincing 3D soundstage, including more than ample height and wholly satisfying depth" and compared favorably with many larger competitors. It also successfully reproduces the "feel of the lower registers." The treble is "silky-smooth, the texture occurring far lower down the frequency scale..."

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With the Metal Dome Grand Prix now into its fourth or fifth series (and with Monitor Audio and Celestion the clear leaders),it's fairly obvious that metal dome tweeters are here to stay. They've made the grade insofar as there are more than a few manufacturers and consumers who swear by them, and it's safe to say that the industry is well into the learning curve. Now we're going to find the speaker makers looking for new angles within the concept of 'metal domes', and it appears that Monitor Audio has beaten everybody in the precious metal stakes.

Whether or not we'll see platinum-iridium dome tweeters remains to be seen, but for the time being the 26mm polyamide suspended gold metal dome tweeter which Monitor Audio is fitting to the Reference 1200/Gold MD wins out for sheer marketing cheek. But it's not just an aesthetic fillip, like the hideous gold finish which the company almost used on the bass driver's chassis. The 'Alu/Mg alloy' is said to have superior static stiffness, resulting in improved resistance to dome deformation. This also pushes the first break-up mode to 28kHz, some 5kHz higher than the company's previous top-of-the-line tweeter. The driver also
features ferrofluid cooling, the same 26mm vented voice coil assembly as used in the R852/952MD, thermocoupling of the voice coil assembly for higher power handling and rolled tinsel lead-out wires.

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The lower registers are covered by a 6.5in mid/bass driver supported by a 6mm-thick diecast aluminium chassis. The cone piston is thermoformed from a polypropylene polymer, chosen by Monitor Audio for the combined virtues of temperature stability, adequate stiffness, self-damping properties and overall consistency. The outer surround is made from nitrile rubber. The woofer utilises a 31mm voice coil on a high temperature aluminium former.

The two drivers are mounted in the upper portion of a slim, tower-style rear-ported cabinet constructed from 18mm veneered panels. These are, as you'd expect, expertly finished as only Monitor Audio can, with standard veneers including walnut, black ash, oak and mahogany, and with rosewood, teak or any other terran veneer available to order.

The Reference 1200MD comes supplied with spikes below, the bottom section of the speaker actually being a built-in plinth. When you look at the back of the speaker, you see a small hatch held in place by four screws; this is the opening for filling the pedestal portion of the speaker with sand or lead shot for tuning the bass. Also on the back are substantial binding posts, the simple crossover convertible to bi-wiring/bi-amping mode through the removal of small linking wires. Unfortunately, the posts are not spaced for 19mm bananas.

The speakers measure only 912x200x260mm (HWD), which means that they occupy very little floor space and are so slim (and attractive) that few sacrifices need be made for siting them correctly. That means spacing them well away from the side and back walls for optimum performance, with very slight toe-in for ideal soundstage reproduction. But there's a touch of the old Hadcocks here, because positioning is as much a function of the bass requirements as it is one of imaging needs, and you have to tune the bass not just by positioning but by plinth-filling as well. Here's how you get around it:

I installed the 1200s initially for the best imaging, figuring that it's easier to tailor the low-end response. Once I had a good 3D effect at the main listening position, I concentrated on fine-tuning the bottom octaves. And although the speakers were some 24in into the room, bass was still there in abundance -- so much so that the sound was heavy and flatulent. Having to hand a few kilos of fine sand, I proceeded to fill the plinth cavities until the requisite amount of damping had been applied. Because the hatch is small and because I had to ship these back after the review and thinking clearly enough to realise that removing loose sand would be messy as hell, I loaded the speakers by filling small plastic bags with sand, wee parcels I could later remove. (Condoms are ideal for this task, but a real job to fill unless you have a funnel.) And I'm glad I thought of this, because too much deadening turns the sound dry and 'atmosphereless'; by simply removing one bag of sand I was back to the correct point.

It's worth mentioning that the combination of a cavity which you can fill as required and the fitting of decent spikes means that the #799 per pair cost of this speaker system should be judged as including a savings of whatever you might have spent on speaker stands. I'm not suggesting, therefore, that the Monitor Audio Reference 1200 Gold should be compared with #599 speakers plus #200 stands, but it does mean that this product is free of hidden costs.

The speakers were auditioned on the end of a chain which included the Oracle Delphi III turntable, SME-V tonearm, Ken Chan-modified Koetsu cartridge, Marantz CD12 and CAL Tempest II CD players, Audion Reference, Aragon 24k and Concordant preamps, Beard P1000 and Valfet power amplifiers; cables included Lieder and Mandrake, with the speakers used throughout in bi-wired mode.

Having given the Reference 1200 Gold every opportunity to sing -- the above system is hardly low end -- I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the '1200 sounded like much more than a big R300. The first-discerned and most overwhelming feature of this speaker's capabilities is its ability to produce scale. Well before zeroing in on individual sonic characteristics, I noticed that the '1200 produced a wonderfully convincing 3D soundstage, including more than ample height retrieval and wholly satisfying stage depth. In this respect, it does justice to the calibre of system in which you'd expect to find #800 speakers, say #2500-plus.

A major part of this ability to convey scale and scope is the speaker's success at reproducing the 'feel' of the lower registers. It's here that the Reference 1200 Gold excels, but only if the user spends enough time fine-tuning the speaker via the sand-fillable plinth. The degree of change this imparts cannot be undervalued, for it means the difference between a system which is realistic and one which is either bass-heavy or bass-shy. On works with a lot of 'mass', like Willy DeVille's 'Assassin of Love', too little fill meant a sound so uncontrolled in the lower registers that it grew fatiguing. Overfill, and the bass constricted to a point where even acoustic bass sounded synthetic.

What I could do little about was the potentially aggravating upper-mid. Given that the imaging was relatively unaffected by the presence or removal of the grille, I was able to exploit its
mild attenuation on particularly sibilant recordings. Overall, the speaker sounded best without the grille, not too much of a sacrifice since the review samples had black-finished woofer
surrounds instead of the blindingly garish gold I'd seen at shows. The tradeoff, though, was a grain or texture most noticeable on male vocals and some woodwinds. This has to be
weighed against quite readily apparent gains in openness and transparency.

I must stress that this isn't the kind of raggedy-assed spit'n'sizzle that some critics would like to attribute to all metal dome tweeters. The Reference 1200 Gold isn't like that at all, despite a tendency to sound as if it's ready to dip into edginess without too much provocation. Rather, the treble is silky-smooth, the texture occuring far lower down the frequency scale. It creates a curious kind of presentation, one which is at times both exciting and irritating, but these are criticisms of a particularly mild condition.

What the Reference 1200 Gold MD offers for a not inconsiderable sum is a speaker which excels in two areas -- imaging and bass reproduction. The overall character is one of refinement save for that odd texturing in the midband. It is a speaker which will upset nobody, especially those who cannot ignore domestic considerations. Because the Reference 1200 Gold MD is so relatively compact and truly handsome (by virtue of its simplicity and build quality) and because it is capable of delivering quite convincing portrayal of large scale works, it could be a dream come true for one of those beleaguered audiophiles stuck with a houseproud spouse.

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