M-Audio Studiophile AV40 Mk II

Note, this is an old review of the M-Audio AV40 powered monitor speakers, previously published on reddit. I’m reposting it here, because I want to collect my earlier writings in one place. I have since replaced them with a pair of M-Audio BX5 D2 which overcomes some of the shortcomings of the AV40’s.

I bought these on a whim when ordering stuff for my Raspberry Pi, and hearing positive things about them, figuring that if I didn’t like them much, I could always just sell them. I ordered from a Norwegian web store, and got a price that was comparable to the lowest price I have found on Amazon, around $120.

The AV-40’s are, as many will already know, active near-field monitors for desktop or studio. That they are meant for people who also create or master music becomes clear when you open the package. First of all – whenever I have been buying speakers, I’ve become used to the manual been no more comprehensive than what you find on the label on the back of the speakers. Not so with the AV-40’s. In the box, there was no less than two manuals – a general user manual, and one devoted to speaker placement. Also in the box is speaker cable to connect the speakers to each other, a RCA-to-minijack cable, a minijack-to-minijack cable and some adhesive pads that you can optionally put at the bottom of your speakers to provide some minimal isolation from whatever surface you place them on. The speakers themselves were actually a tiny bit smaller than I had expected them to be, but they are not by any means tiny.

The left speaker contains the amplifiers, inputs and outputs, plus a volume control, and you connect the left speaker to the right via the enclosed speaker cable. The cable is relatively short, which is an actual plus for desktop use, but if you’re planning on placing them far apart, you might need to order some extra cable. The speaker terminals are of the rather flimsy clip type, and it’s doubtful that you’ll get anything fatter than 14 or 12 gauge wire to fit.

On the back of the left speaker, in addition to the power cord, power switch and RCA connector, you will find a pair of 1/4″ TRS connectors. The manual doesn’t say, but I’m assuming these are not balanced. On the front of the left speaker is a volume control, an AUX in and a headphone out jack. I have not tested any input than the RCA inputs on the rear of the speaker, and neither have I tested the headphone output.

The volume control glows blue when the speaker is powered up. I hate blue LEDs, and while the light in this case is indirect, it draws too much attention to itself when powered up, and the lights are dimmed. At some stage I think I’ll disconnect the LED or replace it with a red one.

The speakers themselves are a two-way bass-reflex construction with a 4″ woofer, and a 1″ tweeter, both with individual, non-removable metal grilles. The tweeter is slightly recessed into the cabinet, and the baffle is slightly horn-shaped around the tweeter, without them being actual horns.

One of the first things I do when I get a pair of speakers in my hand is to evaluate the enclosure by giving it some solid knocks with my knuckles on the top and on the sides. It’s a good way to see if the cabinet has been slapped randomly together or not. Usually, the deader the sound made is, the better. This cabinet feels pretty dead, and is more rigid than I had expected from a product in this price range

So, how do they sound?

Well, let’s start with the bad: Powered on the speakers emit a slight hiss somewhere in the mid range and above – you can hear it in both drivers, but it’s more prominent in the woofer than the tweeter. And when I say “slight” I mean that given no input signal, they make a more piercing noise than the fan on my 13″ Macbook Pro. I haven’t yet investigated why this is, but from a bit of googling, it seems to be a common trait of the design, rather than a malfunction. The end result is that if I’m not listening to anything, I just tend to turn them off completely.

Note that in actual use, this is not really a problem – as soon as I’m playing anything the noise is unnoticeable.

So that I can get the rest of the speaker’s bad points out of the way – when listening at really low volumes, there is a slight channel imbalance where the right speaker is louder than the left. By itself, this isn’t really a problem, and most potentiometers exhibit this behavior. If you want something that avoids this, you need to hand pick the pots used. Hand-picking components is one of the things that makes high end equipment expensive. Arguably, a better solution is to ditch the potentiometer and rely on a grid of resistors that are connected and disconnected – which is what Thule used to do before they went bankrupt. But, I digress.

So, if this is common, and in particular with budget equipment, why is the non-linearity a problem? It has to do with the pot M-Audio has chosen. In a desktop environment where you have the speakers at about an arm’s length from you, the volume settings are “quiet, but with channel imbalance”, and “bloody loud”. If I try to regulate myself out of this problem by using the volume control ony my MBP, I have to lower volume until about half. (I haven’t been able to find any actual documentation about Apple’s volume control, but I assume volume control is done in software, which makes this less than ideal).

Enough of the bad, and on to the actual sound.

Both of the enclosed user manuals tells you to put the speaker at ear height instead of directly on a desktop. Whatever else you do, listen to that one bit of advice. The tweeters are what I would consider to be extremely directional. When I stand up from my desk, it frankly sounds like you’re listening to a pair of speakers where the tweeters have been disconnected.

So, in other words, you’re going to need stands. A speaker stand that is to be placed on the desk, and not angle the speakers upward would have to be around 20 cm (8″) tall for my desk. Currently, I have my right arm in a cast, so I’ve opted for a slightly different solution: I’ve placed an inch-thick piece of wood under the speaker, and pushed it so far back that when I’m seated, I can just about see the top of the speaker. This works remarkably well, and once the cast is gone, I plan on building some low stands (4-5 cm at the back) that angle the speakers ever so slightly upwards.

In addition to the height, I’ve placed the speakers so that I can just about see the “inner” side of each speaker. The listening is then pretty close to on-axis.

So, how do they sound?

In some respects, I would say “pretty bloody fantastic”. The sound stage you get from these speakers is pretty amazing – even when placed just 60 cm from you, there is a sharply defined sound stage, with both width and depth. I honestly hadn’t expected that. Neither had I expected that I would be unable to acoustically determine the position of the speakers given the right recording.

As for the tonal balance of the speakers. This is a difficult one – on low volumes, it can actually sound a bit dark, but when you turn the volume up, the entire characteristic changes, and it changes towards being brighter, without being overly bright.

Also, when listening to them, keep in mind that these are studio monitors that happen to work for home use. Just don’t expect the speakers to be kind to bad recordings. It’s not that they are particularly detailed in an absolute sense, but they are detailed enough to expose many flaws in many recordings, and they are way better than similarly priced 2.1 systems. In many respects, but this has to do with near-field use and the smaller enclosures, they easily beat my Argon 6240A standmount speakers.

Also, while the speakers are reasonably neutral from the midrange and up – voices sound particularly good on these, the bass is not. They measure with a notable lump around 130-140 Hz and fall of rapidly after that. It gives you _some_ illusion that there is bass, but put on difficult tracks, like Björk’s “Hyper Ballad” or Yello’s “Blender”, and compare with a set of good floor-standing speakers, and you’ll notice that something is just missing. With that being said, even if they lack in the bass department compared to many alternatives, it’s a reasonable compromise: what is there is never out of control, and the bass it plays, it plays much better than I have ever heard from a similarly priced 2.1 system.

So, would I recommend these? For the price, the answer is a resounding yes. These speakers are not trying to be more than they actually are, which is refreshing for the intended use. Voices, and acoustic recordings are very pleasant, and they are also good performers (given the price) with most of what I’ve thrown at it.

A closing note on soundstage – as I was writing this closing paragraph, Madonna’s Ray of Light album was playing. I’ve owned that album for 14 years. I have either completely forgotten, or never heard, but there is a very three-dimensional soundstage on that album. One that, much like Roger Water’s “Amused to death” places sounds far outside the boundaries of the speakers. Pulling that off in a 120 dollar speaker is quite an achievement.

Final verdict: I will not be selling these off first chance I get (It’s been a few months since I wrote this, and while I don’t have them any more, I never sold my pair, but instead passed them on to my son as a gift).