Q. Can I use vintage hi-fi for monitoring?

Published in SOS August 2009
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There's a lot said on discussion fora about the need to use studio monitors instead of hi‑fi speakers, although there are some high‑end models that are intended for both markets. I can understand why the cheap boxes you get for most 'hi‑fi' devices wouldn't be good for the job of studio monitoring, but I have been listening more and more on a vintage pair of three‑way KEFs that I picked up for £80, via a Rotel RA611 amp that cost me £30. The clarity and separation are excellent and the transient response seems to be good: there's very little by way of bass overhang. I seem to be able to 'see' into the mix as well as I can with my studio monitoring system — although there's more focus (as opposed to detail) on the mid‑range in the studio system. This got me wondering whether one might not be better off spending a limited studio budget on some choice vintage hi‑fi rather than on new speakers. Am I missing some obvious pitfall? For £250 you could get a couple of very nice sets of KEFs these days.

Rex Baines

SOS Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns replies: Assuming we're talking about the really high‑quality end of the vintage hi‑fi speaker market, I'd suggest the only significant pitfall is in the word 'vintage.'

It is certainly true that the high‑end, high‑quality hi‑fi from yesteryear (particularly the prestige British brands like KEF, Harbeth, Quad, Meridian, and many others) set standards of reproduction that some budget 'pro' monitors fail to meet even today. And as you say, there are often serious bargains to be found.High‑quality vintage hi‑fi such as these KEF speakers can be a viable option for home studio monitoring.High‑quality vintage hi‑fi such as these KEF speakers can be a viable option for home studio monitoring.

A good three‑way, high‑end, vintage hi‑fi speaker is also very likely still to outshine an average budget, active, two‑way monitor in terms of detail and clarity. So I'm not really surprised to hear your favourable comments about the KEFs.

However, whereas professional studio montors are normally intended to be as 'transparent' and accurate as possible, it should be remembered that some hi‑fi was (and is) deliberately designed to flatter. Arguably, this is less of an issue with the higher‑cost, higher‑quality hi‑fi speakers, and traditionally the classy British manufacturers have mostly tended to aim for accuracy and sonic neutrality anyway — the Quad electrostatic speaker being a prime example.

Then there is the issue of listening levels. Most hi‑fi speakers aren't designed to cope with realistic reproduction levels of kick drums and bass guitars, nor extended playing time at elevated levels. In contrast, professional monitors are — or should at least have electronic protection to enable to them to survive such demanding use! Again, high‑end vintage hi‑fi speakers may well be more robust than their cheaper siblings, and a home studio environment will tend to require generally lower levels than a professional studio too, but I think this is an area where a degree of caution should be exercised.

And then we come to that term, vintage. Loudspeakers are electro‑mechanical devices, and they will wear out over time. Drive‑unit suspensions will degrade and deteriorate, sealing gaskets may harden and allow noisy air leaks from the cabinet, capacitors may leak and change value, with corresponding crossover anomalies, and the wiring connections may tarnish and corrode, leading to distortion. In most cases, these things can be fixed relatively easily, should they occur, but clearly they should be taken into consideration when looking to buy vintage speakers for use as monitors in a home studio.  

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