'Digital loudspeakers' have been available in the hi‑fi world for many years, but Genelec have now brought the technology to the home studio market. Hugh Robjohns tries out their new small active monitors and subwoofer.
It seems obvious, doesn't it? Take an existing active loudspeaker system, add an off‑the‑shelf D‑A converter and an accessible volume control, and hey presto — you have a digital monitor! High‑end hi‑fi companies such as Meridian have been doing exactly this for years, with enormous success. However, in the domestic hi‑fi market, CD players tend to be the de facto music source, and so a digital speaker system probably makes rather more sense than in a traditional music recording environment.
For the home or professional studio, analogue still reigns as the format of choice when it comes to monitoring. Even the digital mixing consoles from the likes of Yamaha, Mackie and Tascam provide only analogue monitor feeds, leading to a chicken‑and‑egg situation — the demand for a professional digital loudspeaker is very low because few (if any) consoles provide a digital monitor source. However, the desk manufacturers won't provide suitable digital outputs while there are no monitor speakers capable of using them!
Someone had to take the plunge first, and Genelec have decided to test the murky waters by releasing a special version of their popular and affordable 1029A miniature nearfield speakers. The new version, the 2029A, contains the required D‑A converter and all the associated facilities and, for Genelec, has been a relatively easy and cost‑effective product to introduce. In fact, by choosing their smallest model to try the idea out on, they are tapping into an enormous potential customer base, so the take‑up of the 2029As should provide a very good indication as to whether this is a sensible direction to pursue.
The 2029A is obviously very closely based on Genelec's existing 1029A, which was reviewed in SOS February '97. The loudspeaker configuration includes a 130mm bass/mid‑range driver combined with a 19mm metal‑dome tweeter, each driven by its own 40 Watt amplifier, making the system capable of generating peak sound‑pressure levels of up to 110dB at one metre. The crossover point is set to 3.3kHz, and the overall response is flat +/‑2.5dB between 70Hz and 18kHz (falling to ‑3dB at 68Hz and 20kHz). The frequency‑response chart shows a couple of characteristic broad humps at about 1.5 and 2.5kHz, with a dip between them at 2kHz, but overall, the spectrum is commendably flat.
The diminutive size of the 1029As obviously restricts the bottom‑end response of the system, and so an optional active subwoofer, the 1091A, was designed to complement and enhance the performance of the nearfields. This analogue subwoofer unit can be also be integrated with the 2029A system to extend its bottom end to a useful 38Hz. The cabinet is tower‑like, at 505mm high, and contains a single 210mm driver driven by a 70 Watt amplifier. It connects to the satellite speakers via a slightly strange combination of a balanced quarter‑inch TRS socket for one channel and a balanced XLR socket for the other!
The exterior of the 2029A is superficially identical to that of the 1029A, but since the digital‑to‑analogue converter is incorporated into the right‑hand speaker unit, this effectively becomes the master unit of the entire monitoring system and behaves slightly differently to its opposite number. The LED associated with the power switch in the front of the right‑hand unit is a tri‑colour affair, illuminating green when powered (and in analogue input mode), yellow when a suitable digital signal source is received, and red when the digital input can not lock to the source. The rotary volume control occupying the bottom right corner determines the listening level for both channels, assuming the volume control on the left channel is turned fully up.
The converter section employs conventional delta‑sigma technology, apparently designed to provide the maximum resistance to jitter artefacts. A lone phono connector on the rear panel accepts standard, non‑emphasised S/PDIF digital audio signals (there's no provision for AES‑EBU). Sampling rates between 25 and 55kHz can be accommodated with bit resolutions between 16 and 24 bits, although pre‑emphasised signals can only be accepted at 44.1 or 48kHz, as the appropriate filtering coefficients have only been calculated for these rates.
Aside from requiring slightly unusual cables, which are supplied with the units anyway (see box), interfacing the 2029A and 1091A is very quick and easy and proved completely trouble‑free. For most of my listening I rarely managed to raise the master volume control beyond half‑way, such is the power of these little monitors, but found the stereo imaging to remain consistent at all level settings. These little Genelecs retain the generic 'house sound' of their larger siblings, and the quality of the internal D‑A converter is easily on a par with that of the converters built in to most CD players, DAT machines or digital mixing consoles.
The way these speakers have been engineered can not be faulted — the whole digital input and decoder section is integrated very well, the converter quality is commendably high, there are dedicated analogue subwoofer outputs, and even the flexibility of having analogue inputs has been retained. However, I can not help but think that the 2029A is a solution looking for a problem and, much as I like the idea of a speaker with built‑in digital conversion, the practical advantages of it remain largely intangible.
Yes, sometimes it can be useful to be able to plug a digital source straight into a loudspeaker, but you have to remember that the maximum cable length in this mode is limited to only a metre or two because this speaker employs the domestic S/PDIF format rather than the more tolerant AES‑EBU system. Every machine I used with these monitors already had analogue outputs, and although two cables would have been needed to connect them up via analogue instead of the one required to do so digitally, there really seemed few practical advantages in the digital route. Even if you do connect the source digitally, you still need an analogue cable to carry the converted signal to the left‑hand speaker — and a peculiar male‑male XLR lead at that — so you are not totally avoiding any potential signal degradation involved in the analogue links anyway! Perhaps the most useful aspect of this approach, though, is the ganged level control on the right‑hand speaker which makes adjusting levels rather more straightforward than having to tweak separate controls on both speakers.
Whichever way you look at it, however, these are good speakers. The 1029As remain one of my favourite miniature monitors and the 2029As continue to uphold the pedigree of sound quality and engineering excellence. The addition of the digital input stage is innovative for this sector of the market and adds useful flexibility at a price. However, whether you feel that the additional cost is justified by the operational convenience of a bespoke digital input really comes down to the way you want to work.
As you might expect, connecting up the monitors to a digital source requires a different cabling arrangement to that used in conventional monitor setups. The two 2029A satellite speakers, as well as the optional (but highly recommended) 1091A subwoofer, are connected to the mains supply via standard IEC cables. Both 2029A units retain their analogue inputs (an XLR socket in parallel with a quarter‑inch TRS jack socket) and so can be used as purely analogue monitors, exactly as per the standard 1029A system. However, when a domestic S/PDIF digital source is connected to the rear‑panel phono connector on the right‑hand loudspeaker, the speaker automatically switches to digital mode and indicates the fact by turning the green front‑panel LED yellow.
The digital mode activates the onboard D‑A converter and isolates the two analogue input connectors (the XLR and quarter inch TRS socket). The XLR socket now outputs the decoded left‑hand channel, whilst the right channel is passed straight to the speaker's crossover section, as well as being made available on the quarter‑inch socket. A long male‑male XLR lead is used to carry the left‑hand audio channel from the right speaker to the left, and a balanced jack‑jack cable interfaces the right channel with the subwoofer. The left loudspeaker accepts the male XLR carrying its input audio signal and passes this on to the subwoofer via a balanced‑jack‑to‑male‑XLR lead.
- Well engineered.
- High‑quality D‑A conversion stage.
- Added flexibility over the popular 1029A.
- Retains analogue inputs and subwoofer outputs.
- Ganged system level control on right‑hand speaker.
- Cost premium over standard analogue‑only 1029A.
- Unusual interface leads required.
- Doesn't remove the need for analogue signal leads.
A ground‑breaking product in its market sector, the Genelec 2029A is an enhanced version of the long‑established 1029A, providing a direct digital input and onboard D‑A conversion — though at present it's not obvious how many people will benefit from these facilities.