Paul White tests Sony's diminutive powered monitor designed for desktop music and multimedia work. Can such a small box deliver the goods, and is the performance worth the price?
When I first became interested in recording, the nearfield monitor as we know it today didn't exist — instead, perched on top of the desk would be a pair of Auratones. These old Auratones had three distinguishing points: they were tiny, they were inexpensive, and they could go very loud. You'll notice that none of the three points relates in any way to their musical accuracy! The Auratone used a single driver, around four inches in diameter, mounted in a sealed wooden cube just big enough to contain the driver. It tended to be middle heavy, so whenever you played a mix back on anything else you'd find the vocals had dropped in level by around 3dB.
The reason for mentioning the original Auratone is that Sony have gone for the same single driver approach in designing their little desktop powered monitor. Unlike Auratones, however, the SMS1Ps are active, they're ported to extend the bass and they're magnetically shielded.
At First Glance
Measuring 132 x 210 x 230mm, the cabinet contains a single three‑inch driver augmented by a frontal bass port and four control knobs. The SMS1P has two separate, mixable audio inputs, each with its own volume control. One channel has a choice of balanced XLR or mono jack inputs, while the other offers jack or phono. Mains comes in via an IEC cable and the internal amplifiers are rated at 15 Watts. The remaining two rotary controls provide bass and treble control over a plus or minus 6dB range — there are no centre detents on the controls and no EQ bypass. If you look at the frequency response, it could only be described as ruler‑flat if the ruler in question had suffered an accident involving a combine harvester and a set of crimping irons! Even Sony could only bring themselves to quote the frequency response as 80Hz to 16kHz (‑10dB) rather than the usual ‑3dB points. However, and here's the ironic thing, the SMS1Ps actually sound pretty good!
Top speaker designers stress the importance of smooth phase response, and in doing away with multiple drivers plus a crossover, Sony have neatly removed a major source of phase anomalies. The tradeoff, of course, is that high frequencies will tend to roll off earlier and the dispersion angle is bound to narrow as the frequency increases, which means a narrower sweet spot and a less bright contribution to the overall sound from room reflections. Nevertheless, if you're working close to the monitors, this need not be too serious a problem.
Hearing Is Believing
Checked out with my standard test discs, the SMS1Ps sound surprisingly uncoloured and well balanced, though there is a slight lack of top‑end crispness. Nevertheless, cymbal sounds come over cleanly, and you get to hear the kind of information in a mix that a more complex monitoring system will occasionally obscure. At the low end, there's enough punch to get a convincing kick drum sound and vocals are handled particularly kindly — not entirely unexpected as most other monitors' crossover frequency is right in the middle of the vocal range. What's more, the vocal balance seems pretty natural. There's no quoted maximum SPL, but I noticed the speakers quickly changed from sounding neutral to sounding boxy if worked too hard, and the maximum clean level isn't over‑generous. There's enough level for recording and mixing with the speakers mounted at around arms' length, but any further away and you may find the lack of power frustrating.
Despite my initial reservations, the SMS1Ps actually sound pretty good, though I'm not convinced that their performance justifies their almost £400‑per‑pair price tag. They have a smooth, non‑fatiguing sound that suffers only slightly from lack of detail through having no separate tweeter, and overall, they deliver a well‑balanced impression of the mix you're listening to. On complex material, the sound can become a little confused, and the SMS1Ps are let down slightly by being somewhat limited in the maximum SPL they can deliver. For their intended desktop applications, though, they go just about loud enough, and the magnetic screening means you can use the speakers closer to VDUs. However, there are plenty of alternative monitors to choose from in the same price range (even if you add the cost of a passive monitor to the cost of a suitable hi‑fi power amp), and a significant number of them would outperform the SMS1Ps in both fidelity and overall
- Magnetically shielded.
- Smooth, non‑fatiguing sound.
- Maximum SPL may be inadequate for some users.
- Lack of separate tweeter results in a slightly obscured high end.
- Costly, given their performance.
This is a very competent little powered monitor for desktop music and multimedia work, but I don't feel its performance really justifies its price.