Monitor Audio Gold Reference 5.1 Theater System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Tim Hart   
Sunday, 01 July 2001

Monitor Audio has had a presence in the development and manufacture of high-quality speakers since 1972. Monitor has also been an early pioneer in metal driver technology that started some 16 years ago. Other notable speaker manufacturers have recently migrated to metal driver configurations, for good reason. The benefits of using metal are pretty significant, including the ability to control speaker driver distortion. The new Gold Reference Series utilizes the latest advancements from Monitor Audio in metal driver technology.

The Details
The speakers involved in the Monitor Audio 5.1 system I received are the Gold Reference GR 20. I used these for the main channels. The Gold Reference GR 20 is a floor-standing loudspeaker system ($2,995 a pair). Each speaker sits 37.5 inches tall, is eight-and-seven-eighths inches wide and 12.5 inches deep. They weigh 44 pounds each. The GR 20 is second from the top in the Gold Series and benefits from many of the advanced technologies developed for its bigger brother, the $3,995 GR 60. It employs a three-way design, utilizing drivers in a vertical array, with a six-and-one-half-inch bass, a six-and-one-half-inch midrange and the one-inch Gold Dome C-CAM (Ceramic Coated Magnesium) alloy tweeter. The cabinet is a dual differentially tuned bass reflex design, which is a variant of the Gold Reference 60 enclosure, with a single rear port. It has a measured response of 30 Hz to 30 kHz and has a sensitivity of 89 dB.

I chose the Monitor Audio GR 10 loudspeaker ($1,495 a pair) for my rear-channel speakers. The GR 10 has a stand-mounted design and is 17-7/8 inches tall, eight-and-seven-eighths inches wide and 11.5 inches deep. Each speaker weighs about 20 pounds. The GR 10 uses a six-and-one-half-inch mid-bass and a one-inch Gold Dome C-CAM tweeter, with a measured response of 40 Hz to 30 kHz + 3dB and a sensitivity of 88 dB.

The Gold Reference Center Channel ($995) is seven-and-seven-eighth inches tall, 22 inches wide and 10 inches deep. It weighs in at 26 pounds. It uses two six-and-one-half-inch mid bass drivers and a one-inch Gold Dome C-CAM tweeter. The measured response of the Gold Reference Center Channel is 40Hz-30kHz with a sensitivity of 90.5 dB.

The system used for this review also includes two ASW 210 subs ($999), which have been reviewed previously by The ASW 210 is 20 inches tall, 14 inches wide and 14 inches deep, weighing in at 55 pounds. The Monitor Audio ASW 210 uses two 10-inch gold aluminum magnesium active drivers, one forward-firing and one down-firing. The high pass filter starts at 40 Hz and adjusts to 140 Hz on high level. It also includes a 0-180i-phase adjustment. Frequency response is 25 Hz-140 Hz +3 dB. All of the Gold Series loudspeakers can be bi-wired and are shielded for video applications.

Monitor Audio 5.1 speaker systems aren’t really prepackaged. The company prefers to allow you to customize your speaker choices to the needs of your system and your listening environment. There are a variety of combinations that can be used to suit your budget and room size, and the Gold Series has the flexibility to use as either a music-only system or a surround sound and music system with very good performance. The Gold Center can be effectively used as a center channel or Left, Right, Rear Effects and Center to give you a perfectly matched home theater/music system.

The Gold Reference Series speakers I received were decked out in a light cherry wood veneer finish and are very attractive with the black grille installed, but they also look decidedly high-tech, with the metal drivers peeking out. Other finishes for the surround speakers include black oak, natural oak or rose at no additional charge. The subwoofer is offered only with a black finish.

The build quality of the Monitor Audio Gold Reference speaker is excellent, with thick wood veneers used on the all sides except for the back of the enclosure, which was done in black. A knuckle rap all around the enclosure confirmed a very rigid design, which is internally braced throughout.

You get a small toolbox with the GR 20s. When inspected, the toolbox provides gold points that screw into the black base, which I chose to install. You could put the points provided by Monitor Audio directly into the speaker bottom, but the base adds a wider, more stable footprint and looked nicer. Monitor Audio has thoughtfully provided the gold-plated discs with a registration hole for the points to set in, so you don’t ruin your hardwood floors, something that I found very helpful in my installation. You can alternatively use the steel points provided for carpet applications. Also included in the toolkit is a nifty little bubble level that sits on top of the speaker for leveling. Use the provided Allen wrench to adjust the height of each point.

Monitor Audio designs and manufacture their midrange and bass drivers in their factory in Raleigh, England. This has allowed them to control and improve the manufacturability of their metal cone drivers, thus lowering manufacturing costs. The aluminum/magnesium alloy is Monitor Audio’s answer to the cone material. To enhance this material, they have a proprietary approach they call Rigid Surface Technology (RST). What this means in layman’s terms is that a series of radial patterns of dimples are added to the surface of the driver material. These start from the center of the driver and progress to the outer edge, getting larger as they move outward, kind of like a golf ball in appearance. This is to break up low and high-frequency standing waves, which will color the sound. It also allows the cone material to be thinner, but not at the expense of stiffness. The result is a harmonic distortion of less than one half of one percent. It is also said to make it easier to match the drivers, providing a very seamless presentation in all of the frequencies. Another part of this harmonic sleight of hand is the lack of the use of capacitors in the midrange, which is said to give a wider mid-band than usual.

The Setup
After about 125 hours of loosely structured break-in time, I found a spot about one-and-one-half feet from the front wall, two feet from the sidewalls, with about seven feet between the speakers for my GR 20s. The rears were put into place using kite string from the TV to find the radius that would work for both rear speaker positions. The center channel sat nicely on top of the TV. Although you can use the high pass filter in the subwoofer by connecting the surrounds through the speaker terminals on the sub, I chose to bypass this feature, as I felt that even though the setup was a tad more tedious, I liked the results better. Besides, if you want to use this feature, you’ll need an extra set of speaker cables. I prefer to minimize the number of connections between components unless a sizeable benefit can be attained, and this wasn’t the case here. I set the subwoofers in the corner side by side. I then used a Kenwood VR-4090 A/V receiver for the driving electronics and a Toshiba SD 9100 progressive scan DVD player for the source. The Kenwood puts out 120 watts for all five channels and should drive the monitors pretty well. Although 88 dB-89 dB is not the most efficient load to drive, a good 100=watt amp should make these speakers perform well. All of the Gold series have a generous power handling capability of 100 to 300 watts.

I must say that the Gold Series is a handsome speaker. Its small footprint is very unobtrusive. In my case, putting anything in the living room that wasn’t aesthetically pleasing would most likely be met with disdain by the finance department, namely my wife. These speakers get the nod with what I call "High Spousal Acceptance Factor," or "HSAF".

Movies and Music
The first movie I used in my evaluation was Dinosaur (Walt Disney Home Video). In Chapter 6’s meteor strike, the Monitor Audios captured the subtle sounds of the meteors falling just prior to the large meteor impact. The sound of the shockwave as it moved front to back was very dynamic and detailed, blending seamlessly between speakers.

Did I mention how dynamic these speakers are? Don’t let size fool you. I have never heard the scene in Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks DTS) when the Allied forces are storming the beach as I heard it with the Monitor Audios. The bullets hitting metal had me literally ducking for cover in my own living room. The explosions threatened to do the same damage to my house as they did in Normandy, with explicitly detailed information that never once sounded congested or overwhelmed. The center channel did a great job handling all of the information it was given. Its ability to sort out all of the complex sounds was done without ever sounding harsh or strained. I didn’t notice any lobbing effect that you can get from horizontally laying down a vertically-arrayed driver. This would be noticed by moving off-angle from the center channel and noting drop-off regions, if any, as you walk. No lobbing effects were apparent in any of the listening sessions I had. The horizontal and vertical dispersion of the Monitor Audio Gold center was very good. Having the drivers running at a different bandwidth solves this nicely.

The subs’ extreme levels of output tended to overload my wood floors, threatening to dislodge me from my couch. Having the subs sitting together in the corner may have aggravated the situation. Putting one of the subwoofers in another part of the room alleviated some of this setup problem. De-coupling the enclosure of the sub from the floor by placing it on a piece of wood of the same size as the sub, then supporting the wood at the corners with small foam blocks and setting the sub on this arrangement, helped quite a bit. The resonance I had experienced prior to this was taken care of and the audible bass control was much better. I would have preferred to install such powerful subwoofers on a cement floor, but that was impossible in this situation.

On low-level information, I used the scene from Gladiator (DreamWorks) where the Commodus and his sister are traveling to the war front at the request of Caesar in their luxury wagon. You can hear the subtle creaks and groans all around you, which makes you feel like you are in the wagon with them.

Upon watching many a DVD, I realized that the Monitor Audio Gold Reference loudspeaker system provides a audibly seamless presentation. Never did I feel like one speaker made itself known out of the mix. This is likely the effect of successful driver matching and the lack of distortion in the ceramic drivers. The polite and musical nature of this Monitor Audio speaker system makes it amenable to many a music and film enthusiast.

Next, I used some DTS recorded music DVD-Audio discs. One of these is a Steve Stevens DVD-Audio recording called Flamenco A Go-Go (DTS Entertainment). This is a 5.1 channel recording that has both lossy DTS surround and DVD-Audio MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) surround on it. My Toshiba DVD-Video player isn’t capable of playing back the MLP version of the record, but the lossy version, which some enthusiasts prefer, was simply excellent. The high-resolution capability of DTS disc really shines on this live recording of this ex-Billy Idol guitarist as he plays his own interpretive style of flamenco. The guitar sounds lush and detailed as Stevens works his way through the complex musical structure of each song. The resonant sounds of the strings’ vibration are captured with all of the leading-edge transients that give their presence a life-like sound. The mix has most of the music coming from the mains and center channel, with echo, reverberation and audience participation coming from the rear channels.

The Monitor Audio’s musical midrange purity is captivating and is possibly its best characteristic. The Gold Reference really grabs your attention and makes you want to hear more, more, more. So more I gave it. This time, I wanted to see how it performed in two-channel land. I swapped out my trusty Kenwood receiver and Toshiba DVD player for my reference Audio Research CD2, Audio Research LS2B MKII pre-amp, and Bryston 7B-ST’s. First up was Collective Soul’s latest effort, Blender (Atlantic). "Why Pt.2" opens with kick drum, a solid bass line and ripping power chords, and the GR20s instantly surprised me. What a difference equipment makes. The presentation was very alluring, and the soundstage was pinpoint-accurate and three-dimensional. The GR 2’s were right up there with my reference Dunlavy SCIVs in their ability to reproduce a nice, wide soundstage. The GR 20s didn’t have the base control or the timbre accuracy of the SCIVs, but they aren’t in the same price range, either. The GR 20s does very well with female voices, such as Dido’s No Angel (Arista). Although the high-frequency transients are rolled off in comparison to the SCIVs, the midrange of the GR20s does a very nice job of conveying the sibilant and breathy voice on "My Lover’s Gone." I haven’t heard it quite like that on the SCIV’s and it is very agreeable. Dido’s voice hangs suspended between the speakers, while a diffuse soundscape seems to allow her voice to float on the currents of music. The mids and upper harmonics had a sweet character that could be a little soft, but nonetheless enjoyable and most definitely musical.

The Downside
The use of the subwoofer’s high-pass filter had the undesirable effect of being source specific. By this, I mean that I had to change the gain on some movies due to the bass energy being overwhelming or lacking enough gain on other movies. As stated earlier, I simply opted not to use the high pass capability.

These speakers will perform very well, so long as they are run with quality equipment. When you are at this level of product, its important to understand that you’ll need to provide it with the appropriate level of electronics to get the full benefit these speakers have to offer. Careful matching of components is critical and is a big part of the fun of owning and learning exactly what a high-performance product a Monitor Audio speaker is.

After all is said and done, would I be happy owning these speakers? Absolutely. The Gold Reference speakers have very few shortfalls and many advantages. They draw you into your music and film soundtracks in ways that speakers costing as much as double the price cannot do. Nerdy measurements aside, this is why we make an investment in a speaker system, isn’t it?

You’ll likely find the Gold Reference system will satisfy even the most jaded enthusiast with a value that is unexpectedly strong. As a stereo speaker, the GR20 stands up to the most touted competitors yet. As a 5.1, 6.1 (DTS ES) or 7.1 (THX EX) system, the Gold Reference theater gets even better.
Manufacturer Monitor Audio
Model Gold Reference 5.1 Theater System
Reviewer Tim Hart

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