A developing school of thought suggests something must be nice because it’s new and bad if it’s old. But in reality, quality hi-fi is as timeless as great music.
Throughout the first 15 years of my life, I have been forced to listen to music on inferior systems. I had no idea my dad was an audiophile, but it was clear to see his passion when he reconnected with his old studio monitors.
For the first time, I could hear everything meant to be heard. The sound was rich and crystal clear, with the authentic design going into these speakers.
Until then, I listened to numerous vintage speakers and sound systems and reviewed them in my articles about the best vintage speakers.
In this piece, I’ll list the best vintage studio monitors I tested and explain why I think they’re timeless.
1. Yamaha NS-10
When I first saw NS-10, I said, “Man, they’re so ugly!”. But it’s not about looks, of course. What matters is the quality of sound you get.
A widespread belief is that the Yamaha NS10M Studio is the most widely used near-field monitor found in professional recording studios.
If true, that would be a strong argument for its home use. After all, that would help you hear what the recording engineers heard in the studio, true fidelity to the recorded sound.
Even though it was originally intended as a consumer speaker, once studios began using these as monitors, possibly due to their near-field sound balance, their popularity exploded in both markets!
This was strange since in-home speakers are not usually used in near-field positions.
Yamaha’s popularity was possibly unexpected, but it took advantage of its lucky circumstances and manufactured as many as possible.
The NS10 (like their currently available successor – Yamaha HS8) has an outstanding flat response time and purified sound required for mixing. That is why it was used and still is used when mixing.
A 2001 report by Newell et al. at Southampton University concluded that Yamaha NS-10s had fast responsiveness at low frequencies. Their capacity to stop and start in response to the signal was better than many other similar near-field monitors.
If you put them up against any other speakers employed for mixing, you’ll hear how pure the sound is. That is what you want to hear when mixing audio tracks.
Anytime you purchase speakers, you should always listen to them FLAT (no EQ modifications or added effects) in a silent room against the others you think of buying.
For mixing, you want to hear a precise and clean sound before you begin adding EQ and effects to your tracks.
If you decide to own a pair, you should have them checked out by a professional after a certain amount of time to make sure that the speakers are in their correct response range.
Like any product – over time, you have wear and tear.
2. JBL 4312
JBL 4312 is the inheritor to the 4311B, which has gained a decent reputation in studios and broadcasting stations worldwide and has also been involved in-home use.
Recently I found a pair at a local yard sale for $90. One of the midrange drivers had been boffed up by the seller’s inquisitive and mischievous boy, but I easily replaced it with an OEM driver.
The walnut (the 4312s were never covered in oak) veneer was in good to excellent shape, and all drivers worked perfectly after replacing the one mid.
These speakers do not lie! You need to have adequate power, and you can expect the “shrillness,” but I have had much better mixes using these than many other speakers I have tried.
They will reveal EVERY glitch, mistake, or dissonant tone.
There are two level controls for the mid and high-range. You can adjust these level controls while the grill is still attached.
The enclosure utilizes a bass-reflex method and contains a walnut oil finish on the exterior.
Also, the unit layout adopts a mirror image pair arrangement with symmetrical symmetry to enhance sound image localization.
With JBL 4312, you can isolate offensive frequencies and use a narrower band “notch” frequency to eliminate unwanted harshness.
You must have clean, old-school solid-state rated at least 100 watts TRUE RMS, preferably with a high slew rate and low THD, or at least 30 watts of tube amplification.
Any perceived inconsistencies can be corrected using a parametric or paragraphic EQ.
I don’t fancy graphic EQs because they detract from tone and may “color” the sound. But if you have one, a BBE Sonic Maximizer (Amazon link) can significantly improve the listening experience of any system if you carefully monitor your gain structure and correctly adjust the BBE.
My studio uses a Denon PMA-600NE fully flat with no EQ or processing when monitoring tracks and mixes.
I also use a PYLE speaker switching system to go between the 4312s, the Yamaha NS-10s, and a pair of the worst 6X9 speakers I could find.
This helps me with mastering as no one out there really has identical ears, systems, or listening environment.
3. Spendor BC1
Spencer Hughes penned the design for these speakers in the mid-1960s while he was still working in the BBC labs.
The BBC’s quest for ever higher quality broadcast monitors, coupled with Hughes’ talent as an audio engineer, led to a design that is as brilliant today as it was when the first BC1s were produced over 40 years ago.
While the BC-1 is not the only speaker to boast a rich, generous bass, a fantastic mid-range, and a crystal clear treble, the fact that it was made for audio enthusiasts by audio enthusiasts has always elevated it from the herd and put them into a class colonized by only a tiny number of hi-fi components.
This rare speaker breed is characterized by a single untouchable quality that can only be dubbed “musicality.”
To those who’ve not encountered this, it’s an unattainable thing at best. When you take time and actually spend some time listening to music through these speakers, it’s as evident as the sky itself.
The BC-1s have an unshakable conviction about just how music should be reproduced.
When I listened to the first CD, a mix of burnt MP3s, I thought I had been cheated. It sounded awful with bright highs and grainy mids. And the bass… well, it vanished.
I knew this couldn’t have been due to a lack of quality in Spendor, so I assumed they were tattered because of shipping or years.
Well, I put in a Blondie CD next, and I was blown away. Debbie Harry’s vocals were flinty; the bass thumped; I instantly comprehended the issue.
Spendor’s monitor quality didn’t demonstrate its weakness; rather, it demonstrated the inferior quality of mp3s from internet file sharing.
In fact, everything in Debbie Harry’s recording became transparent and present, from taps on the cymbals to drum beats to moments when she inhales for the next notes. It was truly wonderful.
BC1s make great recordings great, and poor recordings – truly bad.
Don’t hesitate. Search for them, find a pair on eBay, purchase them, wire them, and listen to them do their thing. From that point onward, you’ve found music.
4. Tannoy DC200
Though made for the hi-fi market, the Tannoy DC200 is a proper central monitor for the small studio.
The main point in favor of Tannoy’s dual concentric design is that all the sound comes from the same place: a point source. To achieve that, the tweeter is located in the middle of the bass driver and transmits the same magnetic assembly.
Also, the drive units are said to be ‘time aligned,’ so there are no serious phase issues around the crossover point.
This point-source aspect is necessary for the home studio because the operator typically has to sit close to the monitors to exclude as much mirrored room sound as doable. With a dual concentric speaker, this is not a concern.
Still, with a traditional design where the tweeter may be a few inches away from the bass driver, the imaging tends to decline as the listener moves closer.
The driver is mounted in a well-finished imitated walnut cabinet with a push-on grille, with the ported particle board enclosure to capitalize on low-frequency efficiency.
The hardwired, passive crossover arrives at 1.8kHz, resulting in a slight dip in the speaker’s response curve at about 2kHz, which may well be responsible for the typical ‘soft centered’ Tannoy sound.
The proper frequency response of the speaker is quoted as being 45Hz to 20kHz, and I caught a small but noteworthy improvement in transparency when I removed the grilles.
DC200s are by no means weak in the bass division, but they don’t hit you in the chest as large monitors do.
The imaging is incredible, as I’ve come to envision from Tannoy, with fine dispersion of high frequencies.
Indeed, the sound is more delicate and less up-front than some other monitors, but I see that as a benefit when performing on them for long periods.
Despite this calm character, the details are still open to scrutiny, and the high-frequency end seems very smooth.
The levels were adequate for loud home monitoring driven from a humble 50W per channel stereo power amp. However, I would prefer to use at least 100W for serious use to prevent the chance of clipping.
The detailed imaging revealed by these speakers is a superb advantage for monitoring, particularly if you don’t own a second set of near-field monitors.
And you don’t need to sit on a chalked cross on the floor to hear an even sound; there’s a good amount of leeway as regards listening position.
As always, if a set of monitors guides you through producing a mix that sounds thrilling on other speakers, then they’re achieving their cause, and in this regard, the DC200s arise with flying colors.
5. Tannoy SRM 12B
Tannoy SRM12B, or ‘Little Red Monitor” speakers, are specified as type NFM or ‘Near Field Monitors,” and as such, I don’t believe there are monitors of this type that could beat them on price/performance grounds.
I have a pair of these famous loudspeakers powered by a Denon PMA-600NE amp (Amazon link). They are truly amazing, with pinpoint precision and depth.
I found them to deliver excellent quality playback in the mids and highs. Frequencies are incredibly dynamic, generating a beautiful presence.
With pretty much any sound recorded during the 1970s or earlier, the voice comes through very faithfully, as does the guitar.
If I had to give a slight criticism, it would be that the bass frequency roll-off is quite high and perhaps not as great for more modern sounds such as hip-hop or drum and bass.
The looks are impressive if you like that retro styling, and they are extremely efficient and capable of operating off a low-wattage amp.
They’re not worth their weight in gold as they are heavy, but values are rising, and they are worth investing in a pair if you can find a proper set.
If you own a recording studio and the speakers are placed in the ‘near field’ (3-9 feet away) at somewhat low volume levels, they ARE worth it.
Their performance in a bigger living/listening space will vary, probably causing you to be most disappointed with a distinctly ‘colored’ and ‘boxy’ sound at higher volume settings.
In September 2022, these Tannoys are going for up to $2500 on eBay.