Hands-On Review: Antelope Audio Atlas i8 Isobaric Monitor Speakers

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Reviewing Antelope Audio’s Atlas i8 Isobaric Monitor Speakers

With the release of the Atlas i8 Isobaric Active Monitor Speaker, Antelope Audio has fulfilled its mission to provide high-end professional monitoring solutions. From digital to analog conversion, and now analog signal amplification to in-room sound pressure waves, Antelope has you covered all the way along the monitoring chain. But you don’t need to buy a fancy Antelope DAC with a fancy DSP and other fancy bits, because the i8 has all those bits built right in. It's one of the reasons that, at $4,990 MSRP for a pair, the i8s may be underpriced, relative to competitor’s products. Value being subjective, I suppose everyone will have to make their own call on this point. But I digress. Let's find out what Antelope is doing with its first-ever studio monitor speakers and why I think some folks should consider buying them.

 Atlas i8 Isobaric Active Monitor Speaker
Atlas i8 Isobaric Active Monitor Speaker

The Atlas i8's are beautifully finished, large and heavy rectangular black boxes with a stately "hunter green" front baffle. I've learned not to judge a monitor by the color of its baffle and, indeed, just behind this refined and staid surface are myriad different and interesting technologies. What's remarkable here is that this isn’t all cutting edge, 21st century, Rubidium Atomic clocking stuff. For instance, something in the title caught my eye and a half-dozen or so neurons in my brain. “Isobaric.” Hmm, I have seen that word before. With some Internet help, I eventually "remembered" that a Hi-Fi company called Linn designed one of the first mass-market isobaric loudspeakers in the 1970s—using research from 20 years earlier!

Linn discontinued most of these designs in the early 1990s. More about isobaric a little later, but to answer a question that some may have at this moment: isobaric designs have some major drawbacks that would have been difficult and expensive to overcome in the 20th century. Chief among these: they present very challenging loads for amplifiers. However, in today's brave new world of potent, cool-running, near 100% efficient Class-D switching amplifiers, that problem is effectively solved, hence Antelope's decision to plumb the depths of loudspeaker history for ideas. Cool, right? Alas, cool factoids alone do not a successful mixing monitor make. For that, we're going to have to get practical and, you know, like hook ’em up. Shall we?

In my experience, finding out whether the Atlas i8s can be used for professional mixing duties goes something like this: lifting with my knees, I gently heave one 50+ pound i8 at a time onto a pair of very sturdy, professional monitor stands. Next, I plug each i8 into a nearby wall socket. Then I connect a balanced cable (either XLR or TRS will do) from my computer audio interface to each speaker. Finally, opening Pro Tools, I load a demo session comprising songs with which I'm very familiar. Within just a few seconds of listening, I nod and grunt approvingly, knowing instinctively that, yeah, these speakers can be used by a professional mix engineer to attain competitive mixes. In other words, not only can the i8s do what Antelope claims, I don't necessarily need to prove this to myself by mixing on them—I know this merely by listening to a premixed track. How's that, you ask? More on this later. First, let's breeze through most of the details and spend a little more time with some I think are important.

The i8s are a three-way ported speaker system that includes multiple built-in bespoke amplifiers, an XLR/TRS combo connection for inputting analog signals, AES XLR input and output connections for digital signals and daisy-chaining, a USB computer connection for firmware updates and (eventual) software control, a small LCD screen and rotary push knob for accessing and customizing the various DSP controlled parameters including a 4-band equalizer, and fancy built-in AD/DA converters. What do I mean by fancy? Well, lots of things I suppose, but mostly I mean that it's designed by Antelope Audio. After all, this is the company that, in many ways, singlehandedly and successfully made the case to audio professionals that it's an important and worthwhile investment to have a high specification and relatively expensive device handle the digital to analog conversion, and especially the digital clocking thereof, in a studio. While some may argue about the validity of the company’s claim, it's beside the point I'm making here. Antelope made these devices, people bought them, the company thrived, and one of its "fancy" AD/DA converters with 64-bit Acoustically Focused Clocking is in each i8. When you own an i8, you can rest easy knowing you now also own an Antelope ADC/DAC.

In my studio, I first set the i8s in a typical upright position with the tweeter oriented above the woofer. However, since these are large speakers, the tweeters were much higher than my ears at my listening position. My habit is to manage as best as possible to align the tweeters to the same horizontal plane as my ears. And you should, too. It's important because the high-frequency soundwaves that a tweeter produces are much more directional than the larger low-frequency waves from the woofer, which become outright omnidirectional at very low frequencies. This same principle applies to subwoofers, but inversely. Think about it this way: Would it ever cross your mind to align a subwoofer to the horizontal plane of your ears? Now, what to do about this tweeter-ear misalignment? Well, I could have stacked some old B&H catalogs on the seat of my chair, but I didn't have any lying around. Instead, I simply laid the speakers on their sides. The fact that they can be moved from an upright position to a supine one yet not exhibit a tonal shift is one of the design features of the i8s. Since the tweeter and the mid-bass driver are coaxial (meaning they share the same physical space) the waveforms arrive at the listener’s ears at the same time regardless of how the speaker itself is positioned. In fact, if my OCD would have allowed, I could have flipped the speakers upside down and their performance would remain unchanged.

Banana for Scale
Banana for Scale

Coaxial drivers also save precious space. I want to reiterate that the i8s are not small. The way I see it, the bigger in any dimension these get, the less appealing they become to certain potential buyers. As it stands, the speakers may already be too big for some folks working in cramped spaces, which leads us back to the 1970s and isobaric-ness. The impetus behind an isobaric speaker design is also related to physical size. More specifically, how to substantially reduce it without reducing bass output. It turns out if two speaker drivers are mounted one behind the other in a cabinet, they operate as if a single driver is in a cabinet roughly twice as large. There’s a bit more physics at play here, but that’s the gist. This holds up to scrutiny: the i8’s two 8" woofers produce more clean low bass than I would have predicted, judging from their cabinet size. However, since low-frequency performance is tightly related to the specific qualities of a room, unless your room is acoustically very well treated, perceptual bass performance is a crap shoot. I got lucky and found the bass to comport nicely with the stated frequency response of -6dB at 35 Hz. If you find this not to be the case, the i8s do allow you to extend the low frequency further in the speaker’s DSP menu system either by using the 4-band equalizer or by engaging a Bass Extension mode. When I tried these, the bass became a little too extended and loose. In fact, to my ears, the speakers sounded just about right throughout their entire bandwidth, right out of the box. And as I mentioned earlier, it only took me a few seconds to realize this with a great degree of certainty.

Finally, I should try to answer this question: “How was I so confident in my assessment of the monitors so quickly”? It’s impossible to explain everything that is happening neurologically at that moment. I presume it’s a combination of various mental states, including perception, memory, expectation, confirmation, and a zillion other things that don’t have language to ascribe to them. But if pressed, I suppose an English language approximation of the experience would read like this: I recognized a smooth, balanced, and wide frequency response with no obvious dips or peaks. Center-panned elements seemed liked solid phantom center images that remained uniform over time. It was easy to discern the individual components of a track, as well as the relative volume differences of those individual components over time. Well-engineered and mixed tracks presented themselves as such. On the other hand, poorly engineered mixes were laid bare and sounded, well, poor.

Cat, 65" Television, and Banana for Scale
Cat, 65" Television, and Banana for Scale

In other words, I’ve been listening to reference tracks over a variety of playback systems for so long and so often, that, over time I've developed an instinct for knowing whether a playback system will be useful as a mixing tool. Antelope’s Atlas i8s are useful in this regard.

The Atlas i8s, like other well-designed modern studio monitors, reveal and demystify the cleverly hidden fingerprints of the “dark art,” which is the talented mixing engineer’s stock-in-trade. But they will reveal this to the experienced listener. If you happen to be an experienced listener, meaning you earn a living mixing music or sound for picture, and are looking for a pair of new monitors, you should consider buying these. However, I think there’s a good case to be made for why the non-experienced listener who aspires to be one might also consider buying these. It has everything to do with this undefinable instinct I’ve mentioned.

One way to understand a studio monitor is as a tool mixing engineers use for work. A different, but just as valid, understanding of a studio monitor is as a tool aspiring mixing engineers use to learn how to work. This process, which starts by developing critical listening faculties, takes years and happens gradually. Monitors like the Atlas i8 really do perform better than lower-cost models in the domains that are most necessary for learning not only how to mix, but also how to listen critically. By investing early in what many consider to be the most important educational tool in a mix engineer’s box, future mixers will thank themselves later.

What are your thoughts on Antelope Audio’s Atlas i8 Isobaric Active Monitor Speaker? Let us know in the Comments section, below. For additional information, be sure to visit the product page.

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