From "On Sound And Music" - October 2004 by Jim Merod
For years I'd heard praise for Westlake monitor speakers. While they're not an underground phenomenon, nor a well-kept pro audio secret, they do not yet have the high profile I'm inclined to believe they deserve. Astute audio recording and mastering engineers are likely to know about Westlake 's extreme concern for sonic linearity, regardless of SPL loads. Linearity under varying playback and listening conditions is one of the holy grails of mastering work. The monitors under view here, the newest in the much acclaimed BBSM series, have passed every test I've put through them. This is a high-achieving, no-nonsense mastering tool that stands in that small circle of audio gear deserving the term "world class."
To say that is not to assert that the BBSM-6s are perfect and without limitations. It is only to designate how revealing, truthful, and sonically accurate these monitors are in a wide variety of applications. Such a designation suggests a great deal, however.
Getting on the Musical Road
Many of my loyal readers know my aversion to speakers. You can't live without them, but they're almost always difficult to live with. That fact is not news, but it reminds us how much the world's many "auditory environments" are designed with evil intent—set before us (and all around speakers) to frustrate our hope that sonic truth might prevail with musical bliss.
Forget sonic Nirvana, ye who proceed further!
One makes do with speakers and their inevitable eccentricities; with listening space and its bedevilments; with one's sonic needs and musical wishes... there's no sanity in the world of mastering and recording work otherwise.
Thus, when I come upon a speaker or monitor-reference instrument that makes my work easier—and my life fuller because musical joy is added to elusive sonic details—I'm tempted to announce a holiday and sit down with my new found friends. Westlake 's BBSM-6s are friends, in truth.
Step by Step
The process I used to scope out these big, heavy monitor reference speakers sorted itself into two modes. The bulk of my time earnestly listening to the BBSM-6s was in the "analytical" mode: scrutinizing each possible nuance of master tape information. In sum, the majority of my time and attention devoted to these speakers was directed toward their use as genuine "monitors" that allow mastering work to be done accurately and efficiently.
In that mode, a subset of time and effort was directed to recording playback that's taken place with each of two recording sessions for Mundell Lowe's and Jaime Valle's emerging BluePort album. The first session brought the two great guitarists together to lay down three duo-guitar numbers. The second session added bassist extraordinaire Bob Magnusson.
In each of these moments—by myself and with musicians getting a read on their work during recording sessions—the BBSM monitors performed like the champs they truly are. Everything was open, clear, distinct, tonally perfect, and vibrant. Listening to immediate playback of takes presents an enormous test of a monitor accuracy. Musicians know how their instruments sound. I know what the ensemble sounds like during recorded performance. There are no hiding places or fudge factors when engineer and musicians hear what just occurred. A monitor is, at such moments, put to an ultimate test of sonic authenticity.
I have no qualms or reservations in saying that the Westlake BBSM-6 monitor speakers are as tonally accurate, as dynamically vivid and timbrally convincing as any speaker I've ever heard. There is nothing wanting on playback under such conditions. I cannot imagine any recording engineer needing another skosh of this or nuance of that. The sonic truth presents itself without blemish or qualification.
As a sidebar to such sonic accuracy and immediacy, I must note that I saw three mature and very experienced musicians almost doubt their own ears when playback first occurred. The issue was the pristine quality of the sound they received, the way in which individual instruments hung in the air precisely as they create lingering overtones.
The specific issue at stake was the lack of tonal coloration. Hearing the sound of their playing coming back to ears used to the intimate embrace of near sonic proximity—but without the ordinary colorations that define the vast majority of studio monitors—was somewhat disconcerting for them, tho' each quickly adjusted to hearing himself captured just as their instruments resonate beneath their fingers.
Most listeners, regardless of experience, are not prepared for the sound of an utterly naked acoustic instrument in undoctored ambient space. First, speakers routinely distort or alter what instruments sound like—even very well recorded instruments. That's what speakers do: impart their own sonic signature. Very few are able to avoid that. Not many speakers truly minimize such (seemingly innocent) altered sonic nuances. Musicians accustomed to work in studios are literally "trained," over the years, to expect colored monitor feeds and playback. That goes with the territory.
The pristine quality of these Westlake monitors was revealed in spades when one of the musicians asked to listen at the lowest possible volume. We did. Even at a level that some might regard as only a notch above a mere whisper, the BBSMs delivered the full sonic truth, dynamics intact. That's a test few monitors can survive.
One More Step
If an "analytical" mode is inevitable in recording and mastering work, the other approach to any speaker is what might be called the "sit back and relax" mode. It is the point of view that anyone adopts who wants to enjoy music without scrutinizing internal sonic details... the mini-overtones or slight nuances that make one take or one performance stand sonically above another. Once a song has been rendered to one's mastering (or musical) satisfaction, the next operation is no operation at all.
Just listen. Dig the music. Enjoy.
Distinct from an analytical mode, the musical mode is best approached with a beer or glass of wine. That's not a professional judgment, mind you. It's akin to common sense. If there is any slight reservation to be made about the BBSM-6s (and it is slight-to-the-max), one could point to a wee lack of "slam" across the sonic spectrum.
Let me amplify this for the sake of utter accuracy. Despite their heft and size, despite four beautifully calibrated transducers, the BBSM-6s are not the last word in driver power. The remarkable clarity, accuracy and immediacy that marks their supreme good breeding—allowing for high resolution at extremely low volume settings—is part of a sonic ratio that needs to be held clearly in view. A larger monitor configuration may well move more air, carry higher energy, rock and roll with more dynamic slam at significantly greater SPLs... but it's likely not to have the subtlety of resolution I've found at the heart of this superb monitor reference.
My point is not to detract from these speakers, but to take into account the fact that, at moments, I found myself (in the "musical mode," beer in hand) wishing a slight degree more air might be pushed or moved to convey the full degree of musical enchantment available from music I was listening to. I may be making too much of a very small point, however. If I do, it's to acknowledge the trade off inevitable with any speaker design: the ratio of slam versus accuracy. That ratio lurks at the core of every speaker designer's choices and calculations.
One thing more. I raise this slightest of all possible reservations not to detract from my admiration of the BBSM-6s, but to reinforce it.
Here's what I mean. This monitor reference design could not possibly perform other than it does. It is blissfully accurate in every imaginable way that sonic and tonal accuracy can be sought. It is convincing in its sense of "real space" and the reality of vocal and instrumental nuances. The BBSM-6s give everything back that a superior set of microphones supported by superior microphone preamplifiers deliver to tape or hard disc... and then on to these monitors.
For the live recording sessions I've accounted for here, John LaGrou's MILLENNIA HV-3D 8-channel mic pre has supported a pair of DPA 4003 (130 volt phantom powered) microphones. There are few microphones that come anywhere close to these in accuracy and sonic glory. There are nearly as few microphone preamplifiers, at any cost, that approach the transparency and vibrant truthfulness of the Millennia mic pre.
Great recording equipment (including the Tascam 24-bit HR-45 tape deck) pushed the output of these Westlake monitors. Without flinching, these monitors equaled the breeding of the unrivaled gear they were matched to. I left nothing to imagination during my time with these magnificent instruments. I pushed and pulled them sonically. I threw difficult signals at them. In short, I let them show me what a huge sonic heart they own.
As requested, I listened to the BBSM-6s both with their dedicated Westlake speaker and interconnect cables and with various others—including Nordost SPM speaker cables and Valhalla interconnects. My preference with these monitors is the Nordost wire, but no one will easily complain or find fault in any way if Westlake cables are relied upon from beginning to end.
And so I conclude in the mode of lamentation. I not only admire the BBSM-6s. I find myself in a bit of a quandry. My studio is not without great (truly superior) monitor reference speakers. I am not "in the market" for another set of monitors. But the Westlake take on sound, its delivery of truth at such a high level of engaging information, makes the prospect of their absence a source of consternation. Even sadness.
Seldom do I fall in love with speakers. In fact, I have a great dislike for most monitors and speakers. I simply do not enjoy or learn very much about my own recordings from the bulk of speakers.
The Westlakes are different... way different, decidedly different—"different" as in amorous mind-beguiling, ear-instructing instruments that get sound right with complete and utter seriousness. Anyone who records or masters professionally, in my estimation, has nothing to lose (perhaps a great deal to gain) by giving the BBSM-6s serious consideration. Anyone who wants to hear recordings with a degree of accuracy rare in any sonic environment—including the rarefied air of mega-buck "audiophile" speakers—ought to live with these monitors awhile. Such a listener might be surprised how much the "analytical" mode enlarges the musical value of listening.
The final touch that renders time with music worthwhile is that moment we hear more and better and, thus, come closer to undefinable sonic magic. Westlake 's BBSM-6 monitor understands that quest, that touch.
Copyright 2004 OS&M. All Rights Reserved.