Nov 22, 2010

Blue Sky EXR 6.5 Active 2-Way Monitor review

If you've been reading my pro-audio studio monitor reviews you'll note that I'm a big fan and proponent for the 2.1 monitoring setup.  One major reason - if not the *only* reason - is because you simply cannot get a truly accurate sonic representation of your audio from a typical stereo setup, period.  End of story.

But here's the caveat with that standard:  Not everyone has the physical space to allow for a 2.1 system (which requires a correctly placed and sized subwoofer) and/or, has the technical expertise to set it up properly.  And, the some of the best 2.1 systems also command a higher price-point than the traditional 2-unit stereo pairs.  Well guess what, those knowledgable guys at Blue Sky understand all that and have given the market what it's been asking for:  An uber-high quality, sonically accurate stereo monitor, with some previously unheard-of features in a desktop near-field.

Enter the Blue Sky EXR 6.5 2-way near-field monitor.  As with anything I test and review I always start off with a completely non-biased and open mind and my B.S. filter is on high alert for anything that turns out to be over-hyped manufacturer claims rather than real-world performance results.  The need to be completely un-biased was even more important with this review because every other Blue Sky unit I've tested has always come out on top, so I had to be sure that I wasn't mentally preparing myself for another 5-Star review.

However despite the glowing reviews I've given Blue Sky's offerings previously I was a bit timid about reviewing a traditional stereo pair, in fact I was almost prepared to be under-whelmed if anything.  So in point of fact I was already biased *against* the EXR's for producing any sonic experience that would impress me.  I should have known better.

In fact, I did have to re-train my ears a bit to fully test the EXR's because for years I've been using the Blue Sky Pro Desk 2.1 system as my primary monitoring solution, so my ears have definitely become accustomed to the balanced sonic footprint of having a floor sub-woofer.  With the sub removed from the equation I had to not only reposition the monitors to accommodate the lack of a sub but I also had to use pink and white-noise generators along with scopes to make sure I had put them into their proper position.  Once I did that and started playing my standard audio test files (a varied selection of music tracks, foley and vocal tracks) then I was really in for a treat.

The EXR's really came to life in a significant way.  First off, the highs are typical Blue Sky fare:  Crisp & accurate without being harsh or abusive to the ear.  Imaging was also noticeably open and organic, something that was punctuated by the active and tuned porting in the cabinets.  And the lows were full-bodied, punchy and carried LFE moments easily without distortion.  However because this is a stereo pair and not a 2.1, the EXR's can't be pushed to the same decibel level as say the Pro Desk just for the simple reason that they can't move the same amount of air as a subwoofer can, so you have to be cautious with tracks that have lots of LFE or heavy bass mixes such as heavy-metal rock or even some soundtracks such as "Transformers" which carry tons of lower-than 60hz info in the mix, as you can easily introduce distortion with too much "bass".

But one of the amazing things about the EXR's isn't just their physical output, it's that they are TUNABLE.  That's right, these jewels actually contain DIP switches and to control tweeter output, a gain control and get this,  "Baffle Compensation" settings on the rear panel.  That's right, the porting on this unit can actually be actively controlled with the Baffle Compensation controls allowing for a highly tunable cabinet matched to room acoustics.  (This requires using an acoustic analyzer, but if you've got the hardware and knowledge this unit will do it!!)  I've only seen this high-end feature on monitors costing more than DOUBLE the price of the EXR's, so Blue Sky is giving you not only class-leading sound, but amazing control over that sound.

But it would be almost pointless to do a review of this type without some basis of comparison, and I was very fortunate to have been able to stack up the EXR's against the following competitors who are in the same relative price-point.

Below is the list as tested and notes of how they sounded in a head-to-head A-B test against the EXR's:

-  DynAudio BM6A MkII:  Anemic; lacked mid-range fullness and punch.  Did not image nearly as well.  Highs can be very harsh and too bright.  Overall output seemed too low as if the on-board power was not enough.

-  Tannoy Precision 8D:  Odd sounding overall.  Lots of low-end punch but dicey highs and lacked natural imaging.  Almost sounded as if they needed to be broken in first.  Floor noise to high for this price-point monitor.

-  JBL  R4326:  Overall good sonic reproduction.  Low-end extension not as deep or as controlled as EXR's; distorts easier than EXR's.  Imaging OK but the "sweet spot" is much narrower than EXR's requiring the user not move their head to much from side to side to keep imaging sounding proper.  Noticeably louder floor noise but not as bad as the Tannoy.

-  Genelec 8040A:  Very crispy highs that can translate into harsh when pushed; very flat and soft mid-range; too much low-end punchiness.  Sounds unbalanced and requires EQ controls to balance out the highs and lows.  Good for mixing heavy music tracks, poor with vocals and piano.

-  Behringer B3031A "Truth":  Very narrow sweet spot otherwise a decent sounding rig.  Low-end extension not as deep or as controllable as EXR's.  Fair mid-range but slightly anemic.  Does not have a good reputation for longevity.

-  Mackie HR624 MkII:  Unnaturally flat and lacking detail especially in highs. Lot's of mid-range but lows are unbalanced, imaging fair to poor compared to EXR's.

-  M-Audio DSM1:  High degree of floor noise, translates into noisy tweeters and distorted lows.  Imaging is poor across the board and mid-range suffers.  Worst of the bunch by far.

-  ADAM A8X:  The closest sounding competitor to the EXR's. Very open, natural tweeters, excellent imaging, controlled lows.  EXR's have more low-end balance and slightly better imaging especially for vocals, piano and instruments.  ADAM's seem to handle LFE equally as well as EXR's however EXR's seem to have deeper low-end extension.  In all a very, very tight competitor.

The only other model that I wanted add to this list but wasn't available - and is also at a higher price-point than the EXR's - is the Focal Solo6 Be 6.5.

 Highly Recommended

The list of tested monitors above represents what most pro-audio users and techs consider to be the "best of the best" in that price-point of speaker, which is from $650 to sub-$1000 per unit.  And it might be surprising to see how poorly some of the other models actually performed against the Blue Sky EXR's.  But if you read my other reviews of Blue Sky models you'll quickly learn that the guys at Blue Sky are something of modern-day wizards when it comes to accurate sonic reproduction

If the guys at SkyWalker Sound trust Blue Sky to create an entire system for their high-end, commercial monitoring solution, don't you think *you* should do the same?

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