Monitor manufacturers have a tough job. For studio monitoring in any environment, be it pro or home studio, accuracy is a must, particularly for mixes. So monitor manufacturers want to make accurate products.
Most of us aren’t, however, Bob Clearmountain or Alan Parsons, so our mixes might not always be world-class. A poor mix on an accurate monitor system like the Yamaha HS Active Monitors can sound quite discouraging, seeming much more flawed than it actually is.
So monitor manufacturers have the option to make products that sound more flattering, perhaps accentuating the bass frequencies or able to pump out tons of volume compared to similar sized competing speakers. Many do, since sales are an integral part of the game, and the key is often first impressions.
When Yamaha introduced the NS10 speaker in the 1970s, it was intended for the consumer market. In that regard it was an abject failure. However, engineers took notice. First of all the white woofer cone stood apart from the crowd, but of course on its own that meant nothing. The clarity of the NS10 is what caught the ear of many, and at a time when the ideas of standard recording studios were changing.
Previously, studio monitors were often large, built-in contraptions. Called soffit mounting, the surface of the monitor is flush with the wall it is mounted in, so that there is no side and back radiation of sound. Sound emerges in a 180-degree field out from the speakers.
This can be an effective way to mount monitors. It can also be a gawdawful mess. Control rooms had personality, good and bad, based on how well these soffit mounted monitors worked. As producers and engineers started working independently, hired by bands rather than studios, they wanted a reference that worked from studio to studio. Out of this came near-field monitoring. A set of speakers whose properties were familiar that the engineer or producer could use instead of the built-in soffits.
While the NS10 wasn’t the only model used this way, it quickly became one of the most popular because it is an unrelentingly honest and accurate reveal-er of sonic detail. Note: I didn’t say “because it sounded so good.” It often doesn’t sound good. Even some who swore by the NS10 also spoke of hating the sound.
Imagine waking up to a mirror in the morning that highlights every pore, flaw, bag, sag, wrinkle and zit. Brightly. In extreme detail. Now imagine a softly lit mirror, with a permanent fine mist that smooths and hides all but the most extreme blemishes, making you movie-star perfect within seconds of leaving your pillow.
That mirror is a dirty liar. So too are the monitors designed to impress you with the beauty of your own mixes by hiding all but the most extreme sonic blemishes. The NS10 is the harsh, brightly lit mirror that hides nothing and reveals everything.
It’s into the realm of the NS10 legend that the Yamaha HS Series monitors emerge. There are three products in the second-generation HS line. More or less named for their woofer size, they are the HS5, HS7 and HS8, with woofer sizes of 5, 6.5, and 8 inches, respectively. I suppose Yamaha can be forgiven for the HS7 name. It’s not deception as much as avoiding an unwieldy product name.
Setup and Usability
Anyone familiar with typical active studio monitors will have no problem setting these up. Each model has both XLR and ¼-inch TRS balanced jacks for input. Power to each monitor uses a standard international cable, controlled by a back-mounted on/off switch. The volume control is a rotary knob labeled MIN at full counterclockwise, +4dB at the noon position and -10dB at full clockwise. The two numbered positions correspond to professional and consumer audio equipment level outputs. These serve as guidelines for matching sensitivity to the equipment being used. Most users will probably ignore this and simply set the level where it feels right.
Each model also features a pair of tuning controls. These are three-position switches to alter the monitor’s response based on a user’s room, speaker placement and taste. ROOM CONTROL has 0, -2dB and -4dB settings, indicating bass rolloff below 500Hz. The HS series are all ported on the back. That means placement close to a wall reinforces bass frequencies by bouncing sound from the port off the wall back at the monitoring position. If the speakers sit in corners, even more reinforcement, and it’s not necessarily good. The ROOM CONTROL switch evens that out a bit.
HIGH TRIM attacks the other end of the spectrum. In this case, 0 is the middle position and choices are +2dB or -2dB at 2,000Hz. One of the traits of the NS10 was its very harsh treble. Many engineers taped tissue paper over the tweeter to attenuate it somewhat. With the HS series, the choice is yours. To my ears, the +2 position sounds like a non-tissued NS10, so you’d have two levels of treble reduction over the classic grandfather of the speaker line.
Yamaha discontinued the NS10 in 2001, citing manufacturing difficulties with the woofer. However, there are reasons to distrust this. The NS10 was passive and a closed cabinet design. Since the boom of the home studio era, starting in the 1990s, demand for active monitors exploded. Also, with margins shrinking and competition growing, sales became critical. One trait of closed cabinet design is that, compared to a similarly sized reflex ported speaker, the closed cabinet model sounds quiet and weak in the bass.
So the HS series is ported, as are most monitors in similar price and performance range. With that design decision both the good and the bad of the NS10 world are altered. Some of the legendary accuracy is gone, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a user who says the HS series sound bad. While Yamaha may be accused of pandering to the crowd with the HS series, they at least are pandering well. There’s still enough of that sonic accuracy that you may have to work harder to get a good mix on an HS set, but it won’t be as hard as the NS10 made it.
The difference between the three models is all in the bottom end. The HS5 and HS7 give reasonable low frequency response, but it isn’t gut-punching. It’s not surprising that the HS series has a subwoofer offering. While I find the HS5 and 7 as adequate for most genres, the bass is not punchy and direct. It may not be comfortable for someone working with dance music and heavy synth bass. This has to do, I think, with the rear firing port and smaller woofer size. Also, my usual studio monitors are 5-inch woofers with a front-firing port, so an inherent design difference that directly affects delivery of ported sound.
The HS8, though, moves considerably more air forward. Though the difference between a 6.5-inch woofer and an 8-inch design doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually two-thirds larger in area. This means that the 8-inch woofer has 66 percent more paper pushing low frequency waves at your open, adoring face. I find the HS8 sounds very similar to the two smaller models, but with a punch and immediacy the others lack. It’s not so much deficiency on the smaller monitors’ behalf as much as it is the HS8 being that much more efficient. For those looking for heavy bass emphasis, only the HS8 really delivers without a sub.
Some users may not find these speakers loud compared to others. If loud is your prime criteria for a speaker then you’re wasting time reading on here. If you’re serious about how your music sounds, the HS series should be near the top of your compare list.
The cabinets are solid and the speaker magnets are heavy. This is good, but with one potential problem. I noticed, particularly with the HS8, electromagnetic and radio frequency interference are both easy to induce.
I had an older model Blackberry with me one day, one that always alerts me with carrier noises when I’m wearing ear buds. When a text message came in, that unmistakable series of electronic noises came from the HS8 nearest the Blackberry. Holding up some other small devices that generate EM noise, I found it was possible to get the HS8s to convert the interference. The same happened with an HS5 (didn’t have an HS7 to try at this point), but to a lesser extent. If the cabinets are shielded, then the speaker magnets must be large enough to make the shielding inadequate.
It’s not a huge issue, but it’s there. The bigger problem is people who text when I’m in the studio. I suppose since that’s nearly always, I should be more forgiving but… no. <turns cell phone off>
The user reviews are plentiful and favorable. Average star rating is over 4.5 out of 5, though it’s hard to pinpoint since there are some subwoofer reviews mixed in and possible evidence of counterfeit speakers out there. The HS5 is 12 lbs. per speaker, the HS8 is 18 lbs. If you receive a lightweight cabinet that sounds boxy when you tap it, you don’t have an authentic Yamaha product.
Priced per speaker, the HS5, HS7 and HS8 are $200, $300 and $350 respectively. If you’re considering the HS7, I would recommend spending the extra $50 per speaker for the HS8. It’s really the star of the show, a studio monitor that’s honest but forgiving, and with enough bottom end to satisfy nearly any EDM junkie.
If you’re after Yamaha quality and you have a budget, there’s nothing wrong with the HS5, particularly if you’re working most often with acoustic music or anything that doesn’t require wall shaking. Whether the HS Series grows to the exalted heights of the NS10 remains to be seen. My guess is no. The HS speakers seem to have more in common with contemporary monitors from other manufacturers. However, these are still very high quality speakers. It’s not likely you’ve made a mistake by choosing them.