Tape Op Gear Review: Monitor ST, SR, DAC-ST & A.S.S.

Before you read F. Reid Shippen’s review below, let me first explain to you why I chose a Monitor ST/SR system for the client theatre at The Station, a NYC-based video production facility that I co-own. One of my initial experiences with Dangerous Music was during my first year as Gear Reviews Editor. Way back in 2003, Grammy-winning, Platinum-selling producer/engineer Joe Chiccarelli (Tape Op #14) reviewed the Dangerous 2-BUS (#35), the product that really opened the doors to the in-the-box digital versus analog-summing debate. Joe detailed the differences he heard in his mixes summed within Pro Tools HD and externally through a 2-BUS, an SSL 9000J desk, and a Neve 8066 console. If you have the back-issue, the article is definitely worth re-reading for statements like, “I could almost tell the exact thickness of the pick that was used on the acoustic guitar.” Since Joe’s review, Tape Op has published reviews of other analog gear from Dangerous Music (#34, #40, #53, #54, #60, #61), and renowned mastering engineers like Mike Wells and Dave McNair have expounded publicly on the D/A circuit that Dangerous employs throughout its line. (According to Mike, “the integrated DAC in the Dangerous Monitor has become the tool I bench other DACs against. It has superior imaging, with no added color to distract me, and it lets me get to work right away.” And Dave thinks that “it sounds every bit as good as a Prism, DCS, Lavry, or anything else. It’s as good as any seven or eight-thousand-dollar DAC.”) Moreover, mastering engineer Emily Lazar, owner of The Lodge, a sister facility to The Station, has a monitoring console designed by Chris Muth of Dangerous, and she relies on a Dangerous S&M (#54) for most sessions.

Long story short, I ended up purchasing a Dangerous Monitor ST/SR for the theatre. The ST is the remote-control and rack-unit combination that LC reviewed previously (Tape Op #60), and the SR is an optional 1RU-height expander that adds the necessary analog I/O for listening in surround. (The DAC-SR, which I haven’t purchased yet, handles digital-analog I/O and switching -even switching video via the Uniswitch ASS module is an option, and I’ll write about it after we install one at The Station.) The well-written manual gives very practical advice on setting up a multi-channel listening environment, and there are even sections discussing balanced versus unbalanced connections and proper grounding methods -very useful, considering that many buyers will be using the Monitor ST/SR with both pro and consumer audio sources. On the other hand, I do wish that the manual covered the topic of 5.1 in a more technical manner, especially in regards to the LFE channel, subwoofer outputs, and bass management. But then again, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the gear manufacturers to educate us on what really constitutes a correctly configured surround setup -if such a beast even exists. To Dangerous Music’s credit, there are weblinks in the ST/SR manual to AES and Recording Academy documents that take stabs at defining technical standards for surround. Also, though the remote control and onboard talkback mic is fine, I’m still at odds with the placement of the external TB mic input and the remote TB switch on the ST -the former is on the front panel while the latter is in the rear; this makes for wonky wiring. Moreover, the remote TB switch doesn’t dim the monitors -though this action can be modded at their factory.

At The Station, we have the theatre’s ST/SR configured for the many primary uses of the room -editing video, mixing audio, watching Blu-ray, and giving presentations from a laptop -with amps and speakers sourced from Blue Sky (Tape Op #62). The extensive I/O on the rear of the SR is via DB25 connectors (wired to the TASCAM standard), which I prefer for cost, convenience, and ubiquity. Trim pots accessible through holes in the front panel of the SR facilitate careful tweaking of speaker level. A programming mode accessible from the ST’s remote lets you make adjustments to configuration, including relative I/O levels to match various sources and speakers. The buttons on the remote are LED backlit -different colors of backlighting refer to different functions and tasks -and the momentary buttons become latching if you touch them quickly as opposed to holding them down.. It doesn’t take long to grasp the color and moment/toggle “language” of the buttons, and it’s very intuitive once you start using the remote.

Clearly, Dangerous really nailed the user interface, but how does the Monitor ST/SR sound? It sounds fantastic. In other words, it does its job of switching sources and speakers with utmost transparency, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to make it the all-important system through which all audio passes before it reaches my or my client’s ears. And I almost forgot to mention, the ST’s headphone output is definitely not an afterthought as it sometimes is on other gear. It too sounds perfectly clear -and it gets very loud! With all that said, let’s move on to Reid’s review of the Monitor ST, DAC-ST, and Additional Switching System. -AH
I know reviews are supposed to be impartial, or at least come off that way, but the bottom line is that I currently have the Dangerous Monitor ST system sitting in my studio, and I’m never giving it back.

The unit surprised me in proving to be a vast improvement over my SSL’s modified monitor section. It’s one of the best monitoring sections I’ve ever used. Apparently, years of experience and design tweaks, inspired by the demands of some of the best mastering engineers on earth, are crammed into this thing. I think it shows.

So, let’s start with what I dislike about the unit. 1. It has crashed -once -in the past year. Unplug remote, replug remote -fixed. Dangerous has a firmware solution that’s now shipping. 2. I wish it had more inputs. It currently has four, plus the Aux input. I want more. Dangerous is supposedly working on an expander. 3. I wish it had more outputs. With a little bit of feature hacking, I am running four sets of stereo speakers. I would gladly run twice that amount if able. Dangerous is looking into the possibility. See a pattern here? This company isn’t only concerned with making what they feel to be the best monitoring solution available for the money, but they’re also looking for ways to constantly improve it. (Additionally, I feel that the remote is a weird shape, and I would prefer a grippier knob. But Dangerous hasn’t heard these last two complaints from anyone else, so no changes planned.)

The aforementioned quibbles aside, I like almost everything about the ST. The unit worked flawlessly, right out of the box. Honestly -and this is, I feel, the highest praise for a designer -I have yet to even open the manual. I’m actually going to read it now, before I write the rest of this review. Okay. The brains sit in a 1U-height rack unit. The Additional Switching System holds the DAC-ST and other optional modules in a second 1U. And the remote sits wherever a shielded CAT5 cable can reach. The controls are ergonomic and so simple that even a drummer can work it. Everything is plainly labeled, the buttons light up in pretty colors, and the big knob makes the volume go up and down. There’s a mono button for people who actually care about mono, and there’s a ton of surround stuff for people who care about surround. I don’t really care about mono (unless it’s a Beatles re-issue), and I don’t do any surround right now, so I’m ignoring that stuff. There’s a great option for running your sub on a switchable output, giving you the ability to switch it on and off at will, which I’m sure a lot of people will find awesome. It also provides for programmable level and filter settings for the sub, which work like a champ. I have different subs set up with different sets of speakers, so I actually use this feature to feed my fourth pair of speakers, and other than having to manually switch them on and off, it works like a charm.

The remote also sports individual speaker mutes and solos -very convenient for problem solving -and a few buttons for delving into the programmability of the unit, which includes the ability to program offsets for all the inputs and outputs. It will even eat a -10 dBV signal and bring it up to pro level. The Aux input feed to the CR speakers is latching or momentary, allowing you to monitor stuff like computer audio output (say for alert tones or quick sound auditions) or live room TB. The talkback button is also latching or momentary, depending on whether you tap or hold it, and a panoply of cool cue send routings that I never use, and a Dim switch that I use all the time. The most beautiful thing about the Dim switch is that, unlike most other monitor boxes, it has no sound. Or rather, it doesn’t change the sound at all; it just makes it quieter -both sides at the same time -and I’m sure all of you out there with consoles know how rare that is. There’s even a built-in 40 watt cue amplifier, which I would be using to drive a mono Avantone (Tape Op #55) if I could make it shut off when I turn the speakers on. (Hey Dangerous! Possible mod to Talkback function?) I must also mention what is perhaps my favorite design feature; if the unit loses power, the relays automatically mute the speaker outputs, and when the power comes back on they are DIMMED -until you un-dim them, at which time they come back at the same volume you left them. Hallelujah -no more blown drivers from power hiccups. What a godsend. This should be mandatory in every monitoring section.

As far as the sound… it sounds like… nothing. Exactly what it’s supposed to sound like. Until you turn the volume knob -whereupon you hear, from the depths of the rack brain, a very distinctive and welcome series of clicks. Click. Clickclick. Clickclickclickclickclickclick. Relays. The whole volume control is stepped relays, which is freakin’ sweet, because left and right track perfectly from a whisper up to full-tilt boogie. I love relays. I also love the PPI function -the Producer Pacification Indicator -for its ability to give the mix that extra 1%. (RTFM -page 12.)

The Additional Switching System (do the math on the acronym -welcome to the school of Jonathan Little) with the DAC-ST module handles D/A conversion and allows four AES or S/PDIF sources to be fed into the system and seamlessly switched. I use this to monitor the output of my DAW, the digital output of our hi-res print system, and a digital output from my Mac for iTunes, Finder previews, etc. It’s an indispensable part of the system. Furthermore, in addition to the buffered passthroughs for each digital input, the Dangerous DAC-ST allows for a passthrough signal, post-switching, to allow you to use all the digital switching features of the unit with the D/A converter of your choice -great if you’ve already got a killer D/A. Although at that point, you may end up selling your D/A, because you’ll have the Dangerous one.

Here is where I start to split hairs. Before I got my hands on the stellar sounding Dangerous, I had a great monitoring setup through a Lavry DA10. Do I prefer it over the Lavry? No. I like the way the Lavry renders the midrange a tad better, although I like the soundstage and the bottom of the Dangerous slightly better. Honestly, it’s really a wash; I could work happily with either. The distinct advantage that the Dangerous DAC-ST has is that it doesn’t pop when you switch signal sources. The Lavry has a brief, half-second dropout that, while not a game-changer, makes direct A/B comparisons a little tough.

Since it’s the holiday season as I write this, here’s my Dangerous wishlist. I wish the headphone jack and volume control were located on the remote instead of on the rack unit. I wish that there were more inputs and outputs, and I would love to see an iPod input jack on the unit somewhere. I wish the unit allowed for some user-accessible hacks like using the cue amp for a mono speaker. I would have liked to see an optical digital input for Mac Pro audio output. However, the beauty of this design is that it crams a ton of options into an incredibly great sounding, easy-to-use device. It does what you need it to do, it does it well and it’s second nature to use it. And for all its features, it’s not all that pricey. In my opinion, it’s a must-have.

So I’m keeping it. (Monitor ST $1899 street; SR $1299; DAC-ST $949; ASS $199 + modules @ various prices; www.dangerousmusic.com)

 

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