Review: Genelec 8381A

Above: Andy Bensley of Genelec and Andy Jones discuss the 8381As at HHB London.

What is it?
Adaptive Point Source main studio monitors with the advantages of huge dynamic range, power and directivity, but also with the ability to be transported and used in a variety of locations thanks to a free-standing design and cutting-edge GLM and SAM technology.

What’s great?
The soundstage is extraordinary and combined with the dynamic range, will let you place track elements with ridiculous accuracy. The sound is also honest, open, huge and addictive. The relative mobility thanks to their free-standing design is also a win.

What’s not?
Only bigger budgets and rooms need apply.

The bottom line:
Genelec has transferred some of its best technologies into a set of main room monitors that deliver the best of all worlds and an immersive experience that will give you an almost arrogant level of mixing confidence. Of course they are top level speakers, but you can pay a lot more for permanently fixed solutions and the inflexibility that often goes with them.

Price: Price: £59,999 per pair, US $64,000

Where to buy: Genelec

Genelec’s 8381A studios monitors have the full-range power and frequency response of main studio monitors, but also a lot of the advantages of smaller speakers in terms of cutting-edge room correction technology and (relative) mobility. In fact they pack in a lot of the features and some design elements of their smaller siblings, The Ones, and while they are not officially part of that Genelec speaker range, they are known as ‘The Main Ones’.

There’s no getting away from the fact that these are speaker solutions for big budget operations and medium to large sized rooms. They stand tall – around 145cm x 50cm x 70cm – and have a free-standing design that includes a five-way speaker set-up, with no less than three sets of mid- range drivers, and a large Double Low Woofer System on which the top half of each cabinet is mounted, with three possible angled positions.

Genelec says the idea is that they deliver everything that you would expect from studio speakers installed within larger studios – think those that are built into the walls of studios A and B at Metropolis. They can be transported to projects for a semi-permanent set-up giving them and users much more flexibility – and the 8381s can be located freely within a room to create less impact on studio infrastructure.

This is backed up by the fact that the 8381As use Genelec’s ground-breaking but now widely imitated GLM (Genelec Loudspeaker Manager) software combined with the company’s Smart Active Monitor (SAM) technology. These mean the speakers can self-adjust according to a new room environment, moving crossover frequencies and attenuating frequency responses according to data fed in via a reference microphone system. The setup is quick, the results usually stunning, so you effectively end up with a set of high-end main room monitors that can be used in /many/ main rooms, not just a permanent and expensive fixture in one location.

The Main Point
The 8381A’s key technology is called Point Source Continued Directivity (PCD), and a first for the speakers. It essentially means that the main frequencies are coming from a single point source so are in perfect time and space for a highly accurate and wide soundstage. And PCD covers /all/ key frequencies thanks to more Genelec technologies focussed on each part of the range.

Firstly, GLM and SAM are not the only technologies shared with The Ones. The 8381As also share a Minimum Diffraction Coaxial (MDC) coaxial design where a 25mm tweeter sits in the centre of the first 127mm mid-range driver, a single-point source part of the design that results in an accurate image. That is your high and hi-mid frequencies taken care of.

Next up, this coaxial designed tweeter and mid driver setup is surrounded with a Quad Midrange System (QMS), four further 127mm mid-range speakers. Like The Ones – the 8341s, for example – these separate drivers almost join forces, in this case also helping to produce an ultra-precise mid- range imaging within the soundstage.

Mounted at the front of each speaker below the QMS array is a front 381mm driver called a woofer, but acting more like a low-mid speaker. Finally the whole enclosure sits on top of a second cabinet with a ‘Double Low Woofer’ (DLW) system, two 381mm drivers that deliver the sub frequencies and the low end part of the PCD system.

It’s a fairly complex five-way system, then, but all of its component parts combine to provide the highly-directional PCD system, and headline specs that include 5926 watts of power over a vast 20Hz to 35kHz (+/-1.5dB) frequency range. The max short term SPL hits 129db per pair too. It’s also worth noting that the 9320A Reference Controller is included with each pair.

But the even bigger headline is the resulting sound. After a number of listening tests we travelled through several opinions and emotions, all of them ranging from impressed to actually slightly overwhelmed. With the right mix, the stereo imaging was extraordinary, almost to the point that we thought some detail was around us. But the biggest takeaway was not just the horizontal soundstage, but the vertical height and the depth of the field.

No doubt helped by the physical size of the speaker – they are the optimal level (or can be adjusted using an incliner) for listening – and also that 5-way driver system, you get an extraordinary ‘height’ in the listening experience. It’s almost like you are presented with a much more accurate, high resolution grid of your mix moving left/right and up/down so you can place everything with extraordinary detail.

I expected to hear more in the mix – as you so often can when going from consumer to studio monitors – but with the 8381s it wasn’t so much that, but becoming more immersed within all three dimensions: left/right, up/down and partially ‘within’ the mix. We noticed the sweet spot was wide, but there was definitely a position where it was best enjoyed.

Another interesting test was when the SAM/GLM system was switched back to revert to a non adjusted set-up. The non room calibrated mix was noticeably less buoyant and lively, unusually flatter and less absorbing. As we have always found in previous reviews, Genelec’s GLM system really does work and is a lot simpler to employ than you might think.

We’re obviously not going to pretend these speakers are in any way for everyone, but the extraordinary detail in playback has already won them places in regular audiophile set-ups as well as the more studio orientated projects for which they were designed. Genelec has filled a gap in the market we hadn’t considered – main room monitors you can take anywhere and ones that will adjust to wherever you go. If you want to get to an (almost!) arrogant level of confidence with your mixing – and doing it anywhere you like – the 8381As are demanding to be heard.



Q/A with Andy Bensley, regional business development manager, Genelec.

So last year was our 45th anniversary. We wanted to do something special and thought, essentially, what could we do? And the 8381A is kind of an evolution on from The Ones.

What if we could do that on a main monitor scale, offer precision, accuracy as well as high performance high SPL, and the flexibility to place these things anywhere within the room?

If we look at what we’ve done in the past with our in-wall systems, there was a lot of work that would need to be physically done to the studio space to accommodate these larger monitors. So it would require a monitor wall, and a lot of work with acousticians. A lot of factors would have to be known ahead of time – what console is going to be in there, what’s going to be happening with the furniture in the room, where is the listening position because the monitor focusing will be dictated by that listening position.

What we’ve seen over the years is people moving into different rooms on shorter leases, for example. And if the monitoring set up comes with the facility, they’re not really in a position to redesign the room. Working within the space that they’ve got seems to be the order of the day. So that’s where we’ve seen these adaptive technologies, specifically with our GLM calibration software, where you can freely place these systems and get excellent results.

In a similar vein to The Ones and the W371A adaptive woofer system, everything is modular. Each element is calibrated individually with crossovers assigned based on the acoustic properties of the room. So the combination of the system and GLM will then decide which woofer is going to play up to which frequency. And the idea is to give you a frequency response that’s complete, so that we are reducing the influences of the room due to placement . But also, we’re able to control the directivity as well. So we’re able to deliver as much direct sound in the listening position as possible.

These are the two main goals of this system. And then finally, a huge amount of dynamic range in it as well – we’ve got something like a total of six kilowatts of power driving each 8381A.

That adds up to 129 dB of short term SPL per pair. So we’ve got systems that are very capable, with a huge amount of dynamic range, a huge amount of information that can be presented.

But the killer thing with this, because it’s a point source system – with the combined tweeter/midrange and the four midrange drivers – it adds up to an acoustically coaxial system.

Yes, you can listen at less than a meter, or 10 meters. So these are super flexible in terms of where you place these within the room, as well as the point source design, you’ve got so much flexibility. In this room, with a traditional three way design, the usual listening position would always be further back in the room, where each individual driver comes into focus together.

But equally, you could tuck these in even further and listen at the best position as well. You’ll be able to hear how firm that phantom center sounds as you start to move.

One approach that we could have taken would be to just put another 12 inch woofer in the top section along with the tweeter in the mid range driver – like a traditional coax – but then you get the issues of interference with the mid range and the tweeter, with modulation and discontinuity in the frequency response. It’s very difficult to predict what the response is going to be from that kind of design.

So because we’ve got such a large area on the front, we were able to space those five inch mid range drivers in a position where acoustically they essentially sum up to one driver. So you get this acoustic coaxial performance, but it doesn’t interfere with the dedicated mid range/tweeter coax in the center. There’s no interaction between them and the sound just adds up and comes at you from one place.

And this is the idea of the system, because none of those component parts operate on their own. A lot of what is happening under the hood of GLM is being informed by the 8381A system, compared to a third party calibration system working with a third party speaker system – where neither of them know what’s happening. In that situation, the calibration can be asking certain things of the driver makeup that they’re not necessarily capable of delivering. Because we know the capabilities of each of the driver crossover regions etc, GLM will never ask the system to do something that it’s not capable of. So we’re able to guarantee a level of performance not only in terms of SPL, but in terms of the frequency response and the quality of the audio, because we know all of the different component parts.

And we know how the DSP is going to manage and drive the system as well. So that’s a big part of the design process, as well, knowing how we can get the best out of each of these elements. With this project, there were a number of different iterations of the mid range system – whether it was going to have a dome design, or a traditional kind of recessed concave driver, and seeing the measurements from the impulse responses of how the intermodulation was being affected.

And all these kinds of artifacts we were seeing from having the concave design, that’s what led us to the dome design of the QMS mid range drivers. It’s given us a huge amount of control in terms of the design and the predictability of what the final product is going to be. And again, that’s part of the work that was done with The Ones, because no one was making that kind of coax element.

The target customers for the 8381A will be those that are recording, mixing and mastering music, along with post houses. They’re super capable, regardless of the genre. So whether you want something that’s incredibly loud and impactful – to provide a vibe for composition and writing – or you want something that’s super accurate for mixing, they can wear many hats. Plus you’ve got all this performance and exceptional imaging, which isn’t necessarily the case with a lot of larger systems.

For those customers wanting to know whether the 8381As are suitable for their room, we receive this kind of request from customers all the time, asking ‘I’ve got this room with this design, what would you recommend?’ We’ve got a team of nine or 10 people, probably more worldwide that are out there visiting rooms all the time.

So we have a huge amount of experience between us in terms of how our systems perform in the real world, what rooms, what they’re suitable for, how the system scales, in terms of whether being a stereo or an immersive system, and what would work in each scenario etc. But we’ve also got a massive amount of information that we’ve received from customers that are calibrating their systems via GLM’s cloud services. We’ve got access to around 10,000 measurements of people’s rooms, so we’re able to see what the common trends are and where people are typically seeing cancellations in their response. From that we’re able to see our customers’ issues with cancellations, and work out how to solve that with a new product design.

That was origin of the W371A woofer system, and now the 8381A, where rather than trying to fix acoustical issues within the room with EQ alone, we’re able to do it by assigning different drivers to fill in the frequency response. If you do it that way, you are optimizing for a larger area rather than just one specific spot. Otherwise, if you fix one area with EQ, as soon as you move out of that area, you’re into another null where there’s a difficulty – and so you’ll have a reluctance to leave that sweet spot.


Interview: Aki Mäkivirta, Genelec R & D Director