Compromise is a fact of life, especially when it comes to surround sound. Monitor Audio believes that in this area at least, it has an affordable trouble-free solution.
These days much of the content we watch, from blockbuster movies to the football is offered in surround sound. So it’s a shame if we aren’t able to enjoy the full multichannel audio experience. You can buy a soundbar, and that will certainly sound better than the speakers in your TV. H
owever, despite some fairly dubious claims by manufacturers it will never deliver a genuine surround experience. The only way to do surround properly is to put speakers behind you. That’s where MASS, or Monitor Audio Surround System to give it its full name comes in.
The company has taken decades of high-end speaker experience, and condensed it into a 5.1-channel subwoofer and satellite package. These ‘sub/sat’ systems rely on the subwoofer for the low frequency heavy lifting, allowing the satellite speakers to be much smaller and thus more lifestyle friendly. MASS is designed as a cost-effective and idiot-proof solution to your multichannel headaches; let’s see if it’s as strife-free as Monitor Audio promise.
DESIGN AND BUILD: DISCRETION IS THE KEY
The version of MASS that I’m reviewing here is the product’s second iteration, and Monitor Audio has clearly learnt from experience. The original system used satellite speakers that were fairly large and, not to put too fine a point on it, ugly. The new design uses a smaller and highly robust cabinet with curved edges and an attractive custom-weave finish. You get a choice of two colours: ‘Midnight’ which is basically a combination of black and blue; or the rather pretentious ‘Mist’ which is really white and grey.
These newly designed satellite speakers definitely fall into the category of ‘lifestyle friendly’ and are discreet enough to be easily hidden among the soft furnishings. I really like the fabric finish, and despite being quite small the speakers feel heavy and well-made in your hand.
The front and rear of each speaker can be removed. While there’s no reason to take the front grille off, you will need to detach the rear to access the binding posts when wiring the speakers. You can’t have a sub/sat system without a subwoofer, and the one included in the MASS package follows a similar design aesthetic. It doesn’t deviate from the standard look of a sub, so it’s basically a cube. But it boasts the same eye-catching custom-weave and colour choices.
The sub cabinet is well-made, has curved edges, and a front-firing 8” driver. The fabric grille is removable, but there’s no reason to take it off. It’s an unobtrusive bit of kit that’s easily hidden amongst the furniture or slipped behind a sofa, which was undoubtedly Monitor Audio’s intention.
FEATURES: SATELLITES OF LOVE
The satellites are a completely different design compared to the previous MASS generation.
These new speakers use a two-way layout based around a 0.75” soft dome tweeter, and a 3.5” MMP II (Metal Matrix Polymer) midrange driver. The driver sits at the bottom, with the tweeter is above it and over to the left. All five satellites are identical. That’s a good thing because it means they sound the same and the resulting surround system should have a balanced tone.
The speakers aren’t massively sensitive, but they’re easy to drive and unsurprisingly for a satellite they have a frequency range that only goes down to 105Hz. That’s because the idea of a sub/sat system is to use the subwoofer to deliver all that low-end goodness.
That keeps the satellites small because they only have to handle the midrange and above. The included sub has an 8” MMP II driver with 120W of amplification to provide the oomph. It goes down to 35Hz which is pretty low, but crucially it also goes up to 150Hz which allows it to crossover with the satellites
SETUP: *SPEAKER CABLE NOT INCLUDED
Before I get into the specifics of setup, there’s a couple of things that I need to make clear. The MASS is not an all-in-one system: what you get in the box is five identical satellite speakers and a subwoofer that has been specifically designed to integrate with those satellites.
This means you’re going to need a receiver or amplifier with at least five channels of amplification to power the satellites (the sub obviously has its own built-in amplification). You’re also going to need plenty of cabling but don’t go spending a fortune; basic 14-gauge speaker wire is more than enough.
Now that’s out of the way, we can move on to the actual setup. Since the satellites are quite small, you can easily place them around the lounge: tables, book shelves, and equipment stands can all come in handy.
What’s important is that you have a speaker either side of your TV, and one beneath it for the centre channel. The two surround speakers need to be just behind the main listening position. Try and keep all the speakers in the same orientation, and ideally at ear height.
Placement of the sub is less important, because low frequencies aren’t directional. I’d suggest one of the corners at the front, to give the bass a boost. Don’t forget you also need to plug it in.
Monitor Audio offers the optional MASS Stand for the satellites. They’re mighty pretty and come in a choice of black or white, but at £100 a pair you’re paying for those looks. A more sensible choice is the MASM Mount wall bracket. It’s not as sexy but its £18 price tag it is all of a sudden 10x more attractive. Then all you need to do is run the automated setup on your AV receiver or amplifier, and you’re good to go.
One final tip: if you have the option, I’d recommend setting the crossover to 110Hz.
PERFORMANCE: IMMERSION THERAPY
Despite what you might have read, nothing immerses you in sound like a genuine surround system.
Hearing effects emanate from every direction can completely change your aural perception. A film like Ready Player One becomes a sonic rollercoaster ride, while A Quiet Place is now far from quiet and thus all the more terrifying.
A system’s ability to coalesce into a three dimensional soundscape is what differentiates the good multichannel setups from the bad. MASS definitely falls into the former category, creating a cohesive and composed 5.1-channel experience that surrounds the listener.
The beauty of using satellites is that the identical speakers combine to create a surround system that’s tonally balanced. Sounds glide from one speaker to another with the grace of an ice dancer. There’s no sudden changes in tone or pitch caused by different tweeters or drivers.
Despite their diminutive stature, the satellites are capable of conjuring up a confident soundstage. The drivers manage to tease a surprising amount of detail from even the most complex soundtrack. There’s a crispness to the treble, and the tweeters are able to render the higher frequencies without becoming shrill or sibilant.
While you never get the sense of scale or epic scope that larger speakers can offer, what you do get is a nimbleness combined with precision and control. The smaller enclosures make the satellites ideal for less spacious living rooms, and pairing them with a solid entry-level receiver or amp will pay dividends.
A five-channel configuration should be enough for all but the most ardent multichannel fans, but there are expansion options. Monitor Audio sell the satellites individually at £75 a pop, so if you have the room and the extra amplification you can run a 7.1-channel system.
Of course a satellite speaker is only as good as its subwoofer, and a sub/sat system will live or die on how well the two are integrated. If the sub turbo-charges the bass it will stomp over the satellites like a pair of hobnail boots. If it lacks sub-sonic authority, then the rest of the system will lose any real sense of impact. It all comes down to the crossover: the point at which the satellites hand over the low frequency duties to the subwoofer. If this is bungled, the system becomes congested and the bass is either overpowering or completely missing. A crossover that’s too high is a particular issue, causing voices to sound unnatural.
There are no such issues with the MASS system, the sub hands over to the satellites with the practised precision of a relay team. The system is also very responsive, reacting to changes in volume and effortlessly steering sounds around the room.
A Quiet Place makes dramatic use of dynamic range, and this sub/sat combo handled the transitions from near-silence to very loud without missing a beat.
If I had one complaint about the MASS system its that the subwoofer feels a little underpowered. It integrates with the satellites seamlessly, but the 8” driver limits how much the system can mine the sub-sonic depths.
This was immediately apparent when King Kong made his appearance during the opening race in Ready Player One. The giant ape just didn’t have the sheer mass (if you’ll pardon the pun) that he had with other systems. That’s why I’d suggest putting the sub in a corner to boost its low-end presence.
In all other respects this is a great little 5.1 sub/sat system that’s sure to please, it's a well-designed and immersive package that won’t break the bank.
MONITOR AUDIO MASS VERDICT
This 5.1-channel surround system promises discretion and performance in equal measure, and to a large part it delivers. The subwoofer is a trifle underpowered but in all other respects MASS is a multichannel winner.
If you fancy some alternatives, and it’s always good to have choice, then the Wharfedale DX2 is definitely worth considering. This compact and stylish 5.1 speaker package comes in black or white, delivering detailed and dynamic cinematic moments. Best of all, it’s only £450.
Those with a slightly larger budget might seek-out the Q Acoustics 3010i 5.1 system. It’s higher up the price range at £780, but more than justifies the extra wonga with superior build quality, a choice of finishes, and performance that shames speakers twice the price.