Hands on with the Monsoon PlanarMedia 14 Audio System

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I've finally found a speaker system I like better than my Harman Kardon SoundSticks: Level 9 Sound Design Inc.'s Monsoon PlanarMedia 14 Audio System. The old saying is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the PlanarMedia 14 is a sonic feast.

The PFT100 transducers used in the PlanarMedia 14 system are the same models that are in the PM-9 system that I reviewed for MacCentral last year, so their sonic quality is virtually identical. What makes the PlanarMedia 14 different is more power and significantly more bass. This is a 100 watt system, compared to the PlanarMedia 9's 76 watt RMS rating. It doesn't sound like a lot, but the PlanarMedia 14 packs a big punch.

Designed around Monsoon's vaunted Planar Focus Technology, the PlanarMedia 14 is a 2.1 speaker system: Two satellite speakers paired with a subwoofer. Unlike more conventional-looking speaker systems, the PlanarMedia 14 uses "Planar Ribbon Transducers:" flat speakers that use a lightweight diaphragm rather than the heavier cone-shaped design you'll find in speakers from other companies. The result is an astonishingly flat speaker design that produces a very crisp, bright signal.

One thing that makes Planar Focus Technology transducers different from more conventional cone speakers is their dipole-radiating design -- they emit sound from the front and the back, but don't radiate a lot outward to the sides. As a result, if you're looking to indiscriminately fill the room with sound, the PlanarMedia series aren't your best bet.

But this same design is ideal when you're playing games or watching a movie, because it provides a very tight directional reference, without a lot of the muddy signal reflection you might hear from other sound systems. The "sweet spot" where the stereo signal sounds the best is smaller, as well, but it's a lot more precise. To get the best effect from your Monsoon speakers, you need to set them about a foot away from the wall or the back of your desk, if you can, and you need to play with the angle a bit to get them set up to sound just right.

Monsoon's audio engineers designed a great subwoofer with the PlanarMedia 9 system, and I wondered how they'd be able to top themselves with the 14. Well, the PlanarMedia 14's sub is an 8 inch cone inside a 15.5 liter vented cabinet tuned to 38Hz. It's a gargantuan piece of obsidian technology that looks like it belongs under the Borg Queen's desk. It shook my pants even when I wasn't wearing any. And unlike the SoundStick's graceful, organic-looking clear sub, this is one you're going to want to hide under your desk, lest it frighten old ladies and small children. This sub gobbled up anything really meaty and bass-heavy in my collection, and never cracked a sweat. It was a godsend in games, too: Explosions shook the desk. It also helped to prove a long-standing theory of mine: Sufficent bass from your sound system makes force feedback controllers largely irrelevant. I could feel gun recoils and explosions through my desk without needing any special gaming hardware.

These $150 speakers aren't nearly as eye-catching as some of the designs that Harman Multimedia and others have come out with in recent years. I definitely prefer the black metal shells of the PlanarMedia 14's satellites compared to the PlanarMedia 9's, which are clad in a more graphite grey color. But they still look like spatulas, and are a bit jarring next to the graceful translucent curves of my Cinema Display. (Think "surprised cyclops" as you look at this image.)

Monsoon provides a wired remote control that's jacked in to the subwoofer. It fits neatly into the base of either speaker, and provides you with separate master volume and bass volume controls, along with a mute button, along with a green LED to let you know if the system's powered. It also provides an earphone jack if you'd prefer to listen privately. The PlanarMedia 14 uses a conventional 1/8th inch headphone speaker jack for audio input, by the way, so you don't need to cobble a USB port hooking these up to your Mac.

The bright quality of the speakers I mentioned before may not appeal to everyone. I've heard people refer to these speakers as shrill, but I like their dynamic range. The speakers have a more robust midrange sound than other speakers I've tried.

I play a lot of action games on my Mac, watch action movie and anime DVDs from time to time, and listen to a lot of rock, electronica and jazz. Regardless of whether it was Unreal Tournament 2003, Audioslave's Like a Stone, Trane playing Theme for Ernie, or Vin Diesel's latest action flick, the PlanarMedia 14 system handled everything with aplomb, never complaining once. I don't have any pretense of being an audiophile, but I know what I like. And I like the way this speaker system sounds.

This story, "Hands on with the Monsoon PlanarMedia 14 Audio System" was originally published by PCWorld.

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