KS Audio D-80 Coax by andreaeffe
In the world of studio monitoring, today, there are many options – perhaps too many, and many surprises – most of them rather negative, at least in my opinion and experience.
What I’m hinting at is not that one hears horrible sounding monitor speakers in this crowded sector of the audio market, on the contrary, compared to some of the options of the past I believe we have much, much better and more accessible tools at our disposal, often for fantastically reasonable prices. But it has to be said that today's aggressive marketing speak, easily throwing around words such as “linear / superlinear /stellar / reference / neutral / truth / innovative / incredible” etc, further enhanced by internet chatter, over-exaggeration and hearsay, can and does lead to a fair share of “Oh…so this is it? Meh!” moments when one actually gets to listen to some of the available studio or supposedly “studio monitors”, many just being a reworking of already all too familiar sonic characteristics or flaws, and many just being a new packaging of an old take on things, often with a hefty top end or low end emphasis to supposedly please this or that segment of the potential customers – the bass lovers, the detail fetishists, etc.
Well, the purpose of this intro is to clearly state that the KS Digital D80 coaxial active studio monitors, which I have purchased and use for my new studio and am now reviewing, also deliver a surprise… but it is a GOOD one. I’d even say a great one, in fact.
This is one of the most surprisingly revealing and surprisingly potent nearfield studio monitor speakers I’ve ever heard, and it plays in its own league, doing things its own way, and with a character of its own.
A little background:
KS Digital is a German company based in Saarbrucken, KS Audio being the manufacturer, also making PAs & hifi speakers, but KS Digital being the pro audio studio product branch. It's a company that I learn has been around for 20+ years, and whose monitors I first noticed in some mastering studios, and wasn’t at all familiar with. So we are not facing some newcomer to loudspeaker manufacturing and design, nor one of the now abundant “Designed in the EU/UK/US >>> made in China/Whereveritwascheaper” companies of the audio world. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with far east made products (a.k.a. if it is good, it IS good) or with outsourcing and looking for ways to make the end customer save some money, of course, as long as it doesn’t come with a compromise in quality and quality control, or with strange twists of employment & job crisis & environmental issues, or as is all too often a case with a premium exotic price tag despite the evidently now much cheaper parts & labour sourcing.
And the KS Digital D80s couldn’t be less affected by any of this, as they are designed & built in Germany. Which, for those appreciating both the myth and the truth of “German engineering & quality”, might definitely be considered a plus.
The other background info to point out is that these 2-way coaxial monitors proudly employ a proprietary technology and solution developed by KS Digital, the “FIRTEC” trademarked filtering and DSP processing in the onboard crossover. Yes, as many other studio monitor speakers today the D80s do their internal business digitally, the incoming analog audio signal being hi-res converted at 24bit 192 kHz and then processed.
Without going into a review of the technology itself (of which I have only as much knowledge & understanding as comes from KS Digital’s own info and manual and from the reviews I’ve read, i.e. I haven’t ripped these boxes open to put stuff on a test bench, and I am not an electronics or digital engineer) FIRTEC is said to be a frequency and phase correction & optimization system, also operating in the time domain, not only the sound domain, thus ensuring practically perfect time alignment, impulse response and frequency & phase coherence of the sounds being reproduced by the drivers. A certain degree of what FIRTEC does behind the scenes relates to optimizing things for the inner dimensions of the speaker cabinet in relation to the drivers, and is therefore factory preset, while a certain creative or taste relative or room relative amount of user interaction is provided via various control options, some immediately available from the D80’s front face, others a bit more hidden away.
What most counts anyway and obviously is if it all works – the proof is, indeed, in the pudding.
The KS Digital D80s are cube-looking boxes, with triangular front bass-reflex ports in two corners, made of solid MDF finished in some sort of rubberized finish in some shade of battleship grey (enter “50 Shades Of” joke here), weighing 8.5kg each. Heavy, but not spectacularly so, as looking at other approx. 8” active monitors a Yamaha HS8 weighs 10.2 kg, an Adam A8X weighs 12.8kg, and the also coaxial & also DSP governed all-metal Genelec 8351 weighs a staggering 19kg. In fact, my first impression upon unboxing was that the D80s are somewhat diminutive in size & weight, an impression that was later commanded back to where it came from by their performance and sound.
The front panel is clearly dominated a hefty and race-car-industrial sleek looking 8” carbon fibre woofer with a striking white circular metal horn right in the middle of it for the 1” compression driver tweeter. Mind you, “carbon fibre” here means exactly what this word means in the race car or aerospace world, so we’re not talking of some carbon fibre texture imitation or glossy lookalike, but of the real thing; and “metal horn” means an industrial furnace molten metal cup shaped thing, not flimsy or thin by any extent of the imagination.
There is an elegant metal strip which is home to a power on switch, a jewel-light style blue power on LED, the KSD logo and three somewhat vintage or perhaps big old guitar pedal looking finely stepped rotary knobs for high shelf, low shelf, and volume.
Being stepped, recall and L/R matching is easy, and not much damage can be done as both shelves are rather gentle, with a +/-6dB range, just as the volume pot has. Being digital encoders, these knobs also provide for a “factory reset” option, so regardless of any other or previous settings both local or remote that might have been used, powering the speaker up with all 3 knobs turned hard left will reset them to the default settings, which are then accessible by placing all 3 knobs back to the flat central, 12 o’clock position.
No further controls that the user might want to access are hidden on the back panel, which only houses the heatsink for the really powerful twin 150W (!!!) Class A PWM (!!!) amplifiers, an RJ45 Cat5 port for a remote control connection to which I’ll come back later, the 230V IEC power cable socket with adjacent 2A fuse, and the analog XLR input. No digital input is provided, and in my own old-skool mindset and workflow I actually liked that.
EDIT: btw the D80s come with an excellent and informative manual, that covers not only the speakers themselves, but a bit about the technology behind them and about positioning & room interaction. If not in printed form, it can be viewed/downloaded here:
There is also a Youtube presentation by KS Digital, to benefit the curious:
The D80s have two smaller brothers, the D60 and D606, featuring 6" paper woofer(s) instead of carbon fibre, and a bigger brother, the D808, featuring twin 8" woofers sharing the bass duties and extending the low end response even further - however, for my control room size and given my personal dislike for dual woofer arrangements (which in this case is also a bit in contrast to the whole coaxial and point source/time aligned principle), the D80s seemed like the right choice.
And how do they sound?
In just one word, as I already said, SURPRISING.
Surprisingly loud, surprisingly tight, surprisingly big, surprisingly ruthless and revealing.
I’ve always been a fan of coaxial or concentric speaker designs, perhaps because way back in the 1980s and 1990s I did my fair share of listening, tracking and mixing on Tannoy speakers, namely the Golds, the System 12s, the DMTs, the Sytem 600s, and I later had a pair of active Precision 8s as my main monitor in my mix room for years, but mostly because there are some very evident advantages in terms of the imaging and the width of the sweet spot. Well, the KS Digital D80s deliver all this, too, albeit in a different manner and flavour from the Tannoys, probably due to the use of a horn for the tweeter, which makes for a different dispersion and sound, and probably due to whatever minor miracles their FIRTEC technology is cooking up in the crossovers. So even more than the imaging, what surprised me is the extremely generous sweet spot width and the really tangible depth of field, a front-to-back feeling of insight into a track or a mix that I’d only heard in very upscale monitors installed in very upscale studios with equally upscale acoustics.
But even more than that, the low end performance and bass reproduction of the D80s is amazing. There is NO bass overhang, or sloppiness, or tubbiness, or resonance and confusion to be hear here – or rather, if there is, it’s in your mix, and it’s your fault. The D80s push a strong, commanding and HUGE bass, tight and punchy, quick and responsive. Compared to other monitors, it’s not just a very good extension in terms of how low the speakers go frequency-wise, it’s more like the difference between someone throwing a sloppy loose punch in a bar brawl and a karate master delivering a quick, precise blow. The D80s are indeed also “musician pleasers”, providing both sufficient volume and excitement in the control room. Interestingly, if you place a light source sideways to these speakers, the jumping and dancing that their carbon woofer does is excitingly entertaining, looking as if it’s going to pop out of the box, like what one would see in Yamaha NS10s in the old days in a studio where the level of excitement and perhaps of exciting substances had caused the volume to be cranked up so high that the next step was the dreaded and frequent cone dying moment. But these show no sign of blowing out, they just deliver and fill the room a lot more than their physical size would allow to imagine, possibly also aided by the fixed internal 28Hz protection high-pass filter and the 18kHz “protection” (whatever that means?) in front of the 1” tweeter driver as shown in the signal flow diagram in the manual.
In terms of character, despite the enormous size difference, the KS Digital D80s remind me of a pair of Genelec 1034 flush mounted main monitors in a studio where I often work – an older series, with the hard carton/paper woofers instead of the newer plastic cones, they just like and demand to be pushed, and provide hard hitting fast low end, with brash but clear detail in the “pain area” of the midrange. Many hate those Genelecs for being so ruthless, but I’ve grown to like them exactly for that, and I find great confidence in how well, even soft & delicate, great records sound on them, while poorly made ones sound quite unlistenable to.
Listening critically, there are 4 main things I’d say these monitors do not “like”, meaning that they tend to reveal them mercilessly:
-excessive sibilance in vocals
-excessive stridence or fizzyness in electric guitars
-low mid clutter and “mud”
-uncontrolled bass frequencies and ringing or overhang
So it comes as a telling surprise how good some world renowned, or well recorded, produced & mixed tracks sound on the D80s, versus how embarrassing some more cheap & dirty tracks come out sounding.
And that, in my book, makes for an EXCELLENT tracking and mixing tool.
Specified at an extremely respectable 40Hz to 22kHz +/-3dB frequency response, with a crossover point at an unusually low but evidently well picked 1.6kHz, I don’t see these speakers as wanting to be glorified hi-fi boxes in any way; they don’t flatter, they don’t smiley-curve things, they don’t soften anything, so while they might not be your best friends for a leisure listening room, they can be your no-bull hard-nosed best work partners.
The aforementioned RJ45 Ethernet port on the back is meant to be used to connect to either KS Digital’s FIR W-Lan remote control software and daisy-chain one speaker to the other for these control purposes, or to perhaps more practically connect to the company’s RC-100 remote control, which allows access to a plethora of additional parameters, turning the D80s into a tweaker’s dream, or more usefully a system truly finely tuned to the control room it is operating in. 3 parametric eq filters with frequency/Q/gain, both high and low shelves, digital system gain, delay, phase as well as volume can be accessed via this little remote unit; that also sports a volume knob, and mute/dim/mono switches.
Besides that, I guess the RC-100 remote is the only correct and useful way of implementing a subwoofer should one require it, as using monitor speakers that employ digital electronics and therefore A/D & D/A conversion time alongside a conventional hooked up subwoofer before them would bring time and alignment discrepancies into play that I seriously wouldn’t want to hear nor deal with.
My review is based solely on the D80s themselves, not the RC-100 remote or their use with it, as I haven’t had the opportunity to play with that unit and test it, but I am looking forward to do so.
Room for improvement?
Well we all nitpick, don’t we? And that’s a good thing, as it probably pushes gear manufacturers to better their offerings and incorporate user feedback in their future updates.
So, regarding my D80s, what I think could be bettered is as follows:
1-the finish/rubberized paint – as cool as it looks and feels to the touch, somewhat reminding me of a series of Alesis monitors of the past, it tends to be delicate and in fact I’ve already managed to dent & slightly wrinkle mine in a spot, even though I haven’t had them for long and there have been no metal bands having parties & groupies on them (yet).
2-the speaker orientation – this is a confusing one… Are the D80s meant to be placed horizontally? Or vertically? And what is horizontal or vertical, when the box is almost a square, and the legending above the rotary knobs goes one way, while the company logo goes the other? The instinctive logic says they are meant to be placed with the knobs vertically one above the other and the bass-reflex ports on the side, but you then realize that because they are not mirror image L/R pairs but just 2 identical boxes, one side will have the ports to the side and the other to the center, unless you flip one speaker over, in which case the knob legending will be upside down and the power switch will be up on one side and down on the other! Placing them with the bass-reflex ports vertically solves this, except for the power switch and knobs which of course are not mirror image placed. I’ll look into unscrewing the little brushed metal strip that houses these and reversing it, but I have to say I’m not a fan of having to do that, and would much prefer it if they already came in a L/R pair fashion.
3-the high shelf – while it does its job, exactly as the low shelf does if wall or corner proximity is to be tamed, given the character of this particular speaker I personally would have preferred to have a broad “tilt” eq for the high end, one that would start gently sloping upwards from the midrange, and not a shelf mainly affecting the highs. Then again, this is entirely a matter of personal taste and related to the room the D80s are placed in, and undoubtedly a non-issue if one operates them or sets them up with the RC-100 remote.
These are GREAT studio monitors.
Deep and detailed, firmly in control, brutally revealing, and remarkably loud. If one were to hook up a sub, I think they could easily pass as midfields, and shake any control room like a little PA.
So provided that your control room is up to it and up to spec (as I said, this is NO hi-fi or bookshelf speaker, and just placing them on a desk alongside a DAW monitor in an untreated room would probably cook up a tsunami), they can be a first class professional tool. Combined with their superb pricing, currently around 1800 EUR for the PAIR (!!!) in EU, they represent incredible value for money, and achieve what many other studio monitors can only aspire to.