Audient Nero Monitor Controller by Arthur Stone
This is the monitor controller you always wanted: better, cheaper, faster.
Wiki says:...Nero studied poetry, music, painting and sculpture. He both sang and played the cithara (a type of lyre)...Nero's devotion to music exceeded what was socially acceptable for a Roman of his class.
Let's skip the rest of the (rather Machiavellian) biography having made the link between Roman Emperor Nero as the model for an effective controller and Audient's latest product.
Audient is a familiar name and the Nero as a product is backed-up by the company's reputation in audio engineering and electronic wizardry. Equally the Nero maintains Audient's reputation. They have really excelled here and produced an iconic product in my opinion.
Price (approx.): $349 US/ £369 UK/ Euro 380
12 month warranty; not user-serviceable.
Power supply: 12Volt DC (2 amps) Nice small 'on-plug' design that connects firmly to the unit. Accompanied by a metal Power On/Off toggle switch.
Weight: 2 kg/ 4.4 lbs Heavy enough to sit solidly on the desk but also relatively portable should the need arise.
Dimensions (w x h x d): 255 x 75 x 155mm/ approx. 10 x 3 x 5” Good, modest footprint given Nero's capability and spacious ergonomics.
Inputs: 2 pairs of TRS balanced line inputs on jack - these sources can be selected as SRC 1 and SRC 2.
One pair of TRS balanced jacks for CUE input; and AUX unbalanced inputs on RCA and/or 1/8” mini-jack. CUE and AUX also selectable. RAC inputs are overridden when the mini-jack is inserted. Neat. You can even plug your phone in.
In addition is a stereo (2-channel L/R) S/PDIF input on either TOSLINK optical or coaxial. Nero automatically locks to the source settings (from 44.1-192kHz up to 24-bit). This is high-quality and the conversion is very good. Definitely amongst the best conversion I've used; I like it.
The final input is a balanced XLR mic input (with 48V phantom-power selectable via a rear toggle switch); additionally, there is an in-built mic for talkback.
No phono/RIAA curve/grounding post input but it follows with the components logic and at this level you'll probably have specialised preamps for record decks.
Outputs: 3 pairs of stereo out to monitors – MAIN/ALT1/ALT2 - on TRS balanced jack; like the inputs these outputs are selectable (one selection only) from buttons on top panel. A rear mono sub out and 3 rear headphones out along with a front-panel console grade headphone out with a mini-jack mirror out.
The ALT outputs can be level-matched to the MAIN outs. Neat.
Functionality: There's waay too much to cover here. Put simply it's electronic control of analogue signal paths – that means recallability, presets, lower-cost, etc,
Basically you can route any of the inputs to any of the monitor outputs including 3 artist headphone outputs (with trim) and monitor the activity and routing from the engineers front-panel headphone output(s).
Usefully the Nero has a MONO button which sums the left/right channels; used with the POL button (which flips the phase/polarity of the left channel) it's possible to monitor the side signals which is useful for checking reverbs and side info using sum-and-difference. The DIM cut level can be user-defined.
Along with the CUE mix and TALKBACK facilities everything is trim adjustable and latch-able or momentary. In all a very neat package – with no sonic compromise.
The main level control – the large rotary attenuator dial – is smooth, weighted milled aluminium with a black coating. You can feel the high engineering values in your fingertips; again, a pleasure to use this easily-locatable dial. Despite the lack of detented positions, the white line on the dial can be used with the grid on the fascia for recall of level. A nice touch is that the white line is notched into the dial and can be felt with the fingertips unsighted.
Importantly the left/right channels are level-matched and I heard a balanced soundstage.
I've missed a lot out so please check the Nero manual for full details.
In Use: I'm super-fussy about what gear gets into my signal path; like many, I learnt this the hard way, but nonetheless it's a valuable lesson. I like the old BBC engineers ethos of the shortest signal path possible; in my experience this produces a full, clear sound (when the room/source are good). Dirt, broken gear, and long cables have their place too.
Out of the box, as soon as I physically held the Audient Nero, I had a positive vibe. Heavy enough; solid but portable. Robust folded-steel case; good dials with no wobble; quiet buttons; good-quality connections.
The layout is perfect for the controller task and the fascia is angled towards the user at arms reach. Great ergonomics. Nero works very well in low light.
I was a little hesitant about plugging it in; the last thing I wanted was to hear a flaw in the sonics and then have to describe that flaw to you using just words.
In the past I've used interface monitor controllers (high-end and budget); also the Mackie Big Knob Studio+, the KRK Ergo, and Audiolinear Axis (a passive desktop unit).
The Audiolinear AXIS , costing around 700 units of your currency, has been my favourite so far: I described it as “a beautiful instrument that produces silence.” In functionality, Audient's Nero is similar to the Audiolinear Axis: the major difference is that the Axis is passive (it requires no mains power input and make-up gain comes from the monitors) whereas the Nero is active. In practice, the Axis has a neutral sonic field (natural daylight as a metaphor) whereas the Nero introduces some artificial light (it's active circuitry) which diffuses and permeates the soundstage; like a photographers flash light which is only visible in the enhancement it makes to the picture.
A lot of the high-end monitor controllers are active and the Nero's sonics seem to be more similar to these than the lower-priced monitor controllers I've tried. My criticism of the lower-priced units is that although initially you get an exciting and vibrant signal, in time the sound becomes fatiguing and distortion can be discerned. In addition, reference accuracy is lost. Translation is affected.
The Audient Nero suffered from none of these issues, hence the comparison to higher-end monitor controllers. The Nero is a pleasure to use, all day and night, at any volume level. No fatigue. No noticeable colouration of sound apart from the aforementioned 'house sound' in comparison to other monitor controllers.
The Audient Nero is a flexible unit in terms of I/O connections; nothing seemed noisy or mismatched. Connected gear and levels worked perfectly and the gain trims on the Nero provided a useful range of control. I settled on connecting the last unit in my analogue 2-bus chain, a Sound Devices 702 digital recorder, into the Nero via S/PDIF at 192 kHz then into Mackie XR624 monitors.
The sound is stunning. Beautiful conversion. I have no problem using the Nero in my signal chain – analogue or digital. It works alongside, on a par with, the iZ RADAR and Sound Devices conversion.
Conclusion: Nero was a full on dude; likewise the Audient Nero desktop monitor controller offers full control with a very light sonic footprint. Faster. Better. Cheaper. The monitor controller you always wanted...
As with more expensive monitor controllers, you not only get great 'invisible' audio quality but a comprehensive routing mixer too.
My experience with the Nero left me interested in the sonic potential of Audient's consoles.
Sound quality: The Nero didn't adversely affect the audio – that's a big, big plus. The ambience/silence sounded 'active' (in comparison to passive monitor controllers) but very clear and lucid. The best active controller I've heard.
Ease of use: Lack of XLR out to monitor will annoy some (on the plus side it saves space and cost); the ergonomics (slight tilt), the beautiful buttons and dials make the Nero a pleasure to use even in low light.
Features: Routing; trim; meters; lit buttons, are perfect for the monitor controller task. Importantly, the volume dial is comfortable to use. Great manual and support from Audient.
Bang-for-buck: Very good. Nero doesn't mess up your sound. Well-built. Does the job without fuss. Timelessly-stylish. Good investment in your studio's signal path.
Credits and Links:
Nero info from the Audient website.
Audient Nero manual (pdf).
Bust of Nero at the Capitoline Museum, Rome By cjh1452000 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6983878
Images used courtesy of Audient; additional images by Arthur Stone.