While one could argue that there's nothing really new under the sun, Fender's new Passport Studio represents a novel and well-executed solution to a common problem in the workflow of many recording engineers, and I think it's going to appeal to a lot of folks. I was sent a pair before the world even knew they officially existed, and I'm pleased and proud to bring you the first review of these fascinating monitors.
So what's the big deal? Check this out...
In today's world of small home and project studios, journeyman engineers may have to track and mix reliably in unusual settings -- at gigs in a back room set aside for a "mobile unit", in someone's home, in a rehearsal space. That leads to a question: "How do I know what I'm hearing when I'm not in my own room with my own speakers?"
Obviously there's no way you can bring your own room with you. However, you can bring your own speakers with you if you wanted to, and for decades, many engineers have done just that, mounting a pair of near-field monitors of their own atop the desk at the room where they were hired in, to compare against the studio's big soffited far-field or mid-field monitors.
In the bad old days, it was a badge of honor to work that way: putting a pair of heavy speakers in the back of your car, arranging them so they wouldn't get hurt (or investing in road cases for them, a practice still seen today on some speakers like the recently-reviewed Neumann KH 310), possibly adding a power amp and proper cabling for them, and then getting to the venue early enough to reverse the process and set them up where they were needed. But while this often led to more accurate and reproducible results, it also led to another question: "Shouldn't there be an easier way to do this?"
For years, Fender has been known for the Passport line of portable PA systems. We've all seen them: a pair of passive speakers and a powered mixer with a variety of inputs, all clipping together neatly to make a portable self-contained "suitcase" that can be easily toted around and set up quickly. They're affordable, reliable, and rugged, and as PA systems for outdoor use they acquit themselves well, but I don't think the makers of high-end studio monitors have been losing sleep over their sound quality being a threat.
Until now, that is. Someone (whoever it is, I'd like to buy them a pizza) must have been loading their near-fields into the back of their car and cursing over accidentally putting a thumb through a tweeter when someone else came trundling down the street with a Passport setup in hand... and put two and two together. Why shouldn't it be possible to build a pair of really good-quality near-field studio monitors, ones you could track and mix on with confidence, into a portable enclosure like that? Show up with a little briefcase in hand, open it up, set it up, get to work, and neatly pack it up when you're done. Brilliant!
From idea to execution, there are many places to drop the ball, but Fender made a very good choice in getting the Passport Studio off the ground. Fender has partnered with Focal, makers of well-respected studio monitors like the Twin 6 Be (reviewed July 2008) and the CMS 65 (reviewed July 2009), to put the best possible drivers and electronics into the Passport Studio. The result is a pair of small monitors that sit nicely at a price point between "budget" and "high-end" with the added benefit of being highly portable.
But how do they sound? We'll get to that. First let's set them up.
Open them up
The Passport Studio is essentially an active master/passive slave monitor system in a portable enclosure. The enclosure's two halves are held together with a rubber clip that attaches to the carry handle.
First make sure you have a proper placement for the speakers -- tweeters at ear level, stands or platforms that are free of vibrations, preferably located so there won't be any nasty bounce from nearby walls or off the top of your console. (These monitors are portable, but they don't let you bypass the laws of acoustics.) Then you remove the rubber clip and separate and place the two speakers.
Once they're in place, you remove the magnetically-attached doors on the back of each speaker. On the back of the Left (active) speaker, you'll find a heat sink and all the connections for the system. Inside the back of the Right speaker is a storage cabinet for cables, a place to store the rubber clip (not trivial -- it's the only thing holding the assembly together when closed, you do not want to lose it!), and a 1/4" jack for the special cable that connects the Right channel to the Left. This is a speaker cable, not a conventional instrument cable, so take good care of it and don't try to swap it out with your guitarist's spare hookup. Plug in the Left speaker to the wall (it uses a conventional IEC power cord), hook up your stereo mix to the Left side, and you're in business.
Turn them on
The rear panel of the Left speaker offers Left and Right inputs on balanced 1/4" TRS, so they can be fed from pretty much any audio source. The output to the Right speaker is here, as well as the AC plug, power switch, fuse, and voltage selector.
The front panel of the Left speaker has three controls: a Level pot (for my listening sessions I turned it all the way up and controlled levels from my console) and two switches to adjust Bass or Treble response. They're shelving equalizers that can be set flat or to cut or boost by 1.5 dB, a very conservative number that works well for fine-tuning their response in unusual setups. The manual doesn't provide the corner frequencies, but Fender tells us they're 75 Hz and 7.5 kHz respectively.
In addition, the front panel has two minijacks. One is for a Stereo Aux In that is automatically mixed with the signal coming to the rear-panel inputs; the other is a stereo Headphone Out that mutes the speakers when plugged in. Fender provides a shielded mini-to-mini cable for use with the Aux In Jack, to accept an iPod or other sound source.
Before we get to listening, I should mention a few specs for those readers who are curious. Probably the most significant one is the Passport Studio's frequency response: 50 Hz to 20 kHz ±3 dB. That's respectable performance for speakers this small, and I doubt you'd see a believable number that's much lower in any monitor with woofers this size (5"). The woofers are fed by 50W/channel and the 1" aluminum-magnesium tweeters by 25W per channel, for a maximum SPL of 108 dB at 1 meter -- in other words, a good 8 to 10 dB louder than any self-respecting engineer should be listening to mixes for more than a few minutes at a time.
Oh, one more spec before I forget: the entire system, packed up and ready to move, weighs a bit over 18 pounds. Everyone I showed it to was shocked at how light and portable it was.
Listen to them
I hooked up the Passport Studio speakers in my listening room at the office and burned them in with a variety of music. The manual recommends several hours, but I let them play overnight just to be on the safe side. Then I began my usual critical listening tests with rock, jazz, electronica, country/Americana, and classical music from my go-to library.
I was mightily impressed by what I got. Focal definitely knows what it's doing when designing small speaker systems that give you the most bang possible in a small space, and the Passport Studio holds up its Focal heritage proudly. No, these speakers won't replace the Solo 6 Be with its beryllium tweeter, or even the CMS 50 with its nonresonant metal shell, but they sound really good for what they are.
And by "for what they are" I mean "speakers with a 5" woofer." It's physics -- a woofer of a certain size simply can't deliver bass below a certain frequency, and 3 dB down at 50 Hz is a respectable low-end response for speakers this size. What bass there is, is tight, controlled, nicely detailed, and lovely to listen to; checking your mixes on a sub should prove to be a final tweak to a process that will be accurate and pleasurable to the ear on these speakers.
Above the bass, the response is impeccable. Mids are clear and authoritative, details on guitars and vocals come out delightfully; the highs are extended, smooth, and only spitty if you use spitty mics on your cymbals. Soundstaging is fantastic, with very clear and believable stereo imaging and an overall listening experience that is honest and detailed yet not fatiguing. These speakers are simply a joy to listen to; I was worried that the lightweight plastic enclosure might result in resonant "wolf tones", but sine sweeps and extended listening didn't point out any glaring nonlinearities.
One last anecdote to round out this review: about two weeks into the review period I got tagged to do a concert at a small coffee shop in Longmont, Colorado (thanks to Chris at La Vita Bella for thinking of me!) and wasn't sure if the relatively small monophonic sound system in the room (roughly 20' x 60') would do the job... so I grabbed the Passport Studio down off the speaker stands, packed it up, and took it along. At 18 pounds, why not?
We set up the Passport Studio at our feet, just sitting on the front edge of the stage and aimed at the audience's knees. Darwin Grosse and I played a two-hour set to a packed house and got a lot of compliments, but a fair percentage of them were from friends of ours, audio geeks all, who came up to stare at the Passport Studio speakers and beg us for more details on them. According to our listeners, these definitely-not-PA speakers filled the room beautifully and gave our music -- admittedly it was ambient electronica with string instruments and keyboards, no drum kit or guitar amps to compete with, but still -- a fantastic sound that was clear and articulate all the way to the back of the room. For that reason as well as the sheer pleasure of working with them, I'm going to find these speakers very difficult to give back.
Pack them up, I'll take them
I have only two gripes with the Passport Studio. One is that the supplied speaker cable limits you to a listener-speaker triangle of about 5' on a side, which is a bit close for me; a 6' or even 8' cable would be nice, if only as an add-on option. The other is that while the tweeters are nicely protected behind grilles, the woofers aren't, and I was constantly worrying about bumps and scrapes during setup damaging one of them. I don't know what a grille would do to the sound of the speaker, but I would imagine Fender and Focal could work up something that would preserve these speakers' great sound while offering a bit more peace of mind to the engineer in a hurry.
But those small gripes aside, Fender and Focal have created a beautiful little box of magic here. The Passport Studio won't be for everyone, but for a fair number of engineers working out of their cars, it could be just what the doctor ordered.
More from: Fender, www.fender.com