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This article was originally published in issue #27
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Competition in any marketplace ultimately benefits the customer and although having so much choice can sometimes be overwhelming, it is ultimately a good thing for you, the consumer. The manufacturers have to work hard to offer you something that stands out against the competition and part you from your hard earned cash. This is, of course, basic economics. But the pro sound market place hasn’t always been like this. Remember a time when pro audio equipment was a niche market far beyond financial reach? Well, this all depends on whether or not you were an '80’s child as it’s certainly not the case today!
Back in the late '80s Mackie emerged as a pro audio brand which offered the consumer professional but affordable products. Mackie introduced pro audio equipment to the bedroom studio and the garage rehearsal space by offering the customer rugged, professional sounding mixers at an affordable price. Many built, and still do build, home studios around their “Mackies”. Within 10 years Mackie became one of the most well known brand names in the industry.
Originally manufacturing mixing desks, the company quickly diversified in to power amps, powered mixers and studio monitors. Being affordable while successfully competing with more professional brands Mackie capitalised on a gap in the market and in my opinion are certainly partly responsible for the evolution of mass-produced affordable pro audio products available today.
Coming from a professional background, I often hear engineers and audiophiles argue that affordable brands do not have any use in the professional work we undertake. It is fair to question how mixers or speakers that are a quarter (or less even) of the price of their professionally branded counterparts really compete sonically? Well… in all honesty they don’t when up against the really expensive high end gear. However I do believe that in most typical and far more commonly occurring applications, particularly on an amateur or semi-pro level, this difference in sound and build quality is small enough nowadays that it is largely irrelevant. What is far more relevant here is that greater access to functional gear hugely benefits sound engineers, artists, bands and of course music lovers. The easier it is for people to get their hands on PAs and mixing desks then the easier and cheaper it is to put on shows, events and make sound recordings. More live music, more work, more art, more choice for the consumer, more demand for products. Basic economics.
If you’re in the market for a decent medium scale portable PA system then economically you could do a lot worse than the Mackie SRM series. This family of self-powered speakers really does impress for the money. I took a look, and had a listen to the 12 inch 550 and the 15 inch 650 full range top boxes along with the 1850 18” sub woofer.
As you would expect from a product like this each speaker houses its own power amp and has built in high definition digital processing to optimise sound quality and, of course, protect the drivers. This high definition processing basically works the crossovers, limiting, time aligns the drivers and equalises the sound of the box to give you a phase coherent and flat frequency response. In the case of the SRM series acoustic correction processing has been implemented by a company called EAW. Eastern Acoustic Works have been a leading speaker manufacturer in the pro touring industry for years now. Bringing their knowledge to the design really does give this product an edge.
The build quality (all wood enclosures) is reassuringly sturdy whilst not being too heavy and each speaker has a power output rating of 1,600 Watts RMS, which is plenty for a system of this size. It promises a max SPL of 132db, which I would suggest is a lot more than you would ever need, although I couldn’t find information on at what distance this measurement was made.
In addition to the typical features of a powered system, the SRM series 550 (single 12” speaker plus a 1.4” compression driver) and 650 (featuring a 15” + compression driver configuration) have an integrated two channel mixer on the rear which allows you to plug in microphone or line level signals, or even low impedance inputs like an acoustic guitar without the need for a DI box for instance. That’s a nice touch. It also features a very neat feedback eliminator that works really well at carving out problematic frequencies, getting you the most volume from a microphone before feedback ruins your sound check!
The 550 and 650 also have four selectable modes. These modes are PA, DJ, monitor and solo and are pretty self explanatory. Obviously each mode alters the sound of box to make it more suitable for a specific application and from listening and measuring tests I was able to ascertain that the main difference between each setting is in the EQ tuning of the speaker.
The PA mode has a relatively flat frequency response that is just what you want from a PA speaker. There is a touch of extra presence in the high frequencies around 4k. That boost is probably there to help the speaker throw over a greater distance. Up close it is a quite bright.
The DJ mode sounds similar but slightly scooped in the mid range and I suspect the limiter settings are slightly different.
Monitor mode is obviously for use as a floor wedge and rather smartly cuts in the lows around 120hz (as the box will be coupled with the floor) and has a mid push to help the vocals pop out in the wedge mix.
Solo mode appears to have a cut around 120hz too. The dispersion is 90 degrees horizontal by 50 vertical and it manages this quite well.
The boxes are made of solid wood and very well insulated so you don’t get much spill off the back of the cabinets and as Mackie speakers go these actually are the best I’ve heard. The SRM550 is more natural sounding and a little smoother than the SRM650 and seems to couple better with the SRM1850s, which are tight, punchy and radiate well. The 650s have a bit more grunt to them and would be more suited to bigger live music set-ups. These require a bit more attention when used with the subs. The speakers each have their own output volume control so some experimentation is required in order for you to get the best balance between tops and subs. I found that having the tops at unity and the subs at +6db gave me the sort of response I wanted in a relatively small space.
Overall the sound quality is bright and present in the highs as you would expect from a Mackie rig and it is weighty and punchy in the low end. The mid range is up front but not too fatiguing. You don’t hear the digital processing kicking in until you really push the input signal. It is noticeable but it isn’t particularly unpleasant and of course it is prolonging the life of the system so it’s all good.
Versatile, rugged and with useful well thought out functions this is the best portable Mackie system I have heard and it would be ideal for any kind of small to medium scale sound reinforcement. The 550s are particularly useful as a floor wedge and the 650s certainly more appropriate as a main PA for louder forms of live music in my opinion. The neat feedback eliminator is an unexpected success which should really help improve your monitor mixes and the build quality means this system should be helping you avoid having to make any more tricky decisions regarding what speakers to buy for plenty of years to come!